Here is the post that sets the stage for how we understand the ethics of the New Testament, a summary of Paul’s moral vision, the ethical vision of two Gospels – Mark and Matthew, and last week’s post on Luke-Acts.
Today, we turn our attention to the Gospel of John and the Johannine letters (and I include Hays’ chapter on Revelation, since I consider that book to also come from the pen of John).
In a nutshell, John shows Jesus as the one from God who brings life. Hays believes John, in contrast to the other Gospels, gives minimal moral instruction because the apostle’s focus is on Jesus’ identity.
The Gospel of John and The Letters of John
Christology: According to John, Jesus is the Man from heaven who has come to bring light and salvation. Creation and redemption are held together.
Loving One Another: The Friends of Jesus
- Abiding in Jesus, the church continues on His mission.
- The one clear directive from Jesus to His followers is that they love one another. Love within the community is a testimony to the world.
- The historical setting of John’s writings is a time of resistance. He hopes for solidarity in a church beset by external and internal stress.
- John sees the community as being “socially relocated” from one kingdom to another. There can be no compromise with Roman imperialism or Judaism. He puts forth a countercultural stance of allegiance to God’s kingdom.
Eschatology: “We know that we have passed from death to life.”
- Hays sees John as radically reorienting eschatology away from Christ’s imminent return and toward the ongoing work of the Spirit.
- Judgment has already occurred in Jesus’ encounter with the world.
- The Spirit remains actively present in the community of faith.
- John’s eschatological vision has not done away with bodily resurrection. He still maintains a bodily resurrection of believers on the Last Day.
9 observations about John’s narrative world
- Time blurs and recedes into the background. Jesus and His kingdom transcend temporal events.
- The world is characterized by binary polarities: light and darkness, above and below, good and evil, truth and lies, life and death.
- The church is alienated from its cultural roots and immediate social environment.
- Within the community of the faithful, John puts forth a vision of solidarity and fellowship.
- There is a clear formal rejection of sin and a mandate to live righteously.
- The presence of the Spirit to guide the community of believers gives comfort and confidence.
- The Word of God subverts the world’s conception of power.
- The subversion of power is one manifestation of an ironic vision of the world.
- Incarnation deconstructs dualism. The Word made flesh affirms the goodness and significance of creation.
Hays opens this section by laying out three ways to interpret apocalyptic symbolism:
- Predictive: a literal transcript of future events.
- Historical: a commentary on political events and figures of the author’s own time.
- Theopoetic: visionary theological and poetic representation of the spiritual environment within which the church perennially finds itself living and struggling.
Hays takes the third option. Revelation is “a prophetic confrontation of all earthly pretensions to power, all symbolic orders other than that of the Lamb that was slaughtered” (173).
Christology: Jesus is the slaughtered Lamb who conquers through suffering. The portrait of Jesus’ lordship stands in antithesis to Caesar’s.
The Church: The vocation of the saints is to follow Jesus, enduring persecution and bearing witness faithfully. The boundaries between the church and the world must be sharp and uncompromising.
Eschatology: Future hope is the basis for critiquing the present order. Christians are called to resistance in the present and active obedience to God who holds the future.
7 observations about Revelation’s narrative world
- The world is sundered by a series of sharp dualisms. Therefore, neutrality regarding worship is impossible.
- There is a sharp social polarization between the church and the world.
- In the midst of this polarization, solidarity within the community of the faithful is vital.
- There is a strong sense of eschatological urgency.
- No matter how chaotic the present world is, the writer conveys confidence in the moral orderliness of the universe.
- Knowing God’s justice will bring a radical reversal, the writer’s intent seeks to remake the community’s understanding of reality, to be more in line with God’s perspective.
- The book’s ethical staying power is a product of its imaginative richness.
Some Personal Considerations: Hays accurately summarizes the distinctive elements of John’s Gospel and Letters, including the polarities inherent in his vision and the transition from “kingdom” language to “eternal life.” I find his reasons for why John’s vision differs from the Synoptics less persuasive. In his attempt to be faithful to the diversity of canonical witnesses, Hays tends to overstate distinctions as differences, as if one must be set against the other writers rather than simply set apart.
Hays’ chapter on Revelation is a terrific overview of this hard-to-understand book that concludes our Bibles. One doesn’t have to agree to Hays’ “theopoetic” interpretation in its entirety to benefit from his summary here. To me, it seems arbitrary to choose between a future, historical, or theopoetic interpretation. One could make the case (and many have!) that this book includes historical elements that point to the future, all of which are infused with theopoetic imagination. Still, regardless of one’s interpretation, it’s hard to find a strong, succinct summary of the ethical vision of this challenging book. Hays’ contribution here is solid.
Next week, we move out of the NT summaries and into the heart of the book. How do we synthesize these voices? What is the moral vision of the New Testament?