Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- John

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus' birth, Mark begins with His baptism, but John begins before the creation.

B. John presents the full deity of Jesus of Nazareth from the first verse of the first chapter and repeats this emphasis throughout the Gospel. The Synoptic Gospels veil this truth until late in their presentations ("The Messianic Secret").

C. Apparently John develops his Gospel in light of the basic affirmations of the Synoptic Gospels. He attempts to supplement and interpret the life and teachings of Jesus in light of the needs of the early church (late first century).

D. John seems to structure his presentation of Jesus the Messiah around

1. seven miracles/signs and their interpretation

2. twenty-seven interviews and/or dialogues with individuals

3. certain worship and feast days

a. the Sabbath

b. the Passover (cf. John 5-6)

c. the Tabernacles (cf. John 7-10)

d. Hanukkah (cf. John 10:22-39)

4. "I Am" statements

a. related to the divine name (YHWH)

1) I am He (John 4:26; John 8:24, John 8:28; John 13:19; John 18:5-6)

2) before Abraham was I am (John 8:54-59)

b. with predicate nominatives

1) I am the bread of life (John 6:35, John 6:41, John 6:48, John 6:51)

2) I am the light of the world (John 8:12)

3) I am the door of the sheepfold (John 10:7, John 10:9)

4) I am the good shepherd (John 10:11, John 10:14)

5) I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)

6) I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)

7) I am the true vine (John 15:1, John 15:5)

E. The differences between John and the other Gospels

1. Although it is true that John's primary purpose is theological, his use of history and geography is extremely accurate and detailed. The exact reason for the discrepancies between the Synoptics and John is uncertain

a. an early Judean ministry (early cleansing of the Temple)

b. chronology and date of the last week of Jesus' life

c. a purposeful theological restructuring

2. It would be helpful to take a moment to discuss the obvious difference between John and the Synoptics. Let me quote George Eldon Ladd from A Theology of the New Testament on the differences:

a. "The Fourth Gospel is so different from the Synoptics that the question must be honestly faced whether it reports accurately the teachings of Jesus or whether Christian faith has so modified the tradition that history is swallowed up in theological interpretation" (p. 215).

b. "The solution that lies closest to hand is that the teachings of Jesus are expressed in Johannine idiom. If this is the correct solution, and if we must conclude that the Fourth Gospel is couched in Johannine idiom, this important question follows: To what extent is the theology of the Fourth Gospel that of John rather than that of Jesus? To what extent has the teaching of Jesus been so assimilated in John's mind that what we have is a Johannine interpretation rather than an accurate representation of Jesus' own teaching?" (p. 215).

c. Ladd also quotes W. F. Albright from "Recent Discoveries in Palestine and the Gospel of John" in The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology edited by W. D. Davies and D. Daube

"There is no fundamental difference in teaching between John and the Synoptics; the contrast between them lies in the concentration of tradition along certain aspects of Christ's teachings, particularly those which seem to have resembled the teaching of the Essenes most closely.

There is absolutely nothing to show that any of Jesus' teachings have been distorted or falsified, or that a vital new element has been added to them. That the needs of the early Church influenced the selection of items for inclusion in the Gospel we may readily admit, but there is no reason to suppose that the needs of that Church were responsible for any inventions or innovations of theological significance.

One of the strangest assumptions of critical New Testament scholars and theologians is that the mind of Jesus was so limited that any apparent contrast between John and the Synoptics must be due to differences between early Christian theologians. Every great thinker and personality is going to be interpreted differently by different friends and hearers, who will select what seems most congenial or useful out of what they have seen and heard" (pp. 170-171).

d. And again from George E. Ladd:

"The difference between them is not that John is theological and the others are not but that all are theological in different ways. Interpreted history may represent more truly the facts of a situation than a mere chronicle of events. If John is a theological interpretation, it is an interpretation of events that John is convinced happened in history. It is obviously not the intent of the Synoptic Gospels to give a report of the ipsissima verba of (the exact words) Jesus nor a biography of the events of his life. They are portraits of Jesus and summaries of his teaching. Matthew and Luke feel themselves free to rearrange the material in Mark and to report Jesus' teaching with considerable freedom. If John used more freedom than Matthew and Luke, it is because he wished to give a more profound and ultimately more real portrait of Jesus" (pp. 221-222).


A. The Gospel is anonymous but hints at John's authorship

1. an eye witness author (cf. John 19:35)

2. the phrase "the beloved disciple" (both Polycrates and Irenaeus identify him as John the Apostle)

3. John, son of Zebedee, never mentioned by name

B. The historical setting is obvious from the Gospel itself, therefore, the issue of authorship is not a crucial factor in interpretation. The affirmation of an inspired author is crucial!

The authorship and date of John's Gospel does not affect inspiration, but interpretation. Commentators seek a historical setting, an occasion that caused the book to be written. Should one compare John's dualism to

1. the Jewish two ages

2. the Qumran teacher of righteousness

3. Zoroastrian religion

4. Gnostic thought

5. the unique perspective of Jesus?

C. The early traditional view is that John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, is the human, eye-witness source. This must be clarified because second century external sources seem to link others in the production of the Gospel:

1. Fellow believers and the Ephesian elders encouraged the aging Apostle to write (Eusebius quotes Clement of Alexandria)

2. A fellow Apostle, Andrew (the Muratorian Fragment, A.D. 180-200, from Rome)

D. Some modern scholars have assumed another author based on several assumptions about the style and subject matter of the Gospel. Many assume an early second century date (before A.D. 115):

1. written by John's disciples (a Johannine circle of influence) who remembered his teachings (J. Weiss, B. Lightfoot, C. H. Dodd, O. Cullmann, R. A. Culpepper, C. K. Barrett)

2. written by "the elder John," (one of a series of early leaders from Asia influenced by John the Apostle's theology and terminology) which is derived from an obscure passage in Papias (A.D. 70-146) quoted by Eusebius (A.D. 280-339)

E. Evidence for John himself as the primary source for the material of the Gospel

1. internal evidence

a. the author knew Jewish teachings and rituals and shared their OT world view

b. the author knew Palestine and Jerusalem in their pre-A.D. 70 condition

c. the author claims to be an eyewitness

1) John 1:14

2) John 19:35

3) John 21:24

d. the author was a member of the apostolic group, for he is familiar with:

1) details of time and place (the night trials)

2) details of numbers (water pots of John 2:6 and fish of John 21:11)

3) details of persons

4) the author knew details of events and the reaction to them

5) the author seems to be designated as "the beloved disciple"

a) John 13:23, John 13:25

b) John 19:26-27

c) John 20:2-5, John 20:8

d) John 21:7, John 21:20-24

6) the author seems to be a member of the inner circle along with Peter

a) John 13:24

b) John 20:2

c) John 21:7

7) the name John, son of Zebedee, never appears in this Gospel, which seems highly unusual because he was a member of the Apostolic inner circle

2. External evidence

a. Gospel known by

1) Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) who was associated with Polycarp, knew John the Apostle (cf. Eusebius' Historical Eccleasticus John 5:6-7) - "John the disciple of the Lord who reclined on His breast and himself issued the Gospel at Ephesus in Asia" (Haer, John 3:1:1, quoted in Eusebius' Hist. Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 5:8:4).

2) Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 153-217) - "John who was urged by his friends and divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel" (Eusebius' Historical Eccleasticus John 6:14:7)

3) Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) in his Dialogue with Trypho 81:4

4) Tertullian (A.D. 145-220)

b. John's authorship asserted by very early witnesses

1) Polycarp (A.D. 70-156, recorded by Irenaeus), who was bishop of Smyrna (A.D. 155)

2) Papias (A.D. 70-146, recorded by the Anti-Marconite Prologue from Rome and Eusebius), who was the bishop of Hierapolis in Phyrgia and reported to be a disciple of John the Apostle

F. Reasons used to doubt traditional authorship

1. The Gospel's connection with Gnostic themes

2. The obvious appendix of chapter 21

3. The chronological discrepancies with the Synoptics

4. John would not have referred to himself as "the beloved disciple"

5. John's Jesus uses different vocabulary and genres than the Synoptics

G. If we assume it was John the Apostle then what can we assume about the man?

1. He wrote from Ephesus (Irenaeus says "issued the Gospel from Ephesus")

2. He wrote when he was an older man (Irenaeus says he lived until the reign of Trajan, A.D. 98-117)


A. If we assume John the Apostle

1. before A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman General (later Emperor), Titus

a. in John 5:2, "Now in Jerusalem near the sheepgate there is a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. . ."

b. repeated use of the early title "disciples" to denote the apostolic group

c. supposed later Gnostic elements have now been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which show they were part of the theological jargon of the first century

d. no mention of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70

e. the famous American archaeologist W. F. Albright asserts a date for the Gospel in the late 70's or early 80's

2. later in the first century

a. the developed theology of John

b. the fall of Jerusalem not mentioned because it occurred some twenty years earlier

c. John's use of Gnostic-type phrasing and emphasis

d. the early traditions of the church

1) Irenaeus

2) Eusebius

B. If we assume "John the elder" then the date would be early to mid second century. This theory started with Dionysius' rejection of John the Apostle's authorship (for literary reasons). Eusebius, who rejected John the Apostle's authorship of Revelation for theological reasons, felt he had found another "John" at the right time and in the right place in Papias' quote (Historical Eccleasticus 3:39:5, John 3:6), which lists two "Johns" (1) the Apostle and (2) an Elder (presbyter).


A. Originally it was written to the churches of the Roman Province of Asia Minor, particularly Ephesus.

B. Because of the profound simplicity and depth of this account of the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth this became a favorite Gospel for both Hellenistic Gentile believers and Gnostic groups.


A. The Gospel itself asserts its evangelistic purpose, John 20:30-31

1. for Jewish readers

2. for Gentile readers

3. for incipient Gnostic readers

B. It seems to have an apologetic thrust

1. against the fanatic followers of John the Baptist

2. against the incipient Gnostic false teachers (especially the Prologue); these Gnostic false teachings also form the background to other NT books:

a. Ephesians

b. Colossians

c. the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy)

d. 1 John (1 John may have functioned as a cover letter for the Gospel)

C. There is the possibility that the purpose statement of John 20:31 may be understood as encouraging the doctrine of perseverance as well as evangelism because of the consistent use of the PRESENT TENSE to describe salvation. In this sense John, like James, may be balancing an over-emphasis of Paul's theology by some groups in Asia Minor (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). It is surprising that early church tradition identifies John with Ephesus, not Paul (cf. F. F. Bruce's Peter, Stephen, James and John: Studies in Non-Pauline Christianity, pp. 120-121).

D. The Epilogue (John 21:0) seems to answer specific questions of the early church

1. John supplements the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels. However, he focuses on the Judean ministry, particularly Jerusalem.

2. The three questions covered in the Appendix, John 21:0

a. Peter's restoration

b. John's longevity

c. Jesus' delayed return

E. Some see John as deemphasizing sacramentalism by purposefully ignoring and not recording or discussing the ordinances themselves despite perfect contextual opportunities in John 3:0 (for baptism) and John 6:0 (for the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper).


A. A philosophical/theological Prologue (John 1:1-18) and a practical Epilogue (John 21:0)

B. Seven miracle signs during Jesus' public ministry (chapters John 2-12) and their interpretation:

1. changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11)

2. healing the son of the officer of the court at Capernaum (John 4:46-54)

3. healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-18)

4. feeding of about 5,000 in Galilee (John 6:1-15)

5. walking on the Sea of Galilee (John 6:16-21)

6. healing of the man born blind in Jerusalem (John 9:1-41)

7. raising of Lazarus in Bethany (John 11:1-57)

C. Interviews and dialogue with individuals

1. John the Baptist (John 1:19-34; John 3:22-36)

2. disciples

a. Andrew and Peter (John 1:35-42)

b. Philip and Nathanael (John 1:43-51)

3. Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)

4. woman of Samaria (John 4:1-45)

5. Jews in Jerusalem (John 5:10-47)

6. crowd in Galilee (John 6:22-66)

7. Peter and disciples (John 6:67-71)

8. Jesus' brothers (John 7:1-13)

9. Jews in Jerusalem (John 7:14-59; John 10:1-42)

10. disciples in upper room (John 13:1-26)

11. Jewish arrest and trial (John 18:1-27)

12. Roman trial (John 18:28-16)

13. post-resurrection conversations, John 20:11-29

a. with Mary

b. with the ten Apostles

c. with Thomas

14. epilogue dialogue with Peter, John 21:1-25

15. (John 7:53-11, the story of the adulterous woman, was not originally part of John's Gospel!)

D. Certain worship/feast days

1. the Sabbaths (John 5:9; John 7:22; John 9:14; John 19:31)

2. the Passovers (John 2:13; John 6:4; John 11:55; John 18:28)

3. the feast of Tabernacles (John 8-9)

4. Hanukkah (festival of lights, cf. John 10:22)

E. Use of "I Am" statements

1. "I am 'He'" (John 4:26; John 6:20; John 8:24, John 8:28, John 8:54-59; John 13:19; John 18:5-6, John 18:8)

2. "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35, John 6:41, John 6:48, John 6:51)

3. "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12; John 9:5)

4. "I am the door of the sheepfold" (John 10:7, John 10:9)

5. "I am the good shepherd" (John 1:0John 0:11,14)

6. "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25)

7. "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6)

8. "I am the true vine" (John 15:1, John 15:5)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. State the central theme of the entire book in your own words.

1. Theme of entire book.

2. Type of literature (genre)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. Outline the main subjects and express the subject in a single sentence.

1. Subject of first literary unit

2. Subject of second literary unit

3. Subject of third literary unit

4. Subject of fourth literary unit

5. Etc.