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July 2019

Note of the Day – July 31 (Revelation 1:4-6)

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Revelation 1:4-6

Verses 4-6 represent the standard greeting of the epistolary introduction. The author, already mentioned in verse 1, introduces himself and addresses his audience:

“Yohanan, to the seven (gatherings of believer)s in Asia (that are) called out (to assemble): Favor and Peace to you from the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming, and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne, and from Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness, the first-produced of the (ones who are) dead, and the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth.” (vv. 4-5a)

The author identifies himself by the Hebrew name Yohanan (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek ( )Iwa/nnh$) and Anglicized as “John”. Traditionally, this person as been equated with John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, with the ‘Johannine’ Gospel and Letters being similarly ascribed to him. However, the Gospel and Letters are actually anonymous, and, indeed, as I have discussed previously (cf. my recent note) there are certain indications that the letters were not written by an Apostle. Only in the book of Revelation does the name “John” appear as author or source of the writing. However, nowhere is he identified as John the Apostle; in fact, here, too, there is evidence indicating that the author was not an Apostle. This will be discussed further in the note on verse 9.

John addresses his epistle-book to Christians in seven cities in Asia (the Roman province of Asia [Minor]), the same cities to whom the “letters” in chapters 2-3 are addressed. The word e)kklhsi/a, in its distinctive early Christian usage, is perhaps best rendered “congregation”, but I have given it an excessively literal (glossed) translation above, so as to capture its basic meaning. It is derived from the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”), and typically refers to citizens, or members of a community, who are summoned (“called out”) to public assembly. However, in Greco-Roman society, e)kklhsi/a appears rarely to have been used for religious assemblies or associations. This particular Christian usage stems largely from the idea of the corporate assembly (lh^q^) of the people Israel in Old Testament tradition. Almost certainly, there is also an allusion to believers being chosen (i.e. “called”) by God, whereby the connotation of the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”) blends with that of e)kle/gw (“gather out”, i.e. “choose”).

There is unquestionably a religious context to the greeting, as in most of the letters in the New Testament, where the “favor” (xa/ri$) and “peace” (ei)rh/nh) comes from God and Christ (together), being invoked as a kind of blessing upon the believers who are addressed (cf. Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Philem 3; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2). Note the dual-formula, in the uniquely expanded form it occurs here in the book of Revelation:

  • from (a)po/) the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming [i.e. the Living God] —and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne
  • from (a)po/) Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness…

At first glance, it might seem that this is a three-fold formula, with the “seven Spirits” as a source of blessing parallel to God and Jesus; but this would probably be incorrect. It is best to view the phrase “and from the seven Spirits…” as subordinate to the Living God who sits on the throne. There is, however, a kind of synonymous parallelism between God and Jesus, which needs to be emphasized (cf. below).

Instead of the more traditional “God the Father”, here we have the peculiar triadic phrase in italics above:

o( w*n kai\ o( h@n kai\ o( e)rxo/meno$

The initial title o( w&n (“the [One] being [i.e. existing/living]”) derives primarily from Exodus 3:14 [LXX]: e)gw/ ei)mi o( w&n (“I am the [One] being/existing”)—cf. further, Josephus Antiquities 8.350; Philo Life of Moses I.75; Allegorical Interpretation III.181. However, there are also parallels in Greco-Roman literature, including a similar three-fold description of Deity which encompasses past, present, and future (e.g., Homer Iliad 1.70; Hesiod Theogony 1.38; Plutarch Moralia 354C); especially noteworthy is the triadic formula in Pausanias (Description of Greece 10.12.10), “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus shall be” (cf. Koester, p. 215).

The elegant customary translation, “the one who is and who was and who is to come”, glosses over the difficulty of the Greek syntax. The phrase is actually comprised of two articular participles, with an indicative verb (+ article) in between:

  • “the [one] being” (o( w&n)
  • “the [one who] was” (o( h@n)
  • “the [one] coming” (o( erxo/meno$)

Rhythmically, it is appealing, but grammatically it is quite awkward. The use of the definite article with an indicative verb (literally, “the was”) is strange indeed. Also unusual is the fact that there is no case inflection following the preposition a)po/ (“from”), as though the expressions, being Divine titles, were undeclinable. I would suggest that this phrase (repeated in verse 8 and 4:8, and echoed again in 11:17; 16:5) be understood in three ways:

  1. In the traditional sense of comprehensive existence—past, present, future.
  2. As a chiastic formula, in which the two participial expressions emphasize the eternal Life and Being possessed by God:
    —”the One being/existing”
    —”the One coming (to be)”
    With the indicative verb reflecting God’s presence and action in history.
  3. In an historical sense:
    (i) “the One being”—eternal existance
    (ii) “the One who was”—(past) manifestation in history
    (iii) “the One coming”—i.e. (present/future) coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people

With regard to the “seven Spirits [pneu/mata]” in the presence (lit. “in the sight”) of God’s throne, these are best understood as heavenly beings (i.e. ‘Angels’), as I discussed in a previous note. The throne of God, emphasizing kingship and (royal) power, features prominently in Apocalyptic writings, and, often in such visionary literature, a description of the throne and its (heavenly) surroundings is included. There are specifically seven Angels mentioned in Tobit 12:15 and 1 Enoch 20:1-7. Of course, seven, as a symbolic number, representing completeness, etc, is especially frequent in the book of Revelation. Clearly, there is a thematic connection between these seven “Spirits” and the seven congregations of the greeting and the subsequent letters in chapters 2-3.

The blessing invoked by the author comes from God (the Father), but also, equally, from Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). On the particular title Xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”), here used as a virtual second name of Jesus (according to established Christian convention), see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“. As in the case of God, Jesus is also referred to with a three-fold expression (drawn from Psalm 89, especially vv. 19-37):

  • “the trust(worthy) witness” (Ps 89:37)—We typically do not tend to think of Jesus as a witness (it is believers who do the witnessing), but this characteristic was certainly applied to him by early Christians, and appears frequently in the Gospel of John. It was already used in verse 1 (cf. the previous note), in the expression “the witness of Jesus Christ”, which, as I discussed, does not mean witness about Jesus, but rather witness by Jesus (subjective genitive).
  • “the first-produced of the dead” (Ps 89:27a)—The adjective prwto/toko$ is often translated “firstborn”, but literally means “first-produced“, as of a plant coming up out of the ground. Here, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus as the (pre-existant) Son of God (in a Johannine or Nicene sense), but, rather, relates specifically to his resurrection from the dead (i.e. of those who are dead). The adjective is used in this sense in Romans 8:29 (see v. 23); Col 1:18 (cp. verse 15); and cf. also Heb 12:23. This association is explained clearly in Acts 26:23. Jesus himself touches on the imagery in the beautiful illustration of Jn 12:24.
  • “the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27b)—This reflects the standard Messianic association, by which early Christians applied the Davidic ruler figure-type to Jesus. Again, the earliest Christian preaching connected this precisely (if not exclusively) with his resurrection and exaltation to heaven (Acts 2:24ff, 36, etc). However, it was also in his exaltation (to God’s right hand) that Jesus possessed a status virtually identical to that of God the Father, sharing his kingly rule (as Son and Heir). In early Christian thought, Jesus’ Sonship was defined primarily in terms of the resurrection (cf. Acts 13:33f; Rom 1:4; Heb 5:5ff). The book of Revelation expresses this in a most distinctive way, as we shall see.

The concluding portion of the greeting switches to a declaration of praise—to both God and Christ, though it is primarily the latter who is being addressed, as the wording indicates:

“To the (one) loving us and loosing us out of our sins, in his blood, and (so that) he made us (to be) a kingdom, sacred officials [i.e. priests] to his God and Father—to him be honor and strength into the Ages [of the Ages]. Amen.” (vv. 5b-6)

That Jesus’ death (his blood) served as a sacrificial offering which brought release (and/or cleansing) from sin, is a central tenet of Christian belief, expressed numerous times in the New Testament. There are several striking references among the relevant passages in the Johannine writings—Jn 1:29; 6:51, 53ff; (19:34); 1 Jn 1:7, 9; 2:2; 3:5; 4:10; 5:6, 8. As we shall see, this is also a theme that features prominently in the book of Revelation. It should be noted that some manuscripts read “washing us” instead of “loosing us”, understanding the verb to be lou/w rather than lu/w. This appears to be a ‘correction’, since the idea of washing (i.e. cleansing from sin) better fits the natural image of blood (and cf. the usage in 1 Jn 1:7, etc). However “loosing” is almost certainly correct, and reflects a different, primary aspect of Christ’s sacrificial work—loosing us from debt/bondage to sin. A similar idea, in relation to sin, is expressed by the verb a)fi/hmi (“set [free] from, release”), often translated in this context as “forgive”.

The idea that believers in Christ constitute a kingdom—i.e. the kingdom of God, ruled by Christ—appears many times in the New Testament, usually in terms of receiving or inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor 15:50; 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; Col 1:13; Heb 12:28; James 2:5, etc). The twin concept of believers as priests of God is specifically drawn from ancient Israelite/Old Testament tradition (Exod 19:6; cf. also Isa 61:6). We find this also occasionally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9; cf. also Rom 12:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 3:6ff, etc).

The praise and “glory” (do/ca, esteem/honor) here accorded to Jesus is precisely that which is given to God, and this a most important theological (and Christological) emphasis in the book. We will be exploring this further in the notes on verses 9-20. However, first it is necessary to examine the final portion of the epistolary introduction—the declarations in vv. 7 and 8—which we will do in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – July 30 (Revelation 1:3)

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Revelation 1:3

The first two verses of the superscription were discussed in the previous note; today we will be looking at the declaration in verse 3:

“Happy the (one) making (this) known (in the reading of it), and (also) the (one)s hearing the words [lo/goi] of th(is) foretelling [i.e. prophecy] and watching (over) the (thing)s having been written in it, for the time is near.”

This is properly a beatitude (or macarism), much like the famous set of Beatitudes uttered by Jesus in the Gospel Tradition (Matt 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). For the background of the beatitude form, see the article in my earlier series on the Beatitudes. At the conclusion of that series, I also provided a brief survey of the other beatitudes which occur in the New Testament.

According to the standard Greek formula, this beatitude begins with the adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”), often rendered as “blessed”, in light of the religious context which is typically involved. On the eschatological aspect of the beatitude form, again cf. the introductory articles of my earlier series.

Often obscured in translation is the fact this beatitude is addressed to two different groups: (1) the person(s) reading the book, and (2) the ones hearing it and guarding its contents. These two groups are marked by parallel participles, which reflect the circumstances of early Christian life and worship:

  • o( a)naginw/skwn—”the one [sg.] making (this) known (in the reading of it)”
  • oi( a)kou/onte$kai\ throu=nte$—”the ones [pl.] hearing…and watching (over)”

The verb a)naginw/skw literally means “know again”, though the prefixed particle a)na is perhaps better understood as an intensive, i.e. “know (something) well”—i.e. through the reading of a written text. In the early Christian context, “reading” meant public reading—that is, reading aloud or reciting the text. In the ancient world literacy rates were far lower than in modern societies; moreover, the average Christian would likely not have possessed a copy (of the Scriptures, etc) for private reading, but would have relied upon hearing it read aloud in the congregation. This is precisely the situation envisioned here by the author.

The use of the verbs a)kou/w (“hear”) and thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”) together reflects standard instruction, which, in the case of early Christians, goes back to Old Testament tradition regarding the Torah (Instruction) as the written word of God (cf. especially the foundational covenant scene in Exodus [19:7-8; 20:19; 24:3-4a, 7, etc]). The parallel use of these verbs, and the twin concepts of hearing and keeping/guarding, is especially prominent in the Johannine writings (Jn 5:24f; 8:47, 51; 12:47; 14:15, 21ff; 15:10, 20; 1 Jn 1:1ff; 2:3-5, 7, 24; 3:22-24; 5:3; 2 Jn 6). It is possible that the similar usage in the book of Revelation stems from a common tradition. The verb a)kou/w occurs 46 times in the book, while thre/w 11 times (including 5 times in the “letters” of chapters 2-3). In the specific context of 1:3, the verb thre/w relates, not so much to idea of obeying God’s instruction, but to guarding and protecting the record of the visions in the book. Most likely, there is a two-fold aspect to this watching/guarding: (a) paying close attention to the account and details of the visions, and (b) protecting it from misuse and misrepresentation. This latter aspect should serve as a caution for all those attempting to interpret the book today.

The content of the book is specifically referred to as “the words/accounts [lo/goi] of the th(is) foretelling”. This is the first of 7 occurrences of the Greek term profhtei/a (proph¢teía), which is typically transliterated in English as “prophecy”. As I discussed in the Introduction to the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, there are two basic meanings to the profht- word group, in relation to the prefixed particle pro (“before”): (1) a message presented before (i.e. in front of) an audience by a chosen spokesperson, and (2) a message which tells of (future) events beforehand. Both aspects apply to the use of these words among early Christians, though emphasis in the New Testament, when dealing with early Christian congregations, is decidedly on the former. Here in the book of Revelation, we certainly find both aspects:

  • The visions in the book are clearly described as “the word of God” and “the witness of Jesus”—a revelation which was given to the prophet (John) to be communicated to other believers.
  • At the same time, the visions primarily refer to future events which would occur “soon”.

The use of lo/go$ (“account, ‘word'”) emphasizes again the unique character of the book—visual experiences (images) being recorded/translated into written language (“the [thing]s having been written in it”).

Special notice must be given to the closing words of the verse:

“…for the time (is) near”
o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$

This statement must be taken together with the earlier expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”) in verse 1. As I discussed in the previous note, the expression e)n ta/xei essentially means “quickly”, “right away”. Here, there can be little doubt that we have the same idea, expressed differently:

o( kairo/$—The word kairo/$ differs somewhat from xro/no$, though both may be translated as “time”. The distinction may be summarized as: xro/no$ generally refers to the passage of time, while kairo/$ signifies the point at which something occurs. Understood in a temporal (rather than spatial) sense, kairo/$ refers to the point when an event takes place (or will take place).

e)ggu/$—The modifier e)ggu/$ is related to the verb e)ggi/zw (“come/bring close”), and thus means “close, near”. The word occurs 31 times in the New Testament, but only once more in the book of Revelation (22:10).

Taking these two elements together, the proper sense of the statement should be clear: the point in time when the events described in the visions will occur is very close. This, of course, creates considerable difficulty for Christians today. On the one hand, the most reasonable (and obvious) way of understanding these expressions is that the author is declaring that the events in the visions will occur very soon (presumably, in the lifetime of his [original] audience). Yet, as it would seem that many, if not most, of the visionary details did not then occur—nor have they occurred in the past 2,000 years—it would be hard for many believers to accept the accuracy and/or inspration of the visions in this light. Thus, the various forms and modes of interpretation (“futurist”, “church-historical”, etc) which have arisen to bridge the gap and explain the apparent discrepancy. Yet, the very words here in vv. 1-3, at the beginning of the book, should serve as a caution against any interpretation which deviates too far from the fundamental meaning of the text.

(Regarding the imminent eschatological expectation among early Christians, and evinced throughout the New Testament, I will be dealing with this sensitive subject at various points in these notes, as well as in the articles of the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. There will also be a separate, special study upcoming as part of this Series.)

Finally, notice should be taken of the coordinating particle ga/r (“for”)—”…for the time is close”. The concluding declaration explains the importance of reading the book aloud in the congregations, and of believers hearing and guarding its contents. The reason this is so vital is that “the time (when these visions will take place) is very close”.

Note of the Day – July 29 (Revelation 1:1-2)

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This is the first in a series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation, which is to run concurrent with the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament“. Each note will focus on a short section or pericope, examining individual words, phrases and images carefully. The focus is critical and exegetical, but will, as necessary, also address wider theological issues and questions of interpretation. As a point of method, I should state up front that I do not assume any particular (traditional) approach to the book, nor any specific system of eschatology. My goal is to elucidate the text itself and the historical background of the language and imagery that the author/visionary uses. Such an approach should, at the very least, eliminate the more implausible and far-fetched interpretations which have been proposed over the years. At the same time, it should also have the positive effect of giving greater clarity as to what the images and symbols likely would have meant to the author and his original audience at the time.

Questions of authorship and dating for the book will be addressed at various points in the series. For a survey, you may consult any reputable critical commentary; one of the more thorough modern works is the volume (38A) by Craig R. Koester in the Anchor Bible commentary set (Yale: 2014). I have found this volume most helpful, especially for locating passages from Greco-Roman literature which are relevant for explaining the background of the text. References marked “Koester” in the notes are to this work.

Revelation 1:1-3

The book of Revelation is usually regarded as having characteristics of a mixed genre. While it certainly shares many features of “Apocalyptic” literature (which will be discussed), it also follows an epistolary format. Indeed, the overall framework of the book may fairly be described as that of a letter, or epistle. Indeed, the first six verses serve as the epistolary prescript. Verses 1-3 are the superscription, establishing the author’s place and identity, while verses 4-6 are the author’s greeting to his audience. It is important to keep this framework in mind while studying the book.

Verses 1-2

“(An) uncovering of [i.e. by] Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to his slaves the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be in (all) speed [i.e. swiftly], and he signified (this) sending it forth through his Messenger to his slave Yohanan, who gave witness of the word of God and the witness of Yeshua (the) Anointed—as many (thing)s as he saw.”

a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”)—The verb a)pokalu/ptw literally means “take the cover (away) from”, i.e. “uncover”, often in the figurative sense of “reveal”—making known something which has previously been hidden. The verb occurs 26 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline writings (Rom 1:17-18; 8:18; 1 Cor 2:10; 3:13; 14:30; Gal 1:16, et al). The noun occurs 18 times, again mainly in Paul (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor 1:7; 14:6, 26; 2 Cor 12:1, 7; Gal 1:12; 2:2; 2 Thess 1:7; also Eph 1:17; 3:3; and, elsewhere, in Luke 2:32 [vb. 2:35]; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13). The noun is largely absent from the Greek Old Testament (LXX), but the verb is used more than 100 times; its occurrence in Daniel ([Theodotion] 2:19, 22, 28, 30, 47; 10:1) is surely significant for the book of Revelation.

)Ihsou= Xristou= (“of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—This should be understood as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus Christ is the one doing the uncovering (cf. further below). The centrality of Jesus (here the title “Anointed” functions as a second name) in the visions which follow is made clear in the very first words of the book.

h^n e&dwken au)tw=| o( qeo/$ (“which God gave to him”)—That is, God the Father gives the revelation to Jesus (the Son), who, in turn, gives it to the visionary (John). This chain of relation is fundamental to most early Christian thought, and certainly features prominently in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, especially, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that what he gives to believers was given to him by the Father (3:34-35; 5:26, etc); moreover, as a faithful and dutiful Son, he says and does only what he hears/sees the Father saying and doing.

dei=cai toi=$ dou/loi$ au)tou= (“to show to his slaves”)—The word dou=lo$ properly means a “slave”, though this can be somewhat misleading in terms of modern ideas and perceptions of slavery, which often imply oppression and lack of human dignity. The word, as applied figuratively among Christians, emphasizes the idea of belonging to a master. Christians are referred to as “slaves” of God/Christ numerous times in the New Testament (Acts 4:29; 16:17; 1 Cor 7:22; 1 Pet 2:16, etc); Paul and other ministers specifically refer to themselves this way (Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1). Both positive and negative aspects (cf. Rom 6:16-20) of the word are utilized in the book of Revelation.

a^ dei= gene/sqai (“the [thing]s which are necessary to come to be”)—The plural pronoun (“the [thing]s which”) functions as a collective subject in the phrase “it [sg.] is necessary” (dei=); frequently in the New Testament, this verb refers to the will and/or command of God, as expressed in the Scriptures, or by way of prophetic revelation, etc. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus applies it to his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31 par; Luke 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Here it specifically relates to the foretelling of future events. The verb of being/becoming, gi/nomai, emphasizes that the things made known in these visions will truly come to pass.

e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”)—The word ta/xo$, along with the related noun taxu/[$], is used a number of times in the book (2:16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:6-7, 12, 20), stressing two aspects or characteristics of the visions: (1) the events will happen soon, and (2) their appearance/fulfillment will be sudden and abrupt. In the New Testament, ta/xo$ (“speed, swift[ness]”) only appears in the expression e)n ta/xei, which means “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”, i.e., quickly, right away (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; Rom 16:20, etc). This expresses the early Christian belief that the end of the current Age, accompanied by Jesus’ return and God’s Judgment upon the world, was imminent. For more on this, see the next daily note (on verse 3).

kai\ e)sh/manen (“and he signified”)—This verbal expression is parallel to the earlier “God gave…”, and reinforced the chain of relationship mentioned above. As God gives the revelation to Jesus, so Jesus, in turn, communicates it to the prophet. The verb (shmai/nw) is related to the word sh=ma, “mark, sign”, and indicates that the message is communicated by way of signs—both language and images (on other occurrences of the verb in this sense, cf. Dan 2:45 LXX; John 12:33; 18:32; Acts 11:28). This stresses the symbolic character of the book, which has proven so difficult for interpreters over the centuries, but which also is the source of its enduring beauty and power.

a)postei/la$ dia\ tou= a)gge/lou au)tou= (“sending [it] forth through his Messenger”)—Jesus communicates the revelation through a heavenly Messenger (‘Angel’); cf. the wording in Malachi 1:1. Frequently in Apocalyptic writings, the message or vision comes by way of an Angel (Ezek 40:3-4; Zech 1:7-6:5; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3, etc; Koester, p. 212). Though the initial vision (vv. 10-18) comes directly from the risen Christ, the remainder of the visions in the book are conveyed by heavenly Messengers; the transition from Jesus to the Messengers occurs in vv. 19-20 and continues throughout the “letters” of chapters 2-3. The verb a)poste/llw conveys the concrete sense of something (or someone, i.e. a messenger) being sent (“set [forth]”) from (a)po/) another—i.e. the revelation comes from Jesus, and is conveyed by his representative.

tw=| dou/lw| au)tou= Iwa/nnh| (“to his slave Yohanan”)—On the figurative use of dou=lo$ (“slave”), and its use as a self-designation by early Christian ministers, cf. above. For the name Yohanan (‘John’), cf. the note in my earlier Advent/Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”. The identity of this “John” will be discussed in the notes on verses 4 and 9.

o^$ e)martu/rhsen (“who gave witness [of]”)—The verb marture/w, along with the related nouns marturi/a and martu/$, is used frequently in the New Testament, and conveys the important concept of giving witness. The apostles and early missionaries acted as witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection, and this idea was carried out more generally to the Gospel message and Christian life as whole. Jesus himself was a witness of God the Father, making the Father known to believers; this is a key theme in the Gospel and Letters of John (Jn 3:11; 5:31ff; 8:14ff; 10:25; 18:37, etc), and continues as a (Johannine) theme in the book of Revelation.

to\n lo/gon tou= qeou= (“the word/account of God”)—The object of John’s witness is expressed here by two parallel expressions. The first is “the lo/go$ of God”. The Greek noun lo/go$, as I have noted before, is extremely difficult to translate, consistently, in English. Properly, it is best rendered as “account”, and this is appropriate when it refers to the Gospel message, etc, as it frequently does in the New Testament (Acts 4:31; 6:2; 8:14; 1 Thess 2:13, etc). However, when it refers specifically to communication by God (to a prophet, etc), then it is generally better to use the conventional translation “word”. Both here, and in the next expression, the genitive (“of God”, “of Yeshua”) should be understood as subjective (i.e. the word comes from God) rather than objective (a message about God). It is a standard expression in Prophetic and visionary writings (Isa 1:10; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3, etc).

kai\ th\n marturi/an Ihsou= Xristou= (“and the witness of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—An objective genitive here would mean that it is a witness about Jesus, i.e. the believer is acting as a witness of Christ. This idea certainly features prominently in the book, however, the overall context of these verses argues strongly in favor of a subjective genitive. Again, the chain of relationship, so familiar in the Johannine writings, is emphasized:

  • God speaks, giving the message to Jesus
    • Jesus bears witness to this message, communicating it to believers
      • The believer (here, a chosen prophet), in turn, bears witness of the message to others

o%sa ei@den (“as many [thing]s as he saw”)—This expression qualifies John’s witness, defining and explaining it in terms of the visions recorded in the book. The message is primarily conveyed visually, through images, which the seer (and/or author of the book) translate into written language. This relates back to the verb shmai/nw, “signify”, i.e. make known by signs.

Because of the distinctive (beatitude) form of verse 3, it will be given separate treatment, in the next daily note.

Saturday Series: Exodus 24:1-11

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Exodus 24:1-11

The past two weeks we have examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

  • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
  • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called “the account of the agreement” (s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

  • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

  • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
  • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

  • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
  • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
  • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb š¹µâ) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (b§rî¾) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

  • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
  • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
  • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

  • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (±ôlâ, hl*u)) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
  • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew šelem (<l#v#, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun ze»aµ, verb z¹»aµ), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

  • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
  • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diath¢¡k¢] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

  • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
    —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
    —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
  • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb µ¹zâ (hz`j*) in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). For next week, even as you think and meditate upon these covenant episodes we have studied, I would ask you to read on through the remainder of Exodus, considering how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Law, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

Blessings to you in your study…and I will see you next Saturday.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Introduction

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This begins a new Study Series which will run through the remainder of the Summer and into the Fall. It deals with the subject of “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. This area of study is a rather precarious one for commentators, and I approach it with some reluctance. Not only is the eschatological interpretation of “Bible Prophecy” quite problematic and controversial, with many Christians holding sharp and distinctive views, but it also represents one of the more lurid and speculative areas of Scriptural study. There have been an extremely wide range of opinions and interpretations of certain passages—some more or less plausible, and others quite preposterous—throughout the centuries. Often the interest and emphasis on Eschatology, to the neglect of more essential aspects of Christian faith and life, has proven to be altogether unhealthy, resulting in any number of travesties (and tragedies) among Christians all the way down to the present day.

Even more serious is the fundamental question of how to deal with the eschatological worldview we find among the earliest believers (in the 1st century A.D.), in the period of the New Testament, since it differs so markedly, in many respects, from our frame of reference today. Both the chronological and cultural divide creates enormous challenges for us in understanding and interpreting the New Testament writings, and nowhere more so than in the area of eschatology. This will be discussed in detail throughout the series, beginning in this introduction (cf. further below).

The words “Prophecy” and “Eschatology”

Let us start with a definition of the terms:

Prophecy

The English terms “prophecy” and “prophet” derive from the Greek profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ), and the related nouns profhtei/a (proph¢teía) and profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s). The Greek has the fundamental meaning of bringing something to light (i.e. saying, telling, revealing it) before (pro/) others. Prophecy is typically understood in terms of telling the future; however, this is only one aspect of prophecy, and not even the most important one at that. There are two ways that the preposition pro/ (“before, fore[ward]”) here may be understood: (1) spatial or relational, i.e. “in front of”; and (2) chronological, i.e. “beforehand”. The latter sense relates to the foretelling of future events (i.e., declaring things before they happen); yet, the former sense better fits the basic meaning of the corresponding Hebrew ayb!n` (n¹»î°) and ab*n` (n¹»â°) in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near Eastern religious and cultural context, shared by Israelite religion, the aybn is a spokesperson (for God), a chosen representative who receives a message, and communicates this “word” (and will) of God to the people at large. This is also the role of “prophets” in early Christianity, individuals gifted by the Spirit (or, at least, receptive to it), who then speak this message to the congregation(s) with whom they are associated.

Eschatology

This word, as derived from the Greek, literally means “an account of the last [e&sxato$, éschatos] (things)”, i.e. as a subject or area of study. From the standpoint of Biblical theology, it refers to passages in the Scriptures which are thought to discuss or to reveal the end of the current Age, usually connected with the idea of the final Judgment to be brought by God upon the world, and the eternal Life which follows for believers.

Apocalypse/Apocalyptic

Both the verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ) and the related noun a)poka/luyi$ (apokálypsis) occur relatively frequently in the New Testament (26/18 times). The fundamental meaning is “take the cover away from”, i.e. “uncover”; it refers to the idea of revelation, more than to specific revelation about the future. The tendency to associate it with prophecy about the future is largely due to the influence of the Book of Revelation, which is called an a)poka/luyi$ (‘Apocalypse’, 1:1). There were a number of Jewish (and Christian) writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. which have many characteristics in common, enough to warrant categorization as a genre of “Apocalyptic” literature. In these texts, a prophetic figure (usually a famous personage from the past) is given information, and/or allowed to see visions, which are purported to describe future events. The tendency among critical scholars is to regard all (or nearly all) of such works as ex eventu revelations—i.e., descriptions of things which, for the most part, have already occurred. Often the “future” events described would seem to refer to the author’s own life-setting and concerns.

Particular Difficulties Related to Early Christian (New Testament) Eschatology

There are a number of fundamental difficulties which face us today when studying the eschatological worldview and beliefs of the earliest Christians in the New Testament. I outline four here, which I will discuss briefly:

  1. The symbolic (multivalent) character of eschatological language and images.
  2. The unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological (and Messianic) elements, applying them to Jesus.
  3. The nature and extent of “dispensational” language and concepts.
  4. The expectation of an sudden/immanent end to this Age among early Christians.

1. Eschatological expression tends to be apocalyptic in nature (cf. above). This means that the mode of expression, within the framework of “uncovering” hidden/secret things, is often intentionally obscure, utilizing a symbolic language. Such symbolism is the result of two dynamics at work: (1) the idea that the heavenly/divine message, especially regarding future events, is difficult to express, requiring the use of symbols and figurative language; and (2) that this language is meant to protect the message, keeping it hidden and obscure for outsiders. This last point relates especially to eschatological and apocalyptic tendencies in the New Testament, going back to the teachings (esp. the parables) of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 4:11-12 par, etc).

Moreover, the very nature of symbolic language systems is multivalent—that is, individual symbols (and networks of symbols) can often have more than one underlying value or meaning. This requires most careful study and analysis when looking, for example, at the many symbols and figures used in the Book of Revelation. The multivalent character of the apocalyptic mode of expression is mirrored precisely in the vast number of ways that such language has been interpreted by Christians over the centuries.

2. Early Christians, for the most part, inherited their eschatological thought and apocalyptic mode of expression from Israelite/Jewish tradition, beginning with the Old Testament Prophets (especially the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah). This can be seen by the many similarities between the New Testament and certain Jewish writings c. 250 B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D. (including the Qumran [Dead Sea] texts). Most of these writings reflect Messianic thought, in various ways. All of the primary Messianic figure-types which developed (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Judge/Deliverer) had a strong eschatological context, being closely associated with the end of the current Age (and the beginning of the Age to Come). Their appearance was generally thought to coincide with God’s (final) Judgment upon humankind, in which God would judge the wicked/nations and rescue His faithful ones. For more on this topic, cf. the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“.

The early Christian application of Messianic thought (and interpretation of Scripture) to the person of Jesus created a uniquely Christian mode of eschatological/apocalyptic expression. A central difficulty was the fact that Jesus had been put to death, raised, and then departed back to God the Father (in heaven), apparently without fulfilling the traditional eschatological role of the Messiah. The final Judgment, defeat of the wicked/nations, and deliverance of God’s people, etc, all had to wait until Jesus’ return to earth (i.e. “second coming”) sometime in the (near) future. This becomes the fundamental point of early Christian eschatology, but the tension it creates with the traditional manner of eschatological expression, which continued to be used, is manifest all throughout the New Testament, and causes many challenges for interpretation.

3. One specific area where this is manifested is in what I would call the “dispensational” mode of early Christian thought. I am by no means referring to the Dispensationalist systems, and manner of interpretation, popular among many Christians in recent centuries, but, rather, to the basic understanding early Christians had regarding the (eschatological) distinction between “the current Age” and “the Age to Come”. Unique (and essential) to the Christian worldview was the dual character of this “Age to Come”:

  • Aspect 1: The New Age was introduced and inaugurated by Jesus, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, and, especially, by the coming of the Spirit upon believers.
  • Aspect 2: At the same time, this “New Age” is experienced only by believers (i.e. at the spiritual level); the rest of the world remains dominated by sin and darkness. The true end of this current Age will only occur at Jesus’ return, with the final Judgment by God, and the Resurrection of the dead.

The first aspect is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology”, as opposed to the traditional (future) eschatology of aspect #2. Christians can use eschatological modes of expression to speak of either (or both) of these aspects, which can make study of early Christian eschatology quite difficult at times. “Realized” eschatology is particularly prominent in the Gospel and Letters of John, but it can also be found clearly (and repeatedly) in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well.

4. Perhaps the single most difficult area of early Christian eschatology, for believers today, is the expectation of a sudden (imminent) occurrence of the end of the current Age, marked by the return of Jesus and God’s final Judgment. This view that the end is near is to be found in dozens of places, in most of the New Testament writings. I will be discussing these references during this series. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, in particular, this aspect of early Christian eschatological can be highly problematic, and, indeed, many would deny (or at least mitigate) its implications. After all, by any normal standard of divine inspiration, how could the New Testament authors have been so mistaken as to believe the end was near, when at least 2,000 years would come and go before this occurs? There are no quick or easy solutions to this problem, which requires much careful study, done honestly and openly, without the burden of dogmatic presuppositions. Here I would only summarize several possible views, each of which will be discussed during the course of the articles and notes in this series:

  • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us.
  • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language—i.e., Jesus was still the Davidic Ruler even though he did not restore the Kingdom to Israel, in a literal sense, during his life. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined.
  • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur.
  • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be.

The Format of this Series

The articles in this series will cover two aspects of New Testament Eschatology:

  1. Scripture (Old Testament) passages which were understood, by the New Testament authors and/or their readers, to be prophecies or descriptions of the end-time and the Age to Come. I will be limiting this discussion to only those Scriptures which are quoted, or for which there clear allusions, in the New Testament writings. Even though many other passages (in the Prophets, etc) have been given an eschatological interpretation by subsequent Christians, and may have been viewed that way already by believers in the 1st century, these will not be addressed, except in passing.
  2. Statements and prophecies by the New Testament authors, or otherwise contained in the writings themselves, which are not necessarily tied to Old Testament passages.

Here is an initial outline which will be followed:

  • Part 1: Eschatology of Jesus (in the Synoptic Gospels)
    • Sayings and Teachings of Jesus
    • Parables of Jesus
    • The “Eschatological Discourse”
  • Part 2: The Early Christian Preaching (in the Book of Acts)
  • Part 3: Eschatology in the Pauline Letters
    • Overview of the Evidence
    • 1 and 2 Thessalonians (with a special study on 2 Thess chap. 2)
    • Eschatological aspects of Romans
  • Part 4: The Gospel and Letters of John
  • Part 5: The remainder of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, Jude)
  • Part 6: Christology and the Development of Eschatology
    Appendix on the Early Christian Writings c. 90-150 A.D.

This is preceded by a general survey of the Scriptures which were interpreted in a Messianic sense (and applied to Jesus).

Because of the special place held by the Book of Revelation for New Testament eschatology, I am devoting a separate series of daily notes, commenting on the book, which will run concurrent with the articles in the main series.

Saturday Series: Genesis 17

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Last week, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Our study illustrated the importance of historical criticism in analyzing passages such as many in the Pentateuch which record, or refer to, historical traditions coming from an ancient religious/cultural background that is quite foreign to most of us today. This is one aspect of what we call the grammatical-historical method. The fundamental principle involved is that, in studying a passage of Scripture, one must first (and primarily) examine how it would have been understood by the author(s) and original audience of the work. As far as we are able today, at this distance removed, to determine the meaning of the words and phrases in the language of the time, and to reconstruct the historical background of the passage—this is the foundation upon which reliable interpretation must begin. If we fail to consider the original context properly, it is likely that our interpretation will misguided or seriously flawed in important ways.

Today, I wish to examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed last week, the Hebrew word b§rî¾ (tyr!B=) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed last week), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural °§lœhîm (“Mighty Ones”, i.e. “Mightiest”[?]), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. In this regard, historical criticism often blends into source criticism, which is an especially difficult (and often highly speculative) area of Biblical Criticism. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) Šadday (yD^v^). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name °E~l (la@), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

  • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
  • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
  • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (mûl) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (°ô¾) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

  • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
  • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

  1. The first is characterized by:
    (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
    (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
    (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
  2. The second is characterized by:
    (a) Both parties have binding obligations
    (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
    (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

As you consider these different points of emphasis, turn to Exodus 24 and read the third key covenant episode recorded there. What are your thoughts regarding these distinctive covenant forms—how they are used by God, and how they are presented in the Scripture narrative? What does each episode tell you about the ancient covenant concept, and how such traditions developed within the unique matrix of Israelite religion? Think about these questions, read and study each passage (again) carefully…and I will see you next Saturday.

“…Spirit and Life” (concluded): The Book of Revelation

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The Book of Revelation

We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.

Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to association this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

  • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
  • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
  • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
  • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:

1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:

“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”

This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).

The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.

2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:

“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)

The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):

  • The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
  • He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book

There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:

  • 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
  • 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.

3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).

“Spirit” and “Life”

At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:

1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:

I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”

However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:

“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)

2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:

a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).

The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.

b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).

c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).

d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.

This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next, which will deal with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.

References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

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This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

  • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
  • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
  • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.

Special Article on the Letters of John

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Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series, touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

  • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
  • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
  • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

  • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
  • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
  • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
  • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

  • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
  • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
  • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
  • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

  • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
  • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
  • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
  • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
  • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.

Note of the Day – July 10 (1 John 5:20)

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1 John 5:20

This is the last note in this series dealing with First John. It treats what may be regarded as the final word of the letter (verse 21 functioning as a coda), though the declaration in 5:20 is actually part of a sequence of three statements, each beginning with the expression oi&damen o%ti (“we have seen that…”), and each dealing with the idea of being born of God:

  • V. 18: “We have seen [oi&damen] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God…”
  • V. 19: “We have seen [oi&damen] that we are out of God…”
  • V. 20: “And we have seen [oi&damen] that the Son of God reached (us)…”

The verb ei&dw means both “see” and “know” (i.e. perceive, recognize), and is interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”); especially in the Johannine writings there is a close (theological) relationship between “seeing” and “knowing”. The way the verb is used here in vv. 18-20, it has two levels of meaning:

  1. What believers have known and recognized from the beginning (1:1ff), ever since they first heard the Gospel message of Jesus, and experienced his presence through the Spirit.
  2. What the author has established for his audience throughout the letter.

The rhetorical thrust (“we have seen…”) essentially includes the readers into the author’s own sphere—the implication being that they will certainly agree with him and confirm, in their own hearts and minds, the truth of what he has said to them in the letter.

I have discussed verse 18 extensively in the three previous notes (July 5, 8, and 9). It uses the expression genna/w (“come to be [born]”) + e)k [tou=] qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”)—an expression which was used repeatedly in both the Johannine Gospel and First Letter (Jn 1:13 [also 3:3-8]; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). The verb genna/w, used in this symbolic sense of a (spiritual) “birth” from God, always applies to believers; it is thus worth revisiting briefly the text-critical question surrounding the second occurrence of the verb in v. 18. The phrase involved is:

a)ll’ o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It is also possible to read the last word as au(to/n or e(auto/n (as in some MSS), in which case the subject of the phrase is definitely the believer:

“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

In other manuscripts, the reading is not a verbal participle (gennhqei/$), but the related noun ge/nnhsi$ (“[a] coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”), which would mean that it is the spiritual “birth” from God itself which protects the believer. This reading, while making good sense, is almost certainly not original, but was likely introduced as a way of explaining the text. In my view, contrary to a number of commentators, the expression o( gennhqei/$ most probably refers to Jesus. The Johannine fondness for wordplay and dual-meaning makes this all the more likely. It may also relate to the idea expressed in 3:9, which is otherwise very close in form and thought to 5:18, where it is stated that “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains/abides in him [i.e. the believer]”. The “seed” (spe/rma) is best understood as the living and abiding presence of Jesus (God’s Son), through the Spirit. This would seem to be confirmed again by what follows here in verse 20. A thematic outline may help establish the connection:

  • Verse 18—The relation of the believer (the one born of God) to Jesus (the one born of God); this relationship (and identity) protects and preserves the believer from sin.
  • Verse 19—The contrast between this identity of the believer (born of God) and “the world” which is dominated by sin and evil—i.e., what we are, and what we are not.
  • Verse 20—The nature of this identity of the believer, and our relationship to Jesus (as the Son of God).

Let us examine verse 20 more closely:

“And we have seen that the Son of God reached (us) and has given to us a thorough mind [dia/noia], (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true—in His Son, Yeshua (the) Anointed. This is the true God and (the) Life of the Age.”

The principal statement is bracketed by references to Jesus as God’s Son; this is vital to an understanding of the verse, as it governs the structure of the statement, which I outline here as a chiasm:

This outline may be summarized:

This is very nearly a perfect epitome of Johannine theology, conforming to everything we find in both the Gospel and the First Letter. Somewhat more difficult is the concluding statement of the verse:

ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$
“This is the True God and (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal Life].”

Particularly problematic is the relation of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this”) to the previous sentence, as well as the predicate statement which follows. There are several possibilities:

  • The pronoun identifies the substantive o( a)lhqino/$ (“the true [one], the [one who is] true”) as God the Father—i.e., “this (one) is the true God“—who is also “the Life of the Age”.
  • It identifies “the One who is True” as God the Father (the True God), and His Son (Jesus) as “the Life of the Age”.
  • It identifies Jesus as both “the True God” and “the Life of the Age”.
  • It summarizes the entire Gospel message about both God the Father and Jesus (the Son)—i.e., “this is (the message of) the True God and Eternal Life”.

Sound arguments can be made for each of these four interpretations, and I find it almost impossible to make a conclusive choice. Most likely, based on Johannine usage, the expression “the Life of the Age” should be understood in relation to Jesus; he is identified as “(the) Life”, and the immediate source of Life for believers, in numerous places (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2; 5:11-12, etc). Yet it is also entirely appropriate to refer to the Gospel message as “Life” in a similar way (cf. Jn 6:63; 12:50; 17:3; 20:31). The opening words of 1 John (1:1-2) seem to play on both of these meanings of “the Life”, and it is likely that a similar dual-meaning is present in the closing words of the letter as well.

Many commentators question whether Jesus would have been identified directly as “the true God”. While there is no doubt that, in both the Gospel and First Letter, the essential deity of Jesus (including his pre-existence and union with the Father) is clearly expressed, his identification as o( qeo/$ (“the [one true] God”) is less certain. Note, for example, the careful wording in John 1:1c (qeo/$ without the definite article). I have discussed the famous textual question in Jn 1:18 on a number of occasions (cf. the most recent treatment). As the textual evidence between qeo/$ (“God”) and ui(o/$ (“Son”) is rather evenly divided, one cannot simply read qeo/$ without futher ado. Even so, most manuscripts also read qeo/$ without the definite article in verse 18, for whatever that might signify (and it remains much disputed).

Syntactically, in 5:20, it is worth noting that the most proximate reference for ou!to$ would be Jesus, as the phrase “…His Son Yeshua the Anointed” immediately precedes the demonstrative pronoun. However, this is by no means a certain indicator of the pronominal relationship; consider the example of 2 John 7:

“…the ones not giving common account of [i.e. confessing] Yeshua (as hav)ing come in the flesh. This [ou!to/$] is the (one speaking) false(ly) and the (one who is) against the Anointed [i.e. ‘antichrist’]!”

Clearly, in this case, ou!to$ refers back to “the ones not confessing Jesus…” rather than to “Jesus”. Based on this syntax, ou!to$ in 1 Jn 5:20 would more likely refer back to “the One who is True” (i.e. God the Father), rather than to Jesus. At the same time, the syntax in 2 Jn 7 would suggest that both the pronoun and the two expressions (“the True God” and “the Life of the Age”) refer to a single subject, in which case, Jesus is the more probable subject.

Despite the many difficulties in deciding between the options listed above, I am inclined to favoring the second and fourth, or, perhaps, some combination of the two:

  • The two expressions “the True God” and “the Life of the Age” relate back to the two subjects—God the Father (“the One who is True”) and Jesus Christ (His Son), respectively.
  • As the concluding declaration of the letter, the pronoun ou!to$ also effectively summarizes the entire content of the letter; parallel with the opening words (1:1-2), it refers to the Gospel message, of what (the true) God has done for us through his Son Jesus, which leads to eternal Life for those who believe.