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

August 8, 2011

(2) The World Follows Jesus in Ignorance (12:19)

 Along with its hatred for Jesus, the world is also ignorant of his origins and mission. The Prologue unveils many facts about Jesus: he is from above and existed before time (1:1-2), he is the agent of creation (1:3), the light of humanity (1:4), the giver of authority (1:12), the incarnate logos (1:14), and the revealer of the Father to humanity (1:18). While the reader navigates the Fourth Gospel with an awareness of these themes, most characters within the story are unaware and therefore have difficulty coming to terms with Jesus’ identity. Their moments of misunderstanding provide opportunities for the Johannine discourses, where Jesus clarifies elements of his mission and identity. There are occasions, however, when the world, or one of its representatives, confesses something of significance about Jesus. While these insights often occur in the context of Jesus’ sign-miracles,[1] this is problematic because the Fourth Evangelist does not regard a signs-faith as a legitimate response to Jesus. Rather, belief in Jesus’ word is legitimate while belief in his works falls short of the mark.[2]

The events of John 11:38-44 mark the turning point of the Fourth Gospel and usher in a series of responses to Jesus’ last and greatest sign. In 11:41-43, Jesus performs his seventh and final semeion in raising Lazarus from the dead—an act that not only foreshadows his own resurrection and power over death, but also serves as the impetus for his crucifixion at the hands of hoi Ioudaioi. The anger of the Jewish leaders and their plan to kill Jesus are recounted in 11:45-57. Then, in 12:1-19 the narrator describes a series of positive responses to Jesus: in vv. 3-8 Mary anoints Jesus and is praised for her actions; in v. 9 a large crowd of Jews comes to see both Jesus and Lazarus; in vv. 12-19 that same crowd appears, waving palm branches and acclaiming Jesus as a messianic king. Each of these responses to Jesus is a source of dismay for the Jewish leaders, though the final response causes the Pharisees to remark, “Look, the world has run off after him.” Though this statement is probably to be understood as hyperbole, it is significant that when the kosmos is described as following Jesus, it does so on the basis of what it has seen (Jesus’ works) rather than what it has heard and internalized (Jesus’ word). For the purposes of the evangelist, this response amounts to following Jesus in ignorance. The world may be following after Jesus, but it eventually stops when the works it seeks cease to occur.

Though this is seemingly a more positive moment for the world than the three previous examples we have examined, the world’s pursuit of Jesus will not last. Ultimately, nearly everyone will abandon Jesus, providing further proof that the signs-faith the world has expressed is not genuine (Johannine) belief. The world runs after Jesus, but only because it hopes to gain that which the world values. Against the backdrop of Jesus’ death, the world’s abandonment of him reveals that it was following in ignorance all along.


[1] The Johannine semeia have traditionally been identified as follows: 2:1–12 (changing of water to wine); 4:46–54 (healing of an official’s son); 5:1–9 (healing at the pool of Bethesda); 6:1–15 (multiplication of loaves and fish); 6:16–21 (walking on the water); 9:1–12 (healing of the man born blind), and 11:38-44 (the raising of Lazarus). Though his position has garnered little support, Andreas Köstenberger (“Seventh Johannine Sign: A Study in John’s Christology.” BBR 5 [1995]: 87–103) departs from the traditional listing of semeia by replacing the walking on water (6:16–21) with the cleansing of the temple (2:13–22).

[2] On the contrast between belief in Jesus’ works v. belief in Jesus’ word, see this theme as it unfolds in three volumes by Francis J. Moloney, Belief in the Word: Reading John 1-4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Signs and Shadows: Reading John 5-12 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996); and Glory Not Dishonor: Reading John 13-21 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

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