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“The last of the four Gospels appears among the rest in a manner reminiscent of the appearance of Melchizedek to Abraham: “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (Heb. 7:3). Everything we want to know about this book is uncertain, and everything about it that is apparently knowable is a matter of dispute. The Gospel is anonymous; argument about its traditional ascription to the apostle John has almost exhausted itself. We cannot be sure where it was written, or when. We are uncertain of its antecedents, its sources, and its relationships. This includes its relations with the synoptic Gospels and with the religious movements of it day. Whereas many scholars have spoken of it as the gospel for the Greek world, others have seen it as firmly rooted in Judaism by upholding the good news of Christ among Christians from the Synagogue.”
– George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC, vol. 36)
Before we give our overview of the Gospel of John, it is appropriate to ask an obvious question: Why is this Gospel so different from the other three? Let’s consider some of the differences
1. John is different in structure. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt/Mk/Lk) follow the same basic outline: after various beginnings, they move from John the Baptizer’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee until Peter’s confession. The story then moves toward Jerusalem, where Jesus’ last week, death and resurrection is detailed. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, begins with a theological Prologue, ends with a narrative Epilogue, and in-between is divided into two “books” —
- The Book of Signs (John 1:19-ch. 12) — includes stories from Jesus’ ministry that are not connected by chronology or geography. These stories are organized around the themes of the signs he was working and the sayings he gave. They emphasize (1) how people responded to his words and works, and (2) how Jesus engaged in controversies with the Jewish religious leaders.
- The Book of Glory (John 13-20) — describes Jesus’ in-depth ministry to his disciples in the upper room as he prepared them for his departure, and then tells the story of his death and resurrection, bringing the drama to a climax with the account of his appearance to Thomas.
Some examples of John’s different geographical and chronological perspective: While the Synoptics have Jesus going to Jerusalem at the end of his life, John portrays most of his ministry occurring in the region of Jerusalem and Judea. The Temple cleansing takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. Jesus is anointed before he enters Jerusalem. The timing of events at the Last Supper and crucifixion are different:
In particular, the chronology of the passion in the Fourth Gospel, as compared with that of the Synoptics, seems so idiosyncratic that it has generated complex theories about independent calendars, or about theological motifs that John is self-consciously allowing to skew the naked chronology. Did Jesus and his disciples eat the Passover, so that he was arrested the evening of Passover and crucified the next day, or was he crucified at the same time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered? And how does one account for the fact that the Synoptics picture Jesus being crucified about the third hour (9:00 am), while in John Pilate’s final decision is not reached until the sixth hour (Jn. 19:14).
– D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John
2. John is different in content. About 92% of the material in John is unique to the fourth Gospel. For example, he only records eight miracles from Jesus’ ministry, and six of them are unique to John.
|Some things NOT in John||Some things UNIQUE to John|
|Jesus’ birth and childhood
Teaching in parables
Healings of lepers
Teachings of the Sermon on the Mount
Stories about tax collectors
Jesus’ prophetic discourse
Institution of the Lord’s Supper
The agony in Gethsemane
|Cleansing of temple early in Jesus’ ministry
Jesus’ ministry of baptism in Judea
Teaching Nicodemus about being “born again”
The wedding in Cana
The Samaritan woman
The “I AM” sayings
Raising Lazarus from the dead
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet
The Upper Room discourse
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples
Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden
Jesus’ appearance on the lake and Peter’s restoration
3. John is different in vocabulary. John does not portray Jesus talking much at all about the “kingdom of God [heaven]” as the Synoptics do. We don’t hear story parables from Jesus’ mouth. John is filled with an entirely different vocabulary: light and darkness, life, truth, witness, abide, world, believe, Father and Son, Jesus’ “hour,” glory, etc.
4. John shows no secret about Jesus’ identity. The turning point in the Synoptics is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, halfway through the story. Up until that point, they (esp. Mark) emphasize a season in which there was a “Messianic secret,” when Jesus forbade making his identity publicly known. In John, on the other hand, Jesus is acknowledged with Messianic titles six times in the first chapter alone.
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Anyone coming to the Bible and reading the Gospels is forced to deal with the dramatic differences between the first three Gospels and the Fourth.
A blog post is not the place for a full analysis of the perplexing questions and possible answers. Nor am I qualified to give “expert” opinions on the enormous variety of interpretations out there. So let me share one possible perspective that I like that may help explain some of John’s distinctive characteristics.
D.A. Carson and George R. Beasley-Murray suggest that the approach introduced by Barnabas Lindars makes a lot of sense:
Much of John’s Gospel, Lindars suggests, was originally sermonic material that the Evangelist successively put together. (Carson)
A helpful approach to the composition of the Gospel, having a great measure of plausibility, postulates that the organizing of the traditions to form the Gospel took place through preaching, especially the preaching of the Evangelist. The suggestion appears to have occurred spontaneously to a number of students of the Gospel. The thought came to me when, as a student, I listened to Dodd expound his understanding of the structure of John’s “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12). He believed that each episode of this part of the Gospel consists of sign(s) plus discourse and that each presents the Gospel in its wholeness, namely Christ manifested, crucified, risen, exalted, and communicating life. …To me this was as scales falling from the eyes, for this arrangement of the evangelic material was in all probability due to the Evangelist’s use of it in his preaching, as he presented the episodes of the ministry in the light of their end in the redemptive death and resurrection of the Lord. No doubt the synoptic Gospels reflect a like process, but the Fourth Gospel is supremely the preacher’s gospel — every episode in the book shouts out to be preached — and it is so because it is the product of a highly effective preacher’s proclamation of Christ in the Gospel. (Beasley-Murray)
In this view, the Gospel of John is different because it grows out of preaching. It is of a different genre than the Synoptics. It was put together by a literal evangelist — one who had honed his message through proclaiming the Good News. The episodic nature of the Gospel and the dramatic movement of each episode toward response to Jesus fits with the book’s stated purpose — that these written accounts are designed to show that Jesus is the Messiah and that believing in him brings life (20:30-31).