Author: Craig R. Koester
Publisher: Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Overall, much like his Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Koester’s The Word of Life is an enlightening read on Christ, the Word of God, who is the Light of the world to enlighten His human creatures with the Light of eternal life. His treatment on the signs in John and other motifs throughout the Gospel are equally helpful as they are enlightening. However, I take issue with Koester’s view of the role of Jesus’ atonement on the cross in the Gospel of John.
Like most scholars, Koester treats the Gospel of John as presenting Jesus’ crucifixion not as a sacrifice for sin but as deliverance from death (Koester, 113). While this is true, for sins to be atoned is to be delivered from death; the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather, with Gieschen I argue that “a careful reading of the Gospel” will present atonement in the Gospel of John “is taught implicitly through allusion” (Gieschen, 245). While I concede that atonement in John is not explicit, I maintain it is largely implicit throughout the Gospel.
Points of Agreement
Before I critique, in the spirit of Rapoport’s rules, I will briefly state points of agreement where Koester’s treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion of the Gospel of John is helpful. Koester adequately notes the event of Jesus’ crucifixion is the result of human sin. In John’s Gospel, human sin is not limited to Jews or Gentiles; both are guilty for Jesus’ death, indicating the fault of all humanity.
While the Jews desired to put Jesus to death because they viewed Him to be breaking the Law of Moses and making Himself equal with God, both of which were punishable by death (especially the latter; see John 5:17-18; 8:58-59; 10:30-33), “Pilate the Roman governor was told that Jesus had made himself into a king, and crucifying a pretender to the throne was politically expedient, since it showed Pilate’s loyalty to the emperor and let the public know that opposition to Roman rule would not be tolerated (19:12-22)” (Koester, 108-109, 116).
While specific people are at fault for Jesus’ death, these two groups also represent all of humanity regardless of religious and ethnic background. It is true what Paul says, then, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
I learnt from Koester to see that both “these political dynamics manifest an underlying theological reality, which is the power of sin” (Koester, 71). Ultimately, both groups reject Christ as King, which further represents the underlying theological reality that unbelief is this rejection of Christ as King. After approving the release of Barabbas, the murderer, the Jewish leaders are eager to tell Pilate that they are loyal to no king but Caesar (John 19:15).
Under Roman politics, they are successful, “But from the Gospel’s theological perspective, affirming Caesar’s exclusive lordship means rejecting God’s lordship” (Koester, 71), which is ironic considering all this takes place during the Passover when the Jews acknowledge God as their only King. Ironically, they reject God as their King during Passover and confess Caesar to be their only king.
Both groups (Jew & Gentile) represent the human concupiscence to swear allegiance to some other person as king rather than Christ, King of the universe.
Koester’s Problem with Atonement in John’s Gospel
At issue is how one understands “atonement.” To atone for something means to take away or remove something. Koester acknowledges atonement does take place in Jesus’ crucifixion, but his error is on what this atonement means in John’s Gospel. He rejects the notion that in John’s Gospel this atonement means Jesus’ death removes the penalty of sin but rather removes unbelief (Koester, 115). While Koester argues this is how John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ atonement explicitly and never implies atonement as removing sin, it is not entirely congruent with the Gospel’s actual implicit presentation of atonement as removal of sin.
In John 1:29, John the Baptiser alludes to the atonement as payment for sin (and its guilt) in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 53:7, when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” While Koester acknowledges this, his view of atonement in John does not match John’s actual presentation of it.
For Koester, atonement in John’s Gospel can only be understood as the removal of unbelief rather than the removal of sin and its punishment. Gieschen notes that “some interpreters are quick to point out that in John the Lamb of God neither ‘carries’ (φέρει [pherei]) sin nor ‘bore’ (ἀνένεγκεν [anenegken]) sins as the servant does in Isaiah 53:4 and 53:12 respectively, which draw on the scapegoat rite of Leviticus 16” (Gieschen, 255).
Koester says as much when he writes, “[The Gospel] does not say the Lamb takes away ‘guilt’ but that he takes away sin—he removes unbelief” (Koester, 115). What Koester fails to recognise, however, is that unbelief is sin. For Koester, unbelief and sin are not identical, but this is not how John’s Gospel treats them. Gieschen notes the error in full:
Sometimes atonement of sins is not seen in John because interpreters don’t see much teaching about sin in John [Koester sees unbelief rather than sin]. The evangelist at times uses the singular form of ἁμαρτία [hamartia] (“sin”) to signify that sin is a singular and cosmic condition rather than merely multiple individual actions (see John 1:29; 15:22; 16:8). Both the use of the singular (τὴν ἁμαρτίαν [tēn hamartian, “the sin”]) as well as the inclusive genitive modifier that indicates universal scope (τοῦ κόσμου [tou kosmou, “the world”]) in John the Baptist’s announcement signify sin is a condition that enslaves creation, including all people… John, however, also speaks of the multitude of individual sins that result from this condition of bondage [this emphasis mine]. This is expressed with explicit simplicity by Jesus in John 8:34: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…” Sin’s grip is clear: man is “dead” in sin [unbelief] and commits a multitude of individual sins. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he tells his disciples: “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven” (John 20:23). The implication of bestowal of authority to forgive is that his death has done something to free mankind from the consequences of sin [this emphasis also mine].Gieschen, 255-256
Therefore, Koester’s separation of unbelief from sin in John’s Gospel is a false dichotomy. Mankind’s actual sins are deeply connected to his incurvatus in se (curved inward on oneself), which is his concupiscence to be estranged from God in unbelief and, therefore, to commit actual sins. Punishment for this unbelief and the sins that follow are precisely what Jesus came to atone, even in John’s Gospel.
Koester also takes issue with interpreters utilising Jesus’ good shepherd discourse as meaning His substitutionary atonement for removing the punishment of sins. He argues, “there is no suggestion that the good shepherd lays down his life to deliver the flock from divine judgment. The specific threat against the flock comes from thieves and bandits, not from God’s wrath” (Koester, 115-116). While he is somewhat correct about the latter, he is wrong about the former. Koester entirely ignores the wider context of Jesus’ good shepherd discourse.
Jesus says all this in the context of the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, which ought not to be ignored as Koester ignores it. Much as the festival of Passover celebrates the exodus event, Hanukkah celebrates the recapturing of the Temple from the Seleucids in 164 B.C. during the Maccabean revolt. The recapturing is not only celebrated but so is the reconsecrating of the Temple as the Maccabeans tore down the pagan idols and erected a new altar with a sacrifice to reconsecrate the Temple.
At the end of Jesus’ good shepherd discourse, Jesus says of Himself that God the Father has consecrated (ἡγίασεν [hēgiasen]) Him, the same language used for consecrating an altar. Bauckham observes Jesus’ implication, “If Jesus is treated symbolically as the new temple or the new altar, sacrifice ‘in’ or ‘on’ him could not be a fact of the past, but an event still in the future at this point in John’s narrative. God has already consecrated Jesus to be the place of sacrifice, but the sacrifice has not yet been offered” (Gieschen, 257).
Whereas Koester thinks “the point is that the shepherd conveys his devotion by laying down his life for the flock” (Koester, 116), in the context of the festival in which John places the good shepherd discourse, we see the implicit point is, in reality, Jesus the Good Shepherd is the altar upon whom God places the sins of the world.
Koester is not alone in viewing the good shepherd discourse as merely “an act of self-devotion.” Forestell interprets it similarly (Gieschen, 257). However, the language Jesus uses in “laying down” His life—that is, His entire person (ψυχή, נֶפֶשׁ [psuchē, nephesh respectively]) for His sheep “stems from the reference in Isaiah 53:10 (LXX) to the servant giving his ψυχή (‘entire person’) as an offering for sin” (Gieschen, 258).
In relation to this, Gieschen notes the preposition ὑπέρ (huper, “on behalf of”) is often used with the theology of substitutionary atonement, which occurs in John’s Gospel (Gieschen, 258). With Caiaphas, for example, he ironically “remarks that one must must die ‘for’ the people (11:50),” in Koester’s words (Koester, 116). This time, Koester is ignorant of the original Greek. What the ESV renders “for” is best translated as “on behalf of.” The text says: συμφέρει ὑμῖν ἳνα εἳς ἆνθροπος ἀποθάνη ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ μὴ ὃλον τὸ ἒθνος ἀπόληται (“it is better for you that one man should die on behalf of the people and not that the whole nation should perish”).
Jesus also uses this preposition when He says, “And the bread that I will give on behalf of the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51). Thus, the preposition is used not only as Israel’s substitutionary atonement but also that of the whole world.
Therefore, we see that although John does not explicitly present Jesus’ substitutionary atonement as the Synoptics have, he nevertheless implies this atonement through the Old Testament allusions he presents throughout his Gospel account. Jesus atones not merely for “unbelief,” but also for the actual sins of the people who live in unbelief should they believe in the one whom God the Father has sent (John 3:16; 6:47).
Much like Koester’s Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, I would also recommend this book to any pastor and student of theology to include in their Johannine repertoire—as there are many great things to learn from Koester in this book—with the grain of salt that Koester’s view on atonement in John’s Gospel is not entirely accurate.
Gieschen, Charles A. “The Death of Jesus in the Gospel of John: Atonement for Sin?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 72, no 3 (Jul 2008): 243-261.