“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 8:28)

John 8:28

The next Johannine “son of man” saying is found in 8:28. The depth and complexity of the great Sukkot-Discourse (chapters 7-8 [excluding 7:53-8:11]) creates many challenges for commentators. As in the case of the Last (Farewell) Discourse (13:31-16:33), the Sukkot-Discourse is properly a Discourse-complex, comprised of a number of shorter, interconnected Discourse-sections. For each such section, the typical pattern for the Johannine Discourses is generally followed:

    • Principal statement/saying by Jesus
    • Response by his hearers, reflecting a misunderstanding of the true meaning of his words
    • Exposition by Jesus

The Discourse-section containing the “son of man” saying is 8:21-30. The principal saying by Jesus occurs in verse 21:

“I lead (myself) under—and you will seek (for) me, but you will die away in your sin!
(The place) where I lead (myself) under, you are not able to come (there).”

The verb u(pa/gw means “lead under”, i.e., go under cover, put (oneself) out of sight, be hidden, etc. It can be used in the very general sense of “go away”, but it would be rather misleading to translate it so here; it is important to preserve the aspect of being “under cover”, i.e., not able to be seen. The verb is used with frequency in the Gospel of John, and often in the special Christological sense of the Son’s departure back to God the Father (in heaven). That is how the verb is being used here in the Sukkot-Discourse (8:21-22, cf. earlier in 7:33; 8:14), anticipating a similar usage in the Last Discourse (13:3, 33, 36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 16).

Those who hear Jesus’ words without trusting in him—or, even worse, in hostile opposition to him—will not be able to follow him to God the Father in heaven. Indeed, they will die off in their sin, and will have no experience of the Divine (eternal) life that comes through trust in Jesus.

This is the thrust of Jesus’ saying. In the remainder of the Discourse-section, the pattern of Response/Exposition is repeated, producing a dialogue exchange. The first response by Jesus’ hearers is in verse 22; clearly they have not understood the meaning of his words, which he then restates, expounding the saying with greater Christological clarity:

“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. So I said to you that you will die away in your sins—for, if you would not trust that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi], (then) you shall die away in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

Jesus’ hearers cannot follow him to the Father (in heaven) because they do not belong to the Divine/heavenly things (“the [thing]s above [a&nw]”), but belong, rather, to the things below [ka/tw], in “this world”. This above/below contrast is part of the Johannine dualistic manner of thought and expression. Believers are “from above” (3:3ff), having come to be born from above, from the Spirit of God. On the contrast between believers and “the world” (o( ko/smo$), cf. throughout the Last Discourse, and also the great Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17 (where the noun ko/smo$ occurs 18 times); the theme also features prominently in 1 John (2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1-5, 17; 5:4-5, 19).

Verse 24 contains an “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) saying by Jesus, an example of the essential predication that occurs throughout the Gospel (and Letters) of John. This, however, is one of the few instances where a predicate nominative is omitted, leaving only the Divine subject (Jesus, “I”) and verb of being (ei)mi). There are three such occurrences in the Sukkot-Discourse—here in v. 24, again in verse 28 (see below), and finally, at the conclusion, in verse 58: “Before Abraham’s coming to be [gene/sqai], I am [e)gw/ ei)mi]”. The lack of a predicate nominative places the emphasis squarely on the verb of being, which, here in verse 58, is contrasted with the verb of becoming (gi/nomai). This is an important theological distinction, reflecting the way that the Johannine writings tend to distinguish the verb of being from that of becoming. The verb of being tends to be applied to God (or to a Divine subject), as is reflected by the essential predication formula. By contrast, the verb of becoming properly applies to created (human) beings. Humans come to be, but only God is. The distinction between ei)mi and gi/nomai is most notable in the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The other absolute “I am” saying is found in 13:19.

Thus, for Jesus to say simply “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi), it represents the ultimate attribution of Deity (on the Old Testament background for this Divine self-predication, see, e.g., Exod 3:14; 6:7; 7:5; Isa 43:25; 45:18; 51:12; 52:6; Hos 13:4; Joel 2:27; cf. the summary in Brown, pp. 533-8)—a point that Jesus’ opponents clearly recognized, based on their response (v. 59, compare 5:18). It is therefore strange that so many commentators are unwilling (or reluctant) to read the simple e)gw/ ei)mi here in v. 24 (and 28) the same way. This will be discussed further on verse 28, below.

Another exchange, between Jesus and his hearers, occurs in vv. 25-26. Jesus’ claim that he belongs to “the (thing)s above”, and that he is “not of this world”, leads them to ask “who are you? [su\ ti/$ ei@]”. Again, the use of the verb of being here is significant, even if the speakers do not understand its significance (in the Johannine context). The question represents the very essence of the Johannine Gospel—the identity of Jesus, who he is. As direct as the question might be, Jesus will not give to them a direct answer—at least, not in wording that they would clearly understand. Indeed, the Greek phrasing Jesus employs is suitably ambiguous; in answer to the question “who are you”, he replies:

“The beginning, that which even I speak to you.”
th\n a)rxh\n o% ti kai\ lalw= u(mi=n

For a concise summary of the various ways this line has been interpreted, see Brown, pp. 347-8; von Wahlde, p. 382. The most plausible explanation is (to paraphrase): “What I have been saying to you from the beginning”. However, it is possible to read it in an even more banal way, as an expression of frustration by Jesus: “Why do I even speak to you at all?”. Whatever the intended surface meaning to be conveyed by Jesus, there can be no real doubt that the statement contains a much deeper theological meaning—one which echoes the opening words of the Prologue—identifying Jesus as “the beginning”, i.e., as the Word/Wisdom (and Son) of God who was with the Father “in the beginning”. On this theological use of a)rxh/, couched in the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”), cf. 1 John 1:1 and 2:13-14 (cp. 2:7, 24; 3:8, 11; 2 Jn 5-6).

The message regarding his identity is central to his mission, the purpose for which God the Father sent Jesus (the Son) to earth. Having come from God the Father, having been with Him from the beginning, Jesus naturally speaks the very words of God (v. 26):

“I hold many (thing)s about you to speak and to judge, but the (One hav)ing sent me is true, and I speak to the world the (thing)s that I (have) heard alongside Him.”

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ ambiguous and provocative answer leads to another response by his hearers (v. 27), presented by the Gospel writer as a simple summary, to the effect that “they did not know that he said (this) to them (about God) the Father”. This expression of their lack of understanding prompts Jesus to offer a further exposition of his words:

“When you would lift up high [u(ywshte] the son of man, then you will know that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi], and (that) from myself I do nothing—but (rather), just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these (thing)s.” (v. 28)

The initial statement of verse 28 is a “son of man” saying that resembles (and echoes) the earlier one in 3:14:

“And, just as Moshe lifted high [u%ywmen] the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the son of man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai].”

This saying informs the use of the expression “the son of man” here, and so the earlier study (on 3:14) must be consulted.

As noted above, commentators have been strangely unwilling to recognize the ‘absolute’ use of “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) here in verse 28 (and in v. 24, cf. above), in spite of its clear use in v. 58. Many translators render e)gw/ ei)mi here as “I am he”, either as a reference to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, or as “the Son of Man”. According to this line of interpretation, Jesus is using the expression “the son of man” here as a Divine (or Messianic) title, referring to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14. The translation of the first part of the verse, then would be:

“When you lift up high the Son of Man, (then) you will know that I am he…”

In my view, such a reading is wholly incorrect and thoroughly distorts the Johannine theological (and Christological) message here in the Gospel. The expression “the son of man” is, principally, a self-reference by Jesus, as if he were to say: “When you lift me up high, (then) you will know that I am…” —that is, you will know that I am the Son of God, who was with the Father (in heaven) from the beginning. The remainder of the verse clearly confirms that Jesus’ identity as the Son is being emphasized, essentially reiterating the point made in v. 26 (cf. above).
The possible influence of Dan 7:13f on the use of the expression “the son of man” (by Jesus) in the Gospel Tradition has been discussed in the earlier studies on the Synoptic sayings (esp. Mk 13:26; 14:62 par). It will be treated in more detail as this series comes to a close.

While the expression “the son of man” is principally used as a self-reference by Jesus here in v. 28, it certainly carries with it the Johannine theological associations we have discerned from the prior studies:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe
    • The incarnation of the Son, whose mission on earth culminates in his sacrificial death, which serves to confer life to those who believe

On the latter point, in particular, I think that one may admit an allusion to the incarnation (and Jesus’ impending death) in the concluding verse 29:

“And the (One hav)ing sent me is with me; He did not set me forth alone, (in) that I do the (thing)s pleasing to Him at all times.”

The “sending” (vb pe/mpw) and “setting forth” (or “sending away”, a)fi/hmi) of the Son certainly involves his incarnation (1:14) in the person of Jesus. But the incarnate mission of the Son on earth is not done alone, apart from God the Father; rather, the Father remains with (meta/) him. This may allude to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (1:32-33), suggesting that the Father’s presence is realized for Jesus through the Spirit. However, the Johannine writings say surprisingly little about how the Son’s relation to the Father was realized, in the incarnate ‘state,’ during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

In any case, the Son’s earthly mission culminates in the death of Jesus, and his death is certainly to be included as a principal component of the “lifting up high” (vb u(yo/w) of the Son. The verb u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”) is a principal Johannine verb for the exaltation of Jesus. This exaltation encompasses his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. It does, however, begin with Jesus’ death, and that is the primary point of reference both in 3:14 and here in 8:28. In this regard, the verb u(yo/w is specifically associated with the expression “the son of man”, occurring also in 12:32, 34 (to be discussed). This is not surprising, since, in the wider Gospel Tradition, the expression was frequently used in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death, as we saw in our study on the Synoptic Sayings (esp. the three Passion predictions, Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par). The formulation using the verbal particle dei= (“it is necessary [for]…”) is very much reminiscent of the Synoptic Passion predictions.

In 3:14 and 12:32, 34, the verb u(yo/w occurs in a passive form, but here in 8:28, it is active (“when you lift up high…”). It indicates the people’s role in putting Jesus to death. The passive form, by contrast, could be read as an example of the so-called Divine passive (passivum divinum), with God the Father as the implied actor. This would tend to emphasize the aspect of giving honor to the Son, parallel to the use of the verb doca/zw for the exaltation of Jesus.

The Discourse-section 8:21-30 concludes with the narrative summary in v. 30: “(With) his speaking these (thing)s, many (people) trusted in him”. This concurrence of the use of the expression “the son of man” with an emphasis on trusting in Jesus is significant, both in relation to the earlier use of the expression in the Bread of Life Discourse (cf. parts 1, 2, and 3 of the previous study), and to the next occurrence, in 9:35. It is this reference which will be examined in our next study.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 29 (1966).
Those marked “von Wahlde” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John. Volume 2: Commentary on the Gospel of John, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (2010).

 

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:62)

John 6:62

The third occurrence of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in chapter 6 is the saying by Jesus in verse 62. The first two occurrences (in vv. 27 and 53) were discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this study. Verses 60-71 are an integral component of the ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse, even though they are outside of the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59).

The relationship of vv. 60-71 to the main sections of the Discourse can be debated, on historical-critical and source-critical grounds. However, from a literary standpoint, there is no question that they are connected with the Discourse proper. This means that the ‘grumbling’ response by the disciples in verse 60f, refers back to Jesus’ words and teaching in the Discourse. The lo/go$ (“account, word”) they speak of—viz., “this lo/go$ is harsh, who is able to hear it?” —must refer to the sayings by Jesus in the Discourse (and their exposition).

In this regard, the response by the disciples mirrors the earlier responses by Jesus’ hearers (in vv. 28 [also 30-31], 41-42, and 52). This follows the typical pattern for the Johannine Discourses:

    • Principal saying/statement by Jesus
    • Response by his hearers, indicating that they have misunderstood the true meaning of his words
    • Exposition by Jesus

Sometimes, in the longer Discourses, the Response/Exposition portion of the pattern is repeated.

Which aspect of Jesus’ saying(s) are the disciples responding to when they call it “harsh” (or “hard, tough,” sklhro/$)? It is worth comparing their response to that of Jesus’ hearers in the Discourse. The sayings in Parts 2 and 3 of the Discourse, each of which relates back to the principal statement in v. 27, are “I am” sayings of Jesus:

    • I am the bread of life
      the (one) coming toward me shall not (ever) hunger,
      and the (one) trusting in me shall at no time thirst.” (v. 35)
    • I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—
      if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age…” (v. 51)

The saying in verse 51 contains both points of objection raised by Jesus’ hearers:

    • Jesus has “stepped down” (i.e., come down) from heaven
      “…(they) muttered about him that he said ‘I am the bread having stepped down out of heaven’ … how can he say (this)…?” (vv. 41-42)
    • It is necessary to “eat” Jesus—specifically, his “flesh”
      “How is this man able to give (us) [his] flesh to eat?” (v. 52)

Since the third section (vv. 51-58) immediately precedes v. 60, it would be natural that the “harsh” word be identified with the saying in v. 51, and with the idea that one must “eat” Jesus’ flesh (and “drink” his blood). However, what follows in vv. 61-62 suggests rather that it is the idea of Jesus’ heavenly origin that is the main point of difficulty for the disciples. Here is how Jesus responds to them:

But Yeshua, having seen that his learners [i.e. disciples] muttered about this, said to them: “Does this trip you up? Then, if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was (at) the first…?” (vv. 61-62)

Syntactically, the question posed by Jesus is incomplete, containing only the conditional clause (the “if” portion), but missing the apodosis (i.e., the “then” portion). He asks, “if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was (at) first…?” Most translators and commentators attempt to fill out the question, but there is some uncertainty regarding how Jesus intends it. I am inclined to interpret the question as a rebuke to the disciples, along the lines of:

“Then, if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was at first, would that help you to trust in my word?”

The point at issue is the heavenly origin of Jesus, as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. This is the fundamental Christological point of the entire Gospel, and it can only be grasped through trust, not by physical sight. Throughout the Gospel, these two levels of sight/seeing are juxtaposed: physical sight (i.e., ordinary seeing with the eyes) vs. spiritual sight. In the Johannine theological idiom, the latter represents the true meaning of the various sight/seeing verbs used in the Gospel. Through the eyes of faith, given to the believer by God Himself, one is able to recognize the truth of who Jesus is—viz., the Son of God, sent from heaven by the Father. Seeing Jesus in the ordinary sense (with one’s eyes) is meaningless if it does not lead to trust in him. This is the thrust of Jesus’ famous rebuke to Thomas in 20:27ff (see esp. verse 29). The juxtaposition of these two levels of seeing is perhaps most clear in chapter 9, the episode of the Blind Man. At the beginning of the narrative, the focus is on physical sight (and blindness); however, by the end of the episode (vv. 35-41), the focus has shifted to trust in Jesus. The one who sees, trusts in Jesus, while the one who is truly blind is unable/unwilling to trust.

The sight/seeing verb used in verse 62 is qewre/w, meaning “look (closely) at, view, observe, perceive”. It occurs quite frequently in the Gospel of John—24 times (out of 58 NT occurrences), compared with 16 in the Synoptics. It was used earlier in the Bread of Life Discourse (v. 40), where it is parallel (and synonymous) with the verb pisteu/w (“trust”), referring to trust in Jesus (as the Son). That is also the meaning, for example, in 12:45. In the Last Discourse, Jesus (and the Gospel writer) plays on the dual-meaning of the verb—that is, the two levels of “seeing” (cf. above)—14:17, 19; 16:10, 16-17ff.

The force of Jesus’ rebuke here in v. 62 is that his disciples should not need to see him go back up to heaven in order to trust in his heavenly origin. Their response in v. 61 suggests that, at least at this point in the narrative, they are not yet able to recognize the full truth of who Jesus is. It is only at the end of the Last Discourse (cf. 16:30ff) that they truly begin to understand. The confession by Peter here in vv. 68-69, like the fuller declaration by Martha in 11:27, anticipates the moment when Jesus’ disciples will finally recognize the truth regarding his identity.

How, then, shall we explain the use of the expression “the son of man” in this context? First, it is clearly used by Jesus as a self-reference. He could just as well have asked, “what if you were to see me stepping (back) up to where I was at first…?”. More important is the use of the expression earlier in the Discourse (vv. 27, 53)—particularly, in the initial saying of verse 27. Throughout the Discourse, Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from heaven”; and when he (“th[is] son of man”) gives the bread, he is actually giving himself. Thus, the emphasis is on the fact that he has come down from heaven.

The important Johannine verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., come down) occurs seven times in the Discourse (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 51-52, 58), while the corresponding verb a)nabai/nw (“step up,” i.e., go up, ascend) is used here in v. 62. Both of these verbs were used in the “son of man” sayings of 1:51 [study] and 3:13-14 [study], and thus reflect important thematic associations for the expression within the Gospel of John:

    • The heavenly origin of Jesus
    • That Jesus (the Son) came down to earth, sent by the Father

A third, related theme, is the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus. This was discussed in the second part of this study (on verse 53, in the context of vv. 51-58), and is alluded to again in verse 63 (see below). The idea of the Son’s incarnation (as human flesh [and blood]) cannot be separated from the motif of the Son’s descent from heaven. Moreover, both the Son’s incarnation, and the mission for which he sent down to earth (by the Father), relate specifically to Jesus’ death. This, indeed, is the emphasis in vv. 51-58, and must be regarded as part of the “harsh word” that the disciples find difficult to accept. Jesus’ teaching in the Discourse entails a double difficulty—stemming from the very expression “the bread out of heaven”:

    • “out of heaven” —the heavenly origin of Jesus
    • “bread” —that it is necessary to “eat” Jesus (that is, his “flesh”)

If Jesus’ question in verse 62 addresses the first difficulty, his words in verse 63 would seem to address the second:

“The Spirit is the (thing) making alive—the flesh does not benefit anything! The utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.”

It is inconceivable that this statement, in the context of the chapter 6 Discourse, does not refer back to vv. 51-58, and to the apparent eucharistic language used in those verses. If so, then the noun sa/rc (“flesh”) here must refer to the use of the same noun (six times) in vv. 51-56. Just as one cannot recognize the truth of who Jesus is through ordinary (physical) sight, so also one cannot receive life through the ordinary (physical) eating of bread/flesh. The nature of both the seeing and eating is spiritual. Moreover, the Spirit is the source of the Divine (eternal) life, which one receives (and experiences) through trust in Jesus. By trusting in his word (“the utterances which I have spoken”)—the message regarding who he is—one both “sees” and “eats”. The emphasis in vv. 51-58 is not ritualistic (sacramental), but spiritual. For a more detailed study of verse 63, see my recent article and notes in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”.

Returning to the use of the expression “the son of man”, there is, in v. 62, a two-fold emphasis—emphasizing two particular thematic associations which we have already highlighted:

    • As a self-reference by Jesus (viz., “th[is] son of man”), since the emphasis is on the identity of Jesus himself as the incarnate Son who has come down from heaven
    • That he has, indeed, come down from heaven—a Christological principle that entails both the incarnation of the Son, and the life that he is able to give as a result of his mission on earth

In the next study, we will turn to the next occurrence of the expression “the son of man”, in 8:28.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This study continues our series examining how conflicts within the early Christianity shaped the theology and religious worldview of the New Testament. The initial set of studies has focused on the Letters of John (see the prior studies on 2 John 4-11 and 1 John 2:18-27, as well as the previous study exploring the central section of 1 John). We will be looking at 1 John 4:1-6, focusing on several important Johannine themes, which the author has adapted, as a way of confronting and addressing the conflict involving the “antichrist” opponents. In so doing, we will also consider briefly some of the themes and points emphasized in the central section (2:28-3:24).

1 John 4:1-6

This passage must be considered in the context of the entire central bloc of material spanning 2:18-4:6. In 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the author deals directly with the conflict involving a group of ‘opponents’ whom he refers to as antíchristoi, people “against [antí] the Anointed [Christós]” (i.e., against Christ)—2:18, 22; 4:3 (see also 2 John 7). These two “antichrist” sections flank the central division of the treatise (2:28-3:24), which expounds the author’s central theme: the contrast between the true and false believer.

By all accounts, the opponents, no less that the author and his adherents, were Johannine Christians who were rooted in the Johannine Tradition. Both groups likely knew (and used) some version of the Gospel of John, and would have shared a common religious tradition, theological vocabulary, and mode of expression. For this reason, in order to combat what the author regards as the false teaching (and example) of the opponents, it was necessary for the author to develop, adapt, and apply certain aspects of the Johannine Tradition. I wish to examine several of these here.

1. “The Spirit of Truth”

In both the Gospel and 1 John there is a strong emphasis on truth. The noun al¢¡theia occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings (45 out of 109 NT occurrences); it occurs 25 times in the Johannine Gospel, compared with just 7 in the Synoptic Gospels. Also the related adjectives al¢th¢¡s and al¢thinós occur with some frequency—17 out of 26 for al¢th¢¡s, and 13 out of 28 for al¢thinós (23 out of 28 if one includes the book of Revelation as Johannine). Truth, of course, is a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God, and naturally applies to the Son (Jesus) and his teaching, etc, as well. However, in the Johannine writings, there is also a distinctive association with the Spirit. The expression “the Spirit of truth” (to pneúma t¢¡s al¢theías) occurs three times in the Gospel (in the Paraclete-sayings of the Last Discourse), 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and also here in 1 John 4:6 (see below). A close association between the Spirit and truth, as a fundamental Divine attribute, is expressed famously in Jn 4:23-24, and the author of 1 John goes so far as to identify the Spirit with truth itself (5:6; compare a similar identification of the Son [Jesus] with truth in Jn 14:6).

According to the Johannine theology, which is rooted in the broader early Christian tradition, believers in Christ receive the Spirit of God (Jn 4:10ff/7:37-39; 6:63; 20:22; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13), and are also born of God’s Spirit (Jn 3:3-8). It is through the Spirit that believers, as God’s offspring, are united with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. That is to say, our abiding union as believers, in the Son and in the Father, is realized through the Spirit. As a theological point, this is not stated explicitly in the Johannine writings, but it may be plainly inferred from a number of passages. First, since God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), any union with Him must take place in a spiritual manner, at the level of the Spirit. Secondly, there are the statements regarding the Spirit-Paraclete by Jesus in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:8-15) where it is clear that, even after his departure back to the Father, the Son (Jesus) will continue to be present in and among believers through the Spirit. The context of these statements, in the Last Discourse, and also the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17, well establishes the principle that the abiding union of believers with the Son and the Father is realized through the Spirit. This theology is confirmed by the author’s words in 3:24 and 4:13 as well.

Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to be present within believers—all believers—and continues to teach them the truth of God. In light of this role of the Spirit, as it is described in the Paraclete-sayings, there would seem to have been a notable spiritualistic emphasis, or tendency, within the Johannine congregations. The teaching that comes through the internal witness of the Spirit takes priority over the external teaching (by other human beings), since this witness of the Spirit is that of God Himself (and His Son, Jesus).

Such an emphasis on the teaching of the Spirit was a basic component of early Christian identity, rooted in Old Testament prophetic and eschatological tradition. The early Christians viewed their experience (of receiving the Spirit) as the fulfillment of a number of key prophecies (Joel 2:28-32; Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29, etc) regarding the restoration of God’s people in the New Age. God will ‘pour out’ His Spirit upon His people in a new way, with the result that the Instruction (Torah) of God will be written within, on their hearts (cp. 2 Corinthians 3:6-18). Of particular importance is the “new covenant” prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which indicates that, in the New Age, God’s people will no longer need to be taught the Torah, because it will be written in their hearts.

This prophecy had enormous influence on early Christians, but it seems to have been taken particularly seriously by the Johannine Community. There is an allusion to Jer 31:33-34 (by way of Isa 54:13) in Jn 6:45, and I believe that it informs the Paraclete-sayings as well (see above on the teaching role of the Spirit). The priority of the internal witness of the Spirit is also expressed in 1 John, featuring prominently in all three sections—2:18-27, 4:1-6, and 5:4b-12—that deal most directly with the “antichrist” opponents. Particularly in 2:21ff and 27, the author emphasizes that believers are taught by the Spirit; I take the references to “the anointing” as referring to the Spirit, though not all commentators agree on this point. The witness of the Spirit is sufficient; believers do not need any other human being to teach them regarding the truth—specifically the truth of who Jesus is (Messiah and Son of God), and what was accomplished through his earthly ministry.

But this creates a problem. If all believers are taught the truth by the Spirit, how can Christians such as the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus? Indeed, from the author’s standpoint, these opponents have a false belief in Jesus, and thus cannot be true believers at all; rather, they are false believers, and also false prophets. This is how the author characterizes them in 4:1: “…many false prophets [pseudoproph¢¡tai] have gone out into the world”. The noun proph¢¡t¢s means “foreteller”, but this does not always mean telling the future (i.e., beforehand); rather, the corresponding Hebrew term n¹»î° properly means a “speaker” (spokesperson), one who speaks as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to others. According to the early Christian ideal, all believers function as prophets in this way, and the Johannine churches seem particularly to have emphasized an egalitarian approach to prophecy.

If the opponents (as “false prophets”) are speaking a false word regarding Jesus, then they cannot be inspired by the Spirit of God (the Spirit of truth); instead, they must be speaking from a different spirit. Throughout 4:1-6, the author contrasts this ‘spirit’ with the Spirit of God, beginning here in verse 1:

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit; but (instead) examine the spirits, (to see) if it is of God.”

There is, of course, only one Spirit that is from God; however, the plural here refers to the idea that each person, who would speak about God, as a prophet, speaks under the influence of a spirit. If they are not inspired by God’s Spirit, then they speak by a different spirit that is not from God. The author puts forward a test, by which believers may examine the prophetic word, and this test is Christological (vv. 2-3). More to the point, the Christological significance is related to the controversy surrounding the opponents (and their understanding of the person of Christ). Unfortunately, from our standpoint, the defining phrase “having come in (the) flesh” does not tell us as much about the opponents’ Christology as we might like to know. Did they deny the reality of the incarnation, holding to an early docetic view of Christ? Or did they, in some way, deny or minimize the importance of the life and ministry of Jesus? The parallel confessional statement in 5:6 suggests that it was the death of Jesus, and/or its significance, that was particularly at issue. For further discussion on the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ, see my earlier notes and articles on the subject, especially the sets of notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

Two Johannine themes are thus brought together here in 4:1-6, in an attempt to combat the views of the opponents: (1) the Johannine principle of the internal witness of the Spirit (in teaching the truth), and (2) the eschatological aspect of prophecy (and false prophecy). The opponents are false prophets of the end-time; their view of Jesus, which they speak and teach, being false, does not come from the Spirit of God, but from a different spirit—a false and deceiving spirit. It is a spirit that is opposed to God, and is “against Christ” (antichrist). Indeed, the spirit that does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” (v. 2), is a “spirit of antichrist” (v. 3), a deceiving spirit of false prophecy that is at work in the world. It is a spirit that belongs to “the world” (in the thoroughly negative Johannine sense of the term kósmos); those who speak from this spirit (i.e., the opponents) belong to the world, and only others who belong to the world (i.e., false believers) will listen to and accept what they say (v. 5).

The true believer, however, belongs to God (as His offspring), and not to the world. The Spirit of God dwells within every true believer, and this Spirit is far greater than the false/deceiving spirit of “antichrist” that is in the world (v. 4). Because the Son (Jesus) was victorious over the world (Jn 16:33), believers, who are united with him, share this same victory (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). In this immediate context, “victory” (vb nikáœ) refers specifically to rejecting the false teaching of the opponents and resisting their influence. The true believer should not—and will not—let himself/herself be led astray by the false teaching and example of the opponents. Here again, the author draws upon early Christian eschatological tradition, regarding the ‘false prophets’ of the end-time who lead people astray (vb planáœ)—see Mark 13:6, 22 par; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14, etc).

The author offers an exhortation (and warning) to his readers not to be led astray by these particular “false prophets” (2:26; cf. also 1:8; 3:7). At the close of this section (v. 6), the author establishes a stark contrast, between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of going/leading astray [plán¢]”. The noun plán¢ is derived from the verb planáœ, and carries the same eschatological significance—see 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Pet 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11. True believers possess the Spirit of truth, are guided and taught by it, and speak from it; false believers, by contrast, are guided by a false spirit, being led astray by it, and also leading others astray. Just as the true believer will not listen to the false spirit, so the false believer cannot (and will not) hear the Spirit of truth. Note the way that the author frames this in terms of “us” (i.e., true believers) vs. “them” (false believers, viz. the opponents):

“We are of God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of God does not hear us. Out of this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray.” (v. 6)

Next week, we shall examine several other Johannine themes, which the author employs in his effort to deal with the conflict surrounding the opponents.

July 5: 1 John 5:20, continued

1 John 5:20, continued

(see the previous note)

Like all three statements in the triad, v. 20 begins with the conclusive declaration “we have seen that…” (oi&damen o%ti). Through the use of the plural, the author implicitly includes his audience with himself, as being among the Community of true believers. He assumes that here, by the end of the treatise, his readers/hearers will affirm the truth of what he presents. Let us briefly examine each phrase and element of the statement.

“the Son of God is come” (o( ui(o/$ tou= qeou= h%kei). This declares that the Son of God has come in the person of Jesus Christ—an allusion to both the incarnation and the mission for which the Father sent him to earth. The use of the present tense of the verb may seem a bit peculiar in this regard; however, it emphasizes the presence of the Son in and among us, and thus can be understood in terms of the Son’s continuing/abiding presence. The verb h%kw can specifically refer to being here. According to the author, the opponents hold an erroneous (false) view of the Son’s coming; on the nature of their Christology, see my earlier notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

“and he has given to us (the) ability to think through” (kai\ de/dwken h(mi=n dia/noian). A key aspect of Johannine theology is the point that the Son has received from the Father (Jn 3:35, etc), and has, in turn, given these things to us as believers. The verb di/dwmi (“give”) is used frequently, in the Gospel (and in 1 John), in this special theological sense. Here, it is said that one of the things the Son gave to us is the “(ability) to think (things) through” (dia/noia), the only occurrence of this word in the Johannine writings. But this does not refer to any ordinary mental or intellectual ability; rather, it is best explained in terms of the regular Johannine idiom of knowing (and seeing), using the verbs ginw/skw and ei&dw (along with other sight/seeing verbs). That is to say, the Son has given us the ability to know and to see the truth; the noun dia/noia could be translated fairly here as “insight” (this is how von Wahlde renders it, pp. 201, 207). This insight (and ability to see) comes only through trust in Jesus (as the Son) and our birth (as believers) from the Spirit (cf. John 3:3ff).

“that we should know the True (One)” (i%na ginw/skwmen to\n a)lhqino/n). Again, this is not ordinary cognitive knowledge, but knowledge of God, given to us through the Spirit. The Son came to make known the Father—a key Johannine theological point. The statement here would seem to echo the important confessional declaration in Jn 17:3:

“And this the life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]: that they should you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

The title “the True (One)” is essentially shorthand here for the expression “the only true God”. It also reflects the fundamental Divine attribute/characteristic of truth. Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, this attribute is specifically associated with the Spirit (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6); indeed, the Spirit is even identified with the Truth itself (5:6), an instance of Johannine essential predication where the Spirit is the Divine subject. There is an equally strong association with the Son, including an essential predicative statement (Jn 14:6) comparable to that of 1 Jn 5:6. As a fundamental Divine attribute, truth (a)lh/qeia) can be identified with God Himself—and so also with the Son and the Spirit, respectively.

“and we are in the True (One)” (kai\ e)smen e)n tw=| a)lhqinw=|). As believers, we do not only know God, we are in (e)n) Him, united with Him in a bond of union. This, again, reflects the identity of believers as the offspring/children of God, born of Him. Having been born of His Spirit, we are united with Him through the Spirit; just as the Son (Jesus) is united with the Father, so are we as His children. Indeed, it is through the Son that we are able to be united with the Father, our union with Father and Son both being realized through the Spirit. Both the Spirit and the Son are the truth (5:6; Jn 14:6), the very truth that is God Himself.

“in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed” (e)n tw=| ui(w=| au)tou= Ihsou= Xristw=|). As noted above, it is because we are “in the Son” that we are in the Father. The embedded confessional statement—viz., that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—echoes the theme from earlier in the treatise, that only those who remain rooted in the truth of who Jesus is, with a correct trust in him, can truly be said to be united with the Son and the Father. The opponents, who have departed from the truth of Jesus Christ, have union with neither the Son nor the Father (2:22-23, cf. the earlier notes on the Christology of the opponents).

“This is the true God and (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$). This statement identifies God with both truth (a)lh/qeia) and life (zwh/)—both key Johannine theological terms (and themes) that occur frequently in the Gospel and First Letter. The Divine life, possessed by God, is, by its nature, eternal life. Our union with the Son (through the Spirit) enables us to share in this Divine truth and life; indeed, it is our possession as the offspring/children of God. Again, this declaration echoes the confessional statement in Jn 17:3.

The structure of verse 20 follows a logical causal chain (cf. von Wahlde, p. 201):

    • “the Son of God is come,
      • and he has given to us the ability to know/see [dia/noia],
        • that we should know the True (One),
          • and (so) we are in the True (One)”

The climactic statement “and (so) we are in the True (One)” is another example of Johannine essential predication, applied to believers as the Divine subject. The subject (“we,” i.e., believers) is implied, while the predicate nominative, in this instance, is a prepositional phrase, defining our abiding union with God:

(we) | are [e)smen] | in the True (One) [e)n tw=| a)lhqinw=|]”

A variation on this formulation (of essential predication) utilizes the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, “this”) for the Divine subject in an oblique (or general/comprehensive) way. We have an example of this in the closing statement of verse 20:

This [ou!to$] | is [e)stin] | the true God and eternal Life

The pronoun refers back to God as “the True (One)”, though it could also refer to the Son (“His Son, Yeshua [the] Anointed”). The ambiguity may be intentional. Certainly, as noted above, the Divine attributes of truth and life apply to the Son just as they do to the Father. The parallelism in the preceding phrases argues for a dual reference here:

    • “in the True (One) [i.e. God the Father]”
    • “in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Eternal life may properly be defined by this: as being in the Son, and thus also in the Father.

References above marked “von Wahlde” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John. Volume 3: Commentary on the Three Johannine Letters, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (2010).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 5:27, cont.)

John 5:27, continued

In the first part of this study, we examined the context of the “son of man” reference in verse 27. As part of this analysis, we noted the parallelism between vv. 21-24 and 25-29 in the first expository section of the chap. 5 Discourse. We may narrow the focus to the parallel units of vv. 21-22 and 26-27, in which the thematic emphasis is on the Father giving to the Son the authority/ability both to give life (to the dead) and to judge. Here, again, is how this is expressed in vv. 21-22:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes live th(ose) whom he wishes.
For the Father judges no one, but has given all (power of) judgment to the Son”

And, in vv. 26-27:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father holds life in Himself, so also He (has) given to the Son life to hold in himself.
And He (has) given (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to him to make judgment, (in) that he is (the) Son of man.”

The point is made doubly: the Father has given life-giving power to the Son; He has also given the Son the power/authority to act as judge over humankind.

Throughout the first division of the Discourse, vv. 19-30, the principal theme is how Jesus, as the Son (of God), does the work of God his Father. The broader thematic focus is on the relationship between the Son (Jesus) and God the Father. Because of this central theme that runs through the entire Gospel, Jesus regularly refers to himself (in the Discourses) as “the Son” (o( ui(o/$), by which is meant “God’s Son” (i.e., “the Son of God”). This is typical of the Johannine Gospel, compared with the relatively rare use of the unqualified expression “the Son” in the Synoptics. And, not surprisingly, given the thematic emphasis in 5:19-30, the expression “the Son” occurs quite often (9 times) in these verses. This makes the singular use of the expression “(the) son of man” in v. 27 quite significant.

Why does Jesus (and the Gospel writer) use “(the) son of man” in verse 27 (and only there)? The precise wording of the phrase containing the expression is important: “(in) that [i.e. because] he is (the) Son of man” (o%ti ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou e)stin). This explicative use of the o%ti-clause offers the reason why God the Father has given the Son (Jesus) authority to judge humankind: it is because he is “(the) son of man”.

From a syntactical standpoint, the statement “he is (the) son of man” is an example of the sort of essential predication that occurs throughout the Gospel (and Letters) of John. These simple predicative statements contain three elements: (1) Divine subject, (2) verb of being, and (3) predicate noun or phrase. The statements give essential information about who the subject is. The formulation is basically limited to a Divine subject—usually Jesus Christ (the Son), but occasionally God the Father, while, in at least one instance (1 Jn 5:6), the Spirit is the subject. In a secondary application, the formula can also be applied to believers in Christ (viz., believers, the children/offspring of God, as the divine subject).

The “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) declarations by Jesus are the most famous examples of Johannine essential predication. Indeed, when Jesus, as both Divine subject and speaker, makes such statements, it is most natural that he would use a first person pronoun to express the subject. Here, however, he speaks in the third person (“he is”), as he typically does whenever he uses the expression “the son of man”, using it as a self-reference. The pronoun is not present in the Greek, but only implied (based on the form of the verb). The specific formulation is unusual (and unprecedented): Jesus uses one self-reference (“the Son”, i.e., “he”) to identify himself with another self-reference (“the son of man”). That is, “the Son is the Son of man”.

How is this essential information to be understood? There are two main lines of interpretation that commentators tend to follow. The first line of interpretation understands the expression “(the) son of man” here as a title, referring (principally) to the heavenly figure (“[one] like a son of man”) in Daniel 7:13-14. Thus, Jesus would be identifying himself (“the Son”) with this heavenly figure. The most relevant parallel, and perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this line of interpretation, is the fact that, in Dan 7:13-14, God gives to the “(one) like a son of man” a ruling authority over humankind:

“…and to him was given dominion [/f*l=v*] and glory [rq*y+] and kingship [Wkl=m^], and all the peoples, nations, and tongues shall give (diligent) service to him” (v. 14)
While Theodotion translates all three Hebrew terms, the LXX renders them under the single word e)cousi/a, as in Jn 5:27:
“…and authority [e)cousi/a] was given to him”

It is not specifically stated that the heavenly figure was given authority to judge; however, this would certainly be part of the ruling authority given to him, and the eschatological judgment (of the nations) certainly features in the passage (vv. 10ff, 22, 26-27). Moreover, in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), the heavenly figure of Dan 7:13-14, called by the title “th(e) Son of Man”, is more directly associated with the Judgment (46:2-4ff; chap. 62; 63:11; 69:27ff), the Danielic figure having been blended together with the figure of the Davidic Messiah. For more on the Jewish eschatological/Messianic background of this “Son of Man” figure, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The second line of interpretation understands the expression in a qualitative sense—that is, “son of man” (without the definite article [see below]) means a human being. In other words, Jesus (the Son) is given the authority to judge humankind because he himself is a human being. In the Johannine theological context, this would refer specifically to the incarnation of the Son (1:14ff). It is as the incarnate Son that Jesus has the authority to act as judge over humankind and to render judgment.

On the whole, this second line of interpretation is to be preferred, particularly in the overall context of the Johannine Gospel (and its theology). Before developing this further, a word should be said about the lack of definite articles for the expression here (i.e., uio\$ a)nqrw/pou instead of o( uio\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou)—the only such anarthrous occurrence of the expression in the Gospels. In spite of the lack of the definite article, the expression can still be definite. Indeed, in the case of the word order here, on purely syntactical grounds, a predicate nominative (noun) that precedes the verb should probably be understood in a definite sense*.
* On this point, see the study by E. C. Colwell back in 1933 (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 52, pp. 12-31; Jn 5:27 is discussed on on p. 14); cf. Moloney, pp. 82ff.
At the same time, anarthrous predicate nouns often carry a qualitative sense (cf. the article by P. B. Harner in Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 92 [1973], pp. 75-87). If both of these aspects of the predicate noun are present here in v. 27, then it would mean that the expression is particularly emphasizing that the Son is the human being with the authority to exercise judgment over humankind (cp. the expression in Mk 2:10 par, also 2:28 par). In terms of the Johannine theology, as noted above, this would refer to the incarnation of the Son—viz., the pre-existent (heavenly) Son who has come to earth as a human being. We have seen how the twin Johannine themes of the heavenly origin of the Son, and of his descent to earth, featured prominently in the prior “son of man” sayings (1:51 [study]; 3:13-14 [study]).

Of particular importance is how the thematic motif of judgment (kri/si$, vb kri/nw) is presented in the Gospel of John. Most relevant for consideration is the statement in 3:19, coming as it does in the expository section (of that earlier Discourse), vv. 16-21, immediate following the “son of man” references (vv. 13-14). The end-time Judgment is explained in terms of the ‘realized’ eschatology of the Gospel (see the discussion in the first part of this study). That is to say, the Judgment occurs now, in the present; and, specifically, those would fail or refuse to trust in Jesus are already judged:

“The (one) trusting in him is not judged; but the (one) not trusting has already [h&dh] been judged, (in) that he has not trusted in the name of the only [monogenh/$] Son of God.” (v. 18)

The nature of the Judgment, in this regard, is further explained in verse 19:

“And this is the judgment: that the Light has come into the world, and (yet) men loved the darkness more than the Light, for their deeds are evil.”

This corresponds to what Jesus says about the Judgment here in verse 24, and clearly relates to the idea that this judgment has been given to the Son (v. 22). Interestingly, in 3:17, Jesus seems to say the opposite—viz., that he has not come (as the incarnate Son) to render judgment:

“For God did not send forth the Son into the world (so) that he should judge the world, but (rather) that the world might be saved through him.” (cp. 8:15-16; 12:47)

The locus of the Judgment is whether or not one trusts in Jesus (as the incarnate Son). In that sense, the incarnate Son (Jesus) does not fill the role of end-time Judge as it might traditionally be understood. Instead, the Judgment occurs based on how a person responds to the message of the incarnate Son—the truth of who he is and what he has done. Compare the Judgment-references in 9:39 and 12:47-48. Later on in the Gospel, this aspect of the Judgment is tied more directly to the Son’s fulfillment of his earthly mission—that is, his exaltation (“being lifted up”), beginning with his sacrificial death (see the previous study on the saying in 3:14). This thematic development is expressed by the declaration in 12:31:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the chief (ruler) of this world will be cast outside!”

The implication is that Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death) initiates the Judgment of the world; this Judgment involves the punishment (expulsion) of the “ruler of this world” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). Much the same is stated in 16:11 (see my earlier study on the Paraclete saying[s] in 16:8-11ff). Again, this Judgment is tied to the world’s failure/refusal to trust in Jesus, defined (in Johannine terms) as the great sin (vv. 8-9).

How does all of this relate to the use of the expression “(the) son of man” in verse 27? Though there are definite allusions to Daniel 7:13-14 (see above) here in the passage, it would seem that Jesus (and the Gospel writer) has reinterpreted the traditional Judgment-association in light of the Johannine theology (and Christology). In particular, the whole theme of judgment has been radically interpreted in the Johannine writings. The Judgment is now defined primarily in terms of trust in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. The one who trusts has already passed through the Judgment (v. 24), while the one who does not trust has already been judged (3:18-19, etc). The trust in Jesus specifically relates to his death (viz., the beginning of his exaltation), the fulfillment of the mission for which the Father sent the Son (from heaven to earth).

We may expand our understanding of the Johannine “son of man” references, based on the sayings we have examined thus far, to include the following points:

    • The heavenly origin of the Son (Jesus)
    • His descent to earth—entailing his incarnation as a human being (“son of man”)
    • The promise of his ascent (back to heaven), following the completion of his mission
    • This ascent (exaltation, “lifting up”) begins with his sacrificial death (3:14)—whereby the use of the expression “the son of man” has definite parallels to the Synoptic Passion predictions (and similar sayings)
    • The end-time Judgment, traditionally associated with the “son of man” (Dan 7:13-14; Mk 13:26 par, etc), is defined primarily in terms of how one responds to this Christological message of the Son’s descent/ascent.

In the next study, we shall turn to the “son of man” references in the chapter 6 (Bread of Life) Discourse.

References above (and throughout these studies) marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007).

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

1 John 2:18-27

In the previous two studies, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. In particular the key Johannine theme, of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) required of every true believer—trust and love—is expounded and applied in relation to the conflict surrounding the “antichrist” opponents (v. 7). A genuine trust in Jesus Christ is defined in terms of the opponents’ Christology (and their false trust, vv. 7-9ff), while love for one’s fellow believers involves protecting them from the opponents’ influence (see vv. 10-11).

The same conflict is present in 1 John. This is clear from the similarity in wording between 2 John 7 and 1 John 4:3. The author of 1 John (if he is not the same person who penned 2 John) provides a more extensive and developed treatment of the conflict involving the opponents, whom he also calls antíchristos (antichrist). The central section, or division, of 1 John is 2:28-3:24. In this section, the author offers a presentation of what it means to be a true believer. By contrast, in the flanking sections (2:18-27 & 4:1-6), the focus is on the false believer. The principal theme of the treatise is the contrast between the true and false believer; the opponents are identified as false believers, while, in the author’s rhetorical strategy, his audience is essentially treated as true believers. This approach serves the purpose of both exhorting and warning Johannine Christians to remain faithful to the truth, in the face of the danger posed by the ‘antichrist’ opponents.

At various points throughout 1 John, we can see how this conflict has shaped the Johannine discourse. Various teachings and traditions, the language and manner of expression, have been adapted or interpreted so as to address the conflict involving the opponents. The first ‘antichrist’ section, 2:18-27, provides a number of examples for consideration. We begin with verse 18:

“Little children, it is the last hour. And, just as you (have) heard that (the one) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristoi]—(and) from this we know that it is (the) last hour.”

The chiastic parallelism of this statement demonstrates how the author can use certain literary and grammatical-syntactical means in order to apply Johannine tradition to the situation involving the opponents. Note the structure:

    • “Little children, it is the last hour
      • you have heard that antichrist comes
      • even now many antichrists have come to be
    • (thus) we know that it is the last hour.”

The framing statements regarding “the last hour” relate to the eschatological expectation of Johannine Christians. The author, and doubtless many (if not all) of his addressees, held an imminent eschatology, with a strong belief that he/they were living in the time just before the end of the current Age. Part of this expectation, apparently, was that someone (or something) called “against the Anointed” (antíchristos) would come, just before the end, during the end-time period of distress (see Dan 12:1; Mark 13:19, 24 par; Rev 1:9; 7:14, etc). The author uses the term antíchristos (a)nti/xristo$) without explanation, nor does he offer any additional information regarding this expectation, which suggests that we are dealing with a tradition that was familiar to his audience. It is not at all clear whether the term here refers to an individual human being, a spirit-being, or an impersonal (spiritual) force. Possibly all three are involved; cf. the expectation elucidated by Paul in 2 Thess 2:1-12. For more on this subject, see my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition” (the Johannine references are discussed in Part 3).

In any case, the author clearly interprets this eschatological expectation in terms of the opponents. They are manifestations of this antíchristos—indeed, through the presence and activity of the opponents, many ‘antichrists’ have come to be. These antíchristoi are human beings, and yet the author also recognizes that a distinct spirit of ‘antichrist’ is at work.

The author does not immediately explain how (or in what way) the opponents are “against the Anointed”. This is because the main point(s) at issue are only expounded progressively, throughout the three sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:4b-12) that deal most directly with the opponents’ views. What the author initially tells us about these ‘antichrists’ is that they have departed from the Johannine Community—or, at least, what the author regards as the Community of true believers:

“They went out of [ek] us, (in) that they were not of [ek] us; for, if they were of us, they would have remained [vb ménœ] with us—but (this was so) that it would be made to shine forth [i.e., be made apparent] that they are not of us.” (v. 19)

This is an example of how the distinctive Johannine theological language is applied to the situation involving the opponents. Two bits of Johannine vocabulary and style are employed. First, there is the preposition ek (“out of”), used two different ways, with a dual meaning: (a) “out of, [away] from”, in the sense of departing/leaving the group, and (b) “(part) of”, i.e., belonging to, the Community. Even more distinctive is the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), an important Johannine keyword that is used (with special theological meaning) many times throughout the Gospel and First Letter. The true believer remains—both in Christ and in the bond of Community—while false believers (such as the opponents) do not remain. The opponents, like Judas in the Gospel narrative, depart from the Community of true believers, going out into the darkness of the world (Jn 13:30; 1 Jn 4:1ff). This could simply refer to their departure from the truth (specifically with regard to their view of Jesus), or it may mean that a more tangible separation/division within the Johannine churches has taken place.

In verses 20-21, and again in verse 27, two additional Johannine features are related to the conflict. First, there is the allusion to the Spirit in verse 20:

“And (yet) you hold an anointing from the Holy (One), and have seen [i.e. know] all (thing)s.”

Though the point has been disputed by some commentators, it is best to understand the noun chrísma (“anointing”) here as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Related to this emphasis on the role of the Spirit, is the use of the noun al¢¡theia (“truth”) in verse 21:

“I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen [i.e. do not know] the truth, but (in) that you have seen [i.e. do know] it, and that every(thing) false is not of [ek] the truth.”

This would seem to reflect a fundamental spiritual (and spiritualistic) principle within the Johannine Community (see the recent article in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”). The indwelling presence of the Spirit means that every true believer is able to know and recognize the truth, through the internal witness of the Spirit. However, the presence and activity of the opponents has created a challenge to this principle, since there are certain Johannine Christians (the opponents) who, according to the author, are spreading false teachings. Such false teachings can not come from the same Spirit of God. This is a point that the author develops more clearly in 4:1-6.

A key rhetorical strategy of the author, as noted above, is to address his audience as though they are all true believers. Being true believers, who are taught (internally) by the Spirit (who is the truth, 5:6), they will be able to recognize teaching that is false. The implication is that the readers/hearers should be able to recognize the falseness of the opponents’ teachings.

And it is the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ that is most at issue. The author provides his first summary of the matter here in vv. 22-26. The main principle is that the ‘antichrist’, one who is “against the Anointed”, denies that Jesus is the Anointed (Christ/Messiah). This is another way of saying that the opponents deny Jesus as the Anointed. However, the precise meaning of the author in this regard is not entirely clear, and has been much discussed and debated by commentators. For a relatively in-depth treatment of the issue, see my earlier three-part article “1 Jn 2:22 and the Opponents in 1 John”. I will touch on the matter again in an upcoming study within this series.

What is most important is that, for the author, the opponents’ Christology (their view of Jesus) means that they are not true believers. By effectively denying Jesus, they show that they do not possess the bond of union with either the Son of God (Jesus) or God the Father (vv. 22-23). The presence of the Spirit (i.e., the “anointing”), and its internal witness, is the ultimate source of authority for believers (see again the aforementioned article), to the extent that there is no need to be taught (externally) by another human being (v. 27). But how, then, can individual believers be certain that their understanding is true, guided by the Spirit of God, and has not been led astray by false teachings (coming from other spirits)? The author gives an initial answer to this question in verse 24:

“(As for) you, that which you (have) heard from the beginning must remain in you. If it should remain in you, that which you heard from the beginning, (then) you also shall remain in the Son and in the Father.”

The only way for the believer not to be led astray, is to remain in the true teaching (regarding Jesus Christ). The author uses the key expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s) to summarize the true teaching. It echoes his words in the prologue (1:1-4), which, in turn, seem to be inspired by the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The implication is that the internal witness/teaching of the Spirit will conform to the established Gospel tradition, regarding the person and work of Jesus. Any teaching which deviates from the truth of the Gospel cannot come from the Spirit of God, but from a different (false/deceiving) spirit. By remaining in the truth of the Gospel tradition, one is sure to remain united (through the Spirit) with the Father and the Son.

It is the Gospel account, rooted in historical tradition, of who Jesus is, and what he said/did during his earthly ministry, that is principally in view. The opponents, in their view of Jesus, have departed from the Gospel tradition. This, at least, is how the author of 1 John understands the matter. Their teaching denies the truth of who Jesus is, and so they are “against the Anointed”. Their teaching is a malevolent reflection of the end-time spirit of Antichrist, capable of leading many believers astray.

Next week, we will continue this study, examining how the author of 1 John further adapts the Johannine tradition and theology to address this vital conflict. We shall turn our attention to the central section of the work (2:28-3:24), isolating a number of key elements that are particularly emphasized and employed by the author.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14)

John 3:13 and 14

The next two Johannine occurrences of the expression “the son of man” occur together, at the center of the ‘Nicodemus’ Discourse in chapter 3. These two sayings (vv. 13 and 14) may have originally circulated separately, even within the Johannine Tradition; however, they are currently integral to the Discourse, and clearly represent an important expository component within the literary structure of the Discourse.

All of the Johannine Discourses have an historical-traditional episode as their basis. In this instance, it is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (vv. 1-8ff). However, Nicodemus effectively disappears midway through the discourse, and is not mentioned again after verses 9-10. The sayings in verses 13-14f represent the transition point in the discourse, leading to the exposition by Jesus that follows in vv. 16-21. This is significant from the standpoint of the theological framework of the discourse, since it explains how being “born from above” and “born of the Spirit” (the dual-theme in vv. 1-8) are to be understood—viz., in terms of trusting in Jesus as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father (vv. 16-21). This Christological exposition also informs the “son of man” sayings in vv. 13-14 (as is clear from v. 15).

John 3:13

“no one has stepped up [a)nabe/bhken] into heaven, if not the (one hav)ing stepped down [kataba/$] out of heaven, the son of man.”

This statement by Jesus fits somewhat uneasily in the immediate context of vv. 9-12. Indeed, it is not entirely clear how it relates to the preceding vv. 11-12, and it certainly could have existed as a separate saying by Jesus (in some form). In the context of the Discourse, the statement affirms Jesus’ ability (and authority) to speak of “heavenly (thing)s” (e)poura/nia, lit. “[thing]s above the heaven[s]”)—such as the Divine/spiritual teaching in vv. 3-8, along with the exposition that follows in vv. 16-21. Only someone who comes from heaven is able to speak of heavenly things.

Verse 13 begins with the conjunction kai/, which could be translated conjunctively as “and”, or emphatically as “indeed”. In either case, the conjunction connects the saying with the prior vv. 11-12.

The saying itself uses the same verb pair as in 1:51 (see the previous study): a)nabai/nw (“step up”, i.e., go/come up) and katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., go/come down). In our discussion on 1:51, the special theological significance of these verbs, in the Gospel of John, was noted. More to the point, they carry Christological importance. Though the immediate subject of the verbs in 1:51 was the angels (“Messengers of God”), the “son of man” (Jesus) is clearly the focus of that vision; and, indeed, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, these verbs are applied to the person of the Son (Jesus). This Johannine usage makes it absolutely clear, if there were any doubt, that the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) refers to Jesus, and is thus used here by Jesus as a self-reference.

There are three component-phrases to this saying, and we shall examine them each in turn.

(a) “no one has stepped up into heaven”

In a strictly literal sense, this would mean that no one (i.e., no human being) has ever gone up (ascended) into heaven. It is possible that the Gospel writer intends us to understand the statement in just this way; however, if so, then the author (and Jesus as the speaker) would be rejecting well-established traditions regarding figures such as Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24), Moses, and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11f). It is, I think, better to view the verb a)nabai/nw here in its special (Johannine) Christological meaning. That is to say, no other person has ever “stepped up” to heaven, being exalted by God in the manner that Jesus was.

In the immediate context of vv. 11-12, the idea of someone ascending to heaven relates to that person’s ability/authority to speak of heavenly things (see above). A human being (such as Elijah) who went up to heaven could presumably speak, in a certain way, about “heavenly things”, but not in the manner of the Son (Jesus); on this point, see below.

(b) “if not the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”

The compound negative particle ei) mh/ (“if not”) is conditional, and usually is meant in an exceptive sense (i.e., “except [for]”)—that is, no one has ever “stepped up” into heaven except for… . The only person who has ever “stepped up” into heaven is the person who has (first) “stepped down” from heaven. This person is designated by the substantive verbal noun (participle) kataba/$ with the definite article—o( kataba/$ (“the [one hav]ing stepped down”). Such use of the articular substantive participle is typical of Johannine style, and there are many examples occurring throughout the Gospel and Letters (too many to cite here). The syntax allows the author/speaker to express an essential or definitive characteristic of a person (or group). The qualifying prepositional expression “out of heaven” (e)k tou= ou)ranou=) fills out the characterizing phrase: “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”.

This is a vital element of the Johannine Christology—viz., declaring and affirming Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his identity as the Son sent (down) from heaven by God the Father. For more on this, see section (c) below.

A word should be said about the tenses of the two verbs. The verb a)nabai/nw is in the perfect tense, while the participle of katabai/nw is in the aorist tense; in English, both would essentially need to be translated “has stepped up/down”, but note the distinction (indicated by parentheses) in the translation above.

If the author (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a meaningful distinction here between the two tenses, and it is not simply a stylistic difference, what would this be? The aorist is generally used as the past tense, typically referring to an event which took place at a specific point in the past. In this case, it would refer to the Son (Jesus) “stepping down” out of heaven at some point in the past—specifically, we may assume, from the Gospel standpoint, that this refers to the incarnation described in 1:14ff. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is identified as the pre-existent Son (or Word [Logos], in the Prologue), who was sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. The “stepping down”, then, would refer to Jesus’ appearance on earth as a human being (see below).

The perfect tense of a)nabai/nw is more problematic. A perfect tense is typically used for a past action (or condition) the results/effects of which continue into the present. The sense may be that no one has ever (in the past) “stepped up” into heaven, a fact that continues to be true up to the present moment. This would give greater emphasis to the idea that Jesus (the present speaker) is the only one to do so.

(c) “the son of man”

Some manuscripts and versional (Syriac, Latin) witnesses include the qualifying phrase o( w&n e)n tw=| ou)ranw=| (“the [one] being in heaven”). The expression “the son of man” appears here so abruptly, without further explanation, that it would have been natural for scribes to add an explaining phrase such as this. On the other hand, copyists might just as well have deleted the phrase as being redundant or superfluous. The shorter reading is, I think, much to be preferred, though the matter is far from decisive; however, I would point out that the expression “in heaven” (with the preposition e)n) is not at all typical of Johannine usage, and occurs nowhere else in the Gospel (or Letters).

The expression “the son of man” is apposite to the phrase “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”, identifying the son of man (i.e., Jesus himself) as this person. That is, Jesus is the one who has “stepped down” out of heaven. In the context of the Johannine Christology, as noted above, the verb katabai/nw refers to Jesus’ heavenly origin, and to his identity as the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father.

Does this usage imply that “the son of man” should here be understood as the title of a heavenly figure, with whom Jesus is identified? Many scholars believe so (or would assume so), and yet the evidence is highly questionable, when examined in detail. If it is intended as a title, then the heavenly figure called “the son of man” must refer to the one “like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14. As we have seen, at least two of the Synoptic sayings (Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars) allude to Dan 7:13f, and it is possible that other eschatological sayings assume the same traditional background. On this, see Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings. The question of the influence of Dan 7:13f on the occurrences of the expression will be discussed more extensively at a later point in this series.

Other commentators would emphasize the incarnation of the Son here, in the use of the expression “the son of man”. Since “son of man”, as a Semitic idiom, denotes a human being, it would be natural that it signify here the incarnation. Indeed, such an interpretation would very much fit the sense of the statement in v. 13: the Son “stepped down” from heaven to earth, and became a human being, viz., Jesus as “th(is) son of man”.

In the continuation of this study, we will examine the following “son of man” saying in verse 14.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 1:51)

The Johannine “Son of Man” Sayings

Having explored all of the “son of man” references in the Synoptic Gospels, we now turn to the Gospel of John. Given the distinctiveness of the Johannine Tradition, and the special contours of the Johannine theology, it is not surprising that the “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of John carry aspects of meaning and significance that are quite different from those in the Synoptic Gospels.

There are thirteen occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospel of John, which may be reduced to eleven specific sayings located in eight passages. These will be discussed in the order that they occur in the Gospel.

It is interesting to note that, while scholars and students have long recognized the complexities and difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” (as it occurs in the Gospels), the Gospel of John provides evidence that, at the historical level, it also could be confusing to people at the time who heard him speak. The question posed by the crowd in 12:34, and which is used as the title for this study series, asks “Who is this son of man?” (ti/$ e)stin ou!to$ o( ui(o\$ tou= a)qrw/pou;).

John 1:51

The first “son of man” saying in the Gospel of John occurs in 1:51, at the close of first main section of the narrative (1:19-51). This section can be further divided into four units (vv. 19-28, 29-34, 35-42, 43-51), organized according to the narrative framework of four successive “days” (see vv. 29, 35, 43). The narrative shifts from John the Baptist (vv. 19-34) to Jesus (vv. 35-51)—part of a broad contrast in chaps. 1-3, between Jesus and John—and deals specifically with the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (in contrast to that of John). Various Messianic titles are applied to Jesus in each unit (vv. 20-21 [and 25], 34, 41, 49) and the use of the expression “the son of man” needs to be considered in light of these titles.

Given the way that verse 51 appears abruptly, without a clear connection to what has gone before, it is perhaps best to regard the verse as transitional in nature. It both summarizes the events of vv. 19-50 and points ahead to the “signs” and discourses of chapters 2-12.

Here is the saying:

“Amen, amen, I declare [le/gw] to you, (that) you shall see [o&yesqe] the heaven(s) having opened up, and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi/] the son of man.”

How does this saying relate to what precedes it, and how does it serve to summarize vv. 19-50? It is immediately connected to the narrative units of vv. 19-50, focusing on the ‘call’ of the first disciples, by way of Jesus’ closing words to Nathanael in v. 50: “greater (thing)s than these you shall see [o&yh|]”. This verb for seeing (o)pta/nomai) also occurs in verse 51, being one of numerous sight-verbs that occur regularly throughout the Johannine Gospel. It specifically denotes looking or gazing with (open) eyes; however, in the future tense it often functions in the simple sense of “seeing”. It occurs ten times in the Gospel, including earlier in v. 39, as part of the call of the disciples (“come and see”).

In the Gospel of John, and as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary, these seeing-verbs carry special significance, being closely connected with the idea of the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. Moreover, there is a dual idiom in the Gospel of seeing/knowing, playing upon the linguistic dual meaning, for example, of the verb ei&dw (meaning both “see” and “know”). When one comes to trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), that person both sees and knows the truth. This theological idiom was established in the Prologue (through the parallel light and witness motifs, vv. 4-9, and again in vv. 14-18), and then continues throughout the Gospel. It is therefore not surprising that the first main section of the Gospel (1:19-51) would conclude with this promise of seeing.

A second important Johannine feature, present in v. 51, is the use of the verbs a)nabai/nw (“step up”) and katabai/nw (“step down”). These are common verbs, used frequently in narrative (describing travel, viz., ‘go/come up’, ‘go/come down’), but which have special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. I have discussed this on numerous occasions in prior notes and articles, and the point will be addressed again as we proceed through the Johannine “son of man” sayings.

However, here it is important to note the use of the verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., come down) earlier in vv. 32-33, in John the Baptist’s description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. This is one of the important ways that John the Baptist functions as a witness (vv. 7-8, 15; see vv. 32, 34). The use of the verb katabai/nw in this context is traditional, occurring also in the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par); but, again, this language takes on deeper significance in connection with the Johannine theology. The Spirit (of God) “steps down” upon (e)pi/) Jesus (v. 32f); this is the same idiom (half of it, at least) that occurs in verse 51—viz., the Messengers (angels) of God “stepping down upon the son of man”.

Thus, with regard to both the seeing motif, and the ascent/descent motif (using the verb pair a)na– and kata-bai/nw), verse 51 summarizes aspects of the theological message in chapter 1 (looking back), and also points ahead to the message of chapters 2-12ff. The declaration formula used, with the double amen (a)mh/n [Heb /m@a*]), confirms the importance of verse 51 at this point in the Gospel narrative. This double-amen formula, is distinctive of the Johannine presentation of Jesus’ sayings, being found only in the Gospel of John, and occurring repeatedly (25 times) in the Gospel. Here in v. 51 is the first of these occurrences. The emphatic nature of the formula, indicating a firm and solemn pronouncement, demonstrates that the Gospel writer (along with Jesus himself) is giving special significance to the saying.

The Allusion to Genesis 28:12

Virtually all commentators agree that the saying in verse 51 alludes to Genesis 28:12f, but disagreement remains as to the extent of the reference. The similarity of imagery (and wording) is obvious:

“And he [i.e. Jacob] dreamed, and see! (there was) a ladder [<L*s%] having been set up on (the) earth and (with) its head [i.e. top] touching the heavens—and, see! Messengers of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God] (were) going up and going down on it.” (v. 12)

In the LXX, the italicized portion is rendered as follows:

oi( a&ggeloi tou= qeou= a)ne/bainon kai\ kate/bainon e)p’ au)th=$
“the Messengers of God were stepping up and stepping down upon it”

The differences with the wording of the saying in v. 51 are relatively slight: (a) the use of the imperfect indicative for the verbs, rather than the present participle; and (b) the genitive case after the preposition e)pi/, rather than the accusative.

On the whole, it seems clear that the saying alludes to the scene in Jacob’s dream at Bethel; but what is the meaning of this allusion? The parallel suggests that the place of the ladder is being taken by the figure of the “son of man”. There is a line of Jewish tradition that interprets the suffixed preposition oB (“on him/it”) as referring to Jacob, rather than the ladder, and some commentators have applied this to Jesus’ saying as well. However, the LXX clearly understands oB as referring to the ladder, since, in the corresponding Greek (e)p’ au)th=$), the pronoun is feminine, in agreement with the feminine noun kli/mac (“ladder”). If the Gospel writer (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a precise parallel with Gen 28:12, then the “son of man” is best understood as being identified with the ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. The noun in Hebrew (<L*s%) denotes something that is thrown (or cast) up (like a mound or raised highway, etc), and which thus lifts and raises up.

What more can be determined regarding the significance of this imagery, particularly as it relates to the figure of the “son of man”? Earlier 20th-century scholars (such as Odenberg, Jeremias, and Boismard) were inclined read into the Johannine saying a number of different Rabbinic and Jewish-philosophical interpretive traditions regarding Gen 28:12f (cf. the summary by Moloney, pp. 26-32). Most commentators today would be unwilling to go so far, primarily because the Jewish sources cited generally come from a time much later than the Gospel of John. More serious, from a methodological standpoint, is the questionable procedure of applying interpretative traditions for which there is no clear basis in the Gospel text itself. Our approach should focus on the details and points of emphasis actually present in verse 51.

The Components of the Saying

We can isolate four principal components of the saying in verse 51: (a) the orienting location of heaven, (b) the presence of the Messengers (angels) of God, (c) the ascent/descent motif (using the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw), and (d) the figure of the “son of man” (including the use of the preposition e)pi/).

(a) “the heaven(s) having opened up”

The vision is located principally in heaven, which differs somewhat from the focal point in Gen 28:12 (emphasizing the ladder standing on the earth). The opening of the heavens alludes to the Baptism tradition, even though this particular detail is not specified in the Johannine account (vv. 32-34). The verb a)noi/gw (“open up”) is used in the Matthean (3:16) and Lukan (3:21) description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. In John, the emphasis is on the heavenly origin of the Spirit (“out of [e)k] heaven”).

Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, the verb a)noi/gw is used almost exclusively in the context of (Jesus) opening the eyes of someone who is blind; the verb occurs 7 times in chapter 9 (cf. also 10:21; 11:37). This “opening up” of physical sight serves as a symbol for the opening of spiritual sight—that is, recognition of Jesus (i.e., trust in him) as the Son of God (cf. 9:35-41, at the close of the chap. 9 narrative).

Thus the reference here to the “heaven(s) having opened up”, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology, carries two points of significance: (i) an allusion to the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (ii) a revelation of his identity that leads to trust in him.

(b) “the Messengers of God”

This is one of only two references in the Gospel to the Divine/heavenly “messengers” (or ‘angels’), the other being the notice in 20:12 (in the Resurrection narrative). Their mention here is derived primarily, it would seem, from the tradition in Gen 28:12f (see above). However, there are a number of references in the Synoptic Gospels where angels are associated with an (end-time) appearance by the son of man. This will be discussed further below.

I tend to think that the Gospel writer may have in mind an identification of Jesus with the angels, in the sense that, in his earthly ministry, Jesus takes on the traditional character and activity of the angels. From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this would be realized in several different ways. Most notably, like the angels, Jesus comes from heaven to earth, and then returns back to heaven (see below). He also represents God the Father, serving as the ultimate Messenger. Being the Son, Jesus is far greater than all other Messengers from heaven (compare the line of argument in Hebrews 1, along with the “son of man” reference that follows in 2:6-7ff). Like the Messengers, Jesus makes known the word and will of God to human beings on earth. Finally, the angelic/heavenly mission of Jesus is confirmed by the descent of the Spirit upon him (see above); on the traditional designation of the angels as spirits, see, e.g., Hebrews 1:13-14.

(c) “stepping up and stepping down”

As noted above, this activity of the angels (taken from Gen 28:12), echoes the descent of the Spirit (“stepping down”) upon Jesus at his baptism. However, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw are applied to Jesus (the Son)—it is he who “stepped down” from heaven, for his mission on earth, and who, once it has been completed, will “step up” again, back to heaven. The activity of the angels thus serves as a type-pattern for the mission of Jesus himself; see the discussion in section (b) above.

The verb katabai/nw (“step down”) is used of the pre-existent Son’s coming down to earth (incarnate, as a human being), to fulfill his mission, the duty (e)ntolh/) which the Father gave him to complete. Conversely, the verb a)nabai/nw (“step up”) refers to the exaltation or “lifting up” of the Son (Jesus)—a process which includes his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. This same language will be discussed further, as it occurs in other “son of man” sayings in John.

(d) “upon the son of man”

Here we come to the specific use of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). Though here the point can only be inferred, it is fair to assume that the expression is being used primarily as a self-reference by Jesus, much as it was used in many (if not all) of the Synoptic sayings. Conceivably, at the historical level, such a saying (without further context) could have been understood by Jesus’ hearers as referring to a figure separate from Jesus himself. To the extent that this might be true, the reference surely would be to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14, such as it came to be interpreted and applied in an eschatological (and/or Messianic) context (as, e.g., in the Similitudes of Enoch [1 Enoch 37-71]). However, in the immediate context of the Gospel, the expression can only refer to the person of Jesus. Thus, Jesus would be promising his disciples a heavenly vision of himself (“the son of man”).

How should we understand this promise? The closest parallels in the Synoptic Gospels are the eschatological sayings in Mark 8:38 and 13:26 pars. In each of these sayings, the end-time appearance of the “son of man” involves the presence of angels. As he comes from heaven, the angels descend with him; cf. also Matt 13:41; 25:31. Similar as a vision of the son of man in heavenly splendor is Mark 14:62 par, though this particular saying seems to emphasize the exaltation of Jesus (after his death) rather more than his end-time return. Both Mark 13:26 and 14:62 use the verb o)pta/nomai for the seeing (gazing at) of this vision, just as here in verse 51.

Thus, if a specific visionary event is intended by the saying, then it most likely refers to the end-time appearance of the son of man (i.e., return/parousia of Jesus), when he comes from heaven with the angels. A less likely interpretation is that it refers to the exalted status of Jesus (in heaven), akin to the vision experienced by Stephen in Acts 7:55-56. The ascent/descent of the angels could indicate activity, connected with the appearance of the son of man, such as we see described in Mk 13:27 par (cf. Matt 13:41ff).

However, I do not believe that a particular eschatological event is foremost in the Gospel writer’s mind. Rather, for the author, the language and imagery of the saying is emblematic of the Gospel portrait of Jesus as a whole. The promised vision encompasses the entire message of the Gospel, declaring Jesus’ identity as the Son who descends from heaven and then ascends back. It is an exalted, heavenly identity, one which is worthy of being described as surrounded by angels. The angel-motif alludes back to the Gen 28:12f tradition, as describing the formative revelation of God to Israel (Jacob). It also looks ahead to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (following his death), and to his future return in glory.

References above marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007). This work provides fine summary and analysis for each passage. John 1:51 is discussed in Chapter 2, pp. 23-41.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 1)

The Synoptic “Son of Man” Sayings

When considering the use of the expression “(the) son of man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospels (see the Introduction), we shall begin with the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Tradition. The core tradition is represented by the Gospel of Mark. All of the “son of man” sayings in Mark are also found in the Gospels of Matthew and/or Luke.

Before proceeding, we should revisit the three main uses of the expression “son of man” (Heb. <d*a* /B#, Aram. an`a$ rB^) which would likely inform, or relate to, the usage (as spoken by Jesus) in the Gospels:

    • The indefinite usage (i.e., “a person…”, “one…”), whereby the speaker/author can refer to him/herself in the third person.
    • The generic usage, whereby the expression simply means “a human being”; in Old Testament poetry, where the expression is paired with “man” (using one the four nouns, <d*a*, vona$, vya!, or rb#G#), the emphasis tends to be on the limitations and weakness (including the mortality) of the human condition.
    • A special reference to the exalted figure in Daniel 7:13-14 (“[one] like a son of man”).

In the Gospel of Mark, we find a progression involving these three lines of tradition:

    • The first two sayings (2:10, 28) involve, rather simply, the indefinite and/or generic use.
    • The seven sayings in the heart of the narrative (also in 14:21, 41) involve the indefinite use, but drawing, it would seem, upon the emphasis the expression conveys in Old Testament poetry—viz., alluding to the weakness and mortality of the human condition.
    • Two of the final sayings (13:26; 14:62) clearly allude to the exalted figure of Dan 7:13-14.
Mark 2:10 & 28

The first “son of man” saying occurs in the context of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Capernaum (2:1-12; par Matt 9:1-8; Lk 5:17-26). This episode represents one of the first recorded miracles in the Synoptic narrative, and it introduces a conflict theme—between Jesus and the religious leaders, in response to his ministry—that is developed over the course of the narrative. Here, the particular issue—and the point of objection for the religious leaders (‘scribes’)—is the declaration by Jesus to the paralyzed man in verse 5: “your sins are put away”. By this declaration, Jesus indicates that he has the authority (and ability) to remove the guilt and effects of a person’s sins—an authority which, in their mind, belongs to God alone (v. 6). For a human being to take on the authority of God in such a way was, effectively, to give insult (vb blasfhme/w) to God.

This provides the background (and context) for Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” at the climactic moment of the episode (v. 10), just before he heals the paralyzed man:

“…but (so) that you might see [i.e. know] that the son of man holds authority [e)cousi/a] to put away [vb a)fi/hmi] sins upon the earth…”

At the historical level, it is most unlikely that Jesus uses the expression “the son of man” here as an exalted title for himself (in allusion to Dan 7:13, etc), even though many early Christians might have understood the reference in that way. The issue in the episode, as noted, is that a human being (“son of man”) dares to take the place of God in removing sin for an individual (cf. the comment in Matt 9:8). Thus, it would seem that Jesus is using the expression in its generic sense (see above).

However, the expression occurs with the definite article in Greek, which suggests, on the assumption that the saying would have originally been uttered by Jesus in Aramaic, that the expression was given in the determinate state, with the a– sufformative. Presumably, the Aramaic would have been av*n`a&-rB^, where the a– sufformative would either stand for the definite article or as an emphatic marker.

How does this relate to the statement by Jesus in verse 10? The particular form of the expression, suggested above, could either indicate definiteness or emphasis. In the latter case, Jesus would be saying, “…a son of man [i.e. human being] can forgive sin on earth”; in the former, the point would be that “this son of man [i.e. this particular human being] can (indeed) forgive sin”. In either case, Jesus is identifying himself as the person who can forgive/remove sin, acting on God’s behalf.

The second saying, in 2:28, seems to have a similar focus. It, too, is part of a conflict-episode—the first of the Sabbath-controversy episodes (2:23-28 par), which I discuss in an earlier article (in the series “Jesus and the Law”). Again certain religious leaders raise an objection—this time in response to the conduct of Jesus’ disciples on the Sabbath (v. 24). Jesus answers their objection with an example from Scripture (vv. 25-26) that illustrates how human need (such as hunger) supersedes the Sabbath regulations. This leads to the maxim, in verse 27, which states the principle more directly: “the Šabbat came to be for the man, and not the man for the Šabbat”. That is to say, the Sabbath regulations are for the benefit and service of human beings, and not the other way around. Humankind is referenced by the noun a&nqrwpo$ (with the definite article), lit. “the man” [i.e., mankind].

The saying that follows in verse 28, builds upon this maxim, and brings the episode to a climax:

“And so the son of man is lord even of the Šabbat.”

The case for a generic use of the expression “the son of man” is even stronger here than it was in v. 10, given the clear parallelism between “man” (v. 27) and “son of man” (v. 28). One might paraphrase the relation between the sayings as follows:

“The Šabbat came to be for man…
and so the son of man is even lord of the Šabbat!”

Yet, it is likely that here, as in verse 10, Jesus is referring to himself, specifically, by the definite/determinate “the son of man” (Aramaic av*n*a& rB^). In this regard, one might translate vv. 27-28 as:

“The Šabbat came to be for man…
and this son of man is even lord of the Šabbat!”

Mark 8:31 / 9:31 / 10:33

As noted above, there are seven “son of man” sayings at the heart of the Markan Gospel, and these are anchored by the three Passion-predictions by Jesus—in 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33, respectively. In the Markan version of these sayings, they all use the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). In each instance, it is quite clear that Jesus is using the expression in reference to himself.

The first of these Passion-predictions occurs in 8:31, following Peter’s confession of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (i.e., Messiah), in verse 29. He warns his disciples not to tell anyone about his Messianic identity (v. 30), and then proceeds to inform them of his impending suffering and death. The first Passion-prediction is couched within the Gospel narration:

“And he began to teach them that ‘It is necessary (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s, and to be (remov)ed from consideration by the elders and the chief sacred officials [i.e. priests] and the writers [i.e. scribes], and to be killed off, and (then), after three days, to stand up (again)’.” (v. 31)

This “son of man” reference resembles that of 2:10 in the way it stems from the narration. It is possible to read the syntax so that the use of the expression “son of man” comes from the narrator, rather than from Jesus:

“And, (so) that you might see that the son of man holds authority to put away sins on earth, he says to the paralytic: ‘To you I say, rise up!…'”

Similarly, 8:31 could be treated entirely as narration, or, perhaps, as an indirect quotation:

“And he began to teach them that it is necessary for the son of man to suffer…”

This raises an interesting question regarding the early development of the “son of man” sayings within the tradition. How much are they the product of the Gospel narrative, as the various traditions are presented, in hindsight, with knowledge of Jesus’ identity as the exalted Messiah (and Son of God)? Is it possible that the Synoptic narrative preserves a vestige of this sort of development?

Indeed, there are a number of critical commentators who would regard many, or even all, of the “son of man” sayings as, effectively, the creation of early Christians. That is to say, a Messianic (or Christological) title, identifying Jesus as “the Son of Man” (from Dan 7:13f), is placed on the lips of Jesus, even though he did not (necessarily) utter it himself. I find such a theory to be most improbable, on objective grounds. The main argument against it is the utter lack of evidence for such a title (“the Son of Man”) being used by Christians in the first century (see my discussion on this point in the Introduction). The presence of the expression in the Gospel Tradition is best explained as being due to the use of it by Jesus himself.

It is another matter whether the Gospel writers (and their readers) understood the expression principally as a Christological (or Messianic) title. There is some evidence that they did. We should be careful to distinguish between the original use of the expression by Jesus, and how that usage was, subsequently, interpreted and applied by early Christians.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this article on the Synoptic/Markan sayings, we will examine the place of the expression in the Passion-predictions in more detail. Variations in the Matthean and Lukan versions will be noted, and the other “son of man” sayings, connected with the three main Passion-predictions, will also be examined.

“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 3

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology, continued

We now turn to the final part of this final division of our study (on John 1:14):

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts) [Part 1]
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology [Part 2]
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ [Part 3]

The Divine Pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Nearly all commentators recognize that the Gospel of John contains a strong pre-existence Christology—identifying Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Son of God. In the Prologue, he is identified as the incarnate Logos; however, in vv. 14-18, the Gospel writer transitions from the Logos concept to the Son concept that dominates the remainder of the Gospel.

In Part 1, I discussed the exaltation Christology that tended to define the Sonship of Jesus in the early Christian Tradition. By the year 60 A.D., a pre-existence Christology had begun to take hold in Christian thought, developing in a number of ways. Believers came to understand that Jesus must have been God’s Son even prior to his earthly life and ministry. However, in my view, there is very little clear evidence for such a pre-existence Christology much before 60 A.D. It is virtually absent from the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts, and notably absent from the early Gospel preaching recorded in Acts. Some commentators would see a pre-existence Christology in the Synoptic Son of Man sayings (cf. Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 22-102), but this is questionable at best.

1. The Pauline Letters

By all accounts, the earliest evidence for the idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus is found in Paul’s letters, but it is far from a dominant or prominent theme. Perhaps the earliest Pauline reference where this idea of pre-existence is indicated is 1 Corinthians 8:6:

“…one God, the Father, out of whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we unto Him; and one Lord, Yeshua (the) Anointed, through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we through him.”

A role is assigned to Jesus Christ in creation—both the original creation (of “all things”), and the new creation (of “we” as believers). There is no verb specified, but it would seem appropriate to fill in the verb of becoming (gi/nomai), which would make this statement by Paul nearly identical with the Johannine Gospel Prologue (1:3): “all (thing)s came to be [e)ge/neto] through [di/a] him”.

Like the Johannine Prologue, Paul may be drawing here upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, which assigned to the Divine Wisdom (personified) a pre-existent place and involvement in the Creation (Prov 8:22-31). In some Hellenistic Jewish circles, the idea of God creating the universe by his word (Gen 1:3ff) was interpreted in light of the philosophical implications of the term lo/go$. Philo of Alexandria blended together the Wisdom and Logos (Word) conceptions (cf. the earlier supplemental article), as did the Hellenistic-Jewish Book of Wisdom, and it would seem that the author of the Johannine Prologue did much the same, identifying the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God with the person of Jesus. Given the Wisdom-emphasis in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, and the specific wording by Paul in 1:24, he may have similarly identified Jesus with the pre-existent Wisdom.

Also of interest is Paul’s interpretation of the Exodus traditions (spec. Exod 17:1-6 and Num 20:7-11 [cf. Psalm 78:15-16]) in 1 Cor 10:1-10. In verse 4, Paul identifies Jesus Christ as the Rock from which water flowed, and which (according to tradition) followed the Israelites all during their journeys: “and the Rock was [h@n] the Anointed (One)”. If Paul understands this in a literal-historical sense, rather than an allegorical-typological sense, then it would clearly attest to a belief in Jesus’ (Divine) pre-existence. Again, Paul may be influenced by Jewish Wisdom tradition in this regard; in On Allegorical Interpretation II.86, Philo interprets the Rock as representing both the Wisdom and the Word (Logos) of God (cf. also III.162, and The Worse Attacks the Better §§115, 118; Hamerton-Kelly, p. 132).

Occasionally, Paul makes a statement such as in 1 Cor 15:47, which could imply a heavenly origin for Christ (“the second man [i.e. Christ] is out of heaven”), much as in the Johannine Gospel; however, it could just as easily be understood in terms of an exaltation Christology—indeed, the context of Jesus’ resurrection in chap. 15 suggests that this is the case (see esp. verse 45, i.e., the exalted Jesus “became” a live-giving Spirit). Much clearer as evidence for belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4, where Jesus Christ is declared to be “the image [ei)kw/n] of God”. This also could be understood from the standpoint of an exaltation Christology; however, the parallel statement in Col 1:15 makes it all but certain that Paul has Divine pre-existence in mind. This is confirmed by the evidence of further influence of Wisdom-theology in shaping Paul’s manner of expression; compare, for example, the wording in Col 1:15 and 2 Cor 3:18 with Wisdom 7:26.

In Galatians 4:4, and again in Romans 8:3, Paul refers to God “sending His Son”, using language which resembles that of John 3:16-17. Now, in the Johannine Gospel it is clearly understood that God the Father has sent His Son from heaven, and that the Son has Divine pre-existence. It is not as clear, in these references, that Paul holds the same view. However, it is probably the best way to understand his view of Jesus’ Sonship. Particularly in Gal 4:4, the wording seems to indicate that Jesus was God’s Son prior to his human birth (compare Rom 1:3).

Probably the most famous Pauline passage evincing a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. I have discussed this passage at length in an earlier series of notes. There I addressed the possibility that Paul may have adapted an earlier hymn, incorporating it into his letter. If so, then the hymn, with its balancing of pre-existence (vv. 6-8) and exaltation (vv. 9-11) Christologies, would have been written some time earlier than Philippians itself (i.e., before c. 60 A.D.). It is conceivable that this Christ-hymn predates the Pauline references in Corinthians and Galatians (mid/late-50s). Even if Paul did not compose the hymn proper, he certainly affirmed the Christology it contains; this is confirmed by the references already mentioned above, but also, it would seem, by 2 Cor 8:9, which probably alludes to something like the ‘kenosis’ idea of Phil 2:6-8:

“…for you [i.e. your sake], (though) being rich, he became poor”

Almost certainly, Paul is not speaking here in socio-economic terms; rather, “rich” and “poor” are to be understood figuratively, for Jesus’ Divine status and his incarnate human state (after he “emptied” himself), respectively.

The Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters remains disputed. Even if one regards any (or all) of these letters as pseudonymous, they unquestionably reflect Pauline thought and tradition. While there is a strong predestination emphasis in Ephesians, I do not find any clear references which would require a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, and could not be explained just as well in terms of an exaltation Christology; but cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 178-187. Much the same holds true for the Pastoral Letters (cf. the predestination emphasis in 2 Tim 1:9-10; Titus 1:2). However, the ‘Christ-hymn’ in 1 Tim 3:16 (treated in earlier notes) may, like Phil 2:6-11 and the other Pauline references discussed above, assume the incarnation of a pre-existent Christ; at the very least, the implication is that something Divine (from God) was made to “shine forth” (i.e., appear, made manifest) in human flesh, in the person of Jesus.

2. The Remainder of the New Testament

I do not find any references to the pre-existence of Christ in the letters of James, 2 Peter, or Jude, although mention should be made of Jude 5. If one excepts the majority text reading, then the author is attributing the Exodus of Israel to the guidance of Jesus (presumably, a reference to the pre-existent Christ’s presence in earlier history, cp. 1 Cor 10:4 [see above]); however, a strong argument can be made for the minority reading “[the] Lord”, with God/YHWH as the likely referent.

1 Peter 1:20 is an interesting case study. It clearly refers to Jesus as having been “known beforehand” (vb proginw/skw) by God, even before the creation of the cosmos. But does this refer to Divine pre-existence, in the way we typically understand it? After all, the verb proginw/skw is just as easily applied to believers (Rom 8:29)—being known by God beforehand, even before the creation (cf. Eph 1:4; Rev 13:8; 17:8). It is certainly possible that Peter (or the author) held a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, but this is not clearly expressed in the letter; however, cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 258-62.

The situation surrounding 1 Peter 1:20 seems to apply to many different references in the book of Revelation. The exalted and Divine status of Jesus is expressed throughout the book, to the point where titles of God (the Father) can be applied equally, without qualification, to Christ (the Son). For example, the declarative “I am” title “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8; 21:6) is spoken by Jesus in 22:13. The title certainly implies Divine pre-existence, as the qualifying existential phrase-title “the (One) being, and the (One who) was, and the (One) coming” (cf. also 1:4; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5) indicates. Jesus qualifies his Divine title differently in 22:13: “…the beginning and the end”, without applying the three-fold existential title (unless Jesus is also identified as the speaker in 1:8).

The author of the book of Revelation (and/or John as the seer) probably held a belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus; yet, on the whole, this is not emphasized in the book. There is, however, a strong pre-existence aspect to the entire range of eschatological symbolism and imagery of the visions. By this I mean that one may identify heavenly archetypes which are manifested (on earth) at the end time. One notes the many references to things or persons “coming down” from heaven, which echoes the Christological language of the Johannine Gospel (esp. the repeated use of the verb katabai/nw, “step down”), referring to Son’s heavenly origin. If the book of Revelation is regarded as a product of the same Johannine churches which produced the Gospel and Letters, then it is all but certain that the author and readers would have held a definite pre-existence Christology.

The Letter to the Hebrews

The introduction (exordium) of Hebrews (1:1-4) clearly evinces a pre-existence Christology, to match that of the Gospel of John and the ‘Christ-hymns’ of Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 (see above). Indeed, it would appear that the author is utilizing a comparable ‘Christ-hymn’ in his prologue; at the very least, vv. 2b-4 possess a verse-structure and elements consonant with the other Christ-hymns found in the New Testament. The Divine pre-existence of the Son (Jesus) is indicated in vv. 2b-3a, to be balanced with an expression of the older exaltation Christology in vv. 3b-4. For more on this passage, see my earlier set of notes, along with the recent note on 2:10ff.

This pairing of pre-existence and exaltation corresponds with the thematic structure of Phil 2:6-8, 9-11. Yet chapter 1 of Hebrews definitely is emphasizing Jesus’ Divine pre-existence, as the author’s use of the Scripture chain (catena) in vv. 5-14 indicates. In particular, the quotation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 is meant to allude to the Son’s role in the Creation (cp. verse 2). Psalm 2:7 [also 2 Sam 7:14] and 110:1 (vv. 5, 13) are references which had previously been given a Messianic interpretation, and then applied to Jesus by early Christians. However, originally Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 were applied in the context of the resurrection (see the discussion in Part 1), whereas here in Hebrews they seem to be understood in terms of the Son’s Divine pre-existence (however, note the exaltation-context of Ps 2:7 & 110:1ff in 5:5-6).

Interestingly, though there is a strong pre-existence emphasis in chapter 1, this aspect of the author’s Christology does not appear to be particularly prominent in the remainder of his work. The superiority of the Son continues to be argued and demonstrated, drawing upon a range of Old Testament traditions, yet the focus tends to be on Jesus’ earthly mission—especially his sacrificial death. This is particularly so for the central line of argument, whereby Jesus fulfills the sacrificial apparatus of the old covenant, which had been administered by the priestly officials. Indeed, Jesus is identified as the great High Priest, who fulfills the sacrifices of the old covenant and ushers in the new covenant. This is the great theme of chapters 5-10. But, of particular interest for us here is the author’s use of the figure of Melchizedek in chapter 7 (introduced in 5:6ff, and again in 6:19-20).

The main significance of Melchizedek (cf. the original historical tradition in Gen 14:18ff) for the author of Hebrews, as it is for the author of Psalm 110, is that it demonstrates a person can be a (high) priest of God without being a descendant of Aaron and the Levites. This is the point of the summary in vv. 1-10. Yet, as the argument continues in vv. 11-26, it would seem that the author imbues the figure of Melchizedek with a deeper significance. There is an indication that Melchizedek possessed a certain Divine power and perfection (v. 16, 26ff). Moreover, the implication is that Melchizedek has an eternal existence (already suggested in verse 3), which makes him the ideal archetype for the Priesthood of the Son of God.

There is some contemporary Jewish precedent for such an exalted view of Melchizedek. For example, Philo treats Melchizedek as a symbol of the Divine Logos in On Allegorical Interpretation III.82. However, it is more likely the author of Hebrews has something like the view of the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek in mind. In this fragmentary text, Melchizedek is identified as a heavenly Redeemer-figure who will appear at the end-time, to rescue God’s people and defeat the forces of wickedness. Possibly he is to be equated with the angel Michael; but, in any case, this text provides evidence that, at least in some Jewish circles, Melchizedek was treated as a heavenly/angelic figure. Probably the author of Hebrew shared this general view, which made the application of the figure (and the reference in Psalm 110:4) to the person of Jesus all the more appropriate. As the pre-existent Son of God, Jesus is a heavenly being much like Melchizedek, though, as the Son, he is far superior.

In spite of these aspects of the figure of Melchizedek, it should be noted that the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence is not particularly emphasized by the author in chapter 7. Rather, it is the exaltation of Jesus, following his sacrificial death (and resurrection), that is primarily in view. For more on the Messianic and Christological aspects of the author’s use of Melchizedek, cf. the supplemental article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Hamerton-Kelly” are to R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man: A Study of the Idea of Pre-Existence in the New Testament, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, vol. 21 (Cambridge: 1973).