Eagle of St John - stained glass

Studying John 12 44-50

We are studying John 12:44-50 for Sunday, July 17. This is a brief statement of purpose that comes at the end of the “ministry” section of the gospel of John, or at the beginning of the “passion” section, or both. Not surprisingly, for the gospel of John, it emphasizes words and language, as well as the relationship between Jesus and the Father who sent him. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our second in a series of four weeks on texts from John’s gospel, in the context of a longer series of texts that, allegedly, fit under the thematic umbrella of “partners in a new creation.” This may simply illustrate that thematic umbrellas don’t always fit well. On the other hand, we might do well to spend some time thinking about how the belief or faith Jesus commends at the beginning of this short statement entails “partnership in a new creation.”

We probably know a few things about John’s gospel:

  • thought to be a “late” New Testament composition, toward the end of the first century CE, somewhere around 100 CE;
  • featuring distinctive language and themes, including a lot of talk about “faith” or “belief,” symbolic binaries like light/dark, truth/lies, life/death, and emphasis on the acceptance or rejection of Jesus and his identity;
  • explicit identification of Jesus with “the Father,” and the eternal Word, so, a “very high Christology;”
  • distinctive literary features, like long monologues by Jesus, and long, philosophical conversations between Jesus and key figures (e.g., Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman).

We’ve noted John’s insistent and tense treatment of “the Jews” here before; this feature doesn’t surface in these particular seven verses. [If we went back to verse 36, or 27, or 20, it would – that is, we wouldn’t have far to go.]

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. It is specifically five days before Passover, a detail established for us between verses 12:1 and 12:12, assuming everything in the remainder of chapter 12 happens on the same day. On the other hand, the narrator isn’t terribly precise about place and time here, and the next episode is “supper” on the night of Jesus’s arrest, so we could imagine this speech taking place “sometime during that last week.”

The narrator is also imprecise about the audience for these words. Jesus has “hidden himself” from “the crowd.” (John 12:36). We might envision him speaking to his smaller group of disciples – or, simply directly to the readers, “breaking the fourth wall,” so to speak. In John, those two attitudes seem to merge into one another.

By this point in the narrative, everything has happened but the events of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. As readers, we should be clear by now on Jesus’s identity with the Word of God. We’ve heard John the Baptist’s testimony. We’ve listened to Jesus’s long discussions with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the crowd of people fed with loaves and fishes in the wilderness. We’ve seen him turn water for purification into the wine of a wedding banquet, and heal people – that little boy last week, and a paralyzed man, and a man born blind. [Is it significant that Jesus doesn’t heal any women in the gospel of John, by the way??] We’ve heard his conversations with Mary and Martha, and seen him raise Lazarus from the tomb.

Also, significantly, some “Greeks” have arrived, wanting to “see” Jesus (John 12:20-26).

The first part of John 12 shows up every year in the lectionary for Holy Week, but John 12:34-50 is one more thing we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew was the lectionary. [Bible Content Examinees be warned.]

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CLOSER READING: V44 tells us Jesus cried out these words. This might – I think, should – remind us of Wisdom crying out in the streets (Proverbs 1:20).

The person “believing” or “having faith” in Jesus is really “believing” or “having faith” in “the one having sent” Jesus. There doesn’t seem to be much question that “the one having sent” is God [the Father].

There is more discussion about how that verb ought to be translated, whether Jesus is saying people have a chance to “believe in” him, or to “have faith in” him. In English, “believing” and “having faith in” are not identical. Accepting abstract propositions cognitively [believing] and trusting or being loyal to someone personally [having or keeping faith] seem to have been distinct in the ancient world, too.

How readers of the New Testament ought to read this FREQUENTLY OCCURRING verb into English is a recurrent question. Contemporary translators seem to use the convention that the noun (pistis) will be rendered “faith,” while the verb (various forms of pisteuō) will be rendered “believe.” [See Bill Mounce on pistis and on pisteuō.] But again, in English at least, the verb that corresponds to “faith” would be “have faith in,” while the noun that corresponds to the verb “to believe” would be “belief” – as in, “warranted true belief.”

Whether these words mean the exact same thing in every New Testament text is another question. For instance, Nijay K. Gupta “Pistis Conversations in New Testament Scholarship” helpfully reviews the recent state of the discussion around Paul’s use of this word, but it’s not clear whether we can assume John thinks everything Paul does. The etymologists at Abarim focus on the connection between belief or faith and persuasion, which complicates matters further.

The upshot is that I think we should continue to wonder about what precisely Jesus is asking people to do in John 12:44 – to trust him, or to believe some fairly abstract truth claims about him, or both. The rest of the speech is about accepting and “keeping” his sayings or speech, and while most of those have been about his identity until now, in the next chapter there will be an important one that entails behavior – “love one another as I have loved you-all.” This will have subtly different implications for us if we think it is about what we need to “believe” or who we need to “have faith in,” it seems to me.

In particular, in vv45 & 46, where the issue is beholding and light, and those who believe/have faith in Jesus the light not abiding in darkness, it might matter to us whether Jesus is talking about a light for the intellect, or a light for the conduct of our day-to-day lives, or both.

In v47, we might get the definite impression that Jesus really is talking more about that day-to-day conduct, since he talks about hearing and keeping his words or more precisely, his sayings, his utterances. This particular saying might remind us specifically of Deuteronomy 6:4-6.

In v48, Jesus didn’t come to judge the world but to save the world.  

That doesn’t mean people can’t expect any judgment, however. The word Jesus spoke will judge those who set aside (instead of keep) Jesus’s sayings, in the last day. Let’s recall that Jesus has been identified with the word that’s going to do this judging. (It’s the famous logos, the one we met in John’s prologue, which shows up for the one and only time in this speech here in v48.) And that word has been identified with God. By the transitive property, I think we can conclude that Jesus is saying God will be the judge in the last day.

Jesus himself is just following orders (v49), or perhaps better, sticking to the script, or perhaps even better, obeying and passing on the commandment that is eternal life (v50). That is, Jesus has been humanly exemplifying and embodying the perfect unity of will and action with the God [who is Love] that the Word divinely enjoys eternally/has enjoyed “from the beginning.” So, we’ve come full circle vis-à-vis John 1.

And now, my children, listen to me:
    happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
    and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
    watching daily at my gates,
    waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
    and obtains favor from the HOLY ONE,
but those who miss me injure themselves;
    all who hate me love death.

Proverbs 8:32-36
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Images: “Eagle of John” at Saint Bernadette Church, Lancaster, Ohio, Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Sophia” by Tania Kugai, used by permission

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