In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
The Fourth Gospel describes the mystery of the identity of Jesus. The Gospel According to John develops a Christology—an explanation of Christ’s nature and origin—while leaving out much of the familiar material that runs through the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, including Jesus’s short aphorisms and parables, references to Jesus’s background, and proclamations about the kingdom of God. Whereas Mark’s Gospel brings us the texture of first-century Palestine with a vivid, concrete, and earthy Jesus, John’s Gospel is filled with long discourses describing Jesus’s divinity. John takes us behind Jesus’s ministry, where we get a glimpse of what it means to believe in Jesus as flesh of the eternal and living God, as the source of light and life, and for a believer to be a “Son of God.” Though John’s narrative diverges from the synoptic Gospels, it is indeed a Gospel, or a telling of good news. It includes the basics of Jesus’s ministry—his preaching, miracles, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. It is likely that John heard the details about these events from a very early oral source common to all the Gospels, but the freedom he uses to interpret these events helps us see clearly that all accounts of Jesus have come to us through the filter of interpretation. John may have been written a bit later than the synoptic Gospels, likely around 90 a.d. The actual author of John’s Gospel was probably an interpreter of John, who was one of Jesus’s original disciples.
John can be divided thematically into halves, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. The prologue is a poetic introduction that presents the outline of the narrative and the essence of John’s theology. The first half of the Gospel can be characterized as a “Book of Signs.” It tells of Jesus’s ministry, focusing on seven major miracles worked by Jesus and the meaning and significance of those miracles. The second half of John has been called the “Book of Glory.” In it, the narrative moves toward Jesus’s glorification through crucifixion and resurrection. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue, most likely added to the Gospel by a later redactor, which tells of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples after his resurrection.
The Gospel of John begins with a poetic hymn that tells the story of Jesus’s origin, mission, and function. John says that Jesus is the incarnated Word of God, bringing “grace and truth,” replacing the law given by Moses, and making God known in the world (1:17). The narrative opens with John the Baptist identifying himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; he will prepare the way for the Lord. Indeed, when he meets Jesus, John testifies, “He is the Son of God” (1:34). The next day, hearing John’s testimony, two disciples, including Andrew, begin to follow Jesus. Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus, who now accumulates several other followers as well. On the third day after Jesus’s baptism, Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus works a miracle, transforming water into wine. As Passover approaches, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, where he drives the money changers from the temple, charging them to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (2:16). A Pharisee named Nicodemus assumes that Jesus has come from God as a teacher, and Jesus tells him, in solemn, semipoetic lines, that he has been “born from above” (3:3) and that God has given “his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish” (3:16). Jesus leaves Jerusalem and begins to baptize people in Judea. John the Baptist has continued his baptizing, and someone informs him that Jesus too has begun to baptize, assuming that John would be angry at the competition. The Baptist rejoices at the news, knowing that Jesus, as the Son of God, is the greater of the two, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of John’s prophecy.
Jesus travels to Samaria, where he speaks in metaphors and figures of speech with a Samaritan woman and with his disciples. They do not always understand his metaphors, and take Jesus literally when he tells the woman that he has “living water” (4:10) and when he tells his disciples that “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). Eventually, the woman understands Jesus. Impressed by his knowledge of her past and by his message, she tells the other Samaritans that he is the Christ, meaning that he is the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scriptures. The Samaritans profess belief in him. Returning to Cana in Galilee, Jesus cures a boy who is at death’s door. In Jerusalem once again for a festival, Jesus cures a sick man at the pool of Bethzatha and orders him to pick up his sleeping mat and walk around. As it is the Sabbath, when observant Jews do not carry objects outdoors, the Jews become angry with Jesus, and their anger only increases when Jesus explains that God is his father. Jesus delivers a long discourse, in which he announces that his words bring eternal life, and that rejection of Jesus in favor of the traditional laws is foolish, since Jesus represents the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
Returning to Galilee, Jesus is approached by a crowd of people looking for inspiration. To feed them, he works a miracle, providing food for 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Later that evening, Jesus’s disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee and are surprised to find Jesus walking across the water toward them. The next day, crowds of people come in search of Jesus, and he explains the significance of the miracle of the loaves: “I am the bread of life / no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (6:35). Using the symbol of bread, Jesus explains that belief in him and in God, his father, will give eternal life. Many of his listeners disbelieve him, and Jesus teaches that belief in him is a foreordained gift from God: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (6:65). Peter, however, remains with Jesus and professes his faith.
At the Feast of Booths, the Jewish holiday Sukkoth, Jesus returns to Jerusalem with the pilgrims and begins preaching in the temple. He urges the people not to hold his previous violation of the Sabbath against him, saying, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (7:24). Many people wonder whether Jesus is the Christ, or Son of God, and the authorities want to arrest him but do not dare. The authorities bring him an adulterous woman and, in an attempt to entrap him, ask him whether or not she is guilty. Jesus responds, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). A long discourse ensues, in which Jesus responds to questions and accusations from the assembled people. Jesus predicts his own death and ascension, and explains that his authority comes from his origin in God and his fulfillment of the word of God. He accuses his listeners of being slaves to sin and, as sinners, of being illegitimate sons of God. Claiming to precede Abraham and to derive his glory from God, Jesus finally infuriates the crowd and barely escapes being stoned.