Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
A Thought on John 15
12/29/2006 - Colin SmithOne of the dangers of studying and practicing exegesis is getting so caught up in the minutiae of grammar and vocabulary that you don't see the forest for the trees. In other words, it is easy to become so consumed with eliciting the meaning of words and phrases that you can forget to place these words and phrases within their context and allow the context supreme authority over meaning. This morning I was reading John 15 (particularly verses 1-8), and I am convinced that this passage has suffered in the hands of some because of contextual neglect.
In the passage, Jesus refers to Himself as the true vine, and the Father as the farmer, the one who has responsibility over the vine (a picture, by the way, of the functional subordination of the Son to the Father). Every branch in the farmer's vine has to bear fruit; if it doesn't, it is cut off. The only way for a branch to bear fruit is to remain in the vine.
For some, this either demonstrates that one can be saved and then lose one's salvation because of a lack of fruit (i.e., backsliding into one's former ways), or it shows that one can be a member of God's covenant people (through infant baptism, perhaps) and then lose that standing later in life because of a failure to live up to one's covenant obligations.
However, if you read this passage in its entire context and see the overarching point Jesus is trying to make, it is clear that it was not His intention to teach any such thing. Jesus knew His disciples were about to face a test of their faith like they have not had to face before. They were about to see their Lord and Master, the One they had proclaimed as Messiah and Son of God, strung up on a cross and left for dead. He knew that the three days after Calvary were going to be a trying time for them, and they needed hope, reassurance, and comfort. Further, it is not unreasonable to consider that Jesus looked beyond the immediate context, knowing that those who would later come to faith as a result of the testimony of the disciples (those He prays for in John 17) would have the added difficulty of never having seen Him face-to-face, and suffer ridicule and persecution as a result.
If we now place the words of John 15 into this context, we see them as an appeal from Jesus to His people to remain in Him. The only way they could hope to bear fruit is to stay attached to the vine. Branches that don't bear fruit are recognized for what they are: worthless to the Father and good only for the fire. In farming terms, such branches are cut off for their lack of fruit and bundled together for burning. Certainly there are those in churches today that would claim to be attached to the vine, but their fruit, or lack thereof, will bear them out. When times of trial come and the faith of the saints is tested, it will be evident who are truly attached to the vine, and who are not.
Primarily, however, this is not a message for the baptized infant, or for the backslidden. In fact, I see Jesus' words in John 15-17 as being among His most "pastoral" in the Gospels: His heart's concern is for the faith and life of His people. He is not trying to teach them covenant theology; He is exhorting them to stay the course and remain true, to remain in Him, to remain in His love, and not to worry about the world and its hatred of them.
This passage is for the faithful believer desirous to be effective for the Kingdom: if you want to be fruitful, if you want to be of benefit to the Kingdom of God, if you want your life to glorify God, then remain in Christ. Without Him, you can do nothing. As far as addressing the issues of infant baptism and eternal security, I would suggest looking elsewhere for passages that are far more relevant to those discussions.
The Message of Matthew 1:21
12/15/2006 - Colin Smith"And she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins."
This angelic proclamation to Joseph is possibly one of the most culturally incorrect statements within the Gospel birth narratives. In this one sentence, the angel sent from God delivers to Joseph a message that runs contrary to most popular Christmas messages you are likely to hear on TV, radio, and from many pulpits. It also runs contrary to the worldly understanding of the message of Christmas, and what the birth of Christ means for the world.
She Will Bear a Son
The angel informed Joseph that his betrothed was to become supernaturally pregnant. In verse 23, Matthew says that this startling revelation is a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Is. 7:14). It has never ceased to amaze me how some try to wiggle around the idea that this was, indeed, a real virgin birth. Yes, the Greek term parthenos can be used to refer to a young maiden. However, in the context of the passage, the Lord was encouraging Ahaz to ask for a sign, something remarkable that would indicate to him God's hand at work. "Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep," God says to Ahaz; but Ahaz does not want to be presumptuous, so the Lord offers the sign in 7:14. If all the Lord meant was "a young maiden will become pregnant and bear a son," that hardly seems a remarkable sign. Many young maidens became pregnant. Where is the "deep sign" demonstrating an act of God?
Furthermore, this child was to be a son (huios), not a divine principle: a real, tangible, human being. But not just a mere human being. This was to be Emmanuel, "God with us." Was he just supposed to be a symbol of God's presence among His people, like the ancient Tabernacle? Not according to the gospel accounts. The angel spoke of a real child; Mary carried true flesh and blood in her womb for nine months. But this flesh and blood was more than merely a man. He was born "of a virgin" by supernatural intervention. This child was was God with us--literally. The baby that lay in the manger was fully man and fully God: God incarnate.
He Shall Save His People from Their Sins
Now the angel tells Joseph the purpose of God becoming incarnate. The child's name was to be Jesus, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua meaning "God saves." Who is God going to save? According to the angel, "His people." For those interested in textual variants, there is a variant at this point. The Curetonian Syriac text actually reads ton kosmon here, making the angel say that Jesus will save "the world." There are two things to note about this. First, this is the only text that says this; all other manuscripts, including the Byzantine manuscripts read ton laon autou, "His people." Second, this maverick reading in the Curetonian Syriac more than likely came about due to scribal error since the Syriac for "people" (`ama), is very similar to the Syriac word for "world" (`alma). (If you want to see this for yourself, take a look at this blog entry in Evangelical Textual Criticism. I am indebted to this entry by P. J. Williams for this information.) Christ did not come into the world to save every man. If He did, then you can be assured that everyone, from the most pious saint to the worst reprobate will be in Heaven when they die. Whatever God plans to do comes to pass (Psalm 33:11), so if God planned to save every person in the world, He surely would. Yet, we know He hasn't (John 6:44; Acts 13:48).
So, God is coming into the world as a man to save a particular group of people that He will call His own. But what is God going to save them from? Sickness? Famine? Disease? Oppression and poverty? Every year, we are told by the secular media that the point of Christmas is peace, and that the birth of Jesus symbolizes God's love, so we need to share that love and peace in order to end all the evils to which we are subjected every day. That's what Christmas is all about, we are told. But that is not what the angel says. The angel says that Jesus Christ came into the world with one objective in mind: to save His people from their sins. If Christ came to do anything other than this, then there is no hope for us. The evil in the world is not caused by wrong thinking, mismanagement, poverty, abuse by authority, or bad upbringing. Evil exists in the hearts of men because man is at enmity with God. Until sin is dealt with, man can never be at peace with God. And men cannot hope to have true, lasting peace with one another without first having peace with God. World peace does not begin at the UN; it begins with proclamation of the Gospel: "You shall call his name Jesus; for He will save His people from their sins."
God has made provision for the sins of men. Peace on earth is now possible, because Christ has come to reconcile God and man. God's perfect justice that demands payment for sin has been satisfied in Christ on behalf of His people.
This is the message of Matthew 1:21, and the true message of Christmas. As our world becomes increasingly secular, and the images of Christmas--and even the word "Christmas"--become replaced with warm feelings and empty platitudes, it becomes more important for us not to forget this. May the Lord be pleased to ignite our hearts with love and gratitude to Him for His awesome grace!