Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries
by Arend Remmers & James Coffman
1. Author and Time of Writing
The name of the author of the Gospel of John is not mentioned – as is the case with the three synoptic gospels as well. The writer steps back into the background, behind the message of God. John was an eyewitness of the reported occurrences though, as he himself writes (John 1:14; John 19:35). In fact, only an eyewitness would be able to give such clear particulars as “about the tenth hour” (John 1:39), “six water pots of stone” (John 2:6) and “153 great fishes” (John 21:11).
Five times, the author of the Gospel calls himself “the disciple, whom Jesus loved” (compare John 21:24 with ch. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7+20) and several times “the other disciple” (John 18:15; John 20:2-3; John 20:8). Of the three disciples who were most intimate with the Lord Jesus (which are Peter, James and John) the latter is never mentioned throughout the whole Gospel. This reserve would confirm the tradition of the old church that John, the disciple of the Lord, is the author of this Gospel. This is confirmed by Irenaeus (140 to 202 AD) who was a pupil of Polycarp of Smyrna (who himself had known John). Theophilus of Antioch quoted the first verse of the gospel around 180 AD and named John as author. There have been, however, other presumptions in the past as well as in recent times. According to some a Presbyterian by the same name shall have been the author. However, there are no irrefutable proofs against the authorship of John.
We know more of John than we know of any other author of the Gospels. He was one of the two sons of Zebedee. Zebedee was probably a prosperous fishermen on the shore of lake Galilee and he employed hired servants (Mark 1:19-20). John and James’ mother was Salome (Math. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40). She bade the Lord Jesus to have her two sons sit on His right and His left hand in his kingdom (Math. 20:20).
John’s calling to be a disciple of the Lord is described in the synoptic Gospels (Math. 4:21-22; Mark 1:19-20; Luke 5:10-11). John and his brother James were full of zeal for the Lord Jesus. This is probably why he named them Boanerges (the sons of thunder, Mark 3:17). Luke reports two occurrences where John shows great zeal (Luke 9:49; Luke 9:54).
John, his brother James and Peter belonged to the inner circle of the apostles. These three only were allowed to be with the Lord Jesus at the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter, at the transfiguration on the mount and in the garden at Gethsemane (Luke 8:51; Luke 9:28; Math. 26:37; Mark 13:3). Peter and John were sent to prepare the last Passover (Luke 22:8); they were also the first disciples whom Mary Magdalene met on the resurrection day of the Lord Jesus and who saw the empty sepulchre (John 20:2-10). John was closest to the Lord Jesus in the upper room in Jerusalem when the disciples last met and, finally, he was the only one to be ‘standing by’ the cross of his Lord (John 13:23-25; John 19:26-27). It was him as well who first recognised the Lord when He appeared to them at the sea of Tiberias (John 21:7).
After the Lord’s ascension we find John in Acts 3; Acts 4 , together with Peter, witnessing for the Lord Jesus. Then we see him as the apostles’ deputy to Samaria (Acts 8:14). According to Galatians 2:9 Paul met John at his second visit in Jerusalem.
After that John moved to Minor Asia (Ephesus) where he is likely to have stayed till his death at a very old age around the year 100 AD. This stay was interrupted though by his exile on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
The Gospel of John is probably the book that has been written last of all the books of the Bible. The contents and the structure of this Gospel presuppose the reader’s familiarity with the three synoptic gospels. According to tradition this very special Gospel was written at the very end of the first century AD.
2. Subject and purpose of writing
None of the evangelists had the intention to write a complete description of the life of Christ according to human principles. And yet the three first Gospel-writers describe in brief outlines the coming and actions of Christ from His baptism at Jordan till His resurrection and ascension – and this is why they are called synoptic gospels. The purpose of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is a different one. Of the thirty miracles listed in the synoptic Gospels John mentions only one (the feeding of the 5 ,000 in ch. 5). But John describes six other miracles which are not mentioned anywhere else. This adds up to seven miracles. Seven is a divinely perfect and sufficient number. John does not call them miracles, however, but signs. John gives the reason therefore in ch. 20:30-31: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name.”
This statement of John’s is a good description of the subject and purpose of his Gospel: the Lord Jesus is the Son of God. We find the title “son” 29 times in John’s gospel, whereof 10 times “son of God”. In a nearly childlike simple language with a vocabulary of only around 700 words John communicates to us the exalted truth that the Word, the eternal Son of God, has become flesh. He therefore does not mention anything like the genealogy, the birth or the childhood of the Lord Jesus. Instead, the very first verse of the Gospel takes the reader back into eternity: “In the beginning was the Word.” The eternal pre-existence of the Son of God is mentioned in John 8:58 and also in 17:5.24. John’s Gospel only tells us of a few miracles of the Lord Jesus and John calls them simply “signs” (2:11; 4:54). All these served only to reveal the divine omnipotence of the Lord.
The man Jesus Christ is at the same time the eternal God who as Lord (Jehovah) in the OT said of himself: “I am that I am.” (Exodus 3:14). When the Lord Jesus was taken captive he said to the soldiers: “I am he” (John 18:5), they went away backwards and fell to the ground. – He is the only one to say: “I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection, and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 6:35; John 8:12; John 10:7; John 10:11; John 11:25; John 14:6).
John mentions several times that the Lord Jesus laid down His life voluntarily (John 10:17; John 18:11; John 19:30). This is why this Gospel does not mention the time of prayer at Gethsemane. The Son of God had power to lay down His life and He had power to take it again (10:18).
The few incidents John records are in chronological order as in the Gospel of Mark. John is the only evangelist mentioning three Passovers in his Gospel. This is the main reason why we assume that the public service of the Lord Jesus must have lasted for about three years (compare John 2:13; John 6:4; John 13:1).
• Differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels
The special character of John’s Gospel is partly due to the relationship between the Son of God and the people of Israel. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels the Lord Jesus is presented as the rejected one right from the beginning (chapter 1:11). Again and again “the Jews” (that is the leaders of the people) are seen as the adversaries of the Lord Jesus. “The Jews” are always distinctively separated from “the people”. And yet it is John only who describes Christ’s ministry in Judaea (John 1:29-51; John 2; John 3). This occurred before his ministry in Galilee. John also tells us four times that the Lord Jesus was in Jerusalem (John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:14; John 12:12). The Lord Jesus does not encounter as much lack of judgment and misunderstanding in the Synoptic Gospels as He does in the Gospel of John: the Jews think of the temple in Jerusalem while the Lord Jesus speaks of the temple of his body (John 2:20-21); Nicodemus does not understand what the Lord Jesus means by ‘new birth’ (John 3:3-5); the woman in Sychar does not know what living water is (John 4:10-15); the people don’t grasp what the bread of heaven is (John 6:34), etc. All these occurrences point out the contrast – which men cannot overcome – between darkness and light, between death and life, between the world and God. Only because God, the Son, became man, and fulfilled the work of redemption on the cross, the way to God for men could be opened up by faith.
• The Oldest Witness of the New Testament
The oldest known and recognized witness of the New Testament is a papyri-fragment found in Egypt. This fragment was deciphered by the English scholar C. H. Roberts in 1934. He discovered that the fragment bore the Greek text of John 18:31-33 in the front and John 18:37-38 on the back. A more precise determination of the age of this fragment resulted in its time of origin at around 125 to 130 AD. If John’s Gospel existed in Egypt at that time already then the original must have been written some time earlier. The presumption that John’s Gospel must have been composed no later than 100 AD is strongly confirmed by this extraordinary fragment. – This papyrus is kept in Manchester at the John Ryland’s Library and bears the term P52