Monday, July 29, 2013

The God Exegete [John 1.14-18] (30 September 2012)

Sermon Recording

In the course of biblical interpretation – called exegesis, there is no greater peril than etymological exegesis. Etymology is the study of the history of words and their origins. And very often we hear sermons based on the etymological interpretation of a word, the preacher making his or her point based on splitting the relevant word into its constituent parts. Let me cite two common examples. 

The Greek word behind the English word ‘church’ is ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). It is formed from two Greek words, the preposition ἐκ (ek), meaning ‘out’ and the verb καλέω (kaleo), meaning ‘to call’. The conclusion often reached is that ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) means ‘the called out ones’. However, the way the word is used in the New Testament and in the Septuagint and in Greek literature contemporaneous to the New Testament indicates that ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) referred to an assembly or gathering. 

The second example is the word παράκλητος (parakletos) used in John’s Gospel in connection with the Holy Spirit. It is formed from two Greek words, the preposition παρά (para), meaning ‘near’ or ‘beside’ and the adjective κλητός (kletos), meaning ‘called’. This often leads to the conclusion that John means that the Holy Spirit is one who is called near us at our side, from which we get the titles ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ and ‘Helper’. 

However, the word παράκλητος (parakletos) referred to the advocate for the defence in a courtroom scenario and should not be broken down arbitrarily into its components, especially when we see that John’s Gospel makes more sense if we see it as a courtroom drama with Jesus’ being the primary accused and the other characters’ being witnesses either for the prosecution or the defence. 

And now for an English example. Suppose I were a surgeon. During surgeries an intern assists me and gives me the things I ask for – scalpel, sutures, etc. Since she is handing me some things, would I be right to call her ‘handsome’? If I did I could be faulted on two counts. First, just because ‘handsome’ is indeed formed from the two words ‘hand’ and ‘some’, it does not mean that I can simply coalesce their meanings to obtain the meaning of the combination. Second, while in Victorian times calling a woman handsome was a compliment, these days most women would be offended because the word has strong masculine overtones. 

With all of this as background, we can move on to today’s text. I have spoken before from texts in the Gospel of John. And I wish to remind you of a couple of points I have made repeatedly. 

First, unlike the first three Gospels, John’s Gospel does not attempt to arrange its material in chronological manner. We see this in the prologue itself, where John jumps back and forth between Jesus and John the Baptist. 

Second, John’s Gospel reads like it has been written by some absolutely besot with Jesus. This author has experienced a love so great that it shows in the way he writes. For John, it is the person and character of Jesus that is at the heart of the universe. Everything else is a by product. And we see this in today’s text as we will soon see. 

So, let me read the text for today. I urge you to close your bibles and if necessary your eyes as well. Just focus on what you hear. This is my translation of John 1.14-18. 

"And the Speech became tangible and lived in our midst. And we perceived his radiance – the radiance of the only one at the side of the Father, brimming with grace and truth. 
John testified concerning him and pronounced, 'This is the one. He comes subsequent to me but has been placed preferentially to me because he is superior to me.' 
Now from his abundance we all are recipients of grace succeeding grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth have their cause for being in Jesus Christ. No one has ever perceived God. The only one God, who exists in the embrace of the Father has interpreted him."

Except for a few phrases, this must have sounded quite strange. In translating the passage in this manner I have tried to keep two things in balance. First, the Prologue to John’s Gospel is poetic in nature and so I have tried not to be too stodgy with the English words. Second, I have paid close attention to what the various words meant in those days rather than blindly relying on etymology. 

The aspect of etymology comes into play with regard to the Greek word μονογενής (monogenes), used twice in these 5 verses, once in v. 14 and the second time in v. 18. The word is made of two parts – the adjective μόνος (monos), meaning ‘sole’ or ‘only’ and the verb γίνομαι (ginomai), meaning ‘to cause to be’ or ‘to become’. 

The King James version and the NASB render the word as ‘the only begotten’. The NIV has ‘the one and only Son’. The Common English Bible and the Good News Bible have ‘the only Son’. And we could go on. 

The word appears 9 times in the New Testament, 3 times in the Gospel of Luke (at 7.12, 8.42 and 9.38), 4 times in the Gospel of John, once in Hebrews and once in the first Letter of John. All the uses in Luke are not in reference to Jesus. All other uses are in reference to Jesus. Inevitably the uses concerning Jesus include the idea of generation or begetting in the translations. The ones in Luke, which remember do not refer to Jesus, do not have this idea in the translations. 

So is the word μονογενής (monogenes) mainly focused on the idea of generation and begetting or is it mainly focused on the idea of uniqueness? The uses in Luke clearly indicate that the idea of uniqueness is primary. Why then, when it comes to Jesus do all the translations focus on the idea of begetting, when there is no other word in the New Testament that might even suggest such an idea? 

I think we have become hamstrung by our creeds, especially the Nicene Creed in which we find the words ‘We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds.’ The idea of begetting, whatever that means when we are speaking of God, supposedly comes from the word μονογενής (monogenes). 

Unfortunately, since everywhere else μονογενής (monogenes) stresses not the begotten-ness of the person but the uniqueness of the person we need to conclude that the etymological understanding of the word is misleading. 

So what does our passage tell us? Twice in the course of 5 verses John tells us that Jesus has a unique, one of a kind relationship to God. What is John trying to tell us? 

Many Christians decry what they call pluralism. We deny that there are different objects to which people direct their worship. However, we should know better. We see it with our own eyes, hear it with our own ears. We have neighbours offering us food items from this and that place of worship. Religiosity is all pervasive in India, even if few could give you any rationale behind the various observances. 

The same was true of the Roman Empire. Places of worship flourished all over. Farmers would ask ‘god’ to bless their crops. Animal herders would ask ‘god’ to give their cattle or sheep healthy offspring. Emperors would ask ‘god’ to give them victory over their enemies. We could go on. The words ‘god’, ‘lord’, ‘master’, ‘saviour’ etc. would have been heard all over the place. 

Just this past week my mom sent me an email. It was a forward of a blog post. Here is a short snippet: 
Our spiritual life is not multiple-choice, it is not a smorgasbord of options, it is not a variety pack we can pick and choose from based upon what looks good to us. 
The author was well intentioned. However, simply stating something does not make it true. Why, when there are so many gods out there, is spirituality not a variety pack? 

John has the answer. Twice in these 5 verses he uses the combination ‘grace and truth’. Twice he refers to Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father. And he concludes with the claim that Jesus has actually interpreted God for us. 

What does that mean? We often use the phrase ‘Jesus is God’ in conversations or while witnessing to others or while trying to explain the doctrine of the trinity. 

When we do this it is implicit that the word ‘God’ describes something we have some knowledge about. We have a box labelled ‘God’ and we are placing Jesus in that box. Ah ‘Jesus’! This belongs in that ‘God’ box. 

And John has allowed us to do this right from verse 1 in the phrase ‘and the Word was God.’ The word ‘God’ is more familiar to us than the word ‘Word’. And so we would readily conclude that we know what ‘God’ means and try to categorize ‘Word’ accordingly. 

And that works well till the end of our passage. For there John tells us that none of us really have perceived God. We are ignorant about God. It is God who is unknown. But we have perceived and experienced Jesus. 

John knows that all the options available are interpretations of what is unknown – namely God. Unlike the blog, he does not simply dismiss the other options. He is actually inviting people to test the various interpretations. 

John tells us that with Jesus we will find that God is the embodiment of grace and truth, that from him we receive grace succeeding grace. What is unsaid is that all the other interpretations will fail in this regard. In some, instead of grace we will find rules, unforgiveness or intimidation. In others, instead of truth we will find obscurantism, deceit or a denial of reality. In still others, we will find limits to the grace we can receive or conditions under which we may expect to receive grace. 

And John is asking us, “Which of these, if taken to its logical conclusion would yield a world that will flourish, a world in which love and selflessness will prevail?” 

John has no doubts. “Test all you want,” he would say. “But at the end of the day, if you are honest, you will realize that the one definitive interpretation of the person and character of God is – Jesus.” 

In other words, John’s creed would not have been ‘Jesus is God’ though quite obviously he did believe that and would expect us also to believe the same. Rather, John’s creed would have been ‘this world can be one filled with love and justice and truth and faithfulness only if God is like Jesus, for Jesus is the only one who exists constantly in the embrace of the Father and who, therefore, is the only one qualified to give us a portrait of God that we can both understand and trust.’ 

Jesus, in other words, is the one trustworthy God exegete.

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