In Matthew 18:16 it is written, “take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.”
When we say something, we ask the other person to trust what we say because there are witnesses. The Old Testament often speaks of the need for witnesses, for example in Ruth 4:9 – Then Boaz said to the elders and to the crowd standing around, “You are witnesses that today I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion, and Mahlon.”
There are four particular witnesses to whom we need to pay special attention. These four men, for alas no woman wrote any of the New Testament, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are the reason we have four Gospels and not one. We have the testimony of four witnesses.
Two of these were disciples of Jesus and among the 12. So they were apostles. And because they were disciples, they are eyewitnesses. Mark was a disciple of Peter and Luke was a doctor, so they are actually reporters or hearsay witnesses.
As we read their testimony we find that their personality comes through. So for example one is interested in what Jesus ‘did’. Another is interested in what Jesus ‘said’. And yet another in what or who Jesus ‘was’.
The Gospel of John looks at Jesus from the inside and asks, Who was he?
Matthew, Mark and Luke focus more on what Jesus said and did. They rarely deal with his inner motivation. If you want to know what motivated Jesus, read John. When you read John, you will understand his Gospel much better if you realise he is writing about the inner life of Jesus and his self-identity.
John’s Gospel differs from the other three in interesting ways. We call the other three synoptic because they are so similar to each other.
For example, there are things the other Gospels consider significant that he doesn’t mention. Here are eight things he completely leaves out.
- The conception and birth of Jesus.
- Jesus’ baptism.
- Jesus’ temptations.
- Casting out demons.
- The Transfiguration.
- The Last Supper.
- Jesus’ struggle in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Jesus’ ascension.
Does that surprise you? They are important in the other Gospels, especially the transfiguration.
As Jesus was dying on the cross, he told John to look after his mother. John knew Jesus very well, but to him these things were simply not important. They were not important in this way. What John is trying to tell in his Gospel is different, and these stories do not serve his purpose.
John does not make a big deal of miracles. He includes just seven in his Gospel. He also only mentions the kingdom of God twice. John has other priorities in his Gospel. These things do actually matter to him, but not for the purpose of his Gospel.
Another interesting thing about John’s Gospel is that of the seven miracles, five are not recorded in the other Gospels. Only Jesus walking on the water, and the feeding of the five thousand are the same. In fact, John doesn’t even call them miracles. He calls them signs. A sign is always pointing away from itself toward something else. In this case, toward Jesus.
John devotes more space to stories about people. And he gives the greatest prominence to discussions between Jesus and individuals. For example the Samaritan woman at the well, and the conversation with Nicodemus. Talks to crowds are less interesting to him.
John is the only one of the four to include the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus. These statements help us to see how Jesus views himself.
I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the true grapevine.
That is how Jesus describes himself.
John spends most of his Gospel talking about the time Jesus spent in the south. The others outline his 30 months in the north and six months in Judea, especially Jerusalem.
John gives a lot of attention to times when Jesus went to Jerusalem for religious feasts, maybe as often as three times a year. That’s why a lot of this Gospel revolves around Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the dedication of the temple.
Even John’s use of language is distinctive. The first three Gospels have entire chunks that are the same, using identical words. John is different. For example, when Jesus feeds five thousand people the three Gospels share 53 words. John shares only eight. He even uses a different word for ‘fish’.
While the three Gospels have a lot of parables being told to groups of people. John seems to have one argument after another, with long talks about issues of belief more than behaviour.
Perhaps this reflects the different ways Jesus taught in the south and the north.
In the south, he had long arguments with the Judaeans. It was these Judaeans, members of the tribe of Judah, who were the powerful people in Jerusalem. We often these days refer to all Hebrews as Jews, but in fact they are Hebrews of the 12 tribes of Israel. Only one of these tribes was Jewish in the ethnic sense. English has really muddled up our understanding of this as we use Jew and Jewish to mean all of the Hebrews. In Jesus’ day the power group in the south were the Judaeans. They were the ones who hated Jesus. They are the people who had Jesus murdered. They are the ones who took responsibility for his death when in Matthew 27 they yelled back, “We will take responsibility for his death—we and our children!”
Jesus was of the tribe of Judah also, but he was a Galilean from the poor area in the north. By this time most Hebrews were of the tribe of Judah or Benjamin, and the other ten tribes had already been lost. This division is more about power and politics, less about tribal ancestry.
There is a long argument in John 8 about Jesus’ father. The Pharisees ask him who his father is, probably because Joseph was not married to his mother when he was born. John explains to us how Jesus told them he did know his father. He tells them they would also know who he is if they knew his father, because his father is God. This is an argument about the identity of Jesus that helps us discover the identity of Jesus.
If we want to know who Jesus is, John is ready to tell us. John includes this story so that we are encouraged to turn to God and let him teach us about his son. Jesus says they are unable to believe him because their real father the devil. John is focusing our gaze on Jesus and on the fact that Jesus is the son of God.
John is reminding us that we imitate our fathers, and if we have the devil as our father we will be imitating the devil whether we want to or not. The only alternative is to accept God as our father and his son Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. Then in our lives we will start to imitate him as we grow in goodness and holiness and love. If you can hear what Jesus is saying, it means you have already started recognising your true father.
God your father loves you so much he sent his son to rescue you from the illegitimate father. He sent his son to open your ears, to enable you to hear him.