Saturday Series: John 18:37

In celebration of this Christmas season, I thought it worth taking a slight detour in order to discuss briefly the only passage in the Gospel of John which specifically refers to Jesus’ birthJn 18:37. There are a number of references to Jesus, as the Word (Logos) and Son of God, coming to earth as a human being (what we would call the Incarnation), and one oblique reference to the birth of the Messiah (in Bethlehem, 7:42). However, only in 18:37 is Jesus’ birth actually mentioned. Let us examine this verse, according to the method and approach adopted in this Saturday Series, to demonstrate how a careful study of the Greek text allows for greater insight into the meaning of the Scripture.

John 18:37

This verse is part of the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, which makes up the interrogation/trial scene in the Fourth Gospel (18:28-19:16). It clearly draws upon the basic Gospel tradition, in which Jesus’ interrogation before Pilate centered upon his possible identity as “King of the Jews”—a title with strong nationalistic (and Messianic) implications. This is virtually all the information we have about the interrogation scene in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 15:2-5 par), and it is confirmed, objectively, by the written charge applied to Jesus on the cross, recorded (with slight variations) in all four Gospels (Mk 15:26 par; Jn 19:19ff).

While John’s version follows this tradition, it is written in a manner more in keeping with the great Discourses of Jesus that run throughout the Gospel (to be discussed further in the Saturday Series studies). These Discourses have both an historical and a literary aspect, and it is virtually impossible to separate the two. From a literary standpoint, the Discourses follow a basic pattern (with certain variations):

  • A saying, statement or question, by Jesus
  • The reaction of his audience, indicating a lack of understanding of his true meaning, which leads to
  • An exposition of the saying by Jesus

Sometimes the discourse takes on the character of a dialogue, with multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience. Jn 18:37 puts us in the middle of such a dialogue:

Then Pilate said to him, “Are you not then a king?
Yeshua answered: “You say that I am a king. I have come to be (born) unto this, and unto this I have come into the world—that I should witness to the truth; every one being [i.e. who is] out of the truth hears my voice.”

Both the similarity and the contrast with the Synoptic tradition could not be more clear; for the points of similarity, note the italicized portions here and above:

And Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Yehudeans {Jews}?”
But, answering him, he [i.e. Jesus] said: “You said (it)
(Mark 15:2)

However, according to the Synoptics, that short response is all that Jesus says (Mk 15:5a par). By contrast, in John’s version, there is a more extensive exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Critical commentators naturally would question the historicity of this, in light of the Synoptic tradition. However one judges the matter (that is, the relation between the Synoptic and Johannine versions), there can be no doubt that Jesus’ statements to Pilate, in 18:36-37 and 19:11, effectively serve as a summary of the theology (and Christology) of the Fourth Gospel. This is especially true of the twin declarations in 18:36-37, set at this key climactic point of the Gospel narrative. The statement in v. 36 is negative—Jesus declares that he is not the sort of king Pilate envisions. With the statement in v. 37, on the other hand, Jesus declares the sort of “king” that he truly is. It is a formulation that utilizes and repeats a number of key words and phrases occurring throughout the Gospel, and, especially, in the earlier discourses of Jesus. Let us survey them here, though in order to understand them properly, it is necessary to study them as they appear elsewhere in the Gospel.

First, we have the motif of misunderstanding, which is essential to the Johannine Discourses. In verse 36, Jesus does speak of his “kingdom”, so it is natural that Pilate would assume that Jesus thinks he is a king—i.e. “King of the Jews” (v. 33), in the traditional/conventional sense. Jesus’ response makes clear that Pilate does not truly understand—”You say that I am a king”. This is a notable example of how the Gospel tradition (see above) is developed in John, expanding to include statements of profound theological (and Christological) significance. Such development is intrinsic to the Johannine Discourses.

In fact, Jesus is not at all a king as Pilate imagines; rather, he is something much more. Here are the words and phrases he uses:

1. First, notice the word order and emphasis in his response:
(a) The emphatic contrast: “You [su]…I [egœ]…”—each pronoun is in emphatic position at the beginning of the sentence.
(b) The first sentence ends with the verb eimi (“I am”), while the second sentence begins with the pronoun egœ (“I”)—thus there is embedded here the formula egœ eimi (“I am”) which features so prominently in the Fourth Gospel (3:28; 4:26; 6:20, 35, 41; 8:12, 18, 24, etc). It reflects both Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and his identifying relationship with God the Father. Pilate misunderstands this identity (“You say that I am…”).

2. The demonstrative pronoun houtos/touto (“this”) is often used to specify Jesus’ identity with the truth—i.e., “this water”, “this bread” —the spiritual reality of what the (earthly) object symbolizes, and so forth. Here it indicates the true meaning and purpose for Jesus’ life on earth as a human being. This is emphasized by the grammatical structure—two parallel phrases governed by a prepositional expression (eis touto, “unto this”, i.e. for this purpose):

    • unto this [eis touto] I have come to be born”
    • unto this [eis touto] I have come into the world”

3. These two phrases employ two verbs in the perfect tense, which often indicates a past action or condition that continues into the present. Here it refers specifically to Jesus’ life and existence as a human being. The two verbs are:

  • gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”)—gegénn¢mai (“I have come to be [born]”)
  • érchomai (“come”)—el¢lytha (“have come”)

3a. The verb gennᜠ(genna/w) is a primary existential verb of being/becoming (“come to be”). It is cognate to the verb gínomai (gi/nomai), which has a very similar meaning. Both refer to someone or something coming to be, i.e. coming into existence, happening, etc., which, in the case of a human being often means the person’s birth. The verb gennaœ more properly refers to a human birth, but ginomai can be used in this sense as well. Gennaœ occurs 18 times in the Gospel of John, referring both to the ordinary (natural) birth of a human being (9:2; 16:21, etc), but also for the spiritual birth of believers in Christ (1:13; 3:3-8). Spiritual “birth” is also the meaning it carries in all but one (?) of the 10 occurrences in 1 John as well (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).

The incarnation of the Word/Son of God, as described primarily in the Prologue (1:1-18), always uses the related verb ginomai, not gennaœ. For example, in v. 14: “The Word [Logos] came to be flesh…” (cf. also vv. 15, 30; overall the verb occurs 9 times in the Prologue). This distinction is important, even though the author would surely accept that Jesus (the Word/Son) was truly born as a human being. In the Prologue, he is referring not so much to his birth, specifically, as to his life/existence as a human being. In 18:37, Jesus is almost certainly referring to his birth, as such, even though the use of gennaœ otherwise differs little from that of ginomai. Both verbs are used for the spiritual birth of believers in 1:13-14. The two-fold use of gennaœ in 1 John 5:18, is more complicated, and involves variant readings which affect the meaning.

3b. The verb érchomai (e&rxomai) is also a principal verb which means “come, go”, and occurs frequently in ordinary narration. However, in the Gospel of John it also carries a deeper significance. Like ginomai, it refers to Jesus (the Word/Son of God) coming to earth as a human being, though with the specific connotation of his ministry and work on earth. Note especially the careful use of the verbs erchomai (“come”), ginomai (“come to be”), and eimi (“be”) in Jn 1:15 and 30. It is thus possible to identify the two aspects indicated by the parallel phrases here:

    • gennaœ: “I have come to be (born)“—Jesus’ birth as a human being
    • erchomai: “I have come into the world”—His human life and ministry

If these two phrases reflect the mystery and power of the Incarnation, the remainder of Jesus’ statement expounds the purpose for it, as contained within the expression “unto this” (eis touto), i.e. “for this purpose”. Space does not allow for a detailed exposition of the remaining words and phrases; here, I can offer only a brief summary:

  • “the world” (ho kosmos)—The noun kosmos (ko/smo$, “world-order, world”) is a key word, occurring 78 times in the Gospel of John (out of 186 total in the NT). It is primarily used in a negative, dualistic sense, signifying the realm of evil and darkness which is opposed to God. However, it also figures prominently in the idea of salvation—the Light (Jesus, the Son) comes into the world of darkness to save humankind. The usage here is similar to that in 3:16, etc (emphasizing salvation), while in the prior statement of 18:36, it is the negative contrast with God that is in view.
  • “witness” (vb. martyreœ)—The verb martyreœ (marture/w, “[give/bear] witness”) is another regular Johannine word, occurring 33 times in the Gospel, and another 10 times in the Letters (also 4 in Revelation), more than half of all NT occurrences. Especially important is the idea of Jesus as a witness—as the Son he makes known the person, presence and nature of God the Father to humankind.
  • “out of” (ek)—The Gospel and Letters of John frequently use the preposition ek (e)k, lit. “out of”) to refer to birth—specifically the birth of believers. One is born from (i.e. coming “out of”) another. As believers, we are born “out of the Spirit”, which is the same as being born “out of God” (Jn 1:13-14; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, etc). Here the expression is “out of the truth”, but it essentially means the same thing, from the standpoint of Johannine theology (God = Truth = the Spirit, cf. below). The specific phrase used here by Jesus, “everyone being [i.e. who is] out of the truth”, is similar to that found repeatedly in 1 John (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18); note also the close syntax (with the participle œn, “being”) in Jn 3:31.
  • “the truth” (h¢ al¢theia)—The word al¢theia (a)lh/qeia, “truth”) is another Johannine key term (25 times in the Gospel, 20 in the Letters, out of 109 in the NT). It refers to a fundamental characteristic of God the Father which is virtually identical with His Person. Jesus, as the Son, also identifies himself as Truth (Jn 14:6, etc).
  • “hears my voice”—The idea of hearing the voice is likewise fundamental to Johannine expression, especially in the Discourses. It goes back to Old Testament tradition—to the Sinai theophany (cf. 5:37), and to the idea of the Prophets hearing God’s word. Jesus, as the Son, hears the Father’s voice, indicating both obedience and the receiving of revelation. In turn, believers respond (in faith) to Jesus’ voice, which reflects and embodies the very voice of God (14:24, etc). See especially Jn 5:24-25ff; 8:43; 10:3ff, 16, 27; 12:47. Jesus’ words in 8:47 are very close to those here in 18:37.

The immediate exchange between Jesus and Pilate closes with Pilate’s famous question “What is (the) truth?” (v. 38). The answer is implicit in the message of the Gospel as a whole, and becomes clear enough through a careful study of the Discourses and other passages. However, if one seeks a more direct answer to the question, it is necessary to turn to the First Letter of John. I leave you today with these words from 1 John 5:6:

“…the Spirit is the Truth”
to pneuma estin h¢ al¢theia

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