The Purpose of John’s Gospel
Why did John write his Gospel? John explains, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30-31, emphasis added).
In the KJV, the phrase “eternal life” is used in 30 verses in the NT, 9 of which are in John. The phrase “everlasting life” is used in 16 verses in the NT, 8 of which are in John.
Not only is John the only book whose stated purpose is so that we may believe and have eternal life, but it is interesting to note that over one third of the references of these combined phrases—“everlasting life” and “eternal life”—come from the Gospel According to John. In fact, those two phrases are used almost three times more in John than in any other book.
John’s stated purpose implies his audience is unbelievers, and he intends for them to read his Gospel and come to faith in Jesus for eternal life. Therefore, John is a good starting place to answer the question “what must I do to have eternal life?”
In this article I will give an overview of the first 11 chapters, showing the only condition for everlasting life that John presents is to believe in Jesus for it.
Chapters 1 and 3
John starts off his Gospel by telling us who Jesus is. Jesus is the Word. He is God. He is Creator. He is the “true Light.” And in Him is life.
John states that Jesus gives the power to become the sons of God “to those who believe in His name” (1:12-13).
In John 3, during Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, He refers to being born of God as being born of the Spirit. He expounds “that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:15-16). So the only requirement that Jesus gives for eternal life is belief in Himself, the Son of God.
And what is it that condemns us? Our unbelief. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:18).
John the Baptist repeats this message. “One who believes in the Son has eternal life, but one who disobeys the Son won’t see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (3:36). Failure to believe is seen as disobedience—it is no light matter.
In chapter 4, Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman. He refers to the “gift of God,” “living water,” and a “well of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:10, 14). He is the one who can give those things.
Jesus ends their conversation by stating that He is the Christ, the Messiah (4:26). Jesus then proceeds to tell His disciples to “look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life” (4:35-36). As a result of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, many of the Samaritans believe (4:39-41). What does it mean that they believe? We are told in the next verse, they conclude that “this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (4:42).
In John 5, at first glance, it appears the message is slightly different. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (5:24). Belief is still mentioned, but the object of our belief, if viewed only by this verse, appears to have changed. However, when we look at the context of the verse we can see the complete message. Jesus is responding to the Jews who sought to kill Him (5:18). Jesus spends the first several verses explaining His role and His oneness with God (5:19-23).
He also states that “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (5:23). Furthermore, “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself” (5:26). The Jews knew that God was going to send a Savior. If they believed that God had sent Jesus they were in essence believing that He was/is the Messiah. John 12:44 summarizes this well. Jesus says “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me.”
So, what about John 5:28-29? “Don’t marvel at this, for the hour comes, in which all that are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come out; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” Is Jesus saying here that our works play a role in receiving eternal life?
First, we know that God and His word are consistent. For our works to play a role in our eternal destination would be inconsistent with the previous chapters, as well as other passages such as Rom 3:20 and Eph 2:8-9.
Second, the context clears up the passage. Jesus had just explained that not only does He have life in Himself, but also He has been given the authority to execute judgment (5:26-27). Furthermore, the one who has believed shall not come into judgment (5:24). And not only will a believer not come into judgment, but the unbeliever has been judged already, not for his evil deeds, but “because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:18).
Jesus goes on to tell them that they do not have God’s word abiding in them, they have not believed, and they are looking to the commandments of Scriptures for their salvation. Finally, that they will not come to Him that they might have life (5:38-40).
If there is any doubt as to whether coming to Jesus means believing in Him, He then goes on in the last four verses (vv 44-47) of the chapter talking about believing (“How can you believe…For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me…But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”).
In John 6 the topic of eternal life and believing is once again discussed.
Jesus says, “Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (6:27). When the people asked what work they could do, His reply was, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29).
Jesus again compares Himself to living water. In addition, He refers to Himself as the true bread from heaven, the bread of life, and He that gives life (6:35). He further adds, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (6:40).
Verses 53 and 58 say,
“Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you don’t have life in yourselves…This is the bread which came down out of heaven—not as our fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
This hard saying raises the question: must we literally eat His flesh and drink His blood?
To better understand this passage we need to look not only at the context, but also at the literary structure.
This passage contains a type of parallelism called a chiasm. It is used to relate parallel subjects or topics with the final emphasis in the middle.
If we look at vv 47-51 in this light the passage makes perfect sense. Notice how the lines with corresponding letters relate to each other.
A. “Most certainly, I tell you, he who believes in me has eternal life. I am the bread of life.
B. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
C. This is the bread which comes down from heaven,
D. that anyone may eat of it and not die.
C’. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven.
B’. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever.
A’. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
When this passage is looked at within the literary structure used, it helps us see what a powerful message Jesus was giving and why it was such a hard saying. They were challenged by Jesus’ statement that He had come down from heaven, that He was indeed the Son of God and mere belief in Him would result in eternal life.
Finally, the emphasis that anyone may believe in Him and not die, resonates perfectly with the theme of the Gospel of John.
Chapters 10 and 11
In John 10, Jesus presents Himself as the good shepherd (10:11). This is a clear allusion to David’s remark, “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23). Jesus is pointing out that He is the Messiah. Thus the statement logically follows, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). Jesus not only referred to himself as the bread, which came down from heaven, but now the good shepherd.
There is no doubt as to what Jesus is saying, yet they still fail to believe. The Jews, as a nation, were in the process of rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. They were relying on being sons of Abraham to give them their position, yet their nationality was not what made them sheep. Sheep can only follow the shepherd if they recognize him for who he is. Jesus gives his sheep eternal life, not because they follow Him, but because they are His. The issue still boils down to belief. If there is still any doubt as to who Jesus is, He closes the loop. He says “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In other words, not only is Jesus the Messiah, but He is God. He is The Shepherd. The result: the Jews sought to stone Him. Jesus brings them back to the issue at hand—believe: “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe thatthe Father is in Me, and I in Him” (John 10:37-38).
We are told that while some of the crowd sought again to take him, “many believed in Him there” (John 10:42).
Jesus presents the same message of believing in Him for eternal life to Martha in chapter 11. He says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Her response was, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world” (11:25-27). Jesus’ message was clear, Martha got it and believed.
Throughout the Gospel, John records certain miracles that Jesus did while on earth. These include the Wedding at Cana (2:1-11), healing of the official’s son (4:46-53), healing of the man born blind (Chapter 9), and raising Lazarus from the dead (Chapter 11). In light of John’s evangelistic purpose, it is interesting to note that he not only records the incident but takes the time to tell us that as a result one or more people believed in Jesus (2:11; 4:48, 53; 9:35-38; 11:45).
What Is Belief?
Because we receive eternal life by believing, the next question that may be asked is what does it mean to believe? And that is a key insight for understanding John’s evangelistic purpose.
The Greek word for believe is pisteuō. Among the definitions given by Thayers Lexicon are: “to think to be true,” “to be persuaded,” or to “place confidence in.” There is nothing included in the definition of pisteuō that refers to any kind of works, obedience, or acting consistent with that belief.
Believing is to be persuaded or convinced that what He said was true: that He is the living water, that in Him is life, and that if we believe in Him we have eternal life at that instant. There is no obedience, no actions, nothing that we can do to add to it, we must merely take Him at His word. In conclusion, to believe in Jesus as our Savior is to place our trust in Him alone for our salvation.
Some people claim that if you act inconsistently with your beliefs, then you must not really believe them. Is that true? Does man ever act inconsistently with his beliefs?
The answer, of course, is yes. We may act inconsistently for a variety of reasons. For example, I may believe that the glass room in Sears tower will hold me up, but not actually go into it because I am afraid of heights. Or I believe that if I pay my bills late I will be charged a fee. And yet that belief hasn’t kept me from making a late payment every once in a while for a variety of reasons.
John records an instance of this kind of inconsistency in 12:42-43. “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” We are told the rulers believed, yet they failed to act on it, not because they didn’t believe, but because they were afraid and loved the praise of men.
What is the only condition for having everlasting life? John could not be clearer. His answer is very simple—believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. For those of us who are not Jews, Messiah could better be translated Savior. If we believe in Jesus as our Savior we have eternal life.