It is possible to live in an evangelical, Bible-believing, Bible-loving world and never hear the criticism of the Bible that is commonplace in university religion departments around the country and in the classrooms of many mainline churches. I lived outside this evangelical world for three years in Germany and was struck at how bold the criticisms could be. I recall in one seminar, a group of scholars were discussing the Psalms, and someone quoted a particular Psalm to address the issue at hand, and a very emotional scholar across the table said, “Das ist doch ein Pharisäer Psalm!” “That’s a Pharisee psalm,” meaning, this psalm teaches the kind of legalism that characterized the Pharisees and can’t be used as a basis for truth.
It seems wise to me, as one of your shepherds charged to guard you from false teaching, that I should make you aware that many critical scholars believe that not only did John create dialogues that Jesus never spoke, but in the process he distorted and indeed falsified what Jesus actually taught. The most burning issue for these scholars is what they would call John’s heated anti-Semitism — that the author (usually not the apostle John) is writing from a later time when the hostilities between Christians and Jews were intense. And that John distorted the portrait and words of Jesus to demonize Jews in general.
Tensions Between Jews and Christians
And, of course, there was hostility. Recall, for example, that Jesus said in Mark 13:9, “They will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues.” And recall that Saul the Pharisee (who would become Paul the apostle), before his conversion, was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord . . . so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1–2). So the relationship between Jews and Christians (including Jewish Christians) after the days of Jesus on earth were very strained.
And no one can seriously deny that in the history of the church there have been horrible centuries of Christian hostilities toward the Jewish people. When I was preparing my message on Robert Murray McCheyne for the pastors’ conference, for example, I read the journals of his trip to Israel in 1839. Several times he groaned at how hard evangelism was among the Jewish people because of these hostilities: “The Jews mistrusted the Christians, especially the Roman Catholics, because of the indignity and persecution they had suffered at their hands for centuries” (L.J. Van Valen, Constrained by His Love: a New Biography on Robert Murray M’Cheyne [Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002], 283).
Scholars Slandering the Word of God
We should be ashamed of this part of our history. But unlike so many critical scholars, we should not lay the fault of this history at the feet of the Gospel of John, which is what so many do. I mention this now in our series on John because chapter 8 is the climax of what the critical scholars see as the problem. For example, concerning our text today, Richard Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, says:
Nowhere in John’s Gospel does the superheated animosity toward the Jews come to more vigorous expression than in chapter 8. . . . The dialogue [of John 8:39–47] is the most deeply disturbing outburst of anti-Jewish sentiment in the New Testament. . . . John makes a fateful theological step: from the empirical fact of the unbelief of the Jews . . . . The Jews who do not believe must be children of the devil. . . . The conclusion of verse 47 articulates the chilling logic of this position: the reason they do not hear the word of God is that they are not from God. . . . One shudders to contemplate the ethical outworking of such a theological perspective on the Jews. . . . The Gospel of John really does adopt a stance toward Judaism that can only engender polemics and hostility.
This is a great sadness that ordained Christian teachers in the church should slander the word of God in this way. Let me mention four problems with this way of dealing with Jesus’ very hard words in John 8 — for though they are hard, they are especially offensive to modern, soft, pluralistic ears. Four responses, and the fourth one will launch us into an exposition of the text itself to let Jesus and John speak for themselves.
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