Jesus' dramatic invitation to come to him for living water provokes strong reactions. Some in the crowd believe he is from God, but for others Jesus' is disqualified because of where he is from (vv. 40-44). The Pharisees are certain he is not from God and are desperate to arrest him, despite the witness of their own guards and Nicodemus, one of their own members (vv. 45-52). Thus, the pattern of events earlier in the chapter is repeated (vv. 25-32; cf. Brown 1966:331), but this time there is the added problem concerning Jesus' origin and more detail concerning the leaders' rejection of Jesus. The light is shining, but the leaders of God's people are showing a determined preference for the darkness (cf. 3:19; 7:7).
John describes the crowd's very mixed response to Jesus. Some associate Jesus with one or another of the eschatological expectations, while others reject such claims. The words Jesus has spoken lead some in the crowd to affirm that Jesus is the prophet like Moses (v. 40; cf. Deut 18:15,18). Perhaps Jesus' offer of water is seen as a claim to be a second Moses, one who would repeat Moses' miracle of striking the rock and providing running water for the people in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13; cf. Jeremias 1967a:277).
Others in the crowd draw the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah (v. 41). They seem to share the view expressed in a later rabbinic text that the Messiah was expected to provide bread and water like Moses did: "As the former redeemer caused manna to descend, as it is stated, `Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you' (Ex 16:4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated. `May he be as a rich cornfield in the land' (Ps 72:16). As the former redeemer made a well to rise, so will the latter Redeemer bring up water, as it is stated, `And a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim' (Joel 4:18)" (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:9).
These reactions reflect the variety of views within Judaism concerning the one (or ones) God would send to rescue his people. Despite this diversity, Jesus' words and deeds reveal him to be the expected one. Those in the crowd who recognize him as the Prophet or the Messiah still do not fully realize who it is they are dealing with any more than the Samaritan woman did when she accepted him as the Messiah. But such faith is the right start and true as far as it goes. The sower has sown seed, and some of it is producing fruit.
But John does not dwell on those who have seen something of the truth about Jesus. Rather, he contrasts them with those who reject the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. Earlier some people rejected Jesus because they knew where he came from and Messiah's origin was to be unknown (7:27). Now a different tradition is in view—that Messiah was to come from Bethlehem since he was the Son of David (v. 42; cf. Mic 5.2). Both conclusions are ironic. Earlier the people thought Jesus' origins were known when in fact they were unknown, for he came from the Father. Now those who reject Jesus do so because he is not from Bethlehem, when in fact he is.
John does not state elsewhere that Jesus is from Bethlehem, so a number of scholars have questioned whether he was actually aware of this fact. But Jesus' descent from David was well known in the early church (Mt 2:4-5; Lk 2:4; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8). "It seems strange that any one should have argued from this passage that the writer of the Gospel was unacquainted with Christ's birth at Bethlehem. He simply relates the words of the multitude who were unacquainted with it (comp. Luke 4:23)" (Westcott 1908:1:280). The point is to reveal how ignorant those who rejected Jesus were and how unjust their rejection was.
This is another example of rejecting Jesus on the basis of Scripture (cf. 5:46). As this story continues it is clear that the role of Scripture is a major focus (vv. 49-52). The problem is not with Scripture nor with their desire to be faithful to it—Jesus shares this attitude. The problem is their ignorance of Jesus. If they knew him better, these objections would be met, for his origin is not known: he is from the Father, and he is in fact from Bethlehem. There is more to it than this, of course. For if Jesus is the one he claims to be, then Scripture will have to be interpreted around him. This means that much of the Jewish interpretation of God's revelation regarding the nation, the land, the temple and the law itself will have to be rethought. John's Gospel is a sustained exposition of how Scripture actually bears witness to Jesus and against his opponents (Whitacre 1982:26-68).
The result of Jesus' clear teaching is division among the crowd (v. 43). This is the judgment that comes when the light shines. Such judgment is part of the job description Jesus spelled out in his keynote address (5:22, 30), as is evident throughout his ministry and as will be addressed more directly later at this feast (8:15-16, 26, 50).
Another attempt is made to seize Jesus (v. 44; cf. v. 30). Instead of receiving him as the Son of God whose word they should obey, they wanted to have him under their own will. This disordered desire is at the heart of human rebellion against God. But they do not act on their desire: no one laid a hand on him (v. 44). Again we see the contrast between the desire of rebellious humanity and the sovereign outworking of God's plan.
John shifts from the crowd and their chaotic reaction to the Jewish leadership, referred to as the chief priests and Pharisees (v. 45). Their settled opposition to Jesus is contrasted with a few of their associates' favorable response to Jesus—first their servants (vv. 45-49) and then Nicodemus, one of their own members (vv. 50-52).
The temple guards return empty-handed not because they had been rendered powerless by Jesus (cf. their later experience, 18:3-6), nor because they feared the crowds, for some among the crowds also wanted to seize him (contrast later, Mt 26:5 par. Mk 14:2 par. Lk 22:2, 6). Rather, they are struck by the uniqueness of Jesus' message (7:46). This probably accounts for the fact that they were gone for four days (cf. 7:14, 32, 37) instead of an hour or so, as the authorities might have expected! It is right that they should be struck by Jesus' teaching—here the eternal Word was speaking about himself, about God and about the salvation he had brought in fulfillment of the promises made through the prophets. Jesus' very way of speaking was unique, as befit his unique message: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (6:63). It is a mark of our own spiritual dullness if we can read the Gospels and be bored. Boredom is one response to Jesus we never find in the Gospels.
Their own servants have born witness to Jesus, but the authorities are rigid in their opposition. They accuse their servants of having been deceived, a view expressed earlier by some in the crowd (7:12). They knew their servants were learned in the Scriptures, so they were surprised that "even they" (kai hymeis) have been deceived. So they point to themselves as the ones learned in the Scriptures and capable of discerning the truth of religious teaching (v. 48), and then they contrast their secure assessment with that of the crowd, which was ignorant of the law (v. 49).
To speak of the crowd as ignorant of the law and under a curse corresponds to the rabbinic view of the 'am ha'arets, the people of the land. Prior to the exile this was a more positive term, referring simply to "the body of free men, enjoying civic rights in a given territory" (de Vaux 1961:1:70). Later it meant the people in distinction to various forms of leadership (de Vaux 1961:1:71). A tone of disdain begins in Ezra and Nehemiah, where the term sometimes refers to "the heterogeneous population which the returnees found in the land" (Healey 1992:169; cf. Ezra 9:1-2; 10:2, 11; Neh 10:30-31). For the rabbis the term is theological and negative. The Pharisees' use in our passage corresponds to this rabbinic view and also probably reflects the power struggles within first-century Judaism (cf. Meyer and Katz 1967:589-90). This term is basically a code phrase for those who do not approach the law in the same way as the rabbis and the Pharisees, who study the law constantly and work out meticulous interpretations for how to fulfill its commandments. Since one cannot keep the law if one does not know it, such ignorance implies law breaking and thus God's curse (cf. Deut 27:15-26). Rabbi Hillel (20 B.C.) said, "An uneducated man does not fear sin, and an Am ha-aretz is not pious" (m. 'Abot 2:5). This does not mean the 'am ha'arets were ignorant of the Scriptures or immoral. It means they did not try to keep the form of ritual purity promoted by the scribes and Pharisees. From the debates in all four Gospels it is clear that Jesus was as learned in the law as the rabbis were, yet he rejected their understanding of faithfulness to the Torah.
The opponents' ignorance or deceit is revealed in their response to the guards (vv. 45-49). First, they say that not one (me tis) of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Jesus when in fact Nicodemus, who was both a Pharisee and a ruler (3:1), had acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher come from God and, by implication, certainly not a deceiver (3:2). Second, they take their stand on the law in contrast to this mob that knows nothing of the law (v. 49). But their whole way of handling the situation is contrary to the law, as Nicodemus points out (v. 51). The Old Testament does not contain an explicit text that makes Nicodemus's point, but the law's exhortation to make a thorough investigation when passing judgment (Deut 17:2-5; 19:15-19) would include hearing the accused, as later rabbinic teaching makes clear (m. Sanhedrin 5:4; Exodus Rabbah 21:3). This principle was recognized at the time of Jesus, otherwise Nicodemus's response would carry no weight. The text also implies that they knew of this principle because they do not dispute Nicodemus's point.
Instead, they choose to defend their judgment using a different supposed teaching of Scripture: a prophet does not come out of Galilee (v. 52). The NIV margin note indicates that two early manuscripts (p66 and p75) read "the Prophet" instead of a prophet. A reference here to "the" prophet fits the context well (v. 40) and has been accepted by a number of scholars. Since, however, Scripture does not say where the prophet like Moses is to arise, the opponents' rejection of Galilee is based more on prejudice against that region than revelation.
This prejudice is even stronger if the reading a prophet is accepted, as it probably should be. On this reading the evidence of their perversity is further heightened because Scripture reveals that in fact prophets had arisen in Galilee; for example, the prophet mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 was Jonah, son of Amittai from Gath Hepher, which was about three miles northeast of Nazareth. Indeed, rabbinic sources from the late first-century A.D. speak of prophets having arisen from every tribe of Israel (b. Sukka 27b). Thus, whether we read "the prophet" or a prophet, there is great irony in their false claim to scriptural authority for their view regarding Galilee. Indeed, their very response to Nicodemus's accusation that they are acting contrary to the law reveals yet more clearly the truth of his charge.
On a deeper level this passage provides a vivid example of part of John's primary assessment of these opponents. They are judging by appearances (7:24) and are concerned more with human opinion than God's truth (5:44). When their servants bear witness to Christ they do not consider the authority of Jesus that the servants had experienced. Instead, they assume the servants were swayed by the crowd, and they contrast their own response to this response. They are weighing one set of human voices against another. In this they are acting as though they are in a trial: they attend to the witnesses, as it were, but they do not confront the evidence of Jesus himself. As Jesus will make clear, they are judging by weak and faulty human standards (8:15).Nicodemus, unlike his peers, had undertaken an investigation of the sort he here refers to (v. 51). He had come to a conclusion based on Jesus' deeds (3:2), but when he then went to Jesus and heard him Nicodemus came away confused. Thus, he had already learned for himself the truth of the servants' report that no one ever spoke the way this man does (v. 46). Our present passage shows that Nicodemus is still inclined toward Jesus; he is even willing to stick up for him in the face of severe opposition. He is not a full disciple, but he is a supporter. This passage reveals that the Pharisees are at the heart of the opposition to Jesus. Given the strong dualistic language John uses throughout his Gospel, it is important to see that he realizes that even the most negative group, the Pharisees, contains a person who is open to Jesus. John focuses on groups, but he also keeps sight of individuals.
As Jesus continues to act and speak it is increasingly clear that one must either receive him and his message on his own terms or utterly reject him. This is no less true today, not only for non-Christians considering the claims of Jesus, but also for those who call themselves his followers. Like these Pharisees it is all too easy to mistake our interpretations of God's revelation for reality. We should hold firmly to what has been revealed in Scripture under the guidance the Spirit has given the church, but we must do so in an abiding relationship with the living God in whose presence we live. We must hold firmly to him in his objectively real presence and allow him to correct our personal, faulty understandings of him and his ways. The truth is in Jesus in perfection, but our apprehension of him is not yet perfect.
In this section, then, we have a striking picture of the opponents' rejection of Jesus. We are at the low point in Jesus' ministry; most of his disciples have abandoned him, and he is moving about like a marked man. Even in this setting, some are open enough to respond by recognizing him as one sent from God in some sense (vv. 40-41). The division among the crowd and the positive response of the leaders' servants and of Nicodemus serve to highlight just how strong the opponents' rejection of Jesus is. This absolute rejection prepares us for Jesus' teachings in the next chapter, in which he will reveal the true identity of these opponents who claim to speak for God.
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