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.