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Note of the Day – November 12 (John 20:31)

John 20:31

In the closing words of the Gospel of John—that is, the Gospel narrative proper—the author gives his reason for writing:

“I have written these (things) that you might/should trust that Yeshua {Jesus} is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, trusting (him), you would hold life in his name.”

The two key points of doctrine are central to the Gospel and early Christian tradition—that Jesus is (1) the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ), and (2) the Son of God. On the centrality of this two-fold statement of belief, see e.g., Mark 1:1 v.l. and the Matthean version of Peter’s confession (Matt 16:16, cp. Lk 9:20). There can be little doubt as to the author’s own belief, though the specific expression “Son of God” may reflect the unique understanding of the relationship between the Son (Jesus) and God the Father as presented in the Gospel of John. That a specific and definite Christology is intended, would seem clear from corresponding statements in 1 John (1:1-4; 2:22-24; 3:23; 4:1-6, 15; 5:1-5, 6-11, 13, 20, etc), assuming that the letter stems from the same author and/or community as the Gospel. What is perhaps of greater interest for the commentator is the specific verb forms used in the verse. The four verbs reflect a step-parallel structure used at a number of points in the Gospel:

  • I have written [ge/graptai]…that you might/should trust
    • and that trusting…you should hold [e&xete] life…

In this “step” format, the first element of the line or phrase, picks up from the last element of one prior. In this instance, we have two forms of the verb pisteu/w (“trust”, i.e. “have faith [in], believe”), which occurs frequently in the Johannine writings—98 times in the Gospel, 9 in the letters (nearly half of all NT occurrences). The first form is a subjunctive, indicating an intended purpose (and/or result)—”so that, in order that”. The second form is a present participle, suggesting a continual (present) action or condition—believers are trusting, ones who trust. There is an interesting variant with regard to the first (subjunctive) form, which is significant and relevant, in terms of the author’s purpose:

  • Aorist subjunctive (pisteu/sete)—which here is generally taken to mean that the author is writing so that people will come to trust in Christ; in other words, it is aimed primarily at non-believers, or those who are not yet Christian.
  • Present subjunctive (pisteu/ete)—in this case, the present tense would perhaps best be understood as “you would continue to trust”; that is, the purpose being to strengthen the (current) faith of believers.

In modern language, we might say that the first reading indicates an evangelistic purpose, the second a spiritual purpose. The textual evidence is fairly divided, with the majority supporting the first (aorist subjunctive), including a2 A C D L W Y f1,13 33; on the other hand, a number of key early manuscripts (Ë66vid a* B Q) read the present subjunctive. The same variants occur in 19:35 as well, and it is possible that both verses were changed together. In my view, internal considerations tilt things slightly in favor of the latter reading (present subjunctive). The entire thrust of the Gospel, especially in the discourses of Jesus, appears aimed at presenting (to believers) the deeper, true meaning of Jesus’ words. The very pattern of the discourses utilizes the motif of misunderstanding—Jesus’ hearers (including his own disciples) typically fail to understand the real import of his words, latching onto the apparent or superficial meaning. The question or response of his audience (based on this misunderstanding) prompts Jesus to present a more in-depth explanation and exposition of his initial saying. In this light, I am inclined to interpret 20:31 as follows:

“I have written these (thing)s, (so) that you would (truly) trust that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God, and that, trusting (in him), you would (indeed) hold life in his name.”

This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the parallel statement in 1 John 5:13:

“I have written to you (so) that you would have seen [i.e. known] that you hold life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life], to the ones trusting in the name of the Son of God.”

Here there is no doubt that the author is writing to believers; his purpose is indicated by the used of a perfect subjunctive (a past condition continuing into the present)—i.e., believers have seen/known, but he wishes that they will continue to know, and know more fully. It is almost as though he is writing specifically to those believers addressed in Jn 20:31, but that his purpose now is for an even deeper level of (spiritual) awareness. Again, this awareness is Christological—tied to the correct understanding of the person and work of Jesus (the Son). More importantly, the author is concerned that his audience recognize their real identity as believers in Christ, and to think and act more consistently (and faithfully) in this light. From the standpoint of the Christian Community, this is expressed primarily in terms of the principle of love for one another (i.e. the “love command”) in Christ. Another important aspect of Johannine thought (and theology) is the believer’s identity as being of/from [lit. “out of”] God—that is, belonging to Him, coming from or being born of Him. I have discussed this a number of times in recent notes and articles (cf. especially Part 5 of the current series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, on the theme of Election/Predestination). It is possible that something of this understanding is expressed in 1 Jn 5:13, and also in John 20:31, especially if the reading with present subjunctive is correct (cf. above). From the standpoint of predestination, there is a sense in which believers, over the course of their lifetime, gradually gain a deeper understanding of just who we are—and, indeed, who we have always been—in Christ. I think that the specific expression in John of the believer “holding” (eternal) life, along with the image of “remaining/abiding” in Christ (and Christ in the believer), expresses this profound aspect of our Christian identity. It is not simply a question of gaining or finding life through faith in Christ, but of “holding” it—i.e., truly having it in and with oneself. According to the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, God gave the disciples (believers) to Jesus beforehand, into his care, and so we remain through the presence of the Spirit.

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