Introduction to John


Whenever Jesus is challenged by outsiders to prove his worth, he instead challenges them to see for themselves.

With John, it is important to remember that he is not writing a daily diary - "What I did with Jesus today" - nor a historical biography - "Jesus: The Man, His Times, His Achievements."

John explicitly tells us why he is writing:


Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John 20:30-31

Notice that John is addressing "you" (us) the readers. This direct, personal address to we, the readers, is unique to John and warns us of the intense, direct, intimate, person-to-person intention of John's writing.

And notice that John is not interested in us simply believing facts or ideas ABOUT Jesus. John wants us to have life. That is, through our "seeing" who Jesus really is, we will have the life that is in Jesus.

John is writing at the end of his life, at the end of the first century (nearly 70 years after Jesus' execution and resurrection), at a time when the early Christian communities are under severe persecution from the Romans, and have lost connections with their original Jewish roots. He is NOT writing to "the general public." He is writing to a threatened, small, inner group, who have no first-hand memory or experience of Jesus or of being Jewish. Their physical - and more importantly - their eternal lives are at stake. They need to "see" Jesus. They need to be embedded in Jesus, abiding in Jesus, so that they can withstand the fear and pain of Roman arrest, torture, and bloody executions.

John has "seen" Jesus. Not just with his physical eyes. John has "seen" who Jesus is - the one whom the Father has sent - and he has "seen" the significance of this and how / why the rest of us must also "see" and respond. (The word "see" occurs 49 times in John, almost all in relation to seeing Jesus, his works, his glory, eternal life, etc. etc. Click here for more background on why we in the West have so much difficulty "seeing" the real Jesus.)

Thus, in John, the so-called "miracles" are not miracles - they are SIGNS, they are self-revelations, self-disclosures, self-presentations. It is a complete mis-reading of John to ask, "Wow! HOW did he do that?" The only question John wants us to ask is, "Wow! WHO could have done that?" Spending time wondering about the miracle instead of about the miracle-worker, is like spending time in a fabulous restaurant discussing the menu instead of feasting on the food.

However, in the first century Mediterranean world, publicly establishing that any person deserved higher status and higher honour than what they had been born into was a much more complicated matter than it is today. In Jesus' day, it would bring DIShonour and shame to draw attention to oneself, to launch a media campaign, appear on talk shows to promote one's greatness. John wants us to "see" Jesus, but Jesus cannot be seen to be saying - in words or deeds - "Look at me!"

But, Jesus DOES go about publicly teaching and doing signs. This attracts attention and provokes from the crowd and authorities the questions, "Just who is this guy? What right does he have doing these amazing things?"

Thus in the gospels, Jesus is constantly being asked, "Where are you from (that is, who is your father and what village are you from)." Which is to ask, "Tell us what your place / rank / social status in society is." But it would be DIShonourable for Jesus to say of himself that he is from heaven, that his father is God. The only honourable way for this to be stated is by outsiders who come to "see" and say this about Jesus.

This is also why Jesus only talks openly with the inner group of his followers about where he is truly from - I am from the Father. Knowing this, and living it, is precisely what defines the inner group of Jesus' followers.

This withholding of truth from outsiders results in some interesting challenges and word play on Jesus' part. On the one hand, outsiders come to "see" Jesus and to see evidence of why they should change their estimation of his bottom-of-the-barrel social status (son of Joseph, the Nazarene carpenter), and on the other hand Jesus HONOURABLY REFUSES to be blatant about claiming any new worth for himself. And yet, he challenges them to ask themselves, "What have we seen? What is going on here? What is truly going on with this guy Jesus? Who is Jesus really?"

Here's another way of thinking about this dance. The crowd comes and demands a sign. Jesus has two options:

  1. If Jesus shows them a sign, he dishonours himself and proves that he is not worthy to be anyone special.
  2. If Jesus refuses to show them a sign, he acts honourably and proves that he is worthy to be someone special, but maybe he really isn't anyone special because he has not shown them a sign that he is. (Except that when no one is demanding to see a sign as proof of his honour, Jesus does do signs, which then gets people wondering about his status and demanding that he do a sign to prove his status to them.)

What Jesus consistently does is choose option 2. Whenever he is challenged by outsiders to prove his worth, he instead challenges them to see for themselves. It is only to his insiders that he explicitly teaches them what they need to know in order to "see." And this dance is still going on today.

Those of us who are insiders have come to "see" Jesus for who he truly is, and those who have not are still asking for a sign, for evidence. And paradoxically, it is precisely this demanding of a sign that blocks the possibility of their truly "seeing."

* The above comments are drawn from the excellent series, Social Science Commentaries on ... by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh.

David Ewart,,
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.

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