John 9-12

When Jesus heals a blind man, the disciples ask why the man was born blind. "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" The question reminds us that in the time of Jesus illness and physical disability were understood as a divine judgment. This makes his healing ministry also a matter of forgiving sins. But in response to this question Jesus answers, "he was born blind so that God's power might be displayed in curing him." Jesus does not deny that illness is a result of sin, and earlier in the narrative he told the crippled man he healed not to sin again. Yet, instead of explaining the relationship between illness and sin, Jesus points to himself. "While I am in the world," he proclaims, "I am the light of the world." Moreover, Jesus says, "While daylight lasts we must carry on the work of him who sent me." This seems to express the message of the gospel author to his community of believers.

Then Jesus spits and makes a paste with his saliva, spreads it on the man's eyes, and tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam. When the man washes and returns, he is able to see. Not surprisingly, it is again a sabbath day. Therefore, the Pharisees interrogate the man who can see and when they learn that Jesus has healed on the sabbath, they conclude that Jesus cannot be from God because he violates Jewish law. To verify that the man was actually blind at birth, "the Jews" summon his parents and question them. But the parents tell them to ask their son, who is of age. The author of the gospel of John explains that they were afraid of "the Jews," because the Jewish authorities had threatened to banish anyone from the synagogue who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah.

This is perhaps the key to understanding the context in which the gospel was written. The author is addressing Jews who acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and for that reason are being banished from their synagogue. The gospel is written to defend their claim and to judge those who condemn them. The author believes that all Jews ought to accept Jesus as their savior, but he knows that some have already rejected Jesus. These are the "former disciples" who drew away. In the gospel of John, although all the parties to the dispute are Jewish, the author describes those who reject the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah as "the Jews." The author of the fourth gospel could not know that his words would be used centuries later by Christians to justify persecuting and killing Jews.

When the blind man's parents refuse to speak to the Pharisees, they summon the man again. They claim Jesus is a sinner, but the man says he cannot say anything about that. "All I know is this," he replies. "I was blind and now I can see." When those interrogating him become abusive, the man who was blind argues that a sinner could not have given him sight. But they reject his testimony, now using his blindness against him to claim he "was born and bred in sin." When Jesus again meets the man born blind he asks, "Have you faith in the Son of Man?" The man responds as "the Jews" and we are encouraged by the story to respond. "Tell me who he is," he says, "that I may put my faith in him." Then Jesus says he is the Son of Man, and the man falls on his knees before him saying, "Lord, I believe (meaning I put my trust in you)."

The Jesus of the gospel of John now asserts, "It is for judgment that I have come into this world —  to give sight to the sightless and to make blind those who see." When some Pharisees accuse Jesus of slandering them, by saying they are blind, Jesus answers: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty, but because you claim to see, your guilt remains."

Now Jesus uses the image of a shepherd who tends his flock and admits them through the door of the sheepfold. Anyone entering the sheepfold without going through the door, he says, is a thief and a robber. When the people claim not to understand, Jesus says, "I am the door of the sheepfold." Jesus decides who will go in and out. "I am the good shepherd," he proclaims. "I know my own and my own know me." Jesus says he will lead his sheep like a shepherd leads his flock. "The Father loves me because I lay down my life, to receive it back again. No one takes it away from me; I am laying it down of my own free will." The author of the gospel of John notes that these words "once again caused a division among the Jews."

Now the gospel says Jesus is walking in the temple at the time of the festival of the Dedication (Hanukkah, the festival of Lights). In the gospel of John, it seems, Jesus does all his teaching in Jerusalem on the occasions of Jewish festivals. Once again, "the Jews" gather around him and ask that he tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds that he has already told them, but they do not have faith. His credentials are the deeds done "in my Father's name." His sheep listen to his voice, and he gives them eternal life because, "The Father and I are one."

Again "the Jews" pick up stones and threaten to stone him, but Jesus asks why they would do that to someone who has simply done a good deed. They accuse him of blasphemy, however, because he has claimed to be God. Jesus then quotes Psalm 82:6, which says, "You are gods." And Jesus asserts that scripture cannot be set aside. "If my deeds are not the deeds of my Father, do not believe me," he argues. "But if they are, then even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may recognize and know that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." This further provokes them, but once more he escapes from them.

The quote from Psalm 82 will strike us as strange, because of the plural "gods." In the psalm God takes his place in the "court of heaven to pronounce judgment among the gods." At the end of the psalm God tells the gods that, although they are all "sons of the Most High," they will "die as mortals die," because of their wickedness. The psalm comes from a time before there was strict monotheism, when the God of Israel was understood as ruling over a pantheon of lesser gods. It might be persuasive to a Gentile or Greek educated Jew in the time of the author of the gospel, but it would hardly help counter the argument that the claim by Jesus to be the Son of God is blasphemy.

Now Jesus withdraws across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing, and there the crowds come to him. The author of the gospel of John says the people felt John the Baptist had not given them a "miraculous sign," but that John had correctly prophesied about Jesus coming after him. Therefore, the gospel reports, "many came to believe in him [Jesus] there."

Chapter 11 begins with the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The gospel identifies him as the brother of Mary and Martha, and tell us that Mary was the woman "who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair." (This event, however, will not be related in the gospel until chapter 12.) The sisters send a message to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, but Jesus says that this illness will not end in death but in the revelation of God's glory. Jesus remains across the Jordan for two more days, before returning to Judaea. His disciples warn him against returning, as only a few days before "the Jews" sought to stone him there. But Jesus tells his disciples his time has not yet come, and that he needs to go back because Lazarus is dead. "I am glad for your sake I was not there," he says, "for it will lead you to believe.” 

Then Thomas, who is also called "the Twin," says to the other disciples, "Let us also go and die with him." Thomas is named as one of the twelve disciples in the first three gospels, but only the author of the fourth gospel has him speak. This is the first time we hear his name in the gospel of John.

When they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Martha leaves Mary at home and greets Jesus as he approaches. "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died," she says. And then she adds, "Even now I know that God will grant you whatever you ask of him." When Jesus replies, "Your brother will rise again," Martha seems to think Jesus is talking about the "resurrection on the last day." But then Jesus teaches: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and no one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die."

Now Jesus questions Martha. "Do you believe this?" he says. "I do, Lord," she answers. "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who was to come into the world." Then Martha calls Mary, who comes to Jesus and repeats what Martha said when she met Jesus. The gospel now reports that, "When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping," he also broke down and wept. Then "the Jews said, 'How dearly he must have loved him!'" But "some of them" complained that he might have done something to keep Lazarus from dying.

When they arrive at the tomb, Jesus orders that the stone be removed from the cave where Lazarus is buried. Martha protests that there will be bad odor, but Jesus answers, "Did I not tell you that if you have faith you will see the glory of God?" Now Jesus prays: "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me, but I have spoken for the sake of the people standing round, that they may believe it was you who sent me." Then he commands, "Lazarus, come out." When the dead man comes out of the cave, wrapped in his burial clothes, Jesus tells the people to unbind him and let him go.

This wondrous story is not recorded in any other gospel. It is artfully written and serves to prepare the reader for the resurrection of Jesus. It also gives Martha and Mary a prominent role in the account of the ministry of Jesus. Earlier Mary was attentive to the teaching of Jesus. Now Martha confesses her faith in him. Within the gospel of John the story also confirms the teaching of Jesus that on earth he represents the Father. In addition, it demonstrates again to the followers of Jesus that, if they have faith, nothing will separate them, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, "from the love of God in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 8:35-39)

The commentary that follows the story reveals that "the Jews" are divided. The author of the gospel of John reports that, "many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him." And yet, "some of them went off to the Pharisees and reported what he had done." In the gospel of John all those who follow Jesus and all those who oppose him are Jews. It is misleading, therefore, to think that Christians followed Jesus and Jews resisted him.

Now we read that "the chief priests and the Pharisees" convene a meeting to decide what to do about Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest that year, argues it is better "that one man should die for the people, than that the whole nation should be destroyed." The author of the gospel interprets this as a prophecy about Jesus, who is to die not only for the nation, "but to gather together the scattered children of God." Because they began to plot his death, Jesus no longer goes about "openly among the Jews" but stays in a town near the desert with his disciples.

Six days before the Passover Jesus again visits the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary pours costly perfume on the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair, but this incenses Judas Iscariot because of the waste. The story in the gospel of John has elements of the stories in the other three gospels, but differs as well. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, an unnamed woman pours oil on the head of Jesus, the disciples complain about the waste, and Jesus says she will be remembered for preparing him for his burial. In the gospel of Luke an unnamed woman pours oil over the feet of Jesus, and he uses her act to shame his Pharisee host and demonstrate that those with faith will have their sins forgiven. In the gospel of John the story makes the same point as in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, but now the woman is named as Mary of Bethany and she pours the oil on the feet of Jesus and not on his head. Because a large crowd of "the Jews" came to see him in Bethany, and to see Lazarus, the chief priests resolve to do away with both men, as "many Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him."

The next day Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, as crowds greet him with shouts of "Blessed is the king of Israel!" The author tells us that this is to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, but apparently the disciples of Jesus do not understand it until after his resurrection. We recall, however, that the disciples also greeted Jesus with praise as he entered Jerusalem in the gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke. All this adulation, of course, infuriates the Pharisees.

The gospel of John also adds to the story that Gentiles were among those "who went up to worship at the festival." They ask Philip if they might see Jesus, but when Philip and Andrew bring the request to Jesus, he begins teaching the crowd around him. "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," Jesus says. We have heard this theme in each of the gospels, but it is repeated most often in the gospel of John. Then, to refer to what is to come, Jesus uses the image of a grain of wheat being planted and dying for the sake of a rich harvest. Jesus asserts, "Whoever loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life." And he tells the crowd, "Whoever serves me will be honored by the Father."

When Jesus praises God by saying, "Father, glorify your name," he hears a voice from heaven say, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The people think they have heard thunder or an angel speaking to him, but Jesus tells them the voice spoke for their sake. It is the "hour of judgment," he says, but he promises that when he is "lifted up from the earth," he will draw everyone to him. Then the people answer, "Our law teaches us that the Messiah remains for ever. What do you mean by saying that the Son of Man must be lifted up?" Jesus replies by telling them, "Trust to the light while you have it, so that you may become children of light."

Now, the gospel tells us, Jesus "went away from them into hiding." But the author explains that, despite the many signs of Jesus, the people do not believe in him because the prophecy of Isaiah has to be fulfilled. Therefore, the gospel of John quotes from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:9-10 to show that the prophet foresaw the glory of Jesus. And the author of the gospel adds that "even among those in authority many believed in him, but would not acknowledge him on account of the Pharisees, for fear of being banned from the synagogue." Here we see clearly the problem facing the author's community of believers.

The author of the gospel says his community affirms that faith in Jesus is faith in the Father who sent him. "I do not speak on my own authority," Jesus asserts in the gospel of John, "but the Father who sent me has himself commanded me what to say and how to speak." This is the crux of the argument in the Jewish community of the author of the gospel of John. The Jews are divided over the authority of Jesus. The community of the author believes Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of Man, but the Pharisees reject this claim. © Robert Traer 2016