John (Part 29): Revelation of Messiah – Legalism Opposed (ch 8)
Second Corinthians 5:21 seems to be the core verse for those who believe the atonement was a transactional exchange of our guilt to Jesus for his righteousness. The verse reads: “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We have discussed that being made sin is a metonymy, understood either as Jesus becoming guilty of our sin or Jesus becoming a sin offering. We decided on the latter.
The second part of the verse is said to be the return part of the transaction: the righteousness of God is given to believers in the exchange. I don’t think this is what the verse is communicating.
First, note that Paul here speaks of the righteousness of God, not the righteousness of Christ. They are not the same. Remember that righteousness is faithfulness to the covenant. Jesus was righteous in that he faithfully did and said only what God told him to do and say. He maintained total trust and dependence on his Father. His complete trust in God, then, in covenant relationship was his righteousness. God’s righteousness or faithfulness to the covenant was in providing care, and God faithfully did just that. Therefore, God’s righteousness (the faithful provision of care in covenant relationship) and Jesus’ righteousness (trusting God completely for his care) are, in fact, two different things. Immediately, then, we must conclude that the verse is not talking about an exchange of Jesus’ righteousness since it mentions only that “we” become the righteousness of God (not Jesus).
I put the “we” in quotes in the previous sentence because I think we presume too much in thinking this “we” refers to all Christians. If we look at the entire context of the book to this point, we find that from the beginning Paul is discussing his and Timothy’s ministry, specifically for the Corinthians. He begins the letter identifying that it is from him and from Timothy and that it is to the church at Corinth (1:1). Verse 5 of the first chapter continues to show the we/us (Paul and Timothy) compared to the you (Corinthians) contrast. As we progress through the book, those pronouns of we and you don’t change their antecedents. Chapter 1 verses 8 and 12 hold them consistently. In chapter 3 verse 1, Paul continues the we and you distinction of Paul and Timothy in ministry for the Corinthians. Verses 4 through 6 of that chapter provide the same support. Chapter 4 verses 1, 5, 13, and 14 follow the same idea. Chapter 5 verses 11 through 14 continue to keep the we and you separate, differentiating Paul and Timothy from the Corinthian believers. Even as we reach the verse immediately preceding the one we are studying, we find Paul saying that “we [Paul and Timothy] are ambassadors for Christ.” We cannot, then, suddenly assume that in verse 21 Paul intends the “we” to refer to all Christians.
What then is Paul’s point in saying that “we [Paul and Timothy] might become the righteousness of God”? Holding firmly to the idea that righteousness is faithfulness to the covenant, we find Paul saying that he and Timothy are God’s means of God faithfully providing for the Corinthians. God’s righteousness is his faithfulness in caregiving. God saved Paul and Timothy so that he could use them to accomplish that purpose of giving care for others. Restating the verse in its entirety, then, we may read it as “God made Christ to become a sin offering for Paul and Timothy, so that Paul and Timothy might become God’s faithfulness in providing salvific and other care in Christ for the Corinthians.
Paul’s purpose, then, is far from explaining a transactional exchange in the atonement. Rather it is a summary of Paul’s discussion up to this point, explaining how God has used Paul and Timothy to accomplish his ministerial care for the Corinthians. In keeping a good handle on context, we can avoid slipping off into highlighting legalistic aspects of the atonement instead of understanding God’s consistent purpose and point—covenant relationship.
As we return to John 8, we may recognize that the whole discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees revolves around this very point. The Pharisees miss the covenantal relationship that Jesus preaches and has come to provide, choosing instead to focus on legalities at every turn. They told the crowd that Jesus didn’t know the Law as they did (7:15). They tried to trap Jesus in legal argument (8:3-6). And now beginning in 8:13, they attempt to counter his testimony with legal dismissal. But Jesus, holding firmly to the covenantal relationship viewpoint and purpose, insists that his testimony is true.
As we approach this mini-section in which the Pharisees argue that Jesus’ testimony showed be dismissed, we may think we’ve read something of this before, and indeed we have. In chapter 5, there is also a discussion on the very same matter. However, these are not necessarily two separate instances. Remember that John is not relating the life of Jesus chronologically. He is thematically presenting certain incidents that help fulfill his 20:31 purpose that readers “may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing … have life in His name.” I have mentioned before that the healing at the Bethesda pool and the subsequent discussion (chapter 5) probably occurred during this same Feast of Tabernacles encountered beginning in chapter 7.
But as we read Jesus’ answer in 8:14, it seems to contradict the answer he gave in chapter 5. In 5:31 he states, “If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not valid.” Here in 8:1 he says, “Even if I testify about Myself … My testimony is valid.” Is he contradicting himself? The answer, of course, is no. We must understand the point of covenantal relationship that he is pressing.
Interspersing chapter 5 with chapter 8, here is how this whole (one) conversation probably progressed:
8:12 Jesus: I am the light of the world.
8:13 Pharisees: You’re testifying about yourself. So your testimony is not valid.
5:31 Jesus: True, if I testify about myself (on my own), my testimony is not valid.
5:34 Jesus: But unlike you, I am not validated by man’s testimony.
5:36, 37 Jesus: My witnesses are the works of the Father and the word of the Father.
8:14 Jesus: So, then, even if I testify about myself (without other human witnesses), my testimony IS valid because, unlike you, I know where I come from and where I’m going.
We remember in chapter 5 that Jesus claimed the Father as his witness (through Jesus’ own words and works which fulfilled Scripture’s anticipation of his coming). In chapter 8, Jesus claims validity for his testimony because he knows where he came from and to where he is going. These two ideas are telling the same story. Jesus has life relationship with God. He came from him, and because he is faithful to the covenant (righteous), he will go back to God, and God will accept him. The chapter 5 work and words of Jesus that are dutifully reflected as God directs him in the same way show his righteous covenantal activity.
So, no, there is no contradiction. If Jesus acts on his own, his testimony would not be valid. But even though he does not depend on any human witness, his testimony is valid because Jesus’ covenantal relationship with the Father is shown.
In verse 15 we come upon another seeming contradiction. Here Jesus says, “I judge no one.” But in chapter 5, verse 22, Jesus said, “The Father … has given all judgment to the Son.” These opposing statements are resolved in the same way as the testimony validity. Remember that the contrast Jesus insists upon is acting on his own (apart from God) as opposed to acting in covenant relationship with God. His testimony, he had said, was not valid if acting on his own, but is valid in acting in covenant relationship. So also he does not judge on his own (8:15) but he does judge in covenant relationship with the Father (5:22). He sums that up in 5:30: “I can do nothing on My own. I judge only as I hear, and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
This string of verses in chapter 8, then, may be understood as follows:
8:14a My testimony is valid because I have life relationship (covenant) with God.
8:14b You don’t recognize my life relationship with God.
8:15a Therefore, you judge my testimony according to the flesh, looking for human validation.
8:15b But I do not judge like you—on my own, according to the flesh.
8:16 Rather, since I have covenant relationship with God, I judge with God.
8:17-18 So then, ultimately my testimony is valid, because of my relationship with God, and it even is in keeping with the legal requirement.
Throughout this section, Jesus is referring to God as his Father. Why is this so? Why does he not simply call him God—Jehovah, Elohim? He uses the metaphor of Father for two reasons. The first is to show relationship. Remember his point throughout is the covenantal bond he has with God and is making available to any who believe in him. So he insists on speaking of God in that relational sense. He chooses Father because in human family relationship, the father is the one who provides—protects and cares for—based on his structural capabilities. In God’s economy, those who are able are always to care for the more vulnerable. The father represents that care. Therefore, in Jesus’ covenantal relationship with God, Jesus the man is the vulnerable one while God is the caregiver. Therefore, Jesus calls him Father. This is not a concept that the Jews did not understand. The OT refers to God as Father for that very purpose (Isaiah 63:15; Psalm 89:26).
But since the Jews also refer to God as Father, they are a bit confused that Jesus is personalizing the relationship. Jesus calls him my Father, not our Father. Wondering about whom he is speaking, the Jews ask in verse 19, “Where is Your Father?”
Jesus tells them, then, that if they would have known and embraced him, they would have known the Father. Again, this is a statement of true covenantal relationship. Jesus, faithful to that covenant, does and says only what the Father tells him to do and say. These words and actions of God are not recognized or accepted by the Jews, and therefore they do not know the Father.
John then tells us in verse 20 that Jesus had this discussion with the Pharisees by the treasury, in other words, in the very heart of the temple. This has the same meaning and impact as the Mark 12 story of the widow’s mite. There at the treasury, the Pharisees gave token acknowledgement to God while living for themselves, as opposed to the widow who gave her all for God. This incident in John 8 shows the same thing as the Pharisees don’t even recognize God in Christ—this treasure—when they are right there at the treasury—the place where they were to give of themselves for God.