Today’s post reaches the climax in Jesus’s discussions with the Pharisees as detailed in John 8.

John 8 takes place in Court of the Women in the temple complex: the Pharisees’ presentation of the adulteress, Jesus’s proclamation that He is the light of the world, His statement to them that He is not of this world, His telling them they do not understand His words, that they are not sons of God but sons of the Devil.

For whatever reason, this chapter is not part of the three-year Lectionary.  As such, it is part of my ongoing Forbidden Bible Verses series, also essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the King James Version with commentary by Matthew Henry.

John 8:48-59

48Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?

 49Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.

 50And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.

 51Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.

 52Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.

 53Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?

 54Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:

 55Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.

 56Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.

 57Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?

 58Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

 59Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

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A number of contemporary readers of the Bible interpret all of it allegorically, including the Gospels.  Yet, as we discovered in the Craig S Keener series on hermeneutics, Scripture contains a variety of genres. Each Gospel also has its own themes and messages for us.  It is incomprehensible, therefore, that people could read St John’s Gospel and find it allegorical.  Clearly, Jesus is pointing out to the Jewish scribes and Pharisees their errors and revealing His divinity.  Furthermore, note how often Jesus refers to His kinship with God the Father.

Many today find God angry and vengeful.  Some even compare him to modern dictators, which is shameful enough, but this implies that they see Jesus and God separately, as if Jesus were usurping God, when Jesus is actually doing His Father’s work. Jesus is the Son of God, not the usurper of God. He is fulfilling the will of God the Father. Those who cannot — will not — understand or accept this are not receiving the message of this Gospel, nor do they understand the divine mystery of the Holy Trinity — the Hypostatic Union.

How anyone can interpret this or any other Gospel as something other than what it is, especially by placing a chasm between Jesus and God, shows that theirs is a misinterpretation of the Good News. Everything Christ did was in fulfilment of His Father’s wishes.  Jesus’s words and deeds were in complete obedience to Him.  One cannot reject God and love Jesus (or vice versa). People who consider Jesus somehow ‘better’ than His Father also do not understand the sovereign God, whose infinite mercy and wisdom run throughout the whole of the Bible and will continue forever. May I remind them of Isaiah 55:8:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.

Throughout John 8, we have seen the tension mount since a group of scribes and Pharisees presented the adulteress to Him at the beginning of the chapter.  That was their ruse to get Him in trouble; in the end He pointed out their hypocrisy in wanting to stone her, causing them to walk away embarrassed. After that, another group of Pharisees challenged Him to the point where He bluntly informed them that they were sons of the Devil.

Now the penny has dropped, although the Pharisees have not fallen at His feet begging forgiveness.  Quite the opposite. They accuse Him of being possessed by a demon and of being a Samaritan (verse 48).

Recall in John 4 that upon leaving Judea, Jesus passed through Samaria — where he met the Samaritan woman at the well — on His way to Galilee.  That particular post gives the history of the Jews with regard to that region, in part:

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.

So, the Pharisees deliver a double insult to Jesus.  Now angry, they retaliate.  Not only is He their territorial enemy, he is also possessed.  This is the classic conflict scenario of those who are in the wrong: they ramp up their false accusations against the innocent party.  We all know how heated exchanges escalate and end in physical violence.  This situation is no different.

Jesus had attacked their pride. Now they wanted revenge. Matthew Henry explains more about the Pharisees’ accusation (emphases mine):

Thus they exposed him to the ill will of the people, with whom you could not put a man into a worse name than to call him a Samaritan. If he had been a Samaritan, he had been punishable, by the beating of the rebels (as they called it), for coming into the temple. They had often enough called him a Galilean-a mean man; but as if that were not enough, though it contradicted the other, they will have him a Samaritan-a bad man. The Jews to this day call the Christians, in reproach, Cuthaei-Samaritans. Note, Great endeavours have in all ages been used to make good people odious by putting them under black characters, and it is easy to run that down with a crowd and a cry which is once put into an ill name. Perhaps because Christ justly inveighed against the pride and tyranny of the priests and elders, they hereby suggest that he aimed at the ruin of their church, in aiming at its reformation, and was falling away to the Samaritans. (2.) That he had a devil. Either, [1.] That he was in league with the devil. Having reproached his doctrine as tending to Samaritanism, here they reflect upon his miracles as done in combination with Beelzebub. Or, rather [2.] That he was possessed with a devil, that he was a melancholy man, whose brain was clouded, or a mad man, whose brain was heated, and that which he said was no more to be believed than the extravagant rambles of a distracted man, or one in a delirium. Thus the divine revelation of those things which are above the discovery of reason have been often branded with the charge of enthusiasm, and the prophet was called a mad fellow, 2 Ki. 9:11; Hosea 9:7.

Jesus replies simply (verse 49) that He is neither possessed by nor in league with the Devil.  He points out that the Pharisees do Him a great dishonour by saying so.  Jesus states that He honours His heavenly Father.  Henry notes Christ’s perfect obedience and cautions that honouring God does not automatically confer a reciprocal honour from men:

Christ honoured his Father so as never man did, and yet was himself dishonoured so as never man was; for, though God has promised that those who honour him he will honour, he never promised that men should honour them.

Furthermore, He is not making these pronouncements to inflate His ego (verse 50). Nor did He court respect — honour — from the Jewish leaders. There is only ‘one’ — God — whose honour He seeks, that of His Father, who will search out those who defame Him and judge them accordingly.  Henry says that Jesus might have been referring to the future destruction by the Romans of the temple in 70 AD.  Of course, the Pharisees would not have grasped that in their obstinacy.

Again, Jesus warns them to listen (verse 51): essentially, ‘If you understand and obey what I tell you, you will never experience death’.  In other words, they have the chance to escape condemnation of their souls and share everlasting life with Him.  First, however, they must acknowledge Him as their Saviour and repent of their sins.

In verse 52, the Pharisees reply derisively, ‘Now we’re convinced you’re a man possessed’, as if to say, ‘What mad talk!’ They do not understand the spiritual connotation of His message. Their problem all throughout John’s Gospel is taking Him literally, in a temporal sense.  We saw this first with Nicodemus, who later came to understand who Jesus was.  They continue, asking Him if He is greater than Abraham and, if he and the prophets are dead, then where does Jesus place Himself with regard to them (verse 53).

Besides taking Jesus’s words so literally and resisting them so stubbornly, they also do not understand that Abraham and Moses, whom they have invoked previously, are already with God.  Abraham, throughout his challenges, obeyed God’s will. God made a covenant with him. Later on, we will see where Jesus says that Abraham — Henry believing that perhaps more than Moses — was able to foresee the advent of a Saviour in the Jews’ future.  What Jesus is saying is that, because of their faith, neither had reason to fear death and had every reason to be welcomed into their heavenly home.

Jesus answers the Pharisees (verse 54) by saying that He is not being egotistical (referring back to verse 50). A man who boasts about himself is not honouring himself.  Honour comes only from other people.  Jesus says that God’s — His Father’s — honour is the only one He seeks. Note how Jesus phrases this: ‘My Father — you know, the One you also claim as yours’.  That should have given anyone who really knew God the Father, as the Pharisees claimed, pause for thought and goaded them into an immediate apology and full conversion.  But that doesn’t happen.

Jesus continues (verse 55), once again informing them that He knows His Father, they do not — despite what they say. Furthermore, He obeys His Father.  Henry says that we should use Jesus as the model for our own obedience to Him and to God:

Christ, as man, was obedient to the moral law, and, as Redeemer, to the mediatorial law; and in both he kept his Father’s word, and his own word with the Father. Christ requires of us (v. 51) that we keep his sayings; and he has set before us a copy of obedience, a copy without a blot: he kept his Father’s sayings; well might he who learned obedience teach it; see Heb. 5:8, 9. Christ by this evinced that he knew the Father. Note, The best proof of our acquaintance with God is our obedience to him. Those only know God aright that keep his word; it is a ruled case, 1 Jn. 2:3. Hereby we know that we know him (and do not only fancy it), if we keep his commandments.

In verse 56, Jesus tells the Pharisees that Abraham, whose sons they declare themselves to be, had a glimpse of Jesus’s presence amongst his people.  This statement proves that Jesus is greater than Abraham.  Note that not only was Abraham able to envisage the coming of the Messiah to his people, Jesus adds he ‘rejoiced’ and ‘was glad’. Henry explains:

Christ knew what Abraham saw better than Moses did. But there are divers things recorded in which Abraham saw more of that which he longed to see than he did when the promise was first made to him. He saw in Melchizedek one made like unto the Son of God, and a priest for ever; he saw an appearance of Jehovah, attended with two angels, in the plains of Mamre. In the prevalency of his intercession for Sodom he saw a specimen of Christ’s intercession; in the casting out of Ishmael, and the establishment of the covenant with Isaac, he saw a figure of the gospel day, which is Christ’s day; for these things were an allegory. In offering Isaac, and the ram instead of Isaac, he saw a double type of the great sacrifice; and his calling the place Jehovah-jireh-It shall be seen, intimates that he saw something more in it than others did, which time would produce; and in making his servant put his hand under his thigh, when he swore, he had a regard to the Messiah.

Contrast Abraham’s perspective with that of these Pharisees, enveloped in pride and sin, who have the ultimate honour of being in Jesus’s presence.  They not only reject Him outright but want to end His life!

And they persist in their sin (verse 57).  ‘How can you claim to have seen Abraham when you’re not even 50 years old?’  Fifty was considered elderly in their day.  Jesus responds (verse 58) by saying that He existed before Abraham did. And, certainly, Jesus in Heaven — prior to coming to Earth — already knew Abraham. Some might wonder how this is so.  Henry unpacks Jesus’s words:

“Before Abraham was, I am;” prin Abraam genesthai, egoµ eimi, Before Abraham was made or born, I am. The change of the word is observable, and bespeaks Abraham a creature, and himself the Creator; well therefore might he make himself greater than Abraham. Before Abraham he was, First, As God. I am, is the name of God (Ex. 3:14); it denotes his self-existence; he does not say, I was, but I am, for he is the first and the last, immutably the same (Rev. 1:8); thus he was not only before Abraham, but before all worlds, ch. 1:1; Prov. 8:23. Secondly, As Mediator. He was the appointed Messiah, long before Abraham; the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), the channel of conveyance of light, life, and love from God to man. This supposes his divine nature, that he is the same in himself from eternity (Heb. 13:8), and that he is the same to man ever since the fall; he was made of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, to Adam, and Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Shem, and all the patriarchs that lived and died by faith in him before Abraham was born. Abraham was the root of the Jewish nation, the rock out of which they were hewn. If Christ was before Abraham, his doctrine and religion were no novelty, but were, in the substance of them, prior to Judaism, and ought to take place of it.

Sadly, instead of adopting Abraham’s joyful example, the Pharisees decide to stone Jesus instead (verse 59).  Henry explains that building work was ongoing in the temple and that shards of stone were lying around.  So, how, then, did Jesus manage to escape?  If you are thinking of multiple possibilities, you would not be wrong.

We do not know exactly how Jesus managed to evade His attackers, but Henry offers the following scenarios.  Keep in mind that Jesus would succumb to His enemies only at the right moment. Before then, He was meant to escape harm and be about His Father’s work:

1. He absconded; Jesus hid himself; ekrybeµ-he was hid, either by the crowd of those that wished well to him, to shelter him (he that ought to have been upon a throne, high and lifted up, is content to be lost in a crowd); or perhaps he concealed himself behind some of the walls or pillars of the temple (in the secret of his tabernacle he shall hide me, Ps. 27:5); or by a divine power, casting a mist before their eyes, he made himself invisible to them. When the wicked rise a man is hidden, a wise and good man, Prov. 28:12, 28. Not that Christ was afraid or ashamed to stand by what he had said, but his hour was not yet come, and he would countenance the flight of his ministers and people in times of persecution, when they are called to it … 2. He departed, he went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, undiscovered, and so passed by. This was not a cowardly inglorious flight, nor such as argued either guilt or fear. It was foretold concerning him that he should not fail nor be discouraged, Isa. 42:4. But, (1.) It was an instance of his power over his enemies, and that they could do no more against him than he gave them leave to do … (2.) It was an instance of his prudent provision for his own safety, when he knew that his work was not done, nor his testimony finished; thus he gave an example to his own rule, When they persecute you in one city flee to another; nay, if occasion be, to a wilderness, for so Elijah did (1 Ki. 19:3, 4), and the woman, the church, Rev. 12:6. When they took up loose stones to throw at Christ, he could have commanded the fixed stones, which did cry out of the wall against them, to avenge his cause, or the earth to open and swallow them up; but he chose to accommodate himself to the state he was in, to make the example imitable by the prudence of his followers, without a miracle. (3.) It was a righteous deserting of those who (worse than the Gadarenes, who prayed him to depart) stoned him from among them. Christ will not long stay with those who bid him be gone. Christ did again visit the temple after this; as one loth to depart, he bade oft farewell; but at last he abandoned it for ever, and left it desolate. Christ now went through the midst of the Jews, and none of them courted his stay, nor stirred up himself to take hold of him, but were even content to let him go. Note, God never forsakes any till they have first provoked him to withdraw, and will have none of him.

Next week: John 9:39-41