Oh, it must be at least 20 years ago. I remember an incident in which a friend and I were on our way to a Bible study. And with our Bibles plainly in hand, we were walking from the car to the apartment where the Bible study was taking place. During that brief moment, while we were walking, there was a boy who saw that we had Bibles. And in what could be none other than a mocking tone of voice, at least how I perceived, he said something like, "Hey, man, praise God! I believe in Jesus." Somehow, I just knew from the way that he spoke that he wasn't serious at all. It didn't seem normal or natural. And so I spoke up, "Do you really know what you're talking about?" I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was something like that.
I knew that what he said on the surface didn't really appear to be the truth in his heart. I knew that, but I wasn't the only one to know it. God knew, too.
One truth that has always been fascinating for me is God's cognizance of our lives, and everything about us. It is appealing to me because it communicates God's steadfast love and mercy and kindness for us, while at the same time showing that God knows the bad things deep down in our hearts. "God knows" is a statement that penetrates all areas of our lives, even while God loves us with an everlasting love.
One way in which a person senses that God is all-knowing toward us is the irony 1 that I find He uses in His word. As God uses it, irony shows that He can't be fooled by our foolishness, much less our "wisdom." We too easily look at things at the surface, but the God who knows us, who can perceive us to the core of our being, looks past the surface.
There are several powerful contrasts of irony that I see in the gospel of John, starting with the prologue and proceeding throughout the book in very delightful and yet unexpected ways. This irony has the result of showing people, or individuals, to be nothing but mere creatures standing in the presence of a wonderful and awesome God. I invite you to follow along with me if you'd like to.
First of all, in John 1:1 and 14. Of course this is a passage you're familiar with. In verse one of that wonderful gospel, and in verse fourteen are contrasted two realities. I verse one is seen the Word, the Word that dwelt with God. Everything that God was, the Bible tells us, the Word also was. This Word was the power behind all of creation. But yet the amazing thing comes in verse 14 because we realize that this Word that created all men, also became Himself a man to dwell among us. This Word was not satisfied to dwell with God, but also to dwell among His creatures.
And a second irony within the prologue is in verse 11: "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him." Wouldn't you think that the very people that God had chosen and guided would have been the most eager to receive Jesus? But John tells us it was just the opposite. His own chosen people in the Promised Land did not receive Him when he came. This capped off a history of years of rebellion and distrust on the part of God's people.
And so the prologue begins with this ironical 2 knowledge that God wants to shares with us. I would like to now follow this thread in a quick jog throughout the rest of the gospel, throughout Jesus' life and encounters with people and furthermore throughout the Passion of Jesus.
First of all, let's consider Jesus' life and his encounters with People. Jesus said to Nathaniel (John 1:50), "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe? You will see greater things than these." Those very words act as a promise that mocks the superficiality of human minds and it looks forward to Jesus' Word, even His ironical "greater things."
Chapter two begins to portray the fulfillment of this promise beginning with Jesus showing His glory by changing the water into wine. The story seems to function as a rebuke to Judaism, which, like the master of the banquet, is ignorant of the really good stuff the true and real value of the coming Messiah. This ignorance is again caught up in Jesus' ironical statement later in chapter two, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."3 The Jews, of course, knew what the temple was. They thought they knew, But as the text says, the real temple was Jesus 4, of whom they were completely ignorant.
All of these passages point to an event or saying on the surface, but really have a deeper and even ironical meaning under the surface.
Chapters three and four also have interesting contrasts. In John 3 Jesus meets Nicodemus. In John 4 where Jesus meets Samaritan woman at the well. The fact that these two people, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are back to back in John's Gospel is probably not incidental since they are polar opposites. Have you ever compared the differences between these two? Obviously, Nicodemus was a man; and she a woman. He was a Jew; and she a Samaritan. He was rich because of his standing and who he was; she was poor. He was educated; but she was illiterate. Nicodemus represented piety; but she represented adultery. The name of Nicodemus was respected; but she was anonymous. There is no name for this woman other than that she is the woman at the well, or the Samaritan woman. No name, probably because she was despised. He lived in Jerusalem, the holy city; the woman was from the town of Sychar, which I understan means drunkenness. The list can go on and on, yet I think that the most ironical contrast is that Nicodemus who should have understood Jesus the most, didn't; and the lady who started off with the most disadvantages believed in Jesus.
Let's jump ahead to find the thread of irony continuing in chapter seven. Here I'd like to point out two different sayings that meant one thing on the surface, but which John the Evangelist interprets to have a meaning much deeper, even opposite to the original intentions of the speakers. The first of these is in John 7:27: The context here is that of the people are arguing whether Jesus is really the Messiah, and some do not believe He is the Messiah, and appeal to the belief that the real Messiah would just drop out of nowhere in some a grand, majestic and miraculous fashion. They said, "We know where this man is from."
But since they did know where Jesus was from, they didn't believe in Him. He didn't match their traditions of what they expected for the coming Messiah. However, the passage seems to almost scoff at them. Yes, they know where Jesus came from, namely, Nazareth. But Jesus said in verses 28 and 29 that they really didn't know the God who had sent Him. It wasn't where He was from, it was Who He was from, and they didn't know God. The irony here is that in their confidence, they were saying something of which they were really ignorant. It wasn't where He was from; it was Who He was from. And they didn't know God. The irony here is that in their confidence they were saying something about which they were very ignorant.
The second saying is in verse 52. The setting is the Sanhedrin trying to make plans to do away with Jesus, and in the story Nicodemus questions the justice of those plans. In response, they say to him that no prophet ever came from Galilee. Here again is represented a proud, confident attitude of "we know it all", but it only proves their ignorance by saying such a thing. Both Jonah and Nahum were most likely from the region of Galilee. Both of their ministries dealt with Nineveh. But regardless of that, the spirit of the Sanhedrin was that of murder and not of justice as it was supposed to be.
A final ironic account for this section on the life and encounters of Jesus with people is in chapter nine. This is the story where Jesus heals the blind man and how the Pharisees are questioning the blind man about who healed him, because it was on the Sabbath that he was healed. And, although Jesus heals the blind man, the two prominent parties within the chapter are that of the blind man and of the Pharisees, who investigated the crime of healing on the Sabbath. The most fascinating part of the story for me seems to be where the Pharisees interrogate the man and the story seems to take on the characteristics of a Greek drama. The blind man seems to act like the fool, the one who at the beginning doesn't claim to know much, but yet at the end turns out to be the hero. And, on the other hand, the Pharisees act like wise ones, but not quite. They start off as the ones who claim to be proud, all-knowing individuals. You see, the twist of a Greek drama is that the one who appears to be the fool in the beginning actually turns out to be the hero and, in this case, the wise ones, Pharisees, turn out to be quite foolish.
In John 9:12, 25, 36, the blind man starts from statements of ignorance as to who healed him and progresses to statements of greater trust and belief in Christ as God's Messiah. And in the opposite direction, the Pharisees claim to know so much but they look blinder and blinder as the story develops. This story says to me that our God, who is all powerful and wise and wonderful, is someone Who dwells with the lame and the poor and those with disadvantages. That statement to the world, of course, is perhaps the greatest irony that it might ever be confronted with. They cannot even imagine that the all powerful, almighty God would be comfortable with people who are poor, and those who are down and out.
Now let's pick up the ironic contrasts further in the gospel of John in reference to Jesus' Passion. Starting with the 11th chapter, Jesus seems to be more explicitly following the path of the cross. It is here that he raises Lazarus from the dead, which was like the greatest and undisputable sign that He was what He said He was: the Messiah. An undisputable proof, a sign that indeed He was the Messiah. In direct response, the Sanhedrin tries to make plans for Jesus' death. They fear that Jesus will cause such a commotion, with more and more people becoming His disciples that the Romans will have come in and take their nation.5 (11:48) Of course, they want to avoid that; so they want to keep people from believing in Jesus. The only way they can do that is get rid of Jesus. Therefore, in verses 49 and 50, Caiaphas suggests that in order to save the nation, it is better that "one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." The ironic thing about this is that the very remedy he suggests to save the nation ultimately confirms and brings about the very things they wish to avoid.
John picks up on this and he interprets it to mean that Jesus truly would die not only for the nation, but to save the "scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one." (verse 53) This seems to refer back to Jesus' statement that when he is lifted up on the cross he would draw all to Himself. More believers enlisted into the cause of Christ after His death even though the Sanhedrin meant to accomplish just the opposite.
Now, another thing to notice is in John 12:4-6. This is the story where Judas opens his mouth in the pretense of speaking for the poor, but the Gospel exposes his real intentions as really a thief who cared only for himself. The ironical contrast here is that when Judas went to betray the Lord, the disciples thought that he was going to make some gift for the poor. We know that he was doing the opposite. Yet in the light of what actually happened, the death of Jesus gave everything to those who are poor and to the those who are the poor in spirit.
And within the Passion story itself, there are three or four accounts that I find are vividly ironic. Some of these contrasts are not immediately evident from the exact account, but are seen in the light of other sayings that Jesus had said or claimed about himself in John. The first that I am thinking of is when the armed band came to arrest Jesus in chapter 18:2, 3. Here, we see the band of men coming to Jesus with torches, coming with man-made light to the one who had claimed that He was the light of the world. And also strange is the fact that Jesus was arrested by those who had less authority than Himself. Verse six shows Jesus speaking the word, "I am He," in answer to their search for "Jesus of Nazareth." In the darkness of night they sought for Jesus of Nazareth, the Light of the world, the great I Am. As Jesus said, "I am He," at these words, they fell back down to the ground. The contrast is that Jesus was clearly in power. Remember He said "no man takes my life from me, I lay down my life." He was the One who was in power. But yet He let, he allowed weak and puny men to arrest Him. Also in chapter 18:28-33, we find the Jews accusing Jesus of false charges, of being a King, and yet on the other hand, the charge was really true, was it not? Jesus really was the King of heaven and the King of Israel. And by rights He should have been in command and control of the Jews.
A final irony, and even tragic, within the gospel is the courtroom scene of Jesus' trial. Previously, in chapters 5 and 12, Jesus had said that he was the highest judge on earth; that all judgment had been committed to Him. (See 5:22, 27; 12:48). And He also said that His words would be the ones that would judge the people. But here we find that Jesus allowed Himself to be subjected to the greatest injustice of all. In the context of these sayings, the gospel highlights those who are accusing Jesus as the truly guilty ones and the One who was pronounced guilty is really perfectly innocent.
I think that it is purely appropriate that God uses such contrasts of irony. The Gospel of John closes with the stated purpose that we might believe in Christ as the Son of God and that by believing we might have life in his name. As I said in the beginning, these passages and statements tell me that God knows so much more than we do. He is never fooled by humans, but He is the Wise Guardian of our souls. These contrasts of irony that only divinity can use so masterfully serve to bolster our faith in Christ as more than ordinary, as the dying Son of God, yet the loving Master of our lives. I can have faith in this kind of God this God that is bigger than I am even while He is also for me and with me. I can have faith in Him. How about you?
1. Def. "Irony": A method of humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used is the direct opposite of their usual sense.
2. Def. "Ironical": meaning the contrary of what is expressed.
3. John 2:19.
4. John 2:21.
5. John 11:48.
Hymn of Praise: #294, Power In The Blood Scripture: John 1:1-5 Hymn of Response: #511, I Know Whom I Have Believed
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last updated May 29, 2005 by Bob Beckett.