It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the ministry of Michael Card’s music, writing and teaching has had on me over the past thirty years. As I read his latest book, the final in his four Gospel Biblical Imagination Series, I also listened to the companion album John: A Misunderstood Messiah (which Michael has indicated will be his last ten song album). I remember the joy of hearing Michael playing an advance recording of “All I’ve Ever Done” (a beautiful song he did with Ginny Owens about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well). I heard it for the first time over the sound system during the sound check the afternoon of April 27, prior to the concert that night at East White Oak Bible Church.
As we drove around town during the weekend of the Biblical Imagination Conference on Matthew in April, I mentioned that I had read and very much enjoyed Michael’s previous book on the Gospel of John, The Parable of Joy: Reflections on the Wisdom of the Book of John published in 1995. Michael mentioned that he had learned so much more about the Gospel of John since that time and that there would be much new material in the book.
A few concepts that Michael refers to throughout this book are:
- The Motif of Misunderstanding
- Radical Reversal
- John “whispering” to his readers
- Eyewitness accounts
What I love most about Michael’s writing and teaching is how he brings out things in familiar texts that we never knew or thought of before. This is through the use of the informed imagination. I highlighted a number of passages along those lines and want to share some of them with you below. But most of all I want to recommend that you read this wonderful book about the Gospel of John yourself.
• “We must engage the Scripture at the level of the informed imagination,” Bill (Lane) said too many times to count.
• First, we stopped and asked a few simple questions of the text, simple, yet better questions than we had thought to ask. Next we did our homework, or Bill did our homework for us. Once you experience this sort of engagement with Scripture, nothing will ever be the same.
• Who Is John? He is the last of the Twelve.
• I find it fascinating that two of the Gospels were written by men whose mothers were among the first followers of Jesus. There is Mark, whose mother, Mary, opened her home to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). The other is John.
• Perhaps most remarkable, we can infer from John 19:25 and Mark 15:40 that Salome may have been the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This would mean Jesus and John would have been cousins. If this is true it would help explain Jesus’ remarkable request that John care for his mother, a request he made from the cross (Jn 19:26-27).
• Tradition says he (John) was roughly one hundred years old.
• One of the keys to engaging with the text at the level of the informed imagination is to take the facts and learn to ask what they mean. If we are to engage with our imaginations, we must to learn to discover what the facts mean.
• If John was indeed an eyewitness, what might we expect from his account of the life of Jesus? Whenever eyewitnesses give their accounts of incidents, they offer details that only someone who was physically present would know.
• Be on the lookout as we work through the Gospel of John for these kinds of eyewitness details.
• If John was indeed a pastor, as the later traditions and his three letters suggest, what might we expect from a Gospel written by a pastor?
• If indeed John was written in Ephesus, as Ireneaus and Eusebius affirm, we would expect such a unique location to have an effect on the content of the Gospel.
• What would we expect of a Gospel written in a city like Ephesus?
• Two-thirds of the action in John’s account of the life of Jesus takes place in the holy city.
• John virtually bases his Gospel on the Wisdom books. He quotes or alludes to the Wisdom writings twenty-seven times.
• But a closer look at the Wisdom books reveals a surprising, more pervasive theme: the inadequacy of Wisdom.
• In fact, the inadequacy of wisdom is the fundamental theme of John’s Gospel.
• Each time Jesus reveals himself in John, he is phenomenally misunderstood. The motif of misunderstanding presents Jesus not as the great Teacher but as the misunderstood Messiah.
• The other principal theme of his Gospel is based on a passage from the book of Deuteronomy. It provides the basis for Jesus’ self-understanding as the “Sent One”.
• A facet of Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father that only John brings out is wrapped up in the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18. In response to the people’s fear of God, he promises to send another prophet like Moses. By Jesus’ day this individual was simply referred to as “the Prophet.” His likeness to Moses would be centered on two concepts; he would only say the things God told him to say, like Moses had done, and he would be the “Sent One,” deriving his authority solely from the One who sent him.
• He is one of the few remaining eyewitnesses and the last of the Twelve. The uniqueness of the content of his Gospel is not a product of a systematic reorganizing of the story of Jesus’ life as much as it is the result of decades of preaching and teaching the material. The unique stories he presents, the structure of the seven miracles, the numerous omissions and substitutions: these are the stories that held together over all those years. The themes of darkness and light are a result of the filter of decades of time. These are the stories that lasted. The incarnation was not simply some organizing theological principle, the centerpiece of his high Christology; it was the theme of John’s life. It was the lens through which he focused and understood Jesus’ life.
• John is the only Gospel that whispers this way. The translators often express this shift in tone by using parentheses. The other Gospels have parenthetical statements, but nothing like the Gospel of John.
• As I seek to engage the text with my imagination, these asides are more like whisperings. John uses this device in a number of ways.
• This use of parenthetical device makes John wonderfully present in his Gospel. He is beside us as we are reading, explaining, giving us details his experience has taught him need to be provided. It makes it easy to imagine that we are sitting at John’s feet hearing not simply his rendition of the life of Jesus but experiencing his whisperings, his asides. His Gospel is more a living monologue than a written story.
• The Gospel of John begins with a sermon that is a song. Arguably these are the greatest words ever written.
• He will present blocks of material and then sum up what he has said in a sermonic conclusion. Familiarize yourself with the tone of his preaching and you will recognize it again and again.
• Verse 5, the intermediate close of the opening sermon (John will resume preaching in verse 10), encapsulates the struggle of the whole of his Gospel. Throughout the remaining chapters, Jesus will shine, stubbornly, faithfully and obediently. It was his nature to do so. He will shine in the darkness that was the first-century world. Though that world will rally all its dark forces to extinguish the light that Jesus is, according to John, the darkness will fail. It will not overcome the light that is Jesus.
• In a city of professional teachers, intellectual descendants of Heraclitus, John will present Jesus as the teacher no one was ever quite able to understand. Those who do receive and believe, however, will become God’s own children, not born of flesh and blood but born by God’s own doing.
• In these four words John makes the single most remarkable statement regarding the nature of Jesus. It is the keystone to his high Christology: “The Word became flesh.”
• In his opening verses John had spoken of Jesus in terms of light and life. Now he expands. The living One, who was light, was full of grace and truth. Grace (charis) is a word that reaches back to the Hebrew word hesed. It is the defining characteristic of God in the Old Testament. It is often translated “mercy,” sometimes “love.” The King James Version translates the word fourteen different ways, having to invent the word lovingkindness.
• Though it is untranslatable, as the KJV difficulties reveal, a good working translation is captured in this sentence: “When the one from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
• Of all the host of associations that might be made (e.g., 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6), Jesus being the Lamb of God represents the fact that God himself is going to provide a sacrifice, a lamb, just as Abraham had hoped he would in Genesis 22:8, when he was being asked to make his son the sacrifice. Now, in fulfillment of that image of the father offering his own son, God himself will provide Jesus to be the lamb, our sacrifice. It perfectly fulfills our working definition of the Hebrew word hesed: “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
• Verse 31 echoes and reinforces the motif of misunderstanding so central to John’s presentation of Jesus. Even John the Baptist, who had leaped in his mother’s womb, did not know who his cousin Jesus truly was, not until he saw the Spirit come down and rest on him.
• In verse 38 Jesus speaks his first words of the Gospel. Seeing that he is being followed, he asks “What do you want?” Imagine hearing these words addressed to you from Jesus himself, for that is exactly what John wants you to experience. How would you reply to such a question? What do you want from Jesus? Ask yourself.
• Verse 42 may very well be the first time Jesus and Peter had ever laid eyes on each other. Here John will use a special word only found twice in the New Testament and uniquely used to describe the way Jesus looks at Peter (see Lk 22:61). The word is emblepo, which means “gaze upon.” I think it functions in the narrative here to slow down time. There is a pause as Jesus looks intently at the person who will become without question his closest friend.
• Wherever Jesus says his “time has not yet come,” it implies that the time is coming for him. The cross is still almost three years away.
• John closes the scene by whispering an explanation to us. This was Jesus’ first miraculous sign, performed in Cana of Galilee. This is how he revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
• 92 percent of his Gospel is unique!
• A deeply spiritual statement made by Jesus will always give rise to a profound misunderstanding in John’s Gospel.
• Most often water in John’s Gospel is connected to the identity of Jesus and the promise of new life through the Spirit.
• As Jesus makes his way to Galilee he must pass through Samaria. It is sometimes said that his willingness to go through the despised country of the Samaritans was a mark of Jesus’ compassion. While there is absolutely no question whatsoever in regard to Jesus’ compassion, the truth is that Galileans routinely passed through Samaria, according to Josephus. This misunderstanding is a result of superimposing Judean Judaism over Galilean Judaism. There were significant differences.
• This is another unmiraculous miracle, a miracle in absentia. All Jesus says is “Go, your son will live.” There is almost always a miracle behind the unmiraculous miracles of Jesus. On this occasion it is the faith of the father, whose panicked desperation vanishes, replaced by belief. The miracle is that he took Jesus at his word without seeing the proof. The miracle is that he believed before he saw.
• A case can be made for this being another of Jesus’ unmiraculous miracles. It was accomplished by the very ordinary command, “Get up.” There was no waving of arms. Nothing about the way Jesus performs this miracle apparently attracted any attention. If this is true, then we should expect to find a miracle behind the miracle. Verse 14 provides that miracle—if we have the eyes to see it. It is described in three simple words, “Jesus found him.” First, this implies that Jesus had looked for him. It was not enough for Jesus that the man had been healed of thirty-eight years of paralysis. Jesus had not come to simply give healing. He had come to give himself. And that is the miracle behind the miracle.
• Chapter 6 is the hinge on which the story of John’s Gospel turns. It marks a radical shift in Jesus’ ministry: from his greatest moment of acceptance and popularity to one of the darkest instances of offense and rejection.
• My mentor William Lane used to say that the followers of Jesus should always work at the level of their own inadequacy. We shouldn’t be satisfied simply doing the things we are good at. We should strive to be right on the edge so that if the Lord doesn’t show up to help us, we will fail miserably. This is the kind of place the disciples are now in.
• In verse11 you will miss the unmiraculous miracle if you’re not paying close attention. All Jesus does is “give thanks.” He simply says the blessing. There is not a hint of miraculous language.
• The key to understanding this miracle is found in the Greek word translated “basket.”
• The miracle? Exactly twelve small baskets are collected. The point of the miracle is perfect provision for the Twelve disciples, who are now serving as slaves.
• Manna is a fascinating Hebrew word that connects wonderfully to John’s motif of misunderstanding. The particle ma represents a question mark in Hebrew. The particle na is an exclamation point. Manna might be literally rendered “? !”
• The story of the woman taken in adultery is one of the most problematic passages in the New Testament in terms of authenticity.
• The story of the healing of the man born blind is the best example of John’s tendency to focus at length on Jesus’ interaction with a solitary individual.
• Here in John 10:34 he refers to the shortest psalm of Asaph (Ps 82). It is significant that around the time of the writing of John’s Gospel the Jews were making the final determination to accept the Wisdom writings into the biblical canon, and Jesus is quoted in John as referring to the shortest of the psalms as the “law” (so NIV; Greek nomos). This demonstrates Jesus’ regard for the Wisdom books as Scripture.
• The raising of Lazarus is the climactic miracle in the ministry of Jesus in John. It brings together themes that reach all the way back to the prologue (see Jn 1:4; 3:15-16; 5:24, 28; 6:35, 47, 51; 10:10, 28). It will be the miracle that will eventually lead to the cross (v. 53).
• Sometimes in our desperation we call out for Jesus to act immediately. Often he delays. The story of Lazarus shows there is always a reason.
• Jesus always refers to death as sleep, and he is always misunderstood (see Mk 5:39). By the time of the book of Acts, apparently the Christian community had adopted Jesus’ unique point of view (Acts 7:60).
• But resurrection is no longer a matter of a time or a place, but a person. Jesus is the resurrection. Not a theological abstraction but a living, breathing human being. It is one of his most disturbing habits, positing himself as the answer to a question or problem. It means that he is either a madman or the Son of God. There is no gray area; he has not left us with one.
• For his betrayal of Jesus, Judas receives 30 pieces of silver, worth roughly $3,000. At the moment Mary is pouring on Jesus’ feet ointment worth approximately $30,000. So this is the exchange rate between love and betrayal: 10 to 1.
• Without question, Jesus is entering the city as a royal figure. In verse 14 the image becomes even more certain as Jesus finds a young donkey to sit on. This is a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, a promise that the King who was to come would be riding a donkey’s colt.
• “Lifted up” is always a metaphor for crucifixion (see Jn 3:14). This is one of the most commonly misunderstood sayings of Jesus. Here, “lifted up” does not mean to be praised or worshiped. Yet many interpret this passage saying, “Jesus said if we lift him up (i.e., worship him), all men would be drawn to him.” Verse 33 makes it clear. He said this to show how he would die, that he would be crucified, that is, lifted up. It is a part of our calling certainly to worship Jesus. But he never said that by worshiping him all people would be drawn to him.
• The washing of the disciples’ feet is another lived out parable in John’s Gospel. Jesus finally gives up on words. He has spoken the truth to them: the greatest must become the servant. Now he will enact the truth for them.
• Peter is amazingly silent in John’s Gospel.
• There is a possibility that Jesus and Judas were far closer friends than any of the Gospels can bring themselves to say.
• If the world hates the disciples, remember that it hated Jesus first. The Eleven will not be the last of Jesus’ followers to struggle with understanding the hatred of the world and why it is directed against them simply because they belong to Jesus. It is a word his followers all over the world still need to hear. More disciples of Jesus are dying now than at any time in the history of the church.
• If you really want to get to know someone, listen to them pray. Chapter 17 is the longest and most personal prayer of Jesus in the New Testament. It reveals the intimacy of the relationship he had with the Father.
• In the second part of verse 12 Judas appears as the “son of perishing” (destruction). There is a play on words that none of the popular translations capture. Literally Jesus says, “None has perished except the son of perishing.” The same term is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in referring to the antichrist.
• It is remarkable enough that Jesus, in the midst of his sorrow, the weight of which he says is about to kill him (Mt 26:38), looks into the future and prays for his future followers—for you and me! His principal request is for oneness or unity. Our unity is a reflection of the unity that had always existed between Jesus and the Father.
• So many sermons have been preached on Pilate’s wistful question, “What is truth?” as if he was somehow drawn into the mystery of who Jesus might be. John’s Gospel, however, gives no grounds for this interpretation of the story. Pilate does not linger to hear an answer from Jesus. He turns and abruptly leaves. His tone throughout is impatient and irritated.
• For all of the bad press the Pharisees receive in the New Testament, never forget that the only two men with the courage to claim the body of Jesus were two Pharisees: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
• It is widely accepted that chapter 21 was appended to the Gospel after John’s death. Chapter 20 ended with a literary conclusion. The language shifts in chapter 21. There are phrases and new vocabulary that appear nowhere else in the Gospel, indicating a different author.
• It is interesting to note that no one immediately recognizes Jesus after the resurrection. Mary thought he was the gardener. Likewise, the disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him (Lk 24:13-33).
• The persistence of doubt after the resurrection is a common theme in the Gospels.
• This passage is often referred to as the “reinstatement of Peter.” The popular idea is that having denied Jesus three times, Peter is now given an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment three times, thus undoing his denials.
• I prefer to see this as a story of Jesus providing pure encouragement to his friend who was so badly in need of it. Though he was forgiven, Peter might still be tempted to believe that he has forfeited his right to give leadership to the community. Jesus wants to encourage Peter that his acceptability is based on his love. There is nothing in his past that can disqualify him.
• This is the last example of the motif of misunderstanding in the Gospel. The last words of Jesus are misunderstood! Jesus says that if he wants John to remain alive until he returns, what is that to Peter? Peter must follow him. (This is the big “follow me” of discipleship.) Verse 23 explains the whole misunderstanding. Jesus never said John would not die. He was making a point to Peter. But, because of the misunderstanding, a rumor began that John would not die until Jesus returned.
• The book includes the following appendices:
Appendix A Material Unique to John
Appendix B The Motif of Misunderstanding
Appendix C Occurrences of John’s “Whispering”
Appendix D The Prophet Like Moses
Michael is currently working on a book on Hesed, a topic that he has great passion for. He has indicated that this will be his final book. For all of us who have been blessed by his ministry over the years, I hope that is not the case.
John: A Misunderstood Messiah by Michael Card
This is the last in Michael Card’s series of four Biblical Imagination Series records, this one based on the Gospel of John. Michael told me it is probably the last 10-song album of his career, because the music industry has changed so much.
The album includes new versions of previous favorites “Scribbling in the Sand” and “Stranger by the Seashore”, which was one of the first songs he ever wrote and has been released in two previous versions (on First Light and again on A Fragile Stone).
When Michael was in town in April to do a Biblical Imagination Conference on the Gospel of Matthew and perform a concert, the album was being worked on back home in Nashville. Michael was getting updates throughout the weekend on the background vocal work by a gospel choir that was being done for the record, which shows up on “How Can These Things Be?” During the concert sound check he played us the beautiful “All I’ve Ever Done”, sung by Ginny Owens from the perspective of the woman at the well, certainly a highlight of the record.
Here are Michael’s comments about the new songs:
“John is interested in longer stories of individual people like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the woman taken in adultery. I’ve written songs on each of those extended stories.
“The Bread, The Light, The Life”. There are no parables in John’s Gospel. Instead he tells the story of Jesus’ life as a parable. (John 6:35; 8:12; 11:25)
“Come and See”. One of the ﬁrst words from Jesus’ lips in John is “Come and See.” (John 1:39)
“The One Who Was Sent”. If you ask Jesus who He is in the Gospel, He invariably responds that He is the “Sent One.” (John 5:24; 30, 36-38, 6:39f, 44, 57, 7:16, 29, 33, 8:16, 18, 26, 42, 9:4, 11:42, 12:44f, 13:16, 20, 14:24, 15:21, 16:5, 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25, 20:21).
“How Can These Things Be?” The story of Jesus speaking with Nicodemus is unique to John. What made the Pharisees blind was their insistence that they could see.
“All I’ve Ever Done”. A special appearance by Ginny Owens, who wrote the music. I thought it would be cool to have a female voice sing the woman at the well’s story, especially a wonderful voice like Ginny.
“Come to Me and Drink”. The 7th chapter of John contains my favorite story from the Gospels. I have been waiting 30 years to write a song about Jesus bravely standing up in the middle of the vast Sukkot crowd and shouting, “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink.”
“Scribbling in the Sand”. This was recorded once before for a live video. I thought its message was important enough to record one ﬁnal time.
“Jesus Wept”. I have never heard a song about the ﬁrst occurrence of Jesus weeping on the way to Lazarus’ tomb. The second time we see Him weeping in the Gospels, the reason why is clear. But the text does not answer the question why He cried this ﬁrst time in John. I love the ambiguity.
“One Long Final Walk”. Chapters 15 to 17 contain the longest discourse of Jesus which occurred on their ﬁnal walk to Gethsemane.
“Stranger on the Shore”. One of the ﬁrst songs I wrote under Bill Lane came from one of his sermons on John 21, the second catch of ﬁsh. I have previously recorded this song twice but felt the need to do one ﬁnal version for this collection on John.”
The album is beautifully and simply produced by Keith Compton. The music credits are below:
Michael Card – Vocals/Guitar/Piano Banjo/Bouzouki
Scott Roley – Vocals
Kate Card Wharton – Bodhran
Bill Verdier – Fiddle
Danny Olannerty – Bass
Matt Pierson – Bass
Ken Lewis – Drums
John Reddick – Vocals
Dave Cleveland – Guitars
Paul Eckberg – Percussion
Ginny Owens – Vocals/Piano
Scott Brasher – Strings
Wayne Bucknor – Piano
John Catchings – Cello
Choir – Janice Gaines, Dorena Willamson, Harmonie Reddick and Jon Reddick
These songs are classic Michael Card. What attracted me initially to Michael, and why I have followed his ministry for almost 30 years since purchasing his Known by the Scars record in 1985, is how he creatively brings the Bible to music. The instrumentation, while excellent, is always secondary to Michael’s lyrics. I enjoyed the piano work, particularly on “Scribbling in the Sand” and “Stranger on the Shore”. The choruses of those two songs and the beautiful “Jesus Wept” are powerful:
“Scribbling in the Sand”
It was silence. It was music
It was art. It was absurd
He stooped and shouted volumes
Without saying a single word
The same finger of the strong hand
That had written ten commands
For now was simply scribbling in the sand
“Stranger on the Shore”
You need to be confronted by the stranger on the shore
You need to have him search your soul; you need to hear the call
You need to learn exactly what it means for you to follow
You need to realize that he’s asking for it all
Did Jesus weep
For their disbelief
Or did He cry
Because his friend had died
Took on himself
All of their pain and fear
Explain their mystery of
His silent tears
I really enjoyed Michael’s collaboration with good friend Scott Roley on “The One Who Was Sent” as their voices blend perfectly on the chorus:
He is the One who was sent by the Father
He is the One who acted out of love
He is the One who was led by the Spirit
He is the One who was sent from above
I recommend that you pick up the companion book John: The Gospel of Wisdom. Better yet, pick up the entire Biblical Imagination Series of books and records. Check them out from the store on Michael’s website here:
Michael will be offering Biblical Imagination Conferences on the Gospel of John in 2015. Watch his website for a location near you: http://www.michaelcard.com/#/biblical-imagination/conference-dates