The seventh chapter of the gospel of John begins with a conversation between Jesus and his brothers. Jesus has been traveling in Galilee and avoiding Jerusalem, because "the Jews are looking for a chance to kill him." It seems that his own people (Galileans) support him and that his enemies are only in Judaea. But as the Jewish feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth, or Feast of Booths) draws near, his brothers urge Jesus to go to Judaea "so that your disciples may see the great things you are doing." This is a strange conversation, because we would have thought the disciples of Jesus were with him in Galilee. It seems, however, that they are in Jerusalem. But this only makes sense when we recall that in the previous chapter a number of disciples had drawn back from Jesus. These must be the "disciples" in Judaea that the brothers of Jesus want him to impress.
When his brothers argue that he should reveal himself to the world, Jesus replies, "The right time for me has not yet come." Nonetheless, Jesus urges them to go to Jerusalem for the festival, and they do. Later, the gospel of John tells us, Jesus goes to Jerusalem secretly and mingles with the crowds. We learn that "the Jews" are looking for Jesus, that people are arguing about him, but that no one is speaking freely "for fear of the Jews."
When the festival is half over, Jesus goes up to the temple and teaches. The fourth gospel reports that "the Jews" were astonished that someone without training has such learning. But Jesus answers, "My teaching is not my own but his who sent me. Whoever chooses to do the will of God will know whether my teaching comes from him or is merely my own." Then he asserts, "Did not Moses give you the law? Yet not one of you keeps it. Why are you trying to kill me?" The crowd answers that no one wants to kill him, but Jesus argues that there is a plot against him because he healed on the sabbath. He reminds them that they circumcise on the sabbath to avoid breaking the law of Moses. Therefore, why should they be angry with him "for making someone's whole body well on the sabbath?"
Because Jesus is speaking openly in the temple, some of those listening wonder if their rulers might have decided that Jesus is the Messiah. Yet, as they know where Jesus comes from but know not where the Messiah will come from, they are not convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus answers that he has not come of his own choosing but was "sent by one who is true." Jesus adds that they do not know the one who sent him but he does, because he comes from him. The gospel of John now tells us that the enemies of Jesus try to arrest him but cannot because it is not yet "his appointed hour." The gospel also records that "many believed in him" because of all the signs Jesus performed.
When the Pharisees and chief priests hear that people are beginning to claim that Jesus is the Messiah, they send temple police to arrest him. Then the gospel reports that Jesus says he is going away and they will not be able to find him. "So the Jews said to one another, 'Where does he intend to go, that we should not be able to find him? Will he go to the Dispersion among the Gentiles, and teach Gentiles?" Could there be a clearer reference to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles than this? The gospel of John is written to explain that the good news is being proclaimed to the Gentile world, because so many of the Jews have rejected Jesus as the Christ.
On the last day of the festival Jesus stands in the temple and declares, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink." Then he claims that "streams of living water shall flow from within" each person who trusts in him. Jesus says he is referring to scripture, where there are many references to flowing water, but this statement is not an accurate quote from any particular Old Testament book. It might remind the Jewish reader of Moses striking a rock in the wilderness to bring forth water for his thirsty people (Num. 20:2-13) or passages in Isaiah (44:3, 55:1) that use the image of water. The author of the gospel of John, however, explains that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit, which those with faith in him will receive after Jesus is glorified.
Now many people assert that Jesus must be the Prophet or the Messiah, but others argue that scripture says the Messiah must come from the family of David and the city of Bethlehem. The author of the gospel of John seems to be unfamiliar with the birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, as he could use either account to argue that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The author of the gospel says instead that Jesus "was the cause of division among the people." Although some want to arrest him, no one does. And the temple police return to the chief priests and Pharisees to report that they were too impressed to carry out their orders. This angers the Pharisees, who reply that none of the rulers believe in Jesus. Then Nicodemus says Jewish law requires a hearing before any judgment can be rendered, but others accuse him of being a Galilean. "Study the scriptures," they sneer, "and you will find that the Prophet does not come from Galilee."
The eighth chapter of the gospel of John seems to provide the hearing that Nicodemus suggests. Jesus defends himself before the people by claiming, "I am the light of the world." The Pharisees counter that he is bearing witness to his own cause and, therefore, his testimony is not valid. Jesus admits that he is testifying on his own behalf but claims his witness, nonetheless, is valid because he knows where he comes from and is going. "In your own law," he says, "it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I am a witness in my own cause, and my other witness is the Father who sent me." When the Pharisees challenge Jesus to show them his father, Jesus replies, "You do not know me or my Father; if you knew me you would know my Father too."
Some versions of the gospel insert here a story that is omitted in other translations about a woman who was to be stoned for adultery, until Jesus says to the crowd, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." When the crowd disperses, Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her and sends her home, urging her not to sin again. In the story Jesus does not say the law about adultery is wrong, but the story points to the hypocrisy of those who use the law to judge when they, too, are sinners.
The gospel of John now relates that Jesus is teaching openly in the temple, but no one comes to arrest him because "his hour had not yet come." Jesus tells them he is going away and that they will die in their sin. "You belong to the world below, I to the world above. Your home is in this world, mine is not." When they ask him, "Who are you?" Jesus says, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I am what I am. I do nothing on my own authority, but in all I say, I have been taught by my Father." We hear in this statement the same claim that Moses heard, when he asked at the burning bush who was speaking to him: "I am what I am." (Ex. 3:14) Jesus is claiming identity with God. To confirm his identity, the gospel reports that after hearing this, "many put their faith in him."
Then Jesus turns "to the Jews who had believed him" and says, "if you stand by my teaching, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answer by claiming that, as Abraham's descendants, they are already free. But Jesus replies, "everyone who commits sin is a slave." A slave does not have permanent standing in a household, but a son does. "If then the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free." This is the same argument we saw in Paul's letter to the Galatians. (Gal. 4:1-7)
It is striking that Jesus is having this argument with his former disciples. As his brothers suggested, he has come to Jerusalem to face them. Now they are claiming that they are free, as sons of Abraham, but Jesus tells them they are slaves to Jewish law. If they were really Abraham's sons, Jesus says, they would do as Abraham did. In Paul's argument Abraham is the exemplary man of faith because he trusted in God. In the gospel of John, Jesus is telling his former disciples that they should trust in him as Abraham trusted in God.
When his former disciples claim that God is their father, Jesus answers, "If God were your father, you would love me, for God is the source of my being, and from him I come." Then Jesus says they do not understand him because they are not God's children but have the devil for their father. Now his former disciples are described as "the Jews." They claim that Jesus is a possessed Samaritan, but Jesus replies to this insult by asserting — "if anyone obeys my teaching he will never see death." "The Jews" reply that this is nonsense because Abraham and the prophets are dead, but Jesus claims that "Abraham was overjoyed to see my day." When "the Jews" protest that Jesus is too young to have seen Abraham, Jesus exclaims that "before Abraham was born, I am." Then his former disciples take up stones to throw at him, but he disappears from the temple.
In John 8:31 we find Jesus arguing with "the Jews who had believed in him." This verse helps us to see that the attack on "the Jews" in the gospel of John is, at least in part, an attack on the Jewish Christians who rejected the Christian community because they did not agree that celebrating the Lord's Supper meant eating the body and blood of Jesus. The author of the gospel of John condemns these Jewish followers of Jesus in order to defend the group of Jewish believers (to which he belongs) that affirms what will become the orthodox understanding of the Lord's Supper (in the Catholic tradition).
In the first three gospels Jesus contends with scribes and Pharisees, but he never chastises or condemns "the Jews." It seems clear, therefore, that this particular theme in the gospel of John reflects a bitter experience within the Christian community that triggers the writing of the fourth gospel. Perhaps there was a falling out between Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and the other Jewish Christians who, like Nicodemus, were sympathetic to the teachings of Jesus but, when they had to choose one group or the other, remained faithful to Jewish law.
In all four gospels those who oppose Jesus are Jewish. In the first three gospels the conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities is presented to demonstrate that the gospel message was also resisted during the time of Jesus. The gospel of John, however, explicitly blames "the Jews" for this opposition to the good news. We recall also that Paul's arguments with the Jewish Christian leaders of the church in Jerusalem often contained attacks on "the Jews." But this negative attitude toward "the Jews," which permeates the New Testament, cannot accurately reflect the teachings and spirit of the Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever criticisms Jesus may have had of the Jewish leaders, he taught the good news as a Jew who knew the scriptures of the Jews and had an intimate personal relationship with the God of the Jews. Moreover, although the gospels tell us that Jewish leaders conspired to put him to death, he was crucified by Roman authorities and not by Jews.
The gospel narratives relate that Jews opposed and persecuted Jesus, because the authors of these gospels know that Jews opposed and persecuted Paul and others who proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah (Christ). The gospel accounts blame Jews rather than Romans for the death of Jesus, because the authors of the gospels do not want to endanger the growth of the church in the Greek-speaking cities of the Roman Empire by presenting their movement as a challenge to imperial authority. But the Romans crucified Jesus because they saw him as a rebellious Jew, not because he was preaching a gospel to the Gentiles. His gospel was a threat to the cozy accommodation between Jewish leaders and Roman authorities that denied the justice and faithfulness to God called for by the prophets of ancient Israel and the Jewish radicals of the first century.