God’s Judgment in John’s Gospel: How a Careful Reading of John 6 Reveals the Wisdom of God’s Judgment

two brown and black goats

5 “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” 6 The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

— Psalm 12:5–6 —

In John 6, we have series of questions and answers that proceed from ostensible faith to certain unbelief. Put differently, those who first sought Jesus, because they ate of his bread, come to find out that hardened against God as they they have no appetite for Christ—only a hunger for what he might give them!

Meanwhile, as Jesus explains how anyone may come to him, we learn a great deal about Jesus and the wise judgments of God. Indeed, as John writes up the events taking place around the Sea of Galilee and then in synagogue at Capernaum, John 6 shows us more clearly who Jesus is and how the Word of God made flesh fulfills every portion of God’s Word.

In what follows, I want to begin with some basic observations on the text, and then move to some more in-depth discussions about intra-biblical allusions (i.e., how John may use the Old Testament), with some final conclusions about the way Jesus’s words prove the purity of God’s judgments. In the end, this will show us again how wise God is and why, in a passage that esteems the doctrine of unconditional election we can see the goodness God’s judgment upon those who are not elect.

Continue reading

Winsomeness, Wisdom, and the Way of Jesus: A Few Reflections on Christ and Culture from John 6

IMG_6015Winsome win(t)-səmgenerally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence; cheerful, lighthearted.

In the last few weeks, the word winsome has generated lots of discussion as various Christians have considered various ways the church has or has not properly engaged culture.

This all started with Aaron Renn’s article outlining evangelicalism into positive, neutral, and negative worlds. It continued with James Wood’s two posts on his critical appreciation for Tim Keller. And these two articles set off a firestorm of other articles variously critical of Wood. In all of this kerfuffle, I have found Kevin DeYoung’s non-specific and biblical response and Doug Wilson’s earlier appraisal of Renn’s article most helpful. (If you read any of these articles, start with DeYoung’s.)

For my contribution, I simply want to point to the sermon I preached Sunday, which engaged with the word winsome. Admittedly, I overshot many in my congregation in addressing the problems of winsomeness—a good reminder that what happens online does not best capture what happens in real life. As I learned Sunday night, more than a few members of our community group had to look up the word. Clearly, and thankfully(!), they are not attuned to the latest tirade on Twitter. Continue reading

The Doctrine of Illumination in John’s Gospel

sunray through trees

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
— John 6:63–64 —

The doctrine of illumination explains how spiritual insight is given to God’s children by the Holy Spirit. The locus classicus for this doctrine is 1 Corinthians 2:10–16, where the Apostle Paul explains the difference between those with the Spirit and those without. Describing this difference, he identifies two kinds of people—the natural man (i.e., the man without the Spirit) and the spiritual man (i.e., the man with the gift of the Spirit). In Paul’s thinking, there is no third category. The only way a man can rightly understand the mind of God is to have God himself reveal himself to the man. This occurs first in conversion, but then progressively in sanctification as the Spirit continues to instruct the saints through God’s Word (cf. John 17:17).

Going further, doctrine of illumination is the personal and subjective complement to the doctrine of inspiration. Whereas the Spirit inspired the words of the biblical authors (2 Pet. 1:19–21), the same Spirit must give light to the Scripture, in order for the child of God to understand God, his world, and his salvation. Without this illumination, the sinner remains in the dark—totally lost and wholly unable to find God (cf. Acts 17:27). Continue reading

Is Racial Justice Essential to the Gospel?

Gospel,+Race,+&+the+Church

Earlier this month I joined Nicholas Piotrowski, Charles Ware, and Gus Pritchard for an event in Indianapolis called “Gospel, Race, and the Church.” Through six short messages and six panel discussions, plus a Q & A we worked through many subjects related to contemporary discussions on race and justice in the church. While this subject is fraught with landmines, the overall tenor of the event was positive, biblical, and prayerfully helpful.

To encourage candidness, the audios were not made public, so I can’t link to those. But what follows is one of my two messages. Lord willing, I can add the other next week.

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“Racial justice is essential to the gospel.”

Have you heard that statement before? Or what about this one, “The gospel must include justification and doing justice.” Or maybe you’ve had the question: “What does the gospel have to do with race and racism?”

In the last few years, there have been many ways the gospel, social justice, and race have been combined, and in this post, I want to talk about that triangle—the gospel, justice, and race.

As I will argue in a second article (out next week), I believe sinful partiality, hostility, and discrimination are better described in terms of ethnicity than race. As Acts 17:26 makes clear, humanity comes from one man (hence one human race) and is composed of many different nations (ethnicities).

For now, however, I will sidestep the question of race versus ethnicity. And I will answer the question: “Is racial justice a gospel essential or a gospel entailment?” I will first highlight the way some have enlarged the message of the gospel by making (racial) justice essential to the gospel message. Then I will try to outline what the gospel says and does not say, does and does not do. Biblical precision is needed in our discussions today and hopefully I can offer a few straight lines in what follows.

Three Voices Who Enlarge the Gospel 

A Golden-Ruled Gospel

For starters, Scott Sauls, a pastor in Nashville, has included the great commandment (“Love your neighbor”) in his definition of gospel in a panel discussion about racism and the gospel. He says, “Last time I checked, love your neighbor is part of the gospel.”

Perhaps this is just sloppy, or maybe this is how Sauls actually thinks of the gospel—adding the Golden Rule to the good news of saving grace. Whatever the case, the result is the same. The content of the gospel is confused and the power of the gospel to forgive sinners and set them on a path to loving their neighbor is missed.

In short, the essential message of the gospel is confused with an essential entailment. And sadly, this confuses both good news and the good works that flow from believing the good news.

A Cosmic Redemption Gospel

Anthony Bradley is another voice who enlarges the gospel. For those unfamiliar with Bradley, he has authored many books and serves as a professor at King’s College in New York City. In a 2019 Fathom Magazine article, Bradley contrasts “Great Commission Christianity” (GCC) with “Cosmic Redemption Christianity” (CRC).

Critiquing GCC as reductionistic and historically complicit with slavery, Bradley argues for CRC which widens God’s purposes of salvation. Citing Tim Keller, Bradley defines the gospel like this:

It is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Then he goes further, speaking about the kingdom of God which is “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ over the entire cosmos. Redemption, then, is God’s work to restore the whole of creation to himself.”

This statement of life in the kingdom of God is good, as far as it goes. But in adding man’s agency to “God’s work of restoring the cosmos” it goes too far. Why? Because it tasks new creatures in Christ with the duty of liberating creation from the stranglehold of the devil. To be sure, the scope of redemption is cosmic, but Bradley’s definition of the gospel changes the finished work of Christ on the cross to the ongoing work of God in the cosmos.

Certainly, God is at work in cosmos, and the gospel is bringing about a new creation, but this cosmic restoration is an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its primary essence. The content of the gospel is directed towards persons estranged from God and the redemption offered in the gospel is equally person-specific. Thereafter, God’s new creatures in Christ will do all kinds of good works, but this remains an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its core message.

Justification and Doing Justice

Finally, Eric Mason is Philadelphia pastor who, in the name of justice, enlarges the message of the gospel to include doing justice. This may appear to secure greater ethical results, but at what expense? Let’s consider.

In Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, Mason devotes a chapter to defining what the gospel is and what it isn’t. And importantly, he makes “doing justice” a core component of the gospel. He writes,

Justification is a huge greenhouse of truth that extends beyond ‘being declared righteous’! Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice! Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us by faith leads to our being made right with God as well as our making things right on earth. (45)

Don’t miss the enormity of this point. The Protestant Reformation fought for justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But here, citing Anglican theologian, Fleming Rutledge, who in turn cites German NT Scholar, Ernst Kaïsemann, Mason redefines justification as an attribute of God and an action of God and man (46).

Recognizing the impact of what he is saying, he defends himself from those who would accuse him of preaching a different gospel (44). He says, “The way we are taught about these aspects of the gospel deeply affects our understanding and the way we process justice. When we have a reductionist understanding of justification, we fail to see the holistic picture of the gospel” (46).

For Mason, this holistic gospel is one that combines justification and doing justice. But is Mason right? Is doing justice part and parcel of the gospel of the kingdom? Consider two responses.

Reigning in the Gospel of King Jesus

First, there is an irony in the fact that Mason cites two white theological liberals, Fleming Routledge and Ernest Kaïsemann. (Bradley also sources Tim Keller). I make this awkward observation to say, that in making their points, Mason and Bradley are not making the black argument, so much as they are making an ideological argument—and one that fits nicely with the social gospel. Sauls too adds a “social dynamic” to his definition of the gospel.

That is to say, when the church’s mission includes making the world a better, more just place, the social gospel is not far away. This is not to frivolously label all champions of justice as advocates of the social gospel, nor do I expect anyone who is preaching a gospel-plus-justice message to agree with me.

That said, I would maintain that whenever the church and its leaders prioritize overturning systems of injustice, the social gospel is waiting in the wings. For those who discount that take, I would encourage you to read Christopher Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History.

For now, we should simply remember that anyone who speaks for the black church, the white church, the Asian church, or the Hispanic church, cannot speak for the whole. Within every tradition there are different theological beliefs. And this is where we need to focus our conversation—chiefly, on the content of the ideas being debated more than the color of debaters.

Now let me walk that back a bit, and make my second point. If Sauls, Mason, or Bradley did cite a black voice, they would do well to consider Charles Octavius Boothe. Boothe was the founding pastor of Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1890, at the height of Jim Crow, Boothe wrote a short treatise on theology called Plain Theology for Plain People. And what is remarkably absent from his book is anything that approximates the social justice championed today.

Instead, when Boothe speaks of justice, he describes the character of God and God’s judgment on sinners. In other words, Boothe’s doctrine of justice and justification is chiefly vertical, not horizontal. Though enmeshed in the world of Jim Crow, Boothe’s explanation of the gospel and the mission of the church approximates Bradley’s Great Commission Christianity, which Bradley associates with the white church.

Moreover, when he speaks of justification, Boothe speaks of it entirely in terms of what God has done to save sinners by grace. For instance, he lists a number of Pauline passages on justification and concludes, “it appears that justification is the act of God.” To which he explains in full (70):

The ground of justification is found in the work, the whole work, of the Son of God, whom God ‘gave that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” What a ground the Father hath given us for the fullest belief in Christ! What reason for devout thankfulness the redeemed have! What a motive to induce them to live, not unto themselves, but unto him who has brought to them a salvation so helpful and so glorious!

Hallejulah! That is the biblical gospel.

But notice, he distinguishes the work of the Son from our works. He says that the finished work of Christ is the motive to doing good works. In other words, the gospel has entailments. Doing justice is a necessary entailment of the gospel. It is necessary, yes! But it is a necessary entailment—meaning that biblical ethics follow a Spirit-empowered reception of the gospel.

In fact, we can learn from Booth himself. Living in a world of ethnic partiality, hostility, and discrimination, Boothe did much to fight injustice and promote the well-being of blacks in the South. That said, doing justice was not an essential part of the gospel message, for Boothe, it was the work of those who had been justified. And that distinction is what is lost on many today.

In order to champion good works, many pastors—with various hues of melanin—are making justice an essential part of the gospel message. But the effect of this inclusion is to undercut the power of the gospel. Why? Because such an addition—as well intentioned as it may be—changes the message of the gospel, thereby challenging the power of the gospel.

And that’s the problem. If the gospel is a message of justification and doing justice, it ceases to be good news and it becomes instead a chimera of grace and law—which is always a deadly combination. So, with these concerns outlined, let me offer five truths that are essential for keeping the gospel straight.

Keeping the Gospel Straight

1. The Gospel is an indicative, not an imperative.

To say it differently: the gospel is good news, not good advice (Michael Horton). It is the declaration “It is finished,” not the command to go and do likewise.

Many people have made this point, but recently I came across it in Thaddeus Williams’ book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. On this point, he says,

The difference between an indicative and an imperative is no small matter for grammar nerds. The good news upon which eternity depends hangs in the balance. . . . A gospel with additional requirements [e.g., feed the hungry, end sex trafficking, oppose injustice] is not good news. For those who know themselves well, if the gospel is not about Christ’s finished saving work alone but about any commandment we must keep, then the good news turns out to be very bad news. If my salvation is 99 percent God’s doing and 1 percent my own doing, I would find a way, in my fallenness and stupidity, to mess up that 1 percent and be damned. (112–13)

This is the problem with the gospel plus justice paradigm. It turns the finished work (the indicative) into the already and not yet work of justification and do justice (the imperative). Yes, the Bible clearly teaches the kingdom is already and not yet. It clearly teaches a biblical way of doing justice and loving our neighbor, but to load these into the gospel is to lose the gospel of grace.

2. The Gospel is fixed, not fluid.

This means that there is a certain content to the gospel which does not have room for more or less. For instance, the gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defines the gospel as the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection of Christ on the third day. Moreover, both of these are defined by the Old Testament (i.e., “according to the Scriptures”), and the blessings of Christ’s death and the resurrection must be received by faith, lest someone perish for their own sins.

Similarly, Romans 1:1–7 defines the gospel, as does the rest of Romans 1–11. And after Paul spends 11 chapters explaining how sinners can be justified by grace through faith, only then does he turn around and say: “I appeal to you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices.”

In short, there is a gospel logic in Paul’s letters that teaches us that doing the law (i.e., the third use of the law) follows believing in Christ who fulfilled the law for us. Here’s an important distinction: Just because something is biblical, or important for Christian living, does not give us permission to add it to the message of the gospel. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is the eternal plan of God to redeems sinners in all ages, in all places, and from all conditions of sin by the finished work of Christ.

To make the gospel the solution to every problem, therefore, may blind us to see how the gospel tells us what the problem is. In a word the problem is sin! Moreover, because the gospel defines the problem, it also offers the solution to that problem, and only that problem. Christ died and rose again to justify elect individuals who will repent and believe when God calls them to himself in the gospel. Only after that calling can individuals and the groups they form (i.e., churches) begin to justice with the righteousness God requires.

By contrast, to add justice to justification will only result in a loss of both! So remember, the gospel is fixed, not fluid.

3. The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

To double down on who benefits from the gospel, it is important to remember how person-specific the message of the gospel is. While the gospel must be carried to the ends of the earth and preached to all peoples, it is not a message that addresses nations as nations, groups as groups, or political clans as clans. No, the gospel confronts sinners in their individual sin, and calls sinners—one-by-one—out from the nations (see Rev. 5:9–10).

In other words, just as John’s Gospel is filled with individuals coming to faith in Christ (see Richard Bauckham, “Individualism,” in Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology),  so the gospel that raises people from the dead is a message that confronts the individual. When individuals are justified by grace this will create households of faith who exist on all parts of the earth. But this does not mean the object of the gospel are groups, the gospel addresses individuals.

Even more, when nations who hear the gospel experience wide-ranging regeneration—what we might call a revival—those nations will be impacted. In the Early church, the proliferation of the gospel in Africa had a marvelous impact on the church. The ecumenical councils, the early creeds, the rise of libraries and colleges, all of these rose in Africa—a fact often missed when thinking about the character of “African Theology” (see Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind).

Later, in the Reformation, the European church experienced wide spread revival. And the world, especially in America, continued to experience the blessings and benefits of the Reformation. Still, the gospel that reformed Africa and Europe and produced all kinds of good works was a gospel that impacted individuals. Only secondarily did it change families, communities, cultures, and nations. This is how the gospel works. And we should labor to see the gospel change individuals and then we should equally labor to see Christians fulfill their vocational callings to do good works in all realms of life.

Where confusion sets in today, is when those who desire immediate justice can easily become impatient with God’s ways. As a result the gospel can be distorted, in order to see widespread and visible change. When that happens, we should ask: Is this how the gospel really spreads? What does the Bible report? Such an answer is larger than I can provide here, but as I can tell we find a singular report in Scripture: The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

4. The gospel creates individuals who do good works.

Without denying the place for good works, and affirming the possibility of Christians impacting culture, we must remember how good works are borne. First, we learn from passages like James 2 that faith devoid of works is not genuine faith. Conversely, there are good works that can counterfeit faith. Therefore, in order to maintain the gospel, we must not just content ourselves with behavioral change—personal or systemic. We should trust in God’s power to change individuals and that when individuals are changed and equipped with the whole counsel of God’s Word, their lives will bring about charity, justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In the same vein, God creates people in Christ who will do good works (Eph. 2:10). These good works include loving neighbor, ending injustice, feeding the poor, and making good policies. But lest we neuter the power of the gospel to change individuals, we cannot include doing justice as an essential part of the life-giving, sin-removing gospel. These things are fruits of the gospel, not the gospel itself—a point that brings us to our last.

5. Biblical justice is an entailment of the gospel

To say that justice—in all of its forms—is an entailment of the gospel means that justice is carried forward by men and women who have justified by grace through faith and who have been given grace to do good works.

It is correct to question the faith of someone, as Charles Octavius Boothe did, if their love of neighbor is missing or if ethnic hostility is present. Nevertheless, the ongoing sinfulness of a Christian or the inconsistency of a Christian church should not lead us to change the gospel in order to make it more powerful or more pervasive. Rather, we should simply evaluate all things by the Word of God.

And when it comes to racial justice, we should do all we can to stand against racism, biblically defined. But calls for racial justice should not confuse something that is biblically important with something that is absolutely essential to the gospel message. Something can be biblical and important, even if it is not part of the gospel message.

Making this distinction, which says that racial justice is not essential to the message of the gospel, but is an essential entailment of the gospel, is critical for maintaining the gospel and the health of the church. Truly, if we are going to enjoy and maintain the fellowship of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must get this right. Because getting this right will go along way to aiding conversations about this matter.

And so, we should continue to build our arguments from the clear teaching of Scripture, in order that we can rightly discern the difference between the essentials of the gospel and essential entailments of the gospel. That may sound like a small difference, but in these contentions days that difference makes all the difference in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Theological Seminary

Election and Evangelism: What God Has Joined Together Let Not Man Separate

brown rock formation on sea shore

On Sunday, our church considered one of many passages in John where the Beloved Disciple unites God’s sovereignty in salvation with the responsibility of man to repent and believe. With perfect, Spirit-inspired balance, John records the way God gave a particular people to the Son (i.e., the elect) and how these people will come to faith, as God calls all men and women to repent and believe. Indeed, what God has joined together—his sovereignty and man’s faith—cannot be torn apart without doing damage to the doctrine of election and the duty of evangelism.

For those familiar with the debates surrounding the doctrine of salvation, one of the longstanding charges against the doctrines of grace (Calvinism, if you prefer) is that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions. Sadly, there have been some who have defended the doctrine of election without possessing an equal passion for the lost (i.e., Hyper-Calvinists, which means more than Calvinists with zeal). But biblically, election is one of the greatest motivations for evangelism.

This is evident in John’s Gospel and throughout the rest of the New Testament. And in what follows I want to highlight the connection between evangelism and election. In particular, I will show seven places, starting with John 6, where election is found in the same context as evangelism. Rather than hindering the gospel ministry, these passages teaches that the doctrine of election always spurs on missions and evangelism. Continue reading

Soul Food: When, Who, What, and Why Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:22–40)

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Soul Food: When, Who, What, and Why Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:22–40)

Hunger is a universal experience. So is thirst. And so is seeking to find food and drink in times of need.

Importantly, God made us creatures who need food and drink. And he did this not only because that is how organisms live, but that’s how God works. In other words, by giving us thirst, hunger, and the experience of seeking physical satisfaction, God is teaching us something about himself.

God is our spiritual food!

In John 6, this comes to the forefront as seekers cross the Sea of Galilee to find Jesus and fill their stomachs. Only in this case, Jesus exposes their errant seeking and he in turn leads them to seek food that will not perish.

Indeed, so many of our sins, follies, frustrations, and setbacks are caused by not knowing how to live on Christ, to feed on Christ, and to delight ourselves in Christ. But when we come to Christ and seek life in him, he teaches us that he is the bread of eternal life. And all who feed on him will be saved.

On Sunday, I considered what this means in John 6:22–40. You can find the sermon here. You can also find last weeks sermon too. Next week, Lord willing, I’ll pick up the sacramental language of Jesus calling us to eat his body and drink his blood. Stay tuned.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

“I Thirst”: A Good Friday Meditation on the Meticulous Detail of Christ’s Cross

thirstAfter this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished,
said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 
— John 19:28 —

Nothing was done by Christ which was not foretold;
nothing was ever foretold by the Prophets concerning Christ, which was not done.
— Alexander Watson —

Tomorrow I will preach a Good Friday message focusing on the single word: dipsō (“I thirst”). For the last four years, our church has considered on Good Friday one of the seven words spoken on the cross. This year, we come to the fifth word, “I thirst,” a word that highlights the humanity of Jesus and the hostility of his enemies (see the context of Psalm 69). But it also shows how meticulous our Lord was in fulfilling Scripture.

In John 19:28, the Apostle notes the sharpness of Jesus’s mind, even as he bears the pain of crucifixion. And what is on Jesus’s mind as hangs on the cross? The Word of God that he must fulfill. To that point, he says, “I thirst,” a statement that may refer to Psalm 22:15, but more probably cites Psalm 69:21, which speaks of drinking sour wine, which Jesus does in John 19:29.

Tomorrow, I will consider the meaning of this fifth word, but today, I want to focus on the way Jesus perfectly fulfilled all the Old Testament, including this final statement of thirst. To help with this, I turn to Alexander Watson, a nineteenth century Anglican curate, who in 1847 preached a series of sermons called “The Seven Saying on the Cross; Or, The Dying Christ Our Prophet, Priest, and King.”  For the last few years, I have read these sermons—one per year—and have profited greatly. (For those in the know, I have not preached Watson’s sermons).

Continue reading

What Does Jesus Say About You? Four Witnesses, Four Warnings, Four Marks of Faith (John 5:30-47)

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What Does Jesus Say About You? Four Witnesses, Four Warnings, Four Marks of Faith (John 5:30-47)

Who do you listen to? And how well do you listen? An honest answer to those questions will tell you a lot about who you are and who you will be in five, ten, or fifty (thousand) years.

Few things are more important than the voices that we will listen to. And few gifts are more precious than men and women who testify to the grace of God in the gospel. If you are listening to others who speak of Christ, point to Christ, and help you follow Christ, you can know these are not just good friends, they are gifts from God.

On Sunday, we considered a similar line of thought as we heard the testimony of four “witnesses” who all tell us something about Christ. At a time when Jesus’ identity was in question and his actions were inviting opposition and the threat of death, Jesus turns to John the Baptist, his works, his Father, and the Scriptures to declare that he is the true Son of God.

Just the same, we need to hear these voices today, as they tell us who Jesus. Moreover, with these witnesses, Jesus warns us of many deadly symptoms of unbelief. Therefore, if you are looking to see who Jesus is or if your faith is genuine, this sermon may help. You can listen to exposition of John 5:30–47 here.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Take Up Your Bed and Walk: Seeing Jesus as the End of the Sabbath in John 5

Window N6, Cloisters, Gloucester CathedralWhen Jesus said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), what did he mean? Specifically, what did he have in mind with respect to the Sabbath? Is the Fourth Commandment (Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy”) an enduring command mutatis mutandis? That is, once we make the necessary changes to the day, the place of our worship, and the full revelation of God in Christ, do we keep this day? Or do we not?

This question has generated entire books and led to more than a few fissures in the Church? And one of many arguments for Sabbatarianism (i.e., the ongoing practice of the Fourth Commandment) is that the New Testament does not need to reissue a command for the Sabbath, if it is laid out plainly in the Old Testament. But what if the New Testament actually issues a command that stands against the Fourth Commandment? Is it possible that the New Testament doesn’t reissue a command for the Sabbath, because there are places where it abrogates the old covenant system of Sabbath?

In answer to that question, one may think of Colossians 2:16–17 or Romans 14:5, or even Matthew 5:17. If Jesus fulfills the Sabbath in himself (see Matthew 11:28), then does that bring the old covenant practice to an end? This is where my reading of Scripture, informed by the likes of Steve Wellum and Thomas Schreiner leads, but recently I have found another passage that confirms this reading—one that I have not seen elsewhere. And so, I offer this reflection on John 5:1–18 and its copious use of Jeremiah 17:1–29, a passage that bears directly on the Sabbath. Continue reading

The True Sabbath-Giver: Finding Eternal Rest in Our Superstitious, Secular Age (John 5:1–18)

close up shot of bible text

The True Sabbath-Giver: Finding Eternal Rest in Our Superstitious, Secular Age

In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor takes a long time to make a simple argument: Five hundred years ago it was impossible not to believe in God. Whether it was Christianity or some other religion, the world was filled with the divine. Today, however, the influences of science, technology, modern life and postmodern thought, have made belief in God nearly impossible. Or at least, it has become impossible to submit to a view of God and the world that is transcendent over places and true for all people.

Recently, we have seen this denial of God and his world in national news.  When a highly educated supreme court appointee doesn’t know what a woman is she – a woman – is feigning ignorance of biology in order to not offend the masses. Clearly, our civilization is not the same as it was when the light of Christ was brighter. Yet, darkness of the world does not diminish the spiritual need that humans have. Indeed, our secular age is not less religious. Instead, people just worship things that don’t deserve worship.

To say it differently, where the worship of a true and living God is lost superstitions abound. This is true for individuals, families, nations, and churches. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human heart. And if this is true today, it was equally true in Jesus day.

In John 5, we find something odd. Sitting just outside the temple was a group of invalids waiting for the waters to be stirred up in the pool of Bethesda. According to verse 7, and later clarified by the addition of verse 4, we find that many in Jerusalem sought healing not through prayer but through practices associated with other pagan mysterious religions. Clearly, something is wrong!

Indeed, entering a new part of John’s Gospel, the reader is brought back to Jerusalem, but instead of finding people in God’s city awaiting Israel’s restoration, like we see in Luke’s Gospel. We find a multitude of invalids waiting for a miracle that will never come. As Edward Klink notes,

With the abundance of evidence [around the Mediterranean] that pagan religion regularly used healing shrines with water as a regular component, it is not unlikely that [the tradition reported by John] is rooted in folk legend, possibly even a popular Jewish tradition.  (John, 269–70)

Wherever these pagan ideas came from, superstition has gripped a large number in Jerusalem. Even worse, the Jews – i.e., Jewish leaders – have done nothing about it. Rather like the priests condemned in the Old Testament, these guardians of the temple have permitted false worship and errant superstition. Even more, as they patrol the city watching for Jews who might be violating Sabbath, they have no care or compassion for those who are truly suffering.

So that’s the situation we find in John 5, and it will continue until John 11. For seven chapters, Jesus will be confronted by Jewish leaders even as he exposes their hypocrisy. In John 5:1 we read “After this [i.e.. the second sign in Galilee] there was a feast in Jerusalem.” The feast is not named, presumably because John wants to focus on the Sabbath, which is named in verse 9.

So in John 5, Jesus enters the scene on an unmarked Sabbath day. And in all that follows he is going to expose the weakness of the Sabbath under the old covenant, and he is going to give Sabbath rest to the man in ways anticipating the new covenant. That is to say, he is going to heal this man and send him to the temple, so that he can truly come to know the God of Israel (see John 5:14). And for us reading John 5, we come to learn something about superstitions, our Savior, and the Sabbath.

On Sunday, I preached on John 5 and you can find that sermon here. And in that message you will find the good news of Jesus Christ who is our true and better Sabbath-giver. Check back tomorrow too, where I will try to show why John 5, among other passages, does not permit me to be a Sabbatarian. Until then you can read this and leave comments below.

For now, may we give praise to God that the Son invites us to find rest in him and that such rest is not contingent upon our works but his.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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