The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes

Written by F. F. Bruce Reviewed By Herbert Giesbrecht

F. F. Bruce, a veritable prince among evangelical Bible expositors in our time, has become so widely known and appreciated that a highly favourable review of another commentary by him is almost a foregone conclusion. The qualities which have distinguished Bruce from the beginning, as a commentator on biblical texts, shine forth even more resplendently within the pages of this most recent commentary. These qualities include a constant endeavour to get at the actual (linguistic and theological) meaning of the text, a precise knowledge of matters pertaining to historical and geographical backgrounds and to literary contexts, an astuteness in dealing with textual difficulties, and a prose style which is unpretentious, fluent, and pleasing—indeed a style which embodies a simple elegance all its own.

While a broadly-conceived evangelical orthodoxy governs Bruce’s treatment of this fourth Gospel, it never stifles his capacity to illuminate the text in wonderfully fresh and stimulating ways; Bruce is, on the one hand, not inhibited by traditional interpretations which have become almost entrenched in evangelical conservative commentaries—to wit, his independent analysis of the words for ‘love’ (phileo and agapao) as used in chapter 21 of the Gospel. On the other hand, the ‘assured findings’ or critical questionings of scholars with a more liberal orientation do not ever intimidate him, no matter how learned such may presume to be. Bruce’s thorough-going acquaintance with other (non-biblical) literature—which includes the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the Qumran writings, rabbinical commentaries, Jewish Gnostic writings, Philo and the Neoplatonists, the Church Fathers, Eusebius, and Roman historians, to mention only the most conspicuous examples—serves him very well, sometimes casting new light on a specific (Jewish or Hellenistic) custom, habit of thought, or attitude, and at other times opening a window somewhat farther on theological meanings or thrusts intended by the Johannine evangelist. The author’s literary alertness and sensitivity enable him to catch elements of dramatic tone and development in John’s Gospel—elements such as irony (especially), suspense, and variety—and to acknowledge the creative abilities of the ‘Johannine writer’ more clearly than is the case in most recent commentaries on this Gospel.

Form (literary) and source criticism do not play a significant role in the actual exegesis, but Bruce’s commentary, especially its endnotes, leave little doubt about the author’s full and intelligent awareness of critical issues raised by other commentators such as Raymond Brown, B. Lindars, B. Olsson, and Ernest K‰semann. Concerning source criticism, as it applies to this Gospel, Bruce tellingly remarks, in the ‘Introduction’, that the ‘signs and the discourses are too interdependent to be sorted out into separate sources’ (p. 5).

The over-all thrust of the fourth Gospel, as Bruce conceives of it, is to show at a variety of levels that the ‘deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God’; its overall theme is the manifold witness to and revelation of ‘the divine glory of Christ’. And in his verse by verse exposition, he frequently suggests how particular happenings and/or statements recounted in this Gospel are directly or indirectly (sometimes symbolically) linked to the primary theme.

It is interesting to learn that this exegetical study began (some thirty years ago) within the pages of two little-known periodicals, The Bible Student and The Witness. But from these humble beginnings has come what must be regarded as one of the richest and most insightful commentaries on the Gospel of John presently available to us in the evangelical world. There is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that the hope expressed by Bruce in the preface to one of his earliest endeavours at ‘commentary making’ (Commentary on the Book of Acts in the NIC series) will be more than realized in the case of this, his latest commentary: ‘that whatever I have heard in the course of this study, not only of the voice of Luke (read John) but of the Word of God, may be caught by some of my readers also in the second half of the twentieth century.’

Herbert Giesbrecht

Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Canada