John and the Synoptics
While each of the four gospels is unique in many ways, the first three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have a great deal in common. We call these three the “Synoptic” Gospels (synoptic means “viewed together”) because they have so much in common. Approximately 90% of the stories and teaching in Mark’s gospel appear in either Matthew or Luke. By contrast, only 10% of John’s gospel appears in any of the other three.
Why such similarities and differences? It seems likely that Matthew, Mark, and Luke used many of the same sources.
…for John the most pressing question is whether Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
But why is John so different? The likely answer is that John was writing somewhat later in the first century AD and under different circumstances. While the biggest challenge facing the Synoptic authors was whether Jesus was the promised Messiah who inaugurated God’s kingdom, for John the most pressing question is whether Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Some false teachers had begun to claim that Jesus was merely human and not truly God. Others said Jesus may be divine, but he only appeared to be human. John writes to combat both false teachings. Only if Jesus is fully human and fully divine can he provide salvation for the sins of the world. The consistent theme throughout John’s gospel is that Jesus is the self-revelation of God, who provides eternal life to all who believe (see 3:16). We will trace this theme briefly through several passages and narrative features.
John’s Prologue (1:1–18).
John’s prologue represents the most exalted picture of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is introduced as God’s eternal “Word” (1:1; Greek: Logos), his self-revelation and communication to humanity. Verses 1–2 are a remarkable description of the Son as both distinct from the Father (he was “with God [the Father]”), yet as fully divine (he “was God”). That the Son is truly God is further evident in that he is the Creator of all things (v. 3). Just as God brought light and life into existence at creation (Genesis 1:3, 20–26), so Jesus is the light-giver and life-giver (John 1:4)—bringing both physical life and eternal life. He brought this life by becoming a human being (vv. 10–11, 14), an event theologians call the incarnation. Though rejected by his own people (vv. 10–11), Jesus’s death paid the penalty for our sins and brought us salvation. Those who receive Jesus are now restored to a right relationship with God as his spiritual children (vv. 12–13). Though the Old Testament law could only point out our sin, God’s grace through Jesus delivers us from it (vv. 16–17). The end of the prologue returns to the theme introduced at the beginning. Just as the “Word” of God communicates who God is (1:1), so Jesus the Son reveals the invisible God (1:18).
The Seven “Signs.”
The Son coming to reveal the Father continues throughout John’s gospel. The first major section (1:19–12:50) is sometimes called “The Book of Signs.” This is because it contains seven “signs,” or miracles, that are meant to reveal Jesus’s glory and to point people to faith in him. The number seven in Scripture often indicates completion or perfection. Interspersed with the seven signs is a series of dialogues and debates between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders, who challenge Jesus’s identity and actions. The seven signs are:
- Turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, 2:1–11
- Healing a royal official’s son, 4:43–54
- Healing a disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda, 5:1–15
- Feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes, 6:1–14
- Walking on water, 6:16–21
- Healing a man born blind, 9:1–41
- Raising Lazarus, 11:1–43
At the conclusion of the first sign, turning water into wine, we get an explanation of the purpose of the signs: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). The signs reveal Jesus’s glory and provoke faith in him.
Yet for the stubborn and hard-hearted, the signs provoke opposition and resistance.
Yet for the stubborn and hard-hearted, the signs provoke opposition and resistance. The last and climactic of the seven signs is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. On the one hand, this miracle causes many to believe (11:45) and foreshadows the greatest of all signs, the resurrection of Jesus. On the other hand, it is the precipitating event that leads to Jesus’s crucifixion (11:47–53). Yet even here the negative is turned to God’s glory, as Christ achieves victory over death and accomplishes our salvation through his atoning death on the cross.
Seven “I am” Statements.
Another important means of Jesus’s self-revelation in John’s gospel are seven “I am” statements, metaphors that Jesus uses to describe himself. The seven, and their significance, are:
- The Bread of Life, meaning the source of spiritual life, 6:35, 41, 48, 50–51, 58
- The Light of the World, meaning the source of life and guidance, 8:12; 9:5
- The Door/Gate for the Sheep, meaning protection from danger, 10:7, 9
- The Good Shepherd, meaning provider and protector, 10:11, 14
- The Resurrection and the Life, meaning provider of eternal life, 11:25
- The Way, the Truth and the Life, meaning the one true way to know God, 14:6
- The True Vine, meaning the source of life and spiritual health, 15:1
In addition to these metaphors, Jesus sometimes speaks of himself in absolute terms as the “I AM” (8:58). This is an allusion to Exodus 3:14, where the Lord God identifies himself to Moses as the “I AM,” the self-existent one, without beginning or end. This again emphasizes Jesus as one who is truly divine—the self-revelation of God.
John’s Theme and Purpose.
John’s primary theme is clearly Christological, confirming the identity of Christ. Yet while this is certainly the most theological of the four gospels, even John is not writing theology for theology’s sake. His purpose, like the other gospels, is to call people to faith. The gospel climaxes with an explicit statement of purpose: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
The Gospels are theological and literary jewels, each a masterpiece in its own way. Yet from the perspective of their inspired authors—the four “Evangelists”— they are much more. They are “good news,” a call to respond in faith to the arrival of God’s end-time salvation and an invitation to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.