Conflict in the Gospel of John

Matthew Richard
Friday, March 1st 2019
Mar/Apr 2019

It must have been quite a scene. Coins were scattered. Cattle and sheep were running. Even the tables were overturned. And there, in the midst of this chaos . . . Jesus.

Jesus had entered the temple courts in Jerusalem and witnessed the crass commercialism of the people. There in the temple courts, bankers were charging exorbitant rates. It was a scam! A scam in the temple courts that Jesus disrupted with a whip and righteous indignation. The commotion caused by Jesus did not go unnoticed. News was quickly reported to the Jewish authorities, for that is what people do in the midst of conflict: they go to people in charge who can fix things and make things peaceable. After hearing the news of Jesus’ zeal, the authorities approached Jesus and demanded a sign from him as a way to prove his authority or to justify why he did what he did in the temple. In response, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” The authorities did not understand Jesus’ response.

What we must realize is that this encounter of Jesus in the temple was the first recorded collision in the Gospel of John between Jesus and the Jewish authorities (see John 2:12–25). Indeed, this encounter must have made an impression on those in authority. It must have made waves in the water, since we read in John 3:2 that Nicodemus met with Jesus at night. Now, it is possible that Nicodemus met with Jesus at night because he did not have time during the day; however, the most likely reason for the late meeting was because Nicodemus wanted to keep his colleagues from knowing about this meeting. Nicodemus wanted to keep it quiet and keep potential reactions at a minimum.

There is something more to take note of, however, and that is what happens in John 4:1–3. We read in the early portions of John 4 that Jesus moved on from the area of Judea to Galilee. The religious leaders had tolerated John the Baptist; but since Jesus was more influential than John and had created that commotion in the temple, they were presumably becoming alarmed. So, to avoid premature conflict, Jesus neutralized the tension by leaving the vicinity of Jerusalem.

In the first four chapters of the Gospel of John, we can identify three components: (1) conflict emerges between Jesus and the Jewish authorities; (2) due to the conflict, people resort to secrecy, silence, and fear; and (3) the conflict needs to be neutralized. It is also worth noting that we see the same components throughout the rest of the Gospel of John: conflict breaks out between Jesus and the Jewish authorities; people feel pressure to keep silent, keep their eyes to the ground, and not speak positively about him. Even Jesus operates somewhat covertly so as not to add fuel to that fire of conflict. Regardless of the secrecy, once the conflict emerges, it must be neutralized.

Examining the Conflict: Opposing Worldviews

In looking closely at the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, we notice that the reason for the conflict between Jesus and the Jews (that is, a group consisting of nonbelieving Jews and Pharisees) is due to Jesus presenting different concepts. Jesus presented a different way of thinking and different ways of viewing reality. The Jews were buried in tradition, while Jesus embodied truth. The Jewish authorities and Jesus had different worldviews—different perceptions of reality. In other words, each viewed the world through a particular lens. As missiologist Paul Hiebert says, these lenses are deep: “They are generally unexamined and largely implicit. Like glasses, they shape how we see the world, but we are rarely aware of their presence. In fact, others can often see them better than we ourselves do.”1 Hiebert argues that these worldviews provide us with “mental models of deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or pictures and images that shape how we understand the world and how we take action.”2

Looking back to Jesus and the Jewish authorities, we must note that Jesus—as truth—posed a threat to the religious leaders. More specifically, their two opposing worldviews collided. Regarding worldviews, Hiebert writes:

We are similarly largely unaware of our own worldview and how it shapes our thoughts and actions. We simply assume that the world is the way we see it, and that others see it in the same way. We become conscious of our worldviews when they are challenged by outside events they cannot explain.3

According to Hiebert, until people’s worldviews are held up in comparison with others, they are relatively unaware of their own viewpoints. The interaction with an opposing perspective of reality causes people to reflect on their own “lenses,” which makes them attentive to their points of view and in many cases brings about major conflict.

In the following instance, Jesus was not interacting with hostile Jewish authorities but with the crowds, as described in John 6. The day after Jesus miraculously multiplied fish and bread, the crowds came to him again, seeking more miraculous gifts. As a result, a worldview conflict emerged as Jesus confronted those who were seeking a mere bread king and not the bread of life. He challenged their perception of him, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). In this way, Jesus exposed their faulty worldviews in relationship to him.

In John 8, we see a more intense worldview conflict with Jesus as he confronted the Pharisees: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24). Again, there is a collision between two different perceptions of reality. And not only does Jesus provide a contrary way of viewing life, the world, and eternal things, but he also poses a threat to the comfortable position of the Jewish authorities.

Why Secrecy, Silence, and Fear?

There was silence from those who dared not speak openly about Jesus but who whispered because of their fear—such as Nicodemus in John 3. Later on, there are accounts of many other authorities who were afraid to confess Jesus due to their fear of being ostracized by their colleagues (see John 12:42). This is another important component of a worldview conflict. Simply stated, secrecy, silence, and fear arise in worldview conflicts.

First, when there is a worldview conflict between two people in perceived positions of authority, bystanders will often keep quiet or whisper their opinions. Their silence and murmuring are often due to insecurity and uncertainty. That is to say, when no official verdict is rendered and no victor rises to the top in a worldview conflict, bystanders will often pull back, observe, and wait to express their opinions until after the dust settles.

Second, as already mentioned about Nicodemus, secrecy can be created when worldviews collide. This secrecy is not necessarily due to fear or cowardice, but—as with Nicodemus—is an employment of careful caution in the midst of conflict. The secrecy allows people to examine the arguments for themselves without being pulled into any potential back-and-forth drama.

Finally, worldview conflicts between people can also produce fear. As we see in John 12, the religious leaders enforced stern measures of possible excommunication from the synagogue of those who supported and confessed Jesus as the Savior. In other words, by inciting fear, those in religious authority attempted to deter people from joining Jesus’ side in the conflict. If the people supported Jesus, then there would be blowback from the authorities. Thus fear was used to keep lips sealed.

The Need to Neutralize the Conflict

Once the conflict arose from conflicting worldviews between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, secrecy and silence then arose from the onlookers. But what of the conflict itself between Jesus and the religious leaders? Keep in mind that great anxiety and conflict can arise when deeply embedded worldviews are challenged by events and situations too difficult to comprehend. Hiebert comments on this:

To question worldviews is to challenge the very foundations of life, and people resist such challenges with deep emotional reactions. There are few human fears greater than a loss of a sense of order and meaning. People are willing to die for their beliefs if these beliefs make their deaths meaningful.4

As shared by Hiebert, there will be deep emotional reactions when a person is confronted.

Furthermore, Hiebert says that there will be long-lasting and powerful themes in place to reinforce a person’s worldview when conflict arises. These themes will act as a defense mechanism, defending and reinforcing a person’s particular point of view.5 Therefore, in the case of the Jewish authorities, we should not be surprised that Jesus’ tenets were resisted. The tension had to be resolved for the Jewish authorities, and they had to push back against Jesus to affirm their current worldview as sufficient and accurate. They could not live in an ongoing state of dissonance and worldview conflict. The conflict had to be resolved—it had to be neutralized.

Looking back to the crowd of John 6, we see a rather tame example of a worldview conflict being neutralized when people left Jesus. In John 6:60 we read, “When many of the disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” Then in verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” In other words, the worldview conflict and tension were resolved and neutralized by the individuals parting from Jesus.

We notice the same thing with Jesus. When he drew near to the city of Jerusalem, conflict inevitably broke out. However, Jesus typically neutralized the conflict by departing from Jerusalem, which allowed geographical space to ease the tension. Jesus temporarily neutralized the conflict, because it was not his time to suffer, die, and rise.

The way to resolve and neutralize the conflict, however, was different for the religious leaders. Not only did the Jewish authorities attack Jesus’ character, but their zealous rage also led them to extreme, violent measures. In John 8:39–59, Jesus asserted that even though the Jewish leaders’ ancestry was of Abraham, their spiritual ancestry could be traced back to the devil. Of course, the Jewish leaders did not take this lightly and accused Jesus of being demon possessed. As a result of this intense exchange—and to neutralize the conflict—the Jewish authorities picked up stones to throw at him to kill him, for a dead Jesus would eliminate this worldview conflict.

In John 10, we see similar tactics of attempting to neutralize the conflict with Jesus when the Jewish authorities attempted to stone him again; and in John 7, 10, and 11, they tried to arrest him. To the point: a dead Jesus, or at least an imprisoned Jesus, was an adequate solution for the Jewish authorities in order to silence and neutralize a conflicting worldview.


As we have seen, the conflict in the Gospel of John is characterized by three components: (1) a worldview conflict; (2) secrecy, silence, and fear; and (3) an attempt to neutralize the conflict. What can we conclude from these three aspects?

The worldview conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders was irreconcilable. Therefore, the only positive and healthy resolution for the conflict was repentance on behalf of the Jewish authorities. However, since the religious leaders were not willing to repent, they chose to persecute Jesus. That is to say, the road breaks only two ways when one encounters Jesus: Either a person repents and becomes captive to the Word, or a person persecutes and tries to eliminate the eternal Word.

Secrecy, silence, and fear come about within the ethos of worldview conflict. Secrecy and silence, however, do not eliminate worldview conflicts; they merely redirect the conflict away or postpone climatic conflict to another time and place.

To neutralize worldview conflict, one has to repent of a prior worldview, withdraw from the conflict, or eliminate the opposing worldview. In the case of the Jewish authorities, they chose to eliminate Jesus. He was arrested, flogged, crucified, and buried. In this way, the religious leaders thought they were able to maintain not only their comfortable worldview but also keep their place of established power. But as we know, the eternal truth—Jesus—could not be contained in the tomb. He rose. He lives. His word—the biblical worldview—will neither wither nor fade. It remains forever.

And so as Christians in the twenty-first century, we can know that since Jesus’ word endures, these worldview conflicts do and should happen in the world and even in the church. As parishioners interact with each other, there will be point of view collisions. Furthermore, as pastors preach the word and apply it to the flock, they are presenting a particular worldview that has been shaped by the truths of the Scriptures. The grand metanarrative of the word will continually form and reform the parish. Therefore, we should not be surprised when the word comes into conflict with assumptions in the church and the world due to worldviews that have not been solely formed by the Bible. We should not be surprised when there is secrecy, silence, fear, and whispering. We should not be surprised when individuals attempt to neutralize the conflict.

Although this is how it is with humanity, Jesus will never be neutralized. Jesus will not and cannot be silenced. As the eternal Word, he cannot be muzzled. Death did not eliminate truth. The grave could not imprison truth. Jesus is alive. His word is active and sharper than any two-edged sword. Even though conflict, secrecy, silence, and attempts to neutralize will continue, Jesus’ word—his worldview—will go forth and accomplish what he desires.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) of Minot, North Dakota. He is a graduate of Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Minnesota and Concordia Seminary in Missouri.

  1. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 46.
  2. Hiebert, 46.
  3. Hiebert, 47.
  4. Hiebert, 85.
  5. Hiebert, 59.
Friday, March 1st 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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