You are currently browsing the daily archive for July 23, 2011.

Today’s New Testament passage is one which we can easily read without thinking.  However, upon rereading it, several questions may arise.

Indeed, these four verses are worth a sermon in and of themselves.  So, it is unfortunate that the theologians and clergymen who assembled the readings for the three-year Lectionary somehow chose to omit them from public worship.  This, of course, makes them candidates for my ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the King James Version.  Commentary is from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

John 4:1-4

When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John,

2(Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,)

3He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee.

4And he must needs go through Samaria.


The part of John 4 that we hear read in church follows these verses and concerns the Samaritan woman at the well.  Jesus, hot and thirsty after His travel that day, asks her to fetch Him some water.  He also tells her about herself, details a stranger would not have known.  It is a life-transforming experience for her.

However, before that, we read these puzzling verses which raise several questions.  How much did the Pharisees actually know and how much was conjecture? Had Jesus already baptised more people than His cousin, John the Baptist?  Why didn’t Jesus baptise people Himself?  Why did He leave Judea for Galilee?  And why did he have to go through Samaria?  Therein lies a story.

John 3:22 tells us that after Jesus met and rebuked Nicodemus, He and His disciples went to Judea:

After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.

Matthew Henry says that they stayed in Judea for approximately six months to increase the work that John the Baptist had begun there. No record of this time exists. Henry also tells us that, by now, John the Baptist, whose last talk with his disciples is at the end of John 3, was in prison.  (He would eventually be beheaded at Salome’s request.)

The Jewish hierarchy deeply distrusted John the Baptist.  Jesus makes reference to this in conversation with them in John 5:35 (emphases mine):

He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

John the Baptist was the first prophet the Jews had in 400 years.  Initially, they welcomed him with open arms.  However, once he began to baptise and prophesy, they became suspicious of him.  They saw him as a renegade, off-message, therefore, his imprisonment removed what they saw as a threat to the status quo.  As much as they disliked John the Baptist, however, they loathed Jesus even more.

Jesus, as the Son of God, being omniscient, knew that He was a subject of discussion and enmity among the Jews (verse 1).  He was being spied on.  Henry explains:

It is probable the informers were willing to have their names concealed, and the Pharisees loth to have their designs known; but none can dig so keep as to hide their counsels from the Lord (Isa. 29:15), and Christ is here called the Lord. He knew what was told the Pharisees, and how much, it is likely, it exceeded the truth; for it is not likely that Jesus had yet baptized more than John; but so the thing was represented, to make him appear the more formidable; see 2 Ki. 6:12.

Formidable here meaning ‘a greater threat’ — the Pharisees’ spies were eager to build Jesus up as a totem of discord.

Verse 2 may leave us wondering why Jesus performed no baptisms.  Henry says this is because He did not want the baptised to begin comparing the spiritual worth of their baptisms.  They might think that a baptism from Christ Himself was somehow more significant in salvific value than one from John the Baptist or another disciple.  Henry adds:

He would reserve himself for the honour of baptizing with the Holy Ghost, Acts 1:5. 6. He would teach us that the efficacy of the sacraments depends not on any virtue in the hand that administers them, as also that what is done by his ministers, according to his direction, he owns as done by himself.

Then we come to the matter of why Jesus left Judea.  Was He fleeing?  As the Son of God, shouldn’t He have stayed on?

Recall that Jesus went about His Father’s business and had a ministry to fulfil, which included preaching, miracles and healing.  He could not pre-empt this or cut it short.  Had He stayed in Judea, He probably would have been persecuted premeaturely.   However, He also wanted to protect His disciples, not wishing to put them in any danger.  Their time, sadly, would come later, as He explained to them in the first verses of John 16:

2They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

 3And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.

 4But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them. And these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you.

It is not cowardly to seek self-preservation and escape an area when necessary.  Henry writes:

Hereby he gave an example to his own rule: When they persecute you in one city, flee to another. We are not called to suffer, while we may avoid it without sin; and therefore, though we may not, for our own preservation, change our religion, yet we may change our place. Christ secured himself, not by a miracle, but in a way common to men, for the direction and encouragement of his suffering people.

So, Jesus went to Galilee, where he had more friends and fewer enemies.  He had a ministry to fulfil there, too.  Yet, it would not be entirely risk-free.  Herod ruled that region.  It was also there where John the Baptist performed his final baptism before entering prison.  John had paved the way for His cousin Jesus to conduct His ministry.

But why did He have to go through Samaria in order to get to Galilee (verse 4)?  Geographically speaking, it would have made sense to travel via Samaria.  However, Jews took a more circuitous route and avoided the region entirely.  To them, Samaritans were anathema.

The Samaritans were not purely Jewish.  They had mixed blood.  They did not practice Judaism fully.  The King of Assyria had ringfenced Samaria long ago after the captivity of the ten tribes of Israel.  The Samaritans of Jesus’s day were descendents of the poor left behind as well as incoming Jews — so, as Henry describes them, ‘mongrel Jews’.  The mixed bloodlines and heritage also created a perfidious allegiance to the Jews.  When the Jews rose in favour and fortune, the Samaritans claimed they were part of the same people.  However, when the Jews were being attacked or their fortunes were waning, the Samaritans claimed kinship with Persians.

The Samaritans were fair-weather friends and couldn’t be trusted. This is why the Jews avoided them. And so did Jesus, except on this occasion. God must have told Him to pass through the region on this occasion. Henry writes, citing a verse from Matthew:

He charged his disciples not to enter into any city of the Samaritans (Mt. 10:5), that is, not to preach the gospel, or work miracles; nor did he here preach publicly, or work any miracle, his eye being to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. What kindness he here did them was accidental; it was only a crumb of the children’s bread that casually fell from the master’s table.

As to travelling through places of temptation or enemies, he adds:

We should not go into places of temptation but when we needs must; and then we should not reside in them, but hasten through them. Some think that Christ must needs go through Samaria because of the good work he had to do there; a poor woman to be converted, a lost sheep to be sought and saved. This was work his heart was upon, the therefore he must needs go this way. It was happy for Samaria that it lay in Christ’s way, which gave him an opportunity of calling on them.

Of Jesus’s timing of his visit to this region, John MacArthur preached:

And so, when Jesus said, “I must needs go through Samaria,” He was really saying something. Right there He was shattering a lot of barriers because that was an abnormal movement for a Jew. But it wasn’t the geographical necessity that compelled Christ to go there, it was divine necessity. You see, it was predestined, it was foreordained that our Savior should go through Samaria because there was some chosen sinners there. The whole machinery of grace began to move when Jesus Christ started toward Samaria. The wheels of salvation begin to turn as He moved there, He was on time. God’s divine clock said: Now, Samaria, Go. And He went. And had He arrived at that well two hours late, there would have been no woman, but He always did everything in the fullness of…what?…time. He was on schedule.

And He moved out. And He had to go there because there were some that the Father had given Him from all eternity that needed to be saved. And divine timing brought Him to Samaria and brought Him to the well…a half mile south of Sychar and brought that woman there, too. There are no accidents in God’s economy when it comes to salvation. 

This is how and why Jesus ended up spending a few hours in the Samaritan town of Sychar — also known as Sichem or Shechem.  It featured often in the Old Testament.  The earliest mention is in Genesis 34, which relates the story of how Shechem, of the eponymous city, became a Jew. At the end of Genesis 33, we read that Jacob and his family bought a parcel of land from Shechem’s brothers.

Shechem was a Hivite who lusted after Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah. Yet, he also wanted her for his wife. He took advantage of her physically, such were his passions. Needless to say, Jacob’s sons — Dinah’s brothers — were outraged and wanted revenge.  Shechem’s father, Hamor, leader of the Hivites, brokered a peace with Jacob and his family.  Jacob’s sons replied that they would accept it only if the Hivites were circumcised.  The chapter concludes:

18Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. 19And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he delighted in Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most honored of all his father’s house. 20So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, 21“These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as wives, and let us give them our daughters. 22Only on this condition will the men agree to dwell with us to become one people—when every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised. 23Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” 24And all who went out of the gate of his city listened to Hamor and his son Shechem, and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.

Knowing this bit of biblical history helps to clarify the references to Jacob which the Samaritan woman at the well makes in her conversation with Jesus.

Next week: John 4:43-54

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