3. Convincing and Convicting
I have been a mild to moderate “Trekkie” for over fifty years. So, I am reminded of the first two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “Encounter at Farpoint.” There is much to commend those episodes, but in the context of our reading from the Gospel of John, I am focusing on one element.
The framework of the episodes is a trial – the ongoing trial of humanity, staged by the victims of humanity’s cruelties. The charge is that humanity is essentially evil, regardless the veneer of civilization we may lay over the top of that perverse nature. The burden of proving the opposite rests with the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise (D). Through a combination of wit, empathy, courage, and compassion, they make the case and escape oblivion.
For the present. The story ends with the warning from “Q,” who acts as judge and Lord High Executioner, that the trial is not over. In fact, the trial never ends – not as long as humanity continues to grow and explore. That idea of the unending trial reappears at periodic intervals and frames the seven-year run of the Next Generation series. The verdict of the trial is often questioned, but in the end the outcome is not in doubt.
The trial continues. I think that’s part of the framework of the Gospel of John as well. Just as the world believes it is putting Jesus on trial in the court of Pilate, so the world continues to believe it is putting the followers of Jesus on trial, according to the Johannine perspective. Just as the real trial has Jesus as the judge and the world as the “defendant,” so the real trial continues to have the world in the dock and disciples offering testimony in the case. The ironic reversal of the obvious is central to the Johannine style.
In fact, defending the disciples and prosecuting the ongoing trial is part of the task of the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel of John. “And when that One is coming, that One shall expose the world concerning sin and justice and judgment” we read in John 16:8 (my translation). The writer explains what this means – “concerning sin, because they are not putting their faith in me, concerning justice as well, because I am going to the Father and you are no longer perceiving me, and concerning judgment, because the Ruler of this cosmos has been judged” (John 16:9-11, my translation).
The verb the NRSV translates as “prove wrong” can also be translated as “expose” or “convince” or even “convict.” The Defender now becomes the Prosecutor – laying out the facts of the case in such a way that the conclusion is unavoidable. “Sin” in John is always about refusing to put one’s trust in Jesus. “Judgment” is the word we have reviewed often in the past – “krisis” – which can be translated as “crisis,” or “decision point” or “judgment.” The “Ruler of this world” is represented most clearly in the Fourth Gospel by Pilate in the trial scenes upcoming.
The word the NRSV translates as “righteousness” is the familiar one Paul uses often. However, I don’t think it’s all that helpful to translate it in the same way here. It is another question whether Paul might intend us to use the word “justice” rather than “righteousness.” But in our current reading, a different translation can keep us from confusing Paul’s usage with that in the Gospel of John. This gospel is not talking about forensic justification but rather about setting the world right under the rule of the Messiah who is Jesus.
More on that notion in a bit. But first, let’s look at the political background of the Gospel of John as we think about the work of the Defender, aka the Holy Spirit.
Scholars have framed and understood the Gospel of John as an extended trial, rooted in Jesus’ trial before Pilate during John’s passion narrative. In particular we should read Andrew Lincoln’s Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (which is, unfortunately, currently out of print). Paul Ricoeur approached this topic from the perspective of philosophy and it worth reading on the topic (if one has hours to devote to wading through the dense prose).
Scholars have also noted the overtly political and polemical nature of John’s gospel in contrast to the traditional view that the Gospel of John is the most “spiritual” of the canonical gospels and therefore the least concerned with issues and events in the “real” world of the first-century Mediterranean. The fact that the trial narrative in John’s gospel is almost exclusively in the courtroom of Pilate, the Roman governor, should push against this view.
In “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” David Resenberger outlines the political awareness and concerns one can read between the lines in the Gospel of John. He reviews C. H. Dodd’s work in this regard.
The desire to make Jesus a “bread king” in John 6 describes the social and economic disruption and unrest in the Roman province of Palestine prior to 70 C.E. The worries in the Sanhedrin that the Jesus movement could activate a large-scale violent response by the Romans reflects the ferment in Jerusalem regarding the continuing foreign occupation and Gentile control of the Temple complex.
Resenberg observes that this background is always incorporated into the Gospel’s Christological concerns. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “the possibility is raised that Christology and politics were not necessarily unrelated for the Fourth Evangelist” (page 396). Resenberg observes that the Gospel of John uses the Greek term for “king” twice as often as do the Synoptics in reporting Jesus’ passion. The Gospel of John may not be quite so “spiritual” as many interpreters have concluded.
He concludes that the politics in the Gospel of John has two emphases. Jesus’ trial shows that a confrontation with Empire is not to be avoided. Instead, as he quotes Wayne Meeks, disciples will always have to decide “whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is” (page 410). In terms of our gospel reading, disciples must discern whether the “ruler of this world” has been judged or not.
On the other hand, disciples must discern whether the violence of Barabbas is preferable to the love of the Good Shepherd (John 10), the friend of the disciples (John 15) – the one who lays down His life for those he loves. The questions posed in the trial, then are, “Who is the real King?” and “what does the real King do?” Notice that in each of those questions, the issue is about “truth” as being authentic, genuine, and steadfast.
Resenberg sums up his evidence and argument in these words. “The Fourth Gospel thus confronts the issue of Israel’s freedom in the late first-century Roman Empire with an alternative both to Zealotry and collaboration, by calling for an adherence to the king who is not of this world, whose servants do not fight, but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of both synagogue and Empire” (page 411).
In “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Fourth Gospel,” Cornelius Bennema suggests that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is “depicted as a messianic liberator who will set people free from” social oppression (the Samaritan woman), physical oppression (healings), and spiritual oppression. Jesus judges and conquers the “world” in this liberating work and establishes a new era of justice and peace. He carries out this justice work through the sword of the Word made flesh, rather than any sword of violence.
In our reading, we see, according to Bennema, that Jesus passes that work on to the disciple community through the agency of the Paraclete. “As ‘the Spirit of truth,’” Bennema writes, “the Paraclete will mediate the liberating truth present in Jesus’ words to the disciples to inform and empower their liberating witness to the world” (page 54). It is the witness of the disciples that is the vehicle through which the Paraclete will expose sin, enact justice, and deliver judgment against the Ruler(s) of this world. Just as Jesus carries out this campaign by his Word(s), so the disciple community continues the world through witness – testimony which may result in suffering and even death (the Greek meaning of marturia in our texts).
“Therefore,” Bennema concludes, “liberation in the Fourth Gospel should be seen as holistic. Jesus liberates people from oppression primarily by means of his Spirit-imbued word of truth, which is double-edged in that it liberates and gives life to those who accept it, but it results in (immediate) judgment, continued oppression and eventually death for those who reject it” (page 55).
If I had known more of this about the Gospel of John, I might not have avoided it for so long.
Lewis agrees with this assessment. “Righteousness is both God’s revelation of God’s very self, but also the ability to witness this revelation,” she writes. “The Spirit’s role will be to continue to bring to light what we have seen about God in Jesus. At the same time, reclaiming the translation ‘justice’ for this term may be helpful in this circumstance, especially as Jesus invites manifestations of justice and condemnation in light of his own ministry” (page 205).
It should not be surprising that the downplaying of “justice” in the Fourth Gospel coincides approximately with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nor should it be surprising that this downplaying of justice continues to fit with the imperial accommodation of Christendom with empire. We need to be aware of this interpretive tendency.
The trial continues.
References and Resources
Behm, TDNT V:800-814.
Bennema, Cornelius. “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Forth Gospel.” Biblica 86 (2005), 35-38.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail. “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/21-4_John/21-4_O’Day.pdf.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Rensberger, D. (1984). The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 103(3), 395-411. doi:10.2307/3260780
Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16). https://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/article/download/238/194.