Today’s reading is John 7:32-52 (NIV):
Officers Sent to Arrest Jesus.
32 The Pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him.
33 Jesus said, “I am with you for only a short time, and then I am going to the one who sent me. 34 You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.”
35 The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? 36 What did he mean when he said, ‘You will look for me, but you will not find me,’ and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?”
Rivers of Living Water.
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
Discussion about the Origins of the Messiah.
40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”
Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.
45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”
46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.
47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
I’m the type of person who wants clear-cut answers. I love short op-eds, statistics, and arguments that reach a logical conclusion (by “logical conclusion” I typically mean my conclusion). So, this story is a gut-check for me and for a community that seems at times like a cult of certainty rather than the Church of Christ.
The People with the Answers knew that the Messiah couldn’t come from Galilee. The Scriptures said so. All of the church leaders knew it. The Davidic Messiah would come from Bethlehem and the Mosaic Prophet would come from somewhere, but definitely not Galilee. No one of consequence believed in him (though Nicodemus sure was acting funny). Only the uninformed mob believed in Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. The temple guards really should have known better.
It didn’t matter if Jesus turned water into wine, healed the lame, fed the masses, and spoke powerful words coated in compassion and wisdom. He was from Galilee and everyone who was anyone knew they didn’t make Messiahs there.
Those of us following along in John’s Gospel know better. Jesus is the Word become flesh, the promised Messiah, the Servant-King.
For the informed listener at the time John was written or anyone who has at least seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special since, the mistake is almost funny. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. John almost certainly intended the irony, but that’s not even the main point. He never tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Instead, the first chapter of John’s Gospel takes us, in short order, from the cosmic scale of Jesus’ ministry to Nathanael’s incredulous question, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
The mistake John highlights here isn’t forgetting to cross your theological t’s and dot your hermeneutical i’s but rather losing the sound of God’s voice in the process of doing just that.
The temple guards—much lower in the social pecking order than the Pharisees who sent them to arrest Jesus—saw a much bigger truth. They didn’t look for doctrinal minutiae to verify messianic bona fides. Rather, they listened to Jesus. They heard something different and amazing from the teacher from Nazareth. The words he spoke convinced them to buck the order to arrest him and endure the mocking of the People with the Answers.
John draws a clear contrast between the self-assured legalism of the Pharisees and the unassuming attentiveness of the temple guards. This is a call to theological humility. It tells us that faith should be sought, not solved. It calls us to recognize that the words of a strange man from Galilee might hold wonderful truths for the religious elite in Jerusalem. It prepares us to be the People of the Cross, not the People with the Answers.
As the Church, we too often lead with answers instead of open ears. We sell supposedly airtight apologetics instead of honest curiosity. We’re sure we know where the truth can and can’t come from, and we have no need for the voices from across the cultural and theological tracks. Too often we paint the Pharisees as overconfident fools but ourselves as noble defenders of truth.
We don’t have to figure everything out. We don’t need to offer all of the answers when we can share faith, hope, and love instead.
Let us follow the example of the temple guards and humbly listen to the words of Jesus. Let us read, repeat, and reenact the powerful words of the Savior from Nazareth with ears and arms open to all who seek alongside us.
Austin Steelman graduated from Harvard Law School in 2016.