Book Review: Craig Keener, John (ZIBBC 2A)

Keener, Craig. John. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary 2A. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2019. 251 pp. Hb; $29.99.   Link to Zondervan

This new commentary from Craig Keener replaces Andreas Köstenberger’s John commentary in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Ed. Clint Arnold, Zondervan, 2001). Unfortunately Köstenberger work contained “accidental plagiarism,” something Köstenberger himself has recognized. This led to the decision to remove Köstenberger’s commentaries from the Baker Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2004) and the ZIBBC.

The result of this is another Craig Keener commentary on John. His earlier commentary on the fourth Gospel (Hendrickson, 2003; now Baker Academic) was two volumes and 1242 pages of introduction and commentary, plus another 166 pages of bibliography and 225 pages of indices. The ZIBBC is much more concise at a mere 212 pages of introduction and commentary and 39 pages of endnotes and indices. As a result, this new commentary is a useful tool for laypeople and busy pastors who want to read the Gospel of John with added clarity.

Like other volumes of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary this commentary has only brief notes on the text, more than provided by a major study Bible. At the title of the series implies, the notes focus on cultural, historical, geographical, archeological, and literary backgrounds which may illuminate the text as one reads John’s Gospel.

As an example of a geographical note, Keener locates the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) at the church of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem. The editors proved a photograph of the Jerusalem Temple model at the Israel Museum, an artistic reconstruction of the five-portico pool and a photograph of the remains of the pools as they appear to visitors today.

Throughout the commentary there are sidebars explaining cultural and theological issues. For example, Keener provides about a page of material on Second Temple Jewish mourning customs as the background for the mourners around the tomb of Lazarus (p. 114-15). He cites the Mishnah, the apocryphal book Judith and the pseudepigraphical book Jubilees. He provides two pages on the historicity of Jesus’s trial (p. 176-77), citing several texts from the Mishnah.

Keener frequently draws parallels to other Second Temple literature. As an example of literary background, on John 1:4 Keener points our Jewish teachers often associated life with wisdom, citing a series of Old Testament texts along with Baruch 4:1, Psalms of Solomon 14:2 and 2 Baruch 38:2. He includes a brief excerpt of each text since most readers will not have easy access to these books.

This short commentary on John provides the reader with sufficient background material for reading John’s Gospel in the context of the Second Temple period world. Advanced readers will find it too brief, but there are enough footnotes to point interested readers to more in-depth resources. Keener’s commentary will serve well as a supplement to personal Bible study or a small group setting.

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on May 16, 2019 on Reading Acts.

Book Review: Michael J. Buckley, What Do You Seek?

Buckley, Michael J. What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 158 pages; pb. $18.00   Link to Eerdmans

This short monograph collects fourteen short meditations on questions asked by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Many of these questions are recognized as programmatic in the Gospel of John. For example, Buckley draws his title for the book from the first question Jesus asks in the book. In In John 1:35-38, the first words Jesus speaks in the book asks two disciples following him, “What do you seek?” The Gospel of John returns to this theme frequently as people seek something from Jesus (healing, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) In his final question in the Gospel Jesus asks Peter, “Peter do you love me?” (John 21:15-16). Jesus’s question demands a response just as the whole Gospel of John demands a response from its readers.

Buckley’s short reflections on the text focus on the challenge issued by Jesus’s questions. For example, his comments on Jesus’s question to Peter in 21:15-16 concern forgiveness. He devotes two chapters to questions asked in the passion narrative, “what shall I say, save me from this hour?” and “shall I not drink this cup?”) On occasion the meditation ranges far from the original intention, such as in John 2:3-4, when the wedding runs out of wine Jesus asks his mother, “What has this to do with us?” Buckley uses this question to address concern for the suffering and responding to those in need. Perhaps, but Jesus used the opportunity to reveal something about himself by providing wine at a wedding. When Jesus asks his disciples “how can we buy bread” (John 6:5), he reveals something about himself as “bread from heaven,” but Buckley develops an application from the text about the unpredictability of the power of God and our weakness in service. Since this book is devotional reading, these applications are inspiring and challenging even if they seem tertiary to the text.

The book is rich in allusions to classic literature (many citations of T. S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky), philosophy and especially classical of western spirituality (St. John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman) and a few nods to modern scholarship (Bultmann, Barth, and Raymond Brown). Buckley reflects his Roman Catholic background (pp 34-24, for example) but this is not at all distracting.

Readers will be challenged by Jesus’s questions and Buckley’s thoughts on these questions.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven

Under an Open HeavenJohnson, John E. Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2017. 256 pp. Pb; $15.99. Link to Kregel

John Johnson has served as a pastor and a professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary in Portland. This blend of experience serves him well as he presents thirteen conversations from the Gospel of John. Each chapter is a meditation on an encounter with Jesus in the fourth Gospel. Johnson uses this conversation to present the theology of John’s gospel in a personally challenging way. Some of the conversations are with seekers (Nicodemus and the woman at the well), people seeking healing (the blind men), and others with people antagonistic toward Jesus (his brothers and the Jews in John 8:30-59, even Pilate in John 18:28-19:11).

Johnson presents enough historical and cultural detail (although not exegesis) to set the story in its proper context. For example, he explains the Jesus’s unusual response to his mother in John 2:4 or the clear parallels between Nicodemus and the woman at the well, or the contrasts between the two blind men in John 5 and 9. But since his goal is not to write a fully researched commentary on John, many details are overlooked. For example, there is far more to say about the Feeding of the 5000 than “pointing to a better meal” (116), or the quantity and quality of the wine Jesus provides in John 2 than “Jesus can be so generous” (50). Still, Johnson’s goal is a devotional reading of the text, it is not fair to expect him to fully tease out all of the theological implications of John’s Gospel.

The thirteen chapters of the book read like sermons, with introductory illustrations drawn from pop culture or personal experience, and chapter sections with alliterative headings. He even cites Bob Dylan, which is always a plus. Since the book is written on a conversational level, it would work well in a small group environment or as personal devotional reading. Johnson has included a few questions at the end of each chapter to prompt discussion. Johnson also maintains a blog which touches on some of the topics in this book.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

What Do the Seven Thunders Say in Revelation 10:3-4?

The Mighty Angel stands in his place and speaks.  The speech is described as the roar of a lion, and he is answered by the “seven thunders.” This description is significant for several reasons. It is the only place in Revelation where an angelic messenger speaks, but the words are not recorded.  Why is the shout described in this way, and not recorded?

First, thunder is a stock metaphor for divine speech. In the Hebrew Bible, the voice of God is often described in terms of thunderous noise (2 Sam 22:14/Psalm 18:3; Job 37:2-5). It is possible thunderous speech is related to the description of the Lord as the “lion of Judah” (Amos 1:2, 3:8). Occasionally angels have voices like thunder, such as 3 Baruch 11:4, and in The Odyssey, Zeus speaks like thunder.

3 Baruch 11:4 And while we were waiting, there was a noise from the highest heaven like triple thunder. And I Baruch said, “Lord, what is this noise?” And he said to me, “Michael is descending to accept the prayers of men.”

So he spoke in prayer, and Zeus the counsellor heard him. Straightway he thundered from gleaming Olympus, from on high from out the clouds; and goodly Odysseus was glad. (The Odyssey, 20.100-104).

Why are there “seven thunders?” Psalm 29:3-9 has a seven fold description of the voice of God as thunder (although the word “voice” is not repeated seven times.)  There is a rabbinic tradition that the voice of God was heard as seen thunders on Mt. Sinai (Exod. Rab. 28:6).

As John prepared to write the content of the words spoken by the thunders, a “voice from heaven” prevents him. John is told to “seal up the vision” and not write it down. The source of the voice is not identified and it is common in Revelation for John to hear an unidentified voice from heaven. Given the background texts where a divine voice sounds like thunder, perhaps this is the voice of God prohibiting John from writing what the thunders said.

apocalyptic-thunderstorm

The way the command is given is odd: he is told to seal up the vision (which would imply keeping it a secret), but also not to write anything down.  If he had not written the words, what is the point of also sealing the scroll?  There is a tradition in Jewish apocalyptic of a person being given revelation but forbidden to share it. David Aune suggested this ensures that prophet alone knows the information, making him “wiser” than his readers.  It was a mark of authenticity to hold back a little revelation from the readers, if you gave it all then perhaps there were skeptics.

So what did the seven thunders say? Obviously we cannot know since it is still a secret, but John may have been given another series of judgments like the seals, trumpets, and bowls. He was told not to record this series for some reason. Caird suggested the reason John is told not to record the content of the visions is that God “cancelled” the judgments out of his grace and mercy (Revelation, 126-127). This would mean there were four sets of seven judgments, one set was set aside, perhaps an allusion to the four sets of curses in Leviticus 26:14-46.

John 21:20-25 – The World Cannot Contain All the Books

[If you would like to watch video the sermon here is a link:  The World Itself Could Not Contain the Books…  (Scroll down past the overly large series title for audio or video.) Be warned: people tell me I have a face made for radio.You may prefer to listen to the audio instead!]

Jesus Beloved DiscipleHere is a summary: After the resurrection Jesus met some of his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. After providing a miraculous catch of fish, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loved him. This conversation was a public restoration of Peter, a confirmation that Jesus has forgiven him and that Peter’s denial will not define the rest of his life. Jesus then predicted that Peter would be faithful to the end; he would be crucified because of his testimony for Jesus.

But what about the Beloved Disciple? The final chapters of the Gospel of John have contrasted Peter’s actions with the belief of this disciple, who is likely John, the son of Zebedee. If Peter is to be executed, what will happen to John?

John does not want to focus the attention on himself or his book (“I could write more,”or “This book could be much longer….”) The story has been about who Jesus is from the very beginning! “The greatness of the revelation of God in the Logos-Son is vaster than the cosmos created through him.” John’s gospel is about the vastness of Jesus from the first line to the last.

It is remarkable that the final words of Jesus are “you follow me!” Jesus began his ministry asking people what they wanted of him. In John 1:38, Jesus’ first words are “what do you want?” and he command his disciples to follow even then (1:43). At the end of the book Jesus expects his two closest disciples to continue to follow him, one to his death, the other to a long life of ministry, both looking forward to the return of Jesus in glory.

Why Did Jesus Weep in John 11:35?

Why does Jesus weep in John 11:35? The crowd assumes it is because his friend Lazarus died. Jesus has a typically human emotional reaction to death. But most commentaries point out the vocabulary used to describe Jesus’s emotions go beyond sorrow. In fact, the verbs in John 11:33 have the connotation of indignation and anger.

Barrett says the view that Jesus was angry “beyond question” (John, 399). Beasley-Murray argues the verb ἐμβριμάομαι  should be read as“became angry in spirit” (John, Second Edition, 192-3). That Jesus is moved “in his spirit” is an indication this is a deeply internal emotional reaction.

Jesus WeptThe second verb in John 11:33 is ταράσσω, a verb associated with deep turmoil and In the next chapter, Jesus will use the same word to describe his spirit prior to the passion events (John 12:27). In Matthew 14:26 it is used to describe the terror felt by the disciples when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. In Luke 24:38 the verb describes the terror of the disciples when they encountered the resurrected Jesus. In each cases, there is a feeling of dread since a sinful person is encountering a divine being.

Whatever the combination of these terms means, it cannot be said Jesus was shaken by the death of Lazarus since he had predicted it. We cannot say he is expressing emotions similar to Mary and Martha, who are mourning their dead brother. Jesus knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead so his tears are unlikely sorrow over Lazarus’s death.

A slight variation of this view is Craig Keener who suggested Jesus was angry at the unbelief of the mourners (John, 846). Raymond Brown suggested Jesus was angry at Satan and the domain of death itself, or possibly Jesus is angry “at death” in general (John, 203).

When Jesus does cry, it is not the same as Mary and Martha, or the other mourners. They are “wailing” (κλαίω), while Jesus “weeps” (δακρύω). The word is rare in the LXX, appearing only a few times (for example, Job 3:24, Job’s tears). I am not sure there is enough evidence to say that Jesus’s tears were more or less sorrowful based on vocabulary, perhaps John simply varied the terms in order to avoid repetition (as he does elsewhere in the Gospel).

Perhaps a better way of looking at Jesus’s frustrated emotional response is to see it in the light of Mary and Martha’s lack of understanding that he is the “Resurrection and the Life” and their apparent unbelief in his status as the giver of Life. Jesus just told Mary and Martha he is the resurrection and the life. Rather than some distant eschatological resurrection in the future, Jesus is about to demonstrate his power over life and death. But none of the disciples seem to understand this!

The power of the coming age is present in Jesus’s ministry.  But even the closest disciples do not fully understand who he is until after the resurrection.

Jesus’ Prayer of Thanksgiving (John 11:42-44)

Jesus prays a “prayer of thanksgiving” before commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This prayer has been discussed with respect to the possibility of historicity – is it the type of prayer that Jesus might have prayed in this context?  Some scholars dispense with the historicity of the prayer as an addition by the writer of the Gospel.  For example, R. H. Fuller, (Interpreting the Miracles) wrote that:

To the modern reader this prayer is irritating, if not offensive. The whole thing looks like a put-up show, anything but genuine prayer. Jesus knows he need not pray, but apparently stages a prayer to impress the bystanders.

Rather than an “irritating prayer”, this is actually a Prayer of Thanksgiving as prayed by Jews commonly in the context of first century Palestine. Following J. M. Robinson, Bingham Hunter has demonstrated that there are formal parallels to a Jewish thanksgiving prayer. As a Jewish Hodayoth, the prayer is intended to be heard by the audience for which it is prayed. The cited article lists many examples (including in the Pauline and Qumran literature) indicating that this sort of prayer was not only common enough in the first century, but expected in a religious context such as the one Jesus finds himself in John 11.

Because of its form the prayer seems to be genetically related to and a part of a tradition of piety exemplified by the Jewish personal thanksgiving psalm. Thanksgivings of this sort are characteristically prayers that both God and spectators are meant to hear.

With respect to the scholars that find offense in the prayer, Hunter points that the offense is entirely modern. Read in the context of the first-century, the prayer is exactly the sort of thanksgiving prayer we might have expected.

Bibliography:  R. H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); W. Bingham Hunter, “Contextual And Genre Implications For The  Historicity Of John 11:41b-42” JETS 28:1 (March 1985) 53-70.

The Good Shepherd – John 10 and the Hebrew Bible

John 10 begins with the closest thing to a parable we find in the Gospel of John. While parables are common in the other three Gospels, John does not record a single parable. In this passage, Jesus uses an extended metaphor drawn from the common experience of tending sheep. If the audience had not tended sheep themselves, they knew that these things were true from their experience.

Good_ShepherdJesus chose this metaphor intentionally since the image of a shepherd is used in the Old Testament frequently for the leaders of the nation. The are bad shepherds who are not leading the people “beside still waters” (Psalm 23) The people are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In contrast, Jesus leads the people into the wilderness and provides food for them (the feeding of the 5000), seeking out the lost sheep wherever they are (Luke 15:3-7) and ultimately laying Jesus will lay down his life down on behalf of his flock.

What is more, this image of a true shepherd is a messianic image found in the Old Testament. Moses led sheep for 40 years in the wilderness before God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the ideal King of Israel was David, who was first a shepherd before his was a king. Psalm 23 has messianic overtones (“The Lord is my shepherd”), but Ezekiel 37:24-28 is the most clear use of a shepherd metaphor for the coming Messiah, the true son of David and ideal shepherd who replaces the bad leaders who have led the people into danger but do nothing to save them.

The image of a God as a shepherd is found frequently in the Old Testament. God is described as a shepherd for his people (Gen 48:15, 49:24, Ps 23:1, 28:9, 77:20, 78:52, 80:1, Isa 40:11, Jer 31:10) and the people of Israel are regularly refer to as the sheep of God’s pasture (Ps 74:1, 78:52, 79:13, 95:7, 100:3, Ezek 34:31). It is possible that Jesus had Ezekiel 34 in mind, but the fact that the image of an ultimately good shepherd who will lead God’s people back to the land appears in Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 as well. These are passages Jesus uses frequently in his teaching and would have been well-known to the listeners in the Temple.

In John 10:14 Jesus declares he is not only the proper gate into the sheep pen, he is in fact the good shepherd who will lay his life down on behalf of his flock. By calling himself “the shepherd,” Jesus is evoking passages such as Ezekiel 34 which looks forward to an ideal shepherd who will lead the people on behalf of God. On the other hand, the true shepherd of Israel is God. There is only one shepherd for the flock (verse 16). God the Father is the shepherd (Ps 23:1), but here Jesus is claiming to be that good shepherd.

The reaction of the crowd (10:19-21) is similar to chapter 9, some say Jesus is inane or demon possessed, yet others understand that a demon possessed man cannot open the eyes of the blind, nor does an insane person speak as Jesus does. He makes sense!

By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus in intentionally declaring that he is the Messiah and therefore God’s son. But he will go beyond the expectation that the Messiah will be the ideal king, a new Moses and new David. Just as both those men could be called “a son of God,” Jesus also claims to be the ideal Son of God because he is God.

There is more in this chapter which makes Jesus’s claim even more clear. But is this an accurate reading of the words of Jesus? Is he claiming to be the eschatological shepherd from Ezekiel 37:24-28? And if he is, what does this tell us about his relationship with God?

John 9:1-2 – Who Sinned?

A Blind ManWhile walking in Jerusalem, the disciples see a man born blind and ask Jesus why the man was born blind (verse 1-2). Judaism sometimes connected sin and illness The reason for this is a strong belief that God judges sin with illness. The three friends in the book of Job is the classic example of the belief that extreme illness and suffering is the result of sin. For example, when Miriam rebelled against Moses, she was struck with leprosy.The same is true for Uzziah, a king who violated the law.  When Hezekiah became ill he took it as a sign of divine disfavor.

In addition to suffering for your own sins, there are a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible that indicate some sins will be punished for several generations.  Idolatry, for example, carried a punishment for three more generations. Frequently kings were not directly punished for their rebellion, but their sons or grandsons are killed, ending their line.

Another possibility for a man born blind is that he sinned in the womb. For most of us, the idea of a prenatal sin is difficult to understand (not to mention a little bit frightening!) The rabbinic Genesis Rabbah suggests Esau was “hated” and Jacob “loved” because he had committed sin in the womb:

“R. Bekehja said in the name of R. Levi: “When she [Rebecca] walked past synagogues and houses of instruction, Jacob struggled to get out, in accordance with Jer 1:5: ‘Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you.’ And when she passed idol temples Esau ran and struggled to get out, in accordance with Ps 58:4, ‘The godless go astray from the womb’” (Gen. Rab. 63; cited by Beasley-Murray, John, Second Edition, 154)

Jesus denies a “universal principle” that sin and sickness are connected. There may be cases, (Miriam, Paul’s comments to the Corinthians about their abuse of the Lord’s supper), but not all sickness can be connected to a specific sin. Generally, alcohol abuse often leads to a natural physical consequence; this natural result hardly a judgment of God!

In fact, Jesus says the man was born blind so that God’s power might be displayed in him (John 9:3-5). The blind were considered unclean and were always excluded from Temple worship. Since they are blind, they cannot know when they might contact some unclean thing, therefore they could never be allowed to go up to the Temple to worship.

Jesus says the man was born blind so God’s power might be displayed in him (verse 3-5). The blind were considered unclean and were always excluded from Temple worship. Since they are blind, they cannot know when they might contact some unclean thing, therefore they could never be allowed to go up to the Temple to worship. Jesus indicates he will not always be in the world. Since he is the light of the world, it is the time to do the work of God. As Rabbi Tarphon said, The day is short and there is much work to be done; the workers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is urgent” (Pirqe ‘Abot 2.15).

Once again Jesus declares he is the light of the world (cf. 8:12). In this case, the light will illuminate the darkness of the blind man. This chapter is connected to the previous via “the light of the world.” Carson comments that this is what happens when someone who is blind encounters the “light of the world.”

It is important to pause and reflect on what Jesus says about sin and sickness. Some Christians make an unfortunate assumption that sin leads to illness, so that if you are sick in any way there is unconfessed sin in your life, or sickness is a sign of a deficient spiritual life. If you are healthy, they claim, you are blessed by God and must be living a spiritual life. Even thought there are examples of God using illness as a punishment in the Old Testament, this view of relationship between illness and sin is completely unscriptural. Aside from a general ignorance of the Book of Job and the life of the Apostle Paul and his thorn in the flesh, it misses the point Jesus makes here in John 9: sometimes illness can be used for the glory of God. Jesus does not say God will smite you with a dread disease so that you will praise God more, but he does indicate physical infirmities are opportunities to see the glory of God in different ways.

If this miracle does reveal something about the glory of God, what is it? What do we learn about Jesus from this miracle?

John 7:8 – “My Time Has Not Yet Come”

When his brothers encourage him to go up to Jerusalem, Jesus initially refuses their request because “his time has not yet come.”  However, he does eventually go to Jerusalem in secret.   His apparent refusal leads to some textual variation, since it is clear that Jesus says one thing and does another.  One way to explain this is that Jesus said that he would not go now, but he would go later, separate from the family.

SuccothD. A. Carson, for example, tries to explain that when Jesus says “my time has not yet come,” he means that his time for leaving for the Feast has not yet come.  Carson thinks that the next line (you can go anytime but I cannot) means that Jesus is simply thinking about when he was leaving for the Feast.  This is possible, since the point of the rest of the chapter is to argue that Jesus does not act unless the Father directs him.  Perhaps this simply means that the  Father directed Jesus to leave a few days later than his brothers.

It is also likely this is another example of Jesus initially refusing a request but eventually granting the request.  In John 2, Jesus appears to refuse Mary’s request to “do something” about the wine.   Just as Mary’s request was on an earthly level and Jesus’ answer was on the higher, messianic level, so too here with his brothers.  They are thinking solely of Jesus’ status as a religious leader (“Go to Jerusalem where those sorts of people hang out”), Jesus is thinking about his real mission to die on the cross at the next Passover.   (Nicodemus and the woman at the well also mix up the earthly and the spiritual, except in those cases Jesus says something spiritual and they take it as earthly.)

The timing of Jesus’ death is to be at the Passover, not the Feast of Tabernacles.  If he appears there at the beginning of the Feast, there may be a unintentional “triumphal entry.”  His actions would therefore be seen as messianic and probably develop into a riot!

Jesus “time” is therefore the time of the crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification.