February 17: Revelation 22:7a, 12-13

Revelation 22:7a, 12-13

This is the second component from the two parallel sets that make up verses 6-17 (cf. the previous note on vv. 6, 10-11). It is a declaration, by Jesus, of his imminent end-time appearance:

“And, see! I come quickly [taxu/]!” (v. 7a)
“See! I come quickly [taxu/]…” (v. 12)

This repeats the message of the exalted Jesus in 2:16; 3:11; the corresponding expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] haste”) occurs in 1:1 and 22:6 (cf. the previous note). This is a clear indication, again, that, from the standpoint of the author and readers of the book, the end-time return of Jesus was imminent. On the specific use of taxu[$] / taxo$ with this eschatological meaning among early Christians, cf. my study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

The message in vv. 6ff and 10ff is spoken by the heavenly Messenger (Angel); that it shifts here to the first person voice of Jesus is simply a reflection of the book’s understanding that the exalted Jesus is the true source of the message (cf. the discussion on 1:1 in the opening note, and the one previous).

Verses 12-13

The declaration by Jesus in vv. 12-13 is expanded beyond the simple announcement of his imminent return:

“See! I come quickly [taxu/]! and my wage is with me to give forth to each (person), as his work is (deserving). I (am) the Alpha and the O(mega), the first and the last, the beginning and the completion [te/lo$].”

In many ways, this statement provides a concise summary of early Christian eschatology, as may be illustrated by an exegesis of each phrase.

 )Idou\ e&rxomai taxu/ (“See! I come quickly”)—This reflects the early Christian belief that Jesus’ return is imminent (cf. above); it was something that believers at the time would have expected themselves to see.

kai\ o( misqo/$ mou met’ e)mou= (“and my wage is with me”)—This alludes to the coming end-time Judgment, which will be ushered in at Jesus’ return; as God’s appointed (and Anointed) representative, he will also oversee the Judgment—thus the payment (misqo/$) is “with him”, and is his to give (“my wage”).

a)podou=nai e(ka/stw| w($ to\ e&rgon e)sti/n au)tou= (“to give forth to each [person] as his work is [deserving]”)—The noun misqo/$ is often translated “reward”, but “wage” is the proper rendering, referring to service done for payment or hire. Thus, here it specifically denotes payment that is due to a person, appropriate to the work (e&rgon) they have performed. Again, as God’s divine representative, Jesus as the authority to give out (vb a)podi/dwmi, “give from, give forth”) the payment at the time of Judgment. Jesus’ parables involving workers/laborers generally carry this eschatological aspect.

e)gw\ to\ a&lfa kai\ to\ w@ (“I [am] the Alpha and the O[mega]”)—The exalted Jesus identifies himself by this conjunction of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which, elsewhere in the book of Revelation, functions as a Divine title applied to God (1:8; 21:6, cf. the earlier note). Since the exalted Jesus rules alongside God the Father, he shares the same divine position and authority; beyond this, we should be cautious about reading into the wording and symbolism of the book of Revelation a more precisely-developed Christology (regarding divine pre-existence, etc).

o( prw=to$ kai\ o( e&sxato$, h( a)rxh\ kai\ to\ te/lo$ (“the first and the last, the beginning and the completion”)—These two expressions both relate to the motif of “alpha and omega”, expounding it in similar ways. The expression “the first and the last” was used specifically of the exalted Jesus in earlier scenes (1:17; 2:8), while “the beginning and the completion” was applied to God in 21:6. The expressions are eschatological, but also cosmological, in that they refer to the beginning and end of the current Age (and, indeed, of all Ages, all Creation). Jesus is the a)rxh/ (“beginning”) in the sense, certainly, that he serves as the “chief ruler” over Creation (3:14), alongside God the Father; whether this also indicates his role in the original act of Creation itself is harder to say, but I think it likely, given the contours of early Christology as it developed in the latter half of the first century (cp. 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:2; John 1:1-4, cf. Koester, p. 841). The term te/lo$ (“completion”) is unquestionably eschatological, and the exalted Jesus plays a central role in the completion of the current Age, and the formation (beginning, a)rxh/) of the New.

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Saturday Series: 2 & 3 John

This is the final study in this Series focusing on the Letters of John. In exploring these writings, I have approached the studies variously from the standpoint of the different areas of Biblical Criticism. One particularly important aspect is that of historical criticism, since a proper understanding of the Johannine Letters requires that, as far as possible, the historical setting and background is analyzed carefully. The theological (and Christological) arguments in 1 and 2 John, as we have seen, are closely tied to the views of a specific group of Christians (whom the author regards as false believers), who have, in some sense, separated from the Johannine Community, espousing a view of Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), which, according to the author, contradicts the truth of the Johannine Gospel and the witness of the Spirit. It is possible to reconstruct this historical scenario, at least to some extent. This was part of the previous study, on 2 John, where the Christological dispute in vv. 7-11 was compared with similar statements made in 1 John. Clearly we are dealing with the same situation in both letters.

2 and 3 John: Historical Criticism

Is it possible to bring the matter into more precise detail? Let us here consider the nature of 2 and 3 John, letters written to different parts of the Johannine Community. When speaking of this “Community”, it is best to understand it in terms of a group of congregations (house-churches) located throughout a relatively wide region. Tradition has identified this as the region of Asia Minor, centered around the site of Ephesus; it is as good a surmise as any, though there is no direct evidence for a specific geographic location in the letters themselves. Scholars recognize at least a general relationship between the book of Revelation and the Johannine Letters (and Gospel); and, if these writings stem from the same “Community”, then it certainly would be located in Asia Minor, as 1:4 and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2-3 demonstrate.

The Setting of 2 John

The Address: Verse 1 (also vv. 4-5, 13)

“The Elder, to the (noble) Lady gathered out [eklektós, i.e. chosen] (by God), and to her offspring [i.e. children], whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all the (one)s having known [i.e. who have known] (the) truth…”

1. The Author of 2 (and 3) John: “the Elder”

New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the opinion that 2 and 3 John were written by the same person. The author does not identify himself by name, but instead refers to himself as “the Elder” (ho presbýteros, v. 1). Opinion is divided as to whether this same person wrote 1 John as well. This would seem to be the best (and simplest) explanation; certainly, all three letters stem from the same Community, Tradition, and religious-theological outlook, and utilize a common style and vocabulary. According to tradition, the author of all three Letters (and the Gospel) was John the Apostle; however, there is no evidence for this in the Letters, nor there any real indication that the author was an apostle (let alone one of the Twelve).

The title presbýteros (“elder”), based on comparable evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (in the period c. 60 A.D. and later), signifies a minister with a leading role and authoritative position in a congregation (or group of congregations)—Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-19; Titus 1:5. Certain “elders” (presbýteroi), especially those with close ties to the founding missionaries (apostles) in a region, could be expected to oversee multiple congregations (see the role of Timothy and Titus in the Pauline Pastoral Letters). The information in 2 and 3 John suggests that the author functions as a regional overseer. Certainly, 1 John (if written by the same author) appears to have been intended for believers (i.e. groups of congregations) over a relatively wide area.

2. The Addressee of 2 John: “the chosen Lady”

2 John is addressed “to the gathered out [i.e. chosen] Lady” (eklekt¢¡ kyría). Commentators have debated how this title should be understood, with two main options for interpreting it:

    • It refers to an individual, well-known to the author, but otherwise unnamed (presumably), given the honorific title (“[noble] Lady”). She clearly would have been a prominent person in the Community—a minister and/or host of a house-church, such as Prisc(ill)a, Phoebe, and Chloe in Paul’s circle (Rom 6:1-3; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19).
    • It is figurative, referring to a particular group of believers (congregation), to a house-church or group of churches (community).

Arguments can be made in favor of each, but it would seem that the second option is to be preferred. The context suggests that the author is writing to a congregation. He refers to adult believers as her “offspring/children” (tékna, vv. 1, 4, 13). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the adjective eklektós (“gathered out, chosen”) typically occurs in the plural, being used of believers generally (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14, etc), though occasionally a specific individual is in view (Rom 16:13). The noun used for a congregation, ekkl¢sía (a group “called out” to assemble together), is feminine, and so it is natural to personify it as a woman; in English, the feminine personification here might be translated loosely as “sister-Church”. I am inclined to view the “Lady” of 2 John as a separate presbyterial community (i.e. group of congregations), distinct from the author’s own, but part of the same wider Johannine Community. The author may still exert some influence over it, but it is not the congregation/community with which he most directly belongs. Note how in verse 4 he speaks of “your children”, while in 3 John 4, in a comparable statement, he says “my children”.

Verses 9-11

In this conclusion to the body of the letter, the author gives specific advice regarding the Christological error held by the ‘false’ believers (vv. 7ff, and throughout 1 John [see above]). The seriousness of this “antichrist” belief is emphasized again in verse 9:

“Every one leading (the way) forward [proágœn], and not remaining [ménœn] in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not hold God; (while) the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son.”

To “lead (the way) forward” (verb proágœ) may sound like a good thing, but here the sense of the verb is decidedly negative—it means that these ‘false’ believers have left behind the true teaching of the Johannine Gospel (which ultimately derives from Jesus’ own words about himself, i.e. the Discourses). This is not simply a matter of affirming a particular doctrine—to “remain” (the key Johannine verb ménœ) fundamentally refers to the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) through the Spirit. In other words, those who espouse a false teaching about Jesus (as understood by the author and his Community) cannot be true believers, nor can they speak and teach from the Spirit.

What are the practical implications of this division within the Community? In verses 10-11 the author gives instruction for all who are true believers, who would remain rooted in the truth:

“If any (one would himself) come toward you and not bear this teaching, you must not take [i.e. receive] him into (the) house and you must not say to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’, for the (one) saying to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’ has a common (share) in his evil works.”

Much was said in 1 and 2 John regarding these false “antichrist” believers, but only here do we find any instruction as to what other Christians should do about them. The implication is that they should be avoided completely, along the lines of “excommunication” or “shunning” in later traditions (see Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:9ff). Most Christians who read this today understand the instruction in general terms, of providing hospitality in one’s own home; however, given the house-church setting of these early congregations, it is possible to understand “(the) house” (oikía) here as referring to house where the congregation met for worship. If the “Lady” of the letter is an individual, who hosted a house church (see above), then this is all the more likely in context. In other words, it is a special warning not to allow such persons to have a place within the congregational meeting.

Even so, the author undoubtedly would have extended this instruction to the private home as well (see below on the setting of 3 John), given his prohibition against even greeting one of these false “antichrist” believers. I have translated the verbal infinitive chaírein rather literally, as “(May there) be joy (to you)”; however, this essentially served as an ordinary greeting, without necessarily connoting anything deeper. Thus, even the simple conventions of polite society are to be avoided; the “antichrists” truly are to be shunned. The dangers and pitfalls in attempting to apply this instruction today are discussed below, at the end of this study.

The Setting of 3 John

In contrast with 2 John, the Third Letter is written to a person that, it would seem, is part of the author’s own presbyterial community (compare the wording of v. 4 with 2 John 4, as noted above). This would entail a number of individual congregations (house-churches), each with its own ministers and/or elders; presumably, the author, as an overseeing Elder, holds a position of influence and authority. There are two main characters in the letter, the first of which is Gaius, a common Latin name; he is the person the author is addressing in verse 1:

“The Elder, to the (be)loved Gaius, whom I love in (the) truth.”

This is essentially the same form of address as in 2 John; on the question of whether “the Lady” is an individual or represents a congregation/community (“sister-church”), see above. The wording the author uses in verses 3-4 suggests that, while Gaius may not belong to the same immediate congregation as the author, he is still part of the same ‘presbyterial community’, i.e. the congregations over which the author considered himself to have presbyterial oversight and influence:

“For I had great delight (in the) coming of brothers and (their) giving witness of you in the truth, even as you walk about in (the) truth. I do not hold (any) delight greater than this, that I should hear (of) my offspring [i.e. children] walking about in the truth.”

It was necessary for the author to hear reports from other messengers in order for him to be aware of how Gaius was conducting himself; and yet, he still considers Gaius to be one of his “children” (compare 2 John 4). This reference to the “coming of brothers and (their) giving witness” is vitally important to any proper understanding of the historical background and setting of the Johannine letters. In a Community built up of small house-churches, over a relatively large territory, it could be quite difficult to maintain communication and, with it, the community organization essential to the life and function of the Church. Nearly all such work required personal visits from messengers and other traveling Christians; even communication through written letters entailed a personal visit, sometimes over fairly long distances. As a result, it was a common and frequent occurrence for a local congregation to receive traveling ministers and other Christians into the “house” (see above on 2 John 10-11).

Central to the message of 3 John is the praise and exhortation the author gives to Gaius, in regard to his showing hospitality and support to believers in their travels:

“(My be)loved, you do (the) trust(worthy thing in) whatever you would (do as) work unto the brothers, and this (even for) strangers—(and) the(se persons) gave witness of your love in the sight of the congregation [ekkl¢sía]—(for) whom you will do well, (hav)ing sent them forward (as) brought up (according to the way) of God; for (it was) over the name (that) they went out, taking not one (thing) from the nations. Therefore, we ought to take these (sorts of people) under (our care), (so) that we might come to be workers together with (them) in the truth.” (vv. 5-8)

I have translated these verses quite literally, and there are some syntactical difficulties in rendering from the Greek; however, the basic idea is clear enough. The author has heard from certain traveling Christians (publicly, in the congregation) how they had received hospitality and support from Gaius. Along with this, Gaius is encouraged to continue such support in the future. It is clear that these persons Gaius took in were traveling ministers or missionaries, as it is said that they “went out over the name“, that is, on behalf of the name of Jesus Christ.

Here we have one of the only examples in the Johannine letters of how believers demonstrate the love that is required by the great command, the one true duty of the Christian (1 John 3:23-24, etc). In practical terms, this is done by showing care, support, and hospitality to other believers, even to those who are strangers, especially when they are traveling (and thus in a vulnerable position). We may rightly say that the Johannine Community, with its network of house-churches, was bound together (or, should be) through this sort of love, reflecting the very unity we share in Christ (John 13:20, 34-35; 17:20-25, etc). These traveling ministers/missionaries depended entirely on support from other believers, since they took “not one thing from the nations” (i.e. from non-believers).

The opposite—a failure to provide hospitality to traveling ministers, etc—is demonstrated by the example of Diotrephes in verse 9:

“I wrote some(thing of this) to the congregation [ekkl¢sía], but the (one who is) fond of being first (among) them, Diotrephes, will not receive us upon (himself).”

Unfortunately, this notice is brief and enigmatic enough (from our vantage point today) as to leave us almost entirely in the dark about the exact situation. It has also produced no end of speculation. What was the position of Diotrephes? Did he belong to the same congregation/community as Gaius? as the author? A plausible reconstruction, based on a careful analysis of the wording in verses 9-10, may be offered here as follows:

Diotrephes is in a position of some prominence in a local congregation, presumably as a minister/elder, and/or as the host of a house-church. The author’s disparaging characterization of him as one who “is fond of being first” (verb philoprœteúœ) should perhaps be understood in light of the New Testament evidence that first-century congregations, in their ideal form, would have been relatively egalitarian. By this is meant that the leading/gifted ministers served more or less as equals, and that the elders of particular congregations were all on an equal footing with each other. Diotrephes may have violated such principles in seeking to exercise greater (individual) control over his congregation. A bit more is said regarding Diotrephes’ conduct in verse 10:

“Through this [i.e. for this reason], if I should come, I will keep under memory (all) his works that he does—babbling evil accounts (about) us, and, not containing himself about these (thing)s, he does not receive the brothers upon himself, and the (one)s being willing (to do so) he cuts off and throws (them) out of the congregation.”

One senses here, not merely a partisan divide, but a measure of personal animosity between the author and Diotrephes. Does this relate to the situation involving the false “antichrist” believers who had ‘separated’ from the Community? Many commentators believe so; however, the author is so vocal about the matter in 2 John (and throughout 1 John), it is hard to imagine that he would not mention it again here if the Christological issue were at the root of the division. In all likelihood, the situation has more to do with general considerations regarding how to handle traveling ministers and missionaries, especially those who may not be particularly well-known by a local congregation.

Establishing the reliability—pedigree and qualifications, etc—of traveling ministers was a serious matter in early Christianity and created many challenges for local congregations. Especially within a charismatic, egalitarian setting, which seem to have characterized both the Pauline and Johannine congregations, the giftedness of the minister was of great importance. However, it could be difficult to know for certain if such talented and influential ministers were genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Almost certainly, many of the ‘false’ believers—those who espoused the view of Jesus attacked so severely by the author of these letters—claimed to speak as prophets. Yet the author unequivocally calls them false prophets, who speak from an evil spirit that is opposed to Christ (“antichrist”). He offers his readers tests and instruction on how to recognize such false teaching, but it would not be easy to put them into practice to any extent.

Diotrephes appears to be doing precisely what the author himself advocates in 2 John 10-11—refusing welcome and support to traveling ministers he deems false or unreliable. The difference is that, from the author’s standpoint, his refusal is based on opposition to teaching that contradicts the Gospel message of Christ, while Diotrephes acts out of personal ambition and animosity. Almost certainly Diotrephes would describe the situation quite differently, if we had his own testimony preserved for us. Perhaps he felt threatened by the presence of traveling ministers, over whom he and his congregation did not have any direct control. His actions could even have been reasonable, in terms of the goal of protecting his congregation. Given the strong emphasis on the role of the Spirit as the primary guide and authority in the Johannine Community, with the egalitarianism suggested at many points in the letters (and the Gospel), perhaps the best explanation is that Diotrephes was violating these fundamental principles by attempting to exert more personal control over the congregation, to the point of excluding outsiders and traveling ministers/missionaries.

It would seem that Gaius and Diotrephes were in relatively close proximity, either part of the same congregation, or belonging to neighboring congregations. It is possible that Gaius is one of those who has been “thrown out” by Diotrephes, and that he continues to provide support to ministers aligned with the author. In any case, the context strongly indicates that the author is appealing to Gaius (vv. 6, 8, 11) as a local avenue for support to his ministers/missionaries since they have been excluded from Diotrephes’ congregation. Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, is presumably one of these missionaries; the author is writing to introduce him to Gaius, in hopes that he will be received in a similar manner.

Conclusion

While it may be possible to reconstruct the historical situation and context of the 2 and 3 John, at least in part, applying the instruction in the letters to the life-setting of individual Christians and congregations today is more problematic. Certainly the exhortation associated with the two-fold command—trust in Jesus and love for our fellow believers—is just as relevant (and applicable) for us today. In particular, to demonstrate love through showing care, and offering hospitality and support, to other believers—including ministers and missionaries who need our assistance—remains central to Christianity, and can be expressed today many different ways. Also the emphasis on a careful (and correct) understanding of the Gospel Tradition regarding the person and work of Jesus continues to be of the greatest importance, and, sadly, is rather lacking in much of modern Christianity. Special care in regard to Christological statements and definitions is much needed, especially when so many of the traditional statements from the past are now so poorly understood.

How, then, should we respond when we encounter or experience differences in understanding on key theological or Christological questions? Should we adopt the advice given in 2 John—and, if so, how is this to be done? Doubtless, many believers today would continue to uphold the famous maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…”; but therein lies the difficulty—how do we determine what the “essentials” are, and how should they be treated in comparison with “non-essentials”. Are Christological differences enough to bar communication and association between believers? Certainly, this has proven to be so at times in the past, often with unfortunate and even tragic results. And yet, to act as though such differences do not matter is equally perilous, and can quickly lead to the negation of any meaningful sense of Christian identity.

I would maintain that, for believers in Christ, it is not any Christological definition or understanding as such, but the abiding presence of the Spirit, that must serve as the unifying force. Yet, to judge from the Gospel and the Letters, this was clearly a central point and fundamental emphasis for the Johannine Community as well, and it did not prevent painful and disruptive divisions, with the author’s community banning believers considered to be false, and finding themselves being banned by others in turn. Is it possible to maintain the spirit of the instruction in 2 and 3 John while finding new ways and methods for achieving the author’s goals? I leave that to the consideration of each believer and community. Bridging the divide between ancient and modern times, between the thought-world of first-century Christianity and of the Church today, remains of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of Biblical interpretation.

Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.

Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Literary Criticism

The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:

    • Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
      • Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
      • Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
      • Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
      • Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
    • Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13

If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:

    • Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
      • Love as fulfillment of the dual-command which marks the true believer, vv. 5-6
      • Trust in Jesus–warning against those who violate the command, i.e. those who mark themselves as false believers, vv. 7-11
    • The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12

Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.

In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:

    • Love: Sign of the true believer (vv. 5-6)
    • Trust: Warning against the false believers (vv. 7-11)

To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:

“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”

Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.

Historical Criticism

When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”

The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:

    • Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
    • They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
    • They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
    • This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth

The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:

“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”

In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).

Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:

“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.

Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.

January 2: Hebrews 1:1-5

Jesus as the Son of God: The Pre-existent and Eternal Son

In these notes, we have been examining the development of the early Christian awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In the earliest Gospel preaching, it was the resurrection of Jesus (and his exaltation to heaven) that marked his “birth” as God’s Son. This Christological awareness then came to extend back into Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—all the way to his baptism (marking the beginning of his ministry), and even to his very birth as a human being. Eventually, many believers came to realize that Jesus must have had an existence with God the Father even prior to his birth. Essentially this is the doctrine of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, tied to specific beliefs regarding his deity (or divine nature). There are different ways, or degrees, by which Jesus’ pre-existence may be understood, the nuances of which, I believe, tend to reflect the development of early Christology in the second half of the first century A.D. (c. 60-100).

Belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus is hardly to be found in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (in particular, it is absent from the early Gospel preaching preserved in the book of Acts). Paul gives evidence of a such a belief, to some extent, in his letters (late-50s and early 60s). It is expressed primarily in terms of Jesus’ role in creation, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions (Prov 8:27; Sirach 24:1ff; Wisdom 7:12, 21; 8:4; 1 Enoch 42; cf. Attridge, p. 40), in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36 (cp. John 1:3, 10). Several of Paul’s references to Jesus as the Son (of God) seem to presume a heavenly existence prior to his human birth and life (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3, and note the opening words of Rom 1:3). This is of significance for the study being undertaken in these Christmas-season notes, exploring how early believers understood Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God.

Of special interest is the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, which joins together the idea of divine/heavenly pre-existence with the older tradition of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to God’s right hand. The same may be said of the hymnic section in Colossians 1:15-18, which, if genuinely Pauline, was probably written at about the same time. In neither passage is the Sonship of Jesus related to the idea of his pre-existence; however, elsewhere in the New Testament—in the letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John—those Christological elements are combined.

The dating of Hebrews is problematic, though it was likely written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. Many commentators would view it as contemporary with the Gospel of John (c. 90?), though I tend to think that it may have been written somewhat earlier. In terms of its place within the development of early Christology, Hebrews seems to stand midway between Paul and the Gospel of John. Its Christology is clearly expressed in the opening (exordium) of the letter, 1:1-4.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The first four verses of Hebrews represent a single long sentence, regarded by many commentators as perhaps the finest such opening in the New Testament (from a literary and rhetorical standpoint). Here are the verses in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers, upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written. The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). It generally follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*n…fe/rwn…

The first two clauses deal with the Son’s authority over creation, both in terms of its end (“heir of all things”) and its beginning (“made the Ages”). The latter draws upon the ancient Wisdom traditions (cf. above), whereby God made the universe using Divine Wisdom (personified) as the intermediary. The Son, as the living Word (Lo/go$) and Wisdom of God, performs this same creative role. This idea is expressed famously in the Johannine prologue (1:3, 10), but Paul alludes to the same basic belief at several points in his letters (1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; also Col 1:16f). The citation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 repeats this (pre-existent) aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).

The third relative clause is compound, made up of two participial phrases, each expressing the unique deity of Jesus (as the Son):

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n)
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=)

The first participle is the verb of being (ei)mi, “being” [w&n]), indicating what the Son truly is. Again this breaks down into a further pair of genitival phrases:

    • a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray (of light) coming out from a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo, On the Creation §146). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.
    • xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18), i.e. for the imprinting of the Divine image upon the mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15, the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews. The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under”, and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

The second participle is the verb fe/rw (“bear, carry”), and it expresses how the Son’s divine character is manifest in the world—he carries all things, meaning that he supports and sustains all of Creation. This is done “by the utterance [r(h=ma] of his power”, which blends the Wisdom/Creation traditions (cf. above) with the fundamental religious/cosmological idea of God creating the universe by His speaking a word. Both of these ideas are established more clearly in the Johannine Prologue (1:1-3ff), but they are certainly present here as well, and relate to the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son. The same divine power that brought the world into existence now providentially sustains it.

The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son–that is, in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Verse 3b summarizes this concisely:

“(hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness in high (place)s”

Interestingly, the actual death and resurrection of Jesus, so central to the early Gospel preaching, is not even stated, but simply taken for granted. The author moves from the atoning/saving aspect of Jesus’ work straight to his exaltation. In some ways, this reflects the unique theological emphasis in the letter, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office. The closing lines in verse 4 build upon the idea of the Son’s superiority (over the Angels), again expressed in terms of his exaltation after his death. The language and thought, in this respect, is quite similar to that of the Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:9-11).

It is at this point that the author introduces the citation of Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14):

“For to who among the Messengers did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)’, and again: ‘I will be unto a Father for him, and he will be unto a Son for me’?” (v. 5)

In inclusion of 2 Sam 7:14 confirms the Messianic context of the birth/sonship motif in Psalm 2:7. As we have seen, this originally applied to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and, in particular, his death and resurrection. In this he was to be recognized as God’s Son, but still in the figurative sense that the Messianic interpretation would have entailed. Now, however, a deeper Christological meaning has been given to it, since Jesus is now seen as God’s Son from before the beginning of Creation. This also gives to all the birth and sonship images a new depth, as the author continues in verse 6:

“And, again, when He brought His first-formed (child) into the inhabited (world), He says: ‘And all the Messengers of God must kiss toward [i.e. worship] him’.”

The citation presumably comes from Deut 32:43 LXX, but it is the wording used to frame the citation that is especially significant. It refers to the Son’s incarnation, or coming into the world of human beings (cp. John 1:9ff, 14). But here the context makes quite clear two important points about Jesus as God’s Son: (1) he is God’s “firstborn” child prior to the incarnation, and (2) the citation of Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14) also applies to his sonship prior to the incarnation. This represents a genuine development in early Christian belief regarding the “birth” and sonship of Jesus, one quite similar with what we find in the Gospel of John. This will be examined in the next daily note (on John 1:12-13 and 14); here, it remains to consider again how the author of Hebrews frames this dual aspect of Jesus’ sonship—the ‘older’ aspect of his resurrection/exaltation, and the ‘newer’ aspect of his pre-existent deity. Chapter 1 closes with a pair of Scripture quotations (from the Psalms) applied to Jesus as the Son. It is part of the running comparison between the Son and the other heavenly beings (Angels):

“And toward the Messengers He says (v. 7)… But toward the Son (He says, v. 8)…”

The first passage, from Psalm 45:6-7, alludes to the exaltation of Jesus, of his being raised (as Son) to the throne of God; the second passage (Psalm 102:25-27), by contrast, implies the Son’s pre-existence, with its Creation-setting: “You, Lord, down at (the) beginning, set (the foundation for) the earth, and the heavens (are) the works of your hands”. In the original Psalm, of course, the “Lord” (ku/rio$) is YHWH, but here it is meant to apply more properly to Jesus, based on the common dual-use of ku/rio$ among early Christians. The final citation of Psalm 110:1 (v. 13), a Messianic passage at least as important as Psalm 2:7 (compare Acts 2:34-35 with 13:32-33), demonstrates again how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God has been transformed in the light of the growing Christological awareness. In Acts 2, this Scripture is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation, while here in Hebrews it has an altogether new and deeper meaning—one which combines the exaltation motif with divine pre-existence.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

December 28: Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22

Jesus as the Son of God: The Baptism

In the previous two notes we examined how the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and his “birth”, was based on the Gospel proclamation of his resurrection (and his exaltation to God’s right hand in heaven). This is confirmed by the evidence of the earliest Gospel preaching, both in the sermon-speeches of Acts (such as the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33), and in the earliest strands of the Pauline letters (cf. 1 Thess 1:10 and Rom 1:3-4). This would generally cover the period c. 30-45 A.D., including the traditions (and traditional language) inherited by Paul c. 50 A.D.

However, if this is where the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God began, it certainly did not end there. Reflecting upon Jesus’ earlier life and ministry, it soon became clear, to most believers, that he must have been truly the Son of God even prior to his resurrection, meaning all during the time of his earthly ministry. The historical Gospel traditions, preserved and passed down during the period c. 30-45 A.D., confirmed this at many points, including the accounts of miracles, the power of his teaching, the witness of the disciples, and so forth. However, his identity as the Son of God in this respect was not clearly expressed until the traditions began to be brought together in a more systematic fashion, and the first Gospel narratives were written.

The Gospel of Mark is generally regarded as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, having been written around 60 A.D. Almost certainly, however, it was already the product of the development of tradition, with narrative clusters, collections of sayings, joining of episodes and traditions based on “catchword bonding”, etc; this would have occurred during the period c. 45-60 B.C., which happens to correspond with the time of Paul’s letters (cf. the previous note). In all likelihood, the Passion narrative was the first part of the Gospel to take coherent shape, to which was added stories, episodes, and teachings from the ministry period. The Markan Gospel, it would seem, best represents the core Synoptic Tradition—the common material and narrative structure shared by all three Synoptic Gospels. I discuss all of this, in considerable detail, in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

On the assumption that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and the one which is closest to the core Synoptic Tradition, it is no surprise that there are fewer references to Jesus as God’s Son in Mark (7 distinct references or traditions), than in Matthew or Luke. Jesus never refers to himself directly as the Son of God, the closest being the affirmation in Mk 14:62 (cf. also 13:32), but others declare this about him; interestingly, the title comes from the mouth of hostile or neutral witnesses (3:11; 5:7; 15:39; also 14:61). Even so, these early traditions confirm that Jesus’ is to be identified as the Son of God, during the time of his ministry. The Gospel writer himself affirms this belief, by the way that he introduces/titles his narrative: “The beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the) Son of God.” Some manuscripts omit the words “Son of God” (ui(ou= qeou=), but they are probably original.

Mark 1:11

If Jesus was the Son of God during his ministry, then it is to be expected that this would be attested at the time of his baptism, which, according to the early/core Gospel narrative, marks the beginning of his ministry. This is precisely what we find in all four Gospels, but especially in the three Synoptics which share a common narrative tradition. Mark, typically, has the briefest and simplest version:

“And it came to be in those days (that) Yeshua came from Nazaret of the Galîl, and was dunked [i.e. baptized] into the Yarden (river) under [i.e. by] Yohanan. And straightway, stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down onto him, and a voice came to be (from) out of the heavens: ‘You are my Son, the (one) loved (by me)—in you I (have) thought good [i.e. have good regard]’.” (vv. 9-11)

In Old Testament tradition, the voice sounding from out of heaven is typically understood to be God’s voice, which, when heard by the people at large, sounds like thunder (cf. Exod 19:19; John 12:29; Heb. loq means both “voice” and “thunder”). It is not entirely clear if others hear the voice from heaven in Mk 1:11, or if only Jesus hears it; probably the latter is intended, though the Matthean version (3:17) presents it as an objective event (“This is my Son…”) discernable, it would seem, to everyone present.

There is a clear parallel to the Baptism scene in the Transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2-8 par). If the Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Transfiguration marks the end of it (the Galilean period, at least), and with it, the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. In the Transfiguration scene, again there is a heavenly appearance upon/around Jesus, and a voice out of heaven that speaks almost the same words as at the Baptism (in Matthew they are identical); now, however, it is an event heard by all present (the select disciples): “This is my Son, the (one) loved (by me)—you must hear him!” (Mk 9:7).

The fact that all four Gospel accounts of the Baptism include a voice from heaven, declaring Jesus’ identity as Son of God, indicates that the tradition is extremely old. The Synoptic version must pre-date c. 60 A.D., but the fact that the Synoptic and Johannine versions are so different (cf. Jn 1:29-34), suggests that the underlying historical tradition is older still, allowing enough time for two such distinct lines of tradition to develop. The seminal narrative account, probably still in oral form, may reach back into the earliest period c. 30-45 A.D., closer in time to the actual events.

[It must be pointed out that there is some textual uncertainty regarding John 1:34. The majority text reads “this is the Son of God”; however, some manuscripts instead have “this is the (one) gathered out [i.e. chosen one] of God”, reading o( e)klekto/$ instead of o( ui(o/$. I discuss the matter in earlier notes and studies.]

Luke 3:22

In the earlier note, we saw how the Sonship of Jesus was originally understood in terms of an application of Psalm 2:7 to his resurrection (and exaltation); in all likelihood, the same Scripture is being alluded to in the heavenly voice at the Baptism and Transfiguration, especially in the form of the personal address “You are my Son…” (su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou, as in Psalm 2:7 LXX [ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/]). However, in some manuscripts of the Lukan version (3:22), this is made explicit, and the heavenly voice cites Psalm 2:7 verbatim; most notably, this is the reading of Codex Bezae (D):

“…and a voice coming to be out of heaven (saying): ‘You are my Son; today I have caused you to be (born) [ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se]’.”

This reading appears to have been widespread in the second and third centuries, to judge from the evidence from Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Methodius, and others, while there is correspondingly little evidence for the majority reading during the same time. This has led some textual critics to accept the text of Bezae et al as original. Internal considerations point in both directions: the D text could be a harmonization with the LXX; on the other hand, the majority text could represent a harmonization with the Synoptic parallels in Mark/Matthew.

Whatever else one wishes to say about it, the version citing Psalm 2:7 would be the more problematic for later Christians, as it suggests that Jesus only became the Son of God at his baptism, a view that could be seen as contradicting the orthodox belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity (as the eternal Son). In fact, there were Christians in the second and third centuries who held an “adoptionist” Christology, i.e. that God essentially adopted Jesus as His Son, and that this took place at the Baptism. Admittedly, our evidence for this is rather slight, and largely limited to the testimony preserved in Eusebius’ Church History (V.28), but it seems to represent a genuine Christological tendency. Other Christians, taking the descent of the Spirit in Mark 1:10 more literally (“the Spirit…came down unto/into [ei)$] him”), seem to have held a Christology whereby the divine Christ was joined with the man Jesus, this again occurring at the Baptism (cf. the traditions and testimony regarding Certinthus, and some of the “Gnostics”, in Irenaeus, Epiphanius, etc). This could explain why, if original, the version of Luke 3:22 citing Psalm 2:7 disappeared in the third/fourth century, to be ‘replaced’ by the majority text.

The later Christological controversies obscure the significance of the idea that Jesus was “born” as the Son of God at the point of his baptism. What this demonstrates, in terms of the development of Christian belief, is an awareness that Jesus was not simply to be regarded as God’s Son as a result of the resurrection, but that he must have been so all throughout the period of his ministry on earth. Since his baptism marks the beginning of this ministry period, it is only proper that it is designated as the moment when Jesus is born, figurative speaking, as the Son of God. Soon, however, Christians would take this a step further, with an awareness that his identity as God’s Son must, as a logical necessity, extend back to the time of his physical birth as a human being—i.e. the period spanning his entire earthly life.

Again, the Gospel tradition provided evidence for this, to be expressed, primarily, through the Infancy narratives that would be added to the core Gospel. This was a secondary development, as can be seen by the fact that there is scarcely any reference to Jesus’ human birth in the New Testament (outside of the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke), and none at all in the earliest Gospel preaching (insofar as it has come down to us). There is no mention of it in the Gospels of Mark and John (which do not contain Infancy narratives or traditions), though Paul does allude to it, however obliquely, at several points in his letters. Before proceeding to consider what the Infancy narratives say about Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God, let us first examine (in the next daily note) the Pauline references in Galatians 4:4ff and Romans 8:3.

December 27: Romans 1:4

In the previous note, we saw how, in the earliest Christian preaching, the deity of Jesus—and, in particular, his identity as the Son of God—was understood primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. The birth/sonship motif was introduced by way of Psalm 2:7, applied to Jesus (as the Messiah). This featured in the kerygma of Paul’s Antioch speech in Acts 13 (vv. 32-33), but it is also representative of the wider preaching done by the first missionaries, reflecting a seminal Christology. Long before the Infancy narratives had been written—and even years before any Gospel was written at all—there was a core story of Jesus’ birth, of how he can to be “born” as the Son of God.

If the book of Acts preserves Gospel preaching (in substance, at least) from the early years c. 30-45 A.D., then the Pauline letters represent the next stage of development, documents recording early Christian theology in written form, during the years c. 45-60. And, in those letters, the title “Son of God”, and references to Jesus as God’s Son, occur more frequently than they do in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. The few passages which mention God sending his Son (Rom 8:3, 32; Gal 4:4ff) may allude to a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity (cp. with Phil 2:6-11)—at any rate, they certainly point in that direction. However, most of Paul’s references do not evince a Christology that goes much beyond what we see in the book of Acts. Two of the earliest such references to Jesus as God’s Son, like those by Paul in the Acts speeches, etc, are still very much defined in relation to the resurrection.

1 and 2 Thessalonians are likely are the earliest of Paul’s surviving letters, dating perhaps from 49-50 A.D. They contain just one reference to Jesus as God’s Son—the eschatological notice in 1 Thess 1:10:

“…how you turned back toward God, away from the images, to be a slave for the living and true God, and to remain up (waiting for) His Son (from) out of the heavens, whom He raised out of the dead—Yeshua, the (one hav)ing rescued us out of the coming anger (of God)”.

Here, again, Jesus’ status as God’s Son appears to be tied to his resurrection. This is more or less assumed by Paul in the subsequent letters, but never again stated so clearly in terms of the traditional belief. Within just a few years, apparently, Paul’s Christological understanding had deepened; certainly, by the time he wrote 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, in the mid-late 50s, he refers to Jesus as God’s Son somewhat differently, with new points of emphasis. Romans, in many ways, represents the pinnacle of his theology; however, it begins with a doctrinal formulation (1:3-4) that many commentators regard as much earlier, a creedal statement that Paul inherited and adapted. This critical hypothesis is probably correct, given the atypical language, phrasing and theological emphases that occur in these two verses. If it does indeed represent an older, established creedal formula, then it may have been in existence any number of years prior to being incorporated by Paul in the opening of Romans. It may well reflect the Christological understanding of believers c. 45-50 A.D.

Romans 1:4

Here is the statement in Rom 1:3-4, given in literal translation:

“…about His Son, the (one hav)ing come to be out of the seed of David according to the flesh, the (one hav)ing been marked out (as) Son of God, in power, according to the spirit of holiness, out of the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead—Yeshua (the) Anointed, our Lord”

Two participial phrases are set in parallel:

    • “coming to be out of the seed of David
      • according to the flesh”
    • “being marked out (as) Son of God…
      • according to the spirit of holiness”

The modifying prepositional phrases (with kata/, “according to”) are also parallel. The first clearly refers to Jesus’ human birth, while the second, properly, to his “birth” as the Son of God. Both aspects of Jesus’ person and identity are fundamentally Messianic. The first phrase indicates that he was the Davidic (royal) Messiah from the time of his birth, and apparently, assumes the tradition of a Davidic geneaology (cp. Matt 1:1-17). The second phrase, most likely builds on the early Christological statements in Acts 13:32-33, etc (cf. the previous note), which applies Psalm 2:7 to Jesus, in the context of the resurrection, and so defines his identity as the “Son of God”. This basic qualification of the title would seem to be confirmed by the wording in verse 4, especially the modifying expression “in power” and the specific phrase “out of the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead”.

The expression “in power” (e)n duna/mei) refers to God’s power (duna/mi$) that raised Jesus from the dead, as seems clear from Paul’s wording in 1 Cor 6:14:

“And God raised the Lord [i.e. Jesus] and will (also) raise us through His power [dia\ th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=]”

The power that raised Jesus also established him as God’s Son, in a position at God the Father’s right hand in heaven. The modifying phrase “according to the spirit of holiness” is a bit more ambiguous. Despite the similarity in wording, and the familiar Pauline contrast between flesh (sa/rc) and Spirit (pneu=ma), the expression “spirit of holiness” probably should not be taken as equivalent to “the Holy Spirit”; it is better understood here in the sense of the transformation of Jesus’ person and human body (“flesh”) which occurred in the resurrection. In 1 Cor 15:45, Paul states that Jesus (the “last Adam”) came to be (transformed) “into a life-giving spirit”. Elsewhere, Paul essentially identifies the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of Jesus that is at work in and among believers, so there is clearly some conceptual overlap and blending of these ideas. The exalted person of Jesus comes to be closely identified with the Holy Spirit, especially when understood in relation to believers.

We must keep in mind that the parallel with Jesus’ physical/biological human birth in verse 3 confirms that v. 4 refers to Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God. This is understood, in line with the earliest Christian belief, in terms of the resurrection, however problematic this might be for subsequent Christology. That some were indeed troubled by the wording here is suggested by the common Latin rendering that developed (praedestinatus), which would presuppose the reading proorisqe/nto$ (“marking out before[hand]”) instead of o(risqe/nto$ (“marking out”). The verb o(ri/zw literally means “mark out”, as of a boundary, setting the limits to something, etc. It can be used figuratively (of people) in the sense of appointing or designating someone, in a position or role, etc. The use of the verb here of Jesus (cp. Acts 17:31; 10:42) suggests that he was appointed to the position/status of God’s Son only at the resurrection; while the prefixed proori/zw is more amenable to a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity.

Paul’s initial words in verse 3 allow for the possibility of the pre-existent Sonship of Jesus—i.e. that he was God’s Son even prior to his birth. This would seem to be confirmed by the language used in 8:3, 29, 32 (cp. Gal 4:4ff). In all likelihood, Paul would have affirmed (in Romans and Galatians) the Christological understanding evinced in the Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11, expressed in terms of God sending His Son to humankind. While this is not so forceful a view of pre-existent Sonship as we find in the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters), it seems clear enough. The apparent contrast with the Christology of Rom 1:3-4 can be explained by the critical theory, that those verses preserve an older/earlier mode of expression, a creedal formula which Paul has adopted.

Before proceeding to consider Jesus’ identity as the Son of God in Rom 8:3ff and Gal 4:4-7, and how this relates to the birth/sonship motif, it is necessary to turn first to the early Gospel tradition, and how this motif was applied to Jesus’ Baptism and the period of his earthly ministry. This we will do in the next note.

December 26: Acts 13:33

Jesus as the Son of God: The Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ

If we are to ask: how did the earliest Christians understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God? The answer may be somewhat surprising. The orthodox Christology, as enshrined in the 4th century Nicene Creed, affirms Jesus Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Son of God the Father. However, Christians did not come to such a fully developed belief immediately. Indeed, there is actually little evidence, clear and direct, for the pre-existent deity of Jesus in much of the New Testament. For the earliest believers, Jesus’ divine Sonship was understood and expressed almost entirely in terms of the resurrection. And, while this did not remain the limit of the New Testament Christology, it is very much where the Christology began.

This can be illustrated by an examination of the preaching in the book of Acts. While commentators debate the extent to which the sermon-speeches in Acts genuinely reflect the earliest preaching, there appear to be enough unusual or archaic details in them to affirm, on entirely objective grounds, that the speeches preserve, in substance, authentic Gospel preaching from the time of the first apostles. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “The Speeches of Acts”.

When one looks as the Gospel preaching in Acts, one is struck by the absence of a ‘high’ Christology, with virtually no suggestion of Jesus’ pre-existent deity. In the earliest years, still flush from the experience of the resurrection, the first preachers and missionaries presented their proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel squarely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. With the resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a divine status and position, to be seated at the right hand of God. This was the result of the resurrection, and there is no real indication that he had this position prior to his life and ministry on earth. Of all the sermon-speeches in Acts, those by Peter and Paul, in Acts 2 and 13 respectively, are primary, encapsulating the essence of the earliest preaching. In each of these speeches, the deity of Jesus is clearly expressed in relation to the resurrection; note, for example, Peter’s declaration:

“This Yeshua God made to stand up (out of the dead), of which we all are witnesses; so (then), having been lifted high to the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God, and receiving the message about (what will be done by way) of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father, he poured this out… So (then), all the house of Yisrael must know, without fail, that God made him (to be) even Lord and Anointed (One), this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!” (2:32-33, 36)

The passage clearly states that Jesus was made (vb poie/w) Lord and Christ as a result of the resurrection. This sort of language would be problematic for later Christians, since, according to the orthodox Christology, Jesus was already Lord (as the pre-existent Son) long before he was raised from the dead. While Peter’s speech does not mention the motif of sonship, it is part of Paul’s great speech at Antioch in chapter 13; it is worth devoting some attention to the statement in verse 33.

Acts 13:33

The two great sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul (in Acts 2 and 13) have a similar structure, style, and points of emphasis. In both speeches there are key Scripture passages (from the Psalms) that are expounded as part of the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), so as to demonstrate (to the Jewish audience) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah), the end-time ruler and redeemer from the line of David. As it happens, both speeches make use of Psalm 16:8-11, as a (Messianic) prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (2:25-31; 13:34-37). Along with this Scripture passage, another Psalm verse is included as a Messianic prophecy. In Acts 2, it is Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35), while in Acts 13 it is Psalm 2:7 (vv. 32-33). These happen to be the two Old Testament verses which exerted the most influence on early Christians, both in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and his divine status. With Psalm 110:1, this involves the title Lord (ku/rio$), while in Ps 2:7 it is the Messiah’s identity as God’s Son. The Gospel proclamation in Acts relates both of these to Jesus in his resurrection and exaltation (not as pre-existent titles). Here is Paul’s use of Psalm 2:7 in verses 32-33:

“And we bring th(is) good message to you: the message about (what God will do), (hav)ing come to be toward the fathers, (it is) this that God has fulfilled for us th[eir] offspring, (by) making Yeshua stand up (out of the dead), even as it has been written in the second Psalm— ‘You are my son; today I have caused you to be (born)’.”

The point could not be any clearer: Jesus’ ‘birth’ as God’s Son occurred as a result of his resurrection. The author of Hebrews makes similar use of Psalm 2:7 , but with a major difference—the traditional context of Jesus’ resurrection (5:5) has been expanded to include the idea of his eternal pre-existence (1:5). This is a proper development in early Christian thought, but it is a development which, by all accounts, had not yet occurred in the earliest period. It is generally absent from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts; the earliest evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity appears to be the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:6-11, probably some time around 60 A.D. (or a few years prior). There are other possible allusions in Paul’s letters (cf. below), but few if any clear references earlier than the Christ-hymn.

The only other reference to Jesus as the Son of God in the book of Acts is 9:20, where Paul again is the focus of the narrative. It summarizes his Gospel preaching among Jews (in the synagogues):

“And straightway, in the (place)s (where people) are brought together [i.e. synagogues], he proclaimed Yeshua, (saying) that this (one) is the Son of God.”

This narrative statement is generally synonymous with the one that follows in verse 22: “…he poured out (his teaching) together (among) the Yehudeans {Jews}…driving together (the point) that this (one) is the Anointed (of God).” By bringing the two statements together, we obtain a snapshot of the apostolic message, and specifically that emphasized by Paul. Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) expected by the people, and more—through his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, he also is truly “the Son of God”.

Thus, when the earliest Christians spoke of Jesus’ birth, they did not immediately have in mind his physical birth as a human being, but, rather, his “birth” as the Son of God that resulted from his resurrection from the dead. Being exalted to heaven, and seated as the right hand of God the Father, he is very much the Son. How was this idea expressed and how did it develop in the earliest Christian writings?

The best evidence we have for Christian belief in the period c. 45-60 A.D. comes from the Pauline letters, especially those where authorship is undisputed (1 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, etc). In the next note, we will look at some key references to Jesus as God’s Son in these letters, with special attention being paid to the declaration in Romans 1:4.

December 25: Romans 8:3, 19ff

For the daily notes during these days of Christmas, I will be interrupting the current notes (on the Book of Revelation) to present a short series on the birth of Jesus as the Son of God. I have dealt with the subject extensively in an earlier Christmas series (The Birth of the Son of God), but here this season I wish to focus on the development of the birth/sonship motif, from a theological and religious point of view. In discussing Romans 8:18-25 recently (as part of the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”), we saw how the idea of believers as “sons of God” was closely tied to the resurrection. Chapter 8 of Romans addresses the new life believers have in Christ, as the climax of a four-part “order of salvation” laid out by Paul in the main body of the letter (1:18-8:39). The sonship theme was introduced in verse 3, with the declaration that God sent “His own Son” to free humankind from bondage to sin and death—in Paul’s unique theological language, the “law of the Spirit” sets believers free “from the law of sin and death”. Now, by union with Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, believers have the essential identity as “sons of God”, even as Jesus himself is the “Son of God”.

This is the substance of the Pauline theology, and its soteriology, and it serves well as the framework by which we may study the birth/sonship motif in the New Testament. Jesus is God’s Son, and those who believe in him are likewise sons (or children) of God. How was this realized and understood by the earliest Christians, and how did this use of birth and sonship imagery develop within early Christian thought? The theological structure employed by Paul in Romans 8 is useful for considering these fundamental questions. It begins with the saving work of Jesus Christ (as God’s Son, vv. 1-2ff), and concludes with the realization of believers as God’s sons in the future glory of the resurrection (vv. 18-25), summarized by a trio of statements:

“For the stretching of the head of creation looks (out) toward receiving the uncovering of the sons of God.” (v. 19)
“…the creation itself will be set from from the slavery of decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God” (v. 21)
“…we ourselves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), we also groan in ourselves, looking (out) toward receiving (our) placement as sons, (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).” (v. 23)

In point of fact, Christian life may be said to begin with the resurrection of Jesus, and concludes with our own resurrection (as believers). The development of Christian thought parallels the life-span of the believer, even as it also mirrors the “order of salvation” outlined by Paul (in Romans 8). And it is genuinely a development—theology does not emerge fully formed, but proceeds according to a natural growth, involving a principle we may call “progressive revelation”, or, perhaps better stated, “progressive realization“. As believers, we are only made aware of the different aspects of birth and sonship in stages, over the course of time. This is true for the individual, as also for the Christian Community as a whole. There are two sides to this development, and each mirrors the other:

    • The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus—his identity as God’s Son first recognized [the first Gospel preaching]
      • The Baptism of Jesus—he is seen as God’s Son throughout his life and work on earth [the Gospel Narrative]
        • The Birth of Jesus—he is God’s Son from the moment of supernatural conception (by the Spirit) [the Infancy Narratives]
          • His pre-existent Deity as God’s Son [the Johannine Prologue, etc]
            Believers (the Elect) belong to God as His offspring
        • The Birth of believers—the presence and work of the Spirit [faith/conversion]
      • The Baptism of believers—new birth/life symbolized by ritual means [baptism rite]
    • The resurrection and exaltation of believers—our identity as God’s offspring fully realized

I will be devoting a daily note to each of these (eight) points in the outline. The first half of this sequence is theological and Christological—that is, it reflects the history and development of doctrine, regarding the person of Jesus Christ (and his Deity). This second half is religious and experiential—it represents the Christian life of the believer.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21 (continued)

1 John 5:13-21, continued

Verses 13-21 of 1 John 5 form the conclusion of the letter; last week, we examined the first section (vv. 13-17), and now it remains to explore the final four verses. This portion is notable, since it serves as an effective summary of the letter’s message, and, indeed, of the Johannine theology as a whole. It may be divided into four components—the three principle statements of vv. 18-20, along with a closing (if cryptic) exhortation in verse 21. Each of these contains at least one significant critical issue, and, in addressing them we can again illustrate the principles and methods of Biblical Criticism at work.

To begin with, we have the three main statements in vv. 18-20; each begins with the first person plural perfect indicative verb form oídamen— “we have seen“, which can also be rendered “we have known“. The verb eídœ properly means “see”, but is also used equivalent to ginœ¡skœ (“know”). In the Johannine writings, especially, the motifs of seeing and knowing are interchangeable and go hand in hand.

1 John 5:18

We have seen [oídamen] that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards him, and (so) the Evil does not attach (itself to) him.”

There are two text-critical questions which are key to a proper understanding of this verse. In addition, there is an important point of interpretation, related to the issue of sin and the believer. Let us begin with this last point.

Sin and the Believer (revisited)

The primary message of vv. 18-20, and of 1 John as a whole, is centered on the identity of the true believer in Christ. The letter essentially begins and ends with the question of the believer’s relationship to sin. The question is both theological and practical, centered on the apparent contradiction that a believer both can, and cannot, commit sin. In 1:6-2:2, it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin, and yet, following this, we have the declarations in 3:4-10 (esp. vv. 6, 9) that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. Likewise, in 5:13-17, it is understood that believers commit sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”), yet here again, in verse 18, is a declaration (nearly identical with that in 3:9) that the true believer does not sin. How can such seemingly contradictory statements be harmonized or explained?

We have discussed this thorny question several times in previous studies (on 2:28-3:10, and last week on 5:13-17). Let me here briefly summarize four ways of interpreting these passages:

    • The sinlessness of the believer represents the ideal, to which every Christian should seek for his/her own life; it is realized essentially through our union with Christ, but still has to be experienced practically through faithfulness to Christ (and the guidance of the Spirit) in daily life.
    • The intended contrast is between occasional sins by the believer (that are confessed and forgiven, 1:7, 9) and a pattern of sinfulness that characterizes the person and their true identity.
    • The believer is sinless insofar as he/she remains in Christ. Sin occurs when the person (momentarily) falls out of this union; however, through forgiveness, he/she is restored. This line of interpretation draws on the Vine illustration by Jesus in John 15—the forgiven believer is ‘grafted’ back in to the vine.
    • Believers may commit occasional sin, but no true believer can sin in the sense of violating the great two-fold command (3:23-24, etc)—the only command binding for believers. Violation of the two-fold command is the sin, which no true believer can ever commit.

There are certainly elements of truth to each of these lines of interpretation; however, what is important here is how the author of 1 John understood the matter. In my view, the overall evidence from the letter itself, taken in combination with key parallels in the Johannine Gospel, suggests that the last (fourth) option above is to be preferred as the primary emphasis. Especially important is the theological vocabulary involving the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ—on this, see the summary in last week’s study. The significance of sin in 1 John (and the Johannine Gospel) relates fundamentally to trust in Jesus—in other words, sin is defined not in terms of immorality or religious failing, but as unbelief. To be sure, the author would have taken for granted that true believers would live moral and upright lives, but that sort of ethical instruction is not what is being emphasized in the letter. Throughout, the author’s arguments center on the two-fold command (stated succinctly in 3:23-24), stressing that the ‘false’ believers (called “antichrist”) who separated from the Community have demonstrated both a lack of true belief in Jesus and a lack of true love for others.

Of special importance is the identity of the true believer defined in terms of being born of God, utilizing the verb gennᜠ(“come to be, become”) in its uniquely Johannine sense of coming to be born out of God. That was the language used in 3:9f and again here: “every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin”. Instead, the believer, born out of God, is protected from evil—particularly from the evil of “antichrist”.

Textual Criticism

The main text-critical question in verse 18 involves the substantive participle (with definite article) ho genn¢theís. This is an aorist participle, parallel to the perfect participle (of the same verb) earlier in the verse. The perfect participle is the more common Johannine usage, especially when referring to believers—i.e., as “the (one) having come to be (born)”, ho gegenn¢ménos. It is not immediately clear whether the aorist form, similarly meaning “the (one hav)ing come to be (born)”, refers to the believer or to Jesus. The verb gennᜠis almost always used of believers in the Johannine writings (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8ff, etc), but Jesus is the subject at least once, generally referring to his human birth/life, in 18:37. That some copyists understood both occurrences of the verb here in verse 18 as referring to believers is indicated by the manuscripts that read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”) instead of autón (“him”); with the reflexive pronoun, the verse would read:

“every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards himself…”

That is to say, the believer guards himself/herself from evil, i.e. so that the true believer will not sin. This makes the verse more of an ethical exhortation than a theological statement. In a few manuscripts and witnesses, the meaning is clarified by reading the noun génn¢sis (“coming to be [born]”, i.e. birth) instead of the participle genn¢theís. According to this reading, it is the spiritual birth itself that protects the believer. While this is closer to the Johannine theology, it is almost certainly not the original reading. Even though the verb gennᜠ is rarely used of Jesus in the Johannine writings, it would seem to be the best way of understanding the statement in verse 18. Believers are children of God, having come to be “born out of God”, just as Jesus, the Son of God came to be “born out of God” (Jn 1:12-13, 14, 18). Our union with God the Father is based on our union with Jesus the Son, and it is his sinlesseness (and power over evil) that protects us from sin and evil.

The second text-critical question involves the substantive adjective (with definite article) ho pon¢rós, “the evil (one)”. There is a certain ambiguity with this language—does it refer to the evil that is in the world, or to an evil person, the “Evil One” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). The same sort of ambiguity occurs, famously, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13), but a much closer parallel is found in the the Prayer Discourse of Jesus in chap. 17 of the Johannine Gospel, where Jesus prays that God would protect his disciples (believers) from “the evil” (17:15), using the same verb t¢r霠 (“keep watch [over]”) as here in v. 18. Most likely, the author is thinking in terms of “the Evil (One)”, the Satan/Devil who is the opponent of God and controller of the evil in the world; however, in the Johannine theology, there is little difference between the evil in the world and the Evil One who dominates the world, as is clear from the statement in v. 19.

1 John 5:19

We have seen [oídamen] that we are out of God, and (that) the whole world is stretched out in the Evil.”

Here the contrast is between believers—again using the motif of being born out of God—and the world. This is a key point in the Johannine theology, expressed many times in both the Gospel and Letter. The usage of the word kósmos (“order, arrangement”, i.e. world-order, how things are arranged in the world) in the Last Discourse(s) of Jesus (chaps. 14-17) is quite close to that in 1 John. It is in those chapters that Jesus most clearly establishes the conflict between believers (his disciples) and the world (kósmos)—see 14:17ff, 27, 30-31; 15:18-19; 16:8-11, 20-21, 28, 33, and all through chap. 17 (where kósmos occurs 18 times). The noun occurs almost as frequently in 1 John (24 times). The world—the current world-order—is dominated by darkness and evil. Jesus was sent by God the Father into the world, to free believers from its power; now believers remain in the world, but we are no longer dominated by the power of sin and evil.

That the current world-order is thoroughly and completely evil is clearly expressed here in verse 19: “the whole world is stretched out in the evil”. Here the substantive adjective ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) is perhaps better understood as a domain or kingdom, rather than a person. It is where the world lies stretched out (vb keímai), though this could still be personified as the hand or presence of the Evil One. According to the author of 1 John, those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community went out into the world, into the domain of evil. True believers, by contrast, do not belong to the world.

1 John 5:20

“And we have seen [oídamen] that the Son of God comes here (to us), and has given to us (the ability to work) through (the) mind [diánoia], (so) that we would know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true and in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

This is the third and final oídamen-statement; these statements reflect a theological progression which may be outlined as follows:

    • Believers are protected from sin and evil, since they/we are “born out of God”, even as Jesus (the Son) was “born out of God”.
    • As ones “born out of God”, believers do not belong to the world, which is thoroughly dominated by Evil.
    • This birth allows believers to know and recognize the truth—the truth of God and His Son (Jesus), with whom they/we are united. This is also the truth of their/our identity (as true believers).

The first verb and tense used are curious—the present tense of the relatively rare h¢¡kœ, “he comes here” (h¢¡kei). We might rather expect the past tense—i.e., he came, and so now we can know the truth, etc. Perhaps the closest parallel is in 8:42 of the Gospel:

“…for I came out of God, and come (to you) here [h¢¡kœ]…”

The present tense indicates the immediate encounter of human beings with Jesus the Son of God, in the present, prompting either trust or unbelief as a result. This is a present reality for all people, both believers and unbelievers alike. The truth of who Jesus is stands as the essence our identity as believers. Moreover, we continue to encounter him, in the present, through the presence and work of the Spirit.

By freeing believers from the power and influence of the evil in the world (and the Evil One), it is possible for them to know and recognize the truth—and this truth has two aspects or components: (1) the truth of God Himself (and His Son), and (2) the truth of our identity as believers, that we are in God (and in His Son). The substantive adjective ho al¢thinós (“the true”) is parallel with the substantive ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) in vv. 18-19, and there is a similar sort of ambiguity—does it refer to that which is true, or the one who is true? Here, the context more clearly indicates that it refers to a person, namely God the Father; some manuscripts make this specific by adding the noun theós, “God”, though this is scarcely necessary, given the closing words of v. 20.

The final declaration in verse 20 summarizes all three oídamen-statements of vv. 18-20. The syntax, however, is problematic, causing some difficulty of interpretation; literally it reads:

“This is the true God and Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The demonstrative pronoun hoútos (“this”) is rather ambiguous. The nearest antecedent is “Yeshua the Anointed”, but the demonstrative pronoun could still refer back to an earlier subject (compare the syntax in 2 John 7). There are, in fact, four possibilities for how this statement can be understood:

    • The demonstrative pronoun (“this [one]”) refers to Jesus, in which case it is Jesus who is called both “true God” and “eternal Life”
    • It refers back to the substantive “the (one who is) true” (i.e. God the Father), and identifies the substantive explicitly as “the true God” who is also “eternal Life”
    • It is a dual reference, matching the earlier statement: “the (one who is) true [i.e. God the Father] and His Son”, i.e. “the one who is true” = “the true God”, and “His Son Yeshua the Anointed” = “eternal Life”
    • It refers comprehensively to what is stated in verse 20 (and/or all of vv. 18-20), i.e. this is all said of the true God and the eternal life that comes through His Son.

In my view, the some combination of the second and third options best fits both the syntax and the Johannine theology. A rather close parallel is the declaration in John 17:3:

“And this is the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—that they should know you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Here the adjective al¢thinós and the expression “the true God” unquestionably refer to God the Father, but in connection with His Son Jesus, the two—Father and Son—joined together as a unified pair. If I might paraphrase the closing words of v. 20 in this light, I think that the following well captures the meaning:

“The ‘one who is true’ —this is the true God, who, with His Son Yeshua, is the source of eternal Life.”

1 John 5:21

“(My dear) offspring, you must guard yourselves from the images.”

The letter ends with this curious exhortation (and warning). The meaning and purpose in context is difficult to determine, and has somewhat perplexed commentators. There is a general parallel here with the thought of verse 18:

“the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God keeps watch over him [i.e. over the believer], and the Evil does not attach itself to him”

The reading with the reflexive pronoun (see above) would offer a closer formal parallel:

“the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God keeps watch over himself…”

The verb fylássœ (“guard”) in v. 21 is generally synonymous with t¢réœ (“keep watch [over]”) in v. 18. It would serve as a fitting corollary to the statement in v. 18:

    • V. 18: The believer’s union with Jesus, as one “born out of God”, protects him/her from evil (and sin)
    • V. 21: At the same time, it is necessary for the believer to guard him/herself from the influence of evil

Perhaps the main difficulty in verse 21 is how to interpret the significance and force of the word eídœlon (“image”, here plural “images”). There are several possibilities:

    • “Images” in the simple and concrete sense of (Greco-Roman) pagan religious images (idols); or, perhaps a specific reference to food, etc, that has been consecrated to such images (Acts 15:20 par; 1 Cor 8-10; Rev 2:14, 21).
    • As a shorthand term for the influence of (Greco-Roman) paganism in general
    • As a similar shorthand pejorative for false religious belief, specifically that of the ‘false’ believers opposed by the author of 1 John

The second option seems most appropriate, given the setting of the letter and those believers to whom it is being addressed. And yet, there is very little religious or ethical instruction of the sort elsewhere in the letter (2:15-17 comes closest), so its sudden appearance here is surprising. Perhaps the author felt it necessary to include such an exhortation, in passing, as a reminder of the baleful influence of the pagan culture that surrounded his readers. Already well aware of this, his audience presumably would not require any more explanation.

Personally, I am inclined to the third option above, which, if correct, would preserve the author’s warning as a more integral part of vv. 18-21 (and the letter as a whole). Since the overall message and thrust of the letter was to warn his readers against those false (“antichrist”) believers who had separated from the Community, it seems likely that the author would continue this focus to the very end. Perhaps this helps to explain the emphasis in verse 20 on the true God (see above)—in contrast to the false “gods” of idolatry. However, instead of the traditional contrast between Christianity and Paganism, in 1 John it is between true and false belief in Jesus. In 2:22-23, the author treats the “antichrist” views of the ‘false’ believers as effectively the same as denying both the Son of God and God the Father himself! It would not be taking things much further to equate such false belief in God with the “idols” of false religion.

This study of the closing verses of 1 John have touched upon text-critical, historical-critical, and literary-critical issues—the latter, in particular, dealing with the vocabulary, syntax, and style of the author (compared with the Johannine Gospel, etc). All of these aspects and approaches are necessary to take into consideration when studying a passage. They will not always lead to definitive solutions to questions of interpretation, but such critical analysis, when done honestly and objectively, and in an informed way, should bring valuable elucidation to the Scriptures. Having now concluded a representative analysis on many of the key passages and issues in First John, it is now time to turn our attention to the second and third Letters. This we will do, God willing, next Saturday…I hope you will join me.