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“The World” as Character in the Gospel of John (Part Four)

August 5, 2011

I continue this series of posts with the reminder that I am approaching the Fourth Gospel from a consciously narrative-critical position and, in the process, I’m looking at how “the world” (Greek: kosmos) functions as one of John’s characters.

(1) The World Hates Jesus and His Followers (7:1-7; 15:18-21; 17:14-15)

The first of three references to the world’s hatred for Jesus comes in the context of a conversation between Jesus and his brothers about the impending Feast of Tabernacles. In 7:1-4 Jesus is in Galilee when his brothers encourage him to travel to Judea to make his ministry public at the upcoming feast (see v. 4). That this advice is driven by their derision is made clear in v. 5: “For his brothers did not believe in him.” Jesus responds to their challenge by contrasting his divinely appointed time, which has yet to come, with their ability to come and go on the basis of any human whim (v. 6). In v. 7 Jesus describes the world in two ways: (1) it is characterized by evil deeds, and (2) it hates Jesus because he bears witness to its evil deeds. This hatred will manifest itself in a number of ways, one of which is complicity in Jesus’ condemnation and death.

The other two references to the world’s hatred of Jesus occur in the Farewell Discourse (13:1-17:26). In that section of the gospel, Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure by encouraging them to persevere, providing insights into forthcoming events, and praying for his disciples and all future believers.

In John 15 Jesus speaks to his disciples at length about the necessity of abiding in him as a means to accomplishing God’s will and remaining in his love (vv. 1-17). In this context Jesus again mentions the world’s hatred for him. Because the world hates Jesus, it will also hate those who follow him (v. 18). This does not mean that the world is fully incapable of showing love. On the contrary, the world loves those whose perspectives and choices mirror its own (v. 19). Jesus cautions his disciples that the world will treat his followers in the same way they have treated him (vv. 20-21). This warning is not only a prediction of future persecution for the disciples but also an implicit exhortation to perseverance. Again it is clear that the world is characterized by hostility toward Jesus and those who are associated with him.

The third reference to the world’s hatred comes during Jesus’ prayer in John 17. In 15:18-21 Jesus warned that the world would persecute his followers simply because of their association with him. Picking up on this theme once again, Jesus acknowledges that the world hates his followers because he has given them the Father’s message (v. 14a) and because they are not of the world (v. 14b). It is noteworthy that Jesus asks the Father not to remove them from the world, but rather to protect them from the evil one (e0k tou= ponhrou=, v. 15). This protection will be necessary because, as Bennema notes, “after Jesus’ departure from the world, the story of the disciples and the world begins.”[1] In order for the Johannine disciples—as well as the future believers for which Jesus prays—to continue facing the hatred of the world, it will require a special protection from the wiles of the evil one.

One of the distinctive features of Johannine discourse is the use of dualistic contrasts (e.g., light v. darkness, truth v. lie) to make a theological point. In these three passages, another contrast emerges: one can be associated either with Jesus or the world, but not both.[2] This contrast unveils the extreme opposition between the two, and further explains the reason for the world’s hatred of Jesus and his followers. The world’s unrighteousness and hostility toward Jesus are several stitches in a much larger tapestry of its rejection of God and the one whom he has sent.

[1] Bennema, Encountering Jesus, 31 (emphasis added).

[2] This dualism seems to have been characteristic of the teaching in the Johannine community. See, for instance, 1 John 2:15-16, “Do not love the world (kosmos) or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all the things in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—are not from the father but the world.”


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