For the Daily Office readings I am using, see here.
This week’s OT readings feature Isaac, to whom God renews the covenant (Gen 26:4-6) and to whom Rebekah is given in marriage. We are also introduced to Jacob, the deceiver, who steals his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, meets God at Bethel (Gen 28), flees from his brother and family and lives with his deceitful uncle, Laban, for whom he works for fourteen years in exchange for the promise of marrying his daughters.
In the New Testament readings, we have the dramatic conversion (or calling, as I argue here) of Saul (later named Paul) on the Road to Damascus. Reading the narrative this year, I was primed by Richard Bauckham’s work on the divine name to notice the significance of the Name of Jesus in Acts 9:1-22. Christians call on the Name, and Paul is to proclaim the name and suffer for the name. Paul’s life hinges on the realisation that the one God of Israel, who reveals himself as I will be who I will be (Ex 3), has shared this Name with his Son, Jesus (see also John 13:19 from this week). The two questions below concern the issue of Abraham’s works (a question that came up last week) and Jesus’s relationship to judgment in John’s gospel. A major theme comes through in the questions and the final reflection: that trust and love are both closely related to, and evidenced by, action and obedience. A full list of questions, as always, appears at the end.
Old Testament (Genesis 24-29)
1. Genesis 26:3-5: Again, is the ground/basis of the covenant Abraham’s righteousness?
We asked a similar question last week when coming across the covenant of circumcision and the sacrifice of Isaac. Does Abraham’s obedience constitute the grounds for God’s covenant blessing? Three verses are worth bringing together for consideration here:
17:1-2: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly’”.
22:16: “’By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son…'”.
26:4-5: “‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws’”.
As I noted last week, Genesis 17:1-2 refers to the confirming of the covenant already offered by God’s gracious initiative in Genesis 15. Therefore, Abraham’s obedience in undergoing circumcision, both for himself and his family, is the human response . In fact, both the inauguration or cutting of the covenant in Genesis 15, and its confirmation in Genesis 17 flow from God’s grace. What of Genesis 22 and, from this week’s readings, Genesis 26?
As John Calvin writes in his commentary on Genesis 22:
These two things, however, are thought to be hardly consistent with each other; that what before was gratuitously promised, should here be deemed a reward. For we know that grace and reward are incompatible. Now, however, since the benediction which is promised in the seed, contains the hope of salvation, it may seem to follow that eternal life is given in return for good works…For if that promise was before gratuitous, which is now ascribed to a reward; it appears that whatever God grants to good works, ought to be received as from grace. Certainly, before Isaac was born, this same promise had been already given; and now it receives nothing more than confirmation. If Abraham deserved a compensation so great, on account of his own virtue, the grace of God, which anticipated him, will be of none effect. Therefore, in order that the truth of God, founded upon his gratuitous kindness, may stand firm, we must of necessity conclude, that what is freely given, is yet called the reward of works. Not that God would obscure the glory of his goodness, or in any way diminish it; but only that he may excite his own people to the love of well-doing, when they perceive that their acts of duty are so far pleasing to him, as to obtain a reward; while yet he pays nothing as a debt, but gives to his own benefits the title of a reward. And in this there is no inconsistency. For the Lord here shows himself doubly liberal; in that he, wishing to stimulate us to holy living, transfers to our works what properly belongs to his pure beneficence.
God, Calvin notes, is doubly liberal (or gracious) both by stimulating Abraham to obedience–seen through trusting God (Genesis 15:6) and through undertaking the rite of circumcision–and by then rewarding our works which were, in truth, the result of God’s “pure beneficence”.
Calvin then engages in a similar exegesis of Genesis 26:4-5.
“Because Abraham obeyed my voice”. Moses does not mean that Abraham’s obedience was the reason why the promise of God was confirmed and ratified to him; but from what has been said before, (Genesis 22:18,) where we have a similar expression, we learn, that what God freely bestows upon the faithful is sometimes, beyond their desert, ascribed to themselves; that they, knowing their intention to be approved by the Lord, may the more ardently devote themselves entirely to his service: so he now commends the obedience of Abraham, in order that Isaac may be stimulated to an imitation of his example. And although laws, statutes, rites, precepts, and ceremonies, had not yet been written, Moses used these terms, that he might the more clearly show how diligently Abraham regulated his life according to the will of God alone — how carefully he abstained from all the impurities of the heathen — and how exactly he pursued the straight course of holiness, without turning aside to the right hand or to the left: for the Lord often honours his own law with these titles for the sake of restraining our excesses; as if he should say that it wanted nothing to constitute it a perfect rule, but embraced everything pertaining to absolute holiness. The meaning therefore is, that Abraham, having formed his life in entire accordance with the will of God, walked in his pure service
Once again, Calvin holds that obedience is God’s work in and through those whom he has created (“what God freely bestows upon the faithful is sometimes, beyond their desert, ascribed to themselves“). Obedience flows from the faith or personal, and relational trust that Abraham expressed in Genesis 15:6. Without working itself out in love, Abraham’s trust would be counterfeit (see my reflection below on the active nature of love). The same relationship between obedience and faith continues in the NT: see James 2, John 3:36, Hebrews 5:9 and Paul’s phrase, “the obedience of faith”, which bookends his letter to the Roman churches. Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine, as Rich Mullins sang.
It is again worth stressing human participation in the covenant. The covenant is in a very real sense conditional: it requires human participation. The promises in Genesis 15:4-5 (and Genesis 12:1-3) came with no conditions. Genesis 22:16-18 is different, and so is Genesis 26:4-5 (see also Genesis 18:19). The Reformed traditions tend to see no contradiction between the sure and steadfast nature of the covenant and its conditional nature.
This is by no means the last or even the first word on the topic of faith and obedience. It raises other questions such as: do we risk making faith a work? If so, how might we best avoid this pitfall?
For now though, one other interesting point to note in this vein is that Isaac’s obedience in offering himself to be the sacrifice is not mentioned as a grounds for the covenant renewal. It is Abraham’s obedience, not Isaac’s that God cites in renewing the covenant in chapter 26. In other words, Isaac freely benefits from the obedience of his father (in fact, the blessings to Isaac are ramped up even further, and go beyond what was promised to Abraham). Isaac’s benefiting from Abraham’s faith points to the greater reality that the obedience of Abraham is itself graciously implanted, cultivated and produced–in Calvin’s phrase “stimulated”–by God.
New Testament (John 12-15; Acts 9:1-22, Conversion of St Paul)
2. John 12:47-48: So Jesus is saviour and not Judge? So does Jesus not judge? Is this the role of the Father only? How does this compare with elsewhere in John?
Judgment in John relates to unbelief (non-trust). As with the Abrahamic covenant discussed above, faith and “unfaith” are very closely linked to human actions, contrary to common conceptions of faith as “mental assent to data” (see 5:28-29). Those who fail to trust Christ “love the darkness” and do evil works (John 3:19). Conversely, trusting in Christ is shown by one’s deeds: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).
So much for faith and actions and judgment (also translated as “condemnation” in John). What is Christ’s role in judgement in John’s gospel? Passages in John seem to offer different views here, with God the Father being the judge and yet at other points Jesus “being given judgment”. Judgment becomes a major theme in the Passion Narrative, with Jesus himself judged and, in a phrase dripping with irony, “sitting in the judgment seat”. In short, Jesus both comes to judge and not to judge. He comes to judge in that he offers his own self and work and the response of the human individual is the litmus test of judgment, which begins now and is completed at the last. But he comes not to judge, in the sense that he comes to save the one who will trust him and “come into the light”. The attributions at different points of judgment as an act of God and at others as an act of Jesus might just speak to the close relationship between the Father and the Son (see 8:16 where both are involved in judgment; see 16:8 where the Spirit is described as not judging but convicting [ἐλέγχω] the world). The evidence can be laid out as follows:
- God judges (or does not): Jesus is sent to save the world, with the corollary that God’s purpose is not to judge or condemn it (3:16-17). At 8:50, Jesus says, “Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge”.
- Jesus judges (or does not): more accurately, Jesus is designated judge, a role that is given to him. Thus, 5:22 reads, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son”. 5:27 links this explicitly to Jesus’s status as Son of Man. 5:30 links Jesus’s judgment to hearing. “As I hear, I judge”. And Jesus declares that his judgment is just. At 8:15, following the episode with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus states, “I judge no one”, and then in the next verse saying, “but if I did it would be just for I do not judge alone but with the Father”. This again points to the reality that Jesus judges with the Father and that he both judges no one (he comes to save) and that he does (people are judged by what they do and how they respond to Jesus). At 8:26, Jesus says that he “has much to say about you and much to judge” though then seems to put off this judgment (“but he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him”). After the episode of the man born blind, Jesus says, “for judgment I came into the world” (9:39). 12:47 parallels John 3:17, only this time Jesus is the one who does not condemn/judge the world (12:47). Yet in the next verse, it is the words of Jesus that will condemn: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day”. This would make judgment or condemnation partly the responsibility of the one responding to Jesus. In a sense, John’s Jesus says, one judges or condemns oneself by rejecting Christ.
- Jesus is judged: Nicodemus first raises this with his fellow Jewish leaders in 7:51. This is an appeal to fair trial, so that judgment takes on a clear legal and forensic quality. Pilate tells the Jewish authorities in 18:31, “’Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law’”. The Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death’”. Again, judgment here refers to a legal process. And then, at 19:13, Pilate, having being accused of acting as an enemy of Caesar, brings “Jesus out” and sits him “down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha”. The irony is that Jesus, in being judged and condemned, is in fact sitting as Judge and King.
Discipleship Reflection: Love Actually (John 13)
It is the beginning of Jesus’s Farewell Discourse (John 13-17), that great love letter to the Church, that provides this week’s brief reflection.
What shines through in Jesus’s teaching is the active nature of love. Love is primarily an action, not a feeling or emotion. John uses the noun agape (love) 7 times, but the verb 37 times. We can say that grace happens through Jesus (John 1:14). And similarly, love “happens”, or is alive and active, in the ministry of Jesus, in his incarnation, teaching, healing, death, and resurrection (see Bauckham, Who is God? on the Divine Character).
Love also happens in Jesus’s act of washing his disciples’ feet. Here, John introduces this act with these words: “having loved his own, he loved them to the end”. Jesus’s love goes to the end both in terms of its extent–he loved them to the uttermost–but also temporally: he loved them to the end of his life. But it could also point to the end as a result: namely, Jesus loved them to the end or goal of his life, which was sacrificial death. These temporal and teleological senses (love as the end of his life, and love as expressed as the goal of Jesus’s life, culminating in his death as the Lamb of God offered for the sins of the world) give the love of Jesus specificity. He does not simply love his disciples a great deal. He loves them to the end of his life and to death on a Roman cross. There is a parallel here to John 3:16. God’s love for the world is not only so great as for him to give his one and only son. God’s love is in fact shown in this specific act. This is how he loves the world, by giving his Son.
And once again, in the foot washing, another sacrificial act of service (see also 12:3), we see the specific way in which Jesus loves his disciples: he washes their feet. Footwashing was a task usually performed by a servant (though some servants could refuse this task on the basis that it was too menial: Midr. Mekhilta Ex 21:2) though hosts could also perform it and disciples could wash their master’s feet. Here, Jesus, the Master, condescends to wash his disciples’ feet.
Love is specific and shown in specific and deliberate actions. Indeed, if we were to borrow from recent work on love in relationships, we could say that John’s love language is acts of service: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). And the reason for this is that God loves us first and shows his love in specific and tangible, altogether tangible, ways. This is a challenge for those of us who cling to the idealistic views of loving emotions and feelings. Love works hard, is faithful under great pressure. “My soul is troubled”. Nevertheless, “he loved them to the end”
When we turn to Jesus’s “new commandment”, we see love take on flesh and bone in the lives of Jesus’s disciples. There are a number of points to draw out from this commandment and the point we are making about the active nature of love.
- This is not an entirely new commandment (see 1 Jn 2:17), since it in some ways echoes Leviticus 19:18, with its command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Though it is new in a few other senses, which we’ll return to shortly.
- Christ again points to the active nature of love, though this time in the lives of his followers. “Love one another”, “have love one for another”.
- Jesus is happy to issue commands. This runs against a common misperception that Christianity is anti-law. Yet John himself says that the law of Moses is grace, and Jesus is grace in addition to grace (1:14, 16). John is positive about the law of Moses: Moses wrote concerning me, Jesus says (5:46). John does hold that the covenant of Moses is limited, to be sure, but he does not denigrate it. Jesus’s new commandment comports well with Paul’s “Law of Christ”.
- The basis of the love command is the love that Jesus and the Father have for the disciples, and by extension all of Jesus’s followers. “As I have loved you, love one another”. The basis for love is a new element in the command. The Levitical command would seem to make self-love the norm and standard for love: “love your neighbour as yourself” (or love the one who is like yourself). Here, the love commanded is none other than the love Jesus offers (and by extension, the love Jesus shares with the Father). Jesus offers an example to follow and a specific action to take up–footwashing.
- The direction of love also shifts from the Levitical command. One does not simply love one’s neighbour–one is to love “one another”. As Craig Koester notes (The Word of Life, 194), this is community building love. It is also mutual and reciprocal: one is to receive love as well as give it. That can be hard for those of us who do not wish to assume the vulnerability of the recipient. Love is active, to be sure, but we are also called to receive from others.
- A related question is whether Jesus’s commandment in John is less radical than the love command in the Synoptic Gospels (which both echoes the Levitical command but then radically calls for Jesus’s followers to “love their enemies”; cf Mt 5:42 and parallels). Craig Koester adeptly addresses this question: “The love it [John’s Gospel] commends is cruciform [cross-shaped] and serves as commentary on the foot washing scene, which assumes that one’s enemies may be within one’s own community–recall the presence of Judas”. John’s “love one another” is far from sentimental then. It does not explicitly make reference to enemies but, in context, the community includes enemies. What does the command to “love one another” look like from this perspective?
- Finally, the mutual love of Jesus-followers has as its purpose (John uses a dative of purpose here: “by this”), a kind of testimony to the world. “By this, they will you that you are my disciples”. Servant love for one another not only constitutes discipleship–the growth in character of those who follow Christ. It also has a missional quality to it. We might expect this from John whose purpose translators have fiercely debated: does John 20:31 read, “that you might come to believe” (mission) or “that you might continue to believe” (discipleship). I would favour the latter but with the love command, there is a clear connection that Jesus makes between specific and active discipleship, and witness before the watching world. Discipleship would seem to take priority for John but it and mission are two sides of the same coin.
List of Questions
- Genesis 24:2: what is the significance of putting one’s hand under the thigh to confirm oaths?
- Genesis 24:56: why is Abraham’s servant so keen to get going?
- Genesis 24:65: why does Rebekah veil herself when seeing Isaac?
- Genesis 27:45: Rebekah is scared of losing both sons, implying that she has lost Esau—because of birthright or because she helped Jacob?
- Genesis 27:46: Rebekah expresses disgust at Esau for his Hittite wives. What’s wrong with Hittite and Canaanite wives?
- Genesis 28:13-16: What is the significance of this episode?
- Genesis 28:20-22: So this is a vow rather than an oath–what’s the difference? Also is it acceptable to bargain like this (if you do these things you’ll be my God)?
- Genesis 29:28: what is the week with Leah?
- John 12:8: Is Jesus’s presence more important than caring for the poor? Or is Jesus saying something else here?
- John 12:34: what is the source of this tradition (the Messiah will live forever)?
- John 13:1: what does it mean for Jesus to love his disciples to the end?
- John 13:8: why is Peter reluctant to be washed?
- John 13:8: what is the significance of washing of feet? How popular has this practice been throughout Christian history? (e.g. Maundy Thursday tradition of bishops washing parishioners feet in some denominations)?
- John 13:26: how does the narrator know Satan entered Judas at this moment?
- John 13:31: why glorify at once? What does this mean?
- John 13:33-36: When Jesus says, “where I go you cannot come”—is this the cross or to his father?
- John 14:22-26 Why do you show yourself to us or not to the world? Does Jesus answer Judas (not Iscariot’s) question?
- John 14:31: At the end of John 14 Jesus says, “let us go”. So where does he deliver the teaching in chapter 15?
- John 14:13, 14; 15:16: Why does Jesus repeatedly tell the disciples to ask for whatever in his name (and that it will be granted)?
- Acts 9:11: Where is Straight St today in Damascus?