Friday, February 1, 2013

The Strange Mind of John

It is time to break off from the Synoptic Gospel storyline and catch up with John. It is interesting to note that Matthew had Jesus enter Jerusalem at the start of Chapter 21 of his Gospel, which has 28 chapters total (~71% of the way through); Mark at Chapter 13 out of his 16 (~75%); Luke at Chapter 19 out of his 24 (~77%); while John mentioned it in Chapter 12 of his 21 total chapters (~54%).

This is a little fictitious, because the Gospel writers themselves did not arrange their texts into chapters; that was a much later invention. Still, the relative comparison is exhibits that John placed a significantly large percentage of his Gospel after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; more than any other Gospel. We pick up this study in John's timeline right after that Triumphant entry.

The Strange Mind of John
If you are an emotional reader, if you probe out the deep meanings and ruminate on the essence of the text, the Gospel of John may seem like a bastion of the love and grace of God. But if you are detail oriented, if you take note of exactly what was said and you compare it against the rest of the text, the Gospel of John takes you on a strange journey, indeed. Verses which appear to be nothing less than divine in their messages are interwoven into a fabric of utter nonsense and palpable fiction, to say nothing of some morally challenging material as well. Join me as we journey into John's strange mind.

According to John 12:20-22, some Greeks (a.k.a. Gentiles) went to Jerusalem to worship during Passover, and they asked Philip (one of the Twelve Disciples) if they could meet with Jesus. Remember that premise, because it is not clear that John did.

In John 12:23-24 we find:
Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." NIV
As we can see, this is a reply, and, given the context, this is specifically a reply to these Greeks asking for an audience with Jesus, but this reply has nothing to do with that request. Instead, it appears to be a reference to Jesus' upcoming death and resurrection, as well as being yet another reference to bad Biblical science right from the mouth of Jesus. A dead seed does not produce anything; the seed must survive in order to grow and produce more seeds.

Hold on tight, because the reply does not end there, and it will be a bumpy ride going forward.

In John 12:25, Jesus continued with:
"The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." NIV
These are some pretty potent words here. Hate this life in order to gain an eternal one. John did not come up with this idea on his own. You may remember a previous study where Matthew and Luke also harped on this theme, to the extent of even hating your wife and children to gain eternal reward. This may be a vestigial sentiment representing the ascetic underpinnings of at least parts of the early Christian community. I say vestigial, because you will rarely run into Christians who practices that level of give-up-all-to-get-all devotion, but I think that is a good thing. Those who do have that level of devotion are a bit scary.

In John 12:26, Jesus said that you must follow and serve Him in order to be honored by God the Father, so nothing special there.

However, we do see something special in John 12:27, where Jesus said:
"Now My heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save Me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour." NIV
Presumably speaking about His upcoming crucifixion, Jesus said that although He was not looking forward to the events ahead, He would not try to get out of them because they are the very reason that He was there on earth. This is the kind of divine insight the Gospel of John excels at, for how could it be any other way? Jesus knew His future and His purpose according to God's plan. Yet (as I discussed in some detail in a much earlier post) the other Gospel writers would have you believe that Jesus prayed to God to get out of the crucifixion if that was possible (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42).

Just a quick reminder here: as far as the text indicates, it appears that it is still part of Jesus' reply to Philip regarding the Greeks.

In John 12:28-30 is a fun scene where Jesus told God to glorify Himself, and then God spoke about glorifying Himself, which the crowd thought was either the sound of thunder or an angel speaking. Jesus then informed the crowd that hearing God's voice was for their benefit. Presumably the "benefit" was to help those people believe that Jesus was who He was claiming to be. If only today we could hear from God that way, which He seemed so willing to do back then, we might have more believers and better Christians... On second thought, maybe we do hear from God that way today, every time there is a thunderstorm. ;-)

Of course, there is the question of whether or not there was supposed to be a "today" as we know it nearly 2000 years later. In John 12:31 Jesus said:
"Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." NIV
Now "now" is a relative term, for sure. If we had only the first half of that verse, we could even stretch it out closer to being something akin to Thomas Paine's famous words "These are the times that try men's souls," referring to an ongoing process of judgement. However, with the addition of the "prince of this world" (a.k.a. Satan) being driven out "now" as well, this speaks more of the final time of judgement; Judgement Day. For John, the End was near as well. Yet in our times all too often I hear how "demonic forces are on the rise" from fundamentalists and other apocalyptic-minded believers, so apparently Satan has not been driven out at all, either now-back-then or now-now.

Continuing on from there, we see how quickly the theological excellence observed earlier gives way for awkward clumsiness. In John 12:32-34, Jesus continued:
"But I (Jesus), when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." He said this to show the kind of death He was going to die.
The crowd spoke up, "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'? Who is this 'Son of Man'?" NIV
First, let us start with the editorial comment John made which I so enjoy: "He said this to show the kind of death He was going to die." It is amusing that John thinks that he knows the mind of Jesus/God so well as to fully understand Jesus' intents. Apparently, His ways are John's ways too. On the other hand, we should be grateful to John for clarifying this, because I would have thought that being "lifted up from the earth" might have instead referred to Jesus' ascension into Heaven.

But then again, I should not have thought along those lines. As you may remember from a previous study, in John 3:14 Jesus told us that He must be "lifted up" just like Moses lifted the bronze snake up in the desert. John 8:28 also mentions Jesus being "lifted up" as a reference to Jesus' death. (FYI, John is the only Gospel to mention Jesus being "lifted up.") However, it may have been confusing for the audience to whom Jesus was now speaking, given that they were probably not present for the previous "lifted up" references which happened long ago in the Gospel timeline. Indeed, that is what you find in the crowd's response... or at least John's telling of the crowd's response.

John's crowd appears to understand this as if Jesus is going away, which is contrary to what they know "from the Law." For those of you who may not know, "the Law" is a reference to the first five books of the Bible, and it is completely devoid of any mention of an anointed leader (a.k.a. a Messiah or Christ) lasting forever, so John messed up there.

You may have noticed another mistake John made: Jesus said "I am lifted up," but John wrote that the crowd quoted that Jesus had said that the "Son of Man must be lifted up" and then asked who the "Son of Man" is! This kind of bumbling mistake is likely either due to careless splicing of source material or John's chaotic mind working faster than what he was writing and getting lost in his place within the story.

We will close out this study with just a touch more of John's mental schism. In John 12:35, Jesus did not answer the crowd's questions, but instead He urged them to walk in the light while they still had it available. In John 12:36, He ends the discussion with:
"Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." When He had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid Himself from them. NIV
You will remember that we started this whole section with some Greeks who were looking to have an audience with Jesus. They were literally seeking a personal relationship with Jesus. But what we have here turns the platitude of "seek and you shall find" into a game of hide-and-seek, as Jesus hides away from both the crowd and the inquisitive Greeks. John has a severe continuity problem.

On a side note, I find it hilarious that Jesus told them to walk in and trust in the light, meaning that they should obey, follow, and believe Him, and then He (the light according to John 1:4, John 8:12, John 9:5) immediately hid Himself from them. I know if I wanted people to trust me, that is exactly how I would act. ;-)


  1. "They were literally seeking a personal relationship with Jesus. But what we have here turns the platitude of "seek and you shall find" into a game of hide-and-seek, as Jesus hides away from both the crowd and the inquisitive Greeks."

    Some things never change for believers. Some Christians (and ex-Christians) have sought relationships with God/Jesus, but never feel spiritual connection or divine presence.

  2. Too true, Ahab. I was never able to have that relationship, despite sincerely trying.

  3. I definitely find that bit from v 32-34 very interesting. My first thought was that Jesus used to call himself the Son of Man all the time, so perhaps the people just changed "I" to "Son of Man" in their mind. Perhaps they use the 2 interchangeably. But that explanation clearly doesn't work because the next thing they ask is "who is this son of man". I'm guessing you are right that this either means there is careless splicing or John getting ahead of himself. I would guess careless splicing.

  4. That is the best possible interpretation Hausdorrf, that it was just John using substitution. Matthew uses "Son of Man" 28 times, Mark 13 times, Luke 25 times, and John only 12 times. So John used it less than even the shortest Gospel, Mark. (As a side note, John stops using "Son of Man" at John 13:31. This is one of many signs that the Gospel of John may have had multiple authors.)

    As you note, though, even if you go back and put "Son of Man" everywhere Jesus said "I" in John's Gospel, it is still clear that Jesus is speaking about Himself. So that explanation falls apart. John 8:28 even has one of the most explicit single verses where Jesus claimed to be the "Son of Man":

    So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me."

    It also presents a "slippery slope" argument. If John used substitution here, then he did not precisely quote Jesus. If that is the case here, then where else did John take liberties in substitution? And are any of them at "critical" points of dogma?

  5. I think people would typically get around that slippery slope thing by saying God wouldn't let anything too critical get by. He might let John play a little fast and loose when it doesn't matter, but for the important things he would reign him in. Given that 'important' here is poorly defined, this gives then a ridiculous amount of wiggle room.