This passage picks up where last week’s reading left off. Jesus continues to deliver his Farewell Discourse (chs. 14-17), preparing his disciples for his departure and their receipt of the Holy Spirit.
In this brief but powerful passage, Jesus reiterates his favorite theme: love. He also promises the Holy Spirit. Finally, Jesus emphasizes the intimate unity of Jesus, God, the Spirit, and the believer.
Love Fifty-seven times Jesus uses love verbs (agapao, phileo). Add to that all of the occurrences of “friend” (which is the translation of philos) as well as the fact that the primary disciple in the Fourth Gospel is an unnamed character called “the beloved disciple,” and we might accuse the author of touting a single issue. And why not, for is it not the case that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life”? (3:16).
The passage begins and ends with love. In v. 15 Jesus declares that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. The reader may ask, “What commandments?” Unlike, say, Matthew, nowhere in John does Jesus command us to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Famously, Jesus gives only a single commandment in John and it occurs in the chapter just before ours: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13.34-35). He reiterates this in the chapter just after ours: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13). We see, then, the overwhelming, repetitive, circular emphasis on love. So, if the preacher is to preach this text, she will have to take up love. Perhaps John would have exulted to hear Bill Coffin’s claim to his fellow Christians: “If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
It’s worth noting that love is tied to John’s realized eschatology. Jesus gives one commandment: to love. Therefore, judgment and eternal life begin now. At the end of each day, and during each moment of each day, for John, there’s only one question to ask yourself: “In what ways did I or did I not love today?” As you reflect upon that, judgment happens. Where you did not love, there lies judgment. But understand that for John judgment is merely diagnostic, not retributive. Jesus constantly asks the characters questions that help them understand their lives and motives more clearly. To the sick man in ch. 5:6: “Do you wish to be made well?”; to Martha in 11:26: “Do you believe this?”. He asks questions not because he doesn’t know the answers (since John 2:24-25 assures us that Jesus already knew everything); rather, he asks so that we might know, and therefore move forward with clear vision into the truth, light, glory, love, abundant for which God has created us. It’s all of a piece.
The Holy Spirit Admittedly, John’s pneumatology is unusual compared to other NT texts. In contrast to Luke, who depicts the Holy Spirit as heavily active in the lives of characters from the beginning of his Gospel until the end of Acts, John insists that the Holy Spirit will come only after Jesus himself departs. Why is this? A clue lies in Jesus’ referring to the Holy Spirit not as The Paraclete, but rather as Another Paraclete. Jesus was the first; for the Spirit to be active among them while Jesus was there would have been redundant since they each serve the same revelatory function. What appeared to be bad news to the disciples, namely Jesus’ departure from them, turned out to be the best of news for both them and us. While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person, himself. Upon his departure, his disciples are given the Spirit and moved from apprentices to full, mature revealers of God’s love. And this happens not just to the first disciples, but all those who would come later, those who never saw the historical Jesus. You see, the evangelist insists that present believers have no disadvantage in comparison to the first believers. Everything they were taught and they experienced is available to the same degree and with equally rich texture to us.
The word parakletos presents notorious translational difficulty because it has a range of meanings in the Greek, all of which are meant by the author. English translations variously translate it Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, and Helper; perhaps it would be best to keep it in its transliterated form, Paraclete, so as to catch the attention of the hearer with the strangeness; after all, it’s strange among biblical authors, too. It appears only five times: four times in John 14-16 and once in 1 John 2:1. It’s also best not to shut down possible meaning for the listener by narrowing the word to one meaning. The Holy Spirit is specifically said to do the following: teach, remind (14:26), abide (14:16), and testify about Jesus (15:26). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit deals in truth.
The Quattrinity Christians are familiar with the Trinity, but perhaps the most stunning feature of the Fourth Gospel is what I have termed the Quattrinity. In John, Jesus insists that the intimate relationship that exists between him, God, and the Spirit also includes believers. The believer does not stand close by admiring the majesty of the Trinity; rather, she is an equal part of it. John tries to push at this by grabbing hold of a number of terms and repeating them: abide, love, the language of being “in” (14:17 and 20), and later in the Discourse, an emphasis on “one-ness” (cf. 17:21-23). Johannine believers don’t “imitate” Jesus; they participate in him wholly. If the passage is read aloud and preached, the reading should go through v. 23, the pinnacle of the passage: “Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” If God and Christ have made their home with us (recall 1:14), how can we imagine there to be any distance between us and God? This, in turn, affects our eschatology. Everything that matters, that is, ultimate intimacy with God and Christ, is available now. What might one hope for beyond that? God is not currently holding out on us in any way–life, abundant life, is available for living from this moment into eternity.
Preacher and congregation should consider this text within the framework from which the lectionary has extracted it.
A resolutely monotheistic Jew, Paul is incensed (paroxyneto) by the idols proliferating in Athens (Acts 17:16). In synagogue and marketplace he has been making his case for the gospel, in discussion with Epicureans and Stoics (v. 17). Judging Paul a philosophical dilettante, some have misunderstood his preaching as promotion of two foreign deities, Jesus and Resurrection (v. 18; anastesas is a feminine participle.) That is not only ironic but dangerous: Socrates was executed for corrupting Athens with strange new gods (Plato Apology 24B-C). In spite of the NRSV’s translation of v. 19 as a gentle inquiry (“May we know what this new teaching is?”) Paul’s address before the Areopagus–both a hill and a city council on whose ridge it convened–could have been a serious arraignment with his life in the balance. Far more is here at stake than mere theological debate (cf. v. 21). As in 1 Peter (3:14-16), Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, has been required to offer a reasoned defense for his Christian hope before suspicious Gentile authorities.
Here let’s pause to take our bearings on a text that trips up both homileticians and academicians. The latter have sometimes judged Acts 17:22-31 as Luke’s excursion into natural theology: tracing God’s existence from the natural world. Measured by Paul’s own “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18-31), Acts 17 has been found wanting by rigorous Protestants. We shall see, however, that such an exegesis probably gets the text wrong; and, while Luke is not Paul, the former also has sharp teeth. Preachers further face the unsavory prospect of hitching their sermons onto one of Luke’s: a second-generation evangel asynchronous with our own time and place. Initial points of contact between our culture and first-century Athens are not hard to find, however. Our world, like theirs, is variously if sometimes stupidly religious. Now as then, Christianity faces attackers of all stripes: the sophisticated, the unthinking, and the powerful who are easily threatened. Anyone who considers idolatry dead in contemporary culture has not been paying attention to Wall Street and Madison Avenue, to Hollywood or Washington or Beijing.
With Acts 17 as our guide, how shall we make our defense before those who demand an accounting of the hope that is in us?
We shall honor our challengers’ shared humanity by acknowledging points of common ground with them. Even when repulsed by them, we examine closely the objects of others’ worship (v. 23). Immediately dismissing their beliefs dishonors the religious hunger we mutually share; moreover, it fast deteriorates into our arrogance and intellectual slovenliness. (“I’ve no need to explain myself to you, since your religious opinion is self-evidently inferior to mine.”) In Luke’s presentation, Paul can sympathize with the search for an unknown god (v. 23a), the all-too-human groping for the Creator nearer to us than we know (v. 27). Paul highlights those points where the gospel conceptually intersects with different worldviews: “the God who made the world and everything in it” (v. 24a, 25b), who needs no human shrines (v. 24b-25a) and transcends human imagination (v. 29). Pagan claims about the God who is human life’s source and sustenance (v. 28) can be accepted without compromising the Christian message. Allowing that God has formerly excused human ignorance (v. 30; see also 3:17; 13:27), Luke tacitly contradicts another voice that became canonical: Paul’s own (Rom 1:18-21). Against a paranoid conservatism Luke suggests that all other philosophical or religious views do not have to be dynamited as false in order to prove the gospel true.
On the coin’s other side, Acts 17 offers no comfort for a mushy liberalism. We shall hold our ground in matters that strike at the nerve of Christian faith. This takes discernment, for not everything held dear by every Christian carries the universal significance occasionally ascribed to it. In this speech, however, there’s no mistaking the core of a gospel revealed, not read off nature’s page: the need for universal repentance from sin and repudiation of every pretender to the throne on which God alone sits (vv. 29-30), supported by the promise that the world will be judged at a fixed time of divine selection by the messianic agent whom God raised from death (v. 31). The catholicity of those claims–the punch-line of the Areopagus address–is recognizable by their expression, with modifications, throughout the Christian canon (for example, Ps 9:7-8; Dan 12:1-4; Matt 28:18-20; Mark 13:24-37; John 5:25-29; 1 Thess 1:9-10; 1 Tim 6:14-16; Heb 10:19-25; Jude 17-25; Rev 22:12-17). The now of God’s command (Acts 17:30), hammered by Paul, is as decisive as today in Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:21). The gospel demarcates a critical threshold from which, for the preacher, there is no turning back.
This side of paradise, in a world whose redemption is assured though not yet consummated, witnesses to Christ learn to live in unresolved tension. Everywhere is ambiguity. Athens, threatened by something strange, is the city that revels in novelty (Acts 17:21). An audience is deisidaimonesteros: more than usually religious, more than normally superstitious (v. 22). (The term is inherently equivocal: Paul’s listeners could have received as a compliment what he intended as pejorative or at least subtle.) A single Easter sermon evokes a range of response: jeers, curiosity, embrace (vv. 32-34). Paul departs one city with his life intact, soon to leave another contemplating his death (20:23-25, 36-38). For preacher and listeners alike there are no guarantees, save that God owns the future. In that there is solace, both for congregations thirsty for courage from dry pulpits and for pastors whose thoughtful tidings must penetrate ears thickened by sound-bites. “We will hear you again about this” (17:32) may be noncommittal, but at least it implies a message received and an invitation for more.
The harrowing of hell (3:19) has attracted the attention of poetic and illustrative imaginations throughout history–understandably so, since it seems to answer two provocative questions with an underdeveloped premise.
What becomes of people who died before Jesus’ advent among us? And what was Jesus’ condition between his death on the cross and his resurrection? During that time, Jesus descended among the dead and proclaimed the good news of salvation, according to traditions that hark back to 1 Peter 3:19. As a result, some among them were set free from death along with Jesus.
It’s hard to know how the dead reckon time, so the idea that Jesus might have “spent three days” preaching among the dead involves some peculiar calculations. Likewise, nobody can say just what the effects of Christ’s proclamation to the imprisoned spirits might have been; Scripture asserts that Jesus did preach to the departed, but does not specify the extent of his preaching’s effects. Interpreters may combine this brief allusion with Matthew 27:52 (“many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised”) and Ephesians 4:8-9 (“he made captivity itself a captive”) to flesh out a picture in which the triumphant Christ releases the dead from their imprisonment in Hell, but such a synthetic inference provides more detail than any of the individual passages.
If we prescind from overconfident inferences about the time and location of Christ’s ministry to the saints of antiquity, we still have much to observe relative to this passage. The emphasis in this context, for example, falls less on the details of Christ’s action than on the purpose of Christ’s mission. The portion of today’s lesson that runs from 3:18 to 3:22 emphasizes with fourfold repetition God’s determination to bring people to safety: by preserving humanity through the ark, by Jesus’ self-giving on the cross, by the effects of baptism, and by Jesus’ ministry to the dead. No people have been excluded from God’s saving grace–not even the dead. All through time, God has sought to make salvation available.
God saves us, however, not by arbitrarily flipping a switch next to our names. The effective grace of God alters us in ways that conform us to our greatest goodness, articulated in God’s will for us. That will, however, comes to expression in such goodness as 1 Peter describes in the first half of the passage: gentleness, reverence, and integrity (“clear conscience”)–the “genuine faith” that survives testing and suffering (1:7, 3:14-17). To the extent that our lives are characterized by these qualities, they bespeak God’s presence, and God’s own character, and they testify to our living as the royal priesthood God has made of us.
Thus, instead of construing today’s pericope as a schematic of Christ’s itinerary between Golgotha and resurrected glory, or as a mandate to seek out misery in order to acquire a blessing, the passage as a whole narrates the frame within which believers’ hopes and sorrows will appropriate intelligibility. Disciples seek the meaning of their whole lives in the way of life that Christ reveals to us; we commit ourselves to living out that way in public, in our interactions with hostile authorities and incredulous neighbors (as he did, possibly to the extent of yielding our lives). We do not thus earn God’s favor, as though suffering were a brutal inquisitorial exam for us; rather, we show the world, and ourselves, and our God, the grace of God already working in us. This is the account that 1 Peter urges us always to be ready to give (3:15, “make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (NRSV); “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope,” NIV). We surely ought to be better able to explain our faith in persuasive words, but a far more important (and often far more persuasive) explanation can be inferred from lives illumined by the Gospel.
The reading acknowledges that others who hold authority over us may use that authority abusively (though we minimize that risk if we do not provoke them to hostility); in the face of official persecution, disciples of Jesus stand under an even greater obligation to demonstrate their innocent gentleness. They may not appeal to the schoolyard rationalizations that bullies hit them first, or that they had no choice. Jesus did not return violence for the violence done to him, even though the soldiers and bystanders struck him first. And disciples always have the choice to follow Jesus by upholding the integrity of their faith when officials threaten them. (It should not need saying that for just these reasons, followers of a wrongfully tortured, crucified Lord must never under any circumstances inflict torture on others.) This passage rightly knits together the expectation that believers will protect the integrity of their faith even at the cost of their lives, with the possible positive effects of their persistence: a testimony to shame the evildoers, and an opportunity to partake in the cleansing effects Christ’s resurrection.
The resurrection brings us back around to the subject of the significance of Christ’s preaching to the departed. Christ was wrongfully put to death by human cruelty, but even this evil could not limit God’s grace; Christ’s faithfulness up to and beyond death make salvation available to all those in every generation who turn to him in hope. It is fitting that here, Jesus’ gospel reflects God’s grace; the gospel is grace revealed (as it were), and grace is the gospel in operation. Jesus unfolds the way that God’s purpose runs and shows us how to align ourselves with that purpose, by refusing to cede to our tormentors the victory of making us turn from good. With that refusal of evil and affirmation of mercy, God’s grace abounds to all who have lived and died before Jesus was born, and to us also who draw near to Jesus in order to partake of, and share in offering, the mercy by which we are saved.