John 1:17 And Its Application to Classic Dispensationalism

Introduction

Among all of the biblical dispensations, perhaps none are more widely debated or misunderstood than the dispensations of the law and grace. Likewise, the distinctions between the two economies are vital to understanding the storyline of the Bible. However, the words themselves have been controversial in relation to soteriology particularly, but are necessary to understand for a thorough understanding of biblical theology. Understanding the Mosaic law and grace are important not only for biblical knowledge, but also for the daily walk in a Christian’s life. Speaking of the law’s relationship to sanctification, John F. Hart writes, “To promote obedience to the Mosaic law – even the Ten Commandments (the old covenant) – is to promote sin and defeat in the Christian…Legalism for sanctification must be replaced by an inflexible emphasis on the New Testament freedom found in living by the Spirit.”[1] First, it will be important to recognize the context of John 1:17, which states, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Secondly, it will be pertinent to analyze what the dispensation of the law constitutes and why it is important. Thirdly, an overview of the dispensation of grace will be considered. Fourthly, practical applications of the verse at hand will be brought forth. Upon conclusion, believers will be able to see both the necessity of the law and the sheer magnitude of God’s amazing grace. Altogether, the teachings of John 1:17 provide a powerful application to Dispensational theology.

Context of John

When it comes to authorship of the fourth book in the New Testament, the Bible Knowledge Commentary states, “[There is] a good case for the author of the Fourth Gospel having been John, one of the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee.”[2] Scholars, both liberal and conservative, have proposed a wide range for the possible date of John, though between A.D. 85 and 95 is most likely.[3] When it comes to the “purpose” or “purposes” of John’s Gospel, many commentators have proposed different possibilities, though it was almost undoubtedly at the very least an evangelistic appeal and perhaps even an apologetic of early Christianity.[4] While other possibilities could be added to the list of details pertaining to surrounding context of the entire book of John, what is for certain is that Jesus Christ is the main character, and what pertains to His personhood and work is vital to the audience both in the first century as well as the twenty-first.

While the surrounding context is indeed helpful for this research, it is also necessary to observe the immediate context of John chapter one. The chapter begins with the first five verses that speak of the Logos (“the Word”) who forever existed in eternity past and through Him all things were created. Next, the author informs his audience that John the Baptist was instrumental in paving the way to having His listeners behold the Word (verses 6-8). In verses nine through fifteen is a summary of the Incarnation of the Word and His reception by those who believe in Him. Near the end of this section (verse 14), the author states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (italics added). It is interesting to notice that in the main passage up for analysis verse 17), the phrase “grace and truth” is repeated. In fact, just before verse seventeen, John states, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace [χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος].” (verse 16, italics added). Therefore, two things can be concluded regarding the immediate context of John chapter one. First, John seems to have an awareness of chronology. Beginning with eternity past, he proceeds to referring to the ministry of John the Baptist, and finally Christ Himself. Secondly, it is clear from this passage that when Christ came as the Incarnate Son of God, He brought with Himself an overflowing amount of grace. Thus, the purpose of verse seventeen fits with the overall argument that the coming of the Logos is indeed good news, for by His coming, humanity becomes a recipient of a certain stewardship distinct from the dispensation of Moses’ lifetime. The implications of the various differences between the dispensation of the law and grace, however, call for further study in order to discover an even fuller picture of John 1:17.

Dispensation of the Law

            Charles Ryrie identifies the beginning of the dispensation of the law from the life of Moses in Exodus 19:1 until its conclusion at the death of Christ, though it could be carried over until about Acts 1:26.[5] It was during this period that the nation of Israel received the “great code” often called the “Mosaic Law.”[6] The Apostle Paul asks an intriguing question with a satisfying answer in relation to the Mosaic Law in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Again he writes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Therefore, the Mosiac Law itself was a very good standard of righteousness, but unfortunately no one could keep all of its precepts. Paul states the crux of the matter in Galatians 3:24: “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” So then, the law itself (613 commands) was indeed good and operated effectively in the dispensation of the law; however, now that Christ has stepped down into the human history, Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). There is a new economy, a new rule of life for believers. That is, Christians operate under the dispensation of grace, a title reminiscent of the indication of change in John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (italics added).

Dispensation of Grace

            The present dispensation, referred to as the dispensation of grace or the church, is usually marked with the beginning of the church in Acts 2, continuing on until the inauguration of the Millennial Kingdom.[7] Ryrie summarizes the changes between the dispensations of law and grace quite well: “To be sure, the dispensationalist does not say that there was no grace ever displayed before the coming of Christ (any more than he says there is no law after His coming), but the Scriptures do say that His coming displayed the grace of God in such brightness that all previous displays could be considered as nothing.”[8] The word “grace” is translated from the Greek word, χάρις, meaning, “To show kindness to someone, with the implication of graciousness on the part of the one showing such kindness.”[9] Certainly, then, the coming of Christ is an aspect of grace (John 3:16), but in His coming there was a provision of a special kind of grace through the Gospel – salvation grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Does this mean Dispensationalists teach that salvation was not always by grace through faith since the present dispensation is entitled the “dispensation of grace”? Absolutely not, for Lewis Sperry Chafer confirms, “There is, therefore, but one way to be saved and that is by the power of God made possible through the sacrifice of Christ.”[10] Likewise, Ryrie explains, “The giving of the law did not abrogate grace.”[11] Therefore, “John 1:17 does not mean that there was no grace before the coming of Christ, but it does mean that, in comparison with the grace of Christ, all previous revelations of grace were as nothing.”[12] Christ indeed has ushered in “grace upon grace,” and thus, the name “dispensation of grace” has been appropriately given (John 1:16).

Practical Implications of John 1:17

It seems to be that when John wrote his Gospel letter, his goal was not just for the audience to have mere knowledge about the Son of the God, but that such understanding would have a meaningful practical response for believers. Particularly in reference to John 1:17 can such a claim be made. Therefore, it is essential to carefully consider the implications pertaining to law and grace from this verse for even twenty first century Christians. First of all, then, it must be asked, “How does the law apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” Some Christians would say that believers are still under part of the Mosaic Law in some way, but the extent and specificity of that binding is usually a little unclear. Many Dispensationalists, however, approach this situation with relative ease. John F. Hart states, “If being ‘under law’ means obligation to the entire Mosaic code (1 Cor. 9:20; Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21), then not being ‘under law’ (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:18) means release from obligations to the entire Mosaic code.”[13] Thus, the law fulfilled its purpose entirely by operating as a “guardian”(ESV)/“schoolmaster”(KJV)/“tutor”(NASB) to direct people to believing in Christ for justification. But does the Mosaic Law now operate as a means for sanctification? Scofield would say “no.” He once wrote, “Law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer.”[14] Scofield’s words appear to be in perfect harmony with 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says, “[God] made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” So then, the law is not able to produce sanctification in a Christian’s life; that is the role of the Holy Spirit. Because “living by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) will not produce anything less than Christlikeness in the believer.”[15]

Secondly, “How does grace apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” While the law cannot produce sanctification, there is much room for grace. In fact, Hart says, “Biblically speaking, then, a consistent theology of grace must not only be concerned about the role of grace as opposed to obedience to the law for justification. It must also be concerned about the role of grace over against obedience to the law for sanctification.”[16] Therefore, since “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), the message of John 1:17 makes clear sense: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This means that both justification and sanctification are available because of the grace of God, and through Him alone. Every ounce of a Christian’s sanctification is a result, not of obedience to the Mosaic Law, but of the Holy Spirit’s gracious power provided to the believer. That, indeed, is very good news.

Conclusion

One of the most helpful aspects of Dispensationalism is its ability to identify legitimate changes that have occurred in biblical history. Such a verse as John 1:17 makes it impossible to ignore the fact that certain features of a particular time in history are distinguishable from other eras. While one option would be to ignore these distinctions, a much better solution is to analyze the features (“law” and “grace”) and conclude with a balanced resolution. Based on the testimony of Scripture, the traditional explanations of Dispensationalists offer a satisfying exegesis to what John 1:17 teaches. Both the realities of the Mosaic Law and grace are inherently good, but each also serves a particular purpose. It is easy to see, then, why it is vital to understand the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the treasures of the God’s grace in the present dispensation. For without grace, the Christian walk would be absent of all life whatsoever, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).


[1] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, gen. ed., Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 417.

[2] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 2:266.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Ibid. and Robert James Utley, The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John. Study Guide Commentary Series. (Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 1999), 4.

[5] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 64. And just to be clear, a majority of Dispensationalists teach that while the dispensation of grace started with the birth of the church, the rapture will take place well before the end of the dispensation in order to fulfill the prophecies of the 7-year Tribulation period.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1996), 748.

[10] Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Inventing Heretics Through Misunderstanding,” Bibliotecha Sacra 102 (January 1945): 1.

[11] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 128.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 399-400.

[14] C.I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible Notes (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1945), 1245.

[15] See Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 417.

[16] Ibid.

Advertisements

Book Review: Church Planter by Darrin Patrick

When one hears the words “church planter” there may be several ideas that could come to mind. For those who passionately pursuit what they believe to be God’s calling on their lives as church planters, I do not think I could recommend a better “foundational” book on church planting. Additionally, I find this book to be of great worth for others who may or may not be lead church planters but have a desire as to see their churches take further steps into reaching their communities with the Gospel. Therefore, I will give a succinct overview of the book to offer impressions of Patrick’s propositions on church planting.

First of all, Darrin Patrick divides his book into a very logical, 3-part book: (1) The man, (2) The message, and (3) The mission. While there was definitely plenty of overlap in material that is taught in a pastoral theology/church administration class at a typical Bible college/seminary and the first two chapters of this book, I believe having an overview of the “man” and “message” is crucial in figuring out one’s “mission.” The entire book is filled with a careful explanation of biblical texts as well as personal illustrations; I would say they are evenly balanced. Here and there I would disagree with something said (or at least ponder sentences), but that happens in every book. One of the criticisms I would say that is worth pointing out is that this book just scratches the surface of the “mission” for the church planter. What I mean is that while the first two chapters provide a great introduction for church planting, I would also say that a sequel is somewhat necessary. Perhaps that is Darrin Patrick’s purpose of this book, that it would be a useful tool towards those in consideration of planting churches to provide a good foundation for further study. Nonetheless, I was greatly benefited from my reading of Church Planter, and would recommend it others to evaluate and glean from.

Logos 4 Bible Software

When I first purchased Logos “Scholar’s Edition,” I thought I was getting a useful tool to use for preaching, researching, and studying…Well, I didn’t fully realize how much of a help Logos would be. I can research a topic like “Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane” (which I recently studied for a paper) and get a LOT of help. The amount of resources available are just overwhelming and will be so helpful to me both now and in the future. I have used 3 Bible software programs in the past, and Logos is miles ahead of the competition. For those that honestly cannot afford Logos, e-sword is very good and FREE. Another program, Glo Bible Software, is pretty decent. What makes Glo distinct would probably be the graphics, not necessarily the tools available. I wouldn’t say that Glo is a poor Bible software program, there just aren’t enough tools for Bible research. For example, there’s only the NIV study notes for commentary help. If you want to have fun with a software program, and maybe if you work with a youth group and want some great visuals or graphical walk-throughs (which, by the way are pretty cool), then Glo might be good to look into. A third program I’ve used is Bible Explorer 4. This is a slight step above e-sword, and is pretty cheap (I bought mine for just 10 bucks). This comes with some pretty good commentaries and word studies, but is nowhere close to the power of Logos 4. Therefore, I’d say if you can afford it, invest in Logos. Especially if you’re busy like me, working, married, getting a degree, serving at a church. This will not only save time, but will strengthen your research and study. I would highly recommend Logos 4 already to anyone who is serious about proper exegesis of God’s Word.

The Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25): An Overview

Although it is often overlooked, there is certainly a theology of rest incorporated throughout the Scriptures. An example of rest in God’s Word is not necessarily remaining idle, but having a sense of satisfactory accomplishment. Genesis 2:3 states “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” One of the Ten Commandments that God commands to Moses is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). In Leviticus 25:3-4, God said “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” In the same chapter of Leviticus, God gives His commands for the Year of Jubilee. The task of interpreting Leviticus 25 is certainly a tremendous responsibility, but provides valuable insight in relation to the rest of the Scriptures. After evaluating this Old Testament topic, it is essential to determine every aspect of the observance of the Year of Jubilee, the symbolical types pointing to Christ, and the historical nature to grasp the complete value of this beautiful example of restoration and redemption.

The most important step for a correct exegesis of the Year of Jubilee is to carefully study this command of God in detail. First of all, before examining the particular Year of Jubilee, it is necessary to first comprehend God’s commands about the Sabbath Year. Leviticus 25:3-5 states that work must be accomplished for six years, but the people are to be rewarded for their hard efforts with a “year of solemn rest.” The number seven frequently occurs in the book of Leviticus and represents “completeness” (McGee 299). Furthermore, Leviticus 25:8 states that the Israelites should “count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.” During the fiftieth year, occurring at the Day of Atonement, Israel is commanded to “sound the trumpet” to announce the consecrating and beginning of the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9-10). The name “Jubilee” comes from the word “yobel,” the instrument that is played at the inception of the Day of Atonement during the Year of Jubilee (Rooker 303). Mark F. Rooker simply states the “seven years went through seven cycles, the fiftieth year called for a special celebration” (303). However, to specify the counting of years, Dr. A. Noordtzij says it is unlikely that Israel had a “sabbatical year, followed by the Year of Jubilee” (251). Dr. Noordtzij continues by saying “the sabbatical year on which the counting began was the first of the fifty years spoken of, and the seventh sabbatical year would then be the fiftieth year counted” (251). On the contrary, men such as “Josephus, Philo and rabbinical scholars were unanimous in regarding the Jubilee as the fiftieth year,” simply having the Sabbatic year followed by the Year of Jubilee (Alexander and Baker 702). Another view is that the Jubilee was a “short year” of possibly forty-nine days (702). Overall, evidence seems to point to the successive view of a sabbatical year, followed by the Year of Jubilee, but it is not overly significant of an issue.

Not only did the Year of Jubilee include the satisfactory reward of rest, but also redemptions of “property” and “persons” (McGee 306-308). Leviticus 25: 13-16 states the following about redemption of property:

“In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you make a sale to

your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.  You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.”

God’s commands stay in focus of why He instructs the Israelites to fulfill this procedure when He concludes His instructions in verse 17 by saying, “You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” Though this procedure looks rather peculiar at first, it is another reminder to the Israelites that the land is not really their possession, but belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23). Also, regarding the redemption of people, there is significant importance. Essentially, this command was for making sure that the poor were helped, and not violated (McGee 308). Additionally, this passage clarifies the potential involvement of a “kinsman-redeemer” (310). However, Leviticus 25:54 states, “If he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee.” Understanding the redemptive commands of God concerning the year of jubilee clarifies proper understanding of not only this passage, but also many other theological considerations as well.

The most significant concepts to draw from the year of jubilee may not necessarily be the physical acts, but the symbolical foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. It is most fitting to start chronologically with the beginning of the year of jubilee, which is marked by the sounding of the trumpet. J. Vernon McGee declares that “the year of Jubilee is likened to this age of grace when the Gospel is preached to slaves of sin and captives of Satan” (304). David Herron agrees by saying, “The blast of the typical jubilee, has slept for ages, in the hills and plains of Judea. But it still lives and extends in its spiritual and higher significancy.” On the contrary, Andrew Bonar reasons that while some believe the sounding of the trumpet represents “the preaching of the Gospel,” he believes that it signifies “the time of the Lord’s glorious Appearing” (186-187). Similarly, Allen P. Ross writes, “Both Jubilee (looking to release) and Sabbath (looking to rest) are types of the rest and release brought in by Christ and brought to fruition in the kingdom” (463). Continuing on, Ross refers to Revelation 21:1-4 by stating, “The church will enjoy the sabbatic glory of rest and release in the world to come,” and eventually an “eternal jubilee” as referred to in Revelation 21:23-22:5 (463). Though there are differing views, there is no doubt that this typifies Christ, whether it is in relation to the Gospel proclamation or the Messianic kingdom. Both still are Christological and point towards the final restoration of eternal jubilee.

Without a doubt, the redemption aspects of the Year of Jubilee symbolize the freedom that Christ provides. Clearly, Jesus can be seen in Leviticus 25 as the “kinsman-redeemer” (Rooker 306). The people in the Old Testament who were indebted or enslaved yearned for a male family member to essentially free them of their circumstance with a purchase made by the kinsman-redeemer (Longman III, Ryken, and Wilhoit 501). Jesus fulfills the responsibility as “kinsman-redeemer” perfectly. John 1:14 states “the Word became flesh.” The Apostle John could not be clearer in identifying that God took on humanity. Furthermore, Jesus became the provider of redemption. Romans 3:24-25 says believers “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” It is quite intriguing also to comprehend that the Day of Atonement occurred the same instance as the beginning of the Year of Jubilee. Likewise, Jesus’ atonement paid the debt, and believers can receive the “Jubilee” of salvation. Musician/Author Michael Card rightly states in his song “Jubilee” that “Jesus is our Jubilee.” Overall, Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer who rescues those that are trapped in the bondage of sin and paid for the once unattainable debt with His life. Leviticus 25 captures this picture of Christ in a remarkable way.

While it is good to study the commands of God to Israel, particularly the Year of Jubilee, it is also beneficial to study the historical details of the subject. A question to consider is whether or not the Israelites actually followed this command. In an interview with Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan, he said “the Jewish community, by-and-large, has not observed the Jubilee to ANY extent since Biblical times.” Replying to the question of why and when did the Jews stop observing the Jubilee, he said, “there isn’t any modern-day record of anyone declaring a year of Jubilee and the release of slaves and debts. Why was there a stop to a Biblical action?  Well, MOST Biblical acts are no longer practiced.  This is just another of those that didn’t ‘make it’ into the modern world.  It could have had something to do with calendars shifting, or might simply have been seen as no longer practical in a post-Biblical age.” Aside from the fact that evangelical Christians believe they are “not under the law, but under grace,” there is Biblical evidence to disagree with Rabbi Astrachan’s explanation (Romans 6:14). J. Vernon McGee declares that “the breaking of this regulation concerning the Sabbatic year that sent Israel into the seventy years Babylonian captivity” (301). William MacDonald confirms this in his commentary explanation of II Chronicles 36:20-21 by saying “the Jewish people had refused to keep the sabbatic year for 490 years; now their land would keep an enforced Sabbath for seventy years” (467). Logically, it can understood that if there was a cessation of keeping the Sabbatic years, then from the time of Leviticus to 490 years prior to the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites had been following this commandment. 490 years before 586 B.C. is 1076 B.C. A conservative estimate for the date of Leviticus is between 1450 and 1410 B.C. (MacDonald 135). Mathematically, the Israelites had approximately 300 to 400 years of obedience to the Sabbatic years. Therefore, it would be very likely that the Israelites not only were in obedience to the Sabbatic years, but also the Years of Jubilee as well. Though it is not plainly stated in Scripture, it makes logical sense that Jews underwent the Year of Jubilee multiple times, but ceased in disobedience within a few centuries later.

In conclusion, the Year of Jubilee is absolutely a fascinating topic of research. From its historical and Biblical background to its symbolic significance, God was certainly right for implementing this command. For example, the Year of Jubilee served as a frequent reminder that the land, possessions, and people did not belong to any individual but to God alone (Ross 457). Also, the understanding that “God’s people must rely on Him for provision and safety and not their own efforts” was maintained (460). Finally, the magnificent foreshadowing of Christ as the kinsman-redeemer interconnects the two Testaments of Scripture in such a way that reveals God’s divine plan throughout history in a glorious fashion. God is rightly to be praised for His goodness in provisions of material needs throughout the Years of Jubilee, but especially for the salvation provided through Christ, the Savior and Redeemer. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Works Cited

Alexander, T. Desmond and David W. Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch.

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Print.

Astrachan, Jeffrey. “Year of Jubilee.” E-mail interview. 4 May 2011.

Bonar, Andrew. An Exposition of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971.

Print.

Card, Michael. “Jubilee.” Joy in the Journey. 1994. CD.

Herron, David. “The Jubilee Trumpet.” http://www.pcahistory.org. 2004. Web. 5 May 2011.

The Holy Bible. Crossway. 2007. Print. English Standard Vers.

Longman III, Temper, Leland Ryken, and James C. Wilhoit. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998 Print.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. Print.

McGee, J. Vernon. Leviticus Volume II. LaVerne: El Camino Press, 1975. Print.

Noordtzij, A. Bible Student’s Commentary: Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982. Print.

Rooker, Mark F. The New American Bible Commentary: Leviticus. Nashville: Broadman &

Holman Publishers, 2000. Print.

Ross, Allen P. Holiness to the LORD: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand

Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002. Print.

Identifying the Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane

C.S. Lewis, regarding the issue of prayer, once spoke in his book The Great Divorce identifying the two kinds of people, “Those who say to God: ‘Thy will be done,’” and “Those to whom God must say: ‘Have it your way’.” Prayer is obviously a significant matter. Likewise, the prayer that Jesus implored in the Garden of Gethsemane has been referred to as “the most difficult prayer to pray” (Campbell 51). Therefore, it would only seem reasonable to study this prayer with supreme detail. Biblical scholars have produced multiple views on this topic, with variations to each position. Overall, there seems to be essentially five major views to keep in mind. Though some may not find this topic to be a matter of great significance, it is of utmost importance to consider what this passage is discussing. Jesus, the Son of God, speaking to God the Father regarding the agonizing situation at hand. This passage affects Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, prayer, the humanity of Jesus, the obedience of Jesus, and Jesus’ role as High Priest. Clearly, the passages on the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane are quite significant. After examining the Biblical passages and evaluating the different positions which theologians propose, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane can be better understood and provide a tremendous blessing for the reader of God’s Word.

Before examining the multiple views, it is important to first identify the texts of Scripture. Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, and Luke 22:40-46 include the prominent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Additionally, Hebrews 5:7 refers back to the Gospel to provide yet another recording of the same situation. Among these passages, there seems to be four significant phrases that can altar one’s view on what Jesus was praying for. The first critical phrase is “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications” (Hebrews 5:7). While this is a clear reference to the Gospel accounts, it also plays a major part in interpretation, particularly the word “supplications.” The Greek word ἱκετηρία means “that which is being urgently requested by a suppliant” (Louw and Nida 123). Certainly, there was a legitimate plea from Christ, a request that needed provision from the Father. Secondly, the phrase “he was heard because of his reverence” plays another significant part in determining the appropriate interpretation (Hebrews 5:7). The Greek word εἰσακούω does not just mean to listen, but can also carry the meaning of “to gratify” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). This also dramatically affects the interpretation. The third significant phrase is found in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” In this particular passage, understanding what “the cup” means can shape the prayer itself and plays a huge role in interpreting the prayer. Finally, the concluding phrase in Matthew 26:39, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” is altogether influential for each view. Taking these texts of Scripture into focus, it is also beneficial to survey the dominant views of interpretation.

The first view to consider in relation to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is the “Description of God” view (Hullinger). It appears that this view holds the belief that the author of Hebrews was just making the point that God answers prayer, and does not make the connection to the prayer in the garden (Hullinger). This view is very uncommon, and rightly so. Though it acceptable to pronounce that this view is very partially correct in the fact that God answers prayer, the focus is clearly on Jesus’ human qualifications for being a High Priest which is crucial in this context. To refute the idea that there is no connection to the garden, one must remember that God the Father could “save [Jesus] from death” and also “heard” Jesus’ anguishing cries for “supplication” (Hebrews 5:7). These were legitimate requests which, due to the severe circumstances identified and the specificity entailed, must refer to the garden prayer (MacDonald 2171). Additionally, Jesus was not purposefully and solely setting an example on how pray to God, for that was the purpose of the model prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13. Finally, regarding the “Description of God” view, one must question why the author would not refer to the prayer in the garden (Hullinger). After all, the example of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane perfectly fits the context of approving Jesus’ humanity. Therefore, it is reasonable to affirm that this prayer must refer to the garden prayer which paves the way for further exegesis and a comparison of more views.

A second view on Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is the belief that Jesus feared death in the garden itself, not just the cross. T. Hewitt is a proponent of this view and proposes, “If Christ had died in the Garden, no greater calamity could possibly have fallen on mankind” (100). This view essentially suggests that Jesus prayed “that He might be saved from dying there and then, either through physical exhaustion or by satanic assault” (Bruce 99). This view does have some faults, however. One passage for refutation would be John 10:17-18 which states, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Implications from John 10 would insist that this view is absolutely incorrect. However, proponents of this view could counteract this accusation with the argument that this was a test of Jesus’ humanity. Obviously, based on the impeccable nature of Christ and His omniscience, He would complete His tasks given from the Father. What this view does misconstrue, however, is the reference to “the cup” (Hullinger). In Matthew 26, after Jesus prays once for God to remove the cup and rebukes the disciples for sleeping, He prays “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). This implies something that needs to occur in the very near future. Additionally, Jesus says in John 18:11 after Peter cut off the ear of Malchus, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Therefore, it is logical to conclude that the “cup” did not refer to simply the agony in Gethsemane, thus negating this view as a contending interpretation.

A third and very popular view is the belief that Jesus so greatly feared physical death. Before considering the Hebrews 5 passage, proponents of this view will latch on to a Gospel account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden. This view essentially teaches that Jesus prayed if there would be any other possible way rather than dying on the cross to fulfill what God had planned, then that alternative should be sought. Here is a perfect situation where understanding the “cup” is absolutely crucial. The Bible Knowledge Commentary provides three possibilities for what the cup necessitates: His imminent death, His coming separation from the Father, or His coming contact with sin as He became sin for mankind (83-84). Though the cross undoubtedly seems to be on the mind of Jesus, it seems to be that physical death was not exactly the horrifying fear that overcame Him. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary speaks of “propitiation” as “the appeasement of an offended party” (533). Though some might argue, it appears that the cup perfectly corresponds with Jesus’ actions of propitiation, which satisfies God’s wrath. For example, the “cup” terminology is frequently used as a symbol for God’s wrath or judgment (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 23:31-32; Revelation 14:10, 16:19). A constant problem with the “physical death” view is that the bodily crucifixion is seen as the most horrifying reality for Jesus in the garden, though it was certainly grotesque. Likewise, this view fails to reconcile the fact that Jesus was “heard” by God. What this view does not reconcile is the fact that Jesus was “heard” (Hebrews 5:7). Since this view states that the greatest fear of Jesus, and similarly the specific request, was that the death on the cross would be avoided, the question remains of what the answered prayer could be. After all, since the word necessitates a responsive gratification, or an “answered prayer,” evading the cross does not seem to capture the full essence of the prayer. Also, though this view seems to have the right idea that Jesus drank the cup, the wrath of God, it appears to place emphasis on the cross itself, in relation to physical pain, as the overwhelming fear. While much strength is provided in this argument in how the Scriptures support some of the evidence, possible alternatives appear stronger in interpreting the overwhelming fear and in understanding the answered prayer that the Father supplied.

The fourth and certainly intriguing view is the belief that Jesus prayed, not to be saved from physically dying, “but to be saved out of death- that is, to be saved from remaining in death. He was not asking to avoid the cross but to be assured of the resurrection” (MacArthur 124). Both Paul Ellingworth and John MacArthur insert that the translation in Hebrews 5:7, “who was able to save him death,” could also be translated “who was able to save him out of death” (Ellingworth 288; MacArthur 124). In relation to examining just the text itself in Hebrews, this view seems to make a compelling case. Yet, a difficulty that arises is that Jesus does not mention His request in the Gospels to necessarily refer to His resurrection. His request was “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). A possible answer to this problem could be that Jesus indeed feared both the coming physical and spiritual death, He submitted to the Father’s will nonetheless, and prayed that His life offered as the perfect sacrifice would indeed satisfy the wrath of God. Singer/Songwriting Michael Card wrote a song relating to this topic, “He Was Heard.”  Referring to Jesus as High Priest, Card writes “In the fullness of the promise time, the Final Priest did come, and He offered up a living sacrifice. Now, we His children wait for Him with hope and joyful praise. For we know that God has heard Him, for we know that He was raised.” This is rather interesting, since it fits with the context of what the author of Hebrews is doing. In Hebrews 5:1, the subject is the “High Priest” who is described as one who “is chosen to act on behalf in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Perhaps Jesus was praying for the resurrection, and rightly so, due to the fact that He was indeed raised from the dead. Though this view possesses many possible explanations for some of the passages involved, a fifth view just might be even better.

The final and very well-defended view is the “spiritual death” view. In other words, this belief goes further than the idea that Jesus feared physical death, and therefore proposes that He wrestled with the agony of knowingly being forsaken by the Father because He would become “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The New Bible Dictionary states, “Death is the epitome of sin’s penalty” (Wood and Marshall 1106). Without trying to undermine the physical torture that Jesus endured as the sacrifice sin, it is important to consider the death that Jesus endured. Though it is true that Jesus physically died by “giving up the ghost,” He also underwent a spiritual death (Luke 23:46). Dr. Jerry Hullinger, professor at Piedmont Baptist College, offers an intriguing perspective on this issue. He suggests that “eternal spiritual death” is what Jesus was so horrified about. After all, he died physically by His soul being separated from the body and He died spiritually by His soul being separated from the Father. Dr. Hullinger also concludes that “Jesus was willing to do this if it was the Father’s will. This is a greater expression of His love than dying for us.” The “spiritual death view,” even if there are slight differences with what Dr. Hullinger suggests, matches up very closely with Scripture and is a view to be considered.

Though much is involved in this prayer, in all reality it is still very simple and is important to quickly summarize these findings. First of all, Jesus knew that he would have to drink the cup of God’s wrath (John 18:11). Obviously, this entailed an enormous price to pay which from what has been concluded was both a physical death on the cross, and even more significant, a spiritual death. Secondly, since “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” it is evident that Jesus was struggling through severe stress and agony. Though commentators have and will disagree on this issue, the most likely position as argued on this would have to be the fear of “spiritual death,” possibly even the fear of “eternal spiritual death” (Hullinger). Thirdly, Jesus certainly had an earnest supplication request from the Father. Once again, though this is often disagreed among many theologians, this at the very least must have referred to being saved from death as the author of Hebrews describes in chapter five. Evidence does not seem to be overwhelmingly conclusive and thus could refer to “the resurrection,” “spiritual death,” or perhaps even a combination of both. Finally, the fact to rejoice in was that Christ was “heard,” enabling Him to complete the finished work on the cross and satisfy God’s wrath (Hebrews 5:7). Because of the substitutionary death of Christ, “He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” In conclusion, the beauty of studying a passage of this nature is not simply for informational knowledge confirming what Jesus has accomplished, but to encourage the Christian to persevere in faith, and recognize that Christ’s sacrifice is fully satisfactory to God, thus authenticating the power of grace.

Works Cited

Campbell, Roger F. Preach for a Year. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988. Print.

Hewitt T. The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary. London: Tyndale,

1960. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.

Hullinger, Jerry. Hebrews Notes. Winston-Salem: Piedmont Baptist College, Summer 2011.

Microsoft Word.

Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1978. Print.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament :

Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews. Chicago: Moody,

1983. Print.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. Print.

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and

Gerhard Friedrich. electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge

Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983. Print.

Wood, D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England;

Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996.