One of the things I love about the gospel of John is the occasional moment of deep irony, when people who have no clue what’s going on say things that are nearly prophetic. John, apparently, enjoys telling the story that way, to show that even those who think they’re in charge aren’t.
We’ve seen that irony already in a recent passage. Jesus tells the crowds that he’s going somewhere that they won’t be able to find him. Confused, they mutter, “What the heck does that mean? Surely he doesn’t mean he’s going to take his message to Gentiles!” John must have smiled when he wrote that one.
And the irony continues as people respond to Jesus’ invitation to quench their spiritual thirst:
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. (John 7:40-44, NRSV)
Even the most gracious of Jesus’ words can cause a rift among the people. Though they probably don’t understand exactly what Jesus is offering, some believe him to be the prophet foretold in the Old Testament. Some go as far as to declare him the Messiah.
But not everyone is convinced. He can’t be the Messiah, some argue, because he’s from Galilee. The Messiah’s supposed to be from Bethlehem, the city of David!
There’s a double irony here. First, what the doubters say here contradicts an earlier objection. Everyone knows Jesus is from Galilee. And for many, that’s reason enough for doubt. But just minutes ago, the objection was that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah because no one was supposed to know where the Messiah was from (7:27). Here, the objection is because he’s from the wrong place.
And second, John plays off of what he probably expects his readers already know as well. Unlike Matthew or Luke, John doesn’t give us the story of Jesus’ birth. But given how different his gospel is from the others, he likely assumes that people are familiar with their content and with the stories circulated orally in the church’s tradition. John’s readers know, as do we, that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem, even if these folks do not.
Thus, on the one hand, they already knew what they weren’t supposed to know, and didn’t know that they knew it. But on the other hand, they didn’t know what they needed to know, and didn’t know that they didn’t know it.
Or something like that.