Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Introducing the Gospel of John

     The official record of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus Christ is preserved in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While each is written by a different author, to a different audience, for a different purpose, the first three are linked together as the Synoptic Gospels because of their similarities in content, vocabulary, and arrangement. The fourth, however, stands on its own as a unique witness.
     Authorship of the Fourth Gospel has historically been attributed to John the apostle, although the writer does not explicitly identify himself in the text. The evidence confirms that the author was a Palestinian Jew, exhibiting detailed knowledge of local topography (cf. 1:44; 2:1; 9:7; 4:5-6, 21; 11:18; 18:1). He reflects personal acquaintance with conservative Judaism and Jewish tradition (e.g. 1:19-28; 4:9, 20). He was accustomed to thinking in Aramaic, as Aramaic terms are frequently used and then explained (cf. 1:42; 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16). Old Testament quotations are closer in form to the Hebrew than to the Greek (cf. 12:40; 13:18; 19:37).
     He was an eyewitness (1:14; 19:35; cf. 2:6; 4:6; 12:3, 5; chaps. 18–19) and one of the twelve apostles. He is self-described as “the disciple” (21:24) and “the beloved disciple” (13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:2-9),1 near Jesus at the last supper where only the twelve were present (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14). The author is not to be identified as any of the apostles mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel, and neither John nor his brother James is named. James dies fairly early in the history of the church (Acts 12:2), whereas our author lived long enough to add weight to the rumor that he would not die (John 21:23).
     The “beloved disciple” is regularly in the company of Simon Peter, and elsewhere in the New Testament this is the apostle John (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Acts 3:1–4:23; 8:15–25; Gal. 2:9). The most obvious candidate for authorship of the Fourth Gospel is John the son of Zebedee, further confirmed by the consistent testimony of the early church.2
Date of writing
     John’s Gospel was probably written near the close of the first century, sometime between 80-95.3 According to ancient testimony, the apostle John lived into the reign of Trajan (who reigned 98-117) and was the last of the New Testament writers to compose a Gospel.4 The fact that no mention is made of the temple’s destruction would argue against a date shortly after 70 but could be explained by a date considerably later, especially if written for a non-Jewish audience far away from Palestine. John makes no mention of the Sadducees, who dwindled to the point of insignificance after 70. The John Rylands Fragment (P52), containing a portion of John 18, dates around 125, which gives plenty of time for the document to have been copied and circulated as far as Egypt, where the fragment was discovered.
Audience and Destination
     The Gospel seems to have been written with a Gentile audience in mind, since Jewish conventions are explained apparently for the benefit of those who were unfamiliar with them (e.g. 19:31). Certain feasts are particularly identified as Jewish: “the Passover of the Jews” (2:13; 6:4; 11:55); “the Tabernacles, the feast of the Jews” (7:2). Jewish customs are noted and clarified: purification (2:6; cf. 11:55), ethnic exclusivism (4:9), and the Sabbath (19:31). Aramaic words are both transliterated and translated into Greek: Kēphas (1:42), Bēthzatha (5:2), Silōam (9:7), Gabbatha (19:13), Golgotha (19:17), and rabbouni (20:16). Palestinian geographical features are carefully described: “Bethany … across the Jordan” (1:28), “Cana of Galilee” (2:1, 11; 4:46; 21:2), “Aenon near Salim” (3:23), “Bethany near Jerusalem” (11:18), and “Bethsaida of Galilee” (12:21). Further, the Sea of Galilee is identified as “the Sea of Tiberias” (6:1; 21:1), the name used in the latter part of the first century and employed in Greco-Roman texts.
     Early tradition places the origin and destination of the Gospel in Asia Minor, particularly Ephesus.5 The writing was reportedly at the request of area congregations, as a summary of John’s teaching about the life of Jesus, to meet a need that was affecting the church near the close of the first century.
Distinctive Features
     Despite a number of similarities between John and the other Gospels, John omits several things that are characteristic of the others6 and records a great deal of material not found in them.7 John recounts much more of Jesus’ ministry in Judea than in Galilee, whereas the focus of the other Gospels is the opposite. There is more of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit than in any other Gospel. The teaching in John tends to expound abstract themes like phōs (‘light’ 23x), zōē (‘life’ 36x), agapē/agapaō (‘love’ 34x), and alētheia (‘truth’ 25x). John presents large amounts of discourse material and records seven statements of Christ in which the emphatic egō eimi (“I am”) expression is employed (6:35; 8:12; 10:9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5). The designation “son of man” is less prolific in John than in the Synoptics, while “Son of God” appears more often. In John’s Gospel Jesus is explicitly identified as “God” (1:1-3; 5:18; 10:33; 20:28; cf. 8:58).
Purpose and Structure
     John clearly states his objective in 20:30-31 as follows: “Indeed therefore Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this document, but these have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name.” The Gospel is arranged to achieve this goal.
     The prologue (1:1-18) provides an introduction to the Gospel, identifying Jesus as the preexistent, embodied Logos (Word) of God who reveals the heavenly Father to mankind. Next is an overview of the Lord’s public ministry (1:19–11:45), focusing on just seven of his miracles (2:1-11; 4:43-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-5, 16-25; 9:1-41; 11:1-44) and calling them sēmeiōn (“signs”). This so-called “book of signs” emphasizes that which points to and authenticates the Lord’s identity and role. The story then moves toward Christ’s glorification through his death and resurrection (11:46–20:31), and the section ends with a statement of the Gospel’s purpose. Finally, the epilogue (21:1-25) concludes the writing by recounting another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus and the recommissioning of his disciples.
     Every testimony is to be confirmed by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1). While Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer sufficient evidence, John serves as a fourth witness, providing an even sturdier foundation upon which to build our faith.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 The earliest extant reference to John’s authorship is that of Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 115-202), whose testimony is based on the corroboration of Polycarp, a contemporary of the apostle John (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.14.3-8; 5.20.5-6; 20.4-8). Other testimonies include the Muratorian Canon (ca. 170), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 181), Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170-235), Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254), and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 263-339).
     3 Some scholars (e.g. J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the NT 254-311) propose an earlier (pre-70) date, and their strongest argument rests on the statement in John 5:2, “now there is (estin = present tense) in Jerusalem at the sheep gate a pool … Bethesda.” The most natural inference is that the area John is describing is still standing at the time of writing, thus prior to the destruction of the city in 70. However, in response one might argue that (a) at the time of writing the ruins of Bethesda were still visible or had been rebuilt; (b) John is naturally speaking of the place as he remembers it; or (c) John is using a historic present, as in 10:8 and 19:40.
     4 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 2.22.5; 3.1.1; 3.3.4; Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.7); Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.24.7; Jerome, De vir. ill. 9. John's death is marked at the year 98 by Jerome.
     5 Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14), the Muratorian Fragment, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, Jerome (Comm. Matt. Prol.), Epiphanius (Haer. 41.12), Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3:1.2), and Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.1.1; 3.24).
     6 These include narrative parables, the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the “kingdom of God” theme, and many of Jesus’ sayings. John may have been familiar with the other Gospels and chose to augment their accounts rather than reproduce them.
     7 Unique to John are the prologue (1:1-18), Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus (chap. 3) and the Samaritan woman (chap. 4), the adulteress narrative (chap. 8), the raising of Lazarus (chap. 11), the washing of the disciples’ feet (chap. 13), several post-resurrection episodes (chaps. 20-21); discourses about eternal life (chap. 3), living water (chap. 4), manna from heaven (chap. 6), the good shepherd (chap. 10), the resurrection and the life (chap. 11), the farewell discourse (chaps. 14-17); the “I am” declarations (6:35, 41; 8:58; etc.).

*Prepared for the 2016 Spanish-English Workshop at North Jackson Church of Christ in Jackson, TN.

Related articles: Richard Mansel's Understanding the Gospel of John

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Jesus’ Ethical Dilemma, the Sabbath Law, and Mark’s Historical Blunder?

     Did the disciples of Jesus violate the Sabbath law with the Lord’s approval? Does Jesus teach that the end justifies the means, condoning situation ethics? Did he (and/or Mark) make a factual mistake by naming Abiathar as high priest, even though Abiathar was not high priest at the time of the recounted incident? Was Sabbath observance intended for all of mankind?
Divine Law and Situation Ethics
     The Law of Moses permitted hungry travellers to help themselves to grain fields (Deut. 23:25), while it prohibited reaping on the Sabbath (Exod. 34:21). There is a big difference between plucking grain by hand and using a sickle or other harvesting tools. Rather than defending situation ethics, the example of David (cf. 1 Sam. 21:1-6) is more likely employed to demonstrate the inconsistency of the Pharisees. They accepted David for doing what was unlawful, while condemning Christ and his disciples for doing what was legally permissible. Jesus merely asks a thought-provoking question and leaves the judgment to his critics. This is not a legitimate proof-text for advocating situation ethics.
Historical Blunder?
     Mark is the only synoptic writer to include the name of Abiathar in this account, but there are variations among manuscripts: “in the days [time] of Abiathar the high priest” (ESV, NASB, NKJV) vs. “when Abiathar was high priest” (ASV, N/RSV). While the incident did occur in the days of Abiathar, his father Ahimelech was actually the recognized high priest at the time. As a prolepsis1 this would simply describe Abiathar as he was known when the reference was made, and it is certainly plausible that he was present on this occasion with his father. Ahimelech was killed soon afterwards, and Abiathar was then appointed high priest (1 Sam. 22:17-21). There is no historical blunder here.
The Perpetual Sabbath Law?
     Only Mark records the following words of Christ, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The obvious point is that God’s regulations were never intended to be harmful or burdensome but to benefit those subject to them (cf. Deut. 10:13; 12:28; 1 John 5:3). Jesus, as “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 28; cf. Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), had the knowledge and authority to discern how divine laws were to be observed, particularly with respect to blessing others (cf. Mark 3:1-6).
     This affirmation, however, does not suggest that the 7th-day Sabbath law was instituted for all men everywhere of all time. Contextually Jesus is speaking directly to Pharisees (ethnic/religious Jews) still subject to the old covenant system of Moses. The context qualifies this seemingly general reference as applicable to Israelites amenable to Sabbath legislation under Mosaic Law (Ex. 16:9, 23-26; 20:2, 8-11; Deut. 5:1-15). It is no more universal than the Lord’s observation in Mark 7:7-8, where the commandments and traditions of men advocated by the Pharisees were merely those of their fellow countrymen, not of all mankind. The sense of Mark 9:31 is not that Christ was betrayed into the hands of all men everywhere but only those stipulated by the action described. Not every man universally is joined to or separated from a wife (Mark 10:7, 9) or creates images of false gods (Acts 17:29), but only those to whom the general allusion applies.2
     The 7th-day Sabbath law was part of the old covenant of the Jews mediated through Moses (Deut. 4:13; 5:1-15; cf. Jer. 31:31-34), and these pre-christian regulations were in force until Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:13-17). The new covenant of Christ, void of any Sabbath legislation, has now superseded the obsolete arrangement of ancient Judaism (Heb. 8:6-13; 10:9; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-14).
     Regardless of the unwarranted accusations of the Pharisees, the Lord’s Jewish disciples did not violate the Hebrew Sabbath law. Although modern-day critics would like to contend otherwise, Christ did not condone disobedience to God’s commands, and he did not teach or justify situation ethics. Contrary to the ardent claims of antibiblicists, neither Jesus nor Mark were ignorant of the biblical/historical record and did not convey false information. Despite the misconceptions of our sabbatarian neighbors, the 7th-day Sabbath law was limited to the old covenant of the Jews and intended to be a blessing for those amenable to it, particularly the liberated Jewish slaves of Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:15). The Lord’s new and better covenant does not include this Hebraic convention.
     When an isolated text of scripture prompts challenging questions, let us not jump to hasty conclusions or buy into the prejudicial assumptions of skeptics and pseudo-religionists. All the facts should be carefully and honestly evaluated. The conclusion of our current investigation, despite ill-informed claims to the contrary, is that the integrity of the Bible and a coherent understanding of its message remain intact.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 A prolepsis is a literary device that depicts something as having existed or occurred before it actually did (e.g. Mark 11:1-2; 12:3). A modern-day example would be, “When President Lincoln was a young boy …”
     2 Compare also Matt. 10:17; 23:4, 5, 7; Luke 2:52; 6:22; John 2:10; 2 Cor. 3:2; et al.

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Related articles: Wayne Jackson's Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?

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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What “Great Faith” Looks Like

     Only Matthew (15:21-28) and Mark (7:24-30) record the Lord’s intriguing encounter with a Gentile woman beyond the northwest border of Galilee. It was about a year before the end of his public ministry, and Jesus appears to have been growing weary with the constant bombardment of frantic people demanding his time and attention. They were so anxious to see him, hear him, touch him, and witness his miracles that on multiple occasions he didn’t even have time to eat (cf. Mark 1:45; 3:20; 6:31). Needing a break, he heads north with the twelve to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21), “but he could not be hidden” (Mark 7:24 NKJV).
The Unexpected Encounter
     A desperate mother sought him out, described by Matthew as a woman of Canaan” (Matt. 15:22a) – the only occurrence of this archaic geographical term in the New Testament. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience1 familiar with the Old Testament, wherein this designation is employed 87 times with reference to the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. Apparently this woman’s ancestry was linked to the remnant of Canaanites left in the upper region when the Israelites settled there (Judges 1:27-36).
     Mark, on the other hand, refers to her as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26a). Mark is writing to a Roman audience2 who would have been more familiar with provincial designations. Linguistically and culturally she was Greek, living in the territory of Phoenicia in the southwest corner of the Roman province of Syria, where the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon were located.
The Unexpected Response
     Falling at his feet, she “kept asking” (Mark 7:25, 26) as she “cried out” to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22b). No less than six times in Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus moved with compassion when encountering helpless people in need of his assistance, but not here. Uncharacteristically this woman receives four negative responses. (1) “But he answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:23a). (2) The disciples urged him, “Send her away, for she cries out after us” (v. 23b). (3) “But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (v. 24). (4) “But He answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs’” (v. 26).
     On the surface it would appear that Jesus is being rude, dismissive, uncaring, and even insulting. Is it because she’s a Gentile? a woman? a Gentile woman? Before we jump to unnecessary conclusions and read too much into this atypical exchange, we need to consider that Jesus always had good reasons for what he did and said. Could it be that he is testing her faith? Is there a lesson he’s trying to teach?
Digging Beneath the Surface
     From a present-day, post-modern, politically-correct perspective, it is popular to think that mercy and compassion are shown by making someone’s life easier. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. This is a relatively quick, easy, non-committal fix to the problem from which you can walk away feeling good about yourself for having done a noble deed. However, the next day he’s hungry again. Feeding him for a lifetime requires much more time, energy, resources, and even the man’s own effort in learning how to fish. The easier option is not always the most merciful or compassionate one.
     Jesus may not have taken it “easy” on this woman, but the way he chooses to handle the situation is no less merciful than other ministry opportunities. His initial silence gives her the chance to demonstrate her resolve, and the disciples’ overt dismissal further confirms her tenacity. When the Lord says that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the implication is that Greek-Syro-Phoenician-Canaanites are outside his targeted group. Nonetheless, we have the advantage of knowing his ultimate purpose of including Gentiles (John 10:16; Matt. 28:19), and he had to start somewhere. In taking on human flesh, he was born into a Jewish family, raised in a Jewish environment, and naturally began his ministry among the Jewish people, albeit with some notable exceptions (Matt. 8:5; 15:22; John 4:40; 12:20).
     Perhaps most disconcerting is the apparent insinuation that the Lord regards this woman as a “dog.” How could this not be offensive?! Let’s remove our 21st-century, westernized spectacles for a moment and remember where Jesus is and to whom he is speaking. If he had been in Galilee or Judea conversing with a Jewish person, his statement would almost certainly be insulting. There was only one word for “dog” in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, referring to an unclean animal (Lev. 11:27); a dirty, mangy, flea-ridden scavenger (Ex. 22:31; 1 Kgs. 14:11; 16:4; 21:19; Psa. 22:16; Isa. 56:11; etc.). Yet Jesus is not in Jewish territory, and he is not speaking to a Jew.
     In the Greco-Roman world, in contrast to the Jewish aversion, dogs were common pets. And in the koinē Greek language there are two words for “dog”: kuōn (the dirty, mangy, flea-infested scavenger; thus derogatory, Matt. 7:6; Phil. 3:2), and kunarion (a house dog, pet, or puppy; thus endearing). The latter is used in our current text (Matt. 15:26, 27; Mark 7:27, 28). Jesus is talking to a Greek woman of Syro-Phoenician birth, for whom this comparison would not be culturally offensive. Moreover, there is no Aramaic equivalent to the Greek kunarion, which suggests that the Lord is conversing with this woman in her native tongue and mindful of local conventions – far from being unconcerned, disdainful, or insensitive.
     A further point of clarification is that Jesus is speaking proverbially. The allusion to a “little dog” is no more literal than the metaphoric use of “children,” “bread,” or “table.” None of these images should be stretched beyond its original intent. Earlier in the conversation the people of Israel are likened to “sheep” (Matt. 15:24). Although sheep are among the dumbest and most helpless animals on earth, I am unaware of any Jewish person ever taking offense at this comparison.
Making Sense of It All
     If the Lord were testing this woman’s faith, she passed with flying colors! “Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour” (Matt. 15:28). Nevertheless, this thought-provoking conversation was surely more than a mere test of one person’s faith. Jesus was teaching a lesson, and not just to this frantic mother, but especially to his on-looking disciples who regularly struggled with their faith.
     Notice he describes this woman as having “great” faith. Only one other time in the Gospel narratives does Jesus refer to a person of “great faith,” which interestingly is not an immediate disciple or even an ethnic Jew, but another Gentile (Matt. 8:10). In comparison, the Lord repeatedly rebuked his own followers because of their “little faith” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 7:9; 12:28) and on one occasion, “no faith” (Mark 4:40).
     What was it about this woman’s faith that made it “great”? Here are some observations that might be helpful in our journey of faith:
§  A Great Faith is a Bold Faith. This woman took initiative, “came” to Jesus and “cried out” to him (Matt. 15:22a). Any apprehensions she may have had as a woman, a Gentile, or a stranger were overshadowed by a faith that compelled her to act without reservation. She confronted her fears and cultural taboos with a robust faith that drove her to Christ.
§  A Great Faith is an Informed Faith. She addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David …” (Matt. 15:22b). How did she know this about him? She didn’t live in any of the areas where Jesus had been preaching and was not included in his targeted audience (v. 24). She had apparently heard about his ministry from others (cf. Mark 3:7-8). Faith is not a blind leap in the dark void of supporting evidence. Biblical faith is firmly established on what God has revealed through Christ (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 1:1-2; 11:1).
§  A Great Faith is a Selfless Faith. She did not approach Jesus for herself. She came for her daughter’s sake (Matt. 15:22c). An immature faith is always asking, “What can the Lord do for me, or What can I get out of the church?” A great faith does not seek its own interests but learns to focus beyond self (1 Cor. 10:24, 33; 13:5; 2 Cor. 5:15).
§  A Great Faith is a Devout Faith. She fell at Jesus’ feet (Mark 7:25), addressed him as “Lord” no less than three times, and worshiped him (Matt. 15:22, 25, 27). Pride, irreverence, and stubborn independence are the opposite of great faith.
§  A Great Faith is a Persistent Faith. She refused to quit. She “kept asking” (Mark 7:26), and even after four negative responses, she persisted (Matt. 15:25, 27). Those with lesser faith would have been offended or dejected and turned away (cf. Matt. 15:12). One who easily gives up on the Lord and his church is not a person of great faith.
§  A Great Faith is an Active Faith. She “came” to Jesus, “cried out” to him, “fell at his feet,” “worshiped” him, and didn’t stop pleading (Matt. 15:22, 25, 27; Mark 7:25, 26). “Then” Jesus grants her request (Matt. 15:28). Faith that is not active, observable, and steadfast is weak or dying, if not already dead (Jas. 2:14-26), and is far from the level of faith we ought to have.
     Long before the 11th chapter of Hebrews was written, great faith was exemplified by a most unlikely soul. She was a lowly woman in a patriarchal society, a Syro-Phoenician beyond the geographical focus of the Lord’s public ministry, and a Gentile outside his targeted audience. But she overcame every obstacle that stood in her way, demonstrating a commendable faith that is worthy of emulation. May we learn from her example as our faith develops and increases.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 See Matthew's Audience.
     2 See Mark's Audience.

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