Last night I posted some of my comments on chapters 1 and 2 of John in the continuing #Luke2Acts Twitter Bible study. The following are more condensed notes on John 3 to 13.
I’ve addressed the theme of new birth in the gospel of John at length in a recent post (of a piece I wrote several years ago). As I tackle John 3 in some detail there, I won’t repeat myself again here.
I wonder whether Nicodemus’ question in verse 4 was serious rather than facetious, depending on the relationship between the mother’s womb and the earth, which we see in the parallel between the judgments upon the man and the woman in Genesis 3, in Job 1:21, Psalm 139:13-15, and Isaiah 26:19. It might also be worth reflecting upon the fact that themes of new birth are prominent in the Exodus narrative. The new Exodus that Jesus will accomplish is also a new birth, as we see in John 16:21.
Within covenant history there are a number of cycles of wombs and birth. After arriving at this conviction myself, I was unsurprised to discover that James Jordan beat me to it and that he had developed certain parts of the picture that I hadn’t. Jordan suggests that there is a four-stage pattern to be observed:
Now, children are also nursing, not eating and drinking, when they are first born. Yet, they are not weaned until they stop nursing, which comes later then when they first start to eat and drink. If we look at covenant history, we can also see that this phase also occurs. For the sake of convenience, we shall call the time before a child begins to eat and drink the time of swaddling, and the time after he starts to eat and drink but before he stops nursing the time of weaning. Thus, there are four phases:
1. Womb, while the child is being prepared for birth.
2. Swaddling, while the child is still getting everything from his mother and needs to be held and coddled.
3. Weaning, while the child still needs to nurse, but is also eating and drinking from sources outside his mother.
4. Full separation from the womb, when the child is fully weaned and receives all his food and drink from outside his mother.
Consider that even after God moves His people fully into a new world after a swaddling time, He continues to nurse them with special “old” provisions. The exodus from Egypt provides the most obvious analogy. After exiting the womb of Egypt we were swaddled and nursed by God’s miraculous care in the wilderness and then sent into the land. But even after we entered the land, God continued to provide some miracles during the Conquest until we were fully ready to stop nursing from Him. Then the miracles ceased.
There are periods in covenant history when the people of God have to enter into the womb in order to be reborn. The family of Jacob had to go down into the womb of Egypt in order to be reborn as a nation in the Exodus. The people that came out of the womb of Egypt were very different from those who had entered. Periods of swaddling are also very significant. The Garden of Eden was a swaddling period for humanity, for instance, a sort of swaddling period for the human race. Jesus’ ministry is a preparation for the birth of a new humanity.
‘You must be born again’—‘You’ here is plural. Nicodemus is the teacher of Israel and it is Israel as a nation that must be resurrected. While individual persons must participate in this resurrection, it is important to appreciate that the new birth that Jesus is referring to is an event in covenant history, rather than just a private experience in the human soul.
Notice the parallel between John 3:8 and 8:14. As the Spirit is, so is Jesus, the Man born of the Spirit. Jesus is the first to be born again, the first to return to the womb of mother earth and be raised again, firstborn of the dead.
In verse 14, Jesus relates his death to the events of Numbers 21:4-9. The connection between the two events is worth reflecting upon. The Numbers passage occurs within the context of the Exodus, when Moses raised up the bronze serpent in order that the Israelites, who were being bitten by fiery serpents on account of their rebellion, could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. What exactly the bronze serpent was is unclear, although I think that there is reason to believe that it may have been an image of a winged seraph (in Revelation the serpent is related to the dragon). The serpent on the pole was probably also related to the earlier signs of Moses’ and Aaron’s rods in the Exodus narrative (Exodus 4:2-5; 7:8-13).
In the LXX of the Numbers account, the serpent is stood upon a ‘sign’ (σημειον—or standard). For John, Jesus’ cross plays a similar role. Jesus is raised up as a ‘sign’ (σημειον) and, as people look to him (in faith), they will be healed (cf. John 19:37; Zechariah 12:10). It might also play off the Isaianic background of texts such as Isaiah 49:22 and 52:13. Throughout John’s gospel, the cross is presented as a ‘lifting up’ of Jesus, a sort of ascension event (cf. 8:28; 12:32-34). In fact, Jesus’ ministry and death is a progressive movement upward: up to Jerusalem, up to the cross, up from the grave, up to heaven.
Jesus doesn’t just compare himself to the elevated serpent, but to the serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Beyond the comparison between Jesus and the bronze serpent, there is also an implicit reiteration of the relationship between Moses and Jesus here. Moses, who bore witness to Christ’s glory, also typologically raised him as a symbol to the people. The mention of the wilderness might also be significant. The wilderness was the staging ground for the new exodus, as we have already seen in John the Witness’ description of himself as a voice crying in the wilderness (1:23). It will be within this wilderness that Christ will be raised up for the people. The Isaianic references to God’s raising a standard as part of the new exodus may be a dimension of the background here (Isaiah 49:22; 59:19; 62:10).
More generally, the vertical polarity between above and below, heaven and earth is quite pronounced within this chapter and meshes with the Spirit-flesh polarity in various ways. Note the themes of water, purification, and a wedding, which were also present in the previous chapter (v.29). Also light and witness from the first chapter. Night and day, darkness and light are key themes in John’s gospel. The old covenant was a period of faithfulness in darkness, but the light arrives in Christ, revealing all. Are we drawn to the light or do we want to hide in the shadows (vv.19-21)?
Baptisms were performed in Jesus’ name by his disciples (v.23), but presumably not by Jesus himself (4:2). His baptizing work would not occur until the Day of Pentecost.
This Jerome Neyrey article on meeting the woman at the well is superb for grappling with cultural background. I’ve also touched on the chapter in the following posts: ‘The Politics of Exposure’, ‘The Whore and the Bible’, ‘The Cup of the Adulteress’.
Meeting with women at wells is a familiar OT theme. Isaac, Jacob, and Moses’ wives were all first encountered at wells (Genesis 24, 29, Exodus 2). Marital themes are an important part of this passage. Once again, notice that the giving of water is a theme, as is everlasting life.
‘The hour is coming’—the coming hour is a familiar refrain within the gospel of John.
The ‘true worshippers’: throughout John’s gospel reference is made to the ‘true X’ (1:9; 4:23; 6:32; 15:1) and to the ‘truth’. In Christ, the genuine article has arrived, the epitome, the culmination, of all of the things anticipated in the OT. The true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in the Truth (Christ). Jesus speaks of a new form of worship that will come, whose location isn’t that mountain or Jerusalem, but in the True Temple of the Spirit, the body of Christ. Worship in Spirit and in Truth is more than ‘really meaningful and heartfelt’ worship: it is a reference to a new manner of worshipping God, no longer geographically bound to the Temple at Jerusalem, but occurring in the environment of the Spirit. This new form of worship arrives through Christ’s death and resurrection and exists because he is the true tabernacle and temple of God.
Jesus’ statement about his food in verse 34 is reminiscent of his response to the first temptation in Luke. Verse 44 also seems to allude to Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth after his temptations in Luke 4.
In verse 6, we read that it is the ‘sixth hour’. In verse 21, we are told that ‘the hour is coming’. Finally, in verse 52, the fever leaves the nobleman’s son in the ‘seventh hour’. Come the hour, come the man. Note that the woman has had five husbands and another man who isn’t her husband (cf. Revelation 17:10). Jesus, the man who is coming (v.25) and now has come (v.26), is the seventh man in the sequence, the promised Messiah.
The healing of the nobleman’s son is the second of Jesus’ signs. It involves healing from a long distance in the seventh hour for a (quite possibly disliked) royal official. It reveals the power of Jesus’ word and is performed in the same location as his first sign (v.46; cf. 2:1). Jesus’ statement in verse 48 ties in with the gospel’s distinction between faith based upon signs and seeing and faith based upon hearing, something which culminates in Thomas. Jesus’ rebuff is addressed more broadly (‘you’ is plural), expressing frustration with the crowd’s dependence upon signs-faith and calling them to something deeper.
The particular ‘feast’ in question isn’t specified (5:1). The main point is that Jesus is in Jerusalem again. Note that the theme of water and cleansing continues. Chapter 1: John’s Baptism; chapter 2: water to wine; chapter 3: new birth of water and Spirit; chapter 4: meeting at the well and offer of living water; chapter 5: healing at the Bethesda pool.
The people are gathered near the Sheep Gate (Jesus will later refer to himself as the door of the sheep—10:7), waiting for the water of the pool to be stirred by an angel (making it living water). The stirring of the water might be akin to be wind of the Spirit in Gen 1:2, at the flood (Gen 8:1), or the Red Sea (Ex 14:21; see Psalm 77:16 [LXX 76:17] too). The setting is evocative: infirm ‘sheep’ at a pool, struggling to get to the water. Moses was the great shepherd of Israel (e.g. Psalm 77:20; Isaiah 63:11-12), yet Jesus is greater still.
The man had an infirmity for 38 years. This is a highly significant number: Israel wandered for 38 years after their failure to enter into the land (Deuteronomy 2:14). The lameness of the man may well have entailed some degree of exclusion from the precincts of the Temple (cf. 2 Samuel 5:8; Acts 3:1-10). The healing of the man is a sign of giving the languishing flock of God entrance into the Promised Land. Jesus—Joshua—gives rest to the man, who takes up his bed, his ‘instrument’ of rest, as a sign, and later enters into the Temple. For this, Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, when he actually was fulfilling its meaning.
Jesus’ works are like his Father’s and he completes the works of his Father. Jesus continues and completes the act of creation. His claims in this chapter are startling. He enjoys judgment, the power to raise the dead, life in himself, and divine works. Resurrection is already underway in the present (5:25), fulfilling the Sabbath and anticipating new creation.
Jesus is witnessed to by John, the divine works given to him by the Father, the Father himself, and the Scriptures.
John connects Jesus’ actions to the timing of Jewish feasts at various points. Here it is Passover (v.4). Jesus crosses the Sea, followed by a multitude and goes to the mountain, which he ascends and sits down on with his disciples (cf. Exodus 24:9). There is a food crisis, as there isn’t enough food to feed the multitude (v.5; cf. Exodus 16:3), a crisis answered by miraculous provision (vv.10-13; cf. Exodus 16:4ff.). The fact that Jesus proceeds to talk about the manna in the wilderness in the discourse that follows strengthens the Mosaic connection, as does the Passover context, and the suggestion that Jesus is the prophesied Prophet like Moses (v.14; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19).
The gospels frequently speak in terms of ‘the mountain’ (cf. vv.3, 15) but don’t make clear its identity, as does the OT. In its non-specified particularity, ‘the mountain’ has a sort of symbolic force, gathering all of the great mountain themes of Scripture upon itself.
The feeding of the five thousand is one of the only events recorded in all of the four gospels. I’ve commented on Luke’s version of the story here and here. The differences between the accounts are worth attending to. For instance, Luke doesn’t mention a mountain, but speaks of a deserted place (Luke 9:10). The mountain in Luke’s account is the mountain comes later: the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). John’s account is also alone in mentioning the grass in the place (John 6:10), a detail that might accentuate certain themes of the passage and book, as we will see later.
Jesus’ action in taking, blessing, and distributing the loaves is similar to that of the Supper (v.11). There is no institution of the Supper in John’s gospel and this account and the discourse that follows takes its place in many respects. Note that each of the gospels give significance to the numbers: five loaves, two fish, twelve baskets of fragments. Notice that the feeding of the five thousand is the fourth sign in John’s gospel.
God is the one who walks upon the waters (Psalm 77:16-19), in an action associated with the Exodus, further strengthening the Exodus themes of the chapter (note the presence of a strong wind in Exodus 14:21). Jesus’ walking upon the sea—probably his fourth sign—connects him to God’s own power over the elements in his great acts of deliverance. The statement that the boat ‘immediately’ arrived at the land where they were going might also suggest a miraculous occurrence, similar to the acts of Spirit teleportation that we see in the OT, not least in the book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:14; 8:3; 11:1; etc.). The great wind that was blowing might be the same wind associated with theophanic appearances of God in the OT, the wind of God’s throne chariot (e.g. Psalm 18:10; 104:3), just as the throne chariot is associated with the teleportation. Jesus functions like the throne chariot of God.
Christ is the ‘true’ bread from heaven. He fulfils the manna, the sacrifices (the ‘bread of God’—Leviticus 21:6), the tree of life (eating and living forever), and the Passover.
The Father entrusts people to the safe-keeping of the Son, a relationship that is explored at various points in John’s gospel.
We have life as we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. Familiar claim, yet still startling. Jesus makes two incredible claims here: 1. He came down from heaven; 2. We must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have life. The first claim will be demonstrated when he ascends to the place where he was before (v.62). The second claim needs to be understood in terms of the work of the Spirit, not mere physical power (flesh). Christ’s person and words bring Spirit and life.
This teaching may mark a watershed in the gospel. Jesus has passed ‘peak popularity’ and now disciples start to leave.
Like his mother earlier, but from different and unbelieving motives, Jesus’ brothers request signs from him (verses 3-4). They seem to desire a prematurely open sign and demonstration of Jesus’ power, rather than recognizing God’s timing. John 7 has themes of hiddenness and openness. Against his brothers’ request Jesus goes secretly to the feast, then reveals himself.
If circumcision—removing a small part of a bodily member—superseded Sabbath, why not making entire body whole (v.23)? The healing of the man in John 5 still seems to be in view here.
The origins of the Messiah are supposed to hidden, but Christ’s are known. However, even though Jesus has made his origins known to them (in the previous chapter, for instance), they remain hidden. Jesus’ origins are ‘known’ yet hidden (vv.26-29).
The declaration of verses 37-39 is generally connected with the water-drawing ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. The invitation for the thirsty to come and drink recalls the conversation with the woman of Samaria and Isaiah 55:1. Notice the development from 4:14—a fountain of water springing up—to 7:38—rivers of living water flowing out. The rivers of living waters flowing out from the heart presents the heart of the Christian believer as akin to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10), the new temple of Ezekiel 47, and the throne of God in Revelation 22:1. Our body is the temple of the Spirit, in which God dwells and from which life flows. Of course, as the new temple (2:19-21), Christ is the first one from whom living water flows (cf. 19:34). Then we are made like him.
For the second time in two chapters (6:14; 7:40), Jesus is connected with the promised Prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15,18). The dispute among the people about the origins of Jesus at the end of the chapter sheds light back on verses 25-29.
7:53—8:11 is not present in many of the earliest manuscripts. What are we to do with it? While there are arguably some Johannine themes, on the surface of things, I think that it would be a neater fit with the themes and style of Luke’s gospel (although I don’t believe that it is Lukan). Although not present in all of the oldest versions, this passage has been received by the Church from fairly early on and I believe that it is an authentic tradition. I am inclined to treat the text as if it were an orphan that has, through God’s providence, been taken into the house of John’s text, without coming from it. I treat it as Scripture. However, I would be wary of making a decisive theological argument on its basis and highlight the doubts over its ‘paternity’ whenever I speak about it. That said, if I were preaching through John, I wouldn’t skip the passage and would be prepared to devote a whole sermon to it. I believe that it should be left where it is, albeit in brackets, or with some other indication of its questioned origins.
I’ve commented on the story of the woman caught in adultery here and here. The scribes and Pharisees seek to trap Jesus in his words, much as when Jesus taught in the temple in the final chapters of Luke. The scribes are only mentioned here in John and the movement between the temple and the Mount of Olives is only mentioned here in John. The attempts of the scribes and Pharisees to trap Jesus in his words and Jesus’ shrewd question in response is also similar to passages from Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem in the Synoptics. My suspicion is that this records an authentic tradition concerning Jesus, but wasn’t written by the author of the gospel.
Jesus’ point in challenging the scribes and Pharisees is not that the death penalty is wrong per se, but that the death penalty could only be unjustly exercised under the current circumstances. Every one of the ‘witnesses’ is somehow compromised, whether in a conspiracy of entrapment (where’s the man?), or through their own guilt of the same sin. There may well be an implicit challenge to the scribes and Pharisees’ sexual licence here, as in Luke 16:14-18.
The first stone is important in a number of respects. 1. As Girard observes, it is the first stone that sets the pattern for all others. Each successive stone is easier to throw. 2. The first stones were to be cast by witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:7). These witnesses were subject to the same penalty themselves if they sinned in their judgment. If no one could cast the first stone, then no execution could occur. Where there were no witnesses in a case of adultery, the jealousy test applied.
The verses that follow return to John’s themes of judgment and witness. Jesus refers to his crucifixion as being ‘lifted up’ again (8:28): as I’ve already observed, crucifixion is presented as a mini-ascension.
As in Luke and the Pauline epistles, the question of the identity of the true sons of Abraham is important in John (vv.30-59). Jesus addresses the Pharisees as those who were only slaves in the house of Abraham, who would one day be removed (v.35). They are children of the devil, seed of the serpent, a brood of vipers (cf. Genesis 3:15). Who is our true father? The one we take after. The logic of verse 42 is very similar to logic employed in the epistle of 1 John, for instance 5:1. Jesus’ argument about slaves and sons in the house of Abraham is like Paul’s allegory of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4.
The Pharisees may be insinuating that Jesus is a bastard child of a Samaritan (vv.41, 48), as the Samaritans challenged the Jews’ claim to be the exclusive descendants of Abraham. Also notice that the Samaritans received Jesus earlier.
4:12—‘Are you greater than our father Jacob?’ 8:53—‘Are you greater than our father Abraham?’ Yes and yes.
‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ When? Possibly in the vision of Genesis 15. However, Jesus may also be referring to Abraham’s encounters with the divine Angel of YHWH in Genesis 18-19 and 22. This is a very important theme in John’s gospel. The great appearances of God to his people in the OT are all Christ. Christ is the vision of God Moses had on Mount Sinai (1:14-18). Christ is Jacob’s ladder at Bethel (1:51). Christ is the appearances to Abraham (8:56). Christ was the glorious vision of YHWH that Isaiah saw in the temple in Isaiah 6 (12:41). Christ is the great I AM (Exodus 3:13-14). Not only is Christ the One through whom all things were created, he is also the One who has been active throughout all of Israel’s history, now made flesh and dwelling among us.
As Jesus claimed to be God himself, it was not surprising that they tried to execute him. John 8 both begins and ends with failed attempts at stoning.
Much of my treatment of this passage will be from my memory Leithart’s stellar treatment of the passage in Deep Exegesis.
Jesus once again declares himself to be the light of the world (1:5, 9; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46). The mode of the healing is bizarre: Jesus spits on the ground, makes clay, ‘anoints’ the eyes of the blind man with the clay, then sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The parallel with the story of Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5) should come to mind. Sent to wash and healed, without seeing the one healing him.
The forming of clay from the ground is reminiscent of the creation of man in Genesis 2:7. Leithart raises the possibility that spitting is connected with water and the Spirit/wind/breath. The reference to anointing and the opening of eyes through washing in the pool is suggestive of baptism. In Acts 9, Saul of Tarsus also receives his sight back in connection with baptism.
The ‘translation’ of the name of the pool of Siloam isn’t so much a translation as an interpretation of the meaning of the word.
The story of the healing of the blind man echoes that of the healing of the lame man in chapter 5. Both have had their condition for a long time, both stories involve a healing pool, both take place on the Sabbath, both lead to conflict with the Jews.
In John 3, Jesus talks about the need to be born again of water and the Spirit to see the kingdom of God. This healing shows that truth in action. The man’s birth is repeatedly referred to (vv.1, 19-20, 32, 34). After his healing, people fail to recognize him. He has become as a new person, been reborn through his anointing and baptism. The blind man is a model disciple and a pattern for the later Church. He is baptized and illumined, but cannot see Jesus. He bears faithful and bold witness to the Pharisees, who cast him out of the synagogue. Then Jesus comes again and he worships him.
Light and eyes go together, as we saw in Luke: the eyes are the lamp of the body. The person with a good eye is illumined in the entirety of their person. The blind man, who can ‘see’ Jesus (though still not physically seeing him) is one such person. The blind man is the perfect example of the blessed person who has not seen yet has believed (20:29).
The story of John 9 is about giving sight to the blind and about striking blind those who refuse to see (verse 39). The formerly blind man is tested by the Jews, who want to silence his witness. He responds with bewildered sarcasm (v.30). The blindness of the Pharisees is astonishing to him. He still hasn’t even seen Jesus, but just trusted and obeyed his voice.
As this is probably still the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus’ identification of himself as the light of the world was appropriate. The Feast would have involved dramatic lights in the Temple in a culture without much nocturnal lighting.
John 10 shouldn’t be detached from that which precedes it: it’s still a response to Pharisees after the healing of the blind man.
The imagery of sheep and shepherding comes to the surface here. However, it is found throughout the gospel, from chapter 1 where Jesus is the Lamb to chapter 21, where Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. Here he is the shepherd and door.
The biblical background of shepherd imagery is immensely important here. Israel descended from shepherds. The great leaders of the nation—Moses and David—were shepherds, both literally and symbolically. See also passages such as Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23:1-4. Of course, God was also described as the Shepherd of his people (Psalm 23).
Jesus is alluding to verses such as Micah 2:12-13, where God’s flock is gathered together then led out through the gate. ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’—Perhaps an image of Exodus. Remember that the Exodus was the leading of a flock out of Egypt with the rod of the shepherd Moses (cf. Isaiah 63:11-12; Psalm 77:20) and the striking of the false shepherd, Pharaoh (Exodus 2:16—3:1 is an anticipation of Moses’ later work).
The shepherd imagery here should help us better understand chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Jesus meets the lame man near the Sheep Gate, bringing him back into the Temple fold of Israel. Jesus here describes himself as the true door for the sheep. In chapter 6, Jesus leads a large multitude out like a flock, across the sea, and provides them with food. Notice the strange detail in 6:10: ‘there was much grass in the place.’ Why point it out? 10:9 suggests an answer: ‘he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.’
Who is the doorkeeper/watchman in v.3? This probably refers to the faithful leader of the people, in contrast to the Pharisees.
The biblical imagery of the shepherd is fairly rough and violent, not like our understanding of shepherds. The shepherd is described as figure who struggles with wolves, wild beasts, thieves and bandits, and with the perils of the wilderness. He is associated with death, conflict, and difficulty. I’ve written on this here. We need to measure our concepts of ‘pastoral’ ministry against biblical models. Is your pastor good in conflict and struggle, able to drive off wolves, protect the flock, and give safe and good pasture? Is your pastor prepared to suffer hardship and die for the sake of the flock? The flock is in dangerous territory and we need tough and dedicated people as shepherds.
Notice the allusion to Numbers 27:16-17 and the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ replacement in the reference to coming in and going out.
One of the primary points of this section is to highlight the intimate relationship between sheep and shepherd. The sheep have been given into Christ’s hand by his Father. He calls them all by name. They know and respond to his voice. Mary Magdalene is a great example of this in 20:16. It is when Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes his voice. Notice also the connection with 5:25. The dead ‘will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.’ Lazarus is a further example in 11:43-44: even the grave cannot prevent the sheep from hearing their Shepherd’s voice.
Laying down life for sheep pushes the image of risking life for the flock to its limits. However, Jesus also takes up life again. Jesus brings Gentile sheep too, forming one new flock of both Jews and Gentiles. The Church is in view in this imagery.
It is profoundly encouraging to reflect upon the fact that the Father commits us as his sheep into the hands of his Son, the Shepherd. No predator can snatch us from his protection, nor from that of the Father. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater in 10:33-38. If God can speak of human beings as ‘gods’ (Psalm 82), how much more the Son that he sanctified and sent into the world and to whom he granted testifying works! The reference to actual ‘gods’ apart from God in Scripture refer to great judges and rulers of the nations, human and angelic.
The raising of Lazarus is probably the seventh sign of the gospel. 1. Water to wine. 2. Raised nobleman’s son. 3. Healing of the paralytic. 4. Feeding of 5,000. 5. Walking on the sea. 6. Healing of the man blind from birth. 7. Raising of Lazarus. Is there a possible allusion to the creation week? Signs 5-7 fit very well. The others, not so well.
Verses 1-2 are interesting. Do they presume that the readers have some knowledge of Mary and Martha already? From where? They also anticipate the story of 12:1-8. The connection of the two stories seems significant.
‘He whom you love is sick’—Ben Witherington, in an appealing theory, argues that Lazarus was the ‘disciple Jesus loved’ and the primary author of the gospel. Read his theory here. Worth thinking about as a possibility. It would certainly help to explain a number of interesting details.
The sickness is ‘for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ (v.4). Not just by the demonstration of his power as a miracle worker, but because the raising of Lazarus precipitates events leading to Jesus’ own death.
Lazarus is inactive. The focus is upon his sisters and their faith. Jesus delays, probably so that the miracle will be more noteworthy when it occurs. The disciples know that returning to Judea was a very risky thing to do and would likely lead to death (verse 16). Knowing the geography, Lazarus had probably already died by the time that news of his sickness had reached Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t enter the town, but Martha goes out to meet him and then later secretly tells Mary (vv.20, 28, 30). They probably knew that Jesus’ life was sought by the Judeans and wanted to keep his presence discreet. Martha makes a dramatic statement of faith in verses 21-22. Verse 25-26 is another one of the great ‘I am’ sayings of the gospel. Martha’s response of faith in verse 27 to Jesus’ statement is striking under the circumstances.
The first sign (water to wine) and the last sign (raising of Lazarus) have some interesting parallels. Both involve a reference to the glory of God (2:11; 11:4, 40). Both are key moments leading to Jesus’ death: the first sign is the first step; the seventh is the climactic step. Both involve a response to the request of a woman who loves him, first seemingly rebuffed then answered in response to a persistent faith.
Jesus weeps, entering into the grief of the occasion, despite knowing that he will raise Lazarus. In Jesus’ response in verses 33 and 38 there is a sense of anger and the troubling of his spirit that he experiences approaching his own death (12:27; 13:21). He enters into their grief, but seems to be angry at their unbelief.
There are some comparisons between the portrayal of Lazarus’ tomb and burial and that of Jesus (women grieving, a stone, wrappings). There are also contrasts. The stone is moved for Lazarus and he comes out wearing the graveclothes.
Jesus prays openly to the Father, so that when the miracle occurs, it will serve as a direct confirmation of his authority. Calling out to Lazarus with a loud voice should remind us of the sheep hearing the Shepherd’s voice calling them out (10:3) and of the dead being raised by the voice of the Son of God in 5:24-30. This sign demonstrates Jesus’ power over death.
In the light of AD70, the Jews’ fear that Jesus will lead to their loss of their ‘place and nation’ to the Romans is ironic. They seek to prevent Jesus working signs but, by conspiring towards his death, prepare for the greatest sign of all.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus leads towards his own death. He lays down his life for his friend. And not just his friend but, as Caiaphas unwittingly prophesies, all the children of God, from every nation.
John 11:2 mentions the events of 12:1-8 before they occur, connecting the story of the raising of Lazarus with this. The stench of Lazarus’ dead body is mentioned in 11:39. In 12:1-8, Lazarus’ sister pours out fragrant oil upon a living person.
Mary’s act takes the form of the most profound devotion. Notice that it occurs in the chapter immediately before Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Mary’s radical act of service anticipates and prepares for Jesus’ own radical act of service.
The house was filled with the fragrance. I would suggest that that is a reference back to Isaiah 6:4. The ‘smoke’ mentioned there is probably the fragrant smoke of incense, filling the temple (such an understanding is evidenced in the Syrian tradition, for instance).
Martha serves, but Mary is known by her love and her devoted presence at Jesus’ feet, as in Luke 10:38-42. Both here and in the following chapter, a disciple seeks to prevent the radical act of service. Judas here, Peter next chapter. This account frames two acts in sharp juxtaposition: Mary’s loving service and faith and Judas’ betrayal and wickedness. Judas’ love of money is introduced at this point. A significant detail, partly explaining his later motivations. The cost of the oil would have been more than many women would have inherited. This was a most remarkable act.
Jesus was ‘anointed for his burial’. It was a preparation for death and also had overtones of a coronation. In the resurrection these two themes can be reconciled.
Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). The disciples don’t yet understand. The gathered multitude is accounted for in large part on account of the spreading word of the raising of Lazarus.
Verse 19 really is a rather comical bad guys moment!
The passing of messages from one disciple to another in verses 20-22 is reminiscent of the end of chapter 1. However, here the movement is towards Jesus, rather than going out to tell others about him. Greeks are being drawn to Jesus. Finally, the hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Jesus’ death is here presented in almost natural terms, as a grain dying and rising to produce much fruit. The arrival of the Greeks seems to serve as a sign that the hour has come. When the nations start to come, he must be lifted up. ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself’—notice that this is the fulfilment of prophecies typically related to the temple or the mountain of God (Isaiah 2:1-4). The Greeks are the anticipation of what is to come.
There is no mention of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism or on the Mount of Transfiguration in John, but there is one here.
The continued presence of the light is not something that can be taken for granted. It will disappear without warning.
Verse 41 is startling: Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory. This continues the references to OT people who witnessed Christ. Also notice that a possible allusion to Isaiah 6 in verse 3 is strengthened by the connecting context and themes of glory, etc.
Christ’s word isn’t given to judge, but to save. However, if we reject it, it will stand in witness against us at the last day. How sad, to value not being excluded by the Pharisees over confessing the name of Christ (verses 42-43)!
Matt Colvin has some comments on this passage here.
Notice the many similarities between John 12:1-8 and 13:1-11: a meal before Passover, washing feet, reference to coming death. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus performs an action symbolizing his death, taking bread and wine in the context of the Passover meal and instituting the Supper. Here Jesus performs a different symbolic action with a similar purpose.
Why does John omit reference to the institution of the Supper? Why does his chronology seem to place the Last Supper before the celebration of the Passover? Perhaps because John wishes to present Jesus as the Passover Lamb (1:29, 36; 19:36). While Luke was all about meals and eating, John has focused upon water and washing. It is not entirely surprising, then, that the symbol of Jesus’ death is a washing action, rather than a meal.
Verses 1-3 presents us with a situation within which all of the key details have become aligned. The scene is fully set. When Jesus knows that the end has come, when he knows that his work had reached its climax, then he gets up and takes the towel. The deliberate manner in which the action is entered into underlines its significance.
The more Jesus is exalted, the more he stoops to serve us. The first thing that Jesus did when he knew that the Father had given all things into his hands (v.3) was to take those hands and use them to wash his disciples’ feet. The costliness of the liquid is stressed in 12:3. Jesus’ washing is achieved with his blood, infinitely more costly.
It was a sign of Jesus’ love for his disciples (‘He loved them to the end’) and of his provision for them. Jesus removes his garments, as they will be removed at his crucifixion and wraps himself in a linen towel, as he will be wrapped in linen cloths at his burial. 10:17-18—Jesus lays down his life to take it up again. 13:4, 12—Jesus lays aside his garments and takes them up again.
The disciples were reclining to eat. Their feet would have been outside of the sphere of conversation and fellowship. Once again, the disciples will only fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ action at a later point.
The washing is absolutely essential. Without Jesus’ act of service for us, we have no part in him. Peter’s objection (like Judas’ in the previous chapter), is an objection to the symbolic action displaying the necessary work of Christ. Judas is headed for betrayal, Peter for denial.
What to make of verse 10? It seems to me that the prior ‘bathing’ that Jesus refers to is baptism, and all that stands for. The feet are the part of the body that come into direct contact with the judgment-bearing dust. The footwashing is more akin to the forgiveness of sins over the course of the Christian life as we continually return to our first washing.
The footwashing isn’t just a symbol of Jesus’ death, but a model to follow. This is the form that our life together should take.
Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 in speaking of Judas. The psalm itself has interesting resonances. The opening statement—‘blessed is he who considers the poor’—reminds us of Judas’ false concern for the poor (12:6). The psalm then speaks of enemies saying of David that he is lying down never to rise up (Psalm 41:8). Then David prays that God would ‘raise him up’ (verse 10).
John 13:20 is like Luke 9:48 and 10:16.
The beloved disciple in Jesus’ bosom (verse 23), should remind us of the Word in the bosom of the Father (1:18). In both cases we see that a witness is qualified for witness-bearing by virtue of their extremely close relationship with the one to whom they bear witness.
Matt Colvin has an interesting thought on the morsel given to Judas. Satan first puts the plan in the heart of Judas (verse 2), then enters into Judas personally (verse 27).
Much of John’s first epistle is devoted to exploring the meaning of verses 34-35.