If church fails, who wins? If the church is gone completely, who benefits? These questions draw a Christian into consideration of who might oppose the spread of the Gospel of Jesus in the world. Who are the opponents of Jesus and His followers, and how do these opponents operate?
John 7:1 says, “Jesus did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” Two thousand years of violent anti-Semitism force Bible readers to be very careful with passages like this one. When we read the “the Jews,” we have to understand what we are reading. Where the author of John, (the fourth evangelist) says, “the Jews,” he’s referring to the temple leaders in Jerusalem circa 28 C.E. Jesus was Jewish. All his original disciples were Jewish. Most of the people in the crowds were Jews. And so too were those who opposed him. Stating these facts helps clarify what is said (and is not said) in the fourth Gospel when it says “the Jews.”
The leaders wanted to kill Jesus. I believe the fourth evangelist is accurate in reporting this. I think, and history bears this out, there was in fact a movement to kill Jesus and it ultimately succeeded. However, this account from John benefits Christians today in how the story of Jesus being pursued by the authorities is told. The method of telling the story, what is highlighted and how it is framed, reveals much for us as we follow Jesus in our lives in the 21st century world.
Many Bible readers and scholars believe John was finally compiled by the Christian community in the city of Ephesus around 90AD. The church or grouping of churches possibly traces their roots back to the Apostle John. Whether what is in John’s Gospel or in the three Johanine epistles or in Revelation was originally written by the apostle cannot be determined. But it is likely that the same community produced in final form all five of these New Testament books, and it is possible that the writers of these books received much of their material from those who knew the apostle personally.
What is more pressing for our reading of how the gospel renders the story of Jesus is the situation in Ephesus in the last decade of the first century. If the composition of the Johanine literature coincides with the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96), then these Biblical writings were brought together by a church under severe persecution. Rome under Domitian did in fact persecute, exile, and execute people for worshiping Jesus and failing to pronounce Domitian as Lord.
Where the fourth evangelist writes “the Jews” (for example John 7:1, 11, 13), he is referring to Jewish leaders who were out to get Jesus in 28AD. But perhaps, he was also referring to Jews in 90AD who believed in Jesus but insisted that all who become Christians adhere to kosher food laws, undergo circumcision, and observe Sabbath. These Judaizers (see Act 15:1; Galatians 3) did not accept Jesus as perfect fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and they did not accept his death and resurrection as sufficient for righteousness. They believed Jesus was Messiah and they believed he rose from death, but they corrupted the Gospel by imposing restrictions that the early church (see Act 10-11, 15) had removed.
The tension John cites between Jesus and Jewish authorities in Jesus’ time also existed between Jesus’ church and Jewish missionaries in the 90’s. John is using a circumstance from Jesus’ ministry to speak to his own situation.
A second correspondence from roughly 28 AD to roughly 90 AD is a phrase also in John 7:1, “[they] were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” No doubt, Jesus’ life was threatened. Again, history shows that threat became reality in the crucifixion. How much influence the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day had can be debated. What no one refutes is that Jesus died on a Roman cross at the decision of Roman governor Pilate. The threat of death Jesus faced also became reality for Jesus’ followers shortly after Pentecost (Acts 11:58; 12:2), and again at the end of the century where believers died at the hand of Domitian’s government.
I believe in reading John 7, the members of the Johanine churches in Ephesus in 90AD would clearly see their own life experience and faith experience. The Ephesians church was probably a blend of Jewish, Greek, Asian, and Roman believers. They probably experienced much conflict with some Jews who insisted on keeping Levitical ritual. These Easter Christians resisted the call back to Sabbath observance, and their unwillingness to submit to Judaism let to a divide between them and the Jewish missionaries.
Furthermore, in reading John 7, they would see their own story in seeing Jesus’ careful avoidance of the murderous intentions of the authorities. Jesus had to attend the Festival of booths covertly (John 7:10). Surely, 1st century Ephesian Christians had to also be secretive to avoid situations that would force them to either renounce Christ or die a martyr’s death. At the same time, they, like Jesus had to engage the cultural world around them in order to carry on daily life and also in order to be a witness that nonbelievers might come to know Jesus and believe and have life in his name (John 20:31).
A third point of correspondence from 28AD to 90 was Jesus twice repeated phrase, “my time has not yet come” (7:6, 8). This sentiment is also heard from Jesus when his mother asks him to intervene in Cana (2:4). The idea in the fourth Gospel is that Jesus is always in control of things. When he says “my time has not yet come,” he means his time of crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark presents a Jesus with limited knowledge (13:32). He didn’t know the time of the final judgment. In John’s Gospel, the narrator and Jesus both seem to have unlimited knowledge. Jesus knows what’s coming before it comes in the fourth gospel. And the narrator is looking back on events and thus has the advantage of hindsight.
It is important to see the effect this would have on the original Johanine readers. If those communities were truly persecuted to the point of death, they need to trust an omnipotent God who, in the big picture, had everything in control. They needed to know that Jesus was more powerful than Domitian even if Jesus submitted, for God’s purposes, to a Roman cross. In John, Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father" (10:17-18). The Ephesians Christians could die martyrs’ deaths because their Lord Jesus had done so also. But, in the resurrection, he showed, paradoxically that his nonresistance actually led to victory over death, not submission to it. Subsequently, believers in 90AD could hold their ground in their confession, “Jesus is Lord,” and they knew their Lord would provide them with resurrection and eternal life.
The other Gospel writers probably believed in Jesus’ knowledge, authority, and power just as the fourth evangelist did. But, it is emphasized more in John because it spoke directly to the needs of the audience for which it was written. Ephesian Christians butted heads with Jews, were persecuted by the authorities, and were waiting for Jesus to act. They knew in the Gospel “Jesus’ time,” referred to his crucifixion and resurrection. But from their vantage point, 60-70 years after those events, they also waited for “his time,” the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. It had not yet come, though they longed for it, because it was not yet the appropriate time.
Thus we see why the fourth evangelist used three phrases in John chapter 7 the way he used them. “The Jews” (7:1), “looking for an opportunity to kill him” (7:1), and “My time has not yet come” (7:6, 8) each show how the Gospel narrative continued to speak in the life of the late first century church.
How doe the countercultural stance of Jesus speak in the 21st century church?
(1) Churches must be aware of the enemy. Sin is the ultimate enemy and sin confronts the church when forces in the world act as obstacles to the church’s work of sharing Jesus. Forces in the world can include oppressive governments that restrict evangelistic activity; dominant competing religions that rhetorically attack Christians and try to win nonbelievers to other faiths; ideologies like consumerism, relativism, and individualism that are antithetical to evangelical Christian faith; and, pseudo-Christians who pose as believers but use a Christian façade to advance an un-Christian agenda (like Westboro Baptist Church). The enemy is not “the Jews.” The enemy is the group with power that opposes the advance of Jesus and His Kingdom.
(2) Church must be away of how the enemy kills the church. Jesus was threatened by leaders in Jerusalem who wanted him dead for their own political reasons. He was also tempted by his own brothers who like Satan (Matthew 4:5ff) wanted him to show what he could do at the temple. The Ephesian Church of 90AD was tempted to compromise their allegiance to Jesus by proclaiming that “Domitian is Lord.” Many died because they refused such a compromise. Today, at least in America, the church is killed by relativism and apathy. Relativism suggests that Jesus is one among many gods and that the Christian faith is one expression of religious belief that is no more or no less valid than any other. Apathy is the tendency of Christians to think the call of Christ isn’t a very urgent call. We confess Jesus and go to heaven when we die and between now and then, how we live is inconsequential. That’s apathy and the exact opposite of how the Gospel calls believers to live.
(3) The church of Jesus in Christ in 2011 must recognize the unique call of living between the times – in a time of expectation. Yes, Jesus, died and rose again. Yes, he is coming back to call all who believe in Him into His eternal Heaven to live in the New Earth where the home of God is with people (Revelation 21:1-3). Yes, that day is coming. But we do not know when, and so we accept what the Ephesians believers had to accept nearly 2000 years ago. His time has not yet come. While we wait, we worship the Lord and we share his love and his message of salvation with a lost and hurting world just as our predecessors in the faith have done.
In conclusion, I see the context in which the fourth gospel was compiled as a community of bold faith that challenges 21st century American middle class Christians. They were able to live in the midst of persecution and to produce John, 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, and Revelation because those early believers relied on Jesus. We cannot rely on the security we enjoy as Americans. It ensures that we can vote, speak freely, and live in freedom. But our status as U.S. citizens is no protection against sin and no guarantee of eternal life. Nor is being an American in anyway the same thing as being in partnership with the Lord Jesus. We have to look to Him for our security, our calling, and our purpose in life. And we have to live lives that follow wherever He leads as well as living on His time table.
Doing this may at times set us at odds with the culture around us. If we find that we are doing our best to follow Jesus, and the harder we try, the more we are opposed, then it probably means we are doing something right. The affirmation of the surrounding culture is not our goal. We want to follow Jesus in all things.