Observing 1 Sam 2:12-36—Worthless sons

1 Samuel 2:25 But [Hophni and Phineas] would not listen to the voice of their father [Eli], for the LORD desired to put them to death.

The warning falls on deaf ears because the Lord intended to judge the offenders. A good reminder that rejection isn’t always a sign of a defective message and/or messenger (Jn 12:37-40; 2Cor 4:3-4).

1 Samuel 2:29-30 ‘Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the LORD declares, ‘Far be it from Me– for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.

The interaction between Eli and his sons is hard to assess: (i) did Eli only rebuke his sons for their sexual immorality (1Sam 2:22-25) but ignore their abuse of the sacrifices (1Sam 2:12-17)? (ii) Was the apparent rebuke in 2:23-25 not an actual rebuke (3:13)? Eli doesn’t condone his sons behavior but he’s held responsible for it. I take it that Eli’s guilt was due to his unwillingness to take action against his sons. I wonder how much of our “speaking against” sin will be judged meaningless because we fail to follow through with action or, conversely, how much of our love and acceptance will turn out to be a cover for despising the Lord. On this point I’m only thinking of how the church disciplines its own (1Cor 5:12-13).

1 Samuel 2:35 ‘But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed always.

The language about the Lord building an enduring house for his priest is mirrored in 2 Samuel when the Lord says he will build an enduring house for his king (see 2Sam 7:16, 26-27). Negatively, Eli’s house finds a counterpart in Saul’s house as both men see their respective offices taken from them and their descendants. But where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. God will not purge the priesthood and the throne only to leave it vacant. God’s people need more than just a good priest and king; they need those righteous office holders to be permanent and enduring. But where an endless succession of priests and kings exists, God’s people can have no garauntee of unending righteousness. This realization is one of the reasons we can confidently say that all of God’s good promises become better promises when the fulfillment is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Son has been appointed to the office of priest and king and becomes the righteous minister and ruler they need. More than that, because he cannot die, this new Priest-King needs no successor so that God’s people no longer fear the loss of what they now enjoy (see Psa 110 and Heb 5:5-6).

Observing 1Sam 2:1-10 — Hannah’s song

When poetry is embedded in narrative literature we ought to consider two things: (1) what the poem means on its own terms in conjunction with the present setting of the story (2) what, if any, significance the poem carries for the broader storyline.

First, Hannah’s song signifies her turn from sorrow to joy as barrenness gives way to birth. More than that, it ties theology to life as we consider how the outcome of Hannah’s circumstances reveal God’s work and his ways.

The Lord makes poor and rich / He brings low, He also exalts. (2:7)

The song’s theme is God’s reversing of human fortune. Weak are made strong, hungry are fed, and the godly are preserved while the wicked are shattered, the full beg for bread, and the mighty are rendered impotent.  In fact, this sovereign upending of the “natural” order is an outworking of God’s holiness (i.e. no one is like Him in this respect; 2:2). Hannah has come to see firsthand that the Lord favors His godly ones who are characteristically despised by the world (1:6-7). And as the Lord will later say through Isaiah, “I act and who can reverse it?”

My horn is exalted in the Lord (2:1) . . . [He] will exalt the horn of His anointed (2:10)

The poem is framed by the repetition of the Lord exalting a *horn (a structural feature known as an inclusio). The movement within this framework starts with a specific act (vv1-3) to a generalizing pattern (vv4-7) back to a specific act (vv8-10). It’s as if Hannah is saying:

{Specific} “Look at what the Lord has done for me.
{General} But isn’t this just like the Lord? He’s always doing this kind of work.
{Specific}And I trust that he’ll do this for His king, too.”

Similar examples of this pattern can be found in other poetic passages (see Psa 34) and it’s worth considering how these examples might shape the content of our worship, particularly in prayer.

Second, Hannah’s song encompasses more than the first two chapters as it establishes a recurring theme/pattern in 1Samuel. With an increasing degree of drama, we move from one rivalry to another: Peninah–Hannah / Eli & Sons–Samuel / Saul–David. In each case, the “established” character is supplanted by a character of lesser status by a sovereign work of the Lord. Even the great king, David himself, is a virtual nobody until the Lord raises him up to sit on the throne.

 


*The literal image of the horn is of an animal horn. Generally speaking, an animal’s horn signified its strength and so became a metaphor for power or status in a social context. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 400)

Observing 1Samuel 1 — Artistic silence

Our church has begun a study of 1Samuel on Sunday mornings. This is, I hope, the first of many posts to flow from the study.

1 Samuel 1:7-8 It happened year after year, as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she would provoke her; so she wept and would not eat. 8 Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”

This brief snapshot almost feels like the script to a sitcom. Here we have the well-meaning husband and his (seemingly) tone deaf encouragement for his wife who’s been traversing the wilderness of infertility. We wince at Elkanah’s words and brace ourselves for Hannah’s response–will it be an outburst of bitter sarcasm or a heart-rending expression of grief? We get neither. Hannah remains silent. Three verses and a new scene later Hannah finally speaks–not to her her husband but to the Lord. The “delayed” speech leaves us not just sympathetic but stunned by the godliness of a woman who holds her tongue in the face of persecution and platitudes, choosing instead to entrust herself to the Lord (1Pet 2:23). Her model response is even more striking when compared to the speech of Israel’s matriarchs as they walked through barrenness (Gen 16:1-6; Gen 30:1ff).

1 Samuel 1:12-14 Now it came about, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth. 13 As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. 14 Then Eli said to her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.” 15 But Hannah replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD. 16 “Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation.”

The circumstances surrounding Eli’s encounter with Hannah is a great example of atistic ambiguity. Eli assumes that Hannah is drunk but why? Maybe Hannah’s comportment was exceptionally strange. Maybe this wasn’t the first time that an intoxicated worshipper had stumbled onto the tabernacle grounds. Perhaps we get some sort of clue in Hannah’s reply and its connection with a later passage. Hannah pleads with Eli not to consider her a worthless woman which is the word used to describe Eli’s sons in 2:12 (i.e. “the sons of Eli were worthless men”). If the spiritual leaders are worthless it’s no wonder that Eli would assume the worst from anyone who looked a little “off.”

Was Joseph’s bloodline under a curse?

Jehoiachin-Jeconiah‘Tis the season to be reading the nativity passages found in Matthew and Luke. One of the more perplexing features of these narrative sections is the presence of two different genealogies for Jesus in Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 when we might expect to find matching records. Recently, one of our church members asked for my thoughts on an interpretation that addresses these genealogical anomalies and since I thought others would be interested in the discussion I decided to share it here.

First an overview of the interpretation in question followed by my (emailed) response to the inquisitor.

Jeremiah 22:30 records a curse on King Jehoiachin (referred to as “Coniah” in Jer 22:28 and “Jeconiah” in Mat 1:11-12). The pronouncement reads “Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless / A man who will not prosper in his days / For no man of his descendants will prosper / Sitting on the throne of David / Or ruling again in Judah’.” Interestingly, it turns out that Jeconiah is included in Matthew’s genealogy but omited from Luke’s, a variant some suggest is due to the Jeconiah curse. The thinking goes something like this:

  • The reason we have two genealogies is that the gospels record two ancestral lines: Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph but Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Mary.
  • The respective genealogies are identical from Abraham–David. At that point, Matthew moves from David to Solomon but Luke moves from David to Nathan. Jeconiah descended from Solomon (not Nathan) which is why he appears in Matthew (1:11-12) but not in Luke.
  • Jeconiah was cursed to be without a Davidic heir. Jesus is a Davidic heir through Joseph and Mary; however, the virgin birth preserved Jesus from Jeconiah’s curse which would have been passed down through Joseph but not Mary.

[Name]: I spent a good part of my morning re-reading the paper(s) you passed on to me and doing some additional reading on my own. I feel like my head is about to explode and I still don’t think I can offer much clarity.  In short, several interpretations exist concerning the differences between Matthew & Luke’s genealogies, but I’m not convinced the differences are due to the curse on Jeconiah in Jer 22:30 because:

  1. If descent from Jeconiah disqualified someone from being the promised Messiah, we have to explain why Matthew would include Jeconiah in the Messiah’s genealogy at all. Remember, there would be a period of time when Matthew might be the only gospel account people had access to—they wouldn’t have been able to compare Matthew to Luke—and it must be that Matthew saw no problem with presenting the Messiah as descended from Jeconiah. Also, since Matthew’s gospel is more “Jewish” in nature, I would expect Matthew to be the one to drop Jeconiah from the genealogy on account of an OT curse.
  2. It’s doubtful that Luke’s genealogy is actually a record of Mary’s line since we have no clear indication of that in the text. Anyone who read Luke on its own would naturally assume that the genealogy is through Joseph since he’s the parent who’s mentioned at the start. The comment in 3:23 that Jesus was “as supposed, the son of Joseph” is an unlikely way to point to Mary’s genealogy (as some have inferred); the simplest explanation is that Luke was reminding his readers that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit & was the son of God (Lk 1:35). Luke wasn’t alluding to any problems in the Davidic line.
  3. We may need to allow for a little poetic license (i.e. hyperbole) in the Jeconiah curse in Jer 22:30. First, the curse says “Write this man down childless” but Jeconiah obviously wasn’t childless (1Chr 3:17). Second, the curse may be limited in scope since Jeconiah “would not prosper in his days.” A limited curse makes good sense contextually since many people would have preferred to see Jeconiah restored to the throne in place of Zedekiah his uncle whom the Babylonians installed. Third, a narrow time frame for the curse makes sense because the curse would be oriented to the coming exile. The curse was a promise that no one in Jeremiah’s day (young or old) would see a rightful Davidic king on the throne again because Jerusalem would be conquered & the people would go into exile.

The Jeconiah curse is a good observation and it’s worth considering if it played a part in the way Jesus’ genealogy was presented in the Gospels. However, the more I look into it the more convinced I am that we should consider other options. I’m afraid this only muddies the water but it’s the best I can do at this point.

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this. Keep reading! –JM

That is, literally, not the way language works

Boy 1 & 2 are reading through a textbook on worldviews which includes this, uh, embellishment of Gen 1:31.

After creating humans and imbuing them with purpose, God said it was “very good” (v 31). In Hebrew, the phrase is “meod tob.” It is almost impossible to exaggerate the resonant awesomeness this phrase is meant to convey. It literally means “exceedingly, heartbreakingly, abundantly, richly, loudly, immeasurably good in a festive, generous, happy, intelligent, charming, splendid way.

To paraphrase Alice’s response to Humpty Dumpty: that’s a great deal to make one phrase mean.

An egghead says “sorites”

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to profess my love, admiration, and (occasional) envy of academic elites. That kind of sentimentality could get you tarred and feathered in these days of fervent populism. But as Dave Shive said after being told that his eclectic theology would cripple his chances for fame and renown: What have I got to lose?

Admittedly, we are neither worse if we do not attain an academic degree, nor the better if we do. Even so, ignorance is no virtue for the Christian which is at least one reason why we need our egghead brothers and sisters. Their knowledge lends precision to our understanding and stokes our love for the Scriptures and, ultimately, God.

Consider 2 Pet 1:5-7 and its seemingly random list of Christian character traits:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
[by] your faith supply moral excellence,
and [by] your moral excellence, knowledge,
and [by] your knowledge, self-control,
and [by] your self-control, perseverance,
and [by] your perseverance, godliness,
and [by] your godliness, brotherly kindness,
and [by] your brotherly kindness, love.{NAS}

Most of us probably read this passage and find ourselves unable to get beyond two related questions: (a) why these characteristics? (b) what, if any, logic lies behind the chain? Speaking for myself, I found that my inability to discern any meaningful significance beyond the bare text actually dissuaded me from lingering over the text.

Enter Richard Bauckham and his research in NT and early Christian literature. His expertise uncovered so many features of the text that I felt as if I had been granted access to a previously hidden venue for meditation:

  • on the structure — 2Pet 1:5-7 uses a literary device known as sorites, a set of statements that progress, step by step, to a climactic conclusion. Not only was it “widely used and recognized in the early Christian period” but “there is some evidence that a catalogue of virtues beginning with pistis (“faith”) and ending with agape (“love”) was an established Christian form.”
  • on the significance of faith being listed first — By occupying first place in the list, faith represents “the root of all the virtues.” [Me: I couldn’t help but notice that Peter already referred to our faith as something we have received (1:1), which means that even the root of our virtue has its origin outside of us.]
  • on the (dis)placement of knowledge — “. . . in the non-Christian lists [knowledge] was usually first or last in the list [i.e. the root or the climax of all the virtues]. In most Christian lists it has been displaced from these positions by “faith” and “love.”
  • on the significance of love being listed last  — “the last, climactic term of a sorites is not of equal weight with the others” which means that Peter has preserved “very faithfully the place of love in Jesus’ ethical teaching, as the virtue which encompasses, coordinates, and perfects the others.”
  • on similarities with non-Christian philosophy — Although some of the virtues are found in Stoicism, in Peter’s list they “are not only rooted in Christian faith but also encompassed by Christian love. The borrowings testify to the fact that Christian ethics cannot be totally discontinuous with the moral ideals of non-Christian society, but the new context in which they are set ensures that they are subordinated to and to be interpreted by reference to the central Christian ethical principle of love.”

So if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and befriend a Christian egghead even if vicariously through a book. Though shy and perhaps socially awkward, the best of them labor as technicians for the soul.

Sin & sympathy

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to a biblical caricature. Our Sunday morning Bible study had brought us to Jeremiah 37-38, usually noted for Jeremiah’s brief imprisonment in a muddy cistern during the latter years of the last king of Judah. The king was Zedekiah and until recently he was a cookie-cutter character of no more than two dimensions–one more rotten king in a long list of rotten monarchs from Israel’s divided kingdom.

In Jer 37:1-2 we’re told that:

. . . neither [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

And 2 Chron 36:12 corroborates:

[Zedekiah] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD.

If statements like these were all we had to go on it would be easy to assume–as I have–that Zedekiah was just another arrogant, hard-hearted rebel who ignored the word of the Lord. But the picture of Zedekiah we find in Jeremiah 37-38 requires we leave room for the fear factor in his disobedience:

37:17 — King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?”

38:5 — King Zedekiah said, “Behold, [Jeremiah] is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.”

38:16 — Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

38:19 —  King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.”

38:24 — Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die.

In A History of Israel, John Bright ties these biblical strands together and presents us with a more complex, if not sympathetic, character:

Nor was Zedekiah the man to guide his country’s destinies in so grave an hour. Though he seems to have been well intentioned (cf. Jer. 37:17-21; 38:7-28), he was a weakling unable to stand up to his nobles (ch. 38:5), and fearful of popular opinion (v. 19). Furthermore, his position was ambiguous in that his nephew Jehoiachin was still regarded as the legitimate king by many of his subjects and, apparently, by the Babylonians as well. . . . The ambiguity of Zedekiah’s position undoubtedly undercut whatever authority he may have had. (328)

This view of Zedekiah is what the French call nuanced. [His erudition is astounding. -Shive]

But seriously, reconsidering Zedekiah offered some good reminders:

  1. Our sin isn’t always simple. Selfishness, deceit, doubt, pride–on their own any of these impulses are potent catalysts for sinful behavior. But the spiritual heart is a complex organ and often lies beyond our ability to diagnose (Jer 17:9), especially when our examination consists of little more than a passing glance.
  2. Sin is no less damnable when it solicits our sympathy. While we might consider Zedekiah’s fear of man to be a mitigating factor in his disobedience, the divine pronouncement is unswerving: Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that God judges all men the same (Jer 17:10), but that all sin is equally damning no matter the circumstances.
  3. Sympathy can still be an appropriate response to sin. Although every sin leads to death not every sin requires the same treatment (Gal 6:1; Jude 22-23). The classic example is Prov 26:4-5 which offers two contrasting instructions on how to respond to a fool–don’t answer him (v4), give him an answer (v5)–leaving the reader to draw on wisdom for the appropriate action for the moment at hand. We might also consider that our monotonous mantras concerning another man’s sin betray our ignorance of the weakness of our own hearts. So I’ll just say I have a little more sympathy for Zedekiah these days.

 

Andy Stanley’s new sola

if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

By now you’ve probably heard about Andy Stanley’s latest theological faux pas in which he deduces from Acts 15 that “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures.” This, he claims, is proof that Christianity is able to “stand alone” without being “propped up” by the Old Testament.

Considering that the NT has some sixteen hundred quotes from and allusions to the OT (a conservative estimate) some find this claim more than problematic. In fairness, Stanley would have everyone know that he hasn’t changed his views on inspiration and inerrancy but that he has changed the methods behind his messaging. His emphasis on Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the OT was a reaction to the success he believes the new atheists have enjoyed by riding a new wave of biblical criticism. On Stanley’s assessment, many people today stumble unnecessarily over something in or about the Bible–especially when they come to the OT. So while traditional Christians find his detachment from the OT disturbing, Stanley assures us that this disassociation is liberating for those who can’t get past the “dynamic, worldview, and value system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” In short, Stanley believes that to reach future generations Christians need to trade in a culturally adulterated sola Scriptura for an apostolic sola anastasis.

What shall we say to these things?

1. People will always have reason to stumble over the Christian faith.
I appreciate Stanley’s desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to the faith but a singular focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (“Christianity is able to stand on its own two nail-scarred feet.”) is not the clean, simple solution he supposes. Stanley extols the good ol’ days of the early church when they preached an event rather than the Bible, failing to mention the offense of the cross and the dubious character of the resurrection in the first century (see Acts 17:18, 32; 1Cor 1:18, 23; 15:12). Christ’s resurrection had its own cultural baggage in the apostolic age as it does in today’s technological age.

More broadly, it’s not as if it’s only the OT that suffers from a credibility gap. The NT has similar problems in modernity’s public square. Has Stanley never heard of Bart Ehrman’s work? Will the people who object to the historicity and miraculous elements of the OT be more willing to affirm a virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, feeding five thousand, exorcisms, walking on water, a voice from heaven, bodily resurrection and a physical ascension through the clouds? (And we haven’t even gotten to the NT epistles and Revelation!) If Stanley can overcome the skeptic’s veto for the NT, he can certainly do the same for the OT. I’m all for keeping the focus on Christ but Stanley’s approach sounds more like capitulation than contextualization.

2. Both Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection by the OT. I honestly don’t know how Stanley can declare the Christian faith unhitched from the OT on a straight reading of Acts. Let’s start with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 which he portrays as Christianity’s official break with the OT. In a shocking disregard for the risks associated with aggressive facepalming, Stanley quietly passes over the point at which James supposedly “unhitches” the church from the OT by appealing to the OT (Acts 15:15-19). He also neglects to mention the conspicuous presence of OT texts in the apostles’ resurrection proclamations  (Acts 2:25-28, 30-31, 34; 3:18, 22; 4:11; 10:43; 13:32-35; 17:2-3, 24-26; 24:14-15; 26:6-8, 22-23; 28:23ff).

And it’s not as if Peter and Paul kept returning to the OT because they just didn’t know any better. Their sermon template was set by Jesus himself in his post-resurrection appearances. As Luke makes abundantly clear, Jesus explained (see #3) his death and resurrection by utilizing every part of the OT–the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). Even if we were to limit our critique to the biblical evidence that he draws upon, the biblical support for Stanley’s claim is non-existent. His is not even an argument from silence and to call it cherry picking might be too generous.

3. The resurrection needs an explanation. Christ and his apostles built their preaching around the OT because the resurrection was an event that required an interpretation. To claim that something happened is only the first step in declaring what happened. That is, even if everyone agreed that Christ was raised we must still explain what it means that Christ was raised (i.e. why is it significant?). Ironically, Stanley seems to assume the revelatory meaning of the resurrection even as he treats it as self-explanatory. But if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there’s just no way to make sense of the resurrection without “hitching it” to the OT story. According to Paul, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” and he was buried and “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4). If Paul & Co. unhitched the Christian faith from the “Jewish Scriptures” as Stanley claims, to what Scriptures did the resurrection adhere? Jesus said that “these [OT Scriptures] testify about me” (Jn 5:39) and Paul makes it clear that the OT moves progressively toward the NT along a line of promise-fulfillment that culminates in Christ (Rom 1:1-2; Gal 3:8; Titus 1:2-3). These claims are in stark contrast to Stanley’s contention that the OT and NT stand as two covenants in conflict with each other. Any report of the OT’s theological expiration is greatly exaggerated (Gal 3:24; 1Tim 1:8ff; 2Tim 3:15).

Stanley is to be commended for his intention to “resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible. But following his counsel concerning the OT would be disastrous.

Sounds familiar

Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes.  –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)

John 3:16 (pt 3)

18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Well, well, well. Since the last post it seems an SBC poohbah has demonstrated just how much we need this piddly series. But I digress.  [You can’t digress on your opening sentence, you dolt! —Shive]

In part 1 we said that Jn 3:16 needs to be read as part of the larger new birth discourse recorded in 3:1-21 so that we interpret 3:16 in its context and not in isolation. So this post will consider 3:16 in light of the discourse conclusion in vv 18-21. I’ll make two observations from the passage followed by an explanation of their importance in the debate over 3:16.

THE SPAGHETTI JUNCTION OF FAITH

First, verses 18-19 establish a connection between what one believes and what one loves. We start with a contrasting parallel between ‘the judged’ and the ‘not judged’ which turns on whether or not they believe. We even get a little repetition thrown in with the parallelism as a way to emphasize believe:

BELIEVE               → not JUDGED
doesn’t BELIEVE → JUDGED already → hasn’t BELIEVED

The repetition of v18 leaves the reader expecting to hear something more about believe in v19 since the verse alternates back to judgment. Maybe something like This is the judgment that the Light has come into the world and men [believed/trusted/entrusted themselves to] darkness rather than light… What we get instead is a statement about what a man loves which is all the more significant because it breaks the established pattern:

(18)believe–judge–believe–judge–believe–(19)judgment–love

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, believing and loving are distinct acts/conditions; on the other hand, the interchange between the two prevents us from considering them in isolation. People believe what they love and love what they believe.

Second, God‘s work is the difference between those who love/come to the Light and those who don’t. In verses 20-21 we have another contrasting parallel built on the relationship between a man’s work and his approach to the Light. Those who hate the Light do so because their deeds are evil and because the Light exposes them as such. The one who practices the truth, however, has nothing to fear from the Light. In fact, he comes to the Light in order that his works may be shown to have been worked in God. It’s precisely at this last phrase that the parallel breaks down for while the Light-hater’s work is attributed to himself the Light-lover’s work is attributed to God. Consequently, the ultimate difference between the two turns on the fact that one works on his own while the other is worked on by God.

It’s Complicated

The point in all of this is that much more is at work in 3:16’s whoever believes than what is generally assumed which brings us back to the problem of leveraging the verse against Calvinism. In my experience, whenever 3:16 is treated like Calvinist kryptonite the verse is divorced from its context and belief is reduced to a  simple, rational choice that turns on an act of the will.

believe-love-deedsBut when we take the verse in context we have to explain how belief and love work in concert with each other. I suppose we could claim that “love is a choice” but a moment’s reflection shows that that just won’t do because: (a) it can’t be supported by Scripture and (b) it fails the test of practical experience (would any rational person choose to love the Patriots?).

No, 3:16-21 would have us understand that (un)belief is bound to what a man loves and what he does. Unfortunately, this three-dimensional symbiosis is rarely observed or considered in 3:16 which perpetuates the treatment of belief as a single gear that needs to turn in a new direction even as the entire passage depicts belief, love, and deeds as interlocking gears that turn on and with each other. You can’t service the faith gear apart from rebuilding the engine and that kind of work involves more than a choice.