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Exploring the Gospel of John: 16


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Note:  This entry completes the series.  There are no notes for the remainder of the Gospel of John.

“Farewell . . . For Now” (IV)

John 16:4b-33

  1.  16:4b-15:

This section returns to two previous themes:  Jesus’ return to the Father (13:1) and the coming of the Holy Spirit (14:15-17, 25-26; 15:26-27).  The phrase, “these things,” of 16:4b, seems to refer to the warning about persecution and about the role of the Spirit. “This hour” brings an imperative to instruct the disciples.  Jesus acknowledges the impact that “this hour” has had on the disciples; sorrow fills them  (16:6).  Yet, he also reminds them that it is to their advantage that he is going away:  His departure is not a tragic accident but is part of the plan of God.  Jesus has gone to prepare a place for the disciples and promises that they will be with him (14:1-4).  He tells them that his work of revealing the Father will continue in them (14:12-14) and that he and the Father will come to dwell with them (14:15-21).

Jesus now makes very explicit the fact that the coming of the Spirit will be another fruit of his “departure.” (Note 14:18.)   In the references to the Holy Spirit thus far, it is clear that the Spirit will enable the disciples to carry on Jesus’ witness.  As the Greek name for the Holy Spirit, paraklatos, suggests, however, the nature of this witness is both positive and negative.   Just as Jesus’ witness has had an accusatory dimension, so will that of the paraklatos.  Because of the Holy Spirit, the witness of the disciples will have a prosecuting dimension:  They will be pointing out what is wrong with the world.  The language here is juridical in nature.  The Spirit will secure convictions against the world on three counts:

First, the Spirit will convict the world sin — the sin of unbelief.

Second, the Spirit will convict the world for the wrong judgment it made about Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will make it clear that the world’s verdict on Jesus was wrong and that God has reversed the verdict.

Third, the Spirit will convict the world because He will convict the ruler of the world.  (Note 12:31 and 16:11.)  The witness of the Spirit results in a reversal of values and undermines the world’s basic assumptions.  But this witness of the Spirit, against the world, is ultimately for the world, as the Spirit-nourished witness of the disciples anticipates the final judgment.

16:12-15 returns to the theme of the Spirit’s work.   Because the disciples cannot receive all that Jesus wishes to impart to them, the Spirit will come to “guide you into all the truth” (16:13).  Here, the word “truth” is not an idea or a set of ideas but is Jesus himself (14:6).  Like Jesus, the Spirit will not speak on his own authority but on that of the Father and, just as Jesus has glorified the Father, so the Spirit will glorify Jesus.   Once again, it is clear that the Spirit does not impart random and independent revelations but gives to the disciples what Jesus has given to him (16:15).

(2) 16: 16-24:

This section continues the theme that emphasizes Jesus’ going away as a good thing but without reference to the Holy Spirit.   Jesus’ going to the Father (16:17) means that his disciples will not see him for a time but then, later, they will see him.  The disciples will see him after the resurrection and this will have a decisive effect upon them.  It is clear that the disciples themselves have not grasped this important point (16:17).  Having failed to grasp this point, they are also unable to understand the promise that Jesus leaves with them:  “your sorrow will turn into joy” (16:20).  The resurrection will bring about a great reversal.  The metaphor in 16:21 is important and Isaiah 26:16-21; 66:7-17 provides the metaphor:  It describes the travail of Israel which, when Israel passes through it, leads to salvation.  In contrast to the present moment, there will come a time, after the resurrection, in which the burden of the lack of understanding of the disciples will lift (16:23):  They will understand the reversal that God has brought about and what it means for Jesus to return to the Father.   And because of their intimate relationship with Jesus, the Father will grant to the disciples his assistance, in carrying on Jesus’ witness (16:23).

(3) 16:25-33:

16:25  probably refers back to texts like 14:25-26 and, thus, to the work of the Spirit.   After the passing of  “this hour,” the Spirit will interpret for the disciples what has happened and what these events mean.  A summary of this interpretation follows, in 16:26-28:  The clear implication is that this Gospel is the fruit of the interpretive work of the Spirit:  It was imperative  for the Spirit to undertake this work before the writing of this text.  (Note 20:31.)  The understanding to come stands in stark contrast with current incomprehension, as 16:29-30 expresses.  As Jesus’ question in 16:31 implies, the disciples do not yet really believe and will manifest this unbelief, when they scatter and  when they “will leave me alone.”  In fleeing from arrest, in abandoning Jesus, the disciples do not show that they have lost their faith — for they do not yet actually possess it:  This faith comes later.  Even in his state of abandonment, however, Jesus is not alone, “for the Father is with me” (16:32).  The final statement of this whole discourse in 16:33 summarizes the whole in that, ironically, Jesus’ departure will be the foundation of the disciples’ peace — a peace that is not merely a subjective feeling.  It is precisely Jesus’ victory, his return to the Father, which establishes the victory of God.  The disciples, through the Spirit, will know that Jesus has overcome the world and this reality will be the foundation of an eschatological peace — a peace that will be present, even in the midst of persecution.

Questions for Reflection

(1) In what ways does the Holy Spirit bear witness to Jesus today? How do we discern this witness?

(2) In what ways does Jesus’ victory over the world give us peace? What are some ways in which we can live more fully into this peace?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 15


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Farewell . . . For Now (III)

John 15:1-27

(1) 15:1-17:

(a) 15:1-11:

Jesus identifies himself as the vine and the Father as the vinedresser.  This identification draws upon an important image from the Old Testament:  the image of Israel as God’s vineyard or God’s vine (Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Psalm 80:8-19; Jeremiah 2:21; 6:9; 8:13; 12.10).  Identifying Israel as the vineyard or vine automatically identifies God as the vineyard owner or the one who cultivates the vines.  By so identifying himself, Jesus makes it clear that he is the true representative of Israel.  This identification also means that it is Jesus who establishes the connection between the vine’s branches (Jesus’ disciples) and the vinedresser (God).

15:2 introduces two important themes, with respect to God’s relation to his people:

The first theme is judgment upon the vine branches that bear no fruit: fruitfulness is clearly a criterion of God’s judgment, in that God expects his people to bear fruit.

The second follows on the first:  God not only removes the unfruitful branches but he also prunes the fruitful branches to make them even more fruitful; the importance of fruitfulness is again emphasized.  “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (15:3).  The theme of being clean first appeared in 13:10, where Jesus pronounces that the disciples are clean (with the exception of Judas).  What Jesus seems to mean is that his teaching has cleansed the disciples and has placed them in a relationship with him, so as to enable them to bear fruit.  There is no question here of the disciples having some kind of “independence” from Jesus, as if their cleansing was a one-time event, which then enabled them to do things on their own.  The language of “abiding” completely undercuts all thought of independence and demands fruitfulness.  “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (15:4)

What the language offers here is something of an equation, which offends modern ears:  complete dependence upon Jesus = fruitfulness.  It is important to notice that the vine / vinedresser imagery is a perfect way of restating the theme of Chapter 14:  that Jesus’ work of bearing witness to the Father will continue in the disciples.  The “work” of the vine is carried out in its branches, the bearing of “fruit” (grapes).  Lest there be any doubt about this, we have the blunt admonition that “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).  The theme of judgment on unfruitful branches, first hinted at in 15:2, returns in a way that is unmistakable, in 15:6.  This imagery, too, has its source in the Old Testament (note particularly Ezekiel 15).

15:7 returns to the theme of prayer, which 14.3 first introduced, but makes more clear the link between obedience and answered prayer:  “If you abide in me . . .” clearly refers to obedience to Jesus’ teaching, as 15.10 makes clear.   Note the balance between “keeping my commandments” and “abiding in my love” and Jesus’ keeping of his Father’s commandments and abiding in his Father’s love.  The point is that if Jesus had not been obedient to the Father’s mission and had, finally, avoided the cross, there would be no grounds to say that the Son loves the Father.   Likewise, obedience to the Son is the emblem of abiding in his love.  The mission of the disciples and the mission of Jesus parallel each other, in that the fruitfulness of the disciples’ mission glorifies the Father, just as the fruitfulness of Jesus’ mission does the same thing (15:8).  But this obedience and fruitfulness is not a joyless burden — because Jesus will bring to the disciples the same love that he has from his Father (15:9).  It is precisely by “abiding” in the vine that the disciples will experience a joy that is “full” (15:11).

(b) 15:12-17:

15:12 essentially repeats 13:34.  Once again, the readers understand that central characteristic of the Church is the willingness of Jesus’ followers to embody the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.  Their love is rooted in his.  The richness of Jesus’ love, mentioned in 15:13, is explicated in 15:15.  While Jesus is their superior, he has made the disciples into his friends; they are no longer simply servants who follow instructions simply because they come from the superior.  Rather than simply following instructions, the disciples are to know what Jesus’ intentions are.  Jesus has not kept aside some “secret knowledge” for himself that he is keeping from the disciples but “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (15:15).  15:16 emphasizes the experience of Israel:  that it is God who calls the disciples; it is God’s prior action which creates Israel and then the Church, neither of which is a volunteer organization.  While God calls the disciples to bear fruit, their fruit bearing is dependant upon their continuing relationship to Jesus and upon the fact that it is his intention and purpose: what is involved here is more than human religiosity and effectiveness.

(2) 15:18-16:4:

The “world” which hates Jesus is not simply everything around us.  John uses “world” (kosmos) in a very strict sense to mean “those structures and orders of creation that are opposed to God.”   Another sign of the disciples’ conformity to Jesus’ mission (in addition to self sacrificial love) is the response of the world’s hatred.  The theme of calling re-emerges here (see 15:16):  “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (15:19).  Notice that this calls for a shift in thinking.  When they experience the ill-will of the world, the disciples are not to wonder about their “effectiveness” but to be aware that this is a sign of their conformity to Jesus’ mission.  The disciples must live in a situation in which the response to their word is just as mixed as the response to Jesus’ word.  The disciples (10:20) should expect both persecution and obedience. The disciples will face opposition but they will not take it personally, since they will face opposition for the very same reason that Jesus faced opposition: “because they do not know him who sent me.” (15:20)

Because the disciples carry on Jesus’ mission, with Jesus in their midst, the rejection of them is a rejection of the one who sent them:  “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me” (13:20).  The same principle applies to rejection: “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (15:23).  15:24 represents the negative aspect of Jesus’ ministry.  He has come primarily to do the Father’s works but for those who reject what he does, judgment has occurred because to reject the one sent by the Father is to reject the Father and, thus, to hate him.  Jesus’ witness makes sin impossible to cover up or ignore.

The phrase “they hated me without cause” (15:25) is from the Greek version of Psalms 35:19 and 69:4.  The purpose of this citation is to show that the rejection of Jesus is part of the will of the Father, though this in no way diminishes the culpability of those who reject him.  We should not view the human rejection of Jesus as indicating the divine rejection of Jesus — only that such a rejection by Israel was foreseen.

In 15:26-27, we return to the theme of the Holy Spirit, already mentioned in 14:15-17, 25-26.  Once again, the Spirit is connected to the witness of the Church.  In accord with Deuteronomy 17:6, which requires two witnesses to establish something, there will be two witnesses to Jesus: the disciples and the Spirit.  It is the Spirit who enables the Church to bear a fruitful witness, even with the hatred of the world directed against it.

The final sub-section of this section, 16:1-4, makes it clear why the disciples are being told all this.  This discourse is aimed at preparing the disciples so that, in the fact of persecution and hostility, they will not fall away into apostasy.

Questions for Reflection

(1)  Are Christians persecuted in any way in our culture?  Have you ever had to deal with persecution?

(2)  In what ways can we manifest joy, even in the midst of difficulty?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 14


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]


Farewell . . . For Now (II)

John 14:1-31

1.  Readers will find the heart of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” (13:31-16:33) in 14:28, which states:  “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father.”  The subject is Jesus’ future and his future secures the future of the disciples.  Because Jesus’ future is completely secure, so is that of the disciples.  Three successive questions, each from a different disciple, punctuate this section of the discourse.   Each of the three questions provides Jesus with the opportunity to develop the theme of why his physical departure is a good thing.

2.  14:1-7: 14:1 sets the theme for this section:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and “Believe in God; believe also in me” are directly related.   Belief in God is also belief in Jesus and this belief makes it possible for the disciples to face “this hour” untroubled.  Jesus’ departure is good because this means that he has prepared a way to “my Father’s house” (14:2), a phrase that refers to the afterlife.  Jesus is departing to return to God and this return prepares a way for his followers.  Note that Jesus has answered Peter’s question of 13:36.  Jesus’ coming again and taking the disciples to himself (14:3) is apocalyptic language (see I Thessalonians 4:15-17) and refers not to the immediate consequences of Jesus’ death but to the ultimate consequences.   Jesus gives to the disciples the assurance that, although he is physically departing, he will come to them and gather them to himself.  Thomas’ question about the way to the Father allows Jesus to make an important declaration: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).  The immediate context of this claim is Jewish convictions about Torah being the way to God (cf. Psalm 119:30). The force of this declaration is that Jesus is God’s way to himself, since the Son is the Father’s own Word, revelation, and life giving power.   The Son does not merely communicate accurate information about the Father but grants the power, to those who believe in him, to become children of God (1:12).  The claim, which the Son makes, that he is the only way to the Father, is not an arbitrary one.  He bases it upon the very identity of the Son.  To know the Son is to know the Father (14:7) because the Son shares all that the Father is and knows him completely.

3.  14:8-14:  Phillip’s request, to “show us the Father” (14:8) allows Jesus to again emphasize an important point:  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9) makes the nature of the Son’s mission clear: The Son introduces people to genuine knowledge of the Father and a living relationship with him.  Through his signs and, finally, through his death and resurrection, the Son reveals the Father’s glory and character.  In the Son, the Father displays himself.   The life of the Son is perfectly transparent to the Father, making it clear that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10) and that “the Father who dwells in me does his works” (14:10).  God gives this revelation – not for the purpose of allowing people to enter into a state of private religious bliss or enlightenment — but to put them into the Father’s service.  Jesus’ “departure” will enable Jesus’ mission of bearing witness to the Father to continue through the disciples: “ . . . whoever believes in me will also do the works I do; and greater works than these ill he do, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).  The works of the disciples will be “greater” — not in the sense of being more important or astounding — but in the sense of [a greater] extent (in the sense of Acts 1:8).  The ministry that Jesus undertook, of revealing the Father, will not come to an end with his death or resurrection.   It is in this light that we need to read 14:13-14.  Jesus is not promising to grant the disciples their every wish.   The promise of answered prayer presupposes that disciples are being incorporated into Jesus’ mission, in the same way in which he was – completely and self-sacrificially.   It will be the Church’s life of prayer, emphasizing her complete dependence upon the Son, that will sustain the Church in her mission of carrying out Jesus’ mission.  Here, we get the basic understanding of what the Church is, in terms of her fundamental reality:  a community united to Christ and in Christ, sent and sustained to continue the witness of Jesus — a witness to the world and against the world.

4. 14:15-31: This section introduces the crucial subject of the Holy Spirit.  Note that 14:15 connects love with obedience:  Love, here, is not a sentiment but an act of obedient service.  The “commandments” in view are to wash one another’s feet (13:14-15) and to believe in Jesus (14:1).

There can be no claim to love Jesus, apart from obedience.  It is important to notice that Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit in 14:16 as “another paraklatos.”  This implies that we are to also consider Jesus to be a paraklatos, an Advocate or Helper (in the sense that the Old Testament refers to God as the helper of Israel).  Jesus’ role has been to bear witness for God and to bear witness against the world.

It is through the Holy Spirit in the Church that this witness will continue.  14:16-17 and 14:25-26 make it clear that the Church is a creation of the Trinity, created by the Father in the Son and through the Holy Spirit and indwelt by the Trinity; through the Spirit, the Father and the Son come to indwell the Church (14:23).  While the Spirit is clearly distinct from the Son, his principle ministry is to bear witness to the Son, “to teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26). What seems to be ruled out here is the notion that the Spirit will make available “new revelations” which go beyond what the Son has disclosed or revealed.   If the Father bears witness to himself, in the person of the Son, then the Father bears witness to his own witness to himself in the person of the Spirit.  By referring to both the Son and the Spirit, using the term paraklatos, this draws our attention to two distinct ways in which God accomplishes his one work.   It is precisely the presence of the Spirit, who will grant peace to the Church.  This peace is not like the world’s peace, given conditionally and as the product of compromise, but the Spirit gives peace completely and unconditionally and we acquire [receive] it, not by getting things, but by complete self-surrender to Jesus’ mission.   It is Jesus’ own peace, which is not peace in the absence of difficulty, but peace in the very presence of difficulty, suffering, and anguish.  While the ultimate consequence of Jesus’ departure will be that the disciples (and those who follow them) enter into eternal fellowship with God, the immediate consequence will be that they will see him and know that he will not leave them.  (14:18-19).

Questions for Reflection

(1) Why does it seem that we misunderstand the Holy Spirit?  How does this section of John correct misunderstandings or deepen your understanding of the Spirit?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 13


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New words:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

“Farewell . . . For Now” (I)

John 13:1-38

I. Setting an Example: 13:1-20

1.  The purpose of John 13-16 is to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ departure and the aftermath of this departure. As becomes clear, as the discourse moves along, Jesus’ departure is not a departure at all — but is a radicalization of his presence.

2.  It is clear that Jesus knows his destiny — that “his hour had come” (13:1; 12:23).  For Jesus, the crucifixion will mean not simply death but [will mean] a return to the Father.  His death on the cross consummates his obedience to the Father and his love for the world.   Jesus will now demonstrate proleptically the meaning of his death — the fact that “he loved them to the end” (13:1).

3.  The cause of Jesus’ departure is twofold:  Ultimately, its cause is the will of the Father and the concurring will of the Son.  Proximately, it is the devices of the devil (13:2), worked out in human instruments (Judas).  13:3 is the interpretive key to understanding the washing of the disciples’ feet:  This verse makes Jesus’ identity clear:  he is from God and is returning to God and God has placed all things into Jesus’ hands.  Jesus is, if fact, the Father’s personal action in human history:  The One who created water is going to [now] wash the disciples’ feet.

4.  The washing of the disciples’ feet is not simply an act of humility or an attempt of Jesus to identify with the “common man.”  Jesus removes all his clothing, except for a loincloth, which foreshadows the removal of his clothes, for the purpose of flogging and crucifixion.  (The Romans usually crucified their victims naked).  Foot washing was an act of hospitality in the ancient world:  it was a task given to slaves or to servants of the lowest standing.  It was the iconic form of menial service because it involved not only the washing of dirt from the feet of guests but also [involved] the washing of human and animal excrement, which found its way into the streets and sewers – [those two things being “pretty much” the same things.]

In this case, foot washing is an enacted parable of the Cross — a parable which Philippians 2:6-11 describes.

5.  Peter, who speaks for all the disciples, finds Jesus’ intentions incomprehensible.  For Peter (13:6) those in positions of superiority, like Jesus, do not wash feet:  “Lord” and “washing feet” do not belong in the same sentence.  Jesus makes it clear (13:7) that Peter cannot now understand the meaning of Jesus’ actions but such an understanding will come only “afterward.”  Peter’s refusal for Jesus to wash his feet (13:8) constitutes a clear rebuke to Jesus but Jesus responds:  “If I do not wash you, you have no share in me” (13:8).  “Share” here seems to mean “inheritance” or “participation.”  The refusal of the foot washing means a refusal of Jesus himself.  Accepting the foot washing is acceptance of the reversal of values it implies and such a reversal is necessary, in order to understand and accept Jesus’ death and its consequences.  Accepting this reversal is also necessary, in order to carry on Jesus’ mission in the world.

6.  In 13:12-14, Jesus provides an interpretation of his own acts:  Jesus underlines the incongruity between his status as Lord and his action of foot washing — that the Lord should engage in menial service.  Jesus says that this same pattern of action is to be the hallmark of the Church.  He calls upon the disciples to serve one another — reminding them that any relinquishment of status that they may have to make pales, in comparison, to the relinquishment of status that Jesus makes.

7.  13:15-17 makes it clear that Jesus has not merely commanded the washing of feet but [has commanded] also the imitation of the pattern that he himself has set (13:15).  The pattern of service that Jesus has set presupposes a radical inversion of values — an inversion that the disciples will have to accept and practice.  What Jesus has in mind is not simply the one act of foot washing but an entire set of practices which reflect his own pattern:  “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).   [Of course, Jesus has to qualify what he says, in order to account for Judas.]   In 13:18, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9, to make the point that the betrayal of a close friend (one with whom one has broken bread) is a great cruelty.  One of his own, not the Sanhedrin, will betray Jesus.

8.  13:20 looks forward to the disciples’ mission, which is, of course, what the discourse about foot washing has been all about.  Just as Jesus has been sent from the Father and to receive him is to receive the Father, since “I and the Father are one” (10:30), so to receive the disciples is to receive Jesus himself and the Father.  This emphasizes the fact that the disciples (and the community gathered around them) are not simply independent agents but, are, rather, themselves an extension of Jesus’ mission.

II. Betrayal, Commandment and Denial: 13:21-38

1.  13:21-30:  The theme of Jesus’ sovereignty continues in this section:  he knows that an intimate is going to betray him and this fact further prevents people from seeing Jesus as a victim — an innocent man which an evil world has overtaken.  Significantly, the foreknowledge of betrayal does not render it easy to accept, as 13:21 makes clear.  Here, the text considers seriously the matter of Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.  All through the next several chapters, Jesus is simultaneously inside and outside the developing narrative -– he is both the one who has written the narrative and [he is also] one of the characters in the drama.  Just as the crucifixion of Jesus is not simply about the fate of an individual, so Judas’ decision to betray Jesus is not simply about an individual decision but is something larger: “Satan entered into him” (13:27; cf. 13:2).  Jesus’ death is not simply a function of the Sanhedrin’s desire to retain power or of Pilate’s desire to maintain Roman rule.  Notice that Jesus knows what Judas is about to do and does not attempt to dissuade him from doing it (13:27).  It is appropriate that Judas goes out into the night (13:30), to carry out his decision.

2.  13:31-38:  This section is the beginning of what we know as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” because, in it, Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure.  The striking of the first note is the most important one:  Jesus’ crucifixion will not be a humiliation or a defeat but [will be] a glorification.  Emphasizing the reciprocal relationship between Father and Son, the Father will glorify the Son in his death and the Son will also glorify the Father.  The reputation and honor of God and that of the Son are finally inseparable.  The “new commandment” (13:34) is not actually “new” but is a re-phrasing of Leviticus 19:18 and Jesus presents this as his final wish for the Church.  The type of love that Jesus will demonstrate in his death will be the hallmark of Christian behavior.  Observers will recognize the community of Jesus by the quality of its life — as a continuous corporate image of Jesus.  Jesus emphasizes twice (13:33, 36) that his disciples cannot follow him.  This is because of the unique work he has to do and the unique destination he has:  he is going to the cross and to the Father and only after this has happened will it be possible to follow him:  “but you will follow afterward” (13:36).

Questions for Reflection

(1)  The washing of the disciples’ feet is an enacted parable of love, which is at the center of John’s understanding of God, Christ, and the Church.  Unfortunately, the Church has, in many ways, surrendered this understanding of love, in order to embrace a modern, individualistic, and therapeutic one — an understanding in which “love” means the non-judgmental acceptance of other people.  How can we recover the meaning of “love,” which Jesus demonstrates in this scene and which he enacted on the Cross?  Note Philippians 1:27-2:11.

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 12


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New word:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

The Last Events of Jesus’ Public Ministry

John 12:1-50

I. The Proleptic Anointing of Jesus for Burial: 12:1-11

1. Six days before the Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany, the scene of the resurrection of Lazarus.  As we have learned (11:53), the latter event has sealed Jesus’ fate and this will be his final Passover.

2.  Mary’s action of anointing Jesus both foreshadows his death and displays the extravagant response that his self-offering calls forth.  Mary uses a huge quantity (almost a pound) of an expensive perfume to anoint Jesus.  The estimated value of this perfume is (12:5) about what an average person might earn in a year and Judas can, thus, denounce Mary’s action as a scandalous waste.  Underlining the extravagance of the act is the fact that Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Since Jews did not embalm their dead but rather anointed corpses with perfumes and spices, Mary effects a proleptic anointing of Jesus for burial (cf. John 19:38-42).  Mary has also proleptically kept Jesus’ final commandment that “you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12).

3.  While the text clearly labels Judas’ response to Mary’s action as hypocritical (12:6), the chief failure here is not mere dishonesty but a failure to understand the significance of what has just happened.  The devotion of Mary reflects an insight into the nature of Jesus’ departure — a departure for which Jesus will begin to prepare the disciples, in chapters 13-17.

4.  In 12:7, Jesus explicitly interprets Mary’s actions with reference to his burial. 12:8 has often been misinterpreted and taken to mean that care for the poor is not important. Actually, Jesus’ remark presupposes the continuing validity of Deuteronomy 15:11, which says that “there will never cease to be poor in the land,” which means that “you shall open wide your hand to . . . the needy and to the poor.”

5.  Jesus is under a sentence of death and now (12:10) Lazarus [also] comes under one, as well.  Ironically, it is his being brought back to life that is the cause of his death, since “on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (12:10). The possibility of Lazarus dying again serves to remind us that, while raised from the dead, he does not yet participate in the resurrection in its fullness, which is a resurrection to a life beyond death (cf. Romans 6:9).

II. Jesus’ Final Entry into Jerusalem: 12:12-19

1.  This scene confirms the decision of the Jewish leaders, in 11:53, and their decision to get rid of Lazarus, in 12:10-11.  In John, it is the raising of Lazarus that is the primary cause of Palm Sunday (though the actual day of Jesus’ arrival was probably Monday or Tuesday).

2.  John is the only gospel that mentions the use of palms to mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  Since the time of the Maccabees (who forced the Greeks out of the Temple and began the celebration of Hanukkah or the Feast of the Dedication), palms signified victory (cf. I Maccabees 13:51).  The welcome that Jesus receives is that of a national hero.  Psalm 118:6 provides the first part of the crowd’s acclamation:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna!” (12:13 is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew: “Save us!”

3.  Jesus’ own actions make clear how he understands himself to be king.  Zechariah 9:9 provides the [slightly-altered] text for the citation, in 12:15.   In the larger context, the king mentioned here will not only restore Israel from exile but will also bring a reign of peace and justice to the whole world.

4.  12:6 makes it clear that the disciples did not understand the significance of this act, until after the resurrection.  That is to say, the disciples did not understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship, until after his death and resurrection, after which it was possible to see that the cross defined the kingship of Jesus.  This comment is an indication that John’s gospel is written [in a manner that] looks back at the events of Jesus’ life, as seen in the light of his glorification.

5.  In the other gospels, the cleansing of the Temple follows Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  In John, however, this has already happened (2:13-22).  Uniquely, John connects the entry into Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus in that, apparently, some of those who witnessed the event were in Jerusalem, giving testimony, and this accounts for the presence of a crowd (2:18).

III. The Hour Has Come: 12:20-36

1.  In this section, Jesus announces, for the first time, that his hour has now come.  The moment to which his life has been directed is now here. Three important things about this moment are made clear:

2. 12:23-26:  The necessity of Jesus’ death:  Just as a grain of wheat must disintegrate (“die”) into the ground, in order to bear fruit, so Jesus’ own death is necessary in order to produce “much fruit” (12:24).  In Jesus’ case, to reject death is to reject the fruitful consequences of death.  The saying in 12:25 has parallels in Mark 8:35; Matthew 16:25, 10:39; Luke 9:4, 17:33.  To “hate one’s life” is a Semitic expression for having no higher loyalty than preserving one’s life, all the time failing to realize that life is a gift from God.  Jesus’ action of laying down his life is a pattern that the disciples will follow:  God calls them to trust him in such a way that they are willing to surrender life, in the hope of receiving it back again.

3.  12:27-30:  Jesus’ struggle in the face of death:  This is John’s equivalent of Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane experience.  What Jesus says here echoes Mark 14:34 (“My soul is sorrowful, even to death”), which echoes Psalm, 42:5-6:  [“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”]  

While in Mark’s account, Jesus prays that this hour might pass from him and then resigns himself to God’s will (Mark 14:36), in John, Jesus makes no such request but makes it clear that “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (12:27).  Instead of a prayer for deliverance, Jesus asks that God’s name be glorified.  God’s name has been glorified, in Jesus’ signs, and it will be glorified again, in his death and resurrection.  It is important to notice that the divine voice, responding to Jesus, is not for his benefit but for that of the crowd.   Jesus does not need a response from the Father because he already knows the Father’s response.

4.  12:31-36:   The consequence of Jesus’ death:  Jesus’ death is full of irony in that, seen from a merely worldly point of view, it appears to be a defeat for him but a victory for “the ruler of this world” (12:31).  Seen from a cosmic point of view, however, things are very different, in that Jesus’ death functions like a cosmic exorcism, through which “the ruler of this world [is] cast out” (12:31) and the world is judged.  But the action of Jesus’ death is two-fold, in that Satan is driven out while people are drawn to Jesus (12:32).  This, in short, describes God’s reclamation of his creation.  12:33 makes it clear that the crucifixion is what is being designated by the metaphor of “lifted up” (12:32).  In response to the crowd’s question, “Who is this Son of Man?” (12:34), Jesus replies, in effect, “It is I.”

IV. Jesus’ Summary of His Ministry: 12: 37-50

1.  With this section, Jesus’ public work comes to a conclusion and chapters 13-17 will involve only Jesus and his disciples.

2.  It is now clear that Israel’s response to Jesus is quite mixed, since “though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him” (12:37).  But we are not to understand this reaction, the narrator says, as rendering Jesus’ claim false. Two passages from Isaiah are cited to show that Israel’s response to God’s servant, promised by Isaiah, is precisely the response given to Jesus:  12:38 cites Isaiah 53:1 and 12:40 cites Isaiah 6:10 (in a modified form).  Isaiah 6:10 makes two things clear: that Israel’s disobedience is not beyond God’s sovereignty and that there is still hope for repentance, since the hardening of hearts is not final.   Isaiah was able to see this, since he beheld God’s glory (12:41; cf. Isaiah 6:1-5).

3.  The comment in 12:42 seems to contradict 12:37 but we soon discover that this is not the case — for the belief of the “authorities” is actually a “pseudo” belief, since they do not openly confess their belief because fear hinders them. (12:42-43).

4.  Jesus’ testimony concludes with two summary statements:  First, Jesus says that judgment is a secondary consequence of his work but that the word he has spoken is the same word that God will speak at the last judgment (12:47-49).

Second, Jesus’ testimony is in complete agreement with the Father’s will and word (12:50).

Questions for Reflection

(1) The Gospels tell us about events in the life of Jesus, not merely to offer us information, but to answer two major theological questions:

(a) Who is God (God’s nature and character)? and

(b) What does it mean to follow Jesus (the nature and character of discipleship)?

What answers does this chapter offer to these questions?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 11


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New word:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

The Raising of Lazarus

John 11:1-57

(1) The raising of Lazarus is the seventh and final sign, which Jesus performs in this Gospel.

It is helpful to take note of the other six:

(1st)       Water transformed into wine (2:1-11);

(2nd)     The healing of the official’s son (4:46-54);

(3rd)      The healing of the paralyzed man (5:1-18);

(4th)      The healing of the man born blind (9:1-41);

(5th)      The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15) and

(6th)      Walking on water (6:16-21).

The raising of Lazarus is the culminating sign. It is significant that there are seven signs.  We can divide the raising of Lazarus into six scenes:

(2)  Scene I:  11:1-6:  This scene sets the stage for the action that follows. 11:2 points forward to 12:1-8, where Mary anoints Jesus with perfume and washes his feet.  This action clearly indicates that the focus of this episode is not so much the death of Lazarus but that of Jesus.  In 12:1-8 Mary prepares Jesus proleptically for burial.   Jesus does not immediately respond to the plea of Mary and Martha for help but waits for two days before departing for Bethany (11:6).  The reason for this, as we have seen before, is that Jesus follows a timetable that God – not human need – dictates.  Jesus’ remark, “this illness does not lead to death” (11:4) probably does not mean that Lazarus will not die but that death will not be the final outcome of what appears to be a tragedy.  Once again, Jesus is here more focused on his own death than on the death of Lazarus.  The raising of Lazarus is essentially an enacted parable about Jesus’ crucifixion and death, which also “does not lead to death.”   Lazarus’ death will be an occasion for the glorification of the Son of God and will also be the catalyst for his death (note 11:45-53).

(3) Scene II:  11:7-16:  In 10:31, there is an attempt to stone Jesus for blasphemy, followed, in 10:39, by an attempt to arrest him (presumably for the purpose of being put on trial).  Given this, it is understandable that the disciples do not receive, with enthusiasm, Jesus’ decision to return to Judea.  (11:8).  Jesus attempts to turn their attention from the peril of death to what he considers to be a greater peril, that of stumbling (11:9, 10).  “To stumble” is to leave off obedience in the face of difficulty, something that Jesus considers worse than mere death.  Jesus says that Lazarus has “fallen asleep” (11:11), a Jewish euphemism for “died.”  As I Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6; 18:20, 51 indicate, “falling asleep” also became an early Christian expression for “death.”   The emphasis falls upon the temporary state of death as something that will be overcome.  The narrator explains Jesus’ real meaning and the disciples’ failure to grasp it, in 11:13.  Thomas (11:16) is correct, in thinking that the journey to see Lazarus is really about Jesus’ death.

(4) Scene III:  11:17-27:  It becomes clear that Lazarus is really dead, in that he has been in the tomb for four days (11:17) and Jews believed that the soul left the body after three days.  Jesus will not merely revive Lazarus but will resurrect him.  Martha’s greeting of Jesus clearly carries overtones of disappointment and complaint (11:21).  But even so, it implies belief in Jesus’ healing powers.  Martha has not rejected Jesus but expresses the view, common among Jews, that God hears the prayers of a righteous person (11:22).  Of course, Jesus does not really pray in this episode, a fact that has great theological significance for John.  In a real sense, Jesus has no need to pray, given his relationship with the Father.  This conversation, in the midst of grief and some disappointment, leads to a moment of epiphany:  “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). The “I am” formula is important (as it was in 8:58) but so is the idea that resurrection is not simply an event brought about by God (according to Jewish belief) but is actually a person – Jesus.  While Martha assents to this, it is not at all clear that she sees its implications or fully embraces it — for, when Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the tomb, in 11:39, Martha raises what, to her, seems to be a sensible objection.

(5) Scene IV: 11:28-37:  It is now Mary’s turn to greet Jesus.  We find the same mixture of disappointment and resentment (11:32) but a new twist is added:  “the Jews” who had come to help her mourn have followed her to Jesus (11:31).  In 11:33, a great change comes over Jesus.  There is disagreement over the nature of this change.  The verb used here is the same as that in Mark 14:33-34 (“greatly distressed and troubled”) and Matthew 26:37-38 (“sorrowful and troubled”).  Quite probably, the emotion being expressed here is that of anger and the object of the anger is most probably death.  On one hand, Jesus the Incarnate Word does not simply jump into action when informed of Lazarus’ illness.  On other hand, as a real human being, Jesus responds to death with real anger and sorrow (11:35).  The response of “the Jews” to Jesus here is divided, with some remarking on Jesus’ affection for Lazarus (11:36), while others offer the implicit criticism that he who restored the blind man’s sight may now be in over his head (11:37).

(6) Scene V: 11:38-44:  The Gospel writer emphasizes, once again,  Jesus’ anger at death, in 11:38 (the same verb is used here as in 11:33).  11:40 makes it clear that God will soon reveal his glory. But the glory is Jesus,’ as well, since he does not pray to God to restore Lazarus to life but commands this to happen.  The thanks he offers to God is not really necessary but is offered “on account of the people standing around” (11:42).  It now becomes clear that, what Jesus said in 5:25 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear him will live.”) is now coming to pass.  The episode of Lazarus is a proleptic demonstration of the resurrection.  The release of Lazarus from the burial wrappings emphasizes his freedom from the bondage of death.

(7) Scene VI: 11:45-53:  The reaction of “the Jews” is significant, with “many” believing in Jesus but “some” heading to Jerusalem, to inform the authorities.  The most significant consequence of the raising of Lazarus is the decision, by the authorities, to put Jesus to death (11:53).  Ciaphas prophesies (11:51) that Jesus will die “for the nation,” that is, for Israel.  While Jesus’ death has a universal dimension to it, we should understand also that he died on behalf of Israel, as well – this is an aspect that we cannot overlook.  Of course, the text makes clear here that what Ciaphas says is ironic:  Jesus, he says, will be handed over, to guarantee Israel’s continued existence, but he uses “for” in a way that he does not understand.

(8) Epilogue: 11:54-57:  The text makes clear that the raising of Lazarus sealed Jesus’ fate.  Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover, and the authorities are making ready to arrest him.  This will be his last Passover and, as John makes clear, the Passover will finally find its true fulfillment.

Questions for Reflection

(1) Why is it significant that Jesus’ last sign in this Gospel is the raising of Lazarus?

(2) John makes it clear that Jesus raises Lazarus, not because he is Jesus’ friend but in order to glorify God.  Why is this important to emphasize?

 (3) What is revealed about Jesus in this episode?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 10


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Jesus: The Good Shepherd

John 10:1-42


(1)   This section clearly follows the episode of the man born blind, in John 9.  The audience is the same (9:18, 10:19), there is once again a division of opinion (9:16, 10:19), and there is a clear reference back to the healing of the blind man (10:21).  “The Jews” are leaders of Israel, who drive the man born blind out of the synagogue.  This action allows Jesus to introduce the traditional imagery of Israel’s leaders (kings, priests, prophets), which is the imagery of the “shepherd.”  Jesus sets up a contrast between false leadership and himself.

(2)   While the shepherd was a prominent symbol of leadership, beginning with Joshua (Numbers 12:27-33), it comes to full stature in David, the shepherd who became king (2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7-8).  After David, the shepherd becomes the ideal of the messianic king (Micah 5:2-4).  Ezekiel 34 draws a stark contrast drawn between Israel’s shepherds — who have not been feeding the sheep but have been feeding themselves – on the sheep (34:2-3).  God will replace such shepherds by the ultimate shepherd  — who is God himself:  “I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God” (34:14, 15).

(3)   10:1-6 is a mini-parable, which establishes two things:

  •  The legitimate access of the shepherd to the sheep.  Most Palestinian sheep herds were small and the shepherd kept the herd in a fenced or walled sheepfold at night.  The shepherd assumed that anyone entering the sheepfold, by means other than the gate, was a thief (10:1).
  • The intimate relationship between sheep and shepherd.  An average flock consisted of one hundred sheep and the shepherd gave a name to each sheep.  The shepherd moved the flock, by going before the flock, and by calling each sheep by name.  While not intelligent animals, sheep do not follow strangers or respond to their voices.  But they do respond to the voice of the shepherd (10:5).  10:6 points out that the meaning of this parable is not understood.  “The Jews” think of themselves as the shepherd and of Jesus as the intruder.

(4)   10:7-10 expands upon 10:1-2.  Instead of emphasizing that Jesus is the shepherd who comes through the gate, this section emphasizes that Jesus is the gate.  He embodies access to the sheepfold:  “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7).  In this way, Jesus fulfills the role of God, which Ezekiel 34:10 depicts, where God himself rescues his sheep from the devouring “shepherds.”  Just as in Ezekiel 34, this passage in John sets up a sharp contrast between the “shepherds” who “kill and destroy” (10:10) and the “real Shepherd,” who comes “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10).

(5)   10:11-18 focuses on the identification that the reader has been anticipating:  that of Jesus’ identification with the shepherd (with Ezekiel 34 as the backdrop).  Jesus is the “good shepherd” (10:11) and here, the Greek word “kalos” (translated as “good”) really means “ideal” or “true.”  Jesus is the true shepherd of Israel because “he lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11).  Being a shepherd brought exposure to danger but, here, the dedication of the shepherd to the sheep is amazing and beyond expectation.  The emphasis falls on two important things:  that the shepherd’s death is voluntary (not merely inflicted or accidental) and that the shepherd’s death is on behalf of the sheep:  This is a radical contrast with the shepherds who feed on the sheep.  The solemn pronouncement “I am the good [true] shepherd” is spoken twice (10:11, 14) and, in each case, the warrant for this saying is the shepherd’s willingness to die for the sheep (10:11, 15).  Jesus’ death proceeds from two things, each of which is equally important:  his knowledge of the Father (10:15) and his intimate relationship with the sheep (10:14).

The pretend “shepherds” possess neither of these things. 10:16  “I have other sheep that are not of this fold” probably refers to Gentile believers.  The background for this is still Ezekiel 34:23 and 37:24, where God gathers a scattered Israel into one “pasture,” with its ultimate shepherd.  10:16 makes the point that the scattered Israel includes Gentiles, as well.  The result of Jesus’ work will fulfill Ezekiel 34“So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16).  10:17-18 focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection as acts of sovereign freedom and forecloses any notion that Jesus is a victim.  Jesus’ death is a gift of himself (he is not simply killed) and his resurrection is accomplished by virtue of who he is (John 1:1), not given to him as a “reward” for having done well.  The accusation that Jesus is possessed (in 10:20) takes us back to 8:48, 52, while the argument that a demon possessed man could not restore sight takes us back to 9:31-33.


(1)  This section is another interrogation scene, in which Jesus is in conflict with “the Jews” (10:24).  The themes of 10:1-21 continue but some time has passed because we are told that, instead of being in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2), Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication (10:22).

(2)   10:22-30 is the first part of this section.  “The Jews” now want an explicit “yes” or “no” from Jesus, about whether he is the Messiah.  Jesus has not claimed to be the Messiah, in the presence of religious authorities although, from 1:41 onwards, the issue of “messiah-ship” has come up (note also 4:25-26).  Jesus’ response to the questioning is twofold:

  • First, he says that his works answer their question (5:36).
  • Second, he says that their lack of faith is due, ultimately, to the fact that “you are not part of my flock” (10:26).  As 6:44 has made clear, only the Father can draw a person to Jesus.  The lack of clarity, in the minds of the religious leaders, is not an indication that Jesus’ works lack clarity.  In contrast to the religious leaders, those who are part of Jesus’ flock enjoy an eternal security, held by both Jesus and the Father who, ultimately, while distinct, have one “hand” (10:28-29).  In the salvation they provide and in the eternal security they guarantee, Father and Son act as one.

(3)  In 10:31-39, the point of contention between Jesus and “the Jews” is sharply made clear.  In 10:33, Jesus is accused of blasphemy, in the sense that he has made himself equal to God or has identified God with himself. This was the implicit issue in 8:58-59.  The Christian confession that Father and Son have equal status was one of the main points of contention between the Church and the synagogue.  Jesus offers a counter-argument, which draws upon Psalm 82:6, in which God addresses a gathering, by telling them:  “You are gods.”  The identity of the group addressed need not detain us here, since the simple point is that, if this group can be so addressed, how can there possibly be any objection to Jesus, “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (10:36)? The word “consecrated,” of course, picks up on the Feast of Dedication (which marked the re-consecration of the Temple) and identifies Jesus as its fulfillment.  Jesus’ works make it clear that his claim is not blasphemy because his claim is true; his works make it clear that “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38).

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 8


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles (IV)

John 8:12-38

1.  We momentarily pass over John 7:53-8:11, an account of a women accused of adultery.  Many translations of this section have it bracketed, indicating that not all manuscripts of John’s Gospel contain it.  Its inclusion here is odd because it disrupts the flow of the narrative, which continues directly from 7:14-44; neither the scene nor the audience has changed.

2.  8:12-20:

7:37-38 states the first part of Jesus’ “Tabernacle claim:”  “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”  As we have seen, Jesus claims to fulfill the dimension of Tabernacles associated with abundant rain and, hence, sustained life.

He now makes the second part of his “Tabernacle claim,” recalling that a second dimension of the feast was the large lamp stands in the Temple’s court of the women, that were lit at night, during the festival.  The theme of light may also be related to questions raised earlier about whether the Messiah comes from Galilee (7:41, 52), in that Isaiah 9:1-2 does associate the Messiah with Galilee and announces “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shined.”  Echoing 5:30-47, this statement immediately raises questions about the validity of Jesus’ testimony:  What are the authorities or who are the witnesses, which vindicate this claim (7:13)?  Jesus’ response here is sharper than it was in 5:30-47.  Jesus says that his testimony is unique because of his identity; he is from God and is returning to God.  This means that his testimony is self-validating because it is not simply of human origin but, in fact, has its origin in God.  The Pharisees, Jesus says, judge “according to the flesh,” which seems to mean not that they judge according to the senses but that they judge from a perspective hostile to God.  The “flesh” in this sense is not the realm of the physical but the realm of resistance and hostility to God.

8:15-16 is a bit puzzling:  “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.  Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.”  Jesus does not mean that he never judges.  He means that, while the Pharisees judge on the basis of hostility to God, he does not judge in this way, in that he judges with God; Jesus’ judgment and God’s judgment are not two separate things but take place conjointly.

In 8:17, we return to the theme of the Law.  In 5:31-37, Jesus accommodated himself to the Law and he does the same here.  He notes that the Law requires two human witnesses to establish something (Deuteronomy 19:15) but says that he has supplied two divine witnesses – himself and the Father.  The meaning of this claim is completely misunderstood and the Pharisees want to know the location of Jesus’ (biological) Father.  This prompts Jesus to make a radical accusation: “You know neither me nor my Father.  If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8:19).  This goes back to the accusation made in 7:28.  The real problem, Jesus says, is not merely that they dislike him or dispute his claims but that they do not know the God of Israel — because if they did, they would know him, as well.

3.  8:21-30:

This section begins with another instance of misunderstanding.  As we discover later in 14:28, “going away” refers to Jesus’ return to the Father via crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  The Pharisees take this as reference to suicide (8:22).  This is clearly not what Jesus means.  The phrase “you will die in your sin” (8:21) is important.  Here, “sin” is in the singular because of the reference to the sin of unbelief, which is the fundamental separation between a human being and God.  As 3:3-16 has already made clear, belief in Jesus and reception of his testimony is what enables a person to be born from above and to enter eternal life.  The lack of understanding only underlines the real difference between Jesus and the Pharisees:  “You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world” (8:23).  There are, finally, only two orientations.  One can either be “of this world,”  by which Jesus means  “hostile to God”  or “from above,”  by which he means “having been reborn and reconciled to God.”  Being hostile to God is perfectly compatible with “being religious,” as the case of the Pharisees shows – they are not atheists or agnostics.  The question in 8:25 (“Who are you?”) emphasizes the lack of comprehension.  Jesus reaffirms his central contention in 8:26 that, in God’s dispute with the world, he is God’s true witness against the world; his testimony about God is a testimony against the world.

How will Jesus’ status as truthful witness be confirmed?  It will be confirmed precisely at the moment when the world believes that it has been denied – at the crucifixion when “you have lifted up the Son of Man” (8:28).  Just as “going away” is a code phrase for “returning to the Father,”  so  “lifting up”  is a code phrase for crucifixion.  Jesus’ death will be his vindication, in that it reveals that “I do nothing on my own authority but speak just as the Father has taught me” (8:28).   For John, the cross reveals that what happens in Jesus is finally accomplished by God.

4.  8:31-38:

8:30 notes that “many believed in him” but we soon discover that this belief is either false or temporary.  8:31 shows that the standard of discipleship of continuing allegiance to Jesus, which is the meaning of “abiding” in his word.  This allegiance alone grants the truth, which is freeing, where “freedom” is understood as freedom from the power of sin and death.  So long as one remains in sin, truth becomes impossibility.  This leads to yet another misunderstanding:  “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (8:33).  This statement indicates at least two things:  First, they have misunderstood what Jesus has said about freedom.  Jesus has spoken of freedom from sin and they seem to be thinking of political freedom.  Second, since they are currently living under the rule of Rome, their statement is untrue in a significant way.  The point is that they do not think that they need to be freed from anything.  Jesus responds by pointing to the distinction between the slave and the son in a household, the former having no permanent place, while the latter does.  Jesus may have in mind Genesis 16:15 and 21:9-21, where the one to inherit the promise to Abraham’s son (Isaac) — not the son born to his slave Hagar (Ishmael).  Paul draws on this distinction, in Galatians 4:21-31.  Like Paul, Jesus seems to be making the point that Abraham’s true descendants are those who follow Jesus, not those who merely claim descent from him.

Questions for Reflection:

(1)  John 7-8 provides an opportunity to reflect on the person of Jesus.  Here, Jesus says that his witness and his judgment are the same as the Father’s — making them unique.  John presents this as the only real way to correctly understand the person of Jesus.  What are some of the obstacles to a true perception of Jesus?

(2)  Jesus identifies belief and discipleship as abiding in his word (8:31).  According to John 15:1-8, what does this abiding mean? What are some ways in which it could be nurtured?

(3)  In 8:32, Jesus promises that following him leads to freedom. What does this freedom mean?  What Jesus tells the Pharisees is very similar to what Paul says in Romans 6:15-19. In what ways is Christian freedom paradoxical?

Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles (V)

John 8:39-59

(1) 8:39-47: 

This part of the conversation follows from 8:31-38, in which “the Jews” claim Abraham as their father (8:33) and Jesus responds with this question:  Why it is that they do not act like Abraham, who welcomed God’s revelation?  Jesus then draws a sharp contrast:  “I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father” (8:38).  The clear implication is that their father is neither God nor Abraham.  In 8:39-40, Jesus sharpens his criticism.  If they were, in fact, Abraham’s children, they would be following his pattern.  Jesus may be thinking of Genesis 18:1-9, where Abraham receives the messengers with hospitality.  In contrast to this, “the Jews” are seeking to kill God’s messenger, in the person of Jesus.   Biological descent from Abraham is not sufficient to establish one in a covenant relationship with God.  In 8:41, Jesus begins to identify who their real “father” is.  It is clear now that God is not their father (8:19) — nor is Abraham.  So, who is their father?  They take Jesus’ statement, “You are doing what your father did” (8:41) to imply that he considers them idolaters.  Remember that “sexual immorality” is used in the Old Testament (Hosea 1:2; 2:4-5) as a metaphor for idolatry.  They claim to have only one father, who is God, as so to be loyal to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4).

What Jesus says next is his strongest claim yet:  “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (8:42).  Their claim to love God is self-evidently false, since God (“I am”) is before them and they clearly do not love him.  The conflict between Jesus and “the Jews” is a conflict based on origins;  he is “from above” and they are “from below” (8:23).  While Jesus is of his Father, they are also of theirs:  “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (8:44).  Jesus’ indictment here parallels indictments of Israel made in the Old Testament:  that Israel does not know God (Isaiah 48:8), is a slave of sin (Isaiah 50:1) and does not listen to God or his witnesses (Isaiah 42:18, 20).  Isaiah tells Israel that her ancestor was a transgressor (Isaiah 43:27), that from her birth she was a rebel (Isaiah 48:8) and that she has been involved in idolatry (Isaiah 44:9).  It would be very wrong indeed to see what Jesus says here as somehow anti-Semitic, since this is clearly an intra-Jewish conflict.

The claim that “you are of your father the devil” (8:44) expresses the reverse side of the claim, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8:19).   To reject the testimony or witness of Jesus is to reject God himself, since the Son is the Father’s witness to himself.   The witness of Jesus casts a bright light on the human situation — so that all is seen for what it really it is and it becomes clear that, once again, there is a situation in which “you who are called by the name of Israel . . . who swear by the name of the Lord and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right”  (Isaiah 48:1).

(2)  8:48-59:

“The Jews” respond to Jesus’ denunciation with one of their own.  They denounce him as a Samaritan (a person who is not really part of the covenant people) and demon-possessed (a person in the grip of evil and a stranger to the truth).  This only confirms their alienation from God.  This dishonor done to Jesus is not merely a personal affront but is, finally, an affront to God:  “Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge” (8:50).   Jesus’ concern for his honor is not egocentric or rooted in vanity; God seeks Jesus’ glory because of his unique status.  One cannot dishonor Jesus and still claim to serve the God of Israel.  Jesus offers a solemn declaration:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (8:51).  The death being referred to here seems to by physical death.  This is a parallel to the solemn saying in 5:24:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”  Jesus has the authority to grant eternal life and to both exercise God’s judgment and to exempt people from it.  In response to the questions, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  Who do you make yourself out to be?”  Jesus responds that the Father establishes his identity.   Jesus concludes, by claiming that Abraham is a witness to himself.  The statement that “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” (8:56) reflects the Jewish belief that Abraham was allowed to see the end times and, hence, the consummation of God’s work.  This view is also implied in Hebrews 11:8-16, where figures such as Abraham are said to have not “received the things promised, but having seen them greeted them from afar . . . ” (Hebrews 11:13).

The entire narrative of 7-8 now comes to its culmination. Jesus is asked a question in 8:57, which provides him with the opportunity to make a statement of his identity:  “You are not yet fifty years old and have you seen Abraham?”   In response, Jesus makes another solemn pronouncement:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). While this is a clear echo of Exodus 3:14, it also has a parallel in Isaiah 43:10-11:  “ ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.  Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.  I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.’ ”

Questions for Reflection

(1)  Reading John 7-8 takes care and attention, not only because the material is so dense, but also because it is so important.  One important theme in these two chapters is the relationship of Jewish people to Jesus the Messiah of Israel.  Unfortunately, Jews and Christians have a long history of poisoned relationships and many Christians have done their faith little credit.  Jesus clearly insists that Abraham was able to see ahead to him and rejoiced at the sight (8:56), meaning, of course, that he did not appear simply as the negation of Judaism.  How can we today help Jews to see that the Christian faith is not simply a Christian invention but is rooted in the Old Testament?

(2)  John 7-8 is primarily concerned with Christology, our understanding of who Jesus is.  How do the following passages express who Jesus is?

“But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true…I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” (7:28, 29).

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart, will flow rivers of living water.’  Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (7:39)

“ . . . for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me . . . I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” (8:16, 17)

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad.” (8:58)

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 6


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Breaking Bread With Jesus

John 6:1-15

1. The scene now switches back to Galilee, from Jerusalem (which is the focus from 2:13-3:36 and 5: 1-47).  A large crowd is following Jesus “because they saw the signs he was doing among the sick” (6:2).  The only healing sign in Galilee mentioned, thus far, is the one in 4:46-54, the healing of an official’s son (designated as Jesus’ second sign, in 4:54).

The mention that the crowd is following because of signs hints at a lack of real faith (a hint confirmed later in 6:15).  In 2:24-25, however, we have already seen that “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them [those who believed in him because of the signs he was doing], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”  It is clear that seeing signs does not necessarily translate into actual faith.

2. The mention of going up on “the mountain” (6:3) is important, in indicating the symbolic setting for what is to happen.  Going up to “the mountain” is precisely what Moses does in Exodus 19:3, to receive a revelation from God.  The mountain introduces the theme of revelation and the giving of the manna, which takes place in Exodus 16.  The discourse, which extends from 6:22-71, will take up these themes.  Here, the passage reveals Jesus to be the true bread of life, who fulfills and surpasses the manna given in the wilderness.  The temporal note “Now the Passover . . .was at hand” (6:4) brings this into sharper focus.

3. As is typical of John, the passage emphasizes the sovereignty of Jesus:

First, instead of waiting for the crowd to get hungry and then providing food, Jesus raises the issue even before it arrives.  Here, he plays the host and does not simply respond to a need (see Mark 8, for example).

Second, while Jesus asks Philip about food, 6:6 makes it clear that Jesus knows already what he is going to do.  It becomes clear that Philip is responding to Jesus simply on a human plane; for him, what Jesus asks is simply impossible, in that more than six months’ wages of an average person would make only a dent in solving the problem.  We are immediately reminded of Nicodemus’ protest that being born from above/again is impossible, because it means returning to the womb.

4. Likewise, Andrew responds on the merely human level; he has located some food  — but there is the dispiriting realization that “what are they among so many?” (6:9).  The mention of the two barley loaves may be a reference to 2 Kings 4:38-44, where Elisha feeds one hundred men with twenty barley loaves and some grain.

Andrew’s objection echoes that of Elisha’s servant: “How can I set this before a hundred men?”   The food that Jesus has available is more scarce than what Elisha had and the number of people he must feed is far greater.  Just as we will learn that Jesus is greater than Moses, we now learn that Jesus is greater than Elisha.  The point of these comparisons is not merely to show that Jesus is better than what [who] preceded him but to emphasize the surpassing work of God, which is now taking place — the same theme contained in within the story of the wedding in Cana (2:1-12).

5.  Jesus’ actions with the bread are significant:  (1) Jesus “took the loaves” (2) gave thanks (the Greek verb is eucharisteo) and (3) “distributed them.”  These actions replicate almost exactly Jesus’ actions in the Upper Room which, according to Luke 22:17 were “he took bread, and when he had given thanks [a form of eucharisteo], he broke it and gave it to them.” 

It seems almost certain that Jesus’ actions here are seen as “eucharistic” in nature and, although John offers no actual account of the Last Supper, he is certainly aware of it.   If we put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it seems that John portrays this action as a kind of new Passover — there is the “Passover, the feast of the Jews” (6:4) and there is Jesus’ new Passover.   John further emphasizes Jesus’ role in this feeding because, unlike Mark 8, it is Jesus who distributes the food that he has blessed — not the disciples (6:11).  This emphasizes the point that what is given comes from Jesus and further parallels the accounts of the Last Supper, where the bread and cup are given to the disciples — by Jesus himself.

6.  Paralleling the wedding at Cana episode, the emphasis falls on the theme of abundance.  Even after five thousand men (compare that to Elisha’s one hundred!) have “eaten their fill” (6:12), there is still plenty left over.  The number of baskets filled with leftovers is significant — twelve.

Later on in this chapter (6:67, 70, 71) Jesus will emphasize the fact that there are twelve disciples.  This is not just an unimportant symbolic detail but is a reminder that Jesus’ mission is not just about bringing individuals to the Truth or performing signs to attract a following.  Jesus understands himself to be about the work of reconstituting Israel and this is important because it means that, while there will be a Church of Gentiles, it cannot merely be a Gentile Church, a community which has no connection to Israel.

7.  The response of the crowd now justifies the suspicions hinted at earlier.  It sees in Jesus “the Prophet who is to come” (6:14), a possible reference to Deuteronomy 18:15.  If this is so, the crowd may be thinking of Jesus as a kind of prophet-king and this is the light in which some Jewish traditions viewed Moses.  But it clearly misunderstands Jesus’ mission and identity.  1.49 refers to Jesus as a “king” but it is clear that the crowd is thinking of installing Jesus as king through insurrection — as if his kingship depended upon popular support and was simply an alternative to the rule of Herod Antipas.  This is not to say that Jesus’ kingship is a merely “spiritual” reality but it is to say that “the consent of the governed”  does not determine his kingship – nor is it simply an alternative to other rules.

John 6:16-21

1.  We need to read this episode along with the preceding one, in order to make proper sense.  This is to say that it is an extension of the previous episode — not an independent one. The whole scene is somewhat enigmatic.  The passage does not tell us why the disciples departed without Jesus nor how they expected Jesus to come to them, while they were on the Sea of Galilee.  And while the sea is rough, there is no indication that the disciples are in danger or that they need to be rescued  (as is suggested in a parallel account, in Matthew 14:24).

2. Looking beyond all this, it is clear that this episode has a very definite function, one which is made clear, in Jesus’ response to the disciples in 6:20 which, translated literally, reads “I am; do not be afraid.”  The “I am” is, of course, the way in which God identifies himself in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12).  The image of sovereignty over nature strengthens the connection between Jesus and God’s self-identification.

3. We now know why the effort to make Jesus king was wrong and what the feeding of the five thousand reveals:  Jesus acts as one who has the power of God at his disposal.  In the case of Moses and Elisha, God assists his servants with signs of divine power while, in the case of Jesus, there is no assistance at all, since in him, the Father (the sovereign Creator) is acting personally.

John 6:22-59

1. 6:22-24 provides a transition from the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walk upon the Sea of Galilee to the next stage of the action.  This section recalls the feeding and emphasizes its Eucharistic dimension, by reminding us that the feeding took place “after the Lord had given thanks” (6:23) — making use of the Greek verb eucharisto once again.  This section also emphasizes that only one boat was available to Jesus and his disciples and that it is known that Jesus did not get into the boat with them — underlining the mysterious nature of how Jesus got to the other side.

2. 6:25-29:  The crowd goes in search of Jesus for the wrong reason.  6:25 signals this, when the crowd strangely asks Jesus when he came to Capernaum — not how.  This alerts us to the fact that there is a significant gap between Jesus and the crowd.  Jesus himself makes this clear, when he identifies the reason why the crowd has followed him — it seeks him because he provided food — not because it has understood the sign (note the omission of the role of the fish in the feeding).

Jesus attempts to move this exchange to another plane, with the paradoxical admonition  “Do not labor for the food that perishes [the bread of the sign] but for the food that endures to eternal life [Jesus himself] which the Son of Man will give to you” (6:27).

[Jesus is not telling them to work for anything at all because the real food is not something other than Jesus himself and this food only comes as a gift from God.]  The crowd does not understand this because it asks, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:28).  “Doing the works of God” was a way of speaking about being faithful to Torah.  The question being asked, according to Jesus, is:  What does one need to do, in order to be faithful to God?  Astoundingly, Jesus makes it clear, in 6:29, that having faith in him is what being faithful to God is all about.  This is to say that Jesus understands that faith in himself is being faithful to Torah.

3.  6:30-40:  The questions the crowd asks, in 6:30, at first sounds strange.  We have to remember back to 6:14, where the crowd identifies Jesus as the new Moses (“the Prophet”).  Seen in this light, the question seems to be that of what sign Jesus has performed, to show that he is greater than Moses.  Exodus understands that signs and wonders have vindicated Moses’ office.  The crowd, naturally, sees one of the greatest of these signs as the manna (literally in Hebrew “what is it?”).  The question here seems to be “Can you outdo the giving of manna?”

This is exactly the question that Jesus wants the followers to ask.   Jews generally saw manna, not simply as the “bread” supplied by God in the wilderness, but also as Torah.  By identifying himself as “manna,” Jesus will emphasize that he both fulfills and surpasses Torah.

On the way to this point, Jesus makes a clarification:  it was not Moses that gave the manna but God.  In the Moses scenario, the manna comes to Israel through Moses’ intercession.  In Jesus’ scenario, God is the giver and Jesus himself is the gift.  Jesus makes it clear that he is not simply talking about performing a sign but about God [himself] directly giving a gift.  It becomes clear that manna here is not referring to a thing:  “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33).

The crowd has not yet caught up to Jesus (no surprise here!) and seems to think that what Jesus is offering is simply an endless supply of manna.  (We remember that the manna stopped when Israel crossed into the Promised Land).  Jesus now makes an unambiguous declaration, which is the center of this whole chapter:  “I AM the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35).

According to Deuteronomy 8:3, God gave the manna as an object lesson: it made clear that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”   Here, the manna is God’s life-giving revelation.  In John 6, that life-giving revelation is Jesus himself.

What Jesus says here is amazingly similar to Sirach 24:19-22:  “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce . . . Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more.”  In this text, the speaker is Wisdom.  Clearly, Jesus now surpasses what was given through Wisdom.  Two very important things about God’s life-giving revelation in Jesus are immediately made clear:

First, the reception of this revelation is not something which takes place by chance since, not only does it have its source in God, but also the reception of it is, finally, due to God’s work:  “All that the Father gives me will come to me . . . ” (6:37).

Second, the form of this revelation and its consequences are simply spiritual but physical as well.  It is the Father’s will that “everyone who looks on the Son of Man and believes in him should have eternal life.”   Here, “eternal life” means being raised up (resurrected) “on the last day” (6:40).  In Jesus, revelation has a physical quality (humans can look upon it, as in 1 John 1:1) and it leads to the resurrection of the body.

4. 6:41-59: Echoing Exodus 16:2, 7-9, 12, in the Greek Old Testament, the crowd now “murmurs” about Jesus, just as it had done about Moses.  Notice that John partially identifies the crowd as “the Jews,” John’s code phrase for those who reject Jesus.  The reason for the murmuring is stated in 6:42 and appears, on the surface, to be genealogical in nature — Jesus’ parents are known and this knowledge does not seem to fit with the claim that Jesus “came down from heaven.”  The real issue, however, is theological:  John asserts that the human element of Jesus (having human parents) fits with his divine element, being the Word of God; this is the meaning of the initial assertion that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14).

A merely earthly perspective on Jesus will always result in the wrong conclusions.  In 6:43-46, Jesus replies but, typically, does not directly address the objection.  With respect to Jesus, what is truly important and saving is not what humans conclude about him, on their own, but what the Father brings about in them.

An adequate view of Jesus (belief) requires the initiative of God.  Quoting Isaiah 54:13, Jesus restates his point:  “And they will all be taught by God.”   The crucial statement comes in 6:47-51.  This section draws together 6:27, 32, and 35 into a synthesis of amazing concreteness.  The statements “whoever believes in me has eternal life” (6:47) and “I am the bread of life . . . If anyone eats this bread he will live forever” (6:48, 51) are parallel and mutually reinforcing statements.

Jesus identifies himself as the “living bread,” as manna, wisdom, and revelation from God.  These two statements make it clear how to appropriate the manna/wisdom/revelation, which is Jesus.  Jesus identifies belief as essential and makes it clear that it is not simply a human capacity or a mental act.  To believe in Jesus is not merely to entertain ideas about Jesus, which one understands to be true.  To believe in Jesus means that God has brought a person to Christ and has placed that person in a living relationship with him, such that God gives Christ  (the life-giving manna/wisdom/revelation) to the believer.  The ultimate consequence of belief is not enlightenment, but resurrection, to share eternal fellowship with God.

In 6:52-59, the parallel mode of receiving Jesus is made clear, though it is first introduced in 6:51:  “And the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh [sarx].”  This is surprising because we might expect that Jesus would say that the bread he will give is his body (soma).  Sarx is much more physical than soma and this seems to focus attention on the physical, concrete nature of Jesus in his incarnation, death and bodily resurrection. The bread Jesus gives for the life of the world is not a concept or a disembodied wisdom but himself, in his own incarnate, crucified. and risen reality.  6:53 is very close to the eucharistic language of Matthew 26:26,28:  “Take, eat; this is my body [soma=”self”] . . . Drink of it [the cup], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many . . .”

Clearly, this is not meant in a cannibalistic sense, as if life was to be had from eating pieces of Jesus or drinking his actual blood.  (It is interesting to note, however, that the Romans did understand the early Christians to be cannibals, because they spoke in this way.)  Rather, the emphasis seems to be on the fact that the sacramental meal is a means, through which the living Jesus makes available his saving benefits.  The passage does not nake explicit the means by which “eating” mediates eternal life, access to Jesus, but it is possible that something along the lines of 1 Corinthians 10:14-16, where “eating” and “drinking” grant a “participation” (10:16) or koinonia in Christ is in view.  Whatever the means, the meal seems to be connected to Jesus, in the sense that both are physical realities (meal and Christ’ sarx) and the meal symbolically parallels Jesus’ incarnation (sarx), death (in the bread as broken and the cup as poured) and resurrection (celebrated, not in Jesus’ absence, but in his presence).

Questions for Reflection:

(1)  By speaking about Jesus as manna, wisdom, and revelation, John helps us to think concretely about Jesus as the bread of life.  In what other specific ways could we think about this?

(2)  By speaking of bread, the basic food staple of the day, John clearly states the utter dependence of Christians upon Christ.  In what ways does living in a society of abundance hinder this sense of dependence?

John 6:60-71

1. In the previous section (6:22-59) the crowd is identified as “the Jews” (6:41), that is, as those who explicitly oppose Jesus.  This group finds the whole bread of life discourse unbelievable because it understands Jesus only within a human framework (6:41-42, 52).  In this section, the audience is narrowed down, from a group distinct from the crowd and designated as “many of his disciples” (6:60) to the smaller group designated as “the Twelve” (6:67).

2.  The “hard saying” in 6:60 probably refers back to 6:53-56, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death is made unavoidably explicit.  This appears to be too much for those disciples who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah but who now find the notion of his sacrificial death as beyond belief.  We are presented with two different responses to Jesus — both of which are inadequate.  The crowd is unable to get beyond bread and, thus, revealed to be earthly-minded.  The larger group of disciples is able to get beyond bread, to Messiah-ship, but is unable to take the Cross — and the eating and the drinking — which are the visible connections to it.

3.  The question in 6:62 is a little difficult, in Greek, but seems to mean something like “Would you not be even more offended were you to see the Son of Man ascending to return to the Father?”   It is one thing to accept Jesus as the Messiah (within the confines of this term’s Jewish meaning) and quite another to arrive at explicit Christian faith that Jesus is the incarnate Word, who returns to the Father, through his death and resurrection.

4.  The statement in 6:63 sounds a bit odd, given what has come before it, with the emphasis on Jesus’ flesh:  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”  In what has come before, flesh (sarx) has a positive meaning, referring to Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion.  Now, the meaning has shifted to the negative:  “flesh ” as that dimension of creation alienated from God.  To use a Pauline phrase, the unbelief of the larger group of disciples is due to the fact that they are “in the flesh” (see Romans 7:5, for example); their own perceptions bind them in state, in which they remain, and hostility to God marks this state.   There is a great irony here.  The flesh of Jesus (understood as his death and resurrection) avails much while “the flesh” (understood as a merely human attitude to Jesus) avails nothing.

5.  6:64-65 shows that none of this is a surprise to Jesus.  He is neither shocked nor disappointed; the fact that some of his disciples do not really believe in him does not send him into a state of doubt about his own mission.  It is important to notice that the conviction that Jesus is Messiah is not counted as “belief” by Jesus in 6:64.  These disciples (who are not really disciples) are not given “partial credit” for thinking Jesus the Messiah; they fall into the same category as the crowd designated as “the Jews.”  The reason for this is made clear in 6:65.   All real faith has its mysterious origin in God.   Faith is a relationship of “abiding in” (6:56) and it is granted by God; it has not been granted to this group of disciples.

6.  All of this produces a crisis in Jesus’ ministry (the Greek meaning of the word, “crisis,”  iss a moment of decision).  Some of the faux disciples “turned back and no longer walked with him” (6:66).  Note that no mention is made of Jesus earnestly pleading for them to come back and think things over.

7.  6.67 makes is clear that the disciples have reached a moment of decision:  “Do you want to go away as well?”   What Peter says here is the equivalent of his confession in Mark 8:29.  Peter acknowledges the truth of what Jesus has been saying in this chapter.  Peter, speaking on behalf of true faith, acknowledges that the option of “going away” simply does not exist — he recognizes Jesus as the unique source of the “words of eternal life.”  Once again, as 6:70 indicates, Jesus is not surprised.  After losing many disciples, Jesus does not greet Peter’s confession with relief.  Peter is not congratulated on his loyalty or on remaining one of the faithful few; Jesus knows about Peter because he chose him.  Jesus does not make clear his reasons for choosing “a devil” (6:70).   The passage makes clear that Jesus does not see Judas as a huge disappointment (“Oh, he had so much potential!”).  This introduces an important theme of John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death.  Jesus does not appear to be a victim, in any way, nor an idealist, which a corrupt system has over-taken.  Jesus faces betrayal, arrest, and death with a sense of equanimity, not because he has no feelings but because he has long ago embraced the Father’s mission.

Questions for Reflection

(1)   Jesus makes it clear that “the flesh” (a merely human attitude) is a huge obstacle to faith. What are so me of the manifestations of “the flesh” that you see in your own life?

(2)   Does the idea of faith finally being a gift of God seem frightening or comforting (or both)?  What would you say to an atheist or agnostic friend who had read this passage?

(3) Could the idea of faith being a gift of God lead to irresponsibility (“I don’t believe because God has not given me the gift”)?

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Exploring the Gospel of John: 4


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church


A Conversation at a Well

John 4:1-43

1.  4:1-6:  The introduction to this episode gives hints to the reader that he/she should understand it, in the light of Genesis 1-67 (where Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, comes to a well, in search of a wife for Isaac); Genesis 29:1-14 (where Jacob encounters Rachel, at a well); and Exodus 2:15-22 (where Moses meets his future wife, Zipporah).

The key theme, in each one of these texts, is betrothal.  We have already seen that the marriage symbolism plays an important role in this Gospel.  It does so in 2:1-12 and in 2:29.  John the Baptism refers to Jesus as the “bridegroom” of the bride.  The reader should understand this, in the light of the Old Testament and the consistent portrayal of God’s relationship with Israel being nuptial, with God as the groom and Israel as the bride (Isaiah 62:4-5; Hosea 2:2-23; Ezekiel 16).  In this episode, we have Jesus in God’s place, as the groom and the Samaritan woman (representing her people) in the place of the bride.  Jesus is the bridegroom.

There is no geographical necessity, when traveling from Judea to Galilee, to pass through Samaria. The idea that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” (4:4) is theological; this is part of his mission from God.  The “sixth hour” (4:6) is probably noon.

2.  4:7-26:  Jesus initiates the conversation with the Samaritan woman, who is surprised at a two-fold breach of propriety.  First, men and women who were unrelated or unknown to each other did not speak in public. Second, Jesus proposes to drink water from something touched by a Samaritan – an extreme breach of purity, from the Jewish point of view.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the northern tribes of Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh, mainly), which the Assyrians had conquered in 723 BC and into which non-Jewish people had mixed.   Jews regarded Samaritans as worse than Gentiles because they claimed to be part of the covenant people but were of mixed ancestry.  In 128 BC, Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim and hostility continued.

Jesus’ request for water allows him to begin to focus on what this woman really needs to hear.  (Jesus followed the same strategy with Nicodemus.)  If the woman knew the “gift of God” (4:10) she would be the one asking Jesus for a drink because he has living water.  In Greek, the phrase, “living water” and “running water” are the same and Jesus plays upon this.  Just as he uses the word, “anothen” (again, from above) to move Nicodemus from physical birth to birth from God, so Jesus attempts to move the woman from water in a well to the living water, given by God himself.  The symbolism of water is important:  In the case of Nicodemus, it meant the cleansing of the Spirit (after Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Water is also associated with wisdom.  In Sirach 15:3, Wisdom, portrayed as a woman, “will feed him with the bread of understanding and give him the water of wisdom to drink.”  This Gospel uses both the themes of God’s wisdom, Incarnate in Jesus, as bread and water [note John 6).  The important thing to note is that the Old Testament does not portray wisdom as an abstract quality but as a person:  in the Septuagint, as sophia or Lady Wisdom.  This personalism continues in the Gospel of John, with Jesus as the wisdom of God.

Like Nicodemus, the woman initially responds to Jesus simply on the human level:  Jesus has nothing with which to draw water.  Where does he get this “living water”?  Her question, in 4:12, which she intends as a mild criticism (“And just who do you think you are?”) opens the way to the heart of the matter:  “Are you greater than our father Jacob?”  Still building upon the running/living water parallel, Jesus attempts to get the woman to make the conceptual shift that she needs to make (remember that Nicodemus never quite made the necessary shift:  “(How can these things be?”):  Jesus is not speaking of physical water but of “eternal life” (4:14).  In Sirach 24:21 (paralleling 15:3), Wisdom says that “those who eat me will hunger for more and those who drink me will thirst for more.”  Jesus clearly surpasses sophia – drinking from him is the end of thirst.  The woman’s response, in 4:15, reflects both a lack of understanding and an openness to receive what Jesus offers.

4:16-18 introduces the issue of the woman’s marital status, which the reader should understand on two levels:  First, it is clear that her [culture] regards as morally suspect – this explains her presence at the well at noon, a time at which no other people are present.  This fact marks her as something of an outcast (the exact opposite of Nicodemus’ social status).  Second, after Hosea 2, the woman’s domestic situation is symbolic of unfaithfulness.  Marital infidelity is one of the Old Testament’s most powerful metaphors for idolatry and unfaithfulness.  The woman’s domestic situation represents the spiritual situation of the Samaritans.

In 4:19, the woman takes a major step toward recognizing Jesus’ identity.  Believing him to be a prophet, she raises what, for her, is the central religious question:  Who is right:  Jews or Samaritans?  Which one of the two rival temples (Gerazim, Zion) is the proper one?  Jesus’ answer is a bit surprising:  The time is now here when geography does not determine the true worship of God – in a sense, asking which temple is the right one is asking the wrong question.  True worship is a matter of a relationship to God, made possible by the Spirit and by the Son (“in truth”).  Real worship is not a matter of location but is a matter which the Son and the Spirit mediates.  But in saying that neither temple is the right one, Jesus is no way diminishes the salvation-historical role of Zion because “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22).  [In short, Jesus announces that the eschatological hour has now come, when temples on a specific mountain can be left behind.] (Remember 2:13-22).

Now comes the moment of revelation: The woman has moved from seeing Jesus as an odd Jew with pretensions (“Are you greater than our father Jacob?”) to seeing him as a prophet (4:19) and then to seeing him as something a bit more than a prophet.  She says that the Messiah will come to straighten out these issues and this provides Jesus with a moment of self-revelation:  “I who speak to you am he” (4:24).  The Greek [phrase] reproduces the affirmation of Exodus 3:14 (God’s self-revelation to Moses) so Jesus’ response to the woman is “I AM the Messiah.”

3. 4:27-30:  Something important has happened.  The story of Nicodemus ended with incomprehension but the woman here leaves the well without her water jar (4:28) and returns to Sychar to witness: “Can this be the Christ?”  The woman’s witness sends others out to meet Jesus.

4. 4:31-38:  With the woman gone and the disciples having returned, the focus now shifts:  The woman’s failure to understand Jesus is now put into some perspective, by the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus’ use of food:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (4:34).  Talk of food leads to the harvest (from which the food comes) and this allows Jesus to make another point:  the eschatological harvest is here.  [The Son has sown this harvest and the disciples and those who followed will reap the harvest.]

5. 4:39-42: Despite her dubious past and religious status, the woman at the well has brought to Jesus a harvest. She has become a catalyst for the Samaritan to receive Jesus.

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Filed under Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John