John 12:50, continued
In the previous note, I discussed the context of Jn 12:50, the concluding verse (and statement by Jesus) in chapters 2-12 of the Gospel. Today I wish to examine the verse more closely, especially the statement in the first half:
“And I have seen [i.e. known] that his e)ntolh/ is (the) Life of the Age.”
There are three components to this statement, which will be discussed in turn.
kai oi@da o%ti (“and I have seen that”)
Throughout the Gospel of John the motif of seeing has been of great importance. It plays on the dual-meaning, especially, of the verb ei&dw (“see”), which can also mean “know”—i.e., seeing in the sense of being aware, perceiving, recognizing, etc. It generally carries this meaning in the perfect tense, as here (oi@da, “I have seen/known”). Given the theological (and Christological) importance of seeing in the Gospel of John, Jesus is almost certainly referring here to something more than general understanding or awareness. Rather, it relates to his identity as the Son, who has a close, intimate relationship to the Father, and who, as a faithful son, watches and listens carefully to his father. Repeatedly in the Johannine discourses, Jesus states that he says and does only what he has heard and seen from the Father (cf. 3:32; 5:19, 30; 6:46; 8:26, 38; 14:24; 15:15). Similarly, the one who sees/hears Jesus (the Son), also sees/hears the Father (5:37; 14:7, 9, etc)—just as Jesus gives to the believer what he has received from the Father (3:35; 5:26, etc). In the Gospel of John, seeing Jesus is essentially the same as trusting him (9:37ff; 12:45; 14:17), and this differs entirely from ordinary sight or perception (6:36). The conjunctive particle o%ti (“that”) indicates specifically what it is that Jesus has seen.
h( e)ntolh/ au)tou= (“his [charge laid] on [me] to complete”)
The noun e)ntolh/ is a relatively popular Johannine word. In addition to 11 occurrences in the Gospel, it is found 18 times in the Letters; and, if we include two others in the (Johannine) book of Revelation, that makes 31 total—nearly half of all occurrences (68) in the New Testament. The word is often translated “commandment”, but that can be somewhat misleading; I discussed the fundamental meaning of the noun in the previous note. Despite Paul’s frequent reference to the Old Testament Law (Torah, Gk. no/mo$), he does not often use the noun e)ntolh/; it occurs only 9 times in the undisputed letters (6 of which are in Rom 7:8-13; also 1 Cor 7:19; 14:37). In these passages, Paul seems to be using it in a somewhat broader sense (i.e. “the Law of God”, “the e)ntolh/ of God”), rather than restricting it to the specific (written) commands of the Torah as such, though the latter is certainly included in the usage. The semantic range of the word in the (Synoptic) sayings of Jesus is similar (note the expression “the e)ntolh/ of God” in Mk 7:8-9 par).
The Johannine use of the word is complicated by two factors—it can be used either:
- in the singular (10:18; 12:49-50; 13:34; 15:12) or plural (14:15, 21; 15:10), and
- between God the Father and Jesus or between Jesus and the believer
In none of these references does e)ntolh/ refer to the commands of the Torah as such, though there is less certainty on this point when we examine the occurrences in the Letters (esp. 1 John). Let us consider the second factor mentioned above.
1. Between God the Father and Jesus (the Son)—This is the context of the usage in 10:18 and here in 12:49-50, and in both instances it is the singular form. As I discussed in the previous note, e)ntolh/ here should not be understood in the traditional sense of a religious or ethical “commandment”, but as a mission given to Jesus (by the Father) to accomplish. In 10:18, this clearly refers to his sacrificial death (and resurrection), confirmed by Jesus’ final words on the cross in 19:30 (“it has been completed [tete/lestai]”, cf. also v. 28). The emphasis in 12:49-50 is on the words Jesus has been given by the Father to speak (i.e. what he is to say). In 14:31, the related verb e)nte/llomai is used of Jesus’ mission in a comprehensive sense, as a reflection of the love between Father and Son.
2. Between Jesus and Believers—Here we find both the singular and plural of e)ntolh/, apparently used interchangeably (as also in 1 John). This should caution us against identifying e)ntolh/ with any specific “commandment” given by Jesus, as though the e)ntolai/ represented a collection of commands similar to the Old Testament written Law (Torah). I believe there are three ways e)ntolh/ should be understood in this context:
- as synonymous with Jesus’ word—i.e., whatever he says/speaks
- as representative of all that he teaches believers, who would follow his example (just as Jesus follows that of the Father)
- as epitomized by the command for believers to love one another (i.e. the so-called “Love-command”)
Even in the case of the “Love-command” (13:34-35, etc), the closest we come to a specific “commandment” (i.e., “you should love [each] other”), this should be understood not so much as an ethical injunction, but as a sign that believers are following the example of Jesus (“all will know that you are my disciples”).
zwh/ ai)w/nio$ e)stin (“is [the] Life of the Age”)
I have discussed the expression “Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life) at length in prior notes, and will not go over that again here, except to mention that, in the context of the Johannine discourses, the reference is to the Life (zwh/) which God possesses and of which He is the source. What does it mean to say that the e)ntolh/ of God the Father is [e)stin] Life? There are a number of possibilities, but they are reduced considerably if we remember that here e)ntolh/ means specifically the charge [i.e. mission] given to Jesus to complete.
- Qualitative—it describes the nature and character of Jesus’ mission from the Father
- Significative—Jesus’ mission means or signifies Life
- Resultative—Jesus’ mission results in Life for believers
All three are valid ways of interpreting the statement, and perhaps are best seen as three aspects of a single truth.