Ted Grimsrud [Published in Mennonite World Review, Spring 2012]
What follows are a series of short reflections on passages from the Gospel of John. They were written as guides for adult Bible studies and published in the Mennonite World Review during February, March, April, and May 2012.
Delighting in wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-36)
As an interesting preface to John, we will first look at a section from Proverbs 8. When we read Proverbs 8:22-36, we will notice a close connection between the words here and what we will find at the beginning of John.
“Wisdom” in Proverbs and the “Word” in John seem like closely related concepts—and both have a lot to do with the creation of the cosmos as portrayed in Genesis 1. We will reflect on the Word in John in our next lesson. Here, let’s think a bit about Wisdom.
Proverbs 8:22-35 makes some exalted claims for Wisdom (personified as “she” early in the chapter). She is linked inextricably with God in the work of creation before the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1:1.
“Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (8:23, NRSV). What follows is a litany of the various elements of creation as portrayed in Genesis 1:1—and Wisdom precedes them all.
Then, Wisdom joins with the Lord in the work of making what is. “I was beside the Lord, like a master worker” (8:30).
And what is the consequence of Wisdom’s co-creative work with the Lord? “I was daily the Lord’s delight…rejoicing in his inhabited world” (8:31). The fruit of Wisdom’s work in creation is rejoicing.
It is worth some reflection to think about how the portrayal of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 should shape our understanding of God. And then, in good time, to reflect likewise on the portrayal of the Word in John 1. And how do we think of Wisdom and Jesus (the Word) in relation to each other?
Along with these big questions, through, we must not neglect reflecting on what all of these images tell us about creation. In our modern age of treating creation as an object to be exploited for human needs (or is it human greed), it has been essential to depersonalize our environment, to reduce nature to being something for humanity to dominate.
But what if the physical world itself is infused with “Madame Wisdom”? Then we can take warning from the last line of the chapter: “All who hate me love death” (8:36). Is this not actually the consequence of mistreating our environment?
God with us (John 1:1-14)
The beginnings of John’s Gospel are full of wondrous things. We are helped to get a sense of some of the wonders by our “preface” from Proverbs 8:22-36.
John 1, like Proverbs 8, seeks to find a way to help readers appreciate the on-going creativity of God in making and sustaining what is. The rationality, wisdom, intelligence, intuition, insight that we experience in life reflect the very character of God embedded in the universe.
John starts with a similar thought: God and the Word, like with God and Wisdom, are closely connected. God’s creative work involves building wisdom and intelligence into what is.
John wants to emphasize, in addition, that the Word (a concept complementary to the image of Wisdom) has as its role successfully resisting darkness (1:5). So, the Word is not simply about enlightenment, it is about challenge, confrontation, transformation—that is, salvation. There are forces in the world opposed to God’s wisdom.
This salvation comes into the world through a human being who actually is the Word in the flesh (1:14). Note that “world,” 1:10, is not the same as “all things,” 1:3—“world” has specifically to do with the human realm.
John makes a remarkable claim that will be front and center throughout his Gospel. God’s creativity and will for life finds its most definitive expression in the human Jesus.
Language can only go so far in conveying this message. This Gospel has as its purpose moving the reader to faith, to a living relationship with God that will, indeed, go beyond words. But the words point the way toward that relationship.
In these first verses of his Gospel, John writes both that “the Word was God” (1:3) and “the Word became flesh” (1:14). The Word both was “with God” and “was God.” These seem like paradoxical statements. And we do well to reflect on them, to try make what sense can of how all these affirmations can at once be true.
However, let us not miss the main point. John means for us to recognize that in the actual life—the words, the deeds, the faithfulness to death, the resurrection—of this person Jesus we see God like nowhere else. Let us listen to his words, let us seek to imitate his deeds, let us let his humanity shape ours so that like him we might bring light into darkness.
Jesus’ way of abundance (John 2:1-12)
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his disciples (1:35-51). In this call, Jesus promises these followers great things: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51)—that is, they will see heaven and earth meet in Jesus’ saving works.
Jesus wastes no time in showing his followers these great things. “On the third day” of their time with Jesus (2:1), the disciples go with him to a wedding celebration.
While at this wedding they will see the first of Jesus’ powerful “signs” (2:11). These “signs” are miracles that Jesus does that play a particularly important role in clarifying his identity and ministry.
The miracle here, Jesus turning water into wine, on the surface may seem fun but not necessarily profound. However, when we put this story in a broader context, we see some of what the miracle signified for John’s Gospel.
This story is the first public act of Jesus’ ministry. As such, it reveals to us something crucial about that ministry. Let’s compare this story with the way the other gospels have Jesus begin his ministry.
In Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins with a direct and succinct declaration: “The Kingdom of God is at hand; turn to God and believe the Good News.” In Luke, he steps to the podium in his home congregation and proclaims that the Spirit brings the year of the Lord’s favor, today.
In John, Jesus gives the same message, but without words. The “beginning of the Good News” (Mark 1:1) here is Jesus’ amazing act of generosity in turning the water into the finest wine at the wedding celebration (note the specificity about the size of the stone jars, making clear just how abundant Jesus’ generosity was, 2:6).
We can see plenty of symbolism in the presence of wine (prophets such as Amos [9:13] and Joel [3:18] linked abundant good wine with God’s end times healing work) at a wedding (the Book of Revelation [19:1-10] portrays the big celebration at the End as a wedding feast).
All four gospels agree: With the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, God’s Kingdom is at hand. This means generosity, joy, celebration, good news. Contrast this initial impression of Jesus’ message in the New Testament with how we Christians today too often present the gospel—as a message of fear, scarcity, moralistic finger-pointing, a time to stop partying.
However, we must also note that John’s opening story parallels Luke’s in another more ominous way. Right after Jesus’ opening proclamation in Luke 4, his audience sets after him in anger, hoping to throw him off a cliff. Jesus escapes—for the time being. John is more cryptic. Jesus says to his mother, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4)—that is, the hour of his death.
So, from the start of Jesus’ public ministry, thrilling as it is, we see expressed the tension we saw in the prologue to John’s Gospel. Jesus shines the light of God’s healing and the darkness cannot overcome that light (1:5). But, nonetheless, the world (that God loves so much) “did not know him” (1:10).
How can this be? The one whose abundance exceeds all expectations (he not only graces the wedding guests with wine when the hosts had run out, it’s extraordinarily good wine and there is an almost endless supply of it) still knows that his “hour” of rejection is coming. Why does the world respond to God’s creative abundance with hostility? John’s Gospel seeks to answer this question.
Jesus and the Temple (John 2:13-22)
Right after the miracle at Cana, we come to Jesus’ first visit to the Temple and his shocking driving out the animal sellers and money-changers. John places this story at the beginning (contrary to the other Gospels where it triggers Jesus’ arrest and execution) for symbolic reasons.
John writes openly from the perspective of the risen Christ. He is concerned about the meaning of the events of his life more than giving a linear chronology.
We should read the story of the “cleansing” of the temple together with the previous story, the gift of wedding wine at Cana. There we are told that Jesus’ gift of abundant wine was his first “sign” that reflects the nature of his presence as God’s Word become flesh. The temple cleansing, in a sense, serves as a second “sign.”
Intimations of conflict and resistance to Jesus become explicit in the Temple story. Jesus challenges everything the Temple stands for—most fundamentally that it serves as the place where God is present on earth and that access to God within the Temple is controlled by the religious leaders.
As we saw with the wedding miracle, Jesus brings God’s presence to wherever he ministered. And this presence is freely available. But of course those in charge of a system that limits God’s presence will be hostile toward such abundance.
Jesus knows this and takes the offensive—emphasizing the contrast between his notion of God and the Temple’s notion of God.
The ultimate “sign” will be Jesus execution by these forces of power (religious leaders in cahoots with political leaders). His “temple” (body) will seemingly be destroyed but will be “raised up.” All the conflicts that follow in John must be seen in the light of these first two signs—Jesus’ abundance and Jesus’ challenge to power. And in light of God’s vindication of Jesus in resurrection.
The wonders of God’s love (John 3:11-21)
Although John 3:16 is one of the most familiar—and beautiful—verses in the Bible, the passage where we find it is actually quite complicated.
The first part of chapter 3 sets the context for Jesus’ deeply theological discourse in the verses this lesson focuses on.
Jesus began his public ministry in John with the first of his “signs.” This was the miracle at the wedding in Cana where he turned water into wine—an expression of marvelous and abundant mercy that is entering the world in a powerful way through Jesus. From the start, though (see the allusions in chapter 1 to the “dark” not overcoming “the light” [verse 5] and chapter 2:4 to Jesus’ “hour” [that is, his death]) we have forebodings of conflict.
In the first part of chapter 3, Jesus meets with “a Pharisee named Nicodemus” (3:1)—by night (that is, in the dark). They have a respectful conversation. Nicodemus seems sincerely to want to understand Jesus. But he remains in the dark (“you do not believe,” 3:12).
It is important to see that as a “Pharisee,” Nicodemus here represents of a type of religious character. The problem is that he is not willing to let go of what he knows and truly hear Jesus (“We know that you are a teacher,” 3:2).
Nicodemus’s resistance to recognizing something new that would turn his world upside-down is a resistance all too familiar within Christian circles. We miss the point if we see the conflict in John’s Gospel as between Christianity and Judaism.
What doesn’t Nicodemus get? This actually is not totally clear.
Let me suggest that in a nutshell, Nicodemus does not understand how in Jesus heaven and earth are united. “What’s above” joins with “what’s below.” God becomes flesh. This is a difficult idea to comprehend.
Jesus tries to make it as clear as he can in his wonderful statement: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).
It’s God’s love that fuels Jesus dwelling among us and bringing the light into the darkness and showing through various “signs” (miracles with special meaning) the present possibilities of transformation. Tragically, though, the presence of this love actually reveals the lack of “belief” (belief = the fundamental trust or loyalty that determines the shape of one’s entire life, not simply intellectual assent to some kind of idea about Jesus’ identity) that some have (3:18).
Jesus’ presence brings to the surface the nature of one’s commitments—either we will find the light he shines attractive or repulsive. His presence pushes us to realize in whom (or what) we actually trust.
Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, though, should never be taken as a warrant for us to exclude or condemn others. The picture here is one of non-coercive witness. The “condemnation” is not even initiated by God. It is self-condemnation that Jesus actually seeks to reverse through his showing the world God’s love so that disbelievers might be “born again” and reorient their loyalties.
Another way to think of the bringing together of heaven and earth in Jesus is his offer of “eternal life.” It’s a tragic mistake to think that by this he simply means living forever after we die, in heaven. “Eternal life” here is much better understood as “life in its fullness” lived beginning right now. Over and over, John’s Jesus speaks of the future being linked with the present, eternity enlivening live in history. Jesus seeks a transformation in our lives, today.
The Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30)
John lets us know from the beginning of his gospel that though Jesus brings God’s light into the world and brings peace, it’s a peace that challenges established certainties and boundary lines.
One of the most amazing of the stories of how Jesus challenges assumptions is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus enters into forbidden territory for a man of his religious affiliation when he ventures into Samaria—the home of a rival branch of Judaism in constant enmity with the temple-centered Jews.
Jesus actually goes to Samaria, as it turns out, looking for people of faith who will witness to his identity as God’s Messiah come to bring light into the world’s darkness.
He finds such a witness, shockingly enough, in a Samaritan (an “enemy,” see also the story of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke 10). But even more shocking, it’s a Samaritan woman. Christian tradition has unjustly treated this woman as a profound sinner. Jesus does not identify her as such.
Still, simply that he, a Jewish rabbi, would carry on such a mutually respectful conversation on such important matters with a woman and a Samaritan, was plenty radical.
Driving home the point of the challenge of Jesus’ message even more, we may contrast this Samaritan woman’s receptivity to Jesus’ message of the dawning new age to the resistance we saw from the religious leader, Nicodemus, in John 3.
Where as Nicodemus refuses to learn from Jesus (3:4,9), the woman listens and grows in her understanding—to the point where Jesus reveals to her (of all people) for the first time his identity as the Messiah (4:26). She witnesses to this revelation, and many of the despised Samaritans believed in him due to her testimony (4:39).
Bread and true liberation (John 6:22-35)
With chapter six, we once again encounter Jesus doing “signs”—and people not understanding. As with the wedding at Cana (2:1-11) and the healing of the son of the “royal official” (4:46-54), Jesus here miraculously brings life, displaying the nature of his ministry.
And as with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (4:9-15), here Jesus’ audience has a difficulty understanding the difference between literal nourishment (water in chapter four, bread here) and Jesus’ deeper meaning.
He gives bread to 5,000 people (6:1-14) and the people marvel at the “sign”: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14). But they profoundly misunderstand what kind of prophet he is. They even seek to make him an earthly king (6:15). The people long for liberation from under the thumb of an occupying empire. Here’s one who can lead them.
However, Jesus goes much deeper than simply offering bread so that he might become a king (Messiah) who would imitate other kings in exercising dominating power. Jesus offers a different understanding of bread—and power.
He understands that their interest in him as king is not due to recognizing that he comes from heaven to bring eternal life. They don’t look to him because they saw signs of God’s true life-giving love—but because their stomachs were filled (6:26). They need to understand that Jesus comes to fill their hearts with transforming love that will help them in a more deep-seated way break free from the empire that dominates them.
As God gave manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness following their liberation from slavery in Egypt, now God offers the bread of life to effect a new work of liberation (6:31-32). And, in fact, Jesus himself is that bread (6:35) who offers genuine life. This genuine life is not about the people going away to heaven; it’s about heaven entering their world and transforming it (6:33). A genuine revolution.
The feisty blind man (John 9:1-17)
Jesus’ healing of a man “blind from birth” also shows a remarkable growth in understanding and responsiveness from an unexpected person. In both cases, the person Jesus encounters makes powerful witness to his identity and mission. Jesus shrugs off his disciples’ speculation about the dynamics of sin and the causes of the man’s blindness. No, what matters here, he insists, is that this man’s blindness provides an occasion to see God’s healing power (9:3). God isn’t concerned with assessing responsibility for this problem, but with healing it.
Jesus’ acts, predictably, trigger conflict with the defenders of the status quo. The religious leaders (like Nicodemus back in chapter 3) simply do not see. They are not responsive. They see Jesus work of generosity as an occasion to nitpick about Sabbath laws. They value strict obedience to the law over acts that bring needed healing to a vulnerable person.
Like with the Samaritan woman, the healed blind man shows a profound willingness to pay attention to Jesus. Though clearly without status and power in his society, he proves to be a person willing to learn from Jesus. At first, he does not seem to know anything about Jesus (9:12). Then he states that Jesus is a “prophet” (9:17). Finally, he trusts in Jesus as “Lord” (9:38).
Throughout John’s gospel, the story emphasizes that usually the actual truth is the opposite of that assumed by the powerful and religiously prominent people. One of the more direct expressions of this irony comes in this story.
The religious leaders, in their certainty about the godliness of their views of the Sabbath, assume that because Jesus healed on the Sabbath he was “not from God” (9:16). We know from what John has already told us that Jesus (the Word) “was in the beginning with God” (1:2).
Jesus and his community (John 10:7-18)
Here Jesus gives two more images that define his identity. Throughout the Gospel, the central ways Jesus understands himself are presented in sayings beginning with “I am….” This “I am” phrase links Jesus with the liberating God of the Exodus (who told Moses, “when they ask who sent you, say ‘I am’ has sent me to you” [Exodus 3:14]).
Jesus first uses this saying in 6:35 (“I am the bread of life”). Here in chapter ten, he uses it twice, evoking his role as life-giver.
First, Jesus states, “I am the gate” (10:7). The sheep (those who respond to Jesus) enter into life through him. Others will try to enter apart from linking with the love and compassion of Jesus—they are “thieves and bandits” (10:8). Jesus likely has in mind people such as the religious leaders who callously sought to separate the man Jesus healed from his community in chapter nine.
Then, “I am the good shepherd” (10:11). The gate image emphasizes Jesus’ care for those who would follow him; so too does the shepherd image. This image links with Ezekiel 34:11-16, that emphasizes, among other points, the shepherd’s special care for vulnerable sheep in his care.
Jesus goes on to reflect more on the extent of his love as God’s embodiment: I am so committed to bringing light that I will even lay down my life for those I am caring for, he says. And these who are cared for will be many, including even “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:15). His transforming love is for all who will receive it.
More powerful than death (John 11:17-27)
Chapter 11 gives us great drama. Jesus shows his life giving power when be brings his friend Lazarus back from the dead, an act leading directly to the plan to kill Jesus.
The meaning of these events is given by Jesus with one of his several “I am” statements that provide us with a rich set of metaphors illumining Jesus’ identity: “bread of life” (6:35), “living bread” (6:51), “light of the world” (8:12), “the gate for the sheep” (10:7, 9), “the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (15:1).
And here in 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus thus clarifies the meaning of the assertion that begins the book: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).
The story immediately helps us to understand what Jesus means by “resurrection and the life” when, first, Jesus shows his power over death in bringing Lazarus back to life after “he ha[d] been dead four days” (11:39), and then, to confirm that “the world knew him not” (1:10), the religious leaders plot to end Jesus’ life (11:45-54).
These two events, seen together, help assure the reader that, again echoing the book’s prologue, “the darkness did not overcome [the light]” (1:5). Jesus raising of Lazarus illustrates that even though the powers of evil will do him in, God’s love will have the final say.
Jesus’ challenge to Martha: “Do you believe this?” (i.e., that the power of God’s love prevails over the powers of darkness) stands as a challenge to all of this Gospel’s readers.
Jesus’ way as God’s way (John 14:1-14)
Beginning with John 14, Jesus provides a sense of the significance of his “departure” and guidance for how his followers might maintain his witness.
He exhorts them to remain strong in the face of his departure, even as events may seem overwhelmingly grim. This exhortation follows Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s impending denial (13:38), an example of how not to respond to the traumas to come.
When Jesus promises room in his “Father’s house” (14:2) he’s not so much referring to a future in heaven. Rather he means a present “dwelling” with God and the Son that produces faithful witness to life over death, even in the face of the violence of the religious and political leaders.
With another profound “I am” statement, Jesus asserts: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). These three images (way, truth, life) serve to summarize Jesus’ ministry.
“Way” refers to Jesus as the incarnation of God’s will for humanity, a way of life that brings light to darkness, resists domination, and welcomes sinners. “Truth” emphasizes that Jesus opposes the falsehoods that lead to injustice and violence (note in the scene with Pilate how the Roman governor asks, cynically, “what is truth” and then walks away before Jesus can even respond, 18:38). And “life” captures in one word the consequences of Jesus’ life; he came to bring life in a death-obsessed world that loves darkness more than light.
When Jesus continues with his famous assertion “no one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6), he does not make a statement about the unique superiority of a particular organized religion but instead speaks of a way of life that shows us what God is like.
If we want to know God, we will follow the path Jesus blazed. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (14:7).
Victory in death (John 18:28-37)
Two of the major areas of resistance to Jesus’ message of life came from the religious leaders and the political leaders. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (Messiah, Christ, “King of the Jews”) puts him on a collision course with other claimants to authority.
We need to take care in interpreting this story of Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate. For one thing, when John writes of “the Jews” and their hostility toward Jesus he refers to the leaders of the religious institutions, not the Jewish people as a whole. The conflict here is not between Christianity and Judaism, but between top-down authoritarian religion and Jesus’ way of mercy, freedom, and compassion.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” parable in the Brothers Karamazov tells of Christian religious leaders quite believably playing a role very similar to that played by the Jewish religious leaders in John’s Gospel.
A second misinterpretation would be to assume that Pilate is sympathetic with Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s playing a game of manipulative power politics. Once he achieves his goal—to get the Jewish religious leaders to confess that Caesar is their only king (19:15-16), he immediately turns Jesus over to be killed.
Pilate’s lack of interest in Jesus’ guilt or innocence—and, even less so, in Jesus’ truthful message—is clear. Jesus more or less agrees that he indeed is a “king,” but of a different sort. He doesn’t need his “officers” for fight violently for him (in 18:36, the word “followers” is the same as “police” in 18:3, 12, 18, 22; 19:6).
Jesus is a king who witnesses to the truth. Those who belong to the truth will listen to him (18:37). Pilate is clearly not part of that population. He sarcastically responds, “What is truth?” and then walks away before Jesus can reply (18:38).
A third misinterpretation would be to understand Jesus’ statement, “my kingdom is not from this world” (18:36, NRSV) to say that Jesus does not care about this world in which we live but about an otherworldly heaven.
We must remember that Jesus was politically engaged enough to be convicted and executed by the religious leaders and the Roman Empire’s representatives. When Jesus said, “my kingdom is not from this world” he speaks of its origins, not its location. The origins, as we see throughout John, are with God, not with human empires and religious institutions.
At the core of the message of John’s Gospel is a concern contrary to separating life on earth from live in heaven. In fact, Jesus here is all about bringing heaven and earth together. His execution witnesses to his success—those powers he opposed realized that he was indeed a threat to their status quos.
Because John’s Gospel more obviously tells the story in light of Jesus’ resurrection and glorification, the story of his trial and execution is not a tragedy. It is tragic for Pilate and the religious leaders; they reveal themselves as closed to the truth.
But for those who see God in Jesus, his faithfulness all the way witnesses to God’s love that cannot be conquered.
The empty tomb (John 20:1-10, 19-20)
In John’s account, Jesus’ crucifixion is not quite as wrenching as in the other three Gospels. His own agony is not emphasized as much, nor is the trauma experienced by his followers. In part, this reflects John’s way of writing the story as a whole, where the outcome (Jesus’ glorification as the resurrected and exalted Lord) is upfront from the beginning.
The account of Jesus’ resurrection begins early Sunday morning when his friend Mary Magdalene visits his tomb and finds it empty. She runs to get Peter and “the beloved disciple.”
When they get to the tomb, they find Jesus’ grave clothes and no Jesus. We are told that at this point, they still “did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). Even without this understanding, the beloved disciple “believed” (20:8).
The beloved disciple, the model follower of Jesus (more than Peter, who was impetuous and a bit thick-headed), believes because he has believed all along. He understands that Jesus has defeated death through his persevering love—even before he knows any more than that Jesus hadn’t stayed dead. Jesus had not yet appeared and explained “the scripture.”
By the evening of that same day, the followers of Jesus gathered together. Jesus appears to them. He helps them better to understand the meaning of the events of his death, resurrection, and going to be with God—leaving them with the Holy Spirit and the vocation to continue his healing work.
Behind doors “closed for fear of the religious leaders” (20:19), Jesus offers “peace” (20:19). That is, he encourages his followers not to remain afraid of the powers-that-be, but to go forth in the power of the Spirit, like he did, sharing this peace even in the face of hostility.