Formations 12.14.2014: Controversies and Hard Feelings

John 1:10-13; 7:37-44

“A Forcible Argument,” in Albert S. Evans, A La California, 1873, p. 408

“A Forcible Argument,” in Albert S. Evans, A La California, 1873, p. 408

Holiday travel means time with family. For many, such reunions are a welcome opportunity to reconnect with relatives we may not have seen for a year.

For some, a visit with folks on different branches of the family tree brings the possibility of disagreements—or even heated arguments. Why can’t you let us raise our children as we see fit? What are you doing bringing him to dinner? When are you going to get a real job? It doesn’t have to be the big political and religious issues; even small disagreements can provoke big controversies and hard feelings.

How, then, might the people of Jerusalem have felt when arguments broke out about Jesus. Christians are likely to think of Jesus as something that unites us. Most of the time, we’re right. But let us not forget that Jesus’ ministry was not without controversy. John is quite clear that not everyone embraced Jesus’ message. Even his own people did not welcome him, but those who did became God’s children (1:11-12).

One story in the Fourth Gospel that highlights the controversial nature of Jesus is found in John 7: 37-44. This passage describes how people responded to Jesus’ words in various ways. Some insisted he was a prophet, or even the Messiah. Others, however, disagreed. The disagreement led to division and, in the end, some even wanted to arrest Jesus—although for the time being he was spared.


• What topics are “off limits” at your holiday table? Why?
• When should Christians risk animosity to be true to their convictions? When should they walk away from fruitless debates?
• What makes Jesus such a controversial figure, one who can inspire such heated disagreement?
• Why did his own people so often reject him?
• What does it mean to “receive” and become associated with such a controversial figure?

Reference Shelf

A Diversity of Expectations

No systematic statement of Jewish messianic expectations during the late Hasmonean and Roman periods is possible due to the confusing abundance of viewpoints. Some of the literature stresses the Davidic Messiah. This strain of the tradition is nationalistic and this-worldly. The Messiah is to usher in a golden age for Israel with Jerusalem as the center of the world. In many respects, this line of thinking continues the eschatological vision of the OT prophets. Other literary works stress the Son of man. This strain of the tradition is universal and otherworldly. The Son of man, who is of heavenly origin, will appear at the end of time as judge. The eschatology of this understanding is clearly apocalyptic rather than prophetic. The conflict between the this-worldly and otherworldly expectations was harmonized in some writings by portraying the messianic kingdom as the end of the present age. This earthly kingdom was to last for a specific period of time (40, 400, 1,000, and 2,000 years are suggested by various authors) and be followed by the new (otherworldly) age….

In this climate of messianic multiplicity, Jesus began his ministry. The diversity of messianic expectations alone would dictate that not all Jews would view him as the Messiah. To complicate matters, the Christian conception differed markedly from any that had been espoused before. This novel understanding was made possible by a fusion of the following: (1) the promise to establish the throne of David forever; (2) the prophetic linkage of an ideal Davidic king with an idyllic future; (3) the Pharisaic belief in the world to come and the resurrection; and (4) the Pharisaic method of free interpretation of scripture.

Ron Farmer, “Messiah/Christ,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 570–71.

Speculations about Jesus
[John 7:40-43] presents the speculation among the people: Is this the prophet/the Christ? After Jesus’ words in vv. 37-38, some of the people said, “This is really the prophet” (v. 40; 1:21). Others said, “This is the Christ” (v. 41; 1:20). Objections are offered to such claims: “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (vv. 41b-42). That the Messiah is to be a descendant of David is deeply rooted in Jewish (2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 18:50; Isa 11:1, 10; Jer 23:5) and early Christian (Rom 1:3-4; 2 Tim 2:8) tradition. That he comes from Bethlehem also has Jewish (Mic 5:1-2; Tg. Micah 5:1) and Christian (Matt 2:1-6; Lk 2:1-7) roots. These conventional beliefs are reflected by the people speculating about Jesus’ identity. In John, nothing is said explicitly about Jesus’ Davidic lineage or birth at Bethlehem. He is called “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45); his Galilean family ties are assumed (2:1; 6:42). John 4:44, however, seems to imply that Galilee is not his home country, but that Judea, where the Jews seek to kill him (7:1, 19; 8:59; 10:31; 11:8, 16) is. The reader is left with a puzzle. Does the Evangelist assume the readers of the Gospel know the facts about the Davidic lineage (as in the tradition of Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8), and the birth at Bethlehem, or is the Johannine community one in which this is not assumed information? How one answers this question determines how one reads this segment of the text. That no explicit answer is given to this objection would seem to imply that the hearers of the Gospel are expected to know the truth. They would hear the objection with insiders’ information and smile at the stupidity of the people who raise the objection. In any case, the Evangelist interprets the situation: “So there was a division among the people over him” (v. 43).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 155–56.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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