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Gospel of John

Note of the Day – April 14 (Luke 22:39-46; John 18:1-11)

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The Prayer Scene—Mk 14:32-42; Matt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46

The Prayer scene in the Garden (or Gethsemane) is one of the most famous and moving portions of the Passion narrative, perhaps because of the powerful dramatic effect of seeing Jesus struggle with human fear and suffering—indicating how far he shared in the human condition (Heb 5:7, etc). The Synoptic Tradition makes this the central scene of the Passion narrative—epitomizing Jesus’ passion, properly speaking. The Markan outline vividly shows Jesus separate from the disciples, taking along with him only three (Peter and the brothers James and John); then he moves further away from them, and prays to God on his own. This movement into prayer takes place by steps:

  • To the disciples: “Sit here until [i.e. while] I speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]” (v. 32)
    • He moves away, taking Peter, James and John with him (v. 33)
      He begins to be struck (with sorrow) and full (of distress) in (his) mind
    • To the three: “My soul is in pain (all) around until [i.e. to the point of] death! Remain here and stay aroused [i.e. keep awake, keep watch]” (v. 34)
      • He goes forward a little to pray by himself (v. 35a)
        He falls upon the ground (overwhelmed by the moment)

The time of prayer (lit. speaking out toward [God]) begins with verse 35b, where Jesus’ prayer is summarized by the narrator in the context of his Passion:

“he spoke out toward (God) [i.e. prayed] that, if it is possible, the hour [w%ra] might go along (away) from him”

This is then repeated in direct address by Jesus, as part of a three-fold cycle (vv. 36-41a), in which Jesus prays for a time, and then returns to the three disciples to find them asleep. Only in the first instance are Jesus’ words—the essence of his prayer—recorded:

“Abba, (my) Father, all things are possible for you [i.e. are in your power]—(please) carry along this cup (away) from me! But (yet let it not be) what I wish, but what you (wish)” (v. 36)

Following this first time of prayer, Jesus’ address to the disciples (to Peter) is also recorded:

“Shim’on, are you sleeping? Did you not have strength to keep aroused [i.e. awake] for one hour? Stay aroused and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], that you might not come into (the) testing! The spirit has a forward impulse [i.e. is ready/willing], but the flesh is without strength.” (vv. 37-38)

The Gospel writer provides no further words until Jesus’ third (final) return, when he wakes the disciples and gives the climactic declaration in vv. 41-42. The reference to the “hour” (w%ra) is parallel to that in verse 35b and marks the scene as the beginning of Jesus Passion—which will continue with his arrest, interrogation/trial, mistreatment, and death.

The Gospel of Matthew (26:36-46) follows Mark quite closely here, giving even greater definition to the three-fold cycle of prayer mentioned above. Several details serve to enhance and personalize the scene:

  • “he began to be in pain/sorrow…” [a different verb is used] (v. 37)
  • “remain here and keep aroused [i.e. keep awake/watch] with me” (v. 38)
  • “he fell upon his face” (v. 39)

More notable, Matthew records (the essence of) the first two times of prayer, giving us Jesus’ words:

  • 1st: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup go along (away) from me! Yet not as I wish (it), but as you (wish it to be)” (v. 39)
  • 2nd: “My Father, if this (cup) is not able to go along (from me) if not (that) [i.e. unless] I drink it, may your will come to be” (v. 42)

This doubling generally fits what Mark describes in 14:39, but creates a more dramatic moment.

Luke’s account (22:39-46) is rather different from the version in Mark/Matthew, though it clearly derives from the same basic tradition. Much depends on the status of verses 43-44, which are textually uncertain (for more on this, cf. the supplemental note). Commentators are divided on whether or not to include them as part of the original text. I am inclined to regard them as secondary—an ancient interpolation perhaps drawn from authentic (historical) tradition, despite the seemingly legendary quality to the details. If the shorter text is original, then Luke certainly presents a much abridged version of the scene, with two main differences:

  • The three-fold cycle of prayer is replaced with a single time of prayer, followed by Jesus’ return to the disciples.
  • There are two exhortations to pray, which frame the scene (cf. below)

The references to Jesus’ sorrow and distress have also been eliminated—that is, unless we accept vv. 43-44 as original, in which case Luke’s version contains a different (and even more striking) depiction of Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish. The overall tone and tenor of Luke’s account would seem to argue against this portrait in vv. 43-44. The shorter text has a clear chiastic structure (another argument in its favor):

  • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 40)
    —Jesus withdraws from them and falls down to his knees on the ground (v. 41)
    ——His prayer to the Father (v. 42)
    —He stands up from prayer and returns to the disciples (v. 45)
  • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 46)

The Lukan form of Jesus’ prayer differs slightly from those in Mark/Matthew, combining elements of both versions (cp. above):

“Father, if you will (it), carry along this cup (away) from me! Yet let your will, not mine, come to be” (v. 42)

This idiom of drinking the cup is a way of expressing the acceptance of one’s destiny, as it has been determined by God. For something of the Old Testament background, cf. Psalm 11:6; 75:9; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15; 49:12; Lam 4:21. Sometimes the image carries the sense of accepting one’s death, as in the expression “cup of death” in the Jerusalem II Targum on Gen 40:23 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 1442).

John 18:1-11

John’s version of the Garden scene is quite different from the Synoptics, and certainly derives from a separate line of tradition. Yet there are certain elements in common which indicate that both lines rely upon a fundamental set of historical traditions:

  • The general location—a place on the slope of the Mount of Olives, though indicated by different designations. John is unique in describing it as a garden spot across the “winter-flowing Kidron” riverbed (v. 1). There may be an allusion here to 2 Sam 15:23.
  • The arrival of Judas (the betrayal) with a crowd of police/soldiers and attendants of the religious authorities (Chief Priests, etc). The tradition that Judas was familiar with the place (v. 2) may have confirmation from the notice in Lk 22:39.
  • Jesus addresses them (spec. Judas) on their arrival
  • The incident of the disciple who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave with a sword
  • Jesus’ words of rebuke in response (in Matthew & Luke, but not Mark), along with a declaration regarding the necessity of these things (i.e. his arrest) coming to pass
  • Jesus is taken into custody by the crowd

The outline of John’s account is quite simple:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
  • The arrival of Judas with the crowd—their encounter with Jesus (vv. 3-9)
  • Peter’s violent action and Jesus’ response (vv. 10-11)

The central scene is very much unique to John, both in the way Judas is presented, and, even more so, by the depiction of the crowd’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 4-8). The detail in vv. 2-3 reminds the reader of Judas’ former inclusion as one of Jesus’ Twelve closest disciples, and of the betrayal as he arrives with a crowd of attendants (acting as police) from the Chief Priests, along with (Roman) soldiers (a detail found only in John). After verse 5, Judas essentially disappears from the scene; there is nothing corresponding to Mk 14:44-45 par. His role (as betrayer) was to set Jesus’ Passion and death in motion.

By contrast, the encounter in vv. 4-8 between Jesus and the crowd is striking, with nothing like it in the Synoptics (cp. Mk 14:48-49, for the nearest parallel). Jesus has a commanding presence, and speaks with such authority, so as to cause the crowd to shrink back and fall to the ground. His double declaration of e)gw\ ei)mi (“I am [he]”, vv. 6, 8) is certainly to be related to the earlier I AM statements of Jesus in John, and intended here as a declaration of his identity as the eternal Son of God. As such it carries definite Christological weight, and is a far cry from the portrait of Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Garden episode. In this same spirit is the emphasis on Jesus’ control over the disciples—those given to him by God the Father and left in his care (vv. 8-9). His authority protects them from harm in the moment of his arrest.

It is significant that John’s version contains nothing of the Synoptic depiction of Jesus’ distress and anguish; indeed, there is nothing at all corresponding to the Prayer scene (cf. above), except perhaps for the wording of the concluding declaration in v. 11. A closer parallel may be found at an earlier point in the narrative, in 12:27ff:

“Now my soul has been disturbed, and what may I say? ‘Father, save me out of this hour?’ But through this [i.e. for this reason] I came into this hour.” (v. 27)

The Johannine presentation of the disciple’s rash and violent act with the sword is meant to serve as a decided contrast to the calm authority and control with which Jesus acts. John provides several interesting (and unique) details:

  • The disciple, otherwise unidentified in the Synoptics, is Peter
  • The name of the slave—Malchus
  • Agreement with Luke in specifying the right ear

The latter is a natural development of the tradition; the second would appear (on objective grounds) to be authentic historical information. Only the identification of the disciple with Peter is problematic—how and/or why would the other Gospels have left out this key bit of information if it were part of the original tradition? However one judges the historical-critical question, the identification with Peter is important within the Johannine narrative, as it serves as a parallel to Peter’s role (his denial) in the next episode. His rash act with the sword is, in some ways, an extension of his failure in the denial scene. Often in the Gospel tradition, Peter effectively represents all the disciples, and so perhaps we should understand it here.

Even more significant is Jesus’ response to Peter’s act (v. 11). Matthew and Luke also record (very different) responses; John’s version is closest to the declaration by Jesus in Matthew (26:52-54), at least in its initial words:

“Turn your sword away back into its place!…” (Matthew)
“Cast (your) sword (back) into the sheath!…” (John)

In place of the Synoptic reference to the fulfillment of Scripture (Matt 26:54 par), in John’s version, Jesus’ words echo the Synoptic prayer scene:

“…the cup which the Father has given me (to drink), (indeed) shall I not drink it?” (v. 11b)

John’s account also differs slightly in that he separates the actual arrest of Jesus (v. 12) from the main Garden scene, making it part of the next episode—the interrogation of Jesus before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)—which will be discussed in the next daily note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28, 28A (1985).

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.

Note of the Day – April 12 (John 13:31-38ff)

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John 6:51-58; 13:31-38 (continued)

Today, I wish to explore the final difference between John and the Synoptics in the presentation of the Last Supper scene—the inclusion of the great Last Discourse (or series of Discourses) which follows the Supper and precedes the episode in the Garden (Jn 18:1-11). There is nothing remotely like it in the Synoptic Gospels, though perhaps a very loose parallel may be seen in the teaching which Luke records in 22:25-30, 35-38 (cf. the earlier note). It is not possible here to examine the Last Discourse (13:31-17:26, or, properly 13:31-16:33) in much detail, but a structural and thematic survey may help us to understand its place in the Passion Narrative (on this, cf. the supplemental note).

Jn 13:31-38—The Introduction to the Last Discourse

I regard 13:31-38 as the beginning, the introduction, of the Last Discourse. Indeed, these verses introduce the primary themes of the Discourse, weaving them around the Passion Narrative tradition of the prediction by Jesus of Peter’s denial. I will leave the role of Peter in the Passion (and Resurrection) Narratives for a later note. It is more important, at this juncture, to consider the place of this tradition in terms of the Last Discourse, and how it connects with the earlier Last Supper scene. I outline these verses as follows:

  • Narrative transition (v. 31a)
  • Saying of Jesus #1—Son of Man saying (vv. 31b-32)
  • Saying of Jesus #2—Declaration of his going away (v. 33)
  • Saying of Jesus #3—The Love Command (vv. 34-35)
  • Excursus: Prediction of Peter’s Denial (vv. 36-38)

Let us examine each of these elements briefly.

Narrative transition (v. 31a)—This short statement serves to join the sayings of vv. 31-35 with the Last Supper scene. It is parallel with the even shorter statement that closes the earlier scene:

  • “And it was night” (v. 30b)—darkness symbolizing the identification of Judas as the betrayer, his departure, and the beginning of the Passion.
  • “Then, when he [i.e. Judas] went out…” (v. 31a)

Judas’ departure is significant for a number of reasons, but it has special importance in terms of the Last Discourse. With Judas gone, only the true disciples, the true believers, remain in the room with Jesus. This allows Jesus the opportunity to begin his great “Farewell Discourse” with his faithful followers, imparting information and teaching which he could not have done earlier. Now it is the right time.

Saying #1 (vv. 31b-32)—This is a complex Son of Man saying with a clear earlier parallel in 12:23. Both sayings involve the verb doca/zw—which fundamentally means to regard someone with honor/esteem, but can also be used in the sense of “give honor”. Typically it is translated in the New Testament as “glorify” (i.e. give glory). For other occurrences of the verb in John, see 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16, 28. It will become an important keyword in the Last Discourse—14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10, and cf. also 21:19. First consider the Son of Man saying in 12:23:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be given honor/glory [docasqh=|]”

The context is Jesus’ impending death (vv. 24-27, note the parallel with the Synoptic Passion narrative in v. 27), as well as the declaration of Jesus in v. 28:

“Father, give honor/glory [do/cason] (to) your name”

This emphasis on the name of God is also an important motif in the Last Discourse, especially the Prayer-discourse of chapter 17.

I mentioned the complex structure of the saying in 13:31:

“Now the Son of Man is given honor/glory, and God is given honor/glory in him; [if God is given honor/glory in him], (then) also God will give him honor/glory in him(self), and straightaway will give him honor/glory”

The textual evidence for the phrase in brackets is divided; a simpler structure results if it is omitted:

  • Now the Son of Man is given honor
    —God is given honor in him
    —God will give him honor in him(self)
  • Straightaway (God) will give him honor

The interrelationship between the Son (Jesus, here called by the self-title “Son of Man”) and the Father is a fundamental (Christological) theme in the Fourth Gospel, which reaches a high-point in the Last Discourse.

Saying # 2 (v. 33)

“(My) little children [tekni/a], (only) a little (time) yet am I with you—you will seek (after) me, and, even as I said to the Yehudeans {Jews} that ‘(the place) where I lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], you are not able to come (there)’, (so) also I relate (this) to you now”

This saying refers back to 8:21-22, and introduces the theme of Jesus’ departure—his going away—which covers the entire process of his Passion, much as the verb doca/zw does in v. 31 (cf. above). It refers, variously, and with complex layers of dual meaning, to: (1) his death, and (2) his return to the Father. The theme is especially prominent in chapters 14 and 16 of the Last Discourse, where it is also tied to the promise of the Spirit (the Helper/Paraclete). The word (tekni/on), used by Jesus to address his disciples, is a diminutive form of te/knon (“offspring”, i.e. “child”), which features in several key verses in the Gospel (1:12; 8:39; 11:52) and the Letter of John (1 Jn 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; 2 Jn 1, 4, 13; 3 Jn 4)—always in the plural (te/kna). It may indicate that Jesus is identifying the disciples (the true believers, with Judas absent) as the “offspring [i.e. children] of God” (1:12). The diminutive tekni/on (“little children”) occurs only here in the Gospel, but is used frequently in the first Johannine letter (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21).

Saying #3 (vv. 34-35)—The last saying introduces another primary theme of the Last Discourse: the bond of love which binds the disciples to Jesus (and God the Father), and to each other. It had a precursor in the foot-washing scene of vv. 3-17 (cf. the previous note), especially Jesus’ teaching in vv. 12-17. Here Jesus frames it as a “command” (e)ntolh/), the literal Greek referring to something laid upon a person which he/she is charged to accomplish. The so-called “love command” is an essential aspect of Jesus’ teaching (cf. Mark 12:28-34 par, also Matt 5:43-46 par; Lk 7:41-48), and became a primary (and binding) component of the early Christian identity—Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1-3; 12:31b-14:1; 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 5:13-14; Phil 1:9; 2:2; 1 Thess 4:9; James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22, etc. When the term “commandment(s)” is used in the Gospel and letters of John, it primarily refers to the love-command.

Prediction of Peter’s Denial (vv. 36-38)—As in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 14:26-31) functions as an excursus within the Passion narrative, following the Passover meal scene. It is transitional to the Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:32-52 par), which in John’s version does not come until after the Last Discourse (18:1-11). The similar outline indicates that both John and the Synoptics are drawing upon a common historical tradition:

John’s version differs from the Synoptic primarily in the way that the core Peter tradition (vv. 37b-38) is incorporated into the Last Discourse. Verses 36-37a mark this joining transition:

“(Then) Shim’on (the) Rock [i.e. Simon Peter] says to him, ‘(To) what (place) do you lead (yourself) under [i.e. go away]?'” (v. 36a)
(to which Jesus answers:)
“(To) whatever (place) I lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], you are not able to follow me (there)—but you will follow later” (v. 36b)

Note the similarity in language and phrasing to verse 33 (Saying #2, above). The declaration that Peter will follow Jesus at a later point has a loose parallel in Lk 22:32. Peter’s response in v. 37a continues the same Johannine emphasis:

“Lord, through what [i.e. why] am I not able to follow you now?”

His declaration in v. 37b may also be shaped by the language and thought of the Fourth Gospel—compare with 10:11, 15, 17 (from the Good Shepherd parable):

Peter: “I will set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over you” (v. 37b)
Jesus: “I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over the sheep” (10:15)

 

Supplemental Note: Outline of the Last Discourse

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As a supplement to the recent daily notes on the Passion Narrative and the Last Supper scene (cf. the last two notes on this scene in John), it may be useful to provide a survey of the structure of the Last Discourse, which many commentators regard as a series of discourses joined together. It has been outlined many different ways; I suggest the following thematic outline:

  • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
  • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
    • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 1-4)
      • Question by the disciples [Thomas] (v. 5)
      • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 6-7)
      • Question by the disciples [Philip] (v. 8)
      • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 9-11)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 12-14)
    • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
      • Instruction to the Disciples: Love and the Commandments (vv. 15-24)
        —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 15-17)
        —Instruction: Relation of the Disciples to Jesus and the Father (vv. 18-21)
        —Question by the disciples [Judas] (v. 22)
        —Jesus’ response: The disciples and the world in relation to Jesus and the Father (vv. 23-24)
      • Exhortation for the Disciples: Farewell Promise of Peace (vv. 25-27)
        —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 25-26)
        —Exortation: Jesus’ gift of his Peace (v. 27)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 28-31)
  • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
    • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • The Illustration (vv. 1-3)
      • Application:
        —Remaining/abiding in Jesus (vv. 4-9)
        —Love and the Commandments (vv. 10-11)
        —The Love Command (vv. 12-15)
      • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 16-17)
    • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
      • Instruction: The Hatred of the World (15:18-25)
      • Exhortation: The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 26-27)
      • Concluding warning of the coming Persecution (16:1-4a)
  • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
    • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 4b-7a)
      • The Coming of the Spirit (vv. 7b-11)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 11-15)
    • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (v. 16)
      • Question by the disciples (vv. 17-18)
      • Jesus’ response: The Promise of his Return (vv. 19-24)
    • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
  • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

Some commentators would make chapter 17 part of the Last Discourse. Generally, this fits, but structurally, it is probably better to regard it as a separate component of the Passion Narrative in John. Despite the odd reference in 14:31b, it would seem that the Gospel writer intended (and envisioned) all of chapters 13-17 taking place at the time of the Last Supper. This, at least, is the narrative setting, which seems clear enough from the opening words of chapter 18: “(Hav)ing said these (thing)s, Yeshua went out [i.e. out of the room/house] with his learners [i.e. disciples]…”

Note of the Day – April 11 (John 13:3-17)

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John 6:51-58; 13:1-38 (continued)

Yesterday, in regard to the lack of any reference to the Lord’s Supper in John’s account of the Passover meal (Last Supper) scene, I looked at the possible references to the Eucharist in Jn 6:51-58. Today, I will examine the other major difference in John’s version.

The Foot-Washing (Jn 13:3-17)

Assuming that both John and the Synoptic are referring to the same essential historical tradition—the (Passover) meal with Jesus and his close disciples (the “Last Supper”)—it is striking that, not only has the author left out any reference to the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. the previous note), but has included a very different sort of sacramental scene. This, of course, is the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus in vv. 3-17. In order to gain a better understanding of the possible significance of this tradition (that is, why the author chose to include it so prominently), a quick survey of the structure of the episode may be helpful:

  • Narrative introduction (v. 2), which spotlights the betrayal by Judas (as in the Synoptic tradition, Mk 14:10-11 par). Verse 1 serves as the narrative (and thematic) introduction to the Passion narrative as a whole.
  • The Foot-Washing tradition (vv. 3-17) which functions as a short discourse in the style of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus:
    —The narrative description of Jesus’ act (vv. 3-5)
    —The Dialogue with Peter (vv. 6-11)
    —The Exposition by Jesus (vv. 12-17)
  • The Prediction of the Betrayal (vv. 18-30a)
  • Concluding statement (v. 30b): “And it was night”

Thus the foot-washing is one of two main components to the episode; as such, it clearly takes the place of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic tradition. Each of the three parts of the foot-washing scene provides important information as to its significance and importance for the Gospel writer (and/or the tradition he inherited).

Description of Jesus’ act (vv. 3-5)—Here the author sets the act precisely in context:

“Seeing [i.e. knowing] that the Father gave all (thing)s into his hand, and that he came out from God and that toward God he leads (himself) under [i.e. back]…” (v. 3)

This introductory statement is a veritable epitome of Johannine theology and the portrait we see of Christ in the Gospel. The entire scope of the Passion is under the guidance of God the Father, and takes place completely according to his purpose. Jesus, as the Son sent by the Father, is fully aware of this, that the process of his glorification (cf. verse 31ff)—his death, resurrection, and return to the Father—is about to commence. Seeing/knowing all this, Jesus

“…rises out of the dining and sets (aside) his garments and, taking a linen-towel, girded himself thoroughly…” (v. 4)

It is tempting to see this action as a kind of symbolic picture of the incarnation itself—in which Jesus “sets aside” his glory and takes on the role of a human servant (slave), whose duty it would be to perform such menial tasks as washing the feet of guests. Certainly, it is meant to depict the sacrificial service which Jesus’ was about to perform (i.e. his death) on behalf of those (the disciples/believers) whom God the Father had given to him. The wording suggests determination and purpose by Jesus in performing this act. Moreover, the participial labw/n (“taking…”) is also used in the Synoptic description of Jesus’ action with the bread and cup, and strongly indicates a similar allusion to Jesus’ sacrificial death.

“…then (after this) he throws [i.e. pours] water into a wash-basin and began to wash the feet of the learners [i.e. disciples] and to wipe it off with the towel with which he had been thoroughly girded” (v. 5)

Jesus’ action here reflects that of the woman (Mary) who anointed him in John’s version of the Anointing scene (12:1-11, v. 3; cf. also Lk 7:38). As that action was associated with Jesus’ coming death, so we should recognize a similar connection here. Only Jesus’ act of washing the feet of the disciples emphasizes the purpose of his death (i.e. that it is on their behalf), and that it is a sign of his willing self-sacrifice (cf. 10:11, 15, 17-18). There is an interesting parallel to this in the Synoptic tradition (cf. below).

The Dialogue with Peter (vv. 6-11)—The exchange between Jesus and Peter has always been seen as somewhat enigmatic. Is the point of it sacramental (i.e. the need for baptism), ethical (tied to repentance/penance), spiritual/mystical (participation in Jesus’ death), or something else entirely (e.g., a portrait of the need to show love)? A bit too much traditional theological and doctrinal weight has been given to the exchange. The key to it, I think, lies in the Johannine discourse format and style, which typically involves three basic components: (1) a saying or action by Jesus, (2) the person’s reaction which indicates a lack of understanding, and (3) an explanation by Jesus of its true/deeper meaning:

  1. Jesus’ action (cf. above) symbolizing his humble and sacrificial service (death) on behalf of those whom he loves (Peter and the other disciples/believers)
  2. Peter misunderstands on two levels:
    (a) Vv. 6, 8: it is not worthy of Jesus (his Lord/Master) to wash his feet (cp. the Synoptic tradition in Mk 8:32f par)
    (b) V. 9: it is a question of ordinary washing/bathing with water
    Jesus’ declares outright to Peter in v. 7 that he does not (and cannot) understand now the significance of the act
  3. Explanation by Jesus. The principal statement is v. 8b: “If I should not wash you, you have/hold no part with me”

The statement in v. 8b indicates that acceptance of Jesus’ sacrificial act is necessary in order to join and be united with him. The further illustrative exposition in verse 10 has caused commentators some difficulty, mainly, I think, because they have focused too much on the first half of the verse, rather than the second. The first half corrects Peter’s misunderstanding (v. 9)—i.e., that is not simply a question of bathing oneself with water. The true meaning is declared in the second half (v. 10b):

“…(the) whole (body/person) is clean; and (indeed) you are clean—but not all of you”

There is a clever conceptual play on words here:

  • the whole (of you) is clean
    —you [pl.] are clean
  • not all of you (are clean)

The implication is that all those whom God/Christ has chosen (disciples/believers) are fully clean; there is no need for any cleansing—physical, sacramental, or otherwise—in addition (cf. 15:3). Judas, however, is not one of the true believers chosen by God; Jesus chose him to be one of the Twelve (6:70-71), but his ultimate association is with the Devil and darkness (13:2, 30b; cf. also Lk 22:3, 53).

The Exposition by Jesus (vv. 12-17)—Here we have Jesus’ own explanation of the action. The disciples are to follow Jesus’ example, and give themselves (even their own lives) in sacrificial service to each other, as a sign of love. This comes to be an important theme in the Last Discourse (13:31-17:26) which follows the Supper scene.

Synoptic Parallel—While the Synoptics do not record the foot-washing episode as such, there is a general parallel, perhaps, in Luke 22:25-27. There, after the Passover meal (Last Supper), the author includes a block of teaching on discipleship (vv. 25-30, also 35-38). Because the sayings in vv. 25-27 have corresponding Synoptic versions in Mark 10:42-45 par, commentators have questioned their place in the Last Supper scene. However, the orientation of the Johannine foot-washing is roughly similar to vv. 25-27, with its emphasis on humility and sacrificial service. Interestingly, though Luke has nothing corresponding to it at this point, the saying in Mk 10:45 (in the context of vv. 42-44) is strikingly similar in tone and theme to what we see in John:

“For indeed the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul [i.e. life] as a (means of) loosing (from bondage) in exchange for many” (Mk 10:45)

Such a saying would have fit well in the Last Supper scene (cf. Mk 14:22-25 par).

Note of the Day – April 10 (John 6:51-58; chapter 13)

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John 6:51-58; 13:1-38

It now remains to examine how the “Last Supper” Passover scene is presented in the Gospel of John. Here, as is often the case, we are dealing with an entirely separate line of tradition, though one which shares certain elements and details with the Synoptic.

The first point to consider is the identification of the “Last Supper” as a Passover meal. This is all but certain in the Synoptic tradition (cf. the last three daily notes), but not so in the Gospel of John. Indeed, the Gospel of John has rather a different chronology for the Passion narrative, which will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. As we shall see, there are other prominent differences between the two (John and the Synoptics); and yet certain elements would seem to confirm that they are drawing upon a common historical tradition. The common features may be outlined as follows:

  • If not on the eve/day of Passover proper (Mk 14:1, 12ff par), clearly there is a general Passover setting for this meal (John 13:1, cf. also 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14).
  • It is a meal shared between Jesus and his disciples (Mk 14:12ff par; Jn 13:1-2ff).
  • It is connected with a narrative introduction referencing the betrayal by Judas (Mk 14:10-11 par; Jn 13:2).
  • Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, including the identification of the betrayer (Mk 14:18-21 par; Jn 13:18-30 [note the greatly expanded tradition in John]).
  • The prediction of Peter’s denial, following the scene of the meal (Mk 14:27-31 par; Jn 13:36-38).

The main differences in John’s account, compared with the Synoptic tradition, may be summarized:

  1. The meal does not occur on the evening which marks the start of Passover proper (Nisan 15), but some time before this (Jn 13:1).
  2. There is no account of the “Lord’s Supper” and its institution (cf. the previous note).
  3. In its place we find a different sort of symbolic, sacramental act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 3-17).
  4. Judas features more prominently in the episode (vv. 2, 25-30; cf. also 12:4-6).
  5. In between the Last Supper meal and the Gethsemane/Garden scene (18:1-11) there is an extensive collection of teaching by Jesus—the “Last Discourse” (13:31-17:26).

Items #1 and 4 will be discussed in separate upcoming notes; today, and in the note following, we will examine #2, 3, and 5.

The Absence of the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. Jn 6:51-58)

As discussed in the prior note, the Lord’s Supper, with Jesus’ words of institution, features prominently in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:22-25; Matt 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20). It is all but certain that the Gospel writers, in various ways, have shaped this portion of the narrative to reflect early Christian ritual and practice regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:20), which came to be known by the technical term of Eucharist (from the verb used by Jesus, eu)xariste/w, eucharistéœ). There is nothing of this at all in John’s version of the scene, a fact which has perplexed commentators throughout the years. However, as it turns out, there is a scene in the Fourth Gospel which seems to relate in some way to the Eucharist—in Jn 6:51-58, part of the great “Bread of Life” discourse (6:25-59). I have discussed these verses several other times on this site, most recently in the notes on the Feeding Miracle (6:1-15) in the current series (cf. the note on Jn 6:22-59). There is general similarity between verse 51 and Mk 14:22ff par (note the words in bold):

  • ”taking bread…and giving it to the disciples (he) said, ‘Take (it and) eatthis is my body‘” (Matt 26:26 [very close to Mk])
  • “taking bread…he gave (it) to them, saying, ‘This is my body th(at is be)ing given over you‘” (Lk 22:19 MT)
  • “if any one should eat this bread…the bread which I will give is my flesh (given) over the life of the world” (Jn 6:51)

Moreover, there are other instances of strong Eucharist language or allusions in the verses which follow (esp. vv. 52-56):

  • The people ask “how is this (man) able to give us [his] flesh to eat?” (v. 52)
    (the four statements by Jesus in response clearly have a parallel structure, set in tandem):
  • “If you would not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in your(selves)” (v. 53)
    • “The one chomping [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 54)
  • “For my flesh truly is food and my blood truly is drink” (v. 55)
    • “The one chomping [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me and I in him” (v. 56)

Commentators continue to debate how one should interpret these references in the context of the Bread of Life discourse. There are a number of possibilities:

  • Option 1: The statements are all part of an authentic discourse given by Jesus at the time indicated in the narrative, and that he is referring to the Lord’s Supper—i.e. the Christian Eucharist.
  • Option 2: The narrative setting is authentic, but Jesus is not primarily referring to the Eucharist, but to a symbolic/spiritual “eating” of his words (and the power/presence of his person), as indicated in vv. 35-50 and vv. 60-63ff. A Eucharistic interpretation is secondary, but applicable.
  • Option 3: Eucharistic words by Jesus, from an original Last Supper (Passion) setting, have been “relocated” and included within the earlier discourse by the Gospel writer (or the tradition he has inherited).
  • Option 4: Vv. 51-58 represent an early Christian interpretation (by the Gospel writer?) of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse/teaching, so as to tie it in with the Eucharist.
  • Option 5: Vv. 51-58, along with much of the discourse as a whole, are essentially an early Christian production, derived (in some fashion) from Jesus’ actual words. As such, they definitely refer to the Eucharist.

In my view, only the middle three (2nd, 3rd and 4th) options have any real chance of being correct. Traditional-conservative commentators (especially Evangelical Protestants) would perhaps opt for the second; and, it must be said, the overall tone of the discourse (and Johannine thought) favors a spiritual/symbolic interpretation of vv. 51-58. Critical scholars would probably tend toward option 4—i.e., that vv. 51-58 represent a distinctly Christian ‘layer’ of interpretation that has been added to the discourse, which otherwise would have been a Passover exposition (given to Jews in the Synagogue, v. 59) on the “Bread of Life” motif from Exodus. However, there is much to be said for option #3—that the Gospel writer(?) has included Jesus’ Eucharistic words and teaching, originally given to his disciples in the context of the Last Supper and his impending Passion. Arguments in favor of this view are:

  • The lack of any reference to the Eucharist at the “Last Supper” (cf. above). The author certainly knew of this tradition, and it is hard to image that he would not have included it, or a reference to it, somewhere in the Gospel.
  • The general similarity here to the words (and essential thought) presented by Jesus at the Last Supper in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:22ff par, cf. above).
  • The fact that, in the chapter 6 setting, such references to eating/drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood would have been virtually incomprehensible to people at the time (including interested but uncommitted followers). They are more intelligible when spoken to Jesus’ close disciples at a time closer to his death.
  • The Passover setting in chapter 6 might have made it possible, in the mind of the author, to “transfer” the Eucharistic words from one Passover to another, so as to take advantage of the “Bread of Life” motif (which involves ‘eating’ Jesus).

A careful examination of the structure of vv. 51-58 may help us to interpret the passage more clearly. Consider:

  • V. 51a: I AM saying of Jesus (“I am the Living Bread stepping down out of Heaven”); this connects vv. 51-58 with the earlier portions of the discourse (vv. 26-34, 35-50).
  • Vv. 51b-52:
    Exposition by Jesus (v. 51b)—The need to eat this Bread, which is identified with Jesus’ flesh
    Reaction/Question by the people (v. 52)
  • Vv. 53-56:
    Exposition by Jesus (four statements)—Eating/drinking his flesh and blood
  • V. 57:
    Exposition by Jesus—Feeding on him (the Son)
  • V. 58: Concluding statement by Jesus (“This is the Bread stepping down out of Heaven”)

There is a definite chiasmus involved in this structure:

  • Bread coming down out of Heaven (v. 51a)
    —Eating this Bread, which is Jesus’ flesh (vv. 51b-52)
    ——Eating/drinking his flesh and blood [Eucharistic motif] (vv. 53-56)
    —Eating Jesus, the one (Son) sent from the Father (v. 57)
  • Bread coming down out of Heaven (v. 58)

It appears that the Eucharistic motif in vv. 53-56 has been carefully set or ‘inserted’ into the conceptual structure of the Bread of Life discourse—with the sudden (and rather unexpected) shift from bread/flesh to flesh and blood. Only in these verses is there any mention of drinking in the discourse, which otherwise naturally, and appropriately, refers only to eating. The critical question is whether the Gospel writer or Jesus himself is responsible for this development. If one decides that the latter is more likely, then it is harder to maintain a primary Eucharistic reference in vv. 51-58 (though a secondary application is still possible); if the former, then a direct allusion to the Eucharist is all but certain.

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.

Note of the Day – April 3 (John 12:1-8)

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John 12:1-8

Having discussed the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Lukan versions of the Anointing of Jesus (cf. the previous two daily notes), it now remains to examine the version in John (12:1-8). Anyone who studies these three versions carefully will immediately recognize how close John’s version is to the Synoptic account (esp. that of Mark, 14:3-9). Indeed, the similarities far outweigh the differences. This marks the (Bethany) Anointing tradition as both early and authentic (on objective grounds), having been preserved in two distinct lines of Gospel tradition (John and the Synoptic). However, there are several significant differences in John’s account:

  • John’s episode is set six days before Passover (v. 1), compared with two days before in the Synoptic version (Mk 14:1 par).
  • The woman who anoints Jesus is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3, cf. verse 2 and 11:1ff). In the Synoptics, the woman is unnamed (Mk 14:3 par).
  • She anoints the feet of Jesus (v. 3), rather than his head (Mk 14:3 par).
  • The person who voices objection to this action is identified as Judas Iscariot (vv. 4ff); cp. Mk 14:4-5 and Matt 26:8-9.
  • The beautiful image in v. 3b of the smell of the perfume filling the house is unique to John’s account.

Each of these will be discussed briefly, in turn.

1. Six days—”Then six days before the Pesah {Passover}, Yeshua came into Beth-Ananyah {Bethany}…” The context in Mk 14:1 par indicates that the Anointing took place two days before Passover. More significantly, John clearly sets the Anointing before Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem (12:12ff), while in the Synoptics (Mk/Matt) it takes place after. Which chronology is correct, or more accurately reflects the original historical event (and tradition)? On the one hand, the Synoptic version may have relocated it, setting it within the Passion narrative, in order to bring out the association with Jesus’ death and burial (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7). On the other hand, it is possible that John has intentionally placed it earlier in the narrative, in order to bring out the association with Lazarus and Mary in chapter 11. The traditional commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, one week prior to Easter, is based on the chronology in John.

2. Mary—John is unique among the Gospels in identifying the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3). The episode follows immediately after the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, in which both Mary and her sister Martha play significant roles in the narrative (vv. 5, 19-27, 31-33, 45). All three siblings appear at the dinner in chapter 12 (vv. 2-3), which may have taken place in the family’s house. Outside of John 11-12, Martha and Mary appear in Lk 10:38-42, but without any mention of Bethany or Lazarus. The identification of the woman with Mary is likely a secondary development, in line with the early Christian (and Jewish) tendency of identifying unnamed figures in the Scriptures with specific persons. Almost certainly, Mark reflects an earlier version of the tradition in this regard.

3. Judas Iscariot—Similarly, John identifies the person objecting to the anointing as Judas Iscariot (v. 4). Here, we can actually trace the development:

  • Persons present at the dinner, otherwise unidentified (Mk 14:4)

Interestingly, Matthew’s identification of the people with Jesus’ disciples is presumably meant to be positive—they object to the extravagant ‘waste’ of costly perfume which could otherwise have been put to the more practical use of caring for the poor. However, in John, the identification with Judas turns this around and is decidedly negative—Judas was a ‘thief’ and did not really have any concern for the poor. Here we must separate out for consideration two specific details (or traditions) which John includes:

  1. The person voicing objection was Judas (v. 4)
  2. Judas was a thief and did not care for the poor (v. 6)

The first of these fits with the information in Matt 26:8, that Jesus’ disciples were the ones objecting to the waste of perfume. The second is more difficult. Many scholars are naturally suspicious of such a detail since it seems to follow the early Christian tendency to vilify Judas and depict him in an increasingly negative and hostile light. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the traditions surrounding Judas in the Passion Narrative.

4. The feet of Jesus—In the Synoptic version, the woman anoints Jesus’ head (Mk 14:3 par), however, in John’s account, somewhat strangely, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume (12:3). Traditional-conservative commentators might be inclined to harmonize here, and say that she anointed both the head and feet, but the Markan account would seem to rule this out. In Mk 14:3 it is stated that the women shattered the alabaster jar—the implication being that she poured all the perfume over Jesus’ head. This helps to explain the objection to the “waste”—she used it all up in one extravagant action. More to the point, in each of the versions, the woman anoints either Jesus’ head (Mk/Matt) or his feet (Jn), but never both. Curiously, in Luke’s version of the Anointing, the woman’s action matches that of Mary’s in Jn 12:3:

“and standing behind (him) alongside his feet (and) weeping, she began to wet his feet with (her) tears and she wiped (them) out with the hairs of her head, and she ‘kissed’ his feet and anointed (them) with the myrrh-ointment” (Lk 7:38)

John’s description of the action is simpler (indicated by the words in bold above), but appears to follow the same basic tradition:

“Then Maryam…anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped out [i.e. off] his feet with her hair…” (v. 3)

Some critical commentators feel that this represents the original tradition—i.e. anointing Jesus’ feet—and that, in the Synoptic version, it has been modified to the more understandable act of anointing Jesus’ head. The latter, of course, is more fitting for Jesus’ identity and dignity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and King. However, the anointing of the feet is actually more appropriate, in some ways, for the symbolic embalming of a dead body (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7).

5. The house was filled—It is likely that this beautiful and evocative detail in v. 3b is meant to symbolize the faith and devotion of Mary (and disciples/believers like her). In some ways this is parallel to the scene with Martha in the Lazarus narrative (11:20-27, esp. her declarations in v. 21 and 27). R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John [AB vol. 29], p. 453) notes a (later) Jewish parallel from the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other” (translation his). This quotation also seems to suggest a relationship between v. 3 and the declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:9 par.

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.

Note of the Day – March 28 (Jn 1:51; 3:13-14; 8:38; 12:23, etc)

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Having discussed the various Son of Man sayings and references in the Synoptic Gospels in the previous notes, today I will survey the sayings in the Gospel of John. None of the Synoptic sayings occur, as such, in John; as in most cases, the Fourth Gospel draws upon a separate line of tradition. However, there are some interesting parallels. As in the Synoptics, the Son of Man sayings have undergone relatively little development in John. Any adaptation that has taken place has primarily been to emphasize particular words or concepts which are common to the Gospel’s unique mode of expression. There are twelve distinct Son of Man sayings, the first of which is perhaps the most difficult.

John 1:51

“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you will see [o&yesqe] the heavens opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

I have discussed this enigmatic verse in some detail in an earlier note, and will deal with it again this Saturday (as part of the running “Saturday Series”). Here I summarize the results of the study previously published.

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of 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 (cf. the earlier note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also 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 (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. 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 (cf. above).
  • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
    Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
    Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
    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” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. Note the parallel with 20:29:
    • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
      you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
    • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
      Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

The comprehensive nature of the Son of Man reference in 1:51 is paralleled by two key sayings toward the end of the ministry period (in John, the so-called “Book of Signs” chaps 2-12), which also serve to introduce the great Last Discourse (chs. 13-17) and Passion Narrative. Both of these sayings use the verb doca/zw (doxázœ), “give (or regard with) esteem, honor”, etc, i.e. “glorify”, related to the noun do/ca (dóxa, usually translated “glory”).

John 12:23; 13:31

  • John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored/glorified [docasqh=]”—the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death (cf. below).
  • John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is honored/glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is honored/glorified in him”—this saying effectively begins the great Discourses of chapters 13-17, and is tied throughout to the idea that Son is about to go away: a dual-layered reference to his death and his return to the Father.

For additional occurrences of the verb doca/zw in reference to Jesus (or the Son) being glorified, cf. John 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10. This “glory” covers both aspects of Jesus’ Passion—his death and his resurrection. In classic Christian theology this duality is often referred to as the two “states” of Christ—his humiliation and exaltation. However, in Johannine terminology, it is better understood as a descent to earth (i.e. the incarnation) leading all the way to death, followed by an ascent to heaven (including the resurrection), back to the Father.

This two-fold process of Jesus’ glorification is expressed in two distinct groups of Son of Man sayings. The first group involves the verb u(yo/w (hypsóœ, “make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”); the second uses the related pair of verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw (“step up” and “step down”, i.e. “ascend”, “descend”).

John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34: “lift (up) high”

  • John 3:14: “so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”—the comparison is with the ‘fiery’ copper/bronze serpent lifted by Moses (on a pole) which brought healing (from the burning snakebite) to all who looked at it (Num 21:9); the reference is primarily to Jesus’ death (on the stake/cross), but almost certainly has his resurrection and exaltation in mind as well (cf. below). This is described in terms of salvation: “…so that every one trusting in him might have (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”.
  • John 8:28: “when you (have) lifted high [u(yw/shte] the Son of Man…”—the formulation here (“when you…”) indicates more precisely Jesus being put to death (on the stake/cross), but again the subsequent exaltation is also in view. Throughout the discourse(s) of chapters 7-8, Jesus has been expressing, in various ways, his relationship to (and identification with) God the Father; here specifically Jesus states that when they have lifted up the Son of Man “…then you will know that I am, and I do nothing from myself, but just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these things”. In verse 26, this is also described in terms of judgment, which is associated with the eschatological Son of Man figure of many of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics.
  • John 12:32: “and if I am lifted high [u(ywqw=] I will drag all (people/things) toward me”—this is related to the previous sayings (especially 3:14), as well as to the Son of Man saying in 12:23 (cf. above). The context is specifically that of Jesus’ impending death (and resurrection), again relating to the promise of salvation and eternal life (vv. 24-25, 27-28, 33, 36).
  • John 12:34: “you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high…”—this is part of a question to Jesus from the crowd, referring (in context) to verse 32, but more properly it cites the saying in 3:14 (above). There is a clear connection with the “Anointed (One)”, and expresses some confusion on the part of the people in the crowd as to just what Jesus means by the expression Son of Man—”…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

These are the only instances of the verb in John; for similar usage elsewhere, cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31.

John 3:13; 6:62 (with 6:27, 53): “descend / ascend”

  • John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”—on this saying, cf. above.
  • John 3:13: “no one has stepped up into heaven if not the one stepping down out of heaven, the Son of Man”—this saying is obviously related to that of verse 14 (cf. above); it identifies/contrasts a person being raised/exalted to heavenly status with one who has (first) come down out of heaven. The implication is that Jesus is not simply a human being who has been (or will be) raised to a heavenly/divine position, but was previously in heaven (with God) before coming to earth. This, of course, is stated clearly in the Prologue of John (1:1ff) and indicated throughout the Gospel by Jesus; in precise theological terms, it refers to the (divine) pre-existence of Jesus. This is made even more definite in the manuscripts which read “…the Son of Man, the (one) being in Heaven”.
  • John 6:62: “then (what) if you should behold the Son of Man stepping up [a)nabai/nonta] (to) where he was (at) the first?”
    This saying is part of the great Bread of Life discourse in John 6:27-71, which I have discussed in considerable detail in prior articles. Especially noteworthy are the references to the bread that has come down (lit “stepped down”) from Heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), which in context clearly symbolizes Jesus (the Son of Man) who has stepped down from Heaven (i.e. the incarnation), and who will soon step back up into Heaven (back to the Father) from whence he came (v. 62). As in 3:13 (above), this indicates a pre-existent, heavenly status in relationship to God, and must be understood in light of the many references throughout the Gospel—especially in the discourses of chapters 13-17—where Jesus speaks of the Son coming from and going (back) to the Father. There is, of course, eucharistic symbolism in the bread—broken down into the dual image of eating his body and drinking his blood. This is expressed in the Son of Man sayings in vv. 27, 53, associated specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death:

    • John 6:27: “work…for the food th(at) remains in the Life of Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give to you”
    • John 6:53: “if you do not consume the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not hold Life in yourself”

All of these sayings which speak of Jesus’ glorification through the dualistic imagery of death and resurrection, descent and ascent, along with the two-fold meaning of being “lifted (up) high”, as they run through the Gospel narrative, have a general parallel with the Passion predictions by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the earlier note). In those declarations, reference to the suffering and death of the Son of Man is followed by the announcement of his resurrection. In a similar way, the death of Jesus, indicated by his “trial” before the Sanhedrin, prefigures his exaltation (cf. Mk 14:62 par). The Synoptic Gospels use these three Passion predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) as a framing device for the narrative. However, in the Gospel of John, the Son of Man sayings serve rather a different purpose, which is primarily theological and Christological. However, there are two Son of Many sayings in John which draw more clearly upon the traditional imagery found in the Synoptics.

John 5:27; 9:35

  • John 5:26-27: “For (even) as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave the Son to hold life in himself; and he [i.e. the Father] gave him authority [e)cousi/a] to make judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the Son of Man”
  • John 9:35: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (other manuscripts read “…in the Son of God“)

The first saying (5:27) identifies the Son of Man with the end-time Judgment, as we see in many of the Synoptic sayings (cf. the previous two notes). Yet consider the way Jesus expounds this traditional association in the Johannine discourse. The statement in v. 27 essentially identifies Jesus with the heavenly “Son of Man” figure-type (Dan 7:13, etc), much as we find in the Synoptics:

  • V. 27—”He [i.e. God the Father] gave him [i.e. Jesus] authority to make judgment, because he [i.e. Jesus] is the Son of Man

At the same time, the statement in v. 26 brings out the distinctly Johannine idea of Jesus as the divine/eternal Son (of God), in his unique relation to (God) the Father:

  • V. 26—”Just as the Father holds Life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold Life in himself”

The saying in 9:35 is rather different; Jesus addresses the man whose sight was restored: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?”. As noted above, some manuscripts read “Son of God” instead of “Son of Man”, perhaps reflecting a point in time when copyists no longer understood the expression “Son of Man” and wished to stress the deity of Christ as the point of belief. However, as we have seen, Jesus often used the expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference, as if to say, in this instance, “Do you trust in me?” Yet, even people at the time seem to have had difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man”, if we accept the authenticity of the crowd’s response in 12:34, and the question of the healed man here in v. 36: “Who is he, (my) lord, that I may trust in him?” Jesus’ immediate answer (v. 37) perfectly encapsulates the Johannine theology which associates belief (and salvation) with seeing Jesus—that is, coming to recognize just who Jesus is, his true identity.

It is worth noting that each of these last two sayings are set in the context of traditional healing miracle episodes, and thus are perhaps closer to the Son of Man sayings which occur in the Synoptics (from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative) during the period of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. With these sayings we bring this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, dealing with the Galilean Period, to a close. It may serve as yet another reminder of the many rich and powerful ways that the traditions were developed—a fact, and a theme, that we will continue to explore as we enter into the next major portion of this series: the Passion Narrative.