You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover… (John 4)

I like buying old books. There’s a mystique that old books have that’s hard to replicate in any other type of media. I often don’t even read them… I just thumb through them, smell the old musty pages, then put them on the shelf where I can admire their bindings.

I own books from which I’ve never gleaned a single word. I don’t know their contents and I don’t even care.

I find pleasure in judging a book by its cover.

I think this is acceptable when it’s a book, but people are different. People are much more complex and complicated than books. There’s much more to people than their exterior bindings; where they live, what they do, and with whom they associate. At times it’s hard to look past a person’s cover and reconsider what you think you know.

In John 3-4 the author introduces readers to three characters that seem to have questionable covers, but the stories within their pages provide unique stories of faith.

In John 3:1-12, Jesus encounters Nicodemus, a complex man, who is associated with a group of unbelieving hypocrites. But his desire to meet with Jesus suggests there may be more to Nicodemus than his cover suggests. It’s possible he is a man of faith that represents a largely unbelieving group of Pharisees.

Then in John 4:4-45, Jesus meets with a woman at a well. Samaria a theologically foreign land. The Jews didn’t think Samaritans could have a true faith. But the discussion Jesus has with this woman suggests a plot twist. She expressed an unorthodox amount of faith that even the disciples didn’t anticipate or fully understand. 

Finally in John 4:46-54, Jesus is approached by a royal official. It’s not entirely clear if this man was a Jew or a Gentile, but for sure he is Hellenized: He has been greatly influenced by the Greco-Roman culture and is likely serving in Herod’s court. He works in the “Galilee of the Gentiles” and he represents an unbelieving district in the north. But could he also be a man of faith? At first it seems unlikely. The man asks for a miracle and Jesus responds with what seems like a personal critique,

“Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (John 4:48).

But the “you’s” in Jesus’ statement are plural; they are “you all’s”. Jesus isn’t speaking about the man’s lack of faith, but seems to be speaking through the individual and describing the people he represents. 

Why do I say this?  Because the man is the exception to Jesus’ statement. The official originally came to hoping Jesus would follow him back to Cana to heal his son. But he ends up believing without seeing the sign. He is the exception to the rule.

In John 3-4 we are introduced to three people who don’t seem like they could have any type faith.  But faith might be a bit more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. In first-century Palestine, it was often the case that those that who looked faithful on the outside often weren’t. But those who didn’t seem faithful, were sometimes surprisingly faithful. Back then, a person’s outward appearance was not always a good indicator of the inward condition of their soul.

Could this be the same today? Might we also be surprised by those that don’t fit our locative, social, or ethnic expectations of faith? Is it also possible that those with impressive bindings might not quite be what we expect? Let’s not be so quick to judge a book by its cover.

John’s presentation of complicated characters in a complicated land is just one of the topics I cover in The John Study video lesson for chapter four. You can watch the video below… or preview other videos (and download chapter lessons) from The John Study by visiting: THE JOHN STUDY VIDEOS page.