If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

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Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

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B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

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The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

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The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.

“In this is love: that God sent his son” (1 John 4; Easter 5B)

The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).

This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.

Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The concluding words of the book, asserting that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20), suggest high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this letter, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

The work is attributed to the apostle John, and that invites comparisons with the Gospel which also, by tradition, carries the name of John as its author. The sectarian tendencies, already seen in John’s Gospel, appear to have intensified in the situation addressed in this letter. Yet, in the end, “the world” is only temporary (2:17); victory over the world is assured, for it has already come (4:4; 5:3–5). Indeed, God’s intention is to save the whole world (2:1–2; 4:9, 14).

Who are the opponents? A dispute regarding the nature of Jesus is hinted at; this may point towards a doctrinal basis for the conflict. A central assertion, for the author of this sermon-letter, is that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2).

This claim appears to have been made in opposition to another view (that Jesus only appeared to be “in the flesh”, it is often assumed). Likewise, it is twice asserted that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2; 4:10; this is the NRSV translation of the complex Greek word used, hilasmos). We encounter this technical word in the affirmation of 4:10, in the Epistle passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.

These credal claims have led some interpreters to claim that the “opponents” reflected in this sermon-letter were Docetists, who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be of human flesh. (The term “Docetist” comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning to appear or to seem.)

Various claims made concerning Jesus reflect the developing Christology that we can see in other New Testament documents: Jesus is “Son of God” (4:15; 5:5, 10), “Messiah” (2:22; 3:23; 5:1), the one who is “righteous” (2:2, 29). The author of this sermon-letter thus takes his place alongside other “apostolic” authors who together will provide the data for the developing “apostolic faith” of the second century onwards.

There is a particular emphasis in this sermon-letter on the claim that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). This appears to argue against a view that Jesus came “by water” only—that is to say, a view that minimises or rejects the saving significance of the death of Jesus. For the author, a central assertion is that “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).

The conflict between the author and his opponents had become tense and even malicious, as we might deduce from the references to “deceivers” (2:26; 5:7), “false prophets” (4:1), “liars” and their “lies” (2:4, 22, 27; 4:20; 5:10), and the “spirit of error” (4:6). These condemnatory terms climax in the reference to, not one, but many “antichrists” (2:18–25; 4:2– 6).

The connection of such derogatory labels with the credal assertions of the author (especially at 2:22 and 5:10) suggests that sectarianism has fuelled this conflict. A further piece of evidence in support of this is the use of the term “anointing” (2:20, 27) to describe the status of the recipients. This word, in Greek, is related to “Christ”, the title reserved for Jesus. Those anointed by God claim a special status as Christ’s people—a claim that fits well within the polemical context of increasing sectarianism.

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A striking feature of the letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).

Table A: Purpose Statements in John and 1 John
John 20:31
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
1 John 5:13
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter. Other points of differentiation are noted below.

There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).

Another important motif in the prologue to the letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense lof testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).

Beyond the letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).

The letter writer asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).

Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).

We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the letter’s prologue (1 Jn 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in the letter (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).

Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized by the letter writer; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26). However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 Jn 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 Jn 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

Knowledge is a key concern of this letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).

The emphasis on knowledge in this letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We have seen a similar debate in 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:4. The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 Jn 2:20, 27).

The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 Jn 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this letter (1 Jn 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).

The Spirit is given by the Father (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) and is described as “the spirit of truth” (1 Jn 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 Jn 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).

The negative attitude towards the world in this letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).

The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the letter; the world hates believers (1 Jn 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:20). The role of “the devil” in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 Jn 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).

The letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.

Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled “realised eschatology”; it is a clear point of difference between letter and Gospel.

However, the connections between letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.

There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross- referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.

Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. (The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.)

Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.

This letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtful, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.

This blog is based on draws on material in IN THE NAME OF: an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

“See what love the Father has given us”: the nature of 1 John (1 John 3; Easter 3B)

The lectionary is currently offering a series of passages from the book we know as 1 John. They run from Easter 2 (last week) to Easter 7 (in mid May).

1 John is a book that’s about love: “I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning … we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action … this is his commandment, that we should love one another, just as he has commanded us … let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Although, it’s about more than love, too—as we shall see.

Although it is usually described as a letter, the work is actually more in the form of a sermon. It does not begin with the kind of opening address expected in a letter, nor is there any form of expected epistolary conclusion at its end.

The opening verses of this sermon-letter, instead of providing information about the context in which the document came into being, launch straight into an urgent rhetorical statement (1:1–4) about the important generic message which will follow. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5). It is an unusual way to begin a “letter”.

The sermon-letter ends quite abruptly, with a stark admonition: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). There is no context given for this instruction; and no discussion of travel plans or the sending of an emissary, no greetings, no final blessing. It is a strange way to end a “letter”.

Is it a letter, a book, a sermon–or what?

The book clearly has the ethos of a letter, as found in the first person plural of the opening verses (“we declare…we declare…we are writing…”, 1:1–4), the direct address to “little children” (2:1; 3:18; 5:21) and “beloved” (2:7; 4:1, 7), and the repeated assertion that “I write these things” (2:1, 7, 12–14, 26; 5:13).

Moral exhortation and doctrinal teaching, elements regarded as being classic component parts of early Christian letters, are interwoven throughout the book without clear distinction.

Yet there appears to be no marshalling of a case and no logical development of thought, such as is found in the carefully-shaped rhetoric of the letters of Paul. At first reading, the letter’s structure is somewhat circular and repetitive, more an extended meditation on “love” (the term appears around fifty times) than a tightly-argued instruction. The tone is often reflective—although there are moments of contention and dispute. More like a sermon, perhaps?

The author of the sermon-letter is never named, but the opening verse (that we heard in the lectionary reading last week) makes the claim that the letter comes from one who has “heard…seen…looked at and touched” for himself, the very “word of life” (1:1).

The inference is that the author has had personal contact with Jesus himself; in the third century, Irenaeus made the definitive claim that the letter was written by “John, the disciple of the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.16.5). And that tradition has stuck ever since.

This claim goes beyond any direct assertion within the sermon-letter itself; although such a claim might be reinforced by the author’s reiteration of his privileged status as eyewitness (and earwitness): “we have seen it” (1:2), “what we have seen and heard” (1:3), “the message we have heard from him” (1:5), as well as a later reminder: “just as he has commanded us” (3:23).

The frequent use of “from the beginning” (1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:11) might also be taken as a reference back to the teachings of Jesus, mediated through the writing of this author.

Likewise, from the text of this sermon-letter itself, its recipients cannot be specifically identified in any meaningful way. There are references to “little children … fathers … young people” (2:12–14) which are formulaic and generalised. They already know the message about Jesus, for they “know him who is from the beginning” (2:13, 14) and have already heard his commandment to “love one another” (2:7; 3:11).

Their situation involves a controversy about how to live in obedience to Jesus; the contrast between darkness and light, love and hate is marked throughout the work (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21). A key idea in this regard is the way that love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in the lives of believers. This is what the recipients of the letter are to set as their aim.

Set in stark contrast to the believers is “the world”, which is both personified and portrayed as a negative character. The world is full of desire (2:16); those in it do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The sermon-letter ends with the strong assertion that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20). This suggests high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this document, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

What can we know about this opposition that is reflected in this sermon-letter? And what kind of theology emerges from this conflict? That’s the focus of my next blog on 1 John.

This blog draws on material in IN THE NAME OF … an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

The hour has come: glorify your Son (John 12; Lent 5B)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). So Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, who come with a request from “some Greeks” who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover (12:20; see 12:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/15/we-wish-to-see-jesus-john-12-lent-5/

Two terms in this declaration by Jesus require exploration; two terms which are key ideas in this Gospel, the book of signs.

The story which John’s Gospel reports contains a contrast between the largely public activities of Jesus, and a secret element, described as “the hour”, which does not come until the climax of the story is reached. There are pointers to this contrast from the very first sign, at a wedding in Cana, when Jesus declares, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4).

What is this hour? The first part of the Gospel leaves it as a mystery, for the time being (see 7:30 and 8:20). Then, after the seventh sign, events in Jerusalem show that the hour has come (12:23, 27); the narrator explains that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world” (13:1).

Thus, at the beginning and at the end of the public activities of Jesus in this Gospel narrative, the focus is firmly on “the hour”.

Then, some time later on, at the end of his last meal with his followers, Jesus finally prays: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son” (17:1). In what will take place after this prayer—the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (John 18–21)—this “hour” is realised.

The Johannine Jesus describes these events, the fulfilment of “the hour”, as the means by which God is glorified (11:16, 23–33; 13:31–32; 17:4).

The word “glory”, in Hebrew Scriptures, signals the divine presence (Exod 16:1–12; 24:15–18; 40:34–39; Lev 9:22–24; Num 14:10–12; 16:19; Deut 5:22–27; 1 Sam 4:19–22). In the book of signs, it is God’s glory which is now made manifest in Jesus (John 1:14; 2:11; 12:27–28; 17:5).

The language of “hour” and “glory” thus provides a framework for interpreting the events in chapters 2–12 as steps on the way towards a full understanding of Jesus, and the events of chapters 13–21 as the realisation of God’s presence in the world in all its fullness. This is the heart of the incarnational theology that is advocated by the writer of this Gospel.

The story of the Gospel fills out the details as to how it is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, which means that for human beings, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The passage offered in this Sunday’s lectionary readings provide part of the Johannine account of the final public moments of Jesus before his arrest (12:20–50). Here, Jesus speaks of this imminent glory (12:20–26), an angel testifies to God’s glory in the death of Jesus (12:27–33), Jesus explains that he comes as light into the world (12:34–36), the scriptures join as witnesses (12:37–43) and Jesus asserts that he speaks God’s commandment of eternal life (12:44–50).

This scene sums up what has come before and opens the door to the events which follow, culminating in the cry of the crucified Jesus, “it is fulfilled” (19:30; the NRSV translation, “it is finished”, downplays the sense of fulfilment in the verb used, teleō). The author of this Gospel thereby indicates that the deepest fulfilment of the hour of Jesus comes on the cross, as the glory of God is revealed in its entirety.

We wish to see Jesus (John 12; Lent 5B)

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (John 12:20-21).

The fourth Gospel, the book of signs, is distinctive in many ways. One way that it is different from the other three canonical Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels), is that it is the only work that refers specifically to Greeks coming into contact with Jesus.

Mark refers to Jesus coming into contact with a Gentile woman (Mark 7:26). Matthew reports Jesus pointing to the scripture that exclaims about the servant of the Lord, “in his name the Gentiles will hope”(Matt 12:21)—although this account includes the firm instructions of Jesus to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5), and delays right until the penultimate verse of the book any command to “make disciples of all Gentiles” (28:19).

Luke, of course, signals from the very start of the story that Jesus brings “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), and from early days the crowds that gather to hear Jesus include people from the gentile regions (6:17). It is clear from the following volume that the intention was always for the good news to be shared with the Gentiles (Acts 10:45; 11:1,18; 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).

But Gentiles encompass far more than Greeks. And only the book of signs specifically names that Jesus comes into close contact with Greeks. Although, it could be argued that the way the text describes things, we are never told that the Greeks who have come to Jerusalem for the festival actually engage directly with Jesus. It is only through the intermediaries, Philip and Andrew, that communication with Jesus takes place.

Nevertheless, this (near) encounter appears to provide a resolution of a sort, to the question asked earlier on by the Pharisees: “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (7:35). Although Jesus does not “go to the Dispersion”, he is engaged (at one remove) with people from the Dispersion who have come to Jerusalem.

At the minimum, this scene in Jerusalem indicates that the significance of Jesus spreads more widely than just amongst Jews. In fact this Gospel includes a number of pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas.

Now, all four Gospel accounts clearly locate Jesus as a Jew living in Israel. He is immersed in the context of Jewish society, culture, and religion. The book of signs makes this abundantly clear, over and over. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

However, the early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, each point to a wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within “formative Judaism”.

Formative Judaism is one way to refer to the version of Judaism that developed in the decades and centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This was the historical precursor of current Rabbinic forms of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from that trajectory within Judaism goes back to the early followers of Jesus, interpreting his words and actions in a certain way.

The book of signs contains many indications of the growing tension between the Pharisees, the dominant party after 70:CE (when the book was written), and the developing Christian communities. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

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John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42). John, in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of “heterodox Judaism” on this Gospel.

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Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions.

Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). They are not utterly different groups.

Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode. Ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

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The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/31/in-the-beginning-the-prologue-and-the-book-of-signs-john-1/

We know that Judaism had long been influenced by the Greek–speaking world. Hellenistic culture is reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is explicitly raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The signs we have noted above point to this influence at various points throughout the gospel.

These elements need not necessarily be reflecting events in the ministry of Jesus himself, but more likely point to the context in which the Gospel was shaped, and the factors that influenced the way the story of Jesus was presented.

The community which received this Gospel indicates that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel was not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It had become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/16/the-hour-has-come-glorify-your-son-john-12-lent-5/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

The complex and rich world of scriptural imagery in ‘the book of signs’ (John 3; Lent 4B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The brief allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”. It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels. In the book of signs, this interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison drawn between Jesus and Moses: “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. Chapter 6, a long chapter on the theme of “the living bread”, functions like an extended midrashic exploration of this important scriptural theme.

These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. In the extended preface of 1:19–51, Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus, drawn from Jewish traditions, are all made also within the Synoptic traditions.

The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. That’s another clear Jewish term drawn from scripture (Dan 7:13; Ezek 2:1,3,6,8, 3:1,3,10, etc).

In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). (Lord, of course, was one of the Jewish terms for addressing God.)

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas (20:28) can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

And there is much more to be said about the I Am sayings, unique to the book of signs, for each of them draws deeply from the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. But that’s another blog sometime.

So the allusion in John 3:14 offers a doorway into a complex and rich world of scriptural imagery, story, and language—the very world in which the author of this Gospel lived for many decades.

Thinking about this way of writing reminded me of one of my teachers during the years that I was undertaking doctoral studies at Yale University in the USA—Professor Hans Frei. I took a semester-long seminar with him on hermeneutics, wrote a long essay on how his work shaped the “New Yale Theology”, and had him as one of my assessment panel when I submitted my doctoral thesis proposal. He had an utterly incisive mind along with a gentle eirenic nature.

Prof. Frei used to say “we should not read the Bible in such a way as to make it make sense on our lives; we need to live our lives in the text of the Bible and that way we find its deepest truths”. Or something like that—it is 35 years since I took that seminar with him!!

Here are two of his quotable quotes about this, that I have found online:

“For many centuries before the modern age, most Christian theologians had read the Bible primarily as a kind of realistic narrative. It told the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment. Moreover, the particular coherence of this story made “figural” interpretation possible: some events in the biblical stories, as well as some nonbiblical events, prefigured or reflected the central biblical events. Indeed, Christians made sense of their own lives by locating their stories within the context of that larger story.” He argued, in his writings and in his teaching, that we needed to recover something of that way of reading the Bible—living in its world, rather than dragging it into our world.

Another rich quote is:

“A Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives must begin simply by retelling those stories, without any systematic effort at apologetics, without any determined effort to begin with questions arising from our experience. The stories portray a person — a God who acts in the history of Israel and engages in self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. They help us learn about that person in the way that a great novelist describes a character or that a telling anecdote captures someone’s personality. They provide insights that we lose if we try to summarize the narrative in a nonnarrative form. No abstract account of God’s faithfulness adequately summarizes Exodus. The Gospels surpass any abstract account of God’s love.”

And he quotes Erich Auerbach, a literary critic whom Frei much admired, as he wrote of the Bible:

“Far from seeking . . . merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. Christians who tell these stories, stories that are rich, enigmatic, sometimes puzzling and ambiguous, can find that their lives fit into the world they describe — indeed, that our stories suddenly seem to make more sense when seen in that context.”

(You can read more of Frei’s writing at https://www.religion-online.org/article/hans-frei-and-the-meaning-of-biblical-narrative/)

It seems to me that the ethos of the book of signs and the writings of Hans Frei, separated in time by two full millennia, nevertheless share this common feature, of immersing themselves into the ancient scripture so that it shapes the way they live in the world of their own time.

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The earlier part of this blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

The serpent in the wilderness (John 3, Num 21; Lent 4B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the section from the Gospel of John that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The Brazen Serpent Monument
on Mount Nebo in Jordan

Of particular note in the Numbers passage, before we head into the Gospel passage that alludes to it, is the fact that there is a crucially important Hebrew word which appears in Num 21 and which in most current English translation, is not accurately rendered. (This is a favourite of my wife, Elizabeth—she often refers to the translation issues inherent at this point.)

In Num 21:6, the Lord sends creatures often described as “fiery serpents” or “poisonous serpents” amongst the people, who are grumbling about the food and water available to them in the wilderness. In Num 21:8, the Lord commands Moses to put a “fiery serpent” or a “poisonous serpent” on a pole. In both verses, the crucial word is saraph — a word that appears just seven times in the Hebrew Bible.

On three occasions (twice here, and again at Deut 8:15), saraph is translated as “fiery serpent”. In two instances, it is rendered as “flying serpents” (Isa 14:29 and 30:6). But in one very well-known story (the call of Isaiah), the word appears in its plural form, seraphim—and here, it is usually transliterated, letter for letter, as “seraphim” (Isaiah 6:2, 6).

The seraphim, of course, were one of three forms of angels known to the ancient Hebrews—the malachim, or messengers (from which Malachi gets his name), the cherubim (depicted on the ark, according to Exodus 25:18-22), and the seraphim (six-winged creatures who are the heavenly attendants of God).

And as Isaiah indicates, these seraphim were certainly able to fly (Isa 6:2), and they clearly dealt with fire, taking a coal from altar with a pair of tongs and delivering that to the prophet (Isa 6:6-7). In fact, the word saraph derives from a word that literally means “burning”.

Alongside this word, the more usual Hebrew word for serpent, nehash, is found in the Numbers story. It occurs once in what the narrator reports in Num 21:6, where the word stands right alongside seraphim; here the double barrelled hanehashim haseraphim appears to designate the serpents that bit the Israelites as “fiery serpent-like seraphim”, or even “flying serpent-like fiery-seraphim”.

Then the simple nehash appears once in what the people say (21:7), asking Moses to “take away the serpents from us”; and then twice in the actions of Moses (21:9). What Moses makes is a nehas nehoset, “a bronze serpent”; and what Moses places on the pole is a nehas hanehoset, “the bronze serpent”—that is, a serpent figure forged from bronze metal (21:9). But what God had commanded him to place on the pole was a saraph, a “fiery serpent” (21:8).

So there is a curious element in the Numbers story—did Moses use an image of a serpent, or an image of a seraph, to ward off the seraph-serpents who bit the people? (Num 21:9). The Hebrew actually refers to the image on the pole using both terms!

This brief (and complex) allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”, but in many more ways as well.

It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels; but it has a distinctive shape in the book of signs. I think that topic warrants its own blog ….. https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/10/the-complex-and-rich-world-of-scriptural-imagery-in-the-book-of-signs-john-3-lent-4/

Raise up a (new) temple: Jesus and “the Jews” in the fourth Gospel (John 2; Lent 3B)

The Johannine account of the incident in the Temple (John 2:13-22), which appears in the lectionary as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday, concludes by indicating that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple.

(I’ve done an earlier blog on the incident itself, at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/01/righteous-anger-and-zealous-piety-the-incident-in-the-temple-john-2-lent-3/)

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and the author concludes, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

Indeed, the previous story in this Gospel, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine whilst at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11), also flags this confrontational aspect. It infers that the water of the Jewish purification system (2:6) is inferior to the “good wine” which Jesus offers (2:10).

Wedding at Cana by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)

The dynamic of confrontation continues in the scene in which a zealous Jesus, whip in hand, speaking with righteous anger, expels traders from the temple courtyard, quoting the prophets to support his actions (2:13–17).

The programmatic purpose of these two passages, placed at the very start of the long narrative section about the public activities of Jesus (2:1-12:50), is that they introduce this dynamic of conflict and opposition. This is a motif that runs throughout the whole of the book of origins.

The supremacy of Jesus

In the first Jerusalem controversy (5:16–47), Jesus makes a grand claim for himself in relation to Jewish history: by healing on the Sabbath, he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This controversy reaches its culmination with Jesus’ claim that no less an authority than Moses supports his understanding of his role (5:45–47); for indeed, “he [Moses] wrote of me” (5:46).

The issues in this first controversy are resumed throughout 7:10–10:39, and the claims of Jesus come to a further climax when he claims support from no less a figure than Abraham (8:53–58); indeed, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day” (8:56).

Then, a similar claim is made by the narrator concerning the prophet Isaiah at the very end of the first half of the Gospel, in the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus (12:36b–43). The response of many people to Jesus was one of disbelief, in direct fulfilment of the words of Isaiah, who “saw his glory and spoke of him [Jesus]” (12:41).

Thus, three venerable witnesses from Hebrew scripture (Moses, Abraham and Isaiah) give personal testimony to the supremacy of the words and deeds of Jesus.

Criticisms of Jesus

The situation which lies behind the recounting of these words, and the retelling of controversy narratives, is one of high tension between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The cry of the crowd, that Jesus has “a demon” (7:20; 10:20), is repeated by the Jews at 8:48–52, with the added insult that he is “a Samaritan” (8:48). A demon-possessed Samaritan could not be more of an outsider!

A third criticism levelled against Jesus is that he was born illegitimate (8:41). The words of the Jews represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth.

The threat of persecution

This tension is increased by the ever–present threat of persecution which runs throughout this Gospel. Jesus highlights this in his discourse on the sheep and the shepherd, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12).  The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29).

A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme is given in the second farewell discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).

At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); and already in the Prologue the narrator has spoken of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).

The Passion Narrative details the course of this rejection: betrayal (18:1–9), denial (18:15–18, 25–27), abandonment by his own people (18:38b–40, 19:7–8), and crucifixion (19:16–30). The ultimate fate of martyrdom, suffered by Jesus, is quite explicitly the same fate in store for those who follow Jesus: “They will put you out of the synagogues … whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (16:2–3). This, presumably, is what was meant by the allusion to their being “snatched out of the Father’s hand” (10:28–29).

Fear of “the Jews”

Who is it that perpetrates this persecution? Running throughout the storyline of this Gospel is a refrain concerning “the fear of the Jews”. This note is first sounded after Jesus’ second visit to Jerusalem (5:1). Upon returning to Galilee, Jesus refuses to return to Judea (7:1); but when his brothers travel there, he follows “not publicly but in private” (7:10). Obviously his presence in Jerusalem is known, as there is a divided opinion about Jesus – again, in private, for “no one spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews” (7:13).

Later in this same visit to Jerusalem, after Jesus has enabled the man born blind to see once more, the parents of this man distance themselves from their cured son, claiming not to know of the details of the healing, “because they feared the Jews” (9:22).

Likewise, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his body is requested of Pilate by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). Finally, when the disciples gather after the crucifixion, not yet aware that the tomb is empty, they meet with “the doors locked, for fear of the Jews” (20:19). In each case, fear of the Jews leads to deeds and words which take place in secret; any desired confession of allegiance to Jesus is muted and repressed, because of this fear.

Even Pilate, in the Johannine account of the trial of Jesus, trembles before the Jews; “he was more afraid than ever” (19:8). This would seem to be a highly implausible historical possibility, given what is known of the rigour of Pilate’s rule. It seems reasonable to conclude that the theme of the fear of the Jews is functioning as a significant Johannine motif at the level of the readers of the narrative.

Who are “the Jews” ?

The opposition to Jesus which runs throughout the first half of this Gospel often comes from the group described, indiscriminately, as “the Jews” (2:18–20; 5:16–18; 6:41, 52; 7:1; 8:31, 48; 9:18, 22; 10:19, 24, 31). Who are these people who evoke such fear?

The Greek word used (Ioudaioi) can point to a geographic entity (the Judeans, from the southern kingdom), or a religious entity (Jews, as opposed to Samaritans or Gentiles). The identity of the Ioudaioi in this Gospel is a critical matter. They appear to be clearly identified with the Judaeans at 7:1; but not every usage of the term must necessarily bear this geographical meaning.

Some scholars see this term as a typically Johannine symbolic cipher—a code word for “the world”, since “the world” parallels “his own people” at 1:10–11, and the actions of “the Jews” is consistent with what is said of “the world” at 15:18–16:4.  

More plausible is the view that “the Jews” are simply to be equated with the Judaean leaders. Midway through the Gospel, the specific opponents of Jesus are identified as “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (11:57). Soon, this grouping broadens its opposition to Jesus, to include Lazarus (12:9–11).

Yet a clear contrast is drawn between the “great crowd of the Jews” who had come to see Jesus and Lazarus (12:9), and the “many Jews” who believe in Jesus (12:10), on the one hand; and the leadership of the Jews, who were planning the persecution: the chief priests who plot his death (12:10), and the Pharisees, who initially appear unable to act (12:19), but who ultimately join with the priestly group to effect the arrest of Jesus (18:3). The opponents of Jesus are here described quite specifically from the moment that Lazarus is raised from the dead.

Thus, it is clear that “the Jews” is a shorthand way of referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem who are hostile towards Jesus. See more at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The Synoptic Gospels indicate that throughout his public activities, Jesus had engaged in controversy with the Pharisees (Mark 2:16, 24; 3:6; 7:1, 5; 8:11, 15; 10:2; 12:13 and parallels; Matt 5:20; 12:24, 38; Luke 7:30; 11:37–44, 53; 12:1; 15:2; 16:14). It was only from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that there was any priestly opposition (Mark 11:18 and parallels).

In John’s Gospel, the position is somewhat different. Opposition to Jesus from the time of his last visit to Jerusalem comes not only from the Pharisees, in particular (4:1; 7:47; 8:13; 9:13, 40), but also from the chief priests and the Pharisees (7:32, 45; 11:47, 57).

Expulsion from the synagogue

In the Synoptic accounts, the Pharisees fade from view once Jesus enters Jerusalem, whereas in this Gospel, when Jesus is arrested, it is at the hands of the military police from the chief priests and the Pharisees (18:3), in conjunction with the Roman soldiers.  The role of the Pharisees, as opponents to Jesus, is thus expanded in this Gospel. More than any other identified group, it is the Pharisees who become the focus of the opposition and persecution of Jesus.

J. Louis Martyn has argued that the Pharisees stand as representatives of the Jewish leadership in the situation after 70 CE, when the final form of this Gospel took shape. This was different from the situation at the time of Jesus’ earthly life. Scholars now refer to this period as the time of formative Judaism—a period when Pharisaic leadership began to form the kind of Judaism which could survive the destruction of the Temple.

This period was marked by sectarian dispute and division—including the development of the Jesus movement away from Judaism, towards its eventual identity as a predominantly Gentile religion. A vacuum had been opened up by the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and this meant that the Pharisees were struggling to assert their dominance in a new, unsettled, and unfamiliar context.

The book of origins contains three references to the expulsion from the synagogue of the followers of Jesus (9:22; 12:42–43; 16:2–3). This is one point at which the “partings of the ways” begin, for believers within this stream of the Jesus movement became completely alienated from their Jewish religion.

Martyn argues that the experience of the man born blind reflects the situation of those Jews of some decades later on, who had come to faith in Jesus (9:38), in that when they attempted to declare that he was the Messiah, they were expelled from the synagogues (9:22). This expulsion was enforced by the Pharisees (12:42), who instigated persecutions of Jews (16:2) when they refused to adhere to the position which they were putting.

Thus, the beginnings of the development of a sectarian community can be seen; when Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah were expelled from the synagogue, they formed their own community with their own developing beliefs. Into that context, decades after Jesus, the account of the book of signs is crystallised into a full Gospel.

Placing blame on “the Jews”

The Johannine passion narrative (18:1–19:42) contains further indicators of the sectarian nature of the community. Although Jesus dies by crucifixion, under Roman jurisdiction, the blame for his death is placed amongst the Jerusalem leadership, through a sequence of events uniquely highlighted in this Gospel.

First, the plotting of the priestly leaders, reported immediately after the raising of Lazarus (11:49–53), is briefly rehearsed (18:14).

Then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem declare Jesus to be a criminal (18:30) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pilate (18:34), who is reluctant to accept the case (18:31). Yet Roman justice is not permitted to run its course; indeed, had this been so, Pilate would certainly have released Jesus (18:38; 19:6, 12).

The Synoptic version of the trial scene notes the interference of the priestly rulers in the “Barabbas” incident (Mark 14:8–15 and parallels). The Johannine version intensifies the role of the Jews by their persistence in calling for the death of Jesus (19:7, 12, 15).

It is only when Jesus hangs on the cross that Pilate is able to stand up to the priests—on a matter of negligible consequence (the wording of the inscription, 19:21).

Thus, the apologetic against the Jews is heightened in the Johannine passion narrative, giving clear reasons for the disciples’ later decision to meet behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (20:19).

And so, the book of origins provides fertile grounds for later developments that pitted Christians against Jews with such ferocity—and that led to medieval pogroms, then the development of ghettos, then the systematic persecutions leading to the horrors of the Shoah under the Nazis.

The thread of antagonism and conflict, present at the start of the book of signs (2:1-22), has grown and developed throughout the Gospel (and beyond). We must take great care in how we use and interpret this text.

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This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

On the importance of avoiding antisemitism, and negative attitudes and behaviours towards Jews and Judaism, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581