Have you ever had a secret so earth-shattering that someone had to know? Have you ever struggled to keep quiet about it when those you loved or knew where within shouting distance? If so, you can relate to John the Apostle. As we explore the gospel that bears his name, we must first pause and remember he wasn’t some scribe or note-taker. He was one of Jesus’ best friends, one of the inner circle who Jesus took into exceptional circumstances, and the only Apostle we know was present when Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” in John 19:30. After all, he was called the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” on purpose (see John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7).
While Matthew, Mark, and Luke introduce us to the Messiah, John invites us around a table to tell us about his friend. He takes us behind the scenes with stories and settings not found anywhere else in Scripture to meet the man he knew. He skillfully integrates the divine and the human sides of Jesus while never diminishing His work or influence. For all intents and purposes, he asks the question, “have you met Jesus my Lord?” and answers, “He’s here in plain view.” The first few verses of the book set the stage for John’s monumental discussion about Jesus’ place in this world. The prologue starts with these thoughts in 1:1-4:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
By starting at creation, John clearly aligns Jesus the Man with Jesus the Creator. While the other gospel accounts start with His birth, His work, or events surrounding John the Baptist, this gospel begins with our beginning and Jesus’ role in that miraculous event. The phrase “without Him nothing was made that was made,” in 1:3 draws a direct line between Jesus and the great I AM of the Old Testament.¹ Much like Genesis, where everything that came into being because God spoke, the “Word” (Greek word logos), understood in John as the personal being of Christ, created everything.²
As we begin this lesson, a simple question must be asked. What is the purpose of John’s gospel? It certainly isn’t to detail everything Jesus did and it isn’t to highlight His place amongst the Jewish people. It isn’t to show-off Jesus on a mantlepiece or in a store-front window. In fact, there’s nothing flashy at all about the Jesus John describes. He’s profoundly special, not because of what He does, instead, because of who He is!
The inherent purpose of John’s Gospel is actually quite simple – he wants everyone to know that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. He wants everyone to know God sent Him to this world to offer salvation. He wants you to see Jesus as he did all those years ago – more than a man, but still my friend. He went on to say near the end of the book in 20:30-31:
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.
It seems probable that this gospel was written years after the other three to essentially “supplement” those books. If Matthew wrote for the Jewish people who needed evidence that Jesus was the Messiah and both Mark and Luke for Gentile crowds skeptical of this Jewish prophet, then John wrote for everyone. That arrangement makes this gospel God’s final exclamation point directing the world to Jesus Christ. It would subsequently focus less on the details people already knew and more on the message people still needed to hear. While we can’t cover the entirety of the book, there are several themes appearing throughout that must be considered intentional.
First of all, the deity of Christ has a special emphasis in this book. John spends more time than any other gospel writer explaining Christ’s divinity.³ That immortal, all-knowing, and creative side of Jesus is often lost today when we focus too much on His humanity. We must remember that Jesus was always existing from all eternity as God, in perfect fellowship with God the Father and (though not mentioned) the Holy Spirit. He is the cosmic Christ.4 John, who knew Jesus better than most in this world, spent a significant amount of time reminding us of His divinity right alongside His humanity. Don’t overlook that sentiment, for doing so would dimish the view of Christ that is necessary if we really want to understand Him completely.
Secondly, John spent quite a bit of time focusing on Jesus’ relationship with His Heavenly Father. Consider the conversation Jesus had in chapter 5 with the Jews after healing the man on the Sabbath. When Jesus spoke to them in 5:36-38, He highlighted this relationship,
The works which the Father has given Me to finish – the very works that I do – bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe.
John’s gospel highlights the beauty of a Son sent with purpose and a Father genuinely invested in His Son’s wellbeing. When you consider what that relationship meant to Jesus, you can’t help but realize why John shared it in his gospel. You don’t have to go very far to see the value he put on it. May I remind you what 1:1-2 says:
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 relationship between Father and Son never escapes the context or content of John’s Gospel. It’s an intentional part of its DNA.
Third, John’s gospel account illustrates the beauty of Jesus’ mission into this world. Jesus came to teach, inspire, motivate, and educate a lost world and special moments are highlighted to show how Jesus instructed those searching for Him. In two stories unique to John’s gospel, we see Jesus through incredibly intimate moments interact with lost souls in an unimaginable way.
Chapter 3 introduces us to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. As he came to Jesus at night, seeking a quiet moment with this unconventional teacher, we see a parallel between him and everyone who approaches Jesus inquisitively. He couldn’t deny what Jesus had done but surely wanted to know what those deeds (“signs”) meant. His first words to Jesus in 3:2 declare an appreciation for the one he sat across from:
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs you do unless God is with him.
That statement gives us incredible insight into Nicodemus. We know he came alone but represented more than just his own wishes or knowledge. We know he was observant and we know he recognized the power of God (even when others didn’t). Despite that knowledge, we also see someone unable to comprehend the spiritual application of Jesus’ words. As Jesus dug deeper into the meaning of what it meant to be born again (see 3:4-8), Nicodemus was stunned (or maybe flabbergasted). He responded to Jesus much differently that time around time and said in 3:9:
How can these things be?
In a sad bit of irony, those are Nicodemus’ last words in this conversation. As Jesus continued to speak, some of Scripture’s most beloved verses arose from this meeting. 3:16-17 should have spoken to the very heart of Nicodemus’ inquiries. He came to Jesus because he knew Jesus “came from God,” (3:2), he knew Jesus was a teacher, and now Nicodemus knows what Jesus would teach – love, salvation, redemption, and not condemnation. While we can’t speak to his biases, we can say with certainty that condemnation was an extreme weapon used by many of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time.
I personally believe Nicodemus believed Jesus to be the Messiah following that meeting. He reappeared in 7:50 as one defending Jesus to other leaders of Israel. As they hoped to arrest him, Nicodemus asked, “does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” That veiled protection of Jesus drew the ire of his fellow leaders and Nicodemus seemed to withdraw publicly from the debate as they snap at his statement. Later, in 19:39, he once again reappears, this time with Joseph of Arimathea as one who prepared the body of Christ after His death. It says he personally brought “a 75-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes” and helped “bound the body of Christ in linen clothes with the spices.” Say what you will about those actions, to me, they’re the actions of a believer who respected Jesus and wanted to honor Him in death.
His relationship with Jesus seems to represent something still true today. Those who come to Him with an open mind and a reasonable amount of respect often find themselves leaving the encounter intrigued by the possibilities and in awe of the person they just met.
Jesus didn’t force obedience from Nicodemus, by His teachings and actions, He earned it.
The second moment worth dissecting is the scene with the Samaritan woman at the well. However, these stories (and characters) couldn’t be more different. She came to Jesus, just like Nicodemus, in a private place, outside of the world’s view, but didn’t have a clue who He was or what He had done. She came innocently enough, unaware this chance encounter would change her life. As Jesus began to interact with her, His actions and His words drew her attention. Look at how their conversation begins in 4:5-10:
So Jesus came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
Her initial shock in this story has nothing to do with what Jesus says and everything to do with Him saying it in the first place. To me, this scene is one of the clearest indications that God doesn’t play favorites (see Acts 10:34) and doesn’t care how important we think people are. Jesus sees her as we all should – a person with inherent value. His message to her is simple and effective. He says in 4:10:
If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
And then He says in 4:13-14:
Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.
Obviously, Jesus is offering her something well beyond a simple drink of water. Her inclusion would have been unsettling to most Jews as they discovered the Messiah. Their prejudice would have made them believe these half-breed Samaritans (especially the women) wouldn’t have deserved the Messiah. They would have overlooked the value those people possessed and the opportunity to teach them. At that moment, our Lord’s ministering heart lept across the conventional barriers of the day – to a Samaritan woman. It was a radical gesture.5
When she goes back into her town to tell others about Jesus it says in 4:39-42:
And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
None of them would have become disciples if Jesus hadn’t seen value in that single, overlooked, sinful woman. When He goes on to tell His disciples in Matthew 28 and Mark 16 to evangelize the world, I hope they remembered her and those days. It’s the greatest living embodiment of Jesus’ teaching those who aren’t looking for it and a lesson for us today.
Unfortunately, not everyone we run across is searching for Jesus, some need an introduction.
It should be said that Jesus proves a point in these moments we should honor. When we see that Nicodemus, a religious, male, Jewish aristocrat and this woman, an untrained, female, Samaritan peasant who made a mess of her life were both teachable, there should be no one we can’t approach with the gospel message. As Jesus conversed frankly with both of them, He broke social and religious taboos we must be willing to break as well.6 Since John is the only gospel account to highlight these moments, they may be easy to overlook. That would be a mistake for their singular gospel inclusion doesn’t mean they are unimportant, merely uncommon.
In the end, the Gospel of John shows us who Jesus was behind-the-scenes. That’s a fitting designation since John knew Him better than most. These intimate moments, this personal touch, and this view of Jesus are truly special. It shows us why Jesus is more than our Savior, He’s our friend.
While we can’t go back and lay next to Him at the Last Supper; we can’t see the Transfiguration, or even be there in the Garden of Gethsemane or Golgotha; we can see it through John’s eyes. His first-hand account of those moments puts a weight of humanity upon the proceedings that we often dehumanize for the sake of Christ’s divinity. John knew Him and wanted us to know Him.
Jesus was His Savior but also His friend. That makes his gospel one of humanity’s greatest possessions. I can’t help but think, as we close, what John was thinking as he wrote these words to finish the book in 21:25:
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
How I long to know, to see, and to remember what John saw. Until the day comes that we sit in the presence of Jesus, love this gospel and the One who made it possible. It’s as close as we can get to know Him. It’s the message His friend, His student, His Apostle left behind.
¹ For more inspired thoughts on that topic, see Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Colossians 1:16-17, the introduction to Hebrews, specifically 1:2-3, and Revelation 4:11.
² D.A. Carson, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 118.
³ Start with the prologue (1:1-18), then take a good look at the theme of Christ’s divinity as it is interwoven in the following moments: His baptism (1:29-34), His conversation with Nathanael (1:47-51). These first few moments in His ministry highlight something John continually comes back to – Jesus the Son of God. His emphasis on that relationship and the deity of Christ can continually be found throughout the Gospel.
4 R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 17.
5 Hughes, That You May Believe, 105.
6 Carson, John, 218.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.