There are times when we come across a passage of Scripture and find it to be just baffling. Really. It is something I hear all the time from people in conversations: “I have a hard time reading the Bible – it just confuses me. I don’t understand what it is trying to say or what it means…” This is one of those passages. If we come at it cold, and let it stand alone as we read it the chances are that it will be confusing and difficult to understand, let alone apply to our own lives. However, if we take a moment read this passage in the context of the previous 4 chapters, in the context of John’s overall agenda and purpose for writing, and in the context of the 1st century listeners that John was writing for then it starts to make a bit more sense.
Stay with me.
In regard to this passage, William Barclay states: “we must remember that John is not seeking so much to give us the words that jesus spoke as the things that Jesus meant.” Barclay reminds the modern day reader that John is writing this book years after having been with Jesus and as a result he has had time to think through and reflect upon the words Jesus spoke, the actions Jesus took, and the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ life. With years of thinking, experience, wisdom, and of course, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John is seeking to tell his readers not only what Jesus said and did, but more importantly what it all meant.
Imagine for a second that you are reading/hearing this passage as one for whom it was written. This passage is quite literally full of meaning, and for us to grasp that meaning we must do our best to put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who John was primarily writing for. They were different in their background, experiences, and religious understandings than we are. As 21st century Christian people, we have have absolutely no issue with Jesus describing himself as the Son of God. We come at this passage on the back of hundreds of years of trinitarian thought and theology being taught and preached to us and as a result the thought of the Trinity, while complex and mysterious, is easy for us, and the words ‘Father, Son & Holy Spirit’ easily roll off our tongues (whether or not we have any real understanding of ultimate mystery of the Trinity!) This would not have been the case for the first century Jew whose shoes I am asking you to stand in. For the first century Jew, the idea of another human being declaring his or her self to be the Son of God was both preposterous and blasphemous. They did, of course, look forward, with great hope, to the day when the Messiah would be sent and arrive among them, but they looked at it with a similar attitude to me as I look forward with great hope to the day that the hover board (introduced in the Back to the Future movies) becomes a (safe) reality – it is something which is possible, and it is something that i want, but it is in the future and any current expression of it is dangerous and it would be crazy to get on board.
(See what I did there?)
For Jesus to stand there before the local Jewish leaders and explain his actions by speaking of himself as the Son of God was somewhat of a suicide mission. He could indeed be stoned to death for speaking these words of blasphemy.
Listen to a little more of what Barclay says about this passage and the importance of this passage and of understanding it in its context:
“The significance of this passage is hidden to us until we read it against its Jewish background, and until we ask ourselves how it would sound to the Jews who heard it for the first time. To them it would be all at once clear that Jesus was claiming rights that belonged to God alone; that he was declaring that the things which marked the dawn of the age of God had begun to happen; that he was claiming functions and privileges and powers which belonged to the Messiah and no one else. When we really understand the meaning of this passage we see that it is nothing else than a series of deliberate claims to be the Chosen One of God
And when we understand that, this passage becomes not simply a discourse of Jesus. It becomes an act of the most extraordinary and unique courage.”
From the get go John told has told us that this Jesus is the very Word of God; the light of the world come to defiantly shine in the darkness; the Chosen One of God. In this passage John is no longer pointing to this fact by using the words of John the Baptist, or the Samaritan woman at the well. No, John is now letting the words of Jesus himself confirm what John has been stating in the first 4 chapters: that the Messiah who the Jewish world has been waiting for is now among them; that God’s new work of restoration and reconciliation is happening before their very eyes, and it is there for all people to grasp because God, the Father, so loved the world that God’s only Son was given to the world, in love, so that whoever believes in him will not ever perish but will have new and everlasting life.
For the first century Jew there were only two possible responses to this – either believe it and embrace the new life that comes with it, or reject it and in doing so become a hater of Jesus the blasphemer and seek to destroy him. Jesus said as much himself:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life”
This is the work of Jesus. This is what he came to do – to enable human beings, all human beings, to cross over from death to life, and to live a new resurrected life beginning here and now and carrying on for eternity.
These claims of Jesus were staggering in their magnitude but nonetheless true. They were true whether or not the first century Jews believed them or not, and they are true also whether you and I believe them or not. The simple question is this: do we believe it?
Today, I hope that these words of Jesus, which seem confusing and complicated at first glance, can begin to be less confusing and complicated for you, my reader.
Today, I hope that these words of Jesus begin to take on a new meaning in your life.
Today, I hope that you receive these words for yourself and that you receive the gift of Christ which invites you to crossover from death and darkness to life and light; which invites you to live in a new way, reconciled with God and reconciling with other humans too.
Today, I hope that you will let go of that which holds you back, and that you will walk freely into your new life with Christ!