Why did Jesus entrust His mother Mary to John’s care?

Q.  When Jesus was dying and entrusted his mother to John, does that mean Joseph was dead?

Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care. Chapel Nosso Senhor dos Passos, Santa Casa de Misericórdia of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yes, most interpreters believe that Joseph had died and that Jesus, who had been responsible to care for his mother as the eldest son in the family, was asking John to take on this responsibility.

This shows us two remarkable things:

(1) Even at his time of greatest suffering, Jesus was thinking of others, not himself.

(2) The family of the kingdom of God takes precedence over human families. Jesus had at least four brothers whom he might have asked to take on this responsibility, but instead he gave it to a “brother” in the kingdom.

To explore this episode a little further, one fascinating and beautiful aspect of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s gospel is the way it’s arranged as a seven-part chiasm:
A: Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B: Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D:  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B: Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Break the Legs of the Crucified Prisoners
A: Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

As I note in my study guide to the gospel of John, the central placement within this arrangement of the episode in which Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care “shows that Jesus was a person of compassion who extended mercy and care to others right to the very end of his life.”

“But,” I also observe, “it’s interesting that an account of the crucifixion would not have Jesus’ actual death at its center.  John may have an additional purpose for including this episode and placing it where he does.  He may be putting his central focus on the effects of Jesus’ death.  John may be portraying how Jesus’ death is for ‘the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’  Through his death, believers in Jesus become part of a new family, which is their true family.”

I then ask in the guide:  “Are there some other followers of Jesus who are ‘just like family’ to you?  What creates the bond between you?”

What would you say?

Would Jesus drive the bookstores and cafes out of today’s churches the way He drove the moneychangers out of the temple?

Q. What bearing do you think Jesus clearing the temple of money changers and people selling animals for sacrifice has on modern megachurches that have cafes and/or bookstores in them?

Carl Heinrich Bloch, Jesus Cleansing the Temple

As I understand it, the main problems in the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus were that (1) commerce was displacing worship as a central activity and (2) sellers were actually cheating buyers. So today, if commercial activities are supporting the worship and outreach of a church instead of displacing it, and if the prices are honest, I think these activities can be legitimately conducted on the premises.  Bookstores can make useful resources easily available, and cafes can provide a great gathering space.

As I observe in my study guide to the gospel of John, “A certain amount of commerce was necessary to support the operations of the temple in Jerusalem.  Worshipers needed to buy animals to offer in sacrifice.” (Many of these animals would then supply food for shared meals).  “They also needed to exchange their Roman coins for other coins that would not be offensive within the temple (since Roman coins called the emperor a god).  In the time of Jesus, all of this commerce had been moved right into the temple court, which should have been reserved for worship.”

The equivalent today would be a church selling books, videos, and other paraphernalia right in its sanctuary, or running a cafe in the same space where worship took place, while the worship was happening.  Under those circumstances, we could see how commercial activities, even if pursued in support of the church’s overall mission, could be crowding out worship.  So these activities need to be kept in their own appropriate places and times.  And of course the pricing should always be honest and fair.

I think we also need to be very careful of other kinds of supporting activities.  A while back I visited a church and saw something like this in the bulletin.  “Notice to visitors:  Your presence on our property today constitutes your permission for your image to be used in photos and videos promoting our church.”  As important as it is to let the surrounding community know about the church and its activities, I wondered whether someone who was visiting the church because they were sincerely interested in finding out more about what it means to follow Jesus would be getting the right message from a notice like that.

Because it’s so important to conduct supporting commercial and promotional activities in a way that doesn’t impinge on the church’s mission and message, in my study guide to the gospel of Mark, when groups discuss the temple cleansing episode, I invite them to consider this question together:

“Changing money and selling doves were necessary for the ongoing operation of the temple. . . . But these commercial activities had now overtaken the temple area to such an extent that prayer and worship were being crowded out.  If you’re part of a community of Jesus’ followers, share with the group how it handles the necessary commercial side of its existence and what measures it takes to keep this from crowding out spiritual activities.”

I think that’s the question you’d like all of us to consider.

Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 2)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born.

In my first post in response to this question I discussed the statement in the book of Joshua.  Let me now consider the one you cite from the book of John.  And next time I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

This statement is actually a quotation from Isaiah, as John notes.  In Matthew and Mark the same quotation is used to explain Jesus’ method of speaking in parables.  John uses it instead to comment on Jesus’ method of revealing who he was through “signs.”  But in both cases it refers to a method that can either conceal or reveal, depending on the state of a person’s heart.

In Session 2 of my study guide to Isaiah I explain the background to5811 this statement.  Isaiah has just had a vision of God in the temple:

“God asks, ‘Who will go for us?’ and Isaiah eagerly volunteers. But the assignment turns out to be a perplexing one. The new prophet is to bring messages from God to the people of Judah. But they will so persistently ignore these messages that they will become less and less able to understand what God wants. As a result, the nation will ultimately be devastated by its enemies. Only a faint glimmer of hope will remain in the end.

“Even though it sounds here as if God wants the people to resist and be destroyed, this is quite unlikely. We’ll see in the rest of the book of Isaiah, as we also see throughout the Scriptures, that God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. Rather, the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”

In the study guide I then invite groups to consider questions such as these:
~ C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure.” Do you agree?
~ How can we distinguish between those times when a hard truth needs to be spoken to another person, even if they’re unlikely to be able to hear it, and those times when it’s best to say nothing and wait for the person to become more open?

This was the problem that both Isaiah and Jesus faced: They needed to proclaim something vital about what God was doing in their day, but many of the people who heard them were so set against God that this proclamation would only harden their resistance.  But it couldn’t be abandoned on that account.  So even though God tells Isaiah to “make the heart of this people calloused . . . and close their eyes,” and John paraphrases this by saying that God himself has “blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,” it’s the people’s stubborn resistance, intensified by encountering this proclamation, that’s actually responsible.

It’s kind of a no-win situation for God’s prophets and his Messiah:  say nothing about the new thing God is doing in the world because most people don’t want to hear it, or proclaim it for the sake of those who might hear, even at the cost of hardening those who are resisting?  A difficult problem, caused by people, for a God who is not willing that any should perish.

Will the signs at football games just read “John”?

Q. If The Books of The Bible has the desired impact, in the future will we see the guy at the football game holding up a sign that just reads, ‘John’?

John316

I’m sure we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs on televised football games. There may even be some signs like this at the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This question provides a great illustration of how The Books of the Bible, the version these study guides are designed to be used with, encourages referencing not by chapter and verse, but by content and context.

The word count is pretty limited on those signs, but if you had the chance to speak with someone at slightly more length, think of how much more meaningful it would be to refer contextually to “what Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to see him early in the gospel of John,” rather than to use the chapter and verse shorthand.  Or, by content, you could refer to how the Bible tells that that “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son,” summarizing the message rather than just giving its address.

Along these lines, instead of reading simply “JOHN,” a sign at a football game might say something like this:

GOD LOVED THE WORLD – GOD GAVE HIS SON.

Or, in bigger letters:

GOD LOVED
GOD GAVE

I bet that would get the attention of the television cameras.

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)

Why did Jesus say he wasn’t going to the Festival of Tabernacles and then go?

Q. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go to the Festival of Tabernacles, but then he goes anyway. By faith I’m accepting that this is not sinful deception, but do you have any thoughts about why it’s not?

I don’t address this question specifically when I come to this episode in the John study guide, but I do note earlier in the guide (pp. 27-28) that often in conversations between Jesus and others:

“Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities. They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further.”

I discuss this dynamic specifically in the cases of people like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and the same thing is going on when Jesus speaks with his brothers here.

When he says, “I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come,” his brothers think he’s speaking on a material level and saying that it’s not a convenient or strategic time for him to travel to Jerusalem. But since he does then go to Jerusalem, readers of the gospel are supposed to understand that this wasn’t what he meant. Instead, his reference to “my time” (a richly symbolic phrase in this gospel) shows that he means he won’t be “going up,” that is, ascending to the Father after dying as the Savior of the world, at this particular festival, but rather at a later Passover.

Raymond Brown, in his excellent commentary on John in the Anchor Bible series, observes that “John is giving us a play on the verb anabainein, which can mean go up in pilgrimage to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and can also mean ‘to ascend.’ In 20:17 Jesus uses this verb when he speaks of ascending to the Father, and that is the deeper meaning here.”

So this is one of the many places in John’s gospel where a deeper meaning lies behind Jesus’ words and where the difficulty we have in understanding those words should drive us to seek that deeper meaning. (“How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb!” “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”) Accepting by faith, as you did, that Jesus is not being deceptive is the first step in discovering the true, rich, saving meaning of his words.

Rembrandt, Jesus Preaching

Reading whole books out loud

Q. I want to lead a neighborhood Bible study using your guide to John, but I’m concerned that the people I invite won’t want to read all the way through the book out loud together.  I’ve never been in a group that did this and I think people will find it boring and tiring.  They might not come back.  Do we have to do this to start the study?

John study guide

All I can say is, give it a try, and you’ll be surprised how well it goes.  Both from my own experience leading groups with these guides, and from what I’ve heard from other groups, I’m convinced that you and your neighbors will find this one of the most refreshing and exciting experiences they’ve had with the Bible in years.

One group I know read through the whole book of Romans out loud—this took about an hour—and as soon as they finished the discussion was electric.  One person said it was the best Bible study she’d ever been in.  Another group was using the guide to Psalms, Lamentations, and Songs of Songs.  They got to the session where they were supposed to read Lamentations out loud and one member asked whether they really had to do this.  Another member, a young woman, answered, “Of course we do!”  She explained that all she ever got was bits and pieces of the Bible, “a chapter here and a verse there,” and she was really looking forward to hearing a whole book at once.  The reading and discussion were deep and meaningful.

It’s important to realize that we are now in a period of a “new orality.”  We are less of a silent reading culture and more of an out-loud culture, in which the primary means of communication is increasingly the spoken voice, as heard on television, on internet sites like YouTube, in movie theaters, etc.  Even people’s interactions with their smart phones are becoming spoken!  The original character of the Bible is perfect for this “new orality.”  The books of the Bible, as a rule, were composed out loud and intended to be delivered out loud.  Paul tells the Colossians, for example, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans.”  Revelation says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it.”  So when you read the Bible out loud, you’re experiencing it as originally intended.

So give the members of your neighborhood Bible study the challenge and opportunity of reading John out loud.  (You’ll notice that the guide gives you the choice of doing this in one or two parts, so if you still have concerns, you can start by reading just the first half out loud in session 2 and the second half in session 14.)  I think you’ll be  pleasantly surprised by how well it goes.