Book Reviews

The Gospel of John

J. Ramsey Michaels Grand Rapids 2010-09-23

This volume replaces Leon Morris’s commentary on John in this series. Morris’s commentary has helped countless evangelicals over the years. Michaels’s volume will probably serve as a significant resource for some time to come. It is clearly written and easy to use.

The introduction of forty-two pages covers matters such as authorship, location, date, and structure. Michaels respects the tradition that the apostle John wrote the book; however, to him this conclusion seems unlikely. The book, he says, is anonymous. In fact Michaels sees its anonymity as deliberate (p. 24). He says the book could have been written at any time during the final half of the first century, though he prefers the later part of that century.

In discussing the nature of the Gospel, Michaels concludes that it is countercultural and sectarian (pp. 3–5). Concerning John’s relationship to the Synoptics, although there are similarities, Michaels maintains that “competing traditions took shape independently, with the Gospel of John deriving its own unique character from the interplay of inspiration and tradition” (p. 30). The structure generally follows the Markan outline but goes its own way in places. Michaels acknowledges the difficulty of outlining the book and suggests a brief, “far from perfect” outline (p. 36). Brief sections on “truth claims” and “theological contributions” are included (pp. 24–27, 39–42).

Many major commentaries on John have extensive introductions. For example Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), has 330 pages. And Francis Brown, The Gospel of St. John and the Johannine Epistles: Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1965), has about 130 pages. However, after Brown’s death Yale University Press published his introduction to John in 2003, which is just under 400 pages. Thus it is refreshing to see Michaels’s brief introduction. Unless something new and significant is being discussed, authors need not continually rehash old debates that can be found elsewhere. Yet this introduction could have been even shorter. Almost half the introduction is devoted to authorship; but since Michaels concludes that an anonymous disciple wrote the gospel, one wonders if such a high percentage of the introduction is necessary. The only significant discussion that is missing in the introduction is a section on the context or background of the Gospel (this was intentional, p. xi). Although much has been done on this, some discussion about the first-century context of the book would have been helpful.

The commentary itself has an easy-to-follow format. For each literary unit the author includes his own literal translation, general introductory and synthetic comments on the passage, and a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis. At the very beginning Michaels breaks with tradition by suggesting that 1:1–5 is a preamble focusing on the “light” and not the “Word” (p. 45). The story begins at verse 6 with the introduction to John the Baptist. Thus the prologue is 1:6–18 (pp. 45–46). This is a fresh approach and highlights both Jesus as Light and the role of John the Baptist in the Gospel. Michaels’s discussion of “the Word was God” (1:1) is helpful. He makes it clear that God and the Word are “distinct entities” and yet are “identified with each other” (p. 47). He notes the grammatical construction results in the anarthrous predicate nominative “God” as having “a certain definiteness.” He cites Colwell and Harner (pp. 47–48). Although more likely than some options, a qualitative meaning is more probable. Interaction with the work of Daniel B. Wallace (Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 243–45) would have improved this discussion both in accuracy and clarity.

Unlike the Synoptics, which include a temple cleansing story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of John includes a cleansing only at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Michaels suggests that the reader of John “has every reason to assume that Jesus purified the temple just once, and that he did so very early in his ministry” (p. 158). The phrase being “born of water and the Spirit” in 3:5 is a way of explaining “born again” or “born from above” (v. 3) and is the “writer’s way of defining the ‘kingdom of God’ as ‘life’ or ‘eternal life,’ with the effect of actually replacing ‘kingdom of God’ with ‘life’ (the term ‘kingdom of God’ never occurs again in the Gospel of John)” (p. 185). The passage concerning the woman caught in adultery (7:53–8:11) is treated as an excursus after 8:29 and is seen as having some sort of connection to the New Testament (pp. 493–500). Concerning the branches being thrown out (15:6) Michaels suggests that the people represented were never saved (Judas is also in view) (pp. 807–8). Michaels demonstrates a significant understanding of the details of the book. He constantly draws on various passages within the book to help explain other passages. This is not a simplistic appeal to occurrences of words but is based on understanding the literary and theological development of the whole. Each of the passages mentioned here illustrates this point well. In discussing the “blood and water” that came out of the side of Jesus when He was pierced (19:34), Michaels examines the symbolism of water, noting a number of ways in which water is significant in John’s Gospel (p. 969).

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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