New Commentary on John in NCCS

New Commentary on John in NCCS April 1, 2013

The latest installment in the New Covenant Commentary Series (NCCS) is on the Gospel of John by Jeyaseelan Kanagaraj (a.k.a. “Jey”). Jey J. Kanagaraj is a Professor of New Testament who served a number of years at the Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, N. India and who was the Principal of Bethel Bible Institute in Salem, S. India. He is now retired and has got invitation to go and teach in theological seminaries in Indonesia.

Here’s the blurb: 

In this commentary Kanagaraj examines how John projects the church as God’s “new covenant community,” which, is characterized by two virtues: love and obedience. Impossible to exhibit under the old covenant based on Moses’ Law, these qualities became possible by the initiative grace and faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus and demonstrated by the power of the Spirit. God’s new community is an inclusive and progressive community because its witness to Jesus in a world that hates and persecutes it has the power to bring in all people so that they may become one flock under one shepherd. Kanagaraj argues that the idea of founding and nurturing a new community was in God’s heart even before the time of creation and not just at the time of incarnation.

I’ve also interviewed Jey about his commentary:

1. How did you come to be a biblical scholar in India?
I took interest in New Testament Studies soon after I completed Bachelor of Divinity course. This led me to do Post-graduate level studies in New Testament after a few years of Pastoral experience. I had some years of experience in the Pastoral ministry after I did M.Th. course which enlarged my interest in New Testament studies. My theses, both in B.D. and in M.Th. courses, were well accepted.

 Very soon I became a lecturer in New Testament in a Biblical Seminary in India. This offered me a good chance to use the available library resources and learn. I also learnt through teaching the students and evaluating their papers. The Seminary sent me to do Ph.D. in New Testament under Prof. James Dunn in Durham University, UK.

My doctoral study offered me a wonderful and useful opportunity for learning and writing. After I finished my dissertation, the examiners in the viva voce encouraged me to publish my thesis as a book. After some revisions, my Ph.D. dissertation on “Mysticism” in John’s Gospel was published as a book. It got wider acceptance in the scholarly circles. This gave me confidence and encouragement to write more articles and publish them in journals, both in UK and in India. The seminary, where I was working, gave me opportunities to edit two books. I co-wrote a commentary on John with Rev. Ian Kemp in relevance to the Asian context and after seven years I wrote another commentary on John in relevance to the Indian context and got it published in India. Students and scholars found it useful to their study. Recently I was asked to write a commentary on John for the New Covenant Commentary Series. The work was over and it is now published by Cascade Books. I became a biblical student (“scholar”) by working hard in the library, by teaching, by writing and by developing a learning attitude.

2. What do you find so enjoyable and thought provoking about the Gospel of John?
John’s Gospel gives answer to human thirst to see God. It portrays Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, as the only revelation of God to human beings. It was inspiring to learn from the Gospel of John that there is union between God the Father and Jesus the Son and, at the same time, the Son’s subordination to the Father. The Johannine thought that divinity and humanity, humility and majesty, dwell together in Jesus, the Word-become-flesh, is a unique and challenging truth.

 John’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, which is quite different from other Gospels, his projection of God by the name “I, I am” in relation to the people in and through Jesus, his unveiling of truth about God’s mission performed by Jesus and now by the Church, the believing community, his underlying motif of God’s new covenant community, and many other such themes in John’s Gospel are enjoyable and thus to be cherished.

3. What did you learn about the Gospel of John when you wrote your commentary?
I learnt that writing a commentary needs self-discipline, intensive study and sacrifice. I realized that only by co-working with other scholars and editors can I finish the task of writing a commentary. I saw the great need for me to go to western countries in order to use the library which normally has better and updated resources.

 I understood the high Christology that underlies the Gospel of John. In John, theology can no other way be expressed except through Christology and Pneumatology. I was taught by my own study that the purpose of forming God’s new community was in God’s heart even before the time of creation and that he has been fulfilling it in Christ, the Son of God whom he sent into the world, and is still fulfilling it in the life and ministry of the church. The community motif is embedded in the Fourth Gospel from the beginning of the Gospel till the end. I could appreciate the meaning of the key words, used in John, such as the “Logos”, “flesh”, “light”, “life/eternal life”, the “Paraklētos”, “abiding in”, etc. I learnt how the Gospel of John is applicable even today, particularly when I wrote “Fusing the Horizons”.

4. In what way does your cultural background and geographical location impact the way you approach the text?
The South Indian culture, more particularly the Tamil culture, is shaped by the family concept. People are knit together as families, kin and clans, and they realize the need for one another in our society. This helped me naturally to trace out in the Gospel of John the family concept and the love relationship that should shape our life as God’s community.

 There is a real search for God in our culture and religions. People are longing to see the one Ultimate Reality. This cultural background led me, when I approached the text, to find out that John’s Gospel addresses this longing by stating that the one true God can be seen not primarily in any places of worship or in rituals and festivals, but in a Person, Jesus, God’s only Son, sent by the Father from heaven.

Having sprung from South Indian soil, I could easily understand Jesus tying a towel around his waist before he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:4-5), and the Greeks approaching first Philip in order to have a meeting with Jesus and Philip bringing this matter to the notice of Andrew before they both went and told Jesus (John 12:20-22). Such deeds and approaches are normally practised in our culture too.

5. What do you think the message of John is for people in the West and in the East?
It is very difficult to separate John’s message as to the West and to the East, for John writes to the whole human race, both for believers and unbelievers. However, the communal perspective of John’s Gospel is a challenge to the people in the West where individualism mainly dominates peoples’ culture. John’s Gospel also has individualism. However, it eventually leads to the communal transformation (e.g. the transformation of the Samaritans by a woman who believed in Jesus). For the people of the East, the primary message is that the Ultimate Reality is to be seen in Jesus and that it is necessary for each human to accept him by faith. The East, which is mostly affected by famine and hunger, has the message in John that Jesus fulfils human needs, supplies food and water, both physical and spiritual. He does not cast out anyone who goes to him.

 The need to worship God as the Father in spirit and in truth is a common message both to the West and the East in our times. According to John, meaningful worship takes place in a community context and therefore one cannot ignore worship services in the Church. Often divine services, even on Sundays, are ignored by Christians particularly in the West.

We are living at a time when denominations are divided and small churches, with independent creed and administration, are coming up fast, especially in the West. Christians in one denomination are suspicious of people who belong to other denominations. There has been many efforts, especially in the Eastern countries, to pull people from other denominations to their denominations by claiming that it is only their own denomination holds the truth of the gospel rightly.

Many denominations give more importance to money and property rather than to people. Politics has become very common in many churches. Jesus’ new commandment, as John’s Gospel shows, that Christians should love each other and that they should live in unity with him and with one another as one flock under one shepherd sounds as though he, in John, is addressing the splitting tendency of the churches/denominations today. Churches are not social clubs, as it is considered in many parts of the world, but they are the movements, the instruments in God’s hands, to bear witness to the world and bring other people into the fold of the church. John speaks of the inclusive nature of the church that breaks the barriers based on ethnicity, language, caste (in South India at least), and nationality.

6. Out of all the “Fusing the Horizons” sections in the commentary, which one do you think will stand out to readers?
I was benefited when I wrote “Fusing the Horizons” at the end of John 10, which paints a picture of a model leadership in the church, and at the end of John 17, which communicates the power of prayer in particular. I hope the readers will greatly be benefited by these and the sections may provoke their thoughts to grasp the nature of true leadership and the dynamic nature of prayer.
7. How can reading and studying the Gospel of John lead to renewal in our churches?
Bringing renewal in our churches is the work of the Holy Spirit which has an out-flowing tendency. Each person needs to receive the Spirit, the water given by Jesus, so that the church may collectively be renewed and, as the result, may reach out other people in society (cf. the faith of the Samaritan woman to receive the water given by Jesus, which was followed by the conversion of the Samaritans; cf. John 7:37-39).

 The important criterion for the renewal of the church today, as John portrays, is that each believer needs to die for himself/herself daily so that the believing community may bear fruit in this corrupt world for the glory of the Father. The renewal of the churches involves suffering and facing the hatred of the world. This truth is often forgotten among Christians. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” contains only half-truth. The other side of Christian life is to undergo suffering. John’s Gospel brings out this truth along with the assurance that the presence of Jesus is always with his people even when they undergo persecution. It is actually Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, in John’s Gospel, which is the point of revealing His/God’s glory.

Two outward marks of church’s renewal are good deeds and enthusiastic involvement in Jesus’ mission. John’s Gospel ends with a missional challenge: the church’s mission and the equipping power of the Holy Spirit to do it are highlighted. The church that reaches out is the life-bearing and life-giving church. A stagnant church is in danger of living for itself.

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