(This is the 3rd post in this series. To read the first post click here.)
John 6:37, 44 and 65
All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Who Were Those Given to Christ?
In the last couple of posts we gained a better understanding of the overall context of the Gospel of John and those chapters surrounding chapter 6 in particular. Now we need to ask a more specific question about John 6:37, namely, “Who are those whom the Father gives to Christ?”
In John 6:37 Jesus said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me.” Calvinists interpret this to mean that during the time between Christ’s first and second coming God gives eternally predestined individuals faith to believe in Jesus. They reason that since God from eternity chose certain individuals who would belong to him, these must be the ones that he gives to Christ. God did not grant them an inheritance among his people because they believed, but he chose them as unbelievers and in due time made them into believers. They imagine that God is taking rebellious sinners who have no faith and bringing them to faith in Christ. For them this verse teaches that God, by the means of irresistible grace, gives rebellious sinners to Jesus Christ. In order to understand the error of this interpretation we have to focus on exactly who it was that God “gives” to Christ.
Who are those that the Father gives to Christ? Jesus gives us a clear answer to this question when he talks with his Father in John 17:6, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were and you gave them to me…” God gave Jesus those who already belonged to him; this is clear. But what is not clear to everyone is in what sense Jesus says these individuals belonged to God. In order to understand who Jesus referred to as belonging to God, we must first look at those who did not belong to God.
Sinners do not “belong” to God. Those who live according to sinful desires are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). They have no hope and are “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Sinners are children of the devil, and they desire to do the will of their father (John 8:44). They are slaves to sin and are not part of God’s house (John 8:34-35). Luckily we don’t have to guess about who belongs to God and who doesn’t. Jesus tells us plainly in John 8:47, “The one who is from God listens to God’s words. This is why you don’t listen, because you are not from God” (HCSB). Let me say it again, unbelieving and rebellious sinners do not belong to God. These are not the ones that the Father gave to the Son, because he only gave those that belonged to him, and he does not claim the children of the devil as his own. I have not yet given a detailed interpretation of John 6:37, but from what we have looked at so far we can see that the Reformed interpretation (i.e. God gave preselected unbelievers to Christ) is foreign to the context.
Jesus said that all those that the Father gives him “will come to him.” I think all would agree that this means that those whom the Father gives to the Son will come to place their faith in the in the Son. But, “believing in Jesus,” means more than just accepting some facts about him; it means to devote oneself to Christ, to identify with him and share in the life that is in him. This means that God is going to lead certain people to entrust their lives into the hands of Jesus Christ. But this seems to contradict what we just said, namely, that unbelievers don’t belong to God. So, (1) those that belong to God are not unbelievers, and (2) those whom God gives to Christ become believers in Christ.How are we to understand this seeming contradiction? How do believers become believers?! John chapter 5 helps in clearing this up for those with ears to hear.
That all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.
Those that belonged to the Father were already believers in the Father, but they had not yet been brought to trust in the Son. They had been walking in covenant with the Father through the Law of Moses, but Jesus was only recently revealed to Israel (John 1:31). This was a new era in the history of God’s relationship with Man. This was the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant in God’s Son. They already honored the Father, but came to honor the Son through the testimony of the Father. The Father was giving “all things” to the Son (John 3:35, 1 Cor. 15:24-28). All those that already trusted in the Father were being led by God into the hands of his Son. And of course, only those that valued God’s testimony would be influenced by him to embrace his Son (John 6:45).
It is here that we can start to understand who those individuals are that “belong to God.” They are those who have been faithful covenant-keeping Jews. Men like Nathanael of whom Jesus declared, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47) People like Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:5-6). Or men like Simeon who was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). And women like Anna the prophetess who “did not depart from the temple” but spoke to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” about Jesus (Luke2:36-38).
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
This can be a perplexing passage if we take it out of its historical context. We can understand verses 19-20 which state that bad people don’t want to come to Christ (i.e. the light) because they prefer to sin in darkness. But verse 21 states that there were already people walking in covenant with God and serving him in truth at the time of Christ’s first coming. If we apply this to every place in the world throughout all of history we will be left with the strange idea that people all over the world, who don’t know Christ, are already serving God in righteousness. But when we put this passage in its proper historical setting then things begin to become clear. Many were already true followers of God through the covenant God had made with Israel. These true followers already belonged to God the Father, and were given to the Son during Jesus’ earthly ministry.
This passage is specifically describing the time of Jesus earthly ministry. It is true that there are many truths in these verses that we can apply to our current historical setting, but not until we interpret it in its original context. Jesus is the “cornerstone” of God’s kingdom. But for those who reject him he is the “stumbling block.” He came not to bring peace, but “division” (Luke 12:51-53). Christ divided Israel; he “gathered the wheat” and prepared the “chaff” for “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). People could not ignore his claims; they could believe in him or reject him, but they could not ignore him. And their response to him was a reflection of the attitude they already had towards the Father.
What we must realize is that John 3:21 is not an isolated verse in John’s Gospel. This idea of transition from the Father to the Son is clearly referenced in nearly every chapter. For us living today this transitional period seems to have little to do with us or our situation. But if our theology is to be accurate and Biblical, we must start with the historical context when we interpret these passages. We live after the resurrection of Christ at a time when the Son, through the ministry of the Church and the Holy Spirit, is drawing people to himself and to his Father (John 12:32, 14:6, 15:26-27). When we come to verses like John 6:37 and 44 imagining that they are talking about something that is still happening in the exact same way today, and has been happening for 2,000 years, we will certainly butcher the text and make erroneous interpretations. The desire to apply these verses to our present day is admirable; but until we interpret the Bible in its native context we cannot possibly apply it with any accuracy. This is the error that has led many to accept the completely unfounded interpretation of Reformed Theology on the verses we are discussing from John chapter 6.
Those that belonged to the Father in the Gospel of John were those who were faithful to God at the time of Jesus’ first coming. There is not the slightest reference to an eternal unconditional election. In fact it is quite the opposite. They belonged to God at that time, not in eternity past. And they belonged to God precisely because of their character and faith, not because of some mysterious arbitrary choice by God (John 7:17, 8:34-47). The context of the transition from the Old Covenant to the New must inform our understanding of John’s Gospel and Jesus’ words. We must not let our commitment to certain theological traditions trump what the Bible reveals. To ignore that those who belonged to God were those who were walking righteously with God under the Old Covenant, and that these were given to the Son during his earthly ministry by the witness of the Father, would be to completely ignore the historical context of John’s Gospel.
Before moving on let me give the proper perspective on John 3:19-20 since they have been greatly abused by Reformed Theology. The Bible in general and the Gospel of John in particular make it clear that people can repent of their sins. When confronted with their sinfulness and the impending wrath of God people can turn from self-centeredness and commit themselves to being God-centered. Examples of God commanding this of men, and of men actually doing it, could be produced in abundance from both testaments. We could cite the Ninevites in the book of Jonah who repented in mass or the Israelites who did the same when Elijah called down fire from heaven. We could also mention individuals like King Manasseh who though he had been one of the most wicked kings in Israel’s history, became one of the most righteous. In the New Testament men like Matthew, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross next to Jesus come to mind. The most obvious example from the Gospel of John itself is the multitudes that went to John at the Jordan River to receive his baptism of repentance. John 3:19-20 are not contradicting this clearly biblical truth. Instead Jesus is pointing out why those who claim to be God fearing Jews refuse to come to him. He is not saying that sinners can’t possibly repent, but that those self-righteous Jews cannot believe in him unless they first leave the sinfulness they are secretly devoted to. When taken out of their historical context these two verses can become a proof-text for Calvinism’s version of total depravity, but if we use the same method of exegesis with verse 21 we can say that only righteous people who are already living for God can ever come to Jesus. Without allowing the historical and Scriptural context of these three verses to inform out interpretation we must conclude that only those who are living righteous lives can come to the light and be saved.
And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do no judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment -what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
Jesus came to Israel as a representative of the Father; he did not come in his own name. He came speaking the words of the God of Israel. Those that were following the God of Israel would recognize the voice of their God, but those who only pretended devotion to God would reject the Son just as they had always rejected the Father. Those who were faithful members of the Old Covenant would naturally transition to the New Covenant. Those who were submitted to the Father would gladly submit to the Son. The coming of Jesus Christ to Israel distinguished “the remnant” of true Israelites from the false (Jn. 1:47, Rom. 11:2-6, Rev. 2:9, 3:9).
Understanding this basic paradigm in John’s Gospel helps us to understand other passages that are often misinterpreted by Calvinism. We will take a look at some of those passages in the next post.
To Be Continued…