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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

- John

by Joseph Sutcliffe


JOHN the Evangelist was the younger brother of James, and son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Bethsaida. Both the brothers, when called by Jesus, left their nets and followed him, and that shortly after his baptism, when they received the special promise of being made “fishers of men.” At the time our Lord completed the number of the twelve apostles, it is noted by Mark, that he gave these brothers the surname of Boanerges, the sons of thunder. Such was his good pleasure, but no doubt with special regard to their zeal and vocal powers. Of zeal, when less instructed, they gave some proof when they asked whether they might not, like Elijah, invoke fire to fall from heaven on the disobedient Samaritans. 2 Kings 1:5-12. Luke 9:54.

John is repeatedly called the “beloved disciple” of Jesus, adopted as a son in the gospel, and beloved because of his amiable qualities. Besides the period of labours under the eye of Christ in common with others, he was one of the three that saw the transfiguration of the Lord on the mount; one of the four who heard the prophecies on mount Olivet, Mark 13:3; one of the two sent to prepare the passover; one of the three near the Lord in the garden, at the time of his agony; and to this disciple the Saviour gave his mother in charge, while he hung on the cross. After our Saviour’s ascension to heaven, John twice sustained imprisonment in Jerusalem, and boldly, with Peter, confessed the truth before the council. He accompanied Peter also to Samaria, when many in that city were converted to the faith, and gifts of the Holy Ghost were conferred by the imposition of hands.

At what time John left Judea, and became the chief instrument in the conversion and formation of the seven churches in the great cities of Asia minor, no record is come down to us. But we are told that the apostles did not leave Jerusalem, and all the six provinces occupied by the jews, which are understood as associated with the capital; yet some exceptions must be made to this, as we find Peter and Mark at Rome about the tenth year of our Lord. We may therefore conclude that it was about the twelfth year when John entered on his northern sphere of labours, where his ministry was crowned with wide and permanent success, for all those churches are called the children of John. Johannis alumnas ecclesias. When the holy apostles left their country in obedience to the Lord, for the conversion of the gentiles, it cannot be doubted that each apostle had his books and gospels with him. This no writer has denied. St. Paul enjoins Timothy to bring “the books, but especially the parchments,” which had been engrossed for public reading. 2 Timothy 4:13. Mark had with him in Rome the gospel of St. Matthew, which he has closely followed, as all agree. John had, it would seem, the gospel of the Nazarenes, a work generally used by the christians in Judea, for that gospel contains the story of the woman taken in adultery, as in John 8:3. Now, of the many gospels then extant by apostolic men, and prior to the writing of Luke, chap. John 1:2-3, can it be supposed that John was without a gospel of his own, and that he would not prefer his own, being an eye and ear witness, and a bosom friend of the Lord from the very first. The contrary supposition would involve an absurdity altogether incredible; neither could he keep it from the churches, with whom he spent the meridian of his days. By consequence, what the fathers say concerning the writing of his gospel after the other three canonized books, must be understood of the giving up of his copy to be engrossed for public reading in all the churches. And it does not appear that he altered any thing at that time, except the preface contained in the first fourteen verses, the better to rebut the errors of the age. The insinuation of the Arians, that he wrote his gospel in dotage; and the conjectures of modern “rational christians,” that he wrote it, verba gratiâ, after he was dead, are the emanations of a philosophy ever hostile to revelation.

The work itself contains internal proof that it was written before the year 70, when the siege of Jerusalem was commenced. In John 5:2 he says, “Now there IS at Jerusalem, by the sheep-market, a pool, called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda, having five porches.” We know for certainty that the Roman soldiers dug up the foundations of the city in search of treasures. Had John written almost forty years after the fall of the city, he would have used the preterite tense of the verb, and said, Now there was at Jerusalem, &c.

Irenæus was a native of Smyrna, the seat of one of the seven churches nourished by St. John. He was a disciple of Polycarp, and flourished not long after the death of the apostles, as is stated by St. Augustine, Contra Julian. 50. 1. c. 3. Irenæus was a scientific man, extensively acquainted with Greek and Roman literature. He was presbyter of Lyons; and after the martyrdom of the bishop, he succeeded in the see of that great city, where he also was martyred before the year 179. In his third book against Heretics, c. 11, speaking of the Cerinthians, the Ebionites, and other heretics, he says that this disciple (John) being desirous to extirpate error at a stroke, and establish in the church the pillar of truth, declares the Unity of Almighty God, who by his Word made all things, whether visible or invisible. Colossians 1:16. That by the same Word, by whom he finished the creation, he bestowed salvation on men who inhabit the creation. Conformably to these views the evangelist thus commences his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Eusebius says that John for a long time governed the churches of Asia in peace, possibly for forty years. In the year 95 John was arrested, and sent a prisoner to Rome. He was afterwards condemned and sent to the mines in the isle of Patmos; but the emperor who condemned him being slain, he returned to Ephesus, then the capital of Asia minor, where he died in the third year of Trajan, and was buried in that city, being more than ninety years of age.

After his return from the mines, and as one given from the dead, the bishop of Asia would have his final sanction to his gospel, which was no doubt already in their hands and fully known, else why should they ask for his sanction. Thus by his book of revelation, and the final touch of his hand to the gospel, he closed the canon of the christian scriptures. As the final evangelist, he has written what Clement calls “the spiritual gospel,” and he became so sublimely elevated by a daring temerity, more happy than presumptuous, as to attain an approach even to the Word of God himself.

Of the style of St. John, though we allow its simplicity, which with many would be accounted its first beauty, and in fact an imitation of his Lord; and though we find a few Syriac phrases, yet it possesses beauties peculiar to itself. He wrote in a language he had acquired, and Dionysius of Alexandria has left us a eulogy on the purity of his Greek. This author is bold to affirm, that in argument, and in the structure of his sentences, there is nothing vulgar: no solicisms in his words, nor feebleness of expression, for God had endowed him with wisdom and science from above.

St. John has indeed been accused of omitting, in many instances, the Greek article, and where it seemed essential to the sense. This objection will apply to the LXX, and in numberless places; and in the Gothic of Ulphilas, the article is very sparingly used. Two of the evangelists often do the same, as in Matthew 4:3; Matthew 4:5. Mark 1:1. As the name of God occurs in those passages as the source of deity, it was not thought essential. Dr. George Campbell, in his preface to the gospel of St. John, is quite of a different opinion in regard of the style. He calls it, “The work of an illiterate Jew. The whole strain of the writing shows, that it must have been published at a time and in a country the people whereof in general knew very little of the jewish rites and manners. Thus, those who in the other gospels are called the people, and the multitude, are here denominated jews, a method which could not be natural in their own land, or even in the neighbourhood, where the nation itself and its peculiarities were perfectly known.”

In reply, we say that John wrote chiefly for the churches of Asia, to whom the word Jew was strictly proper, and any other term would have been less happy and natural. After the fall of Samaria, the nations used no other word for that nation, as in the book of Esther. Pilate asked in Jerusalem, “Am I a Jew?” St. Paul uses the word forty times; and in Josephus, the word is of constant occurrence. Confident I am, the doctor has no ground to support the severity of his strictures.

As our new translators of the holy scriptures eat bread at the Redeemer’s table, and sup with the holy apostles, they should not become so intoxicated with philosophy, and contemptuous of revelation, as to attack the whole weight of antiquity. Dr. Campbell is however unique in attacking St. John for using the word Jew.

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