Updated: Jul 12, 2022
I've been studying the Gospel of John with a group of brothers for several months. Every time I read the Bible, I learn something new. During this recent study through the Gospel of John, God has taught me a lot about His ways, work and will.
First, let's talk a little about the Gospel of John itself:
The Gospel of John is often referred to as the universal gospel
It has a heavy focus on Jesus' deity
I've heard the Gospel of John recommended for new believers to read more than any other book in the Bible
The Gospel of John is distinct enough in its account of events that it is not considered one of the Synoptic (i.e., similar) Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
It was likely written sometime between 60-90 CE
The Gospel of John is simultaneously called the most Jewish and anti-Jewish (i.e., antisemitic) of the four gospels
Jewish in its mention of the Biblical Feasts and Hanukkah
Anti-Jewish in its around 64, seemingly negative references to "The Jews."
Knowing these details about the Gospel of John, we need to be discerning as we read and study it along with the rest of the Scriptures. The Bible is God's Story and God is the main character. As you read and study the Bible, you should always be asking yourself the question, "What's God doing?" So, what's God doing in the Gospel of John?
A helpful way to understand this is by taking a cue from the Marvel Cinematic Universe Disney + series, "What If...?" The show's theme song says this:
Space. Reality. It's more than a linear path. It's a prism of endless possibilities, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and ponder the question... What If?
Please understand, I don't think the multiverse is real. This universe is real. God is real and life is real. Human beings are really created equally in God's image. God really entered into reality as a human being, lived among us, died for us and saved us from sin. Hallelujah! That said, if you're a Christian, you need to be careful with how you read, interpret and share details of this story. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ has often be shared in bad ways. To illustrate, let's consider some possibilities, some alternate worlds from the one we know, created by a single choice and ask ourselves the question: What If...?
I kind of like the idea “Go big or go home,” so let’s consider this: What if… Jesus was never crucified?
Again, please understand this is a mental exercise designed to help you see what God is doing in the Scriptures we read. Let's jump ahead a few chapters in John's Gospel for our What If...? moment. Let's look at John 18:38-40 and consider a single change. Here are the verses from the English Standard Version (ESV) with my clarifications in parenthesis:
After he (Pilate) had said this, he (Pilate) went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him (Jesus). But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
What if this had happened?
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out, “Yes, release the King of the Jews!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
What if the Jewish leaders in that single moment realized Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, King of the Jews? What if they had put their trust in Jesus because of all the miracles John says they saw Jesus do? What if the Jewish leaders instead cried out for Jesus' release in that moment? As we read about Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion, isn't that what we wish would have happened? Yes, release the King of the Jews! Yes, Jesus is the Messiah! Yes, Jesus is God in the flesh!
What if the Jews had only repented and said "Yes" to God in that moment?
Here's what if: No cross, no resurrection, no ascension, no promised return and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In two words: No gospel.
As Christians, it's not an alternate universe we want to think about is it? If so, why do we spend so much time talking about how amazed, frustrated and appalled we are that some Jewish leaders in the 1st century didn't put their trust in Jesus even after seeing Him perform miracle after miracle? Why is our attitude borderline anger with the Jews who sought to kill Jesus? If we don't want to imagine a world where there is no salvation from sin through Jesus' death, why do we get so upset and frustrated with those who missed something about Jesus' life when He walked the earth?
Remember, as you read and study Scripture, you should always be asking yourself the question: What's God doing in these verses or in this story? I think we can see what God's up to if we take another look at John 12:37-40 (my emphasis in bold and parenthesis):
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He (God) has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
God is blinding eyes and hardening hearts in order to do reveal Himself and do something miraculous. This is God's MO! To see God's MO at work in another place in the Bible, let's look at Exodus 4:21-23 (my emphasis in bold):
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”
This is before Moses and Aaron even went to Pharaoh. These things had to happen and it's good that they did. When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh for the first time, and asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh refused just like God said. God is working in this story, but do you really feel like shouting Hallelujah at this point? No, of course you don't because you know 10 awful, terrible plagues are coming. Not to diminish their seriousness or severity, but let's look at the plagues through a different lens. Exodus 7:1-5 (my emphasis in bold):
And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”
God calls them signs and wonders, and God wants the Egyptians to know He is the LORD. These things had to happen, and it's good that they did. Here is a breakdown of these signs and wonders along with some notes:
1- Nile River to blood - 7 Days
2- Frogs - (8:2) - the word plague used as a verb - nagaf in Hebrew - to strike - lasted at least a full day
3 - Gnats - the magicians couldn't replicate this one
4 - Flies - distinction between Israel in Goshen and Egypt
5 - Livestock - pestilence - plague used as a noun - dever in Hebrew - distinction between Israel and Egypt
6 - Boils - implied distinction between Israel and Egypt
7 - Hail - pestilence which caused death to livestock and people - God gives the Egyptians a warning, and some of them listened - distinction between Israel and Egypt
God pauses before the next sign and wonder, and reminds Moses why these things are happening. Exodus 10:1:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”
Again, God calls them signs, and reminds Moses that He (God) is hardening Pharaoh's heart. This time, God reminds Moses that all of this is happening so Egypt (like we read earlier) and Israel will know He is the LORD. Are you starting to starting to get excited about what God is doing? Instead of thinking "Oh my gosh, what terrible plague is going to happen next", I hope you're starting to think "What miraculous sign and wonder will God do next?"
8 - Locusts - ate all the plants and fruit of the trees which survived the hail - implied distinction between Israel and Egypt
9 - Darkness - pitch black for three days - Israel still had light
10 - Death of the firstborn man and beast - judgement of all the gods of Egypt (12:12)
There are six times in the Exodus story where we read about God directly hardening Pharaoh's heart. There are only four references to Pharaoh's heart remaining hardened, perhaps by Pharaoh's own will. Here's what I want us to take away from our quick look at the Exodus:
God is supernaturally working the situation
These plagues should be seen as miraculous signs and wonders
These things had to happen and it's good that they did
Now let's go back to our What If...? Scriptures and look at the events through a different lens. To see what God's doing during Jesus' trial, we need to know a little more about Pilate. As we read John's account of Pilate questioning Jesus, Pilate seems like a pretty fair and reasonable guy. The truth is, Pilate was a pagan Gentile who hated the Jews. In a letter to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, Philo accused Pilate of briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, repeated executions without trial and ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty. That's not the description of someone who is fair and reasonable! The historian Josephus writes about how Pilate planned a beatdown of a peaceful Jewish protest and a massacre of Samaritans. We know from our look at the Exodus that God can harden a heart in a moment to make something happen, so it seems to me God can soften a heart in a moment to make something happen.
In John 18:38-40, I see God doing a lot. God is softening Pilate's heart and hardening the Jews hearts all because these things had to happen and it's good that they did.
When we read and study the Bible, especially the Gospel of John where you can almost feel the writer's frustration with the Jewish people, we need to be careful to remind ourselves of a few things:
The Bible is thoroughly Jewish
The Scriptures were given to, written by and preserved by Jews
John was Jewish
Jesus was, is and is coming back as the Jewish Messiah
We need to stop being mad at or blaming anyone for killing Jesus. Stop playing the blame game and start playing the same game. The Jews killed Jesus, the Romans killed Jesus, you killed Jesus, I killed Jesus, we all killed Jesus and none of us killed Jesus at the same time! These things had to happen and it's good that they did! Jesus said of His life, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father (John 10:18).” We need to learn to talk about Jesus, and share the gospel, without talking negatively about the disciples, Peter, Pharisees, Sadducees or the Jewish people in general. You don’t have to make anyone look bad to make Jesus look good.