Monthly Archives: October 2007

Prologue Continued

John: Prologue, part. 2

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Oct. 15, 2006.

 

Introduction:    Last week we began our study of the prologue to the Gospel of John. As I mentioned, this was originally a hymn to Christ that was probably sung in the church for which John’s Gospel was written. Most scholars think that the statements about John the Baptist were added to the original hymn. We’ll discuss those parts next week. This week we will continue with the story of the Word of God as presented in this beautiful hymn.

 

Word in the World:    The opening stanza of the hymn spoke of the Logos of God that was with God and was God. The Logos was light and life for humankind. The second stanza speaks of the Logos coming into the world. Notice that the Logos has not been named yet. Certainly the worshiping community founded by the witness of the Beloved Disciple knew the name of the Logos, but the hymn builds interest by saving the name for the end. The Logos was with God in the beginning, but he did not have a name until the birth of Jesus. We can also say that Jesus himself was not recognized as the Word of God until he had called the church into being.

 

The World:     This process of revelation is expressed poetically by saying that the Word was in the World yet the World did not recognize him. The Greek word for “world” here is Cosmos, and it appears more often in the Gospel of John than any other book of the NT. Throughout the Gospel we’ll see Jesus struggling with the Cosmos as well as redeeming the Cosmos. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the word Cosmos has several meanings in Greek, especially in John’s gospel, but the basic meaning is the order of the visible universe in which we live. Cosmos refers to the stars in their regular journey through the night sky and to the earth that produces our food in due season. Sometimes it refers specifically to the world of human society.

 

We do this in English as well when we refer to something as “worldly,” or that we are troubled by the cares of the world. Rarely are we troubled with the cares of the earth, just those of society. On television “World News Tonight” is about people, not the news of the whole cosmos, except when scientists decide to renumber the planets in the solar system. Even then, that is about us not the planets. Pluto hasn’t changed; our definitions changed.

 

In many places in the NT, the word Cosmos is used in a negative sense, as something that is opposed to the work of God. The Kingdom of God is contrasted to the kingdom of the world. In the extreme, the “world” or the Cosmos is seen as being under the rule of Satan. Throughout John’s Gospel there are all of these different uses of Cosmos, and it can be difficult for interpreters to know what the Gospel was trying to communicate. The different attitudes toward the “world” in different passages of John’s Gospel contributed to the suspicion of some scholars that more than one purpose wrote the gospel. Thus, we will read that “God so loved the world,” but that Jesus “has overcome the world.”

 

The question is what does the world mean here in the Prologue? It seems to me that it is referring to the heavens and the earth or the universe. The universe was created through the Word, but creation did not recognize the creator. The Logos was in the world but the world did not know the Logos. This could be referring to the incarnation in Jesus, but it might be a more general reference to the ignorance of creation as a creation. The creature does not know its maker – or its dependence on the Creator. It is possible that the prologue here is saying that God has always been present in the world that he has made, but the world has never fully recognized the presence of the creator within the creation. Creation should be a means to encounter God.

 

In Greek Orthodox theology, creation can be understood as a sacrament, as a physical communication of the divine presence, but Protestants have been uncomfortable with that concept. We prefer to have just two Sacraments, but personally, I think it is worth considering in light of this first chapter of John. The Word of God was in the Cosmos from the beginning of the Time, but creation remains a divine mystery. Humans through the ages have caught glimpses of God in the natural order, but it took the Logos to reveal the truth about the creator and creation. In our modern age, it has been harder to recognize the presence of the Word in the World than in the past. Despite our advances in understanding the laws of nature and our ability to manipulate nature according to our will, most of us do not fully recognize the Logos in creation. If we did, we would treat the world with more reverence than we do.

 

He Came to His Own:            Verse 11 builds on the concept that the World failed to recognize the Logos in creation; he was not recognized even when he came to his own people. This is probably a veiled reference to the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders who handed him over to the Romans for execution, but it could have a broader meaning. The Greek is just a bit ambiguous. Literally, it says that the Word came “to his own things.” This could mean simply that he came into the world that he had made or that he came to a particular place and people.

 

Either way, this is clearly referring to the Word appearing in visible form in the world that we know. The technical term for this is a theophany: God revealed. We discussed several appearances of God in the book of Genesis. It could be that the Prologue to John has those stories of God’s appearance in mind, or the author may have only been thinking of the coming of Christ. Either way, the paradox is evident. The one who created the heavens and the earth somehow made an appearance within the universe. Rather than being recognized and treated like a king, the World did not receive its creator.

 

Most commentators assert that the reference to “his own people” refers specifically to the Jews, but that identification is not made in the Prologue itself. It is a reasonable assumption since the first half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ ministry among the Jews and their rejection of him. There does seem to be a jump in the Prologue from the Cosmos to the Ethnic. Why go from the Logos as the creator to a discussion of the people who rejected him? One possibility is that the Prologue shares the understanding of the book of Hebrews that the Creator spoke through the prophets but in the later days spoke through a Son. The prophetic word given to Moses, Elijah, and the other OT prophets was the same Word that had created the heavens and the earth.

 

Raymond Brown sees verses 11 and 12 as providing the outline for the whole Gospel. Jesus goes first to the Jews who reject him, and then he creates a new community. His “own people” reject him so he calls a new people into being. The church becomes “his own people.” This interpretation is consistent with other parts of the NT, such as the first Letter of Peter and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but we should keep in mind that it continues to speak to us. We are Christ’s own people, but do we recognize him? Do we not reject him today when his teachings and examples contradict our desire for violence and vengeance?

 

Children of God:        The prologue next sets up a contrast between those who received the Word of God and those who rejected the Word. This is one of the major themes of the Gospel and the other NT books associated with John. The world is divided between those who receive the Logos and those who reject him. This dualism or division between the children of the light and the children of darkness was developed from the ancient Jewish notion of the Chosen People. In the OT, Abraham and his descendents were chosen by God and set apart. They were given the Law of Moses to guide them and to form them into a separate community. They were to be a holy people and a light to the other nations.

 

By the time of Jesus, there were some Jews, called the Essenes, who felt that the nation of Israel had faltered in their holiness and service to God. They separated themselves from the larger community and formed very strict sectarian communities like the Qumran community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes reinterpreted the language of chosen-ness to apply to those who are called out from society to live according to the law of God. They looked for God to send a new Moses, a heavenly Messiah who would be the teacher of righteousness and a true priest. Some of the Essenes referred to themselves as children of the light, while the rest of the world, including the corrupt priests in Jerusalem, were the children of darkness. The Essenes were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would reward his faithful followers and destroy the children of darkness. Their hopes were ultimately disappointed. It appears that the Essenes were wiped out by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem.

 

Though we cannot be certain, it seems likely that some of the early Christians had been Essenes or at least influenced by their theology. It is possible that John the Baptist himself was an Essene, but we’ll say more about John next week. For now, the point I want to make is that this dualism in John’s Gospel developed out of Judaism, particularly sectarian Judaism. It was not a Christian invention, but many times through the centuries, this dualism has caused problems for Christians and their neighbors. Once you divide the world neatly into children of light and children of darkness, it is tempting to treat all of your opponents as evil-doers who deserve punishment. Moral dualism fueled the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas. It fuels modern Jihads and affects American foreign policy in our day. We like to separate the world into an axis of evil and a coalition of the good.

Rebirth:          We do not have to go down that road to be faithful to John’s Gospel. Notice that the focus of this portion of the prologue is not on identifying those who did not receive the Word; it is on those who received him. The Prologue does not say, as Paul does in his letters, that those who have faith in Jesus are adopted as God’s children. It says that they are empowered to become God’s children – to be born of God. The Prologue is here foreshadowing one of the major themes of John’s Gospel, and we will return to this theme of being born of God in a few weeks when we discuss the story of Nicodemus. Those who place their faith in Jesus are born from above. They experience a spiritual birth that is unlike physical birth. The prologue emphasizes that this second birth is not the result of sexual desire or the union of a man and woman; it comes from God.

 

It is often overlooked in evangelical churches that the idea of being “born again” is a maternal image. God gives spiritual birth to the followers of Jesus. In many passages, John uses imagery from childbirth, especially blood and water, to illustrate this understanding of salvation. It is small wonder that theologians and mystics who base their spirituality on John’s Gospel are generally more open to the idea that God can be described in feminine terms. Zinzendorf was quite explicit in identifying rebirth with the Holy Spirit acting as mother.

 

We should also pay close attention to this idea that Christians are children of God. This language is not used to declare that Christians should be immature or irresponsible, as it is sometimes used in churches. Rather, the Prologue uses this language to stress the intimate connections between the soul and the Creator. The Logos makes it possible for people to experience the blessing of being a child of God, loved by God intimately. Salvation, for John, is not a simple legal transaction that removes the guilt of sin; it is a restoration of the intimacy of the soul and the creator who makes rebirth possible.

 

Word Became Flesh:             This brings us to verse 14, which is one of the most profound and controversial statements in Scripture. “And the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” It appears that the author of this hymn chose the word “tent” or “tabernacle” intentionally to connect the appearance of the Logos in the world with the tabernacle of the OT. In the days of Moses, the Israelites believed that God dwelled with them in the tabernacle or the tent of meeting. He was with them in their wanderings, and Moses was able to enter into his presence in the Tabernacle. The prologue describes the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. The Logos lived in the midst of the disciples in much the same way that God used to dwell in the tabernacle. This concept raises a host of theological questions that are best left for another day, but the main point of this passage is clear. The Logos dwell in the world of humans, just as God had once dwelled with the children of Israel.

 

The Prologue claims that the Logos, the rational aspect of God himself, built himself a body out of human flesh. This is a mind-boggling idea, and it was rejected by many people in the early years of Christianity. Many Jews believed it was blasphemy to say a mere man, even a spirit-filled prophet, was God in human flesh. Some Greeks saw this as mere superstition, a Jewish form of Greek myth where a god appears as human. Educated Greeks were offended that anyone would teach that what was spiritual and perfect could enter into corrupt flesh. The flesh was filled with lust and hunger.

 

The Gospel of John makes the bold, perhaps even foolish, claim that the Logos of God took on the limitations and needs of human flesh and blood; that God had walked this earth during the age of the Caesars. This assertion also connects the Prologue to the opening chapters of Genesis. You may remember in that story, God made a human body out of the mud and breathed his spirit into the human being. We are made in God’s image, but here in John, God fashions a human body for himself. The Logos makes himself in our image and dwells with his creatures so that we can be restored as the children of God.

 

The Gospel of John stresses that Jesus was unique among human beings in that he alone was the incarnation of the Logos. He alone was the fullness of God in human form. The whole point of the Gospel will be to convince of this idea: that Jesus is the revelation of God to humankind. The God whose echo we hear in creation; the God who was veiled in the OT; the God who spoke cryptic words through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. It is not until verse 17 that Jesus is named in this Gospel. John’s Gospel is not as concerned with the historical Jesus of Nazareth who was the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. This Gospel is about the Word of God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a theological point here that is very important to Moravians and other churches. The true Word of God is not the Bible – it is the Logos revealed in Jesus. God is revealed in many ways, including in Scripture, but the most complete revelation of God was Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

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In the Beginning was the Word

Prologue to the Gospel of John. Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on October 8, 2006Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It has been a week filled with disturbing news from the centers of government to rural communities. Our prayers are with our Amish brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania who faced such evil this week. Together we pray to the Prince of Peace who grants the peace that passes all understanding. We worry so much about foreign terrorists, but this week is a reminder that hatred and abuse live in our own neighborhoods and that weapons of mass murder are easy to obtain in America. Also this week at Home Church, we laid to rest one of our saints, John Hutchinson, who was a regular participant in this Bible class and a model of Christian devotion.             On a much lighter note, my daughter Madeleine turned seven this week. We had a party at our house on Saturday with lots of laughter. Before we turn our attention to the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, I have something that might amuse you. My daughter Sarah went to the Shakespeare Festival with her confirmation mentor this week. Something not included in the play were these recently discovered Shakespearean instructions for dancing the Hokey Pokey:O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.
 The Prologue as Poetry:        That was just a reminder that in poetry and prose, it is important that the style match the subject matter. It is good that the style of the prologue to John’s Gospel matches the dignity of its message. Let me read the opening lines in Greek so that you can get a sense of its poetic qualities. There is little doubt that the opening verses of the Gospel of John were originally a poem or even a hymn that was sung in the church founded by the Beloved Disciple. We do not know for sure when the hymn was written. We don’t even know if the hymn is older or more recent than the rest of the Gospel. It is possible that the evangelist chose or composed this hymn to express in summary form the themes of his book, but it is just as likely that a later editor, perhaps a student, added this beautiful hymn to his master’s gospel story.             One thing is clear to most readers of the opening hymn. Someone inserted statements in it that were not there originally. These parenthetical statements read like prose rather than poetry. They are explanatory insertions that deal with two main topics. One is the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist and the other the relationship of Jesus to the Jews. We will see that these are important themes throughout the Gospel, but the parentheses do detract from the beauty and meaning of the original hymn. I am going to read the prologue today without the insertions using the translation of Raymond Brown, who was the leading Johanine scholar in America in the 20th century. Beginning:      The Gospel of Mark opens with the phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, John’s Gospel begins with an echo of the grand opening of the book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Law, which we call the Pentateuch. “In the beginning God created…” You may recall from a year ago that the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible may be translated several ways. It could even be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” but the Greek of John’s Gospel is not ambiguous. It is referring to the beginning of time and creation itself. The Word was with God before the visible world was crafted by God.            Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke includes a genealogy that goes back to Adam, but John’s vision is much larger than simply the history of Jesus’ family or even the human race. His account of the life of Jesus begins with creation itself. Christ has cosmic significance for John, and his work of redemption involves the whole order of the universe. That is a bold claim and this verse would become a lynchpin of orthodox Christian doctrine. Without this prologue Christian teaching on Jesus might have developed in quite different ways.Logos:             One of the most difficult words to translate in the New Testament is the simple word “Word” here in the Prologue. The Greek word is logos. Nowhere else in Scripture is Jesus called the Logos or Word of God, except in the Book of Revelation. Even in the Gospel of John, this phrase is not used except for the Prologue. Even so, the logos would become one of the most important ways in which the early church understood Jesus.             It is a very important word, but there is no consensus on how to translate the logos. Normally it is simply translated as “word,” which is how Jewish scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament idea of the ‘word of God’ into Greek. In Greek, the Old Testament prophets spoke the logos of God. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, and he may have used logos in the sense of the “Word of the Lord” as spoken by the biblical prophets. That appears to be the way Christ is seen in as the Word in Revelation. If this in the case, the prologue of John becomes a little more manageable. Jesus is simply a divine profit doing God’s will on earth.            But there are reasons to suspect that the author of the Gospel meant more than this by using the word logos. The logos here is seen as an important part of the work of God in creation. It is likely the author had in mind the idea of the logos as rational speech and thought from Greek philosophy. It is the “word” by which we understand the universe in which we live. The English word “logic” is based on the Greek word logos. Logos also supplies the root of all those “ologies” that you see in college catalogs: Psychology, Sociology, Geology, Pathology. We use “ology” to mean “the study of” something, but that means that we use words to make sense of something. For the Greeks, science and philosophy rely on the logos.            According to some schools of Greek philosophy, the cosmos was formed through the logos. In this sense, logos means the natural order of the universe. The reason that the ancient scientists could calculate the circumference of the Earth and predict future eclipses was because they believed that the universe makes sense. It works by cosmic laws of order. The universe is logical, they said, because it was formed by the Logos. We do not know if the author of John meant to say that the rational order of the universe was in the beginning with God, but the early readers of this Gospel certainly read it that way. In the beginning was the rationality of God. This became an important part of Christian theology.Sophia:            There is a way to bring together the Greek understanding of the logos and the Hebrew idea of the creative and prophetic word of God, and that is the idea of divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22-36 we have a poem to divine wisdom, which in Greek was called Sophia. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” The poem goes on to say that Sophia was with God as he crafted each part of the earth and skies. The parallels between Proverbs 8 and John 1 have been noted since the 3rd century, and there have been those who have read John 1 as saying, “In the beginning was Wisdom.” Since Sophia is a feminine word in Greek, in recent years feminist theologians have read the Prologue as saying, “In the beginning was Sophia.” But that is probably straying too far from the actual text. The author could have said that quite easily in Greek, but he chose to say logos. So we are left with the rich and stimulating ambiguity of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.” The key point is that this was God’s creative word: the word that spoke the worlds into being in Genesis.The Word was God:               For more than seventeen hundred years scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of logos, but that is only the beginning of the issues related to the Prologue. This hymn to Christ goes on to say that the Word was “with God” and “was God.” It seems so simple, but each of those phrases has all sorts of translation difficulties, most of which are too complicated for a Sunday morning. Part of the problem is the preposition, which originally meant to approach something or to face something. By John’s time, it often meant to accompany someone in the sense of going with someone. The early commentators on John’s gospel were not sure how to interpret this little phrase. Did it mean that the Word accompanied God in the act of creation? Or did it mean that the Word contemplated and worshiped God as he created? Does it refer to an eternal relationship between God and the Word? One thing we can determine is that the relationship of the Word and God was there before humans were created. The Word is in a special relationship to God.Was God:       That alone is a mind-expanding concept for the opening verse of the story of Jesus, but the Prologue goes further. “And the Word was God.” This has even more difficulties in translation because the Greek word for God here, theos, does not have a definite article. Some people have translated this as “The Word was a god,” which raises all kinds of difficulties, and is unlikely to say the least. Some have rendered this verse as “The Word was divine” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1,, 5), but the author of John could have said that directly. The intention of the phrase does seem to be that the Word was what God is. Curiously, the phrase actually places the word God first. Creation:        In saying that the Word was God, this does not mean that the Word is no longer God or that the Word no longer exists. It is saying that the divine nature of the Word was from the very beginning. Part of the artistry of this hymn is that it builds like a staircase, perhaps a spiral staircase, so that the repetition of key ideas adds to the overall effect rather than distracting from it. The role of the Word in creation is clarified in verse 3. “All things came into being through him.” If the Word was God from the beginning, then it makes sense that the Word was part of God’s creative activity in the beginning.             There are parallels to the prologue of John in other hymns to Christ in the New Testament. The most famous are found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. These hymns all address a common theme. Christ is the true image of God who existed from the beginning and who came to earth in human form. Like John’s prologue, Colossians speaks of all things being made through Christ. In this light, it is particularly interesting that one of the earliest references to Christianity from a non-Christian source is a letter from Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 117 AD. He refers to people who sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” There is also a collection of 2nd century Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon that express similar themes. In recent years it has become popular to say that the church proclaimed Jesus as divine in the 4th century, but the truth is that by the end of the 1st century the followers of Jesus viewed him as the Word of God in human flesh. Trinity:            From 200 AD to 500 AD the church had many battles over how to express the divinity of Christ. We don’t need to go into all of those fights this morning, but it is important to recognize that the fights concerned how Christ was divine, not whether he was divine. Over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and approved by church councils. The doctrine attempts to clarify the relationship and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. According to orthodox teaching, all three are God yet each is distinct. For the most part theologians and worshipers alike have viewed the Father as the Creator and the Son as the Redeemer, but the Gospel of John was written before the great councils. It was an important resource for the theologians of the Church, but John’s gospel does not separate the work of the Father and Son. For those accustomed to the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, it is a bit of a shock to read the Prologue of John where the Word is the Creator.             We’ll keep coming back to the question of the relationship of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel, but the important point for today is that the all things were created through the Word of God. It might interest Moravians to learn that for about 100 years, Moravian liturgies, catechisms, and hymns consistently held to the perspective of John’s Gospel that Christ was the Creator as well as the Redeemer. Jesus:             It is important for us to recognize, however, that the Gospel of John does not proclaim that Jesus was the Creator. It was the Word that was with God and was God, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. When we refer to the “pre-existent” Christ, we are speaking of twin aspects of the Son of God. One is that the Word or the Son or the Christ, whatever term you prefer, existed prior to the person Jesus who was born on a specific day during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Word or Son became incarnate in Jesus, but the incarnation marked a new phase of history. Thus, we should not look for Jesus in the Old Testament, but Christians may see traces of the Son of God in the ancient Scriptures.Life:    This is a lot of theology in just three verses of an ancient hymn, and we should not push things too far. This is the language of praise and worship, not philosophy or science, and the following verses give insight into why we should praise the Word. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This will be one of the central themes of the entire Gospel; in fact, this is the good news itself. The Word of God is a life-giving word. The parallel with the first chapter of Genesis become important here. Creation is life and light. The work of Jesus described in the rest of the Gospel will be the work of restoring creation and bringing light and truth to the world. Forms of Christianity that promote death and destruction are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. Forms of Christianity that promote ignorance and small-mindedness are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. The mission of the church is to bring light to the world, not darkness, despair, or destruction.Darkness:       There is opposition to this mission, though. The Gospel of John will address the historical reality that Jesus of Nazareth was murdered by the Roman Empire with the complicity of the high priests in Jerusalem. This is alluded to in a beautiful piece of poetry in the Prologue. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” There is a sense of cosmic struggle here between the forces of light, life, and creation and the force of darkness and non-existence. The nature of that struggle varies according to translation. This verse could mean that the darkness did not comprehend or grasp the meaning of the light. It could mean that the darkness did not receive or accept the light. Or that the darkness could not overcome or overpower the light.               I think it is likely that all of these are meant. Ignorance, fear, and evil are often combined and are most clearly recognized in their unthinking opposition to goodness. The hopeful aspect of the Gospel is that the light continues to shine even in a world where nations drop bombs on weddings and men kill children to silence their own demons. 

John, Intro part 2

Introduction to John, Part 2

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on October 1, 2006 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week. It was a busy one for me. In addition to the Steelman Lectures and Thompson Lectures, I was in Florida yesterday doing a program on Moravian missions for our churches down there, so forgive me if I’m a bit tired this morning. I am also preaching and serving communion at Fries Memorial Church immediately following this lesson. Since some of the people at Fries listen to me on the radio, I had to write a separate sermon for this morning! I haven’t seen as much of my family as I would like in recent days, but my wife and daughters do have a tradition when I travel. They paint their toes and eat chocolate.

Aramaic Gospel:        The Gospel of John was written in Greek, but scholars have long speculated that there may have been an original version of the gospel that was written in Aramaic. I took a course in advanced Greek and biblical interpretation when I was at Moravian Seminary with just one other student. She won the language prize for both Greek and Hebrew, and was simply brilliant. She kept recognizing surprising things in John’s Gospel that pointed to Hebrew or at least Aramaic grammar. I could not see them, but I’ve since learned that other scholars have. It is similar to reading something written by an Asian-American that leaves out the word “the” because Chinese doesn’t have a definite article. Greek was probably not the first language of the author.

            Aramaic was the common language in the ancient Near East, and it is similar to Hebrew. There is little doubt that Jesus and the original disciples all spoke Aramaic; therefore we would expect early Christian writings to have been in that language. We need to remember, though, that most people in the ancient world did not read and write. Scribes were seen almost like priests because they knew the sacred art of transferring sounds to papyrus. Since Greek was the dominant language for business and government, it was more likely for things to be written in Greek than Aramaic. It is likely that a person who spoke Aramaic would want his or her words written down in Greek, just as a person who speaks Meskito in Honduras might have someone write what he or she says down in Spanish.

Poetry:            In the 1920s a scholar named C. F. Burney proposed that the Gospel of John reads better if it is put back into Aramaic. He believed that the Greek mistranslated many words and ideas. He proposed that the Gospel of John was originally Aramaic poetry, which would have been much easier to remember in oral transmission. (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1, CXXXIII) As we go through the gospel, we will see many passages that do indeed seem more like poetry than prose. One reason we read John at solemn occasions, such as funerals, is because it is such a poetic and dignified book. As we saw with the Book of Genesis, this style may indicate that these passages were originally part of worship. They are liturgical pieces, and some may have been hymns. We will also see that the difficulty with this exalted style is that it can become very monotonous in places. John’s Gospel does not have a lot of narrative. If it were a play, there would be a lot of monologues and voice-over narrations. It is important to remember that the Gospel of John was not written for a general audience. It was written specifically for a worshiping community.

Anti-Jewishness of John:        I mentioned last week that John’s Gospel is very Jewish even though many of the sayings in it are openly hostile to Judaism. These two facts are not contradictory. Many of know from personal experience that we say the harshest things about the people we are closest to. One of the realities of racism in America, for instance, is that people tend to be most hostile to those who live near by. Thus, racism in the South and certain urban areas tends to be focused on African-Americans. In other parts of the country, racism focuses on Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, or Jews.  In the first century, Jews and Samaritans were closely related people who hated each other and wrote very harsh things about each other. Some of that ancient racial prejudice colors the Gospel of John, as we shall see.

            Not only are people hostile to their neighbors, they are particularly harsh toward a group that they have voluntarily left or been kicked out of. In our day, a book on the Mormons or Masons written by someone who left the group is rarely objective because the author is trying to justify why he or she left. In many cases the more zealous a person had been when they were part of the group, the more bitter is their attack on the group later. We can see this type of unfair hostility in the Gospel of Matthew’s portrayal of Pharisees as hypocrites, one and all. John’s Gospel goes further and rejects the Jews entirely.

            We will see many places where John uses the word “Jews” to describe the enemies of Jesus. It is not the chief priests and Sadducees who hand Jesus over to the Romans in John. It is the Jews. It is not the Pharisees who argue with Jesus; it is the Jews. If the only gospel you had was the Gospel of John, you could easily make the mistake of thinking that the disciples of Jesus were not Jews. The book distinguishes between the followers of Jesus, such as Mary and Martha, and “the Jews” who were with them in the house. In John, Jesus refers to the Torah as “your law,” as if he was not Jewish.

            The tendency in John to identify the Jews with unbelief played an important and tragic role in the development of European anti-Semitism. Passages from John’s gospel were woven into the Holy Week liturgies of the Greek and Roman churches so that each year the Jews were singled out as the killers of Christ. Sometimes people left the sanctuary on Good Friday and attacked the Jewish part of the city. Building on the Gospel of John, Jews were identified with Satan in Christian preaching and art. This tendency reached its climax in the passion plays of the Middle Ages which were the basis for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.  As we read John’s Gospel, we must keep in mind that this book has contributed to the murder of many people through the centuries. This was obviously not the intention of the author, but we cannot ignore the consequences of the anti-Jewish statements in John. We need to read with open eyes.

            In the other gospels we meet a number of Jewish sects, and it is clear that they responded to Jesus’ teaching in different ways. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, most of these Jewish sects disappeared. John was writing for an audience for whom the Sadducees and Essenes were as important as the Whigs or Tories are to us. So he made no distinctions among the historical opponents of Jesus the way the other Gospels and Paul, do. It is not the Sadducees who hand him over to the Romans, for instance, it is simply the Jews. John uses the term “the Jews” 70 times, while the other gospels use it only five or six times each. For the most part, in John, the term “the Jews” has become “almost a technical term for the religious authorities, particularly those in Jerusalem, who are hostile to Jesus.” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1, LXXI) In fact, John uses the word Jew the way a Samaritan would, as a term to describe enemies.

Jewishness of John:               Keep in mind that some of the hostility toward Judaism in John is because it is a Jewish book written by a Jew for a community that included many Jews and Samaritans. It may seem less evident to you that John’s Gospel is more Jewish than Matthew’s Gospel, but the evidence is there. John quotes the Old Testament less than Matthew, but John’s Gospel draws extensively on the stories and figures of the Old Testament. Jesus is directly and positively compared to Old Testament figures, such as Abraham, Moses, and the Servant of Isaiah.

            Jesus also participates in a variety of Jewish rituals, such as the Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles and the Sabbath. Unlike Luke, John appears to know what these rituals were actually like. Luke only knows Jewish ritual, like purification, from the Old Testament and not from personal experience. John is actually an important source for understanding Jewish worship prior to the destruction of the Temple. Passover is particularly important to John since it provides the way of interpreting the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are three Passover festivals in John rather than just one as in the other gospels. Plus, Jesus visits the Temple and synagogue more often in John than the other Gospels. We will see that much of Jesus ministry is either part of Jewish festivals or in the shadow of the Temple.

Expulsion from the synagogue:         If John’s Gospel is so Jewish, then why is it so hostile to the Jews?  One clue to answering this puzzle is that throughout the Gospel mention is made of the followers of Jesus being “thrown out of the synagogue,” or we might say excommunicated from the Jewish community of faith. The rabbis in John’s Gospel, for instance, threaten to expel a man that Jesus healed. Jesus often warned his followers that the Jews would cast them out of the synagogue, which we don’t see in the other Gospels. Outside of John’s Gospel there is no indication that the followers of Jesus were threatened with expulsion from the synagogue before Jesus was crucified.

            It was after the death and resurrection of Jesus that the followers of Jesus were removed from the life of the Jewish community. We see some of this history in the life of Paul, who was persecuted by Jews and pagans during his career. Even so, Paul was still able to travel from city to city preaching about Jesus in the synagogues. Paul was Jewish and Christian, and his biggest arguments were with other Jewish Christians. The situation was different by the time that John wrote his Gospel. In the decades following the destruction of the Temple the leaders of the Pharisees went about the long and complicated task of rebuilding the nation as a spiritual people bound together by the covenant with Abraham. The synagogue became the focal point of religion and community life. The leaders tried to unify the people as the chosen people who were living without the Promised Land, without the Davidic Monarchy, and without the Temple in Jerusalem. They created a new Jewish identity around the Torah and the synagogue.

            In doing so, the rabbis rejected Jewish dissidents. This was especially true of the Christians. Around 85 AD the men who were recreating Judaism out of the ashes of the Jewish War inserted a Benediction Against the Heretics. It is more a ritual curse than a benediction, and its purpose was to purify the community against false belief and subversive ideas. Organizations do this in times of crisis. Just think of how America responds to dissent in time of war. The Benediction reads in part “Let the Nazarenes and the heretics be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous.” (Gail O’Day, John, 658)  Scholars today believe that the Gospel of John was written by and for people who had been officially excommunicated from the synagogue and cursed, perhaps by members of their own family. The Christians were the minority who felt threatened. We cannot expect such people to be objective in their attitudes. We do not have to adopt their attitudes, though.

Themes of John:        Before we launch into detailed study of John, let’s highlight some of the themes. One of the most important relates directly to this conflict between John’s community and the Jewish synagogue. John’s Gospel attempts to prove that Jesus was the Jewish messiah who was rejected by his people. In fact, John is the only evangelist to use the word messias or Messiah, which means “anointed one.” The others use the Greek word christos which also means anointed. There are many indications that some of John’s audience did not know Aramaic or understand Jewish rituals. The Gospel is written for them so that they will understand the connection of Jesus to the Old Testament. It is also written to confirm their faith in Jesus as the Messiah despite the opposition from the synagogue. We have this kind of literature today. One group writes something to convince you that your beliefs or wrong, and your group writes something in response to counter what the opponents said. Think of John’s Gospel as being like something written to keep Democrats as Democrat rather than switching parties. Much of the Gospel is answering specific Jewish objections to the claim that Jesus was the Messiah who was raised from the dead and who sits at the right hand of God.

            Another major theme of the Gospel is that Jesus was truly a human being. These portions of the gospel were not written to counter Jewish attacks on the faith of the church but to counter ideas that were emerging within the church from pagan converts to Christianity. We know from the non-canonical Gospels that I mentioned last week that many early Christians believed that Jesus was a divine savior sent from heaven. They did not believe that such a divine savior could suffer and die. They viewed Jesus more like an angel than like a man. In response to such ideas, John’s Gospel stresses the humanness of Jesus as well as his divinity. We see this same theme in the Letters of John.

Eschatology:               The most important theme of the Gospel of John is the reason we continue to value it today. It is a book that is intended to strengthen faith, love, and hope among the followers of Jesus who are living in a difficult and dangerous world. For the most part, we can leave aside the polemical aspects of the book, which are expressions of a particular historical period, and instead focus on the inner message of the Gospel. Jesus Christ is the divine agent of God who lived as a human being, bringing healing and hope to all who recognize him.

            An important word in Christian theology is eschatology. It means the doctrine of the Last Things, normally the doctrine of the End Times. Eschatology covers everything from the Second Coming to the afterlife. In the New Testament we see several different types of eschatology. There is an apocalyptic eschatology, such as we see in Revelation. This is the one that is popular on newsstands today: the end is coming soon and it will be violent. There is also a delayed eschatology that focused less on the sudden end of history and more on the fate of the individual after death. This type of eschatology says that we all face a day of judgment, but we do so when we die. This type of eschatology is more interested in heaven than in earth. We also see this in the New Testament.

            There are echoes of these two types of eschatology in John’s Gospel, but the most important theme in the Gospel is what is sometimes called realized eschatology. This means that the promises of the end time are being experienced now. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see, eternal life is not for the future; it begins now. Jesus brings in the kingdom of God during his lifetime, not in the future. His presence brings healing and new vision. His followers experience rebirth and live in the foretaste of heaven. His spirit remains with them, and through his spirit they learn to love. We will see that this Gospel has two main parts: The Book of Signs, which includes 7 symbolic miracles of Jesus, and the Book of Glory, which focuses on his last days with his disciples.

            One last point to make about John before we launch into the first chapter next week; more than any other Gospel John is written from the perspective of the resurrection. John’s church believed strongly that Jesus was still alive and that his spirit was still guiding the church.

The Gospel of John

Introduction to the Gospel of John.

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on September 24, 2006

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We have the pleasure of having Dr. Marjorie Suchocki, one of America’s more famous theologians, in our pulpit this morning. This evening we have Dr. John Cobb, who has been the leading voice for process theology and inter-religious dialog for over half a century. This is one of the benefits of our Comenius Scholar program with Wake Forest Divinity School.

John’s Gospel:           With such theological luminaries in town, it is with a certain caution that I invite you to join me in an exploration of the Gospel of John this year. We will slowly and thoughtfully examine this very theological book in the Bible. Christians today are divided over John’s Gospel. For many people it is the center of the Scripture, the one book most necessary for Christians to read and understand because it is the gospel that most clearly displays Jesus as fully divine. Other people find it a very difficult and confusing book that distracts from the compelling picture of Jesus found in the other three gospels. You may be comforted to know that there were similar debates about John’s gospel in early Christianity. One reason why John is the Fourth Gospel is to make sure people read the other three first.

            We won’t be able to answer all of the questions that swirl around this Fourth Gospel, but I think that we can shed some light on the book. I hope that you will find deeper insights about faith and life as we ponder the mysteries of salvation with John. We will draw upon some of the extensive research into John’s Gospel that was conducted in the 20th century, which should open some of the doors that you may have found locked when you’ve read the Gospel on your own.

Gospel:           Before going too deeply into John’s Gospel, we should first ponder the question of what a Gospel actually is. The word Gospel is the old English translation of the Greek work evangelion. Evangelion means “good news,” or can mean good words or even good spell. During the 16th century the Protestant reformers called themselves Evangelicals because they were reclaiming the Good News of the New Testament from centuries of Catholic tradition. Today, an Evangelical is someone who believes that salvation depends on a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior. When I refer to John the Evangelist, I am not talking about a television preacher talking about heaven and hell. I’m referring to the author of John’s Gospel, the person who wrote the “Good News” of Jesus Christ.

            A Gospel is a particular type of literature. It is based on the genre of the Greek biography, but its subject is Jesus. John’s Gospel is very honest in that it tells us that the book was written for a very specific purpose. John 20:30-31 states, “Now Jesus did many other sings that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” A gospel is not an objective biography, such as we would expect from a modern history like David McCullough; it is a story intended to persuade you that Jesus is the Messiah. The evangelists did not spend years in the archives sifting through records and letters of the disciples trying to recreate the past as it actually was. They told the story that they knew and interpreted it for their audience. John’s Gospel originated in the preaching of the Good News of Jesus in weekly worship.

Other Gospels:           There are four books in the New Testament that are called Gospels. They were originally anonymous, but ancient tradition named the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Scholars called these Gospels canonical because they are part of the New Testament canon, or the authoritative books of the Christian church. There were many other gospels written in the first four centuries of the Christian era that were not approved by the church for use in worship or teaching. Many of these other gospels were discovered in a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947 and have been published in English translation.

            The reason I am mentioning these other gospels is to let you know that the early church had to discern what writings were sacred scripture and which were not. The bishops used many criteria to choose among books. The most important was that it expressed the teachings of the apostles. They tried to trace every book back to one of the original apostles, but it was not sufficient for a book to claim apostolic authorship. There was a Gospel of Peter, for instance, that was rejected, and few bishops believed that Thomas wrote the Gospel that bore his name. It was the content of the books that was important, not what it said on the title page.

            In the 19th century biblical scholars speculated that John’s Gospel had close affinities with some of the rejected gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas. We will see that Jesus in John is different than the Jesus of the other canonical gospels, but research into the Nag Hammadi library has shown that John is more like the Gospel of Luke than it is any of the non-canonical gospels. Despite the fact that John’s Gospel is so different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the early church recognized it as an authentic, apostolic expression of faith.

The Synoptic Problem:          I have mentioned several times that John is different from the other three New Testament gospels. Matthew and Luke were both based on the oldest gospel, Mark. In fact, over 90% of the verses of Mark’s gospel are found in Matthew and Luke Thus it is not surprising that all three gospels are very similar. They use the same basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: baptism, temptation, ministry in Galilee, transfiguration, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the Temple, Last Supper, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Matthew and Luke include a lot of material, especially parables, that is not found in Mark, but for the most part these three gospels have a similar perspective. That is why they are called Synoptic, which means to look together.

            Even a casual reader of John’s Gospel notices that it is quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. Rather than teaching in parables Jesus speaks in very long discourses, which sometimes do not seem to fit the context of the story. There are only seven miracle stories in John, fewer than the other gospels, and they are called signs. Each of the seven is important and has symbolic meaning. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus repeatedly tells people not to tell others that he is the Messiah, but in John’s gospel, Jesus is upset that people do not recognize him as the Messiah.

            On closer reading, we will see other significant differences. John’s Gospel has no birth narrative, nor does it mention that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. The gospel begins with a very theological prologue that connects the story of Jesus to the story of creation. There is no narrative of Jesus’ baptism; instead John the Baptist tells his disciples about baptizing Jesus. Most of the gospel takes place in Judea, especially Jerusalem, rather than Galilee, like the other gospels. Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of his ministry rather than the end, and there is no transfiguration in John. More surprising, perhaps, is that Jesus does not institute Holy Communion during the Last Supper; instead he washes his disciples’ feet. Most disturbing for many people is that Jesus died on a different day in John’s Gospel than he did in the Synoptic Gospels. All agree that it was a Friday, but the date is different.

            An even more careful reading shows that some of the twelve disciples in John’s gospel have different names, such as Nathaniel, and women play a greater role than any gospel other than Luke. The first person to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah in John’s Gospel is a woman, and the first person to see him resurrected is a woman. We’ll look at these things in detail, but for now it is important to recognize just how different John is from the other three gospels in the canon. Our goal in this study is not to reconstruct the biography of the historical Jesus of Nazareth using the Gospel of John; it is to explore the meaning of John’s Gospel and what it tells us about faith and life.

            Many scholars, particularly the Jesus Seminar, dismiss John’s Gospel as unhistorical, but at times it is more accurate than the other gospels. The descriptions of places in Jerusalem and Judea are very accurate and reflect first-hand knowledge of Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed the city. John’s Gospel is also more accurate in its presentation of Jewish rituals than any other Gospel, and it displays a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, especially as it was used in synagogue worship. It is possible that John gives information about the historical Jesus not found in other sources.

Authorship:                 One of the big debates in biblical studies has been the question of who wrote John’s gospel. Ancient tradition identified the author as the disciple John, who was the son of Zebedee. This John appears prominently in the other gospels, and is often associated with Peter and Andrew, but he doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. Instead there is disciple identified as “the one whom Jesus loved.” This Beloved Disciple was very close to Jesus in a way that Peter was not. We will see that there is strong evidence that this Beloved Disciple was the preacher and teacher whose lessons formed the basis for the original version of the Gospel. By the end of the 2nd century, bishops identified this Beloved Disciple with the disciple John, and they called this book the Gospel according to John. This identification was rejected by modern biblical scholars who believed that the gospel showed a degree of theological development and sophistication beyond the capacity of a fisherman. A number of other figures were proposed as the author, but none of the proposals was convincing. Though most scholars prefer to leave John’s Gospel anonymous, others, like Raymond Brown, have argued that it makes the most sense to trust the tradition and declare that John the disciple of Jesus was the author.

Dating:            The next big question is when John was written. A fragment of John’s gospel found in Egypt was dated to the early 2nd century. This indicates that John’s Gospel was known in Egypt by at least 110 AD, and perhaps earlier. Some of the most important church theologians of the 2nd century were familiar with the gospel and considered it sacred Scripture. Some people declared heretics used the gospel as well. Around 175 AD the Christian scholar Tatian used John’s Gospel along with the other three in composing his harmony of the gospels. Though this harmony, the Diatesseron, was rejected by the church, it is an indication that 2nd century theologians recognized John as an important source for the life of Jesus. The scholarly consensus today is that John’s Gospel was written no later than 100 AD, about the same time as Matthew and Luke.

            There is also general scholarly consensus that the final version of the Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, it was the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent expulsion of Christians from the synagogues that probably prompted the writing of the Gospel. But we’ll discuss the Temple in a later lesson. For now, keep in mind that the Temple was the symbolic center of the Jewish people scattered throughout the world. Think of it like the White House, Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell rolled into one as the symbol of the nation. King Herod, who was king when Jesus was born, spent a fortune rebuilding the Temple. Though the project was never finished, it was a magnificent building that was intended to show the world how Great Herod was.

            The Romans recognized the importance of the Temple and generally respected the sacred status of the Temple. But in 66 AD the Jews in Judea rebelled against Rome. The headquarters of the rebellion was the Temple, and many Jews around the Empire supported the rebels. The future emperor Vespasian systematically and brutally suppressed the revolt. He let his son Titus besiege the city of Jerusalem, and in 70 AD Titus captured the city, killing thousands of inhabitants. He had the walls of the city torn down and he destroyed the Temple so completely that archaeologists do not know for sure where it was. The predictions of the destruction of the Temple in the New Testament were probably written after the fact. Not one stone was left on another.

            This was the greatest blow to Judaism since the Babylonian Exile, and it permanently shaped the nature of Judaism. The Pharisees were the only Jewish sect to survive the disaster and they defined Judaism since the priesthood was no longer needed. The old temple worship was transformed into synagogue worship, and the canon of Scripture was determined. Judaism as we know it was being defined at the same time that the Christian church was being organized.

            Not surprisingly, some of the Jewish leaders blamed the Christians for the disaster. The Christians had blasphemed by following Jesus as the Messiah. Paul the Apostate had declared that the Temple and the Torah were unnecessary since Christ was the perfect sacrifice. As the Jewish leaders defined the boundaries of Judaism more strictly in their struggle to survive in a hostile empire, they began to excommunicate Christians from the synagogue.

            Around 85 or 90 AD, a Benediction Against the Heretics was introduced into Jewish worship. We will discuss this again later when we deal with the anti-Jewishness of John’s Gospel. For now, I will just say that it is odd that this is called a benediction since it is really a malediction. Most scholars are convinced that the author of John’s Gospel was probably Jewish and that his readers had probably been excommunicated from the synagogue and ritually cursed. Hence, it is likely that the Gospel was written around 90 AD by a Jewish follower of Jesus. New week we will discuss the Jewishness of this most anti-Jewish gospel.

The Gospel of John

Along with the commentary on Genesis, I will be posting my lessons on the Gospel of John. We are nearing the end of our study on John in the Adult Bible Class and will soon be looking at the book of Ruth. To hear the lectures live, tune in to WSJS AM 600.

AGAPE Conference

Regretfully, the registrations for the conference Sitting Together at God’s Table were so low we decided the cancel the event, including the lecture by Michael Shuman.

On the positive side, Tony Campolo will be the speaker for Worship in Wait on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.