Eli T. Evans
What if Jesus of Nazareth and the Old Testament God of Israel were one and the same? What if He entered the human race, but instead of being received, He was denied—for claiming to be who He said He was?
John doesn’t build up to any of these conclusions; they’re present on page one. Jesus is “the Word” who “was God,” and He “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1–18). By beginning his Gospel this way, John forces us to filter the rest of the story through what we know about Jesus that the characters in the story do not.
Thus everything that follows becomes dramatic irony. John says that Jesus appeared to be a poor wandering preacher from Nazareth, when in reality He was God. John says that everyone in Israel should have recognized Jesus as God by His words, if not by His miraculous deeds. In reality, precious few believed in Him, and they were not always the people we would expect.
They believed because of the signs (John 2:23– 25).
Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and drew a huge crowd because of the miracles He performed. Rather than capitalizing on His notoriety, He did not “entrust himself to them” because He, as God, knew their hearts. He did not need a witness to show Him their inner condition; as God, He had direct access (compare 1 Sam 16:7, Jer 20:12). Here and elsewhere in John, miracles are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, all of Jesus’ signs point to His true identity; on the other hand, people got caught up believing in the signs themselves, rather than the one they signified (2:18, 23; 3:2; 4:48; 6:2, 26, 30; 7:31; 9:16; 12:37).
Nicodemus compared to the woman at the well (John 3–4).
In John 3:10–15, Jesus bore witness to what only He, as God, could know, and Nicodemus missed the point. Jesus responded by asking, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10). In comparison, the Samaritan woman at the well—a foreigner who was considered a lower class person—recognized Jesus as a prophet and then as the Messiah from just a bit of conversation (4:1–30). Later Jesus would say, “My sheep hear my voice” (10:27). And those who don’t are not His sheep, but the devil’s (8:39–47).
Jesus puts forth witnesses (John 5:30– 47).
After Jesus claimed to be equal with God (5:18), the Jewish authorities sought to kill Him. Rather than addressing their charges, He compounded His alleged blasphemy by claiming ultimate authority—they should believe because He (that is, the Father) said so. Jesus told them they had never seen God’s form or heard His voice; if they had, they would have recognized “the one whom [God] has sent” because of who He is in substance, if not in form (5:37). This argument resurfaces in John 7: Jesus commanded the Jewish crowd to judge with “right judgment” and not “by appearances” (7:24). The argument continues in chapter 8, where Jesus claimed the Father as His ultimate witness: “If you knew me, you would know the Father also” (8:19). He would later say something similar to Philip in the upper room (14:8–9).
“Hard saying” compared to “words of eternal life” (John 6).
After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus gained many followers, but it was a bittersweet success. The large crowds weren’t there for Him; they came for the free food (6:26). After patiently explaining that He was the bread of life (6:33, 35), Jesus eventually drove the crowd away by telling them to feast on His flesh and drink His blood—a “hard saying” indeed (6:53–66). Many left, and Jesus asked His inner circle if they, too, would abandon Him. Peter’s answer struck at the heart of the issue: Only Jesus had “the words of eternal life” (6:68–69).
Mary compared to Judas (John 12:1–8).
Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumed oil. Judas objected because he could not see past what appeared to be wastefulness—or past his own greed—to the truth: Mary was preparing Jesus for His death and burial.
Thomas doubts Jesus (John 20:24–29).
The author of Hebrews says that faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). For John, faith is also about grasping the truth of Christ in spite of (not because of) His appearance, which was lowly rather than glorious (Phil 2:6–11). In John’s account, Jesus submitted to Thomas’ probing but chided him for needing answers, stating, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29).
Just as Yahweh forbids the making of idols because He is alive and has no need of a manufactured body to inhabit (Isa 40:18–31), Jesus likewise has no need of signs to bear witness to His identity because He is the Word, the absolute sign that signifies itself alone. Perhaps He arrived without “beauty or majesty” (Isa 53:2) so He would be received in faith by grace—not by exposing His glory or by performing tricks on command, but merely by being Himself.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).