Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (3)


John's Gospel appears to have more to say about the theological significance of Jesus' death than the Synoptic Gospels. Apart from the record of the actual crucifixion the following list is of all the possible references in John to Jesus' death.

a. The Lamb of God sayings

John 1:29
John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:36
When he [John] saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!"

Lambs were sacrificed daily as burnt offerings “to make atonement” (Lev 1:4). Lambs were also slain at Passover although the Passover lamb is never said to make atonement. John almost certainly was therefore not thinking of Jesus as a "Passover lamb".

John is more likely to have Isa 53:7 in mind (“he was led like a lamb to the slaughter”) as the lamb here is used metaphorically of the suffering servant who “will bear [the] iniquities” of many (v. 11).

Another possibility is that this is an allusion to the ram which was sacrificed in place of Isaac (Gen 22:8).

John says this lamb “takes away the sin of the world”. 1 John 3:5 uses a similar expression: “he appeared so that he might take away our sins”. To “take away sin” can mean either:

(a) to remove it by making atonement for it, or
(b) bearing the penalty attached to the sin, or
(c) to abolish sin.

I will come back to these possibilities later.

b. The “lay down his life” sayings

John recorded a number of sayings where Jesus is said to "lay down his life" for others. I think the following list covers them all.

John 10:11, 15, 17-18 “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.

John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (but cp. v. 12 “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” which shows that this saying is intended for the disciples and not necessarily referring to Jesus’ death as an atonement.)

The use of the same expression in 1 John 3:16 provides an insight into its meaning. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” The next verse offers an example of how we “lay down our lives for our brothers”. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” If John is here suggesting that by meeting our brothers’ material needs we are “laying down our lives” for them, then there is no implication of sacrificial death in these words. (See also John 13:37, 38 where Peter offers to lay down his life.)

The Greek word tithemi occurs 96 times in the NT. It is translated: lay (up, aside, or down, or as ‘lay a foundation’), appoint, put, set, ordain, commit, advise, purpose, settle. It doesn’t necessarily mean “to die” and its use elsewhere seems to be against this. It seems almost certain from the way this word is used elsewhere that Jesus is saying that He "laid aside" His life in the sense that His life was fully devoted to the needs of others and He laid aside all self-interest. He was referring to His life of service, not to His death.

c. The “lifted up” (hypsoo) sayings

John recorded several sayings where Jesus referred to being "lifted up" and this is often understood to be a reference to His being "lifted up" on the cross.

However, either crucifixion or exaltation (or both) may be implied by hypsoo.

John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.

John 8:28 So Jesus said, "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.

John 12:32 - 34 But I, when I am lifted up from [ek = out of] the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. The crowd spoke up, "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'? Who is this 'Son of Man'?"

As this last text suggests that Jesus being "lifted up" related to his death we need to take a closer look at it. First we should note that Jesus used the Greek word ek, meaning out of when he said He would be lifted up out of the earth. It seems most likely that Jesus is here referring to His exaltation and His ascension "out of" the earth and into heaven.

However, it seems certain from John's editorial comment that "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die" that Jesus had crucifixion in mind rather than exaltation. We should note however that the Greek word translated "he said this" in verse 33 is lego and refers to a systematic discourse. In other words John is actually saying ‘Jesus said all this …’ referring to the preceding discourse, not just the few preceding words. The preceding discourse was about Jesus being "glorified", during which He said "the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." In other words, Jesus is saying that His death would be necessary in order for His exaltation or glorification and to produce "many seeds". It follows therefore that when He referred to all men being "drawn" to Himself that He was referring back to the "many seeds" that would be produced as a result of His glorification.

It's possible that this text is referring to Jesus being "lifted up" in crucifixion, but it's equally possible (and in my opinion actually more likely) that He was referring to His exaltation and glorification after His death.

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