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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: No Straight Answers

February 10, 2014

           Five articles ago in this series, I promised that I would take the odd avoidance of Messianic prophecy in the gospel of John and bring it around to the sort of thing often called “application”1.  Here it is.

In John it is implicit and not explicit signs that mark who Jesus is and how he fits into the story of God’s people.  The explicit signs – the prophecy – are largely avoided.  Jesus evades direct questions about these issues and instead points to the signs, the miracles, as proof of who he is.  These signs are not explicit (generally) though – they are rarely things that the Messiah was unarguably supposed to do.  Instead, they are things that are in the character of God.  Some of the most crucial points for this idea come about when Jesus does a sign that also breaks a portion of oral Torah (or an interpretation of the Torah)2.  Here an implicit sign (the sign) is contradicted by an explicit sign (Jesus acting like a Torah-violator).

Two of these incidents serve our purposes well.  Both involve Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath.  In the first, John 5, Jesus heals a paralyzed man.  In the second, John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind.  In both cases people get angry with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath.  In both cases Jesus argues the same way: by claiming that God is working on the Sabbath and that he (Jesus) is correct in doing God’s works during the Sabbath because of this.  Elsewhere, in John 7:21-24 this case is made with an explicit link to the Law: the Law itself allows the Sabbath to be “broken” to make sure that an Israelite male is circumcised at the correct time.  Therefore, the Sabbath is not forever inviolate but must “move aside” for God’s purposes.  Specifically, Jesus asks why healing a whole person (instead of merely circumcising someone) should be prohibited.  He then tells the crowd to judge correctly.

A similar tack is taken by the man born blind in John 9.  (The paralytic of John 5 is not nearly as sympathetic a character and rats Jesus out to the Pharisees immediately.)  The Pharisees begin by asserting that they know Jesus is a sinner.  The man born blind counters (after several lines of dialogue) by asserting the opposite: the starting point must be that Jesus is doing God’s work because God obviously listens to him.  The Pharisees “win” the confrontation by expelling the man from their company (and probably the synagogue as well but the wording is somewhat unclear). However, this method of winning shows that they have no good response.

So why does this matter?  None of this is exactly new material after five articles on Messianic prophecy.  I think it matters because we’d rather have Jesus be up front.  We’d rather have Jesus walk through some check lists.  We sometimes feel that Jesus in John is being mean making people do all this thinking about answers when he could just give them the answers they wanted.  I believe that it would be 1) impossible for Jesus to give these answers in a useful way and 2) that wishing that he would shows an incorrect focus for faith.

Jesus cannot give a straight answer to the questions he is being asked because the questions come pre-loaded.  Much like the classic trap question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” the questions Jesus is asked cannot be answered in a straight-forward manner without agreeing to something that is incorrect.  “Are you the Messiah?” for Jesus’ listeners means a whole number of things, only a few of which are true (that Jesus is God’s anointed, the heir of David, who brings cleansing and salvation to Israel).  Many Messianic expectations are wrong and for Jesus to answer that he was the Messiah would be to answer in the affirmative to such statements as, “Do you intend to overthrow the Romans?  Will you conquer most/all of the known world?  Will you reign as King in Zion?”

The tricky thing is that Jesus will do all of these things too, but in a different way – he will reign as king, he will conquer the world, Rome will bow its knee to him, but none of these will come about in a this-worldly swords-stuck-in-bodies manner.  The only way to get people to the point where they need to be is to get them to rethink their assumptions.  It is impossible to say, “I am the Messiah but I will not do X, Y, and Z.”  That amounts to saying, “I’m the Messiah but I’m not.”  Which part do you believe?  However, when someone (like the man born blind) works out that whoever this man is he is sent by God in great power then Jesus can say, “I am the Messiah” (which he does) and because this person has first convinced himself that Jesus has proper Messianic credentials he believes it even when it leads to unexpected places.  The disciples, too, have this experience.  They cannot deny that Jesus is the Messiah (he does God’s works all over the place) but he’s not the Messiah they expected.  Instead, they find themselves having to bend the idea of Messiah to make it fit around Jesus3.  However, if Jesus merely said, ‘I’m the Messiah,” to people who were not convinced of this or something like this then there would not be enough strength of belief to bend the idea of Messiah to fit Jesus.  It’s only those who have a problem that can only be fixed by deciding or realizing that Jesus is the Messiah who have the intellectual leverage to reshape their ideas about what it is to be a Messiah.  Jesus, then, is trying to create this problem by doing signs that demand that people figure out who he is while simultaneously refusing to directly answer that question.

This whole issue also shows an incorrect focus for faith.  Why didn’t Jesus just give them the facts so they could go about the important stuff like obedience and belief?  Why did Jesus make them work out what God was doing?  I believe that part of John, one of the really critical parts of John for “application” is just this: Jesus expects us to pay attention and follow along.  Jesus wants us to ask what God is doing and stay engaged.  The people who come by Jesus in John to see off-handedly whether he is the Messiah leave with no good answers.  The people who want to see God’s will done are surprised but find the Messiah.

Christians of all flavors have expectations about what God will do.  So did the first-century Jews who Jesus walked amongst.  Those that rejected him had some of the strongest expectations.  The application of John seems very simple intellectually but very hard in practice: sometimes God will do what you don’t expect.  Pay attention to His will, to His character, to His demonstrated ways or you may find yourself on the wrong end of things.  Sometimes what you are sure of will get bent in half by God’s power.  Be ready, watch for God’s action, and know what that looks like.

[1] The primary problem with this term is that it suggests either that large parts of the Bible cannot be applied to anyone’s life or that the Bible should be read largely to process it down to small chunks called “application”.

[2] I use the term “oral Torah” here to refer to the large body of teaching about how to apply Torah to one’s first-century life.  Much of this was widely agreed upon but some points were contended.

[3] I believe that this is also how Paul gets his theology.

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