Exploring the Gospel of John: 8

EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

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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Filed under Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John

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