See Literature on John, § 40; Life and Character of John, §§ 41-43; Theology of John, § 72.
The best comes last. The fourth Gospel is the Gospel of Gospels, the holy of holies in the New Testament. The favorite disciple and bosom friend of Christ, the protector of his mother, the survivor of the apostolic age was pre-eminently qualified by nature and grace to give to the church the inside view of that most wonderful person that ever walked on earth. In his early youth he had absorbed the deepest words of his Master, and treasured them in a faithful heart; in extreme old age, yet with the fire and vigor of manhood, he reproduced them under the influence of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in him and led him, as well as the other disciples, into “the whole truth.”
His Gospel is the golden sunset of the age of inspiration, and sheds its lustre into the second and all succeeding centuries of the church. It was written at Ephesus when Jerusalem lay in ruins, when the church had finally separated from the synagogue, when “the Jews” and the Christians were two distinct races, when Jewish and Gentile believers had melted into a homogeneous Christian community, a little band in a hostile world, yet strong in faith, full of hope and joy, and certain of victory.
For a satisfactory discussion of the difficult problems involved in this Gospel and its striking contrast with the Synoptic Gospels, we must keep in view the fact that Christ communed with the apostles after as well as before his visible departure, and spoke to them through that “other Advocate” whom he sent to them from the Father, and who brought to remembrance all things he had said unto them. (Joh_14:26; Joh_16:18. Comp. Mat_10:19, Mat_10:20; Luk_12:12; Act_4:8) Here lies the guarantee of the truthfulness of a picture which no human artist could have drawn without divine inspiration. Under any other view the fourth Gospel, and indeed the whole New Testament, becomes the strangest enigma in the history of literature and incapable of any rational solution.
John and the Synoptists
If John wrote long after the Synoptists, we could, of course, not expect from him a repetition of the story already so well told by three independent witnesses. But what is surprising is the fact that, coming last, he should produce the most original of all the Gospels.
The transition from Matthew to Mark, and from Mark to Luke is easy and natural; but in passing from any of the Synoptists to the fourth Gospel we breathe a different atmosphere, and feel as if we were suddenly translated from a fertile valley to the height of a mountain with a boundless vision over new scenes of beauty and grandeur. We look in vain for a genealogy of Jesus, for an account of his birth, for the sermons of the Baptist, for the history of the temptation in the wilderness, the baptism in the Jordan, and the transfiguration on the Mount, for a list of the Twelve, for the miraculous cures of demoniacs. John says nothing of the institution of the church and the sacraments; though he is full of the mystical union and communion which is the essence of the church, and presents the spiritual meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Joh_3:1-36 and Joh_6:1-71). He omits the ascension, though it is promised through Mary Magdalene (Joh_20:17). He has not a word of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, none of the inimitable parables about the kingdom of heaven, none of those telling answers to the entangling questions of the Pharisees. He omits the prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem and the end of the world, and most of those proverbial, moral sentences and maxims of surpassing wisdom which are strung together by the Synoptists like so many sparkling diamonds.
But in the place of these Synoptical records John gives us an abundance of new matter of equal, if not greater, interest and importance. Right at the threshold we are startled, as by a peal of thunder from the depths, of eternity: “In the beginning was the Word.” And as we proceed we hear about the creation of the world, the shining of the true light in darkness, the preparatory revelations, the incarnation of the Logos, the testimony of the Baptist to the Lamb of God. We listen with increasing wonder to those mysterious discourses about the new birth of the Spirit, the water of life, the bread of life from heaven, about the relation of the eternal and only-begotten Son to the Father, to the world, and to believers, the mission of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the many mansions in heaven, the farewell to the disciples, and at last that sacerdotal prayer which brings us nearest to the throne and the beating heart of God. John alone reports the interviews with Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, and the Greek foreigners. He records six miracles not mentioned by the Synoptists, and among them the two greatest — the changing of water into wine and the raising of Lazarus from the grave. And where he meets the Synoptists, as in the feeding of the five thousand, he adds the mysterious discourse on the spiritual feeding of believers by the bread of life which has been going on ever since. He makes the nearest approach to his predecessors in the closing chapters on the betrayal, the denial of Peter, the trial before the ecclesiastical and civil tribunals, the crucifixion and resurrection, but even here he is more exact and circumstantial, and adds, interesting details which bear the unmistakable marks of personal observation.
He fills out the ministry of Christ in Judaea, among the hierarchy and the people of Jerusalem, and extends it over three years; while the Synoptists seem to confine it to one year and dwell chiefly on his labors among the peasantry of Galilee. But on close inspection John leaves ample room for the Galilaean, and the Synoptists for the Judaean ministry. None of the Gospels is a complete biography. John expressly disclaims, this (Joh_20:31). Matthew implies repeated visits to the holy city when he makes Christ exclaim: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered thy children together” (Mat_23:37; comp. Mat_27:57). On the other hand John records several miracles in Cana, evidently only as typical examples of many (Joh_2:1 sqq.; Joh_4:47 sqq.; Joh_6:1 sqq.). But in Jerusalem the great conflict between light and darkness, belief and unbelief, was most fully developed and matured to the final crisis; and this it was one of his chief objects to describe.
The differences between John and the Synoptists are many and great, but there are no contradictions.
Irenaeus, who, as a native of Asia Minor and a spiritual grand-pupil of John, is entitled to special consideration, says: “Afterward” [i.e., after Matthew, Mark, and Luke] “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” In another place he makes the rise of the Gnostic heresy the prompting occasion of the composition.
A curious tradition, which probably contains a grain of truth, traces the composition to a request of John’s fellow-disciples and elders of Ephesus. “Fast with me,” said John, according to the Muratorian fragment (170), “for three days from this time” [when the request was made], “and whatever shall be revealed to each of us” [concerning my composing the Gospel], “let us relate it to one another. On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should relate all things in his own name, aided by the revision of all. … What wonder is it then that John brings forward every detail with so much emphasis, even in his Epistles, saying of himself, What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, these things have we written unto you. For so he professes that he was not only an eyewitness, but also a hearer, and moreover a writer of all the wonderful works of the Lord in their historical order.”
The mention of Andrew in this fragment is remarkable, for he was associated with John as a pupil of the Baptist and as the first called to the school of Christ (Joh_1:35-40). He was also prominent in other ways and stood next to the beloved three, or even next to his brother Peter in the catalogues of the apostles. (Mat_10:2; Luk_6:14; Mar_3:16; Mar_13:3; Joh_1:41; Joh_12:22; Act_1:13)
Victorinus of Pettau (d. about 304), in the Scholia on the Apocalypse, says that John wrote the Gospel after the Apocalypse, in consequence of the spread of the Gnostic heresy and at the request of “all the bishops from the neighboring provinces.”
Jerome, on the basis of a similar tradition, reports that John, being constrained by his brethren to write, consented to do so if all joined in a fast and prayer to God, and after this fast, being saturated with revelation (revelatione saturatus), he indited the heaven-sent preface: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Possibly those fellow-disciples and pupils who prompted John to write his Gospel, were the same who afterward added their testimony to the genuineness of the book, speaking in the plural (“we know that his witness is true,” Joh_21:24), one of them acting as scribe (“I suppose,” Joh_21:25).
The outward occasion does not exclude, of course, the inward prompting by the Holy Spirit, which is in fact implied in this tradition, but it shows how far the ancient church was from such a mechanical theory of inspiration as ignores or denies the human and natural factors in the composition of the apostolic writings. The preface of Luke proves the same.
The fourth Gospel does not aim at a complete biography of Christ, but distinctly declares that Jesus wrought “many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book” (Joh_20:30; comp. Joh_21:25).
The author plainly states his object, to which all other objects must be subordinate as merely incidental, namely, to lead his readers to the faith “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing they may have life in his name” (Luk_20:31). This includes three points: (1) the Messiahship of Jesus, which was of prime importance to the Jews, and was the sole or at least the chief aim of Matthew, the Jewish Evangelist; (2) the Divine Sonship of Jesus, which was the point to be gained with the Gentiles, and which Luke, the Gentile Evangelist, had also in view; (3) the practical benefit of such faith, to gain true, spiritual, eternal life in Him and through Him who is the personal embodiment and source of eternal life.
To this historico-didactic object all others which have been mentioned must be subordinated. The book is neither polemic and apologetic, nor supplementary, nor irenic, except incidentally and unintentionally as it serves all these purposes. The writer wrote in full view of the condition and needs of the church at the close of the first century, and shaped his record accordingly, taking for granted a general knowledge of the older Gospels, and refuting indirectly, by the statement of facts and truths, the errors of the day. Hence there is some measure of truth in those theories which have made an incidental aim the chief or only aim of the book.
1. The anti-heretical theory was started by Irenaeus. Being himself absorbed in the controversy with Gnosticism and finding the strongest weapons in John, he thought that John’s motive was to root out the error of Cerinthus and of the Nicolaitans by showing that “there is one God who made all things by his word; and not, as they say, one who made the world, and another, the Father of the Lord.” Jerome adds the opposite error of Ebionism, Ewald that of the disciples of the Baptist.
No doubt the fourth Gospel, by the positive statement of the truth, is the most effective refutation of Gnostic dualism and docetism, which began to raise its head in Asia Minor toward the close of the first century. It shows the harmony of the ideal Christ of faith and the real Christ of history, which the ancient and modern schools of Gnosticism are unable to unite in one individual. But it is not on this account a polemical treatise, and it even had by its profound speculation a special attraction for Gnostics and philosophical rationalists, from Basilides down to Baur. The ancient Gnostics made the first use of it and quoted freely from the prologue, e.g., the passage: “The true light, which enlighteneth every man, was coming into the world” (Joh_1:9).
The polemical aim is more apparent in the first Epistle of John, which directly warns against the anti-Christian errors then threatening the church, and may be called a doctrinal and practical postscript to the Gospel.
2. The supplementary theory. Clement of Alexandria (about 200) states, on the authority of “presbyters of an earlier generation,” that John, at the request of his friends and the prompting of the divine Spirit, added a spiritual Gospel to the older bodily Gospels which set forth the outward facts. The distinction is ingenious. John is more spiritual and ideal than the Synoptists, and he represents as it were the esoteric tradition as distinct from the exoteric tradition of the church. Eusebius records also as a current opinion that John intended to supply an amount of the earlier period of Christ’s ministry which was omitted by the other Evangelists. John is undoubtedly a most welcome supplementer both in matter and spirit, and furnishes in part the key for the full understanding of the Synoptists, yet he repeats many important events, especially in the closing chapters, and his Gospel is as complete as any.
3. The Irenic tendency-theory is a modern Tübingen invention. It is assumed that the fourth Gospel is purely speculative or theological, the last and crowning literary production which completed the process of unifying Jewish and Gentile Christianity and melting them into the one Catholic church of the second century.
No doubt it is an Irenicon of the church in the highest and best sense of the term, and a prophecy of the church of the future, when all discords of Christendom past and present will be harmonized in the perfect union of Christians with Christ, which is the last object of his sacerdotal prayer. But it is not an Irenicon at the expense of truth and facts.
In carrying out their hypothesis the Tübingen critics have resorted to the wildest fictions. It is said that the author depreciated the Mosaic dispensation and displayed jealousy of Peter. How in the world could this promote peace? It would rather have defeated the object. But there is no shadow of proof for such an assertion. While the author opposes the unbelieving Jews, he shows the highest reverence for the Old Testament, and derives salvation from the Jews. Instead of showing jealousy of Peter, he introduces his new name at the first interview with Jesus (Joh_1:42), reports his great confession even more fully than Matthew (Joh_6:68, Joh_6:69), puts him at the head of the list of the apostles (Joh_21:2), and gives him his due prominence throughout down to the last interview when the risen Lord committed to him the feeding of his sheep (Joh_21:15-19). This misrepresentation is of a piece with the other Tübingen myth adopted by Renan, that the real John in the Apocalypse pursues a polemical aim against Paul and deliberately excludes him from the rank of the twelve Apostles. And yet Paul himself, in the acknowledged Epistle to the Galatians, represents John as one of the three pillar-apostles who recognized his peculiar gift for the apostolate of the Gentiles and extended to him the right hand of fellowship.
The object of John determined the selection and arrangement of the material. His plan is more clear and systematic than that of the Synoptists. It brings out the growing conflict between belief and unbelief, between light and darkness, and leads step by step to the great crisis of the cross, and to the concluding exclamation of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
In the following analysis the sections peculiar to John are marked by a star.
*I. The Prologue. The theme of the Gospel: the Logos, the eternal Revealer of God:
(1.) In relation to God, Joh_1:1, Joh_1:2.
(2.) In relation to the world. General revelation, Joh_1:3-5.
(3.) In relation to John the Baptist and the Jews. Particular revelation, Joh_1:6-13.
(4.) The incarnation of the Logos, and its effect upon the disciples, Joh_1:14-18.
II. The Public Manifestation of the Incarnate Logos in Active Word and Work, Joh_1:19 to Joh_12:50.
*(1.) The preparatory testimony of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus as the promised and expected Messiah, and as the Lamb of God that beareth the sin of the world, Joh_1:19-37.
*(2.) The gathering of the first disciples, Joh_1:38-51.
*(3.) The first sign: the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee, Joh_2:1-11. First sojourn in Capernaum, Joh_2:12. First Passover and journey to Jerusalem during the public ministry, Joh_2:13.
*(4.) The reformatory cleansing of the Temple, Joh_2:14-22. (Recorded also by the Synoptists, but at the close of the public ministry.) Labors among the Jews in Jerusalem, Joh_2:23-25.
*(5.) Conversation with Nicodemus, representing the timid disciples, the higher classes among the Jews. Regeneration the condition of entering into the kingdom of God, Joh_3:1-15. The love of God in the sending of his Son to save the world, Joh_3:16-21. (Jerusalem.)
*(6.) Labors of Jesus in Judaea. The testimony of John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease, Joh_3:22-36. (Departure of Jesus into Galilee after John’s imprisonment, Joh_4:1-3; comp. Mat_4:12; Mar_1:14; Luk_4:14.)
*(7.) Labors in Samaria on the journey from Judaea to Galilee. The woman of Samaria; Jacob’s well; the water of life; the worship of God the Spirit in spirit and in truth; the fields ripening for the harvest, Joh_4:1-42. Jesus teaches publicly in Galilee, Joh_4:43-45 (comp. Mat_4:17; Mar_1:14, Mar_1:15 Luk_4:14, Luk_4:15).
*(8.) Jesus again visits Cana in Galilee and heals a nobleman’s son at Capernaum, Joh_4:46-54.
*(9.) Second journey to Jerusalem at a feast (the second Passover?). The healing of the infirm man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, Joh_5:1-18. Beginning of the hostility of the Jews. Discourse of Christ on his relation to the Father, and his authority to judge the world, Joh_5:19-47.
(10.) The feeding of the five thousand, Joh_6:1-14.
The stilling of the tempest, Joh_6:15-21.
*The mysterious discourse in Capernaum on the bread of life; the sifting of the disciples; the confession of Peter: “To whom shall we go,” etc.; the hinting at the treason of Judas, Joh_6:22-71.
*(11.) Third visit to Jerusalem, at the feast of the Tabernacles. The hasty request of the brethren of Jesus who did not believe on him. His discourse in the Temple with opposite effect. Rising hostility of the Jews, and vain efforts of the hierarchy to seize him as a false teacher misleading the people, Joh_7:1-52.
[*(12a.) The woman taken in adultery and pardoned by Jesus, 7:53-8:11. Jerusalem. Probably an interpolation from oral tradition, authentic and true, but not from the pen of John. Also found at the end, and at Luk_21:1-38.]
*(12b.) Discourse on the light of the world. The children of God and the children of the devil. Attempts to stone Jesus, Joh_8:12-59.
*(13.) The healing of the man born blind, on a Sabbath, and his testimony before the Pharisees, Joh_9:1-41.
*(14.) The parable of the good shepherd, Joh_10:1-21. Speech at the feast of Dedication in Solomon’s porch, Joh_10:22-39. Departure to the country beyond the Jordan, Joh_10:40-42.
*(15.) The resurrection of Lazarus at Bethany, and its effect upon hastening the crisis. The counsel of Caiaphas. Jesus retires from Jerusalem to Ephraim, Joh_11:1-57.
(16.) The anointing by Mary in Bethany, Joh_12:1-8. The counsel of the chief priests, Joh_12:9-11.
(17.) The entry into Jerusalem, Joh_12:12-19. (Comp. Mat_21:1-17; Mar_11:1-11; Luk_19:29-44.)
*(18.) Visit of the Greeks. Discourse of Jesus on the grain of wheat which must die to bear fruit; the voice from heaven; the attraction of the cross; the opposite effect; reflection of the Evangelist; summary of the speeches of Jesus, Joh_12:20-50.
III. The Private Manifestation of Christ in the Circle of his Disciples. During the fourth and last Passover week. Jerusalem, 13:1-17:26.
*(l.) Jesus washes the feet of the disciples before the Passover meal, Joh_13:1-20.
(2.) He announces the traitor, Joh_13:21-27. The departure of Judas, Joh_13:27-30.
*(3.) The new commandment of love, Joh_13:31-35. (Here is the best place for the institution of the Lord’s Supper, omitted by John, but reported by all the Synoptists and by Paul.)
(4.) Prophecy of Peter’s denial, Joh_13:36-38.
*(5.) The farewell discourses to the disciples; the promise of the Paraclete, and of Christ’s return, 14:1-16:33.
*(6.) The Sacerdotal Prayer, Joh_17:1-26.
IV. The Glorification of Christ in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, 18:1-20:31.
(1.) The passage over the Kedron, and the betrayal, Joh_18:1-11.
(2.) Jesus before the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, Joh_18:12-14, Joh_18:19-24.
(3.) Peter’s denial, Joh_18:15-18, Joh_18:25-27.
(4.) Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, 18:28-19:16. Original in part (Joh_19:4-16).
(5.) The crucifixion, Joh_19:17-37.
(6.) The burial of Jesus, Joh_19:38-42.
(7.) The resurrection. Mary Magdalene, Peter and John visit the empty tomb, Joh_20:1-10.
(8.) Christ appears to Mary Magdalene, Joh_20:11-18.
*(9.) Christ appears to the apostles, except Thomas, on the evening of the resurrection day, Joh_20:19-23.
*(10.) Christ appears to the apostles, including Thomas, on the following Lord’s Day, Joh_20:26-29.
*(11.) Object of the Gospel, Joh_20:30, Joh_20:31.
*V. The Appendix and Epilogue, Joh_21:1-25.
(1.) Christ appears to seven disciples on the lake of Galilee. The third manifestation to the disciples, Joh_21:1-14.
(2.) The dialogue with Simon Peter: “Lovest thou Me?” “Feed My sheep.” “Follow Me,” Joh_21:15-19.
(3.) The mysterious word about the beloved disciple, Joh_21:1-23.
(4.) The attestation of the authorship of the Gospel by the pupils of John, Joh_21:24, Joh_21:25.
Characteristics of the Fourth Gospel
The Gospel of John is the most original, the most important, the most influential book in all literature. The great Origen called it the crown of the Gospels, as the Gospels are the crown of all sacred writings. It is pre-eminently the spiritual and ideal, though at the same time a most real Gospel, the truest transcript of the original. It lifts the veil from the holy of holies and reveals the glory of the Only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. It unites in harmony the deepest knowledge and the purest love of Christ. We hear as it were his beating heart; we lay our hands in his wound-prints and exclaim with doubting Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” No book is so plain and yet so deep, so natural and yet so full of mystery. It is simple as a child and sublime as a seraph, gentle as a lamb and bold as an eagle, deep as the sea and high as the heavens.
It has been praised as “the unique, tender, genuine Gospel,” “written by the hand of an angel,” as “the heart of Christ,” as “God’s love-letter to the world,” or “Christ’s love-letter to the church.” It has exerted an irresistible charm on many of the strongest and noblest minds in Christendom, as Origen in Egypt, Chrysostom in Asia, Augustin in Africa, the German Luther, the French Calvin, the poetic Herder, the critical Schleiermacher, and a multitude of less famous writers of all schools and shades of thought. Even many of those who doubt or deny the apostolic authorship cannot help admiring its more than earthly beauties.
But there are other sceptics who find the Johannean discourses monotonous, tedious, nebulous, unmeaning, hard, and feel as much offended by them as the original hearers.
Let us point out the chief characteristics of this book which distinguish it from the Synoptical Gospels.
1. The fourth Gospel is the Gospel of the Incarnation, that is, of the perfect union of the divine and human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who for this very reason is the Saviour of the world and the fountain of eternal life. “The Word became flesh.” This is the theoretical theme. The writer begins with the eternal pre-existence of the Logos, and ends with the adoration of his incarnate divinity in the exclamation of the sceptical Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” Luke’s preface is historiographic and simply points to his sources of information; John’s prologue is metaphysical and dogmatic, and sounds the keynote of the subsequent history. The Synoptists begin with the man Jesus and rise up to the recognition of his Messiahship and divine Sonship; John descends from the pre-existent Son of God through the preparatory revelations to his incarnation and crucifixion till he resumes the glory which he had before the world began. The former give us the history of a divine man, the latter the history of a human God. Not that he identifies him with the Godhead (ὁ θεός); on the contrary, he clearly distinguishes the Son and the Father and makes him inferior in dignity (“the Father is greater than I”); but he declares that the Son is “God” (θεός), that is, of divine essence or nature.
And yet there is no contradiction here between the Evangelists except for those who deem a union of the Divine and human in one person an impossibility. The Christian Church has always felt that the Synoptic and the Johannean Christ are one and the same, only represented from different points of view. And in this judgment the greatest scholars and keenest critics, from Origen down to the present time, have concurred.
For, on the one hand, John’s Christ is just as real and truly human as that of the Synoptists. He calls himself the Son of man and “a man” (Joh_8:40); he “groaned in the spirit” (Joh_11:33), he “wept” at the grave of a friend (Joh_11:35), and his “soul” was “troubled” in the prospect of the dark hour of crucifixion (Joh_12:27) and the crime of the traitor (Joh_13:1). The Evangelist attests with solemn emphasis from what he saw with his own eyes that Jesus truly suffered and died (Joh_19:33-35).
The Synoptic Christ, on the other hand, is as truly elevated above ordinary mortals as the Johannean. It is true, he does not in so many words declare his pre-existence as in Joh_1:1; Joh_6:62; Joh_8:58; Joh_17:5, Joh_17:24, but it is implied, or follows as a legitimate consequence. He is conceived without sin, a descendant of David, and yet the Lord of David (Mat_22:41); he claims authority to forgive sins, for which he is accused of blasphemy by the Jews (quite consistently from their standpoint of unbelief); he gives his life a ransom for the redemption of the world; he will come in his glory and judge all nations; yea, in the very Sermon on the Mount, which all schools of Rationalists accept his genuine teaching, He declares himself to be the judge of the world (Mat_7:21-23; comp. Mat_25:31-46), and in the baptismal formula He associates himself and the Holy Spirit with the eternal Father, as the connecting link between the two, thus assuming a place on the very throne of the Deity (Mat_28:19). It is impossible to rise higher. Hence Matthew, the Jewish Evangelist, does not hesitate to apply to Him the name Immanuel, that is, “God with us” (Mat_1:23). Mark gives us the Gospel of Peter, the first who confessed that Jesus is not only “the Christ” in his official character, but also “the Son of the living God.” This is far more than a son; it designates his unique personal relation to God and forms the eternal basis of his historical Messiahship (Mat_16:16; comp. Mat_26:63). The two titles are distinct, and the high priest’s charge of blasphemy (Mat_26:65) could only apply to the latter. A false Messiah would be an impostor, not a blasphemer. We could not substitute the Messiah for the Son in the baptismal formula. Peter, Mark, and Matthew were brought up in the most orthodox monotheism, with an instinctive horror of the least approach to idolatry, and yet they looked up to their Master with feelings of adoration. And, as for Luke, he delights in representing Jesus throughout as the sinless Saviour of sinners, and is in full sympathy with the theology of his elder brother Paul, who certainly taught the pre-existence and divine nature of Christ several years before the Gospels were written or published (Rom_1:3, Rom_1:4; Rom_9:5; 2Co_8:9; Col_1:15-17; Phi_2:6-11).
2. It is the Gospel of Love. Its practical motto is: “God is love.” In the incarnation of the eternal Word, in the historic mission of his Son, God has given the greatest possible proof of his love to mankind. In the fourth Gospel alone we read that precious sentence which contains the very essence of Christianity: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Joh_3:16). It is the Gospel of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep (Joh_10:11); the Gospel of the new commandment: “Love one another” (Joh_13:34). And this was the last exhortation of the aged disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
But for this very reason that Christ is the greatest gift of God to the world, unbelief is the greatest sin and blackest ingratitude, which carries in it its own condemnation. The guilt of unbelief, the contrast between faith and unbelief is nowhere set forth in such strong light as in the fourth Gospel. It is a consuming fire to all enemies of Christ.
3. It is the Gospel of Mystic Symbolism. The eight miracles it records are significant “signs” (σημεῖα) which symbolize the character and mission of Christ, and manifest his glory. They are simply his “works” (ἔργα), the natural manifestations of his marvellous person performed with the same ease as men perform their ordinary works. The turning of water into wine illustrates his transforming power, and fitly introduces his public ministry; the miraculous feeding of the five thousand set him forth as the Bread of life for the spiritual nourishment of countless believers; the healing of the man born blind, as the Light of the world; the raising of Lazarus, as the Resurrection and the Life. The miraculous draught of fishes shows the disciples to be fishers of men, and insures the abundant results of Christian labor to the end of time. The serpent in the wilderness prefigured the cross. The Baptist points to him as the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. He represents himself under the significant figures of the Door, the good Shepherd, the Vine; and these figures have inspired Christian art and poetry, and guided the meditations of the church ever since.
The whole Old Testament is a type and prophecy of the New. “The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Joh_1:17). Herein lies the vast superiority of Christianity, and yet the great importance of Judaism as an essential part in the scheme of redemption. Clearly and strongly as John brings out the opposition to the unbelieving Jews, he is yet far from going to the Gnostic extreme of rejecting or depreciating the Old Testament; on the contrary “salvation comes from the Jews” (says Christ to the Samaritan woman, Joh_4:22); and turning the Scripture argument against the scribes and Pharisees who searched the letter of the Scriptures, but ignored the spirit, Christ confronts them with the authority of Moses on whom they fixed their hope. “If ye believed Moses, ye would believe me; for he wrote of me. But ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (Joh_5:46). John sees Christ everywhere in those ancient Scriptures which cannot be broken. He unfolds the true Messianic idea in conflict with the carnal perversion of it among the Jews under the guidance of the hierarchy.
The Johannean and Synoptic Discourses of Christ
4. John gives prominence to the transcendent Discourses about the person of Christ and his relation to the Father, to the world, and the disciples. His words are testimonies, revealing the inner glory of his person; they are Spirit and they are life.
Matthew’s Gospel is likewise didactic; but there is a marked difference between the contents and style of the Synoptic and the Johannean discourses of Jesus. The former discuss the nature of the Messianic kingdom, the fulfilment of the law, the duty of holy obedience, and are popular, practical, brief, pointed, sententious, parabolic, and proverbial; the latter touch the deepest mysteries of theology and Christology, are metaphysical, lengthy, liable to carnal misunderstanding, and scarcely discernible from John’s own style in the prologue and the first Epistle, and from that used by the Baptist. The transition is almost imperceptible in Joh_3:16 and Joh_3:31.
Here we reach the chief difficulty in the Johannean problem. Here is the strong point of sceptical criticism. We must freely admit at the outset that John so reproduced the words of his Master as to mould them unconsciously into his own type of thought and expression. He revolved them again and again in his heart, they were his daily food, and the burden of his teaching to the churches from Sunday to Sunday; yet he had to translate, to condense, to expand, and to apply them; and in this process it was unavoidable that his own reflections should more or less mingle with his recollections. With all the tenacity of his memory it was impossible that at such a great interval of time (fifty or sixty years after the events) he should be able to record literally every discourse just as it was spoken; and he makes no such claim, but intimates that he selects and summarizes.
This is the natural view of the case, and the same concession is now made by all the champions of the Johannean authorship who do not hold to a magical inspiration theory and turn the sacred writers into unthinking machines, contrary to their own express statements, as in the Preface of Luke. But we deny that this concession involves any sacrifice of the truth of history or of any lineament from the physiognomy of Christ. The difficulty here presented is usually overstated by the critics, and becomes less and less, the higher we rise in our estimation of Christ, and the closer we examine the differences in their proper connection. The following reflections will aid the student:
(1) In the first place we must remember the marvellous heighth and depth and breadth of Christ’s intellect as it appears in the Synoptists as well as in John. He commanded the whole domain of religious and moral truth; he spake as never man spake, and the people were astonished at his teaching (Mat_7:28, Mat_7:29; Mar_1:22; Mar_6:2; Luk_4:32; Joh_7:46). He addressed not only his own generation, but through it all ages and classes of men. No wonder that his hearers often misunderstood him. The Synoptists give examples of such misunderstanding as well as John (comp. Mar_8:16). But who will set limits to his power and pedagogic wisdom in the matter and form of his teaching? Must he not necessarily have varied his style when he addressed the common people in Galilee, as in the Synoptists, and the educated, proud, hierarchy of Jerusalem, as in John? Or when he spoke on the mountain, inviting the multitude to the Messianic Kingdom at the opening of his ministry, and when he took farewell from his disciples in the chamber, in view of the great sacrifice? Socrates appears very different in Xenophon and in Plato, yet we can see him in both. But here is a far greater than Socrates.
(2) John’s mind, at a period when it was most pliable and plastic, had been so conformed to the mind of Christ that his own thoughts and words faithfully reflected the teaching of his Master. If there ever was spiritual sympathy and congeniality between two minds, it was between Jesus and the disciple whom he loved and whom he intrusted with the care of his mother. John stood nearer to his Lord than any Christian or any of the Synoptists. “Why should not John have been formed upon the model of Jesus rather than the Jesus of his Gospel be the reflected image of himself? Surely it may be left to all candid minds to say whether, to adopt only the lowest supposition, the creative intellect of Jesus was not far more likely to mould His disciple to a conformity with itself, than the receptive spirit of the disciple to give birth by its own efforts to that conception of a Redeemer which so infinitely surpasses the loftiest image of man’s own creation.”
(3) John reproduced the discourses from the fulness of the spirit of Christ that dwelt in him, and therefore without any departure from the ideas. The whole gospel history assumes that Christ did not finish, but only began his work while on earth, that he carries it on in heaven through his chosen organs, to whom he promised mouth and wisdom (Luk_21:15; Mat_10:19) and his constant presence (Mat_19:20; Mat_28:20). The disciples became more and more convinced of the superhuman character of Christ by the irresistible logic of fact and thought. His earthly life appeared to them as a transient state of humiliation which was preceded by a pre-existent state of glory with the Father, as it was followed by a permanent state of glory after the resurrection and ascension to heaven. He withheld from them “many things” because they could not bear them before his glorification (Joh_16:12). “What I do,” he said to Peter, “thou knowest not now, but thou shalt come to know hereafter” (Joh_13:7). Some of his deepest sayings, which they had at first misunderstood, were illuminated by the resurrection (Joh_2:22; Joh_12:16), and then by the outpouring of the Spirit, who took things out of the fulness of Christ and declared them to the disciples (Joh_16:13, Joh_16:14). Hence the farewell discourses are so full of the Promises of the Spirit of truth who would glorify Christ in their hearts. Under such guidance we may be perfectly sure of the substantial faithfulness of John’s record.
(4) Beneath the surface of the similarity there is a considerable difference between the language of Christ and the language of his disciple. John never attributes to Christ the designation Logos, which he uses so prominently in the Prologue and the first Epistle. This is very significant, and shows his conscientious care. He distinguished his own theology from the teaching of his Master, no matter whether he borrowed the term Logos from Philo (which cannot be proven), or coined it himself from his reflections on Old Testament distinctions between the hidden and the revealed God and Christ’s own testimonies concerning his relation to the Father. The first Epistle of John is an echo of his Gospel, but with original matter of his own and Polemical references to the anti-Christian errors of his day. “The phrases of the Gospel,” says Westcott, “have a definite historic connection: they belong to circumstances which explain them. The phrases in the Epistle are in part generalizations, and in part interpretations of the earlier language in view of Christ’s completed work and of the experience of the Christian church.”
As to the speeches of the Baptist, in the fourth Gospel, they keep, as the same writer remarks, strictly within the limits suggested by the Old Testament. “What he says spontaneously of Christ is summed up in the two figures of the ‘Lamb’ and the ‘Bridegroom,’ which together give a comprehensive view of the suffering and joy, the redemptive and the completive work of Messiah under prophetic imagery. Both figures appear again in the Apocalypse; but it is very significant that they do not occur in the Lord’s teaching in the fourth Gospel or in St. John’s Epistles.”
(5) There are not wanting striking resemblances in thought and style between the discourses in John and in the Synoptists, especially Matthew, which are sufficient to refute the assertion that the two types of teaching are irreconcilable. The Synoptists were not quite unfamiliar with the other type of teaching. They occasionally rise to the spiritual height of John and record briefer sayings of Jesus which could be inserted without a discord in his Gospel. Take the prayer of thanksgiving and the touching invitation to all that labor and are heavy laden, in Mat_11:25-30. The sublime declaration recorded by Luk_10:22 and Mat_11:27: “No one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him,” is thoroughly Christ-like according to John’s conception, and is the basis of his own declaration in the prologue: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Joh_1:18). Jesus makes no higher claim in John than he does in Matthew when he proclaims: “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Mat_28:18). In almost the same words Jesus says in Joh_17:2: “Thou hast given him power over all flesh.”
On the other hand, John gives us not a few specimens of those short, pithy maxims of oriental wisdom which characterize the Synoptic discourses.
The Style of the Gospel of John
The style of the fourth Gospel differs widely from the ecclesiastical writers of the second century, and belongs to the apostolic age. It has none of the technical theological terms of post-apostolic controversies, no allusions to the state of the church, its government and worship, but moves in the atmosphere of the first Christian generation; yet differs widely from the style of the Synoptists and is altogether unique in the history of secular and religious literature, a fit expression of the genius of John: clear and deep, simple as a child, and mature as a saint, sad and yet serene, and basking in the sunshine of eternal life and love. The fourth Gospel is pure Greek in vocabulary and grammar, but thoroughly Hebrew in temper and spirit, even more so than any other book, and can be almost literally translated into Hebrew without losing its force or beauty. It has the childlike simplicity, the artlessness, the imaginativeness, the directness, the circumstantiality, and the rhythmical parallelism which characterize the writings of the Old Testament. The sentences are short and weighty, coordinated, not subordinated. The construction is exceedingly simple: no involved periods, no connecting links, no logical argumentation, but a succession of self-evident truths declared as from immediate intuition. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry is very apparent in such double sentences as: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you;” “A servant is not greater than his lord; neither one that is sent greater than he that sent him;” “All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that hath been made.” Examples of antithetic parallelism are also frequent: “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not;” “He was in the world, and the world knew him not;” “He confessed, and denied not;” “I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
The author has a limited vocabulary, but loves emphatic repetition, and his very monotony is solemn and impressive. He uses certain key-words of the profoundest import, as Word, life, light, truth, love, glory, testimony, name, sign, work, to know, to behold, to believe. These are not abstract conceptions but concrete realities. He views the world under comprehensive contrasts, as life and death, light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hatred, God and the devil, and (in the first Epistle) Christ and Antichrist.
He avoids the optative, and all argumentative particles, but uses very frequently the simple particles καί, δέ, οὖν, ἵνα. His most characteristic particle in the narrative portions is “therefore” (οὖν), which is with him not syllogistic (like ἄρα and its compounds), but indicative simply of continuation and retrospect (like “so” and “then” or the German “nun”), yet with the idea that nothing happens without a cause; while the particle “in order that” (ἵνα) indicates that nothing happens without a purpose. He avoids the relative pronoun and prefers the connecting “and” with the repetition of the noun, as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The “and” sometimes takes the place of “but,” as “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” (Joh_1:5).
We look in vain for such important words as church, gospel, repentance (μετάνοια), but the substance is there in different forms. He does not even use the noun “faith” (πίστις), which frequently occurs in the Synoptists and in Paul, but he uses the verb “to believe” (πιστεύειν) ninety-eight times, about twice as often as all three Synoptists together.
He applies the significant term Logos (ratio and oratio) to Christ as the Revealer and the Interpreter of God (Joh_1:18), but only in the Prologue, and such figurative designations as “the Light of the world,” “the Bread of life,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the Vine,” “the Way,” “the Truth,” and “the Life.” He alone uses the double “Verily” in the discourses of the Saviour. He calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete” or “Advocate” of believers, who pleads their cause here on earth, as Christ pleads it on the throne in heaven. There breathes through this book an air of calmness and serenity, of peace and repose, that seems to come from the eternal mansions of heaven.
Is such a style compatible with the hypothesis of a post- and pseudo-apostolic fiction? We have a large number of fictitious Gospels, but they differ as much from the fourth canonical Gospel as midnight darkness from noonday brightness.