The book of John differs extensively from the other three gospels.  Of this there can be no doubt.  The exact reason for this difference is disputed.  Those without a respect for the Bible as the inspired Word of God view the other three gospels as “synoptic,” and claim that they all came from some mysterious source, which they call the “Q” manuscript.  John, they claim, was written later, sometime in the second century, when many traditions and teachings about the life of Jesus Christ had sprung up.  As such, they deny that the book was actually written by John the apostle, and thus deny its accuracy and value in setting forth the truth.

It goes without saying that, for one who professes to be a believer and who holds the Bible in the highest regard as the very written Word of God, such a view of John is untenable.  However, the sad fact is that many in the evangelical and fundamental Christian world have tried to compromise with the higher critics by proclaiming John to be the latest written of the gospels, and by setting its date as sometime in the 90s AD.  Such a compromise seems to make little sense, for it certainly does not satisfy the higher critics, who will dismiss the book in any case, and yet does not fit very well with logical facts, which would point out that the likelihood of John living this long is very small, even if he was the youngest of the disciples (which is by no means an established fact.)

The idea that John was the longest-lived of the disciples, and thus wrote both his gospel and the book of Revelation very late in the first century, is based on three questionable facts.  First of all, the idea that John was to be long-lived is based on Christ’s words in John 21:22, where He said to Peter of John, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?  You follow Me.”  Some have made this out to mean that John was to remain until Christ came.  We know that Christ still hasn’t come nearly two thousand years later, so certainly it was not Christ’s will that John remain till He came.  Yet some have made this mean that John was to live a very long time.  But this is not what Christ meant.  John himself corrects this view in the very next verse, “Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die.  Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?’”  Thus John himself sets the record straight.  The Lord never said that he would not die before He came.  Moreover, the Lord says the opposite in Matthew 20:20-23.

In Matthew 20:20, we read, “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons,” (that is, James and John, the author of this gospel,) “came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.  And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’  She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’  But Jesus answered and said, ‘You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’”  Notice the clear reference here to His death.  The cup He was about to drink was the cup of suffering, and the baptism He was to be baptized with was a martyr’s death on the cross.  Returning to our passage in verse 22b, we read, “They said to Him, ‘We are able.’  So He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.’”  Thus the Lord confirms not only that John and his brother James would die, but that they would die a martyr’s death.  Thus, most certainly John was never meant to live until Christ came.  His words in John 21:22 cannot mean this.

The second fact that is supposed to show that John was the youngest of the disciples is the fact that, when he and Peter ran to Christ’s tomb in John 20:4, “the other disciple” (that is, John,) “outran Peter and came to the tomb first.”  If he outran Peter, the argument goes, he must have been younger than him, and thus been one of the youngest of the disciples.  This is questionable logic to begin with, for there are many reasons why one man might outrun another, and not all of them have to do with age.  John may have just been in better shape than Peter, or his tolerance for pain may have been greater.  At any rate, even if we do take this as proving that John was younger than Peter, this does not mean that he was younger than any of the rest of the disciples.  Little is proved by this passage, but many try to read great significance into it.  I don’t see any such proof, however.

The third questionable fact used to support the idea that John wrote late is the tradition that John lived in the city of Ephesus in the last decade of the first century.  Several ancient authors testify to this fact, yet an examination of their testimony brings up difficult questions.  For example, Irenaeus personally knew Polycarp, who claimed to be the disciple of this John.  Dispensational author Michael Penny in Appendix 2 to his book, Approaching the Bible, gives an excellent discussion of this issue.  One of the ancient authors he quotes is Eusebius, who says of the John of Ephesus, “In Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise on the last day, the day of the Lord’s advent, when he is coming with glory from heaven and shall search out all his saints – such as Philip … Again there is John, who leant back on the Lord’s breast, who became a sacrificing priest wearing a mitre.”  (Eusebius, 141.)  Can we truly imagine that the John of Scripture, a Jew and a man who knew God’s law and understood salvation by faith, a man not of the tribe of Levi or the priestly family of Aaron, would ever become a sacrificing priest or wear a mitre?

This is not the only story of this John that Eusebius relates.  “One day when John arrived at the bath house for a bath and found Cerinthus was inside he lept from the spot and ran for the door, as he could not endure to be under the same roof.  He urged his companions to do the same, calling out, ‘Let us get out of here, for fear the place falls in, now that Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is inside’ … Cerinthus declares that after the resurrection the Kingdom of Christ will be on earth and that carnal humanity will dwell in Jerusalem, once more enslaved to lusts and pleasures.  And in his enmity towards the Scriptures of God, and his anxiety to lead men astray, Cerinthus foretells of a period of a thousand years given to wedding festivities.”  (Eusebius, 138.)

This story seems even more out of character with the apostle John because it was he himself through whom God taught the truth of the thousand year reign in Revelation 20:1-6.  “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.  He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished.  But after these things he must be released for a little while.  And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them.  And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands.  And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.  This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection.  Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”  In view of the fact that this was John’s teaching, why then would John so hate a man for teaching the thousand years?  Then there is the absolute rejection of this “John” for the idea of a bodily resurrection.  This is more similar to the attitude of the Greek philosophers, who viewed the body as impure and carnal, and thought that only by shedding the body and becoming a disembodied soul could one hope to achieve perfection and paradise.  This is not the teaching of Scripture, yet it seems to be the attitude of the John of Ephesus.

The strongest argument against this John having been the apostle John is the fact that the John of Ephesus died of old age.  We saw above the Christ clearly declared that both John and his brother James would die martyr’s deaths.  Yet the John of Ephesus did not die in this way.  Thus either the Word of God is broken, or this man was not the apostle John.  Indeed, this should not be surprising to us, as many false apostles rose in the first century.  Paul speaks of them in II Corinthians 11:13-15, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.  And no wonder!  For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.”  Of such was apparently this man who claimed to be the apostle John. 

Josephus informs us that James, the half-brother of the Lord and leader of the church at Jerusalem, was martyred in 61 or 62 AD.  Along with him other apostles were martyred.  Various other traditions, such as the Syriac martyrology (written around 400 AD) list James and John as having been martyred together.  Thus, John was probably martyred during this persecution at Jerusalem, just as Christ predicted that he would be.

Internal evidence for the fact that John was written much earlier than the 90s AD should settle the matter for all who let the Word of God have the final say in such matters.  In John 5:2, he writes, “Now there is at Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.”  It is impossible to believe that a Jew writing after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD would be so callous as to write about the city as if it was still there.  Every Jew who experienced the horrible event of the destruction of their beloved capital would have this experience indelibly imprinted on their memory.  Jerusalem was so destroyed, Josephus reports (Wars of the Jews, VII, 1) that the entire city was completely devastated, excepting three towers used by the Romans as barracks for their soldiers.  Thus, the gate and the pool spoken of in John 5:2 no longer existed after 70 AD.  If writing after this time, it is no doubt that this born and bred Jew would have written that “Now there was at Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool…”  The fact that he didn’t, the fact that he wrote about the gate and the pool as if they were still there, are proof positive that this book was written, not after, but rather before 70 AD.

Thus the fact that John is different from the other gospels is not due to the fact that it was written later, as most seem to believe.  Nor is its difference due to the fact that it is not based on the same source material as the other three gospels.  All four gospels found their source in the Holy Spirit of God, and needed no human “source document” to insure their accuracy.  Therefore, the difference is not a symptom of some secondary cause, but rather is a purposeful difference caused by the primary source of all the gospels: the God Who wrote all Scripture.

When compared with the other gospels, we see that John is one of two written by one of the twelve (along with Matthew.)  Matthew and Luke present Christ from a human perspective (as God’s perfect King in Matthew and God’s perfect Man in Luke.)  Mark and John present Christ from God’s perspective.  Mark presents Christ as God’s perfect Servant.  But John is unique in its testimony, for it presents Christ, not as a King, a Servant, or a Man, but as God Himself.  It emphasizes the Lord’s Godhood, and its every story is chosen and every example crafted to prove this wondrous point: that Christ, while a true Man, was more than just a Man, but was actually God manifested in the flesh.

Thus we can see that, though in some ways John fits in with the other gospels, in many ways its message is unique.  This fact of John’s unique viewpoint on Christ alone would be enough to give us the idea that John would differ greatly from the other three gospels, even without having read and compared the four to see that this is true.  Yet John is unique for another reason.  The other four gospels are written as if to give the story of Christ’s life on earth.  Many believers know that the word “gospel” in our Bibles is a translation of the Greek word evangelion and means “good news” (or, as I would prefer, “right message.”)  Yet few realize that this is not what the word means when it refers to the “gospel of Matthew” or the “gospel of Mark.”  The word “gospel” here is not representative of any word in the Greek title, but rather is inserted here by our Bible translators to express their views on what these books are.  Thus, in the case of the four gospels, this word actually is placed there because of its original English meaning, not what it meant in Greek.  In English, the word “gospel” actually comes from the word “Godspell,” which in Anglo-Saxon would have meant “a narrative of God,” in other words, a life of Christ.  Thus our translators call these books “gospels” because they are viewed as different viewpoints on the life of God on earth, such as “the life of Christ according to Luke.”

Of course, this is just our translators’ idea, and is not representative of the title of these books in Greek.  Yet we can say that, in the case of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this term is fairly accurate, for these books do set forth the life of our God and Savior Jesus Christ on earth as it is viewed by these three authors.  Yet I do not believe that we can look at John this same way.  The book of John was not written to set forth Christ’s life on earth.  This, I believe, is one of the most important keys we can have to start out our study of the book to help us understand what we read and properly interpret the message of John.

John was not written to set forth the life of Christ.  Rather, it was written as a treatise, very similar to the thesis a graduate student might write to get his degree.  John writes this thesis that is called his gospel for one distinct purpose.  That purpose is written down for us in John 20:31.  “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”  The premise of John’s thesis is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  And the purpose of his writing this thesis, unlike that of the graduate student, who wishes only to justify his research and earn a degree, is a purpose that extents far beyond John himself.  His purpose is to produce believers in these two great facts.  As a graduate student must try to convince the professors who are grading his work, so John’s thesis attempts to convince all who read that John’s great premise is true, and that Jesus is indeed the Christ, and that He is the Son of God.

Once we understand this important truth about John, suddenly the style in which it is written and the content it has becomes clear.  The stories John tells are chosen entirely for their significance in proving his main point.  The miracles he records are chosen because they relate to proving John’s theme.  Moreover, the puzzling fact that he often breaks into a story to offer his own viewpoint, or that he sometimes does not even finish a story or tell us what the outcome was, suddenly becomes clear.  The reason he does this is that the stories themselves are inconsequential but for the fact that they point out to us the truth of John’s theme.  If the conclusion of a story does not help that great purpose, then it is superfluous to the book and is ignored.  Moreover, stories that are viewed as valuable by the rest of the gospels yet do not further John’s main purpose are overlooked.  Thus the great difference between John’s gospel and the other three becomes crystal clear.  John wrote in such a different style and using such different stories because this style and these stories fit in with his purpose in writing the book.

Thus, having said these things, let us turn to the book and see for ourselves what God has written therein.  Let us examine the proofs that John sets forth to support his premise, and may we all, as John wished, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.