November 13: John 15:15

John 15:15

“No longer do I say you (are) dou=loi, (in) that a dou=lo$ has not seen [i.e. does not know] what his lord does; but I have said (that) you (are) fi/loi, (in) that, all the (thing)s that I (have) heard (from) alongside my Father, I (have) made known to you.”

The final statement in this unit of the Vine-exposition further expounds the declaration in verse 14 (discussed in the previous note), in which Jesus identifies his disciples as those dear to him (“his dear [one]s”). The noun used to express this is fi/lo$ (plur. fi/loi), related to the verb file/w (“have/show affection”)—a verb that is largely synonymous (and interchangeable) with a)gapa/w (“[show] love”) in the Gospel of John. Thus the term fi/lo$ relates to the theme of love, and to the duty (e)ntolh/) of disciples/believers to love each other, that is so prominent in the Last Discourse. For more on the use and significance of fi/lo$, cf. the previous notes on vv. 13 and 14.

Here, in verse 15, fi/lo$ is juxtaposed with the noun dou=lo$, which properly denotes a slave. This creates a stark contrast: a dear friend or loved one vs. a slave. Unfortunately, the term “slave” in English brings to mind certain aspects of slavery that would have been somewhat out of place in the first-century Greco-Roman world. For this reason, many commentators prefer the translation “servant”, but this can be misleading as well, and too general a term, lacking the characteristic of a state of bondage or servitude. In Greco-Roman society, a household slave was not necessarily treated harshly, and could even hold a relatively prominent position in the administration of the house. Cf. the use of the term in 4:51; 18:10, 18, 26.

There are two occurrences of dou=lo$ elsewhere in the sayings/teachings of Jesus that are worth noting. The first occurs in the Sukkot Discourse of chaps. 7-8, within the Discourse-unit of 8:31-47, which deals with the theme of freedom and bondage. The central statement by Jesus (in vv. 31-32) ties this theme to a person’s identity as a disciple:

“If you would remain in my word, (then) truly you are my learners [i.e. disciples], and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

In addition to the principal theme of being a true disciple of Jesus, the use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”), along with an emphasis on Jesus’ word (lo/go$), makes for a clear connection between this statement and the Vine-exposition (vv. 4-11). In particular, the expression “remain in my word” is precisely parallel with those in the Vine-exposition (“remain in me,” vv. 4ff; “remain in my love”, vv. 9-10); cf. also v. 7: “if you should remain in me, and my words [r(h/mata] should remain in you…”.

Some of the people respond to Jesus’ statement by basing their freedom not on being his disciple (i.e., trusting in him), but on their ethnic-religious identity as ‘children of Abraham,’ along with what that implies—God’s chosen people (Israel), in covenant-bond with Him:

“…we have been enslaved [vb douleu/w] to no one ever, (so) how can you say that ‘you will come to be free’?” (v. 33)

In answer to them, Jesus expounds his statement in two ways. First, he defines freedom and slavery in terms of sin:

“every (one) doing the sin is a slave [dou=lo$] of the sin” (v. 34)

Second, he explains its meaning specifically in Christological terms—that is, in terms of his identity as the Son (of God):

“the slave [dou=lo$] does not remain in the house into the Age, (but) the Son remains into the Age.” (v. 35)

On the surface, Jesus is simply making a distinction between a household slave and a (human) son of the house; however, on a deeper level there can be no doubt that he is also referring to his identity as the Son—one who remains in God’s house forever. In this regard, the two aspects of vv. 34-35 are unquestionably related, since, in the Johannine theology (and the Gospel), sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw) refers principally to the great sin of unbelief—of failing or refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God (see esp. 16:9).

The second occurrence of dou=lo$ is the saying by Jesus in 13:16 (alluded to also in 15:20):

“a slave [dou=lo$] is not greater than his lord, nor is (one) sent forth [a)po/stolo$] greater that the (one hav)ing sent [vb pe/mpw] him”

This saying comes from the Last Supper scene, in the context of the foot-washing episode (13:4-15), and serves as its culmination. It emphasizes the need for the disciple to follow the example (and command) of his/her master. But there is also, in this saying, a strong Christological emphasis, as in 8:34-35 (cf. above). In the Johannine Gospel, the verbs a)poste/llw / pe/mpw (“send [forth]”) refer primarily to Jesus’ identity as the Son who was sent (to earth from heaven) by God the Father. This implies that a disciple is one who trusts in Jesus as the Son.

In the narrative context of the Last Discourse, the disciples do not yet truly understand the nature of who Jesus is. They have trust, but not yet a true awareness or understanding. Therefore, it is still possible for Jesus to refer to them as “slaves/servants” (dou=loi), as is implied in 13:16. However, with the Vine-illustration, which lies at the center of the Last Discourse, this situation begins to change. Now Jesus says to them, “I no longer [ou)ke/ti] say you (are) slave/servants [dou=loi]…”. The characteristic of the household slave is that, while he is obedient, he does not fully know (or understand) what his master is doing. That has been the disciples’ position up to this point. Now, however, it has changed:

“but (now) I have called you dear (one)s [fi/loi]”

The basis for this change is that now they are beginning to know and understand “what their lord does” —implying a growing awareness in his identity as the Son sent by God the Father. This Christological point is clear from the wording:

“…(in) that all the (thing)s that I (have) heard (from) alongside my Father, I (have) made known to you.”

This has been a key emphasis throughout the Gospel—viz., that the Son’s words come from the Father, that Jesus speaks to believers what he has heard from the Father. He has been doing this all along, but now, during the Last Discourse, it has been revealed to his disciples in a new and more complete way. It begins a process of revelation that will continue, through the presence of the Spirit (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15).

The disciples are to remain in both his word (8:31; 15:7) and his love (15:4ff, 9-10ff), even before the coming of the Spirit (cf. the context of 14:15-21). Ultimately the true disciple (believer) remains in him, in this same way, through the presence of the Spirit.


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