John 4-6

Paul calls the Gentiles to have faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel of John extends the ministry of Jesus beyond the Jewish community to the Samaritans as a way of affirming that they, too, are called to follow Jesus. We see this clearly in the fourth chapter of the gospel. After a preliminary comment about Jesus making more disciples than John, and an aside explaining that his disciples (but not Jesus) were baptizing these converts, the gospel relates that Jesus leaves Judaea and sets out for Galilee. Rather than going around Samaria, he passes through and stops at a town called Sychar, at Jacob's well. There, Jesus has a remarkable conversation with a Samaritan woman while his disciples are off gathering food.

Jesus orders the woman to give him a drink, and she responds: "What! You, a Jew, ask for a drink from a Samaritan woman?" The author of the gospel of John then tells the reader that "Jews do not share drinking vessels with Samaritans." (The fact that he has to explain this implies that the gospel was not written for Jews living in Palestine, because all of them would have known about this prohibition.) Jesus replies that if she knew the identity of the person she was talking with she would give him water, because he can give her "living water." The woman taunts him, because he has no bucket and the well is deep. "Are you greater than Jacob our ancestor?" Samaritans claimed to share the heritage of the Jews, but Jews rejected this claim because Samaritans worshipped other gods in addition to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and also because they worshipped on Mount Gerizim rather than in the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus tells her that the "living water" he can give her will quench her thirst forever, she replies mockingly, "give me this water, and then I shall not be thirsty, nor have to come all this way to draw water."

Abruptly Jesus changes the subject and tells her to bring her husband, but she replies that she has no husband. When Jesus answers that she has had five husbands but the man she is living with now is not her husband, the woman acknowledges that Jesus is a prophet. "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain," she says, as if to test him, "but you Jews say that the place where God must be worshipped is in Jerusalem." Jesus responds harshly: "You Samaritans worship you know not what; we worship what we know. It is from the Jews that salvation comes." But, he warns, there is a also a problem in the way Jews worship. "God is spirit," he proclaims, "and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

The disciples are dumbfounded when they return and find Jesus talking with a woman (much less a Samaritan woman). But they must have been even more surprised when the woman went into town and brought back other Samaritans, who the gospel of John tells us, "believed in him because of the woman's testimony." Jesus stays in the Samaritan town for two days, the gospel relates, and in that time many other Samaritans become believers. This story in the gospel of John does not appear in any of the other gospels. But the author of the gospel of Luke, we remember, tells a parable about a Samaritan who helps an injured Jew, and Acts reports that the risen Lord sends his disciples out to bear witness to him "in Jerusalem, and throughout all Judaea and Samaria." (Acts 1:8) Moreover, the eighth chapter of Acts tells of Philip preaching in Samaria and baptizing many Samaritans who believed in the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.

It is clear that Samaritans joined the Christian movement. Therefore, the story in the gospel of John about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well is probably not a literal report of the ministry of Jesus, but a way of teaching that the good news is for Samaritans as well as for Jews — if they put their trust in Jesus. For Jews the Samaritans are "Gentiles," so we see once again that the author of the gospel of John shares with Paul a commitment to opening up the church to all those with faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

In Samaria Jesus refuses food that his disciples had brought, saying, "For me it is meat and drink to do the will of him who sent me until I have finished his work." He tells his disciples that the fields are ripe for harvesting. "The reaper is drawing his pay and harvesting a crop for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together." The images are familiar, but the words are different. Jesus is using metaphors, but he is not telling parables. Then Jesus returns to Galilee and predicts that a prophet will not be well received among his own people. Yet, when he arrives the Galileans receive him, "because they had seen all he did at the festival in Jerusalem." He is not chased out of the synagogue, nor does he apparently disappoint those who are looking for miracles and other signs. This is unlike any of the other New Testament gospel accounts.

We have yet to hear in this gospel of Jesus healing anyone or casting out unclean spirits and demons, which is central to the accounts of the first three gospels in the New Testament.  But now Jesus performs what the author of the gospel of John describes as his "second sign" by healing the son of a Roman officer. The story is somewhat different than in the gospel of Matthew (8:5-13) and the gospel of Luke (7:2-10), where Jesus heals the slave of a centurion, but the point is the same. The gospel of John says the man has faith in what Jesus says, and returns home to findsp the boy healed. With this evidence of Jesus’ power, "he and all his household became believers." 

Later, Jesus returns to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. At the Sheep Gate, the author of the fourth gospel tells us, there was a pool called (in Hebrew) Bethesda. Sick people came there to seek healing at times when the water was disturbed. Jesus asks a man lying beside the pool, who had been crippled for thirty-eight years, if he wants to get well. When the man answers that no one will help him into the pool at the time the water is disturbed, Jesus says to him, "Stand up, take your bed and walk." The healing reminds us of the healing of a paralyzed man in the first three gospels, who is also told to rise from his bed and walk. The circumstances, however, are different.

Then "the Jews" chastise the man for carrying his bed on the sabbath. After Jesus sees the man once more and says to him — "give up your sinful ways, or something worse may happen to you” —  the man tells "the Jews" that Jesus healed him and told him to carry his bed, even though it was the sabbath. The author of the gospel of John tells us that "it was for doing such things on the sabbath that the Jews began to take action against Jesus." When Jesus defends healing on the sabbath by claiming, "My Father continues to work, and I must work too," we read that "this made the Jews all the more determined to kill him, because not only was he breaking the sabbath but, by calling God his own Father, he was claiming equality with God."

Jesus responds by arguing that "the Father has given full jurisdiction to the Son." It is, therefore, the will of the Father that everyone "should pay the same honor to the Son as to the Father." This also means that, "To deny honor to the Son is to deny it to the Father who sent him." Whoever "heeds what I say," Jesus proclaims, "and puts his trust" in the Father who sent him will have eternal life.

Jesus teaches "the time is coming, indeed it is already here, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall come to life." In the fourth gospel Jesus refers to himself not only as the Son of Man but also as the Son of God. This is in sharp contrast with the first three gospels in the New Testament. In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man passing judgment and of the rising from their graves of those who have lived righteously. Jesus tells "the Jews" who challenge him that, not only did John the Baptist bear witness to him, but that his work testifies "that the Father has sent me."

Jesus chides them for expecting eternal life, just because they have the scriptures. The testimony of the scriptures, Jesus argues, "points to me, yet you refuse to come to me to receive that life." Harshly Jesus judges them to be without love, because they have rejected him. Yet, he tells them, he will not be their accuser before the tribunal of the Father. "Your accuser is Moses, the very Moses on whom you have set your hope." Moreover, he says to them, "If you believed him you would believe me, for it was of me that he wrote."

Those who have read any of the first three gospels in the New Testament will see immediately how different the speech of Jesus is in the gospel of John. In the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke Jesus tells parables, gives short teachings, and renders enigmatic judgments. In the gospel of John, however, Jesus engages in lengthy arguments. Here he defends healing on the sabbath by asserting that he is doing the work of the Father. He castigates the Jews for not receiving him and says they will be judged by the law they profess, because they fail to recognize him as the fulfillment of that law.

The sixth chapter of the gospel of John begins with an explanation that Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee, noting that it is also known (to the Gentiles) as the Sea of Tiberias. This chapter contains two miracles that are in other New Testament gospels. Jesus feeds the five thousand, and he walks on the water of the Sea of Galilee. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle in all four New Testament gospels. (Mk. 6:32-44, Mt. 14:13-21, Lk. 9:10-17, Jn. 6:1-15). Only three of the gospels report the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. (Mk. 6:45-51, Mt. 14:22-27, Jn. 6:16-21) The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John not only report both miracles but record them sequentially in the same order. 

We were not surprised to find in the gospel of Matthew the same order of events and the same stories and teachings as in the gospel of Mark. We could imagine that the author of the gospel of Matthew had a copy of the gospel of Mark and added other materials to it. It was a little more difficult to imagine how the author of the gospel of Luke composed his gospel account. He follows the same sequence of events as the gospel of Mark, but he omits numerous passages and presents much of the teaching that is in the gospel of Matthew although in a different order.

The gospel of John is very different from the first three gospels, yet it has distinct similarities. It reports that John the Baptist recognized Jesus and the vision of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. And now it reports two miracles that are also in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. It is very hard to understand, however, how the author of the gospel of John could select only a few passages from another gospel and omit the rest. Moreover, it is very surprising that the author of the gospel of John so freely creates conversations between Jesus and "the Jews" who oppose him. Perhaps the author has received at least the core of these teachings in a tradition that he understands as authentic to the apostolic witness of the early church.

The author of the gospel says the people saw the feeding of the five thousand as a sign and believed that Jesus "must be the Prophet who was to come into the world." Jesus withdraws when he realizes they plan to try ti make him king, but the crowds follow Jesus across the Sea to Capernaum where he teaches that they should seek "the food that lasts, the food of eternal life." Jesus says, "This food the Son of Man will give you, for on him God the Father has set the seal of his authority." The people ask what they are to do, "if our work is to be the work of God?" And Jesus answers that "the work that God requires" is "to believe in the one whom he has sent." The Greek verb that is translated as "believe in" is the word for faith. Here the gospel of John reaffirms the teaching of Paul that faith is all that is required for salvation.

Now the people ask Jesus, "What sign can you give us, so that we may see it and believe you?" They inquire about his work and remind him that their ancestors had "manna" to eat in the wilderness and the scriptures record that God "gave them bread from heaven to eat." (Ex. 16:4, 15; Num. 11:8) Then Jesus replies that Moses did not give the Israelites the "bread of heaven" to eat in the wilderness. "It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven" that "brings life to the world." When the people ask that Jesus give them this bread, he says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Jesus tells the people that they lack faith. "You have seen," he says, "and yet you do not believe." He seems to think that this is God's plan, as he says: "All the Father gives me will come to me." Those who do not believe have not been given to him, therefore they do not come to him. It is not, Jesus explains, his will to reject anyone. "I have come down from heaven, to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me." And it is God's will that everyone be saved. "For it is my Father's will that everyone who sees the Son and has faith in him should have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."

This passage contains some of the most famous verses in the New Testament, yet there is nothing like it in the first three gospels. A feeding miracle reported by all the gospels has become in the fourth gospel an introduction into an explanation of the meaning of the Christian sacrament of the Lord's Supper. This is an effective presentation of the church's teaching. There is nothing in the first three gospels to indicate that Jesus ever talked about himself as the bread of life. If he had, as the gospel of John reports, the other authors would surely have included such a significant teaching in their accounts. Here we find an early church explaining and justifying its practice of the Lord's Supper by telling a story about the teaching of Jesus.

Now "the Jews" begin to grumble, because Jesus has said he is "the bread of heaven which came down from heaven." After all, they know his father and mother. Then Jesus responds that "no one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me." The drama, it seems, is scripted by the Father. All of them are merely playing their parts. Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13 to make the point that God is teaching them. "Everyone who has listened to the Father," he says, "and learned from him comes to me."

Jesus in the fourth gospel says he is the only one who has seen the Father, repeats that eternal life comes through faith in him, reaffirms that he is the bread of life, and proclaims that everyone who eats "this bread" will live forever. "The bread which I shall give is my own flesh," he adds, "given for the life of the world." This statement leads to a "fierce dispute among the Jews," who react angrily at the thought of Jesus giving them "his flesh to eat." But Jesus responds to them with an even more incendiary assertion. "In very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him."

Then the gospel of John tells us that Jesus said these things in the synagogue in Capernaum and that, "On hearing them, many of his disciples exclaimed, 'This is more than we can stand!" Jesus, however, is unrepentant and accuses some of them of not having faith. "From that moment," the gospel reports, "many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him." When Jesus asks the twelve if they, too, wish to leave, Simon Peter answers, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God's Holy One." Then Jesus says that one of them is a devil, and the author explains that Jesus is referring to Judas Iscariot, who will betray him.

All the gospels report that Judas betrays Jesus, but only the gospel of John describes a split among the disciples. Here we see that some of his disciples are alienated by the words of Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and, therefore, "draw back and no longer went about with him." Peter, however, speaks for the twelve who profess their faith in Jesus. As the other gospels in the New Testament do not report such a conflict among the disciples, we might suspect that this passage is really about a split in the early church community of the author of the gospel of John.

The teaching about the body and blood of Jesus must have been particularly difficult for Jewish followers of Jesus to swallow (pun intended!). After all, Jewish law did not allow eating the blood of an animal, because its life was thought to be in its blood. The rules for preparing meat require allowing the blood to drain from the meat. The idea of drinking the blood of a man would be abhorrent to a Jew. Perhaps the author of the gospel of John is putting Greek ideas onto the lips of Jesus, for it was among the Greek-speaking churches that the celebration of the Lord's Supper came to mean eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

We are reminded of Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth about celebrating the Lord's Supper. Paul quotes Jesus as saying, after he has blessed and broken the bread, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of me." Then Jesus took the cup and said, "This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this in memory of me." Paul goes on to argue that "anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of offending against the body and blood of the Lord." And how is one to be worthy? Paul says, all those celebrating the Lord's Supper will bring judgment on themselves, if they "do not discern the body." (1 Cor. 11:23-32)

Paul seems to mean that it is offensive to eat and drink without acknowledging the presence of Christ. That presence, of course, need not be in the bread and the wine themselves, but might be in the church, which Paul describes in detail as "the body of Christ" in the twelfth chapter of the same letter. For the author of the gospel of John, however, it seems that eating the Lord's Supper without trusting that the bread and wine are the flesh and blood of Jesus makes one unworthy, and that this teaching in his Jewish Christian community caused a division among its members. At least, this would be one way of making sense of the split among the disciples of Jesus reported in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John. © Robert Traer 2016