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Saturday Series: John 6:51-58

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John 6:51-58

One controversial aspect of Biblical Criticism has to do with determining how the original text came to be in its current, or final, shape—that is to say, how the various historical traditions were pieced together, in the case of the Gospels, to form a continuous narrative from start to finish. This is sometimes referred to as composition criticism, or redaction criticism—analyzing the work of the author or editor (redactor) in composing the text. Even traditional-conservative commentators recognize that a considerable amount of editing of traditions, sayings, and narrative episodes has taken place in the composition of the Gospels. Critical scholars have pointed out many apparent seams in the text, where originally separate material has likely (or possibly) been joined together.

We have been exploring the Gospel of John in this series, and one particular portion of that Gospel has continued to challenge commentators—the great Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6. I have discussed this long and complex discourse in a number of earlier notes and articles, including the most recent daily note. There are many ways to analyze and outline the discourse. You will find one presented in the aforementioned note; I give a slightly different outline, covering the entire chapter, further below.

An especially difficult question of interpretation involves the relationship of verses 51-58 to the earlier portion of the discourse (vv. 22-50), and also to what follows in vv. 60-71. A major difficulty has to do with the apparent eucharistic language and imagery Jesus uses in vv. 51-58. In some ways, it seems out of place. Would his fellow Jews at the time have understood these motifs of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” at all? Critical commentators have often questioned whether the eucharistic allusions genuinely come from Jesus, or if they are the product of early Christians relating the “Bread of Life” and Passover themes to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.

All four Gospels record Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23ff; John 13:1-30), but with a well-known chronological difference: the Synoptics indicate that it was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; and especially Luke 22:7), the 14/15th of Nisan; while John records Jesus’ death during the preparation for Passover, 14th Nisan (John 19:14; also see 12:1). A number of solutions have been offered to explain or harmonize the difference between the accounts, none, I should say, being entirely satisfactory. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that John records no institution of the sacrament (Lord’s Supper), attention rather being given to a different kind of symbolic and ritual act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (13:3-20). In fact, the only mention of the bread and cup would seem to be in the earlier “Bread of Life” discourse. This has prompted many scholars to ask if perhaps vv. 51-58 have been inserted by the author/redactor into the current location from a traditional Last Supper setting.

But this raises an even more significant question of interpretation: do verses 51-58, in fact, refer to the Eucharist—that is, to the material sacrament? As I will discuss below, I do not think the primary reference is to the sacrament. However, here are some arguments in favor of a sacramental reference:

  1. Suddenly, in place of Jesus himself (or his words) identified with the Bread from Heaven (“the Bread [which] came down from Heaven”, ho ek toú ouranoú katabás, see especially verse 51), we hear of “eating his flesh” (phág¢te t¢¡n sárka) and “drinking his “blood” (pí¢te auoú to haíma) (vv. 53-56)
  2. The verb (trœ¡gœ) used in verse 56, conveys a very concrete image of eating (literally “striking” or “crunching” away; in colloquial English it might be rendered “munching”). This would suggest a physical eating (of a material sacrament) and not simply a spiritual appropriation.
  3. It is most unlikely that the Gospel of John would not have some reference to the Eucharist, and this is the only passage which fits.
  4. The ’embedded’ reference to the Eucharist is parallel to a similar reference to the sacrament of Baptism in the Discourse with Nicodemus (see 3:5)
  5. The Bread of Life Discourse follows the Feeding of the Multitude, which, in all four Gospels, is described using Eucharistic language (see my earlier note on this), and presumably was understood in connection with the Eucharist from earliest times.
  6. One critical argument is that a redactor of the final version of the Gospel intentionally added in more specific sacramental details in order to modify or qualify an otherwise “spiritualist” teaching.

What about the idea that the author (or redactor) added Eucharistic teachings of Jesus to the discussion of vv. 25-50? One can certainly see how verse 51(b) could have been a connection point with the prior teachings on the “Bread from Heaven” (expounding the Passover theme of the Manna), as well as teaching on the Eucharist. The mention of “flesh” (ho ártos de hón egœ¡ dœ¡sœ h¢ sárx mou estin hyper t¢¡s toú kosmoú zœ¢¡s, “and the bread which I will give over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world is my flesh“) would lead naturally to discussion of the Eucharist.

The situation is complicated when one looks at what follows vv. 51-58—namely, verses 60-71, especially verse 63: to pneúma estin to zœopoioún, h¢ sárx ouk œpheleí ouden (“the Spirit is th[at which] makes live, the flesh benefits nothing”). The tone of this portion seems to be at odds with a reference to the material sacrament—that is, a ritual partaking of bread and wine—in vv. 51-58. A number of critical scholars have noted that reading 6:25-50 and 60-71 in sequence makes good sense, while including vv. 51-58 creates an interpretive difficulty. R. E. Brown, in his commentary (Anchor Bible 29 pp. 302-303), takes the precarious step of assuming both that vv. 51-58 were added by a redactor, and that we should read vv. 60-71 as relating to vv. 25-50 but not to vv. 51-58.

In my view, it is important to look at the Gospel as it has come down to us, whether or not sayings of Jesus from different contexts have been combined together to give it its current form. I would outline the chapter, as a whole, as follows:

  • 6:1-14: The Miraculous Feeding, which includes Eucharist language and imagery [vv. 11-13] + transitional verse 15
  • [6:16-21: The traditional episode of the Jesus’ Walking on the Water to meet his disciples]
  • [6:22-24: Transitional section which sets the scene]
  • 6:25-30: Discussion of the Miraculous Feeding, with a saying of Jesus on the “work of God” (toúto estin to érgon toú theoú, hína pisteú¢te eis hón apésteilen ekeínos, “this is the work of God: that you should trust in the [one] whom that one sent”, v. 29)
  • 6:31-59: The Bread of Life Discourse, which I break down into four parts:
    a) The Scripture reference (“Bread from Heaven”), and Jesus’ initial exposition: 6:31-33
    b) Crowd (“Lord, give us this bread always”) and Jesus’ Response: egœ¡ eimi ho ártos t¢¡s zœ¢¡s (“I Am the bread of life…”), 6:34-40
    c) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “I am the Bread”/”which came down out of Heaven” and Jesus’ Response, 6:41-51
    d) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “The Bread that I will give…is my flesh” and Jesus’ Response, 6:52-58 + concluding note v. 59
  • 6:60-71: Discussion of the Bread of Life Discourse (the Disciples’ Reaction), in two parts:
    a) The reaction “This is a rough account [i.e. word/saying], who is able to hear it?” and Jesus’ Response, 6:60-65
    b) The turning away of many disciples, with Peter’s response (“you have words of life [of the] Age [i.e. eternal life]”), 6:66-71

Here I view vv. 51-58 as integral to the Discourse as we have it. The “flesh and blood” of vv. 53-56 is an intensification and expansion of the imagery in verse 51: the “bread that he gives” is his “flesh [and blood]”—compare verses 51 and 54:

eán tis phág¢ ek toútou toú ártou
(“If someone should [actually] eat out of [i.e. from] this bread…”)
ho trœ¡gœn mou t¢¡n sárka kai pínœn mou to haíma
(“The [one] chewing [‘chopping at’] my flesh and drinking my blood…“)

z¢¡sei eis tón aiœ¡na (“…he shall live into the Age [i.e. have eternal life]”)
échei zœ¢¡n aiœ¡nion (“…has life [of the] Age [i.e. has eternal life]”)

Jesus returns to mention just the bread (again) in the concluding verse 58, which also reiterates the OT scriptural motif that began the Discourse: hoútos estin ho ártos ho ex ouranoú katabás, “this is the bread (which) came down out of heaven”.

Another way to read the core section of the discourse (6:35-58) is in parallel, as though verses 35-50 and 51-58 represented two aspects of the same message. Note the points of similarity:

  • Saying of Jesus: “I am the bread of life / living bread” which begins the section (v. 35a / 51a)
  • Teaching by Jesus expounding the “bread of life” in terms of “coming/believing” and “eating his flesh”, respectively (35b-40 / 51)
  • Question by “the Jews” (grumbling/disputing), reacting (with misunderstanding) to Jesus’ teaching (41-42 / 52)
  • Jesus’ Response: second exposition (43-47 / 53-57)
  • Concluding “Bread of Life” statement, comparing those who ate manna with those who eat the true bread from heaven (48-50 / 58)

Each of these sections follows the basic pattern of the discourses in the Gospel of John. It is interesting that in vv. 35-50, eating as such is not mentioned (until the conclusion, vv. 49-50). Rather, the emphasis is on “coming toward” Jesus and “believing in [lit. trusting into/unto]” him, which is part of the initial statement in verse 35:

“The (one) coming toward me, no he shall not hunger; and the (one) trusting into/unto me, no he will not thirst, never”

This is contrasted with vv. 51-58 where the theme is specifically “eating” (Grk phágœ):

“If (any) one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world” (v. 51b)

“Bread” clearly represents both food and drink in v. 35. This is paralleled in vv. 51-58, where the bread (“flesh”) of v. 51 quickly expands to include “blood” in verse 53ff; it signifies both aspects of human sustenance as well as both primary aspects of the human (physical) constitution, in conventional terms.

How should we relate these two main points of emphasis: (1) “coming/believing” and (2) “eating/drinking”? Is one sapiental (response to Jesus’ words as teaching/wisdom) and the other sacramental (participation in the ritual symbol [eucharist])? Or do they reflect two sets of images corresponding to the single idea of spiritual life in union with Christ? I prefer to regard them as signifying two “levels” for the believer:

  1. The first, that of coming/believing (vv. 35-50), is well served by the use of the two prepositions (pros “toward”, and eis “unto/into”)—the believer approaches Christ through faith, coming, we could even say, “into” him.
  2. At the second level (vv. 51-58), believers commune and nourish themselves—now Christ comes “into” the believer, there is now life in us (see the powerful statement in verse 57).

But is this second level specifically the Eucharist, in a ritual sense?

Within the overall context of the Discourse, the sacrament of the Eucharist may be implied (a preshadowing), but I do not think it is at all primary to Jesus’ teaching. It is rather the Person of Jesus himself and the Life which he conveys—by means of the Spirit—which is central to the message; and it is this “word” (lógos) which the disciples find “rough” or difficult to hear. Too much has been made of verse 63, in a sacramental setting (Eucharist), for in that context it simply gives priority to the Spirit—just as the Spirit takes priority in the context of Baptism (if such is alluded to in 3:5-8). In other words, Spirit first, then sacrament. Too often in Church history, Christians have made it the other way around, as though only through the tangible sacrament (as a “means of grace”), can one truly experience the Spirit. Consider the fierce fighting over the words of the institution (toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou, “this is my body”, Mark 14:22 par.)—all of the ink (and blood) spilled over the significance of “is” (estin)—when it would have been better to focus on the demonstrative pronoun (“this”, touto): that is, not the reality of the sacrament, but the reality of what it signifies.

How would you relate verses 51-58 to the Bread of Life discourse as a whole? If we regard these as authentic words of Jesus, what would they have meant to people at the time? to his disciples? Is there a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper as it would be understood by accepted by believers, or is the reference entirely spiritual (v. 63)? Consider these questions and study chapter 6 again in detail. Then go back and examine the parallels between the “Bread of Life” and “Living Water” in chapter 4 (vv. 10ff). Begin to think about what the author is trying to convey by combining these episodes and discourses together as he has done. Pay close attention to the various keywords, motifs and themes which run through the chapters. Then proceed to study the next discourse, beginning in chapter 7, and which most commentators regard as continuing on through the end of chap. 8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). Note any similarities you see, both in structure, and in theme or language, between chs. 7-8 and the previous discourses (especially the Bread of Life, ch. 6).

And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 5:39

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John 5:39

In a previous Saturday post, we studied John 3:16, as a famous verse often cited completely out of its context in chapter 3. Today we will be looking at another verse that is frequently referenced outside of its context—the statement by Jesus in 5:39. It happens to involve a variant reading, though not a textual variant as such. The Greek of the verse is secure—in particular, the first word (eraunáte), a form of the verb ereunáœ, “seek, search” (in the sense of “search out”, “search for”, “search after”).

There is ambiguity, however, in that the form eraunáte (e)rauna=te) can be read as either (a) an indicative (“you [do] search”) or (b) an imperative (“you [must] search”, “search!”). Many commentators have understood it as the latter (an imperative), and those who cite the verse out of context invariably read it this way: i.e., “Search the Scriptures…”. Traditional-conservative Protestants have been especially prone toward referring to the verse (out of context) this way, as a kind of proof-text demonstrating the view held by Jesus on the authority of Scripture. When quoted outside of its context in chapter 5, the verse gives the impression of being an exhortation by Jesus, to his disciples, on the importance of studying Scripture. While this is a noble and true sentiment, it would appear to be off the mark in terms of what Jesus is actually saying in this passage. In order to gain a proper understanding, it is necessary, as always, to look carefully at the place of the verse in the passage as a whole.

Chapter 5 is an extended discourse—one of the great discourses of Jesus that make up the core of Gospel (especially the ministry period spanning chapters 3 through 10). There is a major discourse in each of chapters 3-6, each of which is based upon a central historical tradition—in chs. 3 and 4 it is an encounter episode (Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman), while in chs. 5 and 6 a miracle story is involved, similar to ones we see narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. The miracle story in chapter 5 functions as part of the narrative introduction (vv. 1-16), which may be divided as follows:

  • Narrative setting (vv. 1-3)
  • Healing miracle by Jesus (vv. 5-9a)
  • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-16)

Central to this narrative, though introduced only in v. 9b, is the fact that this healing occurred on a Sabbath. In terms of the Gospel Tradition, this marks the episode as a “Sabbath Controversy” scene, similar to a number of such scenes in the Synoptic Gospels. There is a block of episodes in Mark 2:1-3:6, all involving negative reaction to Jesus’ ministry (and/or debate with him) by religious authorities—that is, the experts on Scripture, the Law (Torah) and related matters of religion, typically identified as those among the Pharisees (i.e. “Scribes and Pharisees”). In Mk 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11) the Sabbath controversy is centered on a healing miracle, as in Jn 5:1-16, though in some ways in the miracle narrated in Mk 2:1-12 is closer to John’s account. Luke records two other Sabbath miracle scenes (13:10-17; 14:1-6), which are similar in tone and structure.

In all of these “Sabbath Controversy” episodes there is a negative (even hostile) reaction to Jesus. This is implied already in v. 10, but is not made explicit until the end of the narrative in v. 16: “And through [i.e. because of] this, the Yehudeans {Jews} pursued [i.e. persecuted] Yeshua, (in) that [i.e. because] he did these (thing)s on a Shabbat (day)”. This is the setting for all that follows in verses 17-47, which means that Jesus is not addressing his disciples, but his opponents. In all of the Synoptic Sabbath controversies, the negative reaction comes from religious authorities (“Scribes and Pharisees”, etc). While this is not stated specifically in chapter 5, it may be assumed fairly from the overall context; and it is more or less confirmed by the close points of similarity between chap. 5 and the episode in chap. 9, where the opponents of Jesus are identified as Pharisees (vv. 13-16, 40).

The negative reaction to Jesus (by his opponents) sets the stage for the central saying of the discourse (5:17): “My Father works (even) until now—and I also (do this) work!”. It draws upon the ancient Sabbath theme of God’s work and life-giving power in creation. Jesus identifies his own working of healing miracles—i.e. giving (new) life to those suffering from illness and disease—with this same creative power exercised by the Father. The implications of this were not lost on Jesus’ opponents—indeed, it only increased their hostile reaction, according to the statement by the Gospel writer in verse 18. A lengthy exposition by Jesus follows in vv. 19-47 covering the remainder of the chapter. This exposition has two main divisions:

  • Verses 19-29: Jesus (the Son) does the work of the Father, exemplified by the ability to raise the dead (the ultimate work of giving new life). This section also may be divided into two parts:
    (1) Resurrection (i.e. new life) in the present for believers—”realized” eschatology (vv. 19-24)
    (2) Resurrection at the end time for those who believe—traditional (future) eschatology (vv. 25-29)
  • Verses 30-47: Testimony that Jesus comes from the Father and does the Father’s work

It is the second division that supplies the immediate context for verse 39. The interpretive key lies in the opening verses (30-32), in which Jesus expounds the principle that a person who gives witness about himself cannot be considered reliable (v. 31). On this point, see, Deut 19:15, where the testimony of more than one witness, in a legal/judicial setting, is necessary to secure valid evidence (Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; Matt 18:16, etc). Jesus makes precisely this point later on in the Gospel (8:14-18). Verse 32 is vital for an interpretation of what follows:

“There is another [allos] th(at is) witnessing about me, and I have seen that the witness which he witnesses about me is true.”

The Greek word állos (a&llo$), “(someone) different, another”, is in an emphatic position at the start of the verse. Who is this “other”? There are two possibilities:

  1. It simply means “another” in the general sense—i.e. someone different from Jesus, or
  2. It refers primarily (and fundamentally) to God the Father as the one who gives witness about Jesus

The initial context of vv. 30-32 suggests #1, but the overall context of the passage makes it likely that #2 is intended—i.e., God the Father is the ultimate source of this testimony. Actually, there are four different witnesses, or sources of testimony, referenced by Jesus in this section:

  • John the Baptist (vv. 33-35)
  • Jesus himself—specifically the works (miracles) which he does (v. 36)
  • God the Father—his Word (vv. 37-38)
  • The Scriptures (vv. 39-40)

Each of these is connected in important ways; note the chain of relation:

  • John the Baptist
    • Jesus himself (greater than John)—does the Father’s work
      • The Father who sent Jesus—His Word abiding in believers
        • (His Word) manifest in the Scriptures

The Scriptures come at a climactic point in this chain of testimony. Verses 39-40 also serve as a transition into the declaration of judgment against Jesus’ opponents in vv. 41-47. Clearly, verse 39 is not an exhortation to study the Scriptures, but rather a strong rebuke against those who fail to accept Jesus. The reference to the Scriptures, in this regard, is especially significant if, as the context suggests, Jesus is addressing the supposed experts (Scribes/Pharisees) in Scripture and the Law. Almost certainly, the initial word of verse 39 (eraunáte) should be read as an indicative:

“You search the Writings [i.e. Scriptures], (in) that [i.e. because] you consider (yourselves) to hold Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] in them, and those are the (writing)s witnessing about me, and (yet) you do not wish to come toward me, (so) that you might hold Life” (vv. 39-40)

The force of the contrast (and rebuke) is largely lost if eraunate is read as an imperative. Indeed, the context would seem to demand the indicative:

  • “You (do) search [eraunate] the Scriptures…(which witness about me)
  • and (yet) you do not wish [thelete] to come toward me”

The idea that a person might gain (eternal) life from the Scriptures (and a study of them) was not uncommon in Judaism, especially in the Rabbinic tradition, with its strong emphasis on a detailed study of the Torah. Consider the following statements from the Rabbinic collection “Sayings of the Fathers” (Pirqe Abot):

“He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come” (2:8)
“Great is the Law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and the world to come” (6:7)
(Translation by R. E. Brown in The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, p. 225)

Paul declares virtually the opposite in Gal 3:21b:

“For if (the) Law was given being able to make alive [i.e. give life], (then indeed) justice/righteousness would (have) been out of [i.e. from] the Law”

Note also Romans 7:10: “and it was found with/in me (that) the (commandment) laid on me (which was to be) unto life, this (turned out to be) unto death”.

The Scriptures are not the source or means of Life; this is only found in the person of Jesus—the Son who makes God the Father known to us. He possesses the Father’s Life in himself (Jn 5:26), and gives that same Life to those who trust in him (the Elect/Believers). Yet the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus, and his identity as the Son sent by the Father. Protestant Christians have, at times, perhaps, been guilty of placing too much emphasis on the Scriptures (the Bible), and too little on the person of Christ, and his presence in and among us through the Spirit. Fortunately, if we really do study the Scriptures carefully—particularly, the Gospels and writings of the New Testament—we will never lose sight of the centrality of Christ (and the Spirit). The Gospel of John is especially valuable in this regard, which is one of the main reasons why I often use it as the ground for Bible study and instruction in methods of interpretation.

I would encourage you to read the entire discourse of chapter 5 (again), giving careful consideration to what has been discussed here, and then proceed to do the same with the following discourse in chapter 6—the great “Bread of Life” discourse. Analyze the chapter as whole—are you able to detect the points of the Johannine discourse-format, used throughout the Gospel? Where is the central saying of Jesus in this discourse? (Recall that it was verse 17 in chapter 5). Is there more than one central saying? Examine the structure of the dialogue in verses 25-58. How would you divided this? What patterns in the text do you see? In particular, consider how verses 51-58 relate to vv. 35-50. What do you make of the apparent Eucharistic imagery in vv. 51ff? This has been the source of considerable difficulty (and controversy) for commentators over the years. We will be examining Jesus’ words in vv. 53-58 when we meet again…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 3:34-36

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John 3:34-36

Last week we explored the context of John 3:22-36, especially the relationship between vv. 27-30 and 31-36. The parallelism between Jesus and John the Baptist, brings chapter 3 in connection with 1:19-51 (as well as the Prologue, vv. 1-18), framing the entirety of chapters 1-3. As a result, it is possible to view the exposition in 3:31-36 as forming the conclusion of this portion of the Gospel. The thought and imagery expressed in these verses are important for a proper understanding of what follows (from chapter 4 on). In particular, I would point to the last three verses (vv. 34-36) has having special significance for the remainder of the Gospel. There are some difficulties of interpretation, but these can be overcome with a careful study of several key words and phrases in the Greek. In today’s study, I will address two of these—one in verse 34 and the other in verse 36.

Verse 34—The statement in this verse introduces the important reference to the Spirit (pneuma), which had first been mentioned in Jesus’ earlier dialogue with Nicodemus (vv. 5-8). Here is the statement in translation:

“For the (one) whom God has se(n)t forth speaks the utterances [i.e. words] of God; for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit.”

Here we have two fundamental ideas, expressed previously in the Gospel, and which are to become key themes throughout: (1) that God the Father has sent forth Jesus (the Son) from him, and (2) that Jesus (the Son) speaks the words of God (the Father). What is especially intriguing is the way that this “speaking the words of God” is treated as synonymous with “giving the Spirit”. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in 6:63: “the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life“. Jesus refers to the action/work of the Spirit in vv. 5-8, but does not mention the giving of the Spirit. Later in the Gospel, in the Last Discourse, Jesus promises that he and/or the Father will send the Spirit (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; cf. also 16:13). This same idea is mentioned by the writer in 7:39. The giving the Spirit is actually recorded in 20:22, where, notably, it comes by Jesus’ mouth—thus reflecting the connection with his speaking.

What does it mean that Jesus gives the Spirit “not out of measure [ou ek metrou]”? Some commentators feel that God (the Father) is actually the subject of the verb didœsin (“he gives”) in this verse. The overall context makes that unlikely, especially when one considers the thrust of verse 35 which follows:

“The Father loves the Son and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand”

God the Father has already given all things (including the Spirit) to the Son, and it is the Son who will give them, in turn, to believers. Here the parallel between Spirit and Life (6:63) is instructive, especially Jesus’ statement in 5:26:

“For even as the Father holds Life in himself, so also does he give to the Son to hold Life in himself”

But what of the expression “not out of measure”? The negative particle (ou, “not”) implies a contrast with the giving of the Spirit “out of [i.e. with/by] measure”. A likely explanation is to be found in the Jewish midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on Lev 15:2 (words of Rabbi Aµa): “…the Holy Spirit resting on the Prophets does so by measure“. The idea may be that, in the past, the Spirit was given only on a temporary basis, and in a portion, usually for the accomplishment of a certain mission (such as that of the Prophets). By contrast, Jesus (the Son of God) gives the Spirit without measure—that is, complete and in full, and on a permanent basis. This certainly fits with the idea, expressed in the Last Discourse, that the Holy Spirit will function as the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. It is through the Spirit that believers experience the divine, eternal Life of God and are united with both the Father and the Son.

Verse 36—The motif of life (zœ¢) is reiterated in the closing statement of this passage. In the Gospel of John, the word zœ¢ (zwh=) always refers to divine, eternal life. This is clear enough from the first occurrence in the Prologue (1:4):

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men”

This is the divine Life which the Son (or the Word/Logos) shares with God the Father (cf. on 5:26 above). The next occurrence of the word comes from the discourse in 3:1-21, where it occurs, for the first time, in the expression “the life of the Age [ho aiœnios zœ¢]”, usually translated in English as “eternal life”. It literally refers to the blessed divine life which the righteous will possess in the “Age to Come”—at the end time, following the resurrection, according to tradition Israelite/Jewish thought. In the Gospel of John this eschatological condition (i.e. eternal life) is “realized” for believers already in the present, through trust in Jesus. This is essentially expressed in vv. 14b-16:

“…so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should hold life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]. For (in) this (way) God loved the world, so (that) he even gave his only (born) Son, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should not be destroyed, but (rather) should hold (the) life of the Age.”

Here the eschatological significance of the expression is clear enough—it refers primarily to the life which the believer will come to possess (literally “hold”) at the end time. The basis for possessing this (eternal) life, and being saved from the Judgment, is trust in Jesus (the Son). This same concept is found in the closing statement of v. 36, but with a somewhat different formulation and emphasis:

“The (one) trusting in the Son holds life of the Age; but the (one) being unpersuaded by the Son will not see life, but (rather) the anger of God remains upon him.”

There are two parallel, contrasting phrases:

  • the one trusting holds life…
  • the one being unpersuaded (i.e. refusing to trust) will not see life…

The second phrase uses a future verb form (“will not see”), and so preserves the original eschatological context. However, the first (relating to believers) is in the present tense—”holds” life, i.e. already in the present. This is an important distinction. Believers possess eternal life in the present, having “realized” the eschatological condition through trust in Jesus. Non-believers (i.e. those failing/refusing to be persuaded) endure the fate of the world in the future Judgment, expressed vividly by the phrase “the anger of God remains upon him”.

A careful study of the Greek words and phrases gives us important insight on the way that John the Baptist, Jesus, and/or the Gospel writer has made use of traditional religious and theological expressions, transforming them in the light of the Gospel message—giving to them a profound Christological significance. This transformed vocabulary runs through the Gospel of John, informing nearly every discourse and episode in the narrative. We must always pay attention to the way these key words and phrases are utilized.

Next week, we will be jumping ahead to the discourse in chapter 5, and another occurrence of the expression “life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life). I would recommend that you read through chapters 4 and 5 carefully, paying special attention to the way that the words “life” and “living” are used. Study the discourse in chapter 5, considering its structure and the line of thought in the exposition by Jesus spanning verses 19-47. Beginning with verse 30, read these concluding verses with particular care. As you reach verse 39, what are your thoughts on this statement, based on the context of the passage? I will be discussing it is some detail…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 3:31-36

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John 3:31-36

Last week we looked briefly at John 3:28 (and the parallel sayings in 1:15, 30) in the context of chapter 3. A particular difficulty of interpretation involves the relationship between verses 22-30 and 31-36. Verses 22-30 comprise a specific narrative (and historical tradition) related to John the Baptist and his ministry (I noted the parallels with 1:19-34ff last week). Indeed, the Baptist is the one speaking in vv. 27-30. However, commentators are divided on who the speaker is in verses 31-36. The main reason for the uncertainty lies in the strong similarity of language, thought and expression between vv. 31-36 and the discourse of Jesus in the earlier vv. 10-21. There would seem to be three possibilities which should be considered regarding the true speaker of these verses:

  • It is John the Baptist, continuing from verse 30, as a simple reading of the narrative would indicate.
  • It is Jesus speaking, perhaps part of a discourse like that of vv. 10-21.
  • It is essentially the work of the Gospel writer, repeating the words and ideas expressed by Jesus earlier.

Let us first examine the main points of similarity between vv. 31-36 and the earlier discourse of Jesus (especially vv. 11-21):

  • The use of the word anœthen (“from above”)—v. 31 and 3, 7.
  • Reference to Jesus as “the one coming (down) out of heaven”—v. 31 and 13
  • A contrast between heavely and earthly (i.e. above/below)—v. 31 and 12.
  • The idea of giving witness (the verb martyreœ) to what one “has seen” (eœraken), along with the related idea that people (i.e. in the world at large) do not receive (vb. lambanœ) this witness—v. 32 and 11.
  • The idea/expression of Jesus (the Son) as the one whom the Father sent forth (vb. apostellœ)—v. 34 and 17.
  • The central theme/motif of the Spirit—v. 34 and 5-8.
  • The specific phrase “[every]one trusting in [the Son] has life of the age (i.e. eternal life)”, with a statement regarding the opposite—v. 36 and 15ff.
  • Emphasis on the judgment/anger of God for the one who does not trust—v. 36 and 18.
    Note: In preparing this list I have followed the order given in R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966), pp. 159-60.

These close parallels make for a strong argument that Jesus and/or the Gospel writer is responsible for vv. 31-36. However, at the same time, there is no clear indication of a change in speaker between verses 30 and 31, and, since it would have been easy enough for the Gospel writer to include such an editorial detail, it seems likely that he is presenting John the Baptist (in the narrative) as the speaker for all of vv. 27-36. The John/Jesus parallelism in 1:19-51 (as well as in the Prologue) makes it likely that a similar parallel structure is at work in chapter 3. Consider the following outline:

  • Encounter/dialogue between Jesus and a Jewish leader (Nicodemus)—vv. 1-10
    • Exposition/Testimony by Jesus about himself—vv. 11-21
  • Encounter/dialogue between the Baptist (along with his disciples) and a Jew—vv. 22-30
    • Exposition/Testimony by the Baptist about Jesus—vv. 31-36

It is possible that this could be a clue to the curious use of the plural verb forms in v. 11—”we see…we speak…we give witness…”. This witness involves both Jesus himself and the earlier/prior testimony of John the Baptist (see 1:7-8, 15, 29-34, 35-36). Ultimately, this witnessing of Jesus (the Son) will extend to his disciples (believers), aided by the presence of the Spirit.

But how exactly does the “testimony” in vv. 31-36 relate to vv. 22-30? Here, I think it is useful to distinguish the components of the passage. I recognize these as follows:

  • Narrative introduction, setting the (historical) scene—vv. 22-24
    Here we have a clear parallel between the work of Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of the Baptist, taking place in close proximity.
  • Testimony of the Baptist: historical tradition and dialogue—vv. 25-30
  • Testimony (of the Baptist): theological exposition—vv. 31-36

John’s testimony in vv. 27-30 is rooted in the historical tradition (compare 1:19-34; Mark 1:7-8 par; Matt 3:11b-12 par), but takes on deeper theological (and Christological) significance in the context of the Fourth Gospel (see the discussion last week). The overriding theme is the superiority of Jesus as the Messiah (and Son of God), and the Johannine understanding of this superiority (and the basis for it) is Christological. Jesus is “the one who has come out of heaven”, whom God Father has sent forth. This is implicit in the Baptist’s saying in verse 27:

“A man is not able to receive anything if it has not been given to him out of heaven”

We should perhaps understand a fourfold-sense to this statement: (1) John’s testimony about Jesus was given to him from God (1:6, 33), (2) Jesus, the very Word of God, has been given (i.e. sent) to humankind, (3) Jesus was given everything he says and does from the Father (i.e. from heaven), and (4) Jesus’ disciples (believers) are given to him by the Father (out of heaven). Senses 1 and 4 are more immediately applicable to verses 22-30, while 2 and 3 apply especially to vv. 31-36. If we are to break down the verbal and thematic structure of verses 31-36, I would suggest the following outline:

  • “The one coming from above is over (and) above all (thing)s, (while) the one being out of [i.e. from] the earth (truly) is out of the earth” (v. 31a)—dualistic contrast between heavenly and earthly, above vs. below.
  • “The one coming out of heaven [(who) is over (and) above all (thing)s] gives witness to this which he has heard, and (yet) no one receives his witness. The one receiving his witness (has) sealed that God is true” (vv. 31b-33)—contrast between Jesus’ witness from heaven and the failure of those on earth to receive it; only those who belong to heaven (believers) receive it.
  • “For the (one) whom God se(n)t forth speaks the utterances [i.e. words] of God, for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit. The Father loves the Son had given all (thing)s in(to) his hand” (vv. 34-35)—these statements establish what God has given to Jesus (the Son) out of heaven.
  • “The one trusting in the Son holds life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]; but the one (be)ing unpersuaded by the Son will not see life, but (rather) the anger of God remains upon him” (v. 36)—the dualistic contrast has shifted to believers (those given by God), and, by contrast, those who are unable/unwilling to believe.

Next week I would like to examine verses 34-36 in more detail, focusing on several key words and phrases (in the Greek) which, I believe, are vital for a proper understanding of the remainder of the Gospel of John. I would ask that you study and meditate on these verses carefully, looking back at the immediate context of chapter 3, and also chapters 1-3 as a whole. Give thought especially to the motif of the giving of the Spirit in vv. 34-35 and the keyword life (zϢ) in v. 36, which are developed in many important ways throughout the Gospel.

And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:15, 30; 3:28

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Last week, we looked at John 3:1-21 in the context of the prior chapter 2 (especially 2:13-25). Today, we will be looking ahead to the next section, 3:22-36. I do not intend to provide a similarly detailed comparison with 3:1-21, only to note the general correspondence. There is indeed a similarity between the discourse involving John the Baptist (vv. 25ff) and the earlier one between Jesus and Nicodemus. In particular, the language and thought of vv. 31-36 has much in common with Jesus’ exposition in vv. 11-21. According to the context of the narrative, John the Baptist is the one speaking in vv. 31ff (there is no certain indication of a change in speaker), and the similarity of expression between Jesus and the Baptist is very much part of the overall theme of the Gospel. This was established in chapter 1, going back to the Prologue (vv. 1-18). John the Baptist is one sent from God to bear witness to Jesus. As 1:7-8 describes, John is not the light, but gives witness to it—so well indeed, that he and Jesus use much the same language. They are essentially witnessing to the same thing—Jesus’ own person and identity. Only, after chapter 3, John the Baptist disappears from the scene, and from that point on in the Gospel, it is Jesus’ words and works alone which bear witness.

The discourse in 3:22-36 reflects the narrative in chapter 1 even more closely. This is part of the Johannine blending of details and elements from the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw in the case of 1:51 and the episodes of chapter 2. The main dialogue in vv. 25-30 is parallel to 1:19-34. The clearest reference is found in verse 28, where the Baptist says to those with him:

“You (your)selves (can) witness for me, that I said [that] ‘I am not the Anointed One, but that I am (one) having been se(n)t forth in front of that (one)’.”

If we look back at chapter 1, there are several statements which, if taken together, are similar to the saying here in v. 28b:

  • “I am not the Anointed One [i.e. Messiah]” (1:20b)
  • “the (One) sending me…” (v. 33; see also verse 6)
  • “the (one) coming behind me…” (v. 27, compare with the Synoptic saying in Mark 1:7 par)
  • the saying in verse 15 and 30 (discussed below)

The idea that Jesus is the Anointed One (on this title, see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“), and that he comes after (or behind) John the Baptist, is a basic historical tradition found in all four Gospels (and the book of Acts). Yet it is clear from Jn 3:27-30ff that there is a deeper theological significance to the statement in v. 28. This comes out most vividly when we examine the saying of the Baptist in 1:15 and 30. Let us look at the form in verse 30, given in a literal translation:

“Behind me comes a man who has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was the first of [i.e. for, before] me”

The significance of this saying, as recorded in the Gospel of John is rather obscured by most translations; consider the NIV rendering as typical:

“A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me”

The basic idea of Jesus’ superior rank and (divine) pre-existence comes through well enough, but the powerful sequence of verbs (marked by italics above), and the profound theological (and Christological) statement contained within it, is impossible to capture in conventional English. Here is an instance where something truly is lost if one does not (or is not able to) study carefully the actual Greek words that are used. The saying is made up of three phrases, each of which contains a key verb:

  • “A man comes [erchetai] in back of [i.e. behind] me”
  • “who has come to be [gegonen] in front of me”
  • “he was [¢n] first of [i.e. for, before] me”

These three phrases (and verbs) essentially refer to an aspect of Jesus’ identity, which can best be understood by consulting the Prologue (vv. 1-18). Indeed, this same saying appeared earlier in the Prologue (v. 15), in a slightly different form, stated more succinctly:

“the one coming [erchomenos] in back of me has come to be [gegonen] in front of me (in) that he was [¢n] first of [i.e. for, before] me”

Let us see how each of these verbs is used in the Prologue:

1. comes/coming (vv. 7, 9, 11)—the verb erchomai (e&rxomai), which refers to human beings (and Jesus as a human being) coming into the world. This covers a person’s birth, but also extends to the place in which he lives, his community, his work and career, etc. It is frequently used in the Gospel of John in the context of Jesus coming into the world, to those who will believe in him (his disciples, believers)—a comprehensive idea spanning his human life, ministry, witness, and sacrificial death. His baptism, where he appears on the scene after (behind) John the Baptist, marks the beginning of his ministry, and the moment in which he first comes into public view.

2. has come to be (vv. 3, 6, 10, 12, 14, 17)—this is the verb ginomai (gi/nomai), an existential verb meaning “come to be, become”. It occurs frequently in the New Testament, usually in a common, ordinary sense; but, in the Gospel of John, it often has special theological significance, due to its overlapping meaning with the related verb gennaœ (genna/w). This latter verb regularly means “come to be born“, and ginomai can carry this meaning as well. It is used several different ways in the Prologue: (1) for creatures (and the world) coming into existence (vv. 3 [three times], 10), (2) for a human being coming to be born (v. 6), and similarly (3) of believers coming to be born (spiritually) (v. 12), and finally (4) of Jesus (the Word/Light) coming to be born as a human being (v. 14). It is this latter sense that is in view in verse 15—the incarnation, Jesus’ birth and his coming into the world as a human being. There is also a reference to the incarnation in verse 18, but with the added connotation of the revelation of God the Father in the person of Jesus (the Son). We should understand the phrase in verse 15/30 in this light. This second phrase works backward from the first: from Jesus coming into the world (into his life and ministry, etc) to his coming to be born as a human being. It is this—the incarnation itself —which, paradoxically, puts Jesus “in front of” John the Baptist. The perfect form of the verb (gegonen, “has come to be”) often indicates a past action, condition, event, etc, which continues into the present.

3. was (vv. 1-2, 4, 8-10)—this is the primary verb of being (eimi, ei)mi), in the third person imperfect form ¢n (h@n, “he was”). As such it occurs 10 times in the Prologue, including three times in verse 1. In this context, it refers to Divine Being—that is the being of God, and expresses something of the manner in which Jesus (the Word/Light/Son) shares in it. It reflects more than pre-existence—rather, eternal, divine existence which the Son (Jesus) shares with the Father. This informs the climactic third phrase of the saying in verse 15/30, taking yet another step back: from the incarnation (the birth of the Son as a human being) to the eternal life and being shared between the Father and the Son. In this light, we may better understand the somewhat ambiguous wording of the phrase “he was first of me”. The word prœtos (“first”) here is something more than a comparative (i.e. “superior to me”), but ought to be understood in a fundamental sense—Jesus is first of all things (including John the Baptist), sharing with God the Father both the eternal Life and the work of Creation. In a sense, prœtos is synonymous with the words that begin the Gospel—en arch¢ (“in the beginning”).

Returning to 3:28, and with this study of 1:15, 30 in mind, I would encourage you to read verses 22-36 of chapter 3 most carefully. Even if you do not read Greek, or do not have access to the Greek text, you can probably notice some important words, ideas, and themes which have occurred throughout the first three chapters of the Gospel. If you read Greek, or are using Greek study tools (such as those available in PC Study Bible), try to pay attention to any recurring words and phrases. In the Gospel of John, these often have special significance. How do verses 27-30 relate to what follows in vv. 31-36? Look especially at the words translated “eternal life” in verse 36, and consider how they relate to this discourse (and chapter 3 as a whole). We will be discussing the Johannine theme of “eternal life” in several upcoming studies, so it will be good for you to be thinking and meditating upon its meaning in the Gospel.

Continue in your reading and study of the Scripture…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 2:13-25

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John 2:13-25

Last week we looked at the famous verse John 3:16 in the context of the discourse of Jn 3:1-21. However, in order to gain a proper understanding and appreciation of a passage, it is often necessary to examine its place in the wider context of the book. If we take a quick summary look at the Gospel of John, the following basic outline suggests itself:

  • The Prologue—1:1-18
  • The Introduction to Jesus and his ministry: Testimony of John the Baptist—1:19-51
  • DIVISION ONE: The ministry of Jesus—Miracles and Teaching—2:112:50
  • DIVISION TWO: Jesus and His Disciples—The Passion and Resurrection Narratives—13:120:31
  • Conclusion (Appendix): Jesus with His Disciples after the Resurrection—21:1-23
  • Epilogue—21:24-25

The main division spanning chapters 2-12 is sometimes called “The Books of Signs” by scholars, but this is somewhat misleading, since “signs” (s¢meia) in the customary sense of miracles, are only featured in a portion of this material. Chapter 2 introduces and begins the ministry of Jesus, with two distinct episodes: one in Galilee, involving a miracle (vv. 1-11), and one in Jerusalem, involving a significant symbolic action and saying by Jesus (vv. 13-22). Each of these episodes involves the key word s¢meion (“sign”). The miracle at Qanah (Cana) of turning water into wine is referred to as “the beginning of the signs” Jesus did—i.e. the beginning of his public ministry. The concluding statement in verse 11 serves as a kind of thematic (and theological) refrain for the remainder of chapters 2-12 (key words and phrases italicized):

“This, the beginning of the signs [arch¢n tœn shmeiœn], Yeshua did in Qanah of the Galîl {Galilee} and made his splendor shine forth [ephanerœsen t¢n doxan autou], and his learners [i.e. disciples] trusted in him [episteusan eis auton].”

One of the main differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels is that the Synoptics really record only one journey of Jesus to Jerusalem; John, on the other hand, has Jesus go to Jerusalem a number of times, in celebration of the festivals (Passover, Sukkoth [Booths/Tabernacles], etc). This is an important aspect of the Johannine Gospel, and it begins in verse 13 of chapter 2, with the start of the second episode in the chapter: “And the Pesaµ {Passover} was near…and Yeshua went up [lit. stepped up] into Yerushalaim {Jerusalem}…” This episode involves Jesus’ so-called “Cleansing” of the Temple, a scene found in all four of the Gospels, only John includes it at a very different point in the Gospel narrative. Almost certainly the “Cleansing” scene in the Gospels goes back to a single historical event (and tradition), not two—we must always be careful not to confuse literary arrangement with historical chronology—and there is good reason to think that the Synoptic location is generally correct (from an historical standpoint). In Mark and Matthew, a reported saying by Jesus regarding the Temple, similar in many ways to the saying in John 2:19 (discussed below), featured prominently in the Sanhedrin interrogation of Jesus prior to his death. Indeed, the episode in Jn 2:13-22 is closely related to the theme of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is quite possible the Gospel writer (trad. John the Apostle) has brought together two episodes from the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, respectively. In the earlier study on Jn 1:51, I discussed the possibility that the author intended that saying of Jesus to serve as a comprehensive symbol of his person and work—his ministry, from beginning to end—and the juxtaposition of the two episodes at the beginning of chapters 2-12 may have something of the same purpose.

In passing, I should note that another key word in this section is the verb anabainœ (“step up”, i.e. go up)—Jesus “stepped up” (i.e. went up) unto Jerusalem (v. 13). Travelling to Jerusalem entailed a rise in elevation, so Jesus would “step up” to the city; however, the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ (“step down” and “step up”) have special theological meaning in the Gospel of John, as I have previously mentioned. On the surface, when Jesus “steps down” to Capernaum (v. 12) and “steps up” to Jerusalem, this simply refers to his travels, but the pair of verbs also signifies Jesus’ descent (from Heaven)—the incarnation, leading all the way to his death—and his ascent, through death (on the cross), resurrection, and his return to the Father. These two verbs are used together in both the saying in Jn 1:51, and again in 3:13 (see last week’s study).

The Temple “cleansing” action by Jesus in 2:14-17 and the Temple saying (vv. 19-22) are two parts of the same episode, and they are joined together by the question of “the Jews” (the first time this designation is used in connection with Jesus) in verse 18:

“What sign [s¢meion] do you show us (so) that you (should) do these things?”

The idea is that they are requesting Jesus to show them a sign (miracle, etc) from God to show that he has the authority to take such an action in the Temple. This question is similar to the statement of Nicodemus (the Jewish Council leader) in 3:2:

“Rabbi, we see [i.e. know] that you have come from God (as) as teacher, for no one to do these signs [s¢meia] that you do if God were not with him.”

Jesus’ response in verse 19 would seem to be giving the people the very sign they are asking for:

“Loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine [i.e. the Temple], and in three days I will raise it again”

This saying introduces two important elements in the Gospel of John: (1) the discourse format with the sequence of Jesus’ saying + misunderstanding + exposition, and (2) the motif of raising/lifting Jesus. On the first of these, notice how the people misunderstand Jesus, hearing his words only in what would seem to be their ordinary sense—i.e. that he is declaring he can miraculously rebuild the Jerusalem Temple building(s). For a discussion of how this relates to the Temple-saying at the “trial” of Jesus (Mark 14:58 par), see my earlier note on the subject. Even though Jesus does not here give an explanation of his words, this is done by the Gospel writer (vv. 21-22), and effectively serves the same purpose as the expositions by Jesus of his true meaning in the discourses, such as we saw in 3:5ff, 11-21.

The second element, the motif of raising/lifting Jesus, as the Gospel writer explains, has to do with the true meaning of Jesus’ words in verse 19—by destroying and raising the Temple, Jesus was referring to his death and resurrection, with his own person (his body) being identified with the Temple (the house/dwelling of God). This appears again in the Nicodemus discourse, in 3:14, though a different verb is used—hypsoœ (“lift high”) instead of egeirœ (“raise”). The “lifting” of Jesus (the Son of Man) in 3:14 refers primarily to his death on the cross, but also to his subsequent resurrection/exaltation and return to the Father (in glory).

The two episodes of chapter 2 are joined with the discourse of 3:1-21 by the transitional verses 23-25, which both give a narrative summary and establish further a number of key words and terms in the Gospel:

“And as Yeshua was in Yerushalaim on the Pesach {Passover}, on the festival (day), many trusted in his name, looking (closely) at his signs [s¢meia] that he (was) do(ing); but Yeshua did not (en)trust him(self) to them through [i.e. due to] his knowing all (men), and that he did not have a(ny) need that anyone should witness about the man, for he knew what was in the man.”

If you read chapters 3-12 carefully, you will notice many of these motifs, such as:

  • Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem on the festival days/times—the setting of the discourses
  • The importance of trusting in [literally “into”, eis] Jesus and his name (Jn 3:15-16, 18)
  • Imagery related to seeing/sight—seeing Jesus and God the Father (3:3, 11, 21)
  • The key term “signs” (s¢meia)
  • The work that Jesus is doing
  • The theme of knowing (related to seeing), especially the verb ginœskœ
  • Witnessing regarding Jesus, and Jesus’ own witness, using the verb martyreœ

It is always important to pay close attention to the specific words and language that is used in a passage, but all the more so in the case of the Gospel of John, which has a fairly limited vocabulary and uses certain words repeatedly in a very distinctive way. Next week, I will demonstrate this with a particular example, involving verses from the first and third chapters. I would ask you to read on through the remainder of chapter three, including verses 22-36. What points of similarity do see with the earlier discourse in verses 1-21? How does this section relate to the prior chapters 1-3 as a whole? Look specifically at 3:28 in context and compare it with the testimony of John the Baptist in 1:15 and 30, reading those verses carefully in context. What are your thoughts on how these passages relate?

Blessings to you in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 3:16

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John 3:16

This week I would like to address again the importance of studying a verse or passage in context. I turn to John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in all the New Testament. Countless Christians (and non-Christians as well) are familiar with it, yet I wonder how many have ever really read or studied it in its context within the Gospel of John.

It is part of Jn 3:1-21, one of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. These Discourses, which are really unlike anything in the other (Synoptic) Gospels, present the historical traditions—that is, Jesus’ words and actions—within a very distinctive literary setting, utilizing a dialogue format. Generally, they follow a common structure:

  • Narrative introduction, which establishes the setting and action of the historical episode, often a miracle or encounter episode.
  • A central saying or statement by Jesus
  • The reaction of those who see/hear him, reflecting some measure of misunderstanding
  • An explanation by Jesus of the true, deeper meaning of his words

Sometimes there are multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience, so that the discourse preserves a more extensive dialogue. The outline of John 3:1-21 should be examined according to this pattern:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)—an encounter episode, between Jesus and Nicodemus (a member of the Jewish Council [Sanhedrin]), presumably in Jerusalem (see 2:13-25). Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (secretly?), and addresses him (verse 2).
  • Central saying/statement by Jesus (v. 3).
  • Reaction by Nicodemus who has not understood the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 4)
  • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
  • Second reaction (question) by Nicodemus (v. 9)
  • Explanation/exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21)

The central saying by Jesus is in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”

This statement is apparently in response to Nicodemus’ address in verse 2, in which he recognizes that Jesus is “a teaching (who) has come from God”, yet does not fully realize Jesus’ identity. The implication is that only the person who has been “born from above” can see and recognize Jesus truly. The recognition of Jesus is described in more conventional religious terms, drawn from Old Testament and Jewish thought, as seeing “the kingdom of God”.

From verse 4, it is clear that Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus. This is based on a bit of wordplay in Greek. The adverb anœthen literally means “from above”, but can also have the sense of “from the beginning, again”. This is how Nicodemus takes it, thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical birth from the mother’s womb. Jesus’ explanation, touching on the true meaning of his words, begins with a statement parallel to that of verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

Clearly, being born “from above” is essentially the same as being born “out of water and (the) Spirit”. The exact relationship between water and the Spirit in this statement continues to be debated by commentators. Some take it as a reference to the need for (Christian) Baptism, but this likely would not have been Jesus primary meaning, if we accept the substance of the saying as genuine. A simpler interpretation, in accord with that of verse 3 (and the discourse as a whole), would be that, without a spiritual birth (from above), in addition to one’s natural human birth (out of water), one cannot see/enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus is still thinking and experiencing things from the ordinary human standpoint. In verse 8, Jesus identifies the birth “from above” specifically with being born “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit“.

A second question from Nicodemus (“How are these things able to come to be?”, v. 9) introduces the exposition (by Jesus) which makes up the remainder of the discourse. This exposition can be divided into two parts:

  1. Jesus as the Son of Man who has come down from Heaven (vv. 10-15), and
  2. Jesus as the Son (of God) who brings light and life into the world (vv. 16-21)

At first glance, it may not seem obvious how these sections relate to the exchange with Nicodemus in vv. 1-9. But I believe that the key lies in a narrative technique found in the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as “step-parallelism”, in which a word or idea from a prior passage is taken up to start the next. Remember that the central idea in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus was that of being born “from above” (anœthen, verse 3). It is this motif that Jesus expounds in response to Nicodemus’ question. There are two components to the first part of Jesus’ explanation (vv. 11-15): (a) the heavenly source of Jesus’ words (his testimony), vv. 11-12, and (b) the heavenly origin of Jesus (the “Son of Man”), vv. 13-15. Consider how these two aspects relate, centered on the motif of heaven (i.e. from above):

  • Earthly things (v. 12a)
    —Heavenly things (v. 12b)
    —Ascent to Heaven (v. 13a)
  • Descent from Heaven [to earth] (v. 13b)

In verse 13-15 Jesus picks up and further expounds this motif of ascent/descent (using the verbs anabainœ and katabainœ, literally “step up” and “step down”, see last week’s study on John 1:51). According the Johannine view of Jesus, as expressed (by Jesus) in the other discourses, this ascent/descent concept is one of several in the Gospel which serves as a comprehensive symbol or image of both the death and exaltation of Jesus. Another such concept involves the verb hypsoœ (“lift high”) which Jesus uses in vv. 14-15:

“And even as Moshe lifted (up) high the snake in the desert, so it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every one trusting [in him] may have [lit. hold] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The primary emphasis here has shifted to Jesus’ sacrificial death (on the cross) which will bring (eternal) life to every one who trusts in him. This now becomes the transition to the second half of Jesus’ exposition (vv. 16-21), which begins with the famous verse 16 (note the points of similarity with vv. 14-15):

“For God loved the world this (way), so (that) he even gave his only (born) [monogen¢s] Son, so that every one trusting into him will not be destroyed, but might have/hold (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The joining word which introduces vv. 16-21 is the adverb houtœ[s], related to the demonstrative pronoun houtos (“this”). The idea seems to be that God loved the world “this way”, referring to what precedes—i.e. the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in the manner of the snake upon the pole (Numbers 21:9). This connection also serves to identify Jesus the “Son of Man” as the “only Son” of God (see the earlier study on John 1:18). Once again, by way of step-parallelism, Jesus takes up this motif and continues it for the remainder of the exposition:

  • God sent forth his Son into the world, so that the world might be saved through him (v. 17)
  • Salvation comes through trusting (vb. pisteuœ) in [lit. “into”, eis] God’s Son (v. 18)

Two important Johannine motifs are blending into verse 18: (1) the adjective monogen¢s (“only [born]”), i.e. God’s only Son, and (2) the identification of the person (Jesus) with his name. According to ancient Near Eastern thought, the essence of a person was seen has being bound up, in a quasi-magical sort of way, with his/her name. This took on special significance for Israelites and Jews with regard to the name of God (YHWH), and early Christians developed a similar reverence for the name of Yeshua/Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we find the important idea that Jesus (the Son) reveals God (the Father) by making known his name (i.e., who He truly is)—see 5:43; 10:25; 12:26; 17:6-26. At the same time, the Father acts on behalf of believers in the Son’s name (14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26). This inter-relationship of Father and Son is typical of John’s theology and Christology, and is found all throughout the Discourses of Jesus.

In verse 17-21 there is an interesting shift, from the theme of life (vv. 17-18) to that of light (19-21). Both are central to the Gospel of John and feature prominently in the Prologue (1:4-9ff). After the reference to Jesus’ death in verse 14, it seems that it is the incarnation of the Son (Jesus) which is more clearly in view in vv. 17-21. Jesus, in his very person, brings life and light into the world. The reference to light in verse 19 also introduces an aspect of dualism into the discourse—light vs. darkness. This takes us back to the original saying in verse 3. The word “from above” reflects a similar sort of dualism—above vs. below, heavenly vs. earthly. Only those who belong to the light, etc, are able to come to it (i.e. trust in Jesus). Trust is not a matter of human will-power, nor even of repentance and sacrifice, but of belonging to God. This is perhaps best expressed by Jesus words (to Pilate) in John 18:37:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world, that I should give witness to the truth—every one being out of [i.e. who is from/of] the truth hears my voice.”

And consider also the words of Jn 1:12-13:

“(for) as many as received him, he gave to them authority to come to be offspring of God, to the ones trusting in his name—the (one)s which, not out of blood, and not out of the will of the flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God, came to be (born)”

This concludes our study of John 3:16 in the context of the discourse (vv. 1-21). Often it is useful, and even necessary, to consider the wider context of the book as well. I would thus encourage you to go back and read again the first two chapters of John, paying especially close attention to chapter two and episode(s) of verses 13-25. As you read these verses, keep in mind your study of 3:1-21.

And I will see you again next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:51 (continued)

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John 1:51 (continued)

Last week we looked at the enigmatic statement by Jesus in John 1:51:

“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man.”

A proper study of such difficult passages requires a careful two-step approach: (1) analysis of the Greek words/phrases and how they are used, and (2) the context of the passage within the book. Last week we dealt with the first of these, today we will explore the second—that is, the context of the verse within the Gospel of John. Much of the difficulty surrounding this saying has been in trying to identify it with an actual event which the disciples experienced (or would experience). I mentioned three possibilities: (a) an otherwise unrecorded event during Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels; (b) a post-resurrection vision or encounter; or (c) an eschatological vision. None of these really seem to fit the narrative setting of this saying—at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the Baptism and the call of the first disciples. It seems more likely that it is meant by the author (trad. John the Apostle) as a symbolic picture, and that its fundamental meaning is Christological. I believe that a study of the Greek (last Saturday) already points rather clearly in this direction. But let us examine things a bit further.

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section is divided into four “days”, and with each “day” the witness of Jesus’ identity is developed:

  • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
  • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
    • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
  • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
    • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
    • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
  • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
    • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
    • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

Each of the last three days follows a basic pattern, which includes a pair of declarations regarding Jesus, using a range of significant titles or descriptions:

  • Day 2: “Lamb of God” (v. 29) / “Son of God” (or “Elect/Chosen One of God”) (v. 34)
  • Day 3: “Lamb of God” (v. 36) / “Messiah” (“Anointed One [Christ]”) (v. 41)
  • Day 4: “the one of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) /
    “Son of God” | “King of Israel” (v. 49)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel, which fundamentally has a Christological orientation, in two respects:

  1. The focus moves from John the Baptist to Jesus (see vv. 8, 15, 30; 3:28-30)
  2. John and the disciples witness (see) Jesus—that is, they begin to recognize who he is, and testify as to his identity.

The account of Jesus’ Baptism (vv. 31-34) is central to this section. Moreover, its close proximity to verse 51 makes it extremely likely that some sort of allusion to it is intended. Last week I mentioned several words in verse 51 which echo the baptism:

  • The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabainœ) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition epi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people.
  • In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is anoigœ (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.

The Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51.

Consider also that, while the saying in v. 51 concludes the first section (1:19-51), it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In terms of the Gospel of John, this means the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

  1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (see especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
  2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, see my earlier note on the subject. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

  • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching. A statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central to the Discourse.
  • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated by the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doxazœ (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. An allusion to Genesis 28:12

As mentioned last week, in Jesus’ saying there is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 28:12. In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the Greek Version (Septuagint) “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (anabainœ and katabainœ) as Jn 1:51. Note also:

  • There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (Jacob). In one reference (Genesis Rabbah 68:12) Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven.
  • The Targums (Aramaic translations) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
  • Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In ancient and traditional religious thinking, the Temple served as the meeting place between God and human beings, a point of contact between Heaven and Earth. Moreover, in John 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.

4. A Comprehensive Symbol?

Returning to the specific context of John’s Gospel, there is still more evidence to suggest that the saying of Jesus John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

  • The clear parallels with the Baptism (see above, and the discussion last week), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation). Again, the location of Jn 1:51 strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
  • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
  • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (especially in the Synoptic Gospels, Mk 13:26; Matt 16:27-28, etc). However, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (that is, divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent.
  • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel. This expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involve parallel confessions:
    • Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
    • Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves as bracketing the entire narrative of chapters 2-20:

      • “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
        —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
        —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      • “My God” (Deity)
    • Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
  • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (opsesthe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—as the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb optanomai, optomai/opsomai would indicate (Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22).
  • As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
    • “because I said to you that I saw [eidon] you… you trust?
      you will see [opsesthe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
    • “because you have seen [heœrakas] me you trust?
      Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [idontes] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.

It is a great wonder that, wherever you turn in the Gospel of John, there appears to be an almost limitless depth to the passage. Even a careful, objective treatment of individual words inevitably leads down into a wide expanse of meaning and spiritual significance. I hope that I have been able to offer some help in demonstrating how a study of both the words and context of the passage can serve as a reliable guide to exploration. For next week, I would exhort you to continue on in a similar manner, reading and studying the next two chapters of the Gospel as carefully and thoughtfully as you are able. It will prepare you for a discussion on one of the most familiar verses in all the New Testament, but one which is often cited without much consideration for its context in the Gospel. As you may have guessed, this is the world-famous John 3:16—and we will be looking at its context most carefully…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:51

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John 1:51

Today I want to continue on in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, with a verse that is one of the most difficult to interpret in the entire book—the saying of Jesus in Jn 1:51. Unlike the situation in verses 18 and 34 (discussed the past two Saturdays), there is no question about the text of the verse. The Greek is secure and there really are no significant variant readings. But this only raises a different sort of critical question: how does one proceed when we are sure of the text, but the passage is still difficult to understand? Consider the saying itself as I give it here in a (literal) translation:

“And (Jesus) says to him [i.e. Nathanel]. ‘Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man’.”

This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. To what, exactly, is Jesus referring here?

A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction (of a future event), or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense. Heavenly “Messengers” (i.e., Angels) are present in both the eschatological Son of Man sayings (Mk 13:26-27; Matt 13:41; 25:31, etc) and the resurrection/ascension scenes (Mk 16:5; Lk 24:23, etc; Acts 1:10f). However, neither of these seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind.

An important part of Biblical criticism involves examining the intent of the author, as far as this can be determined. In order to do this, we must explore the verse from two vantage points, much as we did in studying the text of Jn 1:18 and 34. These two aspects are: (1) the specific language and terminology (i.e. the Greek words and syntax) used, and (2) the context—both the immediate context, and that of the Gospel as a whole. Today I will examine (1) the language and terminology, leaving (2) the context for next Saturday.

1. The language and terminology used in the saying

Interpretation should always be based on a careful study of the original language (here the Greek of the NT)—the specific words and phrases, and how they are used in the passage (i.e. the grammar and syntax). I will look briefly here at the significant words and phrases, in the order they appear in the verse.

[Amen, amen]—The Greek am¢n (a)mh/n) is a transliteration of the Hebrew °¹m¢n (/m@a*), an adverb which means something like “surely, certainly, truly”. As a Semitic idiom, it was used frequently by Jesus, and is often preserved in its Hebrew/Aramaic form in the Gospels (41 times in Matthew, 13 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). It occurs 25 times in John, always in the double form (“amen, amen…”) we see in 1:51. In this form, it tends to be used by Jesus when addressing his disciples (or would-be disciples) and declaring to them something of the utmost importance. A comparable form of address in English idiom might be something like: “You may be sure of this…”, “I tell you the truth when I say that…”, etc. The formula introduces key sayings in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, and often are central to the theological (and Christological) points being made by Jesus in his exposition (cf. Jn 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:26, 32, etc).

[you will see]—The Greek verb optanomai (o)pta/nomai) in the future tense commonly means “see”, though its concrete, fundamental meaning would be something like “look with (open) eyes”. The motif of seeing, especially the idea of seeing Jesus, has special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. Typically it refers to something more than the ordinary (sensory) experience of sight. There are too many passages to cite them all here—e.g., 1:14, 33-34; 3:3, 36; 6:36, 46, 62; 9:37ff; 11:9, etc. The future form (of optanomai) occurs 9 times elsewhere in the Gospel, the first being in 1:39, where it relates to the basic idea of the disciple encountering Jesus, and realizing something of his true identity. In 3:36 the context is the experience of salvation (i.e. eternal life) through faith/belief in Jesus. The context of 11:40 (the miracle of raising Lazarus) indicates that it primarily refers to witnessing the splendor of God manifest in the person of Jesus, by way of his life-giving (and miracle-working) power. The four occurrences in 16:16-22 are more difficult to decipher, due to the wordplay and dual-layered meaning running throughout the passage: of the disciples encountering Jesus (a) after his resurrection and/or (b) in the future, following his return to the Father.

[the heaven opened up]—The wording here is an echo of the earlier baptism scene (vv. 29-34). Even though John does not describe the heaven “opening up”, the Gospel writer (trad. John the Apostle) almost certainly was aware of the historical tradition (vv. 32-33). In the Synoptic account (Mk 1:10), we find the specific image, including the same verb (anoigœ, a)noi/gw, “open up”) in Luke’s version (3:21) as used here in v. 51. Elsewhere in John, this verb is often used in the idiom “open up (one’s) eyes”, as a reference again to the important theme of seeing.

[the Messengers of God]—”Messenger” is the proper translation of the Greek angelos (a&ggelo$), which is usually transliterated into English as “Angel”. Here, of course, it refers to God’s heavenly Messengers (Angels) rather than human messengers. As noted above, in the Gospels, Angels are associated both with the resurrection/ascension of Jesus (as in Jn 20:12), as well as a number of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics (cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26 par; Matt 16:27, etc). However, there is also here likely an allusion to Genesis 28:12.

[stepping up and stepping down]—The Greek verbs anabainœ (a)nabai/nw) and katabainœ (katabai/nw) are usually translated “ascend” and “descend”, but literally mean “step up” and “step down”, respectively. Both verbs are used frequently in the Gospel of John, and often with special theological (and Christological) significance. This will be discussed when addressing the context of v. 51 next Saturday. This is the first occurrence in the Gospel of anabainœ, but katabainœ was used earlier in the description of the Baptism scene (vv. 32-33), of the Spirit descending (lit. “stepping down”) upon Jesus. These two verbs are also used in the Greek (Septuagint) version of Gen 28:12, of the Angels ascending and descending upon (the ladder). This makes an allusion to that Old Testament tradition here all but certain.

[upon]—The preposition epi (e)pi/) here again relates to both the Baptism of Jesus (the Spirit descending upon him, vv. 32-33) and to the Gen 28:12 tradition.

[the Son of Man]—This is a translation of the Greek ho huios tou anthrœpou (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). The expression is a Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) idiom which is generally synonymous with “Man”, referring to human beings or humankind, sometimes in the specific sense of human nature or the human condition. Jesus makes use of the expression in several special ways, which have been preserved in the Gospels. Two fundamental groups of “Son of Man” sayings relate to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, and (2) his appearance in glory at the end-time. Similarly, in the Gospel of John these two aspects are found in the (twelve) Son of Man sayings, though expressed in language and imagery that has special meaning in the context of the Johannine theology (and Christology). A number of Son of Man sayings involve the very verbs—anabainœ and katabainœ—used in this verse. I have recently discussed these sayings in a separate note, which may be helpful for you to read as part of this study.

Next week we will be examining the context of this verse more closely. In the meantime, I would recommend that you continue to study and meditate on Jesus’ saying. Based on what we have done so far—studying the specific words and phrases that are used—does this offer you any new insights on the meaning and significance of the verse? You may wish to write these down, or at least keep them in mind as we continue…and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:34

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John 1:34

Today we will be looking at another example from the first chapter of John, which involves a key textual variant (or variant reading), much as we saw last week with verse 18. A bit later on in the chapter, at verse 34, we find the following declaration (by John the Baptist):

“And I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is the <…> of God

The textual unit involving the variant is marked in bold, while the specific variant is indicated by the placeholder with angle brackets. There are two main variant readings for this unit:

  1. “…the Elect/Chosen One of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)
  2. “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)

The conflated reading “…the Elect/Chosen Son of God”, found in a few witnesses, is clearly secondary and can be disregarded; however, it does show that both readings above were familiar to certain copyists. If you followed the study on Jn 1:18 the past two Saturdays, you are aware of the importance of analyzing such variant readings, so that our examination of the Scripture is founded upon a clear understanding of the text. Let us follow the approach taken in that earlier study, beginning with the external (manuscript) evidence.

1. The External Evidence. The manuscript evidence clearly favors the second reading above (“the Son [huios] of God”). It is the reading of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, versions, and other textual witnesses. By contrast, the first reading (“the Elect/Chosen One [eklektos] of God”) is found in only a couple of manuscripts (Papyrus 5, and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]), along with a few early translations (Latin and Syriac versions). Normally, such overwhelming external evidence would decide the question; however, in this case, the matter is not quite so straightforward.

2. Transcriptional Probability. This refers to the tendencies of copyists—i.e., which reading was more likely to be changed/altered during the process of copying? Unlike the situation with Jn 1:18, there is no real indication that the reading in v. 34 would have been changed by accident; almost certainly, the alteration was conscious and/or intentional. But in which direction is the change more likely? From “Elect/Chosen One” to “Son”, or the other way around? Here it would seem that the evidence decisively favors the first reading above (“Elect/Chosen One”), on the principle difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). In other words, scribes are more likely to have changed a difficult or less familiar reading to one which is easier/familiar. Both in the Gospel of John, and throughout the New Testament, “Son of God” is far more common than the title “Elect/Chosen One of God”, and would be more easily understood as a title of Jesus by early Christians. It also fits better the parallel with the Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:11 par).

3. Style and Usage of the Author. The adjective eklektos (e)klekto/$, “elect/chosen”) does not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but the related verb eklegomai (e)klegomai, “choose”, literally “gather out”) is used five times, all by Jesus, and always in reference to the disciples, i.e. as those chosen by him (6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19). Indeed, throughout the New Testament, both the adjective (as a noun) and the verb are typically used of believers (Matt 13:20; 22:14; Lk 6:13; 18:7; Acts 1:2; Rom 8:33; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:1, etc), and only rarely of Jesus (Lk 9:35; 23:35; cf. below). By contrast, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” many times in the Gospel of John. The title “Son of God” is less frequent, but still occurs 8 times, declared by others (Jn 1:49; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31) as often as by Jesus himself (3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4). It is also relative common (7 times) in 1 John (3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10-13, 20). A consideration of style and vocabulary would thus tend to favor the reading “Son of God” in Jn 1:34.

4. The Context (1:19-51). Jn 1:19-51 is the first main section of the Gospel after the Prologue (vv. 1-18). It is comprised of four smaller sections, or narrative episodes, which are joined together, using the literary device of setting the four episodes on four successive days. This may be outlined as follows:

  • Day 1—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity (1:19-28)
  • Day 2—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus (1:29-34)
  • Day 3—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness (1:35-42)
  • Day 4—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness (1:43-51)

The first “Day” involves the question of John the Baptist’s identity. He specifically denies any identification with three figures or titles—”the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”. The last two relate to a Messianic Prophet figure-type, drawn from the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses (Deut 18:15-20); for more on this subject, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. It is not entirely clear whether “the Anointed One” refers to a Messiah generally, a Messianic Prophet, or the traditional Messianic ruler from the line of David; based on the overall context of vv. 29-51, the latter is more likely.

The second and third “Days” follow a similar pattern; each begin with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (vv. 29, 36). Each ends with a distinct declaration regarding Jesus’ identity. The declaration of the second day is that of verse 34; that of the third day again involves the title Messiah—”We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41), where the Hebrew word M¹šîaµ is transliterated as Messias (before being translated, “Anointed One” [Christos]). This common Messianic theme would perhaps suggest that the reading “Chosen/Elect One” is to be preferred, since this title (presumably derived from Isa 42:1) is more directly Messianic than is “Son of God”. This is certainly the case with its use in Lk 9:35 and 23:35, the only other occurrences in the New Testament where the title is applied to Jesus.

However, a careful examination of the fourth “Day” (vv. 43-51) points in the opposite direction. Here the declaration regarding Jesus’ identity, made by Nathanael (v. 49), is two-fold:

“You are the the Son of God, you are the King of Israel

The thematic and narrative structure suggests that these two titles are parallel to those in the declarations of the 2nd and 3rd days:

  • “Son of God” = “<Chosen | Son> of God” (v. 34)
  • “King of Israel” = “Messiah” (v. 41)

The parallelism would tend to favor “Son” in v. 34, if only slightly. This, along with the overwhelming external manuscript evidence (in favor of “Son”), makes it the preferred reading. Still, the matter is far from decisive, and it is worth keeping the variant “Elect/Chosen One” well in mind whenever you read this passage. Consider how the two titles (and concepts) are closely intertwined in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene, in which the voice from Heaven declares (according to the best manuscripts):

“This is my Son, the Elect/Chosen One [ho eklelegmenos]…” (9:35)

The Transfiguration scene, of course, parallels the earlier Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in which the voice from Heaven makes a similar declaration (in Matthew they are identical). Now, the Gospel of John only narrates the Baptism indirectly (vv. 29-34), through the testimony of John the Baptist, who witnesses the visionary phenomena. His declaration is in the same climactic position as the Divine/Heavenly voice in the Synoptics:

Yet consider, too, a comparison with the variant reading from John—

  • “You are My Son…” / “This is My Son…”
  • “This is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34 v.l.)

which matches the words of the heavenly voice in Lk 9:35:

“You are my Son, the Chosen One”

This declaration, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of “My Servant [±e»ed]…my Chosen (One) [baµîr]…”. In Greek, ±e»ed is translated by pais, which can also mean “child”—”my Child” is obviously close in meaning to “my Son“. At the same time, baµîr is translated by eklektos, the same word used in Jn 1:34 v.l. (and related to that in Lk 9:35).

By carelessly choosing one variant reading, and ignoring the other, we risk missing out on an important aspect of the text, and the historical (Gospel) traditions which underlie it. Next Saturday, I will be examining an even more difficult verse from the first chapter of John. It does not involve a variant reading; however, it, even more than verse 34, requires a careful study of the Greek words as they are used in context, in order to decipher its meaning. I recommend that you read and study the entire first chapter again, all the way through to verse 51. Think and meditate upon all that you find, and begin to ask yourself what Jesus’ enigmatic saying in verse 51 could mean…

…and I will see you next Saturday.