Notes on Prayer: John 17:11-12

John 17:11-12

Last week, in these Prayer Notes on the great prayer-discourse of Jesus in John 17, we looked at verses 9-12, focusing detail on vv. 9-10. Today, I wish to continue by examining vv. 11-12, which contains the substance of Jesus’ petition to God the Father on behalf of his disciples

“And (now) I am no longer in the world, and (yet) they [i.e. the disciples] are in the world, and I come toward you. Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, that they might be one, even as we (are). When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded (them) and not one of them came to ruin…”

Jesus’ initial words are striking: “I am no longer [ou)ke/ti] in the world”. He says this even as he is still in the presence of his disciples (i.e. on earth) speaking to them; indeed, the statement appears to be contradicted by his words that follow in v. 13 (“I speak these [thing]s in the world”). There is a dual-meaning to the expression “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|). On the one hand, until Jesus departs and returns to the Father, he remains in the world; but, on the other hand, he and his disciples do not belong to the world (ko/smo$, the current world-order). In verse 6, Jesus describes his disciples as men whom God gave to him “out of [e)k] the world”; this is the opposite of being “in [e)n] the world”. In the same sense, while he is with his disciples, especially at this moment (and after the departure of Judas), Jesus is no longer “in the world”.

Even more important is the way that this expression anticipates his return to the Father. We can see this by an outline of the first sentence of verse 11; thematically, it can be represented by a chiasm:

    • “I am no longer in the world”
      —”but they are (still) in the world”
    • “I come toward you”

This emphasizes the idea that Jesus does not belong to the world, but to the Father; he does not come from the world, but from the Father—and it is to the Father that he returns. The contrast with the disciples presents the other aspect of the expression “in the world”. Even though the disciples, like Jesus, do not belong to the world, they will still remain in it, after Jesus has departed. This refers both to the ordinary sense of living as a human being on earth, and, more importantly, to the reality of believers faced with a hostile world dominated by sin and darkness. This is the context of much of the Last Discourse—cf. especially 15:18-25 and the ominous declaration in 14:30 that “the chief [i.e. ruler] of the world comes [i.e. is coming]”. With regard to this latter phrase, note the parallel (words in italics):

    • “(now) the chief of the world [ko/smo$] comes [e&rxetai] and he holds nothing on/in me
    • “(now) I am no longer in the world [ko/smo$]…and I come [e&rxomai] toward you [i.e. the Father]”

It is the fact of Jesus’ impending departure from the disciples which creates the need for which he prays to the Father in vv. 11b-12. The opening words of this actual request echo those of the Lord’s Prayer:

    • Holy Father [pa/ter a%gie]…in the name [e)n tw=| o)no/mati] which you…”
    • “Our Father [pa/ter h(mw=n]…may your name be made holy [a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou]” (Matt 6:9 par)

The emphasis on the name of God the Father is most important to the Prayer-Discourse as a whole, as I discussed last week. The word o&noma (“name”) appears a number of times, beginning with verse 6; that opening declaration, at the start of the prayer proper, gives the thematic (and theological) basis for the remainder of the Prayer-Discourse: “I made your name shine forth to the men whom you gave to me out of the world”. Three key elements of this declaration are also present here in verse 11b: (1) God’s name, (2) the disciples/believers, and (3) God the Father giving to Jesus (the Son). These elements are present, but combined differently, in the specific request made by Jesus:

“Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in the name which you have given to me”

Jesus made the Father’s name “shine forth” to the disciples (“the men”) during his time with them on earth; now he asks the Father to continue that work, the emphasis shifting from revelation to protection—protection from the evil and darkness of the world. Two verbs, largely interchangeable in meaning, are used together here:

    • thre/w (t¢réœ) has the basic meaning “watch”, often in the sense of “keep watch (over)”
    • fula/ssw (phylássœ) similarly means “watch, be alert, guard”

Let us look at how these verbs are used in the Gospel (and Letters) of John. Most commonly they relate to the idea of believers keeping/guarding Jesus’ words. This is expressed three ways, which are more or less synonymous:

    • (1) Jesus’ word/account (singular, lo/go$)—Jn 8:51-52; 14:23; 15:20; 1 Jn 2:5 (all using thre/w)
    • (2) Jesus’ words (plural, lo/goi)—Jn 14:24 (using thre/w)
      or, similarly, his “utterances [i.e. spoken words]” (rh/mata)—Jn 12:47 (using fula/ssw), interchangeable with “word[s]” (lo/go$, v. 48)
    • (3) The things Jesus lays on believers to complete (plur. e)ntolai/), typically translated “command(ment)s”—Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 3:22, 24

An important point is that believers are to keep Jesus’ word(s) just as Jesus (the Son) has kept the word(s) of the Father—Jn 8:55; 15:10; 17:6. This chain of relationship between Father, Son and Believer(s) is central to Johannine theology and will be discussed in more detail as we proceed through the Prayer-Discourse. Jesus’ words are identified as being precisely those of God the Father; thus, if one keeps/guards Jesus‘ words, the believer is also keeping/guarding the Father’s words (John 12:49; 17:6; 1 Jn 5:2-3).

But this is only one aspect of the verb thre/w/fula/ssw. Part of the reciprocal relationship between Jesus and the believer is that, just as the believer keeps/guards Jesus’ word, so Jesus also keeps/guards the believer. This is the idea expressed here in vv. 11-12. Jesus prays to the Father, asking that He keep watch (over) the disciples—i.e. the elect/believers, the ones given by the Father into Jesus’ care. Jesus states that he himself kept watch over them (note the emphatic pronoun e)gw/, “I kept watch”) while he has been with them on earth (v. 12); but now, he is going away, and requests that the Father would keep watch over them. Almost certainly this refers to the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete (see below). It is possible to view Jesus’ request here as a fulfillment of 14:16ff. What is the nature of this protection? It is more or less explained in verse 15:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep them out of the evil”

This request, so similar in many ways to the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, will be discussed next week. It is important to note that it was Jesus himself (the Son) who protected believers during his time on earth; now it is necessary for the Father to provide similar protection in his absence. Let us consider how Jesus states this situation in verse 12:

“When I was with them, I kept watch (over) [e)th/roun] them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded [e)fu/laca] them…”

The wording is almost identical to the request in v. 11b, indicating again the close relationship between Son and Father. The English phrase “in your name which you have given to me” in both verses glosses over certain difficulties of interpretation. The reading of the best manuscripts is:

    • au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou w!| de/dwka/$ moi
      “…(watch over) them in your name which you have given to me”

Copyists apparently misunderstood the syntax, as we find a number of instances in the manuscripts where it reads a plural accusative form (ou%$), i.e. referring to the disciples:

    • au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou ou%$ de/dwka/$ moi
      “…(watch over) them, the (one)s whom you have given to me, in your name”

There is basis for such a formulation in the Gospel (cf. the wording in verse 6, also 18:9), but almost certainly the dative singular (w!|) is original. The reference is to the name which God has given to Jesus, and it is this name which keeps/guards believers—”in the name which you have given to me”. An even trickier interpretive point involves the nature of the name given to Jesus.

What is this name? Clearly it belongs to God the Father, since Jesus says “your name”—”in your name which you have given to me”. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the “name” specifically refers to Jesus‘ name, usually with the expression “trust in (Jesus)’ name”. The author speaks of trusting in his name, in Jn 1:12; 2:23; 20:31; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13, while in Jn 3:18 the reference is to trust “in the name of the…Son of God”. The name of Jesus has great power and efficacy, as we see expressed throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples (and all believers) that they are to pray/ask of the Father in his [i.e. Jesus’] name—Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26. Moreover, believers experience the release (forgiveness) of sins through Jesus’ name (1 Jn 2:12). Jesus also tells his disciples that the Father will send the Spirit/Paraclete in his name (14:26). The more familiar reference to protection/power for believers in Jesus’ name presumably explains the variant reading in vv. 11-12 of the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë66*): “…in my name which you have given to me”.

It is overly simplistic (and somewhat inaccurate) to take the view that Jesus’ name is simply the name Jesus/Yeshua itself. This would reduce “in the name of…” to a quasi-magical formula; and, while many Christians have used and understood it this way, the New Testament suggests something deeper (e.g. Phil 2:9-11, and many other passages). The key is in realizing how ancient peoples understood and treated names. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented the person himself (or herself), embodying the person’s essence and power in an almost magical way. To know or have access/control of a person’s name meant knowledge/control of the person (and the power, etc, which he/she possessed). From a religious standpoint, this gave to the name of God an extraordinary importance. To know the name of God, and to “call on” his name, meant that one had an intimate access to God Himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier Christmas season series (“And you shall call his name…”).

This is important because it relates to the Father/Son relationship that is central to the Gospel (and Discourses) in John. Jesus is the Son sent by the Father—thus he comes in his Father’s name (representing) him, working and acting in His name (Jn 5:43; 10:25; cf. also 12:13). As a faithful Son, he does and says what he seen and hears the Father doing/saying—i.e. his words are those of the Father. Moreover, as the Son (and heir), the Father gives to Jesus everything that belongs to Him (3:35, etc), including His name. Jesus, in turn, gives this name to believers, both in the sense of making it known—i.e. manifesting it to us (17:6, 26)—and also in the sense expressed here in vv. 11-12. Believers are kept/guarded in (e)n) this name which God the Father gave to Jesus. Is it possible to define or identify this name more precisely? There are several possibilities:

    • It is the ancient name represented by the tetragrammaton (YHWH/hwhy)
    • It is the ancient name as translated/interpreted in Greek as e)gw/ ei)mi, “I AM”
    • It is to be understood in the fundamental sense of the name representing the person—i.e. the name of God the Father indicates the presence and power of God Himself

The last option is to be preferred, along the lines suggested above. However, serious consideration should also be given to the second option, considering the prominence of the many “I Am” declarations by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. In these statements, Jesus is identifying himself with God the Father (YHWH), as the divine/eternal Son who represents the Father.

Following each of the parallel requests in vv. 11b-12, involving the name of the Father given to Jesus and the protection of the disciples, we find two statements relating to the unity of the disciples (believers). First, note how these fit into the structure of the passage:

    • “Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me,
      • (so) that they may be one even as we (are). ” (v. 11b)
    • “When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me,
      • and I guarded them, and no one out of them went to ruin [i.e. was lost/perished]” (v. 12)

The phrase in v. 11b anticipates the prayer for union/unity that is developed in vv. 20ff; interestingly, Ë66* along with Old Latin, Coptic and Syriac witnesses does not include this phrase. The statement in 12, by contrast, looks back to the role and position of Judas Iscariot among the disciples (6:70-71). This reflects a basic Gospel tradition regarding Judas, of course (Mk 14:20-21 par), but it takes on deeper symbolism in the Johannine Last Supper scene (13:1-3ff, 18, 27-30). There are two main points of significance to the departure of Judas in the narrative: (1) it marks the coming of a time of darkness (“and it was night”, v. 30; cp. 12:35-36), and (2) it allows Jesus to give his ‘Last Discourse’ instruction, speaking now only to his true disciples (believers). At the same time, the mention of Judas (as an exception, in fulfillment of Scripture) only underscores the unity of the remainder of the disciples—”not one of them went to ruin”. This is given dramatic expression during the Passion narrative (18:8-9).

A final point to be made on these verses has already been touched on above—the relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), which is also paralleled in the relationship between Jesus and believers. Central to this two-fold relationship, the key theme of chapter 17, is the presence of the Spirit. While the Spirit/Paraclete (pneu=ma/para/klhto$) is not specifically mentioned in chap. 17, it can be inferred at a number of points, based on the earlier references in chaps. 14-16 (and elsewhere in the Gospel). Jesus states clearly in verse 11 that he is departing and “is no longer in the world”. It is fair to conclude that the request in v. 11 relates to the request for the sending of the Spirit (in 14:16, etc). The keeping/guarding done by Jesus in the Father’s name now will be done for believers through the Spirit. The Spirit is also the basis for the unity (between Father/Son/Believers) which is so much emphasized in the prayer-discourse of Jesus in chap. 17. This will be discussed further in next week’s study (on verses 13-15).

Notes on Prayer: John 17:9-12

John 17:9-12

We are continuing to explore the great Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17 during these Monday Notes on Prayer. In verse 9, the focus shifts toward Jesus’ disciples, though in a manner that builds seamlessly upon the themes and language used previously in the prayer. We may observe something similar to the pattern used by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer (discussed previously in these Notes on Prayer). In the first portion of the Prayer (Matt 6:9-10 par), the believer is to address God, focusing on His honor and work; while in the second portion (6:11-13), the focus shifts to the needs of believers, making request to God the Father regarding them. This pattern generally holds, though with a decided difference in perspective, in the Prayer-Discourse:

    • Vv. 1-8: Addressing God, focusing on His honor (do/ca) and work (e&rgon)—based on the intimate relationship between Father and Son, the Father’s honor and work both belong to the (faithful) Son as well
    • Vv. 9-23: Addressing the needs of believers—not for ordinary daily needs (as in the Lord’s Prayer), but in light of their/our relationship to both Father and Son

The petitions of the second part (for the needs of believers) are made entirely with the statements of the first part (regarding the honor and work of God) in mind. The Lord’s Prayer begins with a statement involving the name of God the Father (“Father […], may your name be made holy”); and the Father’s name is likewise central to the Prayer-Discourse, beginning with verse 6 which opens the main section (discussed last week):

“I made your name shine forth to the men whom you gave me out of the world”

This statement provides four distinct elements or components which run through the entire Prayer-Discourse:

    1. The name (o&noma) of God the Father
    2. The focus on Jesus’ followers (believers)—”the men whom…”
    3. The Father giving to the Son, using the key verb di/dwmi
    4. The contrast between believers and the world (ko/smo$, the [current] world-order)

All of these are present and feature prominently in verses 9-12 as Jesus begins addressing the needs of believers to God the Father. In verse 9 we find the first occurrence in the Prayer-Discourse of the verb e)rwta/w, “ask (about)”, used again at key points in vv. 15 and 20. Jesus uses this verb when he speaks of his making a request to the Father (16:26), whereas elsewhere in the Last Discourse, when instructing his disciples on their making requests to the Father, he uses the verb ai)te/w (14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, and see both verbs used together in 16:26). The verb e)rwta/w fundamentally refers to a person seeking information about something (i.e. a point of discussion or interrogation), while ai)te/w properly refers to a specific request (or, more forcefully, a demand). When e)rwta/w is used in the Last Discourse, it is in the sense of the disciples asking questions of Jesus (to find out information). Here, in the Prayer-Discourse, the point is not the request itself, but what Jesus is asking about. This is expressed by the preposition peri/ (“around, about”), with the object being the disciples (believers): “I ask about them…” (e)gw\ peri\ au)tw=n e)rwtw=). A contrast with the “world” (ko/smo$) follows immediately:

“I ask about them—(it is) not about the world (that) I ask, but about the (ones) whom you have given [de/dwka$] to me…”

In verse 6 (cf. above), Jesus specifically refers to his disciples (believers) as the ones God gave to him “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou). There is a two-fold significance to this phrase in the context of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, playing on the semantic range of the preposition e)k (“out of, from”):

    • Jesus chose people who were in the world, so as to take them out of the world—i.e. as his followers, taking them (with him) to God the Father.
    • Believers respond to Jesus because they ultimate come from God the Father, belonging to him—they do not belong the world

This latter sense, generally corresponding to the idea of divine election, is primarily in view here in the Prayer-Discourse, as the final words of the verse make clear:

“…(in) that [i.e. because] they are [i.e. belong] to you” (o%ti soi/ ei)sin)

Much the same was already stated in verse 6:

“They were [i.e. belong] to you” (soi\ h@san)

This idea, that believers come from (e)k) God—even as Jesus himself does—is expressed at many points in the Gospel and First Letter of John. One of the clearest statements in this regard is in Jesus’ great declaration to Pilate in 18:37, which serves virtually as a summary of Johannine theology (and Christology):

“I have come to be (born) unto this [i.e. for this purpose], and unto this I have come into the world: that I might give witness to the truth; every (one) being out of [e)k, i.e. from, belonging to] the truth hears my voice.”

The message is clear: the person who hears and responds in faith to Jesus does so because he/she already belongs to God, coming from Him. Here in the Prayer this is expressed in terms of God the Father giving believers to Jesus (the Son). The verb di/dwmi occurs numerous times in chapter 17, as a key term summarizing the relationship between Father and Son (and the believer): the Father gives to the Son, who, in turn, gives to his followers (believers), who, as it happens, are among the very things given to the Son by the Father. The wonderfully elliptical logic does create some confusion in the text, since Jesus refers to two different primary objects the Father gives to him: (a) believers, and (b) His name. It is not always immediately clear which is being referred to, and several textual variants have arisen in the manuscript tradition as a result. Let us survey the use of di/dwmi in the Prayer up to this point:

    • “you gave [e&dwka$] to him [i.e. the Son] authority o(ver) all flesh” (v. 2)
    • “so that every [pa=$] (one) that you have given [de/dwka$] to him, he might give [dw/sh|] to them [pl.] the Life of the Age” (v.2)
    • “I honored you upon the earth, completing the work that you have given [de/dwka$] me (to do), that I should do it” (v. 4)
    • “…the men whom you gave [e&dwka$] to me out of the world” (v. 6a)
    • “they were [i.e. belong] to you and you gave [e&dwka$] them to me” (v. 6b)
    • “all (thing)s [pa/nta], as (many) as you have given [de/dwka$] to me, are (from) alongside of you” (v. 7)
    • “the words [lit. utterances] which you gave [e&dwka$] to me, I have given [de/dwka] to them” (v. 8)

The comprehensiveness of this language, using the verb di/dwmi, is confirmed by the declaration which follows in verse 10:

“and all the (thing)s (that are) mine are yours, and the (thing)s (that are) yours (are) mine”

The reciprocal relationship between Father and Son is stated here concisely, more than English translation allows; in Greek it is:

kai\ ta\ e)ma\ pa/nta sa/ e)stin kai\ ta\ sa\ e)ma/

We find the same basic idea expressed elsewhere in the Gospel, perhaps most notably in 3:35:

“The Father loves the Son, and has given all (thing)s [pa/nta de/dwken] in(to) his hand.”

The concluding words of verse 10 state this in a slightly different manner, according to the theme of the Prayer: “all the (thing)s (that are) mine are yours, and the (thing)s (that are) yours (are) mine, and I have been given honor in them [kai\ dedo/casmai e)n au)toi=$].” For more on the important verb doca/zw in chapter 17, see the discussion in the earlier note on vv. 1-5. At the start of the Prayer, Jesus asks the Father to given him honor, and yet here he declares that he has already been given honor (cp. with 12:28 and 13:31-32). This is a declaration of his fundamental identity as God’s Son; the request in vv. 1ff refers to the return of the Son to the Father following the completion of his work on earth, as is clear from v. 5b.

This powerful theological and Christological background is vital to a proper understanding of what follows in the Prayer, beginning with Jesus’ petition on behalf of his disciples (believers) in verse 11, which he expounds in verse 12. Let us consider this petition as a whole, before examining the individual parts of it:

“And (now) I am no longer in the world, and (yet) they are in the world, and I come toward you. Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, (so) that they may be one even as we (are).” (v. 11)

Anyone familiar with the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 will recognize how the content and language of this primary petition is woven through the remainder of the text. It will aid our understanding greatly if we examine it carefully here, which we will do in next week’s study.

Birth of the Son of God: Mark 1:9-11 par

The octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) in the West has traditionally commemorated the baptism of Jesus. It is in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as recorded in the Gospels, that we find some of the most intriguing and provocative references to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes).

Mark 1:9-11 par

The core narrative, in its clearest form, is that of Mark 1:9-11:

  • In verse 9 it is simply stated that Jesus was dunked/dipped (i.e. baptized) in the Jordan river by John
  • In verse 10, a three-fold sequence of ascent/descent is narrated:
    • Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
      —he saw the heavens splitting open
    • The Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai/nwn] (out of heaven) into/unto him
  • In verse 11—”there came to be a voice out of the heavens: “You are my Son the (be)loved, I think/consider good in you [i.e. I think well of you, I have delight in you]”

Both Matthew and Luke include tradition(s) regarding John’s ministry (Matt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20), which expands the narrative. Luke’s account of the baptism itself (Lk 3:21-22) is rather brief, shorter even than that in Mark, with several extra details:

  • It is mentioned that, while being baptized, Jesus was praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God]”)
  • Instead of Jesus seeing the heavens split open, it is simply stated that “the heaven opened up”
  • It is said that the Spirit descends in bodily appearance as a dove
  • (For the textual variants involving the words of the heavenly voice, cf. below)

Matthew includes a brief exchange between John and Jesus (Matt 3:13-15), but otherwise his account of the baptism is essentially a blend of the wording in Mark and Luke. The heavenly voice differs slightly—”This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good“—as a declaration rather than a personal address to Jesus.

The Gospel of John does not given an account of the baptism as such—it is narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony in Jn 1:29-34. The concluding declaration essentially takes the place of the heavenly voice in identifying Jesus as God’s Son:

“and I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34)

The Johannine account (Jn 1:29-34) is discussed in more detail in an upcoming note.

Textual variants in Luke 3:22 and John 1:34

There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:

  1. In John 1:34 (cf. above), instead of “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), several manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2* syrs,c) read “the (one) gathered out [i.e. Chosen one] of God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=) or the conflation “the Chosen Son of God” (a ff2c syrpal sah). The conflate reading is certainly secondary, but some scholars have argued that “the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” is original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 69-70). However, the external manuscript evidence, as well as Johannine usage, would seem to favor “the Son of God”.
  2. In Luke 3:22, a number of (Western) witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) record the heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7—”You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”—instead of the declaration “You are my (be)loved Son…” It is also attested by quite a few Church Fathers in the 2d-4th centuries, and a minority of textual critics accept it as original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 62-67). I have discussed the question in some detail in a previous note.

Psalm 2:7, of course, was one of the principal “Messianic” passages interpreted as referring to Jesus in the early Church, as I have noted on a number of occasions. The oldest application seems to have been to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven—i.e., the moment when he is “born” as God’s Son—as indicated by its use in Acts 13:32-33ff [note the similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36]; cf. also Rom 1:4 and Rom 8:22-23, 29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. Orthodox Christology would come to understand Psalm 2:7 (along with Ps 110:1) in terms of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent Sonship, as association which is already reflected in Heb 1:5ff. Actually, Hebrews seems to combine both views—Jesus as pre-existent Son and “Son” as a result of the resurrection/exaltation—based on a careful study of chapter 1 and the way Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are cited in chapter 5 (cf. also Heb 2:8-13, etc). We find a similar combination in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:6-11).

The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:35)

There is a clear parallel with the Baptism of Jesus in the Transfiguration scene narrated in the Synoptics (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Lk 9:28-36) and referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18. In Mark 9:7, a voice from Heaven declares:

This is my Son the (be)loved, hear [i.e. listen to] him!”

The italicized portion is closest to the form of the divine voice in Matthew’s account of the Baptism (cf. above), also reflected in the Matthean Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:5):

This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good—hear him!”

The words in italics are identical to that of the voice in Matt 3:17, which strongly suggests that an original 2nd person address there was modified to match the form in the Transfiguration scene (and vice versa!). The Lukan version (Lk 9:35) matches the shorter form in Mark, with one major difference (noted by italics):

“This is my Son the (One) gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One], hear him!”

Instead of the adjective a)gaphto/$ (“[be]loved”), Luke has the participle e)klelegme/no$ (“having been gathered out”). While many manuscripts of Lk 9:35, naturally enough, read a)gaphto/$ (harmonizing with Matt/Mark), e)klelegme/no$ is most likely original (cf. TCGNT, p. 124, and Ehrman, pp. 67-68). The verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “select, choose”) is relatively common in Luke-Acts (11 of the 22 NT occurrences), but is used elsewhere in the Synoptics only once (Mark 13:20).

Finally, we should mention the reference to the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17, which, interestingly enough, matches the version in Matthew (specifically Matthew’s account of the Baptism):

“This is my Son, my (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good”
Differs from Matt 3:17 only in word order and inclusion of a second mou (“my”)

The Symbolism of Baptism

A number of key passages in the New Testament which refer either to believers as “sons/children” of God, or specifically as being “born”, are in a context relating in some way to baptism. Most of these have already been discussed in the previous Christmas season notes; I point out here again the most relevant passages:

  • John 3:3-8—especially significant is the expression “come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5), parallel to “come to be (born) from above” in v. 3. Nearly all of the instances in the New Testament where water and Spirit are juxtaposed refer to baptism—either of Jesus or of believers (Mark 1:8-10 par; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47; 11:16; the reference in 1 John 5:6-8 is more complicated).
  • Galatians 3:26-27ff—the idea of believers as the “sons of God” (v. 26, cf. also v. 29) is connected specifically with baptism in verse 27.
  • Romans 6:3-4ff; 8:12-23, 29—In Paul’s thought, baptism is symbolic of the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4ff; cf. also Col 2:12). As pointed out above, it is through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood as God’s “Son” in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:4, etc), and it is also the means by which believers are “born” as “sons/children” of God, at least in one strand of Christian tradition (cf. Rom 8:12-23, 29; 1 Pet 1:3; Heb 2:10, also 1 Cor 15:20, 23, 36-37, 42ff). On the specific expression “firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), cf. the prior article.

This concludes the series of Christmas season notes, devoted to the theme of “the Birth of the Son of God”. During this season, it is right and proper that we should celebrate both Jesus own birth—whether from Mary, in the Baptism, by his Resurrection, or eternally from God—as well as our own birth as sons and daughters, children of God, in union with Christ. It is to be hoped that this survey and study of all the New Testament passages related to this theme has been informative and enriching, in at least some small way, for those who have followed it.

References above marked “TCGNT” are to the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1994/2002); those marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Birth of the Son of God: The Firstborn

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

One specific image related to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the firstborn. In Greek, the word typically translated “firstborn” is prwto/toko$ (prœtótokos), which is more accurately rendered “first-produced“. The component word to/ko$ (tókos), like te/knon (téknon), both derive from the verb ti/ktw and refer fundamentally to something which is produced, as in the concrete sense of something coming out of the ground (from a seed) or out of the mother’s body. The word te/knon (plural te/kna) is normally translated “child”, but I have tried to preserve something of the etymology by rendering it as “offspring”. The term prwto/toko$ is used eight times in the New Testament (Luke 2:7; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev 1:5, cf. also Lk 2:23). The corresponding Hebrew word is rokB=, referring to something which comes early (or first); the closely related plural word <yr!WKB! refers to the early/first ripened grain and fruit that is harvested (i.e. “firstfruits”). In Greek, a different word (a)parxh/) is used for “firstfruits”, unrelated to prwto/toko$ (“firstborn”); it specifically means the beginning of i.e. the harvest.

Significance of the Firstborn

The (theological) importance of “firstborn” in the New Testament and early Christian thought has to be understood in terms of the ancient cultural background of the idea, especially within the context of Israelite religion. Three aspects should be noted:

1. The uniqueness of the Firstborn

Until other children are born to a husband and wife, the firstborn is unique—an only child. This is a simple fact; and yet, the uniqueness of the firstborn/only child (especially of a son) becomes an important image in Judaism and early Christianity, in two respects—the uniqueness of Israel as God’s (chosen) people, and Jesus’ unique position as God’s “Son”. Both of these points are discussed below, but it is worth pointing out that an only child may be expressed in Greek by the term monogenh/$ (monogen¢¡s). Sometimes translated (rather inaccurately) as “only-begotten”, monogenh/$ literally means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and is often used in the general sense of “only (one), one of a kind, unique,” etc. It occurs in the New Testament with the basic meaning of “only (child)”—cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb 11:17; however, in the Gospel of John it is used in reference to Jesus as the only/unique Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; also 1 Jn 4:9). In this regard, it is significant that neither the Gospel nor the Letters of John refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi] of God”, always using “offspring/children [te/kna] of God” instead—only Jesus is truly the Son [ui(o$] of God.

2. The special position of the Firstborn

Apart from any theological or religious significance, the firstborn child is bound to hold a special place for its parents (particularly the mother). In the ancient Near East, far more than in Western societies today, there was a decided negative stigma attached to the woman who was barren or otherwise childless (cf. for example, the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth in Luke 1:25). Consider also the far higher rate of infant mortality, along with inherent dangers of childbirth, in ancient cultures—the birth of the first living child would have been a particular source of joy and relief. Within the family and household, the firstborn held a position of prominence, with the first born son being regarded as the primary (or sole) heir (cf. Gen 27:19, 32; 29:26; 43:33; 48:18; 49:3, etc).

Beyond this, however, according to the ancient tradition recorded in the Pentateuch (and preserved as commands in the Torah), God declared that all firstborn—especially the first born males, of humans and animals alike—are set apart, belonging specially to Him (Exod 13:2, 12). This is expressed dramatically within the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:22-23; 11:5; chaps 12-13) and as a legal-religious principle throughout the Torah (Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:12-13, etc). It would seem that, initially, the idea was that the firstborn sons would serve as priests before God for the family and community, eventually being replaced, within the priestly construct centered around the Tabernacle/Temple, by the members of the tribe of Levi (Num 3:40-50; 8:16-18). With the Levites now serving this role, but in order to preserve the consecrated status of the firstborn, a ritual was established by which the family would symbolically “buy back” the child—sometimes referred to as the redemption of the firstborn (cf. Num 3:46ff). Joseph and Mary fulfilled this regulation for Jesus at the Temple precincts (according to Luke 2:22b-23). Interestingly, Paul also connects sonship with redemption in Galatians 4:4-7, but in a different sense: Christ, through his sacrificial death, buys humankind out from bondage under the Law (and from slavery to sin), which makes it possible for believers (in Christ) to become sons of God. For more on this, see below.

3. Israel as God’s “Firstborn”

In several key Old Testament passages (Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Mal 3:1, also Sirach 36:17), the people of Israel (collectively) are referred to as God’s “son” in a symbolic or spiritual sense. Twice, however, Israel is specifically called God’s firstborn son—in Exod 4:22 and Jer 31:9—the reference in Exodus begin connected with the death of the firstborn in Egypt. It was through the Exodus that Israel, in a very real sense, was “born” as God’s children. For more on this association, see the deutero-canonical Wisdom 18:5-19 (esp. verse 13). Eventually, the righteous would be described as God’s “son” (or “sons, children”) in a similar manner (cf. my earlier note on this point).

Jesus and Believers as “Firstborn”

To begin with, simply on the historical level, Mary gave birth to Jesus as her “firstborn” child (Luke 2:7, cf. Matt 1:25). According to Gospel tradition (in the Infancy narratives), Mary was a virgin prior to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus (Lk 1:27, 34; Matt 1:18-25); this, in and of itself, provides special significance to the idea of Jesus as “firstborn”. As mentioned above, his parents faithfully fulfilled the religious and legal requirement with regard to the consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22-23). The reference to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) has prompted a good deal of speculation on the question of whether Joseph and Mary and other (natural) children together, especially in the overall context of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are several other ways that Jesus may be understood as the “firstborn”, that is, of God:

  • The use of monogenh/$ in reference to Jesus as the only (true) Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9, and cf. above)—reflecting a special relationship to God the Father, indicating divine nature and pre-existence. Cf. also the use of “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6.
  • The Anointed One (“Messiah/Christ”) as the “son of God”—drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern idea of the king as God’s “son”, a similar idea is expressed of the Israelite (Davidic) ruler in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, both passages coming to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition (cf. 4Q174; Acts 13:32-33; Heb 1:5; 5:5), where it was applied to Jesus. In Psalm 89:27, this Davidic ruler is further called God’s “firstborn”; there may be similar ‘Messianic’ reference to a king as (God’s) firstborn in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q369 (cf. also 4Q458).
  • Jesus as “firstborn” (or “firstfruits”) in terms of the resurrection. As I have previously discussed, by all accounts, it is in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to Heaven), that Jesus was understood to be “born” as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching—cf. Acts 13:32-37 (citing Psalm 2:7, and note a similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36, cp. Heb 1:5, 13; 5:5); and Romans 1:3-4. The same early kerygma would seem to underlie the references to Jesus as “firstborn” in Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; and Rev 1:5.

Along with the numerous passages in the New Testament where believers are called the “sons” (ui(oi/) or “offspring/children” (te/kna) of God, in several instances, the expression “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) is also used:

Romans 8:29

“…(the ones) whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) before(hand) (to be) together in (the) form/shape of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-produced [prwto/toko$ i.e. ‘firstborn’] among many brothers”

Here the key phrase is summo/rfou$ th=$ ei)ko/no$ tou= ui(ou= au)tou= (“together in the form/shape of the image of His Son”). Paul elsewhere refers to Jesus as the ei)kw/n (“image”) of God in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15—the last of these is noteworthy since it combines ei)kw/n specifically with prwto/toko$—and cf. also 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18, where likewise believers are said to become formed into the image of Christ. In Paul’s thought, this conformity with Christ is the result of our identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:5-11; 8:9-11; Gal 2:19-20, etc). This takes place through trust/faith in Christ and by the work of the Spirit, symbolized in the ritual of baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:12). Earlier in Rom 8:18-25 Paul develops the image of creation groaning (like a woman in labor) waiting for the manifestation of (i.e. giving ‘birth’ to) the “sons of God” (believers); and we, too, groan within for the same thing (v. 23)—even though we are already God’s “sons/children” through faith in Christ and by the Spirit, this will not be fully realized until the resurrection at the end-time (described as “the redemption [lit. loosing from {bondage}] of our bodies”).

Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5

The expression prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n (“first-produced [i.e. firstborn] out of the dead [pl.]”) in Col 1:18; Rev 1:5 must be understood in a similar manner as the use of prwto/toko$ in Rom 8:29. Christ, in being raised from the dead, becomes the first of many “sons/children” (believers), who will likewise be raised at the end time—even now, we are united spiritually in his resurrection. In this sense, we, as believers, are not only “children of God”, but are in union with the true (firstborn) Son, and partake of this (collective) “firstborn” status.

Hebrews 12:23

The reference in Heb 12:22-24 is to the divine/heavenly inheritance that waits for believers, and that is already being experienced now, by faith (cf. chapter 11):

22but you have come toward mount ‚iyyôn {Zion} and (the) city of (the) living God, Yerûshalaim {Jerusalem} upon-the-Heaven(s), and the multitude of Messengers all gathered (in one place), 23and the assembly of the first-born having been written from (the list) in the Heavens, and God (the) judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just/righteous (one)s having been made complete, 24and Yeshua (the) mediator of the new (agreement) set forth, and the blood of (ritual) sprinkling…”

It may not be clear in translation, but the nouns throughout vv. 22-24 are in the dative case, each related back to the verb proselhlu/qate (“you have come toward…”)—that believers approaching Heaven will encounter:

    • Mount Zion, identified also as “city of the living God” and “Jerusalem upon the Heavens [i.e. Heavenly Jerusalem]”
    • The multitude of (heavenly) Messengers [i.e. Angels] all gathered together, as in the town/city square (a)gora/)
    • The assembly of the firstborn…the spirits of the just/righteous ones… (v. 23ff)

In context, the identification of the “firstborn” is not entirely certain. Some commentators have thought that it is parallel with the “multitude of (heavenly) Messengers” in v. 22, referring to the Angels. The reference to the firstborn being enrolled or registered (“written [down] from [the list]”) in Heaven, however, makes it more likely that human saints (believers) are meant—cf., for example, Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:29; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 13:18; 17:8. It is interesting the way that verses 23-24 are structured:

    • Assembly of the first born
      —written down in Heaven
    • God the Judge of all
    • Spirits of the just/righteous ones
      —made complete
    • Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant

The parallelism seems to make clear that the “firstborn” are the same as the “just/righteous” ones—i.e., human believers. The basic scenario is that of standing before God as Judge, with Jesus in his mediating role as Priest, who has established a new covenant between God and His people (believers), through his sacrificial and atoning death (note the qualifying phrase in verse 24, “the blood of [ritual] sprinkling”).

Birth of the Son of God: The Kingdom of God

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

As a follow-up to the recent notes on believers as “sons/children of God”, today I would like to examine the connection between sonship and the kingdom of God. It is not possible in this relatively brief discussion to provide a comprehensive treatment of the “kingdom of God” as a concept or topic; however, a number of key points and observations will be offered here.

The Kingdom

To begin with, contrary to some commentators, I find little distinction between the use or meaning of the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven (lit. ‘of the Heavens’)”. The latter is found exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew, and a comparison of parallel passages and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, demonstrates more or less decisively that the expressions are synonymous (and interchangeable). Which is not to say that the Gospel of Matthew does not have specific reasons for using “Heaven” instead of “God”. Exactly how, or to what extent, the different idioms (in Greek) relate to the actual words of Jesus (the ipsissima verba, probably spoken in Aramaic) continues to be debated.

The Kingdom-concept appears to have a fairly wide range of meaning, but it is possible, I believe, to isolate three primary aspects or elements:

  1. Rule and authority—that is to say, of God as king. While, from the human perspective, God rules and exercises sovereignty, primarily from heaven, he has also made his will known to people on earth—principally through the commands and communication revealed and preserved in the Scriptures. Eventually, God will enforce his rule more fully and directly upon the world (at the end time).
  2. Dominion—by this is meant the area (domain) that is subject to God and the means by which he rules; one may divide this into two additional aspects: (a) the people who are under his rule and obedient to it (i.e. the “righteous”), and (b) the rule of God in terms of the Law (or “laws”, i.e. commands, precepts, etc) under which the ‘Kingdom’ is governed. According to Pauline thought and terminology, especially, the “Law of God” is synonymous with the “Will of God”.
  3. Eschatology—at the time of the New Testament, and in Jesus’ own day, the “Kingdom of God” was understood primarily in terms of the rule of God which will be realized over humankind (and all things) and the end of the (present) Age. Several related ideas and expectations were brought together, variously, in this context: (a) God’s end-time Judgment of human beings, (b) the specific judgment against the wicked/idolatrous “Nations”, (c) the restoration of Israel, and (d) the reward of the righteous (who have been suffering during the current wicked Age). The expectation of an Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah/Christ), from the line of David, whose appearance would attend (or govern) these eschatological events, appears to have been relatively common in the 1st centuries B.C/A.D.

The initial proclamation of Jesus was to announce that this coming Kingdom was now arriving: “The time has been (ful)filled, the Kingdom of God has come near…!” (Mark 1:15 par). The vast majority of references to “the kingdom of God/Heaven” in the New Testament, in fact, come from Jesus’ own teaching (and virtually all from the Synoptic Gospels, except for John 3:3-5). These can generally be divided into several categories:

“Inheriting” and “Entering” the Kingdom

A principal metaphor, encompassing both ethical and eschatological aspects of the Kingdom concept, is that of inheriting or entering the Kingdom. The two idioms are, it would seem, generally synonymous, and are rooted clearly in the idea of believers (or the righteous) passing the (end-time) judgment before the heavenly/divine tribunal. This is especially so in terms of “entering” the Kingdom; whereas inheritance may also carry the connotation that believers (or the righteous) have already (previously) been appointed a share (i.e. lot) and place in the Kingdom. It is certainly true that one sees a kind of “realized” eschatology throughout much of the New Testament, drawn largely, I would say, from the basic idea of the covenant God established with his people (Israel)—if believers remain faithful, they will inherit that which God has prepared for them.

“Enter” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23-25; Luke 18:17, 24-25; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; see also Mark 9:43, 45; Matt 7:13; 8:11; 18:8-9; 19:17; 25:21, 23; Lk 11:52; 13:24, 29; Heb 3:11, 18-19; 4:1-6, 10-11; 10:19; Rev 21:27; 22:14 and John 10:1-2, 9.

“Inherit” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5. For the parallel idea of inheriting eternal life, cf. Mark 10:17 par; and for similar language involving inheritance, cf. Mark 12:7 par; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:32; Gal 3:18ff; 4:30; Col 1:12; 3:24; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Heb 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4.

With regard to each of these expressions, there are two particular ideas or images which especially relate to believers as “sons/children of God”:

It is necessary to examine this last image in a bit more detail.

Believers as Heirs (to the Kingdom)

As indicated above, this motif is connected with the idea of believers (or the righteous) inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the sons who inherit the father’s estate, and, especially the eldest/firstborn son. This is expressed in early Christian thought by the theological (and Christological) premise that Jesus is the true “Son” and heir of God (cf. Mark 12:7 par; Hebrews 1:2; Romans 8:17), which is further reinforced by reference to the Kingdom as belonging to Christ (“my Kingdom”, etc)—Luke 1:33; 22:29-30; 23:42; John 18:36; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15; 12:10; also Matthew 16:28; 26:29; Luke 19:12ff; Heb 1:8. Believers are heirs through Christ, and heirs together with him (Romans 8:17). The concept of believers as heirs of God is important within Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, contrasting the freedom of believers in Christ with slavery under the Law (the old covenant) and sin—cf. throughout Galatians 3-4 and Romans 4:13ff; 8:12-30. For other New Testament references, see James 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7; Eph 3:6; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7ff. At least once in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching, believers are specifically referred to as “sons of the Kingdom [ui(oi\ th=$ basilei/a$]” (Matt 13:38, but note the somewhat different use in Matt 8:12).

The specific motif of the firstborn son will be discussed in the next article in this series.

Birth of the Son of God: Matt 5:9, 45; Lk 6:35, etc

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

In the previous article, I looked at the theme of believers as “sons/children of God” in terms of birth—i.e., of being born—especially in the famous passage of John 3:3-8. Today, I will be surveying the New Testament references where believers are specifically called “sons” (or “children/offspring”) of God.

To begin with, we must look at the Old Testament and Jewish background of the idea. In several key passages, the people of Israel, collectively, are referred to as God’s “son”—Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6. Eventually, largely through the influence of Wisdom traditions, the righteous generally are described, on various occasions, as God’s children—cf. Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5; 16:10, 21, 26; 18:4-5; 19:6; Sirach 4:10; 23:1, 4; Jubilees 1:23-25; Psalms of Solomon 17:30. In Wisdom 2:18 and 18:13 there is a clear parallel between Israel and the righteous person: they are both called the “son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=).

In order to see how this was applied within the New Testament—both in the teaching of Jesus and as a theological/ethical motif in the Letters—let us look briefly at the relevant passages, in context:

1. “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)

Matthew 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35

“Happy the peace-makers, (in) that they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9)

This is the 7th Beatitude from the set in Matthew (5:3-12), part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In some ways it summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon (esp. that of Matt 5:21-48), as indicated by the parallel reference in Matt 5:45. As a conclusion of the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus states:

“…how as [i.e. so that] you might come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of your Father in the heavens”

The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), like the cognate genna/w (“come to be [born]”), can be used in the sense of birth/begetting, as previously indicated with regard to passages such as John 1:12-14; Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4ff, etc. The Lukan version of this saying is found in Lk 6:35:

“…and you will be [e&sesqe] sons of the Highest [ui(oi\ u(yi/stou]”

This expression matches that used of Jesus, by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Mary, in the context of Jesus’ birth:

“…and he will be [e&stai] great and (the) Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]” (Lk 1:32)

In the setting of the Beatitudes, coming to be (born) as sons of God, is effectively synonymous with inheriting/entering the Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Kingdom of the Heavens”)—Matt 5:3, 10, cf. also 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21. I will discuss this particular image in more detail in the next article in this series.

Luke 20:36

Like the Beatitudes, which have a strong eschatological emphasis, the reference in Luke 20:36 is to believers (or the righteous), i.e. those considered worthy by God (v. 35), who, in their heavenly existence (in the Kingdom of God/Heaven), will be “equal to the angels”, and, like them, are “sons of God”:

“…for they are equal to (the) Messengers and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection”

It is through the resurrection that believers are ‘born’ as sons of God. For an understanding of the resurrection in terms of birth imagery, cf. also Acts 13:33 (citing Psalm 2:7); Rom 8:18-23, 29; 1 Cor 15:20-23; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5.

Galatians 3:26

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”

In Galatians 3-4, Paul is drawing the Old Testament imagery of the children/descendants of Abraham, which he refers to as children of the promise. Christ is identified as the promised seed of Abraham (v. 16), and believers in Christ are the “sons of the promise” (v. 29). The reference to believers here as the “sons of God” draws upon the Old Testament background of the people Israel (collectively) as the “son of God” in a symbolic or spiritual sense.

Romans 8:14-15, 19, 23 (Gal 4:4-7)

Romans 8:12ff builds upon Paul’s earlier argument in Galatians 4:4-7, using similar language and phrasing at several points. In particular, Rom 8:14-15 is close to Gal 4:5b-6, as can be seen by comparison side by side:

Romans 8:14-15

“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive (the) spirit of slavery again into fear, but (rather) you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry (out) ‘Abba, Father!’

Galatians 4:5b-7a

“…(so) that we might receive from (God) placement as sons. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God set forth out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ So (too) then, you are no longer a slave, but a son…”

Here sonship is understood properly in terms of our (present) faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit. The future eschatological aspect of sonship (cf. above) comes out in vv. 19ff, with the image of creation itself waiting and groaning (in labor) to give birth. Creation (or the creature, lit. the thing formed), Paul states, is

“…looking to receive from (God) the uncovering [a)poka/luyi$] of the sons of God

The “sons of God” (i.e. believers, with/in Christ) are in the world, but their true nature and identity has not been manifested; this will only happen at the end time. Paul parallels the labor pains of creation with our own inward groaning as believers—we, too, long to see our identity realized in full:

“…and not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking to receive from (God) placement as sons…” (v. 23)

Ultimately this realized in the final resurrection, which Paul describes as “the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies”.

2. “Sons” (ui(oi/)

In several other passages, believers are referred to as “sons” in a context where it seems clear that this is generally synonymous with fuller expression “sons of God” (above).

2 Corinthians 6:18

In 2 Cor 6:16-18, a chain (catena) of Old Testament references are cited: Leviticus 26:12, Isaiah 52:11, and (it would seem) 2 Samuel 7:14. The last of these has been adapted—originally, 2 Sam 7:14 read “I will be for a Father to him, and he will be for a son to me”; however, in 2 Cor 6:18 it has been modified as “I will be unto a Father to you [pl.], and you will be unto sons and daughters to me”. Originally, the reference was to the (Davidic) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic sense; here it now refers to believers—male and female—together, much as faithful Israel and the righteous could be thought of as God’s “son” (cf. above). In 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, sonship is conditional on proper religious and ethical behavior, much as the prophecy of 2 Sam 7:14 is conditional (cf. verses 14bff). See also the connection between sonship and righteousness in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount (above).

Romans 9:26

Here we have another Scripture citation (from Hos 1:10), in the context of Gentiles (those who were “not My people”) coming to faith in Christ—”they will be called sons of the living God“. Sonship is based on acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Christ.

Hebrews 2:10

As part of a litany describing and extolling Christ’s work, the author includes: “leading many sons into glory“. The implication is that believers come to be “sons of God” along with Christ.

Hebrews 12:5-8

Believers are exhorted and disciplined by God as sons are by a father. If we are obedient and attentive, then we prove ourselves to be legitimate sons (vv. 8ff). Once again, we see the ethical basis and context of sonship clearly described.

Revelation 21:7

There is here another allusion to 2 Sam 7:14 (cf. above), within an obvious eschatological setting, with the ethical aspect now understood in terms of faithful endurance and victory in the face of intense persecution and suffering during the end time. It also draws on the traditional idea of inheriting the kingdom of God (above):

“The one being victorious will obtain as (his) lot [i.e. inherit] these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son

3. “Offspring/children of God” (te/kna qeou=)

This expression occurs numerous times in the Gospel and First Letter of John, generally in place of “sons of God” (which neither work uses). It is to be found in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2, 10; 4:4; 5:2. The ‘birth’ of believers as children of God is similar to Paul’s understanding of believers as “sons of God” (cf. above)—it is the result of trust/faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit (see the previous article for more on 1:12-14, along with 3:3-8, in this regard). 1 John 3:1-2 is interesting in the light of how names functioned in ancient thought:

  • 1 Jn 3:1: believers are called children of God (“that we might be called [klhqw=men] offspring/children of God”)—this is tied fundamentally to the idea and act of naming (i.e. naming a child), cf. Luke 1:32, 35; our being called “children of God” is specifically related to the love God showed to us (through the work of his Son, Jn 3:16, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:1-2: believers now are children of God (“now we are [e)smen] offspring/children of God”)—in ancient thought, the name embodied and represented the essential identity of a person, often in a quasi-magical manner; in Old Testament tradition, naming scenes could have a prophetic quality, which carries over into the New Testament (see esp. Luke 1:13ff, 31-33; Matt 1:21, also 16:17-19, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:2: believers will be sons of God (“…what we will be [e)so/meqa]”)—a person’s identity is fundamentally tied to his/her future destiny; ultimately believers will be something more than “offspring/children of God”—when Jesus appears again at the end time, we will see him in glory, and will be “like him”, i.e. like the Son (ui(o/$). This is perhaps part of the reason why 1 John (and the Gospel of John) does not use the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)—believers may be born as offspring (te/kna) of God, but only Jesus is truly the Son.

Paul seems to use “sons of God” and “offspring/children of God” more or less interchangeably—for example, compare Romans 8:16-17, 21 (and 9:8) with 8:14-15, 19, 23; 9:26 (see above). For other Pauline use of the expression, see Philippians 2:15 and the near parallel in Ephesians 5:1.

Birth of the Son of God: John 3:3-8

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

The next several daily notes will explore the idea of believers as “sons of God”, which ultimately cannot be separated in Christian thought from the idea of Jesus himself as the “Son of God”. I have discussed this relationship already in a number of the prior Christmas season notes (on the theme of the “Birth of the Son of God”), but it is necessary to examine in more detail just how this is expressed in the New Testament. Today I will look specifically at the motif of believers in Christ being born. This involves use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), which is related to the more general verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), as I have noted on a number of occasions previously. It is used once of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of John (Jn 18:37), along with a parallel use of gi/nomai in context of the incarnation (Jn 1:14, and vv. 15, 30). For the birth of believers, genna/w occurs in John 1:13

“the (one)s who…came to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan] out of God”

which is parallel to verse 12 (using gi/nomai):

“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring [i.e. children] of God”

The spiritual birth of believers is described with more detail and involved imagery in the famous third chapter of John.

John 3:3-8

This is part of the great dialogue (3:1-21), that begins with the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-10ff). Nicodemus starts with a polite and (semi-)reverent address (v. 2); Jesus’ response sparks the brief exchange that follows:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God” (v. 3)

The use of genna/w, along with a&nwqen (“from above”), which Nicodemus understands in the sense of “again”, is the cause of his confusion—thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical/biological birth (v. 4). Jesus’ answer is almost precisely parallel to his statement in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

In several respects, this is an example of synonymous (and/or synthetic) parallelism—first with regard to being born:

    • “from above” (a&nwqen)
    • “out of… (the) Spirit” (e)kpneu/mato$)

And, secondly, in terms of its result and effect:

    • “…(able) to see the kingdom of God”
    • “…(able) to come into [i.e. enter] the kingdom of God”

The inclusion of u%dato$ (“out of water and [the] Spirit”) is somewhat problematic (I have discussed various ways of interpreting the phrase in earlier notes); here it is sufficient to point out: (a) the traditional association between water and the Spirit (in the context of cleansing/holiness), and that (b) water and Spirit are connected in the New Testament primarily with the imagery surrounding baptism (Mark 1:8, 10 par; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47). Originally, the water for ritual dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism) was associated with cleansing; but early in Christian application, especially related to the baptism of Jesus (cf. the Gospel accounts), water came to be symbolic of a new “birth”—i.e. entry into a new life and mode of being. In Pauline terms, one dies (symbolically, with Christ’s death) and is ‘reborn’ (with Christ’s resurrection); it is precisely in context of the resurrection that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching and teaching (cf. the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33ff). The conjunction between water and the Spirit in 1 John 5:6 is more complex, and cannot be dealt with here. As far as the expression “from above” (a&nwqen) in John 3:3, this is part of the dualistic contrast in John between above and below (3:31; 8:23; 19:11), ascent and descent (Jn 1:51; 3:13; 6:62, etc), and so forth.

Within the context of the dialogue, this birth of believers is tied to the Son’s sacrificial death and exaltation (vv. 11-16), and to our trust/faith in Christ as the Son of God (vv. 17-21, cf. also 1 Jn 4:15; 5:10-13, etc). 1 John uses the same expression as in Jn 3:3, “come to be born out of God (or, out of Him)”, six (actually seven) times—always in connection with the adjectival particle pa=$ (“all, every”), to establish the condition or test for being “born of God”. This ‘birth’ has a two-fold aspect, in terms of: (a) ethical behavior (righteousness), and (b) faith/trust in Christ (as the Son of God):

  • 1 Jn 2:29—”every one doing right(eousness) has come to be born out of Him
  • 1 Jn 3:9—”every one having come to be born out of God does not do sin” (cf. also at the end of this verse)
  • 1 Jn 4:7—”every one loving has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:1—”every one trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:4—”every (thing) having come to be born out of God is victorious (over) the world”—identified with faith/trust
  • 1 Jn 5:18—”every one having come to be born out of God does not sin” (cf. 3:9)

All six (or seven) occurrences of genna/w are perfect forms—that is, indicating a past action or condition that continues on through the present (and future). Three times (2:29; 4:7; 5:1) it is an indicative in the predicate position; the other three times (3:9; 5:4, 18) it is a participle substantively modifying pa=$ o( (“every one/thing th[at]…”).

Other New Testament Passages

Galatians 4:21-31

In Gal 4:21-31, Paul also refers to spiritual birth, in the context of the Abraham narratives in Genesis—specifically interpreting the promise to Abraham, which is inherited by believers through trust in Christ and through the Spirit (Gal 3:14-18, 29). The Hagar/Sarah allegory (cf. Gen 16-17) is used to symbolize slavery and freedom—the freedom in Christ vs. slavery under the Law (and sin). Verses 23 and 29 have parallel expressions:

“the one having come to be born [gege/nnhtai]…through the promise” (v. 23)
“the one coming to be born [gennhqei\$]…according to (the) Spirit” (v. 29)

1 Peter 1:3, 23

The expression “born from above” in Jn 3:3-8 is sometimes translated “born again”; while it can be understood this way (and it is part of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words), “born again” more properly renders the verb a)nagenna/w (“come to be [born] again”), which is used only in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23.

  • v. 3our being born again, which is followed by a chain of result/purpose clauses beginning with ei)$ (“into/unto”), vv. 3-5:
    • into [ei)$] a living hope—through the resurrection of Jesus
      • into [ei)$] a lot [i.e. inheritance]…in heaven
        • into [ei)$] salvation, to be uncovered [i.e. revealed] in the last time
  • v. 23having been born again
    • through the living word/account [lo/go$] of God (parallel with the “living hope” of v. 3)—this is qualified two ways:
      —not out of decaying [i.e. corruptible, perishing] seed
      —remaining/abiding [me/nonto$] (into the Age, v. 25)

The imperishable seed (spo/ra, literally, “[thing] sown”) from which believers are born is also mentioned (using the different word spe/rma) in 1 John 3:9 (above)—here is the full reference:

“Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed is in him and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God”

Note the precise chiasm in this verse:

    • Come to be born out of God
      • Does not sin
        • God’s seed is in him
      • Not able to sin
    • Come to be born out of God

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul uses seed [spe/rma] to refer to believers under the image “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13, 16, 18; 9:7-8; Gal 3:16, 19, 29)—we come to be “children of the promise” through Christ (cf. above). Note also a similar expression in Heb 2:16.

The idea of spiritual ‘rebirth’ (or “regeneration”) is also expressed in Titus 3:5, using the nouns paliggenesi/a (“coming to be [i.e. born] back [again]”, cf. also Matt 19:28) and a)nakai/wsi$ (“being [made] new again, renewal”, cf. in Rom 12:2).