If you ask someone where to start reading the Bible, they might just tell you the Gospel of John. This book is one of the most popular places to begin considering who Jesus was and how the Bible is a whole story that all points to Him. It was written by Jesus’ best friend - a guy named John - and it is the most unique and the richest picture of what Jesus was really like.
If you’re going to read it, there are three little things that will help you get ready for what you’ll encounter there.
1- Expect to meet a complex guy
John knew Jesus like a best friend always does. Your best friend knows the full you; all the quirks and crevices; why you use certain words; what it means when you get quiet. And on and on. You are not one-dimensional, and neither is God. My friends know I’m an introvert, and I’m friendly. I’m warm, and then sometimes I need one of them to come stand in the corner with me and not let anyone talk to me. I love to learn, but I hate trivia games. I am confident in a room full of people, but I hate ‘working the room.’ I am a mom of four who despises “mom” stereotypes because - like you - I’m so many things at once. None of us can be boiled down to just one dimension, and it’s because we were made in the image of a God who can’t be either.
Jesus came to make a complex God known to you, and John was the best qualified to write about that. He knew his best friend could be kind and beautiful, as well as harsh and gritty. He knew Jesus as both gentle and severe; challenging and patient. He saw Jesus give many second-chances and also paid attention to the things he condemned. He was there when Jesus handed out both justice and mercy. John summarized the complexity found in Jesus with the words “grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.” (1:17-18) Jesus’ best friend wrote about the fullness of a God who, like you, is sweet and salty; hard and soft; peanut butter and jelly. He is all grace. He is all truth. He is all God. And all human. The God who created interesting, complicated, full-of-conundrums you is probably at least as nuanced. Expect it.
2- Know John’s agenda
John has an agenda for you as you read. It’s not hidden, but he doesn’t say it right out loud until the end of the book. I think it helps to know going in, so you know how to engage with what you’re reading. John’s explicit purpose for writing is “…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.” (20:31). John has an agenda with you, and it’s that you’d finish the book and believe.
The Gospel of John is not information to learn. It’s meant to poke at your heart, challenge your assumptions and draw you into a relationship with a living God. So don’t read it like a textbook. This writing is meant to engage your heart. In ancient Jewish culture the “heart” isn’t the emotional part of you like we tend to think about it. The heart is the center of your entire being. The heart contains the whys behind your behavior, all your motives, and the direction of your entire life. John is after your heart. The book is meant to pull you to a God who wants ALL of you. John wants you to get to know Him in such a compelling way that you’re drawn into a permanent relationship with Him. He wants you to find Jesus so compelling that you don’t want to let go. As you go, one helpful question you can continually process in every chapter is:
What does this tell me about what Jesus is really like?
3- Watch for how the book is organized
I have a background in advertising, so we were always talking about “reasons to believe.” In marketing products, that meant basically this: What is the most condensed, helpful, truthful way I could convince you of how good this thing is for you, so you’ll take what I’m offering?! John wants you to believe Him and to take what Jesus offers. And that’s LIFE! So he wrote carefully, presenting all his best reasons-to-believe.
John’s reasons you should believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, were seven signs, seven teachings, and seven “I AM” statements made by Jesus. The word for ‘seven’ in Hebrew shares letters with the same word for “completeness” or “wholeness”; therefore, sevens often symbolizes fullness/completion in the Bible. So, all rolled up together, John’s sevens are meant to represent the fullness of who Jesus was in all his complexity. All the truth and all the grace that came in the God-Man named Jesus was written about by John like this:
Read the gospel of John from the perspective of a best friend who desperately wants you to know how amazing their person is and to join them in a relationship that might just lead you to a better life.
Forgive him for having an agenda—it’s only to love you. If you know it upfront, you can better process what he’s saying.
Look for the guideposts of all the sevens that will keep you tracking with his argument as you read. Maybe even keep your own list as you find them while you read.
And if you embrace the obvious complexity of a man who is also God, then it’ll help you wrap your whole mind and heart around moments Jesus says things like “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7,9) and then says, “I am the good shepherd.” (10:11,14). Wait - is Jesus the door for the sheep or the shepherd for the sheep?! He’s both. Remember: peanut butter and jelly.
But Jesus left you the words of his very best friend so that you could really get to know him… and believe.
If you want additional resources as you engage the Gospel of John, here are a few of my favorites:
- Blue Letter Bible website: This is a great site for looking up words and phrases in the original language that are interesting to you as you read. It also has commentary, dictionaries, and other types of resources linked to every passage.
- From Gospels to Glory: Exploring the New Testament: A resource by Kenneth G. Hanna. This is a resource book with fantastic introductions to every new testament book. My favorite thing in this book is a one-page chart of every book. Each book at a glance!
- Recovering the Way: A book by Bob Ronglien, an archaeologist who has studied the ancient world in which Jesus lived and ministered. His insights will put you inside the towns and cultures through which Jesus walked in the book of John.