I love puzzling over difficult parts of the Bible for the difficulty is in my head—not on the page and puzzling over these difficulties gives me an opportunity to change the way I think.
Some years ago a Rabbi pointed out to me that the footnotes in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible often said “Hebrew obscure”. “The Hebrew is never obscure” he protested, “The translator may be confused, but the Hebrew is plain.”
It is easier to blame the problem of understanding on the text rather than to see the problem is in ourselves. But once you grasp this reality, difficulties become joys because they give you the opportunity to change the way you think.
For example look at John 4:43-45.
43After the two days he departed for Galilee. 44(For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in his own hometown.) 45So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.
Do you see a problem with this text? You may not, because there is no difficulty; it is quite straightforward. But you may see a problem because your thinking is obscuring the plain meaning of the text.
Jesus had just spent some time with the Samaritans—the traditional enemy of the Jews. But when they heard Jesus for themselves they came to believe that he was “the Saviour of the world”.
After two days with them Jesus went home to Galilee which is where he grew up and lived. John the gospel writer reminds us of Jesus’ teaching about prophets in their hometown for while prophets have honour elsewhere they have no honour in their hometown.
We would then expect that Jesus would not be welcome in Galilee. We expect that the honour bestowed upon him by the Samaritans would not be extended to him in Galilee. But instead we read: “So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him”. If prophets have no honour in their hometown and Jesus the prophet is going home why was he welcomed? Why does verse 45 start with “So”? How is it a logical consequence of what precedes it? It does not seem to make sense!
We need to remember when the text does not seem to make sense; the problem is usually with the reader not the text. So what is our blockage here? What is it we do not understand? What are we missing?
The explanation is in the last sentence of verse 45 “For they too had gone to the feast.”
The welcome that Jesus received from the Galileans needed an explanation—it was the opposite of what verse 44 would have us expect. But the explanation is simple—they had gone to the feast.
The feast was the Passover mentioned in chapter 2:13-25 where Jesus cleansed the temple. The Jews demanded a sign from him and he replied that he would rebuild the temple in three days. While he was there many came to believe in him because of the signs that he did, but we are told “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them because … he knew what was in man”. This is the introduction to a man, Nicodemus, who believed because of the signs but in fact understood nothing and stood in need of rebirth.
Amongst these untrustworthy believers were some people from Galilee. They welcomed Jesus because of the signs they saw at the feast. But like Nicodemus they were not to be trusted as true believers. Their welcome of Jesus was false—we should know that because prophets are without honour in their hometown.
So when a Galilean official with a sick child came to Jesus asking for healing, Jesus seemed to rebuke the man saying: “Unless you (plural) see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The Galileans were not true believers—they were miracle believers and so not to be trusted. The official went on to believe Jesus’ word and so became like the Samaritans who “believed because of his word”.
Our problem is that our world thinks miracles are the proof and evidence of God. So we quite wrongly think Jesus performed miracles to generate belief. But Jesus consistently refused to perform miracles for this reason (e.g. John 7:1-9). We think that if we saw miracles we would believe—but Jesus warned: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if somebody should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
The puzzle of John 4:43f opens up a completely different way to understand the miraculous work of Jesus, the nature of true belief and the importance of the word of God.
It is good to find difficult parts in the Bible because they provide a way to grow in our understanding by challenging our false assumptions.