Tonight my congregation’s teen midweek “service”/gathering/catechetical instruction/thing (I still don’t know what to flippin’ call it) resumes full force after a hiatus of a few months and I think it’s impossible for me to be any more pumped than I presently am! We’re about to begin an exegetical study of John’s Gospel following the narrative/dialogical model of the Bible study group I belong to (better known to some of you as Iron Men). Over the course of our reading I hope to accomplish three things with this group:
1. Pattern and promote sound interpretative principles so as to better understand any biblical book and the canon as a whole. More than that, my burden is to instill the understanding that biblical interpretation is incomplete until what is uncovered and newly understood is translated into service, prayer, repentance, and praise. More data (even biblical data) is so much dead weight if it doesn’t induce love for God or neighbor.
2. Elucidate the retrospective character of discipleship that John highlights throughout his narrative. The two ways he does this is by
(a) depicting the deadlocked puzzlement of the apostles as Jesus says or does something unusual (for instance, claiming that if his opponents tear down this temple he will rebuild it in three days, 2:19) and then explaining in an editorial note how the resurrection later illuminated its true sense (“When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”, 2:22), and
(b) a deliberate use of ambiguity which is only resolved by seeing the narrative through to conclusion. A great example is 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The word rendered “overcome” (κατέλαβε) can also be translated “understood” or “comprehended”. Which is it? The immediate context doesn’t provide an answer (though the crucifixion itself seems to, for a while); only sticking with the story and arriving at the end gives the solution: both senses are correct! John presupposes that his gospel will be read and re-read continually and that in doing so these ambiguities will resolve and enhance disciples’ readings.
Both of these literary strategies simulate the experience of every disciple who over the course of their life staggers on, following Jesus in faith, not having all the answers, but every so often receiving fresh supplies of understanding from their Lord (“the Light of the world”, 1:4-5,9; 8:12; 9:5) which shed light on that which was so unclear before and makes our pasts finally begin to make sense. It’s okay if you don’t get it right now- that’s the norm! We all are Peters, unable to fully comprehend what eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood means, yet refusing to leave him behind just because we can’t adequately rationalize it: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).
3. Finally, unpack John’s distinctive emphasis upon witness. John uses the word as a noun (marturia) 14 times and as a verb (martureo) 33 times (Leon Morris, “History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel”); the other Evangelists use these words 5 times total! Clearly the concept is incredibly important to John. The word “witness” denotes something more than a disinterested spectator; it was a legal term in the first century A.D. which pointed “to a valid testimony, to that which will carry conviction in a court of law” (ibid.). John’s Gospel portrays thousands of eyewitnesses, people who saw and heard what Jesus said and did but wanted nothing to do with it; he depicts only a few “witnesses,” however: those who staked everything on and testified to the truth of who Jesus is (and typically suffered the consequences- interestingly, the word “martyr” is derived from this Greek root). The only prerequisite for being a witness is having been unexpectedly, inexplicably made alive by the Spirit. This means that even disciples in the modern era belong to that same company of witnesses we read about in John’s Gospel. Jesus looked beyond that first generation of eyewitness believers and said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29) to encourage his little flock not to be daunted. Their job as witnesses isn’t to annihilate the world’s unbelief with sophisticated intellectual maneuvers, to capitulate to the rationalism of the skeptics they would find themselves in the midst of; their job is to witness, to attest to this man, Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Witnesses don’t have to be afraid when they can’t keep up with the latest anti-Christian argumentation- it was never about proving them wrong in their sense, only about telling and (in another of John’s characteristic phrases; 3:21) doing the truth, announcing the presence and reign of the one who is the truth (14:6).
Along the way we’ll no doubt pick up scores of other exegetical treasures, which sounds a-ok to me. Above all else though I want this curriculum to be a tangible way that these teens begin to be cultivated as persons for this is the human side of theology’s purpose. Probably no one speaks on the subject of cultivating human beings with greater clarity or wit than Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer; his lecture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School from October 8, “What Are Theologians For? Why Doctors of the Church Should Prescribe Doctrine” is a tour-de-force both theologically and, in the highest sense possible, humanistically. Do yourself a favor and listen!