Introduction to the Gospel of John

The gospel of John is the last of four accounts of the Lord’s life. It is called “the gospel of John,” not because it is distinct from the other accounts but because it is the personal testimony of John of what he saw, heard and experienced.

It is identified in our Bibles as the gospel of John yet nowhere in the book is John named as being it’s writer. The closest we can come to John claiming to have authored it is that whoever wrote this record of Jesus was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. If John the brother of James was the writer of this book (and we believe he was), he never identified himself by name anywhere in the book. He  does however identify himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” After Jesus had told Peter how he (Peter) would die (Jn. 21:18-21), the record states, “Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following: who also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, who is he that betrayeth thee? Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?” (Jn. 21:20-21). As the book is concluded, the writer says, “This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true” (Jn. 21:24). So, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was the one who wrote this account of the Lord’s earthly sojourn, into whose hands the Lord committed the care of His mother (Jn. 19:26-27). And that identifies him as being present at the last supper when Jesus revealed that one of His disciples would betray Him, but which occasion was attended by His twelve apostles. And, while the number of possibilities might be narrowed down to seven because there were seven apostles present on the occasion recorded in John 21, two of those seven present were not identified, which leaves us no nearer than the 11 (Judas excluded) because any of those six who were not named could have been the two unnamed men of John 21.

We can say certainly that the writer of the gospel was one of the twelve, so how shall we arrive at which of the twelve the writer was? We are aided in that the writer identifies some of the apostles by name, but in such a way so that they also can be excluded from being identified as “the apostle whom Jesus loved” — Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel (Jn. 21:2). We know four who were not the writer, but how have scholars arrived at the conclusion that John, brother of James, was “the apostle whom Jesus loved” and the writer of this account of Jesus’ life?

Five of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are identified as having come from the pen of the apostle John: the gospel of John, 1-3 John, and the book of Revelation. Neither the gospel of John nor 1 John identify its author (except that he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” Jn. 21:24). The two short epistles of 1-2 John refer to him who wrote the books as “the elder” (2 John 1; 3 John 1), which does not help identify of the writer. Revelation is the one of the five books ascribed to John that actually identify its writer. Revelation 1:1-2 says, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass: and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.”

Whoever wrote the book of Revelation was named “John,” but Revelation and the gospel of John are two different books. How does identifying Revelation as written by John help identify the gospel of John as being written by the same man? That question is answered by showing that whoever wrote Revelation also wrote the gospel of John and 1-3 John. And how does one “prove” that? That proof comes through showing that various things written in one book are also written in the other but in no other book than these five. The best illustration of this is the way in which Jesus is characterized in the five books. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is identified this way in 1 John: “That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life” (1 Jn. 1:1). And Jesus is identified this way in Revelation: “And he is arrayed in a garment sprinkled with blood: and his name is called the Word of God” (Rev. 19:13). Because no other New Testament writer so identifies Jesus, these five books are in a category all to themselves. And since Revelation and the gospel of John were written by the same man, and the Revelation identifies that man as “John,” and the gospel of John identifies its author as one of the twelve, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” we may conclude that both books came from the hand of John the apostle.

John had two purposes in mind when his gospel was written: one stated and one unstated. John 20:30-31 states his purpose in writing: “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing ye may have life in his name.” This purpose is evident throughout the book and shows why it is called “The gospel of belief.” The fact that we are reading the things which one who accompanied Jesus in His journey and who, along with the others of the “inner circle” (Peter and James), were sometimes privileged to witness marvels the other nine were not privy to is powerful: the personal testimony of an eyewitness. The second, although unstated, purpose for the book being written is to preserve material for believers that is not to be found in the other three accounts of Jesus’ life, which in itself is evidence this book was written after the other three were in circulation among believers. 

Many wonderful lessons are taught in this sacred book. We hope, in the weeks to come, that we will come both to see and appreciate those lessons the Holy Spirit revealed to us through John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jim McDonald