28 July 2014

John 8:12-20

“Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’” (v. 19)


It is often embarrassing to overhear an argument: raised voices, targeted and barbed words; flashes of anger and passionate gesticulations; the need to be right; to prove the other wrong. The arguments of other's can also be utterly compelling - it's the script of most soap operas. Conflict becomes a way of life, and even a means of entertainment.

The reader's emotional response to conflict is important, as this passage is filled with the ingredients for an escalating argument. What starts as a dismissive challenge to Jesus' identity - akin to 'who do you think you are anyway' soon becomes a theological discussion and discovery.

Jesus is speaking after the Feast of Tabernacles (a major festival of thanksgiving for harvest, which also recalls the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the subsequent years in the wilderness and God's provision for the people) and is stood in the temple courts. One feature of the festival was the powerful symbol of Jerusalem illuminated by candles. This means that when Jesus speaks about being the "light of the world" (v. 12) he is not merely making a metaphorical point about bringing transformation to a context. It was also a visceral image, not just for the Jews in Jerusalem on pilgrimage, but for the whole world.

It's perhaps no wonder that this started an argument. Jesus was invoking the self-description of God - I am (Exodus 3:13). He was stood in the temple courts, the site of worship and pilgrimage, at a festival celebrating God's provision to God;s own people, surrounded by candlelight and the recitation of Psalms and 'Hosannas' - and yet those standing around knew that Jesus was a carpenter's boy from an insignificant village.

Judging by human standards, when the Pharisees looked at Jesus, they saw a man from Nazareth (Matthew 2:23), of lowly birth and vague immigration status due to his exile to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). They do not know him, and he does not have the right to speak to them - and certainly not to invoke the name of YHWH in the temple courts.

Judging by the divine standards that Jesus invokes, however, means that Jesus is disclosing his identity as the Son of God. The question "where is your father?" is meant literally - the Pharisees knew that the answer was Joseph the carpenter. However, Jesus dismisses their claims and points to a higher authority: his father is the "one who sent me" (v. 16).

The conflict is set - a classic case of mistaken identity. But who's mistaken?

To Ponder

  • Imagine you are Jesus' parent, either Mary or Joseph, listening to this conversation. How might you feel?
  • For the Pharisees, one's identity was about a status and place of belonging in society. Where are the places and people to whom you belong?
  • How helpful is debate as a means of developing understanding? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Joanne Cox-Darling

Joanne Cox-Darling is a Methodist presbyter currently serving in the Wolverhampton Circuit, where most recently she participated in a harvest festival in a farmyard, surrounded by a 'small' dairy herd of nearly 200 cattle. Joanne is the chair of the Christian Enquiries Agency ( - described by the Archbishop of York as the "possibly the easiest form of evangelism you will ever do".