… but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God … – John 20:31
The Gospel of John, also known as the Fourth Gospel, stands out among the four Gospels in the New Testament as the only one which has an explicit purpose statement!
The author stated that his book included a set of carefully selected signs that Jesus did. He mentioned twice that Jesus had done numerous signs. It was not the author’s intention to document all those miraculous works; neither was such a task possible.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book …” (20:30)
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (21:25)
Nevertheless, John stated that he had handpicked certain signs that Jesus did to craft his book. This indicates that the author was very meticulous and careful, as is evident in his work.
“… 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.” (20:31)
Unlike the other Evangelists, John referred to Jesus’ miracles as signs because he believed that those miracles served a purpose. The first sign that we read in John’s Gospel is the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The series culminates in the raising of Lazarus, a man who was dead for four days. In addition to having a significance of their own, the signs proved the claims of Jesus—that He was the Christ, the Son of God. The terms ‘Christ’ (or Messiah) and ‘Son of God’ were Jewish terms loaded with religious and political meaning.
For centuries, the Jewish people remained expectant to see a fulfillment of God’s promises to King David that one of his descendants would ascend David’s throne to rule the world with a a rod of iron. Psalm 2, a coronation hymn written by David, prophetically describes this longing. Like all other Jewish kings, this Davidic king would be called God’s anointed, the Messiah,. And, like all kings in the ‘Ancient Near East,’ he would be called the Son of God because people in West Asia believed that all kings were born of God, at the time of their coronation, thus deriving from God their right to rule over fellow-men. The Messiah was expected to unify all Israel and liberate them from all oppressive foreign rulers.
The purpose statement of John’s Gospel gives us the impression that this gospel was primarily written for the benefit of a Jewish audience. No other nation was expecting a Messiah at that time. No other people would have been able to make full sense of a book that is replete with references and allusions to the Hebrew scriptures. There are numerous explicit and implicit references to the Hebrew Bible in John’s Gospel. Apart from references to Moses, the Law, Elijah, the serpent in the wilderness, manna, and Abraham, the book has quotations from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah. Allusions to events and themes in the Hebrew Scriptures outnumber direct quotations. For instance, look at how John the Baptist, the man sent to prepare a way for the Messiah, announced Jesus’ arrival at river Jordan:
“Behold, the lamb of God!” (1:29; 1:36)
Only Jews could have understood such a description that pointed to the Passover lamb!
The purpose statement tells us that John’s primary mission was to make his readers consider the all-important question: Who indeed was the man Jesus? John desired to convince Jews that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God, they were longing for. This Messiah called Jesus offered them something that other kings could never give them: eternal life.
John might have expected Jews in Judea and Galilee to read his work. But there are indications that his primary target was the Jewish Diaspora scattered all over the Roman empire. He knew that many Jews – both young and old – who lived outside Palestine had never visited the land of their ancestors. Therefore, John was careful to include crucial geographic and cultural details in his book for the benefit of all readers outside Palestine. For instance, look at John’s description of the pool called Bethesda.
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” (5:2, 3)
This not only gives us information about the pool but also indicates the time when this Gospel was written—when the pool and its colonnades were still standing. Certainly, that must have been before the year AD 70, when Jerusalem was sacked by Rome after an extended siege of three-and-a-half years. This gives us an important reason to trust the author’s testimony about Jesus.
John’s commitment to proclaim the gospel to his own people through the written word is commendable. However, John’s Gospel was not by any means restricted to a Jewish audience. John was mindful of a global audience. He was careful to let his readers know that God loved the world and that whosoever believed in Jesus would not perish (3:16). John included Jesus’ claim that he was the Light of the world (8:12; 9:5; 12:46). John also narrated an incident where a Samaritan woman perceived that Jesus was a ‘Jew’; but it was she and her people who, a little later, addressed Jesus as the Savior of the world! (4:42) John was also careful to explain certain Jewish customs and terminology for the sake of his Gentile readers. The italicized words in these verses illustrate this point.
“Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece.” (2:6)
‘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.’ (4:9)
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).’ (20:16)
Closely linked to the central focus of this book on the identity of Jesus is the book’s pursuit of another vital question: Who are God’s people? The physical descendants of Abraham claimed to be God’s chosen people. John was one of them. No one dared to question the privileged status that ethnic Israel enjoyed in matters related to God. The Gentiles were outcasts. They had no claim whatsoever to the sacred kingdom of the Messiah. But what effect did the ‘Jesus event’ have on this equation?
Apart from these twin purposes, the author of John’s Gospel had several other relatively minor aims such as to encourage and unify the early Church, to explain the spiritual significance of Christian sacraments, to counter the claims of Gnosticism, and to affirm the role and status of women disciples. We shall look at these themes in due course.
“… but these are written so that …” John wrote a book to convince Jews and the rest of the world about Jesus Christ. What are we doing to present the Gospel to our own people or countrymen in a language and format that they understand?