Category Archive: Bible – NT – John
John does not describe the transfiguration, as the other Gospels do; in a sense, John’s whole story is about the transfiguration. He invites us to be still and know; to look again into the human face of Jesus of Nazareth, until the awesome knowledge comes over us, wave upon terrifying wave, that we are looking into the human face of the living God. And he leads us on, with our awe and bewilderment reaching its height, to the point where we realize that the face is most recognizable when it wears the crown of thorns. When John says, “We beheld his glory,” he is thinking supremely of the cross. And those who see this glory in this cross are, very shortly afterwards, commissioned to follow the one who has made this glory visible. — N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, 34.
THE WORD BECAME FLESH
(December 19, 2004, Sermon Notes)
Before the world was created, God’s Word lived with God and had fellowship with him. But God didn’t keep his Word to himself. He sent him into the world to be his perfect revelation so that we could know him.
THE GLORY OF JESUS (1:14-15)
John tells us (1:1) that God’s Word is God. We might have expected him to enter the world with a blaze of light or thunder from above Instead, he became flesh. He didn’t just look human. He didn’t take a human body for a while. He became as fully human as we are. And he always will be.
John says the Word “dwelt among us.” Literally, the Word “tabernacled” among us. In the Old Covenant, God camped with Israel in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Because of Israel’s sins, however, God withdrew, but he promised to put his sanctuary in Israel’s midst permanently (Ezek. 37:26-27). Jesus is that tabernacle, the sanctuary, the place you meet God. He is God’s Word, who is God himself, tabernacling with us.
Jesus’ flesh didn’t hide God’s glory. John says that he and the other disciples saw the glory of God’s only begotten son. John the Witness pointed to Jesus and proclaimed his greatness (1:15). From then on, John followed Jesus. He saw his glory first at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned the water of Old Covenant purification into the wine of New Covenant celebration. He saw it when Jesus healed people and raised Lazarus from the dead. And he saw Jesus’ glory above all at the cross (12:23).
Jesus’ glory is the glory of God’s son, “full of grace and truth.” Those words show up often in the Old Testament. They’re part of Yahweh’s name revealed to Moses (Ex. 34:6: “goodness and truth” in NKJV). God’s “grace” is his goodness to those who don’t deserve it. His “truth” is his faithfulness, his loyalty to his promises and his people. Jesus reveals the glory of God by embodying God’s grace and truth.
THE GIFT FROM JESUS (1:16-18)
Jesus is “full of grace and truth” and that fulness flows into our lives so that all who believe receive a share of it “and grace for grace” â€” that is, “grace instead of grace.”
The Old Covenant was God’s grace: it was grounded on grace, flavoured by grace. But the law couldn’t take away sin or bring people through death into glorified life. In Jesus, however, we have received a greater grace in its place. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
“No one has seen God at any time,” John says (1:18). So how can we know God? We know him by his Word, and above all by his Word made flesh. Jesus has seen God. He is the son who is always “in the bosom of the Father,” the Father’s closest friend, and he reveals God perfectly. When you know him you know God and have fellowship with him.
THE WORD IN THE WORLD
(December 12, 2004 Sermon Notes)
Christmas is controversial. Many people object to talk about “Christmas” or the singing of Christmas carols in public because it emphasizes the birth of Christ. They prefer you to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Such people may be ungodly cranks, but they do recognize that Christ’s birth isn’t a heartwarming event that appeal to everyone. Jesus’ Lordship irritates people who don’t want to submit. Jesus is the Light, but he came into a world of darkness.
THE TESTIMONY TO THE WORD (1:6-8)
The apostle John tells us (literally) “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John.” We usually call him “John the Baptist,” but it might be better to call him “John the Witness.” He was sent by God to give testimony to the Word, the Light, before the court of Israel and the world.
From the beginning, Jesus was on trial. But John is the crown witness who identifies Jesus as the light and calls everyone “so that all through him might believe” (v. 7). And now, John the apostle adds his testimony so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
THE REJECTION OF THE WORD (1:9-11)
John calls Jesus “the true light … coming into the world” (1:9). As Jesus is the true bread from heaven (6:32) and the true vine (15:1), he is also the “true light,” the fulfillment of the Old Covenant light. Compared to him, the whole Old Covenant was darkness.
That Light “gives light to every man.” John doesn’t mean that everyone has some glimmerings of the light. In John, the light is linked to salvation, but John doesn’t mean that everyone is saved. Rather, he is saying that the light shines on everyone.
But not everyone wants to see it. Many love darkness instead (John 3:19-20). The light divides. Jesus came to the world he created, but the world didn’t know him. He came to his own people, Israel, but they didn’t receive him. They chose darkness instead.
That’s still true today. We shouldn’t be surprised that Christmas arouses controversy. The light shines on everyone, but many prefer darkness.
THE GIFT FROM THE WORD (1:12-13)
But the darkness cannot overcome the light (1:5). Some did receive the light, and “to all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in his name.” The Jews thought they were God’s children (8:41), but John says that God’s true children are those who trust in Jesus. Jesus alone grants the privilege of being God’s children.
God’s children aren’t born through human reproduction or by the will of a husband or by any of the desires of fallen humanity (“flesh”). They’re born of God. He begot you by uniting you to Jesus, and he’s calling others to come to Jesus to share the Christmas gift: being God’s child in Christ.
THE GLORY OF GOD’S WORD
(December 5 Sermon Notes)
Where does the Christmas story begin? Many would say that it starts with Jesus’ birth. In a sense, that’s true. But the story of Jesus’ birth has roots in history. When John tells Jesus’ story, he starts in the beginning.
THE WORD AND GOD (1:1-2)
The opening words of John’s Gospel remind us of Genesis 1, but John doesn’t talk about creation right away. First, he tells us about the relationship between the Word and God. In the beginning, before creation, the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word is distinct from God (the Father), but he is also himself fully God.
The Trinity is the foundation of the gospel. God didn’t create or redeem us to fill a gap in his life. He already had perfect fellowship with His Son. But he wanted us to share in that fellowship with him. That’s why he sent his Son to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In him, we also are “with God,” sharing in God’s family life and family love. That was the goal of Christmas, a goal God was aiming at already in the beginning.
THE WORD AND CREATION (1:3)
John tells us that all things were created through the Word. The Word himself, then, is not a creature. Everything else came to be, but the Word always was. Apart from him, no created thing has come into existence.
God created everything by speaking (Gen. 1; Ps. 33:6, 9; Heb. 11:3). Speaking has to do with relationship. The whole of creation was created in relationship to God, to be his obedient covenantal kingdom. It existed in response to God’s commanding speech, and it lives by his Word.
But now the Word through whom the world was created has come into the world to bring about a new creation, starting with those who believe in him. In Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). And that Word will keep working with that creative power until all things are made new.
THE WORD AND HUMANITY (1:4-5)
John says that in the Word was life and that life was the light of men. Apart from the Word, who is Jesus Christ, there was no life or light. True life and true light are found only in Him.
Sin brings darkness (John 3:19-20) and people who love sin love darkness and hate the light. But that darkness isn’t the end of the story. In spite of the darkness, the light keeps shining (1:5) and the darkness cannot overcome it. The word translated “comprehend” (NKJV) could better be translated “overcome” (see John 12:35).
In the beginning, the light shone out in the darkness. Every day, the same thing happens. It’s happened all through history. It happened at Christmas and at the cross and the resurrection of Christ (Isa. 9:2). And the light still shines through us because we are in Christ (2 Cor. 4:3-6).
In the January 30 issue of Clarion, Reuben Bredenhof writes about the catch of 153 fish in John 21:11. He begins by discussing people he identifies as “the code-breakers”:
While there are skeptics ready to dismiss this number 153 as an overstatement or invention, there are others who think that there probably were fish caught, sure, and the number is not accurate, certainly not, yet the number is not simply an exaggeration that has slipped in, but is a number that demands interpretation. It is a number that is a code, a count of fish that is profoundly symbolic of something else, something much more meaningful than fried fish for breakfast with the risen Lord. In this view, the number 153 jars the reading experience ï¿½ what an unusual place for a specific number, for a precise tally of fish, of all things! In the drama of the disciples meeting the resurrected Saviour, why would this sum of landed fish be included? And so, many interpreters of Scripture have sought to “rescue” this number from irrelevance, assigning it an important, hidden meaning (p. 58).
Bredenhof then presents a number of ways in which the church fathers attempted to explain the 153 fish. (He doesn’t deal with modern commentators, such as James Jordan, who also see symbolism in the number.) He cautions that “we should not be hasty in rejecting all these interpretations, even though strange in our view ï¿½ alphabetical code and symbolic numbers are not totally foreign to the Scriptures” (p. 59).
In the end, however, Bredenhof rejects the idea that the number itself is significant. Whereas Revelation is full of symbolism, he says, John’s Gospel is “uniquely a historical book” (p. 60). John is writing as an eyewitness. That’s why he includes particular details, such as numbers:
John often gives numbers in his description of the Lord’s ministry: two disciples with John the Baptist, six water pots at Cana, five loaves and two small fish, three and a half miles out on the Sea of Galilee, four soldiers who divided his clothes, 38 years of sickness, 300 denarii, 5 husbands, and … 153 fish” (p. 60).
According to Bredenhof, then, the only point of the 153 fish is that it is
simply yet profoundly another detail by John the eyewitness. This remarkable number only confirms again the account that John has provided for us: John was there, and he can testify that this Jesus is the Christ!” (p. 60).
I’m not convinced.
First, Bredenhof’s explanation of the number leaves me cold. The number itself becomes meaningless and the exegete should just ignore it. It doesn’t matter that it was 153 fish (though that’s what John says); all that matters is that there were a lot of fish (which is what John doesn’t say). And the only point for recording it is to let us know that John was there, so that we have all the more reason to trust the rest of what he says. (I’m not sure how it proves that he was an eyewitness, though.)
Second, the way that Bredenhof describes “the code-breakers” isn’t really fair. He makes it sound as if they do not believe there were 153 fish and that the number is only symbolic. But that isn’t the case at all. Certainly some who take the number as a symbol (a better term here than “code”) also believe that there really were exactly 153 fish caught.
Furthermore, to say that some believe the number needs interpretation, which implies that others do not, is faulty: All exegetes interpret the number; some interpret it as a symbol and others do not.
But even more significantly, Bredenhof’s argument for not seeing symbolism in the numbers in John’s Gospel is weak. He admits that the Bible does use number symbolism, and that John himself is capable of it (witness Revelation). His only argument against seeing number symbolism in John’s Gospel is that John’s Gospel is historical.
But why can’t a historical account use number symbolism? I would submit that many of the historical narratives in the Old Testament do use number symbolism. Frankly, I don’t know what else to do with Elim’s twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Either you take that to be a tour guide description which is totally irrelevant or you try to figure out the symbolism (which isn’t all that hard, given that there are twelve tribes of Israel and seventy nations of the world).
But what about John’s Gospel itself? Bredenhof refers to several numbers in the Gospel. He mentions the six water pots. Is it a coincidence that Jesus has six disciples at this point? (The pots themselves, connected with the Old Covenant purification rites, are surely also rich with symbolism.) What about the 38 years? That happens to be the number of years Israel was wandering in the wilderness. Significant? I think so.
In John 4, it’s the sixth hour (4:6) and then later Jesus mentions another hour (4:21) ï¿½ six plus one being seven. The woman has had five husbands in the past and has one man right now who is not her husband (4:18), which makes six, and Jesus is there as the seventh man, the bridegroom (3:29). Is there something symbolic going on here? Quite possibly. (Warren Gage would point out that this passage is chiastically related to Revelation 17, where the mountains are seven kings, five fallen, one is, and the other hasn’t yet come. Make of that what you will.)
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other numbers Bredenhof mentions have symbolic significance.
For that matter, consider John’s Gospel as a whole. John starts, deliberately, by echoing Genesis 1 and then goes on to present seven days.
Then he tells us about Jesus’ first sign and Jesus’ second sign … and stops numbering. But if you keep counting, you end up with the seventh sign being the cross and the eighth the resurrection. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Speculation? I don’t think so. It’s John who told us to count the signs, after all.
And is it just a coincidence that on the sixth day, at the end of the book, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” that Jesus rests the seventh day, that Jesus rises the first (eighth) day?
If John is doing that kind of number symbolism elsewhere in the book ï¿½ let alone the fact that he does it in Revelation and that other writers do it elsewhere in the Bible ï¿½ why can’t he be doing number symbolism here?
John could have said, “We caught lots and lots of fish.” He didn’t. He deliberately recorded the tally. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t claim to understand the symbolism here. But I suspect the number is symbolic. And I’m pretty sure it’s doing more than simply letting us know John was an eyewitness.
Last night, I returned home from a colloquium hosted by Knox Theological Seminary. During the course of that colloquium, we had the opportunity to hear three fascinating lectures by Warren Austin Gage, Knox’s Assistant Professor of Old Testament.
For the past several years, Gage has been engaged (pardon the pun) in a study of biblical typology. In particular, together with Fowler White, he has been studying the relationship between the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, which is what he focused on in his lectures for us.
The papers in the John-Revelation Project trace the literary, structural, and thematic connections between the two books. Gage and White argue that John and Revelation are connected chiastically. The opening of John, for instance, talks about darkness not being able to conquer light, and Revelation ends with light triumphing over darkness. You’d think Gage had read Jim Jordan, but he hasn’t (yet).
Knox’s theological journal, Semper Reformanda, contains three articles by Gage: “Biblical Theology” (focusing a lot on Rahab, Joshua, and Jericho), “Analogical Imagination,” and “The Long Ending of Mark.” In the latter, he argues that the literary structure of Mark’s Gospel warrants accepting the longer ending. Similarly, in one of the John-Revelation papers, he argues for accepting the narrative of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) as an authentic part of John’s Gospel.
The Knox website also includes a sermon by Gage on the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. Did you recognize that the three people converted in Acts 8, 9, and 10 are representatives of Noah’s three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth?
And while I’m talking about Gage, let me also mention his book The Gospel of Genesis, now back in print.
Enjoy! I certainly did.
I didn’t get as much work done today as I had planned to. One of the challenges about having to write two sermons a week is that it does not leave as much time for meditation and reflection as I could wish.
I’m working on John 2:1-11 (the wedding at Cana) for this coming Sunday morning, and I spent part of the day thinking about the significance of Jesus’ presence at the wedding, Jesus’ distancing himself from his mother, Jesus’ reference to his future “hour,” and Jesus’ provision of gallons and gallons of quality wine out of water put into the jars used for the Old Covenant washings.
What does Jesus’ presence at this wedding say about the nature of the kingdom of God and of his own work? Why does Jesus’ respond to his mother by saying that “his hour” has not yet come? In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is always a reference to his death and subsequent return to his Father. It’s the time when he is glorified by way of the cross (which is the twofold significance of being “lifted up”), and the time therefore when the Messianic age dawns and he shares his glory with his people. But what does that have to do with Mary’s statement that the party is running out of wine?
At any rate, I spent part of the day thinking about those things and trying to bring my inchoate thoughts into a state of, shall we say, more choateness? Then, as I was halfway through the sermon, some good friends called me up and we went out to supper together at Brewsters, where I enjoyed a good burger and a pint of their bitter. Then we went back to my place, drank tea, ate strawberry pie given to me as a gift by a generous lady in the church (who knows how to make pie!), and listened to some great music.
Now they’ve gone home, I’m listening to Ross Porter’s “After Hours” jazz program, and I’ve just finished (at last!) Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians, which I’ve been slogging through for far too long. It contains some valuable material and I found the second half, after the rise of Christianity, fairly interesting, but parts of the book dragged. Maybe that was the effect of spreading it out over too many days. Finishing it feels a little like being released from a prison: I’ve been liberated now to enjoy all the other books that have been clamouring for my attention. Which will I pick first? I don’t know for sure. But right now, I’m going to go and make some tea and get back to Wolfe’s Shadow and Claw before heading to bed.
No, I didn’t get the sermon done. But I’m reminded that my life is full of many of God’s good gifts: good friends, good food, good drink, good music, good books. And all of that is sheer grace, for which I am grateful.
I’ve been working on John 1:29-34 and thinking about John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ baptism of others with the Holy Spirit.
In Ezekiel 36, God makes this promise:
I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities…. I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24-28 NIV).
This promise combines several elements: new exodus and restoration from exile, baptism and cleansing from uncleanness, and the Spirit’s presence and new obedience. And those elements also show up in connection with John’s baptism.
When John the Baptizer calls the Israelites away from their homes to the wilderness, he’s calling for a new exodus, only this time the people are being taken out of Israel itself, with its corrupt leadership. The people are being washed: baptism is a form of ceremonial washing from uncleanness, like the washings for those who were leprous or who touched dead people, allowing the people to return to life in the covenant community. And John baptizes specifically in the Jordan, the river Israel crossed when entering the land in the first place, and is therefore a symbolic re-entrance into the land, a restoration from exile.
But what about the LORD’s promise to put His Spirit in His people? That happens, too, in connection with John’s baptism. But it happens to only one person: Jesus.
When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove, which ought to remind us, I submit, of what happens after the flood. Noah sends out a dove and the dove flies back and forth over the water, landing only when there is sufficient dry land to allow Noah to leave the ark. The dove’s presence — and the dove’s landing — speak of new creation. (Think, too, of the Spirit hovering like a bird over the waters in Genesis 1.)
The Spirit descends on Jesus and remains on Him. In Him, P. H. R. van Houwelingen says, the dove of peace finds fixed ground. But that’s what Israel expected for herself. Add to that the fact that God’s voice identifies Jesus as God’s beloved Son. “Son of God” was a title that applied to Israel. God told Pharaoh to let Israel go because Israel was His firstborn son. (Adam, too, is God’s Son.)
By the Voice from heaven, Jesus is identified as God’s Son, which means in part that He is taking on Himself Israel’s role. By the Spirit’s presence, Jesus is identified as the Israel who experiences the fulfilment of the LORD’s promise in Ezekiel 36. By the Spirit’s power, then, Jesus goes to do what Israel could not do for herself (and what Adam, God’s son, couldn’t do.) He lives obediently and dies obediently, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the final sacrifice whose death brings about divine forgiveness for those who belong to Him.
But then He also bestows the Spirit. The bearer of the Spirit, van Houwelingen says, is the giver of the Spirit. John the Baptizer pointed people to Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Spirit. He’s the one who would complete and fulfil John’s own baptism, who would bring about the reality of Ezekiel 36, the reality of restoration from exile, forgiveness of sins, renewal by the Spirit and the power to obey.
But who experienced those things? Not all the people who had been baptized by John, but those who also went on from John’s baptism to put their trust in Christ. (Is this what being “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3 means?) Jesus gathered disciples around Himself and when He ascended He poured out His Spirit upon them, baptizing the whole church with the Holy Spirit.
So now who shares in that baptism and in the fulfilment of all that God promised His people? Who has the power to walk in God’s ways and to keep His commandments because they have the Spirit? Those who are members of Christ’s church, who’ve been baptized into Christ.
Or to put it another way: If you’ve been baptized, you’re a member of the church Christ baptized with His Spirit. God has promised His Holy Spirit to you in Christ. And you can grab hold of that promise and start to live according to His commandments, trusting that you have the Spirit’s power at work in you, just as God said.
Today, I worked on a sermon on John 1:19-28. In that passage, Jerusalem sends a fact-finding committee to John the Baptizer to inquire about his identity and about his baptism. I’ve preached on this passage before, but this time I spent a lot of time thinking about the significance of John’s baptism. After all, the Pharisees don’t merely ask why John is baptizing. They ask why he’s baptizing since he’s not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet.
When John, Jesus, and the early church used water in ritual and symbolic actions, they did so within the already existent symbolic world of Judaism with its stories of floods and water-crossings, its rituals of washing and purification, and its prophecies of the outpoured Spirit and deserts made green.
He also shows the connection between the return from exile and John calling Israel to the wilderness, the Old Covenant washings, and the forgiveness of sins. Interestingly enough,
If John is calling Israel back to the wilderness, it can only be for a new exodus; but then Israel must now be living in bondage to new oppressors. Surprisingly, perhaps, these oppressors do not appear to be Rome in John’s mind, but the leadership of Israel herself. After all, what else could a washing of purification be, but a way of saying that Israel’s God was now offering through John’s ministry the purification and forgiveness that the Temple and other official rites had once promised?
Wonderful stuff! Thanks, Joel! And thanks, too, Bill, for reminding me of it. It was just what I was looking for.