Where the world comes to study the Bible

From the series:

A Matter of Life and Death

Did you know that you carry a lethal weapon with you wherever you go? And it would be impossible for anyone to make you check it at the door, because it is attached to your body. The Spirit of God led Solomon to write, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). That is an amazing statement! And truer than we care to think. James said the tongue is full of deadly poison (James 3:8). A frightening thought!

The story of what happened to a family in a small North Dakota community illustrates this truth. The mother had not been well since the birth of her second baby, but everyone knew she did all she could to create an atmosphere of love in the home. The neighbors could see the father being met at the door each evening with hugs and kisses from his wife and two small children. In summer when the windows were open, they could hear the laughter and joyous fun coming from inside the house.

Then one day a village gossip whispered that the man was being unfaithful to his wife, a story completely without basis. It was passed on by others, and eventually came to his wife’s ears. It was more than she could bear. One evening when her husband came home, no one met him at the door. There was a deathly silence in the air. His wife had taken her own life and those of her two children. He was overcome with grief. His innocence was proven to all, but the gossip’s tongue had already done its work. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. It is full of deadly poison.5

Most of us who know the Lord want our conversations to honor Him. We want our communication habits to promote love and unity in the Body of Christ. But too often we use our built-in weapons system to accomplish the very opposite effect. Then we wonder why there is so much conflict among God’s people. A study of Scripture may help us find the antidote for the poison of gossip.

The Cause for Gossip

While the word is not prominent in Scripture, the idea of gossip is sprinkled throughout the Bible. It mentions talebearers, people who whisper derogatory information about others. It mentions backbiters, people who talk about faults of others behind their backs. It mentions slanderers, people who speak against others, often with a desire to do them harm. It talks about speaking evil of people or maligning them. We can sum it all up with one word, gossip. It is an ugly word. You can even hear it hissing at you when you say it. It is so ugly, hardly anyone will ever admit to doing it. They have valid concerns. They want to share a matter for prayer. But they never gossip!

We studied a critical spirit, that is, preoccupation with faults of others. Gossip is talking about those faults to people who cannot do anything about them, people who are neither a part of the problem nor a part of the solution. And talking about them to others is gossip, whether it is rumor or fact, true or false. God says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren” (James 4:11). That injunction does not say anything about whether it is true or false. It is evidently unacceptable to speak against other believers even if the story is true.

It is even wrong to do it in the form of a prayer request: “Pray for John. He’s been seeing another woman.” Or in speaking to the Lord publicly, we say, “Lord, deal with John. You know he’s running around on his wife.” It is wrong to spread accounts of the sins of other people, to put them in a bad light, to say things that will cause other people to dislike them, disrespect them or distrust them. Gossip is listed alongside the vilest sins imaginable. Listen to Paul’s lineup of gross sinners:

“Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29,30). Yet gossip seems to be another one of the Christian’s favorite pastimes. Why?

Most of us want others to think well of us. If we were honest, we would admit that a good bit of our thought-life is occupied with our acceptance level: “Do they know who I am? Do they like me? Do they respect me? Do they think I know what I’m talking about? Do they think I’m attractive? Do they like what I’m wearing? Do they want to be with me?” The lower our self-esteem is, the more we worry about things like that, but all of us give some thought to them.

And that is why we gossip. We want to make ourselves look better and gain greater acceptance. If we have confidential information others do not have, it makes us appear important, knowledgeable and superior. People will listen to us. If we fear somebody else excels us in some way, cutting them down helps us excuse our failure to achieve what they have achieved. If we are jealous of the attention or acclaim they get, pointing out their faults makes us look a little better by comparison. If somebody has injured us, putting them in a bad light seems to us to be a fair way of retaliating, balancing the scales and restoring some of our self-esteem. It can also be an effective way of winning people to our side in the conflict. We seem to think that having more people on our side gives us greater worth. It would help us more though, if we realized that God loves us as we are, that He has accepted us in Christ and considers us a valuable part of His team with a significant role to fill. We don’t need to put others in bad light to establish our own importance.

There are other reasons we gossip. For one thing, we may have had a poor example. We grew up hearing our parents gossip and so were led to believe it was an acceptable part of life. Another possibility is that we have not developed our minds to the extent that we have anything else to talk about but people. Somebody has suggested that folks with great minds talk about ideas, folks with average minds talk about events, and folks with small minds talk about other people. It would help to develop our minds.

The Apostle Paul suggested that we may gossip because we do not have anything better to do. He talks about young widows who “learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention” (1 Timothy 5:13). Gossip here is foolish talk, especially talk that incriminates others. Their gossip is tied both to their idleness and to their tendency to be busybodies, that is, meddling in the affairs of other people. If they invested their time and energies into spiritually profitable activities such as visiting rest homes, ministering to shut-ins or caring for children, they would not have time to chatter about other people. But the cause for gossip is not nearly as important as the damage it does.

The Consequences of Gossip

The book of Proverbs is like a textbook on the tongue, and it mentions several damaging effects of gossip. The first is that it separates friends. “A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 16:28). “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Sometimes gossip is done purposely and maliciously by a jealous person who resents the friends someone else has. If he can dig up any trace of disreputable information, he will use it to drive a wedge between friends so he can try to move into the gap. He finds that to be easier than winning friends by showing genuine, unselfish kindness to others. “I don’t mean to be talking about her, but …” “I don’t want you to think I’m gossiping, but …” And in goes the knife!

On the other hand, there may be no malicious intent. It is just idle talk, or an effort to appear on the “inside.” But the result is just the same. You may have heard about the conversation where Ellen says, “Suzie told me you told her the secret that I told you not to tell her.” Jane answers, “Why that blabber mouth! I told her not to tell you I told her.” So Ellen replies, “Well, I told her I wouldn’t tell you she told me, so don’t tell her I did.” That friendship is doomed. Friends have to be able to trust each other. “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13).

We alienate our own closest friends by gossip. They begin to suspect that if we talk about others to them, we will also talk about them to others, so they hesitate to share their souls with us. And if we do talk about them, you can be sure it will get back to them, usually exaggerated by a few degrees. And no matter how much we protest that we did not say exactly that, the friendship could be irreparably damaged. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it [that is, love to use their tongues] will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). If we use the tongue for good, we will reap good from it. If we use it to cast shadows, those shadows will eventually fall on us.

Another consequence of gossip is that it wounds people. “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body” (Proverbs 18:8). How do you feel when you find out that people have been talking about you unfavorably? They may have enjoyed it as one would enjoy a dainty morsel, but it hurts you, doesn’t it? And the hurt reaches down to your innermost being. While we know the Lord wants us to forgive them, we usually stew on it, worry over it, fret about it, feel sorry for ourselves and get angry with them. Sometimes it begins to affect our ability to function properly. And it may take a long time to heal. Think about that the next time you are tempted to share some juicy tidbit about someone. Would you want that told about you, even if it were true?

Gossip not only wounds, but it also destroys. I have a pastor friend, in his late sixties, who put his arm innocently on the shoulder of a single female missionary who had just returned from the field. A few old biddies in the church saw him and nearly ended his ministry. Another gracious, godly and extremely capable pastor in my acquaintance was forced to resign his pastorate because an associate began to sow seeds of suspicion and doubt about his abilities, even making insinuations about his sanity. Ministers have been destroyed by other men in the ministry who thought they knew what their colleagues believed, but misrepresented it publicly and attacked them personally. How that must grieve the heart of God!

Gossip likewise instigates anger. “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance” (Proverbs 25:23). Some of the angriest people I have ever talked to have been the victims of vicious gossip. They were furious. The resentment they have built up as a result of the anger is sin, and they need to resolve it. But the person with the runaway tongue will still answer for his disobedience to God’s Word.

Did you ever turn a garden hose on with the nozzle partially open? It flops around, bangs into things and soaks everyone nearby. Those people are not very happy with you, are they? A flopping tongue, spraying poison of gossip, has even worse consequences. Husbands and wives have made their family and friends furious with their spouses by talking about faults. Some who have heard the dirt have never been able to forget it and accept the one about whom the gossip has been told. The anger lives on.

That leads to the final consequence of gossip we want to mention. It causes contention and strife. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down” (Proverbs 26:20). We all have known of churches which were wracked with strife. But there never has been one where the strife would not disappear if people would stop gossiping. “Do you know what he said? Do you know what she did? I’ll tell you what I think he’s after. If he would just do his job, everything would be all right. Do you know what that board is up to now?” Blah, blah, blah! Foolish talk. But it is like wood on the fire. It gets other people stirred up, and they get other people stirred up, and what started out as a spark turns into a raging fire.

James tells us where the original spark comes from. He said it “is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). And Satan must be laughing himself silly over it. Gossip is his game. The name devil means “slanderer.” And he is called “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10). But God hates it. He says the person who spreads strife among brothers is an abomination to Him (Proverbs 6:16-19). Well, what are we going to do about it?

The Cure for Gossip

The first suggestion for eliminating gossip from our conversations is to obey the command of Christ and confront others directly. “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). God wants us to confront those who wrong us. If somebody does something to offend us, slight us, wrong us, take advantage of us or fail us in some way, or if we are aware of a serious sin which somebody has committed, we are to talk to that person about it. Nobody else! Just him alone. If it is some petty little thing, maybe we should just forgive him and forget about it. But if it is important enough to talk to anybody else about, we must talk to him about it first. And if it is not important enough to talk to him, then there is no need ever to mention it to anyone else.

I have asked people on occasion if they have confronted the person who offended them and their answer has been, “Yes, and it didn’t do a bit of good.” So now they feel justified in telling others. But there is a second step prescribed by our Lord, and it is not to spread the word among our friends. “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (v. 16). Have you done that?

Then there is another step. “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax gatherer” (v. 17). Have you done that? Nowhere in this procedure does it say, “O.K., now you can blab it to all your friends.” That is never a biblical option! And consistent biblical attempts to resolve the problem will help eliminate the temptation to talk about it to others.

The second suggestion for eliminating gossip is simply to refuse to listen to it. “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip” (Proverbs 20:19). If all of us would follow that advice, the gossips would have nobody to infect with their venom. When Mrs. Motormouth calls a friend at church and starts to unload her dirt about Gracie Gadabout, her friend should say, “It would be good if you talked to Gracie about that. I don’t feel comfortable with the information.” She will call another friend and try again. But if she gets the same response four or five times, she will either clean up her speech habits or look for a new church. In either case, that church will be spared the poison of her gossiping tongue.

It is difficult not to listen when somebody starts giving us some high level, top-secret information. It makes us feel important to think that they would choose to tell us. Our old sin natures prompt us to take it in and store it up so we can use it someday to enhance our own image. But the listener is just as guilty as the gossiper. People talk because other people listen. If nobody listened, gossip would cease.

A third suggestion for overcoming gossip is to be more open about our own weaknesses. We like to keep our problems under cover for the sake of our image. If we’re not getting along with our spouse, or one of the children ran away from home, or we’re having difficulties on the job, we don’t want anyone to know lest it destroy our reputation as a good Christian. But our secrecy not only deprives us of the healing which the rest of the Body can minister to us, it also provides grist for the rumor mill. If we openly shared those problems and personally solicited the prayer support of other believers, we would be helped immensely, and the mystery on which the gossip feeds would be done away. There is no reason to gossip if everyone knows about it already.

God wants me to be open about my weaknesses, and you to be open about your weaknesses. But that is where it stops. He doesn’t want me to be open about yours, nor you to be open about mine. Openness itself can turn to gossip when we misuse it. You all have heard of the three preachers who were out in a boat together fishing. They decided to get honest with each other about their secret sins. The first preacher said he liked to gamble when he got away from home. The second said he took a little nip on the bottle when no one was looking. “What’s yours?” they asked the third. “Mine’s gossip,” he answered, “and I can’t wait to get out of here.” That is not the kind of openness we are talking about. Let each of us be honest about our own shortcomings.

A fourth suggestion is to learn to love. We learn that primarily by observing God’s love for us (cf. 1 John 4:19). And when we truly learn it, we will not gossip any more. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions” (Proverbs 10:12). That idea was borrowed by Peter who said, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The worst thing about gossip is that it is totally unloving. We are showing no loving consideration whatsoever for the person we talk about in a derogatory manner. We are tearing him down before others, whereas love builds him up (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1).

Before we open our mouths it might be good to ask, “Will this build respect for the person I am about to mention? Will it build trust? Will it build love?” If not, it would be better to leave it unsaid. There are many things I have said through the years that I wish I could take back. But it is too late! Thoughtless, loveless words can never be reclaimed. Learn to love!

There is one more suggestion, the most obvious and most important, yet probably the least used. Ask the Lord to help you guard your tongue. The psalmist did. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). God loves to help people who humbly admit their need and ask Him for help. Will you try it? He will help you conquer the gossip habit.

5 Our Daily Bread, October 18, 1980.

From the series:

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Home, Man (Anthropology)

8. Exegetical Commentary on John 5


    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]

      [1 B The Early Months of Jesus’ Public Ministry: From Cana to Cana (chapters 2-4)]

      2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)

        1 C The Third Sign, at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem: The Healing of the Paralytic (5:1-47)

          1 D The miraculous gift of restoration to the man at the pool (5:1-15)

          2 D The conflict with the Jewish leaders over the right to heal on the Sabbath (5:16-47)


Bell, H. I., “Search the Scriptures [Joh. 5,39],” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 37 (1938): 10-13.

Bowman, J., “The Identity and Date of the Unnamed Feast of John 5,1,” in Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. H. Goedicke (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971): 43-56.

Jeremias, J., The Rediscovery of Bethesda; John 5:2 (Louisville: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1966).

Kysar, R., “The Eschatology of the Fourth Gospel—A Correction of Bultmann’s Hypothesis,” Perspective 13 (1972): 23-33.

Meeks, W. A., The Prophet King: Moses Traditions and Johannine Christology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967).

Moreton, M. J., “Feast, Sign and Discourse in John 5,” in Studia Evangelica 4 [ = Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968)]:209-13.

Summers, R., “The Johannine View of the Future Life,” Review and Expositor 58 (1961): 331-47.

Vardaman, E. J., “The Pool of Bethesda,” Biblical Research 14 (1963): 27-29.

Wahlde, U. C. von, “The Witnesses to Jesus in John 5:31-40 and Belief in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981): 385-404.

Wallace, D. B., “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71 (1990): 177-205.

Wieand, D. J., “John v. 2 and the Pool of Bethesda,” New Testament Studies 12 (1966): 392-404.


      2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)

        1 C The Third Sign, at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem: The Healing of the Paralytic (5:1-47)

          1 D The miraculous gift of restoration to the man at the pool (5:1-15)

5:1 The only transitional note we have, again, is in 5:1— metaV tau'ta. We cannot be sure how long after the incidents at Cana this occurred because this temporal indicator is non-specific. As far as the setting goes, there is difficulty because of the textual variants: eJorthv or hJ eJorthv —”a feast” or “the feast”. This may not appear significant at first, but to insert the article would almost certainly demand a reference to the passover. Externally this problem is difficult to decide, but it is probably better to read the word eJorthv as anarthrous in agreement with Nestle-Aland 26th ed. and United Bible Societies 3rd ed. and thus a reference to a feast other than the passover. The incidental note in 5:3, that the sick were lying outside in the porticoes of the pool, makes passover an unlikely time because it fell toward the end of winter and the weather would not have been warm. L. Morris thinks it impossible to identity the feast with certainty.73

Jews were obligated to go up to Jerusalem for 3 major annual feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. If the first is probably ruled out because of the time of year, we may also suppose that the last is not as likely because it forms the central setting for chapter 7 (where there are many indications in the context that Tabernacles is the feast in view.) This leaves the feast of Pentecost, which at some point prior to this time in Jewish tradition (as reflected in Jewish intertestamental literature and later post-Christian rabbinic writings) became identified with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Such an association might explain Jesus’ reference to Moses in 5:45-46. This is conjectural, however. The only really important fact for the Evangelist is that the healing was done on a Sabbath. This is what provoked the controversy with the Jews recorded in 5:16-47.

5:2 The site of the miracle is also something of a problem: probatikh'/ is usually taken as a reference to the Sheep Gate near the Temple. Some (Brown, et al.) would place the word kolumbhvqra with probatikh'/ to read “in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Pool, there is (another pool) with the Hebrew name…”. This would of course imply that there is reference to two pools in the context rather than only one. This does not seem necessary (although it is a grammatical possibility). We are not helped by the gender of the words since both are feminine (as is the participle ejpilegomevnh). Note, however, that Brown’s suggestion would require a feminine word to be supplied (for the participle ejpilegomevnh to modify). The traditional understanding of the phrase as a reference to the Sheep Gate near the Temple appears more probably correct.

A lot of controversy has surrounded the name of the pool itself: the reading of the Majority Text, Bhqesda, has been virtually discarded in favor of what is thought to be the more primitive Bhqzaqa or Betzetha (Old Latin). The latter is attested by Josephus as the name of a quarter of the city near the northeast corner of the Temple area. He reports that the Syrian Legate Cestius burned this suburb in his attack on Jerusalem in October AD 68.74 However, there is some new archaeological evidence (published by Milik in Discoveries in the Judean Desert III [1962]): Copper scroll 3Q15 from Qumran seems to indicate that in the general area of the Temple, on the eastern hill of Jerusalem, a treasure was buried in Bet 'Esdatayin, in the pool at the entrance to the smaller basin. The name of the region or pool itself seems then to have been Bet 'Esd, “house of the flowing”. It appears with the dual ending in the scroll because there were 2 basins.

Bhqesda seems to be an accurate Greek rendition of the name, while Milik suggests Bhqzaqa is a rendition of the Aramaic intensive plural Bet 'Esdat. All of this is not entirely certain, but is certainly plausible; if Milik is correct, both the textual variants would refer to the same location, one a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name, the other a Greek rendering of the Aramaic. This would be an unusual instance where two textual traditions which appear to be in conflict would both be correct!

On the location of the pool, we may note: the double-pool of St. Anne is the probable site, and has been excavated; the pools were trapezoidal in shape, 165 feet (49.5 m) wide at one end, 220 ft. (66 m) wide at the other, and 315 ft. (94.5 m) long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades (rows of columns) on all 4 sides and on the partition—thus forming the “5 porticoes” mentioned in 5:2. Stairways at the corners permitted descent to the pool.

Regarding the use of the present tense ejstin and its implications for the dating of the Gospel of John, see the previous discussion on the date of the Gospel (pp. 14-15 above) and the article by D. B. Wallace, “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71 (1990): 177-205.

5:3-4 The major problem in these verses is over the inclusion of verses 3b-4: few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of these verses. However, in support of their inclusion, there is fairly broad geographical support. True, a considerable number of important manuscripts (66 75 a B C D) favor omission, but the standard canon that the older reading is preferred is not always conclusive. The same applies to the shorter reading—and the longer reading can just as easily explain the shorter in the case of accidental omission. Internally, it is argued that the verses are theologically offensive, and that at least 7 of the words are non-Johannine. But such statistical arguments prove little; and if the verse is theologically objectionable that gives strong weight to the probability it was deliberately excluded in some copies.

As far as I can see the text is incomplete without something here to explain verse 7, the reference to the troubling of the water. Most today would say this is what motivated a copyist to add verses 3b-4; but the text as it would stand without the verses in question is so difficult that it does not seem consistent with Johannine style elsewhere. It would seem, in fact, either obscure or careless to leave this incident unexplained, when elsewhere John goes to such great lengths to add notes and comments to aid readers who might not be familiar with Jewish customs, places, names, etc. Thus at this point I am inclined to think that some portion of verses 3b-4 may be authentic; but sorting out which exact combination of words is difficult and may be impossible given the present state of our knowledge of the history of the text.

It has also been said on the other hand that there was a popular tradition about the stirring of the water by an angel, which the author of the Gospel chose not to include because he regarded it as popular superstition, and therefore left the matter unexplained. It would seem, however, that he could have included the reference while pointing out that it was only legend; but in any case this is sometimes advanced as an argument in favor of the shorter reading.

5:6 gnouv" Supernatural knowledge on the part of Jesus (parallel to 2:25) is implied, though not demanded by this statement. Jesus could also have obtained the information from his disciples or bystanders. But in the context it seems that the author wants his readers to infer that Jesus knew this supernaturally, since there seems to be no time interval at all between the two participles, which indicates that at the moment Jesus saw the individual, he knew this.

5:9b h deV savbbaton We are given an important note on the time of the healing—it was on the Sabbath. John now goes on to tell us why this was significant, in that it brought about confrontation with the Jewish authorities.

5:14 i{na mhV cei'rovn soiv ti gevnhtai Later (9:3) Jesus does not hold that sickness or disease is always a result of sin. Here, however, he does seem to imply that some suffering is the result of personal sin. What is the point of the warning? That if the man sinned again, he would be stricken with an even more severe ailment? Probably not. The phrase “something worse” probably refers to what would happen at the man’s judgment (future judgment in this case)—compare 5:29. This would be “worse” than any physical disability by far!

This man is a delightful study in character—so much so that Brown sees it as a mark of authenticity:

…in his obtuseness this man is, for instance, very different from the clever blind man whom Jesus heals in Chapter 9. The personality traits that he betrays serve no particular theological purpose and are so true to life that they too may have been part of the primitive tradition. If the paralytic’s malady were not so tragic, one could almost be amused by the man’s unimaginative approach to the curative waters. His crotchety grumbling about the “whippersnappers” who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure. The fact that he had let his benefactor slip away without even asking his name is another instance of real dullness. In verse 14 it is Jesus who takes the initiative in finding the man, and not vice versa. Finally, he repays his benefactor by reporting him to “the Jews.” This is less an example of treachery (as Theodore of Mopsuestia urged) than of persistant navet.75

          2 D The conflict with the Jewish leaders over the right to heal on the Sabbath (5:16-47)

5:16 Note the plural tau'ta, which seems to indicate that Jesus healed on the Sabbath more than once (cf. John 20:30). We know this to be true from the Synoptics; the incident in 5:1-15 is thus chosen by the Evangelist as representative.

5:17 What is the significance of this verse? A preliminary understanding can be obtained from 5:18, noting the Jews’ response and the Evangelist’s comment. They sought to kill Jesus, because not only did he break the Sabbath, but he also called God his own father, thus making himself equal with God.

This must be seen in the context of the relation of God to the Sabbath rest. In the commandment (Exod 20:11) it is explained that “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Philo, based on the LXX’s translation of tbv as katevpausen rather than ejpauvsato, denied outright that God had ever ceased his creative activity. And when Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Aquiba were in Rome, ca. AD 95, they gave as a rebuttal to sectarian arguments evidence that God might do as he willed in the world without breaking the Sabbath because the entire world was his private residence!

So even the rabbis realized that God did not really cease to work on the Sabbath: Divine providence remained active on the Sabbath, otherwise, all nature and life would cease to exist. As regards men, divine activity was visible in two ways: men were born and men died on the Sabbath. Since only God could give life and only God could deal with the fate of the dead in judgment, this meant God was active on the Sabbath.

This seems to be the background for Jesus’ words in 5:17. He justified his work of healing on the Sabbath by reminding the Jews that they admitted God worked on the Sabbath. This explains the violence of the reaction. The Sabbath privilege was peculiar to God, and no one was equal to God. In claiming the right to work even as his Father worked, Jesus was claiming a divine prerogative. He was literally making himself equal to God, as 5:18 goes on to state explicitly for the benefit of the reader who might not have made the connection.

There is a thought which occurs frequently in the Church Fathers related to this: God did not rest after creation but only after Jesus’ death. Jesus worked during his ministry, but after his death came the Sabbath rest promised to the people of God (cf. Hebrews 4:9-10). This thought is provocative but needs to be modified somewhat. That Sabbath rest does remain; in Hebrews it ultimately refers to the Kingdom of Messiah. But in the Gospel of John, the Messiah is here and his kingdom is at hand. The works he works (on the Sabbath) bring about conditions which typify the Greater Sabbath—the Messianic Kingdom. What more appropriate day to make a man whole, than the day which stands as a reminder, not just of God’s rest from creative activities in the past, but as a reminder of the permanent rest in the Messianic kingdom? I don’t think the Jews would have seen this—they were too incensed with Jesus’ blasphemous (in their opinion) claim to equality with God. But John’s readers, enjoying the advantages of retrospect, could appreciate it.

And it is most significant that in Jesus’ reply to the Jews, both realized eschatology and final eschatology are blended: realized eschatology in 19-25, final eschatology in 26-30.

Note this tension between present and future: eternal life is a thing to be had now (24a) and the transition from death to life is already made (24b); dead (25) refers to those spiritually dead. But in (29) the (physically) dead come out the tombs at the voice of the Son for a (future) judgment.

5:19 Jesus is completely dependent on his Father and does none of his works on his own. The Father and the Son are of one essence, and one principle of operation.

5:20-23 What works does the Son do? The same that the Father does—and the same that the rabbis recognized as legitimate works of God on the Sabbath (see note above on 5:17).

(1) (5:21) Jesus grants life (just as the Father grants life) on the Sabbath. But as the Father gives physical life on the Sabbath, so the Son grants spiritual life (note the “greater things” mentioned in verse 20).

(2) (5:22-23) Jesus judges (determines the fate of men) on the Sabbath, just as the Father judges those who die on the Sabbath, because the Father has granted authority to the Son to judge.)

But this is not all. Not only has this power been granted to Jesus in the present; it will be his in the future as well. In verse 28 we have a reference not to spiritually dead (only) but also physically dead. At their resurrection they respond to the Son as well.

A Note on the Structure of the Narrative:

In Chapter 4 Jesus granted physical life to the nobleman’s son. But that was only a sign of the life from above (a[nwqen) which the Father has given the Son authority to grant.

In 5:1-15 Jesus healed the paralytic, and ordered him to stop sinning. To those who are held in the bondage of death and sin the Son offers life, and the only danger is that one will ignore that offer. To do so would be not to trust in the Son. And something worse would surely befall such a one—at the last judgment (cf. 5:29).

5:29 Compare Dan 12:2, and note this as a foreshadowing of chapter 11, when Lazarus is called out of the tomb at the voice of the Son of Man. Note the similarity of 5:29 to 3:20-21. Compare 6:29: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” See also Carson (258-59) on the individual emphasis here.

5:32 To whom does a[llo" refer? To John the Baptist or to the Father? In the nearer context, verse 33, it would seem to be the Baptist. But verse 34 seems to indicate that Jesus does not receive testimony from men. Probably it is better to view verse 32 as identical to verse 37.

Note the multiplicity of testimony to who Jesus is (all of which the Jews were ignoring):

(1) The Baptist (v. 33)

(2) The works themselves (v. 36)

(3) The Father (v. 37)

(4) The scriptures (v. 39)

5:35 oJ luvcno" Sirach 48:1 states that the word of Elijah was “a flame like a torch.” (The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is one of the books of the OT Apocrypha.)

5:37 “You have never heard his voice nor seen his form”—compare Deut 4:12 “you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice.” Also see Deut 5:24 ff., where the Israelites asked to hear the voice no longer—their request (ironically) has by this time been granted.

How ironic this would be if the feast is Pentecost, where by the first century AD the giving of the Law at Sinai was being celebrated!

5:39 The indicative of eJrauna'te fits the context better (indicative and imperative forms are the same here).

Note the following examples from the rabbinic tractate Pirqe Aboth (“The Sayings of the Fathers”):

Pirqe Aboth 2:8—”He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come.”

Pirqe Aboth 6:7—”Great is the Law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and in the world to come.”

How ironic, again, if this is the feast of Pentecost when the giving of the Law was being celebrated! The reader, of course, recognizes what the Jewish authorities did not: that Jesus himself (not the Torah) is the true source of life eternal (cf. the dialogue with Nicodemus in ch. 3 and the dialogue with the Samaritan woman in ch. 4).

5:46 The final condemnation will come from Moses himself—again ironic, since Moses is the very one the Jews have trusted in! This is again ironic if it is occurring at Pentecost, which at this time was being celebrated as the occasion of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The statement ejpisteuvete Mwu>sei' is to be taken literally and relates directly to Jesus’ statements about the final judgment in ch. 5 (5:28-29).76

A Summary Note on chapter 5:

Disbelief in the face of all this testimony must be motivated by pride; it is a deliberate disbelief (5:40). Jesus attacks the roots of this disbelief with vigor. If it were an intellectual problem it could be met by explanation; but it is really a problem of the moral orientation of life and of the love of God, and so it is met by prophetic accusation. What the Jews are rejecting is not one sent from God—they willingly accept self-proclaimed messiahs (5:43). What they are really rejecting is the demand to place their trust in Jesus as Messiah sent from God, as indicated by his divine prerogatives. The failure to accept Jesus, to trust in him, is ultimately to prefer self, and ultimately to reap the consequences for one’s choice. It is a decision to remain in the darkness rather than come to the Light (cf. 3:19-21).

73 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 299, n. 6.

74 Bellum Judaicum (War of the Jews ) 2.530.

75 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 209.

76 Cf. Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet King: Moses Traditions and Johannine Christology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 161.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Miracles

9. Exegetical Commentary on John 6


    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]

      [2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)]

        2 C The Fourth Sign, in Galilee: The Multiplication of the Bread (6:1-15)

        3 C The Fifth Sign, in Galilee: Walking on the Water (6:16-21)

        4 C The Paschal Discourse: Jesus as the True Bread from Heaven (6:22-71)


Borgen, P., Bread from Heaven: An Exegetical Study of the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John and the Writings of Philo, Novum Testamentum Supplement 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1965).

Borgen, P., “Observations on the Midrashic Character of John 6,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 54 (1963): 232-40.

Borgen, P., “The Unity of the Discourse in John 6,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 50 (1959): 277-78.

Dunn, J. D. G., “John VI—An Eucharistic Discourse?” New Testament Studies 17 (1971): 328-38.

Grtner, B., John 6 and the Jewish Passover, Coniectanea Neotestamentica 17 (Lund: Gleerup, 1959).

Giblin, C. H., “The Miraculous Crossing of the Sea (Jn 6:16-21),” New Testament Studies 28 (1983): 96-103.

Howard, J. K., “Passover and Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20 (1967): 329-37.

Johnston, E. D., “The Johannine Version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand—an Independent Tradition?” New Testament Studies 8 (1961/62): 151-54.

Joubert, H. L. N., “‘The Holy One of God’ (John 6:69),” Neotestamentica 2 (1968): 57-69.

Kilmartin, E. J., “Liturgical Influence on John VI,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960): 183-91.

Kilmartin, E. J., “The Formation of the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6),” Scripture 12 (1960): 75-78.

Macgregor, G. H. C., “The Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel,” New Testament Studies 9 (1962/63): 111-19.

Moloney, F. J., “John 6 and the Celebration of the Eucharist,” Downside Review 93 (1975): 243-51.

Moore, F. J., “Eating the Flesh and Drinking the Blood: A Reconsideration,” Anglican Theological Review 48 (1966): 70-75.

Ruland, V., “Sign and Sacrament: John’s Bread of Life Discourse,” Interpretation 18 (1964): 450-62.

Shorter, M., “The Position of Chapter VI in the Fourth Gospel,” Expository Times 84 (1973): 181-83.

Smalley, S. S., “Liturgy and Sacrament in the Fourth Gospel,” Evangelical Quarterly 29 (1957): 159-70.

Temple, S., “A Key to the Composition of the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 220-32.

Worden, T. E., “The Holy Eucharist in St. John,” Scripture 15 (1963): 97-103; 16 (1964): 5-16.


        2 C The Fourth Sign, in Galilee: The Multiplication of the Bread (6:1-15)

Introduction. With the account in John’s Gospel of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we come face to face with the element of the supernatural in the Fourth Gospel once more, but this time on a far “grander” scale than the changing of water into wine at Cana, the healing of the nobleman’s son, or the cure of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. This time it is difficult to attribute the sign-miracle to the inventiveness of the Evangelist (as some critics have been inclined to do with the former miraculous signs) because it is the single event in the entire public ministry of Jesus before the Passion Week which is recorded in all four gospel accounts. Thus there are only a limited number of approaches to the miracle which may be taken, and these are well summarized by L. Morris as follows:

This is the one miracle, apart from the resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospels. We can only conjecture why this story was thus singled out, but obviously it made a strong appeal to the Gospel writers. In this account we see that the reason for the multitude’s presence was the attraction of the “signs” that Jesus wrought. John also records Philip’s perplexity as to the feeding of the great crowd, and his little piece of mental arithmetic which showed so clearly the impossibility of a solution out of the disciples’ own resources. And he tells us that it was Andrew who brought the boy forward. It is in this Gospel that we read of the proximity of the Passover, of the bread as ‘barley loaves’, of the reason for gathering up the fragments, of the effect on the people, and of Jesus’ dismissal of the disciples and of the people in general. Clearly John has quite a lot of information not derived from the Synoptists. Characteristically, John describes what happened as a “sign”. The effect of the sign is to make some people think of Jesus as a prophet, and some to wish to make a king out of him.

There are three principal ways of understanding what happened. Some hold that a “miracle” took place in men’s hearts. Christ induced the selfish to share their provisions, and when this was done there proved to be more than enough for them all. Others think that the feeding should be understood as a sacramental meal, rather like Holy Communion, wherein each received a tiny fragment. This view has been severely criticized by G. H. Boobyer. Though it is defended by Alan Richardson, for example, it seems to me untenable. Indeed, both the views we have noticed seem to rely too much on presupposition, and to overlook what the writers actually say. It is much better, accordingly, to hold to the third view, that Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, did do something that we can describe only as miracle. Undoubtedly, it inculcates spiritual truth (it is a “sign”). But this does not alter the fact that the Gospel writers speak of something wonderful that actually happened.77

In light of the fact that all four of the gospels present the incident as miraculous, it appears clear that any approach which attempts to remove or downplay the supernatural nature of the event does not do justice to the biblical accounts.

6:1 metaV tau'ta Again, we are faced with a vague temporal reference. How Jesus got from Jerusalem to Galilee is not explained, which has led many scholars (e.g., Bernard, Bultmann, and Schnackenburg) to posit either editorial redaction or some sort of rearrangement or dislocation of material (such as reversing the order of chapters 5 and 6, for example).

Such a rearrangement of the material would give a simple and consistent connection of events, but in the absence of all external evidence it does not seem to be supportable. R. Brown says that such an arrangement is attractive in some ways but not compelling, and summarizes well:

No rearrangement can solve all the geographical and chronological problems in John, and to rearrange on the basis of geography and chronology is to give undue emphasis to something that does not seem to have been of major importance to the evangelist.78

Tiberiavdo" Only John in the New Testament refers to the Sea of Galilee by this name (see also 21:1), but this is correct local usage. In the mid-20’s Herod completed the building of the town of Tiberias on the southwestern shore of the lake; after this time the name came into use for the lake itself.

6:2 Note the reference to other signs again, not mentioned elsewhere by John (cf. 21:25).

6:3 eij" toV o[ro"… This phrase does not necessarily refer to a particular mountain or hillside, but may simply mean “the hill country” or “the high ground,” referring to the high country east of the Sea of Galilee (well known today as the Golan Heights).

6:4 toV pavsca, hJ eJorthV tw'n =Ioudaivwn According to John’s sequence of material, considerable time has elapsed since the feast of 5:1. If the feast in 5:1 was Pentecost of AD 31, then this feast would be the passover of AD 32, just one year before Jesus’ crucifixion (see the chronological note on references to the passover in the Fourth Gospel at 2:13).

6:5 =Epavra" ou touV" ojfqalmouV"...kaiV qeasavmeno" Compare 4:35 for a similar expression (although Jesus is the subject rather than the speaker here).

6:11 Note the similarities with the various accounts of the Last Supper:

He took loaves

Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul (1 Cor 11)

gave thanks

Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul (1 Cor 11)


Matthew, Mark, Luke

6:13 Note that the fish mentioned previously (in 6:9) are not emphasized here. This is easy to understand, however, because the bread is of primary importance for the Evangelist in view of Jesus’ upcoming discourse on the Bread of Life.

6:15 Jesus, knowing that his hour had not yet come (and would not, in this fashion) withdrew. The ministry of miracles in Galilee, ending with this, the multiplication of the bread (the last public miracle in Galilee recorded by John) aroused such a popular response that there was danger of an uprising. This would have given the authorities a legal excuse to arrest Jesus.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship will become an issue again in the passion narrative of the Fourth Gospel (18:33ff.).

Furthermore, the volatile reaction of the Galileans to the signs prepares for and foreshadows the misunderstanding of the miracle itself, and even the misunderstanding of Jesus’ explanation of it (6:22-71).

        3 C The Fifth Sign, in Galilee: Walking on the Water (6:16-21) [ =Matt 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52]

6:17 h[rconto This is a good example of a conative imperfect—”they were trying to cross the sea…”. We are told that their destination was Capernaum.

6:19 wJ" stadivou" ei[kosi pevnte h] triavkonta (“about 25 or 30 stadia”): One stadion (AV “furlong”) = 607 feet (182 m); the Sea of Galilee was at its widest point 61 stadia (7 miles or 11.6 km) by 109 stadia (12 miles or 20 km). So at this point the disciples were pretty much in the middle of the lake.

Clearly the Evangelist has a miracle in mind here, regardless of what may be said about the somewhat ambiguous phrase ejpi + genitive (as in Mark, instead of Matthew’s ejpi + accusative), since Jesus came near the boat, which we have just been told was 25 or 30 stadia at sea. Furthermore, it is implied by the question of the disciples in 6:25 that Jesus crossed the sea in an unexpected way.

6:21 eujqevw" (“immediately”) Again the miraculous seems to be in view here with the sudden arrival of both boat and passengers at the destination.

The Place of the Miracle in the Narrative:

We need to ask at this point: Why did the Evangelist choose to include this incident, particularly at this point in the narrative? In the versions of this miracle given by Matthew and Mark, Jesus calms the sea (to the amazement of his disciples) and gets into the boat. The miracle is basically a nature-miracle (emphasizing Jesus’ sovereignity over nature) in which the disciples are rescued from the storm. But John does not even mention these elements—it is not even clear if Jesus gets into the boat (verse 21 only states that the disciples wanted to receive Jesus into the boat—we may assume he got in, but the text does not explicitly state this).

Why then does John include the miracle? And why here, when the Bread of Life Discourse which follows would fit so well with the miraculous feeding in 6:1-15?

It is possible that the story of Jesus walking on the water was linked with the feeding of the five thousand in early Christian tradition, before any of the gospels were committed to writing. It follows the feeding of the five thousand in Matt 14:22-34 and Mark 6:45-52 (although it does not occur in Luke 9). In this case the Evangelist is simply following the traditional association when he includes the account here.

Structurally these verses also serve to explain to the reader how Jesus and his disciples came to be back on the western side of the lake (Capernaum), cf. 6:24, 59.

These explanations, however, do not exhaust the possibilities, and probably are not the primary reason for John’s inclusion of Jesus walking on the water at this point in the narrative. More significant is John’s use of the term ejgwv eijmi (6:35, 41, 48, 51). Jesus is the one who bears the Divine Name (cf. Exod 3:14). For John this story takes on the character of a theophany, not at all unlike the Transfiguration recorded by the Synoptics. The reaction the crowds had made after the multiplication of the bread had been an attempt to crown him king—but on a purely political level. And in the discourse which follows (on the Bread of Life) many even of his disciples will be unable to accept what he has said.

Note: We should not overlook the symbolism of water/sea—in the Old Testament it is the image of evil and chaos, particularly in Isaiah. For John, this could carry similar significance: Jesus’ triumph over the sea represents his triumph over the forces of evil.

But to his disciples in the boat (probably to be identified with the Twelve, cf. 6:67), not to the crowds, Jesus manifests that he is much more than a political messiah. What he is can be summed up only by the phrase “I am”. These disciples, of course, knew that; they had placed their trust in Jesus as Messiah; but they needed a reminder that their ideas about the person and work of the Messiah were not to be conditioned by the ideas of the general population, to which they had just been witness.

I think we can go beyond this, however, to see that there may be some indications that the Exodus motif (following the Passover) was in the mind of the author as he selected details in composing the narrative. Note the following striking parallels with Psalm 107:


the people wander hungry in desert wastes


the Lord satisfies and fills the hungry and thirsty.


some go down to the sea in ships


the Lord raised up a stormy wind


they cry out to the Lord


the Lord delivers them, calms the sea, and brings them to their desired haven.

Note: It cannot be proven that Psalm 107 was in the author’s mind when he wrote this section. I merely want to suggest the parallels, which are many and striking. It may be that the Twelve, with the retrospection they demonstrated in other Johannine passages, came to believe that Jesus’ actions were following the pattern described by the Psalm at some point after the resurrection. It may have influenced all the accounts, including the synoptic ones. But it would be extremely difficult to prove such influence since there is no explicit citation of Ps 107 in the context.

        4 C The Paschal Discourse: Jesus as the True Bread from Heaven (6:22-71)

The setting. The previous miracle of the multiplication of the bread had taken place near Tiberias (cf. 6:23). Jesus’ disciples set sail for Capernaum (6:17) and are joined by the Lord in the midst of the sea. The next day boats from Tiberias pick up a few of those who had seen the multiplication (certainly not the whole 5,000!) and bring them to Capernaum. It was to this group that Jesus spoke in 6:26-27. But there were also people from Capernaum who had gathered to see Jesus, who had not witnessed the multiplication, and it was this group that asked Jesus for a miraculous sign like the manna (6:30-31). (This would have seemed superfluous if it were the same crowd which had already seen the multiplication of the bread! But some from Capernaum had heard about it and wanted to see a similar miracle repeated.)

6:25 The people who followed in the boats ask, “Teacher, when did you get here?” Jesus answers not their direct question, but the implication (again, supernatural knowledge on Jesus’ part is implied—he knows their true motivation for following him).

6:27 ejrgavzesqe mhV thVn brw'sin thVn ajpollumevnhn Note the word-play on “work” here. This does not imply “working” for salvation, since the “work” is later explained (in 6:29) to be “believing in the one whom he (the Father) has sent.”

6:30 The crowd responds to Jesus’ statement about believing in the one whom God has sent by demanding a sign—especially something like the manna given in the wilderness. Probably those who had not seen the multiplication of the bread had heard about it from those who had, and wanted to see something similar.

Note again the Johannine play on the physical versus the spiritual (32-33)—the food which perishes versus the food which remains for eternal life. Compare with chapter 4 where the contrast was between the water that quenched thirst temporarily versus the living water that would satisfy thirst forever.

Note also the interplay between works and faith in Johannine thought: The crowd asks Jesus (6:28), “What must we do that we may work the works of God?” Note Jesus’ reply: “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” By the very phrase Jesus has shifted the emphasis from a work of man to the work of God—the initiative which God took in sending the Son into the world. (Qeou' is best understood as a subjective genitive in 6:32-34.) Note that at this point the crowd still misunderstands the nature of the true bread from heaven: “Lord, give us this bread.” If they conceive of it as something that Jesus himself gives them, they have still missed it, because he himself is the ‘Bread’ from heaven. (Note in this regard Jesus’ response in verses 35-36.)

6:35 Note the use of ejgwv eijmi. Also note the parallel structure between the two participles oJ ejrcovmeno" and oJ pisteuvwn. The concept of “coming to” Jesus and “believing in” him is the same, and this will be important later, in verse 37.

6:40 oJ qewrw'n This refers to the person who beholds the Son not just physically, but with spiritual insight, discerning correctly his identity and mission. This is clear from the context.

6:41 Note that oiJ =Ioudai''oi are singled out here. It would appear that there were some of the Jewish authorities in the crowd which had gathered to listen to Jesus in Capernaum, after the crossing of the Sea of Galilee (6:24).

6:44 eJlkuvsh/ It is never specifically spelled out by the Evangelist what this “drawing” consists of. It is evidently some kind of attraction; whether it is binding and irresistable or not is not mentioned. But there does seem to be a parallel with 6:65, where Jesus says that no one is able to come to him unless “it has been granted to him from the Father.” This apparently parallels the use of Isaiah by John to reflect the spiritual blindness of the Jewish leaders (see the quotations from Isaiah in John 9:41, 12:39-40).

6:52-59Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood…” These words are at the heart of the discourse on the Bread of Life, and have created great misunderstanding among interpreters. Anyone who is inclined in the least toward a sacramental viewpoint will almost certainly want to take these words as a reference to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, because of the reference to eating and drinking. The participle in verse 54, trwvgwn, is almost shockingly graphic: it means to eat noisily, often used of animals (“gnaw,” “nibble,” “munch”). When used with reference to people, it often has the idea of enjoyment (Matt 24:38) and close comradeship. Some have thought it refers to a literal feeding, and thus to the Eucharist. But this does not follow: by anyone’s definition there must be a symbolic element to the eating which Jesus speaks of in the discourse, and once this is admitted, it is better to understand it here, as in the previous references in the passage, to a personal receiving of (or appropriation of) Christ and his work.

6:60-66 sklhrov" ejstin oJ lovgo" ou|to" Previously we saw indications that Jesus was addressing a crowd of people (verse 24) and some of the “Jews” (verse 41). Now it is evident that some of his own disciples were present and listening as well. And they did not like what they were hearing. Sklhrov" has the idea of being both “hard” and “harsh”; in this context it is not so much “hard to understand” as “difficult to accept”.

It became apparent to some of Jesus’ followers at this point that there would be a cost involved in following him. They had taken offense at some of Jesus’ teaching (perhaps the graphic imagery of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” and Jesus now warned them that if they thought this was a problem, there was an even worse cause for stumbling in store: his upcoming crucifixion. I take this to be the meaning of verses 61b-62. Jesus asks, in effect, “Has what I just taught caused you to stumble? [What will you do, then,] if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?” This ascent is to be accomplished through the cross; for John Jesus’ departure from this world and his return to the Father form one continual movement from cross to resurrection to ascension.

6:67-71 rJhvmata zwh'" aijwnivou e[cei" (Peters confession) In contrast to the response of some of his disciples, we have here the response of the Twelve, whom Jesus then questioned concerning their loyalty to him. This is the big test, and the Twelve, with Peter as spokesman, pass with flying colors. The confession here differs considerably from the Synoptic accounts (Matt 16:16, Mark 8:29, and Luke 9:20) and concerns directly the disciples’ personal loyalty to Jesus, in contrast to those other disciples (6:66) who had deserted him.

6:71 This statement is another of the Evangelist’s post-resurrection insights, added for the reader’s help in understanding Jesus’ statement in the previous verse. At least six explanations for the name Iscariot have been proposed, but it is probably transliterated Hebrew with the meaning “man of Kerioth” (there are at least two villages that had that name).79 This is the first mention of Judas in the Fourth Gospel, and he is immediately identified (as he is in the synoptic gospels, Matt 10:4, Mark 3:19, Luke 6:16) as the one who would betray Jesus.

77 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 338-39.

78 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 236. [emphasis mine]

79 Cf. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 304.

Related Topics: Christology, Miracles

10. Exegetical Commentary on John 7


    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]

      [2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)]

        5 C Jesus teaches openly in the presence of his opponents in Jerusalem (7:1-8:59)

          1 D Preparation: the attitude of Jesus’ brothers as he delays his departure for the Feast of Tabernacles (7:1-13)

          2 D Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (7:14-52)

            1 E The Sabbath question renewed (7:14-24)

            2 E Public response to Jesus’ teaching: who is this One? (7:25-31)

            3 E The attempt to arrest Jesus (7:32-36)

            4 E Jesus as the Source of living water (7:37-39)

            5 E The response of the people (7:40-44)

            6 E The response of the Jewish leaders (7:45-52)


Blenkinsopp, J., “John vii 37-39: Another Note on a Notorious Crux,” New Testament Studies 6 (1959/60): 95-98.

Blenkinsopp, J., “The Quenching of Thirst: Reflections on the Utterance in the Temple, John 7:37-39,” Scripture 12 (1960): 39-48.

Burge, G. M., The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), esp. 88-93.

Corts, J. B., “Yet Another Look at Jn 7, 37-38,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29 (1967): 75-86.

Fee, G. D., “Once More—John 7:37-39,” Expository Times 89 (1978): 116-18.

Hooke, S. H., “‘The Spirit was not yet’,” New Testament Studies 9 (1962/63): 372-80.

Kilpatrick, G. D., “The Punctuation of John vii 37-38,” Journal of Theological Studies 11 (1960): 340-42.

Kuhn, K. H., “St. John vii, 37-38,” New Testament Studies 4 (1957/58): 63-65.

Olbricht, T. H., “Its Works are Evil (John 7:7),” Restoration Quarterly 7 (1963): 242-44.

Pancaro, S., “The Metamorphosis of a Legal Principle in the Fourth Gospel. A Close Look at Jn 7:51,” Biblica 53 (1972): 340-61.

Smith, C. W. F., “Tabernacles in the Fourth Gospel and Mark,” New Testament Studies 9 (1962/63): 130-46.

Woodhouse, H. F., “Hard Sayings—IX. John 7.39,” Theology 67 (1964): 310-12.


        5 C Jesus teaches openly in the presence of his opponents in Jerusalem (7:1-8:59)

          1D Preparation: the attitude of Jesus’ brothers as he delays his departure for the Feast of Tabernacles (7:1-13)

7:1 Again, the transition is indicated by the imprecise temporal indicator metaV tau'ta. Clearly, though, the Evangelist has left out much of the events of Jesus’ ministry, because chapter 6 took place near the passover (6:4). This would have been the passover between winter/spring of AD 32, just one year before Jesus’ crucifixion (see following note).

7:2 Since 7:2 places these incidents at the Feast of Tabernacles (AD 32) there would have been a 6-month interval during which no events are recorded. The Evangelist is obviously selective in his approach; he is not recording an exhaustive history (as he will later tell the reader in 21:25).

After healing the paralytic on the Sabbath in Jerusalem (5:1-47) Jesus withdrew again to Galilee because of mounting opposition. In Galilee the feeding of the 5,000 took place, which marked the end of the Galilean ministry for all practical purposes. 7:1-9 thus marks the final departure from Galilee.

hJ skhnophgiva John’s use of skhnophgiva for the Feast of Tabernacles constitutes the only use of this term in the New Testament.

7:3 Jesus’ brothers (really his half-brothers) were mentioned previously by John in 2:12. [See 2:12 for discussion of the problem of their relationship to Jesus.] They are also mentioned elsewhere in Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3.

“Depart from here [i.e., Galilee] and go into Judea, in order that your disciples may behold your works which you are doing” Is this to be understood as a suggestion on the part of Jesus’ brothers that he should attempt to win back the disciples who had deserted him in 6:66? Perhaps. But it is also possible to take the words as indicating that if Jesus is going to put forward messianic claims [i.e., through miraculous signs] then he should do so in Jerusalem, not in the remote parts of Galilee. Such an understanding seems to fit better with the following verse. It would also indicate misunderstanding on the part of Jesus’ brothers of the true nature of his mission—he did not come as the royal Messiah of Jewish apocalyptic expectation to be anointed king at this time.

7:4 “No one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be publicly recognized.” The phrase amounts to this: “if you’re going to perform signs to authenticate yourself as Messiah, you should do them at Jerusalem.” (Jerusalem is where mainstream Jewish apocalyptic tradition held that Messiah would appear.)

7:5 Apparently Jesus’ brothers later did come to trust in him—see Acts 1:14.

7:8 Although the word is kairov" here, it parallels John’s use of w{ra elsewhere as a reference to the time appointed for Jesus by the Father—the time of his return to the Father, characterized by his death, resurrection, and exaltation (glorification). In the Johannine literature synonyms are often interchanged for no apparent reason other than stylistic variation.

7:7 Compare 3:19-21, especially concerning the light and darkness imagery.

7:8 ejgwV oujk ajnabaivnw eij" thVn eJorthVn tauvthn How are we to reconcile Jesus’ statement to his brothers with his later action in 7:10? The major explanations that have been proposed are these:

(1) The use of the present tense does not exclude later action of a different kind. (It does not say anything about the future.)

(2) Jesus is really denying his brothers’ request to perform signs. He will go up to the feast, but not in their way, openly.

(3) What John means here is that Jesus did not travel up to Jerusalem with the other pilgrims to the feast, an act which would have been conspicuously public, and would have drawn undue attention to himself. Jesus chose to travel to Jerusalem by himself, privately.

The problem with all three of these explanations is that they require the reader to supply some understood word or expression to mean “not at present,” “not publicly,” or the like. This may well be valid but it is difficult to see why the Evangelist left it up to the reader to supply the missing word or phrase.

(4) One could accept the variant textual reading which substitutes oujpw for oujk. Manuscript evidence is very weighty in favor of this reading: [66 75 B L T W Q Y 0105 0180 0250 1 13 etc.]. It is true that the reading with oujk is the more difficult reading, but it is also easy to see how a confusion of letters could have occured in uncial script which would have produced the shorter reading: a copyist who saw OUPW confused the PW for K and wrote OUK.

The fourth explanation, on the whole, seems preferable because the variant has excellent manuscript support and the reading is consistent with the Johannine tendency to clarify whatever a reader might not easily understand.

7:10-13 So Jesus does go up to the feast, but later, in secret (verse 10). Note how John prepares in verses 12-13 for the later debate about the identity of Jesus in verses 25-36, and also keeps before the reader’s mind the question, “Who is Jesus?”

          2 D Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (7:14-53)

            1 E The Sabbath question renewed (7:14-24)

7:14 When Jesus does go up to Jerusalem, he makes no attempt to remain hidden once he arrives (in fact he makes himself quite conspicuous). This suggests that “going up in secret” (verse 10) meant not so much covertly but that he did not go up with the pilgrim procession (as suggested above at verse 8, perhaps to avoid a premature “triumphal entry” scene).

7:15-24 Note how the Evangelist, in this section, treats a number of Jewish “objections” to believing in Jesus. Verses 15-18 deal with the question of authority. Jesus does not teach from his own authority but speaks on behalf of the One who sent him. If Jesus had claimed to be his own authority, or said he did not need a teacher, he would have been discredited. Rabbis cited authorities for all significant statements. Likewise, Jesus cites his own authority: the Father who sent him.

There is irony here too: when the Jewish leaders come face to face with the Word become flesh—the pre-existent Lovgo", creator of the universe and divine Wisdom personified—they treat him as an untaught, unlearned person (verse 15)!

7:20 tiv" se zhtei' ajpoktei'nai… Many of the crowd (if they had come in from surrounding regions for the feast) probably were ignorant of any plot. The plot was on the part of ‘the Jews’, which for the Evangelist here indicates the Jewish leaders. Note how carefully John distinguishes between the leadership and the general populace in their respective responses to Jesus.

7:21 The “one work” must surely refer to 5:1-47, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. (The Synoptics record other Sabbath healings, but John does not mention them.) It is significant that after the Bethesda incident, the Jewish leaders began seeking to kill Jesus (see 5:18) [although this was probably an unplanned emotional response and did not develop until later into an outright plot.]

7:23 ejmoiV cola'te o{ti o[lon a[nqrwpon uJgih' ejpoivhsa ejn sabbavtw/… The Rabbis counted 248 parts to a man’s body. In the Talmud, b. Yoma 85b states: “If circumcision, which attaches to one only of the 248 members of the human body, suspends the Sabbath, how much more shall the saving of the whole body suspend the Sabbath?” So absolutely binding did rabbinic Judaism regard the command of Lev 12:3 to circumcise on the eighth day, that Mishnah Shabbath 18.3; 19.1, 2; and Nedarim 3.11 all hold that the command to circumcise overrides the command to observe the Sabbath.

This provides insight into Jesus’ relationship to the Mosaic Law (cf. Matt 5:17). “Are you angry with me because I made a whole man well on the Sabbath?” Again we see a contrast between Moses and Jesus (cf. 1:17—”law” versus “grace and truth”). What Moses did in part, Jesus does completely. It is as though Jesus were saying, “I have not done a purifying work to one particular part of him, but have restored his whole body to health and strength. I have not done a work of necessity to one single member only, but a work of necessity and benefit to the whole man.”

But for Jesus, it is not so much a question of suspension of the Sabbath as fulfillment of it: his actions fulfilled the purpose of the original institution. Such deeds of mercy were not just permissable on the Sabbath, they were obligatory! They looked forward to the state of affairs which would prevail in the final Sabbath rest of the entire world, the messianic Kingdom (see Heb 4:9 and John 2:1).

7:24 In the light of their own practice of circumcising on the Sabbath, Jesus calls on his hearers to stop judging (present imperative used in a specific instance) according to outward appearance (in this specific instance of his healing the man at the pool), but instead to judge with righteous judgment. (Some manuscripts read the aorist krinate for the second reference to judging [a Q 0105 0250 1 13 ].)

            2 E Public response to Jesus’ teaching: who is this One? (7:25-31)

7:25-27 Note the response of the general populace to Jesus’ teaching: it was very favorable. Some of the citizens of Jerusalem say, “Isn’t this the one they are seeking to kill? And see, he is speaking openly and they are saying nothing to him. Perhaps truly the rulers know that this one is the Messiah?” Some people who had heard Jesus were so impressed with his teaching that they began to infer from the inactivity of the opposing Jewish leaders a tacit acknowledgment of Jesus’ claims.

oiJ a[rconte" Note how carefully the Evangelist distinguishes the general populace from the “rulers,” otherwise known in the Fourth Gospel as “the Jews”.

7:27 oJ deV cristoV" o{tan e[rchtai oujdeiV" ginwvskei povqen ejstivn Further discussion arises, however, over the origins of the Messiah. The view of these people (apparently residents of the city as opposed to pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feast, note 'Ierosolumitw'n in 7:25, in the NT only here and in Mark 1:5) reflects the idea that the origin of the Messiah is a mystery. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 97a Rabbi Zera taught: “Three come unawares: Messiah, a found article, and a scorpion.”

Apparently Old Testament prophetic passages like Mal 3:1 and Dan 9:25 were interpreted by some as indicating a sudden appearance of Messiah.

Note: It appears that this was not a universal view: the scribes called by Herod at the coming of the Magi in Matt 2 knew that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. It is important to remember that Jewish messianic expectations in the early first century were not monolithic—a considerable variety of viewpoints existed, not all of them capable of harmonization with one another.

The Evangelist apparently did not consider this objection worth answering. The true facts about Jesus’ origins were readily available for any reader who didn’t know already. Here is an instance where the Evangelist assumes knowledge about Jesus independent from the material he records.

7:28 kajmeV oi[date kaiV oi[date povqen eijmiv Jesus’ response while teaching in the Temple is more difficult—it appears to concede too much understanding to Jesus’ opponents. It is best to take the words as irony: “So you know me and know where I am from, do you? Indeed I have not come of myself, but the one who sent me is true, whom you do not know.” On the physical, literal level, they do know where he was from—Nazareth of Galilee (at least they think they know). But on another deeper (spiritual) level, they do not: he came from heaven, from the Father. Jesus insists that he has not come on his own initiative (cf. 5:37), but at the bidding of the one who sent him.

7:29 Note the contrast with the preceding: ejgwv is emphatic. You don’t know him, but I know him. This claim to unique, intimate knowledge of the Father is mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel in1:18; 6:46; 8:25; and 17:25. Note the two-fold claim: I am from him (origin) and that one sent me (mission). The preposition parav + genitive case has the local sense preserved and can be used of one person sending another. This does not necessarily imply origin in essence or eternal generation.

7:30 Here the response is on the part of the crowd. They seek to seize Jesus. This is apparently distinct from the attempted arrest by the authorities mentioned in 7:32.

Jesus’ claims to intimate knowledge of the Father, intimate fellowship with him, and ultimately identification with him, could not be overlooked. People who are confronted with the claims of Jesus are not able to remain neutral: either they must acknowledge and embrace those claims, or reject them utterly. In the words of C. S. Lewis:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.80

Note the reason Jesus’ opponents could not touch him: his hour had not yet come. This is the hour appointed by God for his death, resurrection and return to the Father. See the discussion on the use of w{ra in the Gospel of John at 2:4 above.

7:31 Some of the crowd, faced with Jesus’ teaching, respond in faith. “Whenever Messiah comes,” they say, “will he perform more signs than what this one has done?” This apparently refers again to other miracles besides the seven “sign-miracles” selected for inclusion by the Evangelist. Note that even though this faith is based on signs, we are given no indication that this is less than genuine faith. It is better to believe on the basis of miracles than not to believe at all [compare the statement made to Thomas in 20:29].

            3 E The Attempt to Arrest Jesus 7:32-36

7:32 Here John specifies what groups are involved: the High Priests and the Pharisees.

7:33 Note Jesus’ response: “Yet a little time I am with you and I am going to the one who sent me.” Jesus again has his return to the Father in view.

7:34 Note the Jews’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words, as made clear in verses 35-36. They didn’t realize he spoke of his departure out of the world. This is another example of the Evangelist’s use of misunderstanding as a literary device to emphasize a point.

When will the events Jesus alluded to in verse 34 take place? Jesus’ words in 7:34 may be compared to those of Wisdom in Proverbs 1:24-29 [NASB]:

“Because I called, and you refused;
I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention;
And you neglected all my counsel,
And did not want my reproof;
I will even laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when your dread comes,
When your dread comes like a storm,
And your calamity comes on like a whirlwind,
When distress and anguish come on you.
Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me,
Because they hated knowledge,
And did not choose the fear of the LORD.”
Amos 8:11-12
also states:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.
“And people will stagger from sea to sea,
And from the north even to the east;
They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
But they will not find it.”

Similar themes may also be found in the OT in Job 28:12 ff.; Isaiah 55:6; Deut 4:29; and Hosea 5:6.

7:35 The Evangelist may be using the term oiJ =Ioudai'oi here to refer to the officers (note uJphrevta", v. 32) sent out by the Pharisees and chief priests. More likely, however, is that the words of verse 35 are spoken by the Jewish authorities among themselves after they receive the report from their servants of Jesus’ reply (found in the preceding verse).

            4 E Jesus as the Source of living water (7:37-39)

The setting for Jesus discourse at the Feast of Tabernacles:

L. Morris gives an excellent description of the background of Jesus’ words on the last day of the feast:

Tabernacles was a festival rich in symbolism and popular appeal, and the symbolism forms the background to our Lord’s saying. The principal features of the observance, in addition to the erection of the leafy bowers in which the people camped out and the offering of the sacrifices, appear to have been these. The people carried with them bunches of leaves, called lulabs. There was apparently a disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees over the correct interpretation of Lev 23:40, “And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook….” The former took the words to refer to the material out of which the booths for the observance of the feast were to be constructed, while the latter held them to mean that the worshippers were actually to carry branches of the trees named as they entered the temple. The Pharisaic interpretation prevailed among the people, and accordingly each worshipper, as he marched in procession, would carry a lulab in his right hand and a citron in his left. The lulab symbolized the stages of the wilderness journey (marked by different kinds of vegetation), and the fruit the fruit of the goodly land that God had given His people. As certain Psalms were recited the worshippers shook their lulabs. The rejoicing was marked further by the flute-playing and dancing that went on for most of the feast and by bringing in young willow branches and arranging them round the altar (Sukk. 4:5). The tops thus were bent over the altar forming a leafy canopy for it. The reciting of the words, “Save now, we beseech thee, O Jehovah: O Jehovah, we beseech thee, send now prosperity” (Ps 118:25), is probably to be understood as a prayer for rain and fruitful season. On each of the seven days of the feast a priest drew water from the pool of Siloam in a golden flagon and brought it in procession to the temple with the joyful sounding of the trumpet. There the water was poured into a bowl beside the altar from which a tube took it to the base of the altar. Simultaneously wine was poured through a similar bowl on the other side of the altar. These symbolic ceremonies were acted thanksgivings for God’s mercies in giving water in past days (probably looking right back to the smiting of the rock in the wilderness and then on to the giving of rain in recent years). They were also an acted prayer for rain in the coming year. It is also significant that the words of Isaiah are associated with these ceremonies, “with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isa 12:3). The Jerusalem Talmud connects the ceremonies and this scripture with the Holy Spirit: “Why is the name of it called, The drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’”81

Jesus’ words are to be understood against this background. Up till now nothing has been recorded of His teaching at this feast, for all His words in this chapter hitherto have been replies to the accusations of His foes. But now, at the culmination of the greatest feast of the Jewish year, He unfolds its significance in terms of the life that He came to bring. He takes the water symbolism of the feast and presses it into service as He speaks of the living water that He will bestow. The people are thinking of rain, and of their bodily need. He turns their attention to the deep need of the soul, and to the way He would supply it. In chapter 4 we have had references to the living water, but here only is the explanation given of its significance in terms of the Holy Spirit.

Note: The following verses are particularly important for understanding the symbolism of water in the Gospel of John.

7:37 th'/ ejscavth/ hJmevra/ th'/ megavlh/ There is something of a problem with this reference to the “last day of the feast, the great day”: it appears from Deut 16:13 that the feast went for seven days. Lev 23:36, however, makes it plain that there was an eighth day, though it was mentioned separately from the seven. It is not completely clear whether the seventh or eighth day was the climax of the feast, called here by the Evangelist the “last great day of the feast”. Since according to Mishnah Sukkah 4.1 the ceremonies with water and lights did not continue after the seventh day, it seems more probable that this is the day the Evangelist mentions.

Note that once more, coming to Jesus (37b) and believing in him (36a) are the same, cf. 6:35.

7:38 potamoiV ejk th'" koiliva" aujtou' rJeuvsousin u{dato" zw'nto" These verses have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Certainly Jesus picks up on the literal water used in the ceremony and uses it figuratively. But what does the figure mean? According to popular understanding, it refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell in the believer. There is some difficulty in locating an OT text which speaks of rivers of water flowing from within such a person, but Isa 58:11 is often suggested: “And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail”[NASB]. Other passages which have been suggested are Prov 4:23 and 5:15; Isa 44:3 and 55:1; Exek. 47:1 ff.; Joel 3:18; and Zech 13:1 and 14:8.

The meaning in this case is that when any man comes to believe in Jesus the Scriptures referring to the activity of the Holy Spirit in a persons life are fulfilled. “When the believer comes to Christ and drinks he not only slakes his thirst but receives such an abundant supply that veritable rivers flow from him.”82 In other words, with this view, the believer himself becomes the source of the living water.

This is the traditional understanding of the passage, often called the “Eastern interpretation” following Origen, Athanasius, and the Greek Fathers. It is supported by such modern scholars as Barrett, Behm, Bernard, Cadman, Carson, R. H. Lightfoot, Lindars, Michaelis, Morris (see quotation above), Odeberg, Schlatter, Schweizer, C. H. Turner, M. M. B. Turner, Westcott, and Zahn. In addition it is represented by the following Greek texts and translations: AV, RSV, NASB, UBS4 and NA27.

Note: Carson has a thorough discussion of the issues and evidence although he opts for the previous interpretation.83

There is another interpretation possible, however, called the “Western interpretation” because of patristic support by Justin, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Modern scholars who favor this view are Abbott, Beasley-Murray, Bishop, Boismard, Braun, Brown, Bullinger, Bultmann, Burney, Dodd, Dunn, Guilding, R. Harris, Hoskyns, Jeremias, Loisy, D. M. Stanley, Thüsing, N. Turner, and Zerwick. This view is represented by the translations in the NEB and the RSV margin. It is also sometimes called the “Christological interpretation” because it makes Jesus himself the source of the living water in verse 38, by punctuating as follows:


ejavn ti diya'/ ejrcevsqw prov" me,


kaiV pinevtw


oJ pisteuvwn eij" ejmev.


KaqwV" eipen hJ grafhv,


potamoiV ejk th'" koiliva" aujtou'


rJeuvsousin u{dato" zw'nto".



If anyone thirsts let him come to Me,


and let him drink


who believes in Me.


Just as the scripture says,


rivers of living water


will flow from His belly.

Three crucial questions are involved in the solution of this problem: (1) punctuation; (2) determining the antecedent of aujtou'; and (3) the source of the scripture quotation.

With regard to (1), 66 does place a full stop after pinevtw, but this may be theologically motivated and could have been added later. Grammatical and stylistic arguments are inconclusive.

More important is (2) the determination of the antecedent of aujtou'. Can any other Johannine parallels be found which make the believer the source of the living water? John 4:14 is often mentioned in this regard, but unlike 4:14 the water here becomes a source for others also. Neither does 14:12 provide a parallel. Furthermore, such an interpretation becomes even more problematic in light of the explanation given in verse 39 that the water refers to the Holy Spirit, since it is extremely difficult to see the individual believer becoming the ‘source’ of the Spirit for others. On the other hand, the Gospel of John repeatedly places Jesus himself in this role as source of the living water: 4:10, of course, for the water itself; but according to 20:22 Jesus provides the Spirit (cf 14:16). Furthermore, the symbolism of 19:34 is difficult to explain as anything other than a deliberate allusion to what is predicted here (and also explains why the Spirit cannot come to the disciples unless Jesus “departs” [16:7]).

As to (3) the source of the scripture quotation, Boismard has argued that John is using a targumic rendering of Ps 78:15-16 which describes the water brought forth from the rock in the wilderness by Moses.84 The frequency of Exodus motifs in the Fourth Gospel (paschal lamb, bronze serpent, manna from heaven) leads quite naturally to the supposition that the Evangelist is here drawing on the account of Moses striking the rock in the wilderness to bring forth water (Num 20:8 ff.). That such imagery was readily identified with Jesus in the early church is demonstrated by Paul’s understanding of the event in 1 Cor 10:4. Jesus is the Rock from which the living water—the Spirit—will flow. Carson (see above) discusses this imagery although he favors the traditional or “Eastern” interpretation.

In summary, it appears that the latter or “Western” interpretation is to be preferred. G. M. Burge has summarized well:

John 7:37 records that Jesus spoke out “on the last day of the feast.” In the Tabernacles setting, on this day the water libations were increased significantly. But the Jewish prayers for water were answered in an unexpected way. The water which would flow from beneath the temple would now flow from Jesus, the new temple (cf. 2:18ff.). R. J. McKelvey remarks that “Jesus’ claim to supply living water could not fail to challenge Jewish readers. It means that the centre and source of the world’s life was no longer the temple of Jerusalem, but himself, the new temple.” The inexhaustible Mosaic supply of life-giving water in the wilderness could now be found in Jesus, the new prophet-like-Moses (7:40). Jesus is the source of the awaited eschatological stream. In the wilderness Moses supplied manna: Jesus is the bread from heaven (6:32ff.). Moses gave water: Jesus is the living water (7:38). Moses led with a pillar of fire: Jesus is the light of the world (8:12). In Jesus’ person one can find the fulfillment of all the Tabernacle expectations.85

7:39 ou[pw gaVr h pneu'ma Since only B (Vaticanus) and a handful of other NT manuscripts supply the participle dedomenon [“given”], it would be better to translate this “for the Spirit was not yet”. This is expressed from a human standpoint and has nothing to do with the preexistence of the third Person of the Godhead. The meaning is that the era of the Holy Spirit had not yet arrived; the Spirit was not as yet at work in the world because Pentecost had not yet come.

            5 E The response of the people (7:40-44)

7:40-44 Note the questions and responses (which the Evangelist does not even comment on). Verse 42 is particularly ironic because it was true of Jesus: he was of the lineage of David and had been born in Bethlehem (neither of which John records). Here it appears the Evangelist was at least aware that Jesus’ birth narrative must have been common knowledge, since he is so thorough about these things elsewhere. For the reader who knows these things, the statements by the crowd can be seen as truly ironic.

Again, the question John holds before the reader’s mind is: “who is this Jesus, who makes these astounding claims?”

            6 E The response of the Jewish leaders (7:45-52)

7:45-47 In response to the question of the high priests and Pharisees, “Why did you not bring him?” the officers merely answer, “Never did a man speak as this man speaks.” They offer no further explanation for their failure to carry out their assignment. Obviously they were deeply impressed by what Jesus had to say.

7:48-51 At this point, while a few of the rulers or Pharisees may have believed, they had not done so openly. An example of this is Nicodemus himself, who speaks up (somewhat dramatically) in defense of Jesus (though he does not commit himself to a position). We should not condemn Nicodemus for his lack of boldness here; in light of the fact that the leaders were already angered, an open witness might have enraged them further. Instead, Nicodemus reminds them of their own law. The question with mhv looks for a negative answer; he is sure of his point.

7:52 But these leaders reply brusquely: “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Search and see that a prophet does not arise from Galilee.” This presents some difficulty, because Jonah had been from Gathhepher, in Galilee ( 2 Kings 14:25). Also the Babylonian Talmud later stated, “There was not a tribe in Israel from which there did not come prophets” [B. Sukkah 27b].

Two explanations are possible:

(1) In the heat of anger the members of the Sanhedrin overlooked the facts (this is perhaps the easiest explanation).

(2) We are to understand this anarthrous noun as a reference to the prophet of Deut 18:15 (note the reading of 66 which is articular). In this case the statement is in accord with the facts. Compare also 7:40.

Either explanation is acceptable. I prefer the latter, but in light of the overwhelming textual evidence for the anarthrous reading, it is impossible to be certain (although a reference to the ‘prophet like Moses’ of Deut 18:15 could still be anarthrous).

7:53 This verse belongs with the disputed section in chapter 8. Evidence for its omission or inclusion will be discussed along with 8:1-11 (see the following chapter).

80 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 55-56.

81 Morris The Gospel According to John, 419-21.

82 Morris, The Gospel According to John , 424-25.

83 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 322-29.

84 M.-E.Boismard, “Les citations targumiques dans le quatrime vangile,” Revue Biblique 66 (1959): 374-78.

85 Gary M. Burge, The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 93.

Related Topics: Christology

From the series: Abraham

Be Honest With Me

Most of us Christians want to get along well with the significant people in our lives—our families, friends, neighbors, fellow workers and fellow believers. We would like to know there are good feelings between us, to enjoy a pleasant sense of oneness and togetherness.

Did you know that God wants exactly the same thing for us? It is expressed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the first three chapters he shows us how much God loves us and what He has done for us, particularly how He united us together in one Body. Then Paul begins the second half of the book by saying, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6). Do you get the point? There is a built-in oneness in the Christian faith that can now be expressed in our relationships with one another. We should be able to get along with each other in love and peace, and enjoy a sense of togetherness because we are one in Christ.

It’s strange, isn’t it? We know what God wants, and we know that the structure for it exists. Yet we have so much difficulty practicing it. Instead, we have disagreements and hard feelings. We see husbands and wives fussing with each other, parents and children quarreling, Christian neighbors feuding, church members on the outs with one another. How can we change that? How can we learn to get along with each other?

The fourth chapter of Ephesians, probably more than any other in the New Testament, helps us answer that question. For one thing, God gives us spiritual gifts by which we can minister to one another and help one another (vv. 11-12). That will bring us to unity and Christlikeness (v. 13), which enables us to be built up in love (v. 16).

But that is not the entire answer. As the chapter progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that in order to get along with each other we will need to make some changes in our lives. We will need to live differently from the way unbelievers live, from the way we used to live before we met Christ (v. 17). The provision has been made. When Christ died on the cross He dealt with the old nature which is dominated by sin and self. He robbed it of its authority over us (v. 22), and He gave us a new nature which is patterned after His own (v. 24).

With that provision, we now have the potential for making the changes that will help us get along with each other. But there are still some things we must do in order to make this potential real in our daily experience. For one thing, we will need to renew our minds (v. 23), that is, feed into our minds God’s perspective on life generally. That will strengthen the control of our new natures over us. But we also will need to put aside the acts of our sinful nature consciously and choose instead to let our new Spirit-empowered nature act in each situation we face. We will need to reject the old way of acting and choose to let the Spirit of God act through us as He Himself wishes in each situation. We will need to put off the old and put on the new in each new circumstance we face.

Paul lists some of the areas in which we will need to do that by a series of contrasts—first the negative, then the positive. Put off lying and speak the truth (v. 25). Stop stealing and do an honest day’s work (v. 28). Do not speak corrupt words, but speak edifying words (v. 29). Put away anger, and be kind (vv. 31-32). It is interesting to note how many of these areas have to do with our speech. The key to getting along with each other is how we use our mouths. And right at the top of the list is truthfulness. If we want harmony in our relationships, we will need to tell the truth. “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (v. 25).

The Meaning of the Command

To lay aside falsehood is to stop making any statements that are untrue, and stop acting in any way that deceives or leaves a false impression. There are any number of ways we can dabble in falsehood. For one thing, we can simply say what we know to be untrue.

Let me tell you about Henry, a man who struggles with his self-image. He longs to be viewed as a strong, wise, capable individual who has it all together, but he suspects that people view him as a loser. Rather than become all he can be by God’s power, and be happy with himself in that capacity, he finds it easier to present himself to be more than he is. He tells his wife how pleased the boss is with his work, when in reality he is on the verge of being fired. When he gets fired, he insists that he quit, and that he had to do it because his working conditions were so bad. Then he will keep telling her that he has a good prospect for a new job which is sure to materialize next week, when there really are no prospects at all. He tells his friends about the fantastic business deals he has in the making, but it is all fabricated to make him look better than he suspects he is.

That is the way many unbelievers live. It is part of their sinful natures. They inherit it from their father. Jesus said that Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). And those who go on habitually lying are indicating that they are his children. God is the God of truth, and those who have His nature speak the truth. Lying lips are an abomination to Him (Proverbs 12:22). He hates a lying tongue (Proverbs 6:16-19).

That is not to say that a true Christian can never lie. Ananias and Sapphira were true Christians. But they had an obsession to appear better than they actually were. They wanted people to think that they were giving to the church the entire proceeds from the sale of their land. They didn’t actually say that. They just let people believe it. We can lie by silence too. But it is still lying. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3). And we get an idea of how seriously God views the intent to deceive because he took both Ananias and his wife in death.

There are other ways we distort the truth. One is to exaggerate. Fishermen are not the only ones who do that, you know. Most of us take our turn. If we had any part in planning or running a meeting, we may find it advantageous to stretch the attendance figures a little. That makes us look good. We may exaggerate our contribution to any successful venture because we want people to think we are important. In trying to make a point, we may say, “A lot of people have told me …” when in reality, only one person said it, and maybe it was our husband or wife.

Another way we shade the truth is to tell only what suits our purpose. If we are involved in a confrontation with someone, we may find it to our advantage to slant the facts slightly to favor our own point of view, or tell only part of the story. A wife said to her husband, “The counselor said this never would have happened if you had done what you were supposed to do.” But she conveniently forgot to mention what the counselor told her she did to agitate the situation.

One of our most common forms of lying as believers involves the way we cover up the shortcomings in our lives and pretend everything is all right when it isn’t, and the way we hide our true feelings to appear more spiritual. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I don’t think the Scripture is advocating that we reveal all of our past mistakes and secret sins to every other Christian we meet, nor express our emotions in an unrestrained way. That will do nothing but drive us apart. But to be candid about it, most of us live behind masks.

We don’t want people to know what’s going on inside us because, as John Powell so skillfully pointed out, we are afraid they won’t like what they see and maybe they will reject us.6 We hide our true self, and say just what we think will create the kind of image we want to project. We avoid sharing our feelings of hurt, anger, jealousy, inferiority, frustration or depression, convincing ourselves that it would be better for our image if we keep them to ourselves. But they affect the way we treat each other and they hinder our ability to get along with each other.

We hold our conversations to the cliche level: “Hi, how are you?” Or to the fact level: news, weather, sports and unfortunately, people. Occasionally we will rise to the idea and opinion level, so long as we don’t think our opinions will alienate the people we want to impress. But seldom will we share our feelings, and rarely will we develop a relationship with anybody where we can be totally honest about what is going on in our lives. The risk is too great.

So my wife and I may be drifting apart. But I’m not going to tell you about it. It will distort the image I want you to have of me. I may be losing my temper with my children, but I’m not going to say anything about it. You may think less of me. I may be struggling with alcohol, drugs or impure sexual desires, but I can’t possibly let anyone know. It could cause me to be rejected by the very people I want to respect me. I may be feeling depressed and down on myself. But I don’t want to admit it because it doesn’t sound spiritual.

We surely do not need to tell everyone all about our feelings, our problems and our faults. That would be presumptuous and boring. But we can stop living a lie. We can share with those who genuinely care that we are having problems and need their prayers. We can be honest with at least one close friend who will encourage us, advise us, pray for us and hold us accountable for the changes we need to make.

That accountability may be one of our main reasons for hiding the truth. To share the problem obligates us to change, the very thing we have resisted so long. But God says one reason we should speak the truth is because we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25). That seems to be a strange reason. He doesn’t remind us of the nature of our God, though knowing a God of truth is a good reason for being truthful. He doesn’t point out the damage our lying does to the testimony of Christ to the lost, though that is a good reason. He uses the great truth of our union with each other in the Body.

Because we are all members of one Body, we are members of one another. My finger is a member of my hand, and my hand is a member of my arm, and my arm is a member of my torso, to which both my head and my legs are also connected. Ultimately, every member of the body is a member of every other member. God put them all together in such a way as to function harmoniously and successfully.

If the members of my body start lying to each other, they won’t get along very well and the whole body will suffer. If my eyes see a rut in the road, but they tell my feet that the road is smooth, one of my feet may get broken. Or if the hand tells the rest of the body that it is fine when in reality its nerve endings are dead, it will eventually destroy itself to the detriment of the whole body. The members of the body need each other, but they are of little value to one another if they are not honest.

Paul is saying that we are all members of one another. God has put us together to function harmoniously and effectively, and for that reason we need each other. But we will be of little value to each other if we are not honest.

Let’s go back to my friend Henry who has such a difficult time telling the truth. He and his wife are believers. They are one in Christ. They belong to each other. They are part of each other, one flesh. They need each other. But they are of little value to each other. In order to minister to one another there must be trust, and Henry’s wife has no trust in him at all. He has lied to her so often, that she never knows whether to believe him or not. He promises he will stop lying, but then she catches him in another untruth, so even his promise turns out to be a lie.

If he tries to reassure her of his love, or encourage her about the future, she finds no consolation at all in his words. How can she ever be sure he is telling her the truth? His attempts to minister to her will be rebuffed. Her hopes will be raised, then dashed to splinters. Her resentment will build. Arguments will become frequent. Their relationship will never improve until Henry puts away lying and establishes a habit of telling the truth.

He has a problem with his friends at church, too. They don’t trust him either and they doubt much of what he says. Can you imagine him trying to teach a Sunday school class? Or counsel a believer with a problem? They would never know what to believe. He can have no ministry in their lives.

He has a problem with them as well. Since he thinks nothing of distorting the truth, he suspects that others do the same thing. So he doesn’t believe much of what they say to him. He even has a problem accepting what his pastor says when he expounds the Word of God. If there are many others like him in his church, you can be sure it is a sick assembly, and will soon be a contentious one, for suspicion and distrust are the seeds of conflict. Let us heed the exhortation of God’s Word: “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).

What about the other side of dishonesty—living a lie, hiding behind a facade, pretending everything is right in our lives when it isn’t, hiding our feelings? How does that affect the Body? For one thing, it discourages others who watch us. They know their lives are not perfect, and if they think ours are, they usually conclude that we are somehow different, in a separate category of super-saints to which they can never attain. They tell themselves they can never be like us so there is no reason to try. It alienates them from us and keeps them from coming to us for help. Far from rejecting us for our truthfulness, people usually respect us more, and derive great encouragement from knowing that we struggle with the same weaknesses as they. And they will be able to take advice from us more readily when they know that we have been there. They know that we are aware of what it is like. Truthfulness will help us minister to each other more effectively.

In recent years Mary and I have had the privilege of ministering to missionaries on more than a dozen different fields. In each conference we have taken a session to share the platform and briefly recount the story of our lives, warts and all. We have told of the struggles we have encountered in learning to get along with each other, the arguments and conflicts we have endured, and our failure to meet each other’s needs. In every case, our honesty has helped the missionaries relate more effectively with us and has opened opportunities for counsel. A number of them have said, “We have had the same kinds of problems, but we never told anyone. What would our supporters back home think if they ever found out? Thanks for being honest.”

Not only does our deceitfulness make it impossible for us to minister to others, but it makes it impossible for them to minister to us. Let me illustrate. We seldom go to a doctor unless we have admitted that we are sick. He cannot help us unless we are willing to acknowledge that something is wrong and tell him what hurts. The same thing is true in the spiritual realm. God put the Body together in such a way so that each member can minister to other members. But if we refuse to admit our needs, we cut ourselves off from the help which the rest of the Body can provide. They cannot minister to needs of which they are not aware.

If I have a marital problem, you cannot help me work it out unless you know about it. To cover it up would be like a broken thumb saying, “I don’t want the rest of the body to know I’m broken. I’ll straighten myself out without their help.” That is absurd. A broken thumb cannot straighten itself out without help from the rest of the body. And neither can we work out most of our problems without help from the rest of Christ’s Body. Problems will just hang on, making us more edgy and irritable and less able to get along with each other. Truthfulness will help us minister to each other more effectively, and improve the spiritual health of the entire Body.

Another detrimental effect of dishonesty about our feelings and faults is that it keeps us from understanding ourselves. Psychologists tell us that we only understand as much of ourselves as we share with others, and I have found it to be true in my own life. The more of my inner life I share with my wife, the more I begin to understand myself. If we are not transparent with others—have never verbalized our hopes and fears, values and priorities, dreams and aspirations, failures and discouragements, joys and sorrows, needs and wants, feelings and frustrations—we probably do not fully understand ourselves, and therefore we are not growing.

Just admitting what is going on inside of us can help us grow. If I must keep saying, “I feel angry with you,” eventually I may have to admit that I am expecting too much from you and have never committed my expectations to God. If I must keep saying, “I feel hurt when you say that,” I may have to admit that I am overly sensitive about inconsequential things. When I admit that, I will begin to change. And as I grow, I will be of greater help to others in the Body, and the whole Body will function more harmoniously.

Maybe you are beginning to grasp the importance of truthfulness. It can help bring happiness and harmony to our relationships. We need to begin to put off the old way of life and put on the new, lay aside falsehood and speak the truth, for we are members of one another.

6 John Powell, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (Niles, Illinois: Argus Communications, 1969).

From the series: Abraham

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Home, Ecclesiology (The Church), Man (Anthropology), Men's Articles, Women's Articles

11. Exegetical Commentary on John 8


[3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]

[2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)]

[5 C Jesus teaches openly in the presence of his opponents in Jerusalem (7:1-8:59)]

3 D Jesus remains in Jerusalem after the Feast (8:1-59)

1 E Jesus and the Adulteress: Interpretation of the Mosaic law (8:1-11)

2 E Jesus as the Light of the world (8:12-20)

3 E Response of the Jewish leaders: Who is Jesus? (8:21-30)

4 E Jesus and Abraham (8:31-59)


Coleman, B. W., “The Woman Taken in Adultery. Studies in Texts: John 7:53-8:11,” Theology 73 (1970): 409-10.

Derrett, J. D. M., “Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery,” New Testament Studies 10 (1963/64): 1-26.

Hodges, Z. C., “The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): The Text,” Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (1979): 318-32.

Hodges, Z. C., “The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): Exposition,” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 41-53.

Johnson, A. F., “A Stylistic Trait of the Fourth Gospel in the Pericope Adulterae?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 9 (1966): 91-96.

Lategan, B. C., “The truth that sets man free: John 8:31-36,” Neotestamentica 2 (1968): 70-80.

Salvoni, F., “Textual Authority for Jn 7:53-8:11,” Restoration Quarterly 4 (1960): 11-15.

Schilling, F. A., “The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress,” Anglican Theological Review 37 (1955): 91-106.

Trites, A. A., “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” Bibliotheca Sacra 131 (1974): 137-46.


3 D Jesus remains in Jerusalem after the Feast (8:1-59)

1 E Jesus and the Adulteress: Interpretation of the Mosaic law (8:1-11)

8:1-11 The Textual Problem: Should 7:53-8:11 be regarded as genuine, and if so, should it be included in the Fourth Gospel following 7:52? Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.”86

External evidence:

Omit 7:53-8:11: 66, 75, a, B, L, N, T, W, X, Y, D, Q, Y, 053, 0141, 0211, 22, 33, 124, 157, 209, 565, 788, 828, 1230, 1241, 1242, 1253, 2193, etc. In addition codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it appears that neither contained the pericope, because careful measurement shows that there would not have been enough space on the missing pages to include the pericope 7:53-8:11 along with the rest of the text.

Include 7:53-8:11: D, F, G, H, K, M, U, G, 28, 700, 892, 1009, 1010, 1071, 1079, 1195, 1216, 1344, 1365, 1546, 1646, 2148, 2174, , etc. In addition E, S, L, and P include part or all of the passage with asterisks or obeli, 225 places the pericope after John 7:36, 1 places it after John 21:24 or 25, and 13 after Luke 21:38 (!).

In evaluating this manuscript evidence, it should be remembered that in the Gospels A is usually considered to be of Byzantine text-type (unlike in the Pauline epistles, where it is Alexandrian), as are E, F, and G (which are of Western text-type in the Pauline epistles). This leaves D as the only major Western uncial witness in the Gospels.

Therefore we could summarize the evidence by saying that almost all early manuscripts of Alexandrian text-type omit the pericope, while most manuscripts of Western and Byzantine text-type include it. But we must remember that “Western manuscripts” here refers only to D, a single witness.

Thus it can be seen that practically all of the earliest and best manuscripts we possess omit the pericope; it is found only in manuscripts of secondary importance. But before we conclude that the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of John, internal evidence needs to be considered as well.

Internal evidence in favor of the inclusion of 8:1-11 (7:53-8:11):

(1) 7:53 fits in the context. If the “last great day of the feast” (7:37) refers to the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles, then the statement refers to the pilgrims and worshippers going home after living in “booths” for the week while visiting Jerusalem.

(2) The chief priests and Pharisees had just mocked Nicodemus for suggesting that Jesus’ claims might possibly be true. In particular they heaped scorn on Jesus’ Galilean origins (7:52). But far more than a prophet was to come from Galilee, according to Isa 9:1-2 (NASB):

But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.

In view of John’s observed fondness for Isaiah, it seems impossible that he was unaware of this prophecy. But if he was aware of it, we might expect him to work it into the background of the narrative, as he has often done before. And that is exactly what we find: 8:12 is the point when Jesus describes himself as the Light of the world. But the section in question mentions that Jesus returned to the temple at “early dawn” (“Orqrou, 8:2). This is the dawning of the Light of the world (8:12) mentioned by Isa 9:2.

(3) Furthermore, note the relationship to what follows: just prior to presenting Jesus’ statement that he is the Light of the world, John presents us with an example that shows Jesus as the light. Once again, this calls to mind one of the major themes of the Gospel: light and darkness (compare especially 3:19-21). Here the woman “came to the light” (although not at first willingly!) while her accusers shrank away into the shadows, because their deeds were evil. This could be seen as an appropriate setting for Jesus to follow with the statement of 8:12, “I am the light of the world.”

Internal evidence against the inclusion of 8:1-11 (7:53-8:11):

  • In reply to the claim that the introduction to the pericope, 7:53, fits the context, it should also be noted that the narrative reads well without the pericope, so that Jesus’ reply in 8:12 is directed against the charge of the Pharisees in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee.
  • The assumption that the Evangelist “must” somehow work Isa 9:1-2 into the narrative is simply that—an assumption. The statement by the Pharisees in 7:52 about Jesus’ Galilean origins is allowed to stand without correction by the Evangelist, although we might have expected him to mention that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. And 8:12 does directly mention Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world. The Evangelist may well have presumed familiarity with Isa 9:1-2 on the part of his readers because of its widespread association with Jesus among early Christians.
  • The fact that the pericope deals with the light/darkness motif does not inherently strengthen its claim to authenticity, because the motif is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel that it may well have been the reason why someone felt that the pericope, circulating as an independent tradition, fit so well here.
  • In general the style of the pericope is not Johannine either in vocabulary or grammar. According to R. Brown it is closer stylistically to Lukan material.87 Interestingly one important family of manuscripts, 13, places the pericope after Luke 21:38.

Conclusion: In the final analysis, the weight of evidence in this case must go with the external evidence. The earliest and best manuscripts do not contain the pericope. It is true with regard to internal evidence that an attractive case can be made for inclusion, but this is by nature subjective. In terms of internal factors like vocabulary and style, the pericope does not stand up very well.

We may go on to ask the question whether this incident, although not an original part of the Gospel of John, should be regarded as an authentic tradition about Jesus. It could well be that it is ancient and may indeed represent an unusual instance where such a tradition survived outside of the bounds of the canonical literature.

Notes on the content of the Pericope Adulterae:

8:3-5 What was the real motivation for the action of the scribes and Pharisees here? A real concern for the Mosaic Law? Probably not, since the statement is made (8:6) that they said this “testing” him, in order that they might have grounds to accuse him.

It is easy to figure out what these grounds would have been. The scribes and Pharisees must have thought they had Jesus in the classic “double bind” situation—they could get him no matter what he did or said. If he upheld the Law and commanded that the woman be stoned, they could bring accusation before Pilate (since the death penalty was not permitted to the Jewish authorities), and this could be combined with the popular acclamations of him as King. If, on the other hand, he overturned the Law, he would be discredited with the people.

8:5 It is interesting in light of this to note that the accusers themselves misrepresented the Law. The Law states that in the case of adultery, both the man and woman must be put to death (Lev 20:10, Deut 22:22). But the Law as quoted by the scribes and Pharisees said, “Moses commanded us to stone such women” (toiauvta", feminine pronoun). Why was reference to the adulterer omitted? Perhaps because one of their own number had agreed to trap the woman so that the controversy with Jesus could be provoked (how else could they have caught this woman so conveniently?)

8:6 Certainly Jesus’ response took the accusers by surprise—this was something extremely unanticipated. What did he write with his finger? I have no speculation to offer. But then, why mention that he wrote at all? Probably because the act of writing itself was regarded as a symbolic act. In Exod 31:19, the first set of tablets were inscribed by the finger of God. The first time Jesus stooped to write, it is specifically mentioned that he wrote with his finger (8:6). This may well constitute a symbolic allusion to the person of Messiah: he writes with the same authority as God, because he is God.

2 E Jesus as the Light of the world (8:12-20)

Setting and Place of the Discourse in the Narrative

The theory proposed by F. J. A. Hort that the backdrop of 8:12 is the lighting of the candelabra in the Court of Women, may offer a plausible setting to the proclamation by Jesus that he is the Light of the world (8:12).88 The last time that Jesus spoke in the narrative (if the pericope 7:53-8:11 is not part of the original, as the textual evidence suggests) is in 7:38, where he was speaking to a crowd of pilgrims in the Temple area. This is where we find him in the present verse, and he may be addressing the crowd again. It is more probable, however, that aujtoi'" refers to the Pharisees since they are mentioned in the following verse. Jesus’ statement to them would then be a sort of rejoinder to the charge the Pharisees made to Nicodemus in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee.

Jesus’ remark has to be seen in view of both the Prologue (1:4, 5) and the end of the discourse with Nicodemus (3:19-21). The coming of Jesus into the world provokes judgment: a choosing up of sides becomes necessary. The one who comes to the light, that is, who follows Jesus, will not walk in the darkness. The one who refuses to come, will walk in the darkness. In this contrast, there are only two alternatives. So it is with a person’s decision about Jesus.

Furthermore, this serves as in implicit indictment of Jesus’ opponents, who still walk in the darkness, because they refuse to come to him. This sets up the contrast in chapter 9 between the man born blind, who receives both physical and spiritual sight, and the Pharisees (9:13, 15, 16) who have physical sight but remain in spiritual darkness.

8:12 Note that ejgwv eijmi occurs twice in this section (8:12, 18). On Jesus’ lips in the context it does not appear that this amounts to an explicit claim to identification with Yahweh of the Old Testament at these points; it is just the emphatic way of making the assertion.

But this would be suggestive to the Greek reader of the Gospel, who has encountered the phrase before, as a reminder of who it is who speaks. And it foreshadows the ejgwv eijmi of 8:24 and 8:58, where in context a claim to deity is expressed by these words (and so understood—note the response of Jesus’ opponents in 8:59). The remainder of chapter 8 shifts from the light/darkness imagery in this verse (resumed in chapter 9) to questions over Jesus’ authority.

toV fw'" th'" zwh'" The “life” Jesus refers to in this phrase is surely a reference to “eternal life” (zwhv aijwvnio"), cf. 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3.

8:13 The credibility of Jesus is questioned immediately after his claim to be the Light of the world (compare 1:9 of the Prologue with 1:10-11). Because he testifies concerning himself, his testimony cannot be true.

8:14 Jesus’ response to this is that even if he does testify concerning himself, his testimony is true, because of where he came from and where he is going (this recalls the discussion of 7:32-36). (Also compare 3:13—no one has ascended to heaven except the one who descended, the Son of Man; and 6:38, 6:41.) he has come down from heaven, and to the Father who sent him he will return.

This should be enough to confirm his claims. he does not speak on his own initiative, but with the authority of the one who sent him.

8:14b uJmei'" deV oujk oi[date povqen e[rcomai h] pou' uJpavgw But Jesus’ opponents still do not acknowledge his heavenly origin, nor do they know where he is headed (first to the cross and then back to the Father).

8:15 The Pharisees judge according to appearances (cf. 7:24). Jesus does not judge anything. What was the meaning of Jesus’ statement? It is clear that Jesus does judge (even in the next verse). The point is that he doesn’t practice the same kind of judgment that the Pharisees do. Their kind of judgment is condemnatory. They seek to condemn people. Jesus did not come to judge the world, but to save it (3:17).

Nevertheless, and not contradictory to this, the coming of Jesus does bring judgment, because it forces people to make a choice. Will they accept Jesus or reject him? Will they come to the light or shrink back into the darkness? As they respond, so are they judged—just as 3:19-21 previously stated. One’s response to Jesus determines one’s eternal destiny.

8:16 But even if Jesus does judge, his judgment is true, because he does not make it alone. His judgment would be in perfect accord with the Father who sent him.

8:17 ejn tw'/ novmw/ The reference is to Deut 17:6, 19:15.

8:19 Here we have another example of misunderstanding in the Gospel of John: the Pharisees are still taking all this on the wrong level—they understood it as a reference to Jesus’ earthly father, while he was speaking of his Father in heaven. If they had known who Jesus really was, they would have known his Father also. The Son, for the Evangelist, is the only way to know the Father (as mentioned previously in 1:18; later again in 14:6).

8:20 ejn tw'/ gazofulakivw/ This was in the Temple treasury, adjoining the Court of the Women. See the following note on the setting of these sections for a description of the treasury. No one was able to seize Jesus because his hour had not yet come.

3 E Response of the Jewish leaders: Who is Jesus? (8:21-30)

Setting of the Discourse:

The previous section closed with the note: “These words he spoke in the treasury, while he was teaching in the Temple.” The word does not refer to the storage room, but to the part of the Court of the Women where people came to cast offerings. Thirteen trumpet-shaped collection boxes were located here, each with an inscription denoting the use to which those offerings placed in it would be put.

This is significant in view of the statement in 20b: “No one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.” This part of the Temple was quite close to the hall where the Sanhedrin met. Yet even here no one dared to touch him, because the hour appointed for his glorification and return to the Father had not yet arrived.

8:21 ou pavlin This expression indicates some sort of break in the sequence of events, but we cannot say how long. We are not told the interval between 8:12-20 and this next recorded dialogue. We know the Feast of Tabernacles is past, and next reference to time is 10:22, where the Feast of the Dedication is mentioned. The interval is 2 months, and these discussions could have taken place at any time within that interval, as long as one assumes something of a loose chronological framework. However, if the material in the Fourth Gospel is arranged theologically or thematically, such an assumption would not apply.

This section recalls 7:33-36, where Jesus also talked about his departure to a place where he could not be found.

The words were a mystery to the Jews who heard them (note verse 22); but the reader of the Gospel will realize that Jesus is referring to his forthcoming departure to be with the Father once more.

The expression ejn th'/ aJmartiva/ uJmw'n ajpoqanei'sqe is found in the LXX at Ezek 3:18 and Prov 24:9. Note the singular of aJmartiva/ (the plural occurs later in v. 24). To die with one’s sin unrepented and unatoned would be the ultimate disaster to befall a man. Jesus’ warning is stern but to the point.

The Place of This Discourse in the Narrative:

Now we can see the crucial position in the theme of the entire Gospel which this section occupies: Once more Jesus challenges his hearers to a decision before it is too late. He has identified himself as the Light of the world (8:12), and the coming of the light forces people to take the option of seeing, by coming to that light, or of becoming blind by turning away and remaining in the darkness (3:19-21 again). But now there is a note of urgency: for the Jews, there is but a short time to see Jesus, to look for him and find him. A unique opportunity is being given to them and it will not be given again.

Jesus has offered living water (7:38) and the light of life (8:12). If people refuse this gift of eternal life, they will die in their sin. In John’s thought there is only one radical sin (what we might call unforgivable sin). This is the one sin of which one’s many sins (note the plural in verse 24) are merely reflections. This radical sin is to refuse to believe in Jesus and thus to refuse life itself, the free gift of eternal life which God offers.

A Note on Johannine Theology:

From John’s perspective, a person does not go to hell because he/she is a sinner. The death of Christ has changed all of that (1 John 2:2). All sin is atoned for except the one (unforgiveable) sin of unbelief. A person goes to hell because he/she does not possess the life of heaven—eternal life. And this person does not possess it because he/she has rejected it as God’s free gift. To reject Jesus is to reject this gift of eternal life, which is (in other words) to commit the (unforgiveable) sin of unbelief.

8:23 kavtwa[nw Jesus is the one who has come down from above, from heaven, to enable men to be born from above, and thus to enable them to possess eternal life. The contrast here is between heaven, where Jesus is from, and earth, where his opponents are from.

8:24-30 These verses explain the urgency of Jesus’ insistence that, when he goes away, there will be no other possibility of delivering them from sin. When Jesus is lifted up (8:28) in crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he will draw all people to himself (cf. 12:32), and in that moment it will be clear to those who have eyes to see that he truly bears the divine Name, I AM, and that he has the power of raising people to the Father. But if they refuse to believe—refuse to see—then there is no other way (cf. 14:6) that leads to the Father above, and people will go to their graves permanently separated from the gift and Giver of eternal life.

8:27 oujk e[gnwsan Note again the Evangelist’s comment that they didn’t understand that he was speaking about the Father to them. This type of comment, intended for the benefit of the reader, is typical of the “omniscient author” convention adopted by the Evangelist, who is writing with a post-resurrection point of view.

8:30 polloiV ejpivsteusan eij" aujtovn The section concludes with the summary statement that “when he had spoken these things many believed (pisteuvw + eij") in him.”

4 E Jesus and Abraham (8:31-59)

8:31 There is a major problem with the context of verse 31: Jesus apparently speaks to those who trusted him in 8:30, yet it becomes apparent that these are not genuine believers in the Johannine sense. They seek to kill Jesus (8:37, 59); Jesus even says their father is Satan (8:44). There is no obvious change in subject: oiJ =Ioudai'oi appears in 8:22, 8:31, 8:48. How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled?

This is one passage that is sometimes used to support the view that the pisteuvw + eij" construction in the Fourth Gospel does not always refer to genuine faith (along with 2:23ff).

However, we need not be forced to this interpretation. Note that “many” (polloiv) trusted in him (pisteuvw + eij") in 8:30.

8:30 does not state that these are the same individuals as oiJ =Ioudai'oi of 8:22. Certainly whenever Jesus confronted the Jewish authorities it is virtually certain that it did not take place in private. Thus we might expect a large number of bystanders heard his words, and many trusted in him as a result of what they overheard (8:30).

But some of the Jewish authorities also “professed” to trust in him. Note that the Evangelist is careful at this point to avoid the pisteuvw + eij" construction (8:31). The phrase is pisteuvw + dative. While we might draw the superficial conclusion that the group addressed by Jesus in 8:31 is coextensive with the people who trusted Jesus in 8:30, this is not necessarily so.

Sometimes the Evangelist’s use of the two phrases overlap, but not necessarily always. This does not affect conclusions regarding the use of pisteuvw + eij".

In what sense did the Jewish leaders trust Jesus? It is perhaps better to translate this “believe” than “trust”. They had believed his messianic claims (8:25) which he had spoken to them from the beginning. But they had insisted on believing Jesus to be the type of Messiah they had anticipated—chiefly political. This is suggested by their refusal to admit that anyone had ever enslaved them (8:33) in spite of the Roman occupation (not to mention the Babylonian captivity).

8:32 gnwvsesqe thVn ajlhvqeian But what did Jesus mean by the statement in 8:32, “you shall know the truth”? This is often taken as referring to truth in the philosophical (or absolute) sense, or in the intellectual sense, or even (as the Jews apparently took it) in the political sense. In the context of John’s Gospel (particularly in light of the Prologue) this must refer to truth about the person and work of Jesus. It is saving truth. As L. Morris says, “it is the truth which saves men from the darkness of sin, not that which saves them from the darkness of error (though there is a sense in which men in Christ are delivered from gross error).”89

Note: For the Evangelist, the contrast between light and darkness is not epistemological, it is moral—the moral choice between good and evil (cf. 3:19-21 again).

8:33 spevrma =Abraavm ejsmen The Jewish leaders claimed kinship with Abraham as the basis for their privileged position. Note the irony of spevrma =Abraavm on the lips of the Jewish authorities, who happen to be addressing the True Seed of Abraham!

8:34 pa'" oJ poiw'n thVn aJmartivan… “Everyone who practices (present participle) sin is a slave of sin.” Here repeated, continuous action is in view. The one whose lifestyle is characterized by repeated, continuous sin is a slave to sin. That one is not free; sin has enslaved him. To break free from this bondage requires outside (divine) intervention. Although the statement is true at the general level (the person who continually practices a lifestyle of sin is enslaved to sin) the particular sin of the Jewish authorities, repeatedly emphasized in the Fourth Gospel, is the sin of unbelief. The present tense in this instance looks at the continuing refusal on the part of the Jewish leaders to acknowledge who Jesus is, in spite of mounting evidence.

8:35-37 spevrma =Abraavm ejste: Compare the discussion in verses 33 ff. of the seed (descendant[s]) of Abraham. This is picked up in verses 37, 39, 40 and 48-59. Given this context we might look for an Old Testament allusion here, and the one that most readily comes to mind is that of Ishmael and Isaac (Gen 21:9) (Compare Gal 4:30 for the similar Pauline thought). The free son, Isaac, remains in the household; while the slave-born son, Ishmael, is driven out. The Jews now claim to be the free sons of Abraham, but in truth they are not, being slaves (not of Abraham but of sin). Hence their status is lost, forfeit.

8:35 oJ uiJoV" mevnei eij" toVn aijw'na Who then is the son who remains forever? Jesus, the true spevrma =Abraavm and the Son of God.

8:38 But Jesus does not stop here with the analogy of the son and the slave. Here and in 39-47 Jesus brings out the end of the contrast between himself and the Jews in their lines of descent:

(1) To say that the Jews are descendants of Abraham (spiritually) is false; they are seeking to kill a man, Jesus, who has spoken to them the truth he heard from God (40). This Abraham would not have done. Their father is the devil (44).

(2) To say that Jesus is the descendant of Abraham is true; but it is inadequate; he is more: his Father is God (42, 47).

(3) As J. N. Sanders (The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church) well said, “Conduct is the clue to paternity.” Compare Rom 9:6-9 for similar ideas.

8:41b Although the Jewish authorities have not yet caught on to what Jesus is saying about their true father, they realize he is saying it was someone other than God. In effect, they reply: “who are you to talk about paternity? We (emphatic hmei'") were not born of fornication! This implies, of course, that Jesus was. Interestingly the Evangelist allows this charge concerning Jesus’ paternity to stand uncorrected—obviously he assumes that the reader knows Jesus’ true geneology; thus the statement by the Jewish authorities becomes highly ironic.

The Jewish authorities now trace their own ancestry to God.

8:42 Jesus’ reply to the authorities is: “If you were truly children of God, you would love his Son”.

Note the forcefulness of the word order: ejxh'lqon, the departure of Jesus from the presence of God (ejk tou' Qeou'); h{kw, the arrival of Jesus in the world (cf. Eph 2:17).

oujdeV gavr, k.t.l. Again, we have a reference to Jesus’ mission. Note the absence of any self-seeking or self-will on the part of Jesus. It is the Father who sent him, and it is the Father’s will he seeks to do.

8:43 thVn laliaVntoVn lovgon Jesus asks his opponents, “Why do you not understand my words (laliavn,”speech”)? Because you are not able to hear my message (lovgon)”. In this chapter alone note misunderstandings at verses 19, 22, 25, 33, etc. Of course there is irony here; the Jewish authorities cannot understand the message (lovgon) of the incarnate Word (Lovgo").

8:44 uJmei'" ejk tou' patroV" tou' diabovlou ejsteV Note the contrast: the Father of Jesus is God; the father of these Jews is the devil, who

(1) destroys the life God creates (ajnqrwpoktovno") and

(2) denies the truth God reveals (yeuvsth"). In particular here the articular toV yeuvdo" and the singular pronoun aujtou' could be a reference to a denial of the person and work of Christ, ultimately propounded by Antichrist himself—compare 1 John 2:21-23.

8:46 ejlevgcei This term may mean either “convict” or “expose”; the context involves confrontation and thus strongly supports the meaning “convict” here.

8:47 Only the one who is from God hears (= “obeys”) the words of God. These Jews are not able to hear the words of God that Jesus speaks because they are not from God but from the devil.

8:48 Samarivth" ei suV kaiV daimovnion e[cei" It is not clear what is meant by the charge. The meaning could be “you are a heretic and are possessed by a demon.” Note that the dual charge gets one reply (8:49). Perhaps the phrases were interchangeable: Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24) and in later traditions Dositheus, the two Samaritans who claimed to be sons of God, were regarded as mad, that is, possessed by demons.

The charge of being demon-possessed is levelled at Jesus in 7:20, 8:48 (here), 8:52, and 10:20.

8:49 Jesus’ reply to the charge is this: the claims Jesus makes for himself are not demented, but mere obedience to his Father. “You fail to give me, as the Son of the Father, the honor due him.”

8:51 Those who keep Jesus’ words will not see death because they have already passed from death to life (compare 5:24). In Johannine theology eternal life begins in the present rather than in the world to come.

8:52 Again the Jews take Jesus’ words literally rather than figuratively (i.e., spiritually) and are convinced that he is demon-possessed. This is a further occurrence of the misunderstood statement in the Fourth Gospel.

8:53 mhV suV meivzwn ei tou' patroV" hJmw'n =Abraavm This question expects a negative answer, like the question of the Samaritan woman (4:12). It is ironic, because John’s readers know that the true answer is the reverse of the answer presumed by the Jewish authorities.

8:54 ejaVn ejgwV doxavsw ejmautovn… In answer to the last question of 8:53 (tivna seautoVn poiei'"…), once more Jesus’ opponents invert the truth: Jesus does not make himself someone, he empties himself of all personal dignity and emphasizes his obedience to the Father and dependence on him.

8:56 =AbraaVm oJ pathVr uJmw'n hjgalliavsato i{na i[dh/ thVn hJmevran thVn ejmgvn What is the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the patriarch Abraham ‘saw’ his day and rejoiced? The use of past tenses would seem to refer to something that occurred during the patriarch’s lifetime. Genesis Rabbah 44:25ff, (cf. 59:6) states that Rabbi Akiba, in a debate with Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, held that Abraham had been shown not this world only but the world to come (this would include the days of the Messiah). More realistically, I would suggest Gen 22:13-15 lies behind Jesus’ words. This passage, known to rabbis as the Akedah (“Binding”), tells of Abraham finding the ram which will replace his son Isaac on the altar of sacrifice—an occasion of certain rejoicing. Especially note the reference to the hwhy Jalm in Gen 22:15.

8:57 =AbraaVm eJwvraka"… This is an instance of misunderstanding again.

8:58 priVn =AbraaVm genevsqai ejgwV eijmiv The meaning of Jesus’ statement is: “Before Abraham came into existence I, the “I AM,” eternally was, am now, and shall be.” Here is an explicit claim to deity, consistent with the Johannine force of ejgwV eijmiv in its fullest (non-predicated) sense. Although each occurrence of the phrase in the Fourth Gospel needs to be examined individually in context to see if an association with Exod 3:14 is present, it seems clear that such is the case at this point—note the response of the Jewish authorities in the following verse.

8:59 The significance of Jesus’ words finally comes home to the Jewish authorities, and they undertake to stone him. This clearly shows that they understood Jesus’ words as a claim to deity, although they did not accept the claim. They were not able to stone Jesus, of course, since no one could touch him before his hour had come.

86 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 219.

87 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 336.

88 F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, vol. 2, Introduction; Appendix (Cambridge & London: Macmillan, 1881), 87-88.

89 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 457.

Related Topics: Christology

From the series: Abraham

An Encouraging Word

When our children were growing up, one of the things Mary and I tried to teach them was unselfish consideration for other people. But I have to admit, I thought very little about how selfish and inconsiderate our conversations may have sounded. It did not occur to me that I should be teaching them how to communicate with unselfish consideration for others and then modeling it before them, probably because I had never learned much about it myself.

Judging from what I hear, I suspect that there are others who have not learned a great deal about considerate communication either. Some of us have a tendency to interrupt while others are talking, dominate conversations with stories about ourselves, show little interest in what others are saying, get impatient and irritated when they disagree with us, say sarcastic things that offend or belittle, or commit any number of other conversational blunders that demonstrate a gross lack of consideration.

We may have little appreciation for the power of our words. “Who am I?” we ask. “Just a little old nobody. It doesn’t matter what I say. My words don’t affect anybody.” But they do! They affect everyone we speak to—absolutely everyone. They have the power to help and heal, or the power to hurt and destroy. “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” wrote King Solomon (Proverbs 12:18). Some professing Christians swing verbal swords, piercing the souls of other people, inflicting emotional wounds on their spouses, their children, their neighbors, store clerks, telephone operators, or anyone else who gets in their way.

As we have seen, the Apostle Paul penned an extended passage on the use of words (Ephesians 4:25-32). And in one verse he summed up a number of good communication principles: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Paul established two categories of communication in that verse: unwholesome words and edifying words. The first, he says, should be eliminated entirely from our verbal repertoire. There is no room for even a trace of it. We are to weed it all out, then replace it with the second. Obeying this command could vastly improve our ability to get along with each other. But we need to know what kinds of words each category includes. Let’s explore them—first the unwholesome or destructive words, then the edifying or constructive words.

Destructive Words

The word unwholesome means “decayed, rotten or diseased.” It is used of rotten or degenerate fruit (Matthew 7:17-18), and rotten or degenerate fish (Matthew 13:48). Unwholesome things are putrid, offensive, useless, worthless or unprofitable—fit for nothing but the trash heap. But worse, when we put a rotten apple in a barrel with good apples, it corrupts the whole lot. It is not only useless, but injurious and harmful. It affects others adversely.

Paul seems to be using the word in this sense of damaging others, because he contrasts unwholesome words with edifying words—words that build up, strengthen and heal. Unwholesome words do just the opposite. They tear down, destroy, offend and hurt. What kind of words did Paul put in this category? The context reveals some. Lying words can injure (v. 25). Bitter words can injure (v. 31). Angry words can injure (v. 31). Malicious, gossiping words can injure (v. 31). All these are discussed in other chapters. What other kinds of words injure people and relationships? Let’s think about a few.

Cutting Words. Solomon spoke of words that pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18). They sound like cutting words. David had a problem with people whose tongues cut him. He mentions it several times in the Psalms. For example, he says his former friend Ahithophel, who turned against him, spoke words that were like drawn swords (Psalm 55:21). He spoke of people with swords in their lips and tongues (Psalm 57:4, 59:7, 64:3). We’ve all known folks who have been endowed with sharp tongues. They have the gift of sarcasm. They are masters of the cut, the chop, the put down. They have razor-sharp minds that shoot out razor-sharp words quicker than most people can keep up with them. They may do it to be funny, but they fail to think about how much it hurts the victim. Their verbal assaults smack of the foolish talking or jesting which Paul condemned in Ephesians 5:4.

Some husbands and wives take advantage of social gatherings to cut down their spouses. Rather than lovingly confront in private and talk issues through where they can explore what one another is thinking and feeling, they find it easier to drop little razor blades into the conversation when their spouses cannot fight back. One sharp-tongued husband said, “Dottie doesn’t sleep too late. She gets up in time to watch the afternoon soaps on TV.” But Dottie was not to be outdone: “Max always remembers my birthday—three months later.” And a few more wounds have been inflicted that will arouse antagonism, lead to retaliation, and further decay the relationship. Destructive words! “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Nagging words. The book of Proverbs says quite a bit about nagging and its effect. “It is better to live in a corner of a roof, than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Proverbs 21:9). “It is better to live in a desert land, than with a contentious and vexing woman” (Proverbs 21:19). “A constant dripping on a day of steady rain and a contentious woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15).

There is a difference between nagging and reminding. A reminder is friendly and free from impatience or irritation. But nagging is a repeated, critical request marked by exasperation and anger. It is exactly what Solomon labeled “contentious.” A nag has a tendency to scold, lay blame, make insinuations or accusations that strike at a person’s self-esteem. “When are you ever going to paint the house? Don’t you care what people think?” That is an attempt to create guilt. “Don’t you know any better than to slurp your soup? You eat like an animal.” That is an attempt to shame.

I don’t know why Solomon only picked on the wives. Maybe it was because he had so many of them. But men can be just as guilty. “I wish you’d lose some weight. I’m ashamed to be seen in public with you.” Those words are critical, humiliating and insulting. They hurt and destroy. “I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t like my coffee this strong.” There is that note of humiliation again. The idea is, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? Or can’t you remember one simple request? Or can’t you do anything right?”

Nagging words like that are destructive. They irritate, just like the continual drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. They hurt by making other people feel badly. Such words heap guilt on people, cause them to think less of themselves, chipping away at their self-esteem. Those people probably will strike back in some way in an attempt to restore that injured self-esteem. The result is usually further rotting of the relationship. It isn’t necessary to make people feel badly. When we ask someone to do something, and if they agree to do it but fail, we can remind them lovingly and kindly without communicating disgust, frustration or humiliation. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Exaggerated words. There is a ramification of the falsehood we discussed in the last chapter which should be mentioned here in connection with words that destroy relationships, and that is exaggerated generalizations that take the form of absolute statements. I’m referring to words like always and never. “You never take me out to eat.” “You always greet me with a gripe of some kind when I come home from work …” “All you ever think about is ________” (fill in the blank: food, sex, new clothes, etc.). Absolute statements are seldom true and they tend to arouse antagonism in us. They hurt us, so instead of trying to discover what the real problem is that prompted the statement, we focus on proving the statement wrong, and so repairing our injured self-esteem.

When a wife says, “You never take me out to eat,” her husband may reply, “Why of course I do. I remember taking you out just six weeks ago. You don’t remember anything. And besides that, you don’t appreciate anything I do for you.” And the fight is on. The foolish thing is that they are fighting about a false issue. The issue is not when they went out to eat last. It is probably that she is feeling neglected or overworked. He needs to be more sensitive to her needs. But if she would try to identify her feelings and her desires, then express them directly, lovingly and honestly instead of making absolute statements that accuse, there is a good possibility that the relationship would be strengthened rather than strained. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Vengeful words. Peter identified some unwholesome words that injure relationships. “To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9). We normally respond to angry accusations with angry accusations. We answer put-downs with put-downs, and sarcasm with sarcasm. That is our human nature.

“You never listen to me,” she charges.

“That’s because you never say anything that’s worth listening to,” he responds.

We usually live by the adage, “When hurt, strike back and hurt in return.” And it does nothing but intensify our conflicts, until they reach the stage of one couple who stood before a judge seeking a divorce.

“Will you please tell the court what passed between you and your wife during the argument that led to this court action?”

“I will,” said the husband. “It was a rolling pin, six plates, and a frying pan.”

Peter suggests that we not return evil for evil or insult for insult. We have a new nature, a supernatural nature which is capable of responding just as the Lord Jesus Himself responded. “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). By consciously depending on His power, not only can we hold back the vengeful words, but we can speak words that will calm the angry accuser, heal the hurts that have been experienced and strengthen the relationship.

Constructive Words

We have seen some words that destroy relationships; now let us look at some that heal and strengthen them—constructive words. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Here in this one verse are some powerful biblical principles that can solve many of our communication problems. If we use them to govern our words, we shall find our relationships improving overnight. Ask yourself, “Do my words edify—do they build the people in my life rather than put them down?” “Are these words what they need at this particular time?” “Will these words minister grace to them—will they benefit them in some way?”

If a wife says to her husband, “You never listen to me,” she surely doesn’t need to hear, “You never say anything worth listening to.” The first statement is false, but two falsehoods do not produce truth. The second falsehood will do more to hurt and destroy than the first did. What does she need at that moment? Words that build! Here are a few.

Gentle words. We mentioned gentle words when we discussed how to deal with the faults of others (chapter 3). But their importance demands some further emphasis. Solomon wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). The word gentle implies words that are tender, delicate and mild. Paul said much the same thing: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). The same tongue that stirs up strife also can communicate kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness when it is controlled by the Holy Spirit. Gentle words can soothe and quiet the atmosphere after foolish words have been uttered. When passions rage, accusations are made or unkindnesses hurled, try gentle words. Purposely speak in calm, quiet, kind tones, and choose words that are non-threatening and non-retaliatory. It will be like pouring cold water on burning coals. It takes two to fight. If one decides there is a better way and refuses to retaliate, there will be no fight.

Understanding words. If we are only to speak words that build others up according to their needs, then we obviously must understand those needs. That may require some prayerful thought before we open our mouths. Many of us would rather spew out the first thing that comes to our minds when we are issued an invitation to fight. Solomon has some choice observations about that:

“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

Part of that prayerful thought will be an effort to determine exactly what the other person is feeling and trying to communicate to us. They may be saying it rather poorly, but there is probably some need behind it. “You never listen to me” translates into something like, “I don’t think you are listening to me attentatively enough to make me feel loved and understood. And I’m hurting because of it.”

It is unfortunate that we cannot phrase things more carefully and simply say what we feel and what we want, instead of accusing, criticizing, manipulating, exaggerating, belittling, nagging or judging motives. But we all have the problem to some degree, and that should help us try to be more patient with others when they are not communicating properly, and help us try to grasp what is behind their words. Then we can respond with understanding words rather than vengeful words. An understanding response might be, “You may be right. I probably don’t listen to you as carefully as I should. And I can understand why that bothers you. It would bother me, too. I really want to do better. Can you suggest some ideas that would help me improve in this area.”

Do you see what you have done? You have assured her that you understand why she is disturbed. You have given her an opportunity to say more about it, which she probably wanted to do and needed to do. You have let her know you are interested in making the changes in your life that will bring her greater happiness. And you have focused on a solution, getting the discussion out of the fruitless realm of blame. That kind of answer will help build her up, meet her needs and benefit her. It is kind, tender-hearted and forgiving. And what has it cost you besides giving up a clever, smart-alecky remark that wasn’t true in the first place? Understanding words build up and encourage.

Appreciative words. The Apostle Paul himself gave us an example of words that edify and benefit. In many of his letters he included words of commendation and appreciation. For example, to the Philippians he wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5). To the Thessalonians he wrote, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). Neither the Philippians nor the Thessalonians were perfect, but Paul praised them before he dealt with their problems. There isn’t one of us who is so confident and self-assured that he does not need a word of praise periodically. Without it, we become overwhelmed with self-doubts and are incapable of functioning at peak efficiency.

Some of us seem to think that people will get proud if we compliment them too frequently. Quite the contrary! People often become boastful when they are starved for appreciation. A sincere compliment will encourage them to do even better.

Alan McGinnis relates a study of a second grade class in Wisconsin. The children were getting harder to control, standing up and roaming around the room instead of doing their work. Two psychologists spent several days in the back of the room observing. They found that seven times in every twenty-minute period the teacher said, “Sit down!” But the roaming continued. They suggested that she increase her commands, and she did, to 27.5 times in twenty minutes. The walking around increased fifty percent. Then they suggested instead that she eliminate the commands entirely and quietly compliment the children who were staying in their seats doing their work. The roaming around decreased thirty-three percent from what it was originally.7

Psychologists tell us that, generally speaking, we need at least four positive statements to balance one word of criticism. Delinquent children report getting approximately one to one. Most of us are the same way. We enjoy cooperating with those who show us appreciation and we resist those who criticize us. It would make a significant improvement in the way we get along with the people we live with and work with if we looked for the positive things in their lives and expressed our appreciation. A husband can say, “That was a great meal. Thanks for the time and effort you put into it.” A Sunday school superintendent may say to a teacher, “Thanks for your faithfulness to the class. I always know that you’re going to be here unless you’ve notified me ahead of time.” Statements like that communicate an important message. They say, “I care about you. You’re important to me. I value you highly.” They are constructive words that encourage and build.

This is not the false flattery which some people use to get their own way or obtain some favor in return. The Scripture warns about that: “A flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). But it encourages people when we sincerely commend the praiseworthy things we see in them. Train yourself to look for them in the people around you—the checkout clerk at the grocery store, the difficult neighbor, the usher at church, your spouse, your children, your parents, your employees, your boss—everyone!

Let’s take the Word of God seriously and begin to weigh our words. Weed out those that damage people and cause relationships to decay. Replace them with words that build up, meet needs, and minister gracious benefit to people’s lives. We will be the beneficiaries in the end as we experience the joy of harmonious relationships.

7 Reprinted by permission from The Friendship Factor by Alan Loy McGinnis, copyright 1979, Augsburg Publishing House, pp. 93-94.

From the series: Abraham

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Children, Man (Anthropology), Men's Articles, Women's Articles

12. Exegetical Commentary on John 9


    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 - 12:50)]

      [2 B Selected highlights from the later part of Jesus’ public ministry: conflict and controversy (5:1 -10:42)]

        6 C The sixth Sign, in Jerusalem: the healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)

          1 D The miraculous healing (9:1-7)

          2 D The response by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)

          3 D The investigation by the Pharisees (9:13-34)

          4 D Jesus leads the man born blind to spiritual sight (faith); the Pharisees remain in their spiritual blindness (9:35-41)


Bligh, J., “Four Studies in St. John, I: The Man Born Blind,” Heythrop Journal 7 (1966): 129-44.

Carroll, K. L., “The Fourth Gospel and the Exclusion of Christians from the Synagogue,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 40 (1957): 19-32.

Horbury, W., “The Benediction of the Minim and Early Jewish-Christian Controversy,” Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982): 19-61.

Martyn, J. L., History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), esp. 24-62.


        6 C The sixth Sign, in Jerusalem: the healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)

Introduction: The opening words of chapter 9, kaiV paravgwn, convey only the vaguest indication of the circumstances. Since there is no break with chapter 8, Jesus is presumably still in Jerusalem, and presumably not still in the Temple area. The events of chapter 9 fall somewhere between the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2) and the Feast of the Dedication (10:22).

But in the Evangelist’s narrative the connection exists—the incident recorded in chapter 9 (along with the ensuing debates with the Pharisees) serves as a real-life illustration of the claim Jesus made in 8:12, “I am the Light of the world”. This is in fact the probable theological motivation behind the juxtaposition of these two incidents in the narrative. The second serves as an illustration of the first, and as a concrete example of the victory of light over darkness.

(Note: This is Jesus’ first explicit claim to be the light in the Gospel of John, although the light/darkness motif was introduced in the Prologue (1:4-5) and mentioned in 3:19-21.)

The contextual link between chapter 9 and 8:12 (as well as 3:19-21) occurs in Jesus’ statement in 9:5: “When I am in the world, I am the light of the world”.

C. K. Barrett summarizes the chapter this way:

This…chapter expresses perhaps more vividly and completely than any other John’s conception of the work of Christ. On the one hand, he is the giver of benefits to a humanity which apart from him is in a state of complete hopelessness: it was never heard that one should open the eyes of a man born blind (v. 32). The illumination is not presented as primarily intellectual (as in some of the Hermetic tractates) but as the direct bestowal of life or salvation (and thus it is comparable with the gift of living water (4.10, 7.37 f.) and of the bread of life (6.27)). On the other hand, Jesus does not come into a world full of men aware of their own need. Many have their own inadequate lights (e.g. the Old Testament, 5.39 f.) which they are too proud to relinquish for the true light which now shines. The effect of the true light is to blind them, since they wilfully close their eyes to it. Their sin abides precisely because they are so confident of their righteousness.90

At the same time, chapter 9 provides an introduction for Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd in chapter 10, where a sharp contrast is made between the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep and the religious leaders of the day who are nothing but thieves and hirelings and abandon the flock when danger threatens.

One other thing which we should point out about the miracle recorded in chapter 9 is its messianic significance. In the OT it is God himself who is associated with the giving of sight to the blind (Exod 4:11, Ps 146:8). In a number of passages in Isaiah (29:18, 35:5, 42:7) it is considered to be a messianic activity:

Isa 29:17,18—”Is it not yet just a little while before Lebanon will be turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field will be considered as a forest? And on that day the deaf shall hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see…”

Isa 35:4-5—”Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but he will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.”

Isa 42:6,7—”I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”

It is in fulfillment of these prophecies that Jesus gives sight to the blind. As the Light of the world he has defeated the darkness (cf. 1:5). Thus the miracle recorded here has significance for John as one of the seven “sign-miracles” which he employs to point to Jesus’ identity and messiahship. Because light and darkness is such an important theme in the Fourth Gospel, the imagery here is particularly significant.

          1 D The miraculous healing (9:1-7)

9:1 ejk geneth'" This particular phrase does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, but it is good Greek for “from the hour of birth.” In light of the placement of this account in the narrative, it appears that the Evangelist wants to suggest that this man is representative of all humanity. The fact is that mankind is not by nature receptive to the light (1:5,10). Rather all mankind is spiritually blind from birth. It is the role of the Light who comes into the world to enlighten every man (cf. 1:9).

9:2 rJabbiv, tiv" h{marten The disciples assume that sin (regardless of who committed it) is the cause of the man’s blindness. This was a common belief in Judaism; the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin, and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (see the Talmud, b. Shabbat 55a, which, although later than the NT, illustrates this). Thus in this case the sin must have been on the part of the man’s parents, or during his own foetal existence. Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs 1:41 (another later rabbinic work) states that when a pregnant woman worships in a heathen temple the fetus also commits idolatry. This is only one example of how, in rabbinic Jewish thought, an unborn child was capable of sinning.

i{na is one of the clearest examples of a i{na indicating result in the New Testament. No one would have deliberately wanted this to come about.

9:3 i{na here can indicate either purpose or result. The question is of grammatical interest but not much theological importance, because from our knowledge of Johannine theology we would not suppose in any case that the man’s birth and blindness took place outside the control (and therefore the purpose) of God. (Compare John’s use of the impersonal dei' with respect to Jesus.) The ultimate idea is the manifestation of the works of God (and through them, the Son of God who does them—compare 9:16, 31).

9:4 hJma'" dei' ejrgavzesqai taV e[rga tou' pevmyantov" me e{w" hJmevra ejstivn Note the divine necessity implicit in dei' again. Also note the contrast between day and night, that is, light and darkness. What does the saying mean? For John, in view of the identification of Jesus as the Light of the world, night involves the departure of Jesus from the world. That departure is drawing near—note the connection with 7:34, 8:21 ff. The Light will soon be withdrawn, and darkness will reign again for a time, but not forever (cf. Prologue, 1:5,10).

9:5 o{tan ejn tw'/ kovsmw/ w, fw'" eijmi tou' kovsmou We may paraphrase: “as long as I am here on my mission of salvation (3:17) upon which I was sent by the Father (tou' pevmyantov", 9:4), I am the Light of the world.”

This verse connects the present account with 8:12. Here, seen more clearly than at 8:12, it is obvious what John sees as the significance of Jesus’ statement. “Light” is not a metaphysical definition of the person of Jesus but a description of his effect upon the kovsmo"compare 3:19-21 .

9:6 ejpoivhsen phloVn It is impossible to say with certainty why he chose to make clay of the spittle. Spittle was recognized in ancient times as having medicinal (and even magical) value but this hardly explains Jesus’ use here. To make the clay was definitely work and thus in violation of the Sabbath (cf. 9:19, also the Mishnah, m. Shabbat 7:2, where kneading dough or other substances on the Sabbath was prohibited).

Note: The textual variant preserved in the Syriac text of Ephraem’s commentary on the Diatessaron (“he made eyes from his clay”) probably arose from the interpretation by Irenaeus in Against Heresies: “that which the Artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, he then supplied in public”! This involves taking the clay as an allusion to Gen 2:7, which in my judgment is unlikely.

9:7 Silwavm (Siloam) Why does the Evangelist comment on the meaning of the name of the pool? John generally uses ajpostevllw and pevmpw synonymously. Here, the significance is: the Father sent the Son, and the Son sends the man born blind. The name of the pool is applicable to the man, but also to Jesus himself, who was sent from heaven.

The pool’s name in Hebrew is jLV (shiloah) from jlv, “to send.” In Gen 49:10 the somewhat obscure hlyv (shiloh) was interpreted messianically by Jews, and some have seen a lexical connection between the two names (although this is somewhat dubious). We do know, however, that it was from the Pool of Siloam that the water which was poured out at the altar during the Feast of Tabernacles was drawn.91

          2 D The response by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)

9:8-9 Those who knew the man formerly have difficulty recognizing him as the same individual.

Note: The Evangelist’s use of ejgwv eijmi here means simply “I am he” and obviously has no connection with Jesus’ claims. This should be taken as indication that John has not made the phrase a technical term. The context of each instance must determine the significance of the phrase and whether an allusion to Exod 3:14 is in view.

9:10-12 Note that all the man knew about Jesus at this point was his name. He didn’t even know where Jesus was (9:12). At this point the man seems to have no understanding of who Jesus really was, but his insight will grow as the narrative progresses.

          3 D The investigation by the Pharisees (9:13-34)

9:13-14 h deV savbbaton The Evangelist now inserts a note (9:14) that it was the Sabbath, the first indication of this we have been given in the account (cf. 5:9 where a similar note is given). Jesus has again done something which is about to cause controversy—he has performed ‘work’ on the Sabbath.

9:15 Note the subtlety here: on the surface, the man is being judged. But through him, Jesus is being judged. But in reality (as the discerning reader will realize) it is ironically the Pharisees themselves who are being judged by their response to Jesus who is the Light of the world!

9:16 The initial response to the man’s answers: the Pharisees are divided in their opinion. Some assume automatically that since the Sabbath has been broken, this man Jesus cannot be from God. But some others are troubled by the facts: how can a man who is a sinner perform such miraculous signs? This group must have been fairly small, since we hear no more from them in the narrative, and the account proceeds on the premise of the former group, that a man who breaks the Sabbath cannot be from God.

9:17 The second o{ti is usually rendered as causal. But Liddell-Scott-Jones offers the meaning “with regard to the fact that…” which fits well here.92

profhvth" ejstivn —At this point the man, pressed by the Pharisees, admits there was something special about Jesus. But here, since profhvth" is anarthrous and in his initial reply in 9:11-12 the man shows no particular insight into the true identity of Jesus, it is probable that this does not refer to the prophet of Deut 18:15, but merely to an unusual person who is capable of working miracles. The Pharisees have put this man on the spot, and he feels compelled to say something about Jesus, but he still doesn’t have a clear conception of who Jesus is. So he labels him a “prophet.”

9:18 Note again the interchangeability of oiJ =Ioudai'oi (here) with “oiJ Farisaivoi” (9:13). At this point there does not seem to be open hostility; rather the dilemma represented in 9:16 was real: a man who was good enough to perform the miracle would not have performed it on the Sabbath. There must therefore be a mistake somewhere, and it was probably in the man’s story. So the next step was to interrogate the man’s parents. Probably the man was not really born blind in the first place.

9:19-23 The parents respond to the pressure of the Pharisees quite differently than their son. The parents, fearing that they will be “put out of the synagogue,” refuse to have anything to do with the matter. They insist that their son is old enough to speak for himself.

ajposunavgwgo" gevnhtai This reference to excommunication from the Jewish synagogue for those who had made some sort of confession about Jesus being the Messiah is dismissed as anachronistic by some (e.g., Barrett) and non-historical by others. In later Jewish practice there were at least two forms of excommunication: the ywdn, a temporary ban for thirty days, and the <rh, which was a permanent ban. But whether these applied in NT times is far from certain. We have no substantial evidence for a formal ban on Christians until later than this Gospel could possibly have been written. I suspect we have reference here to some form of excommunication adopted as a contingency to deal with those who were proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah. If so, we have no other record of the procedure than here. It was probably local, limited to the area around Jerusalem.

9:24 Deciding that their interrogation of the man’s parents was fruitless, the Pharisees switch back to the man himself.

doV" dovxan tw'/ qew'/ —As often noted (cf. Josh 7:19) this is equivalent to “Admit the truth.”

Technically, the Jews were correct, there was no doubt that Jesus had transgressed their law, and was a “sinner”. Whether they were correctly interpreting that law was entirely another matter. But the emphatic hJmei'" shows their self-assurance: they know they are right. We should not miss another example of irony here: the Jewish religious leaders, who thought of themselves as enlightened, are trying to pressure the man who was born blind into denying his certainty that he had received light (sight)!

9:25 But the man born blind, an admirably tenacious sort, won’t give up the other side of the dilemma. It is beyond question that he had received sight at the hands of Jesus.

9:26-29 When pressed even further, the man sticks to his story. The Jews are reduced to mocking him (v. 28), and the argument on their part becomes completely ad hominem (v. 34).

But the significant thing here is the question the man asks of his accusers: mhV kaiV uJmei'" qevlete aujtou' maqhtaiV… The expected answer of a question asked with mhv is “no,” but the key word here is kaiv: by the way he asks the question the man betrays that he already numbers himself among Jesus followers.

          4 D Jesus leads the man born blind to spiritual sight (faith); the Pharisees remain in their spiritual blindness (9:35-41)

9:35 The story is not over yet. The Light has shone and it has created division between those who come to it and those who shrink back (compare especially 3:19-21). The Jews have thrown out the man (and thus have also rejected Jesus); however, the man displays admirable tenacity when he refuses to deny the light.

But the man who was healed has not yet understood the full significance of what has taken place. Jesus, as he must, takes the initiative in finding the man.

Note the emphatic pronoun suv (verse 35): Jesus is interested in the man’s belief, having seen the disbelief of the Pharisees. “You saw what they think; now what do you think?”

9:38 After Jesus’ statement of verse 37 the man’s response is extremely significant: he worshipped Jesus. In the Johannine context the word connotes its full sense: this was something due God alone. Note that Jesus does not prevent him. The verb proskunevw is used in John 4:20-25 of worshipping God, and again with the same sense in 12:20. This is the only place in the Gospel of John where anyone is said to have worshipped Jesus using this term. As such, it forms the climax of the entire story of the man born blind.93

9:39-41 Jesus now summarizes: for judgment he has come. There is a contradiction, but only a superficial one, with 3:17. Jesus’ mission is to save the world. He did not come with the mission of condemming it. But (as 3:19-21 goes on to explain, as well as the examples of 8:1-11 and here) by the very fact of the Light coming into the world, judgment is provoked. As men respond, so they are judged. The presence of the Light necessitates a choice—to come to it or to shrink back—and this choice is one’s judgment.

Jesus’ words recall Isaiah’s: the blind receive sight (Isa 29:18, 35:5, 42:7, 42:18) while the seeing are blinded (6:10, 42:20).

The blind man received sight physically; this led him to see spiritually as well. But the Pharisees, who claimed to possess spiritual sight, are spiritually blinded. The reader might recall Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in 3:10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?”

In other words, to receive Jesus is to receive the Light of the world, to reject him is to reject the light, close one’s eyes, and become blind. This is the dire sin of which Jesus had warned before (8:21-24). The blindness of such people is incurable since they have rejected the only cure that exists.

Summary: R. Brown (AB 29, 376-77) sums up chapter 9 as follows:

The internal construction of the story shows consummate artistry; no other story in the Gospel is so closely knit. We have here Johannine dramatic skill at its best. …Before narrating the miracle, the evangelist is careful to have Jesus point out the meaning of the sign as an instance of light coming into darkness. This is a story of how a man who sat in darkness was brought to see the light, not only physically but spiritually. On the other hand, it is also a tale of how those who thought they saw (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness. The story starts in vs. 1 with a blind man who will gain his sight; it ends in vs. 41 with the Pharisees who have become spiritually blind.

The care with which the evangelist has drawn his portraits of increasing insight and hardening blindness is masterful. Three times the former blind man, who is truly gaining knowledge, humbly confesses his ignorance (12, 25, 36). Three times the Pharisees, who are really plunging deeper into abysmal ignorance of Jesus, make confident statements about what they know of him (16, 24, 29). The blind man emerges from these pages in John as one of the most attractive figures of the Gospels. Although the Sabbath setting and the accusation against Jesus create a similarity between this miracle and the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda in ch. v, this clever and voluble blind man is quite different from the obtuse and unimaginative paralytic of ch. v… . The blind man’s confutation of the Pharisees in verses 24-34 is one of the most cleverly written dialogues in the NT.94

90 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 354.

91 For further discussion see Carson, The Gospel According to John, 365.

92 LSJ 1265 s.v. o{ti IV.

93 Some significant early witnesses (75 * W et pauci itb,(l) sams ac2 mf) lack the words, “He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him. Jesus said,” (vv. 38-39a). The omission may have been an accidental error of sight on the part of a copyist (both vv. 37 and 39 begin with “Jesus said to him”). The inclusion of the words may have been motivated by use of the passage in liturgy (see Brown, The Gospel According to John, 375), since the verb proskunevw (proskunew, “I worship”) is used in John 4:20-25 of worshiping God, and again in 12:20 with the same sense. Even if these words are not authentic, such an omission does not lessen John's high christology (cf. 1:1; 5:18-23; 14:6-10; 20:28) nor the implicit worship of him by Thomas (20:28). Nevertheless, it is difficult to decide whether the words are original or not. The NET Bible retains the words but places them in square brackets to indicate the degree of doubt as to whether they should be included in the original text of John.

94 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 376-77.

Related Topics: Christology, Faith, Miracles

From the series: Abraham

You Make Me So Mad

It’s Saturday afternoon. You’ve spent all day cleaning house for company on Sunday—vacuuming carpets, scrubbing floors, scouring sinks, polishing appliances. Now it’s ready for the white glove inspection—but that’s not quite what happens. Instead, your teenaged daughter buzzes in from the beach with a cheerful “Hi, Mom,” and proceeds to walk the length of the house leaving a trail of sand behind her.

Before you have a chance to open your mouth, your husband comes in from the garage where he has been fixing the transmission in his car, and with his greasy hands he managed to redecorate the kitchen sink, the refrigerator and two cabinet doors, in that order. As though perfectly planned and orchestrated by someone who hates you, ten-year-old Johnny, at that precise moment, loses his grip on a muddy bullfrog he has just brought in from the yard. It plants its marks squarely on your newly-upholstered white living room sofa.

The explosion is violent—your worst in months. You scream, call them names, accuse them of being inconsiderate and uncaring, complain about your status as a slave and threaten to walk out on them. They make you so mad!

The eruption is over now. The air is quiet and still, but tense. Everybody seems to be avoiding you. You feel lonely and rejected, and very guilty. You did it again; you let your anger get out of control, and it’s alienating the people you love.

Anger! Some have called it the greatest curse on interpersonal relationships. Dad may be the angry, hostile one in the family. He rants and raves if somebody interrupts his television viewing or newspaper reading, or leaves his tools out to rust. Maybe one of the kids blows his fuse if he doesn’t get his way.

Home is not the only site for exhibitions of anger. We see it on the job, in the neighborhood, on the playing field, even in church board meetings and congregational business meetings.

What is God’s perspective on anger? Let’s look at His Word, find out what anger is, what it does and how we ought to deal with it.

What Anger Is

The dictionary defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” The major Old Testament word is the same word used for the nostrils. Anger is often revealed by the appearance of nostrils, or by heavy breathing. There are two primary New Testament words, one referring to a passionate outburst, and the other to a settled and lingering frame of mind. God isn’t very happy about either one. He tells us to get rid of both. “Let all … wrath and anger … be put away from you …” (Ephesians 4:31; see also Colossians 3:8).

But the strange thing is that God tells us in the very same context to be angry. “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). It is actually imperative in the Greek text, not “In your anger do not sin,” or “When angry do not sin” as some translations render it, but literally “Be angry.” God gets angry about some things, and Christians should, too.

Jesus gave us an example. There was a needy man in the synagogue. He had a paralyzed hand which Jesus could heal. The Pharisees were watching Jesus, hoping He would heal the man so they could charge Him with breaking the Sabbath. “And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry with the hypocrisy that considers slavish bondage to man-made religious rules to be more important than showing mercy to a person in need. So He did the loving, caring thing and healed the man, even though it was contrary to their rules. That kind of cold, calloused insensitivity which masquerades as spirituality ought to make us angry too, as should evil and injustice of every description. That is God’s kind of anger, righteous anger.

What is the difference, then, between righteous anger and sinful anger? We might suggest several distinctions. For one thing, righteous anger is always unselfish while sinful anger is selfish. It occurs when our desires, our needs or our ambitions are frustrated, when our demands are not met, when our expectations are not realized, when our well-being is threatened, when our self-esteem is attacked, or when we are embarrassed, belittled or inconvenienced. “Why doesn’t she do what I tell her to do?” “Why doesn’t he clean up his mess when he’s finished?” Those things inconvenience us.

A second difference is that righteous anger is always controlled while sinful anger is often uncontrolled. It causes us to say and do things we are sorry for later, things we never would have said or done had we been in control.

A third contrast is that righteous anger is directed toward sinful acts or unjust situations while sinful anger is often directed against people. God wants us to hate the sin but love the sinner, just as He does. And that means treating the sinner in kind and caring ways. Sinful anger lashes out against people.

A final distinction is that righteous anger has no malice or resentment, and seeks no revenge. In fact, it takes positive action to right wrongs and heal divisions and disagreements. Sinful anger, on the other hand, harbors bitterness and seeks retaliation. “He’s not going to get away with that.” So we make him pay. The angry tirade itself is designed to punish him, as are the cutting and sarcastic remarks, or the silent treatment that follows, or the malicious gossip we spread, or the way we try to alienate his friends from him. Sinful anger wants to hurt, even destroy.

God wants us to be angry, but over the right issues, at the right times and in the right way. He wants us to get rid of all sinful anger. If we are honest, we would probably admit that less than 2 percent of what we display is righteous anger, while the other 98 percent is sinful anger. It is that sinful anger we want to deal with in the remainder of this chapter … those sinful, selfish, spiteful feelings we express toward people who displease us.

What Anger Does

If somebody grabs you and begins yelling at you angrily because you accidentally stepped on his toe, a number of physiological changes will begin to take place in your body immediately. Adrenaline will pump into the bloodstream. Blood pressure and heartbeat will increase. The pupils will dilate and the muscles will tense. It is the body’s way of readying itself for sudden crisis. That response is involuntary. It will happen whether you want it to or not. It may be a mixture of surprise, fear, anxiety and anger, but that anger is not sinful. God built the capability to respond that way into your being. The question is, what will you do with that initial wave of anger? The choice is now yours to make. You have a few moments to evaluate the situation, process the data and formulate your response. What will it be?

If you decide that the situation warrants venting your anger, that you would be justified in expressing it, you will probably yell right back, insist it was an accident, or that it was really his own fault. Some psychologists say it is good for us to vent our anger, get it out and release the pressure. The problem is that venting it tells the body to maintain emergency status, so it keeps more anger flowing. Furthermore, it establishes more deeply in our brain cells the habit of reacting angrily, and it makes it more difficult to put away all sinful wrath and anger, as the Bible tells us to do.

Furthermore, if we allow that emergency state to continue, it reduces our ability to reason clearly, and ultimately upsets the chemical balance in our bodies and makes us physically sick. Doctors suggest that things like migraine headaches, thyroid malfunction, ulcerative colitis, toxic goiters, high blood pressure, ulcers, heart attacks, backaches, rheumatism, arthritis, allergies, indigestion, asthma and many other illnesses can be emotionally induced.

But equally serious is the fact that we will alienate people from us, often the people we love the most. They are the ones on whom we make the greatest demands, from whom we have the highest expectations. Consequently, they become the objects of our fiercest anger. It is unrealistic to hurl angry accusations at our loved ones, then expect them to shower love on us in return. They are human too. And a basic human principle revealed in Scripture is that anger begets anger. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger pacifies contention” (Proverbs 15:18). “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22).

There is a great deal of contention and strife in Christian churches and homes today because God’s people have not dealt with their anger. We hear people say, “But getting angry is the only way I can get any action.” So they go on yelling at each other and excusing it. But God’s Word says “… the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). We are not really teaching anything by our anger except a poor example that will adversely affect generations to come.

How to Deal With Anger

There are some harmful ways to deal with anger. We have already mentioned its unrestrained expression and the damage that does. But there are others. One of the most common ways for Christians to handle it is to deny it. We tell ourselves that Christians aren’t supposed to be angry. I’m a Christian, so naturally, I’m not angry. I’m concerned, hurt, disappointed, a wee bit upset, but not angry.

My image as a spiritual Christian requires that I not be angry, so I deny it, or I repress it and drive it deep down inside where it eats at my organs, makes me physically sick or causes me to get depressed. I store it up until the pressure gets so great that it explodes in a flare-up much out of proportion to the seriousness of the incident, or I hold it in until I can direct it at some less threatening object. My boss can fire me, so I don’t yell back at him. I go home and yell at my wife instead. And she yells at the kids. And they kick the cat. And the cat scratches the baby, whose developing lungs can make life miserable for everyone.

If we don’t let our anger explode, we may let it ooze out in subconscious ways, like being consistently late, or burning the supper, or avoiding people, or pouting, teasing, being sarcastic, forgetting to call or other such habits that let people know we are angry with them. Those things don’t accomplish anything constructive. There are better ways to manage our anger. Paul said to put it away. But how? That is the question that needs to be answered. Let me offer several suggestions.

The first thing we can do is to admit our anger honestly and accept full responsibility for it. That may be difficult to do if we have repressed it or denied it all our lives. But it is essential. Learn to ask yourself “What am I feeling right now? Am I angry with that person for what he has done?” Then admit it. Not, “You make me angry.” That is an attempt to pin the blame on others, and it is not fair to them. Nobody makes us feel anything! They are responsible for their actions, but we are responsible for our feelings. We choose to be angry. We could choose to forgive, to act kindly, to speak softly or to express humor. But if we choose to be angry, we should be willing to say so: “I feel angry when you talk to me like that.” We make no sarcastic remarks, no put-downs, no accusations, just an honest statement of fact. We feel angry.

It is amazing how much pressure is relieved by that simple, honest admission. Yet many folks have never thought about being that honest. They have never seen any model other than uncontrolled expression or stifling repression, so they do not know how to be honest. Paul says we are to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:25). James says we are to confess our faults to one another (James 5:16). Try it. And when you do, it might also be good to express your desire to overcome the anger. Say something like, “I don’t want to feel angry with you. I don’t like myself when I’m angry like this. I want to feel close to you and loving toward you.” That will also help to expedite the healing process.

A second suggestion for eliminating anger is to examine its cause. God would have us think carefully and deliberately before we speak too quickly. Many passages of Scripture allude to that (compare James 1:19; Proverbs 12:16; 14:29; 16:32; 19:11; 29:11). The answer is not to count to ten, but to think. The best thing to think about may be the reason for our anger. Almost all anger can be traced to our needs and wants. Two Christian psychiatrists suggest some common causes: (1) selfishness: our selfish demands are not being met; (2) perfectionism: our perfectionist expectations are not being satisfied, which makes us angry with ourselves and others; (3) suspiciousness: we misinterpret the motives or intentions of others. We think they are ignoring us, belittling us or contradicting us.8 We want people to treat us properly and we get angry when they do not, so an important step to resolving our anger is to identify exactly what we want from them.

Is it attention I want, respect, recognition, appreciation, consideration, love? Do I want to be listened to, to have my opinions regarded as worthwhile, my requests regarded as important? Do I want to be relieved of some of my responsibilities? Do I want my belongings handled with care? Do I want people to be more concerned about my feelings, or my convenience? We have all become angry because we expected someone to fulfill some want, and they failed. So identify the desire.

That leads to the third step in resolving the anger. Forgive others for their failure to meet our expectations. We really have no recourse but to forgive them when we realize how much God has forgiven us. And forgiveness can wash the anger right out of our lives. Anger is often an attempt to pay others back for wrongs they commit against us. But if we forgive, we pay for the wrongs ourselves. And since they are paid for, there is no reason to be angry anymore.

Some of us Christians struggle with anger because we have a weak understanding of God’s grace. We live in the realm of the Law, and think that somehow we must perform in order to be accepted by God. So we expect others to perform up to our perfectionist demands before we extend to them our acceptance. If they fail, we think we have the right to punish them with anger. God has accepted and forgiven us, not on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of His grace.

When we understand the immensity of our sin, and the vastness of His forgiving grace, we will stop trying to exact payment from others for all the petty little ways they fail to meet our expectations. We will be able to forgive, and our anger will dissolve. We shall deal more fully with forgiveness and its place in our relationships with others in a later chapter. But with that brief word, we should be ready for some preventative medicine.

Step number four in resolving our anger is to express our wishes openly. If we want something from those close to us, or feel that we need something from them, we should say so. Don’t play that old game of hide and seek: “If you loved me, you would know what I want.” Say it plainly, whatever it is. “Honey, I would like to go out to eat tonight ...” “It’s important to me that you throw your dirty clothes in the hamper.” “I’d like you to try to greet me cheerfully when I come home from work. It makes my whole day ...” “I want you to say ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ or ‘Thank you.’”

Sometimes people fail to fulfill our wishes because they really do not know what they are. Some have protested when I have made this suggestion to them: “But I’ve told him a thousand times. It doesn’t mean anything if I have to tell him.” We may have whined, complained, nagged, and accused a thousand times. But that only arouses antagonism and resistance. We need to explain directly, calmly, kindly and lovingly what we want. And there is a difference! Try talking it through, sharing what you would like and why it is important to you.

And incidentally, it would be good if we would go through this whole process before bedtime—admitting our anger, examining its cause, forgiving the failures of the other person and expressing our wishes. Look at it again: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). Don’t let resentments build up. Talk about the things over which you have gotten angry, and do it before the day is over if at all possible. When we let it linger, it has a way of getting buried in the pile of daily responsibilities and becoming the worm that spoils the relationship.

Maybe we should remind you again that now that you have made your wishes known, you should give others the freedom to fulfill them or not fulfill them. You want that freedom from them, don’t you? So extend the same freedom to them. Refuse to lock them into your expectations and demands, to manipulate them into conforming to your will, or to make them feel guilty if they fail. Commit all your expectations to God and let Him give you back through them the things He wants you to have. The Spirit of God will use that relaxed attitude of submission to help remove anger from your life.

A final suggestion for putting away sinful anger is to seek help from the Lord and from others. This is probably the most important step of all. Talk to God about your anger. Ask Him to give you a clearer understanding of its cause, a greater desire to overcome it, a willingness to forgive others and to yield your expectations to Him. Then invite others to help you overcome it by letting you know when they feel anger coming from you. I have asked my wife to do that, and much to my surprise at the moment, sometimes she does it. It stops me short. But I usually have to admit, “Yes, I am feeling anger right now.” Then I can ask God to help me resolve it, right there on the spot. It works wonders, when I remember to do it!

Anger is the work of the flesh, the old sin nature (see Galatians 5:19-20). It comes naturally. But God wants us to change, and He can help us. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Live in God’s presence, depend on His power. Ask Him to make you aware of your anger and help you resolve it. Ask your spouse, your children and your friends to tell you when they sense anger in you, then turn to God for the victory-producing power which He makes available so that anger and wrath will be put away from you, just as God commands.

8 Frank B. Minirth and Paul D. Meier, Happiness Is A Choice (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 150.

From the series: Abraham

Related Topics: Apologetics, Basics for Christians, Forgiveness, Man (Anthropology), Men's Articles, Women's Articles

From the series: Abraham

As God Has Forgiven

Let’s assume that you have been hurt, more than you ever thought you could. A friend has betrayed you by telling someone else a secret which you had revealed about yourself in strictest confidence. Now everyone knows it, and you are ashamed to show your face. How can you ever forgive that blabber-mouth?

Or maybe a co-worker has presented your idea as if it were his own. He has taken full credit for it and received all the glory for it, including a promotion and a raise. Now he is finding it difficult to look you in the eye. But you don’t even care. In fact, you don’t care if you ever see him again. How can you ever forgive him?

The possibilities for other ways to be hurt are endless. Someone lied to you, or spread a false rumor about you, or ruined a possession, or refused to believe you or listen to you. Your parents are continually trying to manipulate your life. Your ungrateful children have shamed you by repudiating everything you stand for. Your brother has swindled you out of the family inheritance. Your mate has abused you so badly you hardly have any self-esteem left. A so-called “friend” has alienated your mate’s affections. An ex-mate keeps trying to sabotage your life. A pastor has failed to stand by you when you needed him. How can you ever forgive?

There is little that affects our relationships so profoundly and adversely as an unforgiving spirit. Holding something against someone has a tendency to dominate our lives. We may not even realize it. We think we have it resolved in our minds. But all the time it is eating away at us, affecting our disposition, our physical health, and unquestionably affecting the way we treat the people who hurt us. It may be in small ways—looking the other way when they pass, refusing to smile, maintaining a coolness in our voices. It may be in more extreme ways like anger or malicious gossip. But it is always there, extinguishing the warmth and intimacy we long to enjoy with the people around us.

The Apostle Paul made an interesting point about forgiveness in his central passage on human relationships. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Did you notice how he contrasts destructive attitudes and practices like bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice on one hand, with kindness, tenderness and forgiveness on the other? Would you like to rid yourself of those destructive chains that shackle your freedom to get along with other people? One key that unlocks that chain is forgiveness.

But it is so difficult to forgive, isn’t it? “How can I do it?” you ask. The secret is found right here in this verse: “forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” We forgive as God forgives. How is that? If we could learn some of the elements in God’s forgiveness, we would know how we can forgive.

He Is Understanding of Our Weaknesses

Forgiveness is a dominant theme in Psalm 103 (note especially verses 3 and 10-13). But look at the reason God is so gracious and compassionate as to pardon our iniquities and remove our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west: “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). He knows what we are like, how weak we are. In fact, when He became a man He shared the very same weaknesses. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He has been there Himself. He understands.

Forgiveness begins with learning to be understanding of others. That should not be too difficult. We know what we are like. At least if we are honest with ourselves, we do. We know how proud, how selfish, how spiteful, how jealous, how inconsiderate and how inept we can be. Why shouldn’t we show a little tolerance for those same faults in others? People who refuse to forgive may have the foolish notion that they themselves are almost perfect.

As McGinnis put it, “If we are to forgive freely, we need a tolerance of others as generous as the tolerance we display toward our own errors. It is remarkable how understanding we can be of our own flops in interpersonal dealings—we didn’t intend the error, or it happened in a moment of stress, or we weren’t feeling right that day, or we’ll know better next time. We tend to see ourselves not for what we are but for what we strive to be, whereas we see others for what they are.”9

Being understanding of others does not always mean that we will agree with them. Mary and I used to go around and around on this. “You don’t understand me,” she would say. “Of course I do,” I would insist. “But if you understood me you would agree with me,” she would counter. I didn’t think that was necessarily true and I would tell her so. But I have since figured out what our problem was. I understood her, but I was not being very understanding. And there is a difference.

To be understanding is more than comprehending words. It is trying to look at things from the other person’s point of view, whether or not we agree with them. It is trying to feel what they are feeling, and accepting their feelings whether or not we consider their feelings well-founded. They can usually sense that attitude in us—or the lack of it. And cultivating that attitude can help us forgive when the need arises to do so.

One spiritually-minded young wife shared with us how she managed to forgive her husband when he was short and irritable with her. She said, “I know that’s not the way he wants to be. He wants to be a man who pleases God, and usually he is. Some difficult circumstances have him out of sorts right now.” That is what it means to be understanding, and that attitude helped her forgive.

But understanding alone is not forgiveness. It is merely an important preparatory step. We see the heart of forgiveness in the next thing God does.

He Pays for Our Offenses

Have you ever had someone apologize to you, and you responded with something like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It was nothing. It didn’t bother me at all”? You probably thought your attitude conveyed genuine forgiveness. But it didn’t. In fact, you had probably already complained to several people about what that person did to you, revealing that it really did bother you. And it probably affected the way you acted toward the person. Forgiveness is more than pretending the offense didn’t happen, or pretending it didn’t hurt. Forgiveness is facing the fact that it did happen and admitting that it did hurt, but deciding to pay for the offense ourselves.

That is what God did. In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians he assures them that God was not counting their trespasses against them (2 Corinthians 5:19). How could a holy God not count our trespasses against us? Paul explains how. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21). He could forgive us because He was willing to bear the penalty of our sin in the person of His son. Or as Peter put it, He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). When an offense is committed, somebody has to pay. When justice prevails, the offender pays. But when forgiveness is granted, the offended party himself pays.

Our sins offended God’s infinite holiness, but He Himself paid the debt they incurred. When Jesus Christ bowed His head in death, He cried, “It is finished.” That is one word in the Greek text, a word sometimes used in business transactions of the day. When written across a bill it meant, “Paid in full.” There is nothing we can add to what Christ has done, nothing we can do to deserve His forgiveness and nothing we can pay to secure it. God in His grace has paid for our offenses in full and has absolved us of our guilt forever. That grace is at the heart of forgiveness.

Our failure to appreciate this truth is one of the major reasons we find it so difficult to forgive others. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35), which He told in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he had to forgive a brother who sinned against him. It was the story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. One of them owed him the enormous sum of $10,000,000. There was no way he could possibly repay it, so the king commanded that he and his entire family be sold in order to recoup a little of his loss.

“The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything’” (Matthew 18:26). He wants an extension of time. He thinks that given enough time he can pay his debt. “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). He got a whole lot more than an extension of time. In an act of unparalleled mercy and grace, the king cancelled his entire debt, forgave him fully. He himself paid his slave’s debt in full.

That king pictures God, and what he did dramatizes the tremendous price God paid for our eternal forgiveness. But in the story, the slave never fully grasped what the king had done. He never received the king’s forgiveness. He still thought he had to pay, and that somehow he could pay. That is the point of what follows. He went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him the equivalent of about $20, and he grabbed him by the throat and began to choke him and demand his money. His fellow slave pleaded with him to have patience, promising to repay him everything he owed. But he was unwilling. He threw his fellow slave in prison until he should pay back his debt. What a hypocrite—to be forgiven so much but refuse to forgive so little!

That is exactly what some of us professing Christians are doing. We have little understanding of the reality and immensity of God’s gracious forgiveness. And because we misunderstand God’s grace and think we have to pay Him off with a certain level of performance for the forgiveness He has offered us, we think we have the right to turn around and demand payment from others before we have to forgive them. They have wronged us, so they owe us and now they have to pay. And we are going to see that they do, in one way or another. So we begin making our demands. We may demand an apology, insist that they crawl back to us and admit their blame. “It’s all your fault,” we insist. “Admit it.” We may demand that they try to undo the wrong they have committed against us, to change the unchangeable past. We may demand a guarantee that they will never do it again.

If they will not pay what we think they owe, we may punish them. We can do that with an angry tirade, or we can change our tactics and snub them with the silent treatment, acting as though they weren’t there. In addition to that, we will probably tell others about the awful things they have done to us so we can put them in a bad light with their friends. That will fix them. We may even take them to court. But one way or another, we are going to make them pay.

That was the problem in Corinth. Believers were taking each other to court over trivial matters. They had not grasped the meaning of God’s grace and the reality of how much God had forgiven them. “Why not rather be wronged?” Paul asked. “Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). It is far better to suffer insult, injury, loss or damage ourselves than risk the slightest possibility of inflicting it on other believers. That is the essence of forgiveness—paying the damages ourselves, canceling every demand, giving up the right to seek any kind of revenge, blatant or subtle, overt or covert. It is giving up our right to hurt others simply because they have hurt us. That is what God does for us, and that is what He wants us to do for others.

Do you remember what happened to the slave who refused to forgive in Jesus’ parable? When his fellow slaves saw what he had done, they were grieved and reported it to the king. He called the slave to him and said, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” And he handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that he owed. Jesus concludes the story by saying, “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). That is a frightening thought. We are not sure who the torturers are, but some have suggested that they are the inner tormentors that plague the person who refuses to forgive—the acid of anger, resentment, bitterness, malice, guilt, depression and despair that eats at us and destroys us. What a horrible plight!

Dr. S. I. McMillen tells of a college student who came to his office suffering from burning sensations in his upper abdomen as well as acute indigestion. Medication did not seem to help, and the doctor was baffled with the case. One day a fellow student reported to him of hearing the young man give a heated diatribe denouncing some people who had defrauded his grandfather, and with whom he was determined to get even one way or another. The doctor confronted the student with his grudge and encouraged him to forgive, but he refused. His condition eventually got so bad that he had to drop out of school.10 As much as forgiveness may cost us, the expense is usually greater when we withhold it, particularly in terms of inner tormenters.

He Forgets Our Wrongs

God loves us, and love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The word Paul used in that description of love was an accounting term used of entering an item on a ledger so it would not be forgotten. When a person takes account of a wrong committed against him, he marks it down in his mental calculator so he can use it when he needs it. God does not do that. He chooses to push the clear button on His calculator and forever lose that derogatory information. Several times in Scripture He assures us that He will remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 10:17; Isaiah 43:25). How does God forgive? When He forgives, He forgets, and we need to do the same.

But now we have a problem because it appears as though our mental calculator has no clear button. We cannot actually erase an event from our brain cells. Medical science tells us it is always there, able to be recalled, unless, of course, we have shock treatments or brain surgery, neither of which is recommended to help us forgive properly. What then does it mean for us to forget?

First of all, when we truly forgive, the wrong will not dominate our thoughts anymore. When it comes to our minds, we will be able to dismiss it promptly. We won’t keep reliving it and talking about it to others. Some people say they have forgiven, but they can talk about little else. They want to keep rehearsing the awful thing that was done to them. Their inability to stop thinking about it and talking about it exposes their lack of forgiveness.

Second, the offense won’t hurt anymore. The fact will be there, but the deep emotions will be gone. We can think of it without bitterness and resentment, without feeling the pain all over again.

And third, we will be able to treat the offender as though the offense never happened. Not pretend that it never happened. It did happen, and we need to be honest about that. But treat him as though it never happened. If we forgive as God forgives and keep no record of the wrong, then it cannot possibly affect our actions. We will be free to reach out with warmth, kindness, openness and trust to restore the relationship. And that actually leads us to the last element of God’s forgiveness that we need to understand.

He Seeks Our Fellowship

The aim of forgiveness is reconciliation. There is no such thing as forgiveness that says, “Well, I’ll forgive him, but I don’t ever want to be close to him again. Let him live his life and I’ll live mine.” That is not the way God’s forgiveness operates. He seeks out sinful people like us (see Luke 19:10). He actually reaches out to His enemies and endeavors to reconcile them to Himself (Romans 5:10).

But as you might expect, reconciliation is a two-way street. In order for the sinner to be reconciled to God he must acknowledge his sin and repent. And there is a lesson in that for us. One-sided forgiveness on our part may relieve the bitterness in us and drain some of the tension out of the relationship. But there can never be true reconciliation until there has been loving confrontation and repentance, until the wrong has been worked through together, until both parties have acknowledged their wrong and both are willing to trust each other again. We cannot demand that other people repent. We cannot insist that they work through the wrong with us. But we can acknowledge our part of the wrong, then reach out to them and let them know we are willing to work at reconciliation. That is all God asks of us.

If you are the offended party, your responsibility is to take the first step. “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). You must do it in love and meekness, but you must do it.

If you are the offender, again, your responsibility is to take the initiative. “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If your brother has something against you, then evidently you have offended him, and you are to make the first move. The Scripture knows nothing like, “Well it was more his fault. He should come to me.” God wants alienated brothers and sisters in Christ to be reconciled. And whichever role you fit, the offended or the offender, if you want to obey the Word of God you will reach out. Biblically, it is always your move.

Is there a wall between you and some other believers? You have been hurt, more than you ever thought you could. God wants you to forgive just as He has forgiven you in Christ. Be understanding toward them in their weakness. Be willing to pay for their offenses in full. Put the wrong behind you permanently, and then reach out in love to effect a reconciliation. You will contribute to greater harmony in the Body of Christ. You will feel better emotionally and physically. You will enjoy life more. You will find greater reality in your walk with God. You will experience greater effectiveness in your spiritual service. And God will be glorified!

9 Alan Loy McGinnis, The Friendship Factor (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), pp. 159160.

10 S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1967), pp. 70-71.

From the series: Abraham

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Home, Forgiveness, Man (Anthropology), Men's Articles, Soteriology (Salvation), Theology Proper (God), Women's Articles