Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jesus: Stairway to Heaven; House of God

Jesus’ words to Nathanael in John 1:51 build on the temple theme introduced in John 1:14 (see “The Significance of the Incarnate Logos Dwelling among Us in John 1:14” and “Beholding the Glory of the Son in John 1:14”). In John 1:51, Jesus is recorded as saying to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Read in the light of Jesus’ words to Nathanael in John 1:50, the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man is one of the “greater things” that Jesus’ disciples would see.

Although Jesus’ comment in John 1:51 is recorded by the narrator as being directed to Nathaniel, the pronoun you is in the plural. This comment of Jesus, therefore, also applied to the other disciples of Jesus.

The idea of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man interacts with the description of the content of Jacob’s dream in Gen 28:12. In his dream, Jacob saw a stairway joining earth and heaven; “and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it.” The language used by Jesus in John 1:51 in speaking of the angels ascending and descending follows the wording of the LXX very closely with the exception of syntactical changes made out of grammatical necessity. The LXX reads καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ θεοῦ ἀνέβαινον καὶ κατέβαινον ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it, whereas Jesus mentions τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

The strong similarity of language at this point parallels it, i.e., the stairway, with the Son of Man. The implication of this parallelism is that Jesus is the climax (κλίμαξ stairway, ladder). Jesus is the one who links earth to heaven. Jesus has opened up the way into heaven, enabling human beings to come into the presence of God.

From a Hebrew perspective, the term the Son of Man emphasizes Jesus’ humanity; but at the same time, given the biblical use of the the term, it also speaks of Jesus’ importance. This is due to the fact that the term the Son of Man, as used by Jesus, was derived from the prophecy of Dan 7:13–14, where “one like a son of man [comes] to the Ancient of Days” to receive “dominion” over an everlasting kingdom. Jesus viewed himself as being the fulfillment of the prophecy regarding the exalted son of man of Dan 7. Putting the concepts of stairway and Son of Man together, the suggestion is that Jesus, who would later ascend into heaven to become the God-appointed King of the world, is the person who links earth to heaven.

A further detail from Gen 28 relevant to understanding the teaching of John 1:51 is Jacob’s naming of the place where he had been sleeping Bethel. The word Bethel means the house of God. Therefore, by identifying himself as the one upon whom the angels ascended and descended, Jesus was linking the name Bethel to himself. Jesus was effectively presenting himself as being the ultimate Bethel. This is consistent with the idea of the Logos tabernacling among us in John 1:14.

Therefore, according to John, Jesus is both the stairway to heaven and the house of God. Jesus is the true eschatological temple, the one through whom God and humanity are reconciled and have fellowship together.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beholding the Glory of the Son in John 1:14

The third clause in John 1:14 (“and we have beheld his glory”) builds on the temple theme introduced in the second clause of the same verse (for a discussion of the temple theme in the second clause of John 1:14, see “The Significance of the Incarnate Logos Dwelling among Us in John 1:14”). The verb translated as beheld or saw usually implies looking attentively upon or gazing at something. The incarnate Logos was an awesome sight to behold. He was an object worthy of contemplation. The first disciples understood that the Logos incarnate is the ultimate revelation of God’s glory.

The noun δόξα, usually translated here as glory, typically denotes the splendor of a person’s external appearance; but John uses δόξα at this point to capture the majesty of Christ’s intrinsic divinity. The glory of the Logos incarnate is “the glory as of the only one from the Father.” The glory revealed in Jesus is the glory of the unique Son of God.

This mention of the concept of glory in the third clause immediately following the previous clause in which the idea of a tent or tabernacle has already been raised adds a further association in the verse with the theme of temple. In the Old Testament, God’s glory is closely associated with the idea of the tabernacle and the temple. The ideas of glory and tent coincide in Exod 40:34–35; Lev 9:23; Num 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6. God’s glory frequently settled over the tabernacle in order that the tabernacle might be filled with God’s glory. God’s glory among Israel symbolized God’s presence with his people.

After the temple was built by Solomon, the conceptual connection between tabernacle and glory naturally broadened to include the temple (see 1 Kgs 8:11; 2 Chr 5:14; 7:1–3). The Babylonian exile, however, represented a time when God’s protective glory withdrew from the temple. As the book of Ezekiel is concerned to show, the Babylonian destruction of the temple in Jerusalem presupposed that God’s glory had left the temple. This was primarily as a result of the rampant idolatry that took place in Israel. This point is argued strongly in Ezek 8, which functions as an awful case study into Israel’s idolatry at the time. Indeed, in the book of Ezekiel, the glory of God is seen slowly withdrawing from the temple to take up position over the Mount of Olives (see Ezek 9:3; 10:4, 18–19; 11:22–23) until the time of judgment against Israel had been fulfilled. The book of Ezekiel pictures that the glory of God would eventually return to his people (Ezek 43:2, 4–5), and be revealed to the nations (Ezek 39:21).

In the light of these prophecies of Ezekiel, it is very significant that the Old Testament does not record that the glory of God returned to the second temple. The Old Testament closes with the people of God still waiting for the return of God’s glory to the temple (Hag 2:3, 7, 9; Zech 2:5).

The brief outline given above concerning the concept of glory in the Old Testament helps us to understand the point of John’s assertion in John 1:14 regarding the glory of the Logos. John was well aware of Ezekiel’s teaching concerning the eschatological return of God’s glory. John’s assertion is that, in the person of Jesus, the glory of God, which had withdrawn previously from idolatrous Israel, has now returned. In Jesus, God’s personal presence has returned to dwell majestically among his people.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Significance of the Incarnate Logos Dwelling among Us in John 1:14

John 1:14 is significant in containing the first note in a symphony of references in John’s Gospel to the temple theme. In the first two clauses in John 1:14, it is written that “the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” Most modern translations talk about the Logos dwelling among us, but this reasonable idiomatic translation effectively masks for today’s reader the important allusion that John was making at this point. A literal translation of the second clause of John 1:14 would be: “and he pitched [his] tent among us.”

The word translated as dwelt or made a dwelling (ἐσκήνωσεν) is related to the word tent (σκηνή). A reader familiar with the original Greek would easily see this connection. Jesus set up tent among us! In addition, a reader familiar with the LXX translation of the Hebrew Bible would also see a clear connection between the verb ἐσκήνωσεν and the idea of the tabernacle, given that σκηνή was the usual word in the LXX for denoting the tabernacle. Thus it is also possible to translate the second clause of John 1:14 as: “and he tabernacled among us.”

The word tent or tabernacle conveys to minds familiar with the Hebrew Bible an idea rich in theological significance. The tabernacle was a portable temple. It was a sacred tent that could be packed up and carried around until the day when Israel had rest. When Israel achieved rest, then the portable temple would become permanent, i.e., the tabernacle would become a temple (Deut 12:10–11). The tabernacle/temple was the supreme symbol of God’s presence among his people. The tabernacle/temple was considered to be God’s dwelling place among Israel. This is clear from the Hebrew word underlying σκηνή in the LXX, namely, משכן, which is based on the Hebrew root שכן, which conveys the idea of dwelling.

By saying that the Logos had tabernacled among us, John was clearly asserting the idea (controversial in its day) that Jesus is the ultimate temple, which is the same as saying that Jesus is the supreme instance of God dwelling among us. Jesus is the Emmanuel, the with-us-God. The tabernacle/temple was the place where human beings could obtain the forgiveness of their sins in order that they might then be able to enter into the presence of God, and experience blessing in his presence. Therefore, by saying that the incarnate Logos had dwelt among us, John was claiming that Jesus is the new and ultimate temple, the locus of divine forgiveness and fellowship.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Did Jesus Clear the Temple? The Second Reason: Zeal for God

The second reason given in John’s Gospel to explain the extreme action of Jesus in clearing the temple is given in John 2:17 (for a discussion about the first reason , see “Why Did Jesus Clear the Temple? The First Reason: Commercialization of the Temple”). After reflection on the significance of this event, presumably after Jesus had been resurrected, “[Jesus’] disciples remembered that it was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17). The disciples came to understand that Jesus’ action in clearing the temple was not a case of Jesus losing his temper. Jesus was angry, but it was not an unjustified anger. Jesus cleared the temple because of his zeal for his Father’s house.

The statement “zeal for your house will consume me” is a quotation from Ps 69:9 [69:10 MT]. Psalm 69 is a prayer of salvation offered to God by a righteous sufferer. In the context of Ps 69, the word translated as consumed (אכלתני from the root אכל eat) has negative connotations. The second half of Ps 69:9, which is not quoted in John’s Gospel, confirms this: “zeal for your house has consumed me; the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen upon me.” In Ps 69:9, the idea of being consumed is paralleled with being reproached. This connection between zeal and reproach in Ps 69 links zeal for God together with opposition. When people stand up for God, they will experience some from of opposition.

The classic case of zeal for God leading to opposition is seen in Jesus himself. Because of Jesus’ zeal for the proper worship of God, he suffered opposition. Jesus’ zeal for God meant that his words and actions challenged the status quo. Driving people out of the temple and overturning tables was a challenge to Jewish society in general, and in particular to the Jewish authorities. As a result of his zeal for God, Jesus ended up being “consumed,” that is, destroyed.

Jesus’ zeal for God ultimately led to the cross. This was where Jesus was “consumed.” Jesus was prepared to challenge the way in which the people of his day were treating God; but he suffered opposition, and died on the cross, as a result of his zeal. This is why, when quoting Ps 69:9, the author of John’s Gospel changed the sense of the original wording has consumed—the Hebrew perfect conjugation in אכלתני is effectively equivalent to a past tense—to will consume—καταφάγεται is the future tense of κατεσθίω eat up, devour, consume. This change suggests that John and the other disciples understood that the ultimate fulfillment of Ps 69:9 took place in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ zeal for God ultimately led to his consumption on the cross. But the immediate significance of the content of John 2:17 is to explain that Jesus’ zeal for God was one of the key reasons that led Jesus to clear the temple.