Introducing the Gospel of John

by Ed Gallagher

But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31
Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus, 1890, Wikimedia Commons

John and the Synoptics: Differences

The way Jesus talks in John’s Gospel is different from the way he talks in the Synoptic Gospels. In John’s Gospel Jesus never tells parables. He does say symbolic things, such as, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in the three days” (John 2:19). But he doesn’t tell stories. He uses very simple language to communicate very profound truths:

Whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again.

John 4:14

Truly I tell you, Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.

John 6:32

You are from below, I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.

John 8:23

This style of speech confuses people, who—much of the time—can’t figure out what Jesus means (e.g., 2:20; 3:9; 4:15, 33; 6:52, 60; 8:19, 22, 57). (Jesus confuses people in other Gospels, too; e.g., Mark 4:10; 8:11–21; 9:32; 10:24–26). Sometimes people do know what Jesus’ words mean, and that is precisely what makes them mad (John 5:18). For other people, even if they don’t quite grasp his meaning, they may still view him favorably (7:46; 10:21). 

Jesus tends to talk about different things in John’s Gospel as opposed to the Synoptics. Jesus very rarely speaks about the kingdom of God in John (cf. John 3: 3, 5; 18:36), a topic that dominates his teaching in the Synoptics. Instead, Jesus talks about “life” in John. 

KingdomLife (zōē)
Matthew55 times7 times
Mark20 times4 times
Luke45 times5 times
John5 times36 times

A few things familiar from the Synoptics are left unmentioned in John. There is no account of the Last Supper in John, or the Transfiguration, or the choosing of the Twelve. Jesus never meets a person possessed by a demon in John; demons are mentioned only in accusations against Jesus (7:20; 8:48–49, 52; 10:20–21). There is no specific account of the Great Commission. 

Familiar Things about Jesus Omitted in John’s Gospel
Last Supper
Choosing the Twelve
The Great Commission

The structure of the Gospels are different. The Synoptic Gospels place most of the early action in Galilee (in the towns of Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethsaida, etc.), leading up to a trip to Jerusalem during Passover that would culminate in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But John locates Jesus in Jerusalem several times in the Gospel—Jesus is in Galilee only in 2:1–12; 4:43–54; 6:1–7:9—and John mentions several Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 12:1), not just one. It is from John’s Gospel that we derive the information that Jesus’ ministry lasted three years or more (because of the three Passovers), rather than a year or less, as someone might imagine from the Synoptics. 

Jesus as God in John’s Gospel

John’s Gospel is much more explicit about the divinity of Jesus than are the other Gospels. The Synoptics do present Jesus as divine (e.g., Mark 2:1–11; cf. here and here), but they are not so explicit as is John, who actually calls Jesus “God” in 1:1, and shows that Thomas calls him “God” at 20:28. John calls Jesus “God” also at 1:18 (according to one form of the text; see different translations here; and see the NET Bible‘s note 45).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:1

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

John 1:18 (ESV); compare other translations

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:28

Think also about the implications of these verses:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

John 8:58

The Father and I are one.

John 10:30

And finally:

For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

John 5:18

John and the Synoptics: Similarities

The basic story of all four Gospels is the same: itinerant ministry, preaching and working miracles, conflict with religious leaders leading to trial first by the Sanhedrin and then by the Roman authorities, resulting in crucifixion, followed by resurrection. Most of the miracles are different, but in all four Gospels Jesus does walk on water and feed the five thousand (cf. John 6:1–21). The command to love is paramount in all Gospels (cf. Mark 12:29–31; John 13:35). 

The Structure of the Fourth Gospel

Scholars divide John into two main parts, to which are attached a prologue (1:1–18) and an epilogue (ch. 21). The first half of the Gospel (1:19–ch. 12) is the Book of Signs and the second half (chs. 13–20) is the Book of Glory.

Structure of John’s Gospel
Prologue (1:1–18)
Book of Signs (1:19–ch. 12)
Book of Glory (chs. 13–20)
Epilogue (ch. 21)

The Book of Signs contains seven miracle stories intended to indicate the significance of Jesus:

  • water to wine (2:1–11, the first sign)
  • healing the official’s son (4:46–54, the second sign)
  • healing the lame man (ch. 5)
  • feeding the 5000 (6:1–14)
  • walking on water (6:16–21)
  • healing the blind man (ch. 9)
  • raising Lazarus (ch. 11)

Of course, the ultimate sign was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (cf. 2:18–22), and this eighth and final sign—outside the Book of Signs—leads to the general statement (20:30–31) that these particular signs have been included in this Gospel, out of many others that could have been narrated, in order to bring about faith. 

The resurrection is, in fact, a main event in the Book of Glory, as also is the crucifixion. The Book of Glory (according to scholars) begins at 13:1 with the announcement that Jesus’ hour has come, whereas previously the hour had not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20). This section of the Gospel is given the label Book of Glory because it concerns the hour of Jesus’ glory (cf. 12:23; 17:1), and glory is a prominent theme in the Gospel, particularly in this section (13:31–32; 17:1; cf. 7:39; 12:16). It is pretty clear that Jesus is glorified—counterintuitively—at the moment of his crucifixion (cf. 12:27–28). This idea coheres well with the statements that represent the crucifixion as a type of exaltation (“lifting up”; 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). Jesus is glorified, exalted, when he gives his life for the world (3:16; 6:51). 

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

John 3:14

So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.

John 8:28

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

John 12:32

The Author of the Fourth Gospel

The author identifies himself at the very end—the Beloved Disciple (21:20–24). The author never tells us his real name, but this particular Gospel apparently always circulated under the name of John, traditionally identified as John the son of Zebedee, one of the apostles. The Beloved Disciple definitely appears in four scenes in the Gospel: 

  • the supper at which Jesus washed the disciples feet (ch. 13). Here the Beloved Disciple reclined next to Jesus and asked for the identity of the betrayer (vv. 21–27). 
  • the crucifixion (ch. 19). The Beloved Disciple was the only male disciple to remain with Jesus at this moment. He accepted Jesus’ instructions to take in Jesus’ mother (vv. 26–27). 
  • the empty tomb (ch. 20). He raced Peter to the tomb (and won!) when they heard Mary’s report that the body had been taken (vv. 1–10). 
  • fishing with Peter after the resurrection (ch. 21). The Beloved Disciple was the first to recognize Jesus (v. 7), and a rumor spread about his alleged immortality (v. 23). 

Two other scenes also likely include the Beloved Disciple: he is probably the disciple with Andrew that had been a disciple of John the Baptist but now is invited to stay with Jesus (1:35–40), and he is probably the disciple who knows the high priest and obtains access for Peter into the courtyard (18:15–16). The Beloved Disciple’s presence at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry—even as a hearer of John’s testimony about him (1:36; cf. v. 29)—and his presence at key events in the life of Jesus, and his unusual perceptiveness (20:8; 21:7), and his intimacy with Jesus (1:39; 13:23; 19:26–27) makes him an ideal author of a Gospel. 


The Gospel of John is different from the Synoptics in several important ways, so that it gives its readers an alternative picture of Jesus from a disciple who was particularly close to the Lord. 

Questions for Discussion

Is this Gospel easier to understand than the other Gospels, or more difficult? What aspects of this Gospel lead you to your opinion? 

What is striking about the way that Jesus teaches in this Gospel? What themes dominate his teaching? Do you find his teaching simple, or deep, or perhaps both?

Is this Gospel written as an introduction to Jesus or as a more advanced treatment? Does this Gospel assume that the reader already knows some things about Jesus, perhaps already has read some other Gospels? What aspects of the Gospel contribute to your view? 

Scholars often call the first half of this Gospel the “Book of Signs” and the second half the “Book of Glory.” Why do you think scholars assign these titles to the two parts of the Gospel? 

According to John 21:24, upon whose testimony is this Gospel based? What does the Gospel tell us about this person? See chapters 13, 19–21. 

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