What John Really Meant: The Gospel of the New Temple

En archē ēn ho logos.

John’s opening line must be one of the most famous initial sentences in all literature, ranking with Shakespeare’s ‘If music be the food of love, play on’, or even Melville’s dark and haunting ‘Call me Ishmael.’ And it is obvious, even at first glance, why John’s simple opening is so profound:

It echoes the first line of Genesis.

John’s opening move is, of course, bold. It borders (one might think) on blasphemy. Are you really sitting down to write a new Genesis?

‘Yes!’ replies John, ‘because that is the truth to which I am bearing witness. I am telling a story about something that has happened in which heaven and earth have come together in a whole new way, about the long and dark fulfillment of the creator’s purposes for his creation.’

‘And,’ John might continue, ‘since I am writing in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, it won’t surprise you that I am telling this story of creation and new creation in terms of the fulfillment of the divine purpose in, for, and through Israel.’

Thus, if we were to bring our categories of history and eschatology—let alone theology itself—to John, I think this is how he would anchor and expound them: By ‘history,’ he might mean the course of events in the Creator’s world, and by ‘eschatology’ he might mean the ultimate purposes of the Creator for his world, to be accomplished through his purposes for Israel.

And, in both cases, again obviously, these purposes are laid bare, for John and for the other early Christians, in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth.

What John Shows Us About Theology

I want to begin with John, not least the prologue, rather than with an exposition of these larger abstractions, for programmatic reasons.

I have long had the sense that theology, especially philosophical theology, and perhaps even analytic theology, has tended to start with its own abstract concepts and, in expounding and adjusting them, has drawn in bits and pieces of Scripture on the way. That is to say, it’s often system first, scripture second.

That, I suppose, is better than nothing, but it can provide the illusion of engagement with the text rather than allowing the text to lead the way. Of course a suggestion like that will today meet the slings and arrows of outraged postmodernism: What is this text, and how can it possibly lead the way?

In theology, it's often system first, scripture second. That's backwards. Click To Tweet

But part of my proposal is precisely that a historically responsible reading of the early Christian writings, allowing them to be themselves in their actual historical setting, will lead to an eschatologically attuned reading both in terms of the text’s apparent intention and in terms of its reappropriation by later generations, including our own, and that this eschatologically attuned reading must be understood in terms of the new creation which, in John’s book, was launched in Jesus and continues to make its way in the life-giving power of the Spirit.

New Creation, New Temple

Let me then follow through on the basic insight: John thinks he is writing a new Genesis.

This offers a framework for the gospel, since chapter 20, the Easter account, seems to me to match the prologue quite closely, with the early morning, the darkness preceding the light, and Mary’s appropriately mistaking Jesus for the gardener.

This is common knowledge but the corollary is not always observed, that for John, as for Paul and the others, new creation really means new creation, the renewal of the present world rather than its abandonment and replacement by some other kind of world altogether.

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From the course Resurrection of the Son of God available HERE.

The resurrection is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation following decisive divine judgment on the dark forces that have corrupted the present world. Or, to put it the other way, when John depicts the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven, it is, truly, on earth as well as in heaven, with the risen and Spirit-giving Jesus forging the ultimate link between the two.

But there is more to seeing John as a new Genesis than just this. A few things stand out, and I’ll mention the first of them below, and throughout the coming weeks, I’ll end up discussing five main elements, each of which I regard as vital for understanding how the early Christians spoke of God’s action in Jesus, each of which I think ought to form part of the framework for a fresh and creative collaboration between exegesis and theology in tomorrow’s confused world.

Creation and New Creation as Temple

First is that John sees creation and new creation, and Jesus in the middle of them, in terms of the Temple.

Jewish and Hebrew Bible scholars have been writing about ancient temple-theology for quite some time, but it’s only recently that New Testament scholars have picked up on it, not always (in my view) very helpfully, and my impression is that this has had little if any impact on systematic or analytic theology.

It is now common coin among Genesis scholars that the ancient world would see Genesis 1 in terms of the creation of a Temple, a heaven-and-earth reality, in which the two spheres or realms are held together and seen as compatible, if dangerously so.

The seven stages of creation are the stages of building this heaven-and-earth place for God and humans to live in, and the ‘rest’ on the seventh day is not simply God taking a day off but rather God entering into his new home to enjoy possession of it. That’s the language used later on for the Jerusalem Temple: Zion is God’s resting-place, the house where he comes to take his ease among his people.

Did John then think, in writing a new Genesis, that he was writing a new Temple-theology?

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The question answers itself: of course he did. The temple is one of the major themes throughout the book, with Jesus himself as the focal point: hence, in the prologue itself, the decisive verse 14, where the Word became flesh kai eskēnōsen en hemin, and ‘tabernacled’ in our midst.

Want to learn more about Jesus’ resurrection? Click HERE.

2017-06-20T14:46:57+00:00