Word Became Flesh - Lessons from the Gospel of John
Signs of Life—Jesus the Sabbath Healer (John 5. 1 - 30):
In the past several chapters of the Johanine Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth has strategically presented himself to the prevailing religious entities of first century Palestine as the fulfillment of their respective images of the Judaic God. The Pharisees, consumed with the synagogue system, encounter Christ as the ultimate material incarnation of the Herodian temple, one that can restore itself after destruction. Nicodemus, a representative of those Jews concerned with Patriarchal heritage, is instructed to eschew lineage in favor of being “born again” from spirit. John the Baptist, a paramour of the Essenes, is presented with Jesus the Bridegroom that will bring the monastic order from its isolation. The metaphor of Bridegroom segues into Jesus’ testimony to the Samaritan woman, who is given living, everlasting water as a sign of Christ’s divinity and promise to bless all peoples through the Abrahamic covenant.
These signs come to fruition in John’s depiction of the events at the Bethesda pool. Here, Jesus Christ affirms via miraculous healing his regency as the source of all life. John “legally” confirms the miracle by recording its occurrence in front of two witnesses. The corroboration of the healing serves a dual purpose; at once confirming its posterity for readers separated from the event by several decades; inviting the criticism and vindication of Jesus for performing the miracle during the Sabbath. While the foundations of Jewish law prohibited any labor on the Sabbath, Jesus compares himself to God, the author and sovereign of the Jewish day of rest. This proclamation would have proven especially blasphemous for those Pharisees that attempted to persecute Jesus for his Sabbath teaching; Jewish tradition defined the act of rebellion as a son equating himself to his father. That Jesus not only claimed likeness to his father but further asserted his father was Yahweh would have caused a seismic reaction amongst faithful Jews. Such is keeping with John’s overriding message of mature Christology throughout his Gospel.
John The Baptist—Perpetually Preparing “The Way”:
Currently located in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem, the Bethesda Pool was not discovered until the late nineteenth century by German archaeologist Conrad Shick. Literally “Pool of Mercy,” Bethesda was well known as a respite for the numerous sick and infirmed that surrounded the Second Temple’s walls on its northern face. According to popular tradition, Bethesda’s pilgrims received miraculous healing from its waters whenever a (divine) breath of wind caused the face of the pool to ripple. Sick, dying and malnourished beggars would rush to the pool in the hopes of capturing the water’s healing properties.
In keeping with his role from previous chapters, Jesus at once discards the site’s apocryphal tradition and fulfills its purpose by offering a lame invalid miraculous healing. In the Hellenic world, slaves and servants were often left to flounder in the porticos of Asclepion temples if their master’s did not desire to pay for medical treatment. In those rare instances where such slaves regained their former strength, they were no longer tethered to a life of servitude. In Jewish custom, major illness was the cause of especially sinful or blasphemous living; punishment inflicted on the infirmed for their own crimes or the heresies of their parents.
Jesus Christ defies both traditions in his Bethesda healing. The invalid is forgiven and rejuvenated from the same source, God the Savior. The incident demonstrates that only true healing, forgiveness and freedom (from sin) derive from Jesus the Messiah, further strengthening Christ’s divine claims.
Archaeological excavation has discovered a relief of an angelic, Hellenic figure indigenous to the first century at the Bethesda site. The sculpture depicted the “spirit” that moved the pool’s waters to facilitate miraculous healing. John explicitly proposes Jesus is the actual “spirit” or “logos” that both heals and was present when God’s own breath hovered above the waters of creation.
Murderous Stones—The Pharisees’ Legacy (John 8. 31 - 59):
The disparity between Jesus’ charity and the self-interest of Pharisees most vividly appears in the events surrounding the woman accused of adultery. After Jesus meditates at the Mount of Olives, he returns to the Festival of the Tabernacles where he s challenged by Jewish authorities. Having captured a woman in the act of infidelity, the Jews press Christ about the proper, Mosaic response to the incident. Legal debates regarding the Mosaic Law were common rabbinical episodes in the Hellenic era. The Law of Moses was several thousand years old during the time of Jesus’ ministry, attracting scores of rabbinical interpretations on Levitical matters. Conventional teaching maintained mortal condemnation for both men and women found in throes of adultery. Though her male counterpart was missing from the episode, the Pharisees still attempt to “test” Jesus’ understanding of Jewish customs in a way that might contradict his preachments on universal forgiveness.
One of the most well-known sequences in Christ’s ministry, Pope John Paul II said the following regarding the episode: “How could we see ourselves in this Gospel without feeling a surge of confidence? How could we not recognize it as “good news” for the men and women of our day, who long to rediscover the true sense of mercy and pardon? There is a need for Christian forgiveness, which instills hope and trust without weakening the struggle against evil.” Jesus concludes this incident by instead condemning the Pharisees as murderers, children of “Satan.” The common denominator between murder and deception supersedes mere sin. Readers of John would recognize the clear comparison already drawn between death, darkness, life and light. Here, Christ overtly condemns the Pharisees for first sentencing the woman to death, then masking their adjudication behind a theological discussion. That the prevailing Jewish leaders could prove so flippant with human life renders them polar to the Jesus’ redemptive mission.
The hypocrisy of the Jews persists as the Pharisees equate demon possession with Samaritan heritage due to Christ’s admonition against his persecutor’s own legacy. While Jesus is interested in the Jews spiritual inheritance, the Jews are still enamored of Christ’s earthly bloodline. For Gentile audiences, the distinction between the traditions of the Jews and God’s true kingdom could not have been more apparent from the incident.
The Gospel of John:
The Mount of Olives During the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth:
Perhaps the largest extant Jewish cemetery, the Mount of Olives was over a millennia old when Jesus used it as the site for his heavenly ascension. Once known for the numerous olive groves on its southern slope, the Mount of Olives was already the location of thousands of Jewish graves during the Hellenic age. Both its ceremonial and historical significance would have been apparent to readers of the Johanine gospel. Jesus of Nazareth used the site as a locale for some of the most important incidents in his earthly ministry, including his arrest, periods of meditation and the above mentioned ascension. The Festival of Sukot also occurred near the Mount of Olives, making Jesus’ retreat to the site a practical decision as he sought solace from his Jewish persecutors.
The Mount of Olives was the site of commemoration of the Jewish New Year as it housed the remains of well-known prophets such as Malachi, Zechariah and Haggai. The location continues to be a burial site for revered Jewish political leaders, cultural figures and victims of religious-based terrorism. The symbolic significance of renewal and resurrection has long been associated with the Mount of Olives. Many Jews have sought burial in its cemetery due to the belief that the Messiah will incite the resurrection of holy peoples at this site. While serious Jews still await their Messianic age, Christians revere the Mount of Olives as the location where Christ espoused the Great Commission before joining the Father in heaven.
One of the most striking features of the Mount of Olives is it composition. Made of sedimentary chalk, the mountain cannot be developed or mined outside of simple, man made structures. Thus, no single monotheism—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—has been able to claim the site through sacred erections. The Mount of Olives continues to be a location where pilgrims from an array of religions can experience the location unaltered and undisturbed from the time of biblical events.
Born from Above:
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