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Note of the Day – June 17 (1 John 1:1-2)

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The Johannine Letters (1 John)

In this series, we now turn to the Letters of John, to see how the words “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) are used in these other Johannine writings. Many commentators believe that both the Gospel and the Letters (esp. the First Letter) may be written by the same author. Tradition does ascribe them to the same person (John the Apostle), though technically the works are anonymous. At the very least, it is clear that the Gospel and First Letter draw upon similar language and imagery, sharing the same basic theological (and Christological) point of view. Critical commentators have typically explained this by way of a Johannine Community or “School”. Both tradition and internal factors have led many scholars to see these writings (along with the book of Revelation) as being the product of distinct Christian communities in Asia Minor (centered around Ephesus).

An especially complex critical issue lies in the fact that the Johannine discourses (indicated as being spoken by Jesus) and the Letters of John (esp. 1 John) are often so close in thought and wording. Many passages in 1 John could have been lifted right out of the discourses. This raises the question as to the Gospel writer’s role in the creation/composition of the discourses. Most critical scholars would view the discourses as largely the product of the author, while traditional-conservative commentators, naturally enough, are more inclined to seem them as reflecting the actual words of Jesus (with some amount of translation and editing allowed). The situation is akin to that of the Sermon-Speeches in the book of Acts—though they are said to be spoken by different persons (and even in different languages?), much of the actual (Greek) language and wording seems to reflect that of the author of Luke-Acts. For more on this latter question, see my earlier series on the Speeches of Acts.

The words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) occur only in the First Letter, thus the discussion will generally be limited to that writing. The second and third Letters will be referenced only to give supplemental information, or to help clarify an idea or expression in 1 John. The relevant passages to be discussed are:

1 John 1:1-2

The first two occurrences of the word zwh/ (“life”) come from the introductory sentence of the Letter (vv. 1-3a), which, as even a casual reading should make clear, is similar in thought and expression to the opening of the Gospel Prologue (1:1-4ff). This is only confirmed by a study of the Greek words and phrases involved. Consider the opening words of the letter:

“That which was from the beginning…”
o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$

A comparison with John 1:1 suggests that here the demonstrative pronoun o%$ refers to the “Word” (lo/go$) indicated in the opening of the Prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word…”
e)n a)rxh=| h@n o( lo/go$

The combination of the word a)rxh/ (“beginning”), reflecting Genesis 1:1 [LXX], with the verb of being (ei)mi, the spec. form h@n, “was”), makes it likely that the author of the letter had the Gospel Prologue (or a similar tradition) in mind. The distinctive use of the verb of being in the Prologue (and elsewhere in the Gospel) is theological—referring to God as source of all being and existence.

However, the fact that a neuter form of the demonstrative pronoun (o%) appears at the start of 1 John, indicates that the reference is more generalized and comprehensive—i.e. “(all) that which…”—that is to say, both to the Living Word (Lo/go$) of God, identified with Jesus, and to the “word” or account (lo/go$) of Jesus (i.e. the Gospel message). This dual-meaning of lo/go$ appears a number of times in the letter, beginning here in v. 1 (cf. below).

Before proceeding to examine several key words and phrases, here is the opening sentence of vv. 1-3a in translation:

“(That) which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which our eyes have seen (clearly), which we have looked (upon), and (which) our hands have felt, about the word of Life—and th(is) Life was made to shine forth, and we have seen (it clearly) and give witness and give up as a message to you the Life of the Age(s) which was toward the Father and made to shine forth to us—(that) which we have seen (clearly) and have heard, we also give up as a message to you, (so) that you also might also hold common (bond) with us.”

Despite the repetitiveness in much of this statement (preserved accurately above), the basic idea is clear enough, and it is fully in accord with the outlook of the Gospel writer; note the conceptual structure:

  • The Word which was from the beginning (i.e. with God the Father)
  • This Word was made to shine forth to us (in the person of Jesus)
  • (1) We have seen/heard/felt this (incarnate) Word
    (2) and we, in turn, give witness about it to others
  • This witness is the word of the (Gospel) message

At the very center of this statement is the expression “Word of Life” (o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$), which, as I indicated above, has a dual-meaning: (a) Jesus as the Living Word of God (and source of Life), and (b) the message (word/account) regarding Jesus, which will lead to Life for those who trust in him. In the Gospel, the noun zwh/ virtually always refers to the Life which God possesses (i.e. divine, eternal Life), and which is given to believers through Jesus. Just as God the Father’s word and voice gives life to all things (Gen 1:3ff; cf. also Psalm 119:25, 107, etc), so that of the Son (Jesus) gives this same life (Jn 1:3-4; 5:24-29; 6:63; 11:43, etc).

Verse 2 is essentially a parenthesis which explains this Life; there appears to be a loose chiastic structure to its logic:

  • This Life (i.e. the divine/eternal Life)
    —Manifest to us (in the person of Jesus)
    ——We have seen it
    ——We give witness/message of it
    —Manifest to us (through Jesus’ gift)
  • The Life which was with [lit. toward] God

The closing reference to Life uses the expression “Life of the Age”, which appears repeatedly in the Gospel, and which I have discussed at length in earlier notes. It typically refers to the Life given by Jesus to believers, which is also identified numerous times in the Gospel with the Spirit. This same association may be intended here, though the actual word pneu=ma does not occur until chapter 3 of the letter.

If there were any doubt regarding the connection between John 1:1-3 and vv. 1-3 here in the letter, there is added confirmation in the fact that in verses 5ff light is introduced as a thematic motif, just as it is in vv. 4-5ff of the Gospel Prologue. The theme includes the same dualistic light vs. darkness contrast. This may help to explain the interesting use of the preposition pro/$ in Jn 1:1-2 and 1 Jn 1:2. It is typically translated “with”—i.e. the Word was with God—but properly it indicates direction or location, i.e. of motion toward something, or facing toward (i.e. before, in front of) something. Presumably the latter is intended here—the Living Word facing toward God the Father. This would seem to be confirmed by the close association with light-imagery and use of the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”). Christ the Son and Living Word of God faces the Father and is (perfect) reflection of the Father’s Light, etc. That same Light is then made to shine forth to believers.

Note of the Day – June 16 (John 19:30, 34; 20:22)

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John 19:30, 34; 20:22

Today’s note looks at three verses in the closing chapters of the Gospel of John (the Passion and Resurrection narratives) which refer, or may allude, to the Spirit. This note is also preparatory for the study of the relevant passages in this series from the Johannine Letters, which will begin tomorrow.

John 19:30

This verse records the last words of Jesus, at the moment of his death, one of the traditional “Seven Words” from the Cross. It reads:

“Then, when he (had) taken the sharp [i.e. sour] (wine), Yeshua said ‘It has been completed’, and, bending the head, he gave along the spirit [pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma].”

The description of Jesus’ actual death is similar to that in the Synoptic Gospels, and certainly reflects the wider Gospel Tradition. Compare:

  • Mark 15:37: “And Yeshua, releasing [a)fei\$] a great voice [i.e. cry], breathed out [e)ce/pneusen, i.e. expired]”
  • Matt 27:50: “And Yeshua, crying (out) again with a great voice, released the spirit/breath [a)fh=ken to\ pneu=ma].”
  • Luke 23:46: “And, giving voice [i.e. crying out] with a great voice, Yeshua said, ‘Father, into your hands I place along [parati/qemai] my spirit [to\ pneu=ma/ mou]’. And, saying this, he breathed out [e)ce/pneusen, i.e. expired].”

It is clear that all three verses derive from a common (Synoptic) tradition; the versions in Mark and Matthew certainly are simple variants of a shared tradition. Luke’s version, however, has interesting points of similarity with John’s account:

  • Both record actual words of Jesus, marking the conclusion of his earthly life and ministry (compared with the wordless “great cry” in the Synoptic tradition)
  • They use a similar expression:
    Luke (Jesus speaking): “I place along [parati/qemai] my spirit
    John (Gospel writer): “He gave along [pare/dwken] the spirit
  • Most surprising of all is the close similarity between the Gospel writer’s words at the end of Lk 23:46 and that in John 20:22:
    Luke: “And, saying this, he breathed out” (tou=to de\ ei)pw\n e)ce/pneusen)
    John: “And, saying this, he blew/breathed in” (kai\ tou=to ei)pw\n e)nefu/shsen)

This last similarity increases the likelihood that more than a simple description of Jesus’ death is intended in John 19:30. While, on the basic level of the historical narrative, the expression “he gave along the spirit” could merely mean “he died”, much like the archaic English expression “he gave up the ghost”, or, more commonly in modern idiom, “he expired (i.e. breathed out)” ,”he breathed his last”. Yet, the frequent wordplay in the Gospel of John, along with the important emphasis on the Spirit, makes it likely indeed that there is a double meaning here. Almost certainly there is an allusion to Jesus’ giving the Spirit (cf. 3:34; 15:26; 16:7, etc) to believers. Thus, while it is not the primary meaning, we could also translate (in a secondary sense) as:

“…and, bending the head, he gave along the Spirit [pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma].”

John 19:34

The Gospel of John records a famous detail following the death of Jesus. It is tied to the tradition in vv. 31-37, in which the soldiers are directed to break the legs of the crucified victims in order to hasten their death. But when they come to Jesus, we read:

“but coming upon Yeshua, as they saw (that) he had already died, they did not break down his legs, but (instead) one of the soldiers nudged in(to) his side with the spear-point, and straightaway water and blood came out [e)ch=lqenai!ma kai\ u%dwr].” (vv. 33-34)

This information, especially the detail in v. 34, is unique to John’s Gospel, though it may still have derived from the wider Gospel Tradition. The fact that a narrative statement akin to v. 34 is found following Matt 27:49 in a number of manuscripts makes this a definite possibility. Yet only the writer of the Fourth Gospel has included it as a significant element of the Passion narrative.

At the historical level, many attempts have been made to give a physiological explanation for the “water and blood” which came out of Jesus’ side. While such speculation is interesting, it is far removed from the Gospel writer’s interest. In the context of the narrative, the main point would seem to be a confirmation that Jesus had experienced a real (human) death. Yet, for the author, both the detail regarding the breaking of Jesus’ legs (spec. that they were not broken), and the pricking/piercing of his side, were also regarded as the fulfillment of prophecy (vv. 36-37). The citing of the Scriptures (Psalm 34:20 [cf. Exod 12:10, 46; Num 9:12] and Zech 12:10) follows verse 35, in which the author explicitly states the importance of these details:

“And the one having seen (this) clearly has given witness, and his witness is true, and that (one) has seen [i.e. known] that he relates (it) true(ly), (so) that you also might trust.”

While the recognition of the fulfillment of Scripture certainly could lead one to trust in Jesus, there seems to be special importance given to the detail of the “water and blood” coming out—it is this, primarily, which the trustworthy witness has seen and reported. How would this particular detail lead to trust in Jesus? Many commentators feel that there is a deeper theological meaning to the image of water and blood coming out of Jesus’ side.

Certainly, the idea of blood shed (“poured out”) at Jesus’ death was given sacrificial and soteriological significance in the earliest Gospel tradition (Mark 14:24 par; Acts 20:28; Rom 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16, etc). While there is nothing comparable to Jesus’ words of institution (of the Lord’s Supper) in the Gospel of John, there is strong eucharistic language and imagery in the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6 (esp. verses 51-58); indeed, vv. 53-56 provide the only other reference to Jesus’ blood (and the only other use of the word ai!ma, apart from 1:13) in the Gospel.

As there is nothing unusual about blood coming out from the pierced side, it is likely that the appearance of water, along with the blood, is what makes the event particularly noteworthy. And, if we consider how water—the word (u%dwr) and the image—is used within the discourses of Jesus, we note its close association with the Spirit:

  • John 3:5: “if one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit…”
  • John 4:10ff: “living water…the water that I will give [v. 14]…in the Spirit and the Truth [vv. 23-24]”
  • John 7:37ff: “come to me and drink…rivers of living water…(He said this about the Spirit)”

The last two passages refer specifically to water which Jesus gives (i.e. to believers), and, elsewhere, that which Jesus so gives is identified with the Spirit (3:34; 6:63; cf. also 15:26; 16:7). There may be an even closer connection between 7:38 and 19:34, if “his belly” refers to Jesus rather than the believer—i.e. it is out of Jesus’ belly/stomach that rivers of living water flow to the believer. Many commentators would interpret 7:38 this way and hold that the Gospel writer has this in mind in 19:34.

It is possible that an association between water and blood may also be found in the Cana miracle scene in 2:1-11 (i.e. wine as symbolic of blood). If so, then there is a parallel between episodes at the very beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; interestingly, Jesus’ mother Mary appears in both episodes (2:1-5; 19:25-27).

That water, blood, and the Spirit are closely connected in the thought of the Gospel writer would seem to be confirmed by 1 John 5:6-8ff. While the Letter may (or may not) have been written by the same author as the Gospel, at the very least the two works draw upon the same language, imagery and theology. This passage will be discussed in an upcoming note in this series.

John 20:22

Finally, toward the close of the Gospel, we find the actual moment when Jesus gives the Spirit to his disciples:

“and, (hav)ing said this, he blew/breathed in(to them) and says to them, ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit'”

For Christians accustomed to thinking of the coming/sending of the Spirit in terms of the narrative in Luke-Acts (cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1-4ff), it can be difficult to know what to make of the description in John 20:22. Is this a ‘preliminary’ or ‘partial’ giving of the Spirit, prior to the day of Pentecost? Or perhaps it is a special gifting for Jesus’ closest followers (the Twelve), compared with the wider audience of Acts 1-2? I have discussed these critical and interpretive questions in my earlier three-part article “The Sending of the Spirit“. We must avoid the temptation of comparing John with Luke-Acts, and attempting to judge or harmonize on that basis. If we look simply at the Gospel of John, and how the Gospel writer understood things, and what he intended to convey, the following points become clear:

  • There is nothing in the Gospel to suggest that 20:22 is anything other than the fulfillment of what Jesus described and promised in 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15, and what the author himself refers to in 7:39. Indeed, there is no suggestion of a ‘second’ giving/sending of the Spirit. Not even in the “appendix” of chapter 21 (which might otherwise correspond to Acts 1:3) is there any indication that an event like Acts 2:1-4 is to be expected.
  • Jesus’ statement to Mary Magdalene in 20:17 suggests that, for the Gospel writer, Jesus “ascends” to the Father prior (logically and/or chronologically) to his appearance to the disciples in vv. 19-23, thus fulfilling his statements in the Last Discourse.
  • This giving of the Spirit in 20:22 is described in terms which almost certainly allude to the Creation narrative—God breathing/blowing life into the first human being (Gen 2:7). As such, there would seem to be a definite connection to the “new birth” which believers experience (3:5-8)—”born from above” and “born out of the Spirit”.
  • The giving of the Spirit is connected with two aspects of Jesus’ “commission” for the disciples (and, by extension, to all believers):
    (1) He is sending them out (i.e. into the world) just as the Father sent him—i.e. the are literally “apostles” (ones sent forth), and function as Jesus’ representatives (in his place). This explains the role and importance of the Spirit, who effectively takes Jesus’ place in and among believers.
    (2) He grants to them the power/authority to “hold” and “release” sins. Again, it would seem that this is a result of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit (cf. 16:8-11, etc).
  • There is nothing to suggest that 20:21-23 applies only to the original disciples (apostles), and not to all believers. The language used throughout the Gospel, including the Last Discourse (addressed specifically Jesus’ closest followers), whom seem to confirm this—Jesus is effectively addressing all believers.