The Gospel of St John - Christ the Son of God
It has been remarked that the Orthodox Church—of which the Coptic is a small and precious branch—is in spirit "Johannine". Now whatever this might mean, it means at least this: that the Orthodox Church is enamored with exalted theological conceptions of Christ. For this is what St. John provides us with in his gospel: deeds and sayings of our Lord which most plainly reveal Him as the unique, only-begotten Son of God. Thus of all the due respect accorded the other divine authors of scripture, St. John is spoken of with a special warmness. This gospel can claim more commentaries by the Fathers than any other biblical book (with possibly the exception of the Psalms), and it was a favorite devotional work for such greats as Augustine, Chrysostom, and Origen.
There are truly few works in the world more rewarding of careful and attentive study than this gospel of the apostle whose symbol in the Orthodox Church is famously the eagle.
St. John the Evangelist, son of Zebedee and Salome,1 has several features which cause him to be of particular interest to us. He was the youngest disciple, somewhere in his teens or early 20's when he followed our Lord on earth. He is known to have been an ambitious and energetic youth, "a son of thunder" in our Lord's words,2 which does well to explain his occasional outbursts of sincere though mistaken zeal,3 his excitement for a position in the new kingdom,4 and the ardent love which he had for the Lord, a love which glows brightest in the early years of life.
St. John lived for almost a full century, which offered him the privilege of seeing developments in the faith, worship, and theology of the growing church which none of his brother-disciples survived to see. The world and church environment in which John wrote were drastically altered from the time of the composition of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and his gospel is a reflection of this change. The first three evangelists wrote their gospels (called "synoptic" for their similarity) for separate "audiences" and with differences in style and emphasis; but they shared a common purpose: to lay out the basic works and teaching of our Lord's life. And so the general scheme of these gospels are parallel, and many of the discourses and miracles they relate are identical.
The Fourth Gospel came on the scene as a completely fresh perspective on the Lord's life. When St. John sat to compose his account, nearly 40 years had passed since the last gospel was written; and so the story of the synoptics had grown quite familiar in the minds of believers. There was no need therefore to recount the stories of the nativity, the epiphany, the temptation on the mount, the calling of the twelve, and other key events mentioned by the synoptics.
St. John did include, on the other hand, conversations and miracles unique only to his gospel: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, and the man born blind. The synoptic gospels were designed to be compilations of the sermons, parables, proverbs, and miracles of our Lord. In contrast, the Gospel of John presents the Lord's teachings in the form of rather long and complicated theological dialogues.5
Also, compared to the numerous miracles each synoptic gospel relates, the Gospel of John mentions only seven and refers to them as "signs"—that is, signals or evidences of Christ's divinity. St. John clearly presents his motive for writing his gospel by saying, "Jesus truly did many other signs among His disciples which are not written in this book. And these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."6 After describing our Lord's first miracle, he says: "This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him."7
One of the most memorable traits of the Fourth Gospel is its remarkable prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God..."8 Whereas Matthew begins with the Lord's ancestral bloodline, Mark with the forerunner's cry, and Luke with the nativity, John reaches back all the way to the "beginning," to the moment before Creation, the time when there existed God alone, and the Son "was with God". Thus St. John begins with the inconceivable timelessness and Godhead of Christ; and the rest of the gospel can be considered an extension, explanation and fortification of these brief and beautiful words.
There is one more fact worth mentioning which is of special interest to a Church which considers Holy Week to be the crown of the liturgical year. The entire second half of the gospel is solely occupied with describing the details of that momentous week reaching from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. Chapters 14–16 reveal the long and profound "last words" of our Lord to the disciples Thursday night before the Passion. The synoptics offer us short and sparse accounts of the Last Supper, which are very precious in themselves; but we would not have known of the weighty words our Lord spoke to the disciples—"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life"—if it were not for St. John's Gospel.
Thus, in the long process of recording our Lord's life in written word for the life and benefit of all succeeding generations, St. John completes for us the "witness" of the four evangelists. If we had but one gospel we would rejoice; two doubles the strength of authority; three produces a cord which cannot be broken; and four seals the eternal trustworthiness and impenetrability of the evangelic record. Our faith rests on very solid ground. The historic accuracy of the gospels has been verified time and again; and if we were to probe the question of the accuracy of this single Gospel, I suppose no-one would find the time to read all the books that could be written.