Showing posts with label John. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John. Show all posts

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be like the eunuch (an Easter meditation)




My wife and kids were all sick this past Lord's Day, so we stayed home and worshiped as a family, using the readings from the BCP as our focus for the day. Below are some of my thoughts about those readings. 

Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8



Our passage from Acts is well known. Philip receives a message from God, informing him to go south to the road which travels from Jerusalem to Gaza; there he would meet a eunuch and court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her entire treasury (Acts 8:27). This eunuch "had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah" (vv. 27-8). When Philip meets with him, the eunuch asks about whom Isaiah was referring--about Isaiah himself or another person--when he wrote: 
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip then uses that passage of Isaiah to teach him the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 35). This eunuch then responds with faith in Jesus by receiving baptism (v. 38), and continuing on from there in his travels he rejoices (v. 39).

Upon reading this the first time, what struck my attention first was the fact that this eunuch had just visited Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but while he was in Jerusalem worshipping, none of the Jewish authorities taught him about Jesus, the messiah whom they had recently crucified. The second thing which struck my attention is that he is found traveling away from Jerusalem while reflecting seriously upon Isaiah 53, a messianic passage specifically about "justice being denied" a servant of God, during "his humiliation." These references to injustice and humiliation are particularly intriguing, because Luke describes this man as both a eunuch of the Queen (which, ordinarily, was a humiliating status) and her treasurer; but if this man is a genuine eunuch--that is, a slave surgically castrated according to a King's orders, for the purpose of serving in an official capacity for his wife, the Queen--then he would not have been allowed to enter Herod's Temple, no matter how great his faith was. The Jewish authorities would not allow it, based on their interpretation of Torah. This man's status as a eunuch disqualified him from having direct access to God in Jerusalem's Temple. Although this eunuch was given a surprisingly high status in his own culture, among those of similar faith, he was marginalized; he was forbidden to become a full proselyte of Judaism.1 

This message of marginalization echoes in our other readings for this day. In John's first epistle, he writes to a marginalized Christian congregation, a congregation filled primarily with Jews, but also Gentile God-fearers like the eunuch. John writes to Christians whose faith was being "shaken up" and challenged by anti-Christian Judaizers and proselytes of Judaism. John could not have been any clearer about why he wrote such polemical, black-and-white statements:  
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. (I John 2:26)
These allies of anti-Jesus Judaism were intentionally trying to deceive Christians into believing their worship of God, in Christ, was false worship. Similar to the Jewish authorities who kept the Ethiopian eunuch from learning the gospel of Jesus, so these antichrists are intentionally deceiving the Christians of John's congregation. A few verses earlier (I John 2:18) we learned that "many antichrists have come," and these antichrists infiltrated the Christian community to become "one of them," eventually making it plain among all, when they left, that Christians worshiped another God than the God of the Jews. Christians affirmed the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and also One-with-the-Father (I John 2:22), which the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem emphatically denied (John 5:18). Christians affirmed that they worshipped God the Father and the Son together as the one true God, whereas these antichrists denied that they could worship both the Son and the Father as one (vv. 22-23). 

While Jesus was among his people, he had spoken clearly about such escalating unbelief in Israel, and that God would come and visit them to prune the vine of Israel, removing every branch in Jesus which does not produce fruit. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, 
I am the true vine, and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. ...Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
This pruning began with the first disciples of Jesus, and the gathering of dead branches culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its idolatrous anti-Christian Temple in 70 A.D.. Jesus was abundantly clear about this message, as the gospel of Matthew testifies. The epistle of first John was likely written very close to the end of that idolatrous old covenant system, as seen by John's reference to it being the "last hour" (I John 2:18). 

In 2:28 John reminds his congregation about this promise of Jesus to come to them, delivering them from their oppressive enemies (i.e. the antichrists, the anti-Christian Jewish authorities). John says that no one born of God persecutes God's own children, as these antichrists have been doing (I John 3:1-24). Moreover, John commands his congregation to not believe every spirit, because some spirits put on a great show, claiming to be of God while rejecting Jesus as God the Father's Messiah.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. They are from the world...and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 
This is the message which takes place immediately before our lectionary reading today. And so, in light of this marginalization of Christians from Jewish antichrists, I think it's important to notice how John instructs his Christian congregation to respond. He tells them to respond with love toward their brother; and not just any brother. In context John seems to be referring to Jewish brethren, the same brethren who are challenging them to publicly walk away from the Christian congregation with them, back to Jerusalem, back to Herod's Temple where faithful, Torah-keeping "believers" have exclusive access to God, and can draw near to Him with a sacrifice.

From the very beginning, John exhorts his Christian congregation to hold fast to the faith by loving their brothers while resisting the Judaizing cultural pressure to go back and worship the Father in their Temple, where they can offer the old covenant sacrifices of God again. 
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world
John's message was the same as Philip's. God sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the midst of his own people, to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel, and not for them only but also for the sins of the whole world, even for eunuch's from Ethiopia, who would not have been allowed to draw near to God in Herod's Temple. Even Isaiah prophesied about these days with the coming kingdom of Israel's Messiah: 
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people."
And do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 
For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." 
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:3-5, 8)
God's love was revealed to the whole world in this way: God sent his only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for its sins, so that the whole world could live through him (I John 4:9-10). God sent his only Son in the world so that the world could no longer find life through the Temple, Torah, liturgy, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. "We have seen and do testify," John says, "that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God" (4:14-15).

In our day and age, nearly 2,000 years past those events of which John spoke, Christians are still confessing the same truths and are still being marginalized by "the world" because of it. Just look at the Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them as enemies of God. Christians confess that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of the world, which includes Muslims too, but some people simply don't want to receive that truth claim. Apart from the vine of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation for the world. Time doesn't change the hearts of people who love darkness, and refuse to step into God's light.  

Even 2,000 years of Church history doesn't change the way brothers treat each other, marginalizing some because of zeal for the truth. Did you ever meet a Christian who behaved that way? Did you ever meet a Christian brother, baptized into the Body of Christ, who turns on you or someone you know, treating them as though they're not true Christians, as though they can tap into the secret councils of Almighty God and deliver His sovereign message about your personal salvation to your front door? Did you ever meet any Christian who marginalized others because that so-called Christian actually enjoys drinking alcohol, and he doesn't think it's sin! Or they enjoy "worldly movies" and entertainment? Or, God forbid, they're Catholic, or Charismatic, or anything that's not in accordance with the true Christian doctrine, and so they know who is and not a true Christian? (That's sarcasm, by the way.)

If you haven't met any Christian brother like that, you are very fortunate. In reality, our so-called "Christian nation" is plagued with unloving, foolishly zealous "brothers" like that. They love you just enough to insult and demean your intelligence, but they have the best of intentions for your soul. Even more unfortunate is the fact that all "Christian" cults in America have been like that too, and they try to recruit Christians out of Trinitarian churches to save them by joining their cult. They tell you you need to use their rituals to draw near to God. You need to abide by their laws to be saved. You are welcome to feast at the table of their god once you repent and believe what they believe, as they understand "belief" to be. 

Thankfully, these are not the ways in which we know God. Our congregation uses a formal liturgy, but our liturgy is not essential for drawing near to God. We even have rituals which condition us week after week, year after year to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, His spoken Word, and His Table, but He is essential, not the rituals; our rituals and liturgy can change from church to church, but God can still be known in all of them. Our lives are caught up in the life of God, not our rituals. Because Jesus is our life, the cycles of our life and the boundaries we place around us are approved by Jesus, boundaries which are faithful and beautiful and holy in God's sight. 

Each week we gather together in the eucharist to feast at the Lord's table, not a Mormon table or a Presbyterian Table or a Roman Catholic table. It is the Lord's table, and you know the significance of that message. You know its significance because you know the One who goes out into the margins of a violent, ungrateful, and unloving world to heal, comfort, and love, to bring them into His Church and be renewed by His Spirit, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, and to proclaim liberty to those enslaved in sin. You know the God who I'm talking about because greater is the One in you than the one who is in the world. Those who are violent and ungrateful in the face of Christ, in the face of God's children, are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world and the world listens to them. We are from God, and we confess that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh from God, to reach beyond the margins of Israel to the margins of the whole world, to be the true bread and true drink of heaven for the whole world.  

If you ever doubt God's word about you, about how he sees you in Christ--as a brother, a sister, a child of God, and friend--that is why the Lord offers the waters of baptism for you, as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch. If you have not been baptized, be like the eunuch and point to some water, asking, "What prevents me from being baptized?" After God has claimed you for himself, go on rejoicing like the eunuch too! 

Unlike the Pharisees and other Judaizers of John's day, God doesn't marginalize anyone who puts their trust in him, no matter how great your sins are. (Yes, I said that right: no matter how great your sins are.) Just as there is no sin so great but that it deserves God's wrath, so there is no sin so great that it can bring God's wrath upon all those who truly repent. Because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, God doesn't deny us justice in our humiliation, or treat us as insignificant or peripheral to the world he came, in flesh, to save. In Baptism he gives us an everlasting name that we can live  forever rejoicing in, a name that will never be cut off, the name of "son" or "daughter." At the Table he gathers the outcasts of the world and brings them beside other sons and daughters that have already been gathered. That is why our Lord sets His table before us each and every week. If God has claimed you for himself, don't come doubting whether you are welcome to feast with Jesus. It is his Table, and you are welcome to feast upon the faithful sacrifice who died for your sins. 

Be like the eunuch. Believe and rejoice in this glorious gospel of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.










1.  See Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Volume 2) [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2013], pp. 1567-1573 




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Proclaiming Liberty to Captives (A homily for Gaudete Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)



Advent  (Third Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks. Do not quench. Do not despise. Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back. Try repeating those verbs out loud a few times. (No, seriously, try it.)
 
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks.

Do not quench. Do not despise.

Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back.

Perhaps, as you spoke those words out loud, you noticed that Paul gives three positive commands, followed by two negative commands, followed by another set of three positive commands. Each set of commands fits together as one unit, and each of those units fit into each other, forming a neat symmetrical structure.1 This structure is a neat little way to illustrate that Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His closing thoughts were well thought through, organized, and intentional. He said things in such a way that there really should not be room for doubt or debate as to what he meant. But of course, we do anyway. We doubt at least a little bit because Paul didn’t simply say “Rejoice.” He said rejoice always. He said give thanks in all circumstances. He said test all things, and hold-back from every sight of evil. Once we hear such penetrating and seemingly unqualified instructions for the Church, we want to ask questions like, ‘Did Paul really mean to rejoice always?’ ‘Am I really supposed to be praying constantly, or to be giving thanks in everything?' As I am going to contend in this message, I think the answer is “yes.” I think that set of commands was meant to be understood exactly as we find it today; and that set of commands were not just the will of God for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:18), but they also remain valid commands for the Christians today.

But I’m willing to bet that doesn’t clarify things for us very much. Such unqualified terms do not, in fact, help us understand why Paul would gave such broad, sweeping commands and actually expected people to honor them. 

Fortunately the lectionary readings assigned for today help us make sense of this. In our old testament reading, Isaiah preached about the gospel of God coming to visit His people and to deliver them from exile. It begins with a familiar poetic proclamation, something Jesus used to describe his own ministry as he read from the lectionary in a synagogue in galilee (Luke 4:16-20):
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Isaiah, of course, is the one who spoke those words originally; and if you were living in Isaiah’s generation, and listening to him say those words, you might have thought he was referring to himself. But he wasn’t. He was referring to someone else, someone coming after him, whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.

There is something else peculiar about this message from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted with regard to Himself. Isaiah’s prophecies of salvation are always accompanied by messages of judgment. They are, in fact, messages of salvation through judgment; and Jesus stops his quotation of this passage at the very end of the salvation portion. Jesus stops right before the Isaiah passage talks about God’s judgment—about the Day of vengeance, a day not at the end of human history, but at a time when God would come down to judge Israel for her sins, sending them into exile and destroying Jerusalem for the empire of idolatry it would eventually become. Such messages of salvation proclaimed through the mouth of Isaiah could hardly be taken as “good news” if his own generation and the city of Jerusalem would first have to endure God's judgment. So God’s promise in the days of Isaiah was not simply that God would come and save Israel. God’s message to Isaiah's generation was primarily one of judgment for everyone who would not repent and turn to God, and be saved through it. Yet, somewhat enigmatically, this means that the salvation promised by God would have to come at a later time, to the people of God sent into exile after Jerusalem was destroyed. This means that if you happened to be living in Isaiah’s time, you would not have lived to experience the glorious deliverance that God had promised. That generation could not have experienced the salvation Isaiah described because it didn’t occur in Isaiah’s time. It occurred much later.

It doesn’t take much to realize that such a message does not appear to be good news, at either the first, second, or fifth glance. But it was, in fact, good news. It was good news to the people who trusted in God’s faithfulness, those who prepared their hearts to endure through God's judgment upon Israel; and it was also good news to the generation who lived through Israel’s second exodus—their return from Babylonian captivity. If you study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s promises through Isaiah were most certainly promises of good news. At the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—roughly 500 years before Christ was born—God had done far more than simply proclaim liberty to his people held captive in Babylon; He had actually given them liberty to return to Jerusalem and re-build the House of the Lord, i.e. His Temple. He released His people who had been held prisoners in a foreign land so that they could proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor back in Jerusalem.

From our Psalm reading today (Psa. 126), we learned a little about how the people of God felt at that time, when they returned from Babylonian captivity:
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter

And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

With all of Israel’s future talk (in these Psalms) about the greatness of God in restoring them from captivity, the people probably expected the prophecies of Isaiah to have reached their fulfillment. In other words, if you were an Israelite in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, you probably would have thought that God’s ultimate promises for His kingdom had now come to fruition. You might have thought that the end was near and it was only a matter of time before God would make all things new again. However, there would have been one significant dilemma for those who held that belief. No matter how close one looks at that period in Israel’s history (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.), what will not be found is a record of the Lord returning to His House, the Temple. The people returned, but the glory of the Lord did not.

You see, when God gave Israel plans to construct His House in the wilderness, at Sinai, He showed up and made His glorious presence known. He didn’t just give His people instructions to build a House for Himself and then sneak into His throne-room quietly in the middle of the night. To the contrary, the Lord descended in a glorious cloud onto the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35) just as He did onto Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20). There, in the presence of everyone, YHWH shook the earth and sat down on His throne in the Most Holy Place, seated on the Cherubim above the ark of the covenant (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 1). The Lord also showed up when Solomon finished building the Temple in Jerusalem. The shekinah glory descended upon the Temple and the arrival of His glorious presence is given extra special attention in those passages of Scripture (II Chron 7:1-3). But the glorious appearance of the Lord did not occur in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity; and the glory of the Lord would not appear again until a man name John started baptizing Israelites in the wilderness.

We read a little about that in our lectionary assignments for today. It’s interesting that we are only given a very small amount of information about who John the Baptist was, and perhaps even more interestingly, John’s gospel makes a special point to tell us emphatically who John was not (1:6-8). John was not the light of the world. But he was a lamp with just enough brightness to be noticed; and because the world of Jesus' day was so dark and gloomy, when the Jewish authorities saw John’s light the first thing they wanted to know was if he was the promised Messiah. This confirms what I have already said: the Jews themselves understood that God’s promises in Isaiah and other prophets were not yet fulfilled, and that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned to His Temple to rule and restore all things as promised.

Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1st Thessalonians, Paul was writing to Gentiles who had received the Spirit of God because the glory of God had finally returned. God had returned, in the flesh, to restore not just Israel, but the whole world from its bondage. Paul spoke as one who believed that kingdom-building project throughout the whole world was well underway—that God had come down in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and was now, after his resurrection, working powerfully by His Spirit to build a new and glorious Temple not just in the earth, but of the earth, of the whole earth. Jesus came to make all things new, not just some things new. The scope of His salvation was cosmic. He came to build up all the ancient ruins, raise up all the former devastations of many generations, and to plant oaks of righteousness across the globe (Isa. 61:3-4). Paul saw a forest of God’s righteousness and praise springing up before all nations as Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. That is the background of Paul’s commands at the end of 1st Thessalonians. Paul understood that God was up to something He had never done before—something far more powerful, and influential, and lasting than the kingdom-building projects of Israel’s early days.

Now, as you read through the commands of Paul at the end of 1st Thessalonians, allow that vision to permeate the way you view what has been said. Paul said, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. Do not quench the flame of the Spirit working throughout the world. Do not despise the words of prophets who confirm this glorious temple-building project of God; but rather, test all things, hold-firmly to what is beautiful, and hold-back from every sight of evil; and may the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit, soul, and body of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Paul knew that the glorious faithfulness of God had been manifest for the whole world to see. Paul had seen it with his own eyes, and heard about it from distant lands far beyond what he had ever traveled, and that is why Paul could confidently say to the Thessalonians, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:24).

The Spirit’s powerful work in Paul’s day is something we too should be encouraged by and hopeful for as we wait upon the Lord this Advent season. That same Spirit which spoke through prophets and spread the gospel through Paul’s world was the same exact Spirit who empowered men, women, and children all over the globe to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and to give thanks in every circumstance; and it is that same exact Spirit of rejoicing, thanking, testing, and self-control which continues the kingdom-building project of the Messiah today. Christ Jesus is still making His name known among all the nations today by the work of that same Spirit in Paul’s day, and all who see the Spirit’s work in us—watching us test all things carefully, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from what is evil—they see the God of peace sanctifying the world through us. As Isaiah prophesied, they see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed (61:9). It is because we are truly blessed by the Spirit of God that we can always rejoice and in every circumstance give thanks.

One important way in which the Church has always rejoiced and continuously gives thanks is by celebrating the Eucharist. Even the word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” It is also the word Paul used in our reading today where he told the Thessalonians to “give thanks.” It is here, in the Eucharist, where the Church learns to rejoice, where our tongues are trained for thanksgiving. Here we gather together in “Eucharist”—in thanksgiving—for the gifts of bread and wine, for the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood. Here we hold firmly onto the beautiful gospel made food. So come to the Lord’s Table today and rejoice! Taste and see that the Lord is good.


* * * * * *


O Heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in the cosmic scope of renewal which you have begun through Christ in his first advent, we would learn to serve you with gladness always, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from every sight of evil; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.








1.  The structure looks like this:
A)  Rejoice always
  B)  Pray constantly
    C)  Give thanks in everything,
      D)  for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. 

E)   Do not quench the Spirit
E')  Do not despise the words of prophets

A')  Test all things
  B')  Hold-firmly to what is beautiful
    C')  Hold-back from every sight of evil, 
      D')  and may the God of peaceHimselfsanctify you all completely; and may the complete spiritsoul and bodyof you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Born of Water and Spirit?




Jesus's encounter with Nicodemus the Pharisee is a very well known story. "You must be born from above," Jesus says. Nicodemus wants to know how that can be. Jesus reiterates that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Volumes of literature have been written about how to interpret Jesus' statements within this pericopae; and I'm probably not the first to make the following observations; but since this blog is about my observations, I'll jot down some thoughts anyway.

Immediately before this dialogue with Nicodemus, John inserts some words of his own worth taking into account beforehand (John 2:23-3:2):
Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, Himself, had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind. And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."
It is after the encounter with Nicodemus that we find John inserting further comments of his own (John 3:13-21):
Indeed, no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; for God so loved the world that He gave his one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; but he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one-and-only Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Between all of these personal comments by John we find Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. This happens in three brief phases of dialogue: 

1)  Nicodemus begins by saying: "...we know that you are a teacher come from God...". 
Jesus responds with a statement about an individual being born "from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. 

2)  Nicodemus follows that with something like, "How can that be and how does that even work?" (I'm paraphrasing, obviously). 
Jesus provides an answer for that question too: a person must be born of two things: water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. And "do not marvel," Jesus says, "that I said to you, 'You-all must be born again.'"

3)  Nicodemus responds one more time, saying "How can these things be?" 
To which, Jesus replied: "...we speak of what we know and witness of what we have seen, and you-all do not accept our witness. If I told you-all earthly things and you-all do not believe, how will you-all believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

Now, at this point some questions remain. For instance, how do John's comments help us interpret Jesus' comments toward Nicodemus? The words of Jesus do not speak for themselves, and if left to interpret themselves within their own very narrow setting of John (3:1-21), we'll be left with curiosity at best and confusion at worst. 

I'll try my best (below) to illustrate what meaning I think Jesus' statements were intended to convey, according to the way John composed the narrative.

The most important place to start is by recognizing that John is writing a letter about Jesus' ministry to Judean Jews---Jews and Jewish authorities around Jerusalem and its Temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't record much about this aspect of Jesus' ministry. 

A second important factor to realize is that John is recording a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that, in context, was entirely about Israelites. Sure, John comments about "man" and people generically; but he is utilizing those terms to illustrate Israelite "men," Jewish people. One would think that the context of this discussion taking place in Jerusalem at the time of Passover would be a clear enough indicator of this, but Christians often insist anyway that the references to "men" must mean something more. Well, they might have been intended that way originally, but I don't think they were, even though I think they teach principles which apply to all men today. But understanding John's point makes a whole lot more sense if it's kept in its original historical context about Jesus witnessing to Judean Jews in Jerusalem (which is where 9/10's of Jesus' actions in this Gospel take place). 

Notice also that Nicodemus begins by saying "...we know." This "we" must at least refer to Israelites in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, but it also highlights the other Pharisees and "rulers of the Jews" like Nicodemus himself. By the end of the discussion Jesus hands Nicodemus' words back to him, saying "...we speak of what we know...but you-all do not receive our witness". That "we" refers to Jesus' disciples: those disciples from Galilee who followed Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (2:17, 22), some of whom heard John the Baptizer declare Jesus to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36); it refers to disciples who receive a certain "witness"---a witness of what they have seen.

In Jesus' first response to Nicodemus, he says that any Israelite (like Nicodemus, who just saw his "signs") must be "born from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is  something visible, but not every Israelite could see it because, as John said immediately before the dialogue, Jesus "had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind." In other words, Jesus noticed that many Israelites believed in his name, believing that he was more than just a man sent from God. But Jesus knew them all, and he knew that not all would (or could) believe that he is more than just a mere man. He had visited the Temple throughout his life, seen the same kinds of people and their faithfulness to God, and he had seen their faithfulness to the traditions of their rulers (like Nicodemus) too. Jesus was not putting on a display of faith in himself before them,  even in his zeal for his Father's house; and he did not need anyone to witness about mankind either.  He knew he was Light sent into a world of darkness, and mankind loves darkness rather than light.  To men he was just another man, only he was a teacher sent from God too; but he was still just a man. To others he was more than a mere man sent from God: he was the Son of God. He was what John the Baptizer witnessed in the opening scene of John's gospel, saying "...I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God!" What is "in mankind" is disbelief that God became flesh, and that such flesh "tabernacled" among them (1:14).

In the middle of all this, Nicodemus asks (paraphrasing again), "How can that be and how does that even work?" Jesus' comments about being born of water and Spirit are supposed to be understood in this context--this very Jewish context about seeing and witnessing the Son of God face to face, along with his disciples, but not actually seeing anything more than a human "teacher sent from God." 

What does that have to do needing water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God? 

I don't think the reference to being born of the Spirit is the controversial part to answer. The controversial part has to do with what Jesus meant by needing to be born of water to enter the Kingdom. And that, I think is resolved by looking at the surrounding narratives. 

John's gospel begins with John baptizing with water in preparation for the Messiah to be revealed to Israel (1:19-27), followed by the Spirit descending from above and remaining upon Jesus. Jesus then performs his first miracle at Cana by turning water used for Jewish purification rituals into the best wine used to gladden the heart of the bridegroom. After this, Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his zeal for his Father's House (the Temple) leads into the discussion at night time with Nicodemus. 

Immediately following the discussion with Nicodemus we find more water imagery. Jesus goes out into the Judean countryside to visit John the Baptizer again, and to oversee his disciples baptizing alongside John (3:22-26; 4:1-3). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it is in that context---the context which immediately follows Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about "water and Spirit"---that we find John the Baptizer talking about Jesus receiving the Spirit of God without measure at his baptism (3:34), and to utter the words of God himself (v. 34), so that whichever Israelite receives Jesus' witness about the Father, and believes in Jesus his Son, will have eternal life (3:36). Following this pericopae, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, and Jesus describes himself with very clear Edenic Temple imagery, offering something from himself (the Spirit that descended from above and remained on him) as the water that wells up to eternal life. 

Is this all a coincidence? Did John accidentally surround the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus with multiple references to baptism, water, and Spirit? Of witnessing, believing, and receiving?

This can be approached from another angle as well. It's obvious that John baptized Jesus with water, and the Spirit descended from heaven and remained on him from the time of his baptism with water. It's also obvious that Jesus believed an Israelite could not enter the kingdom of God unless he was born "from above," born "of water and the Spirit." And finally, it's obvious that Jesus visited John the Baptizer again, in a location where "water was plentiful" for baptisms (3:23). There John describes Jesus as the bridegroom, and himself as a guest at the wedding banquet. John is like one of Jesus' drawers of water, waiting for Jesus to turn that water into wine. There John also implies that those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those whom Jesus has given his Spirit and those who have been baptized by his disciples. Those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those who see him as the Lamb of God, the guilt offering to God for the world. They see him also as the Temple of God, who dwells in their midst and whose river flows out to the four corners of the world. They also see him as the baptismal font within the Temple, purifying bloody sacrifices into  food for God and man, turning clear fonts of water into wells of living wine.  

I think it's difficult to overlook the overlapping themes of water and spirit, descending and receiving, witnessing and seeing in the beginning of John's gospel. All those terms are used by John to describe the salvation that God provided through His Son in the first century. And I think it would have been difficult for first century Jews--especially after the Temple's destruction in 70 A.D.--to overlook Jesus' connection with the Torah and Temple of God at that time. It's certainly not too much of a stretch to think John desired his first century Jewish audience to receive his letter in faith, seeing Jesus' Spirit  at work page after page, and witnessing his life-giving presence poured out from above in baptismal waters. I imagine that those Jews who read John's gospel also noticed that Jesus was not well received by many of his own people. Those among Israel who were baptized by John's disciples, were baptized into the Temple and priesthood that God had fashioned with His Torah; Jesus was baptized into that as well, in order to have solidarity with Israel. However, Jesus died and rose from death to life again in order to resurrect a Temple in his own body. The resurrected Messiah commissioned his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, baptizing them into His body, the true Temple of God, so they could see and witness eternal life. 

According to John's gospel, and according to Jesus' own ministry, water is nothing without the Spirit, just as speaking God's Word is nothing without the Spirit; but according to Jesus, actual pouring of baptismal water is just as significant to the actual outpouring of His life-giving Spirit as the speaking of His Word is to receiving the true witness about him. So instead of choosing one over the other, as though receiving God's Word is more efficacious than receiving the waters of baptism, John seems to be pointing his audience in a different direction---a direction more familiar to first century Jews than it is to 21st century Americans. According to John's gospel, the waters of baptism flow from the Temple of Jesus himself. What we find is not a dichotomy between receiving the Word and receiving baptismal waters; instead we find a Temple in the Son of God, Jesus, Israel's Messiah, and from the "living waters" he pours out, the nations are called by Word and Spirit to drink so that they would never be thirsty again.





Thursday, October 9, 2014

John 4:14 and its Edenic motif




In The Theme of Temple Christology in John's Gospel, Stephen T. Um comments about the relationship between John 4:14 and "new creational blessing of life" mentioned throughout biblical and post-biblical literature, but especially its imagery used throughout Isaiah's prophecies. Some noteworthy remarks regard the significance of the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 44:3. He argues that the translator has "metaphorically interpreted" the 'thirsty land' as as "the thirsty people who walk in a dry land."1  Because the barren land represents its thirsty people, the translator of the Septuagint related the two metaphors of drinking and irrigation "to show that the act of irrigating the barren land can also be interpreted as an act satisfying those who are thirsty."2 

Um then makes numerous connections between water and Edenic motifs of the Bible. He writes: 
Although many of the Deutero-Isaiah passages do not explicitly refer to Eden, they do, however, develop the garden theme by describing a new creational place of blessedness where there will be wells of salvation and abundant fertility (Isa. 12.3; 35.6-7; 41.17-19; 44.3; 58.11). Once again, Isa. 58.11, 'you will be like a well-watered garden like a spring whose waters never fail', clearly connects water with the garden motif. These irrigation metaphors of water as a symbol of promoting life are highlighted by the revitalizing power of water restoring a barren desert to a luxuriant garden. These rivers, waters, streams, and bubbling springs representing elements leading to life describe a future paradisiacal garden of complete restoration. These Isaianic texts highlight the unique identify of God by attributing to him the source of eschatological, life-giving water.3
By illustrating further connections between the Edenic garden and the Temple, Um convincingly argues that John portrays Jesus as the true Temple in whom Israel's worship reaches its climatic goal.4 The old covenant expectation for building an end-time Temple reaches its telos or goal in the Messiah, Jesus, and out of that temple-of-his-body flows abundant new creation life to the rest of the world around Eden--the rest of the world around Jesus and his Body--irrigating it and quenching its thirst. Um sees this abundant new creational blessing of life culminating at the end of human history, but the significance of its beginning is worth further reflection and meditation as well. If Jesus began a new creational blessing of life for the whole world, that means his life-giving presence remains in the world until it reaches it's culmination at the end. That means people can always have hope in this world to be the hope of this world. In other words, the life giving waters flow in abundance from the Temple of Christ's body throughout the world to irrigate its land, and the Church, which is Christ's body, is the life of this world while the new creational temple-building process awaits its culmination. 


1. Stephen T. Um, The Theme of Temple Christology in John's Gospel [New York, NY: T&T Clark; 2006] p. 142
2. Ibid. p. 143
3. Ibid. p. 147
4. Ibid. p. 152





Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany Meditation: Isaiah 60:1-7



Ephiphany is a season of light, as reflected in a standard liturgical reading this day from Isaiah 60:1-7. As a season of light, it manifests that light that is seen in Jesus Christ. But the message surrounding and leading up to Isaiah 60 teaches us so much more. It teaches us what the righteousness of that light looks like and the tremendous privilege we have to worship that light, and be in that light, and to rejoice is having that light dwell in us, shining so bright that it glorifies our Father in heaven. 


In Isaiah 58:3, the people of God have a complaint against Yahweh, and this sets up the background for appreciating the message of chapter 60. They ask, "Why have we fasted and don't see it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?" There are good reasons for Israel's concern. Threats of invading enemies and political alliances are against them, and Yahweh doesn't seem to care. Israel seeks Yahweh in prayer daily, awaiting His response. They profess with their lips that they "delight to know the ways" of Yahweh. They even ask for righteous judgments upon their enemies. And if that wasn't enough evidence, Israel is even said to have a posture of worship that "delights in drawing near" to Yahweh in sacrificial gifts to prove their faithfulness to Him (Isa. 58:2). Israel has a complaint against Yahweh because Yahweh is not responding to their cries or delivering them from their oppressors. They plead with God for deliverance, humbling themselves before Him in desperation. And to some degree He hears them too, but his perspective is quite different from theirs. 

Yahweh says they do all of these righteous deeds--all these prayers, petitions, fasts, and sacrifices--"as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God." (Isa. 58:2). While they humbled themselves before Yahweh in prayer, petitioning Him with righteous requests for His judgments upon their wicked oppressors, they themselves are oppressing their own workers (58:3). They fast so their voice could be heard on high, and they even prostrate themselves, spreading sackcloth and ashes under themselves (58:4-5). But this is not the type of fasting Yahweh wants from His people:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)
The people are truly in distress, and they truly want Yahweh to deliver them from their oppressors. This is why they fast. This is why they cry unto Him. But the kind of fasting Yahweh wants from them is to loosen the shackles of oppression, let their own oppressed servants go free, feed the hungry with their own bread (not the bread which others work for), bring the homeless into their own home (not sending them off somewhere else), and clothing the destitute who are naked. When Israel does that, Yahweh says their light will shine forth like the dawn, and He will bring healing upon them speedily (58:8). 

Israel's enemies would often intimidate them by pointing out that Yahweh cannot save. If He could, He would, or so they thought. After all, His people were diligent in sacrifices and prayer according to Yahweh's own word. But He must not be able to save because He is not saving. His hand must be too short or his ear too dull that He cannot save them when they need Him most (59:1) That's Israel's perspective when things are looking dark and gloomy (59:9). 

The problem with thinking this way is that Yahweh is not weak at all. If he wanted to rescue them from oppressors, his arm is long enough to do that. Yahweh ears are not dull either. He hears every cry, but their iniquities have ruptured His relationship with them. Their sins have hidden Yahweh's face from them so that He does not hear (59:2). Their "hands are defiled with blood" too (59:3), but the blood they have shed is not from murdering others. It's the blood shed by unjustly suing others, going to law against their neighbor for dishonest gain, relying on empty pleas and slanderous lies in their favor, and conceiving mischief which, in turn, gives birth for further iniquity (59:3-4). Their courts are thoroughly corrupt, not just the judges sitting on the bench. The way of peace is not truly known by the people, and there is no justice in the path they have chosen to walk. They think they're pursuing peace. They think they're faithfully active in social justice. But they have made their roads crooked, and therefore "no one who treads on them knows peace" (59:8). Justice is inverted, righteousness stands far away in the distance, truth stumbles in the public squares, uprightness isn't even allowed to enter the gates of the city, and those who flee from evil make themselves a prey (59:14-15). Yahweh saw all of this, and it displeased Him that there was no justice to be found in the land, and no man willing to intercede on behalf of the oppressed (59:15-16a).

Then we find these amazing words of Isaiah's gospel:
...then His own arm brought him salvation, and His righteousness upheld him. 

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head.
He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. 

According to their deeds, so will He repay, wrath to His adversaries, repayment to His enemies; to the coastlands He will render repayment. 
So they shall fear the name of the Yahweh from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun, for He will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Yahweh drives. 

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.  “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” 
Yahweh's gospel is to those in Zion, where He dwelt in the midst of His people. And the gospel message to those in Zion was that even though Yahweh had justly left Israel to suffer from their own wicked devices for a time, Yahweh would not abandon Zion entirely. He would return and deliver "those in Jacob who turn from transgression." He would even come like a rushing stream, driven by the wind of His spirit, to redeem them. This would be for the purpose of having His name feared and His glory shown from east to west. This would be accomplished by the Word and work of His Spirit. He would place His Spirit upon them and put His words in their mouth, and in their children's mouth, forever, so they would glorify Him. At the time of Isaiah's prophecy, Zion was suffering under darkness and gloom because of their sins, but Yahweh promised to come and be their light. By coming and being their light, He would place His Spirit upon them so His light would shine through them. This is the good news for the nations in Isaiah's prophecy. This is the message of Epiphany. This is the background that sets up the message of Isaiah 60:1-7:
Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you!

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you and His glory will be seen upon you!
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around and see: They all gather together, they come to you.
Your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. 
Then you shall see and be radiant.
Your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you.
The wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah.
All those of Sheba shall come. 
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of Yahweh.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you. The rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you.
They shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify My beautiful house.
When Yahweh comes to redeem His people, He sends His Spirit to illumine their darkness, and they become objects of His shining glory as a result. When they turn away from transgression, the glory of Yahweh returns to his house and His glory shines through their worship. When they turn from their own greed and selfishness, feeding the poor with bread of their own, His light shines through their good deeds. When they clothe the naked with their own clothes and shelter the homeless in their own homes, then the light of Yahweh is seen in them. When their hands stop shedding blood through lying, slander, injustice, and dishonest gain, then the nations will be attracted to their light, precisely because it is Yahweh's light that illumines them. 

As I said in the beginning, Isaiah 60 gives us a glimpse as to the kind of glorious light we walk in, the kind of light that Israel eventually saw in Jesus the Messiah. That Light is worthy to receive "the wealth of nations" from all over--from the far south-eastern lands of Midian, Ephah, and Sheba with their gifts of gold and frankincense (Matt. 2:1-2, 9-11), and from the local pastures of Kedar and Nebaioth with the shepherds and their flocks (Luke 2:8-20). That Light is worthy to receive our worship. That light is the true light which gives light to everyone (John 1:9). Whoever does what is true comes to that Light, so that it may be clearly seen that their works have been carried out in God (John 3:21). In that Gospel, the gospel lived in and through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining (I John 2:8).