January 27, 2021

Why Is the Gospel of John so Different?

First Things First
Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church
Part Six:  — Why Is the Gospel of John so Different?

• • •

“The last of the four Gospels appears among the rest in a manner reminiscent of the appearance of Melchizedek to Abraham: “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (Heb. 7:3). Everything we want to know about this book is uncertain, and everything about it that is apparently knowable is a matter of dispute. The Gospel is anonymous; argument about its traditional ascription to the apostle John has almost exhausted itself. We cannot be sure where it was written, or when. We are uncertain of its antecedents, its sources, and its relationships. This includes its relations with the synoptic Gospels and with the religious movements of it day. Whereas many scholars have spoken of it as the gospel for the Greek world, others have seen it as firmly rooted in Judaism by upholding the good news of Christ among Christians from the Synagogue.”

– George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC, vol. 36)

Before we give our overview of the Gospel of John, it is appropriate to ask an obvious question: Why is this Gospel so different from the other three? Let’s consider some of the differences

1. John is different in structure. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt/Mk/Lk) follow the same basic outline: after various beginnings, they move from John the Baptizer’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee until Peter’s confession. The story then moves toward Jerusalem, where Jesus’ last week, death and resurrection is detailed. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, begins with a theological Prologueends with a narrative Epilogue, and in-between is divided into two “books” —

  • The Book of Signs (John 1:19-ch. 12) — includes stories from Jesus’ ministry that are not connected by chronology or geography. These stories are organized around the themes of the signs he was working and the sayings he gave. They emphasize (1) how people responded to his words and works, and (2) how Jesus engaged in controversies with the Jewish religious leaders.
  • The Book of Glory (John 13-20) — describes Jesus’ in-depth ministry to his disciples in the upper room as he prepared them for his departure, and then tells the story of his death and resurrection, bringing the drama to a climax with the account of his appearance to Thomas.

Some examples of John’s different geographical and chronological perspective: While the Synoptics have Jesus going to Jerusalem at the end of his life, John portrays most of his ministry occurring in the region of Jerusalem and Judea. The Temple cleansing takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. Jesus is anointed before he enters Jerusalem. The timing of events at the Last Supper and crucifixion are different:

In particular, the chronology of the passion in the Fourth Gospel, as compared with that of the Synoptics, seems so idiosyncratic that it has generated complex theories about independent calendars, or about theological motifs that John is self-consciously allowing to skew the naked chronology. Did Jesus and his disciples eat the Passover, so that he was arrested the evening of Passover and crucified the next day, or was he crucified at the same time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered? And how does one account for the fact that the Synoptics picture Jesus being crucified about the third hour (9:00 am), while in John Pilate’s final decision is not reached until the sixth hour (Jn. 19:14).

– D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John

2. John is different in content. About 92% of the material in John is unique to the fourth Gospel. For example, he only records eight miracles from Jesus’ ministry, and six of them are unique to John.

Some things NOT in John Some things UNIQUE to John
Jesus’ birth and childhood
Jesus’ temptation
Teaching in parables
Demon exorcisms
Healings of lepers
Teachings of the Sermon on the Mount
Stories about tax collectors
The Sadducees
Peter’s confession
The transfiguration
Jesus’ prophetic discourse
Institution of the Lord’s Supper
The agony in Gethsemane
Cleansing of temple early in Jesus’ ministry
Jesus’ ministry of baptism in Judea
Teaching Nicodemus about being “born again”
The wedding in Cana
The Samaritan woman
The “I AM” sayings
Raising Lazarus from the dead
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet
The Upper Room discourse
The Paraclete
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples
Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden
Jesus’ appearance on the lake and Peter’s restoration


3. John is different in vocabulary. John does not portray Jesus talking much at all about the “kingdom of God [heaven]” as the Synoptics do. We don’t hear story parables from Jesus’ mouth. John is filled with an entirely different vocabulary:  light and darkness, life, truth, witness, abide, world, believe, Father and Son, Jesus’ “hour,” glory, etc.

4. John shows no secret about Jesus’ identity. The turning point in the Synoptics is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, halfway through the story. Up until that point, they (esp. Mark) emphasize a season in which there was a “Messianic secret,” when Jesus forbade making his identity publicly known. In John, on the other hand, Jesus is acknowledged with Messianic titles six times in the first chapter alone.

* * *

Anyone coming to the Bible and reading the Gospels is forced to deal with the dramatic differences between the first three Gospels and the Fourth.

A blog post is not the place for a full analysis of the perplexing questions and possible answers. Nor am I qualified to give “expert” opinions on the enormous variety of interpretations out there. So let me share one possible perspective that I like that may help explain some of John’s distinctive characteristics.

D.A. Carson and George R. Beasley-Murray suggest that the approach introduced by Barnabas Lindars makes a lot of sense:

Much of John’s Gospel, Lindars suggests, was originally sermonic material that the Evangelist successively put together. (Carson)

A helpful approach to the composition of the Gospel, having a great measure of plausibility, postulates that the organizing of the traditions to form the Gospel took place through preaching, especially the preaching of the Evangelist. The suggestion appears to have occurred spontaneously to a number of students of the Gospel. The thought came to me when, as a student, I listened to Dodd expound his understanding of the structure of John’s “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12). He believed that each episode of this part of the Gospel consists of sign(s) plus discourse and that each presents the Gospel in its wholeness, namely Christ manifested, crucified, risen, exalted, and communicating life.  …To me this was as scales falling from the eyes, for this arrangement of the evangelic material was in all probability due to the Evangelist’s use of it in his preaching, as he presented the episodes of the ministry in the light of their end in the redemptive death and resurrection of the Lord. No doubt the synoptic Gospels reflect a like process, but the Fourth Gospel is supremely the preacher’s gospel — every episode in the book shouts out to be preached — and it is so because it is the product of a highly effective preacher’s proclamation of Christ in the Gospel. (Beasley-Murray)

In this view, the Gospel of John is different because it grows out of preaching. It is of a different genre than the Synoptics. It was put together by a literal evangelist — one who had honed his message through proclaiming the Good News. The episodic nature of the Gospel and the dramatic movement of each episode toward response to Jesus fits with the book’s stated purpose — that these written accounts are designed to show that Jesus is the Messiah and that believing in him brings life (20:30-31).


  1. On a somewhat related but different note. Am I the only one out here who has trouble READING John. Just like I find Shakespeare very difficult to read. But I have no trouble listening and comprehending either when read out loud by others. Something about the cadence just throws me for a loop when I’m trying to read these. I wonder if this is an issue resulting from translation in to English or the core way the material is presented.

    • One reason I have not always thought that giving a Gospel of John to someone new to Christianity was a good idea.

      • Clay Knick says

        I encourage people to read Mark. If they are literary types I then suggest Luke, but most of the time it is Mark. What about you?

      • But you’d think that a gospel compiled from evangelistic messages would be ideal for someone new to Christianity.

        • Yes IF the writing style is one they can read reasonably. For me reading John or Shakespeare is torture. I have to read it word by word and figure out how the sentences and/or verses make up a thought. The cadence just doesn’t work for me. But it is much more understandable if I am listening to someone else read it.

          Mark, on the other hand, I can cruise through with no issues unless it is a KJV then I have to slow down no matter what the book.

        • The first audience was likely Jewish and familiar with Rabbinic style debates and midrash, which of course most are not today.

      • “One reason I have not always thought that giving a Gospel of John to someone new to Christianity was a good idea.”

        Generally I agree. But it can change depending on what type of person they are. I had a friend who was heavily into philosophy, and it was the philisophical questions and answers in John that persuaded him to become a Christian.

        • Agree with this too.

        • Michael Bell, I think that worked for me too when I was a new Christian. The synoptics deal with what Jesus did, but John deals with what Jesus IS.

          • I agree with you, Ted. I love the Gospel of John and think that is the Gospel that most spoke to me about Jesus. But I do love the story of the birth of Jesus which John does not have. And he does not have all the parables which I love too. I forgot that only this Gospel book has the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

    • Highwayman says

      David L –

      I don’t know whether you’re the only one who has difficulty reading John, but your comment surprised me, as it’s certainly not a problem I have. I LOVE reading John, particularly the robust ‘discussions’ between Jesus and the Jews in chapters 7 – 10; those passages impressed me hugely as a teenager when I first started reading them in large chunks from the New English Bible, as they dispelled the ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ image that I’d sub-consciously grown up with and helped me realise what a formidable person He is.

      Also, given the parallels between John 1 and Genesis 1, I’ve never really understood why those who put the New Testament together in its present form didn’t put John’s Gospel as the first book.

      • I don’t know whether you’re the only one who has difficulty reading John, but your comment surprised me, as it’s certainly not a problem I have.

        As a very astute doctor friend of mine says, “We are all wonderfully and uniquely made.”

        Some of us are poets. Others Engineers. Others a mix and all the other choices. I’m more the engineer.

  2. Posts like this one send the biblicists into apoplectic shock.


    • humanslug says

      I don’t know if I’d call it good.
      God gifted me with a very flexible mind, and my literary and historical studies through the years have enabled me to look at and interpret scripture on a number of levels.
      The trouble is that I can’t share this gift with many of my brothers and sisters in Christ without a good deal of risk — risk that I will be written off as a worldly heretic on one side, and risk that I will actually do harm to another believer’s more childlike faith on the other.
      When it comes to basic reading comprehension, a big chunk of the population out there is just barely literate.
      And when it comes to picking up more nuanced elements and currents in written works, many people just can’t do it. Their brains just don’t work that way, and when they read (which is seldom in many cases), they read at a basic, literal level.
      Try to take things to a higher or more complicated or nuanced level, and they’ll either tune you out or get defensive pretty darn quick. And I can understand that. Most elementary students would get mad at a teacher who made them read James’ Joyce’s Ulysses and then take a 10-page essay test on it. And they would be quite justified in their anger.
      With all that said, I’m wondering how the church should address the wide range of intellectual ability among its members. For example: How could one effectively relate the concepts contained in Mike’s post to people who can read and understand what they read at about an eighth grade level (which is about average for adults in America) — and do so without causing outrage, division, or a mass crisis of faith?
      I think it’s a problem that churches need to address.

      • That’s a question I’ve struggled with as a pastor my whole career. I think worship is not the place for it — that’s when we proclaim the Gospel simply and clearly to the entire congregation. We have to find a place for deeper study where these kinds of issues can be discussed, questions can be asked, and people are free to wrestle with the nature, meaning, and significance of the text.

        This likely won’t happen where inerrancy is insisted upon and where Christians refuse to read the Bible as it is and not as they think it should be.

        • You don’t hold the Bible is inerrant? Fascinating. As I personally believe the Bible is inerrant, I am curious. Without starting a huge debate, how much value do you put in the Bible? If it is God-inspired, why would there be errors in it? Where did the concept of inerrancy even come from, and why is it so commonly proclaimed? And how should we handle the parts that are errant?

          I don’t ask these out of cynicism, but rather genuine curiosity.

          • Anonymous, I think that inerrancy for me is that the Bible is correct, IF read in the correct context. Please accept these as just my humble opinion and what I believe and not meant at all to offend in any way those that believe in a more literal interpretation of the Bible.

            Say if someone were to say to you “that dog don’t hunt” to you after you’ve suggested an idea. If you’re not from the south, you may read that as saying “that dog over there doesn’t do hunting well” and not be able to figure out why that person just said that complete non sequitor to you. If you are from the south, then you read that completely differently – it is a colloquial saying meaning “that’s never going to happen”…and you get exactly why they said that to you.

            The Bible also has cultural context. If I say “One fish, two fish”…if you’re American between the ages of 5 and 70-ish, you will likely answer “Red fish, blue fish”. That is cultural context. If you were to say the same thing to a Russian or Chinese, they would stare at you blankly (or possibly say “three fish, four fish”) and not understand any context for those words. But we as Americans sometimes can’t imagine anyone not knowing about Dr. Seuss and would be amazed if the other person didn’t respond appropriately.

            If we were to be writing the Bible, we would likely fill it with all sorts of colloquial sayings and cultural context that 2000 years from now, people would have to “interpret” in order to understand. I sometimes giggle to think about writing something about the camel getting through the eye of the needle as “that camel don’t hunt” and imagining someone 2000 years from now creating a schism over whether camels really ought not to be taken on hunting expeditions.

            For me, it’s not errors as much as having to really read it with an eye for these kinds of cultural slip-ups. While the meaning behind the words is divinely inspired, a human being actually penned the words and we, for all our divine grace, are human after all. We must remember that the Bible is TRANSLATED. Not every word in the original Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic has a direct and perfect translation into English. Unless you have a Greek expert in your back pocket (like my daughter is for me), it’s almost impossible to just read it on its face and know what the writer actually intended for us to understand from their words. While translators try to pick the “closest” or “best” word from a variety of possible meanings, the translators themselves are also Not-God and will have to eeny-meeny-miney-moe some things because there is just not always a simple/easy/direct translation.

            All these things combined makes the Bible we read today impossible to be inerrant (IMHO) from our English, American cultural, 2000 years in the future point of view without study, interpretation and a lot of discernment. The truth is there and it is without error…period…but gleaning that out of the document is not always just a matter of reading “that dog don’t hunt”. For me, there is so much depth and meaning and culture that has to be sifted through in order to get to the “meat” of the passage.

          • LA, great response to Anonymous. There are many inconsistencies in the Bible and we need to understand them. We need to know that even the Gospel stories conflict with one another in some areas and yet we don’t throw it all out. When my local priest said that one of the Gospel stories has Jesus ascending to heaven the very day he resurrected, I had to go read again to see that for myself. And there it was. That’s the way it goes.

          • humanslug says

            In my opinion, the concept of inerrancy just doesn’t apply well to written works — unless you’re dealing with a grocery list or a newspaper obituary. Inerrancy works much better when dealing in the objective realms of mathematics or physics — contexts in which a wrong number or errant measurement can crash a plane or bring down a bridge. But whether or not king so-and-so went out to meet kind whoever with 100,000 warriors, or whether it was really 99,953 warriors, in the book of II Kings is not going to crash any planes — and it’s doesn’t really make any difference to the overall flow or meaning of the text.
            The difficult reality is that there was no such thing as newspaper-style, nothing-but-the-facts literature in the ancient world — and trying to hold all of scripture to the factual, objective requirements of a police report or a courtroom transcript is just going to create a crisis of faith somewhere along the line.
            That said, I think “true” or simply “inspired” are much better qualifying words and a lot more applicable than “inerrancy.”

        • Marshall says

          Yup. You would think the internet would offer some good resources, and it does somewhat, but it turns out that the net isn’t format that encourages wrestling.

  3. David Cornwell says

    One of my first courses in seminary was an inductive study of John. We were taught the inductive method of studying the English bible, while at the same time consuming the book of John for an entire quarter. Somewhere I still have a thick notebook filled with material from this study. I still consider this one of the most important courses I was required to take in seminary. I learned to love the Gospel of John, while at the same time learned just how enjoyable and rewarding this could be.

    Later I took more advanced classes in the inductive method and also Greek exegesis and was able to tie all this together into a somewhat cohesive whole.

    To me this is a book that is very full of teaching and preaching potential and power.

  4. Some have argued that GJohn is loosely structured on the Tabernacle/Temple as one entered it:

    Jesus is the Temple/Tabernacle: John 1:14, John 2:19-21
    Altar: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son (John 3)
    Laver/Basin: Jesus and his disciples baptizing (John 3:22ff.)
    Showbread: Bread of life (John 6)
    Candlestick: Light of the world (John 8)
    Incense: High priestly prayer (John 17)
    Ark: Tomb with two angels at head and foot (John 20:11-12)

  5. Reading through the book of John the first time as a teenager changed me.

    It was heavy stuff. Glad I hadn’t tried to read it before-hand. And it was in the context of a class, so I had some guides.

    One of the more disturbing passages that didn’t make any sense was John 6? Why was Christ speaking of eating His flesh and blood? His disciples walked away from Him, but He did not try to explain what He meant. Threw me for a loop.

    Then I read a stodgy old Catholic (Joe Sobran) explain that John 6 was a reference to the Last Supper, to Holy Communion. A light came on: THAT’s what He was getting at, and why He didn’t explain it!

    Except it’s still very mysterious.

    Don’t forget about the talk about being born again in John 3. That was a reference to baptism. Breathing the Holy Spirit on the Disciples and telling them they had the power to forgive sins: Confession and Absolution.

    For me John, is a sacramental Gospel. That’s how I’ve experienced it.

    John is a Gospel that challenges us to put our Bibles down and look for Christ Himself among us. It’s hard to remain a die-hard fundamentalist/biblicist if you take John seriously. E.g. John 5:39-40. See also John 21:25.

    John is a Holy Spirit Gospel.

    John 16:7-13: “It’s expedient for you that I go away: for it I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you…he will guide you into all truth…”

    ALL truth. It’s right there. The Holy Spirit will do it; there’s nothing in there about knowing a lot about the Bible either. It’s also good for Jesus to leave, because, when He does, the Holy Spirit will come.

    John is not a bookish Christians’ Gospel. That’s the one thing about it that has always astounded and challenged me.

    • I’ve found the Gospel according to John to be a very abstract, ethereal book. The word plays and metaphors tend to go over my literal, pragmatic mind. IMO, Luke tends to approach Jesus with a more literal, I daresay scientific, manner, which comes more natural to me.

  6. Although I think Luke will always rank as my all time favorite of the Gospels, I have come to love John immensely.

    John seems to me to be about showing forth Jesus’ divinity. Not to say that the Synoptics do not do this; however, I see it more forcefully in John. I especially see it in the various “I AM” statements. I also see it in the fact that John is so much about Love, and God’s Love for mankind in Jesus.

    We could debate the author all day, but my personal view is that John the Apostle wrote it (or, at the very least, someone who was a disciple of John wrote it down). In my view, this also flows with the Johannine Epistles, and also Revelation. They all, in the end, focus on love and the divine.

    My two cents, anyways.

    • I vaguely recall the theory that John was composed around seven sections, which were probably used to instruct new Christians, perhaps as an intensive holiday reading. Anybody remember whose theory this is? In ancient times, outsiders were apparently not told everything about Christian belief until after baptism, like in the other Hellenistic mystery religions. (The twofold structure of the liturgy reflects this–nonbelievers are technically supposed to depart before communion.)

    • Margaret Catherine says

      Without Jesus’ disputations with the Pharisees and scribes in John, we would have a far more impoverished understanding of the Trinity, or at least the relationship between Father and Son. A lifetime could be spent on those passages alone.

  7. Margaret Catherine says

    John is less interested in chronology than in setting up a parallel/ chiasmatic structure – one example of this would be John the Baptist proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God, after which two of his disciples ask Jesus “Teacher, where are you staying?” – “Come and see.”; Lazarus’ death is set up in parallel, with Martha proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus asking “Where have you laid him?” – “Lord, come and see.” This page (http://adultera.awardspace.com/INT-EV/CHIASM.html) graphs out a lot of the parallelism – my Aspie mind loves patterns like that. 🙂

    Also – whoever wrote John, he was an eyewitness. There are too many little details that only someone who was really there would have put in. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

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