[K:NWTS 8/1 (May 1993) 38-48]

The Gospel of John: An Introduction

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The gospel of the Beloved Disciple, John, the Son of Zebedee, is admittedly different from the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. But different does not imply separate. The Trinitarian slogan of the church is useful here—"distinct but not separate." John's gospel is distinct but not separate from the synoptics. Or to use a phrase preferred by Geerhardus Vos and other orthodox scholars, John is a part of the "fourfold gospel."

We ought not to be surprised at this. Our high view of Scripture does not require that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit makes each gospel's story of Jesus uniform. John's background, personality and literary interests were different from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yet this does not imply that he contradicts, corrects or otherwise alters the portrait of our Savior found in the other three gospels. Rather he supplements and complements the story of Jesus by means of his own peculiar gifts and interests.

The fourth evangelist does not provide a synopsis of the life of Christ: from (1) birth to death and resurrection (as Matthew and Luke do); from (2) Christ's baptism to his resurrection (as Mark does). John spends forty percent of his gospel describing one week—the most crucial week—of our Lord's life (Jn. 12-20:25). John is preoccupied with the week of Christ's death and resurrection. Surely the Beloved Disciple has provided us with an overall clue to his story of Christ by featuring his death and resurrection! The beginning of John's gospel is not genealogy (Matthew), not godspell (Mark), not angelic annunciation (Luke). John begins with a magnificent paean of the glory of the Son (Word/Logos)—God's only begotten. The Johannine Prologue (1:1-18) wondrously introduces this gospel which soars like the eagle. The Johannine Epilogue (21) poignantly envelops the gospel with the conversation between the eschatological Shepherd and the destined under-shepherd—"Simon Peter, lovest thou me?" "Feed my lambs." In between Prologue and Epilogue, we behold his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14).

Theological Features: Christocentric

The theological contours of John's gospel are also thrilling. I will summarize them under the headings Christocentric, Eschatological, Soteriological. John asks his readers to continually reflect on the question, "Who is Jesus?" This Christological question is answered from the Prologue to the Epilogue—he is the Word/Logos, the Son of God, who is God himself. This high ontic Christology explains the centrality of Christ in John's gospel. From 1:1 to 21:25, John will not allow us to take our eyes off Jesus. The central character in John's gospel drama is our Lord Jesus Christ. While this is not revolutionary, we do well to remind ourselves as we read through this gospel that the center of focus is the church's Lord. Who is this Jesus who meets us from the plains of Jordan to the shores of the sea of Galilee? He is none other than the second person of the ontological Trinity incarnate—Jesus Christ our Lord.


John's gospel is an eschatological gospel. Eschatology has to do with a new order, a new age, a new era. This new order/age/era partakes of permanence—that which abides, that which remains, that which is final or eternal. Is the earth eternal? No! Is heaven eternal? Yes! Heaven, then, is an eschatological arena. Is man eternal? No! Is God eternal? Yes! God is an eschatological being.

The fourth gospel tells us the eschatological being—the Son of God—has come in the flesh. He has come from above (from the eschatological dimension) into time and space and the cosmos. Heaven has come down to earth in Christ—the eternal has come into the temporal. The timeless has entered time. A new era has come in Christ. A new order has dawned with the advent of the Son of God. The gospel of John is the gospel of the dawn of a new age in Christ Jesus.

Hence, we come face to face with the eschatological question of the gospel of John. What does Jesus bring? What is the nature of the new age/order/era that Jesus brings? He brings the eschatological dimension; he brings the eternal into the present; he brings the heavenlies to us. This Christocentric gospel is eschatological. Because of who he is, Jesus reveals the dimension which he inhabits—the above in the below. As we read this gospel, we ask not only "Who is Jesus?" but "What does he bring?" The Son of God brings to us the age to come.


Finally, John's gospel is soteriological. Soteriology is the study of salvation. This gospel whose focus is Christocentric and whose goal is eschatological has soteriology as a means to that end. How does Jesus Christ, the Son of God, bring us to the eschatological arena—to the heavenlies? He brings us to the eschaton by saving us. John's gospel brings us face to face with the question, How does this one who is the Son of the Father out of the eschatological arena bring us into that eternal arena together with him? He takes the initiative with us; he uses his omnipotent power with us; he bestows undeserved mercy (grace) upon us. In short, Jesus saves us.

John's Purpose

The Christocentric, eschatological and soteriological aspects of his gospel are emphasized in John's own statement of purpose for the gospel. John tells us (20:30, 31) why he wrote these twenty-one chapters: "Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name."

You will notice that the purpose of this gospel is Christocentric: "that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." You will also notice that the purpose of this gospel is eschatological: "that believing you may have life." Not life which we already have; rather life which is from above—life which is heavenly—eternal life—eschatological life. And you will observe that the purpose of the gospel is soteriological—"having life in his name." That is, having life through what he has done in his name to accomplish salvation on behalf of your name.

Literary Characteristics

John wrote his gospel. While an obvious truism, most conservative, Bible-believing readers don't read John (or the Bible) as if it were written by human hands. We are often guilty of thinking the Bible was dropped out of the sky. My point is that John (as all Biblical authors) has a particular literary style. He also has a particular theological viewpoint (reviewed above) which he is attempting to communicate to his reader. This particular theological point of view is served by the particular literary style the Beloved Disciple has chosen.

The Bible is a literary work. That is not all it is, but it is that. The fourth gospel is a literary work. As you read looking for literary quality, you begin to notice some of John's artistry. This gospel is beautifully written. It has grandeur and pathos, magnificent richness and profound empathy. Here are some of the literary devices John uses in his artistic presentation of the gospel of the Son of God.

A. Dualism. Dualism consists of elements of paired contrast. Examples are: light/dark; belief/unbelief; spirit/flesh; truth/lie; love/hate. The concept of opposites plays a large role in John's gospel. He has chosen this literary pattern to powerfully communicate the drama of opposition surrounding the advent of the Word.

B. Irony: Irony is a literary twist in which two levels of meaning oppose one another in some way. In Jn. 6:42, the Jews are discussing the origin of Jesus. They say he comes from Nazareth (level one); he says he comes from heaven (level two). The irony is that both are true. John joins them in order to emphasize the incarnation. In Jn. 11:49, 50, Caiaphas says it is better that one should die than that the whole nation should perish. At one level, Caiaphas knows all (as he estimates the situation). At another level, Caiaphas knows nothing (as the situation turns out). The irony is that one dies and the nation(s) (ethnos[Greek] = Gentiles) are saved!

C. Misunderstanding. Misunderstanding occurs when a double sense or double meaning is derived. In Jn. 2:19, Jesus says, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." The audience misunderstands Jesus as referring to the Herodian Temple, when he is actually speaking of his body. "You must be born again" (Jn. 3:3, 4) is misunderstood by Nicodemus to refer to a literal re-entrance into and re-emergence from his mother's womb. Jesus is speaking of the activity of the Spirit and the passivity of the sinner. In the encounter with the woman at the well of Samaria (Jn. 4:10, 11), Jesus says, "If you knew who it is who asks you, you would have asked and he would have given you living water." The adulterous woman replies, "But you have nothing with which to draw." The misunderstanding involves physical versus spiritual water.

D. Metaphor. Metaphors are expressions composed of two levels of meaning which complement one another. "Lamb of God" is a metaphor suggesting sacrifice. "Fountain of living water" is a metaphor suggesting source or origin. Metaphors are loaded with biblical-theological content. As Jesus uses them, the metaphors reveal the eschatological character of his person and work. In redemptive-historical framework, they are retrospective (reaching back to the Old Testament) and prospective (reaching forward to heaven). For example, the metaphor "lamb of God" is eschatological retrospectively. Christ is the eschatological lamb of God because he is the last lamb, the final lamb, the once-and-for-all lamb anticipated in the Passover lambs and in the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament cult. He is also the lamb of God prospectively and eschatologically. Rev. 13:8 describes the heavenly Christ as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He is the center of our future eschatological existence. Keep in mind that John's eschatological perspective (embodied, for instance, in his rich use of metaphors) is retrospective and prospective.


I have discussed issues surrounding the structure of the fourth gospel in previous issues of Kerux: "The Structure of John's Gospel—The Present State of the Question," 7/1 (May 1992): 37-42; "From the Librarian's Shelf," 5/1 (May 1990): 47-50. The simple structural outline below is not intended to sidestep the complex issues involved. However, these are best sorted out through interaction with a volume such as Mlakuzhyil's, Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (1987).

Essentially there are two major sections to this gospel. These two major chunks of the work are enclosed or enveloped by an inclusio. An inclusio is a literary structural device which marks the inclusive framing or bracketing of a work. The inclusio may frame or bracket either the beginning and end of the book or work in its entirety; or it may frame/bracket the beginning and end of a pericope or section of the work.

Simple Outline of John's Gospel

Prologue/Introduction - 1

Testimony of Jesus' Signs - 2-11

Testimony of Jesus' Hour - 12-20

Epilogue/Conclusion - 21

There is a basic symmetry to this outline. What appears in the beginning is balanced by what appears in the end. In between, the body of the work consists of two additional sections—themselves balanced between Jesus' miracles and the arrival of his life-giving hour.

Narrative Style

In addition to his literary devices and structure, John's narrative style provides a fruitful method of investigating his story of Jesus. In his Poetics (7.1-7), Aristotle argued that every story has a narrative form (poetics). It is ordered or arranged with a beginning, middle and end. The identification of these elements is an attempt to locate the movement in the narrative—the progress in the story.

It is this progress which provides the drama—the sense of expectancy, the sense of fruition. For example, the wedding at Cana (Jn. 2:1-11) begins with wine running out (v. 3). The story unfolds with the movement of Mary to the servants (v. 5). The story ends with the climactic remark of the headwaiter, "You have saved the best wine until now" (v. 10). John has recorded his narrative so as to dramatically unfold the sequence which climaxes in Christ's miraculous sign. Thus we are enriched by paying attention to the narrative poetics of Biblical stories.

Another narrative device is scene or location. The geographical setting of a story is important. Notice that the wedding in John 2 is set in Cana of Galilee. That location is important to the movement of John's gospel. Suffice it to observe at this point that Cana of Galilee reappears as a setting in Jn. 4:46. As we move through the gospel, we will need to pay attention to setting and shifts in location. 

The central narrative element in any story is the plot. Plot is the heart of the narrative—the essential link in the poetics of the account. The classic outline of plot may be recalled from courses in literature. The plot of a story consists of: rising action (ascending line), climax (turning point or the point of release of narrative tension), falling action (descending line) and conclusion (point of relaxation).

At the center of every plot is conflict. If I were to suggest a plot structure for John's gospel, I would reduce it to the conflict between Christ and those who receive or believe on him and those who reject or do not believe on him. The rising action in John's story of Jesus is the increasing hostility of the Jews (in particular) to Christ. The climax of John's narrative is the resolve on the part of Jesus' enemies to put him to death (ironically, this is Jesus' hour—the hour of his glorification). The falling action consists of the post-resurrection encounters with the risen Christ. And the conclusion of the gospel is the Johannine "great commission"—the role of the church in the on-going work of Christ (chapter 21). Plot analysis allows us to begin to sense the movement in the conflict within each pericope (for if the gospel as a whole has a plot, so too does each pericope of the gospel). 

A key ingredient in plot development is characterization. By characterization, I mean development/elaboration of character. What attributes does the character possess; what comments does the writer make about the character which enables us to gain insights into his or her personality; what actions reveal character; what dialogues/conversations reflect the heart and soul of the characters? If plot is the body of a narrative, then characterization is the heart of a narrative.

Take Nicodemus as an example of the brilliant Johannine characterization (cf. Kerux 7/2 [September 1992]: 26-29). In chapter 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Alone, out of the darkness, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, the miracle-worker. In his encounter with Christ, we have a marvelous dialogue about the new thing Jesus brings—the new birth or birth from above. We leave Nicodemus, the seeker of Jesus, in Jn. 3:21 with Jesus having the last word.

In chapter 7:45-53, the Pharisees are becoming alarmed at the following Jesus has gained among the multitudes. They have denominated Christ as accursed. Nicodemus asks the question, "Our law does not condemn a man without a hearing, does it?" (7:50). For his presumption, Nicodemus is roundly rebuked. We leave Nicodemus, the defender of Jesus, in 7:52 with the critics of Jesus having the last word.

In Jn. 19:38-42, the body of Jesus hangs upon the cross. Nicodemus comes out of the approaching darkness of the Sabbath day—out of the darkness comes Nicodemus into the hall of Pilate to ask—yes, to ask for the body of his Lord. And in the darkness, Nicodemus takes the body down and wraps the body and pours hundreds of dollars worth of spices on the body and lays that precious body in his own new tomb. We find Nicodemus in Jn. 19, the possessor—the claimer of the body of Jesus. In Jn. 19, we find Nicodemus devoted to his dead Lord—lavishing his wealth upon the one who has driven the darkness away from his soul—the one in whom Nicodemus has beheld the light of glory in the birth from above. And, you will notice, we leave Nicodemus in Jn. 19 speechless—for his actions speak louder than words. The last word from Nicodemus is the act of laying the body of Christ in his own tomb. As we pay attention to characterization—even the progressive development of character in John's gospel—we learn even more about the divine working with the dramatis personae.

Biblical Theology

Biblical theology is that method of Bible study which views all of Scripture in relation to its historic progression. The gospel of John, in biblical-theological perspective, is situated after the Old Testament and before the consummate eschaton. This means that one approaches John retrospectively and prospectively: retrospectively—looking back to the Old Testament; prospectively—looking ahead to glory. Every passage in John's gospel is seen in the light of its relationship with the progress of the history of redemption. This relationship is eschatological—in which the old is fulfilled, the new breaks forth, and the everlasting is anticipated.

Consider the following examples of two biblical-theological patterns which dominate the fourth gospel. First, the Christological formula "I am" (in Greek, ego eimi). Each time Christ enunciates his identity in terms of the "I am" formula, he does so in biblical-theological perspective. The "I am" is retrospective, pushing us back to the Old Testament, especially Ex. 3:14 where Moses is told to inform the children of Israel that he has been commissioned by the "I am" (YHWH). Thus, each of John's ego eimi formulae cast us back retrospectively. 

But they are prospective as well. The one whom John denominates "I am" in his gospel meets us at the inception and conclusion of the book of Revelation. This "I am" is the alpha and omega (Rev. 1:8, 17)—the first and the last (Greek, eschatos) (Rev. 22:13). The one who is incarnate in John's gospel is not only the "I am" of the Old Testament, but he is the eschatological "I am"—the everlasting Son of God. 

In the fourth gospel, we meet the one who eschatologically fulfills the old covenant; the one who brings the eschatological realization of the new covenant right now; the one who stands in the eschatological arena yet before us—stands in the glory of an everlasting, eschatological arena where we shall see him as he is—as God of gods and Lord of lords.

The second dominant biblical-theological pattern in John's gospel is the displacement pattern. John carefully crafted his gospel to reveal the replacement of the former things and the appearance of all things being made new. John tells us that with the coming of Jesus, the former things have passed away; behold, all things are becoming new. The law came by Moses, grace and truth by Jesus Christ. The hour is coming when the true worshipper will worship neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood and cried out, "I am the light of the world." Each of these allusions indicates that the Jewish age is over—Jesus has displaced it and replaced it—displaced and replaced it with himself and with his people, the church.

John is telling us in his story of Jesus that we cannot go back. We cannot retreat to the former covenant, for Christ has brought us a taste of the world to come. With Peter (Jn. 21), yea, with our Lord himself, we go on to glory. The eschatological glory of the Son is our inheritance and our destiny.

This is John's gospel message. We have beheld his glory, glory of the Father, the glory of the eschaton. That glory is ours now—that glory will be ours perfectly in the not yet. The now and the not yet; the two ages—the present age and the age to come. In Christ, John tells us, the age to come has been incarnate and we can possess it by faith in Jesus' name. That is the glory of John's gospel—that is the glory of the gospel of the Son of God.

Escondido, California