This Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, has a unique emphasis—the focus is on a teaching instead of an aspect of Jesus’ life. It is known as Trinity Sunday. And I have often emphasized that the Trinity is not to be understood; it is to be believed.
This year, the Gospel text is from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus. When we think of that text, we, of course, think of John 3:16, and there is talk about believing in that text. But there is a context to that text. And, I think, it is a helpful context as well.
At the end of chapter two, the topic of ‘believing’ is brought up in three successive verses. But its use goes back even farther. And there is an important connection of believing between this gospel account’s beginning and ending. At the end of chapter one, Jesus remarks of Nathanael that he believes because he sees a small thing, but he will certainly see greater things (also, at the beginning of chapter two, after a miracle, the text says that Jesus’ disciples believed in him). And, at the end of the account, Jesus blesses those who have not seen and yet have believed.
So, right before the text for this Sunday, at the end of the previous chapter, it says that the disciples ‘believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (2:22).’ And the very end of the chapter has two more occurrences of the word, given in a somewhat unusual form:
‘Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.’
On the part of the people, many believed in his name. On the part of Jesus, he did not believe or entrust himself to them.
This use of ‘entrust’ is obviously rare. And, oddly enough, it also has an extremely similar use in the Apocrypha. The text talks about the situation of the Jews a couple centuries before Jesus was born, and it may be helpful to see the similarities and differences to the above text. In 1 Maccabees 8:15-16, the text says this concerning the Romans, that
‘they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day 320 senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust [or ‘entrust’] one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them.’
This is obviously a glowing and biased report of what the Romans were doing. And I cannot help but think of how great a Roman ruler Jesus would have been if he were in that situation. And that also makes me think of the verse in John where, after the miracle of the loaves and fish, and the people wanted to make Jesus a king; but he left. He wanted to be their king in another way.
Jesus knew what was in man. Those are the last few words of John 2. And then we hear of Nicodemus, who was a ruler of the Jews, and, not only that, but he was a Pharisee as well—usually the Sadducees were the rulers—a Pharisee as a ruler is rare! And Jesus is a bit difficult with him, but that is completely understandable. ‘He himself knew what was in man.’ That is why he stayed to do his John 3:16 job.
Immediately ahead of us in the Church year is a ‘watershed’. The Church Year goes from essentially following the life of Christ—and there are the two parts to this: ‘The Time of Christmas’ and ‘The Time of Easter’, and then the year goes to what, to many, seems to be a step down or a step away, that of ‘The Time of the Church’. Ahead of us is the season of Pentecost.
It is easy to picture what is ahead of us as a step in the downward direction, away from Christ and toward a focus on His Church. But as I look at the words of Jesus when he gave his so-called ‘Farewell Discourse’ in the Gospel according to John, I do not see a step down. I see an earnest desire for his significant and gracious presence to continue among his followers. I see essentially the same focus that there was there before. Jesus was close to his followers; he was concerned for his followers. And he certainly did not want them to think of his departure as a step down or a step away from him.
I also think that the whole of this gospel account has been moving in that direction of resolving the issue of Christ’s presence. In chapter one, the writer states that this ‘Word’ has ‘set up a tent’ (in verse 14, it is the word ‘dwelt’) with us. Jesus is around with his disciples. He talks with them. He talks with some others—a great variety of people. And he talks a lot about his presence. The special ‘I am’ statements that he gives connect his gracious presence to things that are frequently around them. And then he blesses those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29).
So, as that end comes near, within that Farewell Discourse, Jesus identifies himself as someone who has, literally, been ‘called alongside’—literally in Latin, an Advocate—but also a Counselor, a Helper, a Comforter—you cannot go wrong with any of those translations. When someone significant has been called to your side, there are so many positive ways to describe it!
Within this discourse, Jesus makes it clear, several times, that there will be ANOTHER ‘who is called alongside’. This is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (16:13).
As I look at this discourse as a whole, I see a pattern within it. (Certainly there are many who do not see the discourse as a whole. Especially, near the middle—and the end of chapter 14, Jesus says, ‘Rise, let us go from here,’ and this is an opportunity to see a break within the continuity. But there is also a chance to see a meaningful progression within the discourse.)
There are four verbs that this second ‘Advocate’ will do. He will teach all things (14:26); he will remind the followers of all things Jesus told his followers (14:26); he will witness concerning Jesus (15:26); and he will convict/convince the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8). There are obviously a lot of things going on here. But there seems to be a pattern when you compare and contrast those verbs with each other.
The first two emphasize what is taught. The teaching happens, and then there is a reminder of what is taught. The second two seem to have a positive and negative theme. A witness concerning Jesus would be a positive thing, just as a witness supports the truth that is spoken in court. But the convicting or the convincing of the world is definitely a negative thing, a negative truth that also needs to be spoken. (The world needs help—that is why God loved it in John 3:16!)
These days, when I hear that there is a list of four things, I cannot help but compare it to the four gospel accounts—just as the number five in the New Testament probably relates in some way to the first five books of the Old Testament. There are four ‘corners’ of the earth, there are four rings to the ark of the covenant (see Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule II, XI), there are four living creatures on God’s throne—one on each side, and so, there are also four gospel accounts. Four is an important number.
Many will probably be unfamiliar with this fact, but there is another order to the four gospel accounts (rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and this order, historically, makes much more sense than the one we currently have. The order of what is sometimes called the ‘Western’ text is that of the authors who were of the original twelve disciples are first, and then, those who were secretaries of Jesus’ followers are second (with the longer work of each pair before the shorter one): Matthew, John, Luke, Mark.
With this order, I see some connections between these four verbs and the four gospel accounts. Matthew and John both focus on teaching, with John functioning more as a reminder. (John does not have many of the ‘basics’ about Jesus, but he brings up some of the important things about Jesus and his work of salvation.) Luke is a good, positive witness, to Jesus’ work. Within that account, Jesus is the obedient one, in the temple when he is young and all through the account as he heads toward Jerusalem that last, final time. From Mark’s perspective, Jesus seems to be a bit more negative. He is sometimes difficult to deal with, even for his disciples! (We will see that in much more detail this coming year.) With Luke and Mark compared to the living creatures of an ox and a lion (respectively), there is power within both of those creatures. Within an ox, it is power to help (to plough a field, for example); within a lion, it is power to cause some chaos.
I would encourage you not to look at the variety within the four gospel accounts solely due to the variety of the authors or even due to the variety among their original recipients. The reason for the variety could also be that God has one very important message to get out to ALL people, and he wants to get it out in four slightly different ways.
I would also encourage you to see the four accounts as four different ways to approach the throne of our heavenly Father in worship. Each of them has the authority of the Father. And, as Jesus relates in this discourse, each of them has been breathed out or inspired by the Spirit, the other one who has been called alongside to help.
The connection between these four verbs and the four accounts may be one of the reasons that these four accounts, as a whole, were accepted by the Christian community so very early. Something else to keep in mind is that there is a ‘break’ in between the second and third verbs, and this is where the break in the narrative comes. (‘Rise, let us go from here.’) In John 15, Jesus is talking about a vine growing somewhat wildly, if it were not pruned, and this fits well with the transition between authors who were some of the original twelve followers and those who were only secretaries (of, admittedly, important people—Peter and Paul). The book of Acts certainly describes a wild ride, but, in the end, the Lord is still in charge of things (see Acts 28:31).
Perhaps this has been a helpful perspective. Perhaps it has been a bit confusing. Please feel free to comment.
The Gospel text for the Seventh Sunday of Easter is always a part of what has been called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This is, of course, a great prayer. And, as always in the Gospel according to John, this prayer is filled with a number of things that could be discussed.
A brief ‘Sabbath Day’s Journey’ with this text is almost impossible unless I pick just one thing to write about. I am going to try that, and it will even be something that I focused upon in last year’s blog.
For this year, the text is from John 17:11b-19, and last year’s text included the first part of verse 11. In that part of the verse there is this amazing statement of Jesus: ‘I am no longer in the world.’ I call that statement ‘amazing’ because of the many other things that seem to be connected to it.
I may have mentioned before that the other gospel accounts use the Jewish system of time, but the Gospel according to John uses the Roman system, and that system starts counting the hours much earlier than the others; it starts at midnight.
It is thought that this gospel account was written many years after the others, and that is why it has such a huge emphasis on the divinity of Christ. It would also have been written when the message about Christ was going all over the Roman Empire—and thus the reason for using the Roman time system. But the reason for the different time system could be more literary than chronological.
This gospel account could also be significantly different because there is a different way to view Christ’s authority. If one considers this account to be connected to the eagle (one of the four symbols on God’s throne), there is a good reason for Jesus to say that he is no longer in the world, even when he is still in this world. From his perspective, he knows what is coming.
This earlier ‘departure’ of Jesus may also be connected to the fact that the much-talked-about ‘hour’ of Jesus comes earlier than his death on the cross; it comes when some Greeks want to see him (John 12:20-23). Things worked out well for Jesus while he was on earth, and they will work out well after he is gone.
I brought up last week that the issue remains as to whether or not Jesus remains—on earth, that is. In this prayer, Jesus is asking his Father to ‘keep them in your name, which you have given me’ (verse 11b). Certainly this name could be ‘Jesus’. But I would think that it could also be the ‘Word’.
This whole chapter is full of words that Jesus could have said to the Father just a little bit later, after he ascended into heaven. But Jesus stayed down on this earth and said those words so that almost all of his followers would have the fulfillment of joy (verse 13)—in great contrast to Judas, who had the fulfillment of scripture that he would be lost (verse 12).
Jesus seems to be all about words in these chapters, a comforting thing for those in this century who, after hearing many words from many different sources, may think that they are a bit lost. With this One, they will be kept in some important words that will truly last.
The Gospel text for this Sunday continues Jesus’ words from John 15. The text this time is the section of verses 9-17, and, as always with texts from that account, there is a LOT within that text to talk about.
I thought it would be nice to begin by focusing on a new word that Jesus had not mentioned for a while. Jesus brought up the ‘C’ word, ‘commandment’. That word usually has very negative connotations. How are we to understand that word?
It may be helpful to know that there are different words for commandments or commands, and all of them have a slightly different emphasis on that big—and important—topic.
Obviously one of the emphases is a focus on what is commanded. There is even a word that is used when one should pay close attention to the details of those commands. And I do not think you would be too surprised to learn that there is a word used for a command with the implication of a threat involved if the commands are not followed. (It is interesting that the text uses this word when Jesus commands the wind and the waves to be still.)
The emphasis that occurs within this text from John 15—and many others within the Gospel accounts—is an emphasis on the one who is giving the commands. That is something that is all too often passed by quite quickly.
Commands are not simply something that we do. Commands are not simply something that God says we should do. These commandments were given by the very special One who laid down his life for his friends (see verse 13). That puts things in a significantly different perspective.
It is a different perspective because it is essentially a new definition to the word ‘love’. Earlier within the discourse, Jesus said that this was a NEW commandment to love one another, but that command was already in the Old Testament—to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus is new, and so his love is new. But how will that love show or remain?
This point ties into the topic that I brought up last week. If Jesus is about to leave, how is it that he will remain? If the disciples keep his commands, it sounds like Jesus’ love will remain (see verse 10). But what would that look like?
If he is about to lay down his life, if he is eventually to be raised to life again, if he is eventually to ascend into heaven, how will he ‘abide’? In John 1:14, the writer promised that Jesus would only be here a short while, in a ‘tent’.
Obviously a close reading of the texts is important. Jesus, especially in this account, seems like he knows everything that is going on and is not bothered by anything. In the Gospel according to Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus falls on the ground and asks his Father to find another way (Mark 14:35). In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ enemies are the ones who are falling on the ground (John 18:6)! Jesus has this salvation stuff all under control.
We will stay in this gospel account for at least two more weeks, so I hope, within these writings, to bring this topic of “Jesus’ remaining—and loving (perhaps commanding?)—presence” to an adequate resolution.