John (Part 10): Purification Dispute

01/27/2014 08:52

The last incident John presents in the Jesus-as-Replacement section (1:19 through 3:36) is that of a problem (or so it seemed to the Baptist’s disciples) that arises in the course of a who-is-greater argument. The Apostle has just finished presenting Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. He transitions to this new incident with the phrase “after this” (HCSB translation). Normally, we would think of that phrase as indicating that we are moving to the next chronological event—or, at least, one that follows fairly closely in sequence. However, this may not have been John’s intent with this phrase.

The Greek here does not actually say “after this.” John does use the phrase “after this” in other places, as in 2:12, when his point actually is to indicate the next chronologically sequential incident. But in 3:22, a better translation is “after these,” as in “after these things or events.” Now, we would probably not notice much of a difference in these two phrases (as most translators don’t), but two other tidbits of information may make us pause.

First, the word “after” is translated from the Greek meta. It is used in the NT about 500 times and predominantly translated “with” (about 75% of the time), as in John 3:2 where Nicodemus says that the performer of signs could not do them “unless God were with him.” “After” just couldn’t work there. However, “after” does have its correct place in translation as well, as in 2:12.

Second, the phrase “after these [things]” occurs several times in this Gospel and in Revelation (both works of John) but very rarely in the rest of the NT. Luke uses it about a handful of times in Luke-Acts, but it is used a total of only two times in the rest of the NT. Why does John use it so frequently in his Gospel and Revelation? I think it is because the emphasis of both these books is on theme rather than chronology.

Here is the point: translating meta in this phrase as “with” rather than “after” gives the idea that John is moving to another idea of theme rather than the next chronological event. So, then, instead of reading it as “after these things,” it could better be understood as meaning, “along with these events, here’s another.” John is not trying to present the incident of the purification dispute as the next chronological event after Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus. He is rather indicating that he will now relate another incident, among those of Jesus’ life, that helps support his thematic intent.

We are told that Jesus and his disciples are in the Judean countryside (wilderness), baptizing. (John notes in 4:2 that Jesus did not really baptize; only his disciples did.) This Judean countryside probably denotes the area by the Jordan just north of the Dead Sea. John and his disciples are also out baptizing in Aenon, about 40 miles or so north of the location of Jesus.

A Jew (John’s frequent label of a Pharisee or Jewish leader) engages the Baptist’s disciples in a discussion about purification. It would be the natural topic of discussion since the baptism that John and his disciples were doing was an act of ritual or symbolic purification. The Pharisee, no doubt, argued that the purification rituals performed according to the Law were the only correct purification rituals to perform. John’s disciples probably argued that, no, their baptism indicated a greater rite—the putting off stagnant ritual in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom.

But what is interesting is how John the Apostle presents this to us. In verse 25, he mentions, in general comment, that a dispute arises, and in the next verse he says “so” or “therefore” the disciples came to the Baptist, presumably to settle the dispute. But what is it that they say to John? “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is flocking to Him.” Huh? ... wasn’t the dispute about purification ritual? How did we move from a question about purification to “therefore” the disciples ask about Jesus?

John the Apostle does this to us, his readers, frequently. I think it supports the idea that his writing is more thematic than simply presenting a biographical and sequential recording of events. John leaves little gaps or questions in his writing that must include some rumination and musing over the context to understand the connection completely. In this instance, we have to think of the probable argument of the Pharisee with the disciples. Yes, the disciples probably defended the Baptist’s baptismal practice as being the greatest example of heavenly minded purification—certainly greater than the practiced (and almost mindless) activity of the Pharisees and temple priests in Jerusalem. And probably, then, the Pharisee in this debate brings up Jesus. Jesus was baptized by John. John spoke well of Jesus. But now Jesus’ crowds are greater in size than John’s. If John’s baptism is the greatest, why are all the people going to this other guy—this Jesus—to be baptized?

And that one stumped John’s disciples. They stammer; they backtrack; and they finally say, “Wait here for a minute.” And then they run over to the Baptist to get the answer, still sure that their rabbi, their master has the greatest purification ritual. So this is the progression from verse 25 to verse 26.

But the Baptist doesn’t say what they expect him to (which is odd because the Baptist merely repeats what he has said all along). John says that Jesus gaining the greater crowd shows merely that God is bringing people to Jesus. John repeats that he is not and never pretended to be the Messiah. He is the forerunner of the Messiah—just like the best man of the groom at a wedding. The groom receives the bride. The best man is thrilled, expressing joy, helping all the wedding guests thrill at the occasion. The best man does not joy for the groom in order to gain a bride for himself. His rejoicing is really and completely for the groom because focus should be on the groom and the bride. And so, John says that his place—his job of pointing to that groom—is over as the groom makes his appearance. That he must decrease is not merely a statement of humility (although it certainly is a humble John that recognizes the fact). But his decrease and Jesus’ increase is a matter of ministry in God’s plan. The time of John’s ministry is ending, and John recognizes that point. John’s disciples wanted to jealously guard their lofty position in ministry. But John corrects them with the true idea of Jesus as replacement.

The last few verses of the chapter are not John the Baptist continuing his explanation. Rather, beginning with verse 31, John the Apostle takes over to conclude the section. In this conclusion, John’s intent is to show a contrast—the same contrast that Christ emphasized with Nicodemus and that can be seen throughout the first three chapters of the Gospel so far. John divides people—all people—into two categories: those from above and those from the earth. This is a characteristic Johannine idea. We read of this division constantly in Revelation in which earth-dwellers are set against those who dwell in heaven. A gulf existed between God and all humanity. Jesus comes as Son of God and Son of Man to bridge that gap. But the emphasis is that Jesus comes from above. All those who will be categorically placed as those from above must get there by being born again through Jesus. This is the spiritual divide. There is no other spiritual divide. And the Apostle is about to make clear that there is no other spiritual divide in his next chapter.


Chapter 4 begins a new section of the Gospel. John certainly will not abandon all the themes opened up to us in the first three chapters. They will continue on. But in chapters 4 and 5, he emphasizes Jesus as Living Water.

The first incident he records is that of the woman at the well. Verses 1 through 6 introduce the scene. John the Baptist bothered the Pharisees with his popularity and his different way of doing things (recall the greater-than-yours argument of John’s disciples about the Baptist’s purification rite). But with the popularity of Jesus, and Jesus’ odd (to them) teaching of relationship with God, the Pharisees start to turn their disapproving attention to him. Jesus realizes this and chooses to withdraw from their easy access. He decides to travel to Galilee. Why there? Judea is ostensibly governed by the prefect Pontius Pilate—a roman official. Rome took over direct governmental control of Judea and Samaria (and Idumea to the south) when Archelaus (Herod the Great’s son) misgoverned it horribly. However Galilee to the north and Perea to the east of Judea were controlled by Herod Antipas, another of Herod the Great’s sons. The Sanhedrin could exercise their muscle in Judea more easily because the roman influence was there largely and merely to keep the peace. Actual day-to-day control of Jewish life was still the Sanhedrin’s concern. But in Galilee, the Pharisees could not throw their weight around so easily—first, because of the distance, but second and more importantly because Antipas had direct control of the region.

Jesus seems to have followed the route going north from the Dead Sea along the Jordan valley until a gap in the mountain range to the west allowed him to divert from the Jordan to head in a more direct route to Nazareth. But this path takes him through a portion of Samaria and it is here by Jacob’s well outside a small town called Sychar, that Jesus and his disciples stop to rest.

The text says that this town of Sychar is “near the property that Jacob had given his son Joseph” (4:5). Recalling the division of the land when the Israelites returned from Egypt, we find Sychar not near but actually right in the center of land given to Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. Why then does the text say “near” the inheritance? The inheritance gift referred to here is different from the division of the land.

Genesis 33:18-19 tells us how Jacob first obtained a shoulder (shechem) or slope of Mt. Gerizim from the sons of Hamor (Amorites). Genesis 48:21-22 tells us that Jacob gave this plot of land, which included the well he dug, to his favorite son Joseph as an inheritance above and beyond the division of land. And the last mention of this inheritance is in Joshua 24:32 as the children of Israel bury Joseph in this plot after bringing his bones back from Egypt. John wants us to get the connection in referencing Sychar as being near this plot of land. In Genesis, through this gift, Jacob (Israel) provides the land and the well for his beloved child. In John 4, Jesus (the true Israel) provides living water at this place for his beloved child—the woman.

Jesus arrives at the well at the sixth hour (4:6). The HCSB translates this as “six in the evening,” using the Roman timing (24 hour days divided into two 12 hour segments that begin at midnight and noon). At first thought, this timing may be supported by Genesis 24:11 which tells us that about 6 in the evening was the normal time for women to go out to draw water.

But the difficulty here is that there are no other women around. Nobody is around except this one woman and Jesus. That fact would seem to indicate that the time was something other than the normal time that women went out to draw water. And so, it is more likely that it is the sixth hour according to the Hebrew measurement, which starts its two 12-hour cycles at 6 in the evening and 6 in the morning. The sixth hour of the day would then be noon. This also makes sense for Jesus, tired from his travels, sits at this well in the heat of the day, maybe hoping someone would come along with a bucket to draw some water.

We should pause to point out something that was surely part of John’s intent in his arrangement. Chapter 4—the Samaritan woman conversation—holds definite contrasts from chapter 3—the Nicodemus conversation. In chapter 3, the discussion is with a Jew; in chapter 4, it is with a Samaritan. In chapter 3, the discussion is with a high-ranking official; in chapter 4, it is with a common person (even one of especially low reputation). In chapter 3, the discussion is with a man; in chapter 4, it is with a woman. John is especially trying to point out that the gospel transcends all human divisions. John is pointing back to his two categories—those from above and those from the earth—as the only categories of spiritual importance. This is the emphasis of John, and it is the emphasis of Paul. In Galatians 3:28 we read of the same three differences that John provides between chapters 3 and 4. Galatians 3:28 reads: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The action begins in verse 7. Jesus is sitting at the well. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water. As she does, Jesus abruptly says, “Give me a drink.” The first thing that pops into my head is a concern that there was no “please” there. In fact, it wasn’t even a question—just a command. Does that strike you as a little rude? We can’t excuse it by saying that woman were considered second-class citizens at the time because Jesus didn’t consider them so.

I don’t actually wonder whether Jesus was being rude; I know he wasn’t. But if he wasn’t, there must be a little more going on than what we read in this account. I believe this is not the first thing he says. After all, the woman’s response includes recognition that he is a Jew. How did she know that? He didn’t carry a sign. He didn’t have a star of David tattooed on his forearm (which actually could have been claimed by the Samaritans as well). He wasn’t a priest or Pharisee, and so his dress would be no different. His accent maybe?—from four quick words—speaking the common Aramaic language? Possible, but doubtful. A more probable solution is that these are not the first words of conversation. Jesus is a stranger to her. She may see him, wonder about him, and ask, “I haven’t seen you here before? Where are you from?” And maybe Jesus answers, “I was in Judea, and I’m traveling back to my home in Galilee.” “Ah,” she thinks,” one of those Jews.

That may be part of it. But I think there is much more going on in the background here that is still left to be sorted out.