The first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are called the Gospels, where the word “Gospel” means “Good News.” These books tell about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. However, these four books are sometimes further categorized into the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with John being the “other” Gospel. (I often see the term “synoptic Gospels” applied to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but I haven’t seen a specific term given to John. Maybe we should call it the “non-synoptic Gospel”?)
I can’t really put my finger on how John is different from the “synoptic” Gospels (and didn’t see a good description of the difference other than vague references to the synoptic Gospels being more “similar” to each other in… some way), but it does have a different feel to it than the other Gospels, even to me. I read that the first three Gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ ministry while John was written a generation after that (sometime between A.D. 90 and 100). One article I found online believed that this different time period was significant as to why John wrote his book:
Because of this [later time period], news about Jesus was no longer new to the people since accounts of his ministry had already existed for many years. John wrote his book at a time when Christians were being severely persecuted for their beliefs and for following the teachings of Jesus, so John felt the need to reach out to both Christians and their persecutors. John wanted to minister to those who questioned their beliefs in Jesus as well as those who denied that he was the Messiah. John’s purpose was more about theology and evangelism than it was about simply recording the events of Jesus’ life for the sake of historical works.
John himself says something in Chapter 20 that lends credence to this:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 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. (John 20:30–31)
Personally, as I was working my way through the book of John, I found it more theologically dense than the other Gospels; what I mean by that is that there is so much theology packed into a single verse in John’s Gospel that one’s brain is in danger of getting overloaded! It may be because John had more time to think about these things before he wrote them down.
I wonder if this emphasis also explains why John devotes so much of his book to one single night in Jesus’ life: Chapters 13 through 17—almost a quarter of the book!—all take place the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. John obviously feels it’s important to pass on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples, before he leaves them.
I do wonder, however, if John was also facing more and more persecution from the Jewish religious leaders as his life progressed. Very often in this book John mentions that Jesus is talking to “the Jews,” or that “the Jews” did such-and-such thing, where I think what John meant was “the Jewish religious leaders.” Because there are so many mentions of “the Jews” in this book, I think it would be easy for anti-semitic Christians to find justification for their hate. (Whereas they have to ignore large parts of the rest of the New Testament—but bigots will always pick and choose what they want to listen to and what they don’t.) I don’t think John was anti-semitic, or wanted his readers to be, but anti-semites could read John in that way if they wanted to. For the most part, as I was blogging through John, I tried to avoid using the term “the Jews” unless I was directly quoting John’s words, and referred instead to the religious leaders, which was, I think, John’s intent.
Finally, one aspect of the Gospel of John that I’ve always found very charming, is that John constantly refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” It should be obvious that he doesn’t believe Jesus didn’t love the other disciples, or that Jesus loved John more. No, John is simply overwhelmed that Jesus—the Lord, the Word, God Incarnate—loved him! John lived a very long time, and never stopped being amazed that Jesus loved him; he still seems amazed by it when we get to his epistles.
We should feel the same: Jesus loves me, and that’s incredible.