October 17: John 15:2 (4:31-38)

John 15:2, continued

There are two passages in the Gospel of John that are particularly relevant for the meaning and significance of the “bearing fruit” motif in verse 2. The first of these, the saying of Jesus in 12:24, was discussed in the previous note; the second, in 4:31-38, will be examined today.

John 4:31-38

These verses comprise a short discourse-unit within the broader Samaritan Woman Discourse of chapter 4 (vv. 1-42). It follows the basic pattern for the Johannine Discourses:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 31)
    • Statement by Jesus (v. 32):
      “I have food to eat which you have not seen”
    • Response by his audience, indicating they have misunderstood the true meaning of his words (v. 33)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 34-38)

Apart from the overall narrative context, this discourse-unit shares with the larger Samaritan Woman Discourse the theme of the true food/drink possessed by Jesus, in contrast to the ordinary (physical/material) substance. The true food, like the “living water” (vv. 10-14), for which Jesus himself is the source, is invisible and cannot be seen; that is to say, it is spiritual, belonging to God and His Spirit (cf. 7:37-39; 6:63). In his exposition to his disciples (vv. 34-38), Jesus explains the nature of this unseen “food” (brw=ma / brw=si$), beginning with the statement in verse 34:

“My food is that I should do the will of the (One hav)ing sent me, and that I should complete His work.”

Jesus’ “food” is defined as the mission that God the Father (“the [One] having sent me”) has given to him (the Son) to complete. This mission is described in two different ways, in relation to the Father: (1) doing [vb poie/w] His will [qe/lhma], and (2) completing [vb teleio/w] His work [e&rgon]. Both of these idioms reflect the action of a dutiful son, who obeys his father and follows his example. Moreover the idea of the son completing his father’s work, deriving from the socio-cultural tradition of a son apprenticing in his father’s trade or business, is a prominent theme that occurs throughout the Gospel, and is central to the Johannine theology.

It is significant that this “food” is what Jesus himself eats (cf. the context of v. 31); by contrast, the “living water” that he speaks of earlier in the Discourse, is something which he gives to others. Yet, an important theological principle in the Gospel is that, just as Jesus (the Son) fulfills the mission for which the Father sent him, so the disciples of Jesus are to continue this mission, being sent forth, in turn, by the Son (Jesus). This principle takes on greater prominence in the Last Discourse, as well as the chapter 17 Discourse-Prayer, but it is introduced and expounded initially here.

The exposition of this theme takes the form of an agricultural illustration, much like the saying in 12:24 (cf. the previous note), as well as the chap. 15 Vine-illustration. The setting of this illustration is established in verse 35:

“Do you not say that ‘there are yet four months and (then) the harvesting comes’? See, I say to you, ‘Lift up your eyes and look on the spaces, that they are already white toward harvesting’!”

Most commentators take the adverbial particle h&dh (“even now, already”) as belonging to the beginning of verse 36. However, I think it is preferable to read it as part of v. 35; in any case, the modifying idea of “now/already” is certainly present in the declaration of v. 35b.

The significance of the harvest motif (noun qerismo/$, vb qeri/zw) is eschatological. This is abundantly clear from the occurrence of the motif elsewhere in the Gospel tradition—most notably the Matthean parable of the ‘wheat and the tares’ (13:24-30, 37-43), and the statement by the Baptist in Matt 3:12 par [“Q”]; cf. also in several other parables (Mk 4:26-29; Matt 25:24-26ff). It is implicit in the scene depicted by Jesus in Mark 13:27 par, as the climactic moment of the Eschatological Discourse. The harvest was a natural image for describing the end of the Age, and, by the time of Jesus, the imagery had become traditional, used as a judgment-motif in the Prophets (e.g., Isa 17:11; 18:5; 24:13; Jer 50:16; 51:33). Most notable is the grape-harvest metaphor in Joel 3:13, which doubtless influenced the vision in Revelation 14:14-20.

The main point Jesus is making in v. 35 has to do with the time interval between planting and harvesting. The implication of his declaration in v. 35b is that there is, in reality, no such interval—as soon as the sowing is made, the fields are already ripe for harvesting! This is best understood in terms of the ‘realized’ emphasis of the Johannine eschatology. The future/end-time Judgment is already being experienced in the present, and it is realized based upon a person’s response to Jesus—those who trust in him are already saved from the Judgment, while those who completely fail/refuse to trust are already judged. The sowing of the ‘seed’ of the Kingdom of God (cp. the illustration in Mark 4:26-29) refers to the Gospel witness of who Jesus is. In terms of the Johannine theology, this means trust in Jesus as the Son of God, sent from heaven by God the Father, and in the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. This theological aspect of the sowing/seed motif is demonstrated prominently in the saying of 12:24, where the seed that “dies off” in the ground (i.e., Jesus’ death and burial) produces new life out of the ground (i.e. resurrection and eternal life).

The closest formal parallel to John 4:35ff is the Gospel (“Q”) illustration by Jesus in Matt 9:37-38 / Lk 10:2. The similarity is closest with regard to the emphasis on the role of the disciples of Jesus taking part in the harvest. The Johannine illustration particularly emphasizes the theme of the disciples continuing the mission of Jesus (cf. above):

“The (one) harvesting receives wages and gathers together fruit unto (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], (so) that the (one) scattering (seed) may be glad, as one, also (with) the (one) harvesting.” (v. 36)

In the Synoptic references, the eschatological harvest is performed by heavenly beings (angels) to whom the task is assigned (Mark 13:27 par; Matt 13:41). Clearly, however, a certain role in this process, in the present, is also assigned to disciples/believers. The ‘realized’ emphasis in the Johannine eschatology (cf. above) alleviates the apparent contradiction between these two lines of tradition. Since the one trusting in the Son (Jesus) has already passed through the Judgment (see esp. 5:24), entering into eternal life, even in the present, then the Gospel proclamation (by disciples/believers), which leads to trust for the chosen ones, essentially causes the Judgment to be realized for them. The idea of sower and harvester rejoicing together, at the same time, reinforces this sense that there is no temporal interval between the ‘sowing’ and the ‘harvesting’ (cf. on verse 35b above).

Two things are said of the work done by believers (as harvesters): (1) they/we receive wages (misqo/$) for the work, and (2) the work involves “gathering/bringing together” (vb suna/gw) the fruit “unto/into eternal life”. In such a context, this “fruit” (karpo/$) must refer to the believers who come to trust in the Son (Jesus) through the Gospel proclamation/witness of other believers. This trust involves partaking in the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (with its resurrection into life), as the seed that, in its dying, produces the fruit of eternal life (cf. again the previous note on 12:24).

The theme of the disciples (believers) completing Jesus’ mission is brought into focus again by the closing statement in verse 38:

“I (have) sent you forth to harvest what you have not labored (over); others have labored, and you have come into their labor.”

The plural “others” (a&lloi) is problematic, since, in the context of the Johannine theology, the one who does the work is Jesus. Possibly, the plural is meant to include God the Father, as the work is done by both Father and Son (cf. above on verse 34). One might even include the witness of John the Baptist as being preliminary to the witness by Jesus and his disciples (see esp. 5:32-35ff). It is better to view the plural a&lloi as comprehensive and inclusive. It refers primarily to the work of the Son (Jesus), who fulfills the Father’s mission, but also anticipates the subsequent work of believers who continue this mission. The sowing is the Gospel witness, while the harvesting is the experience of eternal life that comes when people trust in Jesus through this witness.

In the next daily note, we will return to verse 2 of the Vine-illustration, looking at the significance of the verbs ai&rw and kaqai/rw in light of their use elsewhere in the Johannine writings.

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