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Note of the Day – May 6 (John 11:25b)

John 11:25

Jesus’ statement in John 11:25b-26a follows the “I Am” saying in v. 25a—”I am the standing up [i.e. resurrection] and the life”, which I discussed in the previous daily note. Verse 25b-26a is a two-fold statement which explains this saying; it also serves to correct Martha’s misunderstanding (v. 24), according to the Johannine discourse-format. Her misunderstanding was addressed first in the “I Am” saying, shifting the focus from the end-time resurrection of the dead to Jesus’ own person, in the present. The exposition continues in vv. 25b-26a:

“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live; and every one living and trusting in me shall (certainly) not die away into the Age”

There is a poetic parallelism to this statement:

  • the one trusting—dies—will live (again)
  • every one living—trusting—will not die

Today we will be looking at the first part of this statement (in verse 25b):

o( pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ka*n a)poqa/nh| zh/setai
“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live”

There is some question as to the precise meaning of living and dying, life and death, in this verse. Two main possibilities have been recognized:

  • It refers to physical death and resurrection
  • It refers to spiritual death and new (eternal) life

Because the words zwh= and za/w (“life”, “live”) in the Gospel of John usually refer to something akin to “eternal life”, many commentators assume the latter interpretation above. However, I believe that this is incorrect. The idea of a person being dead “spiritually”, while a popular concept and expression in modern Christianity, is hard to find in the New Testament. There is certainly precious little evidence for it in the Gospel of John. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away”) occurs 28 times in John, and always, it would seem, in reference to the ordinary (physical) death of a human being. The same is true of the adjective nekro/$ (“dead”), used substantively as a collective (“the dead”, i.e. people who have died). Therefore we can fairly assume that a)poqnh/skw has the same sense here in vv. 25-26. The context is clearly that of the resurrection from the dead (to be illustrated in the case of Lazarus).

However, it is important to understand the conceptual background of “life” and “death/dying” in the Gospel. The fundamental emphasis is eschatological. This is confirmed by the fact that the word “life” (zwh=) is regularly used in the expression “(the) life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh=), typically translated in English as “eternal life”. That customary translation, however, obscures the original sense of the expression, which refers to the Age to Come. In ancient thought, shared by Israelites and Jews, the future age represents a period of blessedness, in which the righteous will share in the heavenly (divine) life. Often this was understood in a realistic sense, of a future time (and/or condition) established on earth, expressed in Jewish thought as the “Kingdom of God”. Others came to view the idea in a more symbolic sense, reflecting the divine/eternal life that the righteous would experience with God in heaven.

Perhaps the earliest occurrence of the expression corresponding to ai)w/nio$ zwh= is in Daniel 12:2, where the resurrection of the righteous is in view. In Hebrew it is <l*ou yY@j^ (µayy¢ ±ôl¹m), where the word <l*ou essentially refers to something distant—i.e. that of the distant past or future, often in the sense of time stretching out into the far distant (“everlasting”) future. The temporal aspect of life without end is clearly expressed in Jewish writings such as the Qumran 1QS 4:7 and the Damascus Document [CD] 3:20. By the 1st century A.D., this aspect was supplemented by the idea of “eternal life” in a qualitative sense, whereby the “Age to Come” had a character completely different from the current Age (“this Age”). While the expression “life of the Age” in John retains something of the temporal background, the overall meaning has shifted to the qualitative—it reflects the life of God the Father (and the Son) in which the righteous (believers) will come to share. In this sense, eternal does not refer to duration, but to its Divine character.

The traditional contrast between “this Age” and “the Age to Come” has also been reinterpreted within the Gospel to reflect a different sort of dualism—the world (o( ko/smo$) vs. God, the realm below vs. that which is above, etc. By the “world” we should understand ko/smo$ in its fundamental sense of order, that is, the current world-order, the arrangement of things and how they appear. In Johannine dualism, this world-order is governed by darkness, evil and sin, and is set precisely in contrast to the realm of God, characterized by light and truth. The presence of sin ultimately leads to (1) physical death, and (2) judgment by God (after death). Thus the ordinary human condition—that of mortal beings—ends in death, realized in these two aspects. After physical death, there is a kind of final or “second” death which is the fate of the wicked (cf. Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).

Let us now consider Jn 11:25b in light of this background. I would argue that “death” in Johannine thought and expression has nothing whatever to do with the Spirit, or to the “spirit” of humankind; it is entirely separate, belonging to “the World”—the realm of sin and darkness. Human beings are bound under the conditions of the sinful world-order (ko/smo$), and are destined to suffer both physical and final (eschatological) death. Jesus is referring to the first aspect: physical, mortal death.

“even (if) he should die away [a)poqa/nh|]…”

The subjunctive here indicates a conditional clause, i.e. if a person should die, if he/she happens to die, just as happened to Lazarus. The promise of the statement is, that if a person trusts in Jesus, and happens to die (physically), that person will live (zh/setai). In the immediate context, this last phrase would seem to refer to the future resurrection, as Martha assumed in v. 24. Yet Jesus is actually saying that the person will live again now. This must be understood on two levels:

  • In the context of the narrative, the impending resurrection of Lazarus
  • In the sense of what may be called a “realized” eschatology

By “realized” eschatology is meant the idea that believers in Christ experience the essential reality of the future life in the present. In other words, the resurrection and “life of the Age” (eternal life) will be experienced through the presence of Jesus in and with the believer. In the Gospel of John, as elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. the letters of Paul), this divine/eternal life is realized primarily through the abiding presence and work of the Spirit. There is no mention of the Spirit in the Lazarus episode, it has to be understood based on other passages in the Gospel. I will be dealing with the relationship between the Spirit and Life (cf. Jn 6:63) in a subsequent series of notes.

It is now time to proceed to the second part of Jesus’ statement, in v. 26a. This I will do in the next daily note.

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