Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…
Before we jump into the conclusion of this series, let’s have a look at how proof-texting works so that the danger in the practice becomes apparent. Suppose we want to ‘prove’ the horrible doctrine of infanticide exists in the Bible. [Atheist polemics use this argument all the time.] The proof-texter searches the Scriptures looking for individual verses or passages that appear to support this abhorrent practice so that they can proclaim the ‘truth’ that God approves the killing of children for pleasure or sustenance and they find these passages:
Psalm 137:9 - he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
2 Kings 6:28-29 – She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”
God killing the first born, the Flood, etc. Okay, a quick show of hands. Who believes that God advocates or even suggests a doctrine of infanticide?
No one? Why not?
Because we know the dishonesty of pulling a passage from its context to try to make it match our desired meaning. We know that we are not free to dismiss the surrounding circles of context in the process of developing doctrine and yet, we continue to do so.
The Honest Reading
In the previous post we looked at the importance of making sure that the language we are reading (in this case English) holds the same meaning in the text as it did in the author’s original language. In the passage we are studying, there weren’t any surprises for the honest reader but the reader who wants to load a theological presupposition into the passage might find a bit of difficulty.
Language must be taken in the context in which it is presented, something rarely considered by the proof-texters.
This particular passage was written up here when the ‘honest reading’ card was thrown, that is, the theological echo chamber insisted that if one would just honestly and openly read John 6:37 supported by 6:44 that my eyes would be opened and I would see the obvious truth of their theological position. The truth that this contingent would like for us to accept is that the elect are irresistibly and forcibly drawn to Christ. Here is a but a small sampling of how this verse is handled:
Seeing such obduracy in his hearers, that his words fell upon the multitude almost without fruit, he to remove this stumbling-block exclaims, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.” “And this is the Father’s will which has sent me, that of all which he has given me I should lose nothing,” (John 6:37, 39).
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion (III, 22, 7)
John 6:37 is offered as a proof text of unconditional election. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (pp 94) [In a similar fashion, the seminal guide The Five Points of Calvinism by Steele, Thomas, & Quinn offers the naked proof text as evidence.]
Quoting the verse 6:37, James White states ‘These are the first words to come from the Lord in explanation of man’s unbelief. The first assertion is one of complete divine sovereignty. Every words speaks volumes. The Potter’s Freedom
The question that we have to ask is whether or not these conclusions are warranted by placing the verse back into its surrounding text, book, corpus, and testament. For our final look, I’m going to place the passage back amongst the verses that surround it so that the context is more apparent. (John 6:32 – 45)
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. for the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.
The honest reader does not open their Bible to a single verse, read it, close the Bible and then interpret it on its own. The honest reader has come the verse in the course of reading all of John’s sixth chapter and before that the first five preceding chapters. There is context that surrounds the verse; if this were not true the verse would stand alone on a page, emphasizing its individual nature. Tracing the flow of thought through the chapter helps the reader to grasp to whom the Lord is speaking and how he has come to this unit of thought so let’s do so.
6:1 – 15 Jesus Feeds 5000 : The one sign that is consistent among the four gospels sees the Lord miraculously feeding five thousand people on a hillside who have followed Him to see further evidence of His miracles. It is crucial that the reader remember how John utilizes the record of miracles (signs in John). They are not simply magic tricks; the signs that John records emphasize the significance of the action as they revealed the glory of the Lord and the fullness of the salvation that He brings. The feeding of the 5000 is much more than the expansion of limited resources, it is setting the stage for His proclamation that He is the bread of life, the one thing needed for life in full. Exit question: does Jesus only allow some to eat the bread and fish?
6:16 – 24 Jesus Walks on Water: After the feeding, Jesus seeks solitude from the crowds and His disciples. The disciples set off across the lake toward Capernum over rough and choppy water. When they had made a certain distance toward their destination, the disciples see Jesus approaching them by walking across the top of the water. We note the fear in disciples and their hesitance to take Jesus into the boat. (cf Mt 14:26) As the crowd awoke the next morning, they are seeking Jesus but find him nowhere. The crowd sets off in boats across the lake to find the Jesus of Signs.
6:25- 59 The Bread of Life Discourse: “When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him..” This transition is important because it tells the reader to whom Jesus is speaking. There is an equally important transition in verse 41; ‘At this the Jews began to grumble’. John’s usage of The Jews is not a universal description of the whole Israel; it is specific to the Jewish leadership whose education and study should be most aware of the Christ that stands before them.
Jesus admonishes the crowd not to seek Him out just for miracles but rather, to seek out the greatest miracle of all, eternal life. He calls them to work for this eternal life which He will give to them. What is this work, the reader asks? Jesus answers in verse 29 when he says “The word of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Caution is required here because of the temptation to extract this interaction from its context and turn it into application. John gives us an further clue as to the nature of the crowd. Those who are following Jesus here are Jews, familiar with their heritage and beliefs and the answer that Jesus gives must be read with this in mind. To apply the Lord’s words as universal principle (as Mr. White above) must be done with the utmost caution; Jesus is addressing people whose religious background and practice should have made the reality of who He was apparent but who failed in their recognition.
Still addressing the crowd (they) in verses 35 – 40, Jesus explains that He is the Bread of Life that comes down from Heaven. Given the context of the passage, is it possible that He is referring to the Elect from all peoples? It is possible but in context, it is more likely that Jesus refers to the faithful remnant from within Israel itself who are being given to Him. [cf: verse 45 in which Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13, referring to the future glory of Zion] Within this pericope, the proof text practitioner will insist on pulling 6:37 out with its implied exclusivity in support of the doctrine of unconditional election to salvation. What of verse 40 then? Jesus speaks God’s will into being, that is, ‘everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.’ Why a universal principle for 37 but not for 40?
The careful reader will note that the Lord’s attention shifts to Jewish leadership in verse 41. It is they who, to borrow Calvin’s word, are most responsible for being obdurate. John’s editorial explanation in verses 41-42 sets up the exchange that follows; Jesus has claimed divinity which is countered by their belief that He is but a man. Within the passage stretching from 43 to 51, we see a strong indication that it is by faith in Christ that the eternal life that Jesus speaks of is received. [Much attention is paid to helko, the verb draw in verse 44 but the exegete is required to look at context and usage before applying the idea of the spirit being forcibly pulled to salvation. In other NT usage, the verb describes a physical object being pulled, not the spirit. The possibility that this verb is used in the sense of attracts must be considered. cf TDNT Vol 2, p 503]
Finally, in verses 52 – 59 Jesus angers the Jews by giving them what is heard as a repulsive teaching. They eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life. What is in view here is the stubborn refusal of the Jews to let go of their works oriented belief system in which every command is to be interpreted literally rather than understood through faith. Jesus is obviously not referring to cannibalistic behavior yet this is how it is heard.
6:60 – 71 Many Disciples Desert Jesus
The reader will note that Jesus’ attention has shifted again, now to His disciples, including those beyond the Twelve. On hearing the requirements of faith in the preceding sentences, many of His followers complain of the difficulty in accepting the teaching. From their Jewish perspective they are offended and will fall away because they lack the faith to believe in Jesus and who He is. He again tells them that their inability to let go of the works of their covenant history and believe in faith will separate He and them.
The Honest Reader
As we began this exploration some eight thousand words ago, our intent was to support or deny the aphorism of the honest reading. If you have forgotten, the implication is that those who do not accept a specific theological tenet of one group would be overcome if they would just honestly read, chapter x or passage y or even just verse z. It would appear that this means to honestly read this passage/chapter/verse with certain presuppositions in mind. Sorry, but this is not an honest reading.
A true reading of the Bible does not bring doctrine to the reading, it extracts doctrine from the reading. An honest reading of John 6:37-40 includes the whole of chapter six as well as the flow of thought throughout the entire book. You cannot read 6 without considering 17 as well. Proof texting may gain a point in the short term, but ultimately, it is poor handling of the text. This is not to say that a single verse or passage cannot convey a truth. Context must always be the guiding force in interpretation and we are not free to extract a ‘truth’ when it is at odds with the surrounding context that the author has created.
Grace and peace to you.
image by freeparking