Writing Lessons From the Gospel of John, Part 1
Of all the books in the world perhaps there is none so loved, so precious to Christians as the book of John. – BSF International
As a Christian, I agree! The Gospel of John is my favorite book from the New Testament. But the Gospel of John is not only valued by Christian believers for its revelations from this faithful disciple . I contend that John is also a much loved book of the Bible because it is the most well-written of the four gospels.
As Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) participants are studying the book of John this year, I have become very interested in writing a review of the book. In a hub of several parts, I plan to analyze the way that John is written. In this review, I will discuss some of the attributes of John’s writing using The Writer’s Art, by James J. Kilpatrick, the former columnist and grammarian. Kilpatrick marketed his book to writers who wanted to be more successful at their craft, so let’s look at some of the foundational principles of good writing that Kilpatrick sets up for us, and evaluate how well John the writer uses these elements.
Choice of Translation
First, though, I must make it clear which modern version of the Bible I am using for my review. Though there are dozens of current translations of our Holy Word, I have chosen the New International Version (NIV). I believe it is the most easy-to-read Bible available today, one that flows quite well, especially when read aloud. The NIV doesn’t need to resort to hipness and cool modern expressiveness to make its point. A Greek scholar I'm not. A discerning reader I am. And I won't try to tell you which translation is the best, but as you read any modern translation of the Bible, check to see if you’re going back to re-read a sentence or two because the meaning was not clear the first time. If you have difficulty with more than a few passages, you may be studying an awkward rendering of the Word – for you. We all have different tastes, but in this hub, all scripture quoted is from the NIV, unless noted otherwise.
St. John, by El Greco
Book of John, Chinese-English Bible
Principle #1 Have Something to Say
Kilpatrick says : This is the first and greatest commandment for a writer.
How fitting that the author of The Writer’s Art cleverly turns a phrase based on one of Jesus’ statements.
In other words, if your idea isn’t worth anything to you, why would you be writing about it? Readers can certainly tell the difference between a hack piece and a book or article that is energized by a writer’s passion and desire to share an important concept with the world.
Well, then, why did John write his gospel?
John actually goes out of his way to tell you why, although he doesn’t have to give you any reason. Two other gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, certainly didn’t feel it necessary to explain themselves. Only Luke states that his reason for writing his gospel was to provide an orderly, factual account of Jesus’ life, based on his own investigation.
John’s clearly states his reason for writing in John 20:31. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Here is another way of putting it: John wrote so that people would know what it means to believe in Jesus Christ, and, as a result, they would also have assurance of eternal life.
Although Kilpatrick doesn’t spell it out in his “Things We Ought to Do” chapter, you can be sure that he also realizes that, just as a writer has a purpose for his work, he also has an intended audience. This idea is implicit for anyone of Kilpatrick’s professional stature.
Who is John’s audience? The Life Application version of the NIV tells us quite succinctly in its “Vital Statistics” outline. The book of John was written for new Christians and searching non-Christians.
Oh, how I wish someone had drilled me on this point when I was struggling with my Christian faith as a teenager. As I previously shared with you, for several years I had no assurance of eternal life. In retrospect, it would have been extremely helpful if I had just read the book of John every couple of months. Perhaps I would have spared myself much worry and doubt as I let the words of the disciple enter repeatedly into my consciousness. As a choral singer, I now realize that the more you rehearse a piece of music, the more the little snatches of melody replay in your mind when you least expect it. So it is with John’s words. As if by design, the structure and repetition of his work leave the mind convinced and reassured that faith in Jesus is saving faith. And new Christians need a lot of reassurance.
I also understand the point that John’s gospel is for the searching non-Christian. People who know nothing about the New Testament can decide to sit down and read all four gospels. Very often, they come away from a first reading of John, convinced that it is the most interesting and well-written of the four gospels, even if they don’t quite believe everything John says. Perhaps these impressionable people are convinced, as I am now, by the authority that seems to undergird John’s work. There is an explication of simple truth in John’s gospel that is difficult to disregard. Other individuals may understand more truth from some of the well-argued, logical points that Paul makes in his letter to the Romans. Thankfully, God allowed several presentations of scriptural truth, to account for individual differences.
We’ve covered the why and the who of writing. Next we need to look at the investment of time in writing.
Principle #2 Take Your Time
Kilpatrick realizes that writers often get sloppy. They have deadlines to meet, and fail to check all the finer points so important to clarity in writing. Writers don’t always use words that would convey precise meanings, don’t always place clauses where they should go, and don’t always identify a pronoun’s antecedent – among many other sins. In short, writers who fail to review their work before publication frequently generate confusion in their readers’ minds.
John generously used the principle of “take your time” in writing his gospel. John had approximately 70 years to write the gospel in his mind and, near the end of his life, commit his words to a scroll. His gospel, written between 90-100 A.D., was the last of the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. There is no doubt at all that a lifetime of reflection on Jesus’ words and deeds produced the superior work that is the book of John. John was certainly one of the quieter disciples, and not anxious to call attention to himself in the manner of his fellow disciple Peter. An introspective person is frequently a terrific writer – simply because he stands in the background quietly observing events. Introverted men and women may not always be clear and commanding in conversation, but they strive for clarity with their written words. Often writing is their passion. Often taking up the pen is the best way of conveyance for them. Often they succeed. And I think it is fair to say that John fulfilled an important part of his mission, as evidenced by the body of work from his gospel, his three epistles, and his book of Revelation.
The Gospel of John and its Impact on You
Which reader are you? Are you a new Christian or are you a searcher after truth? If you’ve never read the gospel accounts, I urge you to read all four in order…. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and finally John. Why not see if you agree with me about the quality of John’s writing? Especially try to find what truth you can from John’s words. It’s there, in every simple phrase, in every simple concept.
Yet to all who received him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12
Kilpatrick, James J. The Writer's Art. Andrews & McMeel, 1984.
Rosen, Ruth, ed. Testimonies of Jews Who Believe in Jesus. Purple Pomegranate Productions, 1987.
Thomas, Robert and Stanley Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels. Moody Press, 1978.
The Holy Bible, Gospel of John, New International Version