Yesterday evening our church prayed for the people in Houston and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As we prayed, the following verses came to mind:
The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
The floods have lifted up their voice,
The floods lift up their pounding waves.
More than the sounds of many waters,
Than the mighty breakers of the sea,
The LORD on high is mighty. Psalm 93:3-4
Now, I realize that the “flooding” in these verses is a metaphor. The Psalmist isn’t thinking about literal water; he’s thinking about enemies or trials or something. God is mightier than all those things, no matter what they are, in just the same way as he is mightier than the literal ocean.
Yet obviously that presupposes that God is mightier than the ocean waves. If the metaphor of the waves is applicable to persecution or financial troubles or hardships of other kinds, how much more is it applicable to the literal flooding caused by Harvey?
As I prayed, I thought of the incredible destructive power of a hurricane, and then of how God is mightier than all of that. It was encouraging.
* * *
Later in the evening, I was thinking about the ways of God, in that he chooses at times to allow us to be attacked by the spiritual forces of darkness (whether through temptations or trials or outright demonic activity) and other times keeps them from us. Sometimes he puts a hedge of protection around us; other times, as in the case of Job, he lets the enemy have at us. It occurred to me that perhaps sometimes he lets us be not merely attacked but flooded by the enemy, just so he can show us his power in the middle of it. In those moments, if they occur, when the attack washes over us like a wave, knocks us off our feet and leaves us no serious chance of resisting by ourselves, all we can do is to wait and look to God to deliver us. (For another picture of that kind of deliverance, consider Jonah 2.)
I was still thinking about this when we took communion. It occurred to me that whether or not we ourselves are ever exposed to this kind of flooding, Jesus was. On the cross, all the wrath of God and all the hostility of Satan washed over him like a flood, so that we could be spared from it. As a result, as the hymns say, we can be “sinners plunged beneath the flood” of his blood shed for us and we can say “my anchor holds within the veil”. (See also Hebrews 6:19).
* * *
Around midnight, a friend asked me about Ezekiel 47. In that passage, Ezekiel sees a vision of a river of water flowing from the temple out to the sea, giving life wherever it goes. Later in John 7:37-39, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water flowing from our innermost being. He may be deliberately referring to the vision Ezekiel had and telling us that the Holy Spirit is that river.
Anyway, back in Ezekiel, this happened:
When the man went out toward the east with a line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he led me through the water, water reaching the ankles. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the knees. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the loins. Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me back to the bank of the river. – Ezekiel 47:3-6
The point of the man’s measuring seems to be to say this: Ezekiel, you already see that the river is here. You see that it gives life. You see that it purifies. But I want you to understand how deep it goes. You can get in a certain distance, and may think that’s how deep it is. But it goes deeper. You can go still further … but it goes deeper. You could walk in until it was clear over your head, and it would still go deeper. That’s how deep the life-giving water of God goes. It never runs out, and it always goes deeper than you’ve yet experienced.
This is another kind of flooding, both holy and wonderful. The Holy Spirit generally refrains from overwhelming us with His glory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t mind-blowing.
This is the awe-inspiring God we serve. The Father reigns over even the most terrifyingly powerful floods. The Son endure the flood of God’s wrath in order to become our anchor. The Spirit reveals to us only what we can bear, but behind what we experience is a flood of life and holiness and glory we cannot even imagine.
There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.
I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.
I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.
Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.
An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.
1 John 4:7-8 says,
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Verses 11-12 say,
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.
But right in between those two verses, we have these:
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.
That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.
Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.
- 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
- 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
- Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.
1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,
… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)
This is where all our love starts:
We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)
Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.
So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.
I am dismayed to see that NASB has changed their translation of Matthew 5:28. I’m pretty sure it used to say that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It now says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her”. That’s very different. The second makes it sound as though if we look at a woman and lust spontaneously arises, that is adultery in the heart. The first implies that it is looking at a woman in order to lust – for the purpose of lust – that is adulterous. That is the real meaning, in my opinion. I like ESV’s translation: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.
I have three reasons for thinking the intent-based meaning is the correct one. First, the Greek preposition is closer to “to” than to “with” (I think?). Second, the phrase “has already committed adultery in his heart” points to the sin having happened before he looked. Third, this interpretation makes sense of the distinction between temptation and sin, without surrendering the important idea that attitudes and intentions can be sinful even without our acting on them.
Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.
In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.
Here are verses 8-11:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.
Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.
Here are verses 24-28.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”
Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.
Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.
Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.”
It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:
Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.
Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?
I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.
How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.
My quiet time today [back when I wrote this] was from Leviticus 2:
“Now when anyone presents a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour, and he shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it. He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD …”
It reminded me of something very simple: that I can do my work each day in a way that brings pleasure to God.
I know that God’s forgiveness and cleansing is a permanent thing, that we have been given the righteousness of Christ, and that nothing we can do can make God love us either more or less. But I also know that, just as the actions I take and the thoughts I think can grieve the Holy Spirit, so they can please Him.
In the Old Testament, God trained the Israelites to see him as taking pleasure in their sacrifices, using the imagery of a sweet-smelling smoke rising into the sky. In the same way, as we live by faith and abide in Christ, offering our daily works to God as a kind of worship (Romans 12:1), we can know that it brings him pleasure.
It’s not that he needs our work, but that he is glad to see the fruit of his own work in us.
It’s not because he is our Lord and we are his faithful servants, but because he is our Father and we are his beloved children.
One purpose of Scripture is to tell us facts that are true. Another, I increasingly believe, is to give us images to fuel our faith. I have found in the last few years that, when I need to pray or act and my faith is flickering, picturing things the right way can make a big difference, and the best source of such pictures is the Scripture.
For example, we know that God is able to provide for us, but when we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters” it gives us an image to use as we think about his provision. That image fuels our faith and helps us believe more genuinely and more enduringly.
I think this is especially helpful in prayer. When I’m praying, I ask God to bring Scriptures to mind to use as I pray, and often what comes to mind is a story or image from the Bible.
The image need not be connected to a promise made to us. If I am fighting a fierce temptation in my life, and I read about David defeating Goliath, I may be encouraged to trust God by that picture. I may imagine the temptation as Goliath, and myself as David, and God as helping me defeat it. None of this means that I interpret the David and Goliath story as promising me that I will defeat the temptation. My faith will not be a matter of “claiming” what God has promised. Rather, it is the kind of faith that asks God for victory, keeping the picture of Goliath’s defeat firmly in mind. My faith is in the God who really does things like that, without presuming that he must do them this time.
When I talk about imagery strengthening my faith, what do I mean? I am assuming that faith, while it has an intellectual content, is also something more than belief in an abstract proposition. I may believe something intellectually, and still have trouble emotionally committing to it (which is different than merely feeling like it is true). It is at that level that imagery helps.
Finally, I don’t mean merely that Scripture has a lot of images, and that imagery helps our faith, but that Scripture’s images are divinely inspired to do so. I realize this makes my view of Scripture a little mystical, but I’m willing to live with that as long as the mysticism does not nullify the process of sober, objective interpretation of Scripture’s meaning. It seems to me that Scripture speaks of itself as having not only accuracy but also power in our lives, power to stimulate faith and not only to direct it.
Recently for my quiet time I read Daniel 2. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which disturbed him, and asked the wise men to interpret it. When they asked him what the dream was, he refused to tell them, asking them to say both what the dream was and what the interpretation was. He apparently wanted to be sure they weren’t just making something up. When they couldn’t (and when they mouthed off to him for asking them to) he decided to kill all the wise men, including Daniel.
Daniel and his friends prayed that God would show mercy and give them the answer to the king’s request. That night he had a vision in which God showed him the answer. He praised God, saying
“Wisdom and power belong to him …
It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;
He knows what is in the darkness,
And the light dwells with Him.”
I often have thoughts or fears that disturb me. Sometimes they are even mysterious and deep and subconsciously powerful, like the king’s dream seems to have been. It has been a great encouragement to me across the years that God is so wise that he can understand and reveal these profound and hidden things.
But sometimes I feel disturbed, stirred up, agitated, and do not even know why. I have the sense of having an urgent question, but don’t even know what the question is!
The great thing is that even that is not too mysterious for God. If he could give Daniel not only the interpretation of the dream but the knowledge of the dream itself, how much more can he reveal to me what is bothering me, along with its answer! After all, I at least have my question within me somewhere, however ill-defined it may be: Daniel didn’t even personally experience the dream that so disturbed Nebuchadnezzar, and yet God was able to reveal to him everything he needed to know.
In Genesis 40:8, Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” It is up to God to tell me how to make sense of the riddles in story of my life. In Daniel 2, we learn than even the riddles themselves belong to God. Not only can God answer all my questions, he can also teach me what the questions should be. (Compare Romans 8:26 and Psalm 77:2-6.)
In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.
One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?
Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.
After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.
- One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
- I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
- Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
- The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
- The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
- Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
- There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
- When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
- In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.
P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.
Here is the passage:
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
So the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying about yourself; your testimony is not true.”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.
You judge according to the flesh;I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.
Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”
So they were saying to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.”
These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; and no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
Theme and structure of the passage
On first reading, this passage seems to be fairly unstructured. It looks like this:
- Jesus says something really important about being the light of the world.
- The Pharisees challenge his claim.
- Jesus spends a lot of time talking with the Pharisees about their attitudes to him and his testimony.
In other words, it looks like everyone gets distracted. It seems to be one long rabbit trail leading away from verse 12.
However, I think this first impression is deceptive. I think there is a remarkable integrity to the passage. Every piece of it is important, and it all serves to drive home the same theme, the theme that Jesus is our light.
The light that is Jesus
Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and that everyone who follows him does not walk in darkness but has the light of life. What is the practical meaning of walking in darkness or having the light of life?
I would like to suggest that the passage makes most sense if we interpret the light / darkness here in terms of our understanding of life rather than our behavior. Jesus is not saying, “If you follow me, you’ll make good decisions and not stumble.” He is saying, “If you follow me, life will make sense for you. You’ll be able to grasp its meaning. You’ll know what you are here for.”
The light of the Pharisees
The Pharisees respond by saying “You are testifying about yourself, so your testimony is not true.” Of course they didn’t mean that they knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking truth; they meant that what he said didn’t count as valid testimony. It didn’t follow their rules of what testimony had to be. It didn’t prove anything for Jesus to claim it.
The Pharisees were experts at argumentation and debate. They had established procedures, based on the law and on logical thinking, for getting at the truth. They were objecting here that Jesus wasn’t meeting their standard for evidence. There were rules for submitting your testimony to a court of law or a theological body, and Jesus wasn’t following those rules.
The Pharisees didn’t think they needed anyone to be the light of life for them. They already understood what life was about. Their light was their knowledge. Their light was their methodology for establishing truth.
When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, they did what they always did with claims like that. They judged it by their own light. They asked, “according to our methods for finding out truth, does this qualify?” It didn’t.
The problem was, Jesus wasn’t submitting his claim to them for their adjudication. He wasn’t saying, “if you use your already-established system for discovering theological truth, you’ll find that a part of it is Me”. He was saying that he superseded their methodology.
I teach a philosophy class in which one unit is on proofs for and against the existence of God. Some people argue that God exists, others argue that God doesn’t exist, and there is a lot of disagreement. Yet, everyone seems to agree on one thing: we humans are capable of finding out the truth for ourselves, if we just look hard enough. The default philosophical view of rationality seems to be that we can start from an unbiased, neutral standpoint, carefully sift all the evidence around us, and come to a measured and intelligent decision about God.
Scripture says differently. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that God has deliberately worked in such a way that intellectual pride will never lead us to Him. He has set things up so that we are blinded to him by any attempt to find him on our own.
The Pharisees were making the same mistake as my philosophy students. Jesus said he is the light of the world. He said that we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life if we follow him.
The Pharisees said, “We don’t walk in darkness right now. We already understand life. We already know how truth works. We ourselves aren’t confused: our job is to cast light on all the things that confuse other people. We know the law really well, and we know how to reason from it. Just show us your claim and we will be able to tell you if it is correct.”
Here, then, is the situation in John 8: Jesus says we can only understand reality if we follow him. The Pharisees already had a way to understand life, so they thought. They were willing to test his claim, but they didn’t realize he was actually challenging their very methodology. He was asking them to abandon their intellectual self-sufficiency.
What follows is Jesus’ attempt to get them to see that it was their very assumptions about how to decide what is true that he was calling into question.
First response: we need to see beyond the temporal
At first, Jesus sets aside the Pharisees’ concerns about method. The Pharisees were looking for proof. They should have been looking for truth. “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true.”
Why is it that Jesus is able to know and speak the truth about himself, while the Pharisees are not? Because they aren’t working with all the facts: he knows where he came from and where he is going, and they do not.
From a merely human perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who said some startling things and did some amazing miracles. From the Father’s perspective, he was the eternal son of God, who had come to earth in the form of a man, and who planned to die for us, rise from the dead, and ascend back into heaven where he would rule as both Lord and Christ. Jesus didn’t tell them all these details yet, but he he hinted. He pointed out, here and on other occasions, that he came from heaven, and would one day return there.
What does this make a difference? Because what matters is not just Jesus’ three years of ministry in Palestine. What matters is the larger meaning of his life in history and in eternity. What matters is what he came to do, and where from, and what the outcome would be. If we follow Jesus as a good moral teacher only, we still walk in darkness. It is only when we follow Jesus as the the one sent from God, as the Savior, as the One whose name is above every name, that we find he is the light of life for us.
The Pharisees, though, couldn’t see the full significance of Jesus, because their perspective was limited. It had to be limited. As finite human beings, they were only aware of what was in front of them in the early first century. They couldn’t possibly know all the facts.
We are in the same boat. We just don’t know enough as humans to be able to figure out the truth on our own. We can’t find the light of life as long as we are restricted to temporal reality and ignore the eternal.
Second response: we need to see beyond the physical
Nor can we find the light of life if we are restricted to physical reality and ignore the spiritual.
“You judge according to the flesh,” says Jesus.
Sometimes when the Bible says we do something “according to the flesh” it means that our actions arise from sinful motives. Other times it simply means we do it physically (for example, in 2 Corinthians 10:3). In my opinion, that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense here. Jesus’ primary meaning isn’t, “You are judging from sinful hearts”, but “You are judging based on outward appearances.” Human knowledge, on its own, is inherently limited to physical evidence. Because we cannot get past that, we cannot make sense of life by ourselves.
Third response: we need to see beyond our own expertise
“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone.” What does Jesus mean by judging? I think he is referring to the kind of judgment the Pharisees are engaged in: they had set themselves up as the arbiters of truth. They had appointed themselves the job of approving or disapproving everyone else’s moral and religious claims.
Jesus says, “I’m not playing your game. I have nothing to prove. I’m not interested in arguing about theological systems. I’m simply stating the truth.” Not that he couldn’t argue if he wanted to: “Even if I do judge, my judgment is true …”. It’s just that, again, in claiming to be the light of the world, he was setting aside all merely human systems of knowledge.
Fourth response: we can’t find the truth alone
“[E]ven if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.”
When my philosophy students ask whether God exists, the one thing they never think to do is to ask God to reveal himself to them. Secular reasoning often starts from the standpoint of an independent neutral observer. Whatever we can discover for ourselves, we will believe. Whatever we cannot discover for ourselves, we will reject. We are self-sufficient in our rationality. (Even neutrality can be seen as a studied independence from whoever might influence us.) I’m not saying that people actually succeed in being independent and neutral, just that they aspire to be.
The Pharisees, as religious as they were, functioned the same way. They were theologically self-sufficient. They accepted that God had given them the law, but, having received it, they wanted to work the rest of it out on their own.
Jesus, in contrast, says that he is not alone in his judgment, but is united with the Father in it.
I think it would be a mistake to think of Jesus and the Father as being two independent sources of testimony. Even though that may be the ideal in a court of law, it is not the ideal when it comes to ultimate truth. Jesus doesn’t just hold the same opinion as the Father, he forms it in partnership with the Father.
Specifically, Jesus says, his judgment is united with “the Father who sent me“. Because he is defined by where he came from and where he is going, because he is called by the Father and lives within that calling, his every judgment is shaped by that calling. He does not hold his judgment alone, for it is the natural side-effect of the Father’s creative shaping of his life.
The Pharisees are limited because their lives consist of a narrow slice of time in a small corner of the universe.They are also limited because they isolate themselves voluntarily. Their relationship to God, as they see it, is to figure out for themselves what he meant and then obey it. Even though they appoint themselves as judges of the truth on behalf of God, they never seek to discover their calling from God. They do lots of thinking about God, but don’t wonder what God thinks of them. The consequence is, they miss the experience of finding that God has led them to the truth.
Fifth response: we can’t find the truth outside of Jesus
Finally, Jesus responds on their own terms. At least he appears to: “Even in your own law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”
It doesn’t help, though, because they can’t talk to God directly they way they can to people. (And they certainly can’t interrogate him!) They want a way to evaluate truth that depends on humanly measurable factors. So they ask him, “Where is your father?”
I don’t think they were confused by what he meant – I think they knew he was talking about God. They ask “where is your father” to get him to admit that claiming “God agrees with me” isn’t really helpful evidence. Regardless, Jesus knew what he meant.
His response, though, is even more unhelpful! “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.” In other words, “You’ll know if I speak the truth if you ask my father, but to come to know my father you’ll have to trust me first.”
There is a vicious circle here. They can’t prove to themselves that Jesus speaks the truth until they are sure the Father agrees with him, and they can’t be sure the Father agrees with him until they are willing to trust what he is saying. Logic won’t help because the vicious circle corresponds to a circular argument.
This is precisely why the Pharisees are in such trouble. There just is no way to get from their methodology to the kind of trust and understanding Jesus requires. If we walk in darkness, we can’t see to find our way to the light. If Jesus doesn’t break into our lives with his truth, it will remain inaccessible to us. Only he is the light.
It would be easy to turn the first four stages of this passage into a 4 step process, a new method for finding the truth.
- Step 1: take an eternal perspective
- Step 2: take a spiritual perspective
- Step 3: admit our ignorance
- Step 4: look for help
But that only works if Jesus is in every stage. Jesus didn’t say “you don’t know where you come from and where you are going”, he said, “you don’t know where I come from and where I am going”. We can’t find eternal meaning in our own lives without first finding it in his life. We can only walk in our own relationship with Father when we find it through Jesus’ relationship with the Father. We can’t even know the Father except by knowing the Son.
The Pharisees thought they were being asked to judge Jesus’ claims. They weren’t. They were being told that everything they thought they knew was uncertain. They were being told that they were incapable of seeing truth without God’s intervention. They were being invited to find truth in Jesus. The single condition was that they stop thinking they could find truth without Jesus.