Can’t follow Jesus where he’s going.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 August 2019

John 7.25-36.

Back a few verses, Jesus told his opponents,

John 7.19-20 KWL
19 “Moses didn’t give you the Law, and none of you does the Law: Why do you seek to kill me?”
20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who seeks to kill you?”

Then he objected to how they violated Sabbath to practice ritual circumcision, yet when he cured people who couldn’t walk, this was somehow worse? Jn 7.21-24 But y’know, even though Jesus had a point, and made it very logically, humans aren’t logical. They did want him dead, Jn 5.17-18 and would eventually kill him.

Meanwhile some of Jesus’s listeners—who apparently weren’t aware the Judean leadership wanted him dead—debated whether that was truly so. Remember, in the first-century Roman Empire there was no such thing as freedom of speech and religion: You could be beaten or killed for heresy. Yet nobody censured Jesus from teaching in temple, so the question came up: Maybe Jesus was somebody important. Like Messiah.

John 7.25-26 KWL
25 Some of the Jerusalemites were saying, “Isn’t this who people seek to kill?”
26 “Look, he speaks boldly, and nobody says a response to him.”
“Maybe the rulers truly know this is Messiah!”

“Maybe the rulers truly know this is Messiah,” some speculated—for if Jesus is really Messiah, the Pharisees taught those who opposed Messiah would be destroyed with the breath of his lips. Is 11.4 (Paul later swiped this idea for 2 Thessalonians 2.8, and John transforms it into a sharp sword in Revelation 19.11.) Messiah would vanquish his opponents, take his throne, and rule the world. So if the Judean senate suspected Jesus is Messiah, it explains why they’d be hesitant to arrest him: They didn’t wanna get vanquished. They were hoping he’d vanquish the Romans, but certainly not them. So they let him be.

Others weren’t so sure he’s Messiah:

John 7.27 KWL
“But we know where this man is from.
If Messiah ever comes, nobody knows where he’s from!”

Y’might not be familiar with this idea, “Nobody knows where Messiah’s from.” This is the only time we see it in the New Testament. Not all Pharisees believed it—as proven elsewhere in the gospels, including this very chapter. In John 7.41-42, some Judeans stated they know Messiah comes from Bethlehem, Judea. Not Jerusalem; not Nazareth nor Capernaum; not the Galilee. And of course when the magi sought Messiah, the head priests and scribes pointed Herod to Bethlehem. Mt 2.4-5, Mc 5.2 They did so know where Messiah’s from.

But some Pharisees believed they couldn’t know. Not till after Elijah’s second coming, when he’d identify Messiah for everyone. Then they’d know… but till then, Messiah would be hidden, invisible, unseen, secret. The idea loosely comes from the apocryphal book 2 Esdras, also called 4 Ezra, in which Ezra had this conversation with God:

2 Esdras 13.51-52 KJV
51 Then said I, O Lord that bearest rule, shew me this: Wherefore have I seen the man coming up from the midst of the sea? 52 And he said unto me, Like as thou canst neither seek out nor know the things that are in the deep of the sea: even so can no man upon earth see my Son, or those that be with him, but in the day time.

In St. Justin Martyr’s dialogue with the Jewish philosopher Trypho, apparently Trypho likewise believed Messiah was hidden.

“But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all.” Dialogue with Trypho 8.4

But like I said, not every Pharisee believed it. Christians today have differing theories about the End Times; so did Pharisees. Those who believed in a secret Messiah, figured knowing Jesus was from anywhere meant he couldn’t be Messiah. The rest probably didn’t know Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth. Not that either group wanted Jesus to be Messiah: He cured people on Sabbath, y’know.

“You ‘know’ me, but not the one who sent me.”

This is why, as John describes it, even those who believed Jesus weren’t entirely sure he’s Messiah. Because if you’re comparing what Jesus did to what Messiah might potentially do, clearly you still think they’re two different people.

But what prodded them to try to have Jesus arrested wasn’t just his statement which implied God sent him; anybody could claim God sent ’em. It was the more provocative statement they didn’t know his Sender.

John 7.28-31 KWL
28 So Jesus proclaimed as he taught in temple, saying, “You know me, and you know where I’m from?”
I don’t come on my own, but you don’t know the one who truly sent me.
29 I know him, because I’m from him. That one sent me.”
30 So the Judeans sought to arrest Jesus
and no one put hands on him, because his hour hadn’t yet come.
31 Many in the crowd believed in Jesus and said,
“When Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this one has done?”

Now these folks weren’t dumb: They knew by “the one who truly sent me” Jesus meant God, and if they didn’t know his Sender, they didn’t know God. It was an insult to their religion: The Jerusalemites considered themselves God’s chosen people, more so than any other people-group, more so than even Galileans like Jesus. (His freaking temple took up a tenth of their city!) Yet here’s this guy from a half-pagan province telling them he knew God and they didn’t. And of course Jesus is totally right: He knows God and they didn’t. As proven by the fact they didn’t act like God’s kids; they acted like little girls who’d just been told they aren’t princesses, whereupon they threw a little tantrum and declared they are so princesses. Well-trained princesses don’t act like that, but you try telling them so.

The Jerusalemites definitely considered this a slam against them, and it’s why they wanted him dragged out of there. (Stoning optional.) But “no one put hands on him, because his hour hadn’t yet come.” This statement doesn’t explain, to our satisfaction, exactly why no one put hands on him. Determinists claim it’s because God foreordained no one would touch Jesus till it was time for him to die, so every circumstance in existence prevented them from arresting them. And they might’ve tried really hard: Pressured the temple guards to get Jesus out of there, tried to grab him personally and were blocked by some of Jesus’s bigger kids, tried to throw rocks but angels deflected them… whatever their imaginations could come up with. More likely Jesus had more supporters than critics, and his opponents shrewdly gauged the situation and decided this wasn’t a good time to get physically rough. Maybe later, when Jesus’s fans were asleep.

Can’t follow Jesus where he’s going.

The Judean crowds might not’ve had the authority to arrest Jesus, but their nobles—the head priests (mostly Sadducee) and the heads of the wealthier Jerusalem families (mostly Pharisee), which made up their συνέδριον/synédrion, “senate”—did. They sent their ὑπηρέτας/ypirétas, “underlings” (KJV “officers”) to go get him.

John 7.32 KWL
Pharisees overheard the crowd grumbling these things about Jesus,
and the head priests and Pharisees sent their underlings so they might pressure Jesus.

I translated this verse literally. Most bibles follow the KJV’s “to take him,” which becomes the ESV’s “to arrest him.” But while πιάσωσιν/piádsosin can mean “they might arrest,” it properly means “they might squeeze,”—in other words, put pressure on Jesus to be quiet. The crowds were speculating Jesus might be Messiah, the king of Israel, and since the Romans considered Tiberius Caesar to be the proper king of Israel, the senate worried this sort of talk might provoke a Roman crackdown. As it had before; (as it would later. Sukkot was going on, after all: Any small public debate could escalate into a riot, Mk 14.1-2 so likely all the senate did was send their subordinates to tell Jesus to shut up.

Instead they got an answer from him they couldn’t understand: “I’m going away, and you can’t follow me.”

John 7.33-36 KWL
33 So Jesus said, “I still have a little time with you; then I’m going away to my Sender.
34 You’ll seek me and not find me. You can’t go where where I am.”
35 So the Judeans said to the underlings, “Where is this man about to go, where we can’t find him?
He’s not about to go to the Diaspora, to the Greeks, and teach the Greeks, is he?
36 What’s this word he said?—‘You’ll seek me and not find me,’ and ‘You can’t go where I am’?”

Historically Christians have interpreted Jesus to be predicting his rapture: After his earthly mission was complete—after he died for our sins and rose from the dead—he’d return to heaven, return to the glory he abandoned when he became human, sit at the right hand of the Father—and now they can’t find him.

Here’s why this interpretation’s a problem: They can so find him. Anybody can, if they repent and honestly seek him. He wants to save them, y’know. So more recently, Christians have invented a new interpretation: When Jesus died, instead of going to the afterlife like everyone else—like he said he would, Lk 23.43 and like the creeds say he did—he bypassed that and went straight to heaven, and that’s where the Judeans couldn’t go. And again we have a problematic interpretation… one that’s probably heresy, ’cause it claims Jesus didn’t have an authentic human experience of death. Jesus did go to heaven, but he authentically tasted death first.

Me, I figure Jesus refers to coming back from death. Unlike Jesus, the rest of us don’t get resurrected till his second coming and Judgment Day. We might be able to follow him to paradise, but we can’t follow him beyond paradise; not just yet.

Knowing Pharisees and Sadducees, they were more likely to believe they were going to paradise, but Jesus surely wasn’t. They imagined Jesus worked through devilish power, Mk 3.22 so he was probably off to the hot place. Jesus’s statement went right over the senators’ heads, and they assumed he was speaking of someplace else; someplace earthly. Someplace they wouldn’t wanna go.

See, Judean traditions forbade both Sadducees and Pharisees from interacting with gentiles. Ac 10.28 It was all about ritual cleanliness. Priests had to stay ritually clean so they could work in temple, and Pharisees had to stay ritually clean so they could go to synagogue. (Which, they taught, was just as good as temple.) So none of them could touch unclean things or people, and of course this includes gentiles, who didn’t practice ritual cleanliness whatsoever.

Since we Christians seldom study the Law, we don’t realize this was a custom, not a command. And why we misinterpret Simon Peter’s statement that it’s inappropriate to visit gentiles Ac 10.28 as the KJV’s “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That’s a bad translation of ἀθέμιτόν/athémitón, “inappropriate.” The whole point of Peter’s vision Ac 10.10-16 was the Holy Spirit never declared gentiles unclean, never forbade intercultural contact; he only banned ’em from inner-temple worship. Any Israeli could interact with a gentile. But to devout priests and Pharisees, only sinners did such a thing.

So they couldn’t fathom Jesus getting resurrected, ascending to heaven, sitting at the Father’s side… but they could totally imagine him going to the διασπορὰν/diasporán, the Jewish settlements scattered round the known world, and interacting with gentiles. Something they’d never do; same as Christians who’d never interact with pagans lest these pagans lead them astray. The Judeans’ prejudices blinded them, so Jesus’s message confused them.

Amusingly enough, they weren’t wrong. Jesus did eventually go teach the gentiles, through his apostles. It’s all part of his plan. But first things first.

Christ Almighty!