The Motive of John’s Gospel

motive of John's gospel

For all their differences, prosecutors and readers have one thing in common, the need for a motive. The prosecutor intends to be more than a gatherer of evidence; he seeks to convict. In a similar way, the reader intends to be more than a gatherer of information; he seeks to understand. Both of these tasks require a motive to construct a framework to make sense of the whole—in one case a crime, in another a text. The motive allows individual elements to be assembled into a compelling, unified narrative that answers the big question of ‘why’. And as significant as law and literature may be, the need to understand ‘why’ reaches teleological heights when it concerns divine revelation.

Locus and Levels of Meaning

The locus of meaning in any given text lies essentially in the author’s intent. This is true of the Bible, but things get a little complicated here because the Bible, unlike any other book, has two authors, a human author and a divine author. And while a certain level of meaning (let’s call it the surface meaning) can be readily ascertained with basic linguistic and grammatical tools, often times there is a deeper meaning contained in Scripture that may have even transcended the intention of the human author.

Augustine explains,

As long as each interpreter is endeavoring to find in the holy scriptures the meaning of the author who wrote it, what evil is it if an exegesis he gives is one shown to be true by You, light of all sincere souls, even if the author who he is reading did not have that idea and, though he had grasped a truth, had not discerned that seen by the interpreter?[1]

Augustine says this after providing a dizzying array of suggestions for interpreting Genesis 1:1-2 that dig into the deeper meaning embedded in these seemingly perspicuous words. Of course, this deeper meaning is not independent of the text itself. Augustine is taking clues from numerous verses that shape his interpretation, namely Psalm 104:24, “How many are Your works, O Jehovah! In wisdom You have made all of them.” In other words, there is real link between what the text says and what the deeper denotation of the text is. The latter is not arbitrary, even though it may not at first be obvious.

As another example, take the OT story of God’s provision for the children of Israel in the wilderness. The surface meaning here is that God is faithful in His providential care to supply all the needs of His elect. Therefore, we should trust God regardless of how the bleak outward situation looks, realizing that God is good, mighty, and sovereign. Paul, however, saw something much deeper when he read this account in Exodus. In 1 Corinthians, he says the rock that Moses struck was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). Christ is the spiritual rock that has been smitten on the cross to flow out the Spirit as living water for us to drink and be satisfied (1 Cor. 12:13). Paul’s interpretation doesn’t negate the surface meaning of the wilderness story, but links it with God’s eternal purpose, the divine economy, the unsearchable riches of Christ, the gospel, and the church (Eph. 3:8-11).

The Hermeneutic of the Divine Economy

Underlying this mode of exegesis is the belief that,

Scripture is the semiotic medium in which God encodes the pattern of the divine economy.[2]

In other words,

Scripture bears witness to the sequence of events, people, places, and, in this case, Hebrew and Greek words that make up the divine economy. Individual elements are part of a single picture, pieces of a vast puzzle that awaits proper arrangement…[3]

The reader’s job is to assemble verses and  make sense of them within a broader context. What we determine for our context or frame of reference helps determine what the text means. In this way, interpretation guides reading. Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch, “Do you really know the things that you are reading?” He answered, “How could I unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). Philip’s reading of the Hebrew Scriptures was guided by his Christian faith which saw “Jesus as the gospel” in Isaiah 53.

The broadest and truest context of the Bible is the divine economy. This is the the best hermeneutic to apply to the Bible, even better than law/gospel, the covenants, or the dispensations, because what God does is not as intrinsic as what God is. God’s economy is the governing principle guiding the apostle’s teaching in the Bible (1 Tim. 1:3-4). The divine economy is God’s plan to dispense Christ as life into His chosen people to produce the church as the Body of Christ.

John’s Motive—The Divine Life

This brings us to John’s motive in writing his gospel. Thankfully, no guesswork here is required. John straight up tells us:

Moreover indeed many other signs also Jesus did before His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these have been 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

John’s gospel was written that we would believe that Jesus is the Son of God and THAT BELIEVING, we would have the life of God. John’s goal in his gospel is the reception of the divine life. This places this book right in line with the divine economy, which centers on the dispensing of the divine life. More on that next time!


1. Augustine, Confessions, 12.18.27
2. R. R. Reno, Christian Theologies of Scripture, p. 24
3. Ibid., p. 27