Friday, June 30, 2006

John 3:1-21 (8)

Verses 14 and 15 proceed to teach us about the heart of Jesus' mission, the central purpose for which He came to fulfill: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The beginning of verse 14 refers to Numbers 21:4-9, which reads: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”

The verse says that in like manner “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” As is typical in John’s writing, the key term “lifted up” carries a double meaning in this Gospel. To illustrate, Jesus says in John 8:28, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on My own but speak just what the Father has taught Me.” Few Jews would miss this bold claim to exaltation and deity ~ I AM. But Jesus is referring to being “lifted up” on the cross. The term “lifted up” refers to both the physical lifting up of Jesus on the cross and His glorious exaltation on the cross. The critical point in John 3:14 is that Jesus must be crucified, lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert. And just as those who looked upon the snake were healed, those who “look” upon the crucified Son of Man in faith will receive eternal life. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry – Christ crucified – is the heart. The aim is to make it possible for mankind to have eternal life (v. 15). Apart from the atoning crucifixion of Christ, eternal life would be impossible for mankind. Apart from looking up to the crucified Son of Man – apart from faith – there would be no way for a person to have eternal life. In other words, the only way to have eternal life is to become a Christian.

Verse 15 explains the significance or the purpose of Christ’s crucifixion. It is so that “everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” A better translation is “every believing one will have eternal life in Him.” The words “in Him” should modify “eternal life,” because John uses a different expression when he wishes to say “believe in him.” Here the verb “to believe” is used absolutely, without reference to an object. Another instance is John 6:47, in which Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, He who believes has everlasting life.” Although the verb does not refer to an object for believing, it is not difficult from the context to infer what or who is to be believed. Basically, from verses 11-14, we must believe the whole testimony of Jesus, about where He comes from, what He teaches, and what He has come to accomplish. As for “eternal life,” this is the first time the term appears in this Gospel, although John has already referred to “life” at the very beginning, saying, “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4). It is true that eternal life is life that will never end, but interestingly the term does not refer to duration or quantity of life, but to quality. Flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit – Spirit-life is the kind of life that comes from God, not by natural human birth. This is different than flesh-life. Eternal life is the life that is found in Christ, the life that is found in God. It is resurrection life, the life that is proper to the age of come, but that is possessed and experienced in the present by those who believe in the Son of God.

Now, the Greek original does not contain punctuation marks to indicate when a person begins and ceases from speaking. These are added by the translators. In many translations, the quotation marks suggest that Jesus speaks all the way to verse 21. But note that many translations consider Jesus’ speech to end at verse 15, and that verses 16-21 are John’s commentary and reflection. I happen to agree with this latter position, and there are several indications that from verse 16 on, Jesus is no longer the one speaking. First, at this point the text switches to the past tense, and this is what we would expect if we are reading John’s reflection about something that had happened, rather than a quotation from Jesus. Second, verses 16 and 18 refers to Jesus as God’s “one and only Son” or “only begotten Son.” John is accustomed to using this expression. For example, he uses it in John 1:14, 18 and 1 John 4:9, where we are certain that we are reading John’s words instead of quotations of Jesus. Jesus simply doesn’t use that term for Himself. Third, verse 19 uses similar expressions to echo what he stated in 1:9-11. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus finishes speaking at the end of verse 15, and that verses 16-21 consist of the commentary and reflection of John the apostle.

That said, this is noted merely because we would like to know as much as possible about the text, and as accurately as we can, not because we are trying to distinguish between words that carry divine authority and words that do not. I’m not at all saying that verses 16-21 are potentially less inspired. That’s certainly not the case. The whole Bible is inspired and infallible, and both the words of Jesus as recorded by John and the words of John come from God, and are therefore equally authoritative.

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