March 27: John 3:31

John 3:31-36

This set of notes is supplemental to the current article (on John 3:3-8ff) in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament. The focus is principally on the Spirit-statement in verse 34; this is a key reference to the Spirit in the Gospel, but also one of the most difficult. It must be understood, of course, in the immediate context of vv. 31-36, but also in relation to the Discourse of chapter 3 as a whole, as well as within the wider framework of chapters 1-3 as unit/division in the Gospel.

Nearly every commentator has noted the close similarity, in thought and expression, between vv. 31-36 and the Nicodemus Discourse in vv. 1-21. Indeed, vv. 31-36 appear very much to be part of the same Discourse, and yet the intervening Baptist episode (vv. 22-30) seems to create a problem in this regard. No change of speaker is indicated at v. 31, so, at least on the surface, John the Baptist would still seem to be speaking (from v. 30). This is unlikely, though it is possible that the author may intend to depict the Baptist as echoing Jesus’ earlier words, confirming, on the earthly plane, the heavenly witness of Jesus (cf. below).

I believe that vv. 31-36 can be better understood by a formal comparison with 12:44-50, a passage which, by all accounts, marks the end of a major division of the Gospel. In those verses, Jesus is abruptly presented as speaking, with no sense of any specific context. The mini-discourse in 12:44-50 serves to summarize and recapitulate many key themes and ideas from the prior chapters. Essentially the same thing is going on in 3:31-36, even though Jesus is not specifically identified as the speaker. Cf. Brown, p. 160.

Verses 31-36 summarize, not only the exposition in vv. 11-21, but also the broader thematic framework of chapters 1-3. This also explains the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30, as it serves to continue—and bring to a climax—the Jesus/John comparison (and contrast) that runs throughout chapters 1-3. This contrast begins in the Prologue (1:6-8, 15), and continues in the narrative episodes of chapter 1 (vv. 19-28, 29-34, 35ff). It is alluded to again through the water-Spirit juxtaposition in 3:5-8, before concluding with the episode in vv. 22-30. Three principal Johannine themes are involved:

    • The contrast between John and Jesus, emphasizing the superiority (and Messianic identity) of Jesus
    • John the Baptist as a witness (ma/rtu$/marturi/a) to Jesus’ identity—a witness that is dependent upon the presence of the Spirit (1:32-34) to declare the truth
    • Jesus’ giving of the Spirit—i.e., baptizing “in the Spirit” (1:33), contrasted with John’s water-baptism (1:26)—is explained in terms of believers being “born” of the Spirit (as children of God, cf. 1:12-13)

When we turn to 3:31-36 as a specific summary of the Discourse-exposition in vv. 11-21, the similarities in thought and language are rather obvious (cf. Brown, p. 159f, for a convenient outline). More to the point, however, is that the two sections share the same thematic sequence:

    • A heavenly/earthly contrast, with Jesus identified as the heavenly Son (from above)—v. 31f / 12-13
    • Jesus as the Son sent by the Father—v. 34f / 16-17
    • Trust in the Son leads to eternal life, with judgment for those who do not trust—v. 36 / 18-19ff
Verse 31ab

aThe (one) coming from above is up above all; b(but) the (one) being out of the earth is (indeed) out of the earth, and speaks out of the earth.”

There is a textual difficulty that relates to establishing the syntax (and thus the precise interpretation) of vv. 31-32. The portion translated above (designated v. 31a-b) is followed by:

cThe (one) coming out of heaven [is up above all]”

The manuscript evidence is rather evenly divided as to the presence/absence of the bracketed words—

    • presence: Ë75 a* D f1 565 pc it syrc sah
    • absence: Ë36vid,66 a2 A B L f13 33 lat syrs,p,h boh ª etc

and good arguments can be made on both sides. However one judges the matter, I do not believe that it affects substantially the structure of the passage. Verse 31c is meant as a synonymous parallel to 31a, with v. 31b essentially corresponding to v. 32f (as an antithetic/contrastive parallel).

The basic contrast, developing the theme from vv. 12-13, is as follows:

    • “The (one) coming from above
      • is above all”
    • “The (one) being out of the earth
      • is out of the earth”

Two different people are described here: one coming “from above” (i.e. heavenly), and the other being “of the earth”. It is possible that this is meant to be a specific contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist, continue the line of contrast throughout chaps. 1-3 (cf. above). However, more likely it is meant to emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus—juxtaposing him, as the only one coming from heaven (and the only Son, cf. 1:14, 18) with everyone else.

The use of a&nwqen here confirms that the proper and principal meaning of the adverb in v. 5 is “from above” (rather than “again”). The adjective “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$, v. 12) is certainly implied, with the contrast being “out of the earth” (i.e., below). There is also a different in the verb (participle) used in each case:

    • “the one coming [e)rxo/meno$] from above”
    • “the one being [w&n] out of the earth”

Jesus comes to earth from above, having a heavenly origin, while all other people are earthly beings. There is a similar contrast in the predication for each of these persons:

    • one “is up above all”
    • the other “is out of the earth”

This confirms Jesus’ Divine/heavenly nature (as the pre-existent Son of God), while affirming that all other earthly beings are simply that: earthly beings (“out of the earth”). The preposition e)pa/nw (“up above”), a compound form of simple a&nw (“above”), is related to the adverb a&nqen (“from above”), and has essentially the same meaning. This is part of the fundamental Johannine dualism, expressed in spatial terms. Being “above” (a&nw) is explicitly contrasted with “below” (ka/tw), with a harsher negative/pejorative connotation, in 8:23.

Earthly beings also “speak out of the earth” —that is, out of their earthly nature. It is not possible for them to speak in a heavenly manner, unless they first come to be “born from above” (vv. 5ff); this means, of course, being “born of the Spirit.” Once they are born of the Spirit, then they, like Jesus, are “from above”; and, while he remains the unique Son, they also come to be children of God (1:12-13). This is a fundamental Johannine theme, and we will examine how it is developed in the Johannine writings as we proceed through these studies.

In the next daily note, we will examine the parallel contrast in vv. 31c-32.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Jn 3:3-8ff

John 3:3-8ff

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John (cf. the Introduction), with its important Spirit-theme, is divided as follows:

    • Nicodemus Discourse (vv. 1-21)
    • Historical tradition: Jesus and John the Baptist (vv. 22-30)
    • Exposition (vv. 31-36)

The summary exposition in vv. 31-36 follows the exposition (in the main discourse) by Jesus in vv. 11-21, reiterating many of the same themes and ideas. Those verses are best viewed in relation to the main exposition in the Discourse, echoing and summarizing Jesus’ words. The Discourse proper (vv. 1-21) follows the basic pattern of the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the dialogue/discourse format being—

    • Saying of Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
    • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

I would outline the Discourse as follows:

    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Saying by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Reaction/Question by Nicodemus (v. 4)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second Question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21), in two parts:
      • The heavenly nature of the Son (vv. 11-15)
      • Eternal life through the Son (vv. 16-21)

The initial saying by Jesus (v. 3) has a spiritualistic tone to it:

“…if one should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

This suggests that the kingdom of God is invisible, and can only be ‘seen’ in a spiritual way, which Jesus here describes in terms of a heavenly birth (“from above”, a&nwqen). The realm of God is “above” (a&nw), while that of the world is “below” (ka/tw); this is a representation, in spatial-relational terms, of the stark dualism that runs throughout the Gospel (cf. 8:23). The misunderstanding of Nicodemus (v. 4) is based on the dual-meaning of a&nwqen, which can mean either “from above”, or in the temporal sense of “again”; Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words in the latter sense. But this point of misunderstanding simply sets the stage for the explanation by Jesus in vv. 5-8:

“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

The statement in v. 5 is formally identical with the saying in v. 3, and it is not immediately obvious how it explains the initial saying. However, the closeness in form actual allows us to discern the points of exposition, which are two:

    • being born “from above” (and born “again”) means born “out of water and the Spirit”
    • to “see” the kingdom of God is essentially the same as “coming into” it

On the first point, the question is whether “water and the Spirit” is complementary or indicates a contrast. Many commentators have assumed the former, but the latter is almost certainly correct (cf. my earlier note on vv. 5-8). What follows in verse 6 confirms (rather clearly, I think) that Jesus is contrasting water and the Spirit:

“The (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) Spirit is spirit.”

Water has the same contrastive position as “(the) flesh” in v. 6. Thus, to be born “out of water” refers to a natural human birth (i.e., from the flesh); physiologically, it would relate to the child coming out from the water in the mother’s womb (v. 4). Such a water-Spirit contrast had already been established earlier in the Gospel, alluding to the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), split apart in the Johannine presentation (1:26, 33). This is central to the Jesus-John contrast that runs throughout chapters 1-3, and finds its climax in vv. 22-30ff here.

In verse 7, Jesus makes clear that to be “born of the Spirit” indeed means the same as “born from above” (or “born again”):

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

He further expounds what such a spiritual birth means, with an illustration, in v. 8:

“The pneu=ma blows [pnei=] where it wishes, and you hear the voice [i.e. sound] of it, but you have not seen from where it comes, and to where it leads under [i.e. goes away]—so is every(one) having come to be (born) out of the Pneu=ma.

The noun pneu=ma literally denotes something blowing (or breathing), and can thus variously be translated “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. Jesus is making use (in Greek) of a bit of wordplay, by comparing the Spirit (pneu=ma) with the wind (pneu=ma) that blows (vb pne/w). The point of the illustration is that the Spirit is invisible and can not be seen, though one can hear its “voice”. This is an important, but somewhat overlooked, principle of Johannine spiritualism.  

The follow-up question by Nicodemus in verse 9 is general in expression: “How is it possible (for) these (thing)s to come to be?” There is perhaps another bit of wordplay here, as the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) is closely related to genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used by Jesus in vv. 3-8. In terms of the message and purpose of the Discourse, the question means: how does a person come to be born “from above” —that is, born of the Spirit?

As is often the case in the Johannine Discourses, Jesus never answers the question directly. From the literary standpoint, the question serves as the springboard for Jesus’ exposition of his prior saying/teaching.

Important Johannine themes are expressed through this exposition, beginning (vv. 10-12) with a contrast between the “earthly” (e)pi/geio$) and the “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$), a variation of the essential Johannine dualism, presented in spatial terms (i.e., below/above). In referring to “the (thing)s upon the earth” (ta\ e)pi/geia, i.e. earthly things), Jesus presumably has in mind the immediate illustration (from the natural world) in v. 8 (cf. above). However, the terminology also represents an entire way of thinking and speaking, embodied in the religious-cultural mindset of Nicodemus, including the manner in which he views Jesus (as a prophetic teacher, v. 2). At the same time, John the Baptist is also an example of a witness (to Jesus) who speaks on the earthly plane (v. 31, etc), but giving a more accurate testimony as to Jesus’ identity. If one cannot accept the basic testimony regarding who Jesus is (v. 11), it will not be possible to understand deeper spiritual truths.

In the remainder of the discourse, Jesus comes closer to answering Nicodemus’ question. The “earthly” witness indeed reflects (and points to) the “heavenly” reality, defined in Christological terms. Jesus identifies himself as the (pre-existent) Son who comes from God (the Father) in heaven. He is thus “heavenly” and represents the “heavenly things”. In verses 13-15, this is expressed, in more traditional terms, through the expression “Son of Man”, referring to a heavenly (Messianic) figure who comes to earth as an end-time redeemer/deliverer for God’s people. On this Messianic figure-type, derived principally from Daniel 7:13-14, cf. my earlier article (and note) in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verses 16-21, Jesus is identified more precisely as the “Son of God”, sent (from heaven) to earth by God the Father. The expression “Son of God”, while still having Messianic import (cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), also carries a deeper theological meaning, particularly in the context of the Johannine Christology.

The answer to Nicodemus’ question is that a person is “born of the Spirit” when one trusts (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus’ identity as the Son (of God) sent by the Father. This is the message in the second part of the exposition (vv. 16-21), while, in the first part (vv. 13-15), this same message is expressed in terms of ‘seeing’ (i.e. recognizing) the nature and identity of Jesus in his being “lifted up” (i.e., his death, resurrection, and exaltation).

It is not immediately clear that this relates back to the specific idea of being born of the Spirit. However, the Gospel writer returns to this theme, in vv. 31-36, following the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30. This literary arrangement has long puzzled commentators, but I believe that it is a product of the thematic framework that governs chapters 1-3 as a unit in the Gospel. In order to obtain a proper understanding, it is necessary to continue our discussion through a set of exegetical (daily) notes on vv. 31-36.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Introduction

The Johannine Writings

Having thoroughly examined the key Pauline passages, it is now time to turn our attention to the Johannine writings. The Johannine view of the nature and role of the Spirit is distinctive, representing a unique development of early Christian pneumatology. Moreover, spiritualistic tendencies would seem to be rather more prominent in the Johannine writings than elsewhere in the New Testament; and there is some evidence that spiritualism governed the Johannine churches in a way that goes beyond what we know of other 1st-century congregations (based on the New Testament writings). In speaking of the ‘Johannine’ churches, it has become common to use the expression “Johannine Community”. I will discuss the usefulness of this expression when we come to the passages in 1 John.

There are more references to the Spirit in the Gospel of John than any other Gospel. In many ways, the emphasis on the Spirit is just as prominent in Luke, anticipating as it does the central role of the Spirit in the Acts narratives. However, I find little evidence of spiritualism in Luke-Acts. By contrast, there are a number of passages in John that could be characterized as spiritualistic. These will be examined in some detail.

Interestingly, the references to the Spirit in the Gospel of John, for all their distinctiveness, are presented within the confines of a traditional Gospel framework, such as we find in the Synoptics. The Spirit is first mentioned in the context of Jesus’ baptism (1:32-34; cp. Mk 1:8-12), and the Gospel concludes with the idea of the glorified Jesus having access to the Spirit, and able to communicate it to his disciples (20:22f; cp. Lk 24:49; cf. also Matt 28:18; Mk [16:15-17ff]).

The sequence in the Johannine narrative, on the surface, seems straightforward: Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, possesses it throughout his earthly ministry, and then gives it to his disciples at the end. However, at least two features in the Gospel complicate this picture. The first is the prologue (1:1-18), with its emphasis on the Divine pre-existence of the Son; the second is the traditional theme of the glorified Jesus receiving the Spirit upon his exaltation to heaven (cf. 16:5-7ff; 20:17), and only then giving it to believers.

On the one hand, the pre-existence Christology that runs through the Gospel creates certain problems for the traditional framework; for, surely, the pre-existent Son would have had access to God’s Spirit before it descended upon him at the baptism. Yet this theological point is scarcely addressed in the Gospel, except, perhaps, in an allusive and roundabout way. As far as the traditional exaltation Christology is concerned, if fits uneasily within the Johannine narrative. Apparently, Jesus ascends to the Father prior to his final departure (the traditional Ascension), so that he is able to give the Spirit to his disciples. In the book of Acts, by contrast, the Spirit is sent to the disciples only after Jesus’ final departure, when he is at God’s right hand in heaven (cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8ff; 2:1-4ff; 7:55-56).

John 1:32-34

Originally, in the early Gospel tradition, the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, marking the beginning of his public ministry, was a sign of his prophetic empowerment. It is after the coming of the Spirit that Jesus endures Satanic temptation, and begins to preach and work miracles throughout Galilee (Mk 1:12-15, 21-28 par). Luke especially emphasizes the role of the Spirit in this regard (4:1, 14ff). A second theme that developed, at a very early point in the tradition, is the presence of the Spirit as a sign of Jesus’ special identity as a Messianic prophet. The anointed servant of Isa 42:1ff and the herald of Isa 61:1ff are the principal Messianic figures in this regard; the former passage, in particular, seems to have influenced the baptism narrative (cf. my recent study on Isa 42:1ff). Again, Luke gives special emphasis to this aspect, focusing on the association between the baptism and Isa 61:1ff (4:17-19ff).

The empowerment theme is almost entirely absent from the Gospel of John; there is virtually no connection, for example, between the Spirit and the miracles of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. With regard to Jesus’ Messianic identity, the Johannine Gospel does preserve a number of early traditional elements, clustered around the baptism-scene and the figure of John the Baptist. In particular, the Johannine line of tradition emphasizes two key aspects:  (1) the superiority of Jesus over John the Baptist, and (2) the Baptist (and the baptism-scene) as a Christological witness. Let us consider how these themes relate to the Spirit-reference in 1:32-34.

First, the references to the Baptist in the prologue (1:6-8, 15) combine both of these themes—i.e., John the Baptist as a witness (marturi/a), and the superiority of Jesus. Then, in the opening scene of the narrative (1:19-28), the John-Jesus relationship centers around Messianic identity. The Baptist denies any such identity for himself, reserving all Messianic roles for Jesus. If, as is likely, the author was aware of the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8), he splits it apart, first alluding to it by having the Baptist say “I dunk you in water…” —the implicit (but unstated) contrast being that Jesus will ‘baptize’ people in the Spirit. The second part of the saying is held back until verse 33 (cf. below). There is a strong water-Spirit association that runs throughout the Johannine writings, a point that will be discussed repeatedly in these studies.

Finally, the Baptism of Jesus is narrated in vv. 29-34, but only in an indirect way, as a description given by the Baptist (i.e., the Baptist as a witness to who Jesus is). This important theme of witness is presented several different ways:

    • The Baptist’s announcement of Jesus’ presence, declaring him to be “the Lamb of God” (v. 29, repeated in v. 35)
    • The declaration of Jesus’ identity (“this one” [ou!to$]) as the Messiah, using the designation “the one coming” —a traditional Baptist-saying (Mk 1:7 par) given a uniquely Johannine theological formulation, alluding to Jesus’ Divine pre-existence (v. 30, par v. 15)
    • The Baptist states that his baptism ministry was for the this moment of Jesus’ revelatory appearance, for the purpose of making Jesus “shine forth” to Israel (v. 31)
    • The words that follow in vv. 32-34 are specifically said to be the Baptist’s witness (vb marture/w) to Jesus (“And Yohanan gave witness, saying…”)

The actual description of the Spirit’s descent (in vv. 32-33) follows the early Gospel tradition. The verb katabai/nw (“step down”), though it has special theological significance in the Gospel of John, is also used in the Synoptic version, and was doubtless part of the early tradition. The verb me/nw (“remain”), however, does not occur in the Synoptic version, and is almost certainly a Johannine addition:

    • (John speaking) “…I looked at the Spirit stepping [i.e. coming] down, as a dove, out of heaven, and it remained [e&meinen] upon him” (v. 32)
    • (John’s prophetic report of God the Father speaking) “the (one) upon whom you would see the Spirit stepping down and remaining [me/non] upon him, this (one) is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit.” (v. 33)

The verb me/nw is relatively rare in the Synoptics, occurring 12 times in the three Gospels combined; by contrast, it occurs 40 times in the Gospel of John, and almost always with special theological (and Christological) significance. It is used another 27 times in the Letters of John (24 in 1 John, 3 in 2 John), so it is very much a Johannine term.

In the closing verse 34, the Baptist’s witness essentially takes the shape of a Johannine Christological formula:

“And I (myself) have seen, and have witnessed, that this (one) is the Son of God.”
[On the textual issue in this verse, cf. my earlier note.]

Though the Baptist is an important witness in the Gospel (5:33-36ff), even his witness is dependent upon the presence of the Spirit. He is only able to make the declaration of who Jesus is because he sees the presence of the Spirit remaining on Jesus. From the standpoint of Johannine writings (and the Johannine churches), the Spirit is the ultimate witness for believers.

John 3

The next Spirit-references in the Gospel John occur in chapter 3. The chapter as a whole represents the first great Johannine Discourse of Jesus. Some would limit the discourse to vv. 1-21 (or even 1-16); however, it is best to view vv. 22-36 in relation to the Nicodemus discourse in vv. 1-16ff. This will be discussed further in a special set of notes on vv. 31-36. However, I believe that the historical tradition(s) in vv. 22-30 were included at this point as a way of further expounding the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus—emphasizing the traditional contrast, given deeper meaning in the Johannine Gospel, between John’s water baptism and baptism in the Spirit. Jesus’ words in verse 5 bring out this important contrast:

“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

And, as if to drive the point home, he says:

“the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the Spirit is spirit.” (v. 6)

The water/Spirit contrast in v. 5 is thus essentially the same as the flesh/Spirit contrast in v. 6, and is a central principle of Johannine spiritualism. Because of the importance of this seminal passage for a proper understanding of our subject, it is necessary to devote a separate article to a study of the John 3 Discourse.