'I will make you fishers of men'





Feed Link

Study Help

Real Help

    Needed Prayers



About Kc



    "You are really cool you are married to an European!! How cooler can you be??"
    Fisherman Pecheur

    "Smarty Pants"
    Mad Matt

    "Oh, you did not ask for Bonhoeffer's opinion did you? You wanted mine..."
    the SOFYST

    "You are like the master at this "feelings" stuff!
    Kind Kristi

    "I enjoy your comments, but they are always delightfully enigmatic"
    Dyspraxic Fundamentalist

Sunday, April 04, 2010

He is Risen

1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?
4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5 And entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
Mark 16:1-6 KJV

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

So did your “name” change?

In the introduction to his series of articles Dr. Reitman wrote,

“My view of three-dimensional salvation is a fundamentally dispensational approach (theologically speaking); however, I do not find this is at all inimical to other ways of thinking about the issue. What I do see is that none of us will emerge from this “wrestling match” (if we enter it with integrity) without having “our names changed.” What I mean by this is that our traditions and even our staunchest theological convictions will be laid out on the table for reframing and, if need be, total overhaul. Of one thing we can be sure: Jesus will not change, nor will God’s offer of life through Him.”

Now if you’re like me then you’re probably unwilling (or as in my case you recognize you’re unable) to offer a full critique on this series but I think we can all easily evaluate how well, or how little, we relate with this perspective. You may even have already determined that certain aspects of your own perspective need more evaluation or possibly you've concluded that certain aspects proposed in this series need further scrutiny. Hopefully we can all be more like Missy and “have no problems whatsoever looking stupid. As a rock.“ Then we too “can only go up from there.”

I admit that I already hold a very similar perspective on the Gospel and so the main things that I’ve struggled with pertain mostly to circumstance and semantics. With respect to circumstance, I regret that the Gospel in “3-D” is being offered against the backdrop of a “food fight”. Concerning semantics I literally hate the fact that without full explanation both scriptural and cultural terms remain as vague as they are critical. I’m still hoping for more in-depth discussion of each article but I’m looking forward to the future as well.

Let’s call this my “wish list”. It’s been clearly demonstrated that the Gospel in “3-D” is no via media or “middle way“ with respect to the “food fight” but I have to confess that I do see it serving as the point of convergence for a number of competing movements (more on that later). I also haven’t been shy in declaring my wish to see the doctrine of election expounded on here and I hope to see Dr. Reitman, Bobby Grow and others cooperate in more fully framing the Gospel in “3-D” theologically. ;-) In addition I’m looking forward to reading Dr. Tim Nichols’ continued thoughts on ecclesiology.

So now how about you? Did your “name” change?

(Please continue to remember Bro. Bobby and his family in your prayers.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gospel in "3-D"

A Series of Articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

Index to Articles

John 3:16: A 3-D Gospel for a Promised 3-D Redemption

Why a 3-D Gospel Begins with a “Snake-on-a-Stick”

The Gospel in the Garden

Promise Only? Jesus, the One-and-Only, is the Promise

* “Receive”? “Believe”? Coming to the Light

The Work of the Father: “Here Am I, Send Me”

Make Good Wine: “Take” the Water and the Blood

Download a draft copy of the full series. (PDF Format)
(*Modified 11/30/09)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Make Good Wine: “Take” the Water and the Blood

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

In my previous post I asserted that “eternal life” in John is not just a future destiny for believers but also a present lifestyle characterized by “doing” the righteous work of the Father—the “good wine” of Isaiah’s Vineyard. John 15 offers a transparent picture of this desired “fruit of the vine” and how it critically depends on whether the branches “remain” or “abide” in the Vine. A Free Grace view of John 15 makes it clear that once branches are in the Vine, their eternal destiny is secure (Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, pp. 134-38). The same Beloved who was to tend the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 is now himself the Vine, and the Father is the vinedresser (15:1). To make fruit, the “wine sap” must flow from the Vine through the branches. The “one believing” in 3:16 is the one abiding in John 15 and can “bear fruit” (“deeds done in God,” cf. 3:21) from his “wine sap” of eternal life.

When we stop abiding in the Vine we stop trusting Jesus for life—we stop living out of that eternal life and thus cannot bear righteous fruit (15:4). We can tell when we are abiding in the Vine and “doing righteousness” by whether we love the brethren: No one who hates his brother “has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn 3:10b-15); such a person is literally detached from the Vine—no wine sap! So, how do we keep the vital sap flowing in the branches in order to “make good wine,” to “do righteousness”? This post will explore the “mechanics” of sustaining communion with the Son to accomplish this end as we “incarnate” him in our world.

Bad Wine to Good: “It is Finished”
The last mention of wine in John occurs in the last scene of the Passion which is strange indeed, if we don’t consider how the symbolism of the event is rooted in imagery already established in John 2-4. John is notorious for dropping hints in editorial comments. If his readers didn’t get the Kingdom imagery of turning water into wine (2:1-10) as the intended result of believing in Him (2:11, 23; 3:3, 5, 16), John has Jesus circle back to Cana “where he had made the water wine” (4:46) and perform another miracle in 4:47-54. It is interesting to see how the word “believe” is used: In 4:50 the nobleman trusted Jesus’ assurance that his son lived, but when he saw that his son was given life in the face of certain death from fever “he himself believed, and his whole household” (4:53); that is, they trusted Jesus for eternal life for they saw he could indeed deliver on his promises. John’s point (see 4:46, above) is, now that they had eternal life they were “suitably constituted” to join Jesus in making wine out of water.

There is no mention of wine again until the last scene of the Passion narrative. Now, remember the vineyard in Isaiah 5: It “brought forth wild grapes” (5:3b-4). And what do you get from wild grapes? Sour wine. Note the connection in John 19:28-31, 33-37 (NKJV, emphasis added):
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away….But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.”

DID YOU SEE THAT?? The crucified Messiah is inviting us to take communion! They did not break his bones, so “one intact loaf” could be divided among his people to “reconstitute” his one Body! His blood poured out, so each member of his Body could be cleansed of sin! Seen through the lens of Isaiah 5, it is also an invitation for his people to “take” the water and make good wine: Here at the foot of the cross we have sour wine—all the idolatrous, worthless deeds done by the nation Israel in darkness—and Jesus simply “takes” it. (We would expect “swallows it” here, but the Greek is lambanō, “actively receive” [cf. 1:11-12]; see the “Receive?” “Believe?” post under Light Leads to Life.) Then in goes the spear and out comes water and blood!! John is thinking like a Rabbi: Israel’s sin cleansed by the blood of Christ—their “sour wine” turned into water and offered for the people of God to “take” again (as he “took” their sins) and make good wine. John then quotes Zechariah 12:10b. Time for us to put on those rabbinic thinking caps again…

The Second Exodus
Zechariah 12:10 ushers in the Day of the Lord. The ensuing imagery supplies a graphic depiction of that Day in which water and blood play a major role. When “they look on Him whom they pierced” (12:10, LXX), they will all mourn, family by family, (12:11-14), and “a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness” (13:1 NKJV). The Lord of hosts (the God who executes judgment) will cleanse the Holy Land, which has now become a “second Egypt” with all the idolatry and false prophets (13:2-6). This “clean up campaign” recalls the Lord of host’s intent to “clean up” his vineyard in Isaiah 5, addressed to his “Beloved,” but this time God refers to Messiah as his “Shepherd”:
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man, My Associate,” declares the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones” (Zech 13:7 NASB).
In “striking the Shepherd” He initiates a “second Exodus,” sending a remnant of His people back into the “wilderness” to purify them (13:8-9). He gathers the nations to Jerusalem, completely purging the Land, “plowing up the Vineyard” with massive geologic changes, as Messiah returns to the Mount of Olives (14:1-6).

At this point, the “fountain” that initially cleansed the remnant (13:1) becomes rivers of “living water” that flow from Jerusalem (where Messiah is installed as King) to irrigate the now leveled wilderness where the gentile nations reside (14:7-9). Jerusalem, however, is “raised up” and inhabited by the remnant who make wine at the King’s winepresses (!) (14:10). When the Lord of hosts gathers all the nations to Jerusalem to purge them with a plague (14:11-15), those who are left from the nations are obliged to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles by bringing their harvest to Jerusalem. Now, look at this: The nations are irrigated by the “living waters” flowing from the King in Jerusalem (14:8) so they can bring in their grapes to make wine at the King’s winepresses (14:10)! Those who don’t bring their harvest to the Feast very simply get no rain (14:17-19), just like the worthless vines of Isaiah’s vineyard (Isa 5:6). In the end, we have a “Vineyard” that now includes all the nations of earth, but the Temple in Jerusalem houses only the sanctified people of God in a state of “Holiness to the Lord” (Zech 14:20-21).

The moniker “Holiness to the Lord” signifies that His people have finally been fully delivered from “Egypt” to be “Holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45), as attested in the “harvest” by “good wine for the King.” This wine is the same righteousness and justice amid the nations of earth that Isaiah was sent to elicit from the remnant of Israel (Isa 6). With this imagery of irrigation and harvest, Zechariah 14 thus illustrates the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you, and in you all the families of earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). Zechariah’s Day of the Lord thus begins with “striking the Shepherd,” a metaphor of Messiah’s “piercing” to bring forth water and blood (Zech 12:10; 14:7), thereby constituting the Body of Christ; however, it is consummated only in the reconstituted remnant of Israel—the “not yet” and the “already” of the Kingdom of God. John’s gospel shows how this imagery of water and blood inaugurates this Kingdom in our communion with Christ.

“Taking” the Water: Drinking from the “Rock”
The piercing of Christ in John 19 is thus associated with Messiah’s piercing in Zech 12:10 and the “bundled” allusions to the “fountain” of cleansing (13:1), “striking the Shepherd” (13:7), and “living water” flowing from the King in Jerusalem (14:8). But John’s readers should also clearly recall the woman at the well, who accepted Jesus’ offer of “living water” that would “become in her a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:10, 15b-16). Indeed, as soon as she “took” the water, it immediately flowed out of her to “irrigate” Samaria, where many of them believed and became her “harvest” to the Lord (4:28-42, cf. Zech 14:16). This was just what the nation Israel was commissioned to do in the first Exodus, where the Lord also instructed Moses to “strike the Shepherd” so that they could have “living water” (Ex 17:5-7). Instead they rebelled and fell in the wilderness (see esp. Ps 78:12-41). Paul recounts this same scenario for a divided assembly of believers (1 Cor 10:1-13), so that they might grasp the critical importance of their communion in Christ (10:14-22): “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (10:2-4). Paul’s point is that we get true life from God, not idols, and just as water from the Rock in the wilderness, the cup and bread symbolize the vital role of sustaining communion in Christ so as to appropriate that life in the “two-way blessing” of Abraham’s covenant (see above).

Paul’s comparison of the Body of Christ to Israel shows how communion is meant to remind us of the critical importance of maintaining fellowship with each other and with the Lord: “Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?” (10:18). This allusion to eating the OT sacrifices (especially the guilt and peace offerings) is a picture of restoration of “table fellowship” in sharing the sacrifice with one another and with the Lord, to whom the sacrifice is offered. By analogy with these OT offerings, the rite of communion therefore depicts the “maintenance” of both “horizontal” and “vertical” fellowship in the Lord. The next four chapters in the book then reveal how this “dual communion”—from their baptism into Christ to the springing up in them of “living water” in gifts of the Spirit—is meant to culminate in their testimony of life to the unbelieving world (14:22-25), just as in the woman at the well. But in light of the “leaven” of sin in the Body of Christ how do we maintain our “Passover” communion with him (5:6-8) in order to accomplish the mission we were sent to fulfill? In other words, how do we “keep the water pure” in order to make “good wine”?

“Taking” the Blood: Maintaining “Holiness to the Lord”
Here, finally, is where we find that the “gift” of God’s Son as a ransom for sin (John 3:16) is the “gift that keeps on giving.” The blood shed at the Cross, attested by the spear in his side (19:35), is blood that can be applied at the altar whenever we need it to cleanse us of sin and restore table fellowship, depicted by Christ’s footwashing in 13:1-20. When Judas is sent away from the table (13:21-30), it depicts the crucial importance of maintaining table fellowship among the “already clean” (cf. 13:10-11) whom Christ chose to send into the world (13:20). The key implications of footwashing in the Body of Christ are fleshed out in the role of Christ’s blood in 1 John 1:5-2:2. Some take this passage to refer only to the conversion of unbelievers, but this is sadly mistaken. Very simply, the “as needed” foot-washing Jesus enjoins of his disciples in John 13 is fulfilled in the “as needed” application of blood that was shed for sins once for all, so that they might not sin (1:9-2:2); the blood keeps the “water” pure! John is unambiguously clear that fellowship with God—“abiding in Him,” “knowing Him,” “walking in the light,” “the love of God”—will be mirrored in the way we treat each other (cf. 1:5-2:11; 4:19-21). If these are markers of all believers, then “abiding” in John 15 and the entire First Epistle loses all significance for the Body of Christ: Abiding is crucial in maintaining “Holiness to the Lord.”

Hence, the rite of communion shows that we maintain fellowship to sustain a holy community set apart for God’s purposes: to make the “good wine” of righteousness and justice that attests eternal life to a world in darkness; in fact this is the entire “strategic intent” of First John. Strictly forensic views of passages like 2 Cor 5:17-21 and Romans 5 totally miss the vital link between reconciliation and righteousness in order to attest eternal life. In this regard I’ve examined 2 Cor 5:17-21 elsewhere and plan to do the same with Romans 5. All I wish to do at this point is whet our appetites with Romans 5:17, 21, which establishes the key role of “taking” the gift of God in consistently attesting eternal life through righteousness. Keeping in mind the Kingdom imagery of Zechariah 12-14 above, listen to Paul’s conclusion in Romans 5:21:
…so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (NKJV).

An analysis of Romans 4-5 leading up to this conclusion shows that the work of atonement is intended to result in a “righteous reign”; the ensuing opus magnum in Romans 6-8 makes it unambiguously clear that this “righteous reign” is to be lived out in this present life by the lead of the Holy Spirit to ensure an eschatological co-reign with Messiah. The verb “reign” is in the aorist tense, signifying that this event is being viewed as a singular, intact reign that extends uninterrupted into the eschaton (on Greek tenses, see “Receive?” “Believe?” under Light Leads to Life). How can this be if sin in this life “contaminates” our “Holiness to the Lord”? Answer: Ongoing appropriation of the “gift of God” (5:17, cf. Jn 3:16):
For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned [aorist, singular, intact] through the one, much more will those receiving [present, ongoing] the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign to life through the One, Jesus Christ (my translation).
Again, the conspicuous verb is lambanō, to “actively receive,” “take,” “appropriate” (see above, Bad Wine to Good): In order for us to take active part in the singular, intact reign of God and attest “eternal life” through righteousness, we are called to actively appropriate the gracious “gift of God,” Messiah’s righteousness, by repeatedly “taking” his shed blood and the “water” of his Spirit that was given in his resurrection (cf. Rom 4:25).

To conclude the series, therefore, “the ones believing” in John 3:16 obtain an ongoing experience of eternal life because these are “the ones receiving” God’s gift of His Son. They are enabled to “reign in righteousness to eternal life” in this present life because they remain in communion with the King of Righteousness. And they will continue to reign with him in eternal life during the coming eschaton as a direct result of their faithfulness in this life (cf. Rom 8:17). A life of consistent “believing” can be sustained in ongoing communion with our King, because his blood is always available to cleanse any intercurrent sin, so that it does not disrupt our “table fellowship” with him or with one another in attesting eternal life to a fallen world. Now that’s a 3-D gospel. May the God of all grace bless you all in communion with the Son he gave!

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Work of the Father: “Here Am I, Send Me”

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

There are interesting and prominent differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic gospels. One the most glaring of these is the frequent mention in the synoptics of the Kingdom of God (or Heaven), whereas it is mentioned in John only three times. Does this mean that John does not really have the Kingdom in mind? The text suggests otherwise. I would propose, rather, that whereas Matthew emphasizes an “already” facet of God’s advancing Kingdom, John looks prospectively to the “not yet.” In John the “work” of the Father is to prepare “workers” in this present age to be “sent out” to set the stage for the coming Kingdom. If this indeed is the case, I don’t see how we can substantiate the view promulgated by a number of Free Grace (FG) authors that his Gospel is primarily intended for unbelievers. It is my thesis that the Gospel of John is a “recruiting brochure” for all who are or will become “children of God” (1:12) to be sent like Jesus—actually in Jesus—to “do the work of the Father.” This is attested by the design of John’s gospel, especially the climax in the Upper Room Discourse: Jesus’ high-priestly intercessory prayer to the Father (John 17). As such, it becomes the ideal canonical introduction to the “sending” motif in the book of Acts.

Johannine Embarrassments to a 1-D Free Grace Soteriology
Two potentially embarrassing chapters for those who take John’s gospel as primarily addressed to unbelievers (usually citing John 20:30-31) are John 2 and 21. These chapters seem “tacked on” to the “meat” of the gospel, if it mainly has to do with getting people into heaven. Here are a few examples: In 2:3-4 when the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother appeals to him, but Jesus answers with apparent disdain: “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come" (2:4 NASB). Glad Joseph wasn’t there: “Hey, boy, it may just be your ‘hour’. Next time I hear you talk to your mother like that, I’ll slap you into the middle of next week.” Or what’s with the one hundred and fifty-three fish in 21:11? It’s narrative, dude; spare me the detail. Then there’s that campfire scene where Peter gets grilled more than the fish; that doesn’t seem very free gracious, if you know what I mean. But the #1 embarrassing passage for a 1-D Free Grace (FG) soteriology may be 2:23-25, where many “believed in his name,” yet he wanted nothing to do with them. Awwwkwaaard.

A 3-D gospel naturally illuminates these passages. Building on the previous post, I suggest that these incidents in John’s gospel—along with the entire Upper Room Discourse (13-17)—are best viewed as preparing believers to set the stage for the coming Kingdom of God (3:3, 5; 18:36) by “enlightening” the world, just as the Son did for them (1:9, 12). I think the best place to start is the wedding at Cana. Why did John stick that event between his “heaven’s gate” imagery (1:51) and the ensuing encounter with Nic (3:1-21), where he clearly recalls that same OT image (3:13). Got your “rabbinic thinking caps”? Where in the OT would we go to see why turning water into wine would be such a big deal? Answer: It’s The Big Kahuna, Isaiah. Isaiah was da man for the most credible OT citations to prove a point. In fact, NT authors were not beyond ascribing OT quotes to Isaiah even when they belonged to some other prophet. “It’s the thought that counts,” and plagiarism wasn’t such a big deal back then; if a Rabbi wanted “hard currency,” all he needed was to quote or allude to Isaiah. Slam dunk every time.

OT “Vineyard Imagery” and the “Holy One of Israel”
An entire chapter of Isaiah is devoted to depicting God’s chosen people as His carefully tended vineyard, and it’s obvious what good vineyards are for: to make “good wine” (5:1-2), which was righteousness and justice (5:7). But look closer: Who really tends the vineyard? It’s “my Beloved” (5:1). Hmmm [says the Hellenistic Rabbi, who’s rusty on his Hebrew], where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, that’s how God referred to Abraham’s son when he asked Abe to sacrifice him (Gen 22:2 [LXX])? (See “Promise Only?” post under “The Cross of Christ”.) God the Father entrusts his beloved Son (the “Suffering Servant,” 52-53) with tending the vineyard, anticipating the “good wine” of Righteousness and Justice from his chosen people. Got it.

When Israel produced only “wild grapes,” God stopped tending her (5:3-6). Isaiah preached judgment on Israel for failing to produce good wine—do righteousness and justice, as the Holy One of Israel had bid them (5:8-30). The Holy One, the “LORD of hosts [armies],” would return to clean them out (5:7, 9, 16, 24): Their unproductive branches are burned with fire like stubble and dry grass (5:24). No wonder Isaiah is totally “undone” when he then sees this same LORD of hosts fill the temple with smoke (6:1-5), and then a Seraph purifies his mouth with a burning coal, as he is redeemed and given a new pair of underwear (6:6-7, I think he actually peed his pants). When the Holy One asks for volunteers to go back to the vineyard, Isaiah steps up to the plate (6:8) and is sent to raise a remnant (“holy seed”) from the stump of the vine left after their judgment by fire (6:9-13). The nation will be hardened, but the remnant will have “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Isa 6:9-10) such that Isaiah will be able to distinguish the remnant from the rest: They “get it,” but the rest do not and remain in the darkness of their own judgment (5:30b). Interestingly, this redeemed vineyard will again face potential fire (6:13), just as in John 15:5-6.

The Wedding at Cana, the Beloved, and the Vineyard
This imagery recalls the Prologue of John (previous post), where the Light is not “appropriated” by the darkness, yet some do “receive” him (1:5, 11-12) and come to the light, so their deeds might be seen as of God rather than remain in the darkness of judgment (3:17-21). In the gospels it is clear that the “Beloved” and the “Holy One of Israel” in Isaiah 5 are both the Son of God himself (Mark 1:24; Luke 1:35; 4:34; John 1:49; 6:69). The “remnant” that receive the One “sent” from the Father are the disciples who “believe in his name” (John 1:12; 2:11, 23). Right after Jesus is recognized as “the Son of God” (1:49) and “heaven’s gate” (1:51) he is called on to make new wine (2:1-3, cf. Isa 5:1-2), but his “hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). That is, before the “Beloved” can return to the Father must finish the work of redeeming the remnant and recruiting those whom he can entrust with the Work of the Father—precisely as the Holy One of Israel had purged Isaiah and then recruited him to “tend” the “stump” of the vine (Isa 6:6-8, 13).

This at last explains Jesus’ response to his mother when she asks him about the wine. He wants to make it absolutely clear that the “good wine” is for the Kingdom, which “is not of flesh and blood” and has not yet come (Jn 18:36). Even so, just to show that he is indeed the Beloved of Isaiah 5, entrusted with care of the vineyard, he turns the water into wine. Right on cue, the next scene depicts him as the Holy One, the Lord of hosts who cleans the riff-raff out of the temple (2:11-17, cf. Isa 6:1-7). Right after the temple cleansing, John explains that Jesus’ allusion to his Resurrection was strictly for the benefit of his disciples (the “remnant”) who would remain after Jesus returned to the Father (2:18-22); transparently, they were the ones whom he would entrust with the “vineyard” after his departure. They would need to “know the ropes” of vineyard care with the complete assurance of Resurrection power when they received the Holy Spirit and were then sent into the world to bear the fruit of the Vine (John 14-16; 20:21-22).

Recruiting Believers for the Work of the Father
With this long-term “recruiting” job in mind, John 2 concludes with that peculiar episode where “many believed in His name,” but he “did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men” and didn’t need any one to tell him their heart (2:23-25). If read in isolation, this last vignette seems misplaced. In fact, however, this passage graphically shows why the rest of John’s gospel is necessary: Jesus must complete his work (17:4) of training disciples that he can send into the world to continue Work of the Father.

There is a Greek play on words here: The word for “believe” (pisteuō) that describes those at the Passover who “believed in his name” is the same word as “entrust” or “commit” that Jesus wants to do (2:23b-24). It could be translated “many trusted in His name…But Jesus did not entrust Himself to them….” That is, even though they had entrusted their eternal destiny to him, he could not yet entrust to them the Work of the Father that he was sent to do: “tend the Vineyard” and make “good wine.” This immediately explains what Jesus wants to happen in the same imagery of John 15: No “fruit,” no “wine.” And now, we can also understand John 21: When Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, they reap a huge harvest of fish, 153 to be exact (21:6-11), depicting the particularity with which Jesus is seeking “fish,” as well as the need to follow him in order to catch them. However, the “wine” still depends on “tending the Vineyard,” remember? They need to be in communion with Jesus and in unity with one another (21:12-14). Can Jesus entrust the chief apostle, Peter, with their ongoing care (21:15-19)?

How then can this be a Gospel intended primarily for unbelievers? The entire Gospel of John between 2:25 and chapter 21 is Jesus’ “recruiting and training program,” so that trusted disciples can be sent into the world that “God so loved” (3:16) before he returns to the Father: While these enclosed chapters begin with the work of giving Jesus to the world, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life, the Father’s work is not complete until Jesus can recruit from among these believers those he can train to do His work after he leaves (3:21; 4:34; 5:36; 6:28-29; 9:3-4; 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10, 12; 17:4). Jesus implicitly understands his commission from Isaiah 6 and why many will not believe in him and thus remain in darkness (12:41). Yet, “even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (12:42-43). This explains why Jesus cries out in agony at the end of the “recruiting” phase (12:44-50): They weren’t willing to come out in the light, just as he had hoped of Nicodemus who was one of these rulers (3:17-21)! How could he then “entrust himself” to them (2:24)? In order for the “harvest” to be complete, they would have to come out in the light and “confess Him,” exactly like the woman at the well (4:28-42)! (“OK, boys; see the woman I was just talking to, telling everyone she knows about me? Now, that’s how you ‘git ‘er done’!”)

John 3:16 and the “Perfect” Vineyard
So, where in all this does good ole Nic fit? He comes to Jesus at night, but Jesus’ priority is to “send” him to work for the coming Kingdom of God (Jn 3:3-5). Although we don’t know if Nic “receives” him in that encounter, Jesus wants more than just to get Nic to heaven—he wants “rulers” who will “feed my sheep” and “tend my lambs” (21:15-17); he wants good wine that is worthy of the Kingdom of God, and that will take doing the righteous works of God in the light (3:21). It would entail a present tense kind of belief (see previous post under “Darkness or Light?”) that could be “sustained” over time to do the Father’s work. Nic would have to keep believing (3:16), rather than return to darkness out of fear of the Pharisees (3:17-20, cf. 12:42-43). So this is precisely the point John makes when he editorializes about Nic’s deeds in 7:50 and 19:39. Hence, “eternal life” in 3:16 is not just “getting to heaven”; it is a quality of life that results in the “works of God” (3:21), and therefore, in my view, it is also the implicit aim of John’s purpose statements in both 20:30-31 and 1 John 5:13 (NKJV), where sustaining the “testimony of life” is paramount. Now, that’s a 3-D gospel!

I therefore believe the “Perfect Vineyard” of Isaiah 5 is depicted in John 17, where the final goal of Body unity—“that the world may believe/know”—is rooted in the love of the Father for his Son and consummated in our union with His “Beloved” (17:20-26). How can we take the Body & Wine of communion without now thinking about Isaiah’s Vineyard? “By this they will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:35). Yep, that’s what it’ll take to “git ‘er done”—it will not be a reality until we learn how to “love one another as he has loved us.” This is the very question raised with Peter’s final words in John 21:20-23, AND it’s the question that plagues the Free Grace movement at this time in history. How do we rise above the division that embarrasses our theology without a profound change in Body Life? Hence, I agree with Tim Nichols that FG ecclesiology should perhaps be our next “theological priority.”

As I noted earlier, the “good wine” of Isaiah 5 reflected in Christ’s miracle at Cana is the deeds of righteousness and justice that the Father seeks from His Vineyard. Now that Jesus’ “hour” has come and he has returned to the Father (cf. Jn 2:4; 17:1), we are left in this world as his abiding presence to make “good wine.” How do we “turn water into wine”? My final post will explore the concluding implications of water and wine imagery in John’s gospel and how this is related to the blood of Christ. We will see how God intends for ongoing appropriation of the gift of His Son (3:16) to produce nothing less than a reign in righteousness to eternal life.

Monday, November 02, 2009

“Receive”? “Believe”? Coming to the Light

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

(modified 11/30/09)

It is soooo obvious in the narrative flow of John’s Gospel that Nicodemus (Nic) came to Jesus at night. Most commentators point out the significance of light-dark imagery in John but fall short of drawing out the narrative implications of this imagery in setting the stage for his exposition of the “mechanics” of “believing” in 3:16. Building on my previous post, I will explore these implications in John 3:16-21 as it builds on the significant portion of the Prologue John gives over to introducing Christ as the Light (1:4-13). Reading with narrative lenses, we find in 1:4-5 a double entendre in which God has commissioned and “sent” two “John’s” to introduce Jesus as the Light: In the same way John the Baptist (JB) presented him to the nation Israel John the Apostle now presents him to the world that “God so loved.” Nicodemus is a prototypical Jewish representative of “his own” (1:11) and thus plays the prototypical role in John’s gospel of humanity’s “reception” of Jesus—or not—when he came into the world (1:9-12).

How does John’s light-dark imagery “shed light” on the mechanics of faith in a 3-D gospel? We will discover that Jesus’ earthly ministry as Light is a prototype for the Holy Spirit’s ministry of “enlightening” the world at the level of conscience about “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (16:11) after Jesus returns to the Father. How is “receiving” related to “believing”? Is it just a matter of “passive” persuasion of the truth of Jesus’ claims, or does it involve “active” volition, or both? What is the intended result of this “reception” of God’s gift, as those who receive it continue “believing” in him (3:16, cf. 1:12)? This post will explore what it means for persons to respond to that Light by “receiving” Jesus—or not (1:11-12)—when people are confronted, just like Nicodemus, with Jesus’ offer of Life. This is fleshed out in the dynamics of “response” to Jesus in the stories of Nicodemus (3:16-21), the woman at the well (4:10-24), and the typical Jewish leaders of the day (5:32-47).

Light Leads to Life
The Prologue of John sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel. The theological seeds “planted” in the Prologue take root and grow throughout the book. Among the key themes in the Gospel are light and life, but this may be clouded by really awkward tense shifts in 1:4-5 (so in NIV): “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4) leads to “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood/overcome it (1:5). The same switcheroo then occurs in 1:11-12 in reverse order. (Warning: Greek grammar ahead :); if you want to ignore it just fast-forward to the next paragraph.) Not only does the second verb in 1:5 shift to the Greek aorist tense but this verb has a wide range of meaning: to “comprehend,” “overcome,” or “appropriate, make one’s own.” The first two senses don’t seem to fit as well as the third, yet most translations pick from the first two. Moreover, the Greek aorist is commonly translated as “past” time in English, but it is the type of action, more than the time, that differs between the Greek present and aorist. Thus, “shining” is to be seen as continuous action, whereas the next verb conveys a singular action, irrespective of time. I thus render the verse, The light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness did/does not appropriate it. Viewed in light of the double entendre in 1:6, the aorist tense denotes the response of “darkness” to both JB in the past and the Apostle in the present. There is then a wordplay of aorist verbs in 1:5 and 1:11-12: The Greek “to appropriate” (katalambanō) in 1:5 is a prefixed form of “to receive” (lambanō) in 1:11-12, where a similar juxtaposition of present and aorist tenses is again found: “But as many as received/receive him [1:11-12, singular action], to them he gave/gives the right [singular action] to become children of God—to the ones believing in his name [present, ongoing action]” (1:12, my translation). In fact, the entire pericope (1:4-13) is chiastic, with the center of the chiasm at 1:9. I propose that this places the overall focus on the relationship of conscience to light received.

So, what’s John trying to say in 1:4-13? The Light came to give life to men through new birth from God (1:4, 13): The Light continues to shine in a “darkness” that collectively resists [one-time] appropriation (1:5), yet people individually [one-time] receive that Light to [one-time] become children of God and [continue to] believe in his name (1:12). This “resisted” process is described in 1:6-11: God sent both “Johns” to bear witness of Messiah to the nation Israel and the entire world, respectively (1:6-8); as Israel goes, so goes the world—an echo of Abraham’s commission to “be a blessing” wherever he goes (Gen 12:1-3). As the Light comes into the world he “enlightens” [ongoing] every man (1:9) in a process that involves “awakening” a conscience dulled by “darkness” to its intuitive awareness of: death from sin, the offer of everlasting life, and the provision of a ransom to secure that life. (See the previous post regarding the role of conscience in mediating these “awarenesses.”) So, even though “his own” (the nation Israel) neither knew/know (1:10) nor accepted/accept the Messiah (1:11), the “light” still results in new life when individuals accept him as God’s gift and as a result are “birthed” by God Himself (1:12-13, cf. 1:4, 9).

Darkness or Light? What’ll It Be, Nic? (Grab It While You Can)
This backdrop from the Prologue really helps elucidate some otherwise difficult concepts in John 3:16-21. If God seeks “children to birth” (1:13), then “Nic at night” is our “poster child” for individuals from both Israel and the world whom God by His “light” invites out of darkness to be “born from above” and become children of God (1:12-13; 3:3-7)—they are to “receive the light,” which involves “believing” (1:12; 3:16). That is, the gift of God’s one-of-a-kind Son is to be appropriated as a one-time acceptance of the Light (1:4) by individuals who believe and then continue believing (1:12; 3:16, present tense). Nic’s encounter with Jesus then explains how this “ongoing” believing is so that they may “emerge” from their darkness and condemnation to “do” truth in the light as agents of God (3:16-21, present tense). This really helps inform a Free Grace soteriology to see the eternal destiny of “those who believe in him” as completely secure in a singular act of volition yet continuing to believe in order to complete Jesus’ mission in the world—to do the “works of God” (3:21; 4:34; 5:36; 6:28-29; 9:3-4; 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10, 12).

It all depends on what we do with the Light: Nic (like all humanity) is “on the bubble.” So, if we want Life, we’d better grab the Light while we can and to become “sons of light,” as Jesus concludes in his final urgent plea in 12:35-46. Nic’s hesitation represents humanity in general in mirroring the resistance portended in the Prologue (1:5-11): He considers Jesus but doesn’t want to be exposed by the light (3:20). Why this fear of exposure? Nic wants the truth but is intuitively aware that he can’t handle the truth (= “light”) because of his own failure to really obey Torah so he comes to Jesus at night to see if he can “have his cake and eat it too.” That is, he wants to have life in Messiah without having to give up depending on the easier Pharisaic version of the Law. So what’s the solution? It’s about responding to conviction at the three levels of “intuitive awareness” (3:16-21, contemporary paraphrase):
You want eternal life? It’s faith alone in Christ alone. You’re a son of Abraham—go back to Torah, dude: blood atonement. Will you receive the gift that God gave you in blood, believing, just as Abraham accepted the ram (3:16)? [See previous post “Promise Only?” under “The Cross of Christ”] The Son was sent into the world to save it (3:17), but you’ve got to identify with this one-of-a-kind Messiah by believing if you want to avoid dying as a result of sin (3:18). Oh, is there a problem? Too much light (3:20)? You knew intuitively that your own deeds stink in the nostrils of the Father—they really are evil (3:19)—but you still want it both ways. God wants your deeds to bear witness that He is your Father, so they have to be done in the light to reflect that truth (3:21). So, what’ll it be Nic, darkness or the Light? It’s your call, dude.

If this connection in John between “light” and conscience-mediated intuitive awareness seems “forced” to the reader, it is quite explicit in his First Epistle, where God is first described as “light,” and “walking in the light” awakens the conscience to the need for confession and cleansing of sin in order to sustain fellowship with him (1 Jn 1:5-2:11). It is even more explicit in 1 Jn 3:18-24, where true obedience to the mandate to love the brethren “in deed and truth” is tested in a conscience exposed to God. This same conscience-mediated function of “light” is the point of departure for John to explore the mechanics of “coming to the light” in the narrative of the woman at the well and Jesus’ ensuing Sabbath controversy with the Jewish leaders. Thus, as we leave Nic “on the bubble of volition” (3:16-21), the two diametrically opposed prototypical responses to the Light that were initially introduced in the Prologue (1:11-12) are now fleshed out in two real live stories: the woman at the well (4:10-24), and the typical Jewish leaders of the day (5:32-47).

Coming to the Light: The Role of Volition in John 4–5
There is a back-room debate going on within the FG movement as to whether volition is at all in view in the “saving transaction.” Those on one side point to the non-volitional nature of belief in propositions: If you are convinced of the truth of something, you can’t “choose” not to believe it. While this logic is of itself basically sound it cannot explain the dilemma exemplified by Nic by the end of the dialogue (3:21). Was Nic persuaded that Jesus was Messiah? I am convinced he was. Did he have eternal life at that point? The narrative leaves us hanging. If he did not accept the gift of Jesus as ransom for his sin (3:14-16), then he did not have eternal life. If he still wanted “life” from his works or blood heritage as a son of Abraham (which is precisely the issue in John 8) and wasn’t willing to come to the Light, lest his deeds be exposed, then he wasn’t accepting the ransom…not yet. It’s faith alone in Christ alone. So, John then relates two more stories to flesh out the desired response: the woman at the well (John 4) and the Sabbath controversy with the Jews who wanted to kill him (John 5).

Some suggest that the woman came to the well to draw water at mid-day because she was ashamed of her reputation, and it was less likely that she would be “exposed” in the heat of day since others would be less likely to come out for water. I think the immediately preceding narrative of Nic at night gives the lie to this view. She was not at all afraid to engage yet another man—a Jew, no less (4:27), readily acknowledging her sin as she comes for “water” in the full light of day (4:15-19). Up until that point, her encounter is analogous to that of Nic at night: Jesus wastes no time bringing up the need for “living water” (4:10, cf. 3:5), she initially confuses the natural for the supernatural (4:11-12, cf. 3:4), and Jesus offers her the “gift of God” which brings everlasting life (4:10, 13-14, cf. 3:16). However, while Nic is hesitant, the Samaritan woman is immediately willing to accept the gift (4:15), even after her deeds are exposed (4:16-18, cf. 3:19-20). She concedes the supernatural evidence attesting Jesus’ authority and like Nic seeks his teaching on truth (4:19-20, cf. 3:2) but she concedes the key aim of glorifying God in spirit and truth (4:21-24, cf. 3:21). The moment she recognizes the “named” Messiah (4:25-26), she abandons her waterpot at the well since she no longer needs it—she has the living water (4:28). The text does not even attest the woman’s faith, yet the evidence of her birth from above is tangible: Having “come to the light,” she so effectively “does truth” in the light (4:29, cf. 3:21), that quite a few Samaritans are saved by believing through her testimony (4:39-42), an ironic model for the disciples of doing the work of the Father (4:34-38).

In the case of the woman at the well, she had already exercised her volition the moment she was willing to accept living water, so “the light goes on” the moment she identifies the “named” Messiah: She instinctively leaves her waterpot at the well; no further “decision” is needed, for she is already justified (cf. 3:18a). In the case of the Jewish leaders, they have the light (5:35) but are not willing to come to him (5:40) or receive him (5:43); they exercised their volition, so they were already condemned (cf. 3:18b-20), as attested by their rejection of the testimony of John the Baptist and the promises of Scripture (5:32-47). It seems clear that volition is involved at both extremes of response to the light exemplified by these two stories in John 4 and 5, just as the Prologue had insinuated (1:5, 11-12). But it seems equally clear that recognizing the “named” Messiah alone does not constitute “believing.” In fact, both Nicodemus who sought Jesus as a Teacher and the Jews who wanted to kill him seemed intuitively “convinced” that he was the Messiah. What we see in the early narratives of John is therefore a different dynamic than simply “believing a proposition.” If Jesus the one-and-only is the promise in John (see the “Promise Only?” post), then believing the promise is a closed deal only when one appropriates or accepts that one-and-only Person as a ransom for sin, once conscience is “enlightened” by the promise of an eternal life that will reverse condemnation and death from the sin that began in the Garden (see the “Snake-on-a-Stick” post).

What is not so clear is why the pesky apostle seems to keep mixing faith (“believing”) and works—in all three of these scenarios Jesus mentions the priority of doing God’s work in close connection with “believing” (3:19-21; 4:34-39; 5:24-29). If John’s gospel was written primarily to tell people how they can have eternal life by faith alone, why does he keep emphasizing doing works in close conjunction with the exercise of faith? The next post will examine more closely the nature of John’s gospel and the role of works in [an ongoing] “believing” (3:16).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Promise Only? Jesus, the One-and-Only, is the Promise

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

I must confess I just don’t get it. Some opponents of the so-called “Promise-Only gospel” seem to fear that just inviting people to “believe in Jesus” somehow blasphemes the Gospel. Yet some of its advocates seem to fear that inviting people to “accept (or receive) Jesus” won’t get the job done, either. The former insist that unless the “promise” is filled out with enough “content,” you don’t have a genuine “offer” of the Gospel. The latter are concerned that the idea of “accepting” or “receiving” implies more than simple belief in the proposition that “Jesus gives eternal life.” IMO Zane Hodges did not help the case in proposing his infamous “Desert Island Scenario,” which left some with the impression that all anyone needed was to believe in some “unspecified” Jesus with no other information available to that person than two verses (John 6:43, 47). Charges of heretical “reductionism” on the one hand are traded with charges of “theological legalism” on the other.

Building on my previous post “The Gospel in the Garden,” I would like to propose in this post that if in fact conscience is instilled by God in all humanity from Adam on as an “internal repository” for intuitive awareness, then there are three “things” or “tenets” that people are at least “intuitively aware” of as soon as they have a mature conscience. Short version:

  • 1. They are dead in trespasses and sin.
  • 2. There is some form of life after death.
  • 3. This life can only be “redeemed” by some external “Source” revealed in Creation.
When you think about it, this all makes intuitive sense; I would submit that people who patently deny any of these are lying or have a seared conscience. A 3-D gospel posits that “death” and “life” in these three tenets comprise more than just our positional destiny after physical death alone. What human hasn’t tried to replace some form of “death” with “life” from a false source? It’s simple idolatry. They have all “seen” the self-revealed God of the universe yet twisted Him into some form of idol so “they are without excuse” (Rom 1). If there were no such thing as “intuitive awareness,” most people would have an excuse because most throughout history, including now, have never heard the name of the “named” Messiah.

The “Promise-Only” is the Only Promise worth Believing for Life
The problem I have with both sides of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” debate is that IMO they ignore the Biblical principle of “judgment according to light received,” which is thoroughly intrinsic to the Gospel of John. In my last post I proposed that the “bare minimum” for light received is intuitive awareness of the three tenets above, found in narrative form in the Gospel in the Garden. In that gospel we have a “promise” from God that is not some unspecified “pie in the sky,” but rather the one and only “seed” (Gen 3:15) who can restore access to the Tree of Life through blood atonement. Paul makes this notion annoyingly clear in Galatians 3 with respect to the Abrahamic covenant: For first-century Jews, the connection of the promised “seed of Abraham” to Genesis 3:15 was completely transparent (see Gal 3:8).

Thus, from the beginning we have always had a specified “Promise-Only” gospel as the only viable alternative to idolatry for human access to the Tree of Life. So, Jesus’ allusion to the snake-on-a-stick episode in John 3:14-15 as the narrative conduit for Nicodemus’ understanding of the Gospel was the ideal way to specify a “Promise-Only” Gospel for a devout first-century Jew! For any concerned that the gospel should always present the “work” as well as the Person of that Promise, this work has always been specified in the Gospel from Genesis 3:15 on. We will find that John 3:16 is that same specified promise, even though neither the Cross nor the Resurrection nor the Deity of Christ is explicitly mentioned.

Jesus the One-and-Only
If we “think like a Rabbi” we will immediately see why this is the case in John 3:16. Let me reproduce my own translation here:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one-of-a-kind [or unique, or one-and-only] Son, that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting (John 3:16).
We have gotten so used to “born again” (3:3, 7) and “only begotten Son” (3:16) that Jesus’ double entendres in the narrative are all but lost on us. But if we read the terms in John 3:16 against the theological backdrop John has already provided in the Prologue (1:1-18), the confusion over the intended referents is promptly clarified. I posited in the “snake-on-a-stick” post that the notion “born from above” is Jesus’ corrective when Nicodemus misconstrues it as a second “natural” birth. If we recognize Jesus is offering a new birth “from above” by “water and spirit,” then the significance of a “one-of-a-kind” Son begins to make all the sense in the world. Indeed, “only begotten Son” doesn’t make nearly as much sense when we realize that Jesus is offering everyone “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12) by being “born of God” (1:13); if that is true, why then does John represent Jesus as the only begotten? Rather, John 3:16 specifies the unique nature and work of the promised Seed in Genesis 3:15, so that those who “receive” him—who “believe in His name” (i.e., his specified identity)—can also become “sons of God” (1:12).

Seen in this light, using this verse alone is anything but a “reductionistic gospel.” Even if the evangelist is clueless about narrative theology or first-century Jews, they are offering the promise of life in a specified—indeed unique—Person. That’s why the best translation of the Greek adjective monogenēs is “one-of-a-kind.” But even if we say “only begotten,” how can any rational person come away thinking anything other than that this “Son” is one special (read “unique”) dude? This is not some “Jesus” you can find on the streets of Mexico city (or Laredo, Texas, for that matter, where I was born and raised with lots of Jesus’s around), as feared by some who oppose the so-called “Promise-only” Gospel from single verses in John. Rational people are not as stupid as they are willfully ignorant, and sincere evangelists will be attentive to people misconstruing the message, clarifying as much as they themselves understand and time allows. Plus, the Holy Spirit must be involved, so those who think we send people to hell if we mess up out of ignorance are just “half-pelicans” (with a tip-o-the-hat to KC and our very own Little Miss Missy :-). I will deal with “half-pelicans” later; it is seriously disturbing.

In what respect then is this Person “one-of-a-kind”? (An excellent resource for the ensuing discussion is Köstenberger and Swain, Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, IVP 2008.)

The Deity of Christ
When I began to study John 3:16 in light of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” debate I was surprised to find that the most explicit thing about the verse is not the Cross but the Deity of Christ. In context, the Greek specifier monogenēs is essentially framed in neon lights, making it unambiguously clear that Deity is what John is alluding to with that term. Right off the bat, the Prologue equates the Word with God (1:1-3) and concludes, “the one-of-a-kind God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained Him” (1:18). That this is exactly the same person as the “Word made flesh” is undeniable, since he is also described as “the one-of-a-kind from the Father” (1:14). Wow. So anyone familiar with Biblical narrative (e.g., any first-century Jew) who read or heard the Gospel of John from 1:1 to 3:16 would have absolutely no doubt that John depicts Jesus first and foremost as God incarnate and Son of the Father. Will they believe John…that is to say, John’s testimony about Jesus? This is the whole basis for the imagery of the Light in 1:4-12 and what people do with Him—the subject of our next post.)

The Cross of Christ
Where then is the Cross? We have already broached this in the “snake-on-a-stick” post, where I suggested that the notion of blood atonement inheres in the imagery of 3:14-15 as it taps into Torah from a Rabbinic mindset. Now in 3:16, the specifier monogenēs makes yet another unambiguous connection to Torah. Why did John use that pesky word anyway—one that takes four English words to translate accurately? The answer is rooted in the narrative of Genesis 22. Any first-century Jew worth his salt would have been intimately familiar with the sacrifice of Isaac, where God tells Abraham to “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering….” And any first-century Jew would have known that “There Will Be Blood” (with a tip-o-the-hat to Easygoer), because that’s how Torah describes the preparation for a burnt offering (Leviticus 4—not for the faint-hearted!). The point for original readers is not that Isaac’s sacrifice foreshadowed the Cross (which it did), but that he was to be a ransom of blood atonement for sin.

It would be obvious to any first-century Jew that Isaac was not Abraham’s “only” son. The word translated “only” in Gen 22:2 literally means “unique” in context—he is the unique son of promise (21:12), exactly like Jesus. There is simply no other OT image one could conjure up as an appropriate referent for the descriptor in 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18. John used the one word in 3:16 that could designate Jesus as both God and the unique Son of the Father, while also setting apart that same unique Son, who is in the “bosom” of the Father (1:18, a clear image of deep paternal love for the Son, cf. 13:23) as a blood sacrifice with the same tangible sense of foreboding conveyed in Genesis 22. The same love of Abraham for his unique son is attested in the Greek (LXX) of Gen 22:2, which reads “beloved” instead of the Hebrew “only.” There can thus be no doubt that John intended 3:16 to scream both Deity and blood atonement with the monogenēs Son. But what if the evangelist using 3:16 doesn’t know this?

What We Do with “Half-Pelicans”
My facetious allusion to Semi-Pelagianism is only partly tongue-in-cheek. There are plenty of “half-pelicans” on both sides of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” controversy. What I mean by invoking this theological “label” is the pejorative sense it implies: A Semi-Pelagian is someone who allegedly diminishes God’s sovereignty in determining the destiny of humans of by over-emphasizing human responsibility within God’s sovereign decree. (Please correct me, KC and/or Bobby, if I am not less than completely accurate in my definition, but it won’t matter to the point I’m attempting to make here.) I like “half-pelicans” for this reason: They are not very likely to underestimate the importance of human free will in the saving transaction that occurs when someone believes in Jesus for eternal life. But here is the problem, as I see it:

On one side of the controversy, they tie heavy loads on people who don’t get the Gospel “exactly right” because “we are sending people to hell.” This is absurd. What they are claiming is that someone’s eternal destiny is contingent on including exactly the precise elements of Person and Work in the Gospel presentation, because people can’t be saved unless they know the details of Christ’s Deity and/or the Cross or Resurrection. Other than terribly confusing the object of faith with the basis of salvation, the faulty logic here is that “God can’t use that” and it completely ignores the importance of the drawing efficacy of Jesus (John 12:32) and—after his ascent—the Holy Spirit (16:8-11)! People are still held accountable by conscience for what light they have received, regardless of “how good a job” the evangelist has done. God does use this routinely, as his megaphone, the Holy Spirit, speaks into human conscience. People are either willing or they are not—God honors human free will, and his sovereignty is never jeopardized by any “failure” of the evangelist. This is the subject of my next post.

On the other side, we have people who bite their nails out of fear that a three-dimensional gospel (“receiving” Jesus) will lead to Lordship Salvation in one form or another. This is equally absurd. If we preach a “real” gospel, the message will be faith alone in Christ alone, no works of our own. That means no works. Even if the evangelist is an Arminian, a hyper-Calvinist or some other kind of “LS-er,” the person who trusts in [the Biblical] Jesus alone by faith alone has eternal life. I believe they should hear a 3-D gospel, but that depends on where the person is who receives the message. I believe our focus has been heavily skewed towards imputation by the legacy of the Reformation and that the clear responsibility of the Body of Christ is to present a 3-D gospel in line with all the iterations of the Great Commission, which is rooted in identification with Christ. Why not immediately present the implications of our identification—Christ “working” in us by “mutual consent”? What did Jesus offer?

So, when confronted by “half-pelicans,” try to assuage their anxiety, keep telling people about Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit do his thing with God-given conscience. In what may be the most important guide to evangelism in the NT, we hear this regarding the “heart” of the evangelist: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Gospel in the Garden

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

It used to bother me that we have to suffer the death penalty because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden (Rom 5:12-13). He “should have known better,” and he didn’t even have a sin nature before he chose to disobey…it kind of reminds me of Marlon Brando’s classic line in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I coulda’ been a contenda’.” But I had to remind myself that God’s plan for Creation and Redemption wasn’t “Plan B” (just because Adam sinned)—it was his foreordained “decree” (“And God said…”). How does all this relate to John 3?

To Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews used to reading the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament (OT), it seems that the allusion to the “snake” or “serpent” in John 3:14 would very likely “call back” not only the events in Numbers 21 and Exodus 4 but also the original account of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1). Although there are several possible names for “snake,” the Hebrew nāhaš occurs in each of these OT citations, and the LXX Greek translation is the same as “serpent” in John 3:14: ophis. I am convinced that Jesus—the consummate Rabbi—would have expected Nicodemus to recall the entire setting of Genesis 3 as the backdrop for his teaching in John 3:16-21.

From a “Rabbinic” perspective, the account of the Fall in the Garden is brilliant in setting the stage for the Gospel. The original hearers of the account would have been schooled in Torah. Since the names of everyone and everything in Genesis are key to understanding the intended referents for these names in Torah, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:9) are not just a fairy-tale curiosities, like the props and characters in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass. They set the stage for the story.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Law, Conscience, & Guilt)
In a classic move characteristic of narrative genre, God’s instructions to Adam in 2:17 provide the first sense of foreboding that should lead the hearer—Genesis has been oral tradition for most of human history—to ask not if but when the breech would surely occur. Moses is far more explicit by the end of Torah when he actually predicts Israel’s disobedience (Deut 28-30), but the intended sense of foreboding is no different in Genesis 2:17.

From this Torah-oriented perspective, then, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a transparent allusion to Torah itself. The stipulations of the three iterations of the Law in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are nothing less than God’s formalizing of “the knowledge of good and evil” for his chosen people as his intended ambassadors to the nations. The purpose of Law was that they might know when they were “doing righteousness and justice” to reflect God’s character to the surrounding nations (see Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, IVP, 2005). Hence, the Law was intended as a “compass” that would guide their behavior as his representatives. The problem with this “picture” is that indwelling sin precluded the effective demonstration of this righteousness, and the account in the Garden explained for them why.

Adam was given the choice of eating of any tree in the Garden (Gen 2:16), including the Tree of Life, but with the serpent’s insinuation that the benefits of self-sufficiency were superior to those of obedience, Adam ate of the one tree that God had proscribed (3:1-6). In the same bold stroke, the first Adam---“who knew no sin”---thus became aware (3:7) of good and evil (i.e., conscious of Law, cf. 3:5) and of the reality that they were naked (i.e., “ashamed” or guilty of sin, cf. 2:25). This is nothing less than the birth of conscience, such that all who are “snake-bitten” in Adam—just like the originals—are intuitively aware of their own sin the moment they become aware of “good and evil.” This is exactly the same sequence that Paul describes in the first person the moment his conscience matures in Romans 7:7-12, just as for all people in Romans 2:14-16 (cf. also Eccl 7:20-22).
Conclusion: Conscience is instilled by God in all humanity from Adam on as an “internal repository” for their intuitive awareness of Law, sin, and guilt, exemplified by awareness of their nakedness (Gen 3:7). This in turn provides the foundation for our first Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post to this series: God has projected into human conscience that we are dead in trespasses and sin.

Fast forward to John 3: This “guilty conscience” was precisely the situation for corporate Israel when John the Baptist arrived on the scene, and it is perfectly exemplified in John 3 by “Nic at night”; hence, his need for baptism by “water and spirit” (John 3:5). However, a “seared” conscience is “dulled” to this awareness by habitual disobedience, so that humans can falsely convince themselves they are conforming to the standard of “good and evil.” The imagery of “darkness” in John 3 is therefore representative of a seared conscience that resists the Light and can no longer understand either Torah or the Word that incarnated Torah (1:14), the same One who had been with God and was God (1:1-3).

The Tree of Life (“Eternity in Their Hearts”)
The sure result of Adam’s disobedience of Genesis 2:17—just as in Deuteronomy 28-30 for disobedience of Torah—was death. This is confirmed in Gen 3:16-19, which addresses Adam and the woman as representative of all humanity. However, this “death” is not immediately physical; in essence it is a three-dimensional alienation from God and from each other. It starts with shame and condemnation (3:7-13), afflicts our entire physical lives (3:16-19), and then culminates in eternal separation from God in the Garden, with barred access to the Tree of Life (3:22-24). What we need, therefore, is restored access to this Tree—a three-dimensional life that can reverse this three-dimensional alienation that is death for humanity.

If we examine what has been called the “proto-evangelium” (i.e., the “first version of the Gospel”) in Genesis 3:15 for this same audience, there is an implicit promise of life in the “seed of the woman.” Adam’s faith that the curse will be reversed and result in life is attested by the name he gives the woman, “because she was the mother of all living” (3:20). However, that “life” depended on the “seed of the woman” overcoming evil and restoring access to the Tree of Life. So when Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she believes that her son will be their savior (4:1)—the verse literally reads “I have gotten [acquired] a man, the LORD,” implying that she expected he would “reopen” the way to the Tree of Life. In effect, then, the same conscience that became the “repository” of Law, guilt, and condemnation is now also seen to house an “intuitive awareness” of the promise of life. That this intuitive awareness extends to all humanity is exactly the contextual sense of Eccl 3:11, “He has made everything appropriate in its time; he has even set eternity in their hearts….” (my translation, emphasis added).
Conclusion: The Tree of Life in the Garden represents the promise of eternal life. Consequently, humans have an inborn awareness of something eternal that is beyond their ability to secure it. Belief in the promised seed of the woman as the source of this life “seals” the promise, “putting it on layaway” (as it were) until the advent of the seed who would accomplish the requisite blood atonement (see below, cf. Rom 3:25-26). This provides the foundation for our second Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post: God has promised life after death forever to those who believe Him for it.

Fast forward to John 3: This sets the stage for Jesus’ promise of eternal life that restores access to the Tree of Life and is available to anyone who believes him as the specified one-of-a-kind “seed of the woman” God “gave” (3:14-16). This “eternal life” will reverse death with a three-dimensional quality that transcends mere justification or imputation.

God Provides a “Covering” (Blood Atonement for Sin)
It may at first surprise us that the Lord God made the promise in Genesis 3:15 to the serpent rather than to Adam. But the serpent is addressed in 3:14-15, because the primary intent is to affirm that God will deal decisively with the “author” of sin on man’s behalf. Few in this discussion would fail to recognize the promise of Messiah in the “seed of the woman,” whose “heel the serpent will bruise” but thereby crush the serpent’s head (at the Cross, cf. John 3:14-15; 16:11). However, the initial hearers certainly would not have known the Cross or the specific identity of the “Seed”; thus the Gospel in the Garden is not “complete” in 3:15 alone, because Adam has not yet been informed of the means by which the “seed of the woman” will destroy sin in order for mankind to have life after death.

Enter the animal skins (warning: some Hebrew grammar ahead): Genesis 3:20-21 may seem at first to be a series of unrelated events following the curse in 3:16-19; however, while each of the verbs in 3:15-19 is in the imperfect (i.e., future) tense, each of the verbs in 3:20-21 is in the preterite tense and thus has “consequential” significance. IOW, Adam’s naming of the woman—believing that she would be “the mother of all life”—was a direct result of knowing the predictions in 3:15-19 of both the consequences of sin and a future “seed” who would reverse those consequences. Similarly, God’s provision of coverings was a direct result of Adam’s act of faith in naming Eve. We could thus paraphrase 3:15-21 as follows: “God promised that sin would be defeated through a future ‘seed’; meanwhile, humans would eek out a miserable existence and then would die, so then Adam named his wife Eve, because God said she would bear the ‘seed’ that gives life, so then God made them skins to cover them.” This implies that God replaced their worthless self-made coverings for their “nakedness” (metonymy for sin) with efficacious coverings from animals that had to be killed and skinned to supply them. Again, the initial audience was fully aware of the requisites for animal sacrifice in Torah and would have understood implicitly that blood would have to be shed and the gift of skins accepted in order to furnish these coverings.
Conclusion: The means by which God would cover sin would be through a ransom by shed blood offered to and accepted by those who need it to escape the final consequence of death for sin. This provides the foundation for our third Gospel tenet in The Basic Thesis on the introductory post: God has provided a human ransom that will “buy us back” from death to life.

Fast forward to John 3:16: When Jesus tells Nicodemus that God gave his one-of-a-kind son, the connection between the imagery of John 3:14-16 and Genesis 3:15-21 entails God’s implicit provision of a ransom by shed blood (the unique promised “seed” of Gen 3:15) to cover sin. Hence, the gift of a ransom is implied by the phrase “God gave,” and rational people should at least be intuitively aware of this implication in the message of John 3:16.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why a 3-D Gospel Begins with a “Snake-on-a-Stick”

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

In context, the setting of John 3 is the key to understanding the intended referents of 3:16. First, a contextually accurate translation of John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one-of-a-kind [or unique, or one-and-only] Son, that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting (John 3:16, my translation).

Some question exists over where Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (Nic) in John 3 ends and John’s words resume. The dialogue is clear enough up to 3:14, but I would suggest it continues until 3:22, where the narrative marker “After these things…” explicitly redirects the reader from the dialogue with Nic back to the narrator, John. Thus, Jesus refers to himself in the third person as “the Son of Man” in 3:13-15 with grammatically uninterrupted sequential logic that continues for Nic’s benefit through 3:21—it is an argument designed for a first-century Jewish teacher. Jesus also refers to himself as the “one-of-a-kind Son” previously introduced in the prologue (3:16-18, cf. 1:14, 18). This designation will be a key specifier of precisely who Jesus is in the hearing of Nicodemus and in turn enable the reader to draw the intended inferences about what (or Who) God is really “offering” in John 3:16. Thus, 3:16 must be understood in the context of a coherent argument from 3:1 to 21. This post develops the argument from 3:1-15; we will not cover 3:16-21 until we first spend some time in the Garden in the next post.

The First Century “Hermeneutical World” of Nicodemus
What should Nic have “known” as a “teacher of Israel” (3:10) in order to understand what Jesus was talking about? Hellenistic Jews like Nic were very familiar with Rabbinic teaching methods (Midrash), especially Haggadah, in which a single allusion is assumed to “call back” or “draw out” all the OT contexts in which that same allusion plays a key role. This is precisely what Jesus is doing, as he becomes the “sign-validated” Rabbinic teacher Nic sought by night (3:2), and Nic the Pharisee becomes the one “taught.” Hence, Jesus’ teaching is saturated with OT allusions that Nic should have understood from a Rabbinic mindset (3:9-10).

The Spirit in the Wilderness
Right off the bat, Jesus hits Nic with his single highest priority—that he must be born “again” (or “from above”) to “enter” the Kingdom of God (3:3). How this would entail being “born of water and of spirit” (3:5, literally) should be evident to anyone who had heard what was going on at the time, as Jews focused intently on identifying the coming Messiah, expecting him at any moment. This is abundantly clear in the narrative of John the Baptist (JB), who played the key role of introducing the Jews to their Messiah and offered them “baptism by water and the Spirit” to align themselves with him (1:19-34). Jesus’ baptism by JB clearly and unambiguously identifies and authenticates him as Messiah before Israel (1:31), and JB testifies that he is the Son of God (1:34). Thus, for any Jews “willing to come” (a big deal in John 5:35-40), JB’s baptism by water would directly affiliate or identify them with this promised Messiah with the expectancy of a promised baptism by the Holy Spirit (1:31-34). God attested Messiah’s identity by the Spirit’s descent at his baptism (1:32), so that those who JB baptized were thereby identified with this same God-attested Messiah and would be “born from above” when they were baptized by that same Spirit (1:33; 3:3, 5). Indeed, the imagery strongly suggests that everyone who by faith had already undergone John’s baptism was already “in” Messiah and thus ready to receive baptism by the Spirit when he was sent. This is depicted most notably, perhaps, in Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10-11) and Paul’s Ephesian boyz (Acts 19:1-6). This, then, is what Jesus meant by “born of water and of spirit” (3:5).

Given that Nic should have known he needed to be “born from above” (3:9-10), how should he have “connected the dots” on “water and spirit”? From Jesus’ word play on pneuma (3:7-8), which can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” in both Greek and Hebrew, Nic would have to consider which meaning(s) Jesus intended by “born of water and of spirit.” Hmmm, let’s see….If in 3:5-7 Jesus meant “breath” or “spirit” (no definite article) he must at least be alluding to Gen 2:7 (when God breathed life into Adam) and Ezekiel 36:25-37:28, where Israel will be baptized with water and then filled with God’s Spirit, depicted as “breathing” into Israel’s dry bones. If in John 3:8 he meant “the wind” or “the Spirit” (with the definite article) which “blows” in such a way that no one can predict where it is “departing to” (or “leading out,” 3:8b), it should conjure up the Shekinah in the wilderness. In other words, whoever is born of the Spirit (3:8) will follow his unpredictable lead like God’s Shekinah on the way to the Promised Land.

Jesus is thus implying that Nic himself is “in the wilderness.” Since he has not accepted John’s “witness” (3:11, cf. 1:6-8), Jesus asks him a rhetorical question, implicitly inviting him to believe in order to know spiritual truth (3:12) and challenging him to follow the Spirit’s lead to the Light via John’s witness (3:8, cf. 1:6-9, 19-34). This challenge becomes more explicit in the light/dark imagery of 3:19-21 as Jesus concludes his teaching for the man who first came to him by night (3:1): “OK, Nic, what’ll it be…stay in darkness, or come to the Light?”

“Jacob’s Ladder” and the “Snake-on-a-Stick”
Jesus begins his formal Rabbinic instruction in 3:13 by alluding to a Torah narrative that recalls the image of angels ascending and descending at Bethel (Gen 28:12) and the associated covenant promise to Jacob with its Messianic promise of “blessing” to all the nations through “his seed” (28:13-15). None of this should be lost on Nic, especially Jacob’s “punch line” when he awoke from his “ladder” dream:
Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! ” (28:16-17 NKJV, emphasis added).

What would Nic have pictured when Jesus implicitly offered “the Kingdom of God” (3:3) and then alluded to “heaven’s gate” (3:13)? In Rabbinic thinking, angels are God’s messengers, so Jesus is boldly claiming that he—like Jacob’s angels—was sent directly from God to speak for God. Since Nic had not accepted JB’s witness to the authenticating descent of the Spirit of God from heaven (John 1:32-33), Jesus ironically answers Nic’s inquiry (3:2) with a similar allusion in 3:13. Thus, if Nic is wearing his “Rabbinic thinking cap,” he should pick up Jesus’ implication that Nic himself is just like Jacob at “the gate of heaven”! Given the priority of entering the Kingdom of God that Jesus had initially introduced to the reluctant Nic (3:3), how ironically apropos of Jesus to allude to himself as heaven’s gate!

What then is keeping Nic from “entering” the Kingdom? To answer this, Jesus shifts to another metaphor that should echo in the conscience of a Pharisee: the “snake-on-a-stick” incident where sinful Israelites were dying of snake-bite in the wilderness by the thousands (Num 21:5-9).
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, so that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting” (John 3:14-15, my translation).

Again, as a first century Rabbinic teacher, Jesus cites a relevant OT narrative to clarify Nic’s own desperate situation: barred from the Kingdom of God by sin’s “snake-bite.” Whereas John’s readers would immediately have recognized Numbers 21 as an allusion to Jesus’ own crucifixion (3:14, cf. 12:32, 34), Nic would have wondered how the Son of Man could “ascend” and open “heaven’s gate” (3:13) by analogy with Moses’ snake-on-a-stick. This should leave Nic in quite a pickle: “So, how will you take care of this sin problem, Bubba? Jesus said you should ‘know these things’ [John 3:10b], so let’s see what kind of Pharisee you really are.”

Here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • explicit and implicit allusions to entering “the Kingdom of God” and “heaven’s gate” in the context of the covenant promise of Messiah (John 3:3, 13);
  • some Galilean “teacher” who calls himself the “Son of Man,” is attested as Messiah by JB’s witness, has “descended” from heaven, and will “ascend” back again (3:13-14);
  • a pesky analogy between the “snake-on-a-stick” in the wilderness generation and this “Son of man” who will be “lifted up” (3:14).
So, let’s put on our Rabbinic thinking caps and tackle ‘em one by one:
  • The Kingdom of God is frequently alluded to in the prophets in close connection with the Promised Land the Israelites hoped to enter; in fact, this is the main theme of Daniel. In the “Glorious Kingdom” (Dan 11:20, 41, 45), there is a promised resurrection of “saints” (12:1-3) soon after Gentile domination is terminated (11:41-45), and these saints will inherit a Kingdom. Conclusion: Jesus is inviting Nic to join the OT saints in resurrection to inherit the everlasting Kingdom of God.
  • The “Son of Man” title would have evoked heavy-duty imagery from key places in the OT, especially Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 8:4-6. The former citation unmistakably refers to Messiah himself who reigns in the everlasting Kingdom of God. Psalm 8 also refers to God’s reign over the earth through “the son of man” who is “for a little while lower than the angels” (8:4-5, Septuagint [LXX]). Thus, Jesus wants Nic to see him as the same Son of Man who descended “below the angels” but will ascend to reign over the Kingdom (Dan 7:13-14); indeed, over the world (Ps 8:6). If we doubt the latter connection, Psalm 8 is cited in Heb 2:5-8 and applied to Jesus himself in just this way (2:9), and in his capacity as “Son of Man” he will “bring many sons to glory” (2:10) and rule with them together (2:5, cf. Dan 7:18). Conclusion: Jesus has frankly claimed to be Messiah (John 3:13-14) in the context of entering the Kingdom (3:3, cf. Dan 7:18), and if Nic is willing, he can deliver Nic into this Kingdom when he ascends to God, thereby implying his own Resurrection.
  • The most intriguing allusion is perhaps the “snake-on-a-stick” episode in Numbers 21. Nic would have been expected to pick up at least two other allusions if he was thinking like a Rabbi: The snake-bitten Israelites were resisting their calling to enter the Promised Land and dying in sin. If they merely looked at the bronze serpent they would be healed of snake-bite and live. But if we return to the Exodus, we find that Moses “lifted up” another serpent which became a rod (Ex 4:1-5), so that Israel might “believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (4:5). What is it with Moses, snakes, and sticks? It appears that whenever Moses picks up snakes, Jews are to remember the covenant promises to the fathers and their descendants and that the Lord God Himself has appeared. Conclusion: If Nic “gets it” that he himself is “snake-bit” because of sin, he should then remember JB’s introduction of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away that sin (1:19). He should also sense that God’s power displayed in Moses’ remedy for sin will somehow again be displayed when Jesus is “lifted up” (3:14-15), and perhaps even that “the Lord God of his fathers has appeared.” What kind of Messiah is this guy through whom God can reverse fatal wounds?
The answers to Nic’s questions are waiting in John 3:16-21, but we’re not done with snakes yet. Thus far, we have an offer of salvation that begins with “entering heaven’s gate” but it should be seen as inheriting the Promised Land; thus, the atonement for sin implied in 3:14-16 promises a redemption that entails inheritance in the Kingdom of God. But the deeper significance of “lifting up the serpent” is rooted in the fate of the original serpent himself through the promised “seed of the woman” in Gen 3:15-21. In the next post we will therefore take a trip back to the Garden to see how the three-dimensional gospel in John 3:1-21 has never really changed since the promise of life in the “seed” of the woman: We will find that the real analogy in John 3:14-15 is not between a bronze serpent and the Son of Man but rather between a crushed serpent and what happened at the Cross, as attested in John 16:11.

Friday, October 23, 2009

John 3:16: A 3-D Gospel for a Promised 3-D Redemption

Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman

I love the name of Tim Nichol’s blog, Full Contact Christianity. As Tim has alluded to on numerous prior threads, the Free Grace (FG) movement has for several years been involved in some “full contact” intramural disputes (Tim calls them “food fights”) over the nature of the gospel. From my perspective, a major pitfall in these debates has been the tendency of the more vocal advocates on several sides to reduce the good news to an issue of having “enough” or “the right” information to be “saved,” and this usually boils down to “How can I get to Heaven when I die?” I will show my hand right off the bat and agree with Tim that the Gospel has always been more about a Person than information per se or, as various FG advocates would express it, the so-called Content of Saving Faith, the bare minimum, or the bulls-eye of “belief” out of a “laundry list” of propositions one can scavenge from various loci in the Bible. So, I invite you to join me in a different kind of “full contact Christianity,” one that grapples mano-a-mano with the related narratives of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation until—like Jacob wrestled with the “Man”—our FG “names” are changed, :-) and we begin to fathom the remarkable three-dimensional nature of the life God has planned for us since the beginning.

A New (Old, really) Orientation to Life after Death
I don’t intend to dismiss any of the prevailing concerns about the importance of propositions in so-called “saving faith,” but I contend that the Biblical focus on these propositions has never been for them to become the object of our faith. Rather, these propositions were revealed for the purpose of progressively specifying the nature and work of that Person who, since the Fall of Man, God has always promised as the One who would deliver man from sin and death to a fully redeemed life after death.

I further contend that this “life after death” is not usually specified in the Bible as “getting to heaven” per se, but rather as a quality of life that characterizes our intended destiny in God’s Reign in righteousness over the created world. Just as we die in Adam in three dimensions—positionally in immediate separation from God the moment we become aware of our inability; progressively in our ongoing struggle to survive the consequences of sin in this life; and prospectively in eternal separation from God in the age to come—so also in the same three dimensions God has always promised redemption to deliver us from death to life.

Finally, I contend that the Scriptures which deal with God’s promise of life after death rarely if ever address the goal of legal justification alone but rather look “through” justification toward God’s three-dimensional redemptive goals for those whom He chose and commissioned to govern His Creation. These redemptive goals are almost invariably framed in terms of identification or affiliation with Christ rather than the mere imputation of his righteousness to our account. The latter is presupposed but not typically the Biblical focus of attention.

In the process of developing this more full-blown view of our salvation in Christ, we will of necessity be exploring a number of closely related theological concepts that not only have direct bearing on how we view our redemption but should also directly affect the way we “evangelize” and then “treat” our brethren and “sistren.” As a result, our theology grows increasingly practical as an orienting “map” or “compass” for our behavior toward one another and the world. The main theological categories that keep resurfacing in the metanarrative of salvation include the nature and purposes of: law, conscience, guilt, atonement, belief/trust, free will, grace, imputation, identification, baptism, and righteousness. For the theologically “faint-hearted,” I don’t see how I can avoid discussing these theological categories, but “be of good cheer”: We will be developing them straight from the “stories” of Scripture as they relate to the full, three-dimensional life of faith God has invited us to enter. My hope is that in dialogue with Tim and others on the comment threads, we may eventually frame these theological categories in a very different way—a much more holistic and “purpose-oriented” way—than our thinking has been compartmentalized by more traditional systematic approaches.

The Basic Thesis
My view of three-dimensional salvation is a fundamentally dispensational approach (theologically speaking); however, I do not find this is at all inimical to other ways of thinking about the issue. What I do see is that none of us will emerge from this “wrestling match” (if we enter it with integrity) without having “our names changed.” What I mean by this is that our traditions and even our staunchest theological convictions will be laid out on the table for reframing and, if need be, total overhaul. Of one thing we can be sure: Jesus will not change, nor will God’s offer of life through Him.

Taking John 3:16 as our starting point, here is what I hope to show is consistent about the Gospel in the narratives of Scripture from Genesis on:

  1. 1. God has projected into human conscience that we are dead in trespasses and sin.
  2. 2. God has promised life after death forever to those who believe Him for it.
  3. 3. God has provided a human ransom that will “buy us back” from death to life.
These three tenets presuppose that:
  1. Humans are endowed by God with a conscience capable of at least intuitive awareness of these three basic tenets;
  2. The available content of truth that specifies the “identity” and “work” of this human “ransom” has progressively increased by God’s revelation with each dispensation; and
  3. Judgment is according to light [“content” of revealed truth] received
A “Narrative Approach” in John for a 3-D Gospel
In my next post I will tap the narrative literary context of John 3:16 in order to flesh out how these tenets are realized and have been realized throughout salvation history by grace through faith in Christ alone. The first couple of sentences of the Introduction to Leon Morris’ long revered commentary on John says a mouthful about my choice to discuss the 3-D Gospel in Scripture by starting with the fourth Gospel, and with 3:16 in particular:
“I like the comparison of John’s Gospel to a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound. It is for the veriest beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never failing.” (The Gospel of John, Revised Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 3)

But Morris promptly goes on to cite a typical, almost intuitive reaction of modern commentators on John’s Gospel that the more one “applies himself to the close study of this book” the more it remains “strange, restless, and unfamiliar” (ibid.). It is my contention that this is because we tend to read John “one-dimensionally” when it has always presented a three-dimensional Gospel, and modernist commentators tend to aggravate this problem by engaging in verse-by-verse exegesis rather than adopting the narrative approach that the author intended “from the beginning” (one of John’s favorite phrases). Please join me as I explore such a narrative approach to this Gospel; we will quickly discover that this approach will take us on a journey all over the canon of Scripture, even if we limit ourselves to a closer look at John 3 for the purposes of our Gospel discussion.