Toward the end of the fourth gospel the author states his purpose for writing:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
That you may believe. The Gospel of John is written to persuade people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Or is it?
Many Greek manuscripts of John contain the Greek term that means “come to believe,” πιστεύσητε (pisteusete). But many manuscripts have a different term, πιστεύητε (pisteuete), which means “that you may hold the faith.” It’s only one letter’s difference, but it makes a big difference in this case. Is John writing so that his readers come to have faith, or is he writing so that his readers hold onto the faith they already have? Most of our English translations choose the former (like the ESV above), but my limited reading on the textual evidence suggests that the slightly better attested reading is reflected in versions like the New Living Translation: “that you may continue to believe .”
If this is the case, why would John write such a gospel? Why is he concerned about whether his readers will persist in their faith in Christ? One answer might be a distinctive emphasis of the fourth gospel, the threat of expulsion from the synagogue. John’s gospel is the only one of the four that mentions this threat.
- His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (9:22)
- Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue. (12:42)
- I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. (16:1-2)
Late in the first century, in response to the spread of Christianity, the rabbis included into the cycle of benedictions at the synagogue a prayer that condemned heretics like the “Nazarenes.” This prayer, the Birkat ha-Minim drew a line in the sand for any Jewish believer in Christ – reject the Christian heresy or face the consequences. Since the synagogue was the center of religious and social life for first century Jews, to be excommunicated from the synagogue was to be disowned by your family and your community.
If the original wording of John’s stated purpose was to encourage his readers to continue to believe, such a backlash against Jewish Christians around the Empire may offer a reason for his concern. And it may also explain the unique structure of the gospel, which focuses on the signs of Jesus’ ministry in chapters 1-11, and the “glory” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in chapters 12-21. John wants his readers to know that the faith they have placed in Jesus is well-founded so that as they face suffering they will maintain their commitment in light of the promise of glory to come.
That makes the fourth gospel incredibly relevant to our own time. The social structures of the contemporary culture here in America are exerting tremendous pressure on Christians to surrender fundamental commitments of faith. It is going to get more difficult to hold on to our confession that Jesus is Lord and King. John has already explained why this is happening:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
And Jesus told his first disciples that hatred of him would redound to hatred of them:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)
No one wants to be hated. I certainly don’t! But if Jesus is who he says he is, then I would rather be hated by others and loved by him forever. And the signs of the first half of this gospel are designed to assure me that Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be, so that I will greater confidence in the promises he claims to give.
If you need encouragement to hold on to your faith, I suggest you take a look at the Gospel of John.
Over the next several weeks I will be preaching through the Gospel of John, and if you would like to follow along, you can listen to the lessons on our church website. Here are the first two sermons: