14 April 2011

John 8:51-59

"Whoever keeps my word will never see death." (v. 51)


Chapter 8 of John's Gospel does not provide easy reading for Christians in the context of dialogue with Jews.

Clearly the discussion has been conducted in a place of worship and prayer (see verse 59). The discussion though has been quite heated, even to the point where it threatened to get violent and some people "picked up stones to throw" (verse 59) at Jesus. 

The controversy begins with twice repeated words of Jesus: "Whoever keeps my word will never see death." (verses 51, 52)

But how can this be? Abraham died. The prophets died.

Jesus' words are not understood partly because no explanation is given of what is meant by the phrase "never taste death", although eternity is hinted at when Jesus states "before Abraham was, I am" (verse 58). The term "I am" is John's way of identifying Jesus with the eternal word made flesh.

So who did Jesus claim to be?

Jesus pointed only to God. He identifies God with the one the Jews claim as "our God" (verse 54). Jesus does not seek to glorify himself. God glorifies him.

The turning point in the controversy is reached when the language gets provocative. (No one likes to be called a "liar" (verse 55).)

Some people want to stone Jesus. (Did they pick up the stones others had brought earlier to stone a woman? (see John 8:1-11)) But as he did when some critics wanted to push him over a cliff, Jesus slipped away quietly (Luke 4:30).

The earliest Christian communities will have recalled times when Jesus calmly taught and preached in Synagogues in spite of strong opposition. They would have found meaning and strength in such stories for their own experiences of open hostility.

Jesus himself avoided violence and did not use violence in such situations.

To Ponder

In your experience, how do preachers cope with strong criticism?

How do you cope when your faith comes under criticism?

In what sense do those who "keep my word never see death"?

Bible notes author

The Revd Inderjit Bhogal

Inderjit Bhogal is a Methodist minister with a wide experience at local, regional, national and international levels. He is a former president of the British Methodist Conference and is currently working as leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland.