In the forty-eighth and fifty-second verses of the eighth chapter of John, Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon. This adequately continues the narrative flow of the Gospel story, as it will remind those that are listening to the telling of the entire story of Jesus as a whole, about what has been heard to this point. The hearers will know that even though Jesus has left the Temple area, the events of the ninth chapter, in which the man born blind is healed, informs the audience that the story begun in the seventh chapter is continuing. The query of “A demon cannot cause the blind to see, can it?” is an overt reminder of the healing of the blind man, along with being a reminder of the exchange between Jesus and some of the Pharisees in which sight and blindness are discussed (9:39-41).
This also serves as a reminder that these several chapters are designed to hang together to form a unified treatment within a larger unified treatment, with the exaltation of the ethic of love as displayed by the Christ and by Israel’s God through His Christ, as that which is intended to predominate the inter-personal relationships of the covenant bearers, as well as their relationships with the wider world (those whom God also loves and seeks to bring in to His covenant family as part of His restoration of His once good creation).
Why is this reminder important? As we hear about the life of Jesus through the Johannine voice, we learn that it is a self-sacrificial love as supremely demonstrated in Jesus’ talk of Himself as the good shepherd that comes to undergird the life of the church. We also learn that the absence of self-sacrifice or a willingness to undergo suffering and deprivation will be fatal to the Jesus movement. So also we affirm, as part of our approach to the Scriptures so as to hear them on their own terms and in their own voices, that the hearers of this Gospel will know that pulling out isolated pieces would be damaging to the story and to the message of the Christ as a whole.
As we take in the Gospel as a whole, rather than as a collection of individual stories, it becomes readily apparent that the issues of love, Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s Creator God, miraculous signs, the concept of eternal life (with its exile and exodus subtext that hinges on an understanding of the history of Israel), sight and blindness, the idea of Jesus being the prophet like Moses, Gentile inclusion, bread and water, and talk of Jesus as possibly being demon possessed are to be held in mind while the story is being told (whether it is being heard or read).
When we hear John’s Gospel, or any of the Gospels for that matter, we have to continually discern that the narrative is constantly building, and that it is clearly designed to be consumed as a whole, rather than treating passages in isolation, as this will lead to a consistent mis-construal of the author’s intentions as it relates to his attempt to convey that which he wants to be known about Jesus. As we consider how strange it seems to us that the Gospels were originally designed to be heard as dramatic presentations for an orally attuned community rather than read as part of a devotional experience, we are forced to confess that our post-Gutenberg press culture is as foreign to John’s author as John’s author’s pre-Gutenberg culture is to us.
We subject ourselves to these thoughts because it has a bearing on the apprehending and rightly grasping the ethos of the entire Johannine corpus of the New Testament that does not explicitly name an author (John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John), which has a heavy emphasis on love. For this author, the operation of love seems to be paramount. If we are going to understand the ethic of love within the community of Christ-followers, which appears to be of supreme importance to this author and therefore the community addressed by his composition, it is entirely necessary to take a wide-angle approach to his story of Jesus, attempting to interpret the presentation in a way that allows us to accurately glimpse the issues with which are being dealt in the early decades of the Christian movement (presumably in the latter part of the first century) through this particular telling of the Jesus tradition.
So not only must it be said that individual scenes in John’s Gospel are not to be taken in isolation, but it must also be said that histories are not created in isolation. That is, there is no such thing as a truly objective representation of the facts. In the process of doing history, and especially when one is doing history that is tinged with theology, as we see in the Gospel of John, we are forced to realize that all facts and events are viewed through a lens that is colored by the worldview with which one approaches a given set of facts. There is nothing wrong with that, but we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to acknowledge such things. Along with that, any creation of a historical narrative will be affected by a culture that is constantly conditioning us to respond to events along certain lines.
We see an excellent example of the necessity of hearing the story as a whole in what follows from the presentation of Jesus as the good shepherd. In the twenty-second verse of the chapter, we have a change of scenery in Jerusalem, as the author writes “Then came the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area in Solomon’s portico” (10:22-23). Clearly, we have a substantial shift in timing, right in the middle of the narrative, because all that we have heard from the seventh chapter up to this point has occurred in conjunction with the Feast of Tabernacles, which does not take place in the winter.
The temptation, then, is to pick up right here with these verses and treat this story separately. To do so would be foolish, as when we hear Jesus say “My sheep listen to My voice and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (10:27-28a), we only hear it correctly in the light provided by all that has come before in the narrative, which is also dependent on a knowledge of Israel’s history, along with then current understanding of Jewish hopes that would have informed Jesus’ use of eternal life (otherwise, Jesus could not expect to be understood). As stated, the narrative continues to build, demanding to be heard as a whole. The concepts as presented, and especially ideas concerning what is meant by love, demand to be heard on their own terms. It is useful to understand John’s notion of love, which is prefaced by the description of the way that God loved the world, and to do so without retrojecting our own preconceived notions about its definition into the story.