John (Part 20): Jesus’ Covenant Point (ch 6)

04/28/2014 05:51

Finishing up chapter 6 and the Bread of Life section, we come to verses 59 through 71. This subsection begins, actually, with a closing comment about the previous discussion. John mentions that they were in a Capernaum synagogue. Normally John mentions the setting at the beginning of the activity. Here it is at the end. He does this, I think, to stress that Jesus was providing teaching from the Father, linking that thought with what Jesus had said earlier in verse 45b: “Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me.” Thus, in the following verses we find the result of the teaching of the Father. Many of those who heard the revelation fall away. Others (like the Twelve), who believe, are accepted by Jesus—just as he had been discussing throughout the chapter.

Jesus, knowing the difficulty they (all his disciples, including the Twelve) were having with his statements, wondered at them. He seems to have asked, “Does this offend you?” as if surprised that they took offense. And surely this must be true for him. Jesus fully understood the importance and priority of spiritual life—covenant relationship with God. So he naturally was drawn to it and embraced it. The Jews, however, had their own view of truth, goodness, and beauty (not looking to God) and therefore were troubled by the implication that they needed Jesus as their means to God. Jesus pointed this out to them by asking what if they were to see him ascending back to heaven. In other words, how could they claim an acceptance of heaven (God) and its spirituality if they had trouble accepting his words of the spiritual necessity of life and relationship? If his words were troubling, the sight of him actually rising to heaven would be even more troubling.

Jesus closed his discussion with them by reiterating that faith is the key to life—relationship with God. This is made even more evident because even though, as the text points out, Judas was there physically with them, he would betray him because he had no faith in him.

Privately, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked whether they would leave as well. Peter answered for them that they would have nowhere else to go. Jesus ended with the mention of Judas’s coming betrayal. This indicates that the revelation-response activity of God is not a one-and-done opportunity. Some respond in faith to some revelation, but as God continues in his revelation toward the salvific revelation of dependency in Christ, rejection could still have absolute negative consequence.

It is important here to step back and notice the progression. In 6:32-40, Jesus revealed his bread of heaven metaphor, insisting that life (relationship with God) was through him. In 6:41-42, the Jews rejected the spiritual application of this revelation, believing themselves already in covenant relationship with God because of the covenant of Moses (Law). In 6:43-51, Jesus reiterated his revelation through the bread-to-life metaphor. In 6:52, the Jews, having already rejected the spiritual implications, then focused on the physical part of the metaphor and began to ridicule it. In 6:53-58, Jesus again reiterated the necessary revelation of life through him using the bread-of-life analogy. But in 6:59-60, the Jews, seemingly choosing to misunderstand, found accepting the physical illustration (devoid of its spiritual application) hard, and so they reject it. In 6:61-65, Jesus separated the physical illustration from the spiritual application, focusing on the spiritual necessity. And finally, still refusing the revelation, the Jews turned away.

This entire passage, then, shows us the repeated call of Christ within the revelation-response pattern. Jesus does not offer only a half-veiled hint of revelation and quickly withdraws if unaccepted. His door is open. He calls and invites time and again. Notice that the Jews understood the call from the very beginning. It was back in verses 41-42 that they rejected the spiritual implication. After that, their hardened hearts would not even consider the spiritual side. And when Jesus plainly broke off the analogy to draw attention only to the spiritual issue, they would not listen anymore and turned away.

We need to make sure we understand why the Jews were rejecting Jesus’ revelation. This group should not be thought of as a bunch of 21st century Americans deciding not to trust the gospel message. These are 1st century Jews who have a certain mindset. That mindset was firmly settled (albeit wrongly settled) in their understanding of their covenant relationship to God. So then, we need to see what covenant relationship for the Jew actually was and what these Jews wrongly thought.

God began everything with his Covenant of Life made with Adam and Eve. In that covenant, God obligated himself to provide truth, goodness, and beauty for his image bearers. His image bearers had the obligation of trusting in God for truth, goodness, and beauty. But both Eve and Adam withdrew that trust in God to place it in themselves—Eve by deception and Adam by desire for Eve. That fall broke covenant relationship with God. In other words, they lost the blessing of the covenant—life (relationship with God), and received instead the penalty for broken covenant—death (separation from God). But God planned redemption. Choosing Abraham, God revealed (in part) his plan for redemption. Abraham believed God, and that faith was counted as righteousness (faithfulness to this new Covenant of Promise). The Covenant of Promise, we’re told by Paul in Galatians 3:16, had its major focus in providing its blessings through the Seed of Abraham, that is, through Christ. Jesus does appear as a virgin-born offspring through Abraham’s family, does live sinlessly, and so offers up his life as an unblemished sin offering to God on behalf of the world. Faith here is key. It was the failure of covenant obligation—faith in God for the provision of truth, goodness, and beauty—that caused the fall. It was now faith in God’s restored provision of truth, goodness, and beauty in the ultimate revelation of Jesus that would be conditional for redemption. The redeemed (those of faith) would inherit Jesus’ death as their own, satisfying the brokenness of the first Covenant of Life. They would also inherit from Jesus his life (relationship with God) based on Jesus’ righteousness (faithfulness to the covenant). Inheriting his life is what we call being regenerated—born again—becoming a child of Jesus and therefore a child of God.

While what was described in the previous paragraph appears straightforward and understandable, it is so only because I skipped by a couple of wrinkles. The Covenant of Promise made with Abraham has more to it by way of typology than I let on, and so we need to discuss more of its detail.

The call of Abraham in the first three verses of Genesis 12 mentions three blessings promised to him: land, offspring, and blessing to the world. When God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, he mentions the blessing of land in verses 7 and 18 and the blessing of offspring in verse 5. In Genesis 17, we also have mention of land blessing in verse 8 and offspring in verses 5 and 6. The covenant of Genesis 17 is often characterized as a confirmation or reconfirmation of the Genesis 15 covenant. Finally, in Genesis 22, we read of certain blessings again—those of offspring (v. 17) and blessing to the world (v.18).

It is interesting and important to note that the confirmation of the covenant in Genesis 17 offers some new details, which alter it enough to make us view it in a different light from the covenant initially made in Genesis 15. First of all, it is only here that the blessings are qualified as everlasting. Additionally, in Genesis 17 just as the covenant is about to be confirmed, God changes his name from Abram to Abraham. Therefore, it seems God sees it important that we associate the covenant of chapter 15 with the name Abram, while the covenant of chapter 17 is associated with the name Abraham. Abram means “exalted father.” This name makes sense because of God’s promise in Genesis 12:2. There he told Abram that he would make him “into a great nation.” But Abraham means “father of many nations.” Therefore, lining the covenants up with the names, we find that the Genesis 15 covenant should speak to “a great nation” of Abram, while the everlasting condition of the Genesis 17 covenant should speak to the “many nations” of Abraham. And this we find borne out by Paul’s comments in Galatians 3.

In Galatians 3:16, Paul insists that God’s Covenant of Promise to Abraham’s offspring was to a single individual, citing that the word used—“offspring” or “seed”—was singular and not plural. Paul was most likely referring to Genesis 22:17-18. In this passage, the Hebrew word for offspring is indeed singular, but that does not necessarily mean one person. It could be a singular collective noun as it can be in English. However, Hebrew offers a clue as to whether it is singular or plural. If pronouns are used in conjunction with it, the pronoun will follow the intention as singular if the antecedent is one, or plural if the antecedent is multiple. In this case, the possessive pronoun before “enemies” in verse 17 is singular, indicating that Paul was correct in understanding offspring as referring to one.

Therefore, we may conclude that the everlasting promises of the Genesis 17 covenant includes the idea of Abraham as the father of many nations through his single offspring Jesus. While there were land and offspring blessings promised and fulfilled for the great nation of Abram (the people of Israel), the everlasting blessings in land, offspring, and world are specifically through Jesus and, as Paul states in Galatians 3:29, to all the children of Jesus—the children of God.

Circling back, now, we find that the Jews’ problem was a convolution of the aspects of the Genesis 15 and Genesis 17 covenant. The Jews had understood every everlasting benefit of the covenant to belong to them on the basis of birth in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). This is why they reject Jesus’ spiritual application in John 6. They already believed themselves tied in everlasting covenant relationship with God.

Additionally, they called on Moses and the Covenant of Law. This, they believed was their justification—that which showed them to be in covenant relationship with God—the keeping of the Law. The Jews, in their understanding, had entwined the Covenant of Law with the Covenant of Promise to make it all one simple covenant with them as the recipients. This was, in fact, a major area of contention even in the early Christian church. Jewish Christians were either claiming a superiority over Gentile Christians by virtue of their physical heritage or demanding that Gentile Christians follow the Jews in conforming to aspects of the Covenant of Law. Paul argues against this in several places, most notably in Romans and Galatians.

As we discussed, in Galatians 3:15-18, Paul insists that certain promises to Abraham’s seed were specifically and only to Christ. But this raises the question: what then was the Law for (articulated by Paul in verse 19a). Paul immediately answers that it was added (i.e., added to Abram’s covenant) to identify transgressions for the Israelites until the Seed (i.e., the recipient of Abraham’s covenant promises) would come.

But beginning with 3:19b and moving through verse 20, we find some of the most cryptic language in the entire Bible. It has, by some counts, over 400 separate conservative interpretations. Paul says, “The law was put into effect through angels by means of mediator. Now a mediator is not for just one person, but God is one.”

First, being put into effect (or, ordained or appointed) through angels, I believe, refers to the beneficial quality of the law. It indicates that as God sends his angels to protect and serve in his purpose, the law was given to protect and serve his people. Looking back at Deuteronomy 33:2, we find that the Lord “came from Sinai and appeared to them from Seir; He shone on them from Mount Paran and came with ten thousand holy ones, with lightning from His right hand for them.” The region described here was the area first engaged after leaving Egypt—when the law was given. And the intent is to show that God wasn’t simply sending them out into a desert. He was bringing them through a place where he had been—a place governed by him. So he would protect and provide in their journey.

In Acts 7:53, Stephen mentions the law being given under direction of angels. He also uses the expression to show God’s intended provision. He argues first that the prophets sent by God to provide revelation were killed by the Jews. Then God sent his law by angels—again for the provision/protection of the people—but the Jews didn’t keep it.  

And then in Hebrews 2:2, again we read about the law spoken by angels. Priscilla encourages in verse 1 of chapter 2 to pay attention and not drift away, indicating that these truths were given for their benefit.

This then is what we should understand in Galatians 3. The law was added to identify transgressions during this period in which they would be waiting for the Messiah to come. And this identification was a provision for them—for their benefit.

But the law was delivered through a mediator—Moses. And the next verse seems somehow unbalanced. We are told that a mediator is not for just one person, but God is one. How does this statement fit in? Paul had just insisted that “offspring” was meant to indicate just one—Christ. So is this reference a play off that? Is the mediator not for the one—Christ—but for the people plural? But that’s not necessarily true. Either party (or both) for which a mediator mediates could be just one person.

Perhaps the “one” is meant as one of the two parties involved in mediation. A mediator doesn’t favor just one person, but is representing both, one to the other. But then, what does it mean that God is one? And how then does Paul’s argument continue in his question whether the law is therefore contrary to God’s promises?

I think both the above examples misunderstand the reference to “one.” Note that a simpler word-for-word translation of the Greek would render this: “Now the mediator is not of one, but God is one.” So the link of “one” with “person” is not in the Greek. I believe the “one” refers to one of the two covenants that Paul is talking about. He had been talking about the Covenant of Promise in verses 15-18. He then brought up the Covenant of Law in verse 19. To present their differences, Paul mentions in verse 20 that, although he was mediator of the Covenant of Law, the mediator (Moses) is not of one [of the covenants, specifically, the Covenant of Promise]. But rather God is one [that is, the mediator of that covenant].

Now why does Paul point out that one covenant is mediated by Moses and the other by God? Paul anticipates the Galatians’ question that if one covenant is mediated by God, God’s purpose for redemption—the regaining of life—would surely come through, but if the other covenant is mediated by another, could it be at cross purposes with the covenant that God mediated? In other words, we could read verse 21 in this way (highlighted words are from the text): “So, since the Law Covenant was mediated by Moses, but the Promise Covenant was not, could it be that the law therefore could actually be contrary to God’s promises?” Thus, we have coherence and cohesiveness through the passage. Paul, in Galatians, is helping them (especially the Jews) realize the differences in and the separation of the covenants. The Jews had been confusingly and wrongly commingling the covenants (just as people do today).

Therefore (back to Matthew 6), we find that this is exactly what Jesus was trying to do for the Jews. He was clearing up their confusion of commingling the covenants. Yes, they had had a covenant relationship with God through certain promises to Abram and his physical offspring, but those had been accomplished. And yes, the Jews had a covenant of law relationship that had been mediated by Moses. But neither Abram’s covenant nor Moses’ covenant gave them everlasting life (relationship) with God. That would come only through Jesus.