Notes on Prayer: John 15:16; 16:23-26

John 15:16; 16:23-26

John 15:16

The second of the two declarations regarding prayer in 15:7-17 occurs at the close of the section, and is parallel to the declaration at the beginning of the section (v. 7):

“If you would remain in me, and my words remain in you, then request what ever you would wish (for), and it will come to be (so) for you.” (v. 7)
“…(that) you should bear fruit, and (that) your fruit should remain, (so) that what ever you would request (from) the Father in my name, He would give (it) to you.” (v. 16)

In the previous study, we saw how the “words” that remain in believers are to be understood in the context of two key themes central to the Last Discourse: (1) Love as the bond (and binding commandment) for believers, and (2) the presence of the Spirit. The first of these is emphasized especially in the exposition portion of this section (vv. 9-15), but the presence of the Spirit is very much in view as well. Much the same may be said regarding the “fruit” that remains (v. 16).

The motif of fruit (karpo/$), of course, follows upon the Vine illustration of verses 1-3ff. This imagery is also central to the use of the key verb me/nw, since the vine image effectively illustrates the theological significance of the verb. The principle involved is two-fold: (1) if the branches (believers) remain in the vine (Jesus), they will bear fruit; yet, at the same time, (2) if they do not bear fruit, then they will be ‘cut off’ and will no longer remain in the vine. This seems to create a paradox: on the one hand, bearing fruit depends on remaining in the vine, but, on the other hand, remaining in the vine depends on bearing fruit.

What does the fruit signify, and what does it mean for Jesus’ disciples to “bear fruit” (v. 8)? Here, we must keep in mind the two central themes of the Discourse: Love and the Spirit. Based on the immediate context of the exposition in vv. 9-12ff, we may fairly interpret “bearing fruit” as manifesting the divine Love. We do this by fulfilling the “love command” —that is, demonstrating true and abiding love towards fellow believers, in accordance with the teaching and example of Jesus (13:1, 12-15, 34-35, etc). It is especially the sacrificial aspect of this love that is emphasized in the Last Discourse, set as the Discourse is in the narrative context of Jesus’ impending death (cf. verse 13, and the saying in 12:24). One should be willing to offer one’s own life for another believer.

When we turn to the theme of the Spirit, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s famous reference to the “fruit of the Spirit” (o( karpo\$ tou= pneu/mato$) in Galatians 5:22ff. There is a strong ethical/moral aspect to this teaching, and, elsewhere in the Pauline letters, the idiom of “fruit” certainly relates to the idea of righteous or upright behavior and “good works” (cf. Rom 6:21-22; 7:4-5; Phil 1:11; Col 1:10; also Eph 5:9). For believers in Christ, this “fruit” is in direct contrast to the sinful passions at work in the “flesh” (Gal 5:16-21).

However valid this Pauline association between “fruit” and the Spirit may be, the Johannine emphasis is rather different. The focus is not ethical, but Christological. The Spirit represents the abiding presence of Jesus (the Son) in and among believers; and it is through him that we are also united with God the Father and experience His presence. Thus, from this standpoint, “bearing fruit” must be understood in terms of communicating the Spirit to others—that is, to other believers (i.e., those who will become believers).

For the first disciples, the Spirit was communicated through the personal presence of Jesus after his resurrection (20:22); however, with Jesus’ departure to the Father, this now occurs through the work of the Spirit in the ministry of his disciples (believers). This involves proclaiming and exemplifying the Gospel message regarding the person and work of Jesus, summarized, within the Johannine idiom, as fulfilling the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24). Love is the uniting bond, and the Spirit is the uniting presence—and both of these, manifest in the life and action of believers, are communicated to others. This basic understanding informs the entire Last Discourse, but is especially prominent in the later portions (cf. below), and in the great Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (esp. the closing verses 20-26).

The missionary aspect is emphasized by the wording here in verse 16, serving to introduce the principal declaration:

“…I gathered you out and set you (so) that you should go away and bear fruit…”

The verb rendered conventionally as “go away”, u(pa/gw, literally means “lead (oneself) under”, i.e. make oneself hidden, going out of sight. The primary significance in the more generalized usage is of leaving the immediate vicinity and going away. The implication is that there is a mission field, away from where we currently are, however near or far that may be, and that other chosen ones (those belonging to God) are to be found there, waiting to become believers (cf. 4:35-38).

John 16:23-26

The other references to prayer in the Last Discourse are found in the final division (16:4b-28). It may be worth summarizing again the basic structure of the entire Discourse-complex:

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

The third division is parallel to the first, and deals primarily with the theme of Jesus’ departure to the Father. This departure, and the related idea of the disciples seeing Jesus again, can be understood at the level of the historical tradition in two ways: (1) Jesus’ death and post-resurrection appearance, or (2) his ‘ascension’ to the Father and future return. However, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology, the paradigm is properly understood in terms of the giving of the Spirit. It is only after receiving the Spirit that the disciples truly see (that is, know and experience) Jesus—the presence and life-giving power of his person. Following his death and resurrection, Jesus ‘ascends’ (i.e., departs) back to his Father (20:17), and then returns to his disciples (vv. 19-23)—an appearance that culminates with Jesus giving them the Spirit.

Indeed, it is the promise of the Spirit (the one “called alongside,” para/klhto$) that is the focus of the first part of this Discourse-division (vv. 4b-15), and the references to Jesus’ departure and return (vv. 16-24) must be understood in this light. The context of the Spirit (cf. above) also informs the statements regarding prayer in vv. 23-26. As in the case of 15:7-17, the section is bracketed by two parallel statements:

“And, in that day, you will not ask anything (from) me. Amen, amen, I say to you, (that) whatever you would request (from) the Father in my name, He will give (it) to you.” (v. 23)
“In that day you will request in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask (it of) the Father about you” (v. 26)

Both of these statements refer to “that day” (“in that day,” e)n e)kei/nh| th=| h(me/ra|), an expression that relates to “the hour” (w%ra) that is to come (v. 25). This term w%ra (“hour”), in the theological context of the Johannine narrative, signifies the entire compass of Jesus’ Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Return to the Father. From this standpoint, “that day” is the moment when Jesus appears again to his disciples and gives the Spirit to them. This “day” motif was introduced in the first portion of the Gospel narrative (1:19-51), which is divided into four successive ‘days’ (note the repeated use of the expression “upon the morrow” [th=| e)pau/rion], i.e., ‘on the next day,’ in vv. 29, 35, 43). Each ‘day’ involves a chain of witness, attesting to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and Son of God. On the first ‘day’ (1:19-28), John the Baptist denies this identity for himself; on the second ‘day’ (1:29-34) he affirms it of Jesus (in the context of Jesus’ baptism); on the third ‘day’ (1:35-42) the Baptist’s witness leads to the first disciples following Jesus; and, finally, on the fourth ‘day’ (1:43-51) these disciples (the first believers) give this witness to others.

The nature of this witness changes with the coming of the Spirit. Now, believers can truly see Jesus (the Son of God), through his abiding presence in the Spirit. It also changes how believers relate to God the Father. Jesus explains this here in vv. 23-26, as he tells his disciples of the ramifications of what will happen on “that day”. The difference is two-fold, reflected in the statements of vv. 23 and 26:

    • V. 23: They will no longer need to ask questions of Jesus (vb e)rwta/w), regarding who he is, his relationship to the Father, etc. The reason for this is that Jesus will be present with them (and united with them) through the Spirit, and they will suddenly have a new (and far deeper) awareness of things.
    • V. 26: Jesus will no longer have to ask of the Father on their behalf, i.e., interceding for them in their (prayer) requests (vb ai)te/w), etc. Again, the reason for this is the presence of the Spirit. Being united with the Son (Jesus) means that believers are also united with the Father, and so are able to communicate with Him directly.

The last point is made clear by the explanation in verse 27: “for the Father Him(self) considers you dear [vb. file/w] (to Him)”. The use of the verb file/w (par. with a)gapa/w) is another way of referring to the bond of love (a)ga/ph) that unites believers with Father and Son. In this dynamic, the requests made by believers to the Father will be answered. This is stated as a promise, as in all of these prayer-statements that occur in the Last Discourse. The contrast between this and the current situation (before “that day” occurs) is explained in verse 25:

“until now you (have) not requested anything in my name—request (it)! and you will receive (it), (so) that your joy may be fulfilled”

They have not yet made their requests “in Jesus’ name” since they have not yet been united with him through the Spirit. Clearly, this is far more significant than simply including the phrase “in Jesus’ name” as part of one’s prayers (though early Christians certainly did adopt this practice); the emphasis in the Gospel of John is fundamentally theological and Christological: to be “in his name” means to be united with him through the Spirit, and through the bond of love. The early Christian baptism ritual alludes to this very dynamic, at the traditional level. Authors such as Paul gave to the ritual symbolism a deeper theological meaning, in reference to our union with Christ through the Spirit (Rom 6:3-4 [cp. 8:11ff]; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27; 4:6); and the Johannine Tradition certainly did the same.

As a way of bringing to close our study of prayer in the Last Discourse, it is necessary to address several key points. However, since this requires more than a cursory treatment, and space is needed to draw together all of the strands, this analysis will be saved for next week’s study.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 4)

Psalm 37, continued

Verses 30-40

This final section of Psalm 37 reiterates the different themes that have run throughout the Psalm (cf. Parts 1, 2, 3, on the earlier sections). As such, it effectively summarizes the proverbial message of the composition, with its strong emphasis on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates).

Verses 30-31

p “(The) mouth [yP!] of (the) just murmurs wisdom,
and his tongue speaks (right) judgment;
(the) Instruction of his Mighty (One is) in his heart,
his steps do not slip away (on the path).”

These two couplets neatly capture the character of the righteous (adj. qyd!x*, “just, right”), drawing upon traditional religious and proverbial language. The first couplet defines the righteous in terms of their speech: they speak wisdom (hm*k=j*) and justice (fP*v=m!, lit. “[right] judgment”). This essentially means that the righteous person both acts (i.e. behaves) in a wise and just manner, and exhorts others to do the same. Such a person is also preoccupied with wisdom and justice, a characteristic that is reflected by the use of the verb hg`h* (“murmur, mutter”). The verb denotes a low, rumbling sound (like an animal’s growl), and, in this context, refers to a person speaking (muttering) to himself/herself on a regular basis—note the famous parallel in Psalm 1:2, where it is the Instruction (Torah) of God that the focus of the righteous person’s attention.

And, indeed, the Torah is emphasized in the second couplet (v. 31), where the focus is on the overall conduct of the righteous, utilizing the familiar wisdom-motif of “walking” in a straight/right path—i.e., the path of God, represented by the precepts and regulations of the Torah. The righteous person is so preoccupied with the Torah—embodying as it does wisdom and justice (v. 30)—that it may be said to reside “in his heart.” As such, it guides his steps (sing. rv%a&) along the way—on the straight/right path that YHWH has laid out for him. On this path, his feet will not slip (vb du^m*), thanks to his faithfulness and the secure guidance of YHWH.

Verses 32-33

x “(The) wicked is looking out [hp#ox] for (the) just,
and is seeking to cause him death;
(but) YHWH will not leave him in his hand,
and will not treat him as (the) wicked in his judgment.”

The behavior of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, is described in the first couplet here. It is characterized by an interest in doing harm (violence) to the righteous; it is thus an extreme form of injustice that occupies his attention, compared with the justice that occupies the righteous person. The purpose of this planned violence is ultimately to kill the righteous (“cause death”, vb tWm in the Hiphil stem), a theme that we have encountered a number of times in the Psalms thus far. The verb hp^x* (“look out [over], watch”) indicates that the wicked is looking for an opportunity to cause death for the righteous, and the use of the participle form in each line emphasizes that this is regular behavior—i.e., something he is constantly doing.

The promise in the second couplet is that YHWH will not give the righteous over into the power of wickedness. Quite literally, this means that the wicked person will not be able to fulfill his desire to kill the righteous (line 1). The idiom used here is of being “in the hand” of another person, that is, subject to his power and control. The effective promise is that YHWH will not leave the righteous behind (vb bz~u*), helpless in the hands of the wicked.

If the idea of being saved from death in this life is emphasized in the first line, it is the final Judgment and the afterlife that is view in the second line. If YHWH will not give over the righteous to the power of a wicked person, neither will he treat them like the wicked in the time of the Judgment. The verb uv^r* is, of course, related to the adjective uv*r* (“wicked”), and in the Hiphil stem can have the specialized sense of “treat/regard (someone) as wicked”. It is best to retain this wordplay and translate the root uvr consistently, however the verb uv^r* could also be rendered according to the fundamental meaning “do/cause wrong” —i.e., YHWH will not do wrong to the righteous in the Judgment. The syntax “his judgment” refers to the judgment of the righteous person; it thus differs in point of reference with the parallel “his hand” (i.e., hand of the wicked person) in the first line.

Verse 34

q “Look [hW@q*] (patiently) to YHWH,
and guard His path (with care);
and He will raise you (up) to possess the land,
(and) in (the) cutting off of (the) wicked you will see (it).”

In contrast to the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates this Psalm, the first bicolon here is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The short lines contain a clear and direct exhortation for the righteous. Again, the juxtaposition with the wicked is implied; even as the wicked “looks out” for a chance to harm the righteous, so the righteous “looks” (vb hw`q*) to YHWH with hope and devotion, trusting that He will bring deliverance and will rectify things (with justice) in the time of Judgment. Indeed, it is the great Judgment that is in view here in the second couplet, contrasting the fate of the righteous and wicked, using the same combined idiom from vv. 22 and 28-29: viz., the righteous will possess the earth (or land), while the wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*).

In this regard, the wording of the last line is difficult. The basic idea seems to be that the judgment of the righteous and wicked is simultaneous, and occurs at the same moment: the righteous is “raised high” (vb <Wr), while the wicked is cut down; and, as the wicked falls, the righteous has a clear view of the land he will inherit. Some might interpret the last line to mean that the righteous will see the wicked person fall, but I feel that this is incorrect: he sees the land, not the wicked person who has fallen out of view. This “land” is a symbol for the blessed life with God (in Heaven).

Verses 35-36

r “I have seen [yT!ya!r*] (the) wicked (appear) awesome,
(spread)ing leaves like a (lush) green native (tree);
and (yet) he passed over, and see! he was no (more),
I searched (for) him and he was not found.”

The syntax of these lines, along with their mixed metaphors, is a bit awkward. Kraus (p. 403), based on the LXX reading, would emend the adjective Jyr!u* (“terrible, awesome, mighty”) to JyL!u*, meaning something like “raised high (in triumph)”. This would perhaps better fit the image of a majestic tree. The LXX also indicates a different reading for the second line of the first couplet, referring to the “cedars of Lebanon”, rather than the curious wording of the MT, which would have to be seriously emended to match the LXX. An underlying Hebrew text, corresponding to the LXX (cf. Kraus, p. 403), would yield the following translation for the first couplet:

“I have seen the wicked raised high (in triumph),
and lifted up like (the) cedars of (the) white-peaked (mountains) [i.e. Lebanon]”

In any case, the basic message of these couplets is clear enough, and is well-rooted in Wisdom tradition. The wicked may prosper, appearing mighty and majestic, during their lifetime, but with their death, all of that suddenly vanishes, and they “are no more”. This fate of disappearance also alludes to the Judgment, when the wicked will be “cut off” (or cut down, following the tree-motif), cf. above. The verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) almost certainly refers to crossing over into the realm of the dead (i.e., the death of the wicked).

Verses 37-38

? “Watch [rm*v=] (the) complete and see (the) straight,
for (what) follows for (that) man (is) fulfillment;
but (those) breaking (the bond) are destroyed as one,
(and what) follows for (the) wicked is (to be) cut off.”

The wording of these couplets seems somewhat forced and awkward; however, the Wisdom-theme comes through clearly, continuing the striking contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates). The initial verb (rm^v*) literally means “guard”, but can also be rendered “watch closely” (i.e., keep watch over); paired as it is here with ha*r* (“see”), the simple translation of “watch” is appropriate.

The adjectives <T* (“complete”) and rv*y` (“straight”) should be understood here as substantives which refer to the righteous—i.e., that which characterizes the righteous: their complete devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH, and their upright conduct (in both a moral and religious sense). One should look to such people as an example, but also, more particularly, as an indication of what the fate of the righteous will be. Their righteousness finds completion and fulfillment (<olv*) with YHWH; that is, fulfillment of what is promised by the covenant bond: blessing and security, both in this life, and in the life to come.

The wicked, by contrast, break the covenant bond, and this is the specific meaning of the verb uv^P*, used here as substantive (participle) to characterize the wicked, even as <T* and rv*y` characterize the righteous. The fate (lit., “[what] follows”) for the wicked is to be “cut off” (vb tr^K*), a motif that has been used several times already in this Psalm. This “cutting off” is a specific element of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. Originally, it referred to a ritual cutting up of an animal, as a way of symbolizing what will happen to the person who violates the terms of the binding agreement—that is, they will be “cut up” in a similar manner. Even when the use of such a concrete ritual had faded, the associated language remained: the covenant formula had built-in “curse” language implying that God would bring about the death of one who violated the covenant (i.e., they would be “cut off”). On the theme of the death of the wicked, cf. the discussion above.

Verses 39-40

t “(The) salvation [tu^WvT=] of (the) just (comes) from YHWH,
(their) place of strength in time of distress;
and YHWH will help them and will rescue them,
He rescues them from (the) wicked and saves them,
for they (have) sought protection in Him.”

In order to preserve the acrostic format, the initial prefixed conjunction (-W) in the MT should probably be omitted. The theme of these concluding couplets is salvation (hu*WvT=)—that is, the safety and security that YHWH provides for the righteous. This relates specifically to the covenant bond (cf. above) between YHWH and His people. Those who remain faithful to the bond are under YHWH’s continual protection, and He will rescue them from danger. In the context of the Psalm, this refers to the threat to the righteous from the wicked, who seek to bring about their death. God will rescue the righteous from this danger.

This imagery, of YHWH as a “place of strength” and protection, has been used repeatedly in the Psalms. In particular, the verb hs*j* is distinctive of the Psalms, and occurs frequently; already, in the Psalms we have studied thus far, it has occurred 14 times (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20; 31:2, 20; 34:9, 23; 36:8). The verb denotes a person seeking (and/or finding) protection; it also connotes the trust one places in that protection. As this usage makes clear, hs*j* is part of the covenantal language and imagery that is characteristic of many Psalms, and which runs through the composition.

The final couplet is expanded into a tricolon, adding a short, climactic third line, as is befitting of the conclusion to such a grand poem. The closing line, appropriately, emphasizes the trust that the righteous have in God. It is this, perhaps more than anything else, that distinguishes them from the wicked, and which serves as the basis for the fundamental contrast between the two groups.

References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).