It is a very twenty-first century idea, but I often wish I could hear the soundtrack that goes with the biblical narrative. For me there is nothing that conveys the feeling of a moment more than music. Sometimes I stumble upon the realization that, though not written in the powerful, sweeping narrative that evokes my emotions like the greatest of novels, the story is bursting at the seams with the desperate overplus of drama, tension, and movement that makes it more than just information. This epiphany makes me wish the music had been playing so that I wouldn’t have missed it. Maybe some day, when we’re watching the playback.
A minor key is dominating in John’s narrative. It is a heart-wrenching tone as the many abandon Jesus in the face of his total faithfulness. A refrain of triumph accompanies the main theme as the few remain. The face of his ministry has changed, though. Some now seek to undo him. The journey to the confrontation with death has begun, and there is not a step taken that leads another way. Jesus’s own brothers sarcastically, bitingly provoke him in their doubt—I imagine that this must have cut deeply. Two of the the three times that Jesus “cries out” in John occur in ch. 7, possibly indicating of his emotional state.
Yet, in this moment of great turmoil we see how complete is Jesus’ purity of heart. He walks into the viper’s nest, knowingly, and when the tide quickly changes he refuses to be seduced by the flattering response to his unbelievable insight. Their grumbling and their praise, their hatred and their admiration, will not determine his course. For he will not seek his own glory, not to avoid criticism, not to seek the shelter of praise. It is striking that what Jesus wanted was for his listeners to decide whether his teaching was from God. Everything else follows—one way or another. And the simple—overwhelmingly simple—criterion is whether God receives the glory. We find even now that there is no truer test.
Riding the exultant swell of beauty that accompanies so pure and simple an idea, Jesus takes the offensive, knowing that the authorities desire to kill him fundamentally on the basis of the ongoing Sabbath conflict. He delivers another stunning combination. “If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath in order not to break the law of Moses,” he says, “how can you be angry with me for making an entire man well on the Sabbath.” This powerful commentary on the purpose of both the Sabbath and circumcision is followed by a sharp rebuke: “Do not judge superficially but rather judge rightly.”
The increasingly mixed response among the festival crowds prompts the authorities to send out their lackeys with the intention of taking him into custody. By the time Jesus has finished speaking, however, they were unwilling to carry out their orders. His foes rage at their own impotence and resort to positional authority: “Has any one of the authorities or Pharisees believed in him?” As soon as the question is asked, Nicodemus does speak up in favor of more judicious action, forcing the other Pharisees to bald prejudice. It is evident that things are not getting better.
I find a great deal of comfort in Jesus’s emphasis in these passages. As his mission becomes more turbulent, his message focuses more and more on being sent and therefore more and more on the one who sends. I have not come on my own.