Beyond the Lectionary Text: John 8:48-59
by Chelsey Harmon
There’s a very well-known story about a man trapped in the water (variations include him on a roof during a flood, lost on a large lake without his oars, or lost at sea). The man, being a good Christian, prays and believes that God will rescue him. A boat happens upon him and offers to help. The man refuses, saying, “No thanks, God will save me.” A rescue helicopter shows up on the scene and drops him a lifeline. Again the man refuses the help, citing his faith in God to save him as he waves the would-be helpers away. Another boat tries to convince him to take their aid, but the man stubbornly won’t budge as he waits for God to rescue him. Inevitably, the man dies. When he gets to heaven, the man rather indignantly asks God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?” God answers, “Are you kidding me? I sent you a helicopter and two boats!”
After reading Jesus’ discussion with those opposing him in John 8, I immediately thought of the story of the stranded man because he, like the Jews arguing with Jesus, can’t see or understand what’s right in front of him.
John 8.48-59 is a continuation of a larger conversation taking place at the temple in Jerusalem during (and following) the weeklong Feast of the Tabernacles. Each night of the festival, an elaborate Temple light celebration took place in the courts of the temple to symbolize God’s glory coming down in the past and to express the prayers and hopes of it coming down to earth again with the Messiah. In John 8.12, Jesus calls himself that glory and Messiah, proclaiming, “I am the light of the world” thus beginning another of John’s ‘conflict narratives’; our text, where Jesus claims himself eternal, ends this particular debate.
Each of these conflict narratives in the gospel of John give us another perspective on what those who see Jesus are missing when they don’t see Jesus as Messiah. Like the man trapped but unable to see God as his rescuer through a boat passing by, the Pharisees cannot understand the man in front of him as the Messiah because he is not the Messiah they are willing to recognize. Instead, they see him as a madman with a demon at best, and at worst, a Samaritan heretic.
In the latest version of the Alpha program (Alpha 7), the first session deals exclusively with Jesus’ identity. Much like the dichotomy we are presented by the opposing Jews in this text, much of the debate about Jesus throughout the history of the church falls into two camps: either Jesus is God or he is a madman. C.S. Lewis wrote, “A man who was merely a man, and said the sort of things Jesus said, would not be a great moral teacher. Either Jesus was, and is the Son of God, or else he was insane or evil.” That’s exactly the same sentiments of those opposing Jesus in verse 48: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” For in that time, Samaritans were considered less than true believers, they were even believed to by some to be heretics on the basis of their religious practices. For one, Samaritans didn’t worship in the temple in Jerusalem, ‘true’ Jews judged some of their religious practices as magic and thought that their prophets made big claims without proof to back them up. To those who believed they were the true believers in God, Jesus’ proclamations sound all too familiar to this ‘other side’.
Jesus doesn’t even bother to respond to the claim that he was a Samaritan. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even take the time to defend his own honour. He matter of factly declares that he will leave that act to God his Father, whose glory he is seeking to live and to give on earth. In the typical use of irony in the gospel of John, Jesus is telling the temple do-gooders that they claim to have the same purpose— glorifying Yahweh— but their attempt to do so by lambasting Jesus is literally the doing the opposite. Jesus shows them the way, throws them the proverbial lifeline, saying, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death” but those listening refuse to accept it and say no thanks, continuing on in their own way of thinking.
Drawing upon their tradition and the father of their faith Abraham, the epitome of faithfulness, belief, trust and holy living, Jesus’ naysayers scoff at his claim: ‘How can this man talk about not dying when even the best man we know, Abraham, died? And every man of God since, including the prophets who obeyed the Lord’s commands with their lives and words, has died. Who do you claim to be that you can keep death from happening?’ They demand from Jesus, just “Who do you claim to be?”
Jesus has already shown with his answers thus far that he is not interested in defending his honour, wisely recognizing that anything he says will not make the difference for these questioners whose minds seem to be already made up. “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing.” But there is the Father, the God Jesus knows so deeply, so fully, so intimately well that he calls him Father when the rest of the people there only call him “God”. The Father will do the glorifying for Jesus.
Do you feel the gut punch Jesus’ retort is to those listening? To be told that your relationship with the God you claim to know so well, to love and to worship, to be devoted to, isn’t so close or real as you think is truly an insult. Jesus calls them liars because they do not recognize him as one with the Father. Liars! And as though there is no turning back now that he’s gotten going, Jesus lays down the follow-up punch: “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced at the thought of me; he saw my day and he was glad.”
Jesus claims to not only be greater than Abraham, he claims that Abraham’s dreams to see the covenant promise of God fulfilled came true in Jesus’ day, that day, the days of Jesus walking and teaching on the earth. Abraham rejoiced to know Jesus as Saviour of the world, blessing the nations, making the family of God number as many as the stars in the sky. The father of faith has been eclipsed by the man standing in front of them, offering himself to them.
“Can’t be!” the opposers exclaim. “Do you think we’re stupid, Jesus? How could you have seen Abraham when you’re not even old?” Notice that they use Abraham as the constant in their scoff. But Abraham is not the constant: God is, Jesus is. “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” In this loaded statement, Jesus claims the role as constant, as eternal, as God. Not only does he place himself both before the time of Abraham as well as show himself present in the world today, he uses Yahweh’s Old Testament self-identification in the absolute, “I am.”
“I am” and that’s all there is to it. “I am” and that’s all there is to accept. “I am” and there’s nothing that you can do about it but accept it or reject it. Those gathered in the temple rejected it, picking up stones to throw at the assumed madman they judged as a blasphemer.
Missionaries in countries where you aren’t allowed to talk about your Christian faith unless you are asked about it, speak of Jesus’ remarkable appearances to nonbelievers— that Jesus appears to people in dreams and visions, presenting them with the choice to accept him as eternal Lord or reject him and his promises. The Jews at the temple that day had a similar choice; they decided to stone Jesus did.
For many of us though, even though Jesus is still as eternal and present as ever before, it seems that circumstances warrant a different kind of rejection of Jesus. In the modern world, it is easy herald Jesus as a great teacher rather than make a choice between madman or actual deity. C.S. Lewis continued his own thoughts about this debate over Jesus’ identity by writing, “But let’s not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a ‘great human teacher’. He has not left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.” Like Jesus does not intend to leave those in the temple with doubt about his claim to be the Messiah, the Light of the World who was God and was with God before the time of Abraham (before the world even began according to the Gospel’s prologue), if we truly listen to his words, think on his ways, ponder his glory, then we are left with no other option than to reject him or accept him as the Saviour of the world.
The character of Christ is exhibited in his unwillingness to defend himself or to seek his own glory. That even God himself chooses to do so is confounding to me as a human being— when someone questions my integrity, purpose, or decisions, the first thing I want to do is defend myself. But Jesus doesn’t do so. Is there a way that we are called to a similar Christlikeness?
Self-glorification is also a good way to catch false messiahs and cult leaders. Compare Jesus’ disposition of glorifying the Father rather than himself with the decisions and actions of Joseph Smith Jr., David Koresh, Sun Myung Moon and other cult leaders. It won’t take long to see where the two ways of leading people part roads: instead of raising himself in status, power, or prestige, Jesus left that work to the rest of the Godhead and sacrificed for those who would follow him. Jesus acted out of a disposition of love rather than self-glorification.
Rev. Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.