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EVANGEL HER 300 - Presuppositions Affect Interpretation

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Presuppositions Affect Interpretation (Cultural Presuppositions) One Sunday a long-standing missionary to Africa visited my Sunday School class in which I was presenting a lesson from John, chapter 3. The title of the series was “The people who came to Jesus,” and the focus was on examining the underlying needs and reasons why people were drawn to Jesus. The subject of our study for that week was Nicodemus, the ruler of the Jews who came to Jesus “by night.” I lingered over that detail, which John provides in the narrative and asked why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. I acknowledged the possibility that it could be that the detail was meaningless, but in that John later repeats the phrase (19:39) in identifying Nicodemus, it seemed unlikely. I suggested that Nicodemus had some hesitancy if not timidity in openly identifying with this notorious prophet from Nazareth. This seemed likely since in the previous verse (19:38) another religious leader, Joseph of Arimathea, is described as a ‘secret believer’ because of his fear of the Jews. However, my suggestion was rejected by the missionary. He offered his own interpretation. “In Africa, people do not come calling during the day because that is when work is being done. If you want to discuss something important you go to a person’s house in the evening where they can concentrate and give proper attention to your need.” When I objected to his interpretation, he said that the African culture is an eastern culture and that it is much closer to the eastern culture of the New Testament. In his understanding Nicodemus came as an earnest seeker after truth. Thus, his sincerity was displayed by his coming to Jesus “at night” when he could fully engage the Rabbi in an extended conversation. Who was correct? Does it matter? Could we both be right? What made for the difference in interpretation? Where were we getting our particular interpretation? What is the question that both of us should be asking? 1. What caused the disagreement over the interpretation of this passage? 2. On what aspect did the two interpreters agree? 3. Where did they disagree? 4. What was their presupposition regarding the location and context of meaning for the phrase “at night?” 5. Which interpreter was looking for the literary context for the meaning of this phrase? What was the other looking at for its meaning?Resolution: Exegesis seeks to determine what the author (John) was trying to convey through his selection of words and details he gives to his reader. He also expects that the reader will read his words in context. Sometimes the best context is the book (gospel). Sometimes that context is not just a literary one, but yields a theological context. Consider the following: •First, “at night” is repeated in a later identification of Nicodemus in 19:39, “And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to Him by night.” •Nicodemus became a disciple of Jesus. His timidity is paralleled by Joseph of Arimathea, another “secret believer” (19:38) whom John says was a ‘secret believer’ because of his fear of the Jews. •The phrase “at night” serves the motif of light and darkness that is common to John’s gospel. In fact, together with 3:19-21, this contrast between light and darkness forms a bracket around this story. 1 2•In John’s gospel, night is symbolic of spiritual darkness – the absence of God’s revealed truth, especially what is revealed in Christ. It is entirely possible, then, that John is portraying Nicodemus as a seeker after truth. He has yet to receive God’s revelation in Christ. Thus, he is still walking in the darkness, but he is seeking the light. •Though not explicitly stated, it is reasonable that Nicodemus is cautious in seeking out Jesus. He obviously knew that the religious leadership was less than enthusiastic about Jesus. 3•Consequently, Nicodemus did not want his visit to Jesus to be widely known, hence the visit “at night.” He was cautiously curious. See Jn 9:4; 11:10. By contrast note that light is associated with God’s revealed truth and the new life that 1it brings. See Jn 1:4-9 See Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: 2InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 269 See 1:13-20; 2:18-20. John uses the term “the Jews” to refer to the Jewish leadership, and often in their 3opposition to Jesus (Cf. 5:10-13, 16-18; 6:41, 52; 7:1-15; 8:48, 52, 57-59; 9:22; 10:19-24, 31-33; 11:8; 13:33; 18:12, 14, 31, 36, 38; 19:12, 14, 20, 31, 38; 20:19), and sometimes of their astonishment over him, but short of belief (See 7:35; 8:22; 10:24). At other times “the Jews” seem to refer to unspecified ethnic group of Jewish people without reference to hostility to Jesus (11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45, 54-55; 12:9, 11; 18:20, 33, 39; 19:3, 7, 19, 21,


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