A Reading Guide for the Gospel of John
As we continue a year of in-depth teaching in the gospel of John at Grace, here are some questions, answers, and strategies for this study.
Why study John?
John’s gospel is one of the great masterpieces of world literature. By any measure, it is one of the greatest books ever written. Its style is simple yet sophisticated. It is spiritually rich, philosophically profound, emotionally satisfying, and life-transforming.
It provides us with the most famous verse in the Bible (3:16), and its prologue (1:1-18) has been hailed by the religious and non-religious alike as one of the greatest lyrical compositions ever written. It was the most popular gospel of the early Church, in which it was symbolically represented with the image of an eagle, graphically depicting the spiritual heights to which the gospel soars.
Who wrote this masterpiece?
For the first one thousand eight hundred years of the church’s existence, the almost unanimous opinion was that John was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the three members of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples (Peter and John’s brother James being the other two.) The reason for this was two-fold:
First, the internal evidence of the book points to it. John, like many of the books of the Bible, is formally anonymous, yet John’s gospel provides more direct indications of its author than nearly any other book. In 21:24 the author says that it is the “beloved disciple” who is bearing witness about these things.
Who is the “beloved disciple?”
He was one of the twelve, because he was with them during the last supper (13:23), and he had been with the disciples since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (1:35-40), which is a mark of authentic apostleship. Also, he was an individual that was close to Jesus’ inner circle and yet, the disciple John is not directly named in this book, even though Peter, Phillip, Judas, Thomas, etc…are. If John is not the author, this would be a most curious omission. And the “beloved disciple” is often in the company of Peter in similar situations as the disciple John in the other gospels.
Second, the external evidence from Church history claims John as the author. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who died in AD 155, was personally discipled by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Polycarp personally discipled Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, who wrote in AD 180 that the “beloved disciple” was John, the son of Zebedee.
Therefore, the best explanation for all of the evidence is that the “beloved disciple” is John, the son of Zebedee.
Does it matter who wrote it?
Yes and no. “No,” in the sense that the ultimate authority for the book does not rest in your identification of the human author but in the Spirit-induced encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ that the book is meant to facilitate.
But “yes” in the sense that the book’s potency and power are founded upon the reality of historically-accurate, theologically-authoritative, eye-witness testimony.
What is the point of the book?
John does not leave us to guess or pontificate. He tells us directly why he wrote 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. (20:30-31)
This is the key to understanding and encountering Jesus through John’s gospel. As you read it remember that this is not a “life” of Jesus in the modern sense. This is not a “biography.” John’s gospel only covers 21 days of Jesus’ life! The point of the book is to confront you with Jesus in such a way that you believe in Him and find life in His name. The point is theological and transformational — theological in that it tells you who Jesus is; transformational in that as you encounter Him you are changed by Him. The book is filled with the extraordinary claims of Christ and great conversations with Him — all of which are meant to inform and transform you.
How does that work?
The first thing you have to do — if you are going to encounter the risen Christ in the Word by the Spirit through the Gospel of John — is read it. A lot. In chunks. From start to finish. Over and over. The gospel was not designed to be nibbled on, one or two verses at a time. It was meant to be consumed in large blocks. It was meant to be encountered as a whole.
So set this as a goal during our year-long study through John: try to read through this whole gospel in one sitting, at least 20 times this year. It will take you roughly 2 hours. If that is too daunting, stop at the natural breaks: read 1-12 and then 13-21.
For the first several times through, keep in mind John’s purpose. Let that shape your reading. John’s goal is to present you with evidence that Jesus is the Christ, so that you believe in Him and have life in His name. So let these three things shape your reading: evidence, belief, life.
Evidence: As you read remember that John is presenting you with honest testimonies from honest men and women—testimonies about what they saw, heard, and experienced. Faith is no leap in the dark, it is a leap into the light. Examine the evidence.
Belief/Faith: Let John’s most famous verse be a lens through which you read the entire Gospel: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. As you read, ask yourself “What must I believe about Jesus?” John is presenting you with very clear, compelling, and controversial things that you have to believe about Jesus. Make a note of them as you read. For example, read chapter 1:19-51 and mark all of the different names or titles that people call Jesus: Son of man, Lamb of God, etc…You should have about twelve of them. And then trace how John develops each name throughout the book.
Also, make a note of how each section and conversation brings out a different aspect of who Jesus is. You will notice that belief in Jesus is not some vague, indiscriminate, undefinable thing, but you are called to believe that He is the Giver of Living Water (4). He is the Life-Giver and Judge of all the earth (5). He is the Bread of Life (6), and the Water of Life (7). He is the Light of the World (8) the Good Shepherd (10) and the Resurrection and the Life (11). Another good reading exercise is to read the whole book and mark every time you see the word “believe” (or a cognate, i.e., belief, believed, etc…). Count them all. You should have over 100. Finally, go back and ask yourself “Exactly what am I being asked to believe?”
Life: Ask yourself how believing in these things brings life. The goal is transformation. John’s offer is that, through the Spirit, you can experience eternal life in the here and now.
So, as you read, always ask yourself at least two main questions that will lead you to the very heart of the gospel: 1) Who is Jesus? [Or what does this text tell me about Jesus? His person? His work?] 2) How does believing this about Him bring life?
As you continue to read you will want to begin to try and understand the internal logic and order of the book. You will notice that John has organized his gospel in a simple way:
1:1-19: This is the prologue, where all of the essential themes are introduced.
1:19-12:50: This section has classically been described as the book of “signs.” Here John gives you Jesus’ public ministry.
13-20:31: This section has been called the book of the “passion” or the book of “glory.” Here the focus is on the last week of Jesus’ life. His private ministry to his disciples in the upper room (13-17) and then his public execution and resurrection.
21: This is the epilogue.
The more you read through these sections, the more your will notice connections and curiosities. For example:
You will notice that John structures the beginning of Jesus’ ministry around “the next day.” It would seem as if there are 7 days, beginning with the light dawning through John the Baptist’s testimony and climaxing in the wedding feast at Cana. Is this foreshadowing the new creation?
And the final week of Jesus’ life is structured around 7 days, climaxing in the empty tomb. Is this the accomplishing of the new creation?
You will notice that much of the action in the first half of the book revolves around central festivals in Israel: Passover, Sabbath, Tabernacles, and Hanukkah. It is almost as if John is saying: Jesus is the Lamb of God, transforming the Passover; He is our rest, transforming the Sabbath; He is the new Moses accomplishing the new exodus by providing true manna in the desert and living water; He is the embodiment of the Tabernacle feast as the light of the world.
You will be drawn into a much bigger story, as Jesus is presented as the culmination and the fulfillment of the long history of Israel. Try to trace the connections.
And as you keep reading ask the Lord to help you enter into the beauty and the glory of Christ.
John’s gospel is designed to offer you the same invitation that Jesus offered to Phillip when Phillip was curious to know more about Christ: Come and See. (1:39)
You are invited to come and see. Come and see the King who is also the Creator, Ruler, and Lord of heaven and earth. Come and see the Word made flesh. Come and see the Bringer of Light and the Destroyer of Death. Come and see the glory, the wonder, and the beauty of the One who is worthy of worship and obedience. Come and see the Light of the World who dispels the darkness that is both in the world and in our hearts. Come and see the One who was willing to leave heaven and His Father’s side to bring us to eternal life.
Come and see.
This article was written by Pastor Ben Bailie of Grace Lake Nona for our Come and See message series Sermon Guide. View the entire guide here.