Thursday, October 27, 2011

Born Again

Jesus talks with Nicodemus

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:1-15).

Lets take a look at this well-known passage from John 3 after having read a portion of the book of Ezekiel:

"I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules," (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Who is the "we" of whom he speaks? What are the signs he references? Is Nicodemus, a believer?

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, probably because he was afraid. Jesus is fresh off of changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, and completing his one-man riot at the Temple (John 2). The second incident in particular - the cleansing of the temple - would be good cause for someone like Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Council, to be afraid of meeting Jesus in public. The members of the Council, called the Sanhedrin, already believed that Jesus was exerting authority that he did not have. As Jesus ministry progresses, we will see that John the Baptist, Jesus, and his disciples become marginalized and outcast from the religious establishment. For John the Baptist this marginalization culminates with his beheading. For Jesus, it leads to his passion and death on the cross. The “we” Nicodemus references is most likely the Sanhedrin. As evidenced by Jesus further conversation with Nicodemus, he's probably not a believer. Coming to visit Jesus, and investigation into Jesus based on his signs, could possibly be an indication that the Holy Spirit was here, making him into a new creation. That is known only to the Lord for certain.

Jesus does not seem to acknowledge Nicodemus's statement in his response to Nicodemus. Why does Jesus answer Nicodemus in the way that he does?

The Pharisees believed in order to live as Israel had in the days of Moses and David, the Jews need to separate themselves from the Gentiles. The Pharisees taught that the Jews had to return to a strict observance of Mosaic Law[1]. To that end, over hundreds of years, the Jews had developed a long list of traditions and rituals, and superimposed these things on top of the Mosaic Law. To begin with, these traditions and rituals were meant to assist the Jews in keeping the law. In actuality, however, they became, of greater importance than the Mosaic Law[2], and also a heavy burden. Another example of this is found in Matthew 12, were Jesus and his disciples are chided by the Pharisees for "breaking the Law" by plucking heads of grain as they walked through the field on the Sabbath.[3] The Law of Moses forbade all forms of work on the Sabbath, including harvesting of grain,[4] which is what the Pharisees were accusing Jesus and his disciples are doing. Jesus' answer to the Pharisees is that they should not prioritize the details of the Sabbath law, and especially their own man-made rules, over Mercy. The keeping of these traditions and minute details became a source of pride among the Pharisees; Jesus called them on this when he says that they are like whitewashed tombs.[5] Therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus stresses the importance of a spiritual rebirth, rather than a righteousness that comes by observing the law and the traditions of the Pharisees, in his answer to Nicodemus.

What does "born again" mean?

"Born again" is a metaphor of salvation. It alludes to the transformation of a human being from an unregenerate sinner into a new spiritual being – an adopted, forgiven, son (or daughter) of God[6]. Just as natural human life comes from natural human birth, spiritual life must come from spiritual birth. As children of our original parents, Adam and Eve, we have inherited their corrupt, sinful human nature[7]. From the time we are born we are spiritually dead, and require a "new birth.”[8] This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus about. When Nicodemus doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand) Jesus elaborates slightly. He says, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[9] Without spiritual rebirth, we remain dead in our transgressions[10].

Is Jesus referring to Baptism in verses 3-7?

In light of the fact that we spent much of chapter one with John the Baptist, who was preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing, and that St. John also reports Jesus, following his conversation with Nicodemus, went with his disciples into the countryside where they were also baptizing[11], I think a good case can be made that Jesus is referring to Baptism in John 3:3-8. The new spiritual birth is something we cannot bring about ourselves[12]. Just as a corpse is not able to bring itself back to physical life, so those who are spiritually dead also cannot revive themselves from spiritual death. This spiritual resurrection is effected by God, through his means, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God the Holy Spirit creates faith in the hearts of mankind by the means of grace – Word and Sacrament[13]. In a way, these two things are really the opposite sides of the same coin. They all convey the message of the Gospel[14]. When a person hears the Word preached, the Holy Spirit uses that word to create faith in that person’s heart, by his own means. When a person is baptized the physical element of water, and the spiritual element of God’s message/promise of salvation through Christ, are delivered to that person, and the Holy Spirit, again, in his mysterious way, uses that word to create faith in that person’s heart. A sacrament, therefore, is God’s word, or pledge, joined to a physical element by his command, or promise. In addition to this means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, the act of Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is also a public profession of a Christian’s faith, as well as the faith of all believers.

That is not to say that a person who is unbaptized cannot be saved. The thief crucified next to Jesus was assured by Our Lord himself of his salvation upon his cry of “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom[15].” It is only unbelief that condemns[16]. I think, though, that the Lord provided us with baptism and communion specifically as a present pledge of the gifts he has won for us on the cross. While those gifts belong to us here in time because of Christ, we will not fully enjoy or possess them until we are with Christ – until we die and go to heaven, or Christ returns[17].

If no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, where are the dead now? What about Enoch[18]?

I have not a clue. I know that the prophet Daniel speaks of the multitudes that sleep in the dust of the earth, presumably referring to the dead[19]. This sure sounds like we spend the rest of time after our death in the grave, in a sort of sleep, slumbering until Jesus returns and raises us up. However, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise “today”[20]. The thief had spoken an indefinite “when”; Jesus responded with a definite “today”. These two things do seem to reconcile with each other. I tend to think of this issue in an unconventional sort of way. Settle in for a quick dose of “Josephology”.

When I got my wisdom teeth removed, they gave me some gas and knocked me out. From my perspective, the operation was over instantaneously. I went to sleep, and the next thing I knew, I was awake with a numb and swollen face. I had no idea that the operation had taken an hour and a half, and I had been blissfully unaware of anything happening to me during that time. I think that, when a person dies, they cease to maintain the same relationship with linear time that we are bound to while alive. What I mean is, when we are alive, as a condition of our nature, we are bound to exist only in linear time, and then in a one way (forward) line. At death, this relationship with time changes, and we stand outside of time. From the earthly “linear time” perspective, our souls may very well be slumbering in the dust, awaiting the Last Day. From the soul’s perspective, however, maybe it only seems like an instant, and the soul of the deceased person is in heaven “today” – just like someone undergoing anesthesia. As for Enoch…again, I’m stumped. I assumed that, when God “took” him, he took him to heaven.

Don’t mistake me for Walter Cronkite; I’m not saying that’s the way it is. I’m just thinking out loud (or, if you are reading this, on paper). In these difficult matters, we must simply pray for wisdom and understanding from God, give him glory and praise, and pass them over for the time being.

End Notes

[1] The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1557; Josephus, Ant, 13:172, 288-98, 372-76; 18:12-15.

[2] Matthew 15:1-9.

[3] Matthew 12:1-8.

[4] Exodus 31:13-21; Deuteronomy 5:14.

[5] Matthew 23:27.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 8:15

[7] Genesis 3; Romans 5:12

[8] Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7.

[9] John 3:5-6.

[10] Ephesians 2:1-7.

[11] John 3:22

[12] Ephesians 2:8-9

[13] 1 Peter 1:23; Titus 3:5 (Baptism); John 20:22-23 (Absolution); Matthew 26:27-28 (The Lord’s Supper).

[14] Romans 10:17.

[15] Luke 23:39-43.

[16] Mark 16:16.

[17] Romans 6:3-4.

[18] Genesis 5:24.

[19] Daniel 12:2.

[20] Luke 23:45.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Law

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

What does the lawyer mean when he says, “the Law”?

God’s law commands human beings to do good works of thought, word and deed and punishes sin. There are three types of law: 1) the moral law, which tell us how to act toward God and our fellow man, 2) the ceremonial law, wherein God instructs and regulates the religious practices of the Old Testament, and 3) the political law, which was the state law of the physical nation of Israel. When God created mankind he wrote the moral law on our hearts (Luther, 1986). The iconic bearded Charlton Heston portraying Moses is embedded deeply into the fabric of America’s popular culture, so that most people, even non-religious people, are familiar with God’s law in the form of the Ten Commandments. What they may not be familiar with, however, as the Pharisees were not, is the concept of God’s law – what he requires of mankind in the law.

God wants us to keep his law, and to keep it perfectly. God is holy; we are his creation and he wants us to be holy as well[1]. God, according to his very nature, abhors sin[2]. Unfortunately, since mankind’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, we lack the capacity to keep God’s law and to please him by our actions. Satan brought sin into the world by tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden[3]. Because of their willful disobedience to God the nature of mankind was utterly corrupted by sin and mankind was transformed from a the pinnacle of creation made in the image of God, into a being whose every impulse is to rebel and turn away from our Maker[4]. We all know this, even if we are too ashamed to admit it. We know it innately. We all know that there is something we lack, something that no amount of doing good things can make up for. This is the same deficit that the Pharisees were trying to meet by turning God’s law from a mirror intended to make us conscious of our sin and submit to God[5], into a set of “do this and you’ll be ok” rules and regulations. Turning to a bottle, sex, drugs, or any other idol to try and make up for what we know we lack, but cannot define, is no different than the Pharisees redefining God’s law into a code that was easier for them to keep in order to assuage their guilty feelings.

Among our many sins, none is more grievous than our failure to love God above all else. Thankfully, God does not respond to our selfishness by reciprocating. Instead, he gives us the greatest gift: His only-begotten Son (Engelbrecht & al., 2009). St. Paul has this to say on the subject of sin:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6: 22-23).

Wages are given to someone for doing something. When you go to work and do your job, your employer pays you your wages. He does not give you your pay out of his benevolence, but because you have performed a duty and earned them. A gift is different. You receive a gift, not necessarily because you deserve it, but because someone else - the giver – desired to give it to you. For example, a person receives a birthday present because the giver of the present wants to give it to them, not because they have done anything to merit a gift. One could hardly make the argument that they caused themselves to be born so as to merit a birthday gift. Unlike wages, a person does not earn a gift. On the contrary, a gift is given because the giver wants to give it.

It is interesting to see what Paul is telling us in this passage about what our efforts are worth when it comes to our salvation. "The wages of sin is death," Paul says. We are not able to earn that which is given to us by God as a gift - eternal life and forgiveness of sin. The only wages we are capable of earning is death. To put it in modern bureaucratic terms, that is the only job for which we hold a certification. Because of our sinful human nature, inherited from our ancestors Adam and Eve, we are incapable of performing the work that God requires of us. In the law, written on our hearts and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God requires us to fear, love and trust in him above all things (Luther, 1986). Jesus, in the passage above and also quoted in St. Luke’s gospel, summarized all the law and the prophets like this:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).

This, however, no matter how good our works may look to the eyes of the world, we cannot do. For all of our efforts to come to God on our own terms and satisfy our nature and its desires we earn our true wages - death.

God, however, sees our situation and comes to us[6]. He is not content to simply pay us what we have earned. On the contrary God, who loves us and wants to restore the relationship he had with us in the beginning, gives us a gift - the gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sin through Jesus' death and resurrection. God promised this gift to Adam and Eve after they sinned in the Garden of Eden[7]. He promised this gift of a Savior to Abraham and to all Israel through the prophets[8]. This gift entered the world in Bethlehem's manger and was given in full on Calvary's cross[9]. Through faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man - God in human flesh - God gives us eternal life and makes us his children[10]. We, and everyone who believes in Christ Jesus, are saved eternally from sin, death and the devil, because of Jesus’ keeping the Law and His suffering and death for us (Luther, 1986)[11].

However, just as an ungrateful birthday boy may turn up his nose at a gift he does not appreciate or understand, we are able to reject God's gift of a Savior. The Pharisees, who loved their position in life and praise from men more than God, rejected the gift. They hardened their hearts to God's Holy Spirit and they, along with all those who do the same, will receive their wages for their labor:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." (Acts 7:51-53).

Do not resist God who will create faith in your heart and make you into a new creation. He will make you a light to shine before all men to the glory of His Name in this life and a child to live with him, worship him and serve him in all eternity. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - forever and ever. Amen.

End Notes

[1] Leviticus 19:2

[2] Psalm 5:4-5; 11:5-7; 45:6-7; Leviticus 20:23; Hosea 9:15; Hebrews 1:8-9

[3] Genesis 3

[4] Genesis 8:21; Psalm 14:3; 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Isaiah 64:6; John 3:6, Romans 5:12, 19; 8:7; Ephesians 2:3, 1 John 1:8

[5] First, the Law helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world (a curb); Second, the Law accuses us and shows us our sin (a mirror); Third, the Law teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to lead a God-pleasing life (a guide). The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel (Luther, 1986).

[6] Romans 5:6

[7] Genesis 3:15

[8] Galatians 3:13-18

[9] Luke 2:1-21; John 19:16-30; John 20:1-10

[10] John 1:12-13

[11] Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 8:3-5

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A., & al., e. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In His Father's House (John 2:13-18)

Some thoughts regarding Jesus' cleansing of the temple recorded in John 2, in light of the words of Malachi:

"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like a fuller's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years (Malachi 3:1-4).

"The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem," (John 2:13).

What is the Passover and why is it significant to Jesus ministry? Passover is a feast, commanded by God, commemorating God's rescuing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb, and thus their creation/establishment as a nation (Exodus 12). The Passover was the first of three annual festivals at which all men were required to appear at the sanctuary (Exodus 23:14-17). Passover is associated with the feast of unleavened bread, the week during which leaven was rigidly excluded from the diet of the Hebrews (Exodus 23:15). Passover is also related to the 10th plague - the death of the firstborn in Egypt. The death of Jesus at Passover time is quite significant. Paul calls Christ, "our Passover," (1 Cor. 5:7). Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians, chapter 5, that Christians must put away old leaven of malice and replace it with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8). John applies the command from Exodus 12 not to break a bone of the Paschal lamb to the death of Jesus.

The Passover lamb and the physical rescue of Israel from Egyptian bondage foreshadows and points toward the Passover lamb that was to come and release spiritual Israel from their bondage to sin. That lamb is Jesus. This is what John the Baptist is calling to mind when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God (John 1:29); this is what Jesus is referencing at the Last Supper, when he associates the Passover Seder supper he and his disciples were sharing, with the sacrifice he was about to make of his body and blood on the cross (Matthew 26:26-29). Just as the first covenant was established by blood, Christ's blood establishes the second. Jesus is, at the Last Supper, showing that the Passover lamb pointed to him.

"In the temple, he found that those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there," (John 2:14).

Why would people be selling animals in the temple? The necessary animals for the prescribed sacrifices had to be available, especially for those who had traveled a long distance; it would not be practical for most people to bring their own sacrifice (Lenski, 205). A temple tax was also required of all Israelites 20 years of age and older (Exodus 30:11-16). Again, those coming from long distances would require the services of a money changer, in order to convert foreign currencies to the proper weight/denomination coin needed for the temple tax.

"And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables," (John 2:15).

Jesus whipped these people with the scourge and destroyed their property. Are Jesus actions sinful? If not, why? We know that Jesus' actions are not sinful, because Scripture tells us. Jesus was without sin (2 Colossians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). Jesus' anger, however, stems not from hatred, but from love - love for his Father, and his Father's house. God the Father shows his approval for the cleansing of the temple by giving Jesus' actions power. Jesus had "emptied himself" (Philippians 2:7) of his divine power, though not his divinity. He, therefore, had to demonstrate perfect faith and rely on the Father to exercise his divine power for him. There was a crowd of "them" and only one Jesus. If the merchants, who presumably had permission to sell in the temple were in the right, why did they not resist this one, lone wack-a-do, who was attempting to beat them with his homemade whip? Lenski offers an explanation:

"As God's Son, who has the Son’s right in this house and the Son's power over this house, Jesus uses his right and his power. And the Father supports his Son by lending his act power to drive these temple desecrators out to the temple gates in wild flight. By this word, "my father's house," Jesus attests both his Sonship, and his Messiahship," (Lenski, 208).
We also see another example of God the Father confirming Jesus’ authority, when he lends power to Jesus' words in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus' mere statement, "I am he," caused those who had come to arrest him to draw back and fall to the ground (John 18:6).

"And he told those who sold the pigeons, 'Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.' His disciples remembered that it was written, ' Zeal for your house will consume me.' So the Jews said to him, ' What sign do you show us for doing these things?'" (John 2:17-18).

Who are "the Jews" in verse 18? "The Jews" are, simply, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the teachers of the law - the Jewish religious leaders. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were particularly revered by the masses. They controlled the synagogues and schools (Harrison, et. al., 406). The Pharisees, in Jesus time, were the preeminent Jewish sect. They were strict observers and teachers of the Torah. As the historian Josephus explains, the Pharisees believed that in order to live under God's favor, as Israel had in the days of Moses and David, the Jews needed to separate themselves from the Gentiles and their ways and return to strict observance of Mosaic Law. Modern Rabbinic Judaism is most likely a modern-day descendent of the Pharisees (TLSB, 1557). Given their disdain of Gentiles, it would make sense that the Pharisees would be looking for a Messiah who would rescue them from the domination of the Gentile Romans, and restore the autonomous Jewish nation.

Why did the Jews ask Jesus for a sign to validate his actions in the temple? The Jewish leaders asked for a sign of Jesus’ authority, because he was doing things that a regular, everyday, average carpenter did not have the authority to do. He was messing with established temple tradition and regulations. Jesus was, however, doing much more than that, as our verse from Malachi shows us.

In response to their repeated requests for a sign, Jesus basically tells the Jewish leaders that, if they were really faithful Jews - true children of Abraham - they would have already recognized Scripture's description of him, and believed in him (John 8:31-59; Romans 4:12-17; Galatians 4:21-31). Whether or not the Pharisees had some specific "Things The Messiah Will Do When He Gets Into Town" list, I don't know. It is clear, though, that Jesus, by his words and actions here, derives his authority from God the Father. When he is challenged, he quotes, or references, Scripture (John 5:39). Jesus’ words and actions cause his disciples - men who had been taught by John the Baptist and were actively seeking the Messiah described in Scripture - to call to mind important passages of Scripture (John 1:17).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Paying Taxes to Caesar (the Gospel of Matthew)

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's...
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? (Matthew 22:15-17).

So, the Pharisees and Herodians are hoping to catch Jesus in a misstatement. They were already afraid of the reaction of the crowds if they should overtly come out against Jesus and imprison or murder him[1]. They figured that the only way to seize him would be for him to incriminate himself. Their question seems to be designed to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. If he answers that they shouldn't pay taxes to Rome, he is a subversive to the Roman governor and subject to his punishment. If he advocates paying taxes, then the Pharisees can say that he is a traitor to his people and the people would then call for his head.

This is ironic as well, since the Herodians were dispised by the Pharisees for exactly the same thing for which they were hoping to frame Jesus – collaborating with the hated Romans. The Herodians were a priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors (Kohler). They were made up of members of Herod the Great’s family, and supported the Herodian rulers in their policies, as well as in the social customs which they introduced from Rome (Biblos). They encouraged the idea of a national kingdom under the rule of the Herodian dynasty (Biblos). They seem to have been more politically focused than the Pharisees, with whom they were frequently at odds, but they, along with the Sadducees, agreed that the Jews should submit to Roman rule, administrated through the throne of Herod (Kretzmann, 1921). Descendants of Herod ruled the region of Israel on behalf of the Romans for 163 years from 63 BC – 100 AD (Engelbrecht, 2009).

They set up their question with a bit of flattery, telling Jesus that, “…we know you are true and teach the way of God truthfully…” No one reading this account would believe for a minute that the person making that statement actually believes what he is saying. If he did, why did he not simply accept what Jesus was teaching, since he was teaching the way of God truthfully, rather than questioning him? Without any doubt the questioner intends this obsequiousness to cause Jesus to put down his guard, as if he were speaking with one of his own disciples. The funny thing is, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, one of the men of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night and uttered almost this exact statement in sincerity:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:1-2).

These men, who knew what God’s word said to look for, saw what Jesus did, and they knew what it meant. They saw him heal the sick, restore the sight of the blind, make the lame to walk, and they understood that these were signs that pointed to the coming Messiah[2]. Because, however, their understanding of the Messiah had shifted from the spiritual realm to the temporal, they rejected him when he arrived. Rather than embrace his coming the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were more concerned with holding on to their political power and religious authority[3]. They had made a life and a career of earning their righteousness by their scrupulous keeping of their perversion of God’s law[4]. They would not sit still as someone, least of all an obscure carpenter from Nazareth, upset their apple cart with the proposition that righteousness comes through faith in the Christ[5]. Jesus, being the omnipotent Son of God, saw through their duplicity. Rather than assent to the faulty premise of their contrived question, Jesus uses the opportunity to illustrate the true relationship between temporal and spiritual things.

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matthew 22:18-22).

Nearly everyone has heard of Jesus' answer recorded in this passage, "Therefore render to Ceaser the things that are Ceaser's, and to God the things that are God's." What Jesus is telling us here is that, while our first allegiance is to God and his kingdom, he has instituted civil authority and we are bound to obey all legitimate civil authority[6]. Kretzmann has this to say on the subject:

God’s people should above all give to God due honor and obedience. In those things which concern the Word of God, worship itself, faith, and conscience, we are obedient to God only and pay no attention to objections made by men. But in mere temporal, earthly things, which concern money, possessions, body, life, we obey the government of the country in which we live…But what if they should want to take the Gospel from us, or prohibit its preaching? Then thou shalt say: The Gospel and the Word of God I will not give you, neither have ye any power concerning that; for your government is a temporal government over earthly goods, but the Gospel is a spiritual, heavenly possession; therefore your power does not extend over the Gospel and the Word of God (Kretzmann, 1921).
Indeed, Jesus says that things temporal have no jurisdiction over the Word, and the spiritual things the Word governs[7]. St. Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching on this proper separation of church and state when he writes:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek...For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

The King James Version conveys the message of this passage more clearly when it says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness…” The Gospel preaches righteousness and gives the spirit, and is completely foreign to those who do not believe. Without God’s intervention “them that perish” cannot, by their own reason or strength understand or believe the Gospel[8]. Jesus tells the Pharisees, and us, to keep our priorities straight. Do not raise man made rules, or governments and rulers – anything temporal – to a spiritual position where they usurp the place that rightfully belongs to God by his very nature; Do not bring God’s word, his Law and Gospel, down to the level of mere temporal regulations and traditions that are designed to elevate man to a false position of prominence and prestige, a hypocritical piety which one attains by how diligently he keeps his man-made law[9]. Jesus identifies the Pharisees as having done this very thing when he points out their spiritual blindness and hypocrisy:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life…Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (John 5:39-40; Mark 7:6-7).

May we be careful to always render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Works Cited

Biblos. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2011, from Easton's Bible Dictionary: Herodians:

Engelbrecht, E. A. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Kohler, K. (n.d.). Herodians. Retrieved October 18, 2011, from

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible (Vol. I). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 21:45-46
[2] Luke 7:22; Luke 4:16-21
[3] John 11:48-53; 18:13-14
[4] Matthew 23:1-36
[5] Acts 16:29-31; Ephesians 2:5-9; 2 Timothy 1:8-10
[6] Romans 13:1-8
[7] Matthew 16:18-19
[8] Romans 8:7
[9] Mark 7:1-23

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Come, Follow Me

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him,”We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:44-45).

This passage was always difficult for me to understand because of the phrase, “…whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” For John to say that Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus indicates that the Jewish rabbis had a developed and systematic theology regarding “The One” -- the Messiah. We are all familiar with the messianic prophecies (see bottom). We read them every Christmas season. The thing that has always perplexed me about the messianic prophecies, however, was how they came to be messianic. Today, Christians and Jews argue about which passages in the Old Testament are messianic, and what sort of Messiah the Old Testament faithful were looking for. It is one thing for Christians to point to passages in the Old Testament which seemed to fall in line with the life of Jesus, so that we could make him into the Jewish Messiah. This is what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law accused the early Christians of doing. While it has been nearly impossible for me to find any record of what Old Testament rabbis from the time of the prophets taught about Messiah, the paragraph below is a brief outline of what Jews today teach about the Messiah. The modern Jewish view of Messiah falls much more in line with that of the Pharisees:

“The mashiach will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). The mashiach is often referred to as "mashiach ben David" (mashiach, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person's lifetime, then that person will be the mashiach. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the mashiach, then that person is not the mashiach (Judaism 101).”

As we continue in our study of the Gospel of John, we will learn more about the character of the Messiah as presented by Scripture. Jesus will explain, as he does in this passage to the Pharisees, that their preconceived, worldly ideas of what the Messiah would be are incorrect: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life... do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" (John 5:39-40, 45-47).

These first disciples, faithful Jews and followers of John the Baptist, recognize Jesus as the one who was to come. In order for them to recognize Jesus, the followers of John the Baptist had to be looking for something specific -- someone specific -- based on an earlier interpretation of Scripture. What things were the faithful rabbis teaching their students to be on the lookout for?

Luke 4:16-21: In this passage, Jesus reads the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 61:1-2). The passage Jesus reads has traditionally been recognized by Jews and Christians to be messianic and talks about the Messiah ("The Servant" in Isaiah) being, " proclaim good news to the poor." Following the reading of the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus gives a wonderfully brief sermon saying, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus is telling those to whom he is speaking in the synagogue that, not only is he The Servant/The Messiah of whom Isaiah wrote, but he is also assuming the title of Anointed One. The phrase "Anointed One" is also used to refer to God. Isaiah also writes that God (Yahweh) himself will come, mighty to save Israel (7:10-14; 24:21-23; 25; 35). So, in a concise way, Jesus is telling everyone who he is -- Immanuel, God with us.

Deuteronomy 18: 15-18: Israel would have succession of prophets who resembled Moses, in that, they transmitted God's messages to the people of Israel. Moses does, however, have a special relationship with God, one that no other prophet enjoyed (Deut. 34:10). He is telling Israel about The Servant, whom Isaiah will later describe. Moses knew the Lord, "face-to-face". As John has told us in the beginning of chapter 1, Jesus, the Word, was with God in the beginning. The Apostles cite this passage from Deuteronomy and apply it to Jesus (Acts. 3:22-23; 7:37), showing us that it was considered messianic in Jesus time.

“In his writings Moses transmitted the promises to the patriarchs; he gave Israel the law, which with all its symbols and types point so directly to Christ; and in passages like Deuteronomy 18:15-18 renewed the divine promise concerning the great mediator prophet to come. The entire history of Israel contained in the Pentateuch is senseless and purposeless without the Messiah, so that all that Moses wrote in the law actually refers to Christ. The Prophets were the expounders of the law whose special duty was not only to drive home the requirements and the threats of the law in the hearts of the people but also to hold out to them the glorious and comforting hope of the deliverer to come, of whom they at times spoke directly as in Isaiah 53. The Baptist continued this work in the most effective way, and we here have men trained in the Baptist’s school who naturally reveal their training. Philip spoke truly when he said that the picture of the Messiah was found in Moses and in the prophets. It has always been there, though, the nation of the Jews eventually refuse to "find” and to see it, and modernism denies that Moses "wrote" his five books and treats the Prophets and the writings with the same destructive criticism,” (Lenski, 163-164).

Prophecies of the Messiah filled in Jesus Christ - Is there some comprehensive list of Messianic Prophecies from the rabbis of Old Testament times? The following list was taken from the back of a King James Bible. Along with the prophecies, their fulfillments were also listed. For the sake of brevity, I have included only the prophecy. It is obvious that modern Jews do not recognize these prophecies as referring to the Messiah; in a few instances where they do recognize these passages as messianic, we are told either that the passages are being misinterpreted, or Jesus did not fulfill them:

  • Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15).
  • Seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:3).
  • Seed of Isaac (Genesis 17:19).
  • Seed of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).
  • From the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10).
  • Heir to the throne of David (Isaiah 9:7).
  • Born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
  • Time for his birth (Daniel 9:25).
  • To be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
  • Slaughter of the innocents (Jeremiah 31:15).
  • Flight to Egypt (Hosea 11:1).
  • Preceded by a forerunner (Malachi 3:1).
  • Declared the son of God (Psalm 2:7).
  • Galilean ministry (Isaiah 9:1).
  • A prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15).
  • To heal the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1).
  • Rejected by his own people, the Jews (Isaiah 53:3).
  • Priest after order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4).
  • Triumphal entry (Zechariah 9:9).
  • Betrayed by a friend (Psalm 41:9).
  • Sold for thirty pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12).
  • Accused by false witnesses (Psalm 35:11).
  • Silent to accusations (Isaiah 53:7).
  • Spat upon and smitten (Isaiah 50:6).
  • Hated without reason (Psalm 35:19).
  • Vicarious sacrifice (Isaiah 53:5).
  • Crucified with malefactors (Isaiah 53:12).
  • Pierced through hands and feet (Zechariah 12:10).
  • Scorned and mocked (Psalm 22:7).
  • Given vinegar and gall (Psalm 69:21).
  • Prayer for his enemies (Psalm 109:4).
  • Soldiers gamble for his coat (Psalm 22:17).
  • No broken bones (Psalm 34:20).
  • His side pierced (Zechariah 12:10).
  • Buried with the rich (Isaiah 53:9).
  • To be resurrected (Psalm 16:10; 49:15).
  • His ascension to God's right hand (Psalm 68:18).

Nathaniel said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see," (John 1:46).

It sure sounds like Nathaniel doesn't have much regard for the town of Nazareth. I would be willing to bet that Nathaniel is a little pessimistic as well. It seems to me as though he saying, "Surely, if you have found the Messiah, for whom we have all been waiting for thousands of years, he wouldn't come from a crap hole like Nazareth." I mean, how bad was Nazareth? It must have been like the Gary, Indiana, of Judea.

Philip, however, is undeterred. His reply was a simple and direct, "Come and see." This was the best answer that Philip could have given Nathaniel. No amount of explaining was going to convey to Nathaniel what Jesus was like. Nathaniel already had preconceived notions of what sort of things came from a place like Nazareth. He had to bring him to Jesus so that he could see for himself that he was the long expected Messiah, in the same way Philip had seen. I imagine Nathaniel, getting up from his resting place under the tree with a grumpy sigh, grudgingly following Philip to meet this person from this place for which he harbors such disdain. But Philip has learned, as Nathaniel will learn, that this is the best way to get to know Jesus -- to come to him. We are coming to him now by studying his word; we do it on Sunday mornings, when we approach the altar and partake of the Lord's Supper.

What also is illustrated for us in this scene played out between Nathaniel and Philip is a picture of our own personal evangelistic work. "Come and see" is an invitation. And, while Philip is the one speaking to Nathaniel, the invitation is given from Jesus himself. Jesus uses us, as he used Philip in this case, to call others to him. How can we begin to get excited about calling others to Jesus, if we don't have a good idea who he is? Philip started to get to know Jesus, and became excited about what he had found. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we too will be excited and invigorated by what we discover as we get to know Jesus through his word. As this happens more and more, we need to tell the Nathaniel's in our lives, persistently, "Come and see!" God's Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Wedding Feast

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.' But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matthew 22:1-10).

Why did Jesus speak to them in parables and who is the “them” Matthew is writing about? Jesus addressed his parables to the Pharisees in particular[1], but also to the crowds of people who were not his disciples in general. The disciples are the ones to whom Jesus referred when he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given…but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The disciples have the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven and they will “have in abundance” as a result of Jesus’ teaching them. Those who oppose Jesus and reject him will lose even the knowledge they have.

Parables are generally defined as a complete, imaginary story designed to illustrate a spiritual truth (Engelbrecht, 2009). For the unbeliever – the “one who has not” – the parable also functions as an instrument of judgment. Because unbelievers reject the Gospel, their eyes cannot see, nor can their ears hear, the truth that the parable illustrates[2]. We are called to faith by the Holy Spirit working through God’s word. We cannot come to Jesus by our own efforts, reason, or strength. This is why Jesus says we must have faith like a little child[3].We receive God’s gracious forgiveness and salvation through our simple, child-like trust in Jesus words, brought to us by the Holy Spirit. These spiritual issues are not things that we can reason out, weigh as evidence in a courtroom trial, and decided to believe in after we have processed it logically.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:38-40).

Indeed, this is what the Pharisees were attempting to do – or at least pretending to do – when they asked Jesus for a sign and why Jesus speaks to them in parables[4]. In this particular instance, Jesus tells them that there will be no magic trick to convince them, and directs them to Holy Scripture for the sign they seek. This sign Jesus points the Pharisees to is the sign of Jonah, the sign of his impending death and resurrection[5].

This idea that faith depends on the working of the Holy Spirit through the means of God’s Word and not on a person’s reason is also illustrated to us in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus[6]. The wicked rich man who had died and gone to hell begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers as a warning sign that they should turn from their wickedness and avoid the eternal torment that surely awaits them. What is Abraham’s answer? “They [the five brothers] have Moses and the Prophets [God’s Word]; let them hear them.” Jesus goes on to explain that, if a person will not listen to the voice of God calling him through Holy Scripture, he will not be convinced of God’s message even is someone should rise from the dead. His heart has been hardened.

What does Jesus mean by the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven? The Kingdom of Heaven, at other times called the Kingdom of God, is God’s ruling as king over the whole universe, the church on earth and the church and angles in heaven (Luther, 1986). Jesus makes clear that this concept is not a physical, earthly kingdom, like a country or empire; it is a spiritual kingdom[7]. Jesus makes the spiritual nature of his kingdom the most evident in his dialogue with Pontius Pilate[8]. The Jews and Romans viewed Jesus the same way they viewed the Zealots, as a political threat. Jesus makes it very clear that he was not leading a revolution, at least in the conventional sense. Jesus came to conquer sin, death, and the devil for mankind by dying as a sacrifice on the cross. By his death and resurrection he established his kingdom of grace, and rules over it from his place in heaven at God the Father’s right hand. When he returns, it will be to judge the world[9].

"But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:11-14)

Why did the king in Jesus’ wedding feast parable treat the man without a wedding garment so harshly? The man was one of the people whom the king's servants went out into the streets to bring to the wedding. He was invited to the feast by the grace of the king, and not by virtue of his relationship with the king, or anything else that could be attributed to him. In the ancient Middle East it was customary for the host of a banquet such as the wedding feast described in the parable, to provide his guests with clothing appropriate for the celebration to which they had been invited. For this man to to be at the banquet but not properly attired would mean that he would have had to refuse to wear the clothing provided him by the king for some reason (Engelbrecht, 2009).

God is the king in the parable. The wedding feast is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the spiritual kingdom of God's grace, secured and won for mankind by the blood of Jesus. The first group of people called to the feast represents the Jews, particularly the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Teachers of the Law - the Jewish political/religious establishment of the time. Their rejection of the invitation to the feast is a rejection of God's call to repentance and the gracious gift of forgiveness he freely gives. The servants mistreated and killed represent the prophets. The people gathered in off the street represent the inclusion of Gentiles in God's kingdom. The man who refused to wear the garment provided for him by God is one of those called who miss out on the blessings of God's Kingdom because they do not respond to the invitation properly - in child-like faith.

Perhaps the man in the parable thought that his clothes were good enough to attend the banquet when in reality, compared to the garments of God's righteousness tailored for is by Christ on Calvary's cross, they are tattered rags. Though the man did nothing to deserve an invitation to the banquet or festival garments, the king provided for him in abundance. In the same way, though we in no way deserve mercy, the Lord invites mankind to join him at his heavenly banquet through the message of the Gospel. How will we respond to his invitation? Will we faithfully accept the garments provided us without question or condition, or will we reject the message and try to come to the party on our own terms, wearing our own filthy rags? If we do, we will end up like the man in the parable – cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Works Cited

[1] Matthew 13:10
[2] Matthew 13:13; Isaiah 6:9-10
[3] Mark 10:15
[4] Matthew 12:39
[5] Matthew 12:39-40
[6] Luke 16:19-31
[7] Mark 1:15; Romans 14:17
[8] John 18:36
[9] Matthew 25:31-32

Engelbrecht, E. A. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Theos En Ho Logos

The Risen Christ

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1: 1-5).

I studied this passage a lot when I was in confirmation class because Jehovah’s Witnesses used to come over to my grandfather’s house. They would come by nearly every week and we would debate doctrine and the Bible – way before I had any real understanding of either. The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is “the first and greatest of all of Jehovah God’s creations,” but he is not God. This introductory passage of John’s Gospel puts the lie to that statement.

Theos en ho logos – God was the Word. There is no way around the meaning of that Greek sentence. It means that the Word – whom John identifies as Jesus (v. 17) – was God. Not “a god” as the Watchtower translators wrongly interpret the passage in their New World Translation (an impossible rendering of the passage, according to renowned Greek scholar Dr. Julius Mantey). Jesus is not God’s first and greatest creation (v.2). He is God, the Son, second person of the Trinity, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). He is Immanuel, God with us.

Logos – Logos is the Greek word for “Word”. It is also the root of our modern English word “logic”. Greek philosophers, such as Plato, used the term not only to mean the spoken word but also the unspoken word still in the mind - the human power of reason. When they applied that term to larger concepts, like the Universe, “Logos” meant the rational principle governing all things. Not really God as we, or the Jews at that time, understand Him, but more like a logical set of rules that govern the how the universe, and all in it, works. Today, we might compare this Greek philosophical idea of “Logos” to the laws of physics. The Jewish teachers, on the other hand, with whom we will become better acquainted as we make our way through John’s Gospel, used the term “Logos” to refer to God. This is significant, because by its use in Scripture (this is the term used for “word” in the Septuagint) it implies that God is actively involved in the world, rather than having simply created the universe, wound it up like a big clock and let it run on its own without his involvement. John is basically saying to his readers in the first chapter of his gospel that everything the rabbis taught about the word, which God had given them in the Old Testament, was fulfilled in Jesus. To the educated Greeks – and to us “rational” Gentiles today – John is saying that Jesus is God Almighty; the rational governing force behind all things in the universe, upholding everything by his mighty word.

The phrase “word of the Lord” is used over 100 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the books of the prophets. The word is the means by which God communicates with us. John applies this title to Jesus and, by so doing, John is telling us that God’s will and words are personified in Jesus. The implication of that is that Jesus reveals the truth of God to us.

“…we cannot know God without Christ, the Word…If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to come close to God, come close to Jesus. If you want to live according to God’s will, live with Jesus,” (People’s Bible Commentary – John, p. 8).

In his study, "The Gospels from a Jewish Perspective," evangelist Bob Warren describes how Jewish theologians had developed a theology concerning “Logos.” In his study Warren lists some key elements of this theology. First, the Word was a person possessing a mind, emotions, and will. The Word could be sent to accomplish a mission (PS. 147:15; Is. 9:8; 45:23; 55:10-11). The Word brought about salvation (Hosea 1:7). The Word was the agent of revelation (Gen. 15:1; Ezra 1:3). The Word was the agent of creation (Ps. 33:4-6). The Word was the avenue through which God sealed covenants (Gen. 15:1). The Word was the agent of the Old Testament theophanies - appearances of the Christ (Gen. 18). The Word was the same as God, and at other times distinct from God.

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18).

The phrase translated “the only God” in this verse comes from the Greek word “monogenes”. This, in the NIV and KJV is rendered as the more familiar “only-begotten”. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him,” (John 1:18, KJV). We say that phrase every week in the creeds, but I never thought about what it was actually declaring until I began interacting with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To say that you were “begotten” is much different than to say that you were “created”. It is one of those wonderfully old-fashioned words which has a precise meaning, but has fallen out of regular use among the common folk. As a result, that precise meaning has become somewhat fuzzy to us. C. S. Lewis explains this in his work Mere Christianity:
We don't use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set-or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive. Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God. (Mere Christianity – Lewis, Chapter 23 “Making and Begetting”).

To paraphrase Lewis, to create something is to do what a sculptor does with hammer, chisel, and stone. He carves out a thing that looks like a man, but is not. It is created out of a different material, and has an altogether different existence. This is what God the Father, through “the Word” (v.3), did with us. We are created beings, as different in nature from God as the marble sculpture is in nature from the artist who created it.

To beget, however, is to call something into existence; to father something; to produce something. Remember all those “begets” in the beginning pages of the Bible? That’s what they were doing. You are of the same substance as your father; you were not created as a sculptor makes a stature out of stone. You were produced “through the will of man” (your parents) “through the will of the flesh” (sexual intercourse). So, for John to call Jesus “the only-begotten”, is a profound thing. To be clear, I don’t’ believe John is saying that the Son was produced as a result of sexual intercourse, but that the Son was produced of the same substance as the Father – both divine, almighty God. The Son is begotten of the Father – the only being who so exists. He was also, by virtue of the fact that He is deity, “with God in the beginning.” The point is that He was not a created being like we human beings. Jesus, as John tells us in v. 14, assumed the human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There, in the virgin’s womb, the divine and human natures were inseparably joined in one person, Jesus, the God-man (AC III 1-2).

St. Paul expands on this in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 5-10).

What does this all mean to us?

John introduces us to Jesus, the God-man, in the first sentences of his Gospel, and in doing so, shows us a shadow of the triune nature of God. In a handful of sentences, John tells Jew and Gentile, in the beginning of his gospel, the Word came, but many, especially the Jews, rejected Him because they did not recognize Him. Jesus says of the Pharisees “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Not only did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament messianic prophecies, which we will see as we study the Gospel of John, but he was also doing the things the Pharisees expected the Messiah to do when he came, yet they rejected Him.

Who do we say that Jesus is? Jesus asked this question of Peter and he rightly answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). It was on the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus built His Church. Peter, by the Power of the Holy Spirit, could see what the Pharisees had hardened their hearts against, even though he didn’t have a full understanding of all the implications. Jesus was not a political “savior,” come to restore Israel, as the elite Jewish Pharisees and Teachers of the Law expected. He was not simply a virtuous man or good teacher. Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ – the Son of God – who fulfilled all the prophecies of scripture and, by His death and resurrection, atoned for the sin of mankind and purchased us from death and the devil by his blood on the cross.