"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 11. Jesus begins to move from death to new life (Jn 12.1-50)

11.4 The Paradox of Jesus' Signs and the End of his Public Teaching (Jn 12.37-50)

General Comments

Subsection 1: The lack of full acceptance of Jesus as Messiah

One abiding concern of the early Jesus movement was why Jesus had not been more widely accepted as Messiah, both by the people in general and by their leadership in particular. It seems to have been shared by Jesus himself, for this concern reveals itself, for example, in the hostility between Jesus and his followers and the Pharisees in the Synoptic Gospels as well as John. In this section of ch12 the evangelist offered two quotations from Isaiah as well as an observation about the prophet as a way of explaining that failure of acceptance. According to the evangelist, the people in general and their leadership were acting in accordance with prophecy. We have already seen how important John considered the fulfilment of prophecy in his telling of the story of Jesus from Jn 11.47-53. There John relates Caiphas' prophecy, made as high priest, that Jesus "would die for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that he might assemble the dispersed children of God into one."

Isaiah in particular is an important prophet for the early Jesus movement. As we have seen, parts of Isaiah (the Servant Songs) were crucial for Jesus' own understanding of his role and purpose. The first of the two passages from Isaiah that John quotes actually comes from the middle of one of the Servant Songs; it's Isaiah 53.1. The power of the Lord has not been revealed to the people and their leaders, and the prophet's report has not been heard -- and the implication of John's quotation in this context is that it is Israel that has not received the Lord's power and the prophet's report. The relevance of this is hammered home by John's final observation about Isaiah himself: that the prophet had somehow seen the Lord's glory (that is, Jesus's glory as described in the prologue [[add link]]), just as Abraham saw Jesus' day (Jn 8.56). Furthermore, John affirms again that the Lord of whom Isaiah spoke in these passages was Jesus. So the failure to acknowledge Jesus that Isaiah prophesied is in part based on a failure to understand what Isaiah was actually talking about!

But before this affirmation, John also incorporated a quotation of, or rather an allusion to, Isaiah 6.10. In the Synoptic gospels, this verse is also quoted, by Jesus himself, as he explains to his disciples why he speaks in parables and other figurative language (see Marcus 2002 pp 288-307,epecially 298-307). But John uses it to emphasize that the failure of Israel and its leaders to accept Jesus as a whole is not because of some choice or decision of theirs so much as it is the result of God's will, expressed in Isaiah's prophecy. Both as Messiah and Servant, Jesus must suffer and die as the original Servant of Second Isaiah did, and therefore must also be rejected as the Servant was. Jesus' rejection by most of his people is a fulfilment of prophecy, both the prophecy of Isaiah and that of Caiaphas the High Priest.

The end of this paragraph makes the juxtaposition between prophecy and human action harder to understand. Here John affirmed that although most of the leaders did not accept Jesus as Messiah, some of them did but were too afraid of the Pharisees to accept Jesus openly. He attributes to them the same base motive (caring about human 'doxa', that is, good opinion, glory, more than God's 'doxa') that he reports Jesus attributing to his opponents in ch7, especially Jn 7.14-18. John was particularly harsh toward the Pharisees, especially those on the Council, and Judas, although many others were also complicit in Jesus' betrayal and condemnation, and here the Pharisees are singled out.

By invoking the will of God, expressed in prophecy, when trying to answer this question about the lack of full acceptance, John, like the author of Exodus who tried to explain Pharoah's actions by involving God's hardening of Pharoah's heart, takes us into the realm of divine mysteries. When prophets propose hardened understanding and lack of sight by the people in general, or posit the hardened heart of Pharoah, then we are in the borderlines between human freedom and divine will. John forces us to ask unanswerable questions about human (in)action and God's plan. All we can say in the end is that the actions of human beings are both the result of their choices and the result of God's will, working together on some level to which we cannot penetrate. Can we still hold Pharoah responsible for not agreeing to Moses' pleas after the plagues began? Can we still say that it was wrong, or at least mistaken, for Israel not to have embraced Jesus as a whole? As always when such mysteries are involved, we can only say both Yes and No. The past condemnations and persecutions of Jewish individuals and the Jewish people on the basis of these texts are certainly not justified, and require a serious misreading of what John has written.

Subsection 2: Summary of Teaching

The final verses of this section of the gospel, Jn 12.44-50, are presented by the evangelist as a final proclamation of his teaching by Jesus. They are introduced with "But Jesus cried out and said", but this does not really fit with the rest of the chapter: Jesus withdrew from public view in v36 after his intense reaction to the coming of Andrew and Philip to tell Jesus about the Gentiles who wanted to see him and there has been no indication that he has come out of hiding nor of where he was speaking and to whom. It is probably better to regard it as a summary teaching, put together by John to reflect the key points of Jesus' discourses as he has presented them.

Jesus makes, or rather repeats, key points about his relationship with the Father who sent him, about what it means to be light to the world, about the word that the Father spoke, which contains eternal life and also will judge those who disregard and do not keep Jesus' words. He ends with, "So what I say, I say just as the Father told me to say it." This Jesus is bound into a close, almost a tight relationship with the one who sent him. That relationship involves all who trust in him, who see him, in trusting and seeing the one who sent it. And Jesus is light, a light by which everyone in the world can safely walk. The guarantee for all this is that Jesus' words are exactly what the Father has told him to say.

This sounds and is quite different from what most readers would choose as key points in Jesus' teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, and this lends credence to the theory that John intended for his gospel to supplement or even correct what had been written by Mark and the others. It should not make us think that John's Jesus is less authentic than, say, Mark's. They are different but not contradictory. See also Brown 1966 pp 491-3 for a discussion of the way that Jesus' words here echo the book of Deuteronomy.


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