Saturday, July 4, 2009
John's realized eschatology and the destruction of the Temple.
John is often seen as presenting the end of time as a present reality. This is true, in lesser and greater measures, for all of the New Testament, but it is perhaps most explicitly stated in John. "Whoever believes in me has eternal life" In John's gospel, the word that get's translated as "eternal" is aionios, related to the word from which we get "aeon" or "age," and has to do with the Jewish belief in an coming age were God would set everything to right (by the way, the real Greek word for "eternal" is aidios, if anyone wants to fact-check me).
John makes every effort to tell his readers that if you believe that Jesus is the son of God, you are living in that age. Of course, there are also a few promises of "resurrection on the last day," in chapter six, so it's not quite as cut and dry as some commentators would like us to think. However, to me, it seems clear enough that John pictures a qualitative change that takes place in the life of the believer, but does not deny that the final day has not yet been realized, and the resurrection is still in the future.
But there is another side of the coin. In scripture judgment and salvation are always tied together. Now, John has a lot of talk about judgment; mostly that the Father has handed all judgments over to the Son. However, there are only two places where a timeframe is given for this judgment. One is in 3:18, "The one believing in him is not being judged; but the one non believing is already has been judged, because he has not believed into the name of the only begotten Son of God."
The other place is in 12:47-48, "If someone hears my words and does not keep the, I am not judging him, for I did not come to be judging the world, but that I would save the world. The one who rejects me and does not believe my words has that which judges him: The word which I have spoken will judge him on the last day."
Hmm... difficult. Is there a two-tiered judgment on the unbeliever to complement the regeneration and resurrection of the Believer? Well, to some extent, there is a sense that those who believe are moving from death to life (John 5:24), and this could constitute the present judgment of the unbeliever. I'm not sure about this, as I tend to see this categorization as a reflection of the final judgment, rather than a present state. Many unbelievers are very much alive. It has been suggested that they somehow experience the curse of living under judgment. This may be so, but you will have a heck of a time getting most of them to admit it.
Let me suggest that something else going on in this verse (without denying the possibility that unbelievers may experience their judgment in the present, in one way or another.
In Jesus conversation with Nicodemus, he refers to himself in a way that is typical in the Synoptic Gospels, "The Son of Man." In 3:16 we begin to see the title "Only begotten Son." This is a signature title of the evangelist. Most commentators agree that this is a place where the evangelist is explaining the significance of what has just been said.
Now, we must remember that John is writing perhaps some fifty some odd years after the conversation. Ten years or so before John wrote, one of the most significant events in the history of Judaism occurred: The temple was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish war. Those who stayed and fought the Romans were destroyed by them, those who deserted, following Jesus’ orders (Luke 21:20-24), lived. There is a very real sense in which the early Christians saw this as God’s judgment on the Temple establishment.
Simply to say that John is referring to this and leave it at that is not sufficient. It is a bit vague; though the destruction of the temple was well know to all in John’s world.
The pericope immediately before is that of the cleansing of the temple, which John has moved purposefully into this position for some reason or another (contra the Synoptics). Now, John does not specifically mention the destruction of the temple in this context (well, he does, but apparently referring to Christ’s body), but the whole episode would sound a jarring note with his audience, in light of the fact that the temple had recently been destroyed. Furthermore, the story following this also has a teaching about the soon-coming irrelevance of the physical temple. Jesus, in more ways than one, is setting himself up as the replacement for the temple, and makes it irrelevant to the faith.
In light of these things, as well as historical events, I think it would be wise to consider that the present judgment of John 3:18 (which in not present, but actually emphatically past), could very easily refer to the defeat of the Jewish nation and the end of the temple establishment.
This probably isn’t that interesting to most people, but I’ve been arguing with a retired Lutheran professor about this very issue at his excellent bible study that I’ve been recently attending. I love bible studies that are actually about the bible. For some reason, none of the commentaries I’ve been able to consult seem to make any connections between the destruction of the temple and the composition of John. Weird. Seems like a pretty big deal to me.
Edit: I'm very interested in input on this topic. I haven't totally convinced myself on it yet. Still seems shaky.