Sunday, August 23, 2009

What did He say??

John 6:56-69

Recall Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Gentile woman who comes to Jesus begging that He heal her “severely demon-possessed daughter”. Jesus responded only to His disciples, who began begging Him to send this tenacious woman away, perhaps after giving her what she was asking for: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). The Gentile woman was relentless in her plea, and Jesus finally told her: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (Matthew 15:26). In the end, the woman indicated that she would be satisfied with “crumbs which fall from the table”. At this, Jesus marveled at her faith and healed her daughter.

Then Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, indicates not only that judgment will come to “the Jew first” but also “glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first” (Romans 2:9, 10).

It seems clear, then, that the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry was “to the Jew, first”. How, then, can we reconcile His primary mission with terminology used in John that, in fact, did turn away Jews? The very idea of the consumption of human flesh is abhorrent, but the consumption of blood is expressly prohibited by command of the Lord (Genesis 9:4). Even if Jesus’ death was already a foregone conclusion and His flesh would not be “alive” with blood coursing through His veins, as some scholars suggest, there is no indication that these Jewish disciples were completely on board with what lay ahead, including the intentional and voluntary death of Jesus. The Jews fully expected a Messiah, perhaps THE Messiah, and they expected that THE Messiah would rid the world of evil and then take His place on the Eternal Throne, but there is NOTHING in prophecy that suggests for one moment that any Messiah, let alone THE Messiah, was to be “eaten” with a blood chaser!

We know from history, and this especially includes religious history, that taking the Bible too literally has probably caused more problems than have been solved. In fact, literal translations probably account for more of the separations between Christian denominations – and conflicts between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; all of which share common scripture to one degree or another – than anything we could possibly imagine. Yet we continue to read into Bibles stories that have passed through Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin translations, little of which can be precisely translated, word for word, into English. One of THE most common mistakes I’ve observed is folks who do not speak, read, or write Hebrew attempt to make a word-for-word translation. Those who are genuinely in the know say it cannot be done, but it has likely been done here and there over time. This is part of the reason why some theology teachers in my past, for instance, have insisted that NRSV is the preferable translation because it does not attempt “transliteral acrobatics”, to use one professor’s choice of words.

What does this confusion do for us? It would, at the least, upset a delicate belief system by which we have come to understand the role of Jesus not only in human history but also within the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as “Messiah”, the bedrock of the Christian faith. For instance, I earlier referred to “a” messiah as well as “THE” Messiah. The word “messiah” is an English “rendering” (not necessarily “translated”) of the Hebrew word “Mashiach”, which means “anointed”, not “savior”. In Hebrew terms and traditions, being “anointed” has usually inferred the literal use of oil with which one is anointed to a position by proper authority, therefore including Hebrew kings and Jewish high priests among the “anointed”. So reading NKJV 1 Samuel 26:11, we hear “messiah” (or “anointed”) when David speaks: “The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s ANOINTED”, referring, of course, to King Saul who, though having been duly “anointed”, eventually lost the Lord’s favor.

So is all this language getting in the way of the Jews who objected to what Jesus had spoken when they exclaimed, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)? It would be reasonable to say, “yes”; there is a part of them that cannot accept what Jesus is saying based almost entirely on His choice of words. Cannibalism is not a Jewish practice, and blood is prohibited for consumption. Clearly, then, they did not get what He was saying, but even after Jesus tried to clarify what was actually being said, those disciples who turned away had pretty much stopped listening.

Even though Jesus refers to His flesh as “food” and His blood as “drink” (John 6:55), as real as it gets, He then seems to contradict Himself when He says, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63), meaning, of course, His human flesh. Even still, the Jews who were with Him up to this point are sufficiently “offended” and chose to walk away. They voluntarily disengaged themselves from the encounter purely because of language; to them, offensive language. They didn’t get it but perhaps more significantly, they didn’t want to get it. They “heard” His words, but they were not truly “listening”.

I would be very nearly willing to bet that at this moment, there are some who have been sufficiently “offended” by the earlier language I chose that came uncomfortably close to suggesting that Jesus is not THE Messiah by tossing in a particular Hebrew word and then suggesting that King Saul was as much “messiah” (that is, “anointed”) as Jesus. It is only because we have become accustomed to “Messiah” or “Christ” and have all but given Jesus a “last name” as Christ. It should not matter and we should be willing to listen more carefully and fully engage ourselves so that we can draw our own conclusions and, thus, our own faith, but we don’t. We get used to a certain thing a certain way, and any deviation from what we are used to is at the very least heresy; at most, blasphemy.

Notice something, though. After the other Jews had walked away, Jesus turned to His Twelve and asked whether they, too, would prefer to walk away. Peter answers for the Twelve when he says there is no one else to go to. “We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). So how did they come to know this? Jesus said it earlier in verse 65: “… no one can come to Me unless it is granted by the Father.” He also said it in Matthew 16:17 when He had asked the Twelve whom they believed Jesus to be. Peter offered his confession to Jesus, and Jesus said that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Faith; that Divine Gift that man cannot impart to man.

Knowledge of who Jesus really is, is knowledge divinely imparted; that is, it comes from the mouth of the Living God alone. We disciples can only witness to the Truth of this Knowledge, but we cannot impart this knowledge, this faith. It comes only from above. While it is important to participate in worship where the Word of the Lord is read and preached, it is probably more important that we fully engage ourselves as if hearing the Word proclaimed for the very first time, to put aside the man-made traditions and doctrines that put more emphasis on some individual’s understanding and stand humbly before Him as if He is about to impart to us all we need to know until the next time we choose to give Him our attention.

It is not an easy thing, nor necessarily a good thing, to disavow all that we were raised to believe, but it is always a good thing to question man’s biblical interpretations and personal opinions of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, not accusingly but with an open mind and an open heart. We can know that Jesus is not to be “eaten”, in the purest and most literal sense of the word, but we must know that the Lord and His Eternal Word are to be taken “internally” so that He becomes as much a part of us as the Spirit will allow.

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