The gospel of John not only relates Jesus to all humanity but to the very creation of the cosmos. "In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God's presence, and what God was, the Word was." Jesus is the "Word made flesh," the "light that shines in the darkness," the "Father's only Son." But the fourth gospel also uses the title “Rabbi" for Jesus, even more frequently than the gospel of Matthew. The language of the gospel suggests, therefore, that it was written for a community of Greek-speaking, Jewish Christians who believed that Greek philosophical notions were helpful in articulating the ultimate significance of Jesus Christ. Jesus is understood as the revelation of God, because he is God's only Son and, therefore, "is nearest to the Father's heart." The gospel of John presents in more memorable language Paul's assertion about Jesus Christ that: "From him and through him and for him all things exist." (Rom. 11:36)
John the Baptist is introduced into the story as a man "sent from God" to be a witness to the light that is not overcome by the darkness. The one who is light came into the world but was not recognized. He came to his own people who did not accept him. "But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God." In Jesus, the gospel tells us, the word of God became flesh. And in the gospel of John, the Baptist witnesses to Jesus as the one he said would come after him but "ranks ahead" of him. "Before I was born," John the Baptist says, "he already was."
Then the author of the gospel of John says that through the word made flesh everyone has received God's grace: "for the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." No one, the author writes, "has ever seen God." But "God's only Son" has made God known to us.
As we begin the story of the ministry of Jesus, Pharisees ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet. He answers that he is none of these but then says, quoting from Isaiah 40:3, as we read in the first three gospels: "I am a voice crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.’" Given the very different beginning of the gospel of John, it is striking that like the other New Testament gospels it puts the words of Isaiah on the lips of John the Baptist. This must have been a very strong tradition in the early churches, if the four gospel writers are aware of it and present it.
In this gospel the Baptist explains that he baptizes with water, but he does not tell us that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit (gospel of Mark) and with fire (gospels of Matthew and Luke). John the Baptist does repeat the saying, however, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, that he, John, is "not worthy to unfasten the strap of his sandal." The Baptist humbly admits that he is not worthy even to be the servant of the one who comes after him.
We do not hear that John actually baptizes Jesus, but in this fourth gospel as in the synoptic gospels John says, "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove and come to rest on him." Then John adds that the one who sent him said, "The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is to baptize in the Holy Spirit." The gospel of John, like the synoptic gospels, proclaims that the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and that Jesus has been commissioned to baptize in (the name of) the Holy Spirit.
The gospel of John records that the next day the Baptist identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God . . . who takes away the sin of the world." Then John the Baptist directs two of his disciples to follow Jesus. They call Jesus "Rabbi," and the gospel tells us this means "Teacher." When Jesus accepts these two disciples of John as his followers, one of the two tells his brother, Simon Peter, "We have found the Messiah." The author of the gospel explains that Messiah "is the Hebrew for Christ." Clearly the author expected that some of his Greek-speaking readers might not know Hebrew — not even the Hebrew word for savior, which in Greek is Christ.
When Jesus meets Simon, Jesus looks him over and exclaims that he is to be called (in Aramaic) "Cephas" (or Peter in Greek), which the author of the gospel tells us means “rock." Jesus then calls Philip to be a disciple, and Philip tells Nathanael that they "have found the man foretold by the prophets." When Philip explains to Nathaniel that "it is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth," Nathanael says scornfully, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" But when he comes to see for himself, and after Jesus speaks to him, as if he knows him, Nathanael says, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God." Then Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see "heaven wide open and God's angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (This is an image from the Old Testament story of Jacob that is the basis for the spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”)
Although a significant piece of the John the Baptist story in the gospel of John is the same as in the first three gospels, the rest of the opening chapter of the gospel is very different. Besides the cosmic vision of the preface, John calls Jesus "the Lamb of God" and directs disciples to follow Jesus. Philip is named among the disciples in the first three gospels, but Nathanael is only mentioned in the gospel of John. Moreover, the conversations between Jesus and Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, and Philip and Nathanael are unique to the fourth gospel. The prophecy at the end of the chapter, however, is the same reference to the Son of Man described in Daniel that we have seen in each of the first three gospels.
Of the four gospel accounts of John the Baptist, the version of the story in the gospel of John is the most different. The fourth gospel reports that Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was a follower of John the Baptist but began to follow Jesus after he heard John's comment — and that he brought along his brother as well. Finally, in the third chapter of the fourth gospel we read that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing in the same region as John the Baptist (although the next chapter clarifies that only the disciples of Jesus were actually doing the baptizing). When John's disciples ask him about the effectiveness of the baptism being offered by those following Jesus, the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. "Whoever puts his faith in the Son," John the Baptist tells his disciples, "has eternal life." All of this detail about John the Baptist is unique to the gospel of John.
It seems unlikely that the identification of Jesus as the Son of God by John the Baptist would have been omitted by the authors of the first three gospels, if they were aware of it. Most likely the authors of the synoptic gospels of did not know this story. Perhaps the author of the fourth gospel attributed these words to John the Baptist as a way of adding emphasis to his testimony.
The Aramaic words, the use of the title "Rabbi" for Jesus, and the references to prophecy all imply that the author of this gospel is Jewish. Yet, he must be writing for a community with Jewish Christians that are very much at home in Greek culture. The Greek philosophical concepts in the preface and the explanation of Hebrew words imply that his readers, if they are Jewish, read the scriptures in Greek rather than Hebrew. It could also be that this Christian community includes Gentiles as well as Greek-speaking Jews. The intended readers of the gospel of John are surely not Galileans like the disciples of Jesus, but probably live and work among Greek-speaking citizens of a city dominated by Romans.
Next the gospel relates the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus changes water into wine. The author of the gospel of John identifies this as "the first of the signs which revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him." In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says he will not give the people a sign, and in the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus refers to the story of Jonah as the only sign he will give. In the gospel of John, however, Jesus gives several signs to secure the faith of his disciples.
From Cana, Jesus goes to Capernaum "with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples." We do not find in the gospel of John any stories about Jesus criticizing his family or being abandoned by them, as in the gospels of Mark and Luke. On the contrary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers seem to be supporting his ministry from the very beginning. Then, near the time of the Jewish Passover, Jesus goes to Jerusalem and drives out the moneychangers from the temple. When "the Jews" challenge Jesus and ask for a sign of his authority, Jesus says: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again." In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus is accused of saying he will destroy the temple and raise it in three days, but Jesus never says this. The gospel of Luke omits the accusation, but the gospel of John verifies this statement.
In the fourth gospel, however, the author explains that by saying this Jesus is referring to his body and his own death and resurrection, and the author adds that the disciples remembered this explanation after the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel also tells us that in Jerusalem many "put their trust" in Jesus, who seems to know that they will desert him because he holds back from them. What is most striking is that the cleansing of the temple in the gospel of John takes place at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, rather than at the end as in the first three New Testament gospels. In the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus does not even go to Jerusalem during his ministry until the end of his life. In contrast, the gospel of John has Jesus doing most of his teaching in Jerusalem.
Those who read the Bible literally must argue that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, but if this were so it would be hard to understand why anyone would have been surprised the second time. It seems more likely that the cleansing of the temple is related in the gospel of John at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as a way of emphasizing his opposition to "the Jews" who will reject him. In the other three gospels Jesus confronts and criticizes scribes, Sadducees, elders, and Pharisees, but only in the gospel of John do we read that "the Jews" oppose Jesus. Whoever wrote the gospel of John must have believed that "the Jews" who refused to accept freedom from the law in Christ would be judged harshly for their blindness.
This condemnation is also reflected in the third chapter of the gospel of John by the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Nicodemus, who is said to be a member of the Jewish Council, is unable to understand that "no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit." Jesus mocks him: "You a teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things!" Then Jesus explains that he is the Son of Man, who has come down from heaven to be lifted up again "in order that everyone who has faith in him may have eternal life.”
This emphasis on faith, in contrast to the commandments of the Jewish law, is consistent with the teachings of Paul. Furthermore, even as Paul fiercely attacks Jewish Christians who oppose him, the gospel of John targets "the Jews" who resist Jesus.
Because the language of the fourth gospel is so different from the language of the first three gospels, it seems obvious that the words of Jesus in the gospel of John express the self-understanding of the Christian community for which the gospel was written. This same reasoning may be used to argue that at least some of the sayings in the first three gospels are closer to the authentic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps John's community of Jewish Christians was very critical of "the Jews" because its members were rejected or even persecuted by Jewish leaders who saw Christian teachings as a threat to their heritage. The fears of the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah were, of course, well founded. The tragedy of the New Testament is that its message of good news has been used to justify Jewish persecution.
With remorse and repentance Christians must acknowledge that the anger expressed toward "the Jews" by the Jesus of the gospel of John has for centuries been used to foment anti-Semitism. It is important to note, however, that the scathing attacks on "the Jews" by Jesus in the gospel of John are contradicted by the accounts of Jesus in the other three gospels. We can see, therefore, that the harsh words against "the Jews" in the gospel of John cannot be the words of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish healer and teacher who was followed by Jewish disciples in Galilee almost two thousand years ago. The Jesus of the gospel of John is speaking for an early Greek-speaking, Jewish Christian community that has defined its good news sharply over against a community of Jews that may have found wisdom in the teachings of Jesus but refused to accept him as the Messiah.
The third chapter of the gospel of John contains a much-quoted teaching: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life." (3:16) Most English translations of the Greek version of this verse use the phrase "whoever believes in him" rather than "who has faith in him." But in the Greek of the New Testament "believes in" means "to have faith,” for in Greek the noun and verb are simply different forms of the same word. To believe in Jesus is to give your life in following him, not simply to believe certain things about him.
Another way of making this clear is by distinguishing the two nouns, faith and belief. In contemporary English, faith is trust whereas belief is holding an idea or an opinion. The word "belief" is rarely if ever used in English translations of the New Testament, because the Greek of the New Testament is clearly about faith not belief. So, whenever we encounter language about believing in God or Christ, we need to remember that this means trust not belief. This is clear in verse 18 of the third chapter of the gospel of John. Here Jesus teaches that no one "who puts his faith in him comes under judgment; but the unbeliever has already been judged because he has not put his trust in God's only Son." Here "unbeliever" means someone who does not trust in Jesus, who is unwilling to follow him.
Chapter 3 ends with a discussion between John the Baptist and his disciples. John clarifies that "Jesus must grow greater" as he becomes less, because the Father has entrusted the Son "with complete authority." Therefore, "Whoever puts his faith in the Son has eternal life." Whoever does not will find that "God's wrath rests upon him."
This final testimony by John the Baptist is unique to the gospel of John whichhas the Baptist witness to the good news in words that might have been written by Paul. The gospel of John is all about faith. The noun never appears in the Greek version of the gospel, but the verb for faith is repeated again and again. The conflict between Jesus and Nicodemus reflects the conflict between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Jesus, like Paul, is preaching faith and not the law, and Nicodemus, like James the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the main opponent of Paul, fails to understand and thus resists the new teaching.