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Osborne, Grant R.  John: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 542 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short commentary on the Gospel of John by Osborne is part of his series from Lexham Press published simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions. Six commentaries were published in 2017 (Romans, Galatians, Prison Epistle, Revelation) with three more due in 2018 (Luke, Acts, 1 & 2 Thessalonians).

In the introduction to the commentary, Osborne argues for the traditional view John the apostle is the single author of the fourth Gospel. He also adopts the traditional view that the beloved Disciple is the author of the book, John. Although there are some other suggestions (Lazarus, a fictional character), Osborne does not find the objections sufficient to overturn the traditional view. Nor does he accept the once-popular “Johannine circle” view made popular by Raymond Brown. For Osborne, John was a brilliant writer who carefully constructed his Gospel to simply present the gospel of Jesus, but with a depth and complexity which is unrivaled in the New Testament. Osborne dates fourth Gospel dates to the early A.D. 80s from Ephesus. He argued in his Revelation commentary John the apostle also wrote Revelation in the early 90s from Patmos.

With respect to the purpose of the Gospel, Osborne is persuaded by the recent discussion among Gospels scholars dismissing the idea that the Gospel writers addressed issues within their own local communities. Rather, the Gospels were written for the church as a whole. Osborne sees John’s Gospel is particularly evangelistic, citing John 20:31 as primary evidence. He also points out the frequency of salvation language (faith, believe, eternal life, truth, etc.)

Osborne briefly comments on the historical reliability of the Gospel of John in his introduction, but often deals with John’s reliability in the body of the commentary. Even in the early church John was considered to be a “spiritual gospel.” Historical reliability is a problem for Johannine studies since John’s Gospel is so different than the Synoptic gospels. For example, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’s Temple action takes place in his final week, but it occurs early in John 2:13-25. Although this seems like a singular event, Osborne accepts the recent suggestion from Craig Blomberg that Jesus made two protests in the Temple, one early in his career and a second one in his final week (p. 66). For Osborne, the emphasis on chronology in the fourth Gospel indicates it comes from an eyewitness who was interested in writing an accurate account of Jesus’s ministry.

The body of the commentary is divided into twenty-nine chapters following the outline in commentary’s introduction. Since one of the goals of the commentary series is to provide study notes for devotional reading or a small group Bible study, each chapter is limited to about fifteen pages. Although the series is subtitled “a verse by verse commentary, it is almost impossible to comment on every verse for a book the length of John and retain Osborne’s goal of a readable book for a small group. Usually his comments are on whole paragraphs, and this is almost always sufficient. There are some sections which need a word-by-word study (John 1:1-3, 3:16, for example).

Osborne includes a bibliography of important John commentaries he has used in the preparation of the commentary, but he rarely cites these secondary works and footnotes are used for additional information or cross-references (and are also quite rare in the book). This is not to say Osborne has not read widely on John. The simple, readable style of the commentary precludes the kind of detailed interaction expected in an exegetical commentary. He occasionally refers to the Greek text, but words appear in transliteration. Specialized vocabulary appearing in the glossary are printed in bold. Each chapter ends with a summary drawing theological and practical implications from the text.

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne certainly achieves his goal of helping pastors to “faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Although scholars may find the brevity of the commentary frustrating, this commentary will be an excellent guide for anyone who desires to read John’s Gospel with more insight and understanding.

 

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

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the the writer’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin. The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

Use the Force

In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Oof John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

WWJDriveI think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. Some years ago there was an attempt to encourage Christians to be environmentally  conscious when choosing a car; the media campaign used “What would Jesus drive?” as a slogan. I really do not think it is relevant to apply Jesus to choosing a gas-guzzling SUV or Prius. There may be good biblical reasons for choosing one over the other, but “what would Jesus drive” is not the way to develop theology.

I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.

How do we guard against “going too far” when we try to apply the Bible to contemporary issues?

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the John’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin.

The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

Use the Force

In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Of John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

If this is on track, how would it help read 1 John? Does it help overcome some of the “black or white” ethical commands in the letter?

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body. This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil The logic of their teaching is based on the Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) idea that matter is evil. Since matter is evil and Christ is good, he could not have had a physical body. If Christ really suffered, then he was not divine, since God cannot suffer, and if he was God he did not suffer (Burchard, 326.)

Frequently Docetism is seen as part of the larger theology of Gnosticism, and therefore more or less a “Greco-Roman Philosophy” or perhaps even an early Christian attempt to develop a rational non-Jewish theology which would appeal to the larger Roman world.  Since it was strange to imagine a god really becoming flesh and submitting to death on a cross, some Christians described Jesus as “appearing” to be human flesh. The name “docetic” comes from the Greek δοκέω (dokeo), meaning to “appear” or “seem.”

But it is possible that Docetism more Jewish than Gentile.  If 1 John was written from Ephesus in the late 80’s or early 90’s, it is at least  plausible to argue that John was reacting to a Jewish Christian attempt to explain who Jesus was. Rather than making Christianity more palatable to Romans, Docetism would have been appealing to Jews who might find the idea of “God made flesh” contradictory to their view of God as completely transcendent.

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. This group was ascetic, living a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty may have been based on the early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 (selling possessions for needs of the group), or perhaps based on Jesus’ own voluntary poverty. While they rejected sacrifice, they thought that many of the Jewish traditions were still of value, especially circumcision. Bart Erhman describes the Ebionites as similar to Paul’s opponents in Galatia. Since they were a Jewish Christian group, they used only Matthew as scripture, but they also rejected Paul completely (Erhman, Lost Christianities, 99).

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible that John’s gospel was developed while he was still doing ministry in the Land, and that the fall of Jerusalem forced Jews out of the Land, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.  But this objection does not take into account the large Jewish population in Ephesus in the late first-century.  John’s work in Ephesus may have been with Jewish Christian congregations in the city rather than with primarily Gentile, Pauline congregations.

What is there in the first Letter of John that indicates that he is in fact answering an inadequate view of who Jesus was?  The evidence is in the opening paragraph, but runs throughout the book.

Bibliography:  G. L. Burchard, “Docetism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Lightfoot, J. B. The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still. The Lightfoot Legacy Set 2; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 317 pp Hb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

Last year IVP released the first of three newly discovered commentaries by the late nineteenth century scholar J. B. Lightfoot. In the forward to that volume Ben Witherington recounted how he discovered hand-written manuscripts several long-forgotten commentaries J. B. Lightfoot in the spring of 2013. IVP plans one more volume collecting Lightfoot’s notes on 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter.

Lightfoot JohnWhen I reviewed Lightfoot’s Acts commentary, I asked why would anyone care to read a lost commentary written by a scholar who died in 1889? For some modern readers, Lightfoot’s legacy has been forgotten.  But the mid-nineteen century, Lightfoot was considered one of the foremost scholars of his day. The editors of this book begin their introduction with the words of William Sanday: “No one could match Lightfoot for ‘exactness of scholarship, with the air addition, scientific method, sobriety of judgment and lucidity of style.’” His commentaries on the Galatians (1865), Philippians (1868) and Colossians (1875) are often reprinted and his work on the Apostolic Fathers was the standard until the Loeb edition by Krisopp Lake.

The forward to Lightfoot’s John commentary is nearly identical to the Acts forward and the Editor’s Introduction only adds three pages specific to Lightfoot on the Gospel of John. Witherington points out that Lightfoot had often lectured on John at Cambridge and was deeply concerned at the negative impact the higher criticism of F. C. Baur had on the study of John’s Gospel. Although it was unusual for a British scholar to be too concerned with German scholarship, Lightfoot read Baur and others seriously and sought to defend the authenticity of John’s Gospel against the protestant liberalism of his day.

For this reason the commentary includes a lengthy discussion of the external and internal evidences for the authenticity of John (pages 41-78) as well as two appendices reprinting articles published posthumously in Bible Essays (pages 205-66, external evidences, pages 267-325, internal evidences; Macmillan, 1904, reprinted by Baker, 1979). More than a third of this commentary is devoted to answering challenges to John’s authenticity by the Tübingen school popular in the late nineteenth century.

Unfortunately the body of the commentary only covers the first twelve chapters of John. After a short note on the meaning of Logos (pages 80-86), the commentary proceeds as does Lightfoot’s other published commentaries. He begins with a brief summary of the pericope followed by short notes on Greek words and phrases of interest. After this commentary, there are a few pages of notes on the Greek text itself, commenting on textual variants and suggesting solutions. As Hengel comments in his appendix to this book, Lightfoot’s academic method was based on the recovery of the text of early Christian writing (p. 333). Compared to modern commentaries (Keener on John, for example), the comments are indeed sparse.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, this is an unpublished set of notes, not a full commentary. If Lightfoot had intended to finish this commentary, the notes would have been expanded, although not as much as demanded by modern commentary buyers. Second, commentaries produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century focused on helping a scholar to read the Greek text of the Bible. Notes on textual variations and translation issues were the stuff of commentaries, with little or no interest in historical background or theology. Lightfoot was not uninterested in those issues, but the commentary was not the place to deal with background or theological issues.

Perhaps the most interesting section of this commentary is a reprinted article by Martin Hengel on Lightfoot and German scholarship on John’s Gospel” (p. 326-58). Originally printed in the Durham University Journal (1989) on the occasion of the centenary of Lightfoot’s death. As Witherington points out, Hengel himself was a historian and linguist at Tübingen, although he was far more sympathetic to Lightfoot’s views than F. C. Baur. Hengel offers a brief history of David Strauss and F. C. Baur and their approach to the Gospels, especially John. Baur famously dated the book to about A.D. 170. For Baur, Valentianian, Montanism and Gnosticism were “historical background” to the Gospel of John (p. 329).

By the time Lightfoot entered Oxford’s Trinity College in 1847, the influence of the Tübingen School was at its height. Baur would outlive Lightfoot by 8 years. Lightfoot’s work on the Apostolic Fathers was considered a “nail in the coffin” of Tübingen (p. 336) and his excursus on Paul and James in his Galatians commentary “the most important contribution to the Tübingen controversy” (337). Lightfoot did not engage in polemics, but built a positive argument for the authenticity of John, as is evidenced by the detailed material in this commentary.

Hengel’s essay also includes an assessment of Lightfoot’s influence on scholarship in England. Some considered him a representative of unbelief on par with Voltaire and some compared him to the antichrist (p. 352)! Ironically his commentary on John is now published by an evangelical publisher and Lightfoot is presented as a premier biblical scholar who stood against the inroads of protestant liberalism of his day. Hengel points out that Lightfoot not only remained a faithful member of the Church and “wore himself out” serving as both bishop and scholar (p. 342). It is a sad commentary on attacks on real scholarship done within the church by conservative Christianity in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Perhaps this is the best reason to read Lightfoot’s commentaries today.

Conclusion. Like Lightfoot’s newly discovered commentary on Acts, this commentary is a valuable contribution to the history of scholarship on the Book of John. In some ways it is dated since few scholars would argue along with Baur today that John is the product of the late second century. Yet Lightfoot’s model of Christian scholarship is important for a new generation of students of the Bible.

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

Last Sunday I had the privilege of preaching for the morning Worship Service at Rush Creek Bible Church in Byron Center, Michigan. I do not get to do this very often since I usually teach the Sunday Evening Bible study as well as a Sunday School class. I was asked to finish out a long series on the Gospel of John so I used the final words of the book as a way to summarize many of the themes of John’s gospel.

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.

When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is preforming a parabolic act. As with parables, we need to understand the context in order to understand what Jesus was trying to teach through the washing of his disciples’ feet.

It is well-known that hospitality in the ancient world included foot-washing. Since virtually all travel was by foot, a visitor should be allowed to “refresh themselves” when they arrive by washing their feet. If the host had servants, the task of washing the guest’s feet fell to the lowliest servant. For a Jewish family, the task would be assigned to a Gentile slave (Köstenberger, John, 405). In this case, Jesus takes off his outer clothes and wraps himself in a long towel and does the job of the lowliest slave.

Since this is a Passover meal, it is likely that each of the disciples have washed their hands ceremonially before touching the food of the meal. My guess is that the feet would need to be washed since the are most likely to have come into contact with uncleanliness, the slave who washed the feet would therefore himself be unclean.

This is therefore a shocking act by a Jewish teacher prior to the Passover meal. Jesus’ humble service of his disciples is an illustration of how the disciples are to continue his work after the resurrection.

Said R. Joshua b. Levi, “All acts of labor that a slave performs for his master, a disciple of a sage performs for his master, except for removing his shoe.” b. Ketub. 96a (Neusner, b. Ketub. 11:1, I.2.A; 9:440)

Jesus is due the titles Teacher (Rabbi) and Lord. Even if we take the title Lord as equivalent to sir, both titles put Jesus well above the disciples socially. In a teacher-student relationship of the Second Temple Period, there was little a teacher could not ask his disciple to do for him. Yet Jesus reverses cultural expectations by doing an extremely humbling service for his disciples.

This is a pattern for the disciples to follow (v.15). The noun used here (ὑπόδειγμα) has the sense of a pattern, or model used for moral instruction. Jesus is saying this is an illustration of how you are to serve one another. This is not a pattern to be followed for worship, for example. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with practicing foot-washing in some Christian denominations, it is not an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper. To me this is analogous to saying the Lord’s Prayer. It is not particularly wrong, but misses Jesus point when he gave the prayer of an illustration of how to pray!

How do we serve as Jesus did? First, Jesus did not insist on his titles and honors. Ideally, Peter ought to have served Jesus, but Jesus radically reverses expectations and serves those who are socially lower than himself. If the Lord (and God) of the universe can get down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of those who owe him honor and loyalty, how ought we to serve?

Second, notice that he washes all the disciples’ feet, including Judas. He knew that Judas was the betrayer, yet he extended to him the same humble service that he gave the other “loyal” disciples. Jesus knew that Satan was about to enter Judas and he knew exactly what Judas was about to do, but he treated him in exactly the same way he did Peter or John.

That is remarkable to me. I have no problem humbly serving my family or my church family. But what about those who are outside the church? There are people who are outside of my normal circle who I do not serve, in fact, I sometimes treat them with contempt.

Jesus did not, he died for them as well.

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” (Psa 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.

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 in fact God.

There is a great deal of material which makes this claim even more clear – is this an accurate reading of the words of Jesus?  Is he claiming to be the eschatological shepherd?

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.

On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.

Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.

On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

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Christian Theology

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