My review of Chris Tilling’s monograph,, Paul’s Divine Christology is now published (in SCJ). If you click the SCJ link, you can gain (free) access to all of the book reviews in the current edition. There’s more than 60-pages worth, so you’ll certainly get your fill. Happy reading.
Tag Archives: theology
If you want to have a go at Dispensationalism, then you need to be prepared to account for a number of eschatological topics and their (assumed necessary) relationship with each other. (You also need to be ready to deal with questions of interpretative approach, but that’s a different ballgame). For example, if you start an eschatological discussion with a Dispy, you are bound to be asked about (at the very least): Daniel’s 70 weeks, the focus of Matthew 24-25, the (so-called) “rapture”, the (so-called) “millennium”, the (so-called) “great tribulation” and when it occurs, the “great white throne of judgment”, the (supposed) battle of Armageddon… you get the idea.
In some ways, it can be overwhelming and even exhausting to get through this type of discussion simply because of the tangled web of ideas and theology that Dispensationalism has weaved. Thus, instead of going at the thing whole-hog and dismantling Dispensationalism in toto (quite frankly: you’d have an easier time convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that “Jehovah” is not even a word), it’s better to examine the individual parts and discern their respective validity. The one I want to focus on in this post is the so-called, “Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6. Here is a more or less standard (Dispensational) approach to this issue:
Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan? To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human. Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan. This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents.
–D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Commentary (1971), 313
The stuff that follows Hiebert’s question is understandable and, in the main, a reasonable conclusion. And a number of scholars (mostly Dispensational) contend that only the work/power/person of the Holy Spirit fits the needed criteria to restrain Satan. However, there are serious theological problems with seeing the (so-called) “restrainer” as the Holy Spirit, but I will have to side-step that conversation for now. I will simply echo John Chrysostom who said: “if [Paul] meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly” (NPNF 1.13: 388).
My issue is that there is a more fundamental problem with Hiebert’s argument. Despite the understandableness and even the reasonableness of Hiebert’s observations, all of it ultimately relies on a bad or faulty premise–namely: 2Thess 2.6 is in fact talking about “the Restrainer”, and this (supernatural) person can be identified. To put it more bluntly: the legitimacy of his question and the proposed conclusion are dependent upon the validity of the presupposition that drives his question and conclusion. Without the presupposition, his argument falls flat at best or becomes meaningless at worst.
I am working on a longer treatment of this discussion, so if you want the details: please be patient. Until then, I will summarize things by saying: 1) the identity of “the Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6 is not as clear-cut or obvious as Hiebert (and his fellow Dispys) believe, and 2) the rendering “the Restrainer” is not the only option for how one can translate the Greek verb, κατεχω (especially in the light of grammar and syntax). With regard to the first point, a number of suggestions have been made throughout the history of interpretation; the Holy Spirit is only one of those. In other words, we cannot (as Hiebert and his Dispy friends have done) conclusively assert unambiguously or unequivocally that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in 2Thess 2.6.
With regard to the second point, in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, κατεχω does mean “restrain” (or “hold back”), but only when it is accompanied by an object. At this point, Hiebert and his Dispy buddies seem to be vindicated because nearly every English translation of the passage mentions a “him” as the recipient (i.e. the object) of the Restrainer’s efforts. However, this vindication is valid only if we rely on English translations. Things change when we look to the original Greek text. In the Greek of 2Thess 2.6, there is no object associated with κατεχω. And in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, when this happens κατεχω means “prevail” (or “rule”). And just in case Hiebert et al think I’m being overly pedantic or liberally inventive, this intransitive use of κατεχω is not without support in Greek literature.
Now, those holding to a “Restrainer” interpretation might come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal rules of interpretation, which is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In every other instance of κατεχω in the NT, it means ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back.’ Thus, when we use ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in 2Thess 2.6, we’re simply following Scriptural precedent.” To which I would respond: “Fine, but you not only become guilty of committing the ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ fallacy; you also fail to recognize that the other instances where κατεχω appears in the NT, it has an object associated with it. Thus, the translation ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in those cases is appropriate. But 2Thess 2.6 is completely unlike those other instances for one simple reason: it has no object.”
I would think Paul, being a fairly educated man, would be aware of the transitive and intransitive uses in Greek and the differences in meaning they convey. Moreover, the intransitive use of κατεχω (and the switch from neuter in 2.6 to masculine in 2.7) does better justice to Paul’s argument in 2Thess 2.3-10. In other words: the “mystery of lawlessness” (neuter) is what now prevails, as illustrated in 2.3-4, but which is currently unseen for what it truly is; and the “man of lawlessness” (masculine) is the one in charge of what prevails, and the one who will be revealed/exposed and defeated at the end, as noted in 2.8-10. This reading also prevents really wild and wicked views about the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation–views that I cannot, in good conscience (let alone academic integrity) support or even entertain.
 See e.g. L.S. Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” (1936): 428; E.S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (1970), 70-71; R. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (1973), 125-28; J. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (1977), 115; R.L. Thomas, “1, 2 Thessalonians,” (1978), 325; M. Rosenthal, Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (1990), 257-61; C.E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’,” (1997): 327. Cf. also C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (2001), 114-16.
 R.L. Thomas tries to wiggle out of this by claiming (without any support whatsoever): “It appears that to katechon (“what is holding back”) was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness” (“1, 2 Thessalonians” , 325).
 Here I am relying on the arguments of C. Wannamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (1990), 250-54 and J. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (1996), 258-62.
 See e.g. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.10, 3.89; Andocides, Speeches, 1.130; Aristotle, Politics, 1307b; idem, Meteorology, 345a; Lysias, Speeches, 3.42; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 434; cf. Homeric Hymns, 2.126; Herodotus, Histories, 7.188; Polybius, Histories, 1.25.7; Plutarch, Lives: Theaseus, 21; Sophocles, Philoctetes, 221; Euripides, Heracleidae, 83; idem, Helen, 1206; idem, Cyclops: Odysseus, 223; Antiphon, Speeches, 5.21.
 See J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).
One of the (nerdy) joys I have is re-acquainting myself with my personal library–after being separated from it for just over 5 years. I find books that I’ve been wanting to read and now can (seeing that I have the time to do so), encounter others that I had forgotten about, and discover a few that now have accidental duplicates. On the most recent scan of the shelves, I came across, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1998)–edited by Stanley Gundry and C. Marvin Pate. This one, oddly enough, falls into the first two categories: been wanting to read, and forgot I had it.
Because I had forgotten about it, I failed to remember that one of the four views explored was “A Classical Dispensationalist View” (pp. 177-230), advocated by Robert Thomas. And because I failed to remember this, I was visibly and audibly surprised when I saw it. So much so that my, “Are you kidding me?!” outburst (and nearly coming out of my chair) solicited funny looks from other Dunkin’ Donuts patrons. And a couple mothers drawing their children in closer.
I was surprised for two key reasons–one less substantial than the other: 1) that such a view would be included in a book on scholarly approaches to the book of Revelation, and 2) that there is an academic who is still willing to promote the view–especially in 1998! I was fairly confident that the Classical Dispensationalist view of anything (let alone Revelation) had been relegated to those very small pockets of Christendom still tied to John N. Darby and C.I. Scofield. And I could have sworn that it was no longer considered a viable, scholarly, academic position to hold. Apparently I was wrong.
There is not enough time or space in a simple blog post to address the details of Thomas’ argument. Thus, I will mention two of the leading issues of his claims (and his critique of the other views) that prompted further outbursts from me and other funny looks (and reactions) from DD patrons.
First, I had trouble with Thomas’ critique of the other views in the book (i.e. Preterist, Idealist, and Progressive Dispensationalist). At times, he was a bit unfair in how he represented the other views (and their interpretative decisions). Moreover, he was rather curt and occasionally discourteous towards his “opponents”–simply because he thinks the other views are flawed at the hermeneutical level and thus open to ridicule. Specifically, Thomas dismisses the arguments of his “opponents” because they do not (in his view) adhere to a specific line of interpretation (i.e. the so-called, grammatical-historical [or: literal] approach)–a line that he sees as the only valid means for interpreting the book. Alternatively, he openly and passionately accepts (and thus promotes) the Dispensationalist reading because it does adhere to the G-H approach.
Thus, prima facie, Thomas’ critique is not: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because they are not Dispensational”; instead, it’s: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because of they do not follow the G-H interpretative approach; but because of it’s loyalty to G-H interpretation, Dispensationalism is the more appropriate reading of Revelation.” In effect, Thomas presents his case as though: 1) the G-H approach is open to all and is completely objective in its processes, 2) the other views have rejected this approach and have been forced to create wild and fanciful readings of the text–readings that are not reflective of either history or theology, but 3) only Dispensationalism has earnestly accepted the approach and consistently applied it to the biblical text, thus producing a uniform reading that is faithful and true to both history and theology. However, there is a serious problem with this presentation. I’ll come back to it in a moment.
Second, I could not get past the theological and cognitive dissonance of Thomas’ (counter)arguments. In particular, Thomas chastises one of his “opponents” for allowing his presuppositions and hermeneutical approach to dictate his interpretations. Specifically Thomas declares (p.187 n.19):
C. Marvin Pate opts for a twofold outline because of his preunderstanding of an “already/not yet” hermeneutical key, through which he interprets the book. This illustrates how one’s preunderstanding, if allowed in the hermeneutical process, influences the interpretation of Scripture.
Thomas utterly fails to recognize the essential necessity for Dispensationalism to operate in accordance with specific preunderstandings, without which the whole system would collapse. As Bruce Waltke has clearly demonstrated:¹
- (Classical) Dispensationalism begins with a small handful of (unqualified/unsubstantiated) presuppositions,² and uses them as “rules” for interpretation
- it then reads the whole of Scripture through the lens of these presuppositions/rules, and this holistic reading (conveniently) leads to the Dispensationalist system
- it then allows this system to govern as the hermeneutical principle by which individual parts of Scripture are understood
- and then finally it uses the conclusions about the parts to justify the holistic view of Scripture, which then legitimates both the Dispensationalist system/reading of Scripture and the presuppositions with which it began. (Still with me?)
In short: without this predetermined hermeneutical method being used in interpretation, Dispensationalism does not work. And by reading Thomas’ argument in the Four Views book, it does not take much effort to see his reliance on (and need for) this Dispensationalist approach. But the dissonance does not stop there, for Thomas even goes on to say (p.226):
[Pate] attempts to justify his “already-not yet”[³] hermeneutical key by recourse to Revelation 1:1, 3, 19, but he reads into those verses a meaning borrowed from Oscar Cullmann.
Here Thomas (conveniently) overlooks the fact that his views on the so-called rapture of the church, the supposed two comings of Christ, the seven-year (great) tribulation experienced by only those “left behind” (i.e. not raptured), the implied distinction between Israel and the Church–along with the respective fulfillments of prophecy–are not the inherent or natural readings of the text(s); they are presuppositions foisted onto the text and are nothing more than the creation of people such as John Darby, C.I. Scofield, Lewis Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, Hal Lindsey, etc. The double-standard should be obvious, but for whatever reason it’s not. And then he has the temerity (a fancy, academic word for: cojones) to claim (p.227):
The grammatical-historical way to approach the book is to put one’s predispositions aside and let the facts of history and principles of grammar within the book speak for themselves. Recent hermeneutical trends have pushed aside this time honored quest for objectivity, but they have done so through allowing intrusions by man-made and man-centered philosophical emphases. Inclusion of human preunderstanding has no place in biblical interpretation. . . . A [classical] dispensational view of Revelation strives for objectivity by putting aside all preunderstanding and bias, so that the text of the book may speak for itself. This is grammatical-historical interpretation historically construed.
In the words of Frank Barone: “Holy crap!” Classical Dispensationalism is just as guilty–if not more so–in all of these respects. It does not put aside predispositions and biases and read the text objectively, without the intruding man-made philosophical emphases; it completely uses them and absolutely needs them. Without them, (Classical) Dispensationalism falls to the ground. Moreover, (Classical) Dispensationalism is not so much concerned with hermeneutical loyalty–as Thomas presents it–as it is with theological sustainability. In other words, its loyal to a particular hermeneutical approach is not out academic honesty or because it is the only one available; it’s loyal to that approach only because it is the one that enables an existing theological system to be sustained. Why Thomas thinks otherwise or fails to admit this is beyond me.
[At the very least, this post will ensure that I would have serious difficulties being hired at Master's Seminary].
¹ this reworks Waltke’s argument from a(n audio) lecture given at Westminster Theological Seminary.
² i.e. an exclusively literal approach to Scripture; a clear and definite distinction between Israel and the Church, each having its own salvific program as depicted in Scripture; a literal (physical) fulfillment of all prophecies made to Israel alone.
³ I’m not exactly sure why Thomas switches from “already/not yet” (on p.187) to “already-not yet” (here in p.226).
On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.
In the first instance, I heard a pastor use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment. In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.
In the second instance, I read a scholar who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.
With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.
I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians, specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”
Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.
Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).
With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).
However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.
My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it. Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.
 This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
 For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
 Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
 In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
 At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.
This is something I wrote for my brother early last year. It’s a brief(ish) exposition on John 3.16–the favorite verse placarded at football games. This exposition was mostly me thinking out loud. I’m completely open to further insights and/or criticisms.
1. Historical Setting
The meeting with Nicodemus takes place early in Jesus’ public ministry. To summarize: in Galilee, Jesus calls a small handful of disciples; with his disciples and mother, Jesus attends a wedding-feast in Cana (of Galilee), at which point he performs his first miracle—although the source or cause of the miracle is known only by the disciples; he then makes a short stay in Capernaum (15 miles east of Cana) before traveling roughly 80 miles south to Jerusalem, in order to attend the Passover. However, instead of celebrating Jesus is enraged by what is being done in the Temple, and his actions bring him into immediate conflict with the religious elite.
It is on the heels of this conflict that the meeting with Nicodemus occurs. Since 2.23 says Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover, and since 3.22 says Jesus and his disciples traveled into the region of Judea, and since the encounter with Nicodemus falls between these passages; it is safe to assume that the conversation takes place while Jesus is still in Jerusalem. Whether or not the conversation occurred specifically in the Temple proper, we cannot be absolutely sure; it seems reasonable enough to assume that it happened somewhere within the Temple complex.
With regard to the meeting itself, two points should be noted. First, Nicodemus comes with an awareness of the “signs” (or miracles) that Jesus performed in the Temple (see 2.23). We can assume either that news about the “signs” quickly spread to Nicodemus or that he himself witnessed the “signs.” Second, Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, most likely in an attempt to safeguard himself from the Jews, those angered by Jesus’ previous statements (see 2.18-20; cf. 19.38). Although it is entirely possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because it would ensure an “uninterrupted conversation” (Beasley-Murray 1987: 47). Both of these points (i.e. “signs” and night-visit) will be crucial when we come to the question of theological themes.
2. Literary Relationship
John 3.1-21 is both preceded and followed by a discussion of Jesus’ identity, a discussion that pervades the entire Gospel narrative and one that has a specific goal (see 20.30-31). At the start of chapter 1, we read a theological summary of Jesus’ true identity, one that remains virtually unknown to many throughout the narrative. (Only the readers of the Gospel have knowledge of Jesus’ true identity). Following this we read various testimonies about Jesus, although they tend to be quite vague and even cryptic. Moreover, it becomes apparent in these instances that those testifying about Jesus are unaware of the full implications of what they are saying.
In chapter 2, we find illustrations of Jesus’ identity revealing itself in what he is able to do—e.g. water into wine, prophesying, performing signs and wonders. It is here that we find evidence of the disciples (and others witnessing the words and deeds of Jesus) as not fully aware of Jesus’ true identity; they simply marvel at what he does. In one text, John provides a parenthetical statement about the disciples’ later understanding of the events they witness now—see e.g. 2.20-22 (cf. 12.16). Then, following the dialogue with Nicodemus, we have John the Baptizer’s testimony about Jesus’ identity, although once again we are confronted with vague and cryptic remarks (see 3.22-36). However, despite the vagueness, these testimonies function as clues for understanding Jesus’ identity as the Gospel unfolds.
Between the descriptions of what Jesus is able to do and who he is, there is a discussion of why Jesus came. This specific discussion is the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, where the conversation begins with a question of identity but quickly moves to the topic of purpose. To say this differently: we see how Jesus’ identity is necessarily connected with his role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan that remains hidden but is being revealed in and through Jesus. Absolutely central to this conversation is the dilemma of how one is able to know Jesus’ true identity and purpose, and it is here we find a necessary distinction between ways of knowing.
3. Logical Structure
Based on the content and flow of the passage, John 3.1-21 divides fairly evenly. In the first half (3.1-11) we have Nicodemus (and ostensibly a select group of Jews—many of the pronouns in this section are plural) expressing a particular view of who Jesus is. It becomes obvious that this view is inadequate or even faulty, and the failure stems from an improper way of understanding or interpreting reality. In the second half (3.12-21) we have Jesus (and ostensibly his disciples—cf. 3.11 and Jesus’ use of “we”) expressing an alternate view, one that is perfectly adequate or reasonable—and not simply because Jesus is the one giving it. It is adequate or reasonable because it is consistent with the proper way of understanding or interpreting reality, and in this case that proper way is shaped by God’s revealed wisdom.
4. Theological Themes
In terms of order, the first theme to recognize is the tension between darkness and light. As noted earlier, Nicodemus “came to him [Jesus] at night” (3.2). While it might be historically the case, John’s interest in the time of the encounter is more theological. John has already used “darkness” as a description for the state of the world at the time of Christ’s incarnation, which he further describes as “light” coming into the world (see 1.4-5, 9-10). Moreover, the “darkness” is portrayed as unable to know (or comprehend) the “light,” and as a result the “darkness” rejects the “light.” The sting of 3.11 is that while Nicodemus and some of the Jews are sympathetic to Jesus because of his deeds (cf. 2.23; 3.2b), they remain opposed to him because they reject his testimony concerning who he is (see Lincoln 2005: 152). This introduces the second theme.
John 2 ends with Jesus not trusting those who only came to him because of the “signs” he performed (see Haenchen 1984: 1.192), a theme that reappears in the Gospel (e.g. 4.46-48; 6.14-15, 25-27). In short: faith dependent upon “signs” (or miracles) is neither a stable nor adequate faith (see Bultmann 1971: 131). Moreover, such faith operates according to a particular way of understanding or interpreting reality—especially the things of God—and this way is insufficient. However, it is this faith (or belief) and this particular way of understanding that stand behind Nicodemus’ question and dialogue with Jesus. Nicodemus understands only on a superficial (tangible?) level, which therefore hinders his ability to understand Jesus’ (hidden) meaning. For Jesus, true belief (or true faith) is about seeing beyond the “signs” and coming into the presence of the one who has the power and authority to perform them (see 6.32-40, 51-58).
This (in)ability to see beyond the superficial represents the third theme: the tension between ignorance and knowledge. Jesus’ refusal to trust those only seeking “signs” is said to be rooted in his knowledge of “what was in man” (2.25), which suggests a knowledge of identity and purpose, whereas Nicodemus’ failure to understand Jesus’ teaching is rooted in an improper way of knowing. In other words: Nicodemus is ignorant of God’s revelation in Jesus whereas Jesus has full knowledge of God’s wisdom. To put it yet another way: Nicodemus attempts to know God’s wisdom via human efforts or reasoning (bottom-up), while Jesus says such wisdom can only be known by God’s revelation (top-down). Thus, only by a transformation of mind can one know God’s wisdom and thereby his salvation, which results in entering the kingdom (see 3.3, 5; cf. 3.13; Rom 12.1-2; 1 Cor 2.10-12). Hence, one must be “born from above” (3.3).
Closely associated with this is the last theme: the tension between death and (eternal) life. Throughout the conversation the emphasis falls on (eternal) life, with death being primarily an implication (cf. 3.16, which contains the only [direct] reference to death in the entire passage). It is worth noting that the discussion on (eternal) life occurs in the context of God’s kingdom, God’s revelation, God’s salvation in Jesus, and the appropriate way for understanding all of these things. Moreover, it is no mistake that only here in John’s Gospel is (eternal) life necessarily linked with Jesus’ identity and purpose (see Brown 1971: 1.147; Ridderbos 1997: 136-39) and true belief in Jesus’ identity and purpose as the only way to (eternal) life (cf. Acts 4.12). We see this in 3.14b where Jesus affirms: “it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up”, with the reason for the necessity given in 3.15: “so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.” Thus, the possibility of (eternal) life is dependent upon Christ being “lifted up” (i.e. crucified) and participation in that (eternal) life is dependent upon belief in both the purpose and work of Christ.
In the introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), it announces the following:
The Bible is God’s revelation to man. It is the only book that gives us accurate information about God, man’s need, and God’s provision for that need. It provides us with the guidance for life and tells us how to receive eternal life. The Bible can do these things because it is God’s inspired Word, inerrant in the original manuscripts.
Fair enough. Standard apologetics on the nature of the Bible. This then is followed with:
The Bible describes God’s dealings with the ancient Jewish people and the early Christian church. It tells us about the great gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled Jewish prophecies of the Messiah. It tells us about the salvation He accomplished through His death on the cross, His triumph over death in the resurrection, and His promised return to earth. It is the only book that gives us reliable information about the future, about what will happen to us when we die, and about where history is headed.
Once again, fair enough–although there are a couple implications that I would dispute. In general, though, it’s Bible basics 101. But it was because of this paragraph that I was a bit troubled. Not one mention of the Holy Spirit. I think I recall something about the Holy Spirit playing some sort of role in God’s overall plan… And I think there was a dude called, Paul who talked a bit about that role in some random letters… I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Sarcasm aside, it was the peculiar omission of the Spirit’s role as a part of what the Bible describes that bothered me. I thought: “Surely, the HCSB intro has something more substantial to say about the Spirit.” Fortunately (sort of), further down, in the “translation philosophy” portion of the intro, the HCSB does says this:
Often called ‘word-for-word’ (or ‘literal’) translation, the principle of formal equivalence seeks as nearly as possible to preserve the structure of the original language. It seeks to represent each word of the original text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote. The merits of this this approach include its consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit did inspire the very words of Scripture in the original manuscripts.¹
But guess what? You know the next time the Spirit shows up in the HCSB intro? Nowhere! Seriously?! You’re going to reduce the role of the Spirit simply to inspiring the writers/original manuscripts? Poor form, guys. Poor form.
¹ With a statement like that, one wonders why the driveling Driscoll didn’t blather on about this translation instead of the ESV.
Ever since a well-meaning individual tried to convince me of the merits of Dispensationalism, I have done my best (when I have the spare time) to become acquainted with its ideas/teachings/hermeneutic/etc. I do this because I want to be sure that I am either accepting or rejecting something for the right reasons. That study began just over 6 years ago, and I’m sure it will continue for many more–and I’m okay with that.
What I’m not okay with are the repeated attempts by some Dispensationalist scholars to (try and) substantiate a position or interpretation that is otherwise passé or even unsustainable. In particular, I am thinking of the twin (and necessarily linked) ideas of: 1) a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, and 2) the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. To put it mildly: both of these are crap (especially the second one) and there is no biblical support for either one–or both. The only way one reaches something remotely close to these ideas is if one presupposes the “truth” of both and then imposes them onto a small handful of text(s) that supposedly teach them.
However, throughout 6 years of studying Dispensationalism and reading through countless books and articles on the subject, I cannot begin to recall the number of times I’ve seen people still trying to uphold these two points and claiming them as taught/supported/proved in the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this sort of thing persists. The only guess I can fathom is that such scholars are seeking to preserve loyalty to Dispensational teaching rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. (That may be a tad extreme…). One fairly recent example should suffice, which comes from an article by the late Zane Hodges (1933-2008). Please note the assumptions and presuppositions driving his entire line of argument:
A growing number of evangelicals question the doctrine of the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, claiming that the New Testament nowhere teaches it. Even proponents of the Pre-tribulation Rapture often defend it as if it results from a series of inferences drawn from scattered biblical texts. Or, they may cite a few isolated proof-texts (like Revelation 3:10). Unfortunately, few pre-tribulational expositors attempt to justify this doctrine by appealing to a coherent exegesis of an extended passage of Scripture. Yet, the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as a deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
–Z. Hodges, “1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture,” CTS Journal 6 (2000): 22
There are so many things I could say about this paragraph, but for the sake of my own sanity I will confine my remarks to Hodge’s final point: “the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.” Let me see how I can say this… Paul teaches no such thing–not in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 or anywhere! (I think that works). In order to say that Paul does teach such a thing, one has to presuppose a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, which further presupposes (and requires) separate divine agendas for each, and then read 1Thess 5.1-11 through that lens. Moreover, one has to do all of this in spite of the fact that Paul would never endorse that twofold presupposition–in fact, his arguments (elsewhere) about “Israel” and the church obliterate the foundation for such a distinction. Thus, if Hodges is going to follow the principle of “interpreting Scripture with Scripture”, then he’s going to have a difficult time squaring what Paul does say about “Israel” and the church with what Dispensationalism assumes the Bible/Paul says about them.
I’ll finish reading Hodges article, primarily because I already started it but also fairness dictates I consider the whole of his argument. However, I have terrible suspicion that it’s going to be nothing but a Dispensationally-driven eisegesis of a Pauline text that deserves more respect than that.
 I should point out that, based on several conversations with the individual noted, the “Dispensationalism” in question is an amalgam of the Classical and Revised (or Modified) varieties.
 On this point, I’m being kind.