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Why Foreign Missions? 13. Presuppositions for a Johannine Mission Theology

Why Foreign Missions?  13. Presuppositions for a Johannine Mission Theology

+David Bosch’s Transforming Mission still stands as a significant work in missiology, even though published in 1991.[1]  Its section on Bible and mission is very good, although it has a number of weaknesses.  It barely addresses the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, it covers Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Paul.  In its examination of these New Testament authors, very little work explores the authors’ use of the Old Testament in mission theology, and this is a major deficiency.  So, as a study in the interface between the Bible and mission theology, Transforming Mission has some significant gaps and weaknesses.  One of these is the omission of a study of John’s profound mission theology. 

The next few studies work towards filling this omission in Bosch.  In this study, John’s theological  presuppositions will be discussed, particularly with respect to his insistence on a Christological theology and the significance of this for mission theology.

Presuppositions for a Johannine Theology

+D. Moody Smith begins his study of John’s theology by highlighting several of John’s presuppositions: God can be known, and he is known through Scripture, Jesus, preaching, the Church, and the Spirit.[2]  If we are to apply these presuppositions to a mission theology, we might note that mission is making God known even as he has revealed himself.  If he has revealed himself in Scripture, then missions begins by knowing and making known the Scriptures.  If he has revealed himself in Jesus, then missions is knowing Jesus and making him known through the Scriptures and by preaching.  If the Spirit continues Jesus’ presence and ministry in the church of Jesus, then missions entails establishing communities of the Spirit where God can be known.

A Christological Johannine Theology: Jesus as God’s Revelation

John focuses God’s revelation and salvation on Jesus, leaving no room for anything else.  Several examples might be given to make this point.  For example, if revelation has come through Moses, it is a revelation that testifies of Jesus.

John 1:17-18 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

John 1:45  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."

John 3:14-15  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John 5:45-47  Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope.  46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.  47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?"

Another example of the focusing of theology on Jesus in John’s Gospel is in relation to the Jewish festivals.  

The feast of tabernacles involved lighting up the court of women with golden lamps (Sukkoth 5).  Jesus refocuses the feast on himself:

John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.“

The Passover, too, is given a Christological interpretation.  Jesus says, ‘your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness’ (vv. 31, 49), but now Jesus is the bread from heaven:

John 6:32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

John 6:33-35   For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."  34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."  35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:50-51 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

John 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

Jesus is the Passover sacrifice, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1.29) by dying at the time that the lambs were slaughtered for Passover (Jn. 19.14-16).

The feast of lights, or Hanukkah, commemorated the rededication of the Temple in the 2nd century BC after it had been desecrated by the Syrians.  They sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple and sacrificed to Zeus, thus committing blasphemy.  Yet, at this feast, Jesus claims to be one with God, and those who hear him accuse him of blasphemy:

John 10:30-31 The Father and I are one."  31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him.

A third example of theology focused upon Jesus in John’s Gospel is the ‘I am’ sayings.  The following quotations present all seven passages in John where Jesus’ ‘I am’ statement has a predicate (the ‘I am’ sayings without a predicate will be discussed in a future study):

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (Cf. Jn. 9.5)

John 10:7, 9 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

John 10:11, 14 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

John 11:25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,

John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Finally, for our purposes, note that the testimony of the disciples, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’  testimony, and the revelation of God in Jesus are all the same: they all concern Jesus.  For example, Jesus says,

"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning (Jn. 15.26-27).

Jesus’ testimony is a revelation of the Father such that there is neither any difference nor anything further to reveal.  Jesus’ testimony is the full revelation of the Father.  At the close of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus makes this very point in a passage that functions as a summary of the previous chapters:

John 12:44-50 Then Jesus cried aloud: "Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.  45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.  46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.  47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.  48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge,  49 for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.  50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me."

The above examples should suffice to make the point that John is thoroughly Christ-centred.  Johannine theology cannot be divorced from Christology.  Indeed, for John, Jesus is the presupposition for and content of all theology, including mission theology.

Significance for Mission Theology

This Christological focus challenges mission theology today.  It is a concrete rather than an abstract theology, and it is a Christological theology.  Both points are significant for mission theology.

Mission theology is sometimes defined in terms of more abstract categories.  John’s mission theology is relentlessly concrete, focused in Jesus.[3]  Any abstracting of Jesus for the purposes of theology works in precisely the opposite direction of Johannine theology.  To speak of mission theology in terms of ‘incarnation’—admittedly, a Johannine theme—and then to interpret this non-christologically undermines John’s theology.  ‘Incarnation theology’ needs to be Christological through and through.  Or, to transfer John’s Christological theology to a more abstract ‘mission of God’ theology that deemphasises Christ (or the witness of the Church to Christ) is un-Johannine. 

+J├╝rgen Moltmann has even advocated that we abandon Christology for mission theology.  What we need today, he argues, is a mission ‘theology of the Spirit’ that affirms ‘life’ in every respect.  This involves, in his view, a shift from a Christ-centred missiology that is distinctive from other faith dialogues to a (supposed) ‘Spirit'-centred missiology that focuses on anything promoting ‘life.’  Such a missiology will, he avers, readily and positively engage other faiths.[4]  

John, however, would have none of this, and Jesus’ confrontations with Jews are precisely confrontations having to do with himself.  With John, we have a Christological mission theology.  Just how this looks will be the subject of the next study.

[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1991).
[2] D. Moody Smith, The Theology of the Gospel of John (New Testament Theology; Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[3] I have made this point in several articles, including two that compare John’s theology to Islam on the issues of the cross and the incarnation; cf. Rollin G. Grams, ‘God, the Beneficent--the Merciful, and Jesus’s Cross: From Abstract to Concrete Theologising,’ in Jesus and the Cross: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. D. Singh (Oxford: Regnum/Paternoster, 2008); ‘Revealing Divine Identity: The Incarnation of the Word in John’s Gospel,’ in Jesus and the Incarnation: Reflection of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. David Singh (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).
[4] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.