Reviews

“John through Old Testament Eyes: A Background and Application Commentary” by Karen H. Jobes — A Book Review

Jobes, Karen H. John Through Old Testament Eyes: A Background and Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021. 374pp.

Karen H. Jobes (PhD, WTS) is Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor Emerita of NT Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College and Graduate School. Jobes is known for her biblical commentaries 1 Peter (BECNT), Esther (NIVAC), and 1, 2, & 3 John (ZECNT).

You cannot fully understand the New Testament without a solid grasp of the Old Testament. This is why I’m thankful for Karen Jobes’ contribution, John: Through Old Testament Eyes. This volume will aid teachers and preachers of God’s Word to see how the Old Testament illuminates our understanding of John’s Gospel. I received a free copy of this commentary from the publisher, Kregel Publications, in exchange for an honest review.

This new commentary set primarily focuses on Old Testament images, motifs, figures of speech, literary patterns, quotations, allusions, references, and echoes that influence the New Testament text. It accomplishes this goal by four major approaches to the text. First, it provides a “running commentary” for understanding the text. Second, an occasional excursus, labeled “through Old Testament Eyes,” provides additional discussion on an Old Testament theme or motif. Third, another occasional excursus answers “what the structure means,” providing significant details on the biblical author’s organization and literary context. Lastly, “going deeper”provides practical implications from the text for today’s Christians and churches.

Four Reasons to Include This Commentary in Your Study of John

1. It’s Conservative

Jobes adapts the two-fold structure of “book of signs” and “book of glory” with a prologue (1:1–18) and epilogue (21:1–25). She defends the unity of John contra Bultmann in an endnote. For Jobes, the structure of John is in keeping with the book’s purpose.

John’s gospel is a call to faith intended not merely to inform but also to convict and convince its readers of Jesus’ identity and the truth of his mission and message. John makes two crucial points as he tells the story of Jesus: that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and that Jesus the Messiah is, against all expectations, God himself.”

Pp. 15-16

Jobes observes that John portrays Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah through Old Testament images, motifs, metaphors, and symbols that are highlighted throughout the commentary. She also carefully points out how John convinces his readers that Jesus shares the same nature as God without introducing two Gods (p. 16). She provides five reasons why the deity of Jesus is not contradictory to monotheism from John’s Gospel (pp. 17–18). Jobes sees John as “the earliest apologetic for triune monotheism” (p. 24).

Jobes also helpfully surveys the history of interpretation on the authorship of John. She cites the often-ignored argument of B. F. Westcott based on internal evidence:

the fourth gospel was written by a Palestinian Jew, by an eye-witness, by the disciple whom Jesus loved, by John the Son of Zebedee” (Westcott, lii).

Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (London: John Murray, 1908), p. lii (emphasis his)

In Jobes estimation, this defense “has not been refuted” (p. 22).

2. It’s Rich in Old Testament Background and Allusions

This point is the most significant reason why any serious students of John’s Gospel should get a copy of Jobes’ commentary. Literally every page of the commentary cites an Old Testament passage or common Jewish literature. More than just citing OT texts, Jobes provides the context and exegetical details on OT passages, making connections to their use in John’s Gospel.

A familiar example is “born of water and spirit” (John 3:5) as plausibly alluding to Ezekiel 36:25–27. Jobes rightly argues that since the phrase “water and spirit” is governed by one preposition (ek, ἐκ), the phrase refers to one concept, not two, namely God’s promise of right restoration as part of the New Covenant (79–80).

A less familiar OT citation is how the OT describes relationship between God and his people through birth imagery. Deuteronomy 32:18, for instance, “You forgot the God who gave you birth.” If you missed this one before, don’t worry. Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, missed it too.

A well-known allusion occurs in John 3:14, where Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” referring back to Numbers 21:4–9. In addition to the brazen serpent pericope, Jobes also introduces the “lifted up” language from Isaiah 52:13—53:12 that will be prominent later in John 8:28 and 12:32–34. The “Son of Man” concept also alludes to Daniel 7:13–14. Thus, in John 3:14, Jesus fuses together three OT passages solely through allusion and echo (pp. 82–83).

I also appreciate Jobes’ discussion of Psalm 80 (Ps 79 LXX) and Ezekiel 15 as OT backgrounds to the Vine and Branches metaphor in John 15:1–17. She also cites Hosea 10:1–2; Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:1–21; and 19:10–15 as other OT texts.

Truly, a deeper understanding of John’s Gospel—or any NT book for that matter—requires a solid familiarity with the NT writers’ Bible, the Old Testament Scriptures.

3. It’s Scholarly, but Also Very Devotional

Most commentaries are reference volumes that are not meant to be read from cover to cover. This commentary is not that. The devotional feel, popular writing style, and practical implications make this commentary a lengthy devotional companion for students of John’s Gospel. The engagement with scholarship literature is kept to a minimum or delegated to the footnotes…eh endnotes (more on this later). While knowledge of the original languages is always a great value, it is not necessary to benefit from this commentary.

The “going deeper” feature is especially practical. The implications for today are rooted in the structure and aim of the biblical text. Jobes does not mishandle the applications or implications. She does not jump from text to today, but she carefully exegetes the historical context, structure, and aim of the text before presenting theological implications and applications.

In her comments on John 2, she writes:

While faith is the key that opens us to eternal life, John also presents deficient forms of faith, such as ‘I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it’ faith (Jn 20:24–29), a ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ kind of faith (Jn 6:26), or faith that evaporates when its demands become difficult (Jn 6:66–69). The signs are meant to reveal not only the nature of the Father and the Son but what must be trusted as a truth to be lived. Each encounter Jesus has in this gospel helps us to understand what it means to truly be his disciple…. the Christian life is then to be lived in response to what Jesus Christ has revealed. We must live as if we trust God’s promises, for belief that is not lived out is arguably not faith at all.”

p. 63

4. It Includes Interesting ANE Concepts

In addition to the rich Old Testament background throughout the commentary, Jobes also occasionally pulls out cultural background from Ancient Near East (ANE) practices. One example is the concept of Sheliach and God sending his Son in John 3:16–17. According to Jobes a sheliach (שָׁלִיחַ) was a person designated with full ‘power of attorney’ for a mission on behalf of the sender. In modern times, this practice is plenipotentiary, where a foreign dignitary represents his or her government with full authority. In the ANE, the sheliach was treated just as the sender himself. In John, “God sent Jesus with full power and authority of the Godhead; to receive Jesus is to receive God.” (86) For Jobes, Jesus was greater than a prophet or messenger, he was the fully authorized emissary.

Reinforcing the previous point, here is Jobes’ application based on the cultural context of sheliach:

It is certainly common today, and perhaps it always has been, for someone who encounters the gospel of Jesus Christ to think that their response to Jesus is a neutral matter. But against the cultural background of the sheliach (שָׁלִיחַ), an encounter with Jesus is anything but neutral! To reject Jesus is to reject the God whose plenipotentiary he is; to accept Jesus and embrace his message is to reconcile one’s relationship with the Creator God of the universe. Whether one is aware of it or not, after an encounter with Jesus through the gospel no one leaves unchanged. One leaves either continuing under condemnation of darkness or brought into the light by the truth (3:36). And so one must consider carefully one’s response to Jesus Christ. There is no other sheliach (שָׁלִיחַ) of God.”

p. 87

Minor Quibbles

In any commentary literature with significant length, disagreements are natural. But my quibbles are not with any particular interpretive decisions. My major disappointment may not even be Karen Jobes’ decision, that is the use of endnotes, instead of footnotes. It is the most frustrating part of this volume. While I appreciate the devotional benefit of this commentary, this work is still a scholarly commentary. Immediate access to marginal notes should be made available. If this was written for non-specialist Bible teachers and pastors in mind, the footnotes still should be retained. It is easier for readers to ignore the footnotes and move on than to keep flipping back and forth to check out the endnotes.

I cannot fault an author for something she did not write. This final comment is more of an engagement than a criticism. Jobes summarized the significance of Hanukkah (aka the Festival of Dedication) in John 10:22 (pp. 178–79). I would love to see more discussion on the significance of Hannukah and the Lord’s claim to be the Good Shepherd, especially the contrast that John is possibly making between Jesus and Judas Maccabaeus (see 1 Maccabees 9:22 and John 21:25).

Conclusion

The minor quibbles listed above are exactly that. They are minor, and they are quibbles. Overall, Karen Jobes’ John Through Old Testament Eyes is an excellent commentary. It is an invaluable tool for anyone teaching and preaching through John’s Gospel or anyone who wants to study this spiritual gospel in depth. You can purchase a copy here.

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