As John begins to recount Jesus' ministry, he emphasizes Jesus' deeds. There is mention of Jesus' teaching (4:41), but apart from private discourses (3:10-15; 4:7-26) John does not relate the public teaching until 5:19. The significance of this early activity is made clear by Jesus' statement that "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working" (5:17).
These stories form a coherent section, as the link between 2:11 and 4:54 indicates. A common theme in 2:1--4:42 (cf. Dodd 1953:297) is the replacement of the old with the new: wine in place of water (2:1-11), a new temple (2:14-19), a new birth (3:1-21), a new well of water (4:7-15) and new worship (4:16-26). Thus, these stories reveal the fulfillment that has come in Jesus, providing grace upon grace (cf. 1:16).
As we progress through these stories we see the glory of God, which is his grace (cf. 1:14), shining ever more brightly. It shines first in kosher Jewish settings, both in the Galilean countryside (2:1-11) and in Jerusalem (2:12--3:21). At the end of this kosher section, John the Baptist returns to the stage to bear witness, setting his seal to what has been revealed (3:22-36). Then the glory shines among various despised people who are less than kosher, including a Samaritan adulteress and a Herodian official (4:1-54).
In the transitional section that follows, grace is given to one who betrays Jesus (5:1-15), bringing to a climax this opening series of stories and initiating the conflict that follows. As God's scandalous grace is offered not just to the kosher but to the unkosher, the glory is revealed with increasing intensity until it provokes a reaction (5:16-18). At this point Jesus delivers his keynote address (5:19-30), provides a list of witnesses to the truth of what he is saying (5:31-40) and adds his own accusation against his opponents (5:41-47). Thus chapter 5 brings to a head the opening revelation of the glory and introduces the conflict that will then dominate the story.
A wedding is said to take place in Cana on the third day (2:1), a note that connects this story with those in 1:19-51. Many see this initial period as a seven-day cycle symbolizing the dawn of the new creation, though this idea is not made clear in the text itself (Schnackenburg 1980a:297, 325). In fact, even the pattern of a week is not clear (Robinson 1985:163). Be that as it may, it seems John loosely connects these events together primarily because they prepare for the revelation of the glory and then begin that revelation.
John says the mother of Jesus was there at the wedding and that Jesus and his disciples were also invited (eklethe de kai), perhaps implying that they got into town at the last minute and were invited to come along. Their unexpected presence at the wedding may account for the wine shortage. Since guests were to provide some of the wine (cf. Derrett 1970:232-34), it is also possible that the supply ran out because Jesus did not contribute, either because of his last minute arrival or because of his poverty.
When the wine runs out Jesus' mother says, They have no more wine (2:3). There are significant similarities between her statement and the way the first disciples relate to Jesus. The first two disciples took the initiative in following Jesus (1:37), and now his mother takes the initiative in speaking to him. The response of the first two disciples allowed Jesus to set the agenda (1:38), and so also his mother's statement does not dictate what he is to do about the problem that has arisen. The request that Jesus do something about the wine shortage is clear, but implicit. The implication is that she believes he is able to do something about it, but whether he will do something, and what it will be, her statement leaves open for him to decide.
Jesus' response to his mother is also similar to his way of relating to the first disciples. He responds to her with a cryptic saying that tests her: "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come" (2:4). The phrase why do you involve me? is literally "what [is there] to me and to you?" It occurs a number of times in the Septuagint (Judg 11:12; 2 Sam 16:10; 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Chron 35:21) as well as in the New Testament (Mt 8:29; Mk 1:24; 5:7; Lk 8:28). An enormous amount of ink has been spilt trying to guard against the implication that Jesus is saying something uncomplimentary to his mother. Even the NIV's dear woman instead of simply woman (gynai) indicates such a concern. The word woman does not necessarily connote coldness, but the idiom "what [is there] to me and to you?" does express either a harsh rejection or a mild form of detachment, depending on the context. Here it expresses distance but not disdain. It is part of the larger theme that Jesus is guided by his heavenly Father and not by the agenda of any human beings, even his family (cf. Jn 7:1-10; Mk 3:33-35; Lk 2:49).
Here in Cana this aloofness is followed by an enigmatic statement concerning his time, literally, "hour" (hora). This hour is a reference to his death and the events that follow (Jn 13:1; 17:1). It will be mentioned a number of times in the story, but no one is able to comprehend what he is talking about. Not surprisingly, then, this first mention of Jesus' "hour" is quite unintelligible to his mother. It is an entirely cryptic saying and, as with the other cryptic sayings in John, it reveals everything and nothing. Those who know the whole story realize Jesus is saying all of his ministry, even his signs in Galilee, are to be understood as done under the shadow of the cross, resurrection and ascension.
But his mother grasps none of this. She responds by turning to the servants and saying, Do whatever he tells you (2:5; cf. Gen 41:55). That is, in the face of Jesus' thoroughly enigmatic statement she leaves the initiative entirely with him. His saying has gone over her head. It sounds like it is slightly, or even completely, negative, but since she does not know what this "hour" is she cannot really be sure of what he means. So she continues her request for him to do something about the problem, but she does so in a way that leaves him entirely free to respond as he will. So a key element in Jesus' mother's character, as in that of the first disciples, is her leaving of the initiative with Jesus. In this openness to Jesus' will, we see her humility.
This picture of the mother of Jesus is very similar to that which shines through in the Synoptic accounts, especially in the Lukan infancy narratives (Lk 1--2). Mary's response to the annunciation, "May it be to me as you have said" (Lk 1:38), and the spirituality of the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) express this same docility before God. She is entirely Godward. She is poor in spirit and thus has entered the door of the kingdom of God described in the beatitudes (Mt 5:3). It is as true now spiritually as it was true for her physically that a person with such a disposition is the one to whom God comes and implants his seed and begets divine life (cf. 1 Jn 3:9). All generations are to call her blessed (Lk 1:48) because of the ineffable honor God has bestowed upon her: she was chosen from among all women to carry in her womb the Word that became flesh. She bore in her body for nine months the one who bears the universe in his hands. It is not without reason that Mary has held such an important place in Christian thought and life, both as the one who bore God the Son and as a model of someone who lived a truly Christian life. It is a great tragedy that she has become a figure of controversy within Christendom.
While this story provides a powerful picture of true discipleship, the main point is that it reveals Jesus' glory (2:11). It does this in part by revealing something of Jesus' identity through associations with the Old Testament. Such a miracle might suggest, for example, the deeds of Elijah (1 Kings 17:7-16) or Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-7). More specifically, the promised time of restoration is expressed in the imagery of marriage (Is 54:4-8; 62:4-5) and of an abundance of wine (Is 25:6; Jer 31:12; Amos 9:13-14; 1 Enoch 10:19; 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 29:5). Indeed, in Hosea these images appear together (Hos 2:14-23). Thus, through both the supernatural power of the miracle and the imagery associated with it the disciples' confessions of Jesus in the first chapter are confirmed. Here indeed is the one they have been waiting for. He himself is the good wine that has been kept back until now.
The glory is also evident in the graciousness of this event, as the prologue has prepared us to notice (1:14). In response to a humble request Jesus provides wine in abundance, over 100 gallons. Here is a free, full, extravagant outpouring, and it is precisely the Son of God's gratuitous, gracious generosity that is the glory revealed in this sign. Throughout the Gospel the signs will provide windows into the ultimate realities at work in Jesus' revelation of God's glory, in deed as well as word (cf. Morris 1989:1-42).
In response to this sign it is said that his disciples put their faith in him (2:11). For John this means that they see what Jesus is doing and understand it, however dimly, in the context of God's revelation of himself in the Old Testament. They see in Jesus the very acts of power and graciousness that are like his Father's. Their understanding is very limited, but they see something of the Father in the Son and accept him as one come from God and align themselves with him. This effect of this sign on the disciples is in contrast to the experience of those who most directly reap the benefits--the master of the banquet and the bridegroom. Jesus keeps a very low profile throughout the story with the result that only the servants realize what has happened. How often something similar happens in our lives! God's grace constantly surrounds us; his love is constantly active in our lives. Yet often we fail to discern his love, seeing only the hands of those who give us the wine and not realizing where it comes from and the grace it represents.
After the wedding Jesus, along with his family and his disciples, goes to Capernaum (2:12), a distance of about 18 miles as the crow flies. During his ministry Capernaum is his home town, the family perhaps having moved there after the death of Joseph (Robinson 1985:121). After being at home a short while Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. John mentions three or four Passovers during Jesus' ministry (2:13; 6:4; 11:55; perhaps 5:1), which provides the main basis for the assumption that Jesus' ministry lasted roughly three years (see comment on 8:57). At this Passover Jesus performs a sign that points to his death and reveals his replacement of the temple, thereby implying the fulfillment of the redemption of God that Passover itself represents. In the context of Passover in chapter 6 Jesus teaches about the significance of his death at great length. And then at the third Passover (chapter 11) he accomplishes his work and dies as the true Passover lamb. Thus the whole of Jesus' ministry occurs in the framework of Passover and has the effect of replacing the Passover and all associated with it (cf. 1:16-17). Accordingly, this is a Jewish feast (2:13); that is, it is now "abandoned by the Evangelist and his readers" (Ridderbos 1997:114) because Jesus himself, rather than the temple and its feasts, has become the new focal point.
The confrontation in the temple (2:13-16) culminates in Jesus' words: Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market! (v. 16). Jesus' authority and his identity are revealed in this statement. As the Synoptics tell the story, Jesus quotes Scripture at this point, combining Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11: "It is written," he said to them, "`My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a `den of robbers'" (Mt 21:13, with slight differences in Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46). Jesus is obviously exercising some sort of authority in the Synoptics, but perhaps this sense of authority is heightened in John since Jesus speaks in his own words. This authority is based on his identity. Instead of contrasting God's house of prayer with a den of robbers, as in the Synoptics, he contrasts my Father's house with a market. Here is the first use outside the prologue of the term Father, the single most important designation for God in Johannine literature. Equally significant is the implication that Jesus is God's Son: he refers to my Father's house. Jesus' provocative act is based on his relation to God as his Son.
While John helps us see Jesus' identity revealed in this event he also indicates that the original participants did not have such insight. Indeed, the emphasis in John is as much on the response to this action as it is on Jesus' own statement (v. 16). John begins with the response of the disciples. It seems that right in the midst of the event the disciples recall a verse of Scripture (v. 17). This verse has the potential for putting this rather enigmatic action of Jesus in its proper interpretive frame. Psalm 69:9 is spoken by the Righteous One who is persecuted by those who hate God. This text connects Jesus' activity to a certain strand of Old Testament thought that plays a very important role in this Gospel, especially in relation to Jesus' death (cf. comments on 19:24, 36). As we will see, this particular text has the potential for revealing a great deal more about Jesus, but the disciples do not grasp this at the time.
In the case of the opponents, Jesus' action is met with a question (v. 18) instead of with an Old Testament text that places Jesus' action in the light of Scripture, however vaguely. Their request for a sign is not hostile; indeed they appear genuinely open to the possibility that Jesus might be able to defend his audacious activity (cf. 3:2). Presumably if a text of Scripture that placed Jesus in relation to some feature of the scriptural tradition had occurred to them, as it had to the disciples, they would not have needed to ask such a question. Furthermore, Jesus has already given them the answer to their question; it is his identity as Son that authorizes his action. But it will become increasingly clear that the opponents do not understand Scripture because they cannot see Jesus' relation to it (5:39), which is due, in turn, to their inability to grasp his identity as Son of the Father (for example, 8:19, 27, 42, 54-55).
To their request for a sign Jesus responds with another of his cryptic sayings that reveal everything and nothing (v. 19). This enigma about destroying the temple tests their hearts. There is no way anyone could have understood this saying at the outset of Jesus' ministry. They respond with an incredulous question (v. 20). Nathanael also had heard something he considered unlikely, if not impossible, but he reserved final judgment, he came and saw, and he ended by confessing Jesus (1:45-49). These Jewish leaders, on the other hand, seem able only to question. In contrast to the disciples they jump to conclusions; they cannot be silent and wait. So the opponents are left with their questions, while the disciples have a vague but substantial hint at the fact that Jesus' action can be seen in the light of Scripture.
This is the last we hear of the Jewish leaders in this scene. John returns to the disciples, and something of the significance of their remembering the text of Scripture now becomes apparent. John first interprets Jesus' cryptic saying about the temple (v. 21). By associating his own body with the temple, which is his Father's house, Jesus again points to his own special relationship with God and his replacement of the revelation in Judaism (cf. comments on 1:16-17). The vision Jacob had of the house of God (Gen 28:17) is here fulfilled in Jesus (cf. 1:51; 10:7). Thus, in both his first statement (2:16) and his cryptic reply (2:19) he does give the leaders an answer to their question. Here the Son is offering revelation to these questioners, and in this offering itself we see the glory of God's gracious love. But there is really no way the opponents could have understood what he meant by destroy this temple. Even the disciples did not understand it until after the event (2:22).
The later recollection (v. 22) refers to more than what we usually mean by "remembering." In John, to remember something means to recall it and to understand it (cf. Mussner 1967). The NIV brings out this nuance in a related passage, when after the climactic entrance into Jerusalem it is said, "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize [emnesthesan, literally, "remember"] that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him (12:16). Here John is showing us how the Scripture was used after the "glorification" (John's language for Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension) to make sense out of events in Jesus' life. Later he will refer to the agent of this interpretive process, the Spirit (14:26), who is given after the glorification (7:39). What emerges, then, is that after Jesus' glorification the disciples are able, by the presence of the Spirit, to recall Jesus' actions and words and to interpret them in the light of Scripture. This insight arising from a connection between the Scripture and Jesus' words and actions seems to be what is meant by they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (2:22). The old and the new revelation function together, under the influence of the Spirit, to interpret Jesus, the fulfillment of the old.
The use of Scripture here is not a simple rational process of lining up texts to get an answer to Jesus' puzzling action. Something more subtle is involved, something requiring the aid of the Spirit. It is also more complex, for John implies a process of several stages. First there is the recall of Scripture during the event (v. 17), which indicates in some vague way the significance of this activity. Then comes the postglorification faith in the Scripture (v. 22). Psalm 69 seems related to the event in two different ways through the double meaning of consume (kataphagetai). In the midst of Jesus' action the disciples could have understood this text as referring to the extent of his zeal. But after Jesus' death they would have understood this same verse in a different way--as referring to his death itself.
Such an application of the Old Testament is typical of the way it is used in the New Testament generally as well as in the church throughout its history: Christ is the key to understanding the Old Testament. Verses that were never taken as messianic stand out now that Jesus has come on the scene. The events, institutions and characters of the Old Testament reveal patterns that are found repeated in Jesus and in the experience of believers. Such interpretation remains valid and valuable today.
Jesus' death is the central topic in this passage for it is the deeper meaning of both the Scripture (v. 17) and the saying concerning the destruction of the temple of Jesus' body (v. 19). In this one image of the temple Jesus' sonship and his death are set side by side. The center of John's thought is his theology, that is, the revelation of God, and the center of his theology is God's love. God is love, and love is the laying down of one's life (3:16; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:8). Thus, it is precisely in the incarnate Son's death that God himself is revealed. The death of the Son of God in Jerusalem at the instigation of these Jewish opponents during a later Passover is already referred to here in the opponent's first provocation at this earlier Passover in Jerusalem. By including this event at the outset of the story and bringing out the themes we have noted, John shows the glory of the cross shining through Jesus' life from the start. The divine gracious love is crucial to Jesus' life, and it is at the heart of this story, both in the reference to his death and in his gracious teaching of those who will become his opponents.
Jesus' identity as the Father's Son and the centrality of his death are revealed in this story, and we begin to see how upsetting these truths are. At this point the confrontation is all on Jesus' part. What are we to make of a Jesus who responds to honest, open questions with cryptic words and deeds? Jesus is indeed compassionate, but there is always a wildness, an otherness, about him. Perhaps most Christians have experienced the upheaval that results when he confronts elements of shallow religion in their lives. Out of love he will use extraordinary means to break through our hardness of heart so that we might realize our need and come to him for life. The disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing, but they stuck with him and were open despite their questions; the Jewish leaders had only their questions. Spiritual growth demands questions. It is evident from this story that God wants us to have questions--we see his Son here, and throughout the story, raising one question after another through his words and deeds. The answer to all of these questions is found in the heart of God himself as Jesus reveals him. All of our language is but a pointer to the reality of God himself. John is writing not so we might understand all mysteries but so we might have life in his name (20:31).
Jesus' reason for not entrusting himself to these people goes deeper still. The events in Cana made it clear that Jesus only takes his cues from his Father. In this sense Jesus does not entrust himself to anyone. He is present to all with God's love, but he is also detached from all in his attachment to God. Jesus' inner disposition is not shared by these believers. What he sees in them stands in contrast to what he found in Nathanael, for in him he saw nothing false (1:47). Nathanael heard something that seemed questionable, but he came and began to see more deeply. These people see something attractive and remain on that level, thereby missing the whole point. That which is in them is not trustworthy because it is not open to God, as is made clear in the story of Nicodemus that follows.
Nicodemus is one of these who have an untrustworthy faith. John signals this connection by his repetition of the word man (2:25; 3:1) and by the fact that Nicodemus's assessment of Jesus is based on the signs he had seen (3:2; cf. 2:23). Later in the story we find him defending Jesus among his fellow Pharisees (7:50-52) and assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus (19:38-42). He will end the story as a disciple, but here at the beginning he is something less.
He comes to Jesus under cover of night and makes a grand statement of faith (3:2). He is identified with the Pharisees, so we understand that when he says we know, his assessment of Jesus is more than his own private opinion. This makes it clear that there is not yet a settled opposition to Jesus, though his coming by night suggests, as we would expect, that not all share his positive view of Jesus after what took place in the temple. Within the group at the heart of the opposition to Jesus in this Gospel, there is at least one who is attracted to him. This shows that John, despite his strongly dualistic language, recognizes the grayness of life. Only Jesus and the devil are absolutes; all other characters are in motion either toward the light or away from it.
In response to Nicodemus' profession of faith Jesus once again expresses a cryptic saying that tests the heart (3:3; cf. 1:49-51). How uncomfortable it must have been to be around Jesus! He has been approached as a spiritual master, and he responds as one. He has been recognized as a teacher who has come from God (v. 2), and he responds by speaking of the kingdom of God (v. 3). Nicodemus may think he is talking to a rabbi, but in fact Jesus is the King of Israel (1:49). The kingdom of God is his own kingdom, but it is not of this world (18:36). One must be born from above even to see it (v. 3), let alone enter it (v. 5).
Thus, in his response to Nicodemus, Jesus is giving Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize who it is that stands before him. But Nicodemus gets confused. When Jesus says one must be born from above (anothen), Nicodemus takes it as being born again (cf. NIV text and note). Jesus is speaking of the spiritual realm, but Nicodemus thinks he is referring to the physical. Such a mistake need not be an absolute barrier to understanding Jesus. The Samaritan woman will have the same problem, and yet Jesus will use her misunderstandings to reveal himself to her (4:1-26). But Nicodemus is unable to pick up on the additional clues Jesus gives.
Jesus explains being born from above in terms of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5). The water of baptism and the coming of the Spirit have already been associated in this Gospel (1:31-33), and cleansing by water and new life from the Spirit were already associated with one another in the Old Testament, especially in Ezekiel 36:25-28:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
What follows in Ezekiel is the vision of the valley of dry bones in which the Spirit's restoration of the people is described as bringing the dead to life (chap. 37). What is needed is a new heart and a new life; that is, the Spirit must give birth to spirit (Jn 3:7). Only those alive in the realm of the spirit by the Spirit will be able to recognize and enter that realm.
The fundamental point is God's initiative in bringing spiritual life, which is reinforced by an illustration from nature (3:8). One can see the effects of the presence of the wind, but one cannot see the wind itself nor map out where it comes from nor where it goes (at least before modern technology). So also in the spiritual realm people can see the effects (cf. 3:2), but they cannot map out nor control the activity of the Spirit. It is God alone who initiates and produces this birth from above (cf. 1:13). Thus, once again we are back to the theme of God's grace, for this begetting is an act of sovereign gracious love initiated by God, not by us.
The image of begetting is not very common in the Old Testament (cf. Brown 1966:138-39), though there are texts that link the metaphor of childbirth with God's new life for his people (for example, Is 26:17-19; 66:7-14; Hos 13:13-14). But this fundamental point of the divine initiative of God's grace is central to Old Testament religion. No wonder Jesus reproves Nicodemus' obtuseness (3:10). A teacher of Israel should have recognized such a vital theme, especially as it is conveyed so clearly in imagery from Ezekiel. Instead, we leave Nicodemus stammering his question, How? His problem, as Jesus points out, is precisely one of receptivity (3:11). Although it was acceptable for a student to question his rabbi (cf. note on 2:20), if Nicodemus really believes that God is with Jesus, then he should receive what Jesus says. But he does not, and thereby his heart is revealed. The signs have shown him that Jesus has come from God, yet he does not receive Jesus' teaching as teaching come from God.
As Nicodemus fades from view we have Jesus' first monologue. He begins by referring to his testimony: I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony (3:11). These words echo what the Johannine Christians say to their Jewish opponents in John's own day. The striking use of I and we seems to be an example of the voice of the risen Christ speaking as the head of the community of those who have received the Spirit and bear witness (cf. 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11). The we know of a ruler of the Jews (3:2) is countered by the we know of the Lord of the Christians.
Jesus distinguishes teaching about earthly things from teaching about heavenly things (3:12). It seems strange to call the topics of divine begetting and entrance into the kingdom of God earthly! But they are earthly in the sense that they refer to the effects of divine activity here on earth. He immediately goes on to speak of the heavenly things, that is, the heavenly source behind this divine activity on earth. These heavenly things have to do with Jesus himself as the Son of Man who came from heaven (3:13). In the Synoptics Son of Man is used of Jesus as a human being on earth, as the future judge and as the one coming in glory. In John, Jesus is indeed on earth and is certainly human (1:14); but the future has entered the present, and already on earth judgment takes place through the presence and revelation of the Son of Man. Already he is glorified, though it is on the cross. Therefore the Son of Man sayings in John refer to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:529-42; Moloney 1978; Lindars 1983:145-57). The term itself obviously speaks of a human, perhaps even of a representative human (cf. Pamment 1985), yet because the Son of Man comes from heaven and exercises divine prerogatives (cf. comment on 5:27) he also shares in divinity. Thus the term is a complex one, speaking to Jesus' deity and his humanity (cf. Marshall 1992:780-81).
Jesus' strong denial that anyone else has ascended into heaven (3:13) has in mind the claims of the Jewish mystics (cf. Odeberg 1968:72-98), in particular the traditions concerning Moses' ascension (cf. Borgen 1968; Meeks 1967). Moses did not ascend into heaven; he only lifted up the serpent, which was a figure of Christ (3:14). Moses is indeed a source of revelation, but he is so through his witness to Jesus (cf. 5:39, 45-47). Thus, John does not simply reject the claims of the Jewish mystics; he also shows that what they were after is available in Jesus. Among those who pursued heavenly journeys some "sought to find an answer to the question of what would follow death" and "others desired the vision of God which could bring with it eternal life" (Grese 1988:688). In our passage, as well as throughout the Gospel, John is speaking to these desires (see comments on 1:18; 6:46; 14:8-10).
When Jesus says the Son of Man must be lifted up (3:14) he means it is God who lifts him up, since must (dei) often refers to God's plan (cf. Grundmann 1964:22-24), and be lifted (hypsothenai) is an example of a passive verb used to refer to God's action, a common form of expression in the New Testament. In this way Moses has a role analogous to that which God plays, but the older revelation is now fulfilled in Jesus (cf. 6:32).
The lifting up of the Son of Man points us to the center of his revelation, the cross. The cross itself is a heavenly thing for it reveals the life of heaven that Jesus has come to offer us (3:15). Since God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and love is the laying down of one's life (1 Jn 3:16), it is precisely in the cross that we see God most clearly. Jesus humbles himself to the point of crucifixion because he is God, not despite it (cf. Phil 2:6, reading hyparchon as causal). That God is love is the good news--this revelation is the gospel.
The heart of John's message is summed up in the justly famous sixteenth verse, which declares that the Son of Man's coming down from heaven and being lifted on the cross is the activity of God himself, of his gracious love, the love that gives. As Jesus will declare clearly at the end of his teaching, summing up his revelation, "the Father himself loves you" (16:27).
Thus in these verses we hear of the agent from heaven and the act whereby he reveals the reality of heaven, the heart of the Father. To believe that Jesus is the Son of Man from heaven and that his revelation of God is true gives one eternal life, that is, a share in God's own life (3:15). This message is clear enough to John's readers, including us, but within the story verses 13-15 contain a very cryptic message that, Jesus says, Nicodemus and those like him (the you in vv. 11-12 is plural) cannot receive.
With verse 16 we have not only the core of the revelation but also the beginning of a commentary on the different responses to this revelation. Since Greek does not use quotation marks it is sometimes unclear, as it is here, where a quotation ends (see NIV note to v. 21). This section reads like a commentary on what precedes it, but as there is no indication of a change of speaker, it could be either Jesus or the Evangelist. Since the voice of the earthly Jesus and the voice of the risen Jesus through John are so interwoven in this book, there is no great difference between putting the quotation mark at verse 15 or verse 21. However, a similar commentary occurs in 3:31-36, and there it is likely that we have the Evangelist (see comment on 3:31). Accordingly, it may be likely that here also John is stepping back to summarize and reflect on what has just been narrated.
God's purpose is clearly stated: not condemnation but salvation for the whole world (vv. 16-17). Jesus has come not just for the Jews or the elect, but for the world. He has come not to save some and to condemn others, but solely for salvation. Nevertheless, condemnation does take place--not through God's rejection of some, but by their rejection of him (v. 18). Judgment is a matter of what people do with the light, as Jesus emphasizes at the end of the first half of the Gospel (12:46-48). One's response to Jesus is one's judgment because Jesus is the revelation of God himself (12:49-50).
Why is it that some come to the light and some do not? John does not unravel this mystery entirely, but verses 19-21 shed some light. At first glance this passage seems to say that one's response to the light is determined by one's moral behavior prior to encountering the light. This cannot be correct, however, since John describes people living immoral lifestyles, such as the Samaritan woman, who come to the light. The key is in the terms be exposed (elencho, v. 20) and be seen plainly (phaneroo, v. 21). It is sometimes assumed that the image in verse 20 is of someone working under cover of darkness so no one will know what is taking place. That person does not come into the light lest his or her activity, which is obviously wrong, be seen. But a preferable image is of a person involved in some activity that is morally neutral or even virtuous. This person does not come to the light because it would expose that what was considered virtuous is actually evil. This latter interpretation best fits this context, and we know it was held very early because some manuscripts, including p66 (from about A.D. 200), read, "He does not come to the light lest his deeds be exposed, that they are evil" (hina me elenchthe ta erga autou hoti ponera estin).
But whoever lives by the truth (ho de poion ten aletheian, literally, "but whoever does the truth") seems to refer to specific deeds, thus suggesting moral activity and raising again the interpretation ruled out by the context. The only other use of this phrase (1 Jn 1:6) is instructive. The letter is speaking of Christians, so the Gospel's concern with coming to the light is here changed to walking in the light. But the basic meaning of the phrase is the same. In the letter, not to do the truth is equivalent to lying, in particular, to saying one has fellowship with God and yet walking in darkness. This is exactly the problem of the Jewish opponents in the Gospel. They claim to be children of God, yet they reject the Son of God; they are self-deceived and, according to Jesus, liars (8:42-47, 55). Thus "doing the truth" is not just a matter of morality--it involves not being deceived, having a right evaluation of oneself in relation to God. Truth, for John, has to do with reality, and here the issue is the reality of one's claim to have fellowship with God.
But what does it mean that a deed is evil? In 1 John an evil deed is one that is of the evil one (3:12). John seems to be working with the same idea here, for in the parallel clause (3:21) that which is seen plainly about the deeds of those who come to the light is not that they do the truth, but that their actions are done through God. Both verses indicate there is something about the deeds that is not obvious on the surface. As the true deeds are seen to have been done through God, the evil deeds are revealed as evil; that is, they are of the evil one, which is to say they have not been done through God.
This interpretation finds confirmation as the story unfolds, for what is said to this representative of the Jews is worked out further throughout the story. The problem with the Jewish opponents is their self-deception (9:39-41). They are self-satisfied, thinking they know God's ways, and they are, in fact, his children. But they only receive glory from one another, and this keeps them from believing in Jesus (5:44). When Jesus, the Son of God, comes he shows up the opponents' alienation from God. It is this alienation that the opponents cannot stand to have exposed, and so they hate this light that shows them up. Jesus reveals that their virtue is not of God but of their father the devil (8:44). The problem is at the level of their wills--what they love and hate, as our passage puts it. They claim to love God, but they have set their wills against Jesus (5:40), thereby revealing that God's love is not in their hearts (5:42) and that it is not their will to do God's will (7:17).
So the judgment that comes as the light shines reveals the terrible possibility, already recognized in Jewish thought, that even though one may be virtuous and have the Scriptures of God it is still possible to be alienated from God and closed to him. In this passage the issue is not that their deeds were morally wrong, but that these Jewish opponents hate the light, which is to say they share the character of the evil one. No matter how good their deeds may have appeared to be, these deeds separated them from God, and therefore the deeds were evil. This evil, which is the source of hatred of the light, is the pride and self-satisfaction of religious people who think they know God and yet are far from him.
This does not mean that John is a libertine who thinks morality is unimportant. In fact, in 1 John the question of believers' behavior is explicitly addressed, and there one's behavior indicates something about one's relation to God. But the emphasis in the Gospel is on the initial response to Jesus in Israel. One's response to Jesus is connected to one's openness to God, no matter how morally pure or impure one may be.
Thus we again find the antinomies of divine sovereignty and human responsibility woven together. This passage undermines the point of view held by many that everyone is a child of God and that all we have to do is get to work and then we will achieve eternal life. Instead, we learn that we lack life and do not have it within ourselves to cause our spiritual birth. We are utterly dependent on God, whose Spirit blows where he will. A second view is also clearly condemned, namely the self-satisfaction of religious folk who have made idols even out of the teachings in the Bible. This is a difficult area because we are to hold fast to what God has revealed. The point is that we must hold fast to the living God himself and realize that our understanding of him will continue to develop. In Christ we have the full and perfect revelation of God, as John insists, but that does not mean our grasp of him is perfect. We, like Paul, "see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (1 Cor 13:12) and have need of the Spirit to lead us into all truth (1 Cor 2:6-16). When Paul met the risen Christ he had to rethink things. He did so in the light of the Scriptures, for God's further revelation unfolds his earlier revelation rather than destroys it (cf. 1:16-17; Mt 5:17). Thus, we should test everything by Scripture, in keeping with the guidance the Spirit has given the church (14:26; 15:26), and expect our personal understanding of Christ to be deepened.
A third lesson is at the heart of this passage--indeed, of the whole Gospel. For here is proclaimed the incredibly good news that what we need is a birth from above by the Spirit and that it is God's desire for us to have precisely this. If we are to be saved God must take the initiative, and he has taken the initiative, for he has sent his Son. In the Son we see heaven opened and the heart of God, which is love, revealed.
Just as Jesus' first disciples came from among the ranks of the Baptist's disciples, so the first real offense taken with Jesus is on the part of the Baptist's own disciples (3:25-26). They argue with a certain Jew over ceremonial washing, literally, "purification" (katharismos, v. 25). This certain Jew seems to be simply a figure representing those who came out to the wilderness seeking purification in baptism. Since this argument causes them to go to the Baptist and complain about Jesus (v. 26), it is evident that these disciples perceive differences between their master and Jesus. They are also upset because Jesus is becoming more popular that the Baptist. This certain Jew would be one of those more attracted to Jesus, and the differences between Jesus and the Baptist must have to do with purification. One of the most obvious things about Jesus that a Jew would notice is his rejection of the various purificatory practices of the Pharisees and his nonascetical ways compared with those of the Baptist (cf. Mt 11:18-19; Lk 7:33-35). So we see the Baptist's disciples rejecting Jesus' teaching, but it is made clear that they are also rejecting their own master's instruction as well. They themselves state that he has borne witness to Jesus, but they do not accept his testimony. Like Nicodemus (3:2), the Baptist's disciples use the term "rabbi" without really meaning it. They call the Baptist their teacher but do not receive his teaching.
But we should not be too harsh with them. Perhaps they were not only envious but also confused about the differences between Jesus and their master, wondering whether Jesus was the one after all. If so, the Baptist's further witness that he now gives should set them straight. It seems strange to us that all the disciples who heard John testify to Jesus did not flock to him. But the Baptist's testimony must not have been as clear as we imagine from the Evangelist's account. A more complicated picture is also suggested by John's doubts while in prison (Mt 11:2; Lk 7:19). The Baptist continued to have a following and, indeed, it is probably part of John the Evangelist's purpose to set straight followers of the Baptist in his own day.
Jesus' success, which the Baptist's disciples complain about, is accepted by John the Baptist as evidence for his earlier testimony to Jesus (3:27-28). His statement a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (v. 27) could be a misleading criterion of truth for it seems to say all success is from God. This is true if one is taking the long view, since any success evil may appear to have is temporary. However, given the fact that evil can appear to succeed, this saying does not provide a general criterion of truth. Furthermore, the fact that evil can prevail for an extended period of time (according to our standards), the similar principle stated by Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39) is of limited help in discern-ing truth from error. Gamaliel's principle does, however, include useful advice: In the face of confusion one should sit tight and see how God shakes things down. This thought might be implied also in the Baptist's statement of divine sovereignty, in which case his disciples erred in that they leapt to conclusions, despite what their master had said.
John's disciples had, in addition to Jesus' success, the Baptist's own testimony (3:28), a combined witness that points to God's presence with Jesus. This success is linked to heaven, as was his testimony (1:32-34). The earlier testimony expressed clearly the sovereign initiative. Now the Baptist's statement about the gift from heaven (3:27) is also a powerful expression of divine sovereignty, a theme of great importance in this Gospel and in this chapter in particular (3:3-8, 16-18). All of life is gift, all is of grace. This key Johannine theme is here echoed by the Baptist as he testifies to Jesus once again, now in the light of Jesus' ministry.
Unlike his disciples the Baptist is filled with joy, the joy of a best man at a wedding. The friend of the bridegroom was to wait outside the bridal chamber for the groom's indication that the marriage had been consummated in sexual intercourse. "The Talmud evidences an indelicate, but probably ancient, custom whereby the bridegroom would signify a successful attempt at intercourse by pronouncing the Shema (`Hear, O Israel . . . !')" (Derrett 1970:230; cf. Jeremias 1967b:1101). This image fits the present context, for as the shout of the bridegroom signifies the new family is off and running, so Jesus' activity indicates his ministry has begun successfully.
At a wedding attention is obviously focused on the bride and the groom. Thus, we again see John as a model of humility. As we saw earlier (1:19-34) he is completely self-emptied, being defined solely in terms of Jesus. His example of humility is expressed most memorably here: He must become greater; I must become less (3:30). This word must (dei) signifies the outworking of God's plan (cf. comment on 3:14). John's joy is in fulfilling God's will for his life--a model of Christian discipleship. He raises the question for all who would be disciples of Jesus, Where do we find our joy? It is easy to get distracted by the pleasurable blessings of this life. We should be thankful and receive gratefully God's blessings, but our joy's deepest foundation is God in himself. That he is as Jesus revealed him to be is our joy, as is the fulfilling of his purposes for our own lives (cf. 15:10-11), and we see this joy here in the Baptist.
With verse 31 there is a shift from narrative to a general comment by either the Baptist (as in the NIV), or, more likely, the Evangelist, since this section (vv. 31-36) summarizes the whole of chapter 3 by weaving together many of its major themes. In particular, the failure of the people to receive Jesus' testimony is again noted (vv. 32-33; cf. v. 11). One who receives Jesus' testimony is described as having certified that God is true, a thought that may recall verse 21. The next two verses (vv. 34-35) are particularly rich in allusions to previous themes: For the one whom God has sent (cf. 3:2, 16-17) speaks the words of God (cf. 3:11-12), for God gives the Spirit without limit (cf. 3:5-8). The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands (cf. 3:27). The final verse summarizes the theme of judgment (v. 36; cf. 3:16-21). Indeed, this last verse combines the central motifs of the two meditational passages (3:16-21, 31-35). In 3:16-21 the issue is faith in Jesus himself (vv. 16, 18), which is represented in verse 36a: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. In 3:31-35 the issue is receiving Jesus' testimony (cf. 3:11-12), and this is reflected in the notion of obedience in verse 36. Thus, we are told who Jesus is and what it means to accept or reject him.
John's contrast between the one who comes from above and the one who is from the earth (v. 31) in the context refers to Jesus and John the Baptist. But by putting the contrast in these terms we are brought back to the story of Nicodemus. That is, this passage begins at the same point verse 13 does, but now Jesus' identity as the one from heaven is contrasted with the Baptist, who is of the earth. He bears witness to the things of God that have been revealed to him, but they are the things God is doing on earth. In contrast, Jesus speaks of heavenly things, that is, of the God of heaven who is behind this activity on earth (cf. v. 12).
Accordingly, to accept Jesus' testimony is to say something about God, namely, that God is truthful (v. 33). In other words, because Jesus has been sent by God, speaks God's words and has received the Spirit without limit (v. 34), to hear him is to hear God. Jesus thus fulfills the role of an agent: "He speaks the words of God and no more, but he does so with full authority. Behind this is the old Jewish axiom, that a man's envoy is like himself" (Schnackenburg 1980a:386; cf. m. Berakot 5:5; see note on 5:21). But Jesus is not just an envoy; he is the Son, and as such he is able to do more than simply proclaim a message from a distant God. As Son he receives not just a message but God's Spirit and, as we hear in the next verse, God's love: The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands (v. 35). The chief characteristic of this true God, who is behind what Jesus is doing, is love. Behind God's love for the world and his giving of his Son (v. 16) is this love of the Father for the Son and the fact that he has placed (literally, "has given," dedoken) everything into his hands. In these two verses we have one of John's glimpses of the Holy Trinity--we see heaven opened, and heavenly things are revealed to us. The Son and the Spirit both come from heaven. The Father is the source, for both this Spirit and the Son's possession of all things are given by the Father. The Son has received the Spirit without limit, unlike any other envoy, and all things have been given into his hand; that is, he has supreme authority over all.
Thus, in Jesus we see the presence of God, by which he reveals the love of God and speaks with the authority of God. Given such a vision it naturally follows that believing in him brings eternal life and that rejecting him (ho apeithon, literally, "the one disobeying") means one remains under the wrath of God (v. 36; cf. 1 Jn 5:19). The divine prerogatives of life-giving and judgment are exercisd by Jesus (see comment on 5:19-30), which means he plays roles of the utmost significance in the life of each person.
We have, then, a brief but profound glimpse into Jesus' identity and the heavenly reality of the relationship between the Father and the Son. We also are confronted with the high stakes in this game. In Jesus the presence of God has come into our midst: the visitation of God expected in the last days has come bringing eschatological blessing and danger. The wrath of God is here seen as the opposite of sharing in his life. Alienation from his life is the condition of all who have not been born from above. The enormous difference between what we take to be normal life and the life God offers us in his Son could not be more graphically expressed. There will be a future judgment (5:28-30), but it is already active now (5:22-23), so the believer is beyond the judgment (5:24-27). At this point John is concerned that we understand who Jesus is as well as the eschatological realities present in his ministry. Those who have experienced the reality of what this section describes--the gift of the Father, the supremacy of the Son and the eschatological reality of passing from death to life (cf. 5:24)--have received the good news. Later John will make the point that those who enter this reality are commissioned themselves to share it (20:21-22).
After illustrating the faulty faith described in 2:23--3:36, John offers examples of true faith, beginning with the Samaritan adulteress. The story depicts a series of barriers that must be overcome in order for her to have faith in Jesus. Thus, in this story we learn more about who Jesus is and the grace he offers, as well as more about discipleship.
Jesus moves back into Galilee from Judea because the Pharisees have learned of his popularity (4:1). There has been no opposition from them up to this point, though the commotion in the temple has raised questions. Jesus is not "on the lam" yet (contrast 7:1), but he nevertheless clearly wants to avoid contact with the Pharisees. If Nicodemus had shared with his fellow Pharisees something of his conversation with Jesus, then they would have even more questions. They had sent agents to the Baptist to ask whether he was the Christ and to find out why he was baptizing (1:19-28). By moving on, Jesus avoids such questions and the confrontation that would inevitably follow. But he moves not merely for the sake of expediency; he moves because it is God's will. He only does God's will, and it is God's will not only that he avoid the Pharisees but also that he meet this Samaritan woman. Jesus had to go through Samaria (4:4). There is no geographical necessity for going through Samaria. The necessity is due to God's plan, as had (edei) indicates (cf. comment on 3:14). The Father was sending him there to look for those who would worship him in spirit and truth (4:23).
At noon Jesus stops to rest outside of Sychar and sends his disciples into town for food. It was the hottest time of day, not the best time to be traveling and a very unusual time for a woman to fetch water. The fact that it was noon may highlight both Jesus' desire to avoid the Pharisees and the woman's desire to avoid her neighbors, who would come to draw water at cooler periods of the day. Since she had had six of the men of the village, the other women would have little love for her. Her immorality is well known to the villagers (4:29), as one would expect.
As she comes to draw water Jesus initiates the conversation, in contrast to his encounter with his first disciples (1:37). The woman is shocked that he, a Jew, would speak to her, a Samaritan woman (4:9). The Samaritans were held in contempt as religious apostates who had mixed the purity of Israel's worship with idolatry and the worship of pagan gods (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41; Ezra 4:1-3; Sirach 50:25-26). While these texts reflect a Jewish explanation of the Samaritans, they probably do not refer to Samaritans (cf. Williamson 1992:726). Certainly the Samaritans were at least as zealous in their monotheism as the Jews. The animosity toward the Samaritans was greatly intensified about twenty years before Jesus' ministry when some Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard during Passover (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.30). This conflict at the temple highlights one of the fundamental differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, namely, the question of where God has centered his worship. Apart from this issue most of their beliefs are represented within segments of Judaism, that is, until the Pharisees came to dominate the scene (cf. Gowan 1982:163-77; Haacker 1978; Williamson 1992).
For Jesus to have dealings with this woman was to risk ritual defilement (4:9). The expression do not associate with (ou . . . synchrontai) can mean "use together with" (cf. NIV note; Daube 1956:373-82). The ritual impurity of the person was thought to pass to whatever he or she had contact with, like spiritual germs. There is thus an enormous religious barrier between this woman and Jesus, the first of several barriers. Jesus takes the initiative and will keep at it until all of the barriers are dealt with. This gentle persistence should be a great comfort to us who are not without barriers ourselves.
While the differences between the Jews and Samaritans were not as great as most Jews believed, there was indeed a difference between Jew and Samaritan, and the truth of Judaism over against Samaritanism is ratified by Jesus (4:22). But the hatred and the alienation are not accepted by the Son. The Samaritans do in fact offer worship, though they are in ignorance of the one they worship (v. 22). But the one they are desiring to worship wants their worship and comes to them, revealing himself and bringing salvation. Like the world (3:16-18), the Samaritans are worthy of condemnation and yet are loved. The distinction between Judaism and Samaritanism is maintained, but individuals within both of these communities either receive or reject God's salvation. John's characteristic appreciation of the importance of both the group and the individual is evident here.
The woman has asked Jesus a question, and he replies with another of his cryptic sayings: If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water (4:10). She could not have understood in depth what Jesus was saying, as is the case with his other cryptic sayings, but she could have picked up on something in it that would point her in the right direction. The phrase gift of God was a very common expression, "a comprehensive term for everything that God bestows on man for his salvation" (Schnackenburg 1980a:426). So this term should have at least indicated to the woman that Jesus was talking about God's revelation. The image of water is also used in both Jewish and Samaritan sources as an image of God's revelation, the Torah, as well as of the Spirit.
On the basis of such general associations she could have understood Jesus to be saying, in effect, "If you knew the Scriptures and the salvation they reveal and if you were aware of my identity as Messiah, then you would ask me as the bearer of revelation and salvation and I would give you revelation and salvation." The woman does in fact have some knowledge of the gift of God in that she expects the Messiah (4:25). She obviously would not understand the role of the Holy Spirit and the death and resurrection of the Son of God, but she could have understood that Jesus was speaking of the revelation of God. She could also see he was implying not just that his request for water that was strange, but that his own identity was unusual. The purpose of the conversation is to reveal something of this identity.
The woman's reply shows that she misunderstands Jesus entirely (4:12). She does not make any of the connections that Jesus' cryptic saying might have triggered. Rather, she thinks he is talking about physical water. This superficial level of reference is the second barrier to her belief. Jesus uses this barrier itself as a stepping stone. She says, Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds? (v. 12). Even though she thinks they are speaking only of physical water, she recognizes that Jesus' cryptic statement implies he is greater than the patriarch Jacob.
What would it mean to a Samaritan that someone is greater than Jacob? Jacob was central to the covenant identity of the people. Among the patriarchs, "Jacob Israel, the son of Isaac, became the actual progenitor of the elect, the Hebrew tribes" (MacDonald 1964:16). And by the same fact, "Jacob Israel represents the last of a line, the line of the Patriarchs, and the beginning of a new line, the line of the elect" (MacDonald 1964:448). These covenants were of primary importance for the Samaritans' identity as the elect of God. Furthermore, God chose Jacob because of the way Jacob lived (MacDonald 1964:227). These features of Samaritan thought are paralleled in the Jewish evaluation of Jacob (cf. Odeberg 1965). Crucial for both Samaritan and Jew is that "it is the name of Jacob which defines the people of the covenant" (Odeberg 1965:191-92). Thus, to make a claim to be greater than Jacob would set oneself up as more virtuous than a major model of piety, and, most importantly, it would suggest a superiority to the covenant, which was central to the identity of both Jew and Samaritan.
Jesus makes it evident in his statement concerning the coming change in the religion of both Jew and Samaritan that he intends to suggest some such notion of superiority (4:21). What is necessary is spirit and truth (4:23-24), which have come in Jesus (1:17; 3:6; 20:22). Jesus' superiority to Jacob means that both Judaism and Samaritanism have been superseded in Jesus. Jacob gave a well that provides water, but Jesus is the giver of a greater gift, living water (4:10). The provision of living water speaks of the superiority of Jesus' revelation to that of the old covenant, for Jesus not only brings revelation of God but gives the Spirit by which this revelation is internalized in believers, giving birth to spirit (3:6). Such is the basic thrust of this story in its revelation of Jesus and what he is doing.
Jesus' offer of water leads the woman to focus on his identity (4:12). Jesus blows on this ember of understanding by continuing to use the idea of water to lead her to an understanding of himself. He makes another of his testing comments, contrasting the water Jacob gave with the water he gives. What he says about this water--that in a person it will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life--is very cryptic indeed (vv. 13-14). The man-made well is contrasted with a God-given spring (cf. Loyd 1936:63). The woman's response seems disappointing, for she remains on the superficial level (v. 15). She wants this spring of water welling up to eternal life so she will not have to come to the well anymore. The phrase living water (hydor zon) can mean "running water." So Jesus is offering her eternal life, but she thinks he is talking about indoor plumbing.
Although she remains on this superficial level, she also makes a profound movement toward faith. For even on this superficial level, by asking for this marvelous private supply of running water she is actually putting faith in Jesus as one greater than Jacob. While as yet her level of faith is very shallow and her misunderstanding is great, nevertheless she has begun to believe in Jesus. It is a source of great comfort to us to realize how patiently God works with each of us to lead us out of our misunderstanding and shallowness to come to ever deeper levels of faith, knowledge and union with God.
Next Jesus seems to change the subject entirely, but in fact he is responding to her request for living water by revealing more about himself. She has shown an openness toward him, and now he responds to her. He indicates his own special identity by revealing something of her identity, or at least of her marital status (4:16-18). He tells her something about her personal life, as he had done with Nathanael (1:48), and his preternatural knowledge indicates to the woman that he is a prophet (4:19). With this realization she has come to the place of understanding that she would have reached earlier had she understood Jesus' first statements about the gift of God and the living water. Those previous cryptic statements had contained hints that Jesus is special in a religious way, and she now realizes this.
Her recognition of Jesus as a prophet could be a very significant statement of faith, much more so than it would be if she were a Jew. For the Samaritans, unlike the Jews, did not recognize a succession of prophets. Rather, their expected one, their "Messiah," called Taheb (ta'eb), was the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15). But since she is not calling Jesus the Messiah (cf. 4:25), she probably does not use the word prophet in this Samaritan sense. She is engaging in ecumenical dialogue, using the word prophet more like a Jew would, to signify a holy man rather than the expected one. She is moving in the right direction, but there are still difficulties to be overcome.
It is very significant that she does not react defensively to Jesus' knowledge of her domestic relationships. Many interpreters see here an attempt on her part to avoid the subject. But her interest in pursuing religious questions is actually in keeping with what we have already learned about her, namely, her consciousness of differences between Samaritans and Jews and her pride in the patriarch Jacob. By implicitly affirming that Jesus is greater than Jacob, she focuses on his person, not her own. So her attention remains on Jesus' person even though her own life is being used to reveal something more of his identity. This focus on Jesus is a key characteristic of true faith.
She now returns to the original barrier between herself and Jesus: the religious differences. She has met a genuine religious figure, but he is a Jew. She thinks, What about the religious separation? She does not ask about the relations between Jews and Samaritans; she simply states the differences in terms of places of worship (4:20). In this simple statement of the problem we are reminded of the way Jesus' mother presented the problem at Cana (2:3). Jesus' response is, not surprisingly, quite mystifying (4:21-24). Here is God's assessment of the division between Jews and Samaritans: in essence Jesus says that salvation is indeed of the Jews, but now with the coming of that salvation in himself as the Messiah people will be able to worship God in a qualitatively different way that supersedes the worship of the past and the controversies associated with it. The blessings expected in the last days have come (cf. comment on 4:35-38).This new worship is characterized by spirit and truth (pneuma kai aletheia, 4:23). Like most of the key terms in this conversation, these words function on more than one level. On one level to worship in spirit could mean to worship not just with words or thoughts or mere emotion but with one's innermost self, at one's center, one's heart. Such worship engages the mind, emotions and body, but it is centered deeper, in the spirit. And to worship in truth could mean to worship as who one really is, with no hypocrisy, falseness, deception. Such a reference to the human spirit and integrity develops thoughts already introduced in the Gospel (for example, 1:47; 3:6).
But even on this earthly level the reference is not merely to human qualities, for one must be born from above (3:3-8). To worship in spirit and truth means to worship as one who is spiritually alive, living in the new reality Jesus offers, referred to here as the gift of God, which is living water. For behind the earthly things are the heavenly things, that is, God himself (cf. 3:12). Worshiping in spirit is connected to the fact that God is spirit (4:24). And worshiping in truth is connected with Jesus, the Messiah who explains everything (4:25-26). This picture of Jesus will be developed more when it is said that his words are spirit and truth (6:63) and he is himself the truth (14:6). So worshiping in spirit and truth is related to the very character of God and the identity of Christ. It is to worship in union with the Father, who is spirit, and according to the revelation of the Son, who is the truth. Indeed, it is to be taken into union with God through the Spirit (chaps. 14--17).
This profound response to the woman's statement goes completely over her head. Jesus has spoken directly to the issue she raised, but she is not able to hear it at all: The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us" (4:25). In effect she is saying, "I do not know what you are talking about, but I believe that the Messiah will come and teach us about all of these things." This view of the Messiah is true to the Samaritan understanding. They were expecting not a Davidic king, but rather the Taheb who would be primarily a lawgiver, teacher, restorer, revealer (MacDonald 1964:362-65; Dexinger 1989:272-76). She is expecting someone who will clear up all the confusion.
Her reply reveals her basic openness and receptivity, which are crucial elements of true faith in this Gospel. This is the sort of person the Father is looking for (cf. 2 Chron 16:9). She recognizes that things are not right, and she is waiting for God to act. She is expecting one who will teach, which is to say she is open to revelation. This response epitomizes an appropriate response to Jesus and his cryptic sayings. Faced with such openness Jesus reveals himself to her immediately: I who speak to you am he (ego eimi, ho lalon soi, v. 26). His use of ego eimi here is primarily self-designation, but it conceals yet deeper revelation since it is God's own self designation as I AM (cf. comment on 8:58). Thus, Jesus identifies himself as the awaited Messiah of the Samaritans, but he does so in language that hints he is God's own presence, the Jewish God who brings the living water of salvation, who indeed is "the spring of living water" (Jer 2:13).
The woman's response to his declaration is not given. The starkness and clarity of Jesus' statement is exceptional in light of what has been seen up to this point in the Gospel. But now the disciples arrive on the scene, and the woman heads to town (4:27-28). In the background her response is hinted at: Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ? (4:29). She is entertaining the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah, but with some question still.
This question is the last we hear of her. We are not told whether it is a question that results in solid faith, as in Nathanael's case, or in rejection, as it does for the Jewish opponents later in the Gospel. The impression left is favorable, because of what is revealed of her heart (4:25) and the parallel between her and the first disciples. Like Andrew and Philip she is characterized by her testimony to others who come and see and believe (4:28-29, 39-42). Also, the Samaritans want Jesus to stay with them (4:40), just as the first disciples wanted to stay with Jesus (1:38). The story concludes with a confession reminiscent of Nathanael's (4:42; cf. 1:49).
The woman's receptivity stands in obvious contrast to the opponents' unwillingness to receive. Nathanael began by asking one of the very same questions later raised by the Jewish opponents concerning Jesus' origin (cf. 1:49). In the same way, the woman's question of whether Jesus is greater than our father Jacob (4:12) is identical with the opponents' later question of whether Jesus is greater than "our father Abraham" (8:53). But John makes it clear that "the Samaritan woman, who is ready, seemingly, to desert her traditional religion (verse 15), is in reality faithful toward the element of truth received from the fathers, whereas the Jews, who were apparently unswervingly loyal to the inheritance from their father Abraham and to the Tora [sic] of Moses, in opposition to the demands of Jesus, had already severed themselves spiritually and intrinsically from the way of Abraham and the Tora of Moses" (Odeberg 1968:178-79). Thus, the woman stands alongside the disciples as an example of one who is receptive of Jesus. The docility before God and his law that figures so prominently in the opponents' self-understanding is actually present in the followers of Jesus, including this Samaritan adulteress.
The Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus would talk to a Samaritan (4:9). When the disciples return they are surprised he is talking to a woman (4:27), reflecting the sensitivities of their time. "Sir [Sirach] ix 1-9 describes the care to be taken lest one be ensnared by a woman; and rabbinic documents (Pirqe Aboth i 5; TalBab 'Erubin 53b) warn against speaking to women in public" (Brown 1966:173). In particular, the woman's presence at the well at this unusual hour might have raised the disciples' suspicions, in which case their question could reflect warnings regarding the adulteress (Prov 5; 6:20--7:27).
But they neither snap at her What do you want? nor ask Jesus Why are you talking with her? In these unasked questions we again see their confusion and also their docility. These private questions point up the fact that Jesus has just revealed his identity to a Samaritan adulteress, which is to say, he has acted about as shockingly as he possibly could. While it is true that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), here we see God's incredible love toward one with multiple marriages or perhaps just affairs. The glory of God continues to be revealed as we see the scandalous graciousness of God. Jesus is talking with this woman because God loves her. He is looking for true worshipers (4:23), those who will enter into life (4:36).
The woman leaves the scene, and we hear her preaching her evangelistic sermon (4:29). She connects her understanding of the Scriptures concerning the Christ with her own experience and encourages folk to come out to the well. At the heart of any true evangelism is an invitation to come to Jesus himself, not just a call to accept the evangelist's own ideas or experiences.
Her witness is effective, for in the background we see a crowd coming to see Jesus (v. 30). The significance of what is taking place in the background is explained by the dialogue in the foreground (vv. 31-38). These verses reveal Jesus to be God's agent who fulfills God's promises for the last days, the eschatological reality now present in our midst in Jesus.
The section begins with the disciples' encouraging Jesus to eat something (v. 31). This expression of loving concern is met by an obscure response from Jesus: I have food to eat that you know nothing about (v. 32). His disciples are still very ignorant of who he really is and what he is really about. They have yet to see him as the revelation of the Father. Accordingly, the disciples do not get Jesus' point and so have more unasked questions, such as wondering if someone has brought him food (v. 33). They repeat exactly the woman's incomprehension concerning living water; she did not know how he could get a drink, and they do not know how he could get food. But there is an important difference, for whereas Jesus did not tell the woman what he meant by living water, he does give an explanation to the disciples: My food . . . is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (v. 34). This saying calls attention to what is significant about his encounter with the Samaritan woman and indeed about all of his activity: he does God's will and finishes God's work. Jesus is the true Son of God, living out the obedience that was expected of the people of Israel, who were not to "live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut 8:3). Jesus is thus not only God's presence on earth but also the model of discipleship. Doing the will of God is Jesus' food and is such for his followers also. Again questions are raised for modern disciples. Are we walking as he walked (1 Jn 2:6)? How is our diet? Are we malnourished? Are we starving ourselves by failing to nourish God's life within us through obedience? As we pray for our daily bread we should have in mind not only physical nourishment, but this spiritual nourishment as well. Indeed, the word for "daily" (epiousion) in the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6:11; Lk 11:3) is not the common word for "daily," suggesting that something more than just ordinary food is in mind (cf. Dunn 1992:622). In John's Gospel this deeper sort of nourishment is to share in God's very life (6:53-58). The point of reference behind these strands of thought is the cross, which is the greatest expression of Jesus' obedience to the will of God and also the deepest revelation of God's love and the means by which we receive the life of God.
Of special significance is his claim to finish his [God's] work (4:34). The Father has begun a project, and now Jesus is bringing it to its perfect completion (teleioso autou to ergon). Israel was to be a source of God's salvation for the whole world, and this is now coming to fulfillment, beginning with the Samaritans. Its extension to the rest of the world is represented later by the Greeks who come to Jesus, thereby indicating that the hour had come for him to be lifted up and draw all people to himself (12:20-23, 32).
But if God began the work and if Jesus now completes this divine work, he must be divine himself. Once again, then, we see Jesus' identity as central to the story. Before long this same theme of Jesus' working with God as his equal will get through to the Jewish opponents, causing them to reject Jesus (5:17-18) and launch the conflict that will dominate the rest of the story.
The remaining verses in this section dwell on the notion of Jesus' completion of the Father's work. The eschatological theme that the awaited time has now come (4:23) is developed with the image of a harvest. In the Old Testament this image usually represented God's coming judgment (for example, Joel 3:13), though it was also used of God's gathering in the Israelites who had been scattered among the nations (Is 27:12; cf. Demarest 1978:526). In our text this image implies eschatological blessings. The crop for eternal life (4:36) is starting to be gathered, as is evidenced by the fields that are ripe for harvest, literally, "white for harvest" (4:35). Jesus may well be referring to the approaching Samaritans, who probably would be wearing white clothing.
In this completion of the Father's work our standard expectations must be set aside. Normally in Israel it takes at least four months between the latest sowing and the earliest reaping. But in Jesus' work the sowing and harvesting are taking place simultaneously (4:35-36). This is another eschatological image of the abundance of God's blessings in the last days taken from the Prophets (Amos 9:13).
The imagery of sower and reaper is used in several ways in these few verses. Since Jesus is completing his Father's work, presumably the Father would be the sower and Jesus the reaper (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:447). In another sense, however, here the same person is both sower and reaper, for Jesus has just spoken with the woman and already many are coming to him. But even though Jesus has functioned in these two capacities, in a deeper sense the Father is still the sower, for "it is the Father who `gives' believers to Jesus and `draws' them to him (cf. 6:37ff., 44, 65; 10:29; 17:6)" (Schnackenburg 1980a:451).
Jesus goes on to speak of the work his disciples will do in the future (4:37-38). He uses a well-known proverb to speak of a division of labor between sower and reaper. The idea of one sowing and another reaping is found in the Old Testament as a description of catastrophe and judgment (Lev 26:16; Deut 28:30, 33, 51; Job 31:8; Mic 6:15). The opposite picture--of reaping what one has sown--is a description of eschatological blessing (Is 65:21-22). Jesus, however, is describing a division of labor among those who are part of a common enterprise. The proverb in verse 37 is given as an explanation of verse 36, which literally says, "Already the one who harvests receives wages and gathers fruit unto life eternal, so that the one who sows and the one who harvests may rejoice together." At first it seems the sower and the harvester are the same person, but then they are clearly distinguished. This ambiguity, both reflects the mystery of the relation between the Father and the Son and, along with the implication of immediate harvest, suggests the abnormality of this time of eschatological fulfillment (cf. Bultmann 1971:197-200).
Jesus' disciples are to reap the harvest of what others have sowed and labored over. This prediction will be fulfilled specifically by John and the Samaritans: John and Peter will follow up on Philip the Evangelist's work in Samaria. The Samaritans have been "baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus," but when the apostles lay their hands on them, the Holy Spirit falls (Acts 8:14-17). Here indeed is a harvest for eternal life (4:36). But this is just one instance of what 4:38 is referring to. The general language used in verse 38 suggests that the whole ministry of the disciples is in view. They are being taught that their ministry is dependent on that of earlier laborers. Others probably refers to all those through whom the Father has been accomplishing his work, the work that is now coming to a perfect completion in Jesus.
This verse is thus part of the theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism and, indeed, of all God's work in the world. It is also the first glimpse of Jesus' teaching the disciples about their own ministry, a major theme in chapters 13--17. Already the fundamental point is clear: the work of the disciple is an extension of Jesus' own work (20:21)--doing the Father's will by the presence of the Spirit and embodying and proclaiming the eternal life available in Jesus, the one who completed the Father's work. Jesus' work is to reveal the Father and make available eternal life (17:3-4, 6). He has done so in the present context of his revelation to the Samaritan woman by telling her of the worship that the Father desires and by demonstrating, in his relationship with her, God's acceptance of Samaritans. So both in his action and in his teaching he has revealed God's love for Samaritans, his willingness to reveal himself to them and receive their worship.
The story concludes with the response of the Samaritans who went out to see Jesus (4:39-42). Their faith goes from being based on the woman's testimony (v. 39) to being based on their own experience (v. 42). There is no indication that their initial faith was false, but it obviously needed to be deepened. They had heard about Jesus, and now they needed to hear him for themselves (cf. 1:45-49). The lesson for our own lives is perhaps obvious: our faith also must be based on hearing Jesus for ourselves, not just on hearing about him. The folk in Jerusalem saw Jesus' deeds and thought they had faith, but it was faulty (2:23-25). These Samaritans have seen no deeds of power, no signs, but have come to have faith in Jesus. The signs and the teaching were meant to reveal Jesus' identity and the character of the Father. We who live after the coming of the Spirit, who illumines Jesus' words and deeds, are better off than the first disciples were while they were with him. We now understand him and actually share, through the Spirit, in his life with the Father. We hear about Jesus as we read the Gospels in the light of the insight the Spirit has provided to the church, but we must come to the well ourselves to meet him through the means of grace he provides.
These Samaritans want Jesus to stay with them for two days. The initial religious barrier that had kept the woman from Jesus has obviously broken down. These Samaritans--unlike Nathaniel, the Jews and this woman--are not put off by Jesus' origin (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:455). This is an eschatological sign, an indication that the awaited time has arrived (4:23). The Father is seeking worshipers from among the Jews but also from the whole world, for he loves the whole world (3:16-17). This universal love must have been something of what Jesus taught these Samaritans as he stayed with them, for they come to believe that he is the Savior of the world (4:42). This powerful title summarizes the cosmic dimensions of Jesus' work revealed in the prologue (1:1-18), which was touched on in the Baptist's preaching (1:29) and in the story of Nicodemus (3:15-17) and which will recur again (6:33, 51; 12:32, 47).
The transitional section (4:43-45) addresses the people's reaction to Jesus, but it does so in a somewhat ambiguous fashion. Jesus says, a prophet has no honor in his own country, but he is then immediately welcomed by the Galileans. He comes from Nazareth in Galilee (1:45), but, given this welcome by the Galileans, our text seems to suggest that Galilee was not his own country. This text, however, is commenting on the reception given him by these Galileans, not on whether Galilee is his country. The Galileans are identified as those who had seen what Jesus had done in Jerusalem at Passover, which means these Galileans are associated with the many in Jerusalem who had a faith that was faulty (2:23-25). Thus, there is something wrong with this welcome, as will be confirmed in the story (4:48). Accordingly, both Judea and Galilee are viewed as Jesus' own country because in neither does he receive real honor.
Then we are back in Cana (v. 46), where we see Jesus healing the son of a certain royal official (basilikos), a servant of Herod's court. This official could be either a Jew or a Gentile, and if he was a Gentile, then the divine grace revealed in this story is even more remarkable. But John does not indicate that the official is a Gentile, so we cannot be certain. In any case, for many Jews a servant at Herod's court would be little better than a Gentile, so the scandalous nature of God's grace is evident here even if the official is a Jew.
In response to this man's request that Jesus come and heal his son Jesus says to him, Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders . . . you will never believe (v. 48). At first glance Jesus' saying seems clear enough, though rather harsh. But when we look closer it becomes evident that it is completely inappropriate as addressed to this man, for the request that Jesus heal his son implies that this official already believes in Jesus, or at least he believes that Jesus is able and willing to heal even his son, the son of a Herodian official. Faith is belief that God is who and what Jesus reveals him to be, the loving Father, and it is trust in this God. This official seems to have something of this faith.
So while this rebuke is spoken to the official (Jesus told him, v. 48), it is addressed also to those standing around (you people), which suggests that this one saying has two purposes. It is directed in part to the Jews of Galilee, who would not think too highly of a servant of Herod. They need to see signs and wonders performed for such a despised person before they will understand that God loves him also and is willing to freely grant life to his son. In Galilee, with its "freedom-loving inhabitants" (Schürer 1973-1987:1:341), Jesus' acceptance of a member of Herod's court would perhaps be the best possible example of God's scandalous, gracious love, whether or not this official is a Gentile.
This official does have such faith, and so, addressed to him, we understand that Jesus' second purpose is to test the one to whom he speaks. From what the official says, we see that he passes the test. To Jesus' provocative statement the official simply says, Sir, come down before my child dies (v. 49). With this response the official demonstrates perseverance, which is like the humble patience of Jesus' true disciples. To this request Jesus answers, You may go. Your son will live (v. 50). The NIV catches the meaning but not the ambiguity of this statement. Literally it says, simply, "Go, your son lives" (poreuou, ho hyios sou ze). This need not convey the rather positive message implied in the NIV. The official could have heard this as a simple command to go away, especially since "lives" need not imply healing. Despite this possible misunderstanding, however, it says that the man took Jesus at his word and departed (v. 50). Here it becomes yet clearer that Jesus' statement about needing to see signs and wonders does not apply to this official. He believed Jesus' word alone, even a potentially ambiguous word. Even though he had requested that Jesus come with him to heal his son (v. 47), he believes Jesus can do it without coming with him. Here is faith indeed!
This faith is confirmed and deepened when he learns of his son's recovery (v. 53). His faith in Jesus as one who is willing and able to heal the son of a Herodian official progressed to faith in Jesus' bare word. Now at the end of the story it is simply said that he believed, with no other qualifiers. This form of expression is used often in this Gospel, usually in reference to a person who has insight into Jesus' special identity and accepts of him (for example, 1:50; 20:8). As the Samaritans had their faith confirmed and deepened, recognizing Jesus as Savior of the world, so this man has his faith confirmed by this healing. It is not said what deeper insight the man gains, but the description of the healing in terms of life and death might suggest he catches a glimpse of Jesus as the giver of life. If so, then this healing illustrates a theme developed earlier (3:15-16, 36), which is about to come to the fore (5:19-30).
Whether or not the official grasped any of this significance, it is there for the reader. The grace here is obvious, for God is revealed as willing to grant life to the son of a Herodian official. The universal love of God, already noted (1:4, 7, 9; 3:16), is seen active in these two stories in chapter 4.
This story ends with a reference that This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee (4:54). It is common to take this verse as evidence that John is using a source that consisted only of signs. Originally, then, this story was the second sign in the Signs Source (see introduction, under "Three Explanations for the Complexity"). While it is possible that an earlier draft of the Gospel focused on the signs, this verse fits its present context very well. John does not say this is Jesus' second sign, but his second sign having come from Judea to Galilee; that is, he lays as much stress on the geographical motif as on the signs. These two signs are done when Jesus goes "out of Judea" (ek tes Ioudaias). Immediately we hear of a feast of "the Jews" (ton Ioudaion, 5:1). If Jesus' opponents are called "the Jews" at least in part because of their attachment to Judea (cf. 1:19), perhaps John is linking these two stories through a common word, as he has done earlier (cf. 2:25 and 3:1). The fact that Jesus does signs outside Judea as well as within indicates that Judea is not the favored place the opponents think it is (cf. 4:21).
Twice now Jesus has moved into Galilee, and both times he has performed very significant signs. Both signs have pointed to God's gratuitous generosity: the first one, at the wedding, was in a presumably kosher Jewish setting, and the other seems to have involved the healing of one whom many Jews would not consider kosher. These two signs in Galilee stand in contrast to the many signs he did in Jerusalem, for each of the two signs performed in Galilee are received in faith by someone, whereas the signs in Jerusalem were not received in true faith.
The account of these two signs is not only a summary of what has happened, but an anticipation of what immediately follows. Twice now Jesus has moved into Galilee, and twice he has revealed God's glory, and some have been able to receive it. Now he will go to Jerusalem again, and this time he performs a revelatory act that is grasped by the Jewish opponents. But this is a provocative act, as are all of Jesus' actions and teachings. Unlike during his disturbance at the temple, the opponents' hostility is aroused (5:16). Jesus' provocation has finally resulted in confrontation. Up to this point in the Gospel there has been no controversy as such. But we have been prepared for controversy by the dualistic language (1:5), the contrast between those who believe in him and those who do not (10-13; 3:18-20, 32-36), the scandals Jesus has caused (2:18-20; 3:4-10; 4:27) and the difficulties that those who do receive him have had to overcome (1:46; 2:4, 17, 22; 4:9-27, 33, 48). Thus the note in verse 54 not only concludes the previous sections, but sets off the one that follows and hints that the story has reached a transition.
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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