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Note of the Day – April 29 (John 11:25)

John 11:25

Jesus’ response to Martha in vv. 25-26, which also expounds the meaning of his saying in v. 23, can be divided into four parts, though it makes up a single sentence:

  • “I am the standing up [i.e. resurrection] and the life”
  • “the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live”
  • “every (one) living and trusting in me, no he does not die away into the age”
  • “do you trust [i.e. believe] this?”

Each of these will be discussed in turn, beginning with the declaration in v. 25a:

e)gw/ ei)mi h( a)na/stasi$ kai\ h( zwh/
“I am the standing-up and the life”

There are three elements to this saying: (1) pronoun (subject), (2) verb, and (3) dual predicate. The first two are taken together, as the phrase “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) marks this as one of the famous “I am”-sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

e)gw/ ei)mi—There are at least 17 “I am” sayings or statements by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and these can be divided into: (a) those with a predicate, and (b) those without a (specific) predicate. I begin with the latter, since they are necessary for a proper understanding of the former. There are three important occurrences in the discourse of Jesus set in Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) in chapters 7-8:

  • “for if you do not trust that I am [e)gw ei)mi], you will die away in your sins” (8:24)
  • “when you lift high the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [e)gw ei)mi]…” (8:28)
  • “…before Abraham(‘s) coming to be [gene/sqai], I am [e)gw ei)mi]” (8:58)

To these may be added Jesus’ wording in verses 18 (“I am the one witnessing about myself…”) and 23 (“I am out of [i.e. from] the things above”), which have more in common with the sayings with a predicate (below). The statement in 13:19 is similar in aspects of thought and vocabulary with the three sayings above:

“From now I say (this) to you before (its) coming to be, (so) that you may trust, when it comes to be, that I am [e)gw ei)mi]”

In two other instances, the expression e)gw/ ei)mi is understood, in the context of the narrative, as “I am he“—6:20 and 18:5.

The background for this Johannine usage of e)gw/ ei)mi by Jesus is to be found in the self-declaration by God (YHWH) in the Old Testament: “I am YHWH…”. This formula of divine revelation, occurs in key passages such as Gen 28:13; Exod 6:6-7; 7:5; 15:26; 20:2, 5; Lev 18:5; Isa 45:18; Hos 13:4; Joel 2:27, etc. This involves the pronoun yn]a& (“I”) but no specific verb (a verb of being is implied). A similar declaration, “I am He” (aWh yn]a&), occurring in Deut 32:39 and frequently in (Deutero-)Isaiah (41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6) is translated in the Greek version (LXX) as e)gw/ ei)mi—”I am“. For Greek-speaking Jews in the post-Exilic period, “I Am”, e)gw/ ei)mi, could function effectively as the Divine name (i.e. YHWH), and this is important in the context of the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
For more on the name YHWH and the explanation provided in Exod 3:14, cf. the earlier Christmas season note.

A central theme throughout the Gospel, in the discourses of Jesus, is that Jesus (the Son) is making known the name of the Father to his disciples (i.e. to believers). In ancient thought, to make known a person’s name is essentially the same thing as making known the person himself. Thus the “I Am” sayings of Jesus should be understood in terms of theophany—the manifestation of God to human beings on earth. In this regard, even the sayings typically translated “I am he” (Jn 6:20; 18:5) still have the character of a theophany. This is especially clear in the case of 6:20, which is part of the walking-on-water episode, where Jesus appears to the disciples, in the midst of wind and storm (typical elements of a theophany), and declares: “I am (he) [e)gw ei)mi]—do not be afraid!”

A recognition of this religious and theological background of the expression e)gw/ ei)mi will help us understand the sayings which involve a specific predicate. In most of these, Jesus is identifying himself with a particular image or symbol:

  • “I am the bread of life” / “I am the living bread” (6:35, 51)
  • “I am the light of the world” (8:12, cf. also 9:5)
  • “I am the door of the sheep(-fold)” (10:7, 9)
  • “I am the excellent (shep)herd” (10:11, 14)
  • “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5)

Jesus appears to be taking details from the natural world and daily life, much as he does in the (Synoptic) parables, and interpreting them from a spiritual and divine standpoint—he is the true [i.e. eternal/divine] bread, water, vine, shepherd, etc. However, the saying closest in form to 11:25a is found in the famous declaration of 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Both statements take the pattern “I am…the life”.

a)na/stasi$–This noun, derived from the verb a)ni/sthmi, literally means “standing up”, but is commonly used in the technical sense of “resurrection”, i.e. standing up from the dead. Martha uses it in the conventional religious sense of the end-time resurrection, as discussed in the previous note. Indeed, it is always used this way elsewhere in the Gospels (Mark 12:18, 23 par; John 5:29; and cf. also Acts 23:6, 8; 24:15). Eventually, early Christians applied it specifically to the resurrection of Jesus, as in Acts 1:22; 2:31; 4:2, 33, and throughout the letters. There is an interplay of both meanings in Acts 24:21 and 26:23 (cf. also 17:18, 32). Jesus’ statement to Martha in 11:25 combines these meanings and transcends them. By using the e)gw/ ei)mi formulation—”I am the resurrection”—Jesus is identifying himself with the effective power (of God) to raise the dead, and with God Himself who will raise them.

There are two aspects to Jesus’ correction of Martha’s misunderstanding, reflected in each of the two predicate nouns. First, he corrects her understanding of the resurrection (h( a)na/stasi$) by identifying himself as the resurrection—it is not simply something which will take place in the future, it is present now, in the person of Jesus. Second, he adds to it the life (h( zwh/).

zwh/—This word occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings: 36 times in the Gospel, and 13 times in the letters; if we include the book of Revelation (17 times), that makes nearly half of all occurrences (135) in the New Testament. Based on the context of the narrative (the death of Lazarus), it would seem that ordinary physical life is in view. Certainly Martha has this in mind, thinking of the resurrection from the dead at the end time (v. 24). And yet, the word zwh/ almost always carries a deeper meaning throughout the Gospel and letters of John. In the Gospel, zwh/ occurs 17 times (nearly half of the 36) within the expression [h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh/, “[the] life of the age”, usually translated as “eternal life”. Even when it is used alone, it tends to denote eternal life, in the qualitative sense of spiritual and divine life—i.e., the life which is found in God the Father and the Son (Jesus). This fundamental identification is confirmed by the use of the e)gw/ ei)mi formula (cf. above), and is clarified by Jesus’ statement in 14:6. Jesus (the Son) reveals the life, truth, etc, of the Father and points/leads the way to Him.

I will be discussing the expression “life of the age” (i.e. eternal life) in more detail in upcoming notes. Here it is important to realize how Jesus (and the Gospel writer) makes use of the word “life”, and the idea of it, moving from the conventional understanding of the disciple (Martha), to a profound revelatory expression which even the committed believer can only begin to grasp. This will be examined as we proceed through the remainder of vv. 25-26 in the next few daily notes.

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