John - Chapter 1:1-18
In the Beginning
These opening eighteen verses of the Gospel of John is the foundation on which the rest of the book is constructed. Without this section the book would make little sense. This section is also dense and complex, so we will simply try to examine the main concepts it contains.
The Beginning: Each of the Gospels connects Jesus with a particular history/time. Mark begins his Gospel with the work of John the Baptist. Matthew takes Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, while Luke takes it back to Adam. John begins with creation itself, using the term “Word” or the “logos.” While the logos in Greek was a philosophical term, I would argue that in John, it is directing the readers’ attention to God speaking creation into being. I say this because the Word is directly associated with God (“The Word was with God and the Word was God”) and with creation (“All things came into being through him”, “in him was life”, and “…the life was the light of all people…”). In other words, the Word, which is God, and which became flesh (in Jesus), was co-creator with God. Thus, this Gospel begins with an affirmation that Jesus and God are intimately linked through their work (creation) and their being (the Word was God). As a note, light and darkness are opposed to each other, but they are not equal in power. Thus John is not dualistic in design, meaning that there are two opposing powers, light and dark. In John, there is only one power and that is the Word who created…darkness merely implies the inability to know the truth.
John (the Baptist): At this initial stage, there has not been the direct link between the Word and Jesus. What there is though is a statement about who is not the Word, and that is John (the Baptist). What is interesting here is that John is not referred to as “the Baptist.” In part this is because there is no baptism of Jesus story in this Gospel (though we will discover that John still baptizes others). This is so for two reasons. First, the one baptizing can be seen as being greater than the one being baptized. Second, there was a community that believed that John the Baptist was the messiah. So, it is essential that John does not baptize Jesus and that John be a “witness” to Jesus as the Word/light.
Problem and Purpose: Next, we are informed as to the problem and the purpose of the Word/light. The problem was that neither the “world” nor “his own” recognized him for who he was. Here, the “world” refers to humanity in general and “his own” refers to the Jewish people. This would explain why Jesus was crucified and not celebrated. The purpose of the Word/light was to make human beings into children of God. We should note here that in this Gospel, one becomes a child of God not through an accident of birth (being born into a Jewish or Christian household), but through believing in the name of and receiving the Word/light which is an act of God (more on this in chapter 3).
Jesus Christ: Finally, at the end of this section the writer makes clear that Jesus is the Word made flesh who brings grace upon grace and is the bearer of truth and grace (as opposed to the Moses who was the bringer of the Law). This contrast between Moses and Jesus continues with the note that only the Son (Jesus) has seen God and can make God known, implying that Moses, though a prophet, could not see God, nor make God fully known. Thus, Jesus is greater than the Baptist and Moses because he is the Word, the light, and the Son.
1.How do you understand the connection between Jesus and God?
2.Why do you think people did/do not recognize Jesus for who he is?
3.What do you think of the contrast between Jesus and Moses?
John Chapter 1: 19-51
We now leave the Prologue of John and move into the first narrative section, though as we will observe, all narrative sections of the Gospel of John are carefully theologically crafted. They are all intended to witness to Jesus as the one sent from God to save the world.
Before we discuss the three contacts that make up this section, we need to reflect on the term “the Jews.” We read this term here for the first, but certainly not last time, in the Gospel. This term is used throughout the Gospel and has been seen by many as being a pejorative for all Jews in all times and places. The assumption is that the Gospel shows that all Jews were “bad” while all followers of Jesus were “good.” This is not the case. The term “the Jews” is used in a variety of places to describe a variety of different people. Here it refers to the Temple leadership who sent Temple functionaries, the priests, and Levites to question John. Please remember that the one writing this letter was a Jew, as were all the disciples. Now on to the three contacts.
Contact One: The first contact is with the priests and Levites. These Temple workers question John the Baptist because he is baptizing in a manner that evokes end times images rather than following Jewish traditions. Within Judaism a person baptized (ritually washed themselves…even when going through conversion to Judaism) rather than having someone do the baptizing. Thus, the Temple leaders wanted to know who John thought he was. Was he Elijah or the prophet like Moses, both of whom were rumored to possibly return before the messiah arrived? Or was he the messiah himself? His response is telling in that he only identifies himself by his function; to prepare the way for the one who was coming after him. He also makes it clear that his baptism is only a foreshadowing of the true spiritual baptism that is to come. (The focus is on preparing others to see Jesus)
Contact Two: This second contact focuses on John seeing Jesus and stating plainly that Jesus is the one who is to come, whose way John is preparing. The language John uses, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, has caused much ink to be spilled. Rather than look at all possible options I would link this imagery to Isaiah 53:6-10 where we read of the Suffering Servant who is “like a lamb who is led to the slaughter” to be an offering for sin. John then reiterates his relationship with Jesus (Jesus is superior) and his role (helping to reveal Jesus). John can reveal Jesus because he has seen the Spirit come down on Jesus, thus showing that Jesus is the Son of God. (The focus is on proclaiming Jesus’ identity)
Contact Three: The third contact is an extended series of contacts intended to demonstrate the process of becoming a disciple. First, someone, in this case John, points to Jesus and witnesses to his identity (Lamb of God). Those hearing this witness (the two disciples), leave the way they are going and seek to “stay” with Jesus. Those who “stay” with Jesus then invite others (Andrew invites Simon). Those who respond to the invitation get a new identity (Simon becomes Peter). This pattern expands with Jesus doing the inviting of Phillip who then invites Nathanael, both of whom go “stay” with Jesus on the road. Along the way we find out that Jesus is the Messiah, the prophet, the Son of God, and the King of Israel. Jesus then adds one more title, Son of Man, referencing a saving figure in Daniel. The chapter then concludes with Jesus declaring that there are more amazing things to come.
1.How have you understood/thought about John’s use of the term “the Jews”?
2.Which of the three contacts is the most meaningful to you?
3.What does it mean to you to believe in/follow Jesus?
This portion of John deals with the first of Jesus’ seven “signs.” Before we unpack the story of the wedding at Cana, we will examine the use of “sign(s)” in John. The Gospel of John does not use the word miracle. Instead, the book uses the word “sign” to describe out of the ordinary occurrences. What we need to understand is that the “sign” in John is not synonymous with miracle. Sign instead signifies that there is something specific that the “sign” is intending to confirm, corroborate, or authenticate. In this Gospel the “signs” are intended to prove that Jesus is who he and his followers believe that he is. Those who are skeptical of Jesus ask for “signs” from Jesus so as to prove his identity, and in response Jesus offers “signs”, though some people cannot see them as such.
The story outline is relatively simple. There is a wedding. Jesus’ mother (notice Jesus’ mother is never referred to as Mary in the Gospel of John…just as his mother) appears to have a significant role in the wedding, hence her overseeing the wine supply. The wine is running low (a very bad thing for a wedding celebration that is supposed to last for a week). Mary asks Jesus to remedy the situation. Jesus says some cryptic words but ends up providing the “best” wine in an unusual manner. Jesus then travels to his home base accompanied by his family and friends.
The wine running out: This incident can be seen on two levels. The first level is that of a party that needs more wine. The second level is symbolic, where Jesus sees a connection between the lack of party wine and Israel’s lack of the abundance of life that Israel is to have and share with the world. This is based in the concept that Israel is God’s vine/vineyard that is to be producing fruit in abundance (Isaiah 5:1). Unfortunately, as the prophets often pointed out, the vine was often unfruitful (Isaiah 3:14), which would be the case in this story.
Jesus and his mother: This interaction operates on the same two levels. The first level is that Mary expected her eldest child to do his duty and follow her instructions. Jesus does so, but not without some commentary. The commentary is offered because Jesus sees the symbolic nature of what has happened. This understanding of the symbolism leads to his response, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” These words suggest 1) that Jesus is respectful of his mother…the word “woman” means something like “my lady” and not “hey woman.” 2) but they also show that while Jesus understands that his calling is to make Israel/the world abundant with life once again, the time is not yet come for this to happen so neither he nor his mother have this responsibility at this moment.
The Jars of water/wine: The water in the jars was used for ritual purification and washing as commanded by Torah. The washing would make one ritually pure. By Jesus turning that ritual purification water into wine Jesus is demonstrating that he is the Messiah (hence the concept of sign) who will bring about a new abundance as spoken by the prophets (Amos9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12). Finally, this is the best wine because it is a symbol of the coming messianic age.
The journey to Capernaum: The Gospel of John like the other Gospels has no problem with Jesus having siblings.
1.How have you understood this wedding at Cana story?
2.What do you think of the stories operating on two levels?
3.What are your thoughts about Jesus having not only disciples but siblings?
Seeing the Signs
We now come to the second sign. This sign will concern the Temple. Again, before we jump into the story a bit of background about the Temple. This was the second Temple. The first Temple had been built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple had been under construction since the Jewish leadership had returned from exile in Babylon around 516 BCE. Herod the Great (72 BCE – 1 BCE) completely refurbished and expanded the Temple. It was one of the largest and most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire. It consisted of an outer court (with stalls where Gentiles could enter), the Inner Courts (where only Jews could go consisting of the Court of the Women, the Court of the Israelites for men only, and the Court of the Priests for Priests and Levites only), the Sanctuary (containing various religious items), and the Holy of Holies (which was accessible only once a year by the high priest). The Temple was the center of religious life for Jews, though most Jews were fortunate if they could visit it once in their lifetimes. It was only after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE that the synagogue became the center of Jewish religious observances.
The Passover of the Jews: This is the first of three Passovers that Jesus celebrates in Jerusalem, only the last of which is mentioned in the other three Gospels. The mention of the Jews here is used as an explanation to Gentile audiences that Passover is a Jewish holiday. There is no pejorative intended because Jesus is in town to celebrate it. Passover was also the highest of the high holy days and so the Temple complex would be filled to overflowing with both Jews and Gentiles. This means that in the court of the Gentiles, the stalls would be filled with vendors selling animals for sacrifice and exchanging foreign coinage for the “Tyrian” coinage, which was the only acceptable coinage for paying the Temple tax.
Cleansing the Temple: It is hard to imagine that Jesus drove “all of them”, meaning animals, vendors, and visitors out of the Temple. Such an act would have brought about a response from the Roman garrison that kept watch from the Antonian Fortress. I would argue instead that Jesus drove out enough to make his point, which was that people had forgotten the true nature of sacrifice. That true sacrifice was not an exchange with God, but was showing mercy, humility, and justice (Micah 6:8). Thus, Jesus’ comments about a marketplace are more about the transaction between people and God, than between people and people. In other words, this was a prophetic act more than a permanent closing of the Temple system.
Show us a sign: The Jews here are the Jewish Temple leaders, who ask for a sign to prove he is a prophet who can cleanse the Temple. His answer, on its face, seems absurd; tear down the Temple and Jesus will rebuild it after three days. As John explains however, the “sign” Jesus offers them is that he will replace the Temple as the center of worship. No one, including the disciples, understood this.
Many believed: This closing section seems confusing but in Johannine terms it makes sense. Believing in Jesus because of seeing signs is not the same thing as believing in Jesus because the Spirit moves one to believe. We will learn more about this in the next chapter.
1.What had been your impression of Jesus cleansing the Temple before reading this summary?
2.Why do you think that Jesus, in John’s Gospel, speaks in such cryptic terms?
3.How did you come to believe in Jesus?
Light and Dark
This section of John contains perhaps the most well-known pieces of the scripture, John 3:16, “For God so loved that world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but may have eternal life.” What we need to understand though is that this verse is only a small portion of a larger tableau that John has painted in this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. We will examine this encounter by looking at its components.
Nicodemus: Nicodemus plays a critical role in the Gospel of John. As we shall see, he is the example of what a “seeker” after truth/light ought to be. His search begins in darkness (representing a lack of understanding about Jesus) yet it is a search which is open to discovering truth/light. Nicodemus begins by acknowledging that Jesus is a God inspired teacher. This allows Jesus to engage in a teachable moment that is a word play in the Greek. Jesus tells Nicodemus that only those who have been born from above/again (the Greek word carries both meanings) can know the truth about Jesus. Nicodemus chooses the meaning of born again (meaning a new physical birth), while Jesus means being born from above (meaning a new spiritual birth), implying that only those whom God chooses can see Jesus as truth/light. Nicodemus is perplexed by this, but as we shall see later in John, it does not stop him from moving toward faith (meaning that God/Spirit is already at work in his life).
The Son of Man: Jesus returns to the image of the Son of Man, again a reference to one like the Son of Man in Daniel (7:13-14) who is a messianic figure. This image is combined with the image of the serpent being lifted up by Moses (Num. 21:9) which is again a motif of salvation in which the people’s lives are saved by looking at the serpent. In these images Jesus not only refers to the cross (being lifted up) but also to the concept that Jesus is the Word made flesh (the one who has come down…and will ultimately be taken back up).
For God so loved the world: What is interesting about the Gospel of John is that it moves from conversation (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus) to theological reflection on those conversations (for God so loved the world), without skipping a beat. This reflection makes clear the purpose of the Word becoming flesh. It also makes clear God’s purpose, to save the world. What is interesting about this reflection is its universal nature. In a world divided by class, ethnicity, and gender, John makes it clear that those distinctions have no bearing on God’s desire for creation. God’s new community based in Jesus is intended to be a radically inclusive community. And not only that, but God’s desire is to save everyone (bring them into this community) so that they might have eternal life. A note, in Judaism of the time, eternal life was a reality that was offered to the righteous (though not all Jews believed this). In Roman society there was eternal life, but it was lived in Sheol, the place of the dead.
Light/darkness: once again we have the metaphors of light and darkness. Those who believe in Jesus (the light), will live appropriate lives whose actions reflect God’s love. Those who dwell in darkness will continue to do evil, because they love it…and they will be judged for their choice. Again, in John, there is no grey, there is only darkness and light…one or the other.
1.What do you think Jesus means by being “born again”?
2.How do you understand the words “for God so loved the world”?
3.How do you understand the sense that it is the Spirit who makes Jesus known, yet people have chosen to love darkness more than light?
Connecting with God
This section of John contains a conversation (vs. 22-30) and a discourse/explanation (vs. 31-36). The context of the passage is conversation about purification between John the Baptist and “a Jew/the Jews”. Purification within the Second Temple period (100 BCE to 70 CE) was a distinct practice of Jews ritually bathing (often but not always in mikva’ot, or stone pools such as the Pool of Siloam – John 9:7,11) in order to be ritually pure before entering God’s presence, usually in the Temple at Jerusalem. These mikva’ot can be seen at Qumran as well as other places. In some ways then, baptism, as immersion by John the Baptist, can be connected with this ritual bathing. The people were coming to John the Baptist to be prepared to enter into God’s presence. The debate between John the Baptist and “a Jew/the Jews” would have been over him baptizing/immersing people in non-traditional mikva’ots. This brief one sentence observation sets the scene for the bookends of the story, meaning, how one becomes “ritually pure” before God.
Lesser/Greater: The issue in the conversation between John the Baptist and his disciples (notice that “the Jew/the Jews” have vanished from the scene) concerns the Baptist’s slowly waning popularity. In the beginning of his ministry everyone flocked to him to be baptized. Now the tide has turned, and even though John the Baptist is still popular, Jesus is the one to whom all are going. John the Baptist responds to this concern by once again pointing out the difference between the lesser and the greater. He is the lesser. He is the lesser first because God has only given John the Baptist a limited quantity of people to baptize. John the Baptist is the lesser second because he is not the messiah. He is merely the friend of the bridegroom, or the shoshben. The shoshben had the responsibility for arranging the wedding, sending out the invitations, and presiding at the wedding feast. Though the role of the shoshben was important, it was secondary to the bridegroom. This is the Baptist’s role; the role he had been given by God.
Heavenly/Earthly: The concept of lesser/greater continues in the discourse/explanation, though the analogy shifts from bridegroom/shoshben to that of heavenly/earthly. The writer wants to make sure that people understand why John the Baptist is correct in his observation that he is the lesser and Jesus the greater. This has to do with origins. Jesus is the one from heaven. John is the one from earth. Jesus is the one who can speak of heavenly things. John is the one who can only speak of earthly things. What this means is that Jesus has both greater insight into the mind of God than the Baptist could ever have, and that Jesus can do things that John cannot do. This is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus the Messiah speaks God’s truth, and shares God’s Spirit. In addition, the writer returns to the image of Father/Son by reminding readers that Jesus is the Son to whom God has entrusted the work of salvation.
Connecting with God: Where these observations lead is back to how one becomes ritually pure before God. Rather than ritual purity happening in ritual bathing, it happens by believing in Jesus. This belief is what gives eternal life. Eternal life here does not mean life in heaven vs. life in hell. Eternal life means participation in the “life in the age to come.” Or perhaps, life fully lived in the presence of God in God’s coming Kingdom. So, rather than entering God’s presence in the Temple through ritual bathing, persons enter God’s presence in and through Jesus.
1.How do you see the concept of greater/lesser played out today?
2.How should the concept of greater/lesser inform our faith journey?
3.What do you think about the connection between believing in Jesus and eternal life?
Tradition, Transition, Transformation
This story is about tradition, transition, and transformation.
Tradition: There are four traditions at work in this story. The first is the Samaritan/Jewish tradition. This tradition is that Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Their antagonism grew out of the Samaritans opposing the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple after the Jews return from exile, and the destruction of the Samaritan Temple by the Jews in 110 BCE. The second tradition is that of the Jews believing that the Temple was the only place where God could be appropriately worshipped (though by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John the Temple had been destroyed). The third tradition was the male/female tradition in which women were second class citizens who were not to be taught, or in some Pharisaic traditions, even spoken to. The fourth tradition was the Jewish/Roman tradition in which the Romans were seen as oppressors and the enemy. In some ways these four traditions are all examples of the world seen as being composed of outsiders and insiders. The upshot of all these traditions is that people on each side understood themselves to be better than the people on the other side (except perhaps women who were not seen as equal in any of those groups).
Transition: the transition in this story centers around Jesus upending all four of these traditions. It transitions the work of the church from being a community centered on rigid structures of who is in and who is out, to a community in which all are welcome. This can be seen first in Jesus offering the good news of his mission and ministry to the Samaritans (outsiders and enemies to Israel) via the woman at the well. This is transition because the assumption had always been that the messiah was only for the Jews. By Jesus speaking to the woman at the well he expands the understanding of the love of God to all people. The second transition comes in that Jesus says that people will no longer need a Temple, whether the Temple in Jerusalem or the long destroyed Temple of the Samaritans, to worship God. This eliminates the tradition of the Temple in Jerusalem being the sole dwelling place of God. The third transition is the relationship between men and women. Again, by speaking with a woman (which would have made Jesus ritually unclean) and offering her salvation, Jesus makes it clear that God’s love is equally offered to all genders. The final transition is that even Gentiles can believe and are welcome in God’s kingdom.
Transformation: the transformation in this story comes in four ways. First, there is the personal transformation of the woman at the well. She goes from being an outsider to her own people and to the Jews, to being an insider with Jesus. Second, there is the transformation of the disciples. They are astonished that Jesus would be speaking with a woman, much less a Samaritan woman. The assumption is that their understanding of the place of women has been altered by this event. The third transformation is of the Samaritans in the village. They move from being outsiders (to God’s Promise) to insiders because they believed in Jesus’ word. In addition, they become insiders because of what they have heard from Jesus and not from the woman…her testimony led them to listen and decide on their own. Finally the Roman and his whole household believe in Jesus, thus showing that transformation is possible for all persons/nations.
Summary: In a sense the summary is found in verses 31-38, when Jesus says he has come to complete his father’s work. What he means is that he is completing the work of blessing all people, of all nations, and of all genders by inviting them into the Kingdom. A task to which the disciples are now invited.
1.What traditions do we have that we might need to revisit?
2.How do you, if you do, see yourself in transition in your faith journey?
3.How has your faith transformed you?
The Son at Work
This chapter focuses on two major themes. These themes are 1) Jesus (the son) does the work of God (the Father) and 2) there is adequate testimony to Jesus’ identity such that all persons (God so loved the world) should believe in him.
The Son does the work of the Father: In vs. 17 Jesus tells his audience that “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” There are two aspects of God’s work that are contained in this chapter. The first is that God heals/makes alive. The context for this theme is the idea that God is at work restoring creation. Examples of Jesus doing the work of God begin with his healing the man at the Pool of Bethzatha. This pool, which has been excavated, was a mikvah that was believed to be a place in which the Spirit of God would heal the first person in the water after the water was stirred. Jesus, acting on behalf of the Spirit, heals a man who was lame…without getting the man’s permission or request. Thus, Jesus is doing what only God could do. This miracle, by the way, follows the standard miracle formula in the New Testament which is a problem is demonstrated (the man cannot walk), an intervention (Jesus tells the man to walk), proof of the miracle (the man takes his mat and walks). This idea of doing the work of the Father by giving life continues with Jesus’ comments about bringing the dead back to life. By the time that the book of John is written, many Jews and certainly all Christians, believed in a world view in which the dead waited for a general resurrection, followed by judgment, which would send people to either life or condemnation (vs. 29). For John, choosing Jesus is choosing life.
The second aspect of this doing the work of the Father is being the judge. We can see this is vs. 27 Where Jesus says “…and he (God) has given him (Jesus) authority to execute judgment because he is the Son of Man (a saving figure from the Book of Daniel). These two aspects are tied together in vs. 25 where Jesus says, “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Thus, God has given life to Jesus who can then give it to others (now in healing and later in resurrection).
There is adequate testimony to the Jesus identity: One of the great questions that the early church had to answer was why didn’t the Jews believe in Jesus? If Jesus was indeed the Jewish/universal messiah, why was he rejected. The answer comes in verse 42 when Jesus says, “But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.” And, at least in John, Jesus can say this because there is plentiful testimony to Jesus. The first testimony Jesus would point to is his own work since he is doing the work of the Father by giving life. Second, he can point to the testimony of John the Baptist. In vs. 32-33 were told that the people sent folks to John to find out if he was the Messiah but found out that not only was John not the Messiah, but that John testified that Jesus was the Messiah. Third, we are told in vs. 37 that God personally vouched for Jesus. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf.” Finally, we have Moses offering testimony to Jesus in vs. 47. “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”
Summary: it is hard to argue that John is not an anti-Jewish story. Regardless of how many ways we try to make excuses for the language of “the Jews” we cannot help but see the Gospel’s bias against Jesus’ people. I would argue that the reason for this is that the Johannine community had been expelled from the synagogues as they developed their theology of Jesus being the incarnate Word. This theology made sense to them because they had experienced new life in and through faith in Jesus and found it hard to fathom why others could not. The only explanation was that the Jews did not love/listen to God.
1.Which is these two aspects of this chapter is most meaningful to you and why?
2.Why do you believe in Jesus? Whose testimony helped you believe?
3.How do you come to grips with the anti-Jewish nature of the Gospel?
Body and Spirit
This chapter is incredibly complex and, in many ways, disjointed. There is no smooth flow of conversation or thought. What I would offer though is that this chapter encompasses two parallel ideas, both centered on bread. These are 1) the physical self focuses on physical needs (bread) which will be eaten, pass through the body, and can only temporarily prevent death and 2) the spiritual self that focuses on spiritual bread (Jesus) which can be eaten, which abides, and which produces eternal life.
Feeding of the five thousand: The chapter opens with the feeding of the five thousand. This is the only miracle that is in all four Gospels. The people are fed and see the physical “sign” of a miraculous meal. This “sign” however pales in comparison with the “sign” that is the one who is feeding them; Jesus who is the spiritual bread.
Walking on Water: This is a way of Jesus encouraging his disciples to not be afraid…which will reoccur at the end of the chapter when some disciples become afraid and leave Jesus. And it sets up a conversation about physical vs. spiritual on the other side of the lake.
Bread that comes down from heaven vs. bread that comes up from earth: According to Jesus, the people followed him because they received physical bread, because he fed them on the hillside. While this kind of bread sustains a physical body, the physical body will ultimately die. This is the intent of Jesus’ comments about manna which, though coming from heaven, could not keep the Israelites in the wilderness from dying.
This conversation on bread then gives Jesus the opportunity to reflect on himself and his mission. His mission is to give life to those whom God has given him. To do this, Jesus plays with two metaphors, up and down and bread. He says, “I am the bread of life” (vs.48) and “I am the living bread from heaven.” (vs.51). His “bread” he insists gives not physical life but eternal life. He says, “This is the bread come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever” (vs. 51) and “unless you eat the flesh…you have no life in you” (vs. 53), and “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (vs. 58).
This “bread” can give eternal life because it does not pass through the body but remains doing the work of salvation. Again, Jesus says, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should lose nothing (no one) of all that God has given me, but raise them up on the last day” (vs.39), “I will raise them (those who eat the bread) up on the last day” (vs. 54), and “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I abide in them” (vs. 56). Thus, Jesus has come down as bread, to feed those whom God has given him, so that they might be raised up on the last day. We can also hear sacramental/communion language in these words.
Those whom God has given me: The Gospel of John is clear that only those whom God calls will understand Jesus’ metaphor and want to eat the bread/body and drink the wine/blood. Jesus says, “You have seen and yet you do not believe” (vs.36) and “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me…” (vs. 37).
Because of this many of his disciples turned back: The Gospel of John is very open about this metaphor and what it implies, that Jesus, rather than Torah, is the source of eternal life and the cannibalistic imagery of eating and drinking flesh and blood, was too much for many of his followers. So, they left. However, Peter reflects the desired outcome of Jesus’ teaching, when Peter says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
1.How does the image of Jesus as the bread of life help you understand his place in your life?
2.What do you make of the conflict between a call for all to believe but only those who are called can believe?
3.What is your source of life?
Hidden and Revealed
Once again, we encounter a chapter in John that contains odd events, pronouncements, non-sequiturs, contradictions, and controversies. There are also continuing references to the Jews wanting to arrest and kill Jesus. What binds all these stories together are the concepts of hiddenness and revelation.
Jesus is hidden to his brothers (vs.1-9): We begin with the hiddenness of Jesus. His identity is hidden not only from outsiders but from his brothers. They were challenging him to reveal himself. His response is that it is not yet time to do so.
Jesus is hidden to others (vs.10-13): Everyone is looking for Jesus (who is hidden by not being present) and arguing about whether he is a good man or not. We see hiddenness in that even their conversations about Jesus had to be hidden because of fear of the Jews.
Jesus reveals true teaching (vs.14-18): Jesus reveals some of himself through his teachings. People see that he is an amazing teacher. He is in fact, the greatest teacher. The revelation continues in that he makes it clear that he can only teach what he has been given, or what God has revealed to him.
Jesus reveals hypocrisy (vs.19-24): Jesus reveals hypocrisy in that none of those around him can keep the Law of Moses perfectly, even though they claim to be able to do so. He also reveals it when he reminds them that they circumcise on the sabbath (when it is the eighth day after a boy’s birth) but wanted to punish him when he healed on the sabbath (which is a greater good).
Jesus reveals who sent him (vs.25-31): Jesus makes it clear that he has been sent by God and that he knows God because he has come from God, though the people do not know God. The people want to lay hands on him (make him hidden) but because Jesus’ time has not come, this is impossible.
Jesus speaks of a future hiddenness (vs. 32-36): Jesus tells the people that there will come a time when he will be hidden (he will go away), but it will not be the hiddenness of arrest at that moment. The people don’t understand this future hiddenness.
Jesus reveals more about himself (vs.37-39): Jesus invites people to come and drink. This is linked to the Festival, which is the Feast of Booths. During this festival the priest would fill a golden pitcher with water from the Pool at Siloam and carry it through the Water Gate. The water would then be poured on the altar as an offering to God. By declaring himself the living water he is saying just as he was the bread that gave eternal life, he is now saying he is water that does the same…more so than what happens at the Altar.
Jesus remains hidden (vs. 40-43): The people cannot see who Jesus really is. They argue and disagree about his origins and identity. They argue so much that Jesus cannot be seen to be arrested.
The truth is present but is hidden (vs.45-52) Jesus has revealed much about himself. He has revealed enough that Nicodemus wants to hear more. He wants to give Jesus a hearing (an opportunity to reveal more of himself). The powers that-be however, cannot see Jesus at all. They argue that anyone who believes in Jesus has been deceived, or to put it another way, the truth has been hidden from those who believe. The authorities also argue that the crowd does not know the law, though as Jesus pointed out earlier, even if the authorities know the law, they don’t follow it. Thus, Jesus remains hidden to those in power.
1.Why do you think that Jesus was hidden to so many?
2.Was there ever a time when Jesus was hidden to you? How did that change?
3.How does Jesus reveal himself to you?
Chapter 8 picks up many of the themes that we have already addressed, such as Jesus being from above and humans from below, that Jesus has come to save and condemn, and faith in Jesus leading to life and a lack of faith leading to death. What will be offered in this lesson though is that what holds this section together is knowing or not knowing/understanding or not understanding.
Jesus knows people better than they know themselves (vs.1-11): This is the famous story about the woman caught in adultery. While this story can be mined for multiple insights, the core of the story is that the scribes and the Pharisees thought that they knew more (or were wiser) than Jesus. They believed that they were wise enough to entrap Jesus and cause him to fall out of favor with his followers. Jesus however knew that the scribes and Pharisees were not without sin, and so when he writes in the sand, he is in fact writing a list of their sins for which they ought to be condemned.
Jesus knows who he is and where he has come from (vs.12-20): Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world; the one who can show people the way to life. This took place during the lighting of the great cauldrons during the Festival of Booths. These would shine light miles away. The light was also a way in which rabbis referred to the coming messiah. So, Jesus testifies to his identity, and he can do so first because of where he has come from (heaven) and second because God also testifies on Jesus’ behalf.
The people do not know where Jesus is going or who he is…but they will (Vs.21-30): Jesus declares that he is going away (back to heaven) but the people cannot comprehend this reality. After Jesus tells his audience that they will die in their sins unless they believe in him, they ask “Who are you?” Jesus then reminds them that all that he says to them has come from God (this is how Jesus knows what he knows). Ultimately though, all people will know who Jesus is when he is “lifted up” (crucified and risen). Some people then believe.
Jesus’ disciples will know the truth and be free (vs.31-38): Jesus tells these new believers that by believing in him they will know the “truth” and that truth will set them free from sin. Jesus uses the image of the people being slaves to sin…which is not well received because Jews believed that following Torah (the truth and light of God) set them free. He knows this is a difficult teaching but still encourages them to listen and know what God is telling them.
Jesus wants the people to know the difference between the truth and lies (vs.39-47): in this conversation Jesus makes the claim that the people wanting to kill him are illegitimate children who do what their father, the devil, tells them to do (meaning they know only lies). And what the devil does is lie, so the people only know lies and not the truth. What the people need to do is to listen to Jesus because he is one who tells the truth because he is the Son who comes from the Father.
Jesus knows God but the people do not (vs.48-59): the chapter closes with conversation about knowing and not knowing God. The audience declares that Jesus must be a demonically filled Samaritan (remember he spent time in Samaria). Jesus’ response is to remind them that he only seeks God’s glory, that he alone can offer eternal life, and that he knows that Abraham knew that one day the Messiah would come. Jesus then returns to the opening of the Gospel by telling the people that he was “before Abraham.” The result is that once again the people are out to stone him.
1.How do you hear the story of the woman caught in adultery speaking to you?
2.How do you know what you believe is true?
3.When you think of Jesus, do you think of him as more divine (the one come from heaven) or human (the one who ate, drank, suffered, and died?
Blindness and Sight
Chapter 9 begins as many of the previous chapters, with a story that sets the table for all that is to follow. The story is of a man born blind which means that the chapter is about seeing and not seeing, or in this case being blind.
Jesus gives sight to the blind, but people still can’t see (vs. 1-12): the chapter begins and ends with a conversation about sin. The opening is that people ask Jesus if the reason that a man was born blind was because the man, or the man’s parents sinned. This would have been a typical question coming from the Wisdom tradition that assumed sin=suffering and faithfulness=blessing. Jesus answers this query by denying that either sinned, but that the man’s blindness is an opportunity for Jesus to “work” by helping the man see. This work would show that Jesus is the light of the world that helps people see in the darkness. After the man receives his sight, people can’t see that it is the same man. “No, but it is someone like him,” they say. This shows that people cannot see the work that Jesus and God are doing in the world. And, importantly, even though the man was given physical sight, he still does not have spiritual sight.
The Pharisees are blind to Jesus’ work (vs.13-17): The Pharisees are blinded to Jesus because they have already made up their minds about who he is…a sinner. Even though the evidence of Jesus doing the work of God is right there in front of them, they refuse to see it. All they can see is a “violation” of the Sabbath The man who was born blind, and now physically sees, begins his journey to seeing Jesus for who Jesus is, by declaring Jesus to be a prophet.
The parents pretend to be blind out of fear (vs.18-23): Once again the blind Pharisees want to prove that Jesus Is not capable of giving sight. So, they challenge the parents to testify that their son was indeed born blind. The parents however, even though they know that their son was born blind, and thus was miraculously given sight, refuse to speak because of fear; because they will be excommunicated (which was a constant reality of Jews who came to profess Jesus in the first centuries of the church).
The Pharisees want to stop the formerly blind man from spiritually seeing (vs.24-34): The Pharisees once again call the formerly blind man back to their conclave (which by the way would never have happened because the Pharisees were merely a political party and not a ruling power) to have the man rescind his story about Jesus. They ask to hear the story again. He repeats the story with an openness to a new way of seeing Jesus (that Jesus may not be a sinner as the Pharisees claim). The man continues by asking if the Pharisees want to see like he does and become disciples of Jesus (this is the critical question to those who see the power of Jesus at work). The Pharisees then admit their blindness in that they don’t know where Jesus came from. The man then shows them the truth that only someone who has come from God could do what Jesus did. The response reinforces their blindness in that they will not “see” what the man is saying.
The formerly blind man gains spiritual sight (vs.35-41): When Jesus hears that the man has been driven out (again a reality for many Jews who became Christians) Jesus goes to him. Jesus then asks the critical question about sight, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man is not sure who that is, and it is at that moment that Jesus points to himself and says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” The response is one of true sight, “Lord, I believe” and then an act of worship.
1.Where do you see the work of God in the world?
2.When did you first begin to see who Jesus is as messiah of the world?
3.Why do you think it was important to mention that the man worshipped after professing Jesus as messiah?
Jesus the Way
An extended riff on Jesus as shepherd and sheep gate (vs. 1-18): Jesus in explaining who he is and how he differs from other religious authorities uses shepherd, sheep, robbers, and the sheep gate as an extended metaphor. This language would have been familiar and easily understood by his audience since sheep, shepherds, and robbers were ubiquitous in the first century.
To understand these images we need to know that at night sheep are often kept in pens constructed of thorny bushes in order to keep predators (both animal and human) away from the vulnerable sheep. Though there may be a gate made of these thorns, often the shepherd lays across the opening as a human gate. Jesus ties these images/metaphors together in an interesting and perhaps confusing way. It is interesting/confusing because Jesus might be playing all the parts (shepherd, gatekeeper, and gate) at the same time. Or it may be that God is the gatekeeper and opens the gate for Jesus, the true shepherd. Or it may be that Jesus is the gatekeeper who opens the gate so that God, as shepherd, can call his sheep. Regardless there are several things we learn about Jesus and other religious leaders.
First, other religious leaders are robbers and thieves who try to steal God’s people (a view possibly shared by the Qumran community who considered all other Jewish leaders illegitimate). These include Temple leadership, Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis. Remember that Judaism was always trying to get Jewish Christians to leave the church and return to Jewish faith practices.
Second, God has opened the gate for Jesus and those whom God has given to Jesus (the sheep) know his voice. The shepherd knows all these sheep by name (not uncommon among shepherds) and will lead them (much like Psalm 23). These sheep will never follow a stranger (meaning Jewish leadership).
Third, salvation and eternal life only come through Jesus who is the gate. In some ways this could be seen as a counterpoint to the gates leading into Jerusalem and the Temple; the gates through which Jews would go to offer sacrifices and be in God’s presence. At the time of the writing of John I would offer that this image of Jesus as gate is a counterpoint to Torah as the gate to God. This is akin to the Apostle Paul stating that Law does not save. Only Jesus saves.
Fourth, Jesus is the good shepherd who will give his life for his sheep. The good shepherd is seen as being different from other religious leaders in that they will run away from danger…Except that Jewish leaders regularly died for their faith…but their deaths could not save.
Fifth, there are “other sheep” to whom the shepherd will go. Since much of the church was Gentile by the time of John’s writing, the assumption is that these are the other sheep.
Sixth, we learn that Jesus’ death is chosen by him. Jesus is not forced to die. Yet he does so because he is obedient to the Father. This image also includes the resurrection in that Jesus will take up his life again.
We see who are and are not part of Jesus’ flock (vs.19-42): The end of the chapter is a reminder that the Pharisees are not part of the sheep God has given to Jesus the shepherd because they hear Jesus’ voice and see Jesus’ works (works of the father like giving sight to the man born blind) but don’t follow. Even so, when Jesus crosses back over the Jordan, there are those who are his sheep and so they hear, and follow.
1.Which image of Jesus in this passage most resonates with you?
2.How do you deal with the concept in John that all other religious leaders are robbers leading people to death.
3.What does it mean to you that Jesus knows you by name?
Jesus the Life
Chapter 11 is a test case in which we will see if Jesus’ claims to be the shepherd who knows his sheep by name and can give them life is true. This claim has been at the heart of all that Jesus has been saying, that he is the Son who completes the work of the father by giving life to those who believe. In addition, Jesus has claimed to be the shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep. Without a test of this hypothesis, it would be difficult to trust in him.
The experiment is set (vs.1-16): The test of the hypothesis begins with Lazarus, a friend of Jesus (“the one you love”), sick and possibly dying. Lazarus is one of the sheep who has listened to the shepherd’s voice and believed. If this is the case, then he ought to be in line for eternal life if he dies. Now Jesus could have easily walked to Bethany and healed Lazarus of his sickness. I would argue that he chooses not to in order to prove the hypothesis. It will prove the hypothesis in two ways. First by returning to Judea, where people wanted to stone him, Jesus shows he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Second it proves the hypothesis in that Jesus has the opportunity to raise Lazarus from the dead, thus showing that faith in Jesus brings eternal life. Once the disciples understand what is happening, they are willing to go and die with Jesus, which means that they are qualified to be shepherds…which bodes well for the nascent church.
Testing the hypothesis, do the sheep have faith and is Jesus the shepherd who cares for his sheep? (Vs.17-37): For the hypothesis to be judged to be true, there must be faith in Jesus, since eternal life/resurrection is dependent on that faith in the shepherd. We see several statements of faith. First, Martha says that Jesus could have healed her brother. Second, Martha makes it clear that God will do what Jesus asks, because they are Father and Son. Third, Martha believes in the general resurrection. This was a belief held by many Jews in the Second Temple period, that there would be a resurrection of all persons, then a judgment, then the righteous would live in God’s kingdom on earth.
Jesus then asks her to change her belief and see that while there may be a general resurrection, that he, Jesus, is the one through whom resurrection comes. He is the resurrection and the life…which means Torah obedience is not what gives life. Jesus then asks her if she believes that. Her reply is perfect, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God who has come into the world. Thus, we discover that she is indeed a sheep who hears the voice of the shepherd. Martha also does the appropriate thing after profession; she invites her sister Mary to come and be with the shepherd. Mary acknowledges that she too is a sheep who hears the shepherds voice when she states that Jesus could have saved her brother. Jesus weeps because he sees the reality of death and the pain it causes. The Jews in this experiment are on the fence. They see that Jesus loved Lazarus and wonder if Jesus could have saved him. They are open to being sheep.
The hypothesis is proved true (vs.38-45): Jesus now raises Lazarus from the dead. We know Lazarus is dead because it had been four days, meaning that Lazarus’ spirit had quit hanging around the body, and because Lazarus stank. Jesus then sets the stage by linking this resurrection to faith and to an act of God. Jesus commands, Lazarus walks out, and the people unwrap him.
The response of the thieves and robbers (vs.46-57): The response of the Jewish religious leaders is fear. They are afraid that if Jesus is allowed to continue then everyone will follow him and not the traditions of Judaism. The High Priest, without realizing what he is actually saying and prophesying, affirms the fact that Jesus will die for all the people…all the sheep. This leads to a plot on Jesus’ life, which is what causes him to go into temporary hiding.
1.How has Jesus proven to you that he is the shepherd who knows your name?
2.Have you ever invited anyone to come and “see Jesus”?
3.What is your view on resurrection?
This is a chapter that offers foreshadowing of a number of significant events that will shape the church and through the church the followers of Jesus. These foreshadowing stories mark the transition from The Book of Signs (Jesus’ public ministry) to the Book of Glory (Jesus in the upper room, death, resurrection).
Foreshadowing Jesus’ death (vs.1-9): The imagery of this opening sequence sets the tone for what lies ahead. First it begins at Passover, the historical event in which the shedding of lamb’s blood saved and freed the people. Jesus is celebrated by his friends (his sheep who believe). He is anointed by Mary with nard, which was often used to anoint the dead before burial. Judas is introduced as the dishonest and greedy disciple who will betray Jesus for a fee. Jesus affirms Mary’s actions by intimating that he is already as good as dead…and there will be plenty of time for the church to care for the poor in the future. This leads to another reference to the chief priests planning on killing Jesus because many Jews were following him and not them.
Foreshadowing Jesus as the coming true King (vs.10-16): When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem the crowds treat him like a king coming into his capitol city. There is a donkey (king of peace). There are palm branches. Shouts of Hosannah and blessed is the King of Israel. The disciples are clueless as to the meaning of this outpouring, but it will be made clear to them after Jesus is glorified (crucified and risen).
Foreshadowing the expansion of the church (vs.17-33): This section begins with people spreading the word about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (meaning Jesus is the one who gives eternal life). People go to meet Jesus and the Pharisees lament that “the whole world has gone after him.” Suddenly there are Greeks present at the festival who want to meet Jesus. Phillip and Andrew tell Jesus. It is at that moment that Jesus knows it is time for him to be glorified because the word has spread from Galilee to Samaria, to the Greco-Roman world (his death, like a seed, will, produce many other seeds). However, his followers (the other seeds) must be willing to follow him to their deaths if need be. Jesus then makes a conscious decision to complete his mission. This decision is verified by a voice from heaven. Jesus then pronounces that judgment has come and that when he is lifted up (cross and ascension) all people will be drawn to him.
Foreshadowing darkness and fear (vs.34-46): This section begins with the crowd once again failing to see who Jesus is or what he is to accomplish. They return to Moses as their guide. Jesus refers to himself as the light (the one who shows the path to the Father) who will only be present for a short time and then darkness will overtake the people. This darkness is a type of spiritual blindness (can’t see with eyes or hearts). This is a reference to Isaiah’s call in which God says the peoples’ eyes will be “shut” so that they cannot “see” what God is doing. Though some believe, they are afraid to say so…which mirrors the contemporary experience of the Johannine community. The conclusion of this section is that if one truly sees Jesus then one sees God, and lives in the light and not in the darkness.
Foreshadowing Judgment and eternal life (vs.46-50): Jesus tells the people that there will be a judgment, but that it is God, and not him, who judges. Jesus came to save the world (echoing Chapter 3). The judgment will be based solely on the response people have to the words that Jesus has spoken about himself, that are simply reflections of God’s words, which are intended to lead to eternal life.
1.How do understand the metaphor of Jesus as king?
2.What does it mean to you to follow Jesus?
3.How does seeing Jesus help you see God?