A part of the beauty and utility of biblical faith lies in its correctibility.
The tradition’s best protection against appealing fantasies lies in its deep commitment to reality.
The Fourth Gospel narrates Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples with ample doses of conversation. Jesus engages Peter, for example, in a poignant, painful, and empowering three-part exchange that centers around question, defensive answer, and prescribed conduct:
* Jesus: Peter, do you love me?
* Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
* Jesus: Then feed my sheep.
In the wake of that conversational allusion to Peter’s future, Jesus hints at the cruciform death with which this prominent follower of his ‘will glorify God’. This remarkable prediction generates further curiosity. How will John, the ‘beloved disciple’, meet his end?
When Peter saw (the disciple whom Jesus loved), he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’
Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’ (John 21:21–23 NIV)
Jesus’ response to the John question is elusive rather than allusive.
He does not say, we are told, how John will die. Yet some, perhaps even many, thought that Jesus had declared that John would not die, but would remain alive until Jesus’ promised return.
It would have been an appealing misinterpretation in this moment of death and departure and might even have gained momentum as the communities of Jesus’ followers endured the deaths—natural and violent—of those leaders who had known Jesus in the flesh.
Yet, according to John’s gospel, it was simply not what Jesus had said. This mattered. Indeed, it mattered more than anything else. It mattered more than pious zeal, it mattered more than false comfort, it mattered more than that empowerment which devoutly held fantasy can effect in hungry lives.
The claims, affirmations, and instruction of biblical faith are subject to reality. ‘What God has said’ is not an endlessly malleable phenomenon, subject to whatever shifts, distortions, or innocent misapprehensions that a preacher or a community or a simple believer might create.
The labor of exegetes, interpreters, and careful readers who will bring matters under further review is in part justified by a little paragraph from the end of John’s gospel, where needy Jesus-followers got it gloriously but got it wrong.