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There are many theories as to the date that John wrote his gospel. John was the youngest of Jesus’ disciples and lived to the year 100, which was two or three years into the reign of Emperor Trajan (97-117), so he had many years to write down his thoughts. Irenaeus (120-202) wrote in his book, Against Heresies, XXII, 5,
“And he [John] remained among them up to the times of Trajan.”
John had been exiled to Patmos in 93 A.D. toward the end of the reign of Domitian (81-96), the emperor who had severely persecuted the church. Domitian had taken upon himself the title Censor Perpetuus, “Perpetual Censor,” giving him the right to determine the moral code for the empire. In 93 he added to himself the title of Dominus et Deus, “lord and god.”
According to Tertullian in his book, On Prescription against Heretics, XXXVI,
“How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrines along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s! Where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!”
This failed execution explains why John was exiled to Patmos, instead of being executed as usual. Patmos was the Alcatraz of the day, a rugged island located 24 miles off the coast of modern Turkey, where hardened criminals lived on one side and political prisoners on the other. The political prisoners were treated with greater respect and allowed to roam the island freely.
After Domitian was murdered in 96, his successor, Nerva, granted amnesty to many of Domitian’s political prisoners, including John. The apostle and his friend Prochorus, who had accompanied John and who ministered to his needs on Patmos, returned to Ephesus to continue ministering to the church. Meanwhile, of course, John had seen his visions and had written them down in his book of Revelation.
John’s gospel was started around 65-69 A.D. at the start of the Jewish Revolt that had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It was also about the time that Peter and Paul were executed in Rome. But his gospel remained unfinished for many years.
In fact, it has three distinct endings (as we will see later), which shows that the apostle continued to add to it and perhaps also to edit the gospel for many decades. His gospel remained essentially an unfinished manuscript until 97 A.D. Even so, there is no doubt that John had been teaching these things from the beginning.
John’s influence in the church was enormous, since he was essentially recognized sort of as a high priest of the church since the death of Peter and Paul in 67 A.D. The editors of Eusebius’ book, Ecclesiastical History, tell us in an Appendix:
“The Passion Narrative in the fourth Gospel seems to suggest that John was known to the high priest (John xviii. 15), even though John was a Galilean fisherman, the son of Zebedee. Polycrates tells us that he wore the petalon (like James the Lord’s brother, q.v.), which perhaps suggests that he belonged to one of the priestly families.” [Who’s Who in Eusebius, an addendum from Penguin Books edition]
Eusebius himself quoted Polycrates in his book, saying,
“Again there is John, who leant back on the Lord’s breast, and who became a priest wearing a mitre [petalon], a martyr and a teacher; he too sleeps in Ephesus.” [Ecclesiastical History, III, 31]
When Paul was in a Roman prison facing execution in 67 A.D., he sent for Timothy (2 Tim. 4:9) and told him in 2 Tim. 4:13,
13 When you come, bring the cloak [phelonen] which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.
Paul was not asking for an overcoat. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament says,
“Phelonen was a wrapper of parchments and was translated figuratively in Latin by toga or paenula, ‘a cloak,’ sometimes of leather.” (quoted from Restoring the Original Bible, by Dr. Ernest Martin]
It is certain that Paul was asking Timothy to bring him the original copies of his own letters, which he had left with his trusted friend Carpus. These were protected by a phelonen, a leather carrying case, or “cloak.”
I believe Paul wanted these letters in order to determine which were to be included in the New Testament canon. He may have wanted to do a final edit of these as well before sending them to John for inclusion in the canon, along with Matthew’s gospel, which had already been written in 37 A.D.
The New Testament canon was completed (except for the Gospel of John and The Revelation) by 74 A.D., just a year after the conclusion of the Roman War.
In order to truly gain an understanding of John’s gospel, one must see its structure. The gospel is structured according to the popular Hebrew parallelism of the day, known as a chiasm. It is a structure where an author builds his case from one point to another, and when he reaches his climax, he immediately begins to reverse course until he reaches the end of his thought.
Sometimes chiasms are short, sometimes long, but the basic structure is the same. We see many such examples in both testaments. Many of Jesus’ parables are structured as chiasms. However, the Gospel of John as a whole is structured as a chiasm, built upon eight miracle-signs (semeion) that Jesus did to manifest His glory.
By understanding this literary tool, we see evidence of organization and can get a better idea about the flow of John’s teaching.
A. The marriage in Cana (2:1-11)
B. The ruler’s son healed (4:46-50)
C. The impotent man healed (5:1-47)
D. The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14)
D1. Walking on the sea (6:15-21)
C1. The man born blind (9:1-41)
B1. The sisters’ brother healed (11:1-44)
A1. The 153 fish caught (21:1-14)
As anyone can see at a glance, A is a parallel to A1, B is parallel to B1, etc. The climax of John’s gospel is found in the fourth and fifth signs in John (D and D1), which are in the middle of the chiasm.
The main purpose of these miracle-signs is to show that Jesus’ miracles were not just miraculous acts. They were signs. In other words, the miracles give a message and prophesy of things to come. The prophetic purpose of all eight signs was set forth after Jesus’ first miracle, as we see from John 2:11,
11 This beginning of His signs [semeion] Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.
The overall purpose of the signs was to manifest His glory. As we will see, this goes back to the underlying purpose of creation itself. The earth was created to manifest the glory of the Creator. Creation was to be filled with the glory of God. Heaven and earth were to be married, and the earth (woman) was to reflect the truth and glory of heaven by the law of the double witness.
We know, of course, that Adam’s sin caused a great detour and delay in God’s purpose. But God cannot be defeated, nor can He fail, because to fail (khawtaw) is to sin. God is no sinner. Hence, in the end, His purpose must be fulfilled. As Christians, we believe that God is able to fulfill all of His promises (Rom. 4:21), for that is the basis of New Covenant faith.
Christ Himself, as the Logos (John 1:1), was the necessary beginning of divine success. Without Him, nothing was created, and without Him, nothing could be restored to fulfill the original intent and purpose of creation. Hence, He is the original Promise of God and the Foundation of all things.
As we will also show in our study, these eight semeion are linked to the eight days of the feast of Tabernacles, the climactic feast each year which prophesied of the manner in which the glory of God must surely come to earth. Without some understanding of the feast days in Scripture, one can hardly understand prophecy, because the feast days prophesy on both a personal and a creation level.
In fact, the feasts give us the basic outline of all Bible prophecy.
There are two sets of feast days.
The Spring feasts (in the northern hemisphere, which is where the land of Israel was located) prophesy of Christ’s first coming from the cross (Passover) to His resurrection and presentation to the Father (Wave-sheaf offering) to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
The Autumn feasts prophesy of Christ’s second coming, beginning with the resurrection (Trumpets), the proclamation of the Jubilee (Atonement), the transfiguration of the overcomers (on the first day of Tabernacles), the coming of the Head upon the body (middle of Tabernacles), and finally the presentation of the Sons of God to the Father (8th day of Tabernacles).
These events are prophesied in the Gospel of John through the chiasm of the eight semeion, which set forth the path of Sonship. The glory of God begins to be manifested in the earth through Jesus Christ (John 2:11), and from there it proceeds to a greater manifestation of the Sons of God. From there it unveils the glorification of the church as a whole, and finally shows His plan to reconcile “all men” to Himself (John 12:32).
Only when all of creation has fulfilled its divine purpose will God be satisfied. That is the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21).