The structure of the work falls in two halves, intended to flank a sermon. The anonymous libretto draws on existing works (notably Brockes') and is compiled from recitatives and choruses narrating the Passion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John, ariosos and arias reflecting on the action, and chorales using hymn tunes and texts familiar to a congregation of Bach's contemporaries. Compared with the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion has been described as more extravagant, with an expressive immediacy, at times more unbridled and less "finished."
The work is most often heard today in the 1724 version although Bach revised it in 1725, 1732, and 1749, adding several numbers. "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß", a 1725 replacement for the opening chorus, found a new home in the 1727 St Matthew Passion but several arias languish in appendices to modern editions.