What God Loves; What We Love

Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21

The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game.  Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.

However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were

1. John 3 16

2. Mary Lynn Rajskub

3. Windows 7 beta download

4. All inclusive vacations

5. Ana Ortiz

In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”

Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.

The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,

… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.

“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.

However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.

In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself,  to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)

Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.

But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.

So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!

However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.

In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.

The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?

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Finding Jesus

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 18, 2015: John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

John in his Gospel tells some stories we don’t get from the other Gospels. In this unique story, we hear of Jesus calling Nathanael. It’s a great story about how Jesus first called Philip and Philip could not keep Jesus to himself. The story moves like this: Jesus found Philip > Philip found Nathanael > We have found him! (The word “find” occurs five times in John 1:41, 43, and 45).

In addition to this movement of finding, the dynamic dialogue moves the story along. The first words are Jesus’.

Jesus (to Philip): Follow me.

 

Philip: We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

Nathanael: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Philip: Come and see.

 

Jesus: Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael: Where did you get to know me?

Jesus: I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.

Nathanael: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Earlier in the first chapter of his good news, the author has sought to clarify for his hearers the identity of Jesus. John’s view of Jesus is very high: He was God (1:1); he became Human (1:14). He is  the Lamb of God (1:36) and the Son of God (1:43). John is clear from the beginning that he is a believer. Throughout his story, consequently, John seeks to help us experience our own self-discovery of Jesus; in short, he seeks to help us find Jesus.

However, the flip side of us finding Jesus is that Jesus is also seeking us. In the story prior to this one, Jesus found Philip, who in our story, now finds Nathanael. Philip exclaims, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Philip is certain that Jesus is the one that Moses promised. Almost certainly Philip has in mind Deuteronomy 18:15

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

or 18:18

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.

But not just Moses, according to Philip, but also the prophets spoke of this Jesus, this son of Joseph, this one from Nazareth. Philip does not tell us which prophetic texts he is recalling, but they may have well included this text:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1–4 NRSV)

Many other texts could have informed Philip’s view of the coming Messiah—yet there is no doubt that he believed that all of these texts pointed to the very man that he had found.

When Jesus encountered Nathanael, he declared Nathanael to be a good man. Nathanael wanted to know how Jesus knew him. To this, Jesus responded that he had as seen Nathanael when Philip called him, that is, while Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. While John does not spell out how this “knowing” took place—was it a miracle, insight on the part of Jesus, etc.?—One aspect is clear before Nathanael found Jesus, Jesus had already found Nathanael. That Nathanael understood that Jesus had actually found him first is implicit in his response,

Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

For those of us who believe, it is deeply humbling to remember that God found us first.

John’s Way with Words

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 4, 2015: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John’s vocabulary is relatively small (around 1013 different words) compared to the other New Testament writers but what he does with those words is quite amazing. John sometimes uses words whose range of meaning can capture two or more thoughts at a time. In his prologue John does this act in a number of places.

In John 1:1, he speaks of Jesus as the Logos of God. The word logos rang differently in the Jewish ears than it did in Gentile or non-Jewish ears. The Jews had become long accustomed of thinking of the “Word” of God as something dynamic or a live. When they heard the word logos, it surely brought to mind the way in which the “Word of God” came to the prophets of old (as in Mic 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; 3:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1, 3; 2:10, 20; Zech 1:1, 7; 4:8; 6:9; 7:1, 4, 8, 12; 8:1, 18). However, a Greek reader would have no doubt heard a philosophical term referring to the logical principle that held the universe together in the the writings of the great Greek philosophers of the past. John masterfully pulls these two concepts together by naming Jesus the Word of God which created and sustains the universe.

In comparing Jesus to the light that came into the world, John says that the darkness was not about to overcome the light. The word translated overcome (κατέλαβεν) could also be translated comprehend or understand. Either understanding works in the context and perhaps John actually intended to communicated both ideas to his earliest readers.

John also shows care in choosing the tense of his verbs . In the first verse John uses a past tense(actually imperfect in Greek denoting a continuous past action as one experiences when watching a historical movie) to speak of Jesus’ relationship to God or Godness:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God (or divine).

This sets up nicely the verb shift in v. 14:

And the Word became flesh (human),

and he pitched his tent among us…

Using the image of God pitching his tabernacle in the middle of the Israelites during their wilderness wandering, John makes the extraordinary claim that Jesus was now God-living-among-his-people. To make this possible, Jesus who was God but now became human. To be sure, John will later in his book claim that Jesus is the divine presence of God but here the point is that in becoming human, Jesus made a decisive break with “being God” so that he might be with us. He was, but for our sake, he became.

Therefore, the good word of John is that the Word became flesh and

to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12 NRSV).