John’s Christmas Story . . . Illustrated in the Events of Good Friday

John’s “Christmas Story” is quite short compared to what we read in Matthew and Luke: “The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us” (John 1:14). Eleven years ago, while researching a paper to argue that “The Word” was a title to be understood with a background in the Aramaic Scriptures recited in the Palestinian synagogues as John grew up, I realized that “the Word became flesh” can be seen as a theme of John’s Gospel. These Aramaic Scriptures were translations (“targums”) from the Hebrew made for use in the Synagogue. Besides translation, some things were added, including the concept of the divine Word, utilized especially in passages describing God’s interactions in the world, and especially with his people. In short, the divine Word was a way of referring to the God of Israel in his saving and sanctifying his people. “The Word” is a circumlocution for the divine name (YHWH).

“The Word became flesh” therefore means “the God of Israel became flesh.” When I say this can be seen as a theme of John’s Gospel, I mean that throughout the Gospel we can see Old Testament allusions in the sense that the words and deeds of Jesus can be understood by way of Old Testament background from both a divine (“the Word”) and human (“flesh”) perspective. I’d like to illustrate with an example:

If anyone serves me, let him follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:26)

First, the “flesh” aspect. In the context of John 12, Jesus will soon be betrayed by Judas. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus would follow the same path taken by David when he was betrayed by his son Absalom. Like David, he crossed the brook Kidron, then went to the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:23, 30; John 18:1; Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Luke 22:39). Before taking this path, David told the foreigner Ittai to go back instead of following him. Read the words of Ittai in refusing to turn back, comparing them to the words of Jesus quoted above from John 12:26:

As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, surely wherever my lord the king will be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be. (2 Samuel 15:21)

Now the divine parallel. After the incident where Israel worshiped the golden calf, Moses set up a Tent of Meeting “outside the camp,” where Israelites went to seek the Lord after their great sin (Exodus 33:7). Rabbinic interpretation (see Exodus Rabbah) says that the fact that the tent was set up outside the camp rather than in its midst suggests that God had in effect excommunicated the nation of Israel for their idolatry—anyone who wanted reconciliation must now go outside the camp. The rabbis pointed out that Moses went outside the camp because that is where his Master went, and he must regard as excommunicated those whom his Master had excommunicated. When Jesus spoke the words of John 12:26, Israel was about to commit a sin much greater than that of worshiping the golden calf—the crucifixion of the Son of God. Jesus is going “outside the camp,” and we must follow him there (Hebrews 13:13; “Let us go to him, outside the camp, bearing his approach), meaning separating ourselves from false worship, and taking a stand with Jesus on the issues of the day. Where does “the Word” come in? In one of the Aramaic renderings of Exodus 33, it is the divine Word that speaks with Moses outside the camp. Further, in response to Moses’ request, “show me your glory” (Exodus 33:), in the Aramaic translations Moses receives a revelation of the divine Word on Mount Sinai, who describes himself as “full of grace and truth” (Exodus 34:6; John 1:14).

An example of going “outside the camp” to be with Jesus, bearing his reproach? I can’t help but think of Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” who dared to quote Biblical teaching on homosexuality, opinions which talking heads are routinely describing as “vile” (what homosexual acts used to be considered, when our moral health was better than now). To us these are not mere opinions of men, but a reflection of laws given by God for his people. here again it is helpful to consider Jesus as “the Word,” for in the Targums the law is given by “the Word” speaking to Israel on Mt. Sinai, and speaking in the tabernacle to Moses (see below). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is framed by “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female: it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22), and “If there is a man who lies with a male as one lies with a female . . . both of them shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13).

Following and serving Jesus is thus like (1) following a human King, greater than David; (2) following the God of Israel. This is the implication of John’s Christmas story.

Going back to the path of David’s flight from Absalom, we can find another mixture of the human and divine. We’ve already noted the human aspect; Jesus after his betrayal by Judas follows the path of David in fleeing from Absalom—from Jerusalem, east across the Kidron, then up the Mt. of Olives. But besides David and those accompanying him, the ark of the covenant took that same path, as the priests carried it to David on the Mt. of Olives (2 Samuel 15:24).

Numbers 7:89 states that when Moses went into the Holy of Holies, the Lord spoke to him from above the ark, between the two cherubim. Two Aramaic renderings of this passage both say that it was from this place that “the Word” spoke to Moses. We might say, then, that as Jesus crossed the Kidron to the Mt. of Olives, he was not only following David’s path, but his own path (the path of the pre-incarnate Word above the ark, between the cherubim).

David sent the priests back to Jerusalem with the ark, hoping that if the Lord was merciful to him, he would return as well to the Lord’s habitation (2 Samuel 15:25). Note that Jesus only follows the path of David so far. From the Mount of Olives, David continued fleeing east across the Jordan to safety. If Jesus had done that, we would be lost! Instead, Jesus, like the ark, returned to Jerusalem, following his own pre-incarnate path of 1000 years earlier, to accomplish his work so that we might find favor with God and live forever in his presence.

John Ronning

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