Tag Archives: Internal Evidence

Second Thessalonians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents 

Authorship

Second Thessalonians claims to be written by the apostle Paul, but it is sometimes grouped among the “disputed” letters; that is, its genuineness as a letter of the apostle is doubted, on the basis of internal evidence.

“External evidence” refers to the historical data, such as quotations by other early writers, ancient manuscripts, and explicit references. The odd thing about the charge of inauthenticity is that the external evidence for this letter is actually stronger than that for 1 Thessalonians, which is seldom doubted, if ever. Second Thessalonians is referred to in the very early work, the Didache, and by the writers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr in the second century.

“Internal evidence” refers to the text of the letter itself, and considers such things as grammar, expressions, and thought patterns. Some liberal scholars have maintained that Paul’s doctrine of the end times (eschatology) is different than that found in 1 Thessalonians and his other letters.

Questioning the authenticity of biblical books for reasons like this is common among liberal scholars, but the problems with basing a case upon internal evidences are many. One is their subjective nature. In other words, these opinions are based on no more than the “gut feeling” of the scholars. Along with that, differences in grammar or expression can be accounted for by other reasons, such as the use of a different amanuensis (secretary). We should in humility also admit that there might have been circumstances that affected it of which we know nothing.

Most Bible students have found no inconsistency in the doctrine of 2 Thessalonians, and they believe that, along with the weight of historical witnesses, should carry the argument over subjective speculations.

Conservative scholars and Bible students have therefore dismissed the charges of those who rely on their “gut feeling” that the letter is not genuine. They have found that the strong historical evidences and the marks of Paul’s genuine teaching and doctrine are sufficient reasons to trust that this letter is from the apostle and the Word of God.

 

Backgroundtheossolian map

Within weeks or, at most, a few months of writing 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul wrote this second letter to that young congregation. Like the first, it was written from Corinth during Paul’s eighteen month ministry there. Since this letter followed the first so quickly, most of the Background discussion in “1 Thessalonians: the ABCs” applies here (see that webpage).

Some further information about the church had reached Paul, which stimulated him to write this letter. There seem to have been three major issues:

1.      The opposition faced by the believers in Thessalonica, which he alluded to in the first letter, had apparently become worse. Paul wanted to strengthen them to endure suffering for Christ’s sake.

2.      A counterfeit letter claiming to be from Paul, or some “prophetic” messages regarding the Lord’s Day, had unsettled them. Paul wanted to clarify his teaching and establish their expectations accurately.

3.      In light of those misunderstandings of what we commonly call the “end times,” some of the believers in Thessalonica were dropping out of normal everyday labor to “wait for the Lord.” Paul wanted to set them straight.

The estimated time of writing is the second half of A.D. 50, making it one of Paul’s earliest letters.

 

Contents

Paul’s letter deals with each of the issues mentioned in Background. They correspond with the three chapters into which the letter is divided.

  • The persecution faced by the Thessalonians and God’s promised answer.

In the first chapter, Paul acknowledges the persecution being received by the church, and commends them for their persevering faith. One reason they can take heart is the knowledge that God is observing their trials, and in his justice will one day deal with their persecutors:

 

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. (1:6-7)

 

In the meantime, Paul prays for their encouragement:

 

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. (1:11)

 

While none of us wants to experience opposition for our faith, it is always possible in this world. Paul’s perspective and prayers can guide us in how to respond when either we or other believers we know are persecuted.

 

  • Responding to confusion caused by a counterfeit message.

 

Paul begins the teaching portion of the letter by referring to a counterfeit message:

 

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (2:1-2)

 

In the formative years of the church before the New Testament was written, the Lord sometimes delivered direct revelation through living prophets. It’s possible that a member of the church or a visitor had delivered a false prophecy that created confusion and fear among the people. It’s also possible that a counterfeit letter with Paul’s name attached had made its way there with the same kind of message.

Either the reality or the possibility of such a false letter moved Paul to add this at the end of 2 Thessalonians:

 

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. (3:17)

 

In other words, the original letter sent to Thessalonica included this sentence in Paul’s own handwriting with his autograph. It enabled them to check the authenticity of future communications.

 

  • Correcting their doctrinal understanding of end times prophecy.

 

The false message had apparently claimed that the Lord’s final wrap-up of history prior to inaugurating his kingdom had begun. Members of the church were afraid and confused, wondering if they had missed out somehow. In 2:1-11 Paul clarifies the specific order of events before “the Lord’s Day” to calm them and impart confidence.

In summary, the order of events is:

  1. The “rebellion” or “apostasy” comes first — a decisive and widespread falling away from professed “faith” which opens the way for:
  2. The appearance of “the man of lawlessness,” a world-wide leader who will arise. In other passages, he is known as “antichrist.”
  3. This “lawless one” will oppose the true God, and eventually reveal his true nature to the world by taking his place in God’s temple and demand to be honored as God. This event is predicted in the Old Testament book of Daniel, and was specifically referred to by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:15.

 

  • Encouragement for the Christians in Thessalonica.

 

The believers apparently feared that they had somehow been left for judgment, so Paul writes to reassure and encourage them. They were destined for salvation, not the wrath of God:

 

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachingswe passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2:13-15)

 

  • Clarifying priorities: Live and work faithfully and responsibly.

 

Throughout Christian history (even as this article is being written!) there have been misguided leaders who have set dates for the Lord’s return and urged believers to stop living ordinary lives, and instead to sell their possessions, wait on rooftops, etc. Paul decisively opposes such actions:

 

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teachingyou received from us. (3:6)

 

Paul points to his own example in contrast. He was not idle, but worked with his own hands in order to provide the right pattern for them to follow. In this context Paul delivers the strong message,

 

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (3:10)

 

Paul urges the church to confront this irresponsibility where it occurs. But lest overzealous believers overdo it and deal with others too harshly, Paul explains,

 

Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (3:15)

 

This is a pattern caring Christians should continue to follow today. Throughout the New Testament we are told to accept our mutual responsibility for one another. We should teach, encourage, counsel, admonish, and warn each other. But none of these things should be done in a harsh or vindictive manner. We are to speak and act in love, mercy, and grace, just as the Lord has done toward us.

  

Conclusion           

In 2 Thessalonians can be seen the close relationship between the believer’s future hope and present responsibilities. Hope in the Bible is never uncertain. It is not, as you hear in everyday speech, “I hope so” representing wishful thinking. The word “hope” in the Bible refers to our firm assurance and eager expectation of God’s sure promises.

And yet, Christians’ focus on future events surrounding the return of Christ does not produce the quality that’s been described “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.” It’s just the opposite. Our sure hope in Christ and in God’s coming kingdom lead us to live appropriately today. We should go about our business, working at our occupations, being good neighbors, and doing good in Jesus’ name while we wait for his return from heaven. The Scriptures give us enough understanding of future events that we can be alert and ready should we be the generation that lives to see them.

Second Thessalonians is a great help for keeping this balanced focus.

 

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: The ABCs

be kindAuthorship, Background, and Contents of Ephesians 

  

Authorship

 

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has long been considered the epitome of his teaching, a virtual summary of Christian doctrine. Well-loved Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee called it “the Mount Whitney of the High Sierras of all Scripture.” The epistle has nourished, taught, and encouraged believers from its original writing.

Its universal appreciation makes it even more puzzling to evangelical believers to discover that the authenticity of Ephesians has been under severe attack since the rise of liberal skepticism in the 19th century. Many liberals have called it a forgery, a summary by some other writer of the teachings of Paul.

Not only is this critical attack surprising to a modern believer, but it is launched against powerful and completely consistent historical evidence of its genuineness. As W. G. Kümmel writes, “without question, Ephesians was extraordinarily well attested in the early Church.” Ephesians is found in every early canonical list (“canonical” = divinely inspired New Testament writings). There are allusions or quotes from Ephesians in the earliest Christian writings, including the book known as 1 Clement, dated about A.D. 95. There are references in the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp in the early second century, and in many others.

 

Scholar A. Skevington Wood comments on the overwhelming evidence:

 

It is on such an impressive basis that the case for authenticity rests. When unanimous external attestation is supported by sufficiently convincing internal evidence, we are surely justified in insisting that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to repudiate the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

 

So what are the charges that critics make? There are three main lines of attack:

  1. That Ephesians shows a different style and vocabulary than Paul’s other works.

This charge is disputed by conservative scholars. Not only is it based on “subjective gut feel,” it is simply not true. Other students find that similarities with Paul’s style are clearly present.

Along with this, writers of many persuasions have shown the flimsy nature of this kind of analysis. Since when does a writer have only one distinct style? Subject matter and context make a huge difference. The same screen writer who has created a psychological thriller could use a completely different style and vocabulary if writing a romantic comedy. Who would write a technical article in the same style as a friendly letter? Or a love letter? Surely, an intellect as great as the apostle Paul’s is capable of more than one literary style.

  1. That Ephesians appears to be dependent on other Pauline works, especially Colossians.

First of all, an author has every right to reuse some of his own material whenever he likes, especially for similar situations and times. The charge that Ephesians “has too much material in common with Paul’s other writings” is really rather strange. It seems that critics are saying, “Ephesians is to be considered non-Pauline because it sounds too much like Paul.” A normal person would be excused for thinking these critics are rather hard to please!

To the second part, yes, there are clearly parallels with Colossians (this will be discussed in Background). Scholar Curtis Vaughn points out that three-fifths of Colossians can be found in Ephesians, and says,

We can best account for the similarities of the epistles on the supposition that Ephesians is an expansion by Paul of ideas presented in compact form in Colossians.

If both letters were written at the same time to similar audiences, this is to be expected.

A landmark study by E. Randolph Richards called Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (InterVarsity Press, 2004) makes important scholarly advances in our knowledge of how letters were composed in the New Testament era. Richards demonstrates how writers of the time used secretaries, kept notebooks of material to be used in multiple letters, and made drafts before final copies of important letters were dispatched. If Paul reused material from Colossians in Ephesians, or vice versa, he would have simply been doing what many other literary figures of his time did. It is the exact opposite of proving inauthenticity.

If the charges of skeptics are explored, another inconsistent and puzzling pattern emerges. One critic says that Ephesians is not genuine because it depends on Colossians. Another skeptic says that Colossians is not genuine because it depends on Ephesians. Once again, the accusations of critics seem to wander in a self-contradictory circle. It’s easiest to explain the similarities by common authorship. Paul wrote them both.

  1. That Ephesians shows an “ecclesiastical development” too advanced for the traditional time of writing (“ecclesiastical” = relating to church structure and organization).

This opinion is based on “evolutionary theories” of how early Christianity developed, which are speculative, unproveable, and highly debatable. To assume that the first century church grew in such-and-such a manner (which cannot be observed or examined, and for which there is no historical evidence), and then to say “Ephesians is not genuine” based on those theories turns a “historian” into a writer of fiction. Faithful Christians need not grant the time of day to those who “just know” that their opinions are true in the face of all actual evidence.

 

In conclusion, A. Skeffington Wood describes the case for the Paul’s authorship of Ephesians:

 

Its strength lies in the incontestability of the external attestation corroborated by impressive internal testimony. Only an overwhelming conclusive counterargument could disturb the traditional interpretation. Those who reject Pauline authorship appeal to internal data. Even if objections of this kind were to be sustained, the consistent historical authentication of Ephesians would remain as an insurmountable barrier.

 

Most of the controversy about Ephesians deals with its authorship, which we will now take for granted as being Paul. It is classed with the “prison epistles” (Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) because of Paul’s comment in 6:20. The date of the letter is likely A.D. 62 from Rome (see “Colossians: the ABCs” for more discussion of Paul’s circumstances, and other suggestions of the place and date of writing).

 

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues to serve as an excellent concise summary of his teaching on Christ, the believer, and the Christian life. Anyone who digests this teaching will find his heart nourished, his mind illumined, and his life enriched.

 

Background

 

There is a genuine mystery about Ephesians, but it is not about who wrote it. Paul did. The actual mystery is about to whom he was writing.

To a new student this sounds strange. After all, it’s entitled “to the Ephesians,” isn’t it? The answer is: No one knows for sure.

In the earliest and highest quality ancient Greek manuscripts, the words “to the Ephesians” are missing. There is actually a blank space. This is not only evidenced by those manuscripts. Early Christian writers commented on it as well. Yes, as time went on, all later copies included the address, but this seems to be a matter of growing convention rather than accuracy.

Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which comprised approximately the western fourth of modern Turkey. It was a large and important city on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Historians now know that there were over 230 independent communities in this province. Paul had an extensive ministry there around the years A.D. 54-57, and the church dramatically grew both in Ephesus and throughout Asia, as Paul’s disciples went forth and evangelized. For example, we know of one individual by name, Epaphras, who founded the church in Colossae (see Colossians 1:7), in the Lycus River valley about 100 miles east of the capital.

It is easy to imagine this scenario being duplicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of other communities in this province: Small churches springing up as faithful believers shared the good news. The apostle would have been thrilled with the news, but it also created a problem for him: With all his traveling, and now being imprisoned, how could Paul personally provide these multiplying churches with a sound doctrinal foundation? Ephesians was likely the result.

The most likely reason for the blank space in the earliest manuscripts is that Ephesians was actually a circular letter, or an “encyclical,” meaning a letter written to be circulated throughout a whole region, in this case to all the churches in the province of Asia. Ephesus being the capital city, is easy to imagine how the “to the Ephesians” became attached. If Paul were to write a letter to all the churches in north Texas, it would be natural for it to become known as “Paul’s letter to the Dallasites.” It’s likely it would take on this name, in spite of the fact that it was also sent to congregations in Grapevine, Lewisville, Denton, Coppell, and Plano.

In Colossians, Paul tells them,

 

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Col. 4:16)

 

If you have never heard of “Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans,” it is for good reason. There is no letter known today by that name. Though this cannot be decisively proven, it seems likely that Paul is referring to the circular letter we know as Ephesians (interestingly, one second century list does name a letter “to the Laodiceans” while appearing actually to refer to Ephesians).

 

Quoting from “Colossians: the ABCs”:

 

While Colossians is specific, argumentative and full of warnings, Ephesians seems general and uncontroversial. While they cover many of the same truths, Ephesians seems to be generally teaching a survey of Christian beliefs, while Colossians discusses many of the same truths as if they were under attack, which they were. If Ephesians is a lamp to illumine a room, Colossians is a laser beam to eradicate a cancer.

 

This is why Paul wrote two letters at the same time. Colossians was created to address a church’s specific problems. Ephesians was composed to teach many churches general truths every believer needs to know. That explains why Ephesians shows a lack of specific circumstances or problems addressed, and why it seems in a way “impersonal.” It’s certainly not impersonal in the sense that Paul is sharing from his heart about the riches that Christ has accomplished for every saint, and about the kind of living by which believers can glorify him.

 

Contents

 

Though only six chapters in length, Ephesians is jam-packed with theological meat and practical instruction. It does not take very long to read it through, but the ideas are profound enough to occupy one for a lifetime.

The letter is perfectly balanced. The first three chapters are doctrinal teaching on what it means to be a Christian. The last three chapters discuss what it means to live as a Christian. Ephesians can actually be outlined and grasped in just two key verses. First:

 

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (1:3)

 

Chapters 1 — 3 can be understood as a commentary on this one verse: What it means that God has given us “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Second:

 

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (4:1)

 

Chapters 4 — 6 go on to explain what it means to live in such a way that Jesus Christ is glorified.

Here are some of the main themes explored in the letter:

  • What it means to be “in Christ” — The phrase “in Christ” and its equivalents (e.g., “in him,” “in whom”) are found in Ephesians about 30 times. To be “in Christ” means the result of our total identification with him in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Because we believers are “in Christ,” we have “every spiritual blessing”: adoption as sons (1:5); redemption and forgiveness (1:7); the sealing of the Holy Spirit (1:13-14); new spiritual life (2:4-5); we are seated with him in the heavenlies (2:6); salvation (2:8-9); and much more.
  • God’s new temple, the church, consisting of Jew and Gentile — In an extended discussion from 2:11-3:13, Paul expounds on the “mystery” which God now announced through the apostles, which is the church. No longer will people find their identities in ethnic or religious backgrounds, because all believers are one in Christ. The Lord has broken down the wall of separation, the Law of Moses, which kept Jews and Gentiles apart. All are now equal brothers and sisters in a completely new entity, the body of Christ, which is God’s new dwelling place.
  • Prayers for understanding — Twice in the first three chapters, Paul pauses his teaching to pray for his hearers (1:15-19 and 3:14-21). He appears to sense that the profound spiritual truths he’s relating cannot be understood by human intellect alone — that we need the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to receive them in a genuinely life-transforming way. Pray these prayers for yourself. Ask God to open your mind and heart to receive and understand how great is the love he has given you in Christ.
  • How the church is meant to function — In 4:11-16, Paul builds on the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, and shows how it is meant to function on earth. The purpose of gifted leaders, he says, is not to do all the work of ministry, but to equip God’s people to serve. As our human bodies need many different parts to fulfill different functions, so the body of Christ needs all believers to contribute their unique gifts for the good of all and for the effectiveness of the whole church.
  • Practical teaching on right and wrong behavior — In 4:25-32 we are given several quick exhortations on right and wrong behavior. Paul’s practicality as a teacher is shown in how he approaches it. For example, it’s not enough just to “stop stealing,” Paul says. Such a person “must work, doing something with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (4:28). Notice that Paul says in effect, “Don’t do this,” but doesn’t stop there. He adds, “Do this,” then “Here’s why.” That’s how someone learns how to stop a bad habit, but just as importantly, build a new one based on a new framework of motivation. Each exhortation in the section follows this pattern.
  • Focus on the heart of Christian living, walking by the Spirit — The heart of the matter is the heart. Paul is never satisfied with outward conformity, and he calls believers to live by Christ’s resources, beginning with the decision to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). The verb tense implies a continuous dependence, by which a believer yields to Christ’s lordship and to the Holy Spirit as one’s power for living. The result then flows into all the spheres of life.
  • Instruction for various relationships on earth — Regardless of how “spiritual” one is, there are common realities of structures and relationships in which we work out our union with Christ: marriage (5:22-33 is surely the most famous passage on marriage in the Bible), parent-child, and work (for most people then, slaves and masters; today, applying to employees-employers). Those in the “head” position are called to serve lovingly, wisely, and justly; those in the “subordinate” role are called to respect their authority and serve as if they are serving Christ himself.
  • Encouragement for spiritual warfare — In a well-known passage (6:10-20), Paul encourages believers to be prepared for spiritual conflict and to take hold of all the resources Christ gives, illustrated by the armor of a Roman soldier. Besides the defensive armor of helmet and breastplate, the believer has the offensive weapon of the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). But don’t stop there. There is the “artillery” of spiritual warfare, which is prayer. Therefore Paul says, “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (6:18), as well as for himself.

 

Conclusion

 

F. W. Faber once wrote,

 

Deep theology is the best fuel of devotion; it readily catches fire, and once kindled it burns long.

 

While there are many places in the Word of God to find “deep theology,” Ephesians may be the most concise and concentrated collection of spiritual truth about Christ in the Bible. Not only will the reader learn a tremendous amount in a short investment of time, he or she will find a bold and life-changing presentation of how great is God’s love for us in Christ.

Oswald Chambers said,

Take an absolute plunge into the love of God, and when you are there you will be amazed at your foolishness for not getting there before.

 

There are few places in the Bible where you can take a plunge into the love of God more refreshing than Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

T.L.S.

The Gospel of John: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents of Johns Gospel

 

Authorship

 

Though the names traditionally assigned to the four gospels go back to earliest Christian times — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — it is true that none of the four actually names its author. We have accepted the identities of the authors on other grounds, chiefly consistent early tradition along with internal evidence. Probably the last gospel written, the authorship of John can be established with confidence.

In one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the decisive clue leading the detective to the solution of the mystery is “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” When a puzzled character says, “But the dog did nothing in the nighttime,” Holmes replies, “That is the curious incident.” The dog did not bark because he knew the person who came to the stable, guiding Holmes to the culprit. The mystery hinges on what did not happen.

Similarly, the Fourth Gospel is striking because of the central character who is never named — the apostle John. This John was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, nicknamed with his brother “the Sons of Thunder.” These brothers along with Peter figure prominently in the other three gospels as Jesus’ inner circle. In this gospel Peter appears often, as do many lesser-known disciples, such as Nathaniel, Philip, and Thomas. It is therefore surprising that John, who is mentioned so often in all of the other gospels, is never named in this one.

There is a person referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and this person is identified as the author in 21:20-24. James was martyred too early to have written this gospel (about A.D. 44), so that leaves John. Many scholars have pointed out that the author of this gospel was a Jew who lived in Palestine before the destruction of Jerusalem. He is accurate on many details that someone would not know otherwise, such as geography, culture, religious practices, and architecture — much of which did not exist after A.D. 70. Some of the architectural features he mentions were not verified until they were discovered by archaeologists in the 20th century. John’s descriptions are true.

All early Christian writers identify John as the author. Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180 wrote that:

 

John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, had himself published a gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia.

 

Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John himself in his youth, giving a strong link back to the first generation of Christians. Irenaeus writes:

 

I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which have happened recently … I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed … how he reported his converse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, including his miracles and his teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.

 

The early Christian historian Eusebius, writing about A.D. 325, says that the first three gospels having already been written (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, known as the “Synoptic” gospels), they were presented to John for his comments:

 

He admitted them, giving his testimony to their truth; but that there was only wanting in the narrative the account of the things done by Christ among the first of his deeds, and at the commencement of the gospel.…For these reasons the apostle John, it is said, being entreated to undertake it, wrote the account of the time not recorded by the former evangelists.

 

John reflects this, seeming deliberately to avoid retelling many of the teachings and events already presented in the Synoptics, and filling in many of the blanks they do not cover (see Contents).

 

Despite the unanimous early testimony of believers and the absence of contrary evidence, radical scholars have attacked the authenticity of John for 150 years. The main reasons given are 1) the supposed 2nd century philosophy represented in it, especially John’s use of Logos, “the Word,” for Christ; and 2) the supposed “advanced Christology.” However, recent scholarship has skewered the first view, finding that the concept of logos was already known and used in the first century. The second charge of “advanced Christology” is based on the faulty assumption that the first followers of Christ considered him only a man (though highly revered) and subsequent decades showed a gradual growth into belief in his deity. A study of the New Testament epistles shows the foolishness of this view — John says nothing about Christ that was not taught about him from the beginning. Particularly Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrews, written in the 50s and 60s, prove that Christians believed all along that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and Creator of all things who has now become man to redeem us and reconcile all things to himself.

Two important archaeological discoveries also have confirmed the traditional date of John. One of these, the John Rylands papyrus, is the oldest extent portion of New Testament Scripture: a fragment of the Gospel of John dated about A.D. 130. This proves that, allowing time for copying and transmission, this gospel could have been written no later than the time always assigned to it — sometime between A.D. 70-90.

There have always been, and always will be, committed skeptics. However, believers today can be confident that this gospel was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the faithful disciple John.

 

Background

 

As seen in the Irenaeus quote above, John appears to consciously supplement the three gospels that had already been written. Early traditions are consistent in placing John in and around Ephesus during the last decades of his life.

The first three gospels in the New Testament are known as the “Synoptic” gospels, meaning “seen together” or giving a “common view.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a common outline, probably because Matthew and Luke used Mark as the structure upon which they built additional records about Jesus’ life and teachings. John stands apart as a strikingly different viewpoint of Christ, emphasizing different teachings and events than the others.

In the first decades after Christ’s resurrection, the Church was primarily Jewish. Jewish Christians coexisted within the community of the Jews, and there was alternately uneasy tolerance and rejection (the Epistle of James was probably written during this period). But after the destruction of Jerusalem, relations between Christians and non-Christian Jews widened, and there was much animosity. The Jewish Christians among them would have been special targets of scorn. John’s writings — the Gospel, his three letters, and especially the Revelation — reflect that hostility, and give encouragement to keep believing.

We can know, however, that his listeners were primarily Gentiles. As such, they would have had a weaker foundation of Old Testament understanding. They would have been quite familiar with the religious currents of the day, and more susceptible to the errors of the cultures from which they came. The religious atmosphere of the time was a swirling mix of pagan mythologies, philosophical speculations, and mystery cults. Believers needed clear truth to keep their focus on Christ and the gospel.

Many early traditions say that John contended with a false teacher named Cerinthus, who taught an early version of Gnosticism. In brief, Gnosticism was a religious and philosophical movement based on the understanding that the material universe is an illusion and evil. Only “spirit” is good. Therefore, pure “spirit” could not be united with matter. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis, knowledge. “Salvation” for a Gnostic meant coming to this “spiritual knowledge” and escaping the illusion of this world.

Cerinthus taught that Jesus, being pure Spirit, could not have joined himself to matter. He only seemed to have a human body. From this view, the error of Cerinthus has been called “Docetism” — from the Greek word dokeo, “to seem.” The First Letter of John directly attacks this false teaching.

Whether or not this controversy had arisen by the time this gospel was written, John could hardly have chosen language better designed to attack Docetism than these words:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.

John 1:1,14

Jesus was not partly God. He was not God pretending to be a man. He was not God who only seemed to be a man. Jesus Christ was truly God-become-Man.

The profound claims of Christ and the profound teaching of the apostle John have given us incredibly strong assurance of who Jesus was and is.

 

Contents

A major contribution of John is his narrative of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a period passed over by the other gospel writers. For example, Mark summarizes in a single chapter the inaugural preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, and the temptations. Then he goes straight to this comment:

 

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. (Mark 1:14)

 

Matthew and Luke follow this pattern, giving the impression that Jesus’ move to Galilee was immediate. It is John who explains more fully, telling us that Jesus spent several months working in Judea under the umbrella of the Baptist’s ministry. The first four chapters of John describe Jesus’ activities during this period. From the viewpoint of the public at the time, John the Baptist was seen as the leader of the movement, with Jesus subordinate. But Jesus quickly took over the dominant role. That’s why we have this exchange:

 

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ . . . He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:26-30)

 

During this period the disciple John became acquainted with Jesus and began to follow him. John also tells of how Peter met Jesus in 1:40-42. Thus we know that when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew to full-time discipleship in Matthew 4:18-20 (“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”) it is not the first time they had ever met him. Peter and Andrew had known Jesus for several months, as John makes clear. The same was true for John and his brother James.

 

I.            The Theme of John: Eternal life comes through faith in Jesus Christ

 

According to Stephen S. Kim, “The literary structure of the Fourth Gospel makes it one of the most carefully crafted pieces of literature in the Bible.” But what was it crafted to accomplish? Merrill C. Tenney has written, “One of the peculiarities of the Fourth Gospel is the fact that its author chose to hang its key by the back door.”

He is speaking of John 20:30-31, where the apostle reveals his purpose:

 

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

 

Just as in his letters, John wanted believers to have a clear understanding of who Christ is and what He has accomplished, and thus have assurance of salvation through faith in Him. John identified his aim in his first letter, which could also serve as the purpose statement of his gospel:

 

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

 

Scholar N. T. Wright points out that the Greek “verb ‘believe’ (pisteuein) occurs more in this gospel than in Matthew, Mark and Luke put together; and, perhaps even more surprising, more than in all of Paul’s letters put together.” It is used 99 times in John’s gospel.

 

II.            Knowing Whom to Believe: Emphasizing the claims of Christ.

 

Biblical faith requires content; that is, it is not a feeling, nor is it “putting your brain on the shelf.” Exercising faith according to the Scriptures means you know the person who is the object of your faith.

John establishes the identity of Jesus immediately:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

 

In this profound opening, John refers to Christ as “the Word” — Greek, Logos. Logos means not only “word” but “communication,” “speech,” “reason,” and “logic.” Thinking of the Word as Creator, it is striking to recall the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, where God creates all things merely by speaking.

Notice that not only was the Word “with God” in the beginning, but also that “the Word was God.” How can a Person both be “with” God and “be” God at the same time? It boggles the imagination, but from passages like this we see a glimpse of the eternal three-fold nature of God, who is a Trinity: three Persons in one Divine Nature. Then in verse 2 it is made clear that the Word is not some impersonal quality of God, but a Person: “He was with God in the beginning.”

This same Word “became flesh” (v. 14) — a real human being in whom we see the glory of the invisible God. Therefore, as Jesus says later,

 

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

 

Jesus’ direct claims to deity can be seen throughout this gospel. Some examples:

 

  • Jesus’ claim of the Divine Name. In the midst of a hot controversy with his opponents (chapter 8), Jesus did not shy away from the confrontation. On the contrary, he inflamed it. He tells them that because of their unbelief, “You will die in your sins” (v. 23); “You belong to your father, the devil” (v. 44); and “You do not belong to God” (v. 47). Finally he pushes them over the edge by claiming, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad”

(v. 56). They protest that it’s impossible; Abraham lived 2000 years before!

 

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!” (v. 58)

 

At this point they picked up stones to stone Jesus. Why? Because they heard loud and clear that Jesus was claiming to be God. “I AM” is the name by which God introduced himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3), and is the inner meaning of God’s personal name in Hebrew, Yahweh, which means “I AM THAT I AM” or “He Who Is.” In English Bibles, Yahweh is usually rendered “the LORD” in all caps. By this statement, Jesus was straightforwardly claiming to be the Creator God revealed in the Old Testament.

 

  • Jesus’ claim to be One with the Father. In the midst of another controversy Jesus made a claim no one could miss. We are told that his opponents demanded answers: The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). Jesus goes on to say,

 

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (10:27-30)

 

At this statement, they again picked up stones. When Jesus asks them why, they reply that it is not for any good work, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

 

  • The “Seven Great ‘I am’s’.” In the progress of his ministry, the Lord made seven striking claims, all beginning with “I am.” Despite the common view in our culture that Jesus was an ordinary man, imagine “an ordinary man” saying things like these:

 

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:35)

 

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)

 

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (10:9)

 

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (10:11)

 

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (11:25-26)

 

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)

 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5)

Put these claims together, and you’ll see that Jesus is claiming to be the answer to every one of the deepest needs of the human heart. No mere man could fulfill them.

 

Conclusion

 

In this introduction we can only briefly mention a few of the other important themes in John. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is spelled out in great detail by the Lord in chapters 14-16. The narratives of Jesus’ encounters with individuals, such as the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, are profound and fascinating. You’ll also find strong emphasis on the humanity of Christ, where he declares his dependency upon the Father for all he said and did:

 

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. . . . By myself I can do nothing. (5:19, 30)

 

Finally, the Lord calls his people to live in the same way he did:

 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5)

 

Just as Jesus in his humanity could “do nothing” apart from the Father, he tells us that apart from him we can do nothing. Only through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Christ himself in us) are we able to live the genuine Christian life. Our manner of living is the same as his: Total dependency upon the Lord who supplies the ability to do his will. He produces the fruit; we bear fruit through relying on him.

 

The Gospel of John is a lifetime study, and at the end of it you’ll feel your studies are only beginning!

 

T.L.S.