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Gospel of John - Study Guide

Updated on January 14, 2015
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Authorship and Historical Background

While no consensus has been reached regarding the historical context surrounding the Gospel of John, there exists substantial internal and external evidence suggesting the events of the apostle’s work occur in the wake of Christian expulsion from the late first century synagogue system. In his commentary on the Johanine Gospel, R. Alan Culpepper notes that “the preaching of the Johanine Christians, the emergence of a high Christology, their acceptance of non—Jewish converts and differing attitudes regarding the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66—70” caused the expulsion of Christian proselytes from the sundry Hellenic synagogues where believers first received and accepted the gospel message.

In particular, traditional Jews and their proselyte counterparts differed on their interpretation of the Herodian temple’s destruction under Emperor Titus. For Jews, the event devastated the morale of a scattered and conquered race; many questioned their obedience to Yahweh; thousands perished under pagan swords. Christians, however, saw the temple’s destruction as a verification of their eschaton (“end of now”); that Jesus’ prophecy regarding the temple had born truth; that a new, spiritual kingdom would triumph over Jewish authority and Roman power. For these reasons and others, Christians at the time of John’s transmission found themselves persecuted by Roman officials and Jewish leaders, leading many believers to either renounce their new found faith or seek safety in hiding.

As John most likely exhibits the last inspired writings of the New Testament canon, believers that had witnessed the ministry and resurrection of Christ were confronted with what had seemed incomprehensible—mortality. While some Christians felt Jesus would return within the life spans of the first generation of Christianity, miraculous powers diminished, greater numbers of believers faced premature deaths and the initial supremacy of the church’s mission appeared to wane under Roman conquest and Jewish persecution.

For these reasons, the Apostle John (most likely writing directly to proselytes under duress in Ephesus and Asia Minor), felt cause to encourage and admonish his brothers and sisters to persist in their obedience to the risen savior; to eschew recanting the revelation of Jesus Christ; withstand the even violent abuses of Rome and Israel; embrace the legacy of those that had died yet already received an eternal reward.

The Visual Bible - Gospel of John

Incarnation in the Gospel of John:

In the climactic chapter of his work, Miracles, C.S. Lewis describes the life of Jesus Christ as at once an event and doctrine that renders the whole of Christianity legible. He adds, “it is much less important that the doctrine itself should be fully comprehensible. We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we see everything else.” By this observation, Lewis suggests the transformation of God into man through Jesus proves not an event for interpretation; rather a revelation allowing for the believer’s understanding of God’s salvific plan for redeeming humanity.

The symbolic value of light within the Gospel’s prologue proves nigh incalculable to a cursory read. Among the most prescient images that emerge from the comparison are its judgment upon Israel, the interplay of life, truth and logos (“word”) and the supremacy of Christ in the face of overwhelming moral darkness. Intimate with Jewish imagery, John uses the opening or “forward” to his gospel account as an ordinance against the corrosive ignorance of Jewish priest-craft. Prophets had long associated Israel with God’s unending light; that Jerusalem encompassed an earthly extension of God’s eternal illumination. John subverts this teaching by espousing Jesus comprises the acme of that extension; revelation of his divinity renders the earthly authority of Jewish law insubstantial in comparison to the message born out of Christ’s ministry. The crux of the incarnation relates to how God’s omniscience and ransom were knit into a human form. In essence, Christ embodies both God and God’s intercession on behalf of humankind—an unquenchable “light” which beacons wandering souls. Most importantly (especially for Christians suffering extreme duress), Christ has already overcome the hardships of humankind’s rebellion against its creator and so offers the same victory to his followers. The promise interwoven within this revelation remains one of the more durable encouragements of the Gospel record.

While the Johanine Gospel originally played upon the profound legacy of light in the Old Testament to (quite literally) breathe life into a weakened audience, its message of spiritual transport, redemption and victory over intense adversity mark it as among the most poetic and inspiring passages in the New Testament.

Revelation and Incarnation

Which of the following scriptures offers the most durable teaching from the Gospel of John?

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The Herodian Temple in the Gospel of John:

At the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Herodian or Second Temple had achieved its acme opulence, including a restored Menorah, Showbread table, incense altars and a dedicatory stone to commemorate the Ark of the Covenant. Although the rededication of the temple occurred in the sixth century BCE, the majority of its construction was overseen beginning with Herod the Great. Like his construction projects in Caesarea Maritima, Masada and Tiberius, Herod saw the temple’s reconstruction as an avenue to legacy; the opportunity to secure the durability of his name in projects to rival the Julio-Claudian dynasties.

Needless to say, the Second Temple represented the center of Jewish Faith in the first century CE. The site was the singular destination for religious pilgrimage, education and annual attrition. For this reason, its destruction under the Emperor Vespasian and general (later Emperor) Titus was especially demoralizing to Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Starting with the Jewish revolt in 66 CE, Rome laid waste to numerous sites of singular Jewish heritage, virtually eradicating in the span of four years the legacy of the Herodian dynasty. While the Roman siege culminated at the fortress, Masada, Titus’ most decisive blow against the Jewish population was the razing of the temple. Adding to the despair was Titus’ confiscation of temple relics, including the Menorah, to fund what would eventually become the Coliseum.

Given the magnitude of suffering and hardship Jews encumbered during the revolt, it is no surprise that Jewish audiences would have proven hostile to the Gospel of John’s depiction of Jesus of Nazareth as a religious leader vehemently opposed to the commercial excess and luxury of the Second Temple. Serious Jews towards the ebb of the first century persisted in the hope of a conquering redeemer that would return the Temple Mount to its prior glory and vindicate Jerusalem against its Roman oppressors. Whereas John depicts the Messiah—Jesus Christ—as one who stands in agreement with Judaism’s greatest persecutor; that the temple’s destruction was a wholly righteous and pre-ordained event in keeping with God’s will.

The Word Became Flesh:

Know any other online resources for studying the Gospel of John? I look forward to your comments and thank you in advance for any kind words. Check out my other Hub Pages for additional suggestions for navigating college assignments by working smart instead of merely working hard.

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