Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Gospel Of John And Substitution

When Jesus died on the cross, He died in the place of lost sinners. He had no sins of His own to bear, but willingly stood condemned before God and received upon Himself the full wrath of God for our sins. This is the heart of the doctrine of penal substitution, or the Bible’s teaching that Jesus paid the penalty for sins serving as our substitute. While we might be able to say more about the work of Christ than this, we certainly may say no less than this. What I have discovered is that the Gospel of John, while making very few if any explicit references to substitution, nevertheless carries this crucial theme throughout the entire book.

As John opens his gospel message he records John the Baptist viewing Jesus from afar and declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the in of the world” (KJV). While this statement is not an explicit statement of substitution, we cannot help but notice the clear imagery of the Old Testament Passover lamb in view. In Exodus 12, the firstborn sons of Israel were “passed over” from the slaughter brought at the hands of the Angel of the Lord by a lamb that was killed in their place with its blood splattered in the doorway. When the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God, this is not a cute little ewe going everywhere that Mary went, but a mental picture of a brutal slaughter to allow escape to the people of God.

Other examples abound as we journey through the Gospel. John 3:16 may be the most famous passage in the Bible, but it cannot be read apart from the context of 3:14-15: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (ESV). Jesus is referring to Numbers 21 when Israel, facing the judgment of God for rebellion, could lift their eyes up to a bronze serpent hoisted high on a pole to find hope. Jesus later speaks of Himself as “the Bread of Life,” and states that “this bread is my flesh which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). He calls Himself “the Good Shepherd,” who lays down his life for His sheep (John 10:11).

In John 11:47-52, John’s Gospel takes us into the meeting hall of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders of the day. They are debating about what to do with Jesus and how to minimize the fallout because of His popularity. Caiaphas the High Priest that year responds to the debate in this way: "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” (11:49-50, ESV). While Caiaphas has diabolical motives behind such a statement, John interprets in prophetically in the context of Jesus’ redemptive work as a substitute for the sins of His people (v. 52).

Now while there are numerous other examples throughout the book, there is one particular passage I would like to focus your attention. I have read numerous commentaries and articles, and none of them draw the connection from this passage to substitution. It occurs in John 19:26-27: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" In the ancient world, it was common for fathers or heads of the home who were dying to give an oral testament, or a verbal “Last Will and Testament.” The dying party would place the care of a spouse or loved ones into the hands of a close relative or trusted friend. It was a great honor to receive and in effect it meant taking over the dying person’s role in the life of the family. In other words, Jesus is declaring John the disciple to be Mary’s substitute son in place of Him who is dying. Yet is it possible that the imagery of substitution can be fleshed out further? Can we not observe, based on the motif of substitution powdered throughout the Gospel of John, that Mary’s REAL substitute not the disciple standing beside her, but the crucified Lord hanging in front of her? And could we not also say that this substitute is not just intended for her, but also for John, the rest of the disciples, and even now serves as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:2)? That Friday Mary may have received a substitute son, but she trusted by faith the one and only true substitute that could bear her sins in an eternal sense.


Jamie Fugate said...

John you are absolutely right. The doctrine of penal substitution is central to our faith. It is a core doctrine without which the Gospel and indeed the cross make no sense.

I am still wrestling with that moment on the cross, what you are saying is without a doubt true, but I am not certain about the intentionality of John. I am open to being swayed brother.

John, thank you for holding before us the core of the Gospel, may we honor the savior who hung there in our place, may we fnd joy through the redemption purchased for us.

John Lucas said...

There is no doubt that I am venturing into an interpretive "landmine field" with this interpretation. The fact that I cannot find any other support makes me very nervous, so I hold it with very lose hands brother. Yet it seems that a conversation is worth starting about the issue. If John is using implicit substitution imagery throughout the book as I argue, then this text has a solid arguement to support it. I am going to do more study obviously, but I pray it begins a conversation between us and others on this blog. Thanks for your careful thinking on these subjects.

Jamie Fugate said...

Wihtout a doubt Jesus us suffering as the substitute for sin, including for Mary and for John who were standing there. But the struggle I have is this idea of Jesus communicating this concept of substitution to Mary and John. It just seems a really hard way for Jesus to say something that He could have in a much easier and transparent way.

So John my question is what clues in the text are telling you that Jesus is communicating something else other than what He appears to be saying.

John Lucas said...

We have to be careful here in defining who is communicating what to the readers of the biblical text. I am trying to think through what John is trying to communicate to us through recording these words of Jesus. No other gospel writer include this account, yet Matthew and Luke put much greater emphasis on Mary than John. John included this event in his gospel to support his purpose in writing.
But you do bring up a good question: is our goal to understand what Jesus was trying to say to Mary and John, or is it to understand what John is trying to say to us through including what Jesus said? I am thinking more about why John included this event more than I am why Jesus said it to John. Maybe I am splitting hairs though and they are one in the same. Tell me what you think.

Jamie Fugate said...

John, you caught me being lazy in thinking and writing. We are certainly seeking John's intention for including this account in his Gospel. All the Gospel writers were highly selective in what they included, so we are seeking to the reason he included this event. Also John of all the gospel writers was the most willing to give interpretive explanations in his gospel.

I think we find John doing that when he says that the result of this discussion was Mary becoming a part of his household. So brother I agree completely with the truth of penal substitution but, I don't think its being taught here. I open to correction and I do not disagree with you lightly brother.

Joshua Owen said...

Brothers, before we decide too quickly on this matter, let me remind you that subtlety is characteristic of both Jesus and John. For example, Matthew has many more quotations of Scripture that are introduced with a formula like, "that the scripture might be fulfilled," than John does. Yet, John certainly has as many, if not more, allusions to the OT as Matthew does. Just peruse the margin of NA27 for a sampling.
Consider the theme of Temple replacement in John. Nowhere does John make the comment that Jesus replaces the temple. Yet this theme is subtly worked out beginning with John's statment that Jesus tabernacled among us and Jesus' "destroy this temple . . . ." This is reinforced by the use of temple and worship imagery in other discourses, such as the living water symbolism (7.37-39).
I wonder whether ther is not double entendre in Jesus' statement, "Woman, behold, your son!" If the statement to John, "Behold, your mother!" did not immediately follow, I would understand "son" to be a reference to Jesus. Is this why Jesus speaks to Mary first, instead of John. I think there is more going on here than Jesus fulfilling the law by taking care of his mother as the first-born son. Further research and meditation is certainly justified in light of John's theological/narrative strategy.

John Lucas said...

Here is where i am brothers:
Josh brought a great amount of clarity to this issue in a few words (i wish i had such a gift;). I think we all agree that the object of Jesus' words, "Woman, behold thy son," is the beloved disciple in this context. With that in mind, Jesus is not the focal point in the statement. Yet He is the one dying, and He is the ultimate focus of all that John wants to say to the reader (His thesis for the book we would all agree is found in John 20:31: "but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."). So what I am exploring is whether or not John is using the metaphor of substitution by including this event. What is the point for including this in the Gospel? I find it hard to believe it is simply to remind us that we should love and honor our moms. That is a great truth, but at the foot of the cross, I am inclined to believe we should be thinking in more redemptive terms. With that, perhaps substitution is the underlying message. Jamie and Josh, you are forcing me to think much harder about this issue than I normally would. Thank you brothers; you are a gift of God in my life.

Jamie Fugate said...

I'm not sure that we all agree about who Jesus is referring to when He says "woman behold your Son", Josh seemed to be saying otherwise.

However, I do want to retract my earlier decision, I am moving back onto the fence. Josh has reminded us of the subtlety and care of the Apostle John.

John also had a really good point about John's thesis statement. When the author tells us the point of his entire point we should take that seriously. So I am stepping back from a hasty decision to settle in on the fence for further reflection, study, and prayer.

Thanks for the correctives brothers.

Joshua Owen said...

Jamie, I'm sorry if my reference to double entendre was unclear. I do believe "son" refers to John, the beloved. I wonder, though, whether the exclamation may be intentionally ambiguous until the immediately following context makes it clear. Double entendre may be too strong to describe this strategy, but it was the only concept I had at hand.

What I imagine is that a first-reading might go like this. Mary and John approach the cross together. They can hardly bare the sight of Jesus shamefully exposed and tortured on the tree. Jesus shocks us with the words, "Woman (getting her attention), behold thy son!" At this point the reader says, "Is he drawing her attention to himself, or is he referring to John as a surrogate for himself?" Then he turns to John and says, "Behold, they mother!" Now the reader is certain that he was referring to John as her surrogate son. Yet, the initial question now lingers in the back of the reader's mind.

I must confess that I am the imagined, naive reader. This was the first impression this text left on my mind as a child, and I've never been able to shake the image of Mary being jolted to look upon her son, Jesus, suffering on the cross, then to be given the tender care of that son as he entrusts her to his beloved disciple, John.

Thanks for the discussion, John.