15 John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’”
16 From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. 19 This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” 20 He came right out and said, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 “Well then, who are you?” they asked. “Are you Elijah?”
“No,” he replied.
“Are you the Prophet we are expecting?”
22 “Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’”
24 Then the Pharisees who had been sent 25 asked him, “If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?”
26 John told them, “I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. 27 Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.”
28 This encounter took place in Bethany, an area east of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.
Yesterday, I told you there are three things we need to bear in mind as we read John’s Gospel and I explained the first two: the importance of understanding what John means by the key terms “world” (Greek: kosmos) and “trust” (Greek: pisteuo). Today I want to focus on the third thing we need to remember as we read – John’s purpose in writing his Gospel. While we are left to figure out (through careful reading) what the specific purposes were for the other three Gospels, with John we have historical tradition to help us, which tells us that John specifically wrote to counter the teachings associated with the Ebionite heresy. Ever hear one side of an argument? Ever hear a sermon dealing with a specific issue in a specific church that you were unaware of? Both situations can be quite confusing; what is said often makes little sense without the other side to give it context. John was led by the Spirit to write his Gospel to address certain specific things. Understanding what John was opposing will help us to receive the message the Spirit gave to John to convey to us.
So, Ebionites. You can read more about them here. Early church leader Irenaeus describes them this way: “They use [an altered version of] the Gospel according to Matthew only, and completely reject the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the Law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavor to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practice circumcision, insist in observing all the customs which are enjoined by the Law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God.” (You can read more from him here.)
Let’s make sure we have this straight. John wrote this Gospel as a response to people who were teaching that all Gentiles had to follow all of the practices, customs, and requirements of the Law in order to be in right relationship with God. They rejected all the teachings of Paul, they rejected the claim that Jesus was God, the Son of God, or in any way equal to God. They revered Jerusalem as holy ground and the Law of Moses as what they should order their lives around.
Sound familiar? Ever hear of anyone taking a trip to the “Holy Land?” Ever hear of anyone wanting to post the Ten Commandments in a courthouse? (How come no one ever wants to post the Two Greatest Commandments or the New Commandment of Jesus? How come?) Many of us circumcise our boys, some of us have Seder meals (I ranted about that recently), and many times our moral reasoning is founded a good deal more on Moses than it is on Jesus.
This is a problem for people who are Christians and not Mosesians.
The Ebionite teaching was condemned by the church as heresy. But heresies are like weeds, you never get done pulling them up. John wrote this Gospel as a weed killer, as an antidote (wow, talk about mixed metaphors) for this recurring ill. As Paul so helpfully explains in Romans (e.g., 4.15, 7.8), the Law did not come to bring grace and truth, it came to bring sin, judgment, and death, to show us our condition when we try to play God and do things on our own. For us to then double down and keep using the Law to keep doing things on our own is really ridiculous, frustrating for God (see Isa. 1), and doomed to failure. Right here in today’s reading, John puts Moses and the Law on one side, with Jesus, grace, and truth on the opposite side (read v. 17 again). All the things we think we know from the Law relating to gender, ethnicity, race, age, economic status, orientation, worship, ritual, liturgy, what have you – all of that has to be rethought from the perspective of the grace and truth Jesus brings. But the grace and truth Jesus brings is routinely rejected by the church.
We saw hints of this yesterday when John talked about Jesus coming to his family and his family rejecting him. John is not talking of Jews there. He is talking about people who claim to be Christians and yet who quite clearly reject Jesus. The rejection in v.10-11 doesn’t come from outsiders – this is rejection on religious grounds. They reject the light of the Gospel of Jesus for the darkness of their own religion. That’s right, their Christian religion causes them to reject Jesus. And this is right where the church (at least in the U.S.) is right now – smack dab in the middle of Ebionite teaching. Using the Law to otherize, an unhealthy attachment to Jewish religious practice, misidentification of the Bible as the Word of God, dispensationalism, penal substitution – it is all of a piece. And it is all heresy because it rejects the divinity of Jesus and makes a mockery of the Trinity.
The Law has an inherent tendency to otherize (because it reveals sin, not grace), which coincides with our own inherent tendency to otherize (because we are fallen creatures). The only remedy for that is the grace and truth Jesus brings. It is no coincidence that here in John we find such an emphasis on love. In ch. 14, Jesus is going to say, “I am giving you a new command: love one another.” The grace and truth Jesus brings is love. Bede Griffiths explains it this way: “the ultimate Mystery of being, the Ultimate Truth is Love. This is the essential structure of reality.” (Return to the Center, p. 60). John specifically names Jesus as the Word of God, which dethrones the Law – and all lawish interpretations of Scripture – and brings us to the place where we have to understand all of Scripture through the lens of the grace and truth Jesus brings, that is, through the lens of Jesus’ unconditional love.
We will need to keep these things in mind as we read: cosmos (loved by God-hostile-love wins), trust (faith expressed in action), and the grace and truth Jesus brings (love that overcomes our Ebionite tendencies). If we can do this, I think John’s Gospel has a lot to say to us right where we are.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.