Continuing Theological Deviance
John 6:35 contains the first “I am” statement in John concluded with a predicate nominative. The grammar of such constructions has occupied Greek scholars for centuries. However, the real import here is, as Lewis points out, the incarnational theology of the Gospel. “I am” is the real name of the God of Israel, and Jesus identifies fully as that “I am.” The predicate nominatives expand and interpret the incarnational meaning of that name.
Up until this point, Jesus has been somewhat oblique in his identification with the manna from heaven. “Jesus identifies himself as the bread of the Scripture, the manna God is currently giving to the people,” Hylen (2013) writes. “Manna,” she continues, “is not a substance of days gone by, but something available now in Jesus” (page 343).
The manna image describes survival in the wilderness, sustained by God, Hylen notes. Receiving and benefitting from the manna required obedience to God’s command, especially when it came to gathering only as much as was needed for the day (and twice as much on the day before the Sabbath). So, Hylen (2013) notes, by Jesus’ time, manna had become a metaphor for God’s word or God’s wisdom (page 345).
“Manna is a theologically rich concept that brings with it notions of life, death, and following in God’s ways,” Hylen (2013) writes. “John uses all of these concepts to understand Jesus,” she continues. “Those who believe have a different sort of life than the life of mere survival and existence without faith. As manna,” Hylen concludes, “Jesus makes available a life that goes beyond sustenance” (page 345).
Lewis notes that verses 36-40 are necessary if we are to understand both the interpretation Jesus offers and the critique from the “Jews” that he receives. “Incorporating these verses removed from the lectionary provides the necessary background for what is to be the subject matter of belief in this moment,” Lewis argues. “To believe in Jesus here is to make the connection that he is both the bread God provides that gives life and also the source of the bread” (page 90).
The one who “comes” to Jesus, he proclaims, shall under no circumstances ever hunger. As Wallace points out, the Greek here “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek” (page 468). This construction “rules out even the idea as being a possibility” that one could come to Jesus and still be hungering. What is negated here is the possibility that one could come, or continue to come, to Jesus and somehow lose the gift of the abundant life.
In addition, Jesus notes that whoever is believing in him will never under any circumstances ever thirst. The same Greek negative is used in that second clause. We have once again the present participle form of the Greek for “to believe.” Wallace reminds us that this syntax emphasizes the ongoing, continual nature of saving trust in Jesus. It is probably best to translate the phrase as something like “the one who keeps on believing.”
By extension, that same linguistic logic can and should be applied to the verb for “to come,” also a present participle. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus says. “The one who keeps on coming to me will never, ever hunger, and the one who keeps on trusting in me will never, ever be thirsty.” Clearly, the continuing nature of coming and trusting is directly related to the continuing nature of being fed and watered.
We American Christians live in an ecclesial culture strongly shaped by the history of Evangelical piety. A part of that piety is the “conversion story,” where the believer narrates a dramatic, one-time, unrepeatable “coming to Jesus.” I think that one of the unfortunate side effects of that cultural reality is that we form people to think that “once is enough.” Therefore, we tend to make ongoing participation in a faith community optional or even superfluous. That tendency appears to run counter to the assertions about coming and trusting that are made here and elsewhere in John.
I have learned in my own faith journey that I cannot rely only on that moment of “conversion” (now over forty years ago). Just as we may need regular booster shots for our immune systems, so we need regular and ongoing “boosters” in our relationship with Jesus through his body, the Church. In addition, I have (I hope) experienced some growth in faith, hope, and love since then. Continuing to come and to trust in Jesus looks different and requires support as I grow, as I experience different life situations, as I become in many ways a different person.
Jesus amplifies this promise of ongoing relationship in verse 37. “Every one the Father is giving to me will come to me,” he declares, “and I will never, ever cast out the one who is coming to me.” Lewis walks us toward this verse.
“To believe in Jesus as the Bread of Life is primarily to acknowledge the relationship between God and God’s people,” she writes. “The bread from heaven is provided for the Israelites whom God loves and will not abandon. In the wilderness, God is present,” she continues, “providing for God’s people, and God’s people rely on God for that provision. To believe in Jesus as the bread from heaven is to recognize that relationship,” she argues. “It is to believe in the relationship and what that relationship means, both then and now” (page 90).
The verb in verse 37 that the NRSV translates as “to drive away” is the Greek verb whose most basic meaning is “to throw out.” Lewis notes that this verb prepares us for the fate of the man born blind in John 9:35. He is cast out of the synagogue, perhaps in the same way that members of the Johannine community are being cast out of their synagogues for continuing to come to Jesus and continuing to trust in him as the Messiah.
Members of the community may be thrown out on their ears. But Jesus will never throw them out. “Eternal life is the certainty of provision, the source of what sustains life that you know and trust witnessed in the feeding of the five thousand. At the same time,” Lewis writes, “it is this same promise carried into the future that Jesus prepares for all believers” (page 91).
Now, was anyone actually booted out of their synagogue for following Jesus during his earthly ministry? Most scholars regard that as unlikely. Instead, this concern reflects some measure of the reality of life for the Johannine community some sixty to eighty years after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The case for expulsion from the synagogue is most forcefully made by Martyn in his papers and commentary on the Gospel of John. That case has been critiqued, defended, rejected, amended, and embraced over the last forty years. Martyn argued that the concerns of John’s gospel reflect the 80’s and 90’s of the Common Era, when Jewish communities revised their list of condemnations to include Jesus followers. He looks in particular at the sign, dialogue, and discourse in John 9 to make his case.
Kloppenborg summarizes the arguments against Martyn’s position and its impact on the theology and themes of the Gospel of John (page 5). Nonetheless, as Kloppenborg observes, the writer of John’s gospel must have been pointing to something real in the life of his community. He argues that the Jewish Christians in the Johannine community may have engaged in practices that distanced them from the more “orthodox” and mainstream community of which they had been a part.
Those practices may have included deviant Sabbath practices, seeing Jesus as the replacement for the Temple (thus rendering the Jerusalem Temple and its practices unnecessary), and tangible acts of love toward all rather than to insiders. Central to this final practice might have been the ritual of foot-washing, memorialized in John 13. As these practices solidified and were criticized, Kloppenborg argues, the theology of John’s gospel developed to support and underwrite these “deviant” practices.
Kloppenborg’s position is that these practices identified the Jewish Jesus followers as different and then deviant. The Johannine Christians gathered in their affinity groups and in a real sense ultimately excluded themselves from the larger community. “The resolve of the Johannine clique to persevere in their deviance,” he concludes, “turned exclusion into expulsion” (page 14).
This backstory gives particular resonance and even poignancy to verses 37 and 38. “Every one whom the Father gives to me, to me shall come, and the one who comes to me I will never, ever cast out, because I have come down from heaven not in order to my will but rather the will of the One who sent me” (my translation). We may get the boot from the Establishment for engaging in peculiar practices (like loving everyone), but Jesus will never give us the boot.
In fact, it is the Father’s will that not one of us deviants should be lost. This is the real definition of the Resurrection. Nothing, and no one good, will be lost. We can take a chance on being excluded for pursuing the will of the Father because anyone who seeks the Truth will be kept, fed, and nurtured by Jesus.
An explosive and potentially dangerous line of thinking, unless we really are following the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus’ debating partners get that immediately, as we will see in the following verses.
References and Resources
Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289.
Hylen, Susan E. “Seeing Jesus John’s Way: Manna from Heaven.” Word and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pages 341-348. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/33-4_Bread/33-4_Hylen.pdf.
Kloppenborg, J.S., 2011, ‘Disaffiliation in associations and the ἀποσυναγωγός of John’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #962, 16 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v67i1.962.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.