John the apostle, the son of Zebedee and Salome and the brother of James the Greater, was probably a native of Bethsaida, a city in Galilee on the shore of Lake Gennesaret. His family was fairly well off and he worked in the family business, fishing. As a very young man he became a disciple first of John the Baptist and then of Jesus: he followed Jesus when he heard the Baptist say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (1:36).
That very afternoon, as he tells us himself, after following Jesus on the lakeshore and asking him where he lived, he spent many hours in his company (1:38-39). After that conversation, which he never forgot, he left his father in the boat with the hired men and threw himself into the new life to which our Lord had called him (Mark 1:20). He might have been twenty years old at the time.
He remained faithful to the Lord his whole life long. As a young man, in his total commitment of love and his passion for the things of God, he and his brother earned the nickname of ‘sons of thunder’ (cf. Luke 9:54). He did not allow difficulties to get in his way. He alone of the apostles, together with the Blessed Virgin and the holy women who accompanied her (Mark 15:40-41), remained at the foot of the cross. And Jesus showed his confidence in John by entrusting him with the care of his Blessed Mother, the person he loved most in the world. The tradition of the Church, as witnessed by Polycarp, tells us that John moved from Palestine to Ephesus and that he was exiled, during Diocletian’s persecution, to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Apocalypse. After the death of that emperor he returned to Ephesus, where he wrote his three letters and Gospel.
John is the inspired author of the fourth Gospel. This is explicitly recognized by tradition and witnessed to by, among others, Papias, Irenaeus, the Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen. It is also borne out by internal evidence of the text: the author’s familiarity with Jewish customs and his policy of pointing out how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled (the cleansing of the Temple, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the unbelief of the Jews, the distribution of Jesus’ clothes and the casting of lots for his tunic, the piercing of his side with a lance); the vivid eyewitness quality of many of his accounts; his detailed knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem (he knows that the portico of Solomon is part of the Temple; that there was a pavement in the praetorium called Gabbatha; that the pool of Bethzatha has five porticoes and is located near the Sheep Gate); and, finally, by the wealth of detail which gives the narrative a special freshness and originality which could only come from an eyewitness.
To this should be added the fact that whereas the synoptics expressly mention John ( Matthew three times, Luke seven and Mark nine), the fourth Gospel never gives his name, and never refers to his family, except on one occasion when it mentions the sons of Zebedee (21:2). Because the author seems to hide his true identity by using the literary form of ‘he whom Jesus loved’ (13:23) and this could only refer to our Lord’s three most intimate apostles (Peter, James and John: Matt. 17:12 Mark 14:33), we can conclude by process of elimination that this disciple was John, because we know James was already dead (he died in the year 44, in the reign of Agrippa) and Peter asked this disciple a question (13:24) but Peter had also died a martyr’s death in Rome during Nero’s persecution of the Church, which began in 64.
In writing his Gospel—under the charism of inspiration—John had a clear purpose in mind: “These [signs] have been written,” he says, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). He seeks to strengthen the faith of those early Christians of the young churches of Asia Minor, who are threatened by the latent danger of going astray and even falling into doctrinal error about who Jesus Christ is and what is the true story of his life.
John goes straight to the point: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God made man. His account has a structure similar to that used by the other apostles in their oral teaching (cf. Acts 10:36-43), but he fills out the account given in the synoptic Gospels, with which Christians were already familiar. Like them, John’s aim is not to write a complete biography of Jesus. He selects (21:25) only the material necessary for explaining the main truth he wishes to get across to his readers—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God made man.
His Gospel consists essentially of a prologue and two main parts:
The prologue (1:1-18). This contains a revelation extremely important from the doctrinal point of view. John presents the Word—the Logos—as eternal, distinct from the Father, and yet identical with him because he shares the same divine nature.
The Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in addition to being eternal and consubstantial with the Father, is the Creator of the world, together with the Father, by whom all things are made. He is the Saviour, the true light which enlightens every man—light against the darkness of the world of those who refuse to receive him. He came to his own people (Israel, the chosen people), but they too chose not to receive him, but to those who do receive him through believing in him he gives eternal life, the power (grace) to be children of God.
In the fullness of time, the Word became man, in the pure womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ever virgin. He came, as Jesus of Nazareth, to save all men, living among us full of grace and truth. All are called to share in his fullness. The Old Covenant gives way to the New, which will be sealed by the sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross. The teaching contained in this prologue is a summary of John’s entire Gospel.
The first part (chapters 1-13). John devotes this part mainly to presenting Jesus as the promised Messiah, whom the people of Israel have so long awaited. To prove that he is the Messiah, he describes a number of miracles in detail. The first of these is the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee (2:9). In response to the faith and humility of his Mother he acts before his “time has come.” There follows the cure, also in Cana, of the son of the royal official who is lying ill in Capernaum (4:46-54).
Here again we can see the faith our Lord awakens in those who approach him with good will. There follows the curing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha (5:1-18), the multiplication of the loaves (6:5-13), Jesus walking on the water (6:19), the curing of the man born blind (9:18), the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45) and his own Resurrection (20:1-18). To these should be added the miraculous draught of fish after his Resurrection (21:11).
By means of these miracles, Jesus shows that he is the true Messiah, the Saviour of the world. He wants people to realize that only God can work such miracles. That is why he works cures on the sabbath: He is the Lord even of the sabbath. He restores sight to the blind, to show that he is the light of the world. He does these miracles so that people can see that his preaching goes further than mere words. And, after his death, he rises by his own power, to dispel any doubt the apostles might have about his divinity.
The second part (chapters 13-21), The second part of the Gospel covers, in three acts, the most intimate and significant events of our Lord’s life—the Last Supper, his Passion, and death, and his Resurrection. In each of these acts we can see the realization of the plan of salvation which the Father has given to the Son. Through them the Son’s love shines forth; so great is it that he gives up his life on the cross. It is followed by the profound joy of the Resurrection. Thus, love, sacrifice and joy are the keynotes of this second part of the Gospel.
1. John opens his account of the Last Supper with a passage which summarizes Christ’s whole purpose during the episodes which follow: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew the hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1).
The limitless love of Jesus is the key to understanding his later sacrifice on the cross; it fulfils, as it were, what John says at the beginning of his Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (3:16). Genuine love implies surrender, self-denial, to the point of giving oneself; it needs to be expressed in actions. Thus, Jesus will say that no one loves better than he who lays down his life for his friends (15:13), even if that love is not reciprocated. Jesus’ love is not a matter of empty words or superficial gestures: he sacrificed himself. In the face of this completely disinterested, pure and generous love which God has for him, man—every one of us—can only feel ashamed; he is unable to reply.
But Jesus Christ, in his priestly prayer at the Last Supper, has prayed for his disciples (17:6-19), for each one of us (17:20), to enable us to respond to his love. The ground of God’s love for men is to be found in the intimate life of the three divine Persons. Therefore, Jesus prays “that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me” (17:21).
This is the content and scope of the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples: “that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35). With the help of God’s grace it is easy to keep this commandment; but when a person isolates himself and distances himself from God, he also ruptures his attachment to his brothers and can even come to despise them and hate them if they get in the way of his self-centred plans; whereas love unites and smooths one’s neighbor’s way to holiness. This is why Christian life can be summed up as love of God and love of one’s neighbor. Living by love is living the life of God, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Jesus Christ reveals himself as the expression of the Father’s love. He is the vine and we are the branches. “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5). To strengthen our union with him he institutes the sacrament of the Eucharist, remaining with us in order to make our way easier. In the synagogue of Capernaum he promised he would do this when he said, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (6:55-56). The Eucharist maintains our union with our Lord, enabling us to live as sons of God (1:12-13) and, despite our weaknesses, to hope confidently in attaining possession of God in heaven.
2. In his account of the Passion and death of our Lord, beginning in chapter 18, John writes in a very personal style and seeks to fill out or nuance the synoptic version of these events. His approach is different from that of the synoptics. They give special importance to certain circumstances surrounding our Lord’s death—the darkness that envelopes the earth from midday onwards, the sundering of the veil of the temple; the Jews who witness his death and are overcome by terror; the dead rising out of their graves; etc.
They obviously want to stress the transition that is taking place from one era to another, from the Old to the New Covenant. John lays the emphasis on one feature of the events which he regards as fundamental: Christ’s death brings about the foundation of the Church. This is the key, as it were, to understanding the whole Redemption. Hence the importance he gives to the wound in Christ’s open side, caused by the lance, with blood and water coming out (cf. 19:35).
From the Church flow the sacraments, in the same kind of way as from the open side of Jesus, our Saviour, water (baptism) and blood (Eucharist) flow—blood being a symbol of expiation, and water a symbol of purification. The sacraments, and the Church itself, flow from Christ’s death. As Vatican II puts it, “the Church—that is, the kingdom of Christ—already present in mystery, grows visibly in the world through the power of God. The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus” (Lumen Gentium 3).
A Church-meaning is also to be seen in the details given about casting lots for the seamless tunic, which is a symbol of the unity of the Church (19:23-24); as are Jesus’ farewell words, when he entrusts his last and most precious possession, his Blessed Mother, to the disciple whom he loved (19:25-27). John stands for all of us, the entire Church. Mary, who had entered into the plan of salvation by the express will of God, becomes through this last act of her Son mediatrix of all graces, the Mother of the Church. Vatican II said, “She endured with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering, associating herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim who was born of her.”
3. Jesus’ Resurrection and everything connected with it can be said to be the best recounted of all Gospel events, and the best testified to, as we can see from John’s Gospel. We should not forget that he was a personal witness of the death and subsequent burial of our Lord; he was the only apostle who stayed on Calvary and was present at the burial, until the entrance stone was sealed. He reports all the details which he considers basic to our belief. That, he says, is why he wrote his account—”that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Because the Resurrection of Christ is the basis of the Christian faith (20:28), John takes the trouble to recount everything relevant to guaranteeing the historic truth of the Resurrection and to strengthening our faith—the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-10), and the physical reality of the body of the risen Jesus, who three times lets himself be seen and touched by those who were to act as witnesses for all whom faith would later lead into the Church.
Despite the little faith shown by the apostles (Thomas did not believe until he saw and touched Jesus), the facts are so overpowering as to make it impossible to deny that the Resurrection happened. John takes delight in describing the way the linen cloths and the napkin were when he entered the tomb behind Peter. When he saw them, “he saw and believed” (20:8). Up to that they had not understood the Scripture “that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). He gives great importance to the empty tomb and makes it very clear that the napkin was not with the linen cloths but in a place by itself.
Like Jesus’ Passion and death, his Resurrection is closely linked to the foundation of the Church and the full authority with which our Lord expressly endowed it. Only after the Resurrection does Jesus hand the apostles the power to forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). After his Resurrection Jesus confirms Peter in primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church (21:15-17).
First, though, our Lord wants to hear Peter’s triple confession, to test his love and atonement for his three previous denials. Peter learns the lesson and, deeply repentant, confesses his weakness—and also his sincere love for our Lord. Only then does Jesus hand over the power and authority he had earlier promised Peter. As the bishops of Vatican I taught in Pastor Aeternus, “After his Resurrection, Jesus conferred upon Simon Peter alone the jurisdiction of supreme shepherd and rule over his whole fold with the words, ‘Feed my lambs . . . Feed my sheep'” (John 20:15-17).
From this moment onward, all those who, by God’s grace, are converted and enter the Church, will find in Peter and his successors the security and strength that is the endowment of Christ’s vicar on earth. From union with this head the whole body derives its cohesion, its vigor and its growth.
The Fathers of the Church have pointed to the symbolism in the miraculous draught of fish after the Resurrection: the sea is the world; the boat, the Church; the fishermen, the apostles; the net, doctrinal unity in the preaching of the Gospel; and the fish, the elect. By giving the exact number of fish caught (153 large fish) John points to the multitude of faithful people whom the Church will comprise, thus ending his Gospel on a note of optimism and hope, the same note as is struck by the synoptics.