Archive for May, 2011

The Gospel, Better than Man-made Religion

As I’ve studied the Gospel of John each week for the last year and a half, I was continually struck by the futility of man-made religion over against the powerful triumph of the gospel.

In John 3, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being “born again” / “born from above,”  a spiritual birth that needs to take place in the life of anyone who desires to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about and so Jesus responds, in 3:10, “Aren’t you a Master of Israel, and you don’t know these things?” Nico was a Pharisees, a group that prided themselves in keeping not only the Law down to the very minutiae, but also in observing man-made boundaries imposed around that same Law. Nicodemus was serious about religion, but yet he was unaware of the promises of the New Covenant relating to the new birth. He was religious, but he had missed the gospel!

Jesus heals a man who had been sick for 38 years in John 5. The religious people of the day try to kill Jesus. In the ninth chapter, Jesus heals a man that was born blind. Since these healings occurred on Sabbath Day, the Pharisees were outraged, and so rather than rejoicing, they interrogate the former blind man and his family and shortly thereafter try to kill Jesus. Jesus is in the healing business; man-made religionists are in the interrogation and protest business.

Carson comments,

Is there not something [really wrong] about religion that objects to the healing of long-term paralytics and the curing of someone born blind?

It actually gets worse.

Do you remember the account of Lazarus and his resurrection from the dead, as recorded in John 11? The Pharisees had a strategy meeting shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus.

11:47 “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. 48 If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.

Apparently, if news had gotten out that Jesus indeed raised a man from the dead, then his popularity would swirl out of control, thus catching the attention of the Roman authorities. The end result would mean that these religious men could lose their positions of authority almost-authority and almost-freedom under the Roman Empire.

Caiaphas decides that it would be easier for all parties involved to simply kill Jesus, the Messiah, rather than deal with the Romans, so we read in 11:53:Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death.”

If seeking to heal the great miracle Worker were not enough, in chapter 12 we see that they even tried to kill Lazarus! What was his crime? Being resurrected? A characteristic of man-made religion is deep anger and hatred for those who have been extended unfathomable grace.

This is the same group of religious folks that took Jesus and tried Him in John 18, trampling and twisting their own legal system in order to murder Him. They tried him at night, which was illegal. They tried him without witnesses, which was illegal. They rendered a verdict and sentence in the same day, which was illegal. They tried him without giving him a formal defense, which was illegal.

And then, they have the audacity to cry out to Pilate in chapter 19:7, “We have a law, and according to our law, He ought to die!”

Really? An appeal to the law after trampling it for your own murderous purposes?

Proponents of Man-made religion could kill their Savior and continue their religiosity. If it were possible for them to execute God, it would change nothing in their day-to-day life. They could have no sheep left to minister to, and this would not bother them for a second, so long as they’ve kept all their man-made rules. For many proponents of man-made religion, it was never ultimately about God and others anyway.

Another author explains that these pseudo-religious people, “build their sense of worth on their moral and spiritual performance, as a kind of resume to present before God and the world.” And in so doing, they believe they can and have earned the grace of God, that they do not and never did stand in need His mercy, and they ultimately miss the gospel.

Man-made religion really boils down to mankind’s attempts to reach up to God with their goodness and efforts in self-righteousness. On the other hand,  the Gospel is about Jesus’ reaching down to rescue mankind from their sin through His work on the cross and resurrection from the grave!

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Words for Love in Biblical Greek

This Sunday, I am preaching on Peter’s restoration from John 21. Since it’s my endeavor to speak on the main point of the passage, i.e. loving Jesus and thus feeding his flock, I will try to abstain from spending too much time droning on and on about the Greek verbs agapao and phileo in the passage. I’ll do a bit of that here instead.

We’ve all heard the well-intentioned sermons that have presented agapao as a sort of ultimate love, while phileo is presented as representing a lower sort of love. Quite frankly, I can’t go along with that distinction, and I don’t think you should either.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Someone just read D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and now he has to share!” Granted, Carson certainly nails it in Exegetical Fallacies, advances the argument again in the Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and then sums it up nicely in his commentary on John’s Gospel from the Pillar New Testament Commentary series. However, I want to point out that rejecting a sharp distinction between the two words isn’t really breaking new exegetical ground. In other words, one does not need to rely on D.A. Carson’s works (albeit incredibly valuable) to come to the conclusion that drawing a significant contrast between the two words is exegetically unwise.

If one does a simple study in the Gospel of John alone, we come to realize that both agapao and phileo are used interchangeably when speaking of the Father’s love for the Son (compare John 10:17; 15:9 in which agapao is used to speak of the Father’s love for the Son with John 5:20 where phileo is used to signify the Father’s love for the Son). In the same Gospel account, John typically referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Again, what’s interesting is that he is content to use both agapao and phileo as though they can often be used as synonyms.

Further, the go-to lexicon in Greek studies, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), presents this for John 21 and the use of agape and phileo: 

[Agapao and phileo] seem to be used interchangeably here; cf. the freq. interchange of synonyms elsewhere in the same chapter [boskein – poimanein, arnia – probatia, elkuein – surein].

Louw and Nida agree,

Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between [agapao and phileo], it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn, 21:15-17 seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition.

It’s my contention that when preaching a sermon on John 21, our congregations would be better served by our preaching the main point of the passage, i.e. the connection between Peter’s love for Jesus and his ministry to Jesus’ flock, than by our coming to the text with unfounded notions (that really have been imposed upon the text) about the Greek words for love and then challenging our audience to muster up some sort of super-charged-super-spiritual love.

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