John, the writer of this
Gospel, was the son of Zebedee and Salome; compare Mat 27:56 with Mar 15:40-41. His
father was a fisherman of Galilee, though it would appear that he
was not destitute of property, and was not in the lowest condition
of life. He had hired men in his employ, Mar 1:20. Salome is
described as one who attended our Saviour in his travels, and
ministered to his needs, Mat 27:55; Mar 15:41. Also, John was known
to Caiaphas, the high priest Joh 18:15. On the cross, Jesus
commended his own mother (Mary) to John, and he took her into his
own home Joh 19:26-27,
with whom, history informs us, she lived until her death, about 15
years after the crucifixion of Christ. From all this it would seem
not improbable that John had some property, and was better known
than any of the other apostles.
John was the youngest of the apostles when called by Jesus, and John lived to the greatest age; he is the only one who is supposed to have died a peaceful death. He was called to be a follower of Jesus while engaged with his father and his older brother James mending their nets at Lake Tiberias, Mat 4:21; Mar 1:19; Luk 5:10.
John was admitted by our Saviour to special favor and friendship. One of the ancient fathers (Theophylact) says that he was related to him. “Joseph,” he says, “had seven children by a former wife, four sons and three daughters, Martha, Esther, and Salome, whose son was John. Therefore, Salome was reckoned our Lord’s sister, and John was his nephew.” If this was the case, it may explain the reason why James and John sought and expected the first places in his kingdom, Mat 20:20-21. These may also possibly be the persons who were called our Lord’s “brethren” and “sisters,” Mat 13:55-56. This may also explain the reason why our Saviour committed his mother to the care of John on the cross, Joh 19:27.
The two brothers, James and John, with Peter, were admitted to peculiar favors by our Lord several times. They were the only disciples who were permitted to be present at the raising of the daughter of Jairus, Mar 5:37; Luk 8:51. Only they were permitted to attend the Saviour to the mount where he was transfigured, Mat 17:1; Mar 9:2. The same three were permitted to be present at his sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane, Mat 26:36-45; Mar 14:32-42. And, it was to these disciples, together with Andrew, to whom the Saviour specially addressed himself when he made known the desolations that were coming upon Jerusalem and Judea; compare Mat 24:12; Mar 13:3-4. John was also admitted to special friendship with the Lord Jesus. Hence, he is mentioned as “that disciple whom Jesus loved” Joh 19:26, and he is represented Joh 13:23 as leaning upon his bosom at the institution of the Lord’s Supper an evidence of unusual friendship. See the notes on that. Though the Redeemer was attached to all his disciples, yet there is no improbability in supposing that his disposition was congenial with that of the meek and amiable John - thus authorizing and settling the example of special friendships among Christians.
To John was committed the care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the ascension of Christ he remained some time at Jerusalem, Act 1:14; Act 3:1; Act 4:13. John is also mentioned as having been sent down to Samaria to preach the gospel there with Peter Act 8:14-25; and from Acts 15 it appears that he was present at the council at Jerusalem in 49 or 50 a.d. All this agrees with what is said by Eusebius, that he lived at Jerusalem until the death of Mary, 15 years after the crucifixion of Christ. Until this time it is probable that he had not been engaged in preaching the gospel among the Gentiles.
At what time he first went among the Gentiles to preach the gospel is not certainly known. It has been commonly supposed that he resided in Judea and the neighborhood until the war broke out with the Romans, and that he came into Asia Minor about the year 69 or 70 a.d. It is clear that he was not at Ephesus at the time that Paul visited those regions, since in all the travels of Paul and Luke there is no mention made of John.
Ecclesiastical history informs us that he spent the latter part of his life in Asia Minor, and that he resided chiefly at Ephesus, the chief city of that country. Of his residence in Ephesus little is known with certainty. In the latter part of his life he was banished to Patmos, a small desolate island in the Aegean Sea, about 20 miles in circumference. This is commonly supposed to have been during the persecution of Domitian, in the latter part of his reign. Domitian died 96 a.d. It is probable that he returned soon after that, in the reign of the Emperor Trajan. On that island he wrote the Book of Revelation. See the notes at Rev 1:9. After his return from Patmos he lived peaceably at Ephesus until his death, which is supposed to have occurred not long afterward. He was buried at Ephesus; and it has been commonly thought that he was the only one of the apostles who did not suffer martyrdom. It is evident that he lived to a very advanced period of life. Indeed we do not know his age when Christ called him to follow him, but we cannot suppose that it was less than 25 or 30. If so, he must have been not far from 100 years old when he died.
Many anecdotes are related of him while he remained at Ephesus, but there is no sufficient evidence of their truth. Some have said that he was taken to Rome in a time of persecution and thrown into a caldron of boiling oil, and came out uninjured. It has been said also that, going into a bath one day at Ephesus, he perceived the presence of Cerinthus, who denied the divinity of the Saviour, and that he fled from him hastily, to express his disapproval of Cerinthus’ doctrine. It is also said, and of this there can be no doubt, that during his latter years he was not able to make a long discourse. He was carried to the assembly, and was accustomed to say nothing but this: “Little children, love one another.” At length his disciples asked him why he always dwelt upon the same thing. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s command; and if this is done, it is sufficient”
Learned men have been much divided about the time when this Gospel was written. Wetstein supposed that it was written just after our Saviour’s ascension; Mill and LeClerc, that it was written in 97 a.d.; Dr. Lardner, that it was about the year 68 a.d., just before the destruction of Jerusalem. The common opinion is that it was written at Ephesus after his return from Patmos, and of course as late as the year 97 or 98 a.d. Nothing can be determined with certainty on the subject, and it is a matter of very little consequence.
There is no doubt that it was written by John. This is abundantly confirmed by the ancient fathers, and was not questioned by Celsus, Porphyry, or Julian, the most acute enemies of revelation in the early ages. It has never been extensively questioned to have been the work of John, and is one of the books of the New Testament whose canonical authority was never disputed. See Lardner, or Paley’s “Evidences.”
The design of writing it is stated by John himself in Joh 20:31. It was to show that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and that those who believed might have life through his name. “This design is kept in view through the whole Gospel, and should be remembered in our attempts to explain it.” Various attempts have been made to show that he wrote it to confute the followers of Cerinthus and the Gnostics, but no satisfactory evidence of such a design has been furnished.
As John wrote after the other evangelists, he has recorded many things which they omitted. He dwells much more fully than they do on the divine character of Jesus. John relates many things pertaining to the early part of Jesus’ ministry which they had omitted. He records many more of Christ’s discourses than they have done, and particularly the interesting discourse at the institution of the Supper. See John 14–17.
It has been remarked that there are evidences in this Gospel that it was not written for the Jews. The author explains words and customs which to a Jew would have needed no explanation. See Joh 1:38, Joh 1:41; Joh 5:1-2; Joh 7:2; Joh 4:9. The style in the Greek indicates that he was an unlearned man. It is simple, plain, unpolished, such as we should suppose would be used by one in his circumstances. At the same time, it is dignified, containing pure and profound sentiments, and is on many accounts the most difficult of all the books of the New Testament to interpret. It contains more about Christ, his person, design, and work, than any of the other Gospels. The other evangelists were employed more in recording the miracles, and giving external evidence of the divine mission of Jesus. John is employed chiefly in telling us what Christ was, and what his unique doctrine was. His aim was to show:
1. that Jesus was the Messiah.
2. to show, “from the words of Jesus himself,” what the Messiah was.
The other evangelists only record Jesus’ parables, his miracles, his debates with the Scribes and Pharisees; John records chiefly Jesus’ discourses about himself. If anyone wishes to learn the true. doctrine respecting the “Messiah, the Son of God,” expressed in simple language, but with most sublime conceptions; to learn the true nature and character of God, and the way of approach to his mercy-seat; to see the true nature of Christian piety, or the source and character of religious consolation; to have perpetually before him the purest model of character the world has seen, and to contemplate the purest precepts that have ever been delivered to man, he cannot do it better than by a prayerful study of the Gospel by John. It may be added that this Gospel is of itself proof that cannot be overthrown of the truth of revelation. John was a fisherman, unhonored and unlearned, Act 4:13. What man in that rank of life now could compose a book like this? Can it be conceived that any man of that rank, unless under the influence of inspiration, could conceive notions of God so sublime, could present views of morals so pure and could draw a character so inimitably lovely and pure as that of Jesus Christ? To ask these questions is to answer them. And this Gospel will stand to the end of time as an unanswerable demonstration that the fisherman who wrote it was under a superhuman guidance, and was, according to the promise that he has recorded (Joh 16:13; compare Joh 14:26), “guided into all truth.” It will also remain as an unanswerable proof that the character which he has described the character of the Lord Jesus - was real. It is a perfect character. It does not have one flaw.
How has this happened? The attempt has often been made to draw a perfect character - and as often, in every other instance, failed. How is it, when Homer and Virgil, and the ancient historians, have all failed to describe a perfect character, with the purest models before them, and with all the aid of imagination, that in every instance they have failed? How is it that this has at last been accomplished only by a Jewish fisherman? The difficulty is vastly increased if another idea is borne in mind. John describes one whom he believed to have a divine nature, Joh 1:1. It is an attempt to describe “God in human nature,” or to show how the Divine Being acts when united with man, or when appearing in human form. And the description is complete. There is not a word expressed by the Lord Jesus, or an emotion ascribed to him that is inconsistent with such a supposition. But this same attempt was often made, and as often failed. Homer and Virgil, and all the ancient poets, have undertaken to show what the gods would be if they came down and conversed with man. And what were they? What were Jupiter, and Juno, and Venus, and Mars, and Vulcan? Beings of lust, and envy, and contention, and blood. How has it happened that the only successful account which has been given of the divine nature united with the human, and of living and acting as became such a union, has been given by a Jewish fisherman? How, unless the character was real, and the writer under a guidance far superior to the genius of Homer and the imagination of Virgil - the guidance of the Holy Spirit?