“…Spirit and Life”: John 3:15-16, 34-36

John 3:15-16, 34-36

The explanation by Jesus in Jn 3:5-8 (of the central saying in verse 3) is followed by a second, more detailed exposition in verses 10-21. It is introduced by a second question from Nicodemus, again indicating his lack of understanding: “How are these (thing)s able to come to be?” (v. 9). Thus the exposition which follows builds upon the previous discussion in vv. 3-8, dealing with idea of being born “from above” (i.e. from God, “out of the Spirit”). This setting of vv. 10-21 in the context of the discourse is vital to any proper interpretation. The exposition is divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 10-15—The testimony of the Son of Man
    • Vv. 16-21—The witness and work of the Son of God

Two important motifs are introduced in the first section, appearing together in verse 12:

“If I said to you th(ing)s upon [i.e. about] (the) earth and you do not trust, how will you trust if I say to you th(ing)s upon [i.e. about] Heaven?”

The two motifs are: (1) the idea of trusting (vb. pisteu/w) and (2) the contrast between heaven and earth, i.e. above vs. below. This latter motif relates back to the central saying (and theme) from verse 3—of being born from above (a&nwqen). Verses 13-15 introduce the figure of the “Son of Man”, as used by Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, according to two important aspects:

    • The Son of Man as a heavenly/divine figure who will appear on earth (at the end time) to attend/oversee the Judgment
    • “Son of Man” as a self-designation by Jesus

Both aspects are combined together here, and are related to the two key motifs identified above. There is a definite progression to the line of thought in vv. 13-15:

  • The Son of Man (Jesus) is the one who has come down out of heaven (i.e. from above) [v. 13]
    • He will be “lifted high” [v. 14]—an expression of ascent (i.e. back to heaven), parallel to his descent (from heaven), understood as a comprehensive symbol entailing three aspects:
      (a) Jesus’ death—lifted up on the cross (the immediate reference to Num 21:9)
      (b) His resurrection, rising from the dead
      (c) His return to God (in Heaven)
      • Trust in him, in the entire context of his person and work (vv. 13-14), leads to Life [v. 15]—i.e. being born from above (v. 3)

As indicated above, there is a shift from Jesus as “Son of Man” to his identity as the “Son of God” (vv. 16-21)—a title which encapsulates two concepts: (1) Jesus’ relationship to the Father (as an only Son), and (2) Jesus as the one sent by the Father as His perfect representative (i.e. a “Son”). Verses 15-16 serve as the hinge joining the two sections (vv. 10-15, 16-21)—”Son of Man” and “Son of God”. The verses contain parallel statements involving the motifs of “trust” and “life” (zwh/). This parallelism can be seen by comparing the formula used in vv. 15 and 16b respectively:

    • “(so) that every one trusting in him might hold (the) Life of the Age” (v. 15)
      (so) that every one trusting him should not (come to) ruin, but might hold (the) Life of the Age” (v. 16b)

Centered in between these statements is the famous declaration of v. 16a:

“For God loved the world this (way)—so (that) he even gave his only (born) Son…”

I discussed the background of the expression “Life of the Age” (zwh\ ai)w/nio$) in the earlier notes on Jn 11:20-27. It is an eschatological idiom, referring to the blessed (divine) life which the righteous will inherit at the end-time, in the Age to Come. However, this eschatological meaning was transformed in Christianity—and in the Gospel of John, especially—so that it also refers to the life which believers possess in the present, through union with Christ. This is often described as “realized” eschatology. It should be pointed out, however, that the use of the subjunctive in 3:15-16 (“might hold, should [come to] hold”) retains much of the original eschatological (future) orientation of the expression. The end-time Judgment features prominently in vv. 16-21, but it has been reinterpreted entirely in terms of faith (trust) in Jesus. The “realized” aspect of this eschatological theme is clear enough:

“The one trusting in him is not judged; but the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that he has not trusted in the name of the only (born) Son of God” (v. 18)

More nuanced (but equally clear) is the concluding exposition beginning in verse 19:

“And this is the Judgment: that the Light has come into the world and the men [i.e. all those in the world] loved the darkness rather (than) the Light…”

In other words, Judgment is realized already (in the present) when a person comes to the Light (Jesus) and/or does not come to it (because he/she prefers darkness).

John 3:34-36

The motifs of “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) occur together in the closing verses of chapter 3—part of a separate discourse (vv. 22-36) involving John the Baptist (rather than Jesus), but one which has a number of features in common with that of vv. 1-21. In particular, the exposition by Jesus in vv. 10-21 runs parallel, in certain respects, with the exposition (by the Baptist [?]) in vv. 31-36. I have outlined the common elements in an earlier (Saturday Series) discussion. For the purposes of this particular series of notes, the following parallels are of special importance:

    • V. 34: Jesus, as the one sent by God, speaks the words of God—this word/speaking is connected with the giving of the Spirit
      —In vv. 5-8ff, being born “out of the Spirit” is related to trust in the testimony of Jesus, as the one sent by God (vv. 11-12ff, 16ff)
    • V. 36: Trust in the Son (Jesus) results in the believer possessing Life; by contrast, the one failing to trust (lit. being unpersuaded) will not see Life, but will endure the Judgment (“the anger of God remains on him”)
      —Vv. 15-16 is a precise parallel to v. 36a; while vv. 18ff more properly relates to v. 36 as a whole.

In particular, verses 35 and 36a, taken together, result in a formulation close to that of v. 16 (common words/expressions in italics):

    • “The Father loves the Son and has given all [pa=$]… the one trusting in the Son holds Life of the Age…” (vv. 35-36a)
    • “God loved…he gave his only Son, so that every [pa=$] one trusting in him…should hold Life of the Age” (v. 16)

It is interesting to consider the different ways that the verb give (di/dwmi) is used in these two discourses of chapter 3:

    • God (the Father) has given all things/people [spec. the Elect/Believers] to the Son (v. 35, cf. also v. 27)
    • God gave his Son to the world [i.e. humankind, spec. the Elect/Believers] (v. 16)
    • The Son (Jesus) gives the Spirit [to Believers] (v. 34)

The idea of Jesus giving the Spirit to believers will take on greater prominence later in the Gospel, in the Last Discourse (and following). I discussed the interesting expression “not out of measure” (ou) e)k me/trou)—i.e., “for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit”—in the previously mentioned discussion on v. 34.

“…Spirit and Life”: John 3:7-8

John 3:7-8

Today’s note continues with the second half of Jesus’ exposition in Jn 3:5-8, part of the discourse covering verses 1-21. The first half (vv. 5-6) was discussed in the previous daily note. Both portions are meant to explain the central saying of Jesus in verse 3. If we consider each verse, or statement, of the exposition in its place, we see the following outline:

    • Verse 5—Re-statement of the central saying, explaining “from above” (a&nwqen) as “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit” (e)k pneu/mato$)
    • Verse 6—Contrast between being born “out of the flesh” (ordinary human birth) with being born “out of the Spirit” (birth from above)
    • Verse 7—Identification of “(born) out of the Spirit” back again with “(born) from above”
    • Verse 8—Illustration from the natural world, helping to explain “born out of the Spirit”

There is a certain parallelism between the two portions of this exposition:

    • Identification “from above” = “out of the Spirit” (v. 5)
      • Contrast between ordinary human birth and spiritual birth (v. 6)
    • Identification “out of the Spirit” = “from above” (v. 7)
      • Example illustrating how spiritual birth differs from ordinary birth, etc (v. 8)

The entire tone of vv. 7-8 is parabolic, beginning with the statement in verse 7:

“Do not wonder that I said to you (that) it is necessary (for) you to come to be (born) from above”

This sets the stage for the illustration in verse 8. As in the many parables of Jesus recorded in the Synoptic Tradition, simple illustrations from the natural world and daily life are used to convey deeper spiritual truth. Jesus himself makes this especially clear in Mark 4:11 par (addressed to his close followers): “To you has been given the secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, these (thing)s come to be (for them) in parables [lit. (saying)s cast alongside]”. A similar sort of example, taken from observation of the natural world, is given to Nicodemus:

“The blowing [i.e. of the wind] blows where it wishes and you hear its voice, but (yet) you have not seen where it comes (from) and where it leads (itself back) under—so (it) is (for) every one having come to be born out of the blowing (of God)”

This illustration involves a bit of wordplay in the Greek which is virtually impossible to capture in English translation. I have tried to preserve it here by translating pneu=ma in its fundamental sense of “(something) blowing” (i.e. wind, breath). In the first half of the saying, pneu=ma refers essentially to the wind, and the verb pne/w to the blowing of the wind. As mentioned previously, in ancient thought, the wind was often described as the breath of God, so the wind naturally serves as a correlative image for describing the Spirit of God. The main point of the illustration, often obscured in translation, is between hearing and seeing:

    • “you hear [a)kou/ei$] the voice [i.e. sound]” of the wind, but
    • “you have not seen [ou)k oi@da$] where it comes from”, etc

This contrast is precisely parallel to the ancient theophany experienced by Israel, whereby the people did not see God (YHWH) himself, but only heard his Voice (cf. Deut 4:12, 33ff). The expressions po/qen e&rxetai (“where it comes [from]”) and pou= u(pa/gei (“where it leads [itself] under [i.e. goes back]”) both refer to the source of the wind—i.e. coming and going back. In terms of the Spirit, obviously the source is God (the Father = YHWH). The upshot of the illustration is made explicit in the conclusion of the verse—”so it is (for) every one coming to be (born) out of the Spirit”. The emphasis is not so much on the mysterious (invisible) manner of the birth, but on the source of it—from God (i.e. “from above”). This same emphasis was made already in the Prologue, when the Gospel writer refers to the (spiritual) birth of believers:

“…to them he gave the authority to come to be (the) offspring [i.e. children] of God, to the ones trusting in his name, th(e one)s who, 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)” (1:12-13)

Even though God the Father is the source of the Spirit, it comes to believers through the Son (Jesus)—he is the subject of vv. 12-13. The same idea, drawing upon the ancient Sinai theophany, is expressed at the conclusion of the Prologue (v. 18):

“No one has seen God, at any time, (but) the only (born) Son, the (one) being [i.e. who is] in the lap of the Father—that (one) has led Him out (to us)”

The Son’s revelation of the Father is closely tied to the giving/coming of the Spirit to believers—a connection which begins to become clear in the Last Discourse (chapters 14-17).

There is perhaps a special significance to the idea of hearing the voice of the wind (i.e. the Spirit of God). In Exodus 20:19, we have the tradition that the people were unable to bear hearing the voice of God (sounding like terrifying thunder). This, too, is referenced several times in the Johannine discourses, most notably in 5:37:

“And the Father (hav)ing sent me—that (One) has given witness about me; and his voice you have not heard at any time, and you have not seen his visible (form)…”

This lack of hearing/seeing God the Father, while drawing upon the Old Testament tradition, in the context of the discourse actually refers to the disbelief of the people—their failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Jesus:

“…and his Word you do not hold remaining in you, (in) that [i.e. because] the (one) whom that (One) [i.e. God the Father] se(n)t forth—in that (one) you do not trust!” (v. 38)

These same motifs of hearing and seeing run through the Gospel of John. We will encounter them again during the upcoming notes in this series.