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

John 8:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above; you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world. So I said to you that you will die away in your sins—for, if you would not trust that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi], (then) you shall die away in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

John 6:62

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:53)

John 6:53

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. The first of these (in verse 27), discussed previously, occurs within the first of the three sections (vv. 25-34) that comprise the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59):

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)

Each of these three parts builds upon the one prior. In Part 1, Jesus expounds the Scriptural tradition of manna as “the bread from heaven” (Exod 16:4; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), implicitly identifying himself as the true “bread out of heaven”, which God the Father has sent down. In Part 2 (vv. 35-50), this identification is made explicit, utilizing the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$), within an “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statement by Jesus (v. 35). In Part 3, the identification is further refined in a second “I am” statement (v. 51), using the expression “the living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n).

The exposition in Part 2 can be divided into two sections (vv. 35-40, 43-50), separated by the questioning (and skeptical) response from Jesus’ hearers. This follows the basic pattern of the Johannine Discourses. Two main points are made in the first expository section: (1) Jesus has come down from heaven, having been sent by the Father; and (2) the purpose of this mission is to give (eternal) life to all who believe in him (viz., as the Son of God). This is basic Johannine theology, and it provides the theological explanation for the identification of Jesus as “the bread of life” (as “the bread out of heaven”). In the second expository section (vv. 43-50), in response to the audience’s questions (v. 42), Jesus further emphasizes the need for people to trust in him, and offers a measure of theological explanation as to how this trust takes place (vv. 44-46).

The fundamental expository development of the manna motif is thus two-fold: (1) that Jesus himself is the true “bread out of heaven”, and (2) that “eating” this bread means trusting in Jesus as the Son of God. There is not the slightest suggestion that the idiom of eating here has any other meaning.

This brings us to the third part of the Discourse (vv. 51-58), in which the “son of man” reference occurs. It is important to keep in mind that the entire Discourse is ultimately rooted in the first saying by Jesus, in verse 27, where the expression “the son of man” occurs:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], which the son of man shall give…”

The second and third sayings explain and elucidate (Christologically, note the “I am” formulation) the primary saying of v. 27:

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

The message is fundamentally the same in each of these sayings: the person who trusts in Jesus shall possess (and experience) eternal life. The parallelism of vv. 35 and 51 further confirms that “eating” the bread of life (Jesus) means trusting in him.

However, the second of these “I am” sayings (v. 51) is closer in form to the initial saying of v. 27. Note the parallel in the first portion of each saying:

    • “…(work for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age”
    • “if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age”

And also in the second portion:

    • “…which the son of man shall give”
    • “…and the bread which I will give…”

The parallel makes clear that the expression “the son of man” is primarily used by Jesus here as a self-reference, interchangeable with the pronoun “I”. This confirms much of our analysis from the earlier studies on the Synoptic “son of man” sayings. The final words of verse 51 provide the essential expository information that will be further developed in this section:

“…and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”

That is to say, Jesus’ identity as the “bread of life” (or “living bread”) is specifically focused on his flesh (sa/rc). In verse 53 (see below), this is further expanded to include his blood (ai!ma); the preparation for this expository development is provided by the reference to both eating and drinking, in v. 35. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the motif of eating and that of drinking—in the Johannine theological idiom, they both refer to trusting in Jesus, and to the life that is conferred to the believer as a result of that trust. One only need to compare the “living water” (drinking) theme in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10-14, cf. also 7:37-39) with the “living bread” (eating) theme here in chapter 6.

The statement by Jesus in verse 51 naturally leads to another questioning response (demonstrating a lack of understanding) by his hearers (v. 52). The difficulty expressed in vv. 42-43 had to do with the idea that Jesus had come down from heaven; here, the problem lies in the idea of eating his “flesh”. Jesus responds with a further exposition (vv. 53-58) of his saying. The “son of man” reference occurs in the initial statement of this exposition:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: if you should not eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you do not hold (any) life in yourselves.” (v. 53)

Here, the phrase “the flesh of the son of man” is precisely parallel with “my flesh” (in v. 51), demonstrating (again) that the expression “the son of man” is principally a self-reference by Jesus. This is also confirmed by the statement that follows in v. 54:

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…”

This represents the positive side of the negative statement in v. 53: the one who does eat Jesus’ “flesh” does have life, while the one who does not eat his “flesh” does not have life. This is typical of the dualistic manner of Johannine thought and expression. For stylistic variation (and dramatic emphasis), the verb trw/gw (lit. “wear away” by chewing), in the sense of “devour, consume”, is used in verse 54ff instead of the more general fa/gw (“eat”). The verb trw/gw is quite rare in the New Testament; of the six occurrences, four are here in vv. 54-58.
It is no less rare in the LXX, occurring only in the compounds e)ktrw/gw (Mic 7:4) and katatrw/gw (Prov 24:22e).

In verse 55, Jesus further emphasizes that his “flesh” and “blood” is true food and drink (just as he is the true “bread from heaven”). The natural consequences of this idiom of eating/drinking are developed in vv. 56-57. Just as a person takes in food and drink, and then the life-giving nutrients, etc, are assimilated and made active within the person, so the believer who consumes the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus assimilates the Divine life (and life-giving power) of the Son. This is expressed in decidedly Johannine terms. First, in verse 56, the key verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is utilized. This is the principal Johannine way of expressing the union of the believer with God—viz., the believer “remains in” God, and God “remains in” the believer. This abiding union with God the Father is achieved through the Son—that is, through trust in the Son (i.e., eating/drinking him):

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

It is only by being (i.e. remaining) “in the Son” that we are able to be “in the Father”. In verse 57, the focus is on the life-giving power of the Son, which was given to him by the Father:

“Just as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also the (one) devouring me—that (one) shall live through me.”

This is another essential Johannine theme, one which featured prominently in the chapter 5 Discourse. Indeed, the theme is central to the “son of man” reference in v. 27, as it occurs within the overall context of vv. 19-30 (cf. the discussion in the prior study). Note, in particular, the statement in verse 26:

“For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, thus also He has given (it) to the Son to hold life in himself.”

The Son, in turn, gives life to whomever he wishes—that is, to all those who trust in him.

These themes and points of emphasis are summarized in v. 58, at the close of the Discourse, as Jesus returns to the manna tradition with which he began the Discourse:

This is the bread (hav)ing come down out of heaven; and (it is) not at all as our fathers ate and (then) died away—the (one) devouring this bread shall live into the Age!”


The use of the expression “the son of man” in verse 53, as noted above, functions primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. Its meaning and significance, in this Johannine context, follow the points of emphasis that we have already outlined from the prior studies (on the sayings in 1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27, and 6:27):

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

If there is anything distinctive which is to be added to these theological themes, based on the saying in v. 53 (in the context of vv. 51-58), it relates specifically to the motif of Jesus’ flesh (and blood). These two idiomatic terms— “flesh” (sa/rc) and “blood” (ai!ma)—carry a correspondingly two-fold significance:

    • “flesh” —the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus (cf. 1:14; 1 Jn 4:2; 2 Jn 7)
    • “blood” —the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (19:34 [cp. verse 30]; 1 Jn 1:7; 5:6, 8)

The nouns sa/rc and ai!ma hardly occur at all in the Johannine writings outside of this theological-christological nexus.

As we have seen from our studies on the Synoptic sayings, the expression “the son of man” was particularly used by Jesus in connection with his suffering and death. This applies to the three Passion-predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par; cf. also 9:9, 12), but the expression also occurs a number of times in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:21, 41 par; Matt 26:2; Lk 22:48), in dramatic anticipation of Jesus’ suffering/death. Especially notable, as a parallel to Jn 6:53, is the saying in Mark 10:45:

“For the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul, (as) a loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

This resembles the thought expressed by Jesus at the Last Supper:

“this is my blood…having been poured out over many” (Mk 14:24 par)

The symbolism of the bread and wine—as Jesus’ “body” and “blood” —relates to his impending death, which will function as a sacrificial act, enabling human beings (viz., those who trust in him) to be set free from bondage (to sin).

Nearly all commentators recognize that there is eucharistic language present in vv. 51-58. The inclusion of flesh and blood, even though “flesh” alone would make a more natural parallel to “bread”, strongly suggests that there is an intentional reference (or allusion) to the eucharist (i.e., the Lord’s Supper ritual) at work in this section. Indeed, the wording in v. 51 (“…which I give over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”) seems to echo that of Mk 14:24 par (“…having been poured out over [u(pe/r] many”).

The precise relationship of vv. 51-58 to the eucharist has been (and continues to be) much debated by scholars and commentators. I have discussed the matter in earlier notes and articles, most recently as a supplemental note in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” (cf. the article on Jn 6:63). I will not repeat those discussions here. In any case, with regard to the specific use of the expression “the son of man”, the principal point is that, as in the Synoptic Last Supper account, Jesus’ “flesh” (or “body”) and “blood” refer to his death. Only secondarily, by way of symbolism, do they refer to the (eucharistic) elements of the Lord’s Supper rite.

As a result of our study on verse 53 (in context), we may expand our list of Johannine themes associated with the expression “the son of man” to include four fundamental themes:

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

In the next part of this study, we shall turn our attention to the “son of man” reference in verse 62.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:27)

John 6:27, 53, 62

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. Like the chapter 5 Discourse (see the previous study), the Bread of Life Discourse is built upon the historical tradition of a miracle episode—the Miraculous Feeding episode (6:1-14ff), known also from the Synoptic Tradition (Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10 pars). In many ways, the chapter 6 Discourse is better integrated with the miracle episode than is the chap. 5 Discourse. The manna-theme of “bread from heaven”, featuring in the Exposition sections of the Discourse, provides a natural fit to the feeding miracle (with its multiplication of the bread-loaves).

The Discourse proper (vv. 22-59) may be divided into three parts, each of which further expounds the previous section:

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)
John 6:27

The principal saying/statement by Jesus that opens the Discourse is in verse 27:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food th(at is) remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of man will give to you…”

Jesus adds the following statement regarding “the son of man”:

“…for (on) this (one) God the Father (has) set (His) seal.”

There are thus three main points made by Jesus in this saying:

    • There is food, different from ordinary physical food, that remains (vb me/nw) into the (eternal) life to come.
    • The “son of man” gives people this food.
    • God the Father has His seal on this “son of man”

In turn, these points reflect key Johannine theological themes or principles:

    • Use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) to express the Divine (eternal) nature and character of the union between God and the believer, in parallel here with the equally important motif of life (zwh/, i.e. eternal life).
    • The Son (Jesus) gives life to the world, to those who trust in him (i.e., to believers).
    • Jesus (the Son) is the authoritative representative of God the Father, having been sent by Him, and carrying His message.
      The seal-motif, however, is not typically Johannine (cf. 3:33), though it does occur repeatedly (in a different context) in the book of Revelation.

How are we to understand the use of the expression “the son of man” here in verse 27? At the historical level, as a saying of Jesus, apart from the Johannine literary context, it would be most natural to regard it primarily as a self-reference by Jesus, such as in many of the examples we looked at in the Synoptic Gospels. The most natural parallel would be the saying in Mark 10:45 par, which also relates to the three Passion-predictions (8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars). Though the initial saying in verse 27 is not clearly connected with Jesus’ death, that association will be developed over the course of the Exposition sections that follow (cf. the next part of this study).

Thus, as a self-reference, the phrase “…which the son of man will give” is essentially equivalent to “…which I will give”. And, indeed, Jesus later uses this formulation with the first person, in verse 51: “…and the bread, indeed, which I [e)gw/] will give”. This is very much in keeping with the distinctive usage of the expression by Jesus, which could perhaps be effectively translated as “th(is) son of man” —i.e., this human being, this person, namely Jesus himself.

However, there can be little doubt that the Gospel writer intended the expression to be understood in light of the earlier occurrences—in 1:51, 3:13-14, and 5:27. Three thematic aspects of that earlier usage would seem to be relevant here:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

All three of these themes are developed by Jesus (and the Gospel writer) throughout the Discourse. The themes are summarized concisely in the initial exposition by Jesus in verse 29, which reads like a Johannine confessional statement; he defines the “work of God” (v. 28) as: “…that you should trust in the (one) whom that (One) sent forth”. Jesus is the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father, and thus possesses the authority of the Father, to speak and act. In the second exposition (vv. 32-33) of this first portion of the Discourse, Jesus utilizes the Scriptural tradition of the manna as “the bread from heaven”(Exod 16:14; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), introduced by his audience in v. 31. Through this motif, Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from [e)k] heaven”, though he does not make the identification explicit right away, but instead prepares the groundwork for it through an exposition of the Scripture:

“…(it was) not Moshe (who) has given to you ‘the bread out of heaven’, but (rather) my Father gives to you the true ‘bread out of heaven’; for, the bread of God is the (one) stepping down [katabai/nwn] out of heaven and giving life to the world.”

The perceptive reader/hearer of the Gospel would immediately recognize the Christological use here of the verb katabai/nw, as referring to the descent of the Son of God from heaven, and his incarnation on earth in the person of Jesus. The expression “the son of man” was used in this context in 3:13 (note), and was alluded to earlier in 1:51 (note).

In the next part of this study, we will look at how the Johannine themes, associated with “the son of man”, are developed in the second part (vv. 35-50) of the Discourse, as well as their unique application in the third part (vv. 51-58), including the apparent eucharistic context of the “son of man” saying in verse 53.

June 11: John 8:39-46

John 8:39-46

In examining the Johannine theme of the spiritual birth of believers, it is worth noting that the idiom of the verb genna/w + the preposition e)k (“come to be [born] out of”) can be applied not only to believers (see the previous notes on 3:3-8 and 1:12-13), but also to their opposite—to non-believers and those who are hostile/opposed to Christ. This reflects a starkly dualistic outlook (and mode of expression) that pervades the Johannine writings. All human beings belong to one of two categories, presented as dualistic opposites—light vs. darkness, above vs. below, believers vs. the world, God and Christ vs. the “chief of this world” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). By this manner of expression, if one is not of God (and His Spirit), then that person must be of the Devil.

This dualistic contrast, of children of God vs. children of the Devil, features prominently in the Sukkot-Discourse complex of chapters 7-8. The theme is developed gradually, throughout the Discourse-sections of 8:12-59. The Johannine message of Jesus as the Son, sent from heaven by God the Father, is expounded in vv. 12-30, with particular emphasis on the word spoken by Jesus, bearing witness to his identity as the Son. The true disciple is one who trusts in this word (see v. 30), but then also remains in it (vv. 31-32).

At this point in the Discourse, some of Jesus’ hearers unwittingly introduce the birth/sonship motif, by referring to themselves (Israelites/Jews) as the “seed of Abraham” (v. 33). Jesus plays upon this self-identification, pointing out that, because they oppose him (and even seek to kill him), they cannot truly be Abraham’s children—since Abraham would not act in such away (vv. 37, 39-40, 56). This logic follows an important Johannine theme—viz., that the Son (Jesus), as a dutiful son, follows the example of his Father, faithfully doing what he sees the Father doing, and saying what he hears the Father saying (v. 38). In this regard, the speech and conduct of a person reveals who his/her father is. By opposing God’s Son, and seeking to have Jesus put to death, these people reveal that the Devil is their true father (vv. 38, 41ff).

Prior to verse 39, the expression “seed [spe/rma] of Abraham” is used; however, now the important Johannine word te/knon (plur. te/kna, “offspring”) is introduced. This shift enables the contrast, between children of God and children of the Devil, to be established and expounded in vv. 39-47. The response of these people to the Son (Jesus) sent by God the Father, and to his words (which are God’s words), shows that they cannot be true offspring (te/kna) of Abraham (v. 40).

In verse 41, there is a further conceptual shift, from being the offspring of Abraham to being the offspring of God. Again, it is Jesus’ opponents who unwittingly introduce the theme, ironically using Johannine theological terminology:

“We have not come to be (born) [gegennh/meqa] out of [e)k] prostitution [i.e. sexual immorality], but we have one Father, God!”

The Johannine idiom of genna/w + e)k is here utilized; in a roundabout way, these people are claiming to be the “offspring [te/kna] of God”, even though they are clearly not believers in Christ. In the remainder of this section (vv. 42-47), the verb genna/w is not used, but the preposition e)k does occur repeatedly. In the Johannine terminology, the preposition alone can stand for genna/w + e)k, as a reference to the birth (of believers) as the offspring of God. Actually, the preposition has a range of theological meaning, with three specific semantic layers or aspects that are in play here:

    • Indicating origin (“from”), specifically of Jesus (the Son) coming from (lit. “out of”) God the Father
    • The idea of birth—of (believers) being born of God
    • The more general idea of “belonging to”, viz., of believers being of God

The first aspect occurs in verse 42, as Jesus affirms his heavenly origin, with the preposition e)k doubled: “for I came out [vb e)ce/rxomai] out of [e)k, i.e. from] God”. By contrast, Jesus’ opponents have their origin (or source, their ‘birth’) from the Devil: “You are out of [e)k] (your) father the Dia/bolo$” (v. 44). As children of the Devil, they think and act and speak as their ‘father’ does. God is the source of truth (a)lh/qeia), while the Devil is the source of that which is false (to\ yeu=do$), vv. 44b-46. The essential contrast is stated concisely, in the climactic verse 47:

“The (one) being of [e)k] God hears the utterances [i.e. words] of God; for this (reason), you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [e)k] God.”

All three layers of meaning for the preposition e)k (see above) can be applied here:

    • Jesus as the Son who comes from God, and who hears God the Father speaking
    • Believers as those who are ‘born’ of God, and thus are able to hear the words of God (i.e., trusting in them)
    • Moreover, believers are truly of God, belonging to Him as His offspring

There are numerous parallels to this wording in the Johannine writings, most notably the statement by Jesus in Jn 18:37.

While the illustration of unbelievers as ‘children’ of the Devil may be useful, it should not be pressed too far. Unbelievers do not “come to be (born)” (vb genna/w) of the Devil in the manner that believers “come to be (born)” of God. The phrasing here in verse 47 is more proper, from a Johannine theological standpoint: a non-believer (or unbeliever) is, by definition, not born of God. This negation is fundamental to the distinction between a believer and a non-believer.


June 10: John 3:3-8

John 3:3-8

In the Johannine writings, the theme of believers as the sons/children of God is especially prominent, and is expressed primarily in two ways: (1) through the use of the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna), “offspring”; and (2) by the verb genna/w + the preposition e)k. The statement in 1:12b-13, discussed in the previous note, uses both of these elements.

The principal passage in the Gospel for this theme is the first section (vv. 3-8) of the Nicodemus Discourse in chapter 3. In these verses, the verb genna/w occurs eight times, four of which also use the preposition e)k (“out of”).

The verb genna/w is a verb of becoming, related to the more common gi/nomai, and with a comparable meaning. Both verbs can be used in the context of birth (i.e., coming to be born); however, this aspect of meaning is more regularly expressed by genna/w. The verb is relatively rare in the Synoptic Gospels, outside of the Matthean genealogy (1:1-16, where it occurs 40 times). It occurs primarily in the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives, in reference to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:20; 2:1, 4; Luke 1:35), but also to the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 57). Otherwise, it is used only rarely, in the context of an ordinary human birth (Mark 14:21; Matt 19:12; 26:24; Lk 23:29). The idiom of genna/w + e)k (i.e., “come to be born out of”) occurs only in Matt 1:20, in reference to the conception/birth of Jesus from the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the New Testament, outside of the Johannine writings, genna/w + e)k occurs only in Galatians 4:23 (cf. the earlier note on Gal 4:21-31).

As mentioned above, the verb genna/w occurs eight times in 3:3-8, the first section of the Nicodemus Discourse, in which the theme of birth is emphasized. Following the narrative introduction (vv. 1-2), the central statement by Jesus in verse 3 begins the Discourse:

“If one does not come to be (born) [e)ggenhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

The Johannine Discourses of Jesus follow a basic pattern, which is outlined below (applied to the chap. 3 Discourse):

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Response by his hearer(s), reflecting a lack of understanding (v. 4)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of his words (vv. 5-8)
    • A second response by his hearer(s), again demonstrating a lack of understanding (v. 9)
    • Further exposition by Jesus (here, in two parts: vv. 10-15, 16-21)

In the initial exposition (vv. 5-8), Jesus explains the meaning of his statement in v. 3. Nicodemus, in his initial response (v. 4), has difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “come to be (born) from above [a&nwqen]”. He understands the adverb a&nwqen in the figurative/temporal sense of “again”, specifically in the context of a person coming to be born “a second time”, repeating his/her physical birth (from the mother’s womb). Jesus, however, explains that the ‘birth’ of which he speaks is a Divine birth, coming from God (“from above”). Since God Himself is Spirit (a point to be made in 4:24), a birth from God must be a spiritual, not a physical, birth. Jesus rephrases his initial statement in verse 5:

“If one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

Being born “from above” is explained as being born “out of [e)k] water and (the) Spirit”, while “seeing” the Kingdom of God is explained in terms of “entering” (“coming into”) the Kingdom. In verses 6-8, the explanation of “from above” (a&nwqen) is further narrowed to “out of the Spirit”, without any mention of water. This has led commentators to debate the significance of “out of water” (e)c u%dato$) in verse 5. There are three lines of interpretation:

    • “water” and “Spirit” are essentially synonymous, perhaps in anticipation of the water-motif in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10, 13-14; cf. vv. 23-24; 7:37-39)
    • “water” and “Spirit” are supplemental, referring (most likely) to the baptism ritual and its symbolism; “Spirit” is primary (vv. 6, 8), but “water” (i.e., baptism) is still essential for the believer (in order to “enter” the Kingdom)
    • the conjunction kai/ (“and”) signifies that in addition to being born out of water (i.e., one’s physical/biological), it is necessary specifically to be born “of the Spirit”.

I am very much inclined toward the third approach, which seems to be more in keeping with the context of vv. 3-4, and the exposition by Jesus in verses 6ff. There is a clear contrast between an ordinary human birth (from the mother’s womb), and a Divine/heavenly birth from the Spirit of God. In this regard, “out of (the) flesh” (v. 6) seems to be parallel with “out of water” in v. 5. Moreover, I would maintain that this line of interpretation is in accord with the Jesus-John contrast that runs through chapters 1-3; in particular, John’s baptism with water is contrasted with Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit (1:26, 31, 33; cf. 3:22-23ff). This thematic contrast is undercut if the wording in verse 5 refers to the (physical) water of the baptism ritual.

The irony is that Nicodemus was not entirely incorrect in his understanding of a&nwqen as connoting “again, a second time”, because a second birth is indeed required.

In his initial exposition, Jesus does not explain how it is that one comes to be born “from above”, that is, “from the Spirit”. This is only expounded subsequently, in vv. 10-21. The final portion (vv. 16-21), in particular, implicitly declares that this spiritual birth takes place only when a person trusts in Jesus as the Son sent to earth by God the Father. The theological (and Christological) basis for this is established in the prior section (vv. 10-15), by way of the Johannine descent-ascent schema. The Son has descended (lit. “stepped down”) to earth from heaven (v. 13), and, when his mission on earth is completed (culminating with his death), he will ascend (“step up”) back to heaven (vv. 13a, 14). Both aspects (descent and ascent of the Son) are necessary for one’s trust in Jesus to be genuine (and full), enabling that person to both see and enter the Kingdom of God.

In comparison with his teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says very little about the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of John. In fact, there are only two passages where the Kingdom-theme is dealt with to any extent—here in 3:3-8, and the dialogue with Pilate in 18:33-38. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, it is not the Messianic kingship of Jesus that is emphasized, but, rather, his identity as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. Similarly, in place of the Kingdom as an eschatological concept, we find the twin Johannine themes of judgment (kri/si$, vb kri/nw) and life (zwh/). And, indeed, these are the two key themes introduced and expounded in the conclusion of the Discourse (vv. 16-21). The one who trusts in Jesus, possesses life, having already passed through the Judgment, while the one who does not trust, has already been judged.

This aspect of what it means to be a believer in Jesus is stated succinctly in verse 15, in relation to the descent-ascent of the Son:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him would hold (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]”

The parallel between the idiom of “entering the Kingdom” and “entering life”, whereby the two can be regarded as largely synonymous, is reasonably well established in the Gospel Tradition, within the teaching of Jesus (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par; 10:15, 17 par; Matt 19:17, 23-24 par; cf. also Matt 7:14, 21).

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

John 5:27, continued

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

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

And, in vv. 26-27:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 5:27

The next “son of man” reference in the Gospel of John is at 5:27, within the lengthy Discourse of chapter 5. The Johannine Discourses of Jesus are all carefully structured and arranged. For example, the first four Discourses are arranged in two pairs. The Discourses in the first pair (3:1-21; 4:1-42) are based upon encounters between Jesus and a particular individual—Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, respectively—characters who are vividly portrayed in the narrative. The Discourses of the second pair (chaps. 5 and 6) are each rooted in a different kind of historical tradition—namely, a miracle episode, similar to those we find narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. Indeed, the miraculous feeding episode in chap. 6 (vv. 1-14f) so closely resembles the Synoptic episode(s) (Mk 6:30-44 par; 8:1-10 par), that most commentators would consider both versions to be derived from a single (common) historical tradition.

As for the miracle episode in chapter 5 (vv. 1-16), it bears a certain resemblance to Mark 3:1-6 par, with the healing framed as a Sabbath controversy episode. Actually, in the Johannine narrative, the healing (vv. 1-9) and Sabbath-controversy (vv. 10-16) portions appear to reflect separate traditions, which the Gospel writer (or the underlying Johannine Tradition) has combined into a single narrative. In this regard, we might a comparison with the healing miracle (of a paralyzed man) in Mk 2:1-12 par, in its contextual position preceding the Sabbath controversy episodes of 2:23-3:6. As it happens, in both the episodes of 2:1-12 and 23-28, the expression “the son of man” plays a prominent role (vv. 10, 28).

The Johannine combination of traditional elements—healing miracle and Sabbath controversy—provides the narrative background for the main saying of Jesus (v. 17) that initiates the Discourse proper: “My Father works (even) until now, and I (also) work.” In the sections of the Discourse that follow, Jesus expounds the meaning of this saying.

In all of the Johannine Discourses, there is a reaction to the initial saying of Jesus by his hearers, and this reaction leads to an expository response by Jesus. The hostile reaction, by at least some of the populace (“the Yehudeans”) who heard him, is presented indirectly, in summary fashion by the Gospel writer, in verse 18. The people objected both to his healing act which (in their view) violated the Sabbath law, and to his statement, by which they recognized that “he was making himself equal to God”.

Typically, the audience reactions to Jesus’ statements in the Discourses involve a misunderstanding of (the true meaning of) his words. Here, the emphasis is not so much on misunderstanding, as it is on opposition to Jesus. Given the Synoptic parallels (see above), and also the certain parallels with the healing episode in chapter 9, it would seem likely that “the Yehudeans [i.e., Jews]” of verses 10-18 should be identified with the kinds of Jewish religious authorities (‘Scribes and Pharisees’) who typically feature as Jesus’ adversaries/opponents in the Gospel Tradition (cf. 9:13-16ff).

Jesus’ exposition that follows may be divided into two main portions—vv. 19-30 and vv. 31-47. The “son of man” reference occurs toward the end of first division. The principal theme of the Discourse is two-fold: (1) Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God the Father, and (2) the fact that, as the Son, he does the work of his Father.

Like a dutiful son, Jesus follows his father’s example in his working—a principle that almost certainly reflects the practical situation of a son apprenticing in the same work/trade as his father. As Jesus states at the opening of his exposition:

“The Son is not able to do anything from himself, if not [i.e. but only] what he should see the Father doing; for the (thing)s which that (One) would do, the Son also does.” (v. 19)

The Father, like a human father instructing his son, shows the Son what to do and how to work (v. 20).

To illustrate the nature of the Father’s work, Jesus cites two examples, both of which have an eschatological orientation: (i) giving life to the dead (v. 21), and (ii) acting as Judge over humankind (v. 22). The first theme is loosely related to the healing miracle of vv. 1-16, though it would, of course, be more appropriate to the Lazarus episode of chap. 11. The ability to heal illness reflects the life-giving power of God. However, the exposition focuses specifically on giving life to the dead (i.e., resurrection), with the end-time resurrection primarily in view. This resurrection, according to traditional eschatological expectation, is connected with the end-time Judgment.

These twin themes are woven through verses 19-30, being developed in various ways, and (most importantly) given a Johannine Christological interpretation. Structurally, the exposition here is given in two parallel sections—vv. 21-24 and vv. 25-29. Three key points are made in each section:

    • The authority/ability both to give life and to judge is given by the Father to the Son (vv. 21-22f, 26-27)
    • Giving life: the one who hears the voice of the Son will receive life and be raised from the dead (v. 24a, 25ff)
    • Judging: those who hear the Son’s voice will face the Judgment (v. 24b, 28-29)

The emphasis in the second section (vv. 25-29) is on what we may call the traditional future eschatology, held by Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D. In the first section (vv. 21-24), however, the focus is on the realized eschatology that is so distinctive of the Johannine Gospel. The two eschatological strands are joined together here by the phrase in v. 25a: “(the) hour comes, and is now (here)”.

From the standpoint of the Johannine ‘realized’ eschatology—that is, where traditional future events (i.e., resurrection, the Judgment) are realized for human beings already in the present—the eschatological events of the resurrection and the Judgment are understood in terms of trust in Jesus. This is stated quite clearly in verse 24:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, that the (one) hearing my word and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me holds (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], and does not come into judgment, but has stepped over [metabe/bhken], out of death and into life.”

The use of the perfect tense of the verb metabai/nw, in particular, makes clear that the person trusting in Jesus (as the Son sent by the Father) has already (in the present) received the resurrection-life, and has passed through the Judgment into eternal life. Much the same idea was expressed earlier in 3:16-21, and can be found at other points in the Gospel as well.

Yet this ‘realized’ eschatology does not exclude the traditional (future) understanding of the end-time resurrection and Judgment. This is clear from the second section (vv. 25-29), though some commentators would view the future eschatology in these verses as the product of a later (redacted/edited) edition of the Gospel, and not the work of the original author. As noted above, verse 25a serves to join together the two different eschatological viewpoints. More than this, there is a certain inclusio to the section which could be interpreted as presenting the theme of Jesus’ life-giving (resurrection) power according to both eschatological aspects:

    • Realized eschatology:
      “(the) hour comes and is now (here)
      when the dead
      shall hear the voice of the Son of God,
      and the (one)s hearing shall live” (v. 25)
    • Future eschatology:
      “(the) hour comes
      in which all the (one)s in the memorials [i.e. tombs]
      shall hear his voice,
      and they shall travel out…(some) unto life…and (others) unto judgment” (vv. 28-29)

In both instances, human beings hear the voice of the Son (Jesus). This “hearing” has a double meaning, but the second (deeper) meaning applies only to the ‘realized’ eschatology of the Johannine theology. For this reason, the verb a)kou/w (“hear”) is used twice in verse 25:

    • “the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God”
      viz., at the resurrection, when humankind is raised from the dead
    • “and the (one)s (hav)ing heard shall live”
      viz., believers, those trusting in Jesus, shall enter into eternal life

At the same time, the entire verse echoes the realized eschatology of vv. 21-24, and anticipates the Lazarus episode, in which “the dead hearing the voice of the Son” is applied to the present, not simply to the future.

With this analysis in place, we can now turn to the “son of man” reference in verse 27. It is important, first, to examine the reference within the unit of vv. 26-27. As noted above, in this unit, we find the theme of the Father giving to the Son the authority/ability both to give life (to the dead) and to judge. In the first section, this theme was expressed in vv. 21-22:

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

It is similarly expressed, though with quite different wording/phrasing, in vv. 26-27:

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

The point is thus made doubly: the Father has given life-giving power to the Son; He has also given the Son the power/authority to act as judge over humankind. With regard to the use of the expression “(the) son of man” here, there are three interpretive issues that need to be addressed:

    1. The relation between the (parallel) terminology “the Son” (v. 22) and “(the) son of man” (v. 27)
    2. In what ways (if any) does the power to give life and to judge differ, particularly as expressed in vv. 26-27, and (how) does this effect the use of the expression “son of man”?
    3. How is the judgment to be understood, comparing the matter in light of both sections (vv. 21-24, 25-29), and in the broader context of the Johannine theology? And how does the expression “(the) son of man” relate to this understanding of the judgment?

In addition, some consideration must be given to the distinctive anarthrous form of the expression (i.e., without the definite article[s]) here in verse 27.

These points will be discussed in the continuation of this study.


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

John 3:13 and 14

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

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

John 3:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) “the son of man”

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: John 19:11

In our study on the Johannine view of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ), we turn now to the final references in the Gospel.

John 19:11

The second to last sin-reference occurs at the end of the scene between Jesus and Pilate in the Passion narrative (18:28-19:16). As R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 26, pp. 858-9, drawing upon the work of earlier scholars) has noted, this scene is structured according to the spatial aspect of events taking place either in the outer court (outside) or the inner room (inside) of the praetorium. The scenic shifts, with the corresponding structural units of the narrative, may be outlined chiastically as follows:

    • 18:28-32—The Jewish delegation seeks Jesus’ death [outside]
      • 18:33-38a—Interrogation of Jesus (Dialogue 1) [inside]
        • 18:38b-40—Pilate finds no guilt in him: presentation (Barabbas vs. Jesus) [outside]
          • 19:1-3—Scourging/mocking of Jesus as “King of the Jews” [inside]
        • 19:4-8—Pilate finds no guilt in him: presentation (“Behold the man”) [outside]
      • 19:9-11—Interrogation of Jesus (Dialogue 2) [inside]
    • 19:12-16a—Pilate complies with the Jewish delegation’s request for Jesus’ death [outside]

The entire scene is centered upon the title “the King of the Yehudeans” (ho basileús tœ¡n Ioudaíœn), and Jesus’ identity as this “king”. It is presented most vividly by the central episodes:

    • Presentation of Jesus as “king of the Jews” (choice between Barabbas and Jesus) [18:38b-40]
      • Scourging/mocking—Jesus dressed up and ‘hailed’ as “king of the Jews” [19:1-3]
    • Presentation of Jesus as “king of the Jews”
      (“See the man!” [idoú ho ánthrœpos], v. 5) [19:4-8]

Thematically, all of this is rooted in the historical tradition, regarding the basis for the charges brought against Jesus to the Roman authorities (Mk 15:1-20ff par; see esp. verse 2), and ultimately proving to be the reason for his death-sentence (v. 26 par; Jn 19:19-22). The Gospel of John is faithful to this tradition, but typically develops it in light of the distinctive Johannine theology.

We see this most clearly in the parallel Dialogue-sections of 18:33-38a and 19:9-11. In each of these, the idea of Jesus’ kingship is treated, in a manner similar to what we find in the Johannine Discourses. As I have previously discussed, the Discourses follow a basic literary format:

    • Statement/saying by Jesus
    • Response by his audience indicating a lack of understanding (i.e., misunderstanding)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains (or begins to explain) the true/deeper meaning of his words

The two Dialogue-scenes here, when taken together, form a mini-Discourse, according to the Johannine format. Instead of beginning with a statement by Jesus, there is a question by Pilate: “Are you the king of the Yehudeans?”. This question forms the basis of the discourse, which opens up on the issue of Jesus’ identity—that is, as the Anointed One (Messiah, i.e., king of the Jews) and the Son of God (see the confessional statements in 11:27 and 20:31).

The discourse-motif of misunderstanding is introduced, here through the initial response of Jesus to Pilate: “Do you say this from yourself, or did others say (this) to you about me?” (v. 34). In either case, the implication is that Pilate does not truly understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. This is expressed in the dialogue that follows (vv. 35-38a), in which two explanatory statements by Jesus are framed by three questions by Pilate, each of which reflects a lack of understanding:

    • Question 1 (v. 35)— “…of the Jews”
    • Exposition 1 (v. 36)—the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom
    • Question 2 (v. 37a)— “the king…”
    • Exposition 2 (v. 37b)—the true nature of Jesus’ kingship
    • Question 3 (v. 38)—what is the truth of it all?

As indicated in the outline above, the first two questions by Pilate relate to the two components of the title “the king of the Jews”. The first (v. 35) relates to “…of the Jews”, assuming that the kingdom/kingship of Jesus is ethnically oriented, being tied to the Israelite/Jewish nation and people. By contrast, Jesus makes clear in his response (v. 36) that his kingdom “is not of this world” (ouk estin ek tou kósmou).

This response leads Pilate to wonder whether, or in what way, Jesus is actually a king (i.e., the first component of the title, “the king…”). The Greek syntax of his question (v. 37a) is a bit difficult to translate in English; literally, it would be something like: “(Is it) not then (that) you are a king?”. Many translations would convert the negative compound particle oukoún (“[is it] not then…”, which occurs only here in the New Testament) into an affirmative—e.g., “So you are a king?”. In any case, this raises a question regarding the nature of Jesus’ kingship. In the explanation that follows (v. 37b), Jesus tells us something about the kind of king he is; his words summarize (in general terms) the mission for which he (the Son) was sent to earth by God the Father:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world—that I should give witness to the truth. Every (one) being [i.e. who is] of the truth hears my voice.”

This answer, which reflects the Johannine theology (and Christology), is expressed somewhat cryptically; the Johannine (Christian) reader will understand it, but those (like Pilate) who belong to the world clearly will not, as Pilate’s concluding question demonstrates: “What is (the) truth?” (v. 38).

At issue is Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (“King of the Jews”) and the Son of God. The first title and point of identification is dealt with in the first Dialogue-section; the second becomes the focus in the second section (19:9-11), as Pilate hears that Jesus had been calling/considering himself to be “the Son of God” (v. 7). This moves the issue further into the sphere of the Johannine theology, as does Pilate’s next question, in response: “Where are you from?” (póthen eí su;). This question reaches to the heart of the Johannine Gospel. Even though Jesus gives no response (and here the Gospel echoes the Synoptic tradition, Mk 15:4-5 par), the answer can be assumed by the Johannine reader: Jesus is from heaven, being the Son (of God) sent to earth by God the Father.

This reinterpretation of the Gospel tradition, in terms of the Johannine theological idiom, allows us to understand the climactic sin-reference of verse 11 in its proper context. Sin (hamartía) should not be understood simply in its ordinary conventional sense, as ethical/religious wrongs, misdeeds, failures, etc. Rather, it refers principally to sin in its distinctive theological sense in the Gospel—that is, of a failure or refusal to trust in Jesus as the Son of God.

In the previous studies on this subject, we have seen how the Gospel writer, in a number of passages, plays on these two aspects of the meaning of sin. I believe that verse 11 represents another such example of this dual-meaning. The conclusion of the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus hinges on the motif of authority (the noun exousía), which naturally relates to the idea of kingship. The noun exousía can be difficult to translate into English. It fundamentally refers to a person having the ability (i.e., from one’s own being) to do something; often the sense is that this ability is given to a person by a superior, meaning it is something that the person is allowed or permitted to do. This relates to the authority that Pilate (as the Roman governor) has over Jesus. Pilate expresses this one way (v. 10), and Jesus another (v. 11). Here is Jesus’ response to Pilate:

“You would not hold authority [exousía] on/against me, if it were not given to you (from) above.”

God (from heaven) has given to Pilate the ability to sentence Jesus to death, and to have him killed. Pilate himself has no intrinsic power over Jesus, who, as the Son, has been given the authority (from the Father) to lay down his own life (10:17-18).

As the local representative of Roman imperial authority, Pilate represents the world—in the full (negative) Johannine understanding of the term kósmos (“world-order”). In the narrative, there are actually two basic manifestations of the world: (1) the Judean/Jewish government, represented by the delegation to Pilate, and (2) the Roman government, represented by Pilate himself. Both reflect the darkness and evil of the world, being fundamentally opposed to God.

Each of the representatives commit sin, in the Johannine theological sense, but do so in different ways. Pilate fails to trust in Jesus as the Son of God, but due to a lack of understanding rather than any outright hostility against Jesus. The dialogue makes this clear (see the discussion above). Moreover, on two occasions in the narrative, he admits that he can find no evidence of guilt for Jesus, yet he remains unable to trust, and ultimately complies with the Jewish delegation’s request for Jesus to be put to death.

The sin of the Jewish delegation has a different emphasis: they are hostile to Jesus, and definitely refuse to trust in him as the Messiah and Son of God. Their sinfulness, which resembles that of the hostile opponents in chapters 8 and 9 (see the previous studies), is greater than Pilate’s in this regard. Jesus states this in his closing words: “Through this [i.e. for this reason], the (one)s giving me along (to you) hold greater sin”. The delegation’s lack of trust has gone beyond simple blindness (i.e., failure to understand), to be expressed as a hostile refusal to trust—indeed, even so far as refusing to admit their own sinful blindness. On this, cf. the prior study on chap. 9, along with the follow-up (on 9:41 and 15:22-24).

Next week, we will look at the final sin-reference in the Gospel (20:23).