Jesus and the Law, Part 9: The Gospel of John (continued)

The outline for this article is:

    1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives
    2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word
    3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

The first heading was discussed in Part 8 of this series; here I will continue with the second and third sections.

2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word

Since the Law and Torah (as Scripture) is sometimes identified as the “Word of God” it is worth exploring the distinctive manner in which “word” (lo/go$, and/or r(h=ma) is associated with Jesus in the Gospel of John—both the Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word. I will start with the second of these concepts.

(a) Jesus as the Word

[This section draws especially on the fine summary by R. E. Brown in his classic commentary on John (Anchor Bible vol. 29), Appendix II, pp. 519-24.]

This is found primarily in the Prologue to the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), where Jesus is identified with the (divine) lo/go$ in verses 1 (3 times) and 14. There is no single satisfactory English translation for lo/go$—”word” being as good as any. From the standpoint of creation (vv. 3, 10), it could also be understood: (i) in the sense of the underlying creative principle giving order to things (already used this way by Heraclitus, 6th-early 5th cent. B.C.), or (ii) as reason, reflecting the (ordered) thought and mind of God (cf. the typical Stoic usage). Philo of Alexandria, representing Hellenistic (and Alexandrian) Judaism at the time of the New Testament, blends the Greek philosophical use of lo/go$ with Old Testament concepts, resulting in the idea of the Logos as a divine intermediary, used by God in creation and serving as a pattern for the human mind/soul. In recent decades, scholars have looked closer at the Jewish background to the Logos-concept in John in at least three respects—(i) the “word of YHWH” as a distinct hypostasis, (ii) the personification of (divine) Wisdom, and (iii) the pre-existence of the Torah.

(i) The “word of YHWH” (hw`hy+Árb^D=) in the Old Testament does not simply reflect a statement or utterance received (by the Prophets, etc), but represents a dynamic (revelatory) manifestation of God to human beings, especially in the formula “the word of YHWH came to {so-and-so}…” (Gen 15:1, 4; 1 Sam 15:10; 2 Sam 7:4; 24:11; 1 Kings 6:11, etc; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1, et al). According to Genesis 1:1ff, the universe (the heavens and the earth) was created by the word of God (by his speaking), and continues to be sustained/renewed by his word—cf. Psalm 33:6; 147:15ff; Isa 55:11; also Wisd 9:1, etc. Over time, and with an interest in safeguarding the idea of God’s transcendence, the “word of God” came to be used as a kind of substitute (or periphrasis) for God Himself, which would speak and act (toward human beings)—effectively becoming a distinct hypostasis (divine manifestation). In Aramaic, this term for “the word” of God was ar*m=ym@ (m¢mrâ).

(ii) Similarly, the Wisdom of God could be personified or treated as a distinct hypostasis (manifestation); originally, this personification need have been nothing more than a poetic representation in ancient Wisdom Literature, used for dramatic and didactic effect (cf. Prov 1:20-33; 9:1-12, etc). However, the practical usage came to take on added theological dimension, as we see already in the famous passage of Proverbs 8—especially vv. 23-31 which depict Wisdom as existing at the beginning with God and participating in the work of Creation. There is indeed a close parallel between the Wisdom and (personified) Word of God in Jewish tradition—both are involved in the process of creation, being with God in the beginning, reflecting His glory, and coming forth from (the mouth of) God (cf. Sir 1:1; 24:3ff; Wisd 7:22, 25–8:1; 9:1-2). The parallels with the Johannine prologue are strong enough to suggest a Wisdom background, possibly even involving the influence or adaptation of a hymn in praise of (divine) Wisdom. There are a number of passages which refer to Wisdom coming (from heaven) to dwell among human beings, or wishing to (Prov 8:31; Wisd 9:10; Sir 24:8ff), but with some doubt as to whether she will be welcome (Baruch 3:9ff, etc); in the book of Enoch (1 Enoch) chapter 42, we find an especially close parallel to the idea in John 1:10-11, 14—Wisdom wishes to make her dwelling among the children of men, but sadly can find no dwelling-place and must return to heaven.

(iii) In later Rabbinic and mystical tradition, this personification (or hypostasis) of the Word of God was extended specifically to the Torah, conceived of as God’s offspring (or daughter, as with Wisdom) and existing prior to the creation of the universe. This was a natural identification, since Scripture (and particularly the Torah) was regularly understood as the “Word of God”. Already in Wisdom literature, the Law (Torah) is specifically identified with personified (divine) Wisdom (cf. especially Baruch 4:1 and Sirach 24:23ff). There is a long history as well of referring to the the Law (Torah) as light, which serves to illuminate human beings with God’s own (holy and revelatory) light (Jn 1:4-5, 9)—cf. Psalm 119:105; Baruch 4:2; Wisd 18:4; Testament of Levi 14:4.

(b) The Word(s) of Jesus

As a theme and motif, the word (or words) of Jesus plays a key role in the Gospel of John, occurring frequently (more than 40 times). These can be categorized as follows (note that lo/go$ [“word, account”] and r(h=ma [“word, utterance”] appear to be used interchangeably, with little difference in meaning):

So we see evidence in the Gospel of John that: (a) according to the Prologue (1:1-18), Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal and pre-existent Word of God, which encompasses the idea of the Wisdom and Law (Torah) of God, and (b) Jesus’ words are to be treated and regarded as God’s own Word, including everything typically associated with the commands and ordinances of the Torah.

3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

When discussing the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20 (especially verse 19) in an earlier note, I brought up the important question as to the relationship between the command(ment)s of Jesus and those of the Torah. We find the same issue here in the Gospel of John (and will see it again when addressing 1 John). There are a dozen or so references to: (a) commandments Jesus received from God the Father, and (b) Jesus’ (own) commandments to his followers; conceptually these two are closely related, if not synonymous. The passages are:

(a) Commandments Jesus received from God the Father—Jn 10:18; 12:49-50; 14:31; 15:10

(b) Commandments given by Jesus (to his disciples)—Jn 13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10, 12, 14, 17

All of these instances involve the noun e)ntolh/ (or the related verb e)nte/llomai), which fundamentally refers to something “laid on (a person) to complete”, and is usually translated “command(ment)” or sometimes “charge, order,” and the like. In a Jewish religious context, of course, e)ntolh/ refers to the commands of the Law (Torah), the corresponding term in Hebrew being primarily hw`x=m! (from the verb hw`x*). Yet, here in the Gospel of John, it is not clear to what extent (if at all) the “commandments” are related to the Torah commands. Let us look briefly at the context of these passages:

(a) Commandments Jesus received from God the Father:

    • Jn 10:18—here the command (or charge) has to with the power/authority Jesus has to (willingly) lay down his life and then take it up again (his death and resurrection)
    • Jn 12:49-50—the emphasis is on what the Father (“the One who sent me”) has given Jesus to speak; again this indicates the divine source (and authority) of Jesus’ own words
    • Jn 14:31—the sense is much the same: that Jesus does just as (and only as) the Father has commanded him
    • Jn 15:10—here Jesus states that he has kept the Father’s commandments, and abides/remains in His love

(b) Commandments given by Jesus (to his disciples):

    • Jn 13:34—Jesus gives his disciples a “new” commandment, the “love command” (see below)
    • Jn 14:15, 21—In these two verses Jesus states that those who love him will keep his commandments (and vice versa); it is a general statement, with no specific indication what those commandments are
    • Jn 15:10—draws a parallel between keeping Jesus’ commandments and abiding/remaining in his love, just as Jesus does for the Father
    • Jn 15:12, 14, 17—verse 12 restates the “love command” (13:34), verse 14 generally restates 14:15, 21, and verse 17 brings both of these together into a single teaching

Of all the references above, only 15:10a could conceivably relate to the Torah commands specifically, but even that is highly uncertain; in light of the other passages in category (a), it is better to see 15:10a in terms of Jesus’ mission—what he is directed to say and do. The Torah commands are clearly referenced as such only in Jn 8:5, which is part of the passage on the woman caught in adultery (generally recognized as an interpolation, and likely not part of the original Gospel).

Many of these references come from the so-called Farewell Discourse (chapters 13-17), a cluster of discourses probably built up out of (separate) smaller blocks of teaching, in which Jesus gives definitive instruction (and exhortation) to his disciples. There are many sayings and teachings of Jesus—both in John and throughout the Synoptic Gospels—which may be regarded as commands; but the only command clearly identified and emphasized as such in the Farewell Discourse(s) is the so-called “love command” in 13:34; 15:12. In Jn 13:34 the command is:

“that you should love one another—even as I have loved you, (I say) that you should love one another”
(the aorist subjunctive forms of the verb having the force of imperatives)

Clearly this is related in some way to the “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:29-31 par)—complete love for God and one’s neighbor—the second half of which, in particular, would become central in Jesus’ teaching as preserved in the early Church (Rom 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8). Love for God—demonstrated by loving Jesus (whom God sent)—is effectively treated as a command elsewhere in John, particularly in terms of abiding/remaining in Christ (Jn 15:4, 9, etc); but it is love for one’s fellow (believer) that is stressed in Jn 13:34; 15:12ff, and specifically referred to as a commandment. Indeed, it is called a “new” (kaino/$) commandment in 13:34, though the precise meaning and force of this distinction remains uncertain. These and other related questions will be dealt with in more detail in an article on “The Commandments of Christ” later on in this series; for now, it will suffice to conclude with the following observations:

  1. Jesus’ commandments come directly from God the Father (stressing Jesus’ unique role and nature as Son of God)
  2. They relate primarily to his mission on earth—what he is to say (teaching and proclamation, etc) and do (miracles, his willing and sacrificial death [and resurrection], etc)
  3. By word and example, he transmits these commandments to his disciples, best exemplified in the Farewell Discourse(s)
  4. The primary and leading command is two-fold: (i) to love one another, and (ii) to abide/remain in Christ (and his love)

The Old Testament Law (Torah) as such does not appear to be an essential part of this, except insofar as it provides the religious and ethical background to the “love command” and other teachings of Jesus. In this respect, the Gospel of John differs somewhat from the Synoptic Gospels, which depict Jesus dealing more directly (and regularly) with questions derived from (and related to) the Law of Moses.

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