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A Reader’s Introduction to the Gospel according to John
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright 2012

What is(are) the purpose(s) of John’s Gospel?
            John 20:30-32 states the purpose for the book: “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing you may have life in his name.” The twofold purpose statement for the book relates to the two-pronged thrust of the book.
            The first half of the book of the seven signs (1-12) are given so that all people might believe or come to faith in Jesus as Messiah. The second portion of the purpose statement (you may have life in his name) correlates with chapters 13-20 where believers are exhorted to close fellowship––eternal life which is not only a quantity of life but also a quality of life (cf. 5:24 with 17:2-3).
            Unlike the synoptics which reveal Jesus inductively (from the ground up), John reveals Jesus deductively (from heaven down). Jesus is also revealed as the Word, Messiah, Son of God, God, and Man. Whereas the other gospels often speak of “kingdom,” John speaks more frequently about “life” (“kingdom” in Matt 55x, Mark 20x, Luke 46x, John 5x; “life” in Matt 7x, Mark 4x, Luke 5x, John 36x).
            Although John’s presentation of the Word is often understood in the context of Greek thought, the Jewish perspectives and interaction throughout John seem dominate. Perhaps Jesus as the Word is more aligned with the memra of God from the targumim than the logos from Greek thought (see esp. “From the beginning with wisdom the word of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth” Gen 1:1, Targum Neofiti).[1] Also note the dominance of the settings of the stories around the Jewish feasts and the dialogue surrounding Jewish biblical concerns.
What are some of the leading themes of the book?
            The student would do well to note the following which each run through the book: hour/time, believe/belief/faith, sign, water, light/dark, Jews, synagogue, feasts, ascend/descend (including “birth from above,” “baptism from above,” and so on), life/eternal life, glory, spirit, grace, truth, father/son.
            The problem of so-called realized eschatology in the Gospel of John can be seen in microcosm in John 5:20-30. On the one hand there are statements that speak of the coming as a future event, “For an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good to a resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to a resurrection of judgment” (5:28-29 NASB). Alongside these, on the other hand, are statements that seem to speak of the full realization for believers of salvation in the present, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24 NASB).
What kinds of literary techniques does the narrative use?
            Getting at many of these themes requires sensitivity to symbolic inference. For example: John 2:25 (temple/body); John 7:37-38 (water/Spirit); John 12:32 (lifted up/exalted). Much of this takes the form of binary antithesis: light/darkness (1:4; 3:19; 8:12; 11:9; 12:35, 46); truth/falsehood (8:44); life/death (5:24; 11:25); above/below (8:23); freedom/slavery (8:33, 36). Much of this antithetical dualism is also found in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) texts.[2]
            John makes frequent use of the misunderstood statement as a literary technique. Jesus says something to someone which is misunderstood, thus giving Jesus a further opportunity to clarify what he really meant. For example, John 3––Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of the new birth as a second physical birth; John 4––the Samaritan woman’s misunderstanding of the living water as drinkable water. In other places characters “speak better than they know”—e.g., Caiaphas’ statement “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (11:50).
What is the perspective of the storyteller?
            While the narrator of the fourth gospel claims to be a participant in the events he describes, he carefully separates himself from those events. He looks back upon from a distance. While readers see the events through his eyes, they are guided to see through those eyes not as they saw the events when they happened but as they now see them. There are numerous passages in John’s Gospel which could serve as an example of this later perspective.

2:17––his disciples remembered that it is written . . .

2:22––after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said, then they believed  the scripture and the words Jesus had spoken

12:16––at first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

14:25-26––all this I have spoken while still with you, but the advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you

20:9––they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

In these passages John has adopted a post-resurrection point of view. He looks back on the events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening in their true perspective at the time they occurred. It is only possible to understand these things from the vantage point of the resurrection.

Also see outline of John.

[1] See John Ronning, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2010); and Michael B. Shepherd “Targums, the New Testament, and the Biblical Theology of the Messiah,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51.1 (2008): 45-58. Also see Chilton 1980; Marline 1968.
[2]The comments on the antitheses, realized eschatology, and "life" versus "kingdom" adapted from Hal Harris III ( [accessed 1.5.12]); and see L. T. Johnson 3d ed. Also see Charlesworth, “A Critical Comparison of the Dualism in 1QS 3:13-4:26 and the ‘Dualism’ Contained in the Gospel of John,” in J. H. Charlesworth, ed., John and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 76-106.

For further reading, and full details of sources cited in notes see New Testament bibliography.  Also see bibliography on the use of scripture in scripture.

Copyright 2012

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