John 1:18, continued
Having looked at verse 18 in the context of the Prologue hymn, and examining the difficult text-critical question in some detail (cf. the previous note), it now remains to provide an exegetical study of the verse as a whole.
There are two parts to the verse: (1) an initial statement, reflecting traditional Israel/Jewish religious belief (18a), and (2) a related clause in response (18b), which itself is comprised of two components—(a) Johannine Christological formulation, and (b) a Gospel-proclamation that applies the formulation to believers.
The two parts may be said to represent the Old and New Covenant, respectively, continuing the contrastive parallel from verse 17—i.e., Moses vs. Jesus, Law vs. Favor (cf. the discussion in the previous note).
qeo\n ou)dei=$ e(w/raken pw/pote
“no one has yet seen God”
This represents a theological formulation of the Old Covenant, embodied by the Sinai theophany, the role of Moses as the mediator of God’s Presence, the sacrificial ratification of the Covenant, and the giving of the Torah (through Moses) to the people. The statement summarizes several different strands of ancient Israelite and Old Testament tradition. The main line of tradition centers on the Sinai theophany (Exodus 19-20), which was the setting for the ratification of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel (chap. 24), along with the Torah regulations (i.e., the Ten Commandments, and other Instruction) which serve as the terms of the covenant. The glorious presence of YHWH was concealed within the dark cloud, but the people heard His voice (like thunder) speaking from the cloud (Exod 19:9-19). The tradition that God was only heard, but not seen, is emphasized in the book of Deuteronomy (4:12, 15; 5:23-27).
Another line of tradition involves YHWH’s revelation to Moses, in connection with the Golden Calf incident that resulted in the termination of the covenant, and a break in the relationship between YHWH and the people. This is covered through a complex narrative (Exodus 32-34) which itself weaves together a number of different historical traditions. Through the intervention of Moses, a partial restoration of the covenant is achieved, and Israel is once again acknowledged as God’s people, but only in a qualified sense—through Moses as their intermediary. At the heart of this narrative is YHWH’s revelation to Moses (33:17-34:8), during which time a second version of the Torah is declared to him.
The special character of this revelation is indicated by the statement in 33:20, where YHWH emphasizes that no human being can see Him and still live. As a special and unique favor granted to Moses, marking his central role in the restored covenant, he is allowed a partial vision of God. The idea that it was not possible for human beings to see God (with their eyes) continued to have a place in Israelite tradition, and is reiterated in one of the key manifestations of YHWH to His prophets (Isa 6:1-6, cf. verse 5).
The Gospel of John alludes to the Sinai theophany at several points, as well as this specific tradition that it is impossible for a human being to see God. In addition to the reference here in the Prologue, cf. 5:37-38ff; 12:28-29ff. Jesus takes the tradition a step further in 5:37, when he states that, not only have the people never seen God directly, they have never really heard His voice either (cp. Deut 5:23ff). What they heard with their ears was essentially unintelligible, sounding to them like thunder (12:28-29; Exod 19:16ff; 20:18).
The Gospel gives special meaning to these traditional motifs of seeing and hearing God, but especially seeing, playing on the fundamental meaning (and interchangeability) of the verbs ginw/skw (“know”) and ei&dw (“see”). In addition, there is frequent use of a series of similar verbs denoting sight/vision: ble/pw, o(ra/w, qea/omai, qewre/w. Here in verse 18, the verb o(ra/w is used; this verb occurs 20 times in the Gospel and 7 times in the letters—nearly half of all New Testament occurrences (55).
This special theological sense of seeing leads to three key points, or principles, in the Johannine Gospel, all of which are closely related:
- Jesus is the only one who has truly seen and heard God
- It is only in the person of Jesus that one is able to see and hear God directly, and
- When one truly sees (and hears) Jesus, that person has seen (and heard) God
These points will be addressed in the next daily note as we examine the second part of the verse (18b).