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.