March 29: John 3:34

John 3:34

“For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the utterances of God, for (it is) not out of a measure (that) he gives the Spirit.”

Verses 31-33 dealt with the theme of Jesus as the one ‘coming from heaven’, with the result that he is a witness of heavenly things. This corresponds to the theme of vv. 11-13 in the exposition of the Nicodemus Discourse. Now in vv. 34-35 we find an echo of vv. 16-17, with the identification of Jesus as the Son sent by God the Father. The same verb a)poste/llw, “set forth/away from,” i.e., “send forth”, is used in v. 17 and here in v. 34. It occurs with some frequency in the Gospel of John, often in relation to the specific idea that Jesus (the Son) was sent by God the Father, as His representative, to fulfill a specific mission. Only in a secondary sense, does a)poste/llw refer to the corresponding sending of the disciples by Jesus (see esp. 20:21).

Here, the mission for which the Father sent the Son involves speaking (vb lale/w), a continuation of the thought in vv. 31ff, and following the key word-witness theme that runs through the entire Gospel (and the Johannine writings as a whole). Jesus is a witness of God the Father in heaven (vv. 31c-33), testifying to what he sees and hears the Father saying and doing. In the previous note, I mentioned the other places in the Gospel where this seminal theological-Christological principle is expressed—they are, again, 1:18; 5:19-20ff, 30-31ff; 6:46; 7:16-18; 8:26, 38, 40ff, 47; 17:8ff. The first clause of v. 34 expresses this as well:

“the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the utterances [r(hmata] of God”

The noun r(h=ma, derived from the verb r(e/w, denotes something spoken, i.e. a spoken word or saying. It is a theological keyword in the Gospel of John, used along with lo/go$ (“word, account”), but always in the plural, and always in the specific context of things said by Jesus. The implication is that Jesus’ words, spoken by him to his disciples (and to other people), are not ordinary human words—they are Divine/heavenly in nature, and communicate the very word[s] of God.

Nor, in this regard, can the “words” spoken by Jesus be delimited by the actual (human) discourse—that is, the literal words as spoken and transmitted. Rather, they communicate the reality of God Himself. This helps to explain the sudden reference to the Spirit that follows in v. 34b, by which speaking the “words of God” is set parallel with giving the Spirit:

“for (it is) not out of a measure (that) he gives the Spirit”

The same words-Spirit association is found in the famous saying in 6:63, which we will examine in an upcoming note.

There are two key interpretive questions regarding the clause in v. 34b. First, who is that gives the Spirit in this specific context—Jesus or God the Father? Second, what is the meaning and significance of the expression “not out of a measure”? Let us deal with the second question first.

The noun me/tron (“measure”) is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 14 times. Elsewhere in the Synoptic Gospels, it is used in several sayings/teachings of Jesus, in a religious-ethical context, referring to the just reward (or punishment) that people will receive (from God) based on their conduct (Mk 4:24; Matt 7:2; 23:32; Lk 6:38 [2]). The prepositional expressions e)n me/trw| (“with/by a measure”) or ei)$ me/tron (“unto a [certain] measure”) would seem to be more common. However, here in v. 34, e)k me/trou (“out of a measure”) is used, governed by the negative particle ou). Literally, the expression is “not out of a measure” (ou) e)k me/trou), which is quite awkward in English (and is also peculiar Greek); most translations render this “without measure”, suggesting something that has no limit.

In terms of the idea of giving the Spirit “without measure,” it is worth pointing out an interesting Rabbinic parallel, a statement attributed to Rabbi Aµa in the Great Midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on Lev 15:2: “The Holy Spirit rested on the prophets by measure” (Brown, p. 158 [his translation]). The point may be that the situation with Jesus is categorically different from that of the Prophets: they received the Spirit only partially, by a certain measure, while Jesus receives it fully and completely, without measure.

This also suggests an answer to the first question, confirmed by the context of vv. 34-35. The clause in v. 34b is best understood as providing an explanation for the statement in v. 34a—explaining how it is that Jesus, having been sent to earth from the Father (in heaven), is able to speak the “words of God”. The answer: it is because he is given the Spirit without measure. That God the Father is the subject of the clause ought to be indicated in the translation (using “He” instead of “he”):

“…for (it is) not out of a measure (that) He gives the Spirit”

Though not stated here, the Johannine Christological outlook would imply that this receiving of the Spirit is a fundamental and intrinsic feature of the Divine Sonship of Jesus. This will be considered further in the next daily note, as our discussion is extended to include verse 35.

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