Johanan was a hero—at least he tried to be. In service to God’s will that the Judeans stay in the Promised Land in the face of all odds, Johanan tried to stop a plot against their leader’s life, and when that failed, he pursued the assassins and ran them off. When Judah’s social structure was thin at best, Johanan was a man who stood for the strength of his people and the will of God in their lives.
Circumstances, however, have a way of changing a person’s outlook. When the dust settled, Johanan was left in charge of a motley group of Judeans without any kind of political or military structure to speak of and looking at the potential of Babylon’s wrath. And into this situation he asks Jeremiah, God’s prophet, to tell him what God wants them to do. It turns out that though they want to flee to Egypt, God wants them to trust Him and stay in Judah.
So how does our hero respond? “Johanan…and all the insolent men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are telling a lie.’”(vs. 2)
Where does this shocking response come from? Before we get to that question, I think we can benefit from reading Johanan’s reasoning. He actually gives two reasons why he doesn’t believe the word of Jeremiah.
First of all, what Jeremiah spoke was not the Word of God: “The Lord our God did not send you to say.” (vs. 2) This is, in all reality, a common response to the Word of God when it does not fit our preconceived categories or our comfort zones. We like to say that the Word of God is not actually the Word of God. If we allow God to speak into our lives from His point of view, that word will be, from time to time, uncomfortable or difficult. Our ears like to hear what we already “know” and what we already “understand.” Being a disciple of Christ, however, means allowing Him to teach me to see and know the way He does. After all, I may be one who has ears and cannot hear, who has eyes but cannot see. (Matt. 13:15)
Secondly, Johanan attributes the sacred Word of God to the scheming of just a man: “but Baruch…has set you against us.” (vs. 3) Any conspiracy in a storm will do, I guess. If we shift the voice we hear from the heavens to a common, ordinary man, we can take and leave what we will and stand as judge over the words spoken. When the words of Scripture become just the words of other humans, I am just as competent to judge and interpret those words as the composer.
Ultimately, Johanan failed at a moment of faith. He showed a great deal of faith and resolve in the past, but later, when they were in a very tight spot and that faith would have done him a world of good, he decided to look elsewhere for his wisdom. Past success in faithfulness does not guarantee a future of the same. The Christian life is one of constant attention and diligence. Satan is ready to devour believers (which he usually does slowly, bite by bite) and we need to be moving forward in our discipleship even when we have times of great success.
Six centuries later, the Apostle Paul reflects on stories like Johanan’s and has this advice to give us:
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction.…Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:11-12)