Studies in John (Lesson 4: The New Kingdom â€“ Substantial and Universal)
I. The Promised Kingdom
Before we really understand the importance of the Kingdom that Jesus announced to the Jews, we must be aware of some Old Testament prophecies. Although it is common to think of the Bible as a diverse and loosely connected compilation of sacred writings (which does have an element of truth); in reality, the scriptures tell one unified story from Genesis to Revelation â€“ and that story is all about a promised King, and his everlasting Kingdom.
At the beginning of the Bible, God formed a special creature, who would show forth the Divine image, and exercise dominion over the rest of creation. However, that first man, Adam, failed his test, and instead of blessing, dominion over the earth, and fellowship with God; he was driven out from fellowship with God, and he himself and the very earth was cursed for his sake.
It seemed as if the Serpent, who successfully tempted mankind, would be victorious: but, no, in Genesis 3:15, God said that he would still accomplish his purposes â€“ for he would send a man, someone born of a woman, who would overcome the Serpent and completely fulfill Godâ€™s intentions for man â€“ to rule over all creation in perfect display of the divine image. The rest of the bible is all about how this first promise came into effect, by slow degrees, at first only in shadows and hints; but progressively clearer and more certain.
One of the greatest Old Testament advances in this marvelously designed plan of redemption and Divine rule came in II Samuel 7:11-13. There, God gives the Jewish King David this promise: â€œAlso the LORD tells you that he will make you a house. And when your days be fulfilled, and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, which shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.â€
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the prophets frequently allude to this promise (e.g. Isaiah 9:6-7; 16:5; Jeremiah 23:5; 30:9; 33:15-17; Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24; Hosea 3:5), and look ahead with great anticipation to its fulfillment. The coming Messianic Kingdom, which would forever establish the rule of God over all the earth, was on the heart of every believing Jew in the days of Christ. And so, when Christ told them, â€œThe Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near,â€ it was a vastly important piece of news to them. Unfortunately, most of them misunderstood the nature and true significance of this Kingdom.
We spent some time last week talking about Jesusâ€™ announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. This week, we will spend some more time in a discussion of the same basic theme. In this weekâ€™s events, the first temple-cleansing and the discourse with the Samaritan woman, we can learn much about the nature of this long-awaited Kingdom, and how Jesusâ€™ earthly ministry served to establish it forevermore.
The Temple-Cleansing (John 2:13-25)
The next event that John tells us of is Christâ€™s cleansing the temple of its commercial practices. Although liberal (and even some conservative) commentators do not like to admit it, this is almost certainly a different Temple-cleansing from the one that the synoptic gospels record during the last week of Christâ€™s life on earth. Although John does not arrange everything in strictly chronological order, it seems a little unlikely that he would import a later miracle into this closely-related section which deals with the beginning significant events of Christâ€™s ministry, and which, at least everywhere else, has no material in common with the synoptics (John 2-5). But even if John is speaking of the same event, its theological significance fits in well with the surrounding material, which points to the arrival of the New Kingdom, and the corresponding passing of the old order.
What was it specifically that Christ was so upset about that he was willing to do something so bold and forceful? Because of the drastic nature of Christâ€™s actions, some commentators have thought that these businessmen must have been exceptionally corrupt. But when you look at Christâ€™s statement in verse sixteen, it appears that he is not even dealing with the ethics of their business practice â€“ he is just displeased that the holy Temple, the place of Godâ€™s presence, would be used for commercial practices at all. He would not countenance a cheapening of the Mosaic worship rituals so that the physical and material things took precedence over the spiritual realities of worship and entering into Godâ€™s presence, which should have been at the fore from the beginning. The Jews, by and large, had traded the spiritual realities that the physical worship symbols represented, for the symbols themselves. And this tendency could be seen in their turning the place of spiritual worship into a place for material business.
The quotation that John applies to Christ at this point is worth noting. It is from Psalm 69:9, where the prophesied Messiah is pouring out his anguish over the corruption that his fellow-Jews display, reproaching the true worship of God, with reproaches that Christ feels the deep pain of in his own soul. It is also likely that two other prophecies of the Messiah, Zechariah 14:21, and Malachi 3:1-3, have their fulfillment, or at least their initial fulfillment, in this event.
The Jews, at this point, still had enough outward appreciation for Jesusâ€™ ministry that they did not immediately plot to kill him, as they did in the second Temple-cleansing (Mark 11:15-18). But in demanding a sign, they were still evidencing the same evil heart which delights more in the material sign itself than in the spiritual reality that it pointed to. In response, Christ gives them, not a physical sign, but the teaching that, the old order, which gave such respect to signs, had become corrupt and grossly materialistic, and was about to be replaced with the new order, in which only the spiritual realities themselves, and not the physical signs, would remain. Specifically, the physical Temple would no longer be the place where God met with his worshipers â€“ the time of that reality, and all other such physical realities, was about to be replaced with spiritual worship, that Christ alone could facilitate.
Just as God promised that he would dwell among his people, and signified that promise with his temple; so Christ alone was the true fulfillment of the promise. He alone actually brought Godâ€™s presence down to his people (cf. John 1:14), and for that reason, he alone could truly be called the Temple of God. So once he had actually accomplished, in his own body, the real meaning of the Old Testament Temple, then there would never be any more need of it. And after he had raised up this true temple (his body) three days after his death, he sent his Spirit to continue in fulfillment of the Temple principle (I Corinthians 6:19; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22), until he will finally and permanently accomplish it in the eternal state (Revelation 21:1-3).
So in sum, just as with the changing of water to wine, Christ is here demonstrating the passing of the old order of physical â€œshadowsâ€, and promising the arrival of the new order of spiritual fulfillment, in himself alone. But, whereas in the former sign-miracle the emphasis is on the blessedness of those who have a part in the new order, this event emphasizes the coming judgment of those who refuse to acknowledge the new order in Christ. Just as Christ drove out the men who had perverted the spiritual significance of the Temple in favor of material things; so in the future, those who refuse to embrace the spiritual realities of the new order in Christ would be eternally driven out from Godâ€™s presence.
The chapter then closes out with a description of those who believe in Christ because of his physical signs alone, but did not truly believe in him as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament signs. And so the same tragedy is going to continue, throughout the course of Christâ€™s earthly ministry (and beyond) â€“ the Old Covenant worship services were designed to teach the Jews of Christ; and yet, when Christ came, instead of embracing him as the fulfillment of all the signs, they chose to embrace the signs themselves, and reject him.
The Discourse with the Samaritan Woman (John 4:1-42)
Weâ€™ve been talking about the coming of the new order, or the Messianic fulfillment of the old signs â€“ but what does this have to do with the promised Kingdom? In a word â€“ everything. For Christâ€™s teaching, which was so startling to the Jews of his day, was that the promised Kingdom would make its arrival as a spiritual Kingdom, and slowly spread over all the earth, until the final Sabbath rest in the New Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 13:31-32). From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the promised Kingdom â€“ but it was not yet a kingdom which could be seen (Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36). Yes, the promised Kingdom would eventually be visible, in the final culmination of history (Revelation 21:1-3). But what the Jews did not understand was that it would first appear as a spiritual Kingdom, which would slowly grow and fill the earth, before it would completely renew the earth in a visible manner.
In this day, when the Kingdom is growing, but spiritual and invisible, how is it different from the old kingdom of David? We have already mentioned one thing â€“ it is a substantial, or essential Kingdom. The old Theocratic Kingdom was a foreshadow of spiritual realities; but Christâ€™s coming has brought the true substance to which those foreshadows pointed. But not only is Christâ€™s Kingdom a substantial Kingdom; as we shall see in his dealing with the Samaritan woman, it is also a universal Kingdom. It will no longer be bound to one locale or on ethnicity â€“ but will be characterized only by â€œspirit and truth (John 4:24).
In this passage, we see several instances of old shadows falling by the wayside, as new spiritual realities leap into the forefront. First of all, the old ethnic distinctions are obliterated, when Jesus approaches a representative of the hated race of Samaritans, and offers her the water of everlasting life. It is also worth mentioning that Jesus even chose to approach a woman, to make clear that, not just ethnic distinctions, but even distinctions of gender no longer had any bearing on who could approach God in worship (cf. Galatians 3:28).
But beyond that, Jesus goes on to indicate the difference between the patriarchs, and the physical benefits they provided; and the spiritual benefits that he alone could supply. True, the patriarch Jacob provided water; but Jesus could provide the â€œtrueâ€ water, water that would sustain everlasting life, and quench every innate longing and desire. Just as we noted last week, with the physical laver in the tabernacle; so it is with the well of Jacob, which just pointed ahead to what the promised Christ would actually bring â€“ that which sustains, not physical life, but spiritual life.
And beyond this, Jesus makes clear that, even the Jewish city of Jerusalem, together with its temple and all the divinely-instituted worship ordinances, was no longer to have the distinction of being the place where God met with men, and where true worship could be carried out. No, Christ had come to fulfill all of its symbolic promises, and now that he, the reality, was here, there was no longer any need to go there, or anywhere else, to worship God. True worship would now take place in spirit, as opposed to material shadows and symbols, and in truth, not just in ritual signs and observances.
We must be clear that Jesus was not saying that there was anything wrong with the Jerusalem Temple-worship. It was commanded by God, and it alone pointed to true and acceptable worship. It was only by the divinely-mandated Temple-worship that the Jews could know what salvation was, and how it would come. But the time for that instructive purpose is now over. A greater than the temple is here, and he would bring the presence of God to the world of mankind, as he sent out his Spirit of abiding presence (cf. John 14:16-18). The Temple-worship was good, but it was always meant to be replaced by something better.
All of these things, the change from physical sign to spiritual essence, the extending of the Kingdom to the whole world, etc., were prophesied of the coming Messiah. Even the Samaritan woman recognized as much, and suggested that, if Jesus knew so much, and was able so authoritatively to declare these things and offer eternal life, then maybe he was himself the Messiah. And Jesus of course gave an emphatically positive response to her unasked question (John 4:25-26).
At this point, we start to see, almost as a hint of a far greater reality in the future, that Jesusâ€™ salvation would indeed spread to all the earth. For here in Samaria, the good news of Jesus the Messiah began to spread, whereas in Israel he met only opposition and rejection. And so started to come into reality that marvelous plan that, by the Jewsâ€™ rejection of Christ, salvation would spread to the Gentiles, and eventually men and women from the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, would be brought into Christâ€™s Kingdom (cf. Romans 11:11-12). This in fact seems to be the lesson that Christ begins to teach his disciples, after this incident. All of history has been designed in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of Christ. Many saints and prophets have labored beforehand to bring about this day of long-awaited blessing. And the disciples were about to enter into the fruit of that labor: the day of harvest had come, the fruits of long ages would soon be reaped throughout the world, as the gospel of Christâ€™s Kingdom began to spread and produce faith and eternal life in all the nations. The disciples would be sent out to begin the process of reaping this mighty harvest. Many other faithful servants labored in the kingdom before then, and had not yet seen this fruit. But they, as also we, are blessed to be sent out among the nations, reaping the harvest of Godâ€™s redemptive history, the souls of men who were lost, but have come by the gospel to believe in the name of Christ, and so find eternal life (John 20:31).
But before Christ gives this instruction to his disciples, he teaches them another lesson, reinforcing the basic change that he was bringing â€“ true food and water consists not of physical meat and drink, but that which gives eternal life. And this true food and water, only Christ can give, by fulfilling the will of God concerning the redemption of mankind. Thus Christ reminds his disciples, in verse thirty-four, of the nature of true meat. Later, he would make this point even more clear, as he taught the multitudes that true life came only from eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. That is, without partaking of the benefits of Christâ€™s substitutionary death, one could never have eternal life (John 6:47-51). But that will have to wait for another lesson.
Today, we have glimpsed a little more of the nature of Christâ€™s promised Kingdom. Although it offered eternal joy to those who should enter into it, as Christ demonstrated with the miracle at the wedding in Cana; yet for those who rejected its spiritual nature, in favor of the physical signs that had pointed to it, it would bring with it judgment, and an eternal casting out from the presence of God. We also learned that this long-awaited kingdom is substantial (that is, it possesses the substance, or reality, that the theocratic nation of Israel only typified in a physical way); and it is universal (its bounds spread beyond Israel, and embrace men and women from all the nations of the earth). In the midst of this, we encountered more teachings on how Christ fulfills, with true spiritual life and blessings, the things that were present in physical symbols, under the patriarchs. Jacob gave physical water â€“ but Christ would give water of eternal life. Israel (and the twelve disciples) ate physical bread â€“ but Christ would give the bread of eternal substance. And he would do so by following the Fatherâ€™s will in the great plan of redemption, and ultimately, by offering up himself as a substitutionary sacrifice to God, not just for his people Israel, but so that â€œhe should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroadâ€ (see John 11:50-52). How great is Godâ€™s plan of redemption! How great and unexpected was the arrival and nature of the Messianic Kingdom, so long-desired and yet so little understood by the great majority of the Jewish people. Thanks be to God that we Gentiles, who â€œwere without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world... now in Christ Jesus...are made nigh by the blood of Christâ€ (Ephesians 2:12-13)!