Archive for the ‘Bible Study – John’ Category

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.

Some background:

The dominant themes of John’s Gospel up to this point have been the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah who fulfils all the promises of the Old Testament to bring in the New Era – the outpouring of the Spirit, the cleansing of sin and uncleanness, the renewal and establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the personal renewal that comes to a person who is brought in to be a part of this all. We have seen Him declared to be the Son of God (not figuratively but literally), the Baptiser in the Spirit, the Messiah, the One who replaces the old ritual washing water with the new wine, the one who replaces the Jerusalem Temple with himself, and the One prefigured by Moses in lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. He has just unpacked for a key Jewish leader what it means to be ‘born from above’ by God’s sovereign action in the work of the Holy Spirit, and now he comes to someone at the other end of the theology/holiness/worthiness/acceptability spectrum: a lonely, broken, shamed Samaritan woman.

4:1-9

Jesus broke a number of cultural conventions, doing what in the eyes of many – especially the Pharisees – would disqualify him from being a Rabbi, let alone the Messiah sent from God. Firstly, he travelled through Samaria. Samaria was the region historically occupied by the ten northern tribes of Israel who had been conquered by the Assyrians in 720BC. The Assyrian policy of relocation meant that many Israelites were scattered among the nations, while may foreigners were brought into Samaria, where they intermarried with the remaining Israelites, developing a syncretistic religion. When the exiles who had been taken by the Babylonians from the Southern kingdom of Judah returned, these locals wanted to participate in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, but were not permitted. So they set up their own Temple in Samaria. This developed eventually into the rivalry, bigotry and hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans right up to Jesus’ time. Many Jews, if they needed to travel North to Galilee, would cross the Jordan and travel up the East side of the river in order to avoid travelling through Samaria, even though this took them 4 days longer than cutting through Samaria.

Secondly, when the woman came to the well, he spoke to her, asking for a drink. This was controversial on four counts. First, as a Jew (and a Rabbi) he should not have spoken to to a Samaritan (at least in a friendly tone). Second, as a male he should not have spoken to a woman on her own. Third, he should not have been willing to drink from a Samaritan cup, which would have technically made him ’unclean,’ since Samaritans were considered by many to be the same or even worse than Gentiles. Fourth, while it’s not explicitly stated, the fact that this woman was at the well at midday, rather than the normal time of first thing in the morning when everyone else would have been there, may indicate that this woman was an outcast even among her own people, since she came alone at a time when no-one else would be there to ridicule or criticise her.

It is important to notice that John includes this story immediately after chapter three’s account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. John said in is introduction to the Gospel:

11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11-12)

In John 3 we see a man, Nicodemus, who would have been seen by everyone as ‘one of God’s own people’, yet who just didn’t understand or receive what Jesus was saying, responding to Jesus’ statements with naive, even ignorant questions. Then in John 4 we see this woman, by all accounts an ‘outsider’, who not only is receptive towards Jesus, but as we will see, engaging in robust theological discussion with him – showing up Israel’s esteemed teacher!

It’s also important to note that he initial reason Jesus stopped at this well was that he was tired and thirsty. Presumably when the disciples went into the town to get food, they had taken al the equipment with them, and so Jesus didn’t even have a cup to drink from. The Gospels to not present a ‘superman’ Jesus who floats six feed above the struggles and realities of life in this world. Jesus, the Son of God, is truly one of us, sharing in all that we experience, including tiredness and thirst.

4:10-14

The term ‘living water’ on its face value simply meant ‘spring’ or ‘running’ water – fresh water found in a flowing creek or river, as opposed to potentially muddy or stagnant water found in a well. Both Jews and Samaritans looked forward to the day when the creation was renewed by God’s blessing, and the entire region was watered by flowing rivers (eg. Zechariah 14:8, 44:3), but also that this physical renewal would be a symbol of a spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit would ‘flow’ into and through God’s people.

Initially this woman takes his statement on the purely physical sense. Not only does Jesus not have the equipment to draw water from the well, but he is claiming to be better than than the one who dug the well – Jacob – by claiming to produce this fresh running water as opposed to stale well water.

Jesus, in his usual fashion, explains that he has come to replace the Old with something New. In the Old Testament Jeremiah says:

‘…“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13)

Jesus’ claim in 13&14 is that he has come to reverse this scenario. The well by which they are standing is a picture of the people turning to find satisfaction in things that are only momentary; and in doing so are rebelling against God, who is the only source of true satisfaction. In Jesus, the door has been opened for people to turn from these broken wells back to the eternal spring of living water.

4:15-19

At this point the woman still wants to engage on a purely physical level, but Jesus pulls the rug out from under her feet. He ultimate need is not her physical predicament of having to come here day after day to get water; it is not the fact that she runs out of water in her house. Rather, her need is spiritual – the broken well is in her, not in her house, as evidenced by the life she is living. She is a ‘serial monogamist’. Five broken marriages, resulting in her being a broken person who no longer has the energy or motivation to even try to live by the standards of her community or God.

Jesus’ comment, and his intimate knowledge of her history is a ‘sign’ to her that he is not just a regular Jewish man, but is in fact a prophet. Her use of this word is significant. The Samaritans only had as their Bible the first five books of the Old Testament, whereas the Jews had all the historical, poetic and prophetic books. In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 God promises to raise up ‘another prophet’ like Moses who will teach the people perfectly from the Law. This idea is developed in the later books of the Old Testament into the idea of the Messiah who is not only a prophet, but also a King and a Priest. But because the Samaritans did not have or recognise these books, they spoke of their future hope in terms of a ‘Prophet’. Many Samaritans however acknowledged the Jewish expectation of the Messiah and that it was to be one and the same Person.

4:20-26

The woman no only discerns that Jesus is a prophet, and maybe The Prophet, but she also recognises the real issue that is at the heart of everything, even behind her current situation of living in an immoral relationship: the issue of worship. It’s no trivial thing that the first four of the Ten Commandments are about worship. The One whom we worship will determine the kind of life we live, as our life is a direct reflection of our worship. Both the Jew and the Samaritan knew that if the issue of worship was sorted (the first 4 commandments – Loving God) then the issue of right living will follow (the last 6 – loving one’s neighbour).

The sore point between Jews and Samaritans was not so much the method of worship as the place of worship, which is what she picks up on. Rather than picking a fight, I believe this is a genuine question from someone who has just come face to face with the Truth of God embodied in the person of Jesus – she is simply framing it in terms of the context that she understands.

Jesus’ answer is not only immensely liberating, but also would have blown any last shred of credibility he may have had with the Jewish leaders by saying something that in their eyes would have undermined the whole Temple system in Jerusalem (just in case he hadn’t done this already when he cleared the Temple in 2:13-22!). And he in essence gives the same answer to her that he gave to Nicodemus: It must be a work of the Spirit. Just as Nicodemus hd no hope of seeing or entering the Kingdom of God apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in his life, so too this woman has no hope of truly worshiping God apart from the Spirit enabling her. We cannot come to God by going to a holy place or entering a holy building in which we do holy rituals. In fact, we cannot come to God at all. True worship happens as God Himself comes to us. It is as the Holy Spirit comes to us and opens our blind eyes to see Jesus, unblocks our deaf ears to hear Him speak the truth, and applies the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us. When he says, ‘…they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’ We see that the Father also comes to us before we come to Him – the word implies a active, yearning, seeking, not just a desire. It does not mean that people first get their act together with worship and then God will go and find them; rather God the Father is out and about in His world seeking broken, sinful people and turning them into those who truly worship and know Him. The way he dos this is through Jesus. Here we see the God the Son, who has taken on humanity in order to walk among us and, ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10), and this mission has taken him to a lonely well where he has found a lonely, broken, outcast Samaritan woman.

In chapter 1 (41, 45) we see people saying, ‘We have found the Messiah;’ ‘We have found the one Mose wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote.’ Here we see this One finding this woman, declaring to her ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’ (26)

If you are interested in any way in seeking God, know that it can only be because He is first seeking you; and if you know God through Jesus it is only because He has sought you and found you through his Son and by the work of His Spirit, and brought you into the truth of who He is.

Reformation Theology: Physical Birth – Spiritual Birth.

What should you make of ‘coincidences‘?

As I was preparing a sermon for this Sunday, and having just completed a exegesis of John 1:12-13 ‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God,’ I noticed this post from John Samson in my blog feed. The time he posted was virtually precisely the time I started my exegesis. Not only that, but he had come to exactly the same conclusion as me – it was almost as if he’d ripped off the first few paragraphs of my sermon!

Is it mere coincidence that two people on opposite sides of the globe find the same thing in the same passage at the same time?

Or, maybe the Spirit is at work through the Word…