Difficult Stuff in the Gospel
Reflections on John Chapter 8 (2004)
This chapter might be regarded (and certainly is by some Christians) as key to obtaining a grasp of Jesus’ self-understanding. This does rather depend on treating the text as being the actual words of Jesus. Some people might wish to treat this chapter as metaphorical, or as a Gnostic address. The question I pose is along the lines of - ‘what is going on in this chapter?’, realising that it is difficult, if not impossible, to give a definitive answer. One of my tests would be whether it deconstructs itself, it does not seem to. It could be giving us an insight into the inner understanding of Jesus and his relationship with God (or it might not) or it presents a picture of Jesus/God from the interesting standpoint of the author (or not), or …
I have identified four main themes which I think are important.
- Jesus’ Message: truth and consequence
Key texts: v.14 ‘my testimony is true’; v.16 ‘my judgment is valid’; v.18 ‘the Father testifies on my behalf’, v.31,32 ‘if you live by what I say … you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’; v.34 ‘I can guarantee this truth’; v.40 ‘I am a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God’; v.45 ‘you don’t believe me because I tell the truth’
Questions: ‘what is truth?’ Is there ‘fact’ on the one hand and ‘truth’ on the other? e.g. fact: Jesus died > truth: Jesus rose from the dead; these do not contradict each other but exist in different realities, no ‘unbelievers’ encountered the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ resurrection. How could Jesus say any of these things, yet he did, or did he? How could Jesus claim God’s endorsement? (he had an audience with God) If he did have God’s endorsement what did/does that mean? How does the truth set us free and what truth do we mean? (consider ch. 14.6 and how this is inclusive rather than exclusive) If God is the source of truth (as Jesus says), surely Truth is actually ‘the Divine’. Jesus had a full, personal understanding of truth.
2. Jesus’ trajectory: origin and destination
Jesus’ truth is dependent on his origin, which is ‘truer’ — more informed, more authentic, more unworldly (less material), than his opponents, and than ours.
Key texts: v.14 ‘I know where I came from and where I’m going’ [but you don’t!]; v.16 ‘the Father who sent me’; v.21 ‘I’m going away and you’ll look for me … you can’t go where I’m going’; v.23 ‘I’m from above … I’m not from this world’; v.58 ‘before Abraham was …’
Jesus’ unearthly origin ties him into a greater Reality and Truth. If we read it to imply unreality (not true, not historical), have we lost the point? Jesus’ beginning (birth, incarnation or initiation), ministry and death/resurrection/ ascension all point outside this life. The extra-worldly aspects can be stripped away leaving the Stoic/Zen teacher of the Jesus Seminar, which then raises the question — where did these ‘foreign’ elements come from? There are of course answers to this … Do we stand at a crossroads?
3. Jesus’ medium: identity with God
Key texts: v.19 ‘if you knew me, you would also know my Father’; v.28,29 ‘I speak as the Father taught me. Besides, the one who sent me is with me. He hasn’t left me by myself. I always do what pleases him’; v.54 ‘my Father is the one who gives me glory’; repeatedly ‘I am’
Some might think that this is arrogance, but we should recognise God through Jesus’ presentation. This is what Jesus is telling us, and this is the distinctiveness of Christianity (as my Muslim friend told me, it is only Jesus’ divinity that divides us) — ‘I am’ (God). I do not like CS Lewis’ argument here, if Jesus said this he was either mad, the Devil or what he claimed to be. The main point is not Jesus’ claim, but his assertion (if there is a difference) of identity. Note that Jesus does not say — ‘God is me’, that would indeed be very wrong. A famous Sufi mystic so identified with God that he too surprised his community by saying ‘I am God’, he was crucified … Maybe he reached the same level of closeness as Jesus.
4. Jesus’ confrontation: difference/uniqueness
Key texts: v.23 ‘You’re from below. I’m from above … I’m not from this world’; v. 24 ‘if you don’t believe that I am the one, you’ll die because of your sins’; v.28 ‘when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you’ll know that I am the one’; v. 36 ‘if the Son sets you free …’; v.58 ‘before Abraham was ever born, I am …’
Jesus’ uniqueness gives him a unique insight into human reality and destiny. He reveals, through his ‘lifting up’, his character and also, though without specifying how, he is a means of salvation (but it is God’s salvation, not his). Verse 23 does sound very Gnostic, which might suggest that the whole chapter is a mystical document, I only point this out because it hit me so hard when I read this verse last time. There is an argument that Jesus, and the words and actions connected with him, has a parabolic function (i.e. he could be seen as an acted parable). One thing the Gospels tell us is not to trip over hard reality or bold language, if you can recognise it without being put off it can be true/salvatory for you. How do we react to what Jesus says? Do we want to hear his message? Can we adopt some parts and leave others? If so, does this say more about us than Jesus — are we fitting ourselves to him or making him fit with us? Is lack of fit/uncomfortability good/true/divine (and therefore ‘arrogance’ is not a problem)? What is the path of Christian (or post-Christian) honesty? How far does uncertainty take us?
Explore further through ‘Jumbled up in Jerusalem’.