Saturday Series: John 8:21-30

John 8:21-40ff

In our previous studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine writings, we saw how the initial references to sin in the Gospel (in 1:29 and 5:14 [discussed along with 9:2-3])—using the verb hamartánœ and/or the noun hamartîa—refer to sin either in the general or the conventional ethical-religious sense. That is to say, the references are to wrongs that people do, either against others or against God, including moral failings, inappropriate behavior, and so forth. The terms can apply to humankind collectively (1:29), or to specific individuals (5:14; 9:2-3; cf. also 8:7, 11).

However, at several points in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, a somewhat different understanding of sin begins to emerge. The first sin-references of this sort are found in the great Sukkot Discourse that covers chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). It is so-named because of its setting in Jerusalem during the Sukkot festival (7:2), the Hebrew term s¥kkô¾ (toKs%) being translated loosely as “booths”, i.e., festival of Booths (older translations often used the rather inappropriate rendering “Tabernacles”).

The Sukkot Discourse is better described as a Discourse-complex, containing a number of different Discourse-units, each of which generally follows the literary pattern of the Johannine Discourses. These Discourse-units are interrelated and interlocking, with common themes and motifs, built up into a single dramatic narrative; however, each unit also has its own structure, dramatic arc, and thematic emphasis. Each unit is punctuated by a narrative statement or interlude. I will be discussing the Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 in detail as part of an upcoming set of articles dealing with the Sukkot/Booths festival.

The sin references come from the final two Discourse units 8:21-30 and 31-59. Let us consider the first of these passages.

John 8:21-30

The Gospel Discourses tend to begin with a statement or saying by Jesus, the true meaning of which is misunderstood by his listeners. For the Discourse-unit of 8:21-30, this occurs in verse 21:

“I (am about to) lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], and you will seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; for (the) place to which I lead (myself) under, you are not able to come (there).”

The verb hypágœ basically means “go off, go away”, but recognition of the more fundamental meaning, “lead (oneself) under”, is important for preserving the idea that Jesus is about to disappear from view, and will no longer be seen by the people. Ultimately, this reference is to his exaltation—that is, to his death, resurrection, and departure back to the Father (in heaven)—but his audience cannot possibly understand this. This typical Discourse-feature of misunderstanding is expressed here by the response of Jesus’ audience (designated “the Judeans/Jews”) in verse 22. Again, following the typical Discourse-pattern, the question (reflecting a basic misunderstanding) prompts a further explanatory statement by Jesus:

“You are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above; you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die off in your sins; for, if you should not trust that I am, (then) you shall die off in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

Within the literary framework of the Discourses, it is in these expository statements by Jesus that the distinctive Johannine theology (and Christology) is expressed. That is to say, the true (and deeper) meaning of Jesus’ words, which his audience does not (or cannot) understand, is of a theological and Christological nature—focusing on the truth of who Jesus is.

This Christology, already expressed throughout the earlier Discourses (and in the opening chapters 1-2), affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. Here, the same fundamental message is framed by way of two distinctive idioms that are basic to the Johannine theology:

    • The contrast between what is above (i.e., God in heaven) and what is below (i.e., in the world), using the contrastive pair of adverbs kátœ (“below”) and ánœ (“above”).
    • The specific use of the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) to designate the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently contrasts himself (and his disciples/believers) with the world.

In additional to these two theological components, vv. 23-24 also feature two important bits of syntax that are similarly used to express the Johannine theology and Christology:

    • The use of the preposition ek (“out of”), which carries two principal (and related) meanings: (a) origin (i.e., coming from somewhere or someone), and (b) the characteristic of belonging to someone (or something). The Johannine theology alternates between these meanings, sometimes playing on both in the same reference. A specific nuance of (a) utilizes ek in the context of birth—often using the verb of becoming (gennáœ), i.e., coming to be born out of someone.
    • The essential predication, utilizing the verb of being (eimi); as spoken by Jesus, in the first person, these are the famous “I am” (egœ eimi) declarations that run throughout the Gospel. This essential predication is theological—that is, it applies to God, implying a Divine subject. The very use of the expression egœ eimi (“I am”) by Jesus thus implies his identity as the Son of God.

All four of these theological elements occur in verse 23:

    • Above/below contrast: “you are of the (thing)s below [kátœ], (but) I am of the (thing)s above [ánœ]”
    • Contrastive use of kósmos: “you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world”
    • Use of the preposition ek: “you are of [ek] the (thing)s below…you are of [ek] this world…”
    • Essential predication (“I am”): “…I am of the (thing)s above…I am not of this world…. if you should not trust that I am, then…”

Thus, what his audience cannot understand is that Jesus is speaking here of his identity as the Son sent from God the Father. Interestingly, when “the Jews” respond by asking him directly, “who are you?” (v. 25a), he seems to evade the question with an ambiguous answer (v. 25b). This, however, is simply a furthering of the Discourse-motif of people misunderstanding the meaning of Jesus’ words. Translations tend to obscure this aspect, and even many commentators do not seem to grasp exactly what the author (and Jesus as the speaker) is doing, through some subtle syntactical wordplay. Consider, for example, how the audience’s question matches the essential predication (see above) built into Jesus’ statement:

    • Statement: “I am [egœ¡ eimi]”
    • Question: “Who are you [sý … eí]”?

Jesus’ seemingly evasive response to this question is equally pregnant with theological meaning. On the surface, he tells them (with a hint of impatience), “What I have been saying to you from the beginning!” However, one must pay special attention to the syntax here; a literal rendering of the Greek, following the Greek word order, would be:

“(From) the beginning, which I have even been saying to you.”

Read in this literal way, Jesus’ hidden answer to the question “Who are you?” is “(from) the beginning” (t¢¡n arch¢¡n). From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this can only mean “the one who is from the beginning”, i.e., Jesus as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God. There are numerous references or allusions to this special theological use of the noun arch¢¡ in the Johannine writings—most notably, in the Gospel Prologue (Jn 1:1-2), and in 1 John 1:1; 2:13-14. Jesus’ further exposition in vv. 26-29 only confirms this theological emphasis, and his identity as the Son sent by the Father.

How does all of this relate to the Johannine understanding of sin? Consider again the principal saying in this Discourse-unit (in v. 21) and its exposition (in vv. 23-24):

    • “…you shall seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; (for) the place to which I go away, you cannot come (there)”
    • “you are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above…if you do not trust that I am, (then) you will die off in your sins”

The seeking of Jesus (and not finding him) by the people is explained as not trusting in his identity as the Son of God (designated by the essential predication “I am”). And the people cannot trust in him this way because they belong to “the things below” and to “this world”, while Jesus the Son belongs to the realm of God the Father above. Thus, they are lost in their sin and will “die off” in it.

Two key interpretive questions must be addressed, in order to gain a clearer sense of how the Gospel understands the idea of sin. First, we must ask: how does the Christological emphasis in vv. 21-30 relate to the earlier statement in 1:29? The Discourse-unit here clearly connects the idea of people dying in their sin with a failure to trust in Jesus (as the Son of God). It stands to reason that this dynamic was alluded to earlier in the “lamb of God” declaration in 1:29, and we must explore this connection further.

Second, there are two parallel forms of the sin-reference here in Jesus’ saying (8:21) and its exposition (vv. 23-24). In the first, the singular of the noun hamartía (“sin”) is used, while, in the second, the plural is used (“sins”). Is this a distinction without any real difference, or does the singular and plural carry a deeper meaning that needs to be drawn out? I believe that the latter is definitely the case, but the point requires some explanation.

In next week’s study, each of these two questions will be addressed, even as we begin to turn to the next of the sin-references, in 8:34ff.

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