Notes: The Gospel According to John

Discussion Group
February 2015 – May 2016

View Notes

Our group had two primary objectives.  We wanted to learn from the Gospel account that John wrote, and, in the process, we wanted to focus on the methodical inductive study of his text.

My experience with Bible-study groups has taught me that there are at least two very different approaches (and certainly more).  Groups that approach the study with the attitude of “Let’s get together and tell each other what we know about the Bible” are sometimes useful, often unproductive, and occasionally dangerous.  There is always a useful benefit in talking about Scripture – God’s Word never returns void or empty.  But since those kinds of discussions tend to be rambling and unfocused, they often are not very productive, discussing a wide range of ideas without much depth.  The potential danger comes in misunderstandings or distortions or even intentional twisting of isolated proof texts into “hearsay impressions” that lead away from the actual meaning of the original author. Continue reading

John 21:15-25 Peter

May 22, 2016  John 21:15-25

A hard night’s work, an early morning breakfast with the Lord Himself – what were the disciples expecting next?  Probably not what happened with Peter.  Awkward questions and self-conscious answers were made even more uncomfortable by their repetition.  What was Jesus doing and how was Peter responding? Continue reading

Text: John 21:15-25

May 22, 2016  John 21:15-25

Most of us have been in a comfortable situation that suddenly turned awkward.  The joy of seeing the resurrected Jesus again and having a meal together must have been a wonderful experience.  Things were going to be just as they were before.  Peter’s dreadful denials must have been forgotten.  Then Jesus addresses him directly, probably drawing the attention of all the others to the uncomfortable questions about Peter’s commitment to Him.  Read this passage and think about why Jesus did this?  What must have been going in in Peter during this conversation?  What did the other disciples think?  Why did John the gifted storyteller end with this episode?

John 21:1-14 Manifestations

May 15, 2016  John 21:1-14


The truthfulness and accuracy of the story John tells are evident by the things he does not say.  He leaves out the things that a good fiction writer would include.  A skillful author writing a novel would follow the dramatic climax of the resurrection with exciting details of the renewed association between the risen Lord and His discouraged disciples.  Their restored fellowship and His profound teaching would make for great reading.  Instead, John reports the actual facts, two appearances by Jesus, with nothing mentioned for the week in between.  Then the disciples went fishing.  What writer would make up a story like that?  One of the chief characteristics of the passage is the ordinariness of the events:  going fishing and then having breakfast.  A Hollywood screenwriter would certainly have to add some excitement to that mundane end of the story.  But John was not looking for dramatic tension or climactic action.  He was telling the true narrative of Jesus and His followers. Continue reading

Text: John 21:1-14 Manifestations

May 15, 2016  John 21:1-14


What a joyful surprise!  The crucified Lord is back with them.  How would you react?  What would your conversations with Him be like now, after the cross and after the resurrection?  How would your routine be changed?  This passage gives us an opportunity to see the initial effect on the lives of the disciples.  What was the Christian life like after the resurrection and before Pentecost?

You may notice that there is no handout to download this week.  Hopefully the handouts we have been using in our study and discussion group have been helpful.  Having a convenient way to read and mark up a passage, all using the same translation, is helpful in the process of learning the skills of inductive Bible study.  However, some situations (an impromptu conversation over coffee, for example) may not have a readily-available handout prepared.  Also, looking at different translations together can add another layer to a discussion – sometimes helpful, sometimes confusing, usually profitable.  This week use your own Bible translation (or several) to read and study the passage.  The suggestions in the article on Methodical Bible Study provide good reminders of the kinds of questions that will stir your thinking in the Observation, Interpretation, and Application phases of study.  Read the passage and come to the group ready to ask questions to help all of us learn from this text.


John 20:18-31 Thomas

May 8, 2016  John 20:18-31

Imagine how startled the disciples must have been.  The leader they had followed for three years had been brutally executed.  In the fear that they might be next, they were meeting behind locked doors late in the day.  Whatever hope they had taken from the report of Mary Magdalene (v. 18) might have been fading.  She spoke of a risen Jesus in the morning, but now the day was ending (v. 19), and they had seen nothing of Him.  Maybe Mary was mistaken; women witnesses were not generally accepted anyway.  One suggestion in our group discussion went back to the words she had reported from Jesus, “Go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father….’” (v. 17, present tense).  Maybe Mary was right, and He had risen from the dead, and they had missed Him.  Maybe He had already gone back to heaven.

And there He is, standing in front of them!  Walk into a room you think is empty and you suddenly realize someone is there (a friend or your spouse).  You experience a sudden shock.  That might be a hint of what the dejected disciples felt.  Another comment in our discussion reminded us of an earlier reaction of the disciples.  Seeing a figure coming to their boat across the open water, they feared a ghost (Matthew 14:26; Mark 6:49).  No wonder (as our group observed) the first words of Jesus to them were, “Peace to you” (v. 19) or in Hebrew or Aramaic, “Shalom.”  If you have been the friend or spouse who unintentionally startled someone, your first reaction is often to comfort and reassure them.  That was Jesus’ first response as well.  He wanted them to recover from their initial alarm.

The first thing He did was to show them the evidence of His death (v. 20).  We briefly pondered whether or not the disciples could recognize Him.  Mary had not known Him at first (v. 14), nor did two other followers even after walking and talking with Him for quite some time (Luke 24:13).  What His resurrected body looked like and how it was different (if it was) is not part of John’s storytelling.  As often happens in Scripture, some tantalizing detail we would like to know is omitted.  Trusting that the Spirit-inspired text tells us what we need to know, we didn’t dwell on that question.

What the text is clear about is more important in Bible study.  His wounded hands and pierced side showed them what He wanted them to know.  It really was Him.  Who else would have the marks of a crucifixion?  He was not a ghost, since he clearly had a body (although walls and locked doors were not obstacles).  He had died (the Romans made sure of that, John 19:32), and He was standing before them in the flesh.  He had not ascended to heaven, at least not yet.  They may not have understood everything, but they understood enough to respond with joy (v. 20).

Perhaps their response was so vigorous that once more Jesus wanted to focus their attention by saying “Peace to you” (v. 21a).  As much as He must have appreciated their joy (cf. John 15:11, 16:24; 17:13), He wanted them to hear His next words carefully:  “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (v. 21).  A key thread running throughout the Gospel according to John is the mission of Jesus sent by the Father, mentioned over forty times.  That theme takes on a whole new dimension when Jesus “passes the baton” (as one of our group described it).  The same mission is to be continued by His followers.  The mission is exactly the same, “just as” (kathos, καθὼς) the Father sent the Son, the Son sends His followers.  Understanding the mission of Jesus that John has been describing for twenty chapters is important for us to understand our mission.

Another suggestion from our group offered an interesting connection to a puzzling statement from the previous passage.  When Mary finally recognized Jesus (John 20:16), the words of Jesus to her are not what we might expect:  “Stop clinging to Me” (NASB) or “Do not hold on to me” (NIV) or even “Don’t touch me” (TLB).  What was Jesus telling Mary?  Was there some mystical issue about not touching His resurrected body?  Our group noted that later (v. 27) Jesus invited Thomas to freely touch Him.  Trying to consider every detail of the text, our group wondered about the rest of Jesus’ statement to Mary:  “I have not yet ascended to the Father” (v. 17b).  Could something have happened, such as a brief return to heaven?  Would that have made a difference in His “touchability” for Thomas?  John records nothing about that, so we did not pursue that speculation.  One member of the discussion had a much more plausible explanation, especially when we saw the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples about their mission.  Perhaps the Lord was saying, “Don’t linger here with Me.  Hurry on to tell My brethren that I am soon to leave.  It is time to transfer the Father’s mission to them.”  That passion for His Father’s mission affected His response to Mary and later His response to the disciples.

Jesus continued the instruction about His mission that was now their mission.  “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (v. 22).  Not letting any question go unasked, our group wondered:  Did He just exhale?  Did He go to each disciple individually?  What did that scene look like? While not sure exactly what Jesus did, we agreed that He performed some visible action that symbolized the Spirit.  After He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” John reports – nothing.  No mention is made of any visible sign.  The text doesn’t even say if anything happened to the disciples’ hearts.  What did this scene have to do with Pentecost a few weeks later?

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples, the newly designated carriers of the Father’s mission, to be ready for the Holy Spirit, to be expectant in their anticipation.  He had told them that the Spirit would only come after His departure (John 16:7), sent by the Father (John 14:26).  Perhaps His act of breathing on them was a memorable image to help them look forward to that event.  Whatever the physical act meant, the point was clear.  The mission of the Father was to be carried out in the ministry of the soon-to-come Holy Spirit.  That part of Jesus’ instruction might relate to another possible interpretation of His words to Mary.  “Don’t hold on to Me” might be taken as “Don’t continue to depend on my physical presence.”  As He prepared to return to the Father, His followers needed to adjust their thinking.  He had been with them for three years.  They could talk with Him, listen to His teaching, and watch Him interact with others.  But now He was leaving.  Part of being ready for the Holy Spirit was the adjustment of learning to depend on and listen to the Holy Spirit.  Continuing to depend on the incarnate presence of Jesus would not serve them after the Ascension.  Their focus had to shift to following the less visible but more far-reaching presence of the Holy Spirit.  That shift would expand the mission of the Father across the world.

The mission Jesus described has another significant quality.  The Son passes the mission of the Father by the agency of the Holy Spirit.  The baptismal formula Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19 describes the disciple-making process, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  Likewise in our current passage, the mission of the Father is inseparably connected to the work of the Holy Spirit.  “The ministry we have entered is the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son, to the Father, through the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the church and the world.”[1]

Jesus has described the authority of the mission, the Father, and the primary agent of the mission, the Holy Spirit.  Finally He describes the substance of the mission:  the forgiveness of sins (v. 23).  Once again we find ourselves discussing a verse that challenges our thinking, especially as Protestants.  As one member commented, “This is a tough verse!”  Forgiving sins and retaining sins (or holding onto, krateo, κρατεω) is somehow in the hands of the disciples.  Those with a Roman Catholic background would recognize the idea of a priest absolving a penitent after confession.  Is that what Jesus is describing?  He made a statement that sounds similar in Matthew 18:18, using different terminology (“binding” and “loosing”).  In that context, He is teaching about sin within the church:  confronting sin and restoring the sinner.  The extreme result is to remove the unrepentant offender from the fellowship.  Instead of an individual priestly function, the instruction in John 20 may also be more about the community of Christians.  Both verbs are plural:  If you all forgive…if you all retain.  As in the case of Matthew 18 the responsibility belongs to the community of believers, the church, not just a particular member who is a clergyman.  Whatever Jesus meant by forgiving and retaining sins, the unmistakable substance of the mission of the Father is forgiveness:  redemption and reconciliation and recovery of the shared communion between the creatures and their Triune Creator.

And then there is Thomas.  Absent when Jesus first appeared to the others, he apparently didn’t believe his fellow disciples any more than he believed Mary.  When they told him (virtually quoting Mary’s original report), “We have seen the Lord!” (v. 26), that was not good enough for him.  Seeing was not to be believing.  The proof would be in the touching, actually feeling for himself the horrible marks in Jesus’ body.  (We speculated about the nature of the marks:  scars, open wounds, something else?  Once again an intriguing question unanswerable from the text.)  Regardless of his brash words, Thomas, like the other disciples, needed only to see the risen Christ.  Jesus invited Thomas to explore His wounds all he wanted.  His response is at least as enthusiastic as the other disciples a week earlier:  “My Lord and my God” (v. 28).

Thomas shows us a couple of things about doubt.  He was skeptical, not cynical.  He wanted evidence, but he responded when the evidence was there.  A cynic often asks for evidence or proof, but when confronted with reasonable confirmation, insists on more.  The cynic wants to argue, the skeptic wants to know.  Thomas wanted to know if the rumor about Jesus was true.  When he saw it was true, he responded enthusiastically.  Jesus affirmed even the doubt.  Rather than rebuking Thomas, He encouraged his evidence gathering, “Reach here with your finger” (v. 27).  Those who don’t have the opportunity to touch or even to see are blessed in their belief (v. 29).  Other examples can be found in the Gospels when Jesus recognized questioners as cynics who were not genuinely looking for truth.  His response to them was less than inviting.

This passage describes such a pinnacle in the story John is telling that he leaves the story briefly to make sure his readers recognize its significance.  This isn’t the whole story (v. 30, since even all the world couldn’t hold enough books for it all, John 21:25).  However, John is clear in the reason he has recorded the story in the way he has:  “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (v.31).  John has a definite agenda.  He is already on the mission of the Father that Jesus had passed to the disciples.  He wants his story to communicate at least those three crucial points:

  • The story is about Jesus, a historical figure, not just a legend or a symbol.
  • The story is about the Christ, the Messiah, the “one anointed” for a particular mission with the authority to carry out that mission.
  • The story is about the Son of God, the eternal Word, “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,”[2] the second Person of the Godhead.


[1] Stephan Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God:  The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (Downers Grove, Illinois:  IVP Books, 2005), 9-10; emphasis in the original.


John 20:1-18 Risen Indeed

May 1, 2016  John 20:1-18

John’s storytelling may have reached its peak in the previous chapter:  the unjust sentence, the callous gambling soldiers, the bickering over the wording on the cross – so many details show how those in power were indifferent to what was happening.  The pathos of a mother watching her Son die is in contrast to the cold-hearted religious leaders eager to hasten death.  Loyal followers abandon secrecy and provide a tomb as one last service to Jesus.  Reading such a story for the first time we would ask, “What could possibly happen to redeem this terrible tragedy?” Continue reading

Text: John 20:18-31 Thomas

May 8, 2016  John 20:18-31

There is a rumor that Jesus has risen from the dead.  The women witnesses reported it.  Peter and John found odd circumstances at an empty tomb.  Mary Magdalene claims to have seen and spoken with a living Jesus.

Too good to be true?  Where do doubt and faith intersect?  How does John report the experiences of the majority of the disciples and the experience of Thomas?  What can we learn about our own seasons of doubt?  Think about times you have struggled with questions or uncertainty (or what you might be struggling with right now) as you read the passage for our discussion group this week.

Text: John 20:1-18 Risen Indeed

May 1, 2016  John 20:1-18

“On the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures.”[1]

What would seem like the low point of the entire Bible, the crucifixion of the central Character, is followed immediately by the high point.  Read the text and think about the story John is telling. Why did he include some details and leave out others?  What other parts of the story are you curious about?  How did people react to the risen Lord, and how did He respond to them?

You may notice that there is no handout to download this week.  Hopefully the handouts we have been using in our study and discussion group have been helpful.  Having a convenient way to read and mark up a passage, all using the same translation, is helpful in the process of learning the skills of inductive Bible study.  However, some situations (an impromptu conversation over coffee, for example) may not have a readily-available handout prepared.  Also, looking at different translations together can add another layer to a discussion – sometimes helpful, sometimes confusing, usually profitable.  This week use your own Bible translation (or several) to read and study the passage.  The suggestions in the article on Methodical Bible Study provide good reminders of the kinds of questions that will stir your thinking in the Observation, Interpretation, and Application phases of study.  Read the passage and come to the group ready to ask questions to help all of us learn from this text.

A note about marking:  Handouts are especially helpful in being able to mark up a passage (“circle all the verbs” or “underline all the people mentioned” or to write notes or questions about the text).  Without a handout (or a photocopy of the passage from your Bible) you face the decision: To mark or not to mark?  The main problem is practical.  Marking in the Bible itself is very helpful (just like using a handout).  But only for the first time you read a passage.  Next time you come to the passage (in a week or in five years) you may find it difficult to see the text with “fresh eyes.”  What God the Holy Spirit shows you in the text today may not be the same thing He wants to use in your life at another time in the future.  All those helpful circles and underlines and notes can become a distraction the next time you read the passage.  Ask yourself:  When you come to a marked-up passage, which do you read first, the inspired text or your previous notes?  (The same concern applies to study Bibles and printed footnotes – helpful but possible distractions away from what God actually said in the text.)  As mentioned above, one option is to make a photocopy of the page you are studying and use that for marking your observations and insightful interpretations.  Or even use a blank sheet of paper to make notes and comments as you read the passage.  Or mark in the Book itself – whatever is most helpful in being spiritually formed by God’s word, both today and in the future.