Because this is the final sermon of the 1 and 2 Thessalonians series, I thought it would be good to look ahead at what’s coming. The next sermon series will work through the gospel of John. I would normally give some background information about the book of John in the first sermon, but I’m going to walk through John’s prologue, John 1:1-18, as an advent series. So, I’ll take some time in this reflection to set things up for next week and beyond.
Who wrote the gospel according to John? In the early church, all signs pointed to John, the brother of James and the son of Zebedee. In 200 AD, the Muratorian Canon, one of the first lists of the books and letters of the New Testament, ascribed authorship to this same John. This external evidence aligns well with the internal evidence. Interestingly, throughout this gospel, there is a formally anonymous disciple who is called “the beloved disciple.” It is this disciple who wrote the gospel (John 21:24). This disciple was also friends with Peter and at the Last Supper. Since John the Baptist is simply called John and John the son of Zebedee is never mentioned in the gospel, all internal signs point to John’s authorship of this gospel.
When did John write his gospel? The testimony of the early church is that John wrote towards the end of his life. Beyond that, there is little evidence to pinpoint the date of authorship. It does appear that John was aware of the earlier gospel accounts and chose to write a complementary work. All things considered, John may have written his gospel in the 80s or 90s.
Why did John write his gospel? Thankfully, John tells us at the end of his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31 ESV). More accurately, John wrote so that you may believe that the Christ is Jesus. That is to say, John wrote his gospel to identify Jesus as the long hoped for Messiah. Indeed, John writes with clear focus. Every section of this gospel presents some evidence or other that Jesus is the one whom Israel looked for.
This means that John’s original audience was the Jewish community. Such a conclusion explains the deep connections with the Old Testament, including the allusion to Genesis 1:1 in John 1:1 as well as the discussion of the manna in the wilderness in John 6. At the same time, John appears to be aware of Greek thought, and so it is likely that his original audience was located outside of Palestine.
Now, knowing the original audience is all well and good, but it doesn’t preclude us, a largely Gentile community, from gaining much as we read this gospel. Because Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, the Old Testament is our common heritage. It also provides both the raw materials and the tools for understanding who Jesus is.
One example is the series of “I am” statements in this gospel. In some instances, Jesus’ “I am” declarations are rooted in the context. For example, Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” right before he raises Lazarus from the dead. In these instances, Jesus reveals something about his identity in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand.
In other instances, it seems that Jesus is making a point about his identity that transcends the situation. For example, in his argument with the Pharisees in John 8, Jesus declares, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Again, in response to the mob that had come to arrest him, Jesus responds to them by simply saying, “I am.” In both cases, those engaged with Jesus responded in a way that indicated something more than mere self-identification. How can we make sense of Jesus’ declaration? We can go back to the Old Testament for tools and materials.
In Isaiah, God declares the following: “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me’” (Isa 43:10 ESV). In the Greek translation of Isa 43:10, “I am he,” are exactly the same words that Jesus uses in John 8. Jesus, then, is identifying himself with Yahweh, and our knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament helps us to understand all the better what it means to say that the Christ is Jesus. As we walk through the gospel of John, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to wonder at this truth.