Friday, September 11, 2015

"No One Has Ever Seen God": Thinking About John 1:18 (Part 2)

Question: What is John talking about in John 1:18? How can he say that no one has seen God, but evangelicals claim that Jesus is God? 

Part 1 is available here.

TWH: In the last post we looked at where this theme of an unseen member of the Trinity appears elsewhere in the New Testament. It spans Jesus' teaching and it spans the literature written by the apostles. It is not confined to a single author at all. What's amazing is John 1:18 is treated sometimes if not as if it doesn't even exist, at least like it isn't anywhere as important as John 1:1-5. Emphasis when treating John's prologue seems to be devoted on John 1:1-5 or the latter half of John 1:18 ("the only begotten God . . . he has explained him"). It is not uncommon to find a discussion of the prologue that treats the clauses, but doesn't treat them in relationship to one another. And the further you get away from those powerful verses in the opening lines, the easier it seems to disconnect the prologue's content to its opening declarations. The truth is you do not get at why John calls Jesus "the Word" without dropping down in the text to John 1:18. John says there that the Son is the one who "explains" the Father. What do we use to explain things to people? –Words. Well, Jesus is the Word. There are not many "words," just one. And it is this single one who explains who the Father is. After all, knowledge of the Father is gained either through direct relationship to the Father or by way of an explanation. Jesus is the only one who has seen or even knows the Father, a point we see in a number of places in John. The rest of us get knowledge about the Father by way of a single Word, namely Jesus.

If you haven't looked at Part 1 in this series, be sure to go check out the verses that were briefly discussed there.

So, what are we going to do with two words that we find in John 1:18–οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time")? How exclusive is "no one"? And how far back does "at any time" reach? Commentaries, which are really bent towards being word-based in their analyses, seem to avoid these two words like the plague. You won't find an explanation on what to do with these words. It's pretty wild. Sometimes we'll find two or three interpretive options in a scholarly discussion, followed by the author landing his or her plane on what their preferred interpretation is. Not really so here when it comes to John 1:18, in particular these two words.

Another problem we have is more theological in nature. Somehow and sometimes there seems to be a view of the Old Testament as being a "God is one" corpus, while the New Testament is a "God is three" corpus. The truth is the Bible teaches that God is one, manifest in three persons. And it teaches that in both corpora. The Old Testament emphasizes God is one when we think about the importance of Deut. 6:1. And the New Testament highlights the unity of the Godhead, but really delves into the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity in a way that the Old Testament never makes explicit. I'll be the first one to admit that I don't have the Trinity all figured out. I'm far, far, far from it. But I do know that whatever is true about the Godhead in the first century must be so in the days of King David and still so today in the 21st century. I understand why we deal with the Old Testament text apart from the Trinity, at least initially. It's a hermeneutical issue. We want to understand the text based on the revelation that was given up to that point in the redemptive plan. Doing so helps us get to authorial intent. We want to be careful of importing information into a text, something we call eisogesis. Let me just jump forward and deal with a similar issue really fast. I sometimes teach a course at Capital Seminary called "The New Testament Use of the Old Testament." You're in danger of missing what a New Testament author is trying to say if you don't think through where the Old Testament comes into play. The Old Testament was of tantamount importance for the first century and the founding of the church. It's critical for us to think through the role it played in the literature produced by that early community. Okay, so why mention that? Well, I would argue that this is not a one-way street. Not only do we need to think about the role that the Old Testament has on the New, but we should also consider the role that the New Testament has upon our understanding of the Old.

Alright, so we've already seen what the New Testament says about one who can be seen and one who cannot be seen. The Father has not been seen, the Son has. If we are considering what impact this information has not only on our understanding of the New Testament, but also the Old, then we can start by asking, "Who did they see in the Old Testament?"
1. Gen. 12:7. Abraham built an altar to the Lord "who had appeared to him." It doesn't exactly say in what way, shape, or form the Lord appeared, but he did say that the Lord appeared. He does not say that this one was accompanied with darkness, which would conceal him during an appearance; we see something like that in Genesis 15 with the ratification of the covenant with Abraham (see Gen. 15:12). Then again, it doesn't say that he appeared like a man either, something we see later with Abraham and Jacob, both of which will come up in the discussion below. So, who did Abraham see at that point in time? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question?
2. Gen. 18:1-23. Who did Abraham see when the three men showed up? You remember the pericope. It's the one when Abraham is told that his wife is going to conceive in the coming year. Remember what happened? Sarah laughed! Check out Gen. 18:1: "Now the LORD appeared to him . . . ." What did the Lord look like there? –Like a man. Three men appeared, and one of them is the Lord mentioned in verse 1 (see 18:2). Also note Abraham's response in Gen. 18:2 ("he bowed down with his face as low as it could go"). What's most interesting here is the next verse. In Gen. 18:3 Abraham says something in response that is strikingly similar to one of the most important texts to this discussion. He says, "My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by." That is going be very, very close to something Moses says to God in Exod. 33:7-34:9, except Moses will say it to one who cannot be seen. Very interesting. Still we have to ask, who did Abraham see at that point in time? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question?
3. Gen. 32:24-30.  Who did Jacob wrestle with? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question?
4. Judg. 6:22. What about Gideon? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question?
5. Isa. 6:1-5. This one is one of the most amazing verses! Who did Isaiah see? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question? What's very, very interesting is John answers the question for us. He is apparently doing what we are hoping to do with all of the questions above, only he chooses to treat this amazing question when he cites Isaiah's hardening passage in John 12. Check out John 12:35-41. Who does John say that Isaiah saw in Isaiah 6 (note the connection to glory from Isaiah 6 and the context in John 12:35-41)? It is none other than the one who explains the Father, the one who can be seen. 
Alright, that's also a lot to take in and think through. But before we close out this series, let me just ask you one more question. What about Genesis 2–3? Who do Adam, Eve, and Satan see? And what sort of impact does the meaning of οὐδείς ("no one") and πώποτε ("at any time") in John 1:18 have on how we answer that question? How exclusive do you think the first word is? And how far back does the "at any time" reach? Would you be okay with the following translation of John 1:18a? –"No one, doesn't matter who they are, has ever seen God the Father in all of human history." Let me just say this. If in fact the Word is there in Genesis 2–3 and he is the one that has always been seen, then Jesus is the one who took the rib out of Adam and fashioned the perfect bride for him; yep, that means the one who fashioned the perfect bride for Adam is the one who fashion the perfect bride for himself. If Jesus is the one who is speaking in Gen. 3:15, then the one who tells Satan that one is coming who will crush his head and have his heal bruised is none other than the one who is actually going to come and crush Satan's head and give his life on the cross. And if Jesus is the one who is there in Genesis 3, the one who Adam and Eve see, then he is the one who goes and grabs the first animal that serves as a sacrifice for the covering of sin (cf. Gen. 3:7 and 3:21). The one who sacrifices the first guilt offering and covers the nakedness (i.e., sin) of Adam and Eve is the one who will eventually offer his own life as the sacrifice for the sins of the world and will offer his righteousness for the covering that covers it all. That's pretty remarkable if you ask me. That's where I would land my plane.

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