Chapter 3: The Incarnate Word

The Gospel of John
by William R. Cannon

Chapter 3: The Incarnate Word

The Word of God is both explained and enforced by the deed of God. Jesus, in becoming God's incarnate Word to humanity, was the expression of the everlasting concern the heavenly Father has for his children. His every deed was an act of compassion and caring love. If he rebuked some, as indeed he did, it was to relieve others of mistreatment and abuse at their hands and to convince all alike that they were the children of God. This section of the Gospel is replete with acts of kindness on the part of Jesus. Each miracle is less a sign to excite wonder than it is an act of genuine service, a deed done by the son of God to benefit those in whose behalf it is performed. At the same time, each miracle is an occasion for profound theological observation on the part of the fourth evangelist, who recalls the words of Jesus himself as he testified to his relationship to God and also instructed his hearers as to their proper relationship to him as the son of God. The incarnate Deed and the incarnate Word are the same.

The Healing of a Lame Man and Its Results (5:1-47)

Because of another feast. Jesus returned to Jerusalem from Galilee. The prophet went back to the city where prophets are expected to appear, even though they are accorded no honor there. What the feast was that prompted Jesus to come, we do not know. The Jews had many feasts throughout the year. The feasts kept any devout Jew who had the leisure coming to and going from Jerusalem most of the time. A working person could afford to attend perhaps only one feast a year, if indeed any at all. A poor person might attend one or two feasts in Jerusalem in a lifetime. Since Jesus was an itinerant teacher, he, according to the Fourth Gospel, went to Jerusalem many times a year. Perhaps he attended all the feasts.

Just inside the Sheep Gate is the Pool of Bethesda. The Sheep Gate gets its name from the fact that outside it one day a week, usually Friday, shepherds gathered with their flocks to sell their animals as meat both for the table and for the Temple sacrifices.

At the Pool of Bethesda the sick and infirm gathered to seek healing. The Jews believed that at certain seasons an angel stirred the water, and the first person who stepped in while the water was bubbling was healed. One poor fellow had lain there on his pallet for thirty-eight years. He had no one to put him into the pool, and he was too lame to put himself in. Consequently, another always got ahead of him when the waters were stirred, and he missed his opportunity to be healed. There were five porches about the pool. and the lame, the sick, and the blind crowded into all five of them. Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be healed, and the man explained why he had not had any chance of cure all those years. Jesus told him to forget about going into the pool. He healed him on the spot, and when he told him to pick up his pallet and walk, the healed man found immediately that he had the strength to do so.

Some exegetes, ancient and modern, believe there may be an underlying symbolism in this account. They think the five porches around the pool represent the five books of the Law, that the thirty-eight years the man has been coming to the pool stand for the thirty-eight years the children of Israel were in the wilderness before they essayed to fight their way into the promised land (Deut. 2:14). Be that as it may, the crippled man found nothing in his religious tradition to cure him until Jesus came along and restored strength and action to his impotent limbs.

Earlier in the Gospel. John used water as the sign of cleansing (baptism) and as the sign of new life (a well of water within a person producing everlasting life). Now he uses it as a sign of healing. But not in itself alone. It takes the power of Jesus to make water an effective spiritual instrument. Indeed, this miracle teaches, water can be dispensed with altogether when the living source of all spiritual power, Jesus Christ, is at hand.

Rites and ritual, ceremonies and public services of worship are only means to an end. Even the church itself is but instrumental. Jesus Christ is the end of every means, the reason the church exists. Everything else in the Christian religion is auxiliary to him and finds its purpose in helping all persons to come to him and to give themselves to him, proclaiming him Savior and God.

The lame man, now cured, was apprehended by the Jewish authorities for carrying his pallet on the sabbath. He explained to them that he had been lame and, therefore, lying on it until a short while ago. This was the only way he had of getting it home. And the man who had healed him told him it was all right to take up his pallet and walk away with it. If that man had power enough to heal him, which they obviously did not have, then his authority, at least to him, superseded theirs. So he would proceed with his pallet home. Afterwards Jesus identified himself to the man and told him not to sin any more lest a worse tragedy befall him.

Wholeness is not just physical. There is a spiritual dimension to it. One is not really well unless his or her soul is well and at peace with God. "You may think you had it tough when you were lame," Jesus' remark implies, "but you have not begun to experience trouble until you let sin take possession of your soul. Then you will wish you were lame again."

The healed invalid identified Jesus to his Jewish critics. Why? We do not know. Maybe to take the "heat" off himself. Is this an instance of plea bargaining in the New Testament? "I will tell you who violated the sabbath by curing me if you won't prosecute me for doing the same by carrying my pallet." Or maybe it was to point out in pride his discovery of one whose power was greater than that of the angel who stirred the waters in Bethesda pool and gave to them the property of healing. The Jewish authorities accosted Jesus and demanded of him an explanation for violating the sabbath.

Note the difference in the Johannine explanation from the explanation given in the synoptics. Mark says simply: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28, RSV). Matthew contends that if the priests in the Temple are permitted to work by offering their sacrifices on the sabbath. then certainly he who is "greater than the temple" can do his work on the sabbath as well (Matt. 12:6). Luke affirms that if an ox can be pulled out of the ditch on the sabbath, then without question a human being ought to be healed on that day (Luke 13:15-17; 14:5-6). Mark's argument is utilitarian, Matthew's equalitarian, and Luke's humanitarian. But John gives a theological argument. "If my Father works on the sabbath," John quotes Jesus as saying, "then I can work, too" (5:17, AP).

When a son disobeyed his father and asserted his own will in contradiction to his parent's, the rabbis interpreted his action to imply that the son thought he was equal in every way to his father. So in this instance, the Jewish authorities understood Jesus to mean that he put himself above the Law, above revelation, above the prophets and seers of the Old Testament. They thought he equated his action with the action of God and assumed an equality with God. Therefore, they determined "to kill him" (5:18).

The Jewish leaders had correctly assessed Jesus' attitude toward himself in relationship to God the Father. He did believe that he was God's only begotten son. But they were entirely wrong in the reason they gave for his conviction that he was equal with God. It did not spring out of disobedience to his heavenly Father or his feeling that equality meant independence. Rather, its ground was that of mutual sharing, a son so in harmony with his father, so alike in purpose, disposition, and will that father and son would be incapable of disagreeing with one another. Jesus testified that everything he does happens because of his Father, whose actions he imitates. God heals diseases and corrects deformities. That is why Jesus cured the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda.

But he will do far more than this. Because God raises the dead and gives life to the lifeless, the son of God will do the same. The Father gives the right of judgment to his son. Therefore, it behooves everyone to accept the son and honor him as one would the Father if a person expects to escape judgment and receive eternal life. When the son speaks, those who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth. If they are good, they will receive life; if they are evil, judgment and punishment. Jesus can do nothing of himself. He utters the speech and judgment of the Father who sent him.

John the Baptist testified to the validity of Jesus' mission. But the works Jesus did testified even more convincingly to the same. There is no point in the Jews' trying to set Moses in opposition to him, Jesus said, for it was he of whom Moses prophesied. Indeed, all the scriptures point directly to him. God himself witnesses to him through the very fact that he sent him. Therefore, the healing of the lame man is a divine deed.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand and Its Meaning (6:1-71)

This miracle is recorded in all four Gospels. John, since he wrote his Gospel last, was probably familiar with the contents of the other three. When he uses common material with them, he usually follows the pattern and arrangement of Luke. But in this instance, he takes the presentations of Matthew and Mark and places the walking on the water in the storm immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. His transition and emphasis are his own and clearly indicate that he intends all the material in chapter 6 to be related to this one incident, so that the two miracles and the teachings they inspire constitute a single gospel lesson. That lesson is the sufficiency of Jesus for everything.

John adds two preliminary details that the synoptics overlook. One is that the miracle took place in the hills on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The other is that the time was the season of Passover. This second detail helps us establish the fact that Jesus' earthly ministry was at least three years in duration. He observed three Passovers after his baptism by John the Baptist. John's purpose in adding these details is neither geographical nor historical but altogether theological. Hills are suggestive of prophecy and instruction, as in the case of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. And the Passover is the feast of sacrifice and atonement, when the high priest from the Holy of Holies sends the lamb carrying the sins of the people to its death.

In recounting the miracle itself, John has Jesus notice the approaching crowd and say to Philip before the crowd even arrives, "How are we to buy food for so many?"

"We can't," Philip replied. "It will take two hundred pennies, or denarii, to feed that many." A denarius was a day's pay for an unskilled worker in Jesus' day. It would have taken the wages of two hundred days of labor to feed that crowd. Only a very rich person could have satisfied their hunger.

Nonetheless, the lunch of a poor boy did it. Andrew had more discernment than Philip. At least he pointed out the fact that one boy had five barley loaves and two fish. But his faith stopped there. He gave up. "But what's that," he said, "among so many people?" It was more than enough. Those who wanted had more than one helping of food. Five thousand people were fed, and there were twelve baskets of food left over. The amount of food the boy brought for his lunch was unimportant. The fact that he contributed it to Jesus made all the difference. The use Jesus put it to satisfied the hunger of a multitude.

Our weakness is strength in the hands of God. And Jesus makes our poverty rich. John is the only evangelist that tells us the bread was made of barley meal. That is how we know the boy was poor. Barley was fed to animals by the prosperous, but the poor used it to make their bread.

The feeding of the multitude got an immediate response. The people were so impressed that they attempted to crown Jesus their king. According to John, the Galileans were the first to express openly their recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. They did not wait until Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They were correct in realizing that their true destiny lay with Jesus. He alone possessed the means that would enable them to fulfill it. In truth, he was their Messiah. But they were entirely wrong in what they took their destiny to be. It was not that they should possess an earthly kingdom with their own Jewish king. Jesus' conception of Messiah was not the same as theirs. So Jesus withdrew from them.

The disciples started back to Capernaum in a boat at night, a trip that is always risky on the Sea of Galilee. This body of water is calm one moment and wild and unruly the next. Climatic conditions change quickly on that small body of water, where calm readily and unpredictably gives place to storm. When the disciples had traveled three or four miles, high winds developed. The sea began to rise up in waves and to toss their boat up and down. Then it was that they saw Jesus walking out to them. And they were more frightened by the sight of someone walking on the water than they were of the angry sea itself. This is the only incident that John records of the disciples being afraid of their own master.

Did they think Jesus was a ghost? Or did they recognize him to be someone so akin to God that it was dangerous for them to be close to him? According to the Old Testament, for one to see God means for that person instant death. Indeed, the primary attitude one must take to God is the attitude of fear. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). But Jesus reassured them by saying: "It is I; be not afraid" (6:20). From this experience, the disciples realized the all-sufficiency of their master. He did not need the five loaves and two fish of the boy to feed the multitude. He could create out of nothing as God himself creates. And they had no need to fear him, although he possessed all the power of God, because his intention always was to use his power in their behalf.

The people whom Jesus had fed took boats the next day and went back to Capernaum. They found him there with his disciples. But they had seen the disciples leave without him, and they observed only one boat at the dock, so they said to Jesus, "How did you get here?" Jesus ignored their questions and abruptly accused them of seeking him for the material satisfaction he might give and disregarding the true nature of the miracles he had performed for them. These were the people who had tried to crown him king and who wanted from him a prosperous, powerful, secure, and independent nation in which to live. All these things would perish, Jesus told them. They worked hard to earn a living, to provide well for themselves and their families. But it was far more important for them to seek "everlasting life," which only he can give them. They expressed their willingness to do the work of God if he would tell them what that work is and would confirm the validity of what he says by performing a miracle comparable to the miracle Moses performed when he gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness. Jesus responded by saying that Moses had not given them manna. It was God himself who provided them with it out of heaven.

And now, Jesus told them, the bread God wants to give them is one who is come down out of heaven in order to give life to the world. When they cried out, "Lord, evermore give us this bread" (6:34), Jesus identified himself to them as that bread. He assured them that whoever accepts him shall never hunger or thirst again. The real lesson of the feeding of the five thousand was not that their physical hunger had been satisfied but rather that he who fed them was himself the source of their spiritual well-being and the means of their receiving everlasting life. It is the intention of the Father, Jesus assured them, to give all of these to his son, so that the son might confer on them everlasting life.

The miracle of the feeding on the hills above the lake was only to whet the appetite of the multitude for the food of God which is imperishable and supplies strength to live with God forever. That food is Jesus Christ himself.

This truth comes to view in the debate between Jesus and the Jews, who criticized him for claiming to have come down from heaven. They knew his father and mother from Nazareth. Perhaps the older among them remembered the time of the census and the very day he was born in Bethlehem. At least, they recalled vividly when he came back to Nazareth with his parents out of Egypt. How ridiculous it is for him to say that he came directly from God out of heaven! Maybe they misunderstood him. No, they did not. They had heard him correctly. But they could not appreciate what they heard.

Their ancestors had eaten the divine manna in the wilderness, yet all of them had died. They would die, too. Only those could come to Jesus whom the Father sent to him. Obviously these critics, due to their own recalcitrance, would never be sent. Jesus affirms that he is the living bread whom if a person eats thereof will never die. The bread that he gives is his own flesh. He gives it freely for the salvation of the world. In Jesus, both the gift and the giver are one and the same. Salvation is not a mere property or impersonal bequest from God to us. It is the Savior himself.

This truth caused a dispute among his Jewish critics. How could persons by eating the flesh of a man thereby derive everlasting life? Some thought this was cannibalism. Others perhaps tried to spiritualize it and give it some rational meaning. Jesus did not relieve their dispute but rather interrupted it by adding that they had to drink his blood as well. To ingest blood in any way was a sacrilege to the Jews. Meat had to be strained of any blood for a Jew to eat it. But Jesus said only as people eat his flesh and drink his blood can he dwell in them and they in him. As he lives by the Father, so they must live by him.

With that assertion, many of his followers left him as well. He said in explanation, "I am speaking to you about spirit. Spirit quickeneth. Flesh profiteth nothing" (6:63 AP). "If you are shocked now by what 1 say, what will your reaction be when you see me ascend up to where I was before?" (6:62, AP). What he meant was that they must desire him so much and he must become so much a part of them that they will digest him and his spirit as they would food in their bodies. As a person cannot live without food, neither can a person live without him.

When he saw so many of his followers leave him, he asked his disciples if they would do the same. It was Peter who spoke for all of them. "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou has the words of eternal life" (6:68). Yet even one of them, Jesus admitted, was a devil.

There is no guarantee of salvation even to a disciple. Anyone, no matter what his or her spiritual state may be, can desert the Savior. The crowd that ate the loaves and fish and were so satisfied by what Jesus did for them in the hills above the sea that they wanted to crown him king left when he explained to them what life with him was really like. Even so, those whom God will send to him as his very own must want to come, must remain with him and adopt his ways, if they are to be the recipients from him of everlasting life.

Back Again in Jerusalem (7:1-53)

John compresses into a single verse what the synoptics devote most of their narratives in describing, that is, Jesus' Galilean ministry. It is the verse that opens chapter 7. The healing of the lame man had taken place in Jerusalem. The feeding of the five thousand was in Galilee. Jesus subsequently returned again to Jerusalem to the Feast of Tabernacles.

Though this feast was less important than Passover, it was nevertheless more popular. It was like Christmas is to us in comparison with Easter. Christmas is the most popular day in the Christian year. The Feast of Tabernacles came at the best season of the year, in autumn, at harvest time. It lasted eight days. The weather was generally warm but invigorating. The pilgrims lived outdoors and pitched tents in all the open spaces of the city and in the surrounding countryside. Water was brought from the Pool of Siloam to fill a golden bowl in the courtyard of the Temple for libations. Candles in golden candlesticks brightened the courtyard of the Gentiles, and every home in the city copied the practice with candles of its own in its courtyard. The people, as at Mardi Gras, had a good time.

The brothers of Jesus, presumably older than he and by a previous marriage of Joseph, probably had been embarrassed by his reception in Galilee. Like those followers who doubted, they could not convince themselves that he was the Messiah. They did not believe in him, although they wanted to believe. They, therefore, counseled him to go to Jerusalem and do his mighty works there, where all the prophets had spoken and where there would be an attentive crowd. Perhaps there he would be able to win the public. At least, he should leave Galilee, they said. That would relieve their embarrassment over him as well as give him a fresh start -- a new chance.

Jesus disregarded their advice. He did leave Galilee, but only after they had gone and the other pilgrim bands had made their way to the holy city. So he went on his own. He came late to the Feast of Tabernacles. Indeed, he evidently wanted people to miss him. In his absence, people evaluated him and his works. Some thought he was a mountebank and a fake. But others who appreciated his deeds insisted he was "a good man" (7:12). "Good" meant more to them than it does to us. Only God is good. To call Jesus "good" was to admit he was like God.

Jesus came secretly to Jerusalem. He entered the city incognito. He deliberately created disappointment in the crowds over his absence. He made them think he would not come. By waiting until the middle of the feast days to disclose himself, he intensified the excitement of the people over receiving him when he did reveal his presence to them.

Suddenly, the Lord appeared in his own Temple. Jesus did not speak like just a human being. He spoke like God. How could one be so knowledgeable and have such wisdom when he had not been to a rabbinical school? The rabbis impressed the people by quoting authorities and basing their arguments on precedent. Jesus quoted no authorities but made his observations on his own. What he said was more convincing than the teaching of the rabbis. But what right had he to such authority? His right, he said, was that he had been taught. His teacher was God himself. He was not there to build up his own reputation.

Moses had given his people the Law. But Moses got that Law from God. The people believed this because they would circumcise a child on the eighth day after its birth, even if that day was the sabbath. But Jesus got his words from the same source as Moses. Yet the people accused him of sacrilege when he healed the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda on the sabbath. Isn't it more important to make a person whole that it is to circumcise a male child? "Don't be foolish," he told the people, "use good judgment. It takes good judgment to understand and to apply the Law."

But the people did not use good judgment. Rather than permit themselves to be convinced by the force of his words, which they admitted were in quality and in truth those of the Messiah, they allowed themselves to be distracted by where he came from. "Is the Christ," they said, "to come out of Galilee? The scriptures teach that the Christ is to be descended from David and to come out of Bethlehem" (7:40-41, AP). But, then, the authorities were doing nothing to stop Jesus. "Maybe," the people thought, "that they know something that we do not know. Maybe they realize he is the Messiah" (7:26, AP). "Certainly this is the man everybody knows they want to kill" (7:25, AP). "But they are afraid to do so!" they probably said.

The true Messiah, in their minds, would come from God, and, therefore, no one could know his earthly origin. But this man and his family are known of many (7:27). Here John implies, without explicitly stating, the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not a Galilean. He had been born in David's city of Bethlehem, and his conception was divine.

On the last day of the Feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus made his supreme pronouncement. He defied the efforts of the Pharisees and Sadducees to arrest him, openly mocking them by saying he would go where they could not come (7:33-34). They thought he meant he would leave the province and teach the Greeks in other parts of the empire. The officers they sent to arrest him refused to obey their orders, giving as their reason, "No man ever spoke like this man" (7:46, RSV). Nicodemus himself disclosed his own respect for Jesus by chiding his colleagues in the Sanhedrin for being willing to condemn this man on hearsay without giving him a hearing. They taunted Nicodemus by saying, "You must be from Galilee, too. If you knew the scripture, you would realize that no prophet can come from there" (7:52, AP).

Nonetheless, despite their maneuvers, Jesus went about his work undeterred. Looking at the almost empty bowl of water from the Spring of Siloam in the court of the Temple and pointing first at it and then at himself, he said, "If you will but believe in me, out of your own heart will flow rivers of living water" (7:38, AP). Beseechingly he said, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink" (7:37, RSV).

The Test Case (8:1-Il)

On the very next day, the day after the Feast of the Tabernacles, as Jesus was teaching the people in the court yard of the Temple, the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of committing adultery. The penalty for such a crime was death. If the woman was a virgin engaged to be married, the penalty was death by stoning. The Sanhedrin was capable of rendering such a verdict. Perhaps the woman was being carried to her judgment when Jesus was consulted.

The consultation was no more than a trick. The Pharisees knew how kind and compassionate Jesus was. If he told them to have mercy on the woman and let her go, then they could accuse him of disregarding the Law of Moses and, thereby, make him an accomplice to her crime.

Jesus dropped his head and began to scribble on the ground. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the incident and did not want to look up at the woman and further embarrass her. All he said was, "Let him that is without sin cast the first stone" (8:7, AP). With that remark, they all began to fall away, from the eldest to the youngest. The elderly were probably first. They knew by long experience how easy it is to see faults in others and overlook worse faults in one's self. The young people soon followed.

When Jesus looked up, only the woman was there. "Evidently," he said, "you don't have any accusers any more. You are free. I don't accuse you either. Go your way, and sin no more" (8:10-Il, AP).

Three mighty deeds stand out in this section of the Gospel: the healing of the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, the feeding of the five thousand in Galilee, and now this act of liberation and forgiveness again in Jerusalem.

The deeds of God are not just physical. They are moral as well. This beautiful act of compassion is the noblest of the three deeds Jesus did. Jesus saved a guilty woman from death at the hands of her moralistic accusers. And at the same time, he saved her from herself. The penalty she was about to receive was self-imposed. This young woman had committed the crime and fully deserved the punishment. She had been justly sentenced according to Moses' ancient Law. But Jesus gave her a new start. He gave her the incentive to sin no more.


Questions For Reflection and Study


1. Do you believe God still heals directly? Do you pray for physical healing for people who are ill?

2. Jesus' hearers had trouble making the shift from his talk about literal bread to his statements about the bread of heaven. He said some followed him only because there was something in it for them, either healing or food. Do we still get distracted from spiritual things by "fringe benefits"? Name some.

3. What are your "five loaves and two fishes" -- what do you offer to Jesus to help meet others' needs?

4. Jesus offended the Jews' sensibilities with his talk about being bread and drinking blood. Even some of the disciples said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (6:60, RSV) "What teachings of Jesus are "too hard" for you?"

5. Consider the woman taken in adultery. What sins do we exclude people for now?