THE WITNESS OF THE SCRIPTURES
What do the Scriptures tell us about the Author of John’s Gospel?
The Gospel according to John is not as anonymous as the other three Gospels. In the last few verses of the Gospel its author identifies himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved…the one who also had leaned back on His breast at the supper”. Yet, even here he does not share his name with us. John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus gave this disciple responsibility for his mother Mary from the cross and that from then this disciple whom Jesus loved took Mary to his own home. Church tradition has long held that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was the apostle John. So, what can we learn about John from the scriptures?
What do the Gospels tell us about the Apostle John?
John was the younger brother of James, they were sons of Salome and Zebedee. Salome was one of the women who followed and served Jesus (Matthew 27:55-56 & Mark 15:40-41) and she may have been the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary (John 19:25), which could explain her boldness as “aunty Salome” in asking Jesus to favour her boys (Matthew 20:20-23). Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman who also hired men for their fishing business. They lived in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilea, as did their fishing partners Simon Peter and his younger brother Andrew, who had been one of the first two disciples of John the Baptist to heed the Baptist’s words “behold the Lamb of God” and start following Jesus. We first read about John and James encountering Jesus as they were in their boat with their father mending their fishing nets (Matthew 4:21-22, Mark 1:19-20). Christ called them for follow Him so these two young men left everything and went after Him. Then, in Mark 1:29 we read that they came out of the Capernaum synagogue with Jesus and entered the house of Simon Peter and Andrew where Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Luke 5:1-11 then reports another calling, this time in front of a multitude, and refers to James and John as partners with Simon Peter. John is next mentioned in the choosing of the twelve apostles:
Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother Matthew 10:2 NKJV
Simon, whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, “Sons of Thunder” Mark 3:16-17 NKJV
He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Luke 6:13b-14 NKJV
In all of these John is mentioned in the second group of brothers, and after his older brother James. There has been much speculation over the years as to what the designation “Sons of Thunder” might mean about James and John. Perhaps it was in relation to their character as revealed when they offered to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans who had refused to receive Jesus because He was on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56). Eager for a sign from heaven to justify themselves and vindicate their Master, these brothers were zealous and enthusiastic and had a high sense of what honour was due to Jesus, but they were slower to understand His heart of love even for His enemies. Just before then John had declared that they had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and forbidden him because he was not one of them (Mark 9:38 & Luke 9:49). It was important to young John that he was part of the “in group”, which he felt should be distinguished from “outsiders”. Then there was the time when James and John tried to manipulate Jesus into giving them the positions sitting on His right hand and left hand in Glory (Mark 10:35-41). Matthew 20:20-23 depicts their mother bringing them to Jesus to make this same request of Him, shortly before His Triumphal Entry. In all of these incidences we see these two sons of Zebedee zealous and full of confidence in the power and authority of Christ while also attaching personal ambition to their dedication to Him. This fits with the other evidences that they were young men, possibly in their mid to late teens, when Jesus called them. Many scholars have concluded that John was the youngest of the apostles, possibly only 13-15yo when he was first called by Jesus. (44) (45) (46) (47) (48) (49)
The Gospels mention three significant incidences where Jesus only allows Peter, James and John to be present with him and witness the event. The first is the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-24 & 36-43; Luke 8:40-42 & 49-56). The second is the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-10 & Luke 9:28-36). The third is in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked them to watch with him but they kept falling asleep (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42). Notably, the writer of the Gospel according to John does not bear witness to any of these three events in his Gospel, which would seem strange if John were the author. The Transfiguration especially fits with the whole theme of this Gospel, and John was one of only three witnesses to it, yet this Gospel is the only one that makes no mention of it.
It was the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, who asked Jesus privately “when will these things be and what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled” after Jesus prophesied that the temple would be destroyed and not one stone of it left upon another (Mark 13:1-4). It was Peter and John, the oldest and youngest of the twelve, that Jesus sent to prepare the Passover (Luke 22:7-13). The only other specific mention of John the apostle in the Gospels, and the only direct reference in this Gospel, is after Christ’s resurrection:
Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We are going with you also.” John 21:2-3a NKJV
What does the book of Acts tell us about the apostle John?
The first mention of John in the book of Acts finds all the apostles together with Jesus’ family and female disciples in the upper room:
And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. Acts 1:13-14 NKJV
John the apostle is generally found teamed up with Peter as we go through the book of Acts, just as Jesus had sent them together to prepare the Passover. Acts 3 tells the story of Peter and John going to the temple together at the hour of prayer, seeing the lame man and Peter bringing God’s healing to him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, followed by Peter preaching to the multitudes who gathered.
Acts 4 sees Peter and John arrested and Peter boldly testifying before the Sanhedrin who: “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realised that they had been with Jesus.”
In Verse 19 Peter and John replied to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
Acts 8 tells of Peter and John being sent by the apostles in Jerusalem to Samaria to minister to the new believers there. They prayed for these Samaritan believers to receive the Holy Spirit and laid hands on them. The results were so powerful that Simon the sorcerer offered them money to give him that power and received a very strong rebuke from Peter. On their way back to Jerusalem Peter and John preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.
John is next mentioned by name some 12-14 years after Jesus’ resurrection when Herod killed his older brother James with the sword (Acts 12:1-2).
Any references to John in Paul’s writings?
Our last reference to John (apart from the Johannine writings) comes about 6 years later, so John would likely be around 35yo now. In Galatians 2 Paul writes about going up to Jerusalem to resolve the question of circumcision of Gentile believers (see also Acts 15) and states in verse 9: “and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” The ‘James’ that Paul is referring to in this verse is not John’s older brother who had been killed with the sword, but James the brother of Jesus who had also been a leader in the church since its earliest days despite not being one of the 12 apostles.
Summary of what we know about the Apostle John…
In summary, John is introduced to us as an apprentice in his father’s fishing business, 13-15yo when Jesus first calls him. He is the younger brother of James and the two of them are always mentioned together until near the end of Jesus’ ministry when He sends John with Peter to prepare the Passover for their last meal before He is crucified. John’s mother, Salome, also travels with Jesus, possibly as much to keep an eye on her boys as to learn from Jesus. She certainly demonstrates high ambitions for them which she mixes with her faith in Jesus as Messiah and ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven. Her presence also suggests that John is the youngest of her children as Salome would not be so free to travel with them if she had younger children still at home. John was zealous and enthusiastic, loved the miraculous and had a high sense of what honour was due to Jesus. It was important to young John to be important and part of the “in group” which was clearly distinguished from others whom he did not view as sufficiently following Jesus. John was close to Jesus and one of only three disciples whom Jesus allowed to be with Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead and during his passion in the garden of Gethsemane. Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry and throughout the book of Acts we see John maturing and coming into his own, becoming less dependent on his older brother and faithfully stewarding increasing responsibilities.
What does the Fourth Gospel tell us about it’s Author?
What can we learn about the author of the fourth Gospel from what we find written within it? From John 21:20-24 we learn that the author was a man and described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper”. It is this closeness to Jesus which has led many to surmise that the author must be one of Christ’s “inner circle”, the three apostles who were allowed with Jesus for the transfiguration, the raising of Jarius’ daughter and Christ’s passion in the garden. Since Peter motioned to this disciple whom Jesus loved to get him to ask Jesus who was going to betray him (John 13:23-24) the author could not be the apostle Peter and the apostle James was killed by Herod before this gospel was written, so that leaves the apostle John as the author of this gospel. Scholars who support this view also see the author (either as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or “another disciple”) as being consistently paired with Peter in the latter part of this gospel (John 13:34-24; 18:15-16, 20:2-9, 21:1-8 & 15-23) even as John is paired with Peter in the book of Acts. (50) This gospel was clearly written by an intimate eye-witness and who could be closer to Jesus than the young apostle John?
We also see in John 21:20-24 that the author refers to himself in the third person, as was not unusual in first-century historiographical practice, even when saying that he was the one who wrote these things down. The only time the author uses a personal pronoun for himself is in the very last verse of the Gospel, and here he indicates that what he has written is just a small amount of what he knows Jesus to have done:
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. Amen. John 21:25 NKJV
How the author met Jesus…
Let’s start at the beginning of the fourth gospel and see what we can learn about this “disciple whom Jesus loved”. In John 1:19-51 the author provides us with a report which does not directly describe Jesus’ baptism, it appears that he was not there at that time, but provides an eye-witness account, not mentioned in the other gospels, of the Jewish religious leaders sending priests and Levites from Jerusalem to Bethany beyond the Jordan (“Bethabara” in some versions) to question the baptiser “who are you?” John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, had been a priest (Luke 1:5-7) so many of them would have known John growing up as the son of this respected elderly priest. Some of the priests may have been his childhood friends. The Baptist’s response to their every question was to testify about Jesus. As there is no description of any of the actions of John the Baptist before these priests arrived, not even his baptism of Jesus, it is likely that the author was one of the priests or Levites who was sent by the Jewish leadership (high priest) to question the Baptist. This would suggest that at least one of them was impacted by the Baptist’s sermons, really took his words to heart and was baptised by him.
The next day Jesus returned from his forty days in the Judean wilderness and the Baptist pointed him out as the person he had been talking about in answering the priest’s questions and described what had taken place when he had baptised Jesus. John’s words were sinking in because the following day when the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples “Behold the Lamb of God!” they started following Him. One of these disciples was Andrew, who would become one of the 12 apostles, and the other remains anonymous. Many have postulated that this anonymous disciple is the author of this Gospel. Could one of the priests or Levites sent by the High Priest and Sanhedrin to find out what John had to say about himself have become a disciple of John’s so quickly? If so, this fits with the anonymous “other disciple” in John 18:15-16 being sufficiently known to the high priest to be able to tell the servant who kept the door to his courtyard to let his friend Peter in.
Only this fourth Gospel gives the details of Andrew, and an unnamed disciple, being the first to follow Jesus, then Andrew bringing his big brother Simon (Peter) to Jesus, followed the next day by Jesus calling Philip, who found Nathanael, as he started heading back to Galilee.
Going with Jesus to the wedding in Cana, then Jerusalem for Passover…
The author went with Jesus, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael (and the unnamed disciple, if this person is not the author) to the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and then down to Capernaum with Jesus’ mother and brothers as well, before returning to Jerusalem for the Passover, cleansing the temple and doing many signs (John 2:13-23). The author was privy to Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus, away from all the crowds (John 3:1-21). If he was one of the Levites and priests who were sent by the leaders in Jerusalem to question John the Baptist, then he would likely have invited Jesus to stay in his house in (or near) Jerusalem, a house that would be known to the rulers of the Jews like Nicodemus.
Baptising with Jesus then the woman at the well…
Next, this author describes Jesus going with these early disciples and baptising people in Judea while John had moved to Aeon near Salim to continue baptising (John 3:22-36). From there the author describes in detail Jesus going back up to Galilee, but via the city of Sychar in Samaria where he talks with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
With Jesus to Cana, then silence…
After going to Cana of Galilee, the author describes Jesus’ long distance healing of the nobleman’s son in Capernaum (John 4:45-54) but mentions nothing of Jesus’ following ministry in Galilee, nor his travels to Capernaum, nor calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing boats or Matthew from his tax collector’s booth, nor any of the preaching in synagogues or subsequent miracles and healings that He performed (Matthew 4:13-25, 8:2-4 & 14-17, 9:2-17; Mark 1:14-2:22; Luke 4:16-5:39).
With Jesus in Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews…
It is as though the author returned to Jerusalem from Cana and did not see Jesus again until He returned to Jerusalem for another “feast of the Jews” (John 5:1). According to the Torah, God commanded the Israelites:
“Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesah (Passover – early spring), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks – seven weeks after Passover, at the time of the late spring harvest), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths – mid-autumn).” Deuteronomy 16:16
It is unclear which of these festivals Jesus was attending this time, but again only the fourth Gospel writer tells us anything about Jesus’ time in Jerusalem for this festival and he describes the events, the healing of a man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath and the resulting controversy, in a lot of detail (John: 5:2-47).
The first three Gospels continue with their narrative of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, including many parables and miracles (Matthew5:1-14:12; Mark 2:23-6:29; Luke 6:1-9:9), and the setting aside of 12 of his disciples and sending them out to be apostles, while the fourth Gospel remains silent on all of this Galilean activity. Then John the Baptist is beheaded (Matthew 14:1-13) and word reaches Jesus even as the apostles returned from their mission and reported back what they had done and taught (Mark 6:30-31; Luke 9:10) even as the next Passover was approaching (John 6:4).
With Jesus as Passover approaches…
Passover (Pesach) falls on the first full moon of Spring. The author of the fourth Gospel is the one who keeps us informed about the relationship of events to the Jewish festivals. Now we find him together with the others as Jesus takes them by boat to the shore near the city of Bethsaida in Galilee (Luke 9:10) and up a mountain (John 6:3) to a deserted but lush grassy place after the winter rains (Mark 6:31). There the only miracle Jesus performed that is recorded in all four Gospels took place, the feeding of the 5,000.
Close to Philip & Andrew…
Only the author of the fourth Gospel gives us the details that Jesus asked Philip, the one of the 12 who lived in Bethsaida; “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Philip was overwhelmed with the cost involved but Andrew, Simon Peter’s younger brother, brought the lad with the loaves and fish to Jesus in response. If the anonymous disciple who first followed Jesus with Andrew was the author of this Gospel it appears that they continued to have a close relationship such that the author paid special attention to, and had high regard for, Andrew’s expressions of faith. This is seen again, after the Triumphal Entry, when the author of this fourth Gospel informs us about some Gentiles (Greeks) who had gone up to worship in Jerusalem at Passover and asked Philip (who had a Greek name) if they could see Jesus, who told Andrew (who also had a Greek name) and they both passed on the request to Jesus (John 12:20-22).
With Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue…
From the narrative continuing on from the feeding of the 5,000 the author was just as likely one of the people who followed Jesus and the disciples to Capernaum the next day as one of the disciples in the boat that night who saw Christ walking on the water (John 6:15-59). The author joined the multitude who listened to Jesus as He taught in the Capernaum synagogue and stayed, as did the 12, when many of Jesus’ other disciples became offended at His words and walked away (John 6:60-70).
With Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles…
We read nothing more from this author for another six months, when the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is at hand. He mentions nothing of Jesus’ ministry trips beyond the lands of the Jews to Gennesaret, Tyre and Sidon, through the region of the Decapolis and skirting the Sea of Galilee back through Jewish territory across to Bethsaida and out again to Caesarea Philippi, and up a high mountain for the transfiguration before returning through Galilee to Capernaum. All this author mentions about that whole time was: “after these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea because the Jews sort to kill Him.” (John 7:1)
Herod Antipas, who had just beheaded John the Baptist, ruled over both Perea and Galilee so this was a significant example that Jesus was setting for His disciples of responding to threats by taking the gospel further afield – in this case to the territories of Phoenicia, Ituraea, Syria, Batanea, Auranitis (Trachonitis) and the Decapolis, and yet the author of this gospel writes only that Jesus did not walk in Judea, He was not seen in Jerusalem during this time. To read where Jesus was seen and what He was doing there we need to study the other three gospel accounts.
John 7:2-3 is very interesting as this Gospel author writes of Jesus’ brothers contending that His disciples were in Judea so He should go there to show them the works that He was doing. The apostles were with Jesus in Capernaum of Galilee but his brothers are telling him to go to Jerusalem so His disciples can see what He’s doing. Did Jesus have disciples who were based in Judea as well as those who were based in Galilee? This fourth Gospel is the only one to record that Jesus did not accompany his brothers to Sukkot (the week-long Feast of Tabernacles) in Jerusalem, but travelled after them to attend secretly. This would have greatly affected those disciples who were waiting eagerly for Jesus in Jerusalem, but not the disciples and apostles travelling with Him and engrossed in His teaching every day.
It is from Luke that we learn Jesus travelled through Samaria on His way to Jerusalem and one of the Samaritan villages refused to welcome Him because He was determined to go to Jerusalem for the Feast so James and John offered to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah had called it down to consume the sacrifice on Mt Carmel but Jesus rebuked them and simply went to another village who would welcome Him (Luke 9:51-56). Taking this route which most of the Jews avoided because they would not associate with Samaritans also helped keep Jesus hidden from the other pilgrims headed from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Feast.
Jesus was not seen by the crowds in Jerusalem until about the middle of the Feast when He went into the temple and started teaching the people (John 7:4-14). This Gospel’s author then provides us with a detailed account of Jesus’ teaching and the crowd’s responses on that day (John 7:15-36) and again on the last day including Nicodemus’ defence of Christ in the Sanhedrin (John 7:37-53). The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabbah which is considered to be the day of the final sealing of judgment on which God opens the Books of Life and Death.
It was in the Temple, in Jerusalem, the following day that the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. This Gospel author records Jesus continuing to teach in the Temple until, on a Sabbath day some religious leaders took up stones to throw at him because He had answered them by declaring: “before Abraham was, I AM”, then denounced Him for “not keeping the Sabbath” when he healed a blind man by spitting on the ground and making clay with the saliva then anointing a blind man’s eyes with that clay and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (John 8:1-9:41). Jesus teaches in the temple about His upcoming death and resurrection (John 10:1-21) then vanishes once more from this Gospel until the next Jewish Festival in Jerusalem. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke provide us with descriptions of Jesus’ teachings and works in the Galilee region, and on His expeditions into neighbouring lands, it is this author who recounts Jesus’ teachings and works in Jerusalem during the Jewish Feasts.
Silent on the 70…
It is Luke again who tells us of Jesus appointing another seventy (some versions have seventy-two) and apostéllō (sending) them two by two with authority to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God in every city and place where He himself was about to go (Luke 10:1-24). After they returned with joy and amazement that even the demons were subject to them in His name, Jesus began going to each of the places that the seventy have just been, teaching as he went. In Bethany He stayed with Martha and Mary, teaching in their house (Luke 10:38-42). It is 63 days from the seventh day of the autumn Sukkot until the beginning of the eight day winter Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah – which was instituted after Judas Maccabeus recaptured Jerusalem, cleansed and rededicated the Temple to God) and Luke provides us with Jesus’ teaching during that time as He travelled to those places that He had sent the other seventy to in a circuit that brought him back to Jerusalem (Luke 11:1-13:35).
With Jesus in Jerusalem for Hanakkah…
Once again it is the author of the Fourth Gospel who tells us the time of year and Jewish religious occasion – this time it was winter and Jesus was returning to Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication (Hanakkah). Again, this author picks up the story when Jesus enters Jerusalem and describes His interactions in the Temple (John 10:22-39).
Luke 14:1-24 picks up on Jesus’ interactions outside the temple – with His disciples in the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees (a member of the Sanhedrin) on the Sabbath. As Jesus left Jerusalem Luke notes that great multitudes went with Him (Luke 14:25), but it appears that the author of the fourth Gospel was not among them although he does tell us exactly where they travelled to – Bethany beyond the Jordan where John had baptised Jesus and first proclaimed Him. Matthew 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 14:26 – 17:10 share with us what Jesus taught through this time and the fourth Gospel author declares: “many believed in Him there”, beyond the Jordan.
Close to Mary, Martha & Lazarus…
Interestingly, the fourth Gospel’s author was confident that those he was writing for had already heard about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiping them with her hair. Even though he had not got to that part of the story yet the author helps his readers understand which Martha and Mary he is writing about by recounting that incident before it has taken place in his narrative (John 11:1-2). Could the author have been the person whom Mary and Martha sent to Jesus with the news of their brother’s illness? Some have contended that the author, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was Lazarus as he is the only man specifically referred to as being loved by Jesus (51) (52) (53) (54) (55) (56) (57) (58):
“Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” John 11:3 NKJV
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. John 11:5 NKJV
Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” John 11:36 NKJV
This author provides us with a very detailed description of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-46), an event which the other Gospels omit, and how that related to the plot to kill Jesus (John 11:47-53). The author notes that Jesus goes from that area into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and then has nothing more to add until the next feast, the spring feast of Passover, is near (John 11:54-55).
Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem…
Luke 17:11 picks it up from there with a verse that makes little sense unless we realise that the starting point is the city of Ephraim:
Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Luke 17:11 NKJV
All four Gospels are now focused on this final journey to Jerusalem where Christ will be crucified, the culmination of everything that has taken place thus far. So Luke describes Jesus’ final missionary journey through Samaria and Galilee as going to Jerusalem. On the way Jesus cleansed 10 lepers, blessed the little children, and continued teaching all who followed Him and explaining what was going to happen to Him this time in Jerusalem (Matthew 19:13-20:19, Mark 10:13-10:34 & Luke 17:12-18:34).
As they are heading down the Jordan Valley with all the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus confides in the twelve that He will be betrayed, condemned and handed over to the Gentiles who will mock and scourge and crucify Him and then on the third day He will rise again (Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34 & Luke 18:31-33). In what appears to be about the worst timing in history, James and John then took Jesus aside (with their mother), to ask for the top positions in His kingdom – to sit on His right hand and left (Matthew 20:20-23 & Mark 10:35-40). Luke helps us understand this by writing about the twelve’s reaction to Jesus telling them how he was going to suffer and die:
But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. Luke 18:34 NKJV
Then coming up out of the Jordan Valley and through Jericho, Jesus stopped for Zacchaeus and to heal two blind men, one of whom was Bartimaeus, before continuing on to Bethpage and Bethany (Matthew 20:29-21:1, Mark 10:46 – 11:1 & Luke 17:12-19:29).
Focus on Jerusalem and Bethany…
The fourth Gospel omits everything from when Jesus left Bethany for Ephraim until Passover drew near and he records the attitudes of those in Jerusalem, particularly the Sanhedrin, wondering if Jesus would come for the feast and giving orders that they be notified if anyone sees Him so that they could seize Him. Again this Gospel writer appears to be based in or near Jerusalem and privy to the discussions of the Jewish pilgrims who were already in the temple, and to the religious leaders.
Then it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple area they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t He coming to the Feast at all?”
But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest Him. John 11:55-57 NIV
While it made little difference to those travelling with Jesus how many days before Passover He arrived in Bethany, to those waiting for Him it was of prime importance and so this author records it:
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. John 12:1-2 NKJV
The Passover began at sunset on Nissan 14, so six days before this would bring us to Nissan 8. It was a steep, rugged 21 km (13 mile) walk along the main road up the range from Jericho, ‘the City of Palms’, to Bethany. Mathew 20:29-34 lets us know what we would have expected – that a large crowd followed Jesus out of Jericho. It was about a six hour walk to Jerusalem, where most of the pilgrims would be lodging (59) (60).
Preparing for Passover…
While it is the miracles in Jericho that the synoptic gospels focus on, the fourth gospel writer begins with the pilgrims already in Jerusalem and then turns to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany and the reception He received there, with a dinner given in Jesus’ honour where Lazarus reclined at the table with Him, Martha served and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and poured very expensive perfume on them, which Judas objected to (John 12:2-8), and the large crowd who came to see both Jesus and Lazarus whom He had raised (John 12:9-11).
All four Gospels record the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40 & John 12:12-22), which John places in “the next day” after the crowds came to see Jesus and Lazarus in Bethany. The fourth Gospel appears to lack the insider knowledge of the other three that Jesus sent two of his disciples (possible not two of the twelve because none of the Gospel’s name them) with specific instructions for getting the donkey and her colt, but adds the local knowledge that the people who had witnessed Him raising Lazarus from the dead were telling everyone so the crowd and excitement kept growing and:
The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!” John 12:19 NKJV
Only the fourth gospel author tells us what Jesus said in the Temple on this day of His Triumphal entry, 10th Nissan – the day the Jews are to choose their Passover lamb and take it home to care for it until the time of its sacrifice (John 12:23-36), but he tells us nothing of Jesus’ other trips to Jerusalem; the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the Temple on the following day nor Christ’s teachings in the Temple on the 11th & 12th Nissan. Matthew devotes the most words to such: Matthew 21:12-16 & 18-46, 22:1-25:46. Mark devotes two chapters, Mark 11:12-18 & 20-44, 12:1-13:2. Luke 19:45-21:4 are devoted to these accounts of Jesus’ final temple teachings. Those three also note that Jesus returned to Bethany each night (Matthew 21:17, Mark 11:19, Luke 21:37-38). Interestingly, the fourth Gospel author gives us much less detail about Jesus’ teachings in the temple this time than the other three and only he does not mention Jesus cleansing the temple this time or travelling back and forth from Bethany to the Temple in Jerusalem each day. Only Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 tell us of the 12th Nissan meal at the home of Simon the leper that was interrupted by a woman coming to Jesus and anointing His head with expensive fragrant oil. Matthew 24:3-51, Mark 13:3-37 and Luke 21:7-38 all share with us from Jesus private session on the Mount of Olives with Peter, James, John and Andrew, but the fourth Gospel author again omits this significant time that John had with Jesus.
Washing the disciple’s feet…
At last, on the night of 13th Nissan (remember that in Hebrew reckoning the evening of each day comes before the morning of that date) the author of the fourth Gospel re-joins us to share something significant, and something that the other three mention nothing of (John 13:1-14:31). A supper before the Feast of Passover, probably in Bethany, where Jesus washes His disciple’s feet, the disciple whom Jesus loves reclines on His bosom and at Peter’s urging asks which one of them will betray Jesus who responds by giving a morsel to Judas whom Satan enters as he goes out. Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11 & Luke 22:3-4 pickup at this point, noting that Judas went to the chief priests to ask what they were willing to give him for delivering Jesus to them in the absence of the multitude, while the author of the fourth Gospel focuses on what Jesus shared with His followers after Judas had left that night until they left from the place where they had shared the meal (John 14:31).
Jesus’ final teachings…
The author of the fourth gospel then gives us three more chapters (John 15, 16 & 17) of Jesus’ final teachings and prayers for them on 13th Nissan, before the Passover – possibly the next morning – before becoming silent on the Passover meal that Peter and John followed Jesus’ prophetic instructions to begin preparing that afternoon for Jesus to share with the twelve once evening had come and it was 14th Nissan and the lamb they had chosen on 10th had been sacrificed and Peter and John had carried it back to the assigned place, roasted it on a wooden rotatory over a fire, and purchased unleavened bread and bitter herbs from the many stores in Jerusalem catering to the pilgrims flooding the city (Matthew 26:19-30, Mark 14:16-26 & Luke 22:13-39). There Jesus instituted one of the most important sacraments of the church, communion, but the author of the fourth gospel provides us with not witness to this.
In the Garden…
We next hear the author of the fourth Gospel he states “When Jesus had (in the Greek) ‘légō’ (originally, “lay down to sleep,” and later used of “laying an argument to rest,” i.e. bringing a message to closure) … so: “When Jesus had brought His teachings to a closure”, ie not a moment too soon, Jesus would not go to the place of His arrest until He had told His disciples everything He needed to before His sufferings, “He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden…” that Judas also knew because Jesus had often met there with His disciples.
All four gospels note Jesus entering this garden and Judas leading an armed contingent from the chief priests. Mark 14:51-52 presents us with what appear to be strange verses, yet they provide us with the evidence that it was not only the eleven remaining apostles who had been with Jesus in the Garden, others of His followers also knew He met there and had come in the hope of receiving more teachings from Him. Passover was a special and formal celebration and everyone who attended with Jesus would have dressed appropriately for it and so come into the Garden fully dressed. But it was late when they entered the Garden, and there were some followers who had been watching and waiting for His crossing over the Kidron ravine. It sounds like one young man had gone to bed and was asleep when he heard the excited call “Jesus is coming”, wrapped his sheet around him and hurried out (possibly almost dragged out by an older brother) to see what Jesus had for them this night. It is possible that the author of the fourth gospel was among the disciples who were not part of the last supper but knew where to find Jesus when that was finished.
Here we come to another distinction between the first three Gospel accounts and the fourth. The first three clearly state that Jesus ate the Passover with His disciples as their last supper together, which would have been at the beginning of 14th Nissan (as each Jewish day began when the sun went down on the previous day), but the fourth gospel writer is equally clear in stating that the Passover sacrifice for the nation of Israel did not happen until the time of Jesus’ death the following afternoon, which would be around 3pm on 14th Nissan. One thing that we have seen already during the Hasmonaean dynasty is that different Jewish groups interpreted many of the Torah rules for the feasts in different ways. One of the contentions was over the proper time for the slaughter and consumption of the Passover sacrifice. The instructions in Exodus 12:6 state: “And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.” There was (and in some circles still is) much contention over that word “twilight”, which in Hebrew is: עֶרֶב ereb; which can be translated as evening, night, sunset, twilight, or ‘between the evenings’. The Essenes and others contended that the sacrifice was to be made as soon as the sun set and 14th Nissan began so that it would all be consumed on the night of 14th Nissan in line with verse 8: “they shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” The most powerful groups of the Pharisees and priests, however, interpreted it to mean that the Passover sacrifice should be sacrificed at the end of 14th Nissan – between 3-6pm and then eaten that night (therefor on 15th Nissan) as the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. If the author of the fourth gospel were a priest it would be understandable that his focus would be on the time set for the priesthood to formally make the sacrifice for the nation and then attend to all the pilgrim’s sacrifices lined up for them to be slaughtered in the temple and then taken away to be cooked and eaten that night. So John 18:28-19:15 states of the priests accusing Jesus: “they themselves did not enter the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled and might eat the Passover…”.
The disciple whom Jesus loved…
We have returned to where we began this search – the scriptures in the fourth gospel referring to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The first of these was in John 13, after Jesus had washed His disciple’s feet and:
“There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of the disciples, whom Jesus loved…”.
Our next reference to him does not use that same term “disciple whom Jesus loved”, but just refers to him as “another disciple”. So it may not be the same person, although the characteristics do fit everything else we have learned about him through his eyewitness account of Jesus’ life in this fourth gospel.
Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the High Priest, he went with Jesus into the High Priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the High Priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. John 18:15-16 NIV
Now, before the cross, we see our next reference to him:
“When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John 19:26-27 NIV
There is some suggestion that this provides another reason for suggesting that this disciple whom Jesus loved is not one of the 12. Jesus was walking with the 12 (minus Judas) to the Gethsemane when He told them: “All of you will desert Me” and they all vowed that they would not (Matthew 26:31-35, Mark 14:27-31). In the High Priest’s quarters only Peter and the author of this gospel were still with Jesus and Peter denied Him three times and fled in tears while this author remained even to the cross now. If he was not one who deserted Jesus, he was not one of the 12, yet he was someone close enough to Jesus to consider himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved“.
Witness to Jesus’ death and burial…
Then, in now characteristic style, this disciple gives us details pertaining to priests (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both members of the Sanhedrin who had not consented to their ruling against Jesus) and the rules of the Jewish feast days:
Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “NOT A BONE OF HIM SHALL BE BROKEN.” And again another Scripture says, “THEY SHALL LOOK ON HIM WHOM THEY PIERCED.”
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:31-42 NASV
Resurrection First Fruits…
Only the fourth Gospel makes reference to Christ needing to be presented to the Father as the First Fruits Offering on the day of His resurrection, which was the first Sunday after Passover and thus the day of the First Fruits Offering, the first stalk of ripe grain from the upcoming harvest being waved before God in the Temple:
Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God. ‘” John 20:17 NASV
Resurected Jesus at See of Galilee…
After specifying Thomas as the one of the twelve who was the last to believe that Jesus had indeed been resurrected but proclaimed upon seeing Him “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:19-29), John then goes on to describe the last incident where the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is featured:
After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” … …
So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?”
They answered Him, “No.”
And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.”
So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” …
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “… … when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God…
Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. John 21:1-24
So, was this disciple whom Jesus loved John the son of Zebedee or one of the two unnamed “others of His disciples” who had followed Jesus’ direction to meet Him in Galilee and agreed to go fishing with Peter while they were waiting for Him? Church tradition holds that it was John, and thus the Gospel has been labelled. Many scholars argue that John just left out the bits about most of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the last supper because he wrote after the other three Gospels had been accepted and they covered those events sufficiently for him to feel no need to write about them, after all, the author did state that if everything Jesus did was written down the world would not be able to contain the books, and besides, it had to be one of Jesus’ “inner circle” who got selected for special assignments with Him – Peter, James and John.
Some have contended that the author was Lazarus, because he is the only man specifically referred to as one whom Jesus loved (John 11:3&36) and the term “disciple whom Jesus loved” was only used after Lazarus’ resurrection and description as reclining at the table with Jesus (John 12:2).
Some have contended that it was Jesus’ younger half-brother James because it would not be right for Him to place His mother into the care of someone outside the family when He had siblings with family responsibility for her.
Some have suggested John Mark (the author of Mark) was the author because he was related to the Levite Barnabas and so would have been known to the high priest.
Some argue that it was Thomas, because he had known to ask to see the spear wound in Jesus’ side and of all the apostles, only the beloved disciple had been at the cross to see that wound inflicted.
Others have suggested that it is the man that early church father Papias (via Eusebius) referred to as “John the Elder”, and that he was a priest from Jerusalem (Polycrates’ references John wearing the sacerdotal plate in Eusebius, ‘Church History’, 5.24.2-3) and also the author of the Johannine letters, as both 2 John and 3 John state that they are from “the Elder”.
What we do know is that the author of the fourth Gospel was an eye-witness who had followed Jesus since John the Baptist proclaimed Him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), referred to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved“, and was closely tied to Jerusalem and the activities of the priesthood.
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