Monday, February 28, 2011

John 3, Part One

“Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (vs. 1-10)—This is a very famous, and unfortunately, much misunderstood and abused passage. A Pharisaic ruler named Nicodemus, whom we learn elsewhere was, or became, very sympathetic towards Jesus (John 7:50; 19:39), came to speak to Him privately. Why Nicodemus approached Jesus at night is pure speculation. He admitted his belief that Jesus came from God; Nicodemus correctly interpreted the miraculous evidence: “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (v. 2). Exactly what he wanted we don’t know, but Jesus cut right to the quick and spoke of the new birth: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3—the old KJV’s “Verily, verily, I say unto thee” is so much prettier). Nicodemus did not understand, thinking Jesus spoke in physical terms (v. 4). But Jesus expounds a little more in verse 5: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It is a sine qua non, an absolute. One cannot see or enter God’s kingdom without this birth of water and Spirit. So, verily, verily, it is a very important concept.

It would take a full article to completely elucidate Jesus’ meaning; countless sermons have been preached, explaining, and mis-explaining, the meaning. Suffice it for this survey to say that “water” refers to baptism, and “the Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit’s message as revealed in the word of God. It is important to understand that baptism is a change of state—not a change of heart, or mind, or life. Those take place in belief and repentance. But just as a baby is alive in its mother’s womb, it is not yet born; its birth changes its state, not its life. Of course, if it is never born, it will soon die. Baptism is the point at which our sins are forgiven (Acts 2:38; 22:16). This, of course, takes place in the mind of God, not in the heart of man. A person cannot “feel” forgiveness, only the one offended can state the conditions for that forgiveness. And God has included baptism as that point when He will view a sinner as pardoned. The Spirit acts, in effect, as the “father” in the spiritual begetting process. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 4:15, “I have begotten you through the gospel.” Peter is perhaps more explicit in I Peter 1:23: “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God.” Thus, we are begotten by the Spirit through His word and we come forth from the spiritual womb via water, i.e., baptism. The figure is so beautiful that Jesus even has the order correct. Just as one cannot be said to have been begotten by his father until he is first born of his mother, even so one cannot be born of the Spirit until he is first born of the water. For if one will not accept the Spirit’s word to be baptized for the remission of sins, how can one truly be said to have been begotten by that Spirit?

Jesus makes the delineation in verse 6—flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. The new birth is, of course, a spiritual one, not physical. It is not possible for us to understand the workings in the human heart (v. 8). That verse does not refer to the “movings” of the Holy Spirit, as is often claimed. Notice, “so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Why some accept and why others reject can only be known by God and each human heart.

Nicodemus still didn’t understand. “How can these things be?” (v. 9). And Jesus rebukes him for it: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” In other words, “Nicodemus, if you knew the Old Testament the way you ought to, then a new birth of water and Spirit shouldn’t be a surprise.” Jehovah used water frequently under the Jewish dispensation to effect a change of state—Noah and the flood, the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea into freedom from bondage, Naaman being purified of leprosy by the waters of the Jordan River being the three most effective examples. All of these, however, were predicated upon belief and obedience. Unless we believe God and are willing to do as He says, then the cleansing waters of baptism, where we contact the blood of Christ (in the mind of God, Romans 6:1-4) will never reach our eternal spirit and free us from the bondage, from the dreaded disease, of sin.

Remember, reader, according to Jesus we cannot enter the kingdom of God without the water and Spirit birth. It’s His words, not mine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

John 2

The wedding at Cana (vs. 1-12)—Cana was a small town about 8 miles north of Nazareth, so it would have taken Jesus about three days to get there from where the events at the end of chapter one had taken place. It was quite a blessing for that couple to have Jesus at their reception. When they ran out of wine, Jesus’ mother, Mary, speaks to Him about it, perhaps implying that He should do something. We don’t know the extent of Mary’s understanding of her son’s abilities. Jesus’ response in verse 4 seems to be a mild rebuke; His mother is not going to control His mission or direct His affairs. “My hour is not yet come” speaks of higher things than the mundane affairs of this world. Mary may have been looking at the immediate; Jesus attempts to direct her mind to something far more significant. Regardless of the exact meaning of their conversation, Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus instructs them to do.

The six “waterpots of stone” would have contained between 120 and 150 gallons. Jesus had the servants fill the pots with water and then performed His miracle. The master of the feast recognized the superiority of what Jesus had made and commended the bridegroom for his actions of providing the best drink for the last. The bridegroom, of course, would have no idea what happened. John then tells us that “this [was the] beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee”—not necessarily the first miracle He wrought because we saw in chapter one He displayed some miraculous knowledge. But now He’s in Galilee and this is His first miracle there.

A note on the “wine” of this wedding feast. Because most people drink alcoholic wine, it is assumed that the beverage here was also fermented. This is not necessarily so. The Greek word used here, oinos, is a generic term—it can mean either fermented or unfermented juice of the grape. The fact that there was at least 120 gallons of the stuff would seem to point to an unfermented beverage; a lot of people can get awfully drunk on that much alcohol, and to think that Jesus was endorse, or encourage, such drinking by His presence, or even more, my producing that much alcoholic drink, is a bit hard to fathom. The ancients knew several ways to keep grape juice from fermenting, and they would water down both unfermented and fermented drink to make it last longer. Hence, the master of the feast’s comment would not necessarily imply alcohol. Wine was a common drink in the ancient world, just as it is today. But people back then also drank unfermented grape juice—just as many do today. Context, and the whole repercussions of the use of alcohol, would lead me to conclude that Jesus produced an unfermented beverage.

Jesus at the Passover (vs. 13-25)—Jesus then returns to Jerusalem for the Passover. He was upset when He saw people selling sacrifices to the visitors and He drove them out. He did this also later in His ministry, so obviously His actions here didn’t have much effect on the money-grubbers of His day. To His disciples, this called to mind a thought from Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” The Jews questioned Him, asking for a sign (v. 18); He’d give them one: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). They misunderstood, not surprisingly, thinking He was talking about the physical temple in Jerusalem (v. 20). But John explains that He was talking about His resurrection (v. 21), and that when He had indeed risen from the dead, they remembered His words here. It’s virtually assured that, when He spoke these words, that they did not understand Him, either. A lot of people “believed in His name” when He worked a number of miracles at the Passover (v. 23), but this “belief” is obviously a very shallow perception of Him, and He did not take the time, at the moment, to explain fully who or what He was, or His mission. That would come in time. He recognized how such a shallow understanding of Him could lead to severe misunderstanding, so He kept His identity unrevealed until a future date. This is reminiscent of cases, recording in the other gospels, where Jesus healed an individual but then told him not to tell anybody. The masses could have created a tremendous uproar and, frankly, kept Him from completing the preaching and teaching that He came to do. He knew men (He had created them) so He didn’t commit His identity to them this early in His ministry.

Monday, February 14, 2011

John 1, Part Two

The work of John the Baptist (vs. 19-35)—While much of this material can be found in the other three gospels, there are a few additions here by John the apostle. The Jews wanted John the Baptist to identify himself (v. 19), and he plainly stated that he wasn’t the Christ. “Who are you then?” (v. 21). The reference to Elijah goes back to Malachi 4:5, and “the Prophet” apparently has reference to Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. It appears that the Jews might not have taken the Deuteronomy passge as Messianic, which it almost assuredly is. But John denied that he was the fulfillment of either of these two Old Testament references, rather he is the “voice crying in the wilderness” of Isaiah 40. He came to prepare the way for the Lord. Jesus tells us that John was the “Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14), but he isn’t the literal Elijah, which is how John the Baptist answered the question. John further explains his mission in verses 25-28. This particular conversation was held after Christ’s baptism, because verse 29 indicates that “the next day” John saw Jesus in the distance and announced, “Behold, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  It's interesting that he uses the singular "sin" rather than "sins."  Sin here is pictured as one, great mass that is offensive and in opposition to God.  Jesus can remove it.  John then discusses how he knew that, i.e., “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him” (v. 32). John did not know Who Jesus was until that time. For those who think there is a contradiction here—verses 26 and 27 happening after Christ’s baptism while the other gospel writers recording it before Jesus’ immersion—one only has to realize that John had this discussion at least twice, once before and once after. It’s highly likely, given the number of Jews who came out to be baptized of him, that he spoke similar words many times. Jesus tells us how great John was, and we see a marvelous indication in this passage. When John points to Jesus as the Messiah, he was inviting disaster to his own popularity; he was telling his followers to shift their allegiance to Jesus. Some did, but some didn’t, but John certainly did his job and was willing to disappear from the scene. Not many men would do what he did.

Jesus’ first disciples (vs.36-51)—This section helps to explain the seeming perplexity of Matthew 4:18ff. and the parallels in Mark and Luke, where Peter, Andrew, James, and John rise and follow Jesus upon His first contact with Him. But their “leaving all” was not their first introduction to the Messiah. Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually skip nearly all of the first year of Christ’s ministry. John fills in a few of the gaps, one of those being Jesus’ meeting of Peter and Andrew. Thus, they knew Him for at least a year before He called them to follow Him permanently. Andrew was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah (vs. 37-41), and went to find his brother, Peter. Jesus gives Peter the name “Cephas,” which means rock, which is exactly what “Peter” means in Greek. “Cephas” is Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew, and probably the language Jesus spoke. Jesus next meets Philip and Nathanael, who is also known as Bartholomew. Philip, in ways that we are not told, is also convinced of Jesus’ identify, and goes to find his friend. Nathanael is skeptical: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46), which tells us something of the reputation that city had among the Jews of that day. Philip simply invites him to “come and see” (v. 46). Jesus then demonstrates some miraculous knowledge (vs. 47-49), which, properly, convinces Nathanael of His deity. Jesus tells him that this is a small thing, and that “you will see greater things than these” (v. 50). Verse 51 is difficult and, from all future indications, not literal. It probably simply refers to the glory that would be bestowed upon Jesus from heaven. It reminds us of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 38.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

John 1, Part One

Who is Jesus? (vs. 1-18)—For all his simplistic language, the concepts John introduces are deep, thoughtful theological ideas. And his description of Jesus in verses 1-18 of chapter one is profound. And, as noted in the introduction, it is anti-Gnostic. Without going into great detail, let me analyze who—what—John says Jesus is.

He is God (vs. 1-3)—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The statement “in the beginning” deliberately reminds us of Genesis 1:1 and the verses thereafter, where God used His word to create the world (more on John’s meaning of “Word” in just a moment). Jesus was there with God, and being God, essential in the creative process. This whole idea takes us to the three-fold nature of God, which is humanly incomprehensible. But then, so is human nature itself. We are three-fold beings ourselves—body, soul, and spirit. Take one away, and we no longer exist. Our universe is actually a tri-universe—space, time, matter. These are reflections of the image of the triune God.

He is the “Word” (v. 1)—What are words? Words are expressions of ideas. At this moment, I am communicating my mind to you via the words I am using. In a similar way, God expressed His mind to us through His “Word,” Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the very mind of God. What an awesome concept. And then, of course, this “word” was written down for us in the Bible. So the Bible, the word of God, is simply a description of Jesus Himself, the “Word” of God, the mind of God explained to man.

He is the light which brings life to man (vs. 4-5, 9-10)—The “darkness” of the world is the sin that plagues it; Jesus provides the light which directs men out of that darkness. The world doesn’t understand Him (v. 5, 10), or more accurately, doesn’t want to.

He was not John the Baptist (vs. 6-8)—The apostle will talk more about John the Baptist later in the chapter, but at the moment, he simply tells us that John came to bear witness “of the Light,” in hopes “that all through him might believe” (v. 7). The Baptizer came from God (v. 6), but he himself was not the Light (v. 8).

He is the one through Whom men can become children of God (vs. 11-13)—Jesus was born as a Jew, something that is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy stretching back to Genesis 12. But the Jews, by and large, rejected Him (v. 11). By the time John writes this gospel (mid-80s), that national rejection was largely manifest. But to those who do receive Jesus—now, notice very carefully—“to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (v. 12). Believers are not children of God, they only have the right to become so, and they become so by fulfilling that belief in obedience. Jesus is “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9). Even the demons believe (James 2:19). Faith only is insufficient for salvation. This new birth into the family of God is spiritual, not physical, and comes from God, not man (v. 13). Jesus will talk more of that new birth in John 3.

Jesus was human (v. 14)—“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This, as noted in the introduction, is a direct attack on Gnostic heresy. And again, we have the incomprehensible. On earth, Jesus was not 50% human and 50% God. He was 100% of each. You try to explain it. But then, we must not forget that we are dealing with God here, whose foolishness is wiser than man’s greatest wisdom (I Cor. 1:25), and whose ways are as high above man’s as heaven is above the earth (Isaiah 55:8-9).

He is the only begotten Son of God (vs. 14, 18)—He’s unique, one of a kind. We are all “sons” (children of God), but not like Him. We cannot “see” God in His spiritual form, but only as He manifested Himself. And the second person of the godhead did that in human form.

He brought grace and truth (v. 17)—The necessary elements of our salvation.

My study in these blogs is only a survey, for, believe me, books can, and have been, written on every paragraph above.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Introduction to the Gospel of John

By all internal evidence and early church history information, this gospel was written by the apostle John, one of five books in the New Testament which he penned (the three letters bearing his name and the book of Revelation being the others). The theme of the gospel is clearly stated near the end, in chapter 20:30-31: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” Notice his aim is not just that people believe, but that they believe unto salvation—“that you may have life in His name.” In order to accomplish his goal, John presents several notable miracles that Jesus did (the number is usually given as nine, but there are more than that). That is enough. If a person won’t believe on the eyewitness evidence the apostle produces, then more miracles will not convince them.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. John wrote this gospel, probably in the mid-80s, at least 20 years after the other three gospels were finished. By this time, the battle fought by Paul over justification by faith versus the Law of Moses is over. The “Judaizers”—early Jewish Christians—whom he dealt with had tried to force certain aspect of the Mosaic law, especially circumcision, on Gentile Christians. Paul, and others, would have none of it, and thus the Jewish people, as a whole, began to reject Christianity. The book of Hebrews, written probably in the mid-60s, signifies the break with its teaching that Christianity is superior in every way to Judaism, and that this is exactly what the Old Testament had taught as well. Well, this was obviously something most Jews could not accept, and so they clung to their own religion. Thus, by the mid-80s, when John started writing, most converts to Christianity were Gentiles. Well, understandably, they brought their peculiar religious and philosophical beliefs with them, the most notable and influential being Gnosticism. This doctrine would play a major factor in the church in the 2nd century especially, and it would take a lot of work to root it out of Christianity. John’s writings were of supreme help.

Gnosticism is complicated, but its major idea—at least the one John combats—is the Jesus did not really come in the flesh. He could not have done so, because the flesh is totally evil; only the spirit can be good. Thus, God as the Son could not have truly lived in the flesh; He only “seemed” to. This was special knowledge (Greek, gnosis, hence Gnosticism) which only a few, superior Christians possessed, an inner cult, if you will. Because of their belief in their own elite insights, they looked down upon other Christians as inferior. John deals with this thoroughly in I John, but also somewhat in the gospel. His first few verses are a direct attack upon the Gnostic heresy: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…(John 1:1, 14, emphasis mine). This is NOT what Gnosticism believed, and John will produce more evidence, as his gospel proceeds, of the deity and “flesh” of Christ. This basic historical background is crucial to understanding much of what John wrote.

John, of course, includes much material that Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not have. This is partly because of his unique purpose, but also because there was no sense in repeating, again, what the earlier three inspired writers had written. It’s the same Jesus, of course, just dealt with from a different angle and presenting different aspects of His teaching.

The gospel of John is a beautiful book, but has its difficulties. I will attempt to iron these out as we proceed through our study.