Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Gospel of John

The issue of the sacraments in the Gospel of John has received a lot of attention in Christian scholarship. Some scholars have even argued “that John was written to oppose people who gave too much place to the sacraments or those who gave too little place to them” (Leon Morris, “John, Gospel according to” in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 2:1107). There has also been debate over whether or not John 3 refers to baptism, and whether or not John 6 refers to the eucharist. The extent of this debate is rather remarkable considering that, as C. K. Barrett has noted, “the Fourth [Gospel] contains no specific command of Jesus to baptize, and no account of the institution of the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 82).

I agree with Don Carson that John’s Gospel “is neither sacramentarian nor anti–sacramentarian” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, [Leicester: IVP, 1991], 99). Carson views these categories as being inappropriate, and he is right to do so, but he argues this on the basis that the language of the Gospel “drives people to the reality, to Christ himself, refusing to stop at that which points to the reality” (ibid.).

The problem with Carson’s argument at this point is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper (in Reformed tradition at least) are not merely signs that point to Christ; they are signs that actually communicate the reality of Christ. Furthermore, while it is true that the Gospel of John is primarily a call for people to be committed to Christ and his teaching, given that early church placed great importance on baptism and the eucharist, it is highly unlikely that John and his readers would not have drawn connections between Jesus’ teaching in John 3, 6 and the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist. The book of Acts shows that baptism was treated as an integral part of the gospel (e.g., Acts 2:38; 8:36), and that the eucharist was an important activity in Christian worship and fellowship (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7).

Furthermore, if it is accepted that John’s Gospel was written with an evangelistic purpose in mind (primarily for confirming the belief of Christians, and secondarily to promote the conversion of unbelievers), then the issues of baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper would naturally be present by way of implication. These were the key rites that defined initiation and continuation respectively in the Christian community.

It is valid, therefore, to allow for a deeper significance to Jesus’ words in John 3 and John 6 in the context of John’s day, where Christians (and possibly some non-Christians) would have understood Jesus’ teaching in these chapters in the context of the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist, allowing them to draw connections between Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and Christian doctrine regarding the sacraments. I will pursue some of these connections in my next couple of posts.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Concept of Light and Darkness in John's Gospel

Consistent with the Old Testament teaching on light and darkness outlined in my previous post “The Old Testament Background to the Concept of Light and Darkness in John’s Gospel”, the Gospel of John clearly identifies Jesus of Nazareth as being the spiritual light of the universe.

For John, Jesus is “the light of humanity” (John 1:4). The allusions in John 1:1–5 to Gen 1 (“in the beginning” in vv. 1–2; “word” in vv. 1–2; the act of creation in v. 3; life in v. 4; light and darkness in vv. 4–5) suggest that just as the word of God brought about the existence of physical light at the beginning of the history of the world, in a similar way the Word of God (who is Jesus) is the spiritual light that brings safety and life into our world of darkness (John 1:4). By Jesus coming into the world, his light has shone into the darkness; and wherever his light has reached, there the darkness has irresistably been overcome (John 1:5). At the same time, however, there are evildoers who love the darkness rather than the light, who as a consequence refuse to come to the light (John 3:19–20). In the original context, this is a reference to those Jews who were viewed as having broken the covenant with God. On the other hand, those (Israelites) who do the truth (i.e., who are committed to the covenant with God) come to the light of Christ in order to show the genuine value of their obedience to God under the Mosaic covenant (John 3:21).

John’s Gospel strongly promotes the idea that Jesus is “the true light who illuminates all people” (John 1:9). Jesus has shone in the world in order to enlighten people, regardless of nationality. He has “come as a light into the world, in order that everyone who believes in him might not abide in the darkness” (John 12:46). Thus, Jesus himself claimed to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Following Jesus and his teaching is to avoid “walk[ing] in the darkness,” and results in a person experiencing “the light of life” (John 8:12). It is important to walk in the daytime rather than at night. Walking in the daylight is equated with seeing “the light of this world,” the benefit being the avoidance of stumbling (John 11:9–10). Consistent with the use of this imagery in the Old Testament, the person “who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35). The danger with not seeing where you are going is that you will stumble so as to fall away from the pathway of salvation. Jesus viewed his earthly ministry as the short period of time (“a little while”) in which “the light is among you” (John 12:35; see also John 9:5). He called upon the Jews of his day to “believe in the light” while the light was still among them, “in order that you might become sons of light” (John 12:36). Rejecting the light would result in the Jewish nation being overtaken by darkness (John 12:35).

John’s Gospel is also concerned to make the point that John the Baptist, when compared with Jesus, is definitely “not the light”; instead, he only bore testimony concerning the light (John 1:8). At the same time, however, Jesus acknowledges that John the Baptist was “a lamp that burns and shines,” and that the Jews “were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). John the Baptist was a light, but not the light. The “true light” who came into the world, “who illuminates all people,” is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. In him the Old Testament prophetic expectation of the coming of the glory of Yahweh has been fulfilled.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Old Testament Background to the Concept of Light and Darkness in John's Gospel

Light and darkness make up one of the conspicuous dualisms that are found in John’s Gospel. The source of such dualism in John is not Gnosticism or Greek philosophy, but the concept of light and darkness in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, in order to understand John’s concept of light and darkness, we need to consider the Old Testament background to this idea.

Consistent with the characterization of light and darkness in many cultures, in the Old Testament light is a positive concept, whereas darkness is primarily negative (Isa 5:20). In Gen 1, darkness is associated with disorder and emptiness. The default state of the world is darkness, but the word of God brings light into the world (Gen 1:3; see also Isa 42:16). Darkness can be associated with the presence of God in the sense that the thickness of his glory cloud can prevent light from penetrating (Exod 14:20; 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22–23; 1 Kgs 8:12; Ps 18:9, 11; 97:2), and in the sense that God is the creator of (physical and metaphorical) darkness (Isa 45:7; Amos 4:13); but overall Yahweh is a God who dwells in glorious light (Exod 27:20; Ps 104:1–2; Ezek 1:27–28). He is the light of the righteous (Ps 27:1). His light gives light to his people (Ps 36:9; see also Ps 56:13; 97:11). Light shines from his face (Ps 44:3; 89:15). To the righteous, his word “is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105; see also Ps 119:130; Prov 6:23).

Darkness is usually a sign of God’s judgment (Exod 10:21–23; Ps 105:28; Ezek 32:8; Joel 2:2, 31; Amos 5:18, 20; Nah 1:8; Zeph 1:15). The covenant curse of military defeat for Israel will see darkness covering the land (Isa 5:30; 8:22). The exile is pictured as a time of darkness (Jer 13:16). Darkness is also associated with death (Ps 107:10, 14; Prov 20:20). It is the ultimate abode of the wicked (1 Sam 2:9). There is no light in Sheol, the place of the dead (Ps 49:19). From the ethical perspective of the Old Testament, the problem with darkness is that it does not allow you to see where you are going. Darkness is dangerous. You cannot see the spiritual obstacles that would bring you down, which means that you can easily end up stumbling off the pathway that leads to life (Prov 4:19; Isa 59:10; Jer 23:12). To forsake the paths of uprightness is to walk in darkness (Prov 2:13). Evildoers hide in the darkness (Job 34:22). The righteous can also experience darkness (Isa 50:10; 59:9; Lam 3:2), but in the end light will shine upon the upright (Ps 112:4). Yahweh is a lamp who shines his light into the darkness experienced by the righteous (2 Sam 22:29; see also Mic 7:8–9). Repentance will result in the light dawning upon the darkness of Israel such that even her gloom will be as bright as noon (Isa 58:8, 10).

The eschatological coming of Yahweh is pictured in the Old Testament as the light of the glory of God that comes to push back and to overcome the darkness of this world. Yahweh will arise, and his glory will shine upon Israel, and be a beacon that will attract the nations (Isa 60:1–3). Emmanuel, the child of the young (virgin) woman (Isa 7:14), who is “Mighty God” (Isa 9:6), will come as “a great light” shining in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa 9:1–2); and the Suffering Servant will be “a light for the Gentiles” (Isa 42:6; see also Isa 49:6; 51:4–5). In this way, the day of salvation will bring light to the blind (Isa 29:18; 42:7); the prisoners will be released from darkness (Isa 49:9); and the glory of Yahweh will become an everlasting light, so bright that the sun will be made redundant, its brilliance being eternally eclipsed by the utter magnificence of the glory of God (Isa 60:19–20).

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is packed full with important teaching about the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ coming as being the key event for the accomplishment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that had been prophesied about by the Old Testament prophets.

The view of the Holy Spirit presented in John’s Gospel fully accords with the teaching of the Old Testament in this regard. According to the Old Testament, all life whether physical or spiritual is a product of God’s Spirit (e.g., Gen 1:2; Ps 104:30; Ezek 37:14). John’s Gospel teaches that the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). The Spirit is “living water” (John 4:10). Those who drink of the Spirit live eternally (John 4:14). Rebirth by the Spirit is necessary for entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5), and for experiencing eternal life and immortality (John 3:6). In the new covenant age, this Spiritual rebirth is no longer limited to the traditional Israelite lines of covenant membership, but is open to people of all nations (John 3:8; 4:21, 23).

John’s Gospel presupposes the Old Testament teaching concerning the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament describes the old covenant age as a time in which there was a limited work of God’s Spirit writing the law on the heart. During the old covenant age, God’s law was not written in the hearts of the majority of the people of Israel. This meant that the nation of Israel viewed as a whole did not walk in the way of God’s law, thereby breaking the covenant with God. This led to the covenant curses coming down upon Israel, culminating in the exile to Babylon. Even though God had allowed the Jews to come back to Judea after the exile, the time of covenant blessing had not yet come. The Old Testament looked forward, therefore, to a new age when God would pour out his Spirit upon Israel and all flesh. This eschatological work of the Holy Spirit would result in Israel returning to God in covenant obedience (see Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31–33; Ezek 36:24–27).

As Jer 31:31–33 and Ezek 36:25–28 make known, the coming of the new covenant age would mark the beginning of a transformation in the comprehensiveness of the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the limited work of the Spirit under the old covenant (which led to the covenant failure and exile of Israel among the nations), the Holy Spirit would be poured out in a greater way such that the hearts of the people of Israel would be changed, with the result that Israel would return to God in true worship and obedience and, as a result, begin to experience covenant blessing instead of covenant curse.

John’s Gospel is concerned to link this Old Testament prophetic expectation of the eschatological gift of the Spirit with the ministry of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets understood that the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit would come about through the ministry of the Messiah (e.g., Isa 11:1–5; 44:1–5; and 55:1–4), through the work of the Spirit-filled suffering Servant (e.g., Isa 42:1–7; 49:1–6; 61:1–4). John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as being none other than this Spirit-filled suffering Servant-Messiah who has come into the world to accomplish the promised eschatological outpouring of the Spirit of life.

Thus, Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel as being the one upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and upon whom the Holy Spirit remains (John 1:32). Jesus has received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). Following the more likely interpretation of John 7:38, “rivers of living water” flow from within the Messiah, who is himself the eschatological temple, bringing life and blessing to the world, in fulfillment of Ezek 47:1–10. Because Jesus is the Spirit-filled Messiah and Spirit-filled Servant, he is the person who would (after his glorification) baptize people in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). He gives the living water of the Spirit to those who ask of him (John 4:10, 14). But only those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah can receive this gift (John 7:37–39). In other words, the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit is performed by Jesus. The Spirit proceeds from God the Father, but would be sent by Jesus to dwell within his disciples (John 14:17; 15:26). The Spirit would be given to those who love Jesus and who keep his word (John 14:23), but not to the unregenerate people of the world (John 14:17). Jesus’ disciples would see the Spirit and know him (John 14:17). The Spirit would abide with them forever (John 14:16). This eschatological outpouring of the Spirit, however, would not take place until after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39). In God’s plan, the comprehensive outpouring of the Spirit was reserved for the new covenant age, which would be inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The coming of the Spirit would be beneficial for Jesus’ disciples in a number of ways. The Spirit would be their Paraklete, their Helper. He would mediate to Jesus’ disciples the presence of the Father and the Son (John 14:21, 23). As the Spirit of truth, he would help God’s people worship God in the proper way (John 4:23–24). He would also guide Jesus’ disciples into all truth (John 16:13), reminding them of Jesus’ teaching (John 14:26), and testifying about Jesus to them (John 15:26). He would receive revelation from Jesus to pass on to Jesus’ disciples (John 16:13–15).

The teaching in John’s Gospel about the Holy Spirit is concluded in 20:22 when Jesus breathes upon his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There has been some discussion on the relationship of this incident with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, but it is probably best to understand this as a prophetic action on the part of Jesus intended to convey the important truth that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit—which would be poured out after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39), i.e., after his resurrection and ascension—would be mediated through Jesus himself, and also that the gift of the Spirit to be received by his disciples would be a sharing in the Spirit of Christ himself.

Overall, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is very comprehensive. However, it cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the need for the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit which emerges from the story of the covenant rebellion of Israel in the Old Testament.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Sabbath Commandment as a Hermeneutical Guide for Understanding the Seven Day Structure of Genesis 1:1–2:3

The length of the days in Gen 1 has been the subject of much debate, particularly over the last 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. In the light of this debate, it is interesting to think about how Gen 1 would be understood from the point of view of the implied reader or listener of the text, which I take in the first instance to be a Hebrew-speaking member of ancient Israel of orthodox belief.

It is important to realize in this regard that Genesis (for all its importance) is really only the prologue to the exodus and the establishment of Israel as a nation in covenant with Yahweh. Genesis is, in effect, the prologue of the Pentateuch. The implied reader or listener would understand Genesis, therefore, through the prism of Israelite cultural knowledge, prominent within which would be the idea of Israel’s election and Israelite religious tradition and practice.

The implication of the existence of such cultural presuppositions in the mind of the implied reader is that the implied reader would approach the creation account in Gen 1:1–2:3 with a knowledge of the weekly pattern of six days’ work and one day’s rest as part of their cultural “baggage.” This means that the concept of God working to order and fill the world over six days, then resting on the seventh when everything was complete, would most naturally have been understood by the implied reader in terms of a cycle of normal 24-hour days, on analogy with the Hebrew custom of six day’s work, one day’s rest.

The initial impression that the implied reader would have received on reading or hearing the creation account is that God’s activity fits our own pattern of activity. We work for six days and then enjoy our Sabbath rest, and so does God! But it is not a case of God imitating the Hebrews. Further reflection would involve the application of the truth of the fourth commandment to the creation narrative:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exod 20:8–11).
Knowledge of the fourth commandment and the Hebrew custom of resting from one’s work on the seventh day would effectively function as a hermeneutical guide for the the way in which Gen 1:1–2:3 would be understood. Hence the conclusion: it is not a case of God imitating us, but us imitating God! We Israelites work for six days and rest on the seventh, because that is what God did.

In this way the implied reader would come away from his or her reading of Gen 1:1–2:3, not only with an assumption that the days of the creation week were normal 24-hour days, on analogy with one’s own experience of work and rest; but more importantly, with the knowledge that God himself is the analogue for human work and rest. This idea has important ramifications for how the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 is to be understood.