RS/MP Lesson 1: “Living What We Believe” (George Albert Smith Manual)
Posted by Robert C. on January 2, 2012
The theme and quotes in this lesson follow, I think, fairly expectedly from the title of the lesson. Time is short for me, so I’m going to focus on some issues relating to John 8, how it is used in this lesson, and what I think are some ways this passage gives us for thinking about the lesson as a whole in fresh ways that can generate interesting discussion. (If anyone else is interested in posting lesson notes, since time will likely be somewhat short for me for the next several months, please say so below, or email me at rcouchZZZ@gmail.com, without the ZZZ. Of course, making interesting comments is a very easy and non-committal way to help enhance the value of these notes!)
On p. 3 of the manual, Pres. Smith effectively raises the question: are we like “the self-righteous Pharisees, who rejected His message, claiming that they were the descendants of Abraham and indicated that their lineage would save them in the Kingdom of God”? This, I think, is a great question to begin the lesson with: to what extent are we (individually, as well as communally—both locally, and as a church culture more generally) like the Pharisees? What tendencies and temptations do we have that are similar? How can we overcome these tendencies? These questions lead to the following question that will set the stage for thinking about John 8:33-39 that Pres. Smith quotes: what were the Pharisees like?
The manual cites verses 33-39 of John 8, but it’s confusing to start with verse 33. Actually, it’s hard to start anywhere after verse 12, since the themes of this chapter are highly interwoven. In verses 13, after Jesus declares himself the light of the world, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of bearing record of himself. Jesus responds in a curious way, first that although he bears witness of himself, his witness is true (v. 14), but also that the Father bears witness of him (vv. 16-18). The Pharisees then ask where Jesus’s father is, and Jesus replies, “Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also” (v. 19). This theme of the Father is again picked up in verse 26 when Jesus declares, “he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those thigns which I have heard of him.” Jesus continues to declare his relation/unity with the Father in vv. 28-29, and in response some misunderstand (v. 27) whereas some believed him (v. 30).
Then we get to the more immediate context of the verses cited in the manual: Jesus says “to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (vv. 31-32). This sets the stage for the response, “We be Abraham’s seed,” which I’ll discuss more below. For now, it is worth thinking a bit about these issues of freedom and truth, and how all of this relates to what follows (and to the theme of this lesson more generally).
The notion of freedom in the New Testament usually pertains to freedom from sin (e.g., Romans 6:18-23), freedom from law (e.g., Romans 7:3; 8:2; Galatians 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13) or freedom from death (e.g., Romans 6:21; 8:21). In many ways, I think the theme of this lesson can be nicely conceived as a question regarding precisely the kind of bondage suggested by this New Testament notion of freedom: why, after all, don’t we live what we believe? (One possible answer, which I have in minde here: we are, effectively, in bondage to sin or death, or—in a more complicated sense, discussed by Paul esp. in Romans 7—law.)
The question of truth should be understood here, I think, in terms of the Hebrew notion of truth meaning “to be true to.” Much of what Christ is talking about here is being true to the witness of Heavenly Father—and, subsequently, being true to the legacy of Abraham. It is also interesting to note the following about truth and the Hebrew term that is the root for our term amen. First, God is called the God of amen (“truth” in the KJV) in Isa 65:16, and He is referred to as just “the Amen” (in English) in Rev 3:14. Thinking about the relation between Jesus and Heavenly Father in terms of “amen” is, I think, quite helpful. Also, when Jesus says in the next verse of John 8 (v. 34), “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” the word “verily” is the Greek word amen. The Holy Ghost, as a kind of second comforter (the Paraclete, in John’s gospel), is what helps us recognize this confirming relation between the Father and the Son. When Christ talks about this kind of truth rooted in his fidelity to his Father, and uses the Hebrew terms for truth to introduce his own teaching (remember, Jesus spoke Aramaic, basically a dialect of Hebrew) it sets a very rich stage for thinking about Abraham, and his seed—and in a manner that parallels the way we should think about our own baptism and the extent to which we really can be considered God’s seed (since we often like to talk simply in terms of everyone being children of Heavenly Father in a way that I think downplays the importance of the covenantal family relations that we should be focusing more on…).
So, finally, we get the response to Jesus in verse 34, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” First, this is a curious claim since the Israelites were in bondage at least to the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans. But it’s unlikely these learned Jews had forgotten these episodes in their history, so it’s more likely that they interpreted these episodes as exceptional and of short-duration in the context of their chosen and blessed status as the inheritors of Abraham’s blessings (“they had never been in a continuing state of bondage,” Andreas Kostenberger writes in his Baker Exegetical Commentary volume on John). The response here seems to have more direct canonical reference to Leviticus 25:39-42 that prescribes “that no Jew, however poor, should descend to the level of slave” (Kostenberger, p. 262).
But Jesus goes on to clarify that he is talking about slavery to sin (John 8:34). Jesus goes on in this discussion to elaborate on the idea that the Jews who do not receive him, and do not do righteous works are—as the claim of the argument culminates in v. 44—children of the devil. This is, I think, a very strong claim, and one that strikes me to the heart. Oftentimes when I fall into sin, I rationalize this away by telling myself that no one is perfect, and that God will understand and forgive me, and that I’ll just try harder, etc., etc. But I think that this line of thinking is often abused in an effort not to see the bondage that we are truly in. This is what I think Pres. Smith is ultimately getting at when he says on p. 3, “The world has gotten into such a condition and has been deceived by the adversary . . . declar[ing] that the mere belief in God is all that is necessary. . . . That is a trick of the adversary.”
I think 1 John 2:3-6, cited in the Related Scriptures section of the lesson, would also be quite interesting to take up in the context of the thoughts above (Moroni 7:3-5, on “by their works ye shall know them,” also teaches something very similar, and thus might also be worth taking up, but I like the less familiar wording of 1 John, which might help shake us out of our tendency to read in a mode of slumber…). Verse 3 reads, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” What’s interesting to me is the way that this is said in a non-prescriptive way. John isn’t advocating explicitly here that we keep the commandments. Rather, he is simply stating that if we claim to know God, but do not keep the commandments, we are lying (v. 4). This, I think, is a powerful way to think about the underlying principle in this lesson, and in a way that is not very common for us in the Church these days, at least in my experience. If we are not keeping the commandments, and yet we claim to know God, we are in self-denial. This kind of self-deception is dangerous, since it keeps us from knowing God, and experiencing the love of God (v. 5). I think the message of 1 John is quite clear that this problem can be overcome only by recognizing and receiving the love of God, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and then showing love toward others. If we are not acting in accordance with this divine love, there is something clearly wrong in our relationship with the source of this love, and we should plead on our knees until we truly feel God’s love, and let it have its transformative effect on our hearts.