Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible

Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.S.A., (1715-1832)

Preface to the Gospel of St. John

With a Short Account of His Life

John, the writer of this Gospel, was the son of a fisherman named Zebedee, and his mother’s name was Salome. Compare Mat 27:56, with Mar 15:40, and Mar 16:1. His father Zebedee was probably of Bethsaida, and with his sons James and John followed his occupation on the sea of Galilee. The call of these two brothers to the apostleship is related, Mat 4:21, Mat 4:22; Mar 1:19, Mar 1:20; Luk 5:1-10. John is generally supposed to have been about 25 years of age when he began to follow our Lord.

Theophylact makes him one of the relatives of our Lord, and gives his genealogy thus: “Joseph, the husband of the blessed Mary, had seven children by a former wife, four sons and three daughters-Martha, (perhaps, says Dr. Lardner, it should be Mary), Esther, and Salome, whose son John was; therefore Salome was reckoned out Lord’s sister, and John was his nephew.” If this relationship did exist, it may have been, at least in part, the reason of several things mentioned in the Gospels: as the petition of the two brothers for the two chief places in the kingdom of Christ; John’s being the beloved disciple and friend of Jesus, and being admitted to some familiarities denied to the rest, and possibly performing some offices about the person of his Master; and, finally, our Lord’s committing to him the care of his mother, as long as she should survive him. In a MS. of the Greek Testament in the Imperial Library of Vienna, numbered 34 in Lambecius’s Catalogue, there is a marginal note which agrees pretty much with the account given above by Theophylact: viz. “John the evangelist was cousin to our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh: for Joseph, the spouse of the God-bearing virgin, had four sons by his own wife, James, Simon, Jude, and Joses, and three daughters, Esther, and Thamar, and a third who, with her mother, was called Salome, who was given by Joseph in marriage to Zebedee: of her, Zebedee begot James, and John also the evangelist.” The writer of the MS. professes to have taken this account from the commentaries of St Sophronius.

This evangelist is supposed by some to have been the bridegroom at the marriage of Cana in Galilee: see Joh 2:1.

John was with our Lord in his transfiguration on the mount, Mat 17:2; Mar 9:2; Luk 9:28; during his agony in the garden, Mat 26:37; Mar 14:33; and when he was crucified, Joh 19:26.

He saw our Lord expire upon the cross, and saw the soldier pierce his side with a spear, Joh 19:34, Joh 19:35.

He was one of the first of the disciples that visited the sepulchre after the resurrection of Christ; and was present with the other disciples, when Jesus showed himself to them on the evening of the same day on which he arose; and likewise eight days after, Joh 20:19-29.

In conjunction with Peter, he cured a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb, for which he was cast into prison, Act 3:1-10. He was afterwards sent to Samaria, to confer the Holy Ghost on those who had been converted there by Philip the deacon, Acts 8:5-25. St. Paul informs us, Gal 2:9, that John was present at the council of Jerusalem, of which an account is given, Act 15:4, etc.

It is evident that John was present at most of the things related by him in his Gospel; and that he was an eye and ear witness of our Lord’s labors, journeyings, discourses, miracles, passion; crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. After the ascension he returned with the other apostles from mount Olivet to Jerusalem, and took part in all transactions previously to the day of pentecost: on which time, he, with the rest, partook of the mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, by which he was eminently qualified for the place he afterwards held in the apostolic Church.

Some of the ancients believed that he went into Parthia, and preached the Gospel there; and his first epistle has been sometimes cited under the name of the Epistle to the Parthians.

Irenaeus, Eusebius, Origen, and others, assert that he was a long tune in Asia, continuing there till Trajan’s time, who succeeded Nerva, a.d. 98. And Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, a.d. 196, asserts that John was buried in that city. Jerome confirms this testimony, and says that John’s death happened in the 68th year after our Lord’s passion.

Tertullian and others say that Domitian having declared war against the Church of Christ, in the 15th year of his reign, a.d. 95, John was banished from Ephesus, and carried to Rome, where he was immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil, out of which however he escaped unhurt; and that afterwards he was banished to the isle of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea, where he wrote the Apocalypse. Domitian having been slain in a.d. 96, his successor Nerva recalled all the exiles who had been banished by his predecessor; and John is supposed to have returned the next year to Ephesus, being then about ninety years of age. He is thought to have been the only apostle who died a natural death, and to have lived upwards of 100 years. Some say, having completed 100 years, he died the day following. This Gospel is supposed by learned men to have been written about a.d. 68 or 70; by others, a.d. 86; and, by others, a.d. 97; but the most probable opinion is that it was written at Ephesus about the year 86.

Jerome, in his comment on Galatians 6, says that John continued preaching when he was so enfeebled with old age that he was obliged to be carried into the assembly; and that, not being able to deliver any long discourse, his custom was to say, in every meeting, My dear children, love one another! The holy virgin lived under his care till the day of her death, which is supposed to have taken place fifteen years after the crucifixion.

John is usually painted holding a cup in his hand, with a serpent issuing from it: this took its rise from a relation by the spurious Procorus, who styles himself a disciple of St. John. Though the story is not worth relating, curiosity will naturally wish to be gratified with it. Some heretics had privately poisoned a cup of liquor, with which they presented him; but after he had prayed to God, and made the sign of the cross over it, the venom was expelled, in the form of a serpent!

Some of the first disciples of our Lord, misunderstanding the passage, Joh 21:22, Joh 21:23, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? believed that John should never die. Several in the primitive Church were of the same opinion; and to this day his death is doubted by persons of the first repute for piety and morality. Where such doctors disagree, it would be thought presumption in me to attempt to decide; otherwise I should not have hesitated to say that, seventeen hundred years ago he went the way of all flesh, and, instead of a wandering lot in a miserable, perishing world, is now glorified in that heaven of which his writings prove he had so large an anticipation, both before and after the crucifixion of his Lord.

Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. lib. iii. cap. 24) treats particularly of the order of the Gospels, and especially of this evangelist: his observations are of considerable importance, and deserve a place here. Dr. Lardner has quoted him at large, Works, vol. iv. p. 224.

“Let us,” says he, “observe the writings of this apostle which are not contradicted by any. And first of all must be mentioned, as acknowledged of all, the Gospel according to him, well known to all the Churches under heaven. And that it has been justly placed by the ancients the fourth in order, and after the other three, may be made evident in this manner. Those admirable and truly Divine men, the apostles of Christ, eminently holy in their lives, and, as to their minds, adorned with every virtue, but rude in language, confiding in the Divine and miraculous power bestowed upon them by our Savior, neither knew, nor attempted to deliver the doctrine of their Master with the artifice and eloquence of words. But using only the demonstration of the Divine Spirit, working with them, and the power of Christ performing by them many miracles, they spread the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven all over the world. Nor were they greatly concerned about the writing of books, being engaged in a more excellent ministry, which was above all human power. Insomuch that Paul, the most able of all in the furniture both of words and thoughts, has left nothing in writing, beside some very short (or a very few) epistles; although he was acquainted with innumerable mysteries, having been admitted to the sight and contemplation of things in the third heaven, and been caught up into the Divine Paradise, and there allowed to hear unspeakable words. Nor were the rest of our Savior’s followers unacquainted with these things, as the seventy disciples, and many other beside the twelve apostles. Nevertheless, of all the disciples of our Lord, Matthew and John only have left us any memoirs: who too, as we have been informed, were compelled to write by a kind of necessity. For Matthew having first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other people, delivered to them in their own language the Gospel according to him, by that writing supplying the want of his presence with those whom he was then leaving. And when Mark and Luke had published the Gospels according to them, it is said that John, who all this while had preached by word of mouth, was at length induced to write for this reason. The three first written Gospels being now delivered to all men, and to John himself, it is said that he approved them, and confirmed the truth of their narration by his own testimony; saying there was only wanting a written account of the things done by Christ in the former part, and the beginning of his preaching. And certainly that observation is very true. For it is easy to perceive that the other three evangelists have recorded only the actions of our Savior for one year after the imprisonment of John, as they themselves declare at the beginning of their history. For, after mentioning the forty days’ fast, and the succeeding temptation, Matthew shows the time of the commencement of his account in these words: When he had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed out of Judea into Galilee. In like manner, Mark: Now after that John, says he, was cast into prison, Jesus came into Galilee. And Luke, before he begins the account of the acts of Jesus, gives a like hint in this manner: that Herod added yet this, above all, that he shut up John in prison. For these reasons, as is said, the Apostle John was entreated to relate, in the Gospel according to him, the time omitted by the four evangelists, and the things done by our Savior in that space, before the imprisonment of the Baptist; And they add, farther, that he himself hints as much, saying, This beginning of miracles did Jesus: as also in the history of the acts of Jesus he makes mention of the Baptist as still baptizing in Aenon, nigh unto Salem. And it is thought that he expressly declares as much, when he says, For John was not yet cast into prison. John, therefore, in the Gospel according to him, relates the things done by Christ while the Baptist was not yet cast into prison. But the other three evangelists relate the things that followed the Baptist’s confinement. Whoever attends to these things will not any longer think the evangelists disagree with each other, forasmuch as the Gospel according to John contains the first actions of Christ, while the others give the history of the following time. And for the same reason John has omitted the genealogy of our Savior according to the flesh, it having been recorded before by Matthew and Luke; but he begins with his divinity, which had been reserved by the Holy Ghost for him, as the most excellent person.” The whole of this chapter, with the preceding and following, may be profitably consulted by the reader. See also Lardner, Works, vol. iv. 224, and vi. 156-222.

Besides the Gospel before us, John is generally reputed to have been the author of the three epistles which go under his name, and of the Apocalypse. The former certainly breathe the genuine spirit of this apostle; and are invaluable monuments of his spiritual knowledge and deep piety, as well as of his Divine inspiration: as the Gospel and Epistles prove him to have been an evangelist and apostle, his book of Revelations ranks him among the profoundest of the prophets.

Learned men are not wholly agreed about the language in which this Gospel was originally written. Some think St. John wrote it in his own native tongue, the Aramean or Syriac, and that it was afterwards translated, by rather an unskilful hand, into Greek. This opinion is not supported by strong arguments. That it was originally written in Greek is the general and most likely opinion.

What the design of St. John was, in writing this Gospel, has divided and perplexed many critics and learned divines. Some suppose that it was to refute the errors taught by one Cerinthus, who rose up at that time, and asserted that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but was the real son of Joseph and Mary; that, at his baptism, the Christ, what we term the Divine nature, descended into him, in the form of a dove, by whose influence he worked all his miracles; and that, when he was about to suffer, this Christ, or Divine nature, departed from him, and left the man Jesus to suffer death. See Irenaeus, advers. Haereses.

Others suppose he wrote with the prime design of confuting the heresy of the Gnostics, a class of mongrels who derived their existence from Simon Magus, and who formed their system out of Heathenism, Judaism, and Christianity; and whose peculiar, involved, and obscure opinions cannot be all introduced in this place. It is enough to know that, concerning the person of our Lord, they held opinions similar to those of Cerinthus; and that they arrogated to themselves the highest degrees of knowledge and spirituality. They supposed that the Supreme Being had all things and beings included, in a certain seminal manner, in himself; and that out of Him they were produced. From God, or Bythos, the infinite Abyss, they derived a multitude of subaltern governors, called Aeons; whom they divided into several classes, among which we may distinguish the following nine. Πατηρ, Father; Χαρις, Grace; Μονογενης, First-begotten; Αληθεια, Truth; Λογος, Word; Φως, Light; Ζωη, Life; Ανθρωπος, Man; and Εκκλησια, Church; all these merging in what they termed Πληρωμα, Fulness, or complete round of being and blessings: terms which are of frequent occurrence in John’s Gospel, and which some think he has introduced to fix their proper sense, and to rescue them from being abused by the Gnostics. But this is not very likely, as the Gnostics themselves appealed to St. John’s Gospel for a confirmation of their peculiar opinions, because of his frequent use of the above terms. These sentiments, therefore, do not appear to be tenable.

Professor Michaelis has espoused the opinion, that it was written against the Gnostics and Sabians, and has advanced several arguments in its favor; the chief of which are the following.

“The plan which St. John adopted, to confute the tenets of the Gnostics and the Sabians, was first to deliver a set of aphorisms, as counterpositions to these tenets; and then to relate such speeches and miracles of Christ as confirmed the truth of what he had advanced. We must not suppose that the confutation of the Gnostic and Sabian errors is confined to the fourteen first verses of St. John’s Gospel; for, in the first place, it is evident that many of Christ’s speeches which occur in the following part of the Gospel, were selected by the evangelist with a view of proving the positions laid down in these fourteen verses; and, secondly, the positions themselves are not proofs, but merely declarations made by the evangelist. It is true that for us Christians, who acknowledge the Divine authority of St. John, his bare word is sufficient; but as the apostle had to combat with adversaries who made no such acknowledgment, the only method of convincing them was to support his assertion by the authority of Christ himself.

“Some of the Gnostics placed the ‘Word’ above all the other Aeons, and next to the Supreme Being: but Cerinthus placed the ‘Only begotten’ first, and then the ‘Word.’ Now St. John lays down the following positions: -

“1. The Word and the Only begotten are not different, but the same person, Joh 1:14. ‘We beheld his glory, as of the only begotten of the Father.’ This is a strong position against the Gnostics, who usually ascribed all the Divine qualities to the Only begotten. The proofs of this position are: the testimony of John the Baptist, Joh 1:18, Joh 1:34; Joh 3:35, Joh 3:36; the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus, Joh 3:16, Joh 3:18, in which Christ calls himself the only begotten Son; the speech delivered by Christ to the Jews, John 5:17-47; and other passages, in which he calls God his Father.

“2. The Word was never made, but existed from the beginning, Joh 1:1. The Gnostics granted that the Word existed before the creation; but they did not admit that the Word existed from all eternity. The Supreme Being, according to their tenets, and, according to Cerinthus, the only begotten Son likewise, as also the matter from which the world was formed, were prior in existence to the Word. This notion is contradicted by St. John, who asserts that the Word existed from all eternity. As a proof of this position may be alleged perhaps what Christ says, Joh 8:58.

“3. The Word was in the beginning with God, Joh 1:1, Joh 1:2. The Gnostics must have maintained a contrary doctrine, or St. John, in confuting their tenets, would not have thought it necessary to advance this position, since God is omnipresent, and therefore all things are present with him.

“4. The Word was God, Joh 1:1. The expression, God, must be here taken in its highest sense or this position will contain nothing contrary to the doctrine of the Gnostics. For they admitted that the Word was an Aeon, and therefore a deity in the lower sense of the word. The proofs of this position are contained in the 5th, 10th, (Joh 10:30), and 14th (Joh 14:7, Joh 14:11) chapters.

“5. The Word was the creator of all things, Joh 1:3, Joh 1:10. This is one of St. John’s principal positions against the Gnostics, who asserted that the world was made by a malevolent being. The assertion, that the Word was the creator of the world, is equivalent to the assertion, that he was God in the highest possible sense. In whatever form or manner we may think of God, the notion of Creator is inseparable from the notion of Supreme Being. We argue from the creation to the Creator; and this very argument is one proof of the existence of God.

“6. In the Word was life, Joh 1:4. The Gnostics, who considered the different attributes or operations of the Almighty, not as so many separate energies, but as so many separate persons, considered Life as a distinct Aeon from the Word. Without this Aeon, the world, they said, would be in a state of torpor; and hence they called it not only Life, but the Mother of the living; from this Aeon, therefore, might be expected the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. The proofs of this position are in Joh 3:15, Joh 3:21; the whole of the sixth, and the greatest part of the eighth chapter, as also Joh 14:6, Joh 14:9, Joh 14:19. But no part of St. John’s Gospel is a more complete proof of this position than his full and circumstantial account of the resurrection of Lazarus, which the other evangelists had omitted.” - See more in Michaelis’s Introduction to the New Testament. And, for a general account of the Logos, see John 1, at the end.

Though it is likely that the Gnostics held all these strange doctrines, and that many parts in John’s Gospel may be successfully quoted against them, yet I must own I think the evangelist had a more general end in view than the confutation of their heresies. It is more likely that he wrote for the express purpose of giving the Jews, his countrymen, proper notions of the Messiah and his kingdom; and to prove that Jesus, who had lately appeared among them, was this Christ. His own words sufficiently inform us of his motive, object, and design, in writing this Gospel: These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, ye might have life through his name, Joh 20:31. This is a design as noble as it is simple; and every way highly becoming the wisdom and goodness of God. 

Taken from "Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible" by Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.S.A., (1715-1832)

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