Believers and the World (Jn 17:20-23, continued)

As a continuation (and conclusion) to the recently posted article, on the statements regarding believers and “the world” (o( ko/smo$) in John 17:20-23, I mentioned three specific questions which I felt still needed to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

I will briefly discuss each of these in turn.

1. How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?

The principal theme of verses 20-23 is Jesus’ request for the unity of his disciples (believers). This is expressed two ways:

    • With the neuter singular adjective e%n (“one”): “that they would (all) be one
    • Using the preposition e)n (“in”): believers in the Son (and the Father), and the Son in believers, just as the Father and Son are in one another.

The use of the comparative particle kaqw/$ (“just as”), and the relation of believers to the union between Father and Son, makes clear that believers share in the same (not just similar) unity that Father and Son share. This is a powerful theological (and spiritual) proposition, which may seem quite shocking to religious sensibilities, but it is not to be explained away or mitigated. The language used by Jesus (and the Gospel writer) must be allowed to stand. And yet, how does this unity relate to “the world”? In the main part of this article, I discussed how the concluding i%na-clauses, mentioning “the world”, are best understood as subordinate result clauses. Let us consider again how these fit in the parallel strophes of verses 20-23:

First strophe, verses 20-21:

    • “…(I ask) about the (one)s trusting in me through their word,
      • that [i%na] (they) all would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] you, Father, (are) in me and I in you,
      • that [i%na] they also would be in us,
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth.”

Second strophe, vv. 22-23:

    • “And the honor [do/ca] which you have given to me, I have given to them,
      • that [i%na] they would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] we (are) one [e%n]—I in them and you in me—
      • that [i%na] they would be completed into one [e%n]
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would know that you se(n)t me forth
          and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

For ease of reference, here are the two clauses in context, with the immediate statement regarding unity in bold:

“…that they…would be in us, (so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth”

How does the unity of believers lead the world (i.e. others in the world who are not yet believers) to trust and know (i.e. recognize) Jesus’ divine origin as Messiah and Son of God? Some would cite the example of Christian unity as something which might convince people of the truth of the Gospel. While this is a noble sentiment, it is not at all what is in view here in the Prayer. Rather, the unity of which Jesus speaks is fundamental and essential—the very identity of believers is defined by their/our union with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This union, indicated primarily by the preposition e)n (“in”, i.e. “in us”), is further defined three distinct ways in the Gospel of John; the divine Presence in believers is described in terms of: (1) Word [lo/go$], (2) Love [a)ga/ph], and (3) Spirit [pneu=ma]. It is the Word-Love-Spirit of God (and Christ), dwelling in and with believers, which brings others to trust and knowledge of the truth. This will be further discussed in the following two sections.

2. What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?

In the earlier notes on verses 20-23, I pointed out how the use of the verb teleio/w (“[make] complete”), in the passive, with believers as the subject, occurs only here in the Gospel of John, but that four similar instances are found in the First Letter (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). The passages in 1 John share much of the same thought, language, and vocabulary as the Prayer-Discourse of Jn 17. There, too, the unity believers share with Father and Son is defined in terms of love (cf. section 3 below). However, I believe there is one aspect of the use of the verb here in verse 23 which has not yet been explored, and it relates specifically to the statement regarding the world trusting/knowing. The unity of believers is only realized collectively, not individually—but as a universal Community, bound together by the living Word-Love-Spirit of God. To that extent, unity is not realized until all believers are included—that is, when all the Elect/Chosen ones, living throughout the world, in all times and places, come to trust in Jesus, becoming true believers in Christ. This is wonderfully expressed, though using different imagery, in the “Good Shepherd” discourse:

“And I hold other sheep, which are not out of [i.e. from] this yard, and it is necessary for me to bring them also, and they (too) will hear my voice, and they will be a single herd [poimnh/], (with) one herder [poimh/n].” (10:16)

It must be emphasized that, though believers may gather (physically) into local communities, the unity spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of John is entirely spiritual—it is truly a universal Community, realized and possible only by and through the presence of the Spirit. It is no coincidence that the giving of the Spirit follows almost directly after the death and resurrection of Jesus (20:21ff), and that this is indicated symbolically in the narrative at the moment of Jesus’ death (19:30):

    • His dying word on the cross: tete/lestai (“it is completed“, vb. tele/w closely related to teleio/w), after which
    • “…he gave along the Spirit” (pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma)

3. How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

Verses 20-23 conclude with a statement that defines unity in terms of love (a)ga/ph)—that is to say, divine love, the love of God, which believers share by way of our union with Christ. This divine love cannot be separated (as an attribute) from the very Presence of God Himself, which believers are joined with by way of the Person of Jesus, through the Spirit. As mentioned above, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, Word, Love and Spirit, are largely synonymous, all three representing the living presence of God the Father and Jesus (the Son). This special meaning of a)ga/ph is seen throughout the Gospel, but especially in the Last Discourse (5:42; 8:42; 13:34-35; 14:15, 21ff; 15:9-13, 17, 19). It is even more prominent in the Letters (42 times, including 36 in 1 John). In 4:8, God Himself is identified as Love, and I mentioned above how believers being “made complete” is understood in terms of this love (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). In many ways, the First Letter takes up where the Last Discourse leaves off, both serving as detailed expositions of the “love commandment” in 13:34-35. The wording in 17:23 summarizes this exposition, but from the standpoint of the Father’s relationship to believers: “you loved them just as you loved me”.

However, according to the syntax of vv. 22-23, this statement is part of the i%na-clause which mentions the world knowing:

“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth, and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

The statement of God’s love is part of what the world comes to know:

    • “(so) that the world would know
      • that you sent me forth
      • and (that) you loved them even as you loved me”

Some commentators have struggled with the pronoun “them”, pointing out that, in context, it must refer to the believers (“the ones trusting in me…”) of v. 20, rather than to the immediate subject “the world”. However, according to the interpretation I set forth (cf. the main discussion), here “the world” refers ostensibly to believers—i.e. the Elect/Chosen ones, in the world, who have not yet become believers. This renders the immediate syntax more intelligible: those “in the world” who come to be believers realize the love God the Father has for them, a love that is identified in the person of his Son (Jesus). The wonderful reciprocity that defines both the unity and love which we share, as believers, and expressed here, is supplemented by Jesus’ earlier statement in 14:31:

“…(so) that the world would know that I love the Father, and even as the Father placed (a duty) on me to complete, so I do (it).”

Here the idea of believers “in the world” is less in view; the focus is rather on Jesus’ impending sacrificial death, and the time of darkness which accompanies it. The statement in v. 31 is preceded by an ominous declaration that “the chief/ruler of the world comes”, along with a message of encouragement that “he holds nothing on/in me”. That last phrase could mean “he has no part in me”, or “he holds nothing on me” in the sense of having “no power over me”; probably the latter is intended. In any event, the wording of v. 31a is quite similar to that of the closing words of 17:23—the former mentions Jesus’ love for the Father, the latter the Father’s love for Jesus. The world—everyone in it, not just the elect/believers—can recognize in Jesus’ death his great love for God.

It is the “love commandment” in 13:34-35 which relates more directly to the statement in 17:23:

“A new duty I give to you to complete: that you love each another—just as I loved you, that also you would love each other. In this, all people will know that you are my learners [i.e. disciples], if you hold love among [lit. in/on, e)n] each other.”

There is a similar matrix of thought and language, including the idea that people in the world will know as a result of the unifying love which believers share. Here the sense of believers as an example to the world is more plausible; yet, the emphasis is still squarely on believers and their relationship to Jesus.

If we consider the statements in 13:34-35, 14:31, and 17:23 in sequence, representing a kind of development of thought, it seems to parallel Christian ministry itself:

  • 13:34-35—Believers as ministers, representatives of Christ, in the world
    • Love—We are to love each other according to the example of Jesus (“just as” [kaqw/$] he loved us); his sacrificial death is implicit and fundamental to this love.
    • World’s Response—”All people” recognize this love as a sign that believers are disciples of Jesus, i.e. that they are Christians
  • 14:31—The Gospel message believers proclaim in the world is centered on the sacrificial death of Jesus, which frees us from the power of the world (“ruler of the world”, v. 30)
    • Love—Jesus’ love is embodied in his sacrificial death, and demonstrates his love for God the Father
    • World’s Response—Those in the world, both the Elect and non-elect, can recognize Jesus’ love for God in his sacrificial death
  • 17:23—Believers proclaim the Gospel (the Word), being guided and empowered by the living Word (the Spirit) which unites us with God the Father and Jesus (the Son)
    • Love—As believers we share (“even as” [kaqw/$]) in the same Love which God the Father has for Jesus (the Son); it is not just an attribute of God, but the Presence of God Himself.
    • World’s Response—The Elect/Chosen ones in the world come to know that Jesus is the Son sent by God the Father, and recognize the love which God has for them, uniting them with all other believers.

Believers and the World (John 17:20-23)

This is a follow-up article to the discussion on verses 20-23 of the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17 (part of a Monday Notes on Prayer series). It is necessary to examine the use of the word ko/smo$ (“world”) in the concluding phrase of the two (parallel) strophes that make up this section:

“(so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$ (v. 21d)
“(so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth…”
i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
“…(and) that you loved them just as you loved me.” (v. 23c-d)

Jesus has been praying on behalf of believers, but now suddenly he shifts to the response of the “world”. There is some question as to the syntactical place of these two i%na-clauses, whether they are parallel to the prior i%na-clauses in each strophe (see the earlier discussion), or represent a subordinate result clause. In the first view, the world’s trusting/knowing would be part of the unity of believers in Jesus’ request; according to the second view, it is the result of the unity shared by believers. I consider the latter to be more likely, and more in keeping with the thought of the Prayer, and have rendered the conjunctive particle i%na to reflect this (i.e., “so that…”).

However, this reference to the “world” (ko/smo$) raises a problem. All throughout the Prayer, as well as the Last Discourse, and, indeed, the Gospel of John as a whole (with but few exceptions), the expression “the world” (o( ko/smo$) designates a realm of sin and darkness which is opposed to God and hostile to Christ; moreover, Jesus warns his disciples (and future believers), that, as long as they are living in the world, it will remain hostile to them (cf. 14:17, 22, 30; 15:18-25; 16:33; 17:9ff). This has been discussed repeatedly in the previous notes on chapter 17. Now, suddenly, Jesus speaks of the world trusting and knowing. How are we to understand this? There are several possible answers to this question:

1. It refers to a different kind (or level) of trust and knowledge, one which shows awareness of Jesus’ divine origins, but does not indicate true trust and knowledge. In traditional religious terms, we might refer to this as faith (of sorts), but not saving faith. There is some precedence for this in the Gospel of John. On several occasions, the populace at large (including Jesus’ opponents) are said to “trust” or “know”, but without any definite indication that they are true, committed believers (7:28ff; 8:30-31 [compare with the discourse that follows]; 11:45ff; 12:43-44). However, throughout the Gospel, the verbs pisteu/w (“trust”) and ginw/skw (“know”) are overwhelmingly used to characterize true believers, being used almost interchangeably. Even more to the point, the emphasis on Jesus as one “sent forth” (vb. a)poste/llw) by the Father serves as a shorthand for (true) trust/belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (see esp. verse 3 of the Prayer).

2. An interpretation more in keeping with the portrait of “the world” as hostile to God and unable to accept the truth, is to read the subjunctive verb forms (“might trust”, “might know”) as indicating a possibility which, for the most part, will not be realized. In this view, the missionary work of the disciples serves as a challenge to the world which leads, not to true faith, but to judgment for their inability (and/or unwillingness) to accept the truth. This preserves the contrast between believers and the world, which Jesus states unequivocally again in verse 25. The theme of Judgment is certainly present in the Last Discourse (14:30 [cf. 12:31]; 15:22ff; 16:8-11, 33), but is generally absent from the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17, and, it must be said, is quite foreign to the thought of verses 20-23.

3. A simple reading of the phrases, taking the words at face value, might suggest that Jesus is speaking of the wicked/sinners in the world being converted to faith by the witness of believers. This is a common enough Christian outlook which continues to inform missionary work and evangelistic preaching today. It is certainly present in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel context of Luke-Acts, where an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sin is an essential component of the Apostolic message (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30, etc). However, it is almost entirely absent from the Johannine writings. Apart from the episode in 7:53-8:11 (which likely was not part of the original Gospel), it is hard to find any examples referring to the conversion of sinners (5:14 is a rare instance, perhaps drawn from the wider Gospel tradition). Admittedly, some key passages in the Gospels have been understood this way (most notably 3:16-17), but only when taken somewhat out of context from the rest of the Gospel of John.

4. An interpretation closer to the mark would again be to understand the subjunctives as “might trust” / “might know”, but in the sense of “might be able to trust”, etc. In other words, through the work and Gospel of Jesus, the world is freed from the power of sin, and has the ability to accept Christ. This does not mean that all in the world will accept—indeed many (perhaps most) will not—however, they are no longer prevented from doing so by the power of evil (and the Evil One) at work in the world. As appealing as this view might be, it reflects a universalism that, I would maintain, is foreign to the Gospel of John. By “universalism” I do not mean it in an absolute or final sense (i.e. “everyone will be saved”), but in a qualified sense related to the human will (i.e. “everyone is able to be saved”). In classical theological terms, the contrast is between a universal and limited application of the atoning work of Jesus. It would be anachronistic to use either label in the case of the Johannine writings; however, it seems abundantly clear that the Gospel, in particular, evinces a strong view of what we would call Election/Predestination—i.e. believers come to Christ because they already belong to God, being “born” of God and “chosen” by Him beforehand (1:12-13; 3:21; 6:37ff, 44-45, 64-65ff; 8:42-47; 10:3-5, 14ff, 27-29; 18:37, etc). To be sure, through Christ’s work, believers are freed from the power of sin and darkness in the world (1:5; 8:12, 31-32; 12:35-36, 46; 14:30; 16:33, etc); however, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, they never really belonged to the world in the first place—they were “in” the world, but not “of” it. This is a central theme in the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 2, 6, 9, 11ff).

In my view, a proper understanding of the phrases in question requires a close examination of the usage of the expression o( ko/smo$ (“the world”), beginning here in chapter 17, and widening out to the Last Discourse, the Gospel as a whole, and, finally to the Letters of John for comparison. Such a study is beyond the scope of this article; however, let us at least summarize the language and usage in the Last Discourse and the Prayer. Overall, in spite of some wordplay, o( ko/smo$ is part of a dualistic contrast—i.e. Jesus/Spirit/Believers vs. the World. A few points of detail:

    • The world is unable to receive the Spirit, and also unable to receive the Truth (“Spirit of Truth”) (14:17; 17:25); similarly, the world cannot “see” (i.e. recognize, accept) Jesus (14:19ff; 16:28)
    • The Spirit will judge/convict the world of its sin, this sin being that it does not trust in Jesus (16:8-11)
    • The world is contrasted with Jesus in the person of its chief/ruler (presumably to be identified with the Satan/Devil), a person (and/or personification) embodying evil. This “Ruler of the World”, and, the world itself, has no power over Jesus (14:30; 16:11, 33), who, in turn, has the power to remove believers from the world, i.e. freeing and protecting them from sin and evil (15:19; 17:15)
    • The world hates both Jesus and his disciples (believers), being hostile to them and persecuting them, etc (15:19; 16:20, 33)
    • Believers are not “of” (lit. “out of”, i.e. “from”) the world; rather, they are “of” God, belonging to the Father (14:19ff; 17:6ff, 16), and this is the reason for the world’s hatred of them (15:19; 17:14-15). The Father has given believers to Jesus, who, in turn, sends the Spirit to protect them in his place (14:26; 15:26; 16:7ff; 17:6, 9)
    • There is a clear contrast between the realm of the world (below) and that of the Father (above) (14:27; 16:28; 17:16ff)

Now let us look specifically at the way believers are contrasted with “the world” in chapter 17. In particular, there is an interplay of two expressions: “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou) and “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|):

    • Believers are “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense that they/we do not belong to it; rather, they/we belong to God (vv. 6, 9). If believers, like Jesus, are “out of” the world, then it means that they/we are truly not “in [e)n]” it (v. 11).
      • In a secondary, but related, sense, God gave the disciples (believers) to Jesus “out of” the world (v. 6); this refers specifically to their/our coming to be believers in Christ.
    • The exact same point can be made, saying that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world”, meaning that they/we do not come from it—their/our true origins are from God (vv. 14, 16)
    • Yet it is also said that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense they/we are still living on earth and, more importantly, must face the evil and hostility that dominates the world; in this sense, believers are “in [e)n] the world” (vv. 11, 13, 15)
      • Jesus’ ministry on behalf of believers relates to their being “in the world”: he speaks to them, giving them his word, “in the world” (v. 13), and sends them, as his representatives, out “in(to) the world” (v. 18)

Now, let us consider how this relates to the wording in vv. 21, 23. If we piece together the evidence in the Prayer, we can discern three key points:

    • Believers (the Elect) do not belong to the world (i.e. are not “of” it), but come from God
    • Yet believers remain living “in” the world, in the face of its darkness and evil
    • When believers are “given” by the Father to Jesus (the Son), they/we are taken “out of” the world and come to be believers in Christ

Thus, it would seem, when Jesus speaks of “the world” trusting and knowing as a result of the disciples’ (believers’) ministry, etc, it must be understood in light of the three points outlined above. In other words, here “the world” signifies the Elect/Chosen ones living in the world who have not yet come to be believers in Jesus. The same situation is described, though in different terms, in 10:16, where Jesus speaks of “other sheep”; of them he says that “it is necessary for me to bring/lead (them)”. And, from where does he, the herdsman, bring them? The answer is given here—from out of the world. The call, the sending out of the shepherd’s voice, is done through the work of other believers (“…trusting in me through their word”, v. 20), led and directed by the Spirit. I should say that the other universal-sounding statements in the Gospels, referring to the saving/salvation of “the world”, are best understood in this light as well (cf. 1:7, 29; 3:16-17; 6:33, 51; 12:32, 47).

If the above interpretation is indeed correct, there still remain three questions which I feel need to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit in to the structure of the section?

I will look at each of these briefly in the continuation of this article.

June 9: Acts 2:36

This is the third of three daily notes, covering three Christological phrases in Peter’s Pentecost speech-sermon (Acts 2:14-41). The first note examined the phrase in verse 22, the second note the dual clause in verse 33; today I will look at the statement in verse 36. Verses 22-24 represent a kerygmatic formulation which precedes the citation/exposition of Psalm 16:8-11; a second kerygmatic statement follows in verses 32-33, along with a secondary citation from Psalm 110:1 in vv. 34-35. Verse 36 represents, in turn, the climactic statement of the speech, the importance of which is indicated by the solemn manner it is introduced—

“Therefore (let) all the house of Yisrael safely/surely know…”

Then comes the climactic statement:

“…that God (has) made him (both) Lord and Anointed—this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!”

Here is again, the central clause:

kai\ ku/rion au)to\n kai\ xristo\n e)poi/hsen o( qeo/$
“God made him (both) Lord and Anointed”

Believers are so accustomed to thinking of Jesus as Lord (that is, God/Divine) and Anointed (i.e. the Messiah), that the context of this declaration in Peter’s speech is easy to overlook. Indeed, it may be somewhat shocking to realize that Jesus’ identity/status as Lord (ku/rio$) is specifically tied to his exaltation/glorification following the resurrection. That is certainly the sense of Psalm 110:1 here (cited in v. 34-35), juxtaposed with Psalm 16:8-11—the statement in Ps 110:1 follows (and, one may say, is a result of) Jesus’ being raised and ascending (v. 34a) into Heaven. Contrast this with the citation of Psalm 110:1 in Hebrews 1:13, where there is a relatively clear sense of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent status as God’s Son (cf. Heb 1:3ff).

Here, too, in Acts the use of the verb poie/w (poiéœ, prim. “do, make”) is problematic, especially from the standpoint of post-Nicene orthodoxy. This verb is that which is used in reference to God’s act of creation, and yet the Nicene creed explicitly states that Jesus was “begotten, not made” (gennhqe/nta, ou) poihqe/nta). And, although the statement in Acts 2:36 does not say that Jesus was metaphysically made (as a creature), how can he be said to have been “made” Lord after the resurrection? Was he not already Lord in eternal pre-existent union with the Father, and all throughout his incarnate life on earth? Certainly, later theologians and commentators would be extremely reluctant to use such language as we find here in Peter’s speech.

It is somewhat easier to speak of Jesus being “made” the Anointed (i.e. the Messiah) since this term applies primarily to an Israelite/Jewish religious concept—that of the king or priest who is anointed (ritually/symbolically) as God’s chosen representative among the people. By the time of the New Testament, following centuries of reflection and response to both the Scriptures (prim. the Prophets and prophetic Psalms) and historical circumstances, the Anointed/Messiah had come to be associated with a very definite sort of eschatological figure (Davidic ruler and/or Priest and/or Prophet) who would oversee (in whole or part) the restoration of Israel and God’s end-time judgment. In several Jewish writings likely contemporary with the New Testament—the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras)—this “Messiah” is more or less identified with an apparently separate figure, that of a heavenly/pre-existent “Son of Man” (certainly influenced by Dan 7:13). While there is some precedence for the idea of the Messiah as a divine/heavenly figure, more often he was understood to be a real human being. It is primarily the role he serves which is divinely ordained and empowered. One could, then, speak of Jesus as being “made” the Messiah, in the sense that, as a human being, he was divinely empowered to fulfill the Messianic role(s). In traditional Christological terms, Priest, Prophet and King, are understood as the three “offices” of Christ.

(For more on this, see the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and esp. Part 12 on the Messiah as “Son of God”.)

Yet, how exactly should one understand the idea of Jesus’ being “made” Lord here in Acts 2:36? The Greek word ku/rio$, in a Jewish and early Christian religious context, is used primarily as a reference to YHWH, the one God. Even in the earliest period of the New Testament writings and traditions, to refer to Jesus as ku/rio$ was tantamount to affirming his divine nature/status. There are of course passages in the Gospels where ku/rio$ is applied to Jesus in the narrative in a diplomatic or honorific sense, such as the use of “Sir” in English, but this is hardly the case in passages reflecting actual early Christian belief. More difficult to interpret are those sayings of Jesus where he appears to use the word applied to himself; perhaps most tantalizing of all is his citation of Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:36-37 par), which might provide a decisive interpretation to the verse (see above), however the exact meaning and thrust of Jesus’ question remains a matter of considerable debate among commentators. The most explicit statement of Christian belief in this regard (identifying Jesus as Lord in the sense that God/YHWH is Lord), within the Gospel narrative, is certainly the declaration by Thomas in Jn 20:28 (“my Lord and my God!”). But if ku/rio$ is meant to indicate Jesus’ divine nature or status—identifying him in some meaningful way with God/YHWH—in Acts 2:36, how can he be said to have been “made” ku/rio$? I would suggest three main possibilities for interpretation, none of which are without difficulty:

  1. The statement fundamentally reflects an “adoptionistic” view of Christ—that is to say, he was only elevated to divine status (at the right hand of God, v. 33) upon his being raised by God from the dead and glorified/exalted. Prior to this, Jesus was simply a human being, though one specially appointed/gifted by God (v. 22ff). This would be the most straightforward reading of the statements in Peter’s speech, though of course, it contradicts much of the overall New Testament witness, and would be flatly rejected by (later) orthodox Christology. For more on this, see my article on Adoptionism.
  2. The statement—whether understood as being strictly from Peter, the author of Acts (trad. Luke), or some combination—shows a limited awareness of Jesus’ true nature. In other words, what was known for certain (at the moment) involved Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and the sending of the Spirit (from God the Father), and was expressed within a traditional Jewish conceptual framework. Only subsequently, in the following years, would an understanding of Jesus’ eternal and pre-existent divine nature develop, to be expressed within the Gospels and Epistles, etc. This view of the matter reflects the principle of progressive revelation—that only gradually, did the New Testament writers, the apostles, and other believers come to a full realization of Jesus’ nature (in the orthodox sense). This view is somewhat easier to accept if Acts 2:14-36ff represents the actual words of Peter (c. 30-35 A.D.) rather than that of the author of Acts (c. 70-80?); it would be a strong argument that, at the very least, 2:14ff records early apostolic kerygma.
  3. The statement reflects a kenotic view of Christ. By this is meant that Jesus Christ, in some meaningful (though admittedly mysterious) way, forsook his pre-existent divine nature/status, and “emptied” himself to become a human being (the so-called kenosis, from Grk. keno/w kenóœ, “[make] empty”). Upon his death and resurrection, Jesus was then elevated and restored to (an even greater?) divine status, now united with humanity, at God’s right hand. While generally attractive, there are two main difficulties with such a view: (a) it is largely dependent on a single passage (the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11), and (b) there are several other passages (such as Col 1:19, cf. also 2:9) which have been taken as confirmation of the orthodox belief that Jesus was in some sense “fully God” even during his earthly life. Applying this view to Acts 2:14-36 also requires reading much into Peter’s speech, which as it stands, better fits an adoptionistic, rather than kenotic, viewpoint.

Clearly there are significant critical and interpretive questions involved in this verse which admit of no easy solution. On the one hand, we should guard ourselves against reading developed (orthodox) Christology back into the New Testament; on the other hand, we must be cautious about reading too much into a single passage. Peter’s speech must first be understood and interpreted in its historical and literary context:

  • The historical context—this is the first public sermon delivered by believers following the resurrection of Christ (and the sending of the Spirit); one should expect just what we find here: rough, simple, dramatic kerygmatic statements (focusing on the immediate message of the resurrection and promise of salvation), rather than a developed and systematic Christology. Throughout the Gospels and here in Acts (cf. 1:6f), there are numerous examples where even Jesus’ closest disciples (Peter and the Twelve) demonstrated that they possessed a limited awareness of exactly who he was.
  • The literary context—this is also the first major Christian speech-sermon recorded in Luke-Acts; it follows directly after the resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost: the events which Peter makes reference to in his speech. Even if the author had wished to express the deity of Christ more clearly, it would have been rather out of place in context here. The overall portrait of Christ will be expanded in the subsequent speech-sermons in Acts.

Both of these observations would tend to support the “progressive revelation” view (#2) above, as well as being the most compatible with orthodox Christology.

June 8: Acts 2:33

This is the second of three daily notes on the Pentecost speech-sermon of Peter in Acts 2:14-41 in which I am examining three Christological statements or expressions—the first (a&ndra a)podedeigme/non a)po\ tou= qeou=, see the previous day’s note) was found in verse 22; today I will be looking at verse 33. The first kerygmatic statement in vv. 22-24 precedes the quotation from Psalm 16; a second kerygmatic statement follows it in vv. 32-33, which is framed by two main clauses (with parenthetic declarations):

This Yeshua {Jesus} God made stand up (again)
—of which we all are witnesses…

…he has poured this out
—which you [also] see and hear

Note the structure of this frame:

    • Act of God (the Father)—raised Jesus from the dead
      • We all (i.e. the disciples/speaker[s]) are witnesses (i.e. have seen)
    • Act of Jesus—poured out the (gift of the) Spirit
      • You (i.e. the crowd/hearers) are witnesses (see and hear)

It is the inner clauses that are central to the Christological statement, for they provide the bridge between the act of God (resurrection) and the act of Jesus (sending the Spirit); they are as follows:

th=| decia=| ou@n tou= qeou= u(ywqei\$,
th\n te e)paggeli/an tou= pneu/mato$ tou= a(gi/ou labw\n para\ tou= patro/$

(and) therefore being lifted high (to) the giving [i.e. right] (hand) side of God
(and) receiving the e)paggeli/a of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father

The first clause refers to Jesus’ exaltation to the special honored position of the “right hand” side of God. This is a popular expression in the New Testament, and one of the most common (and probably earliest) descriptions of the exalted “divine” status of Jesus (Mk 14:62 par; Acts 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3ff; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22), certainly influenced greatly by Psalm 110:1, cited already by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 12:36; Matt 22:44; Luke 20:42), here in Acts 2:34, and in Hebrews 1:13. This idea of Jesus being raised to divine status/position proved somewhat problematic for subsequent Christology, for it could indeed be taken to suggest that Jesus was not “fully divine” prior to the resurrection/exaltation. I will discuss the “adoptionistic” interpretation of such expressions at the conclusion of the third note.

The second clause describes Jesus’ reception of the Holy Spirit from the Father. This idea is less common in the New Testament, best known from the Gospel of John—see the discourses of Jesus in Jn 13-17 (esp. 14:26; 15:26; 16:7) and the episode in Jn 20:19-23 (v. 22). However, something similar had already been mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 24:49:

“and [see!] I set forth from (God/Myself) the e)paggeli/a of my Father upon you; but you—sit (down) in the city until the (time in) which you should be sunk into [i.e. have put on] power (from) out of (the) height”

The same expression “e)paggeli/a of the Father” also occurs in Acts 1:4 in reference to the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples. Previously above, I left the word e)paggeli/a untranslated since it is somewhat difficult to render literally in English. Fundamentally, it would be defined as a message or announcement (a)ggeli/a angelía) on (e)pi epi) a particular matter, primarily in the sense of a public declaration. A specialized, but common, nuance to the word is a declaration that a person intends (or is about) to do something—i.e., a promise—and so the word is used almost exclusively in the New Testament. The context tends to be the covenantal promise(s) God made to Israel, even though the word e)paggeli/a (and the verb e)pagge/llw) hardly occur in the Greek version (LXX) of the Old Testament; it becomes much more common in the deutero-canonical and similar Jewish writings of the intertestamental period (e.g., 2 Macc 2:17; 3 Macc 2:10; Ps Sol 12:8; 2 Bar 57:2; 59:2; Jos Ant 2.219), often expressed in terms of the “promises of God” or the “promises of/to the fathers”—promises to be inherited/fulfilled to faithful believers among Israel. The word, in this sense (and with these related expressions), is used fairly frequently by Paul (in Romans and Galatians), as well as in Hebrews—in particular, Paul invests the word with great significance, indicating the salvation and (eternal) life to be inherited (the parallel word klhronomi/a “lot, inheritance”) by believers through Christ (apart from the Law). This is realized through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul states in Gal 3:14; note the expression “promise of the Spirit” (e)paggeli/a tou= pneu/mato$)—parallel with the “blessing (eu)logi/a) of Abraham”—and cf. also Eph 1:13 (“the holy Spirit of the promise”).

Apart from 23:21, all of the subsequent instances of e)paggeli/a in the book of Acts refer primarily to the idea of God’s promise(s) to Abraham/Israel:

  • Acts 2:39, juxtaposed with the promise of the Spirit (v. 33), as in Galatians 3:14
  • Acts 7:17—promise to Abraham, in the context of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land
  • Acts 13:32, juxtaposed with Christ (as Savior) from the seed of David “according to the promise” in v. 23 (cf. Galatians 3-4 for Christ [and believers] as the seed of Abraham according to the promise)
  • Acts 26:6, again with an implied connection (or fulfillment) of the promise in Jesus Christ (and the gift of the Spirit)

As mentioned previously, in Acts 1:4, here in 2:33, and earlier in Luke 24:49 (the only instance of the word in the Gospels), the Spirit is specifically referred to as the e)paggeli/a (“promise”) of God.

From whom/whence does Jesus send (a)postellw, lit. “set [forth] from…”) the Spirit, as in Lk 24:49 (see above)? In the history of Doctrine, this is the notorious question of the “procession of the Holy Spirit”, as represented by the so-called Filioque controversy. The latin filioque reflects an expression “and the Son” which was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, to indicate that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (technically referred to as the “double/dual procession of the Holy Spirit”). This addition was rejected by the Eastern Church and has proven a divisive issue between East and West through the centuries, the precise reasons for which are somewhat hard to appreciate today. The idea of a shared “sending” of the Spirit, in some meaningful sense, is suggested strongly by the Gospel of John, where, in the discourses, Jesus refers to the Spirit/Paraclete as one who: (1) “the Father will send in my name” [Jn 14:26], (2) “I will send (from) alongside the Father” [Jn 15:26], (3) “I will send”, having first gone away to the Father [Jn 16:7]. The phrasing in Lk 24:49 and Acts 2:33 is closest to Jn 15:26. Conceptually, in the Gospel of John, the idea is that the Spirit is sent (travels/proceeds out of the Father, cf. Jn 15:26) to the Son, and the Son, in turn, sends it/him to believers (portrayed in Jn 20:22 as Jesus breathing the Spirit into the believers).