Gospel of John: Christ’s return is now

Gospel of John: Christ’s return is now

 

 

This post covers a number of different aspects of John’s gospel.  I especially like what is called John’s realized eschatology, his theory of the end time.  We should not and need not wait for Advent.  It appeared when Christ appeared.  If we have faith in Christ and follow his commandments then we have already been saved.  I’ll cover some other topics as well

Almost everyone agrees that John is unique among the gospels.  While the other three gospels indirectly refer to each other or a common source, often using almost identical language, John doesn’t.  For this reason, the gospels are often divided into the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and John.  The opening of John’s gospel resembles none of the other gospels.  Nor does John’s Jesus speak in parables.  There are other differences.

John’s gospel was written no later than 90 AD, and possibly a decade or two before.  It is sometimes argued that the apostle John was the author, but while this is possible (Christ was crucified around 30 AD), the main argument against it is that there is an intellectual complexity to John that seems unlikely in a fisherman with no formal education, even if he had learned to read and write Greek.  John’s Greek is simple, but his story is not.

It is also argued that the Gospel was written in layers, often called form criticism.  It’s probably true, but I’m not going to go into that. 

God’s relationship with Jesus

God is identical with Jesus, but Jesus stands in a relationship to God.  In which case they can’t be identical.  I think this summarizes chapter 1, verses 1-14 pretty well.  And it’s confusing. 

In the beginning (en arche) was the word (Logos), and the word was with (pros) God (Theon), and God (Theon) was the word (Logos).  He was with God in the beginning. vs 1-2

Some people seem to believe that the word (Logos) was separate from God.  But pros (πρὸς) can be translated as “because,” or “according,” so that the first verse could be translated as “the word was according to God.”  This would be an unconventional translation, but it is worth remembering how much depends on translation from the ancient Greek.

The tough question is Jesus’ relationship to God.  Both his unity with God and his relationship with God (there is no relationship without difference) are asserted in the same verse. 

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. v. 18

I like Carson’s explication.

In the beginning God expressed himself . . . And that Self-Expression, God’s own Word (Logos), identified with God yet distinguishable from him, has now become flesh, the culmination of the prophetic hope. (Carson, p 96)

As in Genesis, where everything that came into being because of God’s word, so in John. 

High and low Christology

The Gospel of John is generally seen as a work of “high Christology,” which means one in which the similarity, sometimes the virtual identity, of Jesus and God is emphasized.  Certainly that is present in chapter 1 as Carson’s explication reveals. 

Less emphasized is the “low Christology,” which means the closeness of Jesus to all that is human.  One sees this most clearly in Mark’s gospel, yet, it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ soul is troubled at the prospect of the cross (12:27), his spirit is distressed at the prospect of betrayal (13:21), and Jesus is thirsty on the cross (19:28).  Together the high and low Christology seem a full and fair representation of Christian thought.

Realized eschatology

Eschatology refers to the end times, when Christ makes his reappearance.  Realized eschatology, the teaching of John’s Gospel, argues that Christ’s appearance has already happened (Kruse, pp 41-43).  Believers already have eternal life (3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:47, 54), have passed from death to life (5:24), have received the promised Spirit (7:39; 14:16–18, 26; 16:13), and have escaped condemnation/judgment (3:18; 5:24).

Rudolf Bultmann, who I wrote about a couple of posts ago, puts it this way. 

This conclusion [the future is now] is drawn most radically by John, who eliminates apocalyptic eschatology altogether. The judgment of the world is not a cosmic event that is still to happen but is the fact that Jesus has come into the world and issued the call to faith (John 3:19; 9:39; 12:31).  (p19)

Add to Bultmann’s list 12:32.  In a way it’s simple.  The Book of Revelation (which some mistakenly attribute to John) is a dream, or nightmare.  Advent is now.

Faith sees the birth of Jesus as the advent of the eschatological Lord, who comes to judge the living and the dead. (Congdon, p 148)

Advent is not something to anticipate, but something to live up to.  The first coming is already the second coming, though history will have its end.

To be sure, there are traces of futurist eschatology.  For example, Jesus refers to the “last day,” when all who believe in him will rise up. (6:39–40)  The concept isn’t absent, just undeveloped in comparison to the thesis that Advent is now.

The Holy Spirit

John develops the doctrine of the Holy Spirit more thoroughly than the other three gospels.  John calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete (παράκλητος), or companion and counselor.  The other gospels generally call the Holy Spirit pneuma, or breath, the usual translation of spirit.  John’s term is more down to earth.  The Holy Spirit is the living spirit of Christ, which remains to guide his followers (you and me) after Jesus left.  John (14:16) quotes Jesus as saying “another Paraclete” will come to help his disciples after his departure.  The only conclusion to be drawn is that Christ is the first Paraclete.  Since then the Paraclete is the presence of Jesus in his absence (14:26). (Brown)

Emphasizing the Holy Spirit enables John to claim that the end of the age is now, for Christ will always be with us, guiding those who are receptive to his silent voice.  John doesn’t develop the doctrine of the trinity.  That comes later.  But he puts all the pieces in their place: God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit or companion.  John isn’t the first to put them together; but he is the first to make the Holy Spirit a developed stand-in for Christ.    

A new commandment

The synoptic gospels refer to loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). This is often referred to as the Great Commandment.  John, as usual, is different.  Says Jesus,

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (12:34-35)

The other 3 gospels say love others as you love yourself.  John says love others as Christ has loved you.  Not only does this set the bar infinitely higher, but it’s impossible.  Nevertheless, it remains the goal.  Kruse comments wisely,

Knowing the truth about Jesus is vital, but so also is believers’ love for one another. This love is not sentimental, but real self-sacrificing love by which they place other believers’ needs above their own.  Lovelessness among believers nullifies their witness to the world, and reveals them as hypocrites. (p 289)

This perfects the Book of John.  I’m all for high Christology, but in the end we are measured by how we love each other. 

John is the most simply written but intellectually ambitious of the four gospels.  But in the end, intellectual ambition falls before this simple statement.  Love one another with a self-sacrificing love, as I have loved you.  It’s not really as simple as that.  Or is it? 

References

Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, v. 2.  Anchor Bible, 1970.

Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, trans. Ogden.  Fortress Press, 1984.

A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology.  Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

Colin G. Kruse, John.  Tyndale, Inter Varsity Press, 2003.

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is  myth?  Ask Rudolf Bultmann.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament?  One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days?  No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4).  The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago.  Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places.  Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel.  Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.  

What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?  (p 4)

What’s kerygma

Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels.  Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world.  For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection.  The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?

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Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

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What’s so great about faith?

What’s so great about faith?  It depends on what you mean.  Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,”  in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven.  Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.

Real faith is given by the grace of God.  We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it.  Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.

But how do I know if I have received grace?

There are two answers.  If you have to ask, you haven’t.  If you think you have received grace, you haven’t.  Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace.  In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for.  What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?

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Blogging about God has created a problem for me

Blogging about God has created a problem for me.  I realize that I pray to an interventionist God while I believe in a distant God.  Since I blog about God to help me figure out what I believe, this is good.  It just doesn’t bring me peace.

Most of my posts are about what other people believe about God.  Since they are smarter than I am that seems a good start.  None seem to believe in God quite like I do, but that’s OK too.   

I believe in a creator God, one who has stepped back from his handiwork.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Philosophers ask this question, and they are serious.  People, zebras, bugs, the earth, the cosmos: everything there is has no need to exist.  It just does, and I can see no other ultimate answer than God.  Alfred North Whitehead believed something like this.    

This works on a less cosmic level as well.  Every night I thank God for the gift of my life that day, and for the wonder and beauty that exists in this world.  I pray for those I love and care about.  And I pray for desperate, afflicted people, such as the Rohingya Muslims.  That’s about it. 

I try not to pray for myself.  That seems too much like asking God for a bicycle for Christmas.  But, what would I pray for if I were seriously ill?  That I be open to God’s presence.  I’d pray for the same thing for my wife, and others whom I love.

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Can one man change history? Martin Luther

Can one man change history? Martin Luther?  Hitler?

October is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Or so the story goes.  It might even be true, but there is no need to be overly dramatic.  The church door served as a kind of community bulletin board. 

An angry man

Luther was an angry, troubled man, who brought not just the church, but the medieval world, to the threshold of the modern.  In 2000, Life magazine ranked Martin Luther third among the one hundred most important figures of the millennium (Kolb, p 1).  I don’t think many people pay that much attention to Luther any more, but he was a big deal.

What I can’t figure out is the relationship between Luther’s life and the transformation he wrought, brought, heralded, or led.  Or perhaps it was time for these changes to happen anyway, and Luther just happened to be there.  In any case, the transformation of the world that began in Luther’s era made our world possible. 

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Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?

Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?  I and Thou is Martin Buber’s most well-known book, originally published in German in 1923.  Its aim is to make everyday life a sacred experience.  I’m not sure that anyone has fully understood the book; perhaps that explains its hold after so many years.  In many places it reads more like poetry than theology or philosophy.    

We don’t exist in any important human way except as part of a relationship.  “In the beginning is the relationship,” says Buber (p 69).  Trees and animals can be part of a I-thou pair, and a human can be a part of an I-it pair.  Buber would perhaps reject the term “pair.”  It’s just I-thou, or I-you, more than one, less than two as the Tao puts it.  

Buber’s horse

Buber’s childhood encounter with his favorite horse best explains the I-thou relationship for me.  Horses can be thou’s, and as anyone who has been around horses knows, they are big, even massive, animals.  As such the horse is intensely other: other than me, other than human.

 

When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. (Buber, Between Man and Man, p 11)

 

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Religionless Christianity

Religionless Christianity. (Bonhoeffer post # 2)

Religionless Christianity may seem like a contradiction.  It’s not.  Christ did not seek to establish a religion, but to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to save our souls.  He and his first followers sought to establish communities in the midst of empire. 

The term “religionless Christianity” belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and because Bonhoeffer was murdered before he developed his ideas, it has sometimes been mistaken for something like the death of God.  Not so.

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