6. Surrender to our Guide
In the foregoing chapters we reflected on certain disturbing realities we meet in life: conflict, malice, opposition, sin. We may add to this the other hardships that are part and parcel of our existence, such as pain, suffering, the fragility of human life and death itself. Although the universe shows incredible design and beauty, it also leaves us bewildered and confused. What is the meaning of it all? Why do we exist? If some Supreme Being created us - as we have every reason to assume - what purpose did he have in making us? , Is he concerned about us? Does he want us to be happy? Will he hold us responsible for the good or evil we do' What is the ultimate meaning of being born? And of dying?
These are the universal questions all religions and all philosophies of life try to answer. And judging by the wide divergence of answers offered their attempts have not been successful or conclusive. However much our limited minds may scrutinise and reflect, doubts and mysteries remain. Left to ourselves we can never be sure to what extent our man-made beliefs respond to reality. What we would need is for God himself to tell us why we exist. Only he, or a messenger deputed by him, can explain to us the meaning and purpose of creation. Human wisdom will not do; only revelation will.
Nicodemus visited Jesus in the middle of the night to receive instruction. He accepted Jesus as his teacher. He sat at his feet. But when Jesus revealed a whole new way of relating to the Father, Nicodemus expressed a doubt: "How can this be?" Jesus then pointed out that he was not teaching as a philosopher; he was a divine witness who had come down from God himself.
"If you do not believe me when I talk to you about earthly things how are you going to believe me when I talk to you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven: the Son of Man who resides in heaven".3,12-13
It is clear that John is handling an image here. He presents Jesus as a superior being, the "Son of Man", who was in heaven with God and who has come down into "this world of darkness" to instruct us about divine things. Jesus thus has a unique function. There is no other teacher who has such an intimate and original relationship to God. Jesus is the only teacher who can bring us everlasting life. For he alone knows the way to heaven. He alone has seen God (1,18).
It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the main assertions of John's Gospel. The Word who was with God from all eternity, became a human being like us and brought us light, life, sonship and grace (1,1-18). All the great metaphors in the Gospel: Jesus as the light of the world (8,12), the bread that came down from heaven (6,42), the good shepherd (10,11), the way, the truth and the life (14,6), the vine (15,1), and most of Jesus' dialogues, proclaim the same message. Jesus is the one and only source of salvation. If we want to understand the meaning of life, we have to listen to him.
Jesus came down from the Father and went back up to the Father: this is the simple yet very basic image through which John expressed who Jesus is. "He knew he had come from God and was going back to God" (13,3). He was a messenger. He had been sent. He travelled with us to accompany us on our journey and to show us the way. Jesus' function as the one who was sent was more all-pervasive and basic to John than the incarnation, than Jesus as "the world made flesh".(1) In this chapter we want to understand Jesus as the guide. Where did John derive the image from? How should his teaching be interpreted in present-day terms? To grasp John's proclamation fully, a digression into the history of its religious ideas in unavoidable.
Humiliation and exaltation
We are now entering one of the most crucial battling grounds of New Testament scholarship. Some prominent exegetes have introduced the hypothesis that the concept of the descending Saviour found in John's Gospel is basically of Gnostic origin. Jesus Christ never saw himself as a saviour, they maintain. He was a prophet whose main concern lay in bringing people to repentance in preparation for God's judgement which he announced would be coming soon. When he had been crucified, his disciples imagined he had risen and, basing themselves on this belief developed the notions of his pre-existence and divinity. Also, under influence of Hellenistic "redeemer myths", they began to attribute to Jesus' life and death a salvific function. The basic proclamation of John's Gospel is thereby ascribed to Gnostic sources.(2)
That the hypothesis, in this crude form, does not correspond to the facts, has been and is the contention of many scholars. Moreover, if true, it would undermine the historical basis for most of our Christian beliefs and thus pave the way for a de-historicised, philosophical Christianity. At the same time we have to admit that the hypothesis, I would almost say like most "heresies", also has its merits. The debate it aroused and the research it compelled scholars to make, have made us more sensitive to the various stages of development, in expression and understanding, undergone by the central message. Such a more sensitive grasp is, I am convinced, of great importance for a better response to the message. While leaving the academic discussion to others, and referring to them only when necessary, I will concentrate on the spiritual implications.
The doctrine in question is contained in the so called "Son of Man" passages. John has thirteen of them. Together they present a rather consistent and unified picture. The Son of Man came down from heaven and will ascend to it again (3,13; 6,62). The Son of Man will be exalted (3,14; 8,28; 12,34) and glorified (12,23; 13,31). For John these three: exaltation on the cross, glorification and ascent are closely linked. The Son of Man gives also the food of life (6,27; 6,53). To him has been given the power to judge (5,27). Through angels he remains in constant touch with the Father (1,51). All these texts fit into a simple scheme of descent (by becoming man and dying) and ascent (being exalted, glorified and becoming the source of salvation).(3) We can trace both these elements in Jesus' teaching as humiliation and exaltation.
Self-concept of a prophet
Jesus did indeed preach as a prophet. But his message concerned not only the coming of God's kingdom, but also his own role in it. The term "Son of Man" which Jesus employed about himself, was in his mind closely associated to the image of the suffering servant of Yahweh (Is 52,13 - 53,12). "The Son of Man must suffer many things" (Mk 8,31). "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom of many" (Mk 10,45). "This is my blood which is poured out for many" (Mk 14,24). From texts such as these there can be no doubt about the fact that Jesus understood his own death as a vicarious sacrifice for his people.(4)
The Son of Man himself is a sign given by God (Lk 11,30). Those who own up to him now, he will own up to later before his Father (Mk 8,38; Lk 12,8). For he will be seated at the right hand of God (Mk 14,62). On the day of judgement he will come on the clouds with great power and glory (Mk 13,26; Mt 25,31). As judge of individual people he comes at an hour no one expects him (Lk 12,40). The Son of Man therefore will be exalted and his central position will finally be acknowledged (compare Dan7,13; Is 52,13).
When we compare John's teaching with that of Jesus, we thus find that he elaborated and explicitated what Jesus had already stated. John took the term "Son of Man" from Jesus himself.(5) From Jesus too he took the Son of Man's salvific role and central position. In the Early Church this central position of Jesus as the definitive revelation of God, had soon led to an acknowledgement of his pre-existence.(6) Since John is addressing a Hellenised audience, he now boldly presents this traditional teaching in a Hellenised garb. The images of "the above" and "the below" (3,31; 8,23), of him descending into this world of darkness, of him bringing into this world the light, the truth and the life of the heavenly realm, of his ascending again to that abode, are clearly aimed at convincing Hellenists in their own language.(7) If a Gnostic redeemer myth existed in John's time and was known to him,(8) John certainly did not derive his message from it.(9) Also the terminology of Jesus as the messenger, as the one who was sent is best explained as a Jewish notion, with Old Testament (Is 55,11?) and rabbinical roots, clothed in Hellenistic language.(10)
Reality for today
Our historical analysis of John's ideas and images gives a more complicated picture than we had, perhaps, expected. This should not take us aback. We know that the whole process of Scripture formation - Jesus' own preaching, the reflections of the Early Church and the writing by evangelists and apostles - was under inspiration. This means we can learn both from Jesus' original presentation of his mission and from the way it was interpreted by John. If we study these facts with faith, we will not be the losers. Rather, we may be able to discern better what John's Gospel is teaching us today.
What strikes me as particularly significant is that, from beginning to last, the emphasis falls on Jesus' function. To put it in human terms, he is presented to us not for his own sake, but for ours. When Jesus spoke of himself as "the Son of Man", he did so to indicate that he had come as a servant: to give his life for us and to save us from condemnation in the final judgement. He wanted us to become children of his Father in a new kingdom where love, forgiveness and humility would reign. When John elaborated Jesus' message, he too focussed on the role Jesus plays in our salvation. It is for our sake that Jesus descended from the Father and for our sake that he, through death and resurrection, will return there. To put it bluntly, neither Jesus himself nor John proclaimed a new god.
Everything in John's Gospel confirms this presentation. Why is Jesus the Saviour? Is it not because he has come to save us? Why is he called the bread, if not to be spiritual nourishment for us? Does he not say himself that he is a good shepherd because he is ready to defend his sheep even at the cost of his life? If he is the vine is it not in order to strengthen the branches with life-giving sap? All his titles: being the life, truth, our resurrection, the light of the world, - they all stress the functional aspect of his coming. He has come for us. That is why he can rightly be called "the Way" (14,6). In a manner of speaking we could, perhaps, sum all this up in one phrase: Jesus has come to be our guide. When John urges us to "believe" in Jesus, he means, in the first instance, that we should entrust ourselves to his guidance. As we entrust our life and our safety to the drive h who drives our bus or the pilot who flies our plane, so we hand ourselves over to Jesus to be led by him.
Origin and destiny
Jesus' descent and ascent are not only the starting point and termination of the journey on which he is taking us. They also indicate for John the two main salvific activities Jesus came to do. He came to teach us who the Father is; and to join us to the Father in an intimate union of love.
Jesus is the one who has made God known to us. For no human being has ever seen God. Only Jesus, God's Son whose place is at the Father's side, has revealed him to us (1,18). To have access to the Father in this manner, Jesus' mediation is absolutely required. No one can approach the Father except through him (14,6). In his highpriestl prayer Jesus will sum up his mission by saying: "Father, I made your name known to the people you gave me out of the world" (17,6). Making the Father's true nature known to us and opening a totally new avenue to him is Jesus' first great gift to us. The next section of this book will be entirely devoted to this aspect of Jesus' work (chapters 7-14).
But Jesus also came to make our ascent to the Father possible. He has come to heal our blindness (9,39); to set us free (8,31); to take away our sins (1,29); to bring us salvation (3,17); to make us walk in the light (8,12); to make sure we will never be hungry (6,35); to give eternal life (3,36), to bring us peace (14,27) and joy (15,11); and to raise us up with him on the last day (5,29). In other words: he has come to bring us the fulness of life. The third and last section of this book will be devoted to the nature of this Christian life (chapters 15-20).
The decision for or against
John presents Jesus as our guide. But do we not have many guides or would-be guides in this world? Prophets, philosophers, religious leaders and writers? To place Jesus among one of those would be a grave mistake. The whole point of John's Gospel is to present Jesus as the only guide who can tell us about God and give us life. The other, smaller guides, vanish into nothingness compared to him. If we want to give real meaning to our life, if we want to escape from our own sins and the sinful structures that surround us, if we want to live the totally new life John promises, we have to accept Jesus as the one definitive guide, the only one who can really help us.
John sees this confirmed in the way Jesus will come as judge. Of course, this does involve real judicial power, a power the Father entrusted to his Son (5,22.27). This judicial power will be manifested at the last judgement (5,28-29). But John sees another meaning in Jesus' "judgement" too. The Greek word "xpuabs' really means "decision". During Jesus' earthly mission he did not want to come as a judge at all. God did not send his Son-to judge people but to save them (3,17). But by his coming he did force them to make a decision. His coming would have the effect of showing them up for what they were: open to God or not. "I came into this world for judgement: that the blind may be able to see, and those who do see may become blind" (9,39). In other words: By forcing people to make a decision, I will show up who is truly blind and who can see. Those who listen to Jesus' word and therefore make the right decision, will not be judged at all (5,24). But whoever refuses to believe, thereby brings judgement upon himself (3,18). "Now the judgement is this: the light has come into the world, but people love darkness more than light because their deeds were evil" (3,19). Jesus passes judgement on no one (8,15). But his coming is a challenge we can only evade to our own harm. He offers his services as our guide; we cannot turn him down with impunity.
For reflection. The light as guide.
Imagine yourself in a dark mine, deep under the earth. You am bound to lose the way if you do not follow the guide who carries the light. This is the image of Jesus John holds out to us (read 12,35-36). Are we prepared to accept Jesus' guidance?
Have I learnt to trust others in their own professions: the doctor, the dentist, the lawyer, the financial expert? Am I nervous if someone else is in the driving seat?
Who are the guides I rely on for my ideas and convictions? Have they let me down in the past? Through incompetence? Because they wanted to deceive me?
Who guided my growth when I was conceived, born and when I grew to become who I am now? Would I have done better if I had been in full control myself?
What holds me back from complete surrender to Jesus? Fear that I will lose my freedom? Or that he will ask difficult and impossible things? Have I experienced Jesus guiding me? Do I give him a fair chance?
Let us turn confidently to Jesus, our guide and our light, and ask him to take us by the hand and show us the way to the Father.
1. S. VAN TILBORG, "'Neerdaling' en incarnatie: de christologie van Johannes", Tijdschrift voor Theologie 13 (1973) 20-33; J. BECKER, "Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben. Eine Skizze der Johanneischen Christologie", Theologisches Zeitschrift 39 (1983) 138-151.
2 . The chief exponent of this hypothesis has been R. BULTMANN. Jesus and the Word, Scribner, New York 1958; Primitive Christianity, Thames and Hudson, London 1956; Theology of the New Testament, SCM, London 1952; New Testament and Mythology and other Basic Writings, ed. S. M. OGDEN, Fortress, Philadelphia 1984.
3. The remaining two texts, 9,35 and 12,34d, do not say anything about the contents of the term.
4. J. JEREMIAS, New Testament Theology, SCM, London 1971, esp.pp.276-299; The Central Message of the New Testament, SCM, London 1965, pp.31-50; also The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, SCM, London 1960, esp. pp.218-237.
5. No other convincing source has been found. The term occurs in some Christian Gnostic texts, but these are clearly dependent on the Gospels. The attempt to link the term to the Man figure of the Gnostic myths (anthropos) has failed. C. H. KRAELING, Anthropos and Son of Man, New York 1927. H. M. SCHENKE, Der Gott "Mensch" in der Gnosis, Gottingen 1962.
6. A good example is the early, pre-Pauline hymn of Phil 2,6-11. E. SCHWEIZER, "Die Herkunft der praexistenzvorstelling bei Paulus", Evangelische Theologie 19 (1959) 65-70; also Erniedrigung und Ernohung bei Jesus und seimen Nachfolgern, Zurich 1962, pp.99f.
7. Undoubtedly the Alexandrian sections of the Old Testament also played their part here, e.g., The descent 96. The myth is a reconstruction from late and uncertain texts. Whether it existed in a form resembling John's message at the time is doubtful. Y. C. COLPE, Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Darstelling und Kritik ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlosermythus' Gottingen 1961.
8. The myth is a reconstruction from late and uncertain texts. Weather it existed in a form resembling John's message at the time is doubtful. Y.C. COLPE Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Darstelling und Kritick ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlösermythus, Gottingen 1961.
9. The true gnostic redemption such as portrayed in Corpus Hermeticum comes through inner enlightenment, not through mediation of a suffering and judging saviour. On this whole question, see esp. R. SCHNACKENBURG Das Johannes-evangelium, I, Freiburg 1965, pp.411-423; 433-447.
10. J. A. BUHNER, Der Gesandte und sein Weg im 4 Evangelium, J. C. B. Mohr, Tubingen 1977. O. MICHEL "Die Botenlehre des vierten Evangeliums", Theologisches Beitrag 7 (1976) 56-60; J. V. DAHMS, "Isaiah 55:11 and the Gospel of John", Evangelische Quartalschrift 53 (1981) 78-81.
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