Before Abraham Was: John 8:48-59

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.  Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon.  Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

John 8:48-59 (NRSV)

Who are the real children of Abraham?

This has been the point of discussion immediately prior to this passage, which is part of a longer discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in which the Pharisees are trying to discredit Jesus after he creates a schism in the crowds – some of whom are claiming that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  The Pharisees are trying to show that this isn’t the case.

By the time we get down to this passage, the Pharisees have asserted their pedigree and the inapplicability of Jesus’ judgments and warnings because they are descendants of Abraham.

Jesus argues that they are not, because when Abraham heard from God, he believed what God had to say and acted in accordance with that.  Instead, they are more like descendants of the devil because they are lying to the people about Jesus and trying to kill him.

This is important.  The Pharisees who can claim a biological connection to Abraham are portrayed as not true descendants because they do not share Abraham’s faith.  Their physical birth is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not they truly share Abraham’s faith and, therefore, truly inherit the promises made to Abraham.  We see this theme crop up back when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3 – saying that ethnic Israelites must be “born again” to see the kingdom.  Nicodemus gets confused, stuck on the idea of a literal birth rather than the holistic renewal of the nation.

Then we get to our passage, where Jesus reiterates that God will confirm his message, that God is the judge, and those who believe Jesus as a Word from God will not be destroyed by God’s judgement.

The Pharisees of this chapter, much like Nicodemus five chapters earlier, get really hung up on the literal meaning of “taste death.”  Because Abraham died.  The prophets all died.  Is Jesus saying that he is greater than these patriarchs and prophets who died?

Jesus makes it clear that he is not trying to proclaim his own greatness, but rather that God glorifies Jesus.  The Pharisees claim to follow this God, but by trying to discredit Jesus, they are showing their true allegiances.  Jesus, by contrast, is being faithful to God and “keeps his word.”

In this sense, Abraham rejoiced to see this day.  Abraham received the promise and the covenant, but Abraham did not see these things fulfilled in his day – during his literal existence on the earth.  As the author of Hebrews tells us of the patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

Abraham begins God’s great work of new creation and is the man whose family became a nation who were meant to be all the things God hoped for it.  He did not see this actually happen, however.  He died looking forward to that day.

Jesus has come to make that day happen.  He is the one who will restore the fallen kingdom.  He is the one who will resurrect a nation where YHWH will be their God and they will be His people.  And, strangest of anything, all the old boundaries that defined ethnic Israel as this people will be torn down, so that even Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will be welcomed into the people of God.

Think about the ramifications of that.  Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will receive the fulfillment of his promises, but ethnic descendants of Abraham who do not share his faith will not.

Jesus has brought about this great, new day of the kingdom.  He is about this work, and God the judge will vindicate and glorify him.  Abraham longed for this.  And Jesus asserts his superiority in that great statement:

“Before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus places himself before Abraham.  He is more important, more prominent, because he is bringing about the great day that Abraham longed to see – the fulfillment of the promise.  Abraham died without seeing it, but Jesus will bring it to completion, ushering in a new age of Israel’s survival, growth, and dominion under Jesus as the king.  God the judge will rule in favor of Jesus and faithful Israel and against her oppressors.  God’s faithful will burst all boundaries, rolling out of Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, and as we have witnessed, the entire globe.  Jesus is the keystone of this whole, great, apocalyptic rolling forward of God and His people in history.

The Pharisees beg to differ.  You don’t get to say that you’re everything Abraham hoped for, and therefore are greater.  They pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy, and he sneaks out.  These are the charges that will follow Jesus from the religious power structure in Jerusalem.  He speaks against Moses.  He speaks against the Law.  He speaks against the Temple.  He speaks against our traditions.  At every turn is Jesus making the claim that he has brought the fulfillment of these things, and at every turn his opposition wants to cling to them and exalt them.  They have gotten these people to where they are, after all.

But God is behind this movement of history, and He will not be stopped.  Abraham and Moses died (although they will live again).  The Temple will fall.  The Law will pass away.  But what Jesus will accomplish will stand forever.

Consider This

  1. What were the promises made to Abraham?  How did they end up being fulfilled in the actual history of the world?
  2. If, like me, you are a Gentile, consider that Abraham’s story is your story.  Consider that you got here because of Abraham’s faith and the faithfulness of his descendants.  Consider that God did not have to include you in His people, but He chose to out of love for you, humanity, His creation, and being faithful to His promises to a man long ago.  This is something to be thankful for.
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Loving Darkness: John 3:17-21

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:17-21 (NRSV)

Not that I don’t love Matthew, you understand, but I thought the end of the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to have a brief intermission before moving into Jesus’ riotous healing ministry, and this passage also hits on some themes that will be important in Jesus’ healing ministry.

Today’s passage is part of a conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.  He sneaks over to Jesus’ place by night so nobody will see him consorting with Jesus, and they have a conversation about Jesus’ teachings, impressed as Nicodemus is by the signs that accompany Jesus.

Their conversation centers around Jesus’ mission of renewing (rebirthing, in John’s passage) Israel through the Spirit so that they might enter the kingdom of Heaven.  This whole conversation is made very unclear in English in a number of important places, such that some fairly significant misunderstandings have become entrenched in our traditions.

One of these important pieces is that Jesus is speaking about Israel corporately.  In English, “you” meaning one person and “you” meaning a group of people are the same word.  We do not have a second-person plural.  Our southern USA brothers and sisters have filled this linguistic gap with the word “y’all” while our more northern folk bridge it with “you guys.”

In the Greek, it is clear that when Jesus says “you” in this conversation, it’s plural.  You guys must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.  This is invisible in English.

It’s an important point, though, because we have to understand that Jesus is talking about a corporate rebirth and a corporate entry into the kingdom of God.  This is something the prophets spoke of, including Ezekiel’s dramatic vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37.  After Ezekiel sees God breathe new life into a valley full of skeletons, God explains:

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:11-14 (NRSV)

This explains Jesus’ bemused comment to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)

So, this sets the stage.  Israel needs the Spirit to restore her to life and be the kingdom of God.  Jesus is point man on this operation.  He will have help, but ultimately, he is the one who is going to bring this mission to a conclusion – one that those who trust him believe will be successful.

But what will make the difference between those who are born of the Spirit and enter the kingdom and those who do not?  Well, here, Jesus tells us that it begins with believing Jesus that this is what he is going to do and trusting that he will successfully do it.  People who do not believe that are already outside the kingdom and will fall in the imminent judgement.

This is basically the main point of Jesus’ comments in today’s passage, but Jesus also makes it personal for Nicodemus’ benefit.  Did you see it?

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

At what time of day is this conversation taking place?  Night, of course.  And why is it taking place at night?  Because Nicodemus is afraid someone will see what he is doing.

Clever, no?

The use of dark and light and night and day is a unique feature of John’s gospel.  The ignorant and evil things happen at night, while the wise and good things happen in the light of day.  One notable example is when John has Mary and Peter (and an unnamed disciple) visit Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark,” and they do not understand that Jesus has risen.  The other gospels place this visit in the morning.  There are many other occasions like this, not the least of which is John 1.

But in this conversation, light and dark are more than just symbols or rhetorical devices.  Nicodemus has literally stayed in the darkness and avoided the light because he does not want anyone to see his deeds.  By contrast, Jesus’ disciples and faithful followers who actually trust that he will save them are with him in broad daylight.  Everyone can see their deeds.  And thus, Jesus draws a helpful line for Nicodemus: you have already signed up to be condemned in the judgement, because you are hiding.  You do not truly believe, and this is what is necessary to be saved.

The story does not end here, however.  When Jesus is crucified, two men come forward to claim Jesus’ body.  One is Joseph of Arimathea, whom John describes as a disciple who was in secret because he was afraid of the Jews.  The other is Nicodemus “who came to Jesus by night” John says, just to make sure you know it’s the same one.  These men come out into the light and claim Jesus for their own.  Perhaps we might wish they had been more courageous earlier, but let us not forget that Israel’s Messiah is dead.  To all observers, it looks like he has failed in the mission that he laid out for Nicodemus.  Rome and the power structure in Jerusalem had judged and killed him, not the other way around.

And it is in that very moment when Jesus’ victory seems so ludicrously unlikely that Nicodemus stands before Pilate before Rome and the rest of the world and anoints Jesus’ body as a king.  Maybe he didn’t have it all figured out.  Maybe, like Jesus’ own disciples, he didn’t understand that Jesus would rise from the dead.  But in that moment, Nicodemus didn’t care who knew that he was allied with Jesus.  We don’t know for sure what happened to Nicodemus after that, but I like to think that he spent the next several years talking with the frightened lost of Israel saying, “Unless we are born of the Spirit as well as the flesh, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us, but to save us.”

Consider This

  1. Have you ever thought about your membership in the kingdom and your relationship with God as part of a larger, corporate work God is doing?  Does the biblical story emphasize a highly individual spirituality or God’s work with a whole people?  What implications does this have for the focus of our spiritual lives?
  2. We sometimes use terms like “evil” and “darkness” to refer to blatant sins, but in this passage, Jesus is referring to someone hiding because they are afraid of what will happen to them if people find out they are associated with Jesus.  What does that association look like in a modern nation where spirituality is often a private matter?  What does fear of discovery look like?  Is our fidelity and outward display of our allegiance just as important as our ethical purity?