Failing Exegesis with John

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“While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:36-43).

In this second week of Lent, and during the rest of this Lenten season, I want to invite you to do something. It could be fun. It could be liberating. It could be very difficult for some folks. I invite you to imagine that you are taking an exegesis class with John and the other Gospel writers (but especially John and Matthew). Now imagine yourself failing the class right along with them.

See, unlike many modern traditionalist interpreters of the Bible, the Gospel writers were not nearly so interested in asking questions about an author’s original intended message when they were appropriating it for their audience. Neither did they seem that interested in the oral history, redaction or literary development of a passage, unlike many modern progressive interpreters of the Bible.

Before anyone gets their underwear too tight, I am not suggesting we should completely neglect the historical-grammatical approach or the historical-critical approach to biblical interpretation. I use both! I gain insights from both! What I am saying is that this was not on the radar for John, or the other Gospel writers or sometimes Paul or often the Church Fathers for that matter. They typically came to a Hebrew passage of scripture (there was no New Testament canon yet) and asked a hermeneutical question of the text rather than a “historical” or “critical” one.

What were they asking? Their question was almost always: What does this passage say about Jesus?

In the case of today’s gospel passage in John from the Daily Common Lectionary, John turns to the book of Isaiah to aid in interpreting some words attributed to Jesus found only in John’s Gospel (there are quite a few of these). Isaiah is split up into roughly three sections: Isaiah 1-39, Isiah son of Amoz is living in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during a period of rapid expansion for Assyria. He warns of judgement against Israel and Judah. The second section, Isaiah 40-55 assumes the Northern Kingdom of Israel has been decimated once and for all by Assyria. Assyria has been overthrown by Babylon and the inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah are now living in exile in Babylonia. The final section, Isiah 56–66 assumes a period post exile and the rebuilding of the temple.

John appropriates verses from the second and first section of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:1 and Isaiah 6:10 in that order. Jesus said, “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” John’s response,

This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

Thanks to the Gospel writers and Paul (Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, Acts 8:32, Romans 10:16), Issiah 53 is a passage that many Christians are used to applying to Jesus. This seems especially so as we approach Easter. But in its original context, it is part of a string of “suffering servant” vignettes near the end of the second section of the book of Isiah. They paint a picture of Israel suffering for the sake of God’s redemptive plan for the nations, to bless even Israel’s enemies.

Isiah 6 is from Isiah’s call narrative, Isiah son of Amoz and his grand vision of God. The words quoted are directly from God to Isiah, giving the prophet his mission to obstinate Israel: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.

That’s the historical context. An important historical and hermeneutical question is how did Israel live into this call after they got back home? Blessed to be a blessing to all of the families of the earth! How do we?

This so called critical questions are important too! Who wrote Isaiah? Were these three major sections – spanning a few centuries of Israel’s history – written by several different prophets? Was there an “Isiah School” of prophetic heirs? If so, were they actual sons of Isaiah son of Amoz? A son and grandson perhaps? Or were they merely followers of the prophet? After all we are not given much insight to his family life.

But John wants to say something about Jesus! So did Matthew! So did mark and Luke and Paul!

So do I! I hope you do too. I am not saying we should scrap all of our modern understanding and tools for interpreting the biblical texts. I simply invite you to wonder with me if we should stop abandoning the ancient ones: Chiefly what can this passage tell us about Jesus?

Shalom,

Wayne

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One thought on “Failing Exegesis with John

  1. A compelling and helpful devotional tool, especially since, in the inspired, canonical Scriptures, prophecies are used in exactly that way, so, whether we prefer more modern forms of exegesis or not, we need to deal with the passages on these terms.

    Of course, here is another, far less scholarly, thought–based on the fact that, when I took exegesis, the brightest student in the class was Renée House, and that fact that there were women among the first evangelists (see the Easter gospels): perhaps while the Church Fathers were exegeting the prophets to all pre-figure Jesus, the Church Mothers were the first historical critical Biblical scholars, and this is part of why their writings were excluded from the canon.

    Just sayin’ . . .

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