“Receive”? “Believe”? Coming to the Light
(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).