“…Spirit and Life” (concluded): The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation

We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.

Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to association this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

    • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
    • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
    • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
    • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:

1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:

“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”

This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).

The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.

2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:

“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)

The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):

    • The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
    • He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book

There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:

    • 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
    • 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.

3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).

“Spirit” and “Life”

At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:

1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:

I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”

However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:

“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)

2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:

a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).

The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.

b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).

c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).

d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.

This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next (already being posted on this site), which deals with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.

References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:20

1 John 5:20

This is the last note in this series dealing with First John. It treats what may be regarded as the final word of the letter (verse 21 functioning as a coda), though the declaration in 5:20 is actually part of a sequence of three statements, each beginning with the expression oi&damen o%ti (“we have seen that…”), and each dealing with the idea of being born of God:

    • V. 18: “We have seen [oi&damen] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God…”
    • V. 19: “We have seen [oi&damen] that we are out of God…”
    • V. 20: “And we have seen [oi&damen] that the Son of God reached (us)…”

The verb ei&dw means both “see” and “know” (i.e. perceive, recognize), and is interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”); especially in the Johannine writings there is a close (theological) relationship between “seeing” and “knowing”. The way the verb is used here in vv. 18-20, it has two levels of meaning:

    1. What believers have known and recognized from the beginning (1:1ff), ever since they first heard the Gospel message of Jesus, and experienced his presence through the Spirit.
    2. What the author has established for his audience throughout the letter.

The rhetorical thrust (“we have seen…”) essentially includes the readers into the author’s own sphere—the implication being that they will certainly agree with him and confirm, in their own hearts and minds, the truth of what he has said to them in the letter.

I have discussed verse 18 extensively in the three previous notes (July 5, 8, and 9). It uses the expression genna/w (“come to be [born]”) + e)k [tou=] qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”)—an expression which was used repeatedly in both the Johannine Gospel and First Letter (Jn 1:13 [also 3:3-8]; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). The verb genna/w, used in this symbolic sense of a (spiritual) “birth” from God, always applies to believers; it is thus worth revisiting briefly the text-critical question surrounding the second occurrence of the verb in v. 18. The phrase involved is:

a)ll’ o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It is also possible to read the last word as au(to/n or e(auto/n (as in some MSS), in which case the subject of the phrase is definitely the believer:

“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

In other manuscripts, the reading is not a verbal participle (gennhqei/$), but the related noun ge/nnhsi$ (“[a] coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”), which would mean that it is the spiritual “birth” from God itself which protects the believer. This reading, while making good sense, is almost certainly not original, but was likely introduced as a way of explaining the text. In my view, contrary to a number of commentators, the expression o( gennhqei/$ most probably refers to Jesus. The Johannine fondness for wordplay and dual-meaning makes this all the more likely. It may also relate to the idea expressed in 3:9, which is otherwise very close in form and thought to 5:18, where it is stated that “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains/abides in him [i.e. the believer]”. The “seed” (spe/rma) is best understood as the living and abiding presence of Jesus (God’s Son), through the Spirit. This would seem to be confirmed again by what follows here in verse 20. A thematic outline may help establish the connection:

    • Verse 18—The relation of the believer (the one born of God) to Jesus (the one born of God); this relationship (and identity) protects and preserves the believer from sin.
    • Verse 19—The contrast between this identity of the believer (born of God) and “the world” which is dominated by sin and evil—i.e., what we are, and what we are not.
    • Verse 20—The nature of this identity of the believer, and our relationship to Jesus (as the Son of God).

Let us examine verse 20 more closely:

“And we have seen that the Son of God reached (us) and has given to us a thorough mind [dia/noia], (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true—in His Son, Yeshua (the) Anointed. This is the true God and (the) Life of the Age.”

The principal statement is bracketed by references to Jesus as God’s Son; this is vital to an understanding of the verse, as it governs the structure of the statement, which I outline here as a chiasm:

This outline may be summarized:

This is very nearly a perfect epitome of Johannine theology, conforming to everything we find in both the Gospel and the First Letter. Somewhat more difficult is the concluding statement of the verse:

ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$
“This is the True God and (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal Life].”

Particularly problematic is the relation of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this”) to the previous sentence, as well as the predicate statement which follows. There are several possibilities:

    • The pronoun identifies the substantive o( a)lhqino/$ (“the true [one], the [one who is] true”) as God the Father—i.e., “this (one) is the true God“—who is also “the Life of the Age”.
    • It identifies “the One who is True” as God the Father (the True God), and His Son (Jesus) as “the Life of the Age”.
    • It identifies Jesus as both “the True God” and “the Life of the Age”.
    • It summarizes the entire Gospel message about both God the Father and Jesus (the Son)—i.e., “this is (the message of) the True God and Eternal Life”.

Sound arguments can be made for each of these four interpretations, and I find it almost impossible to make a conclusive choice. Most likely, based on Johannine usage, the expression “the Life of the Age” should be understood in relation to Jesus; he is identified as “(the) Life”, and the immediate source of Life for believers, in numerous places (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2; 5:11-12, etc). Yet it is also entirely appropriate to refer to the Gospel message as “Life” in a similar way (cf. Jn 6:63; 12:50; 17:3; 20:31). The opening words of 1 John (1:1-2) seem to play on both of these meanings of “the Life”, and it is likely that a similar dual-meaning is present in the closing words of the letter as well.

Many commentators question whether Jesus would have been identified directly as “the true God”. While there is no doubt that, in both the Gospel and First Letter, the essential deity of Jesus (including his pre-existence and union with the Father) is clearly expressed, his identification as o( qeo/$ (“the [one true] God”) is less certain. Note, for example, the careful wording in John 1:1c (qeo/$ without the definite article). I have discussed the famous textual question in Jn 1:18 on a number of occasions (cf. the most recent treatment). As the textual evidence between qeo/$ (“God”) and ui(o/$ (“Son”) is rather evenly divided, one cannot simply read qeo/$ without futher ado. Even so, most manuscripts also read qeo/$ without the definite article in verse 18, for whatever that might signify (and it remains much disputed).

Syntactically, in 5:20, it is worth noting that the most proximate reference for ou!to$ would be Jesus, as the phrase “…His Son Yeshua the Anointed” immediately precedes the demonstrative pronoun. However, this is by no means a certain indicator of the pronominal relationship; consider the example of 2 John 7:

“…the ones not giving common account of [i.e. confessing] Yeshua (as hav)ing come in the flesh. This [ou!to/$] is the (one speaking) false(ly) and the (one who is) against the Anointed [i.e. ‘antichrist’]!”

Clearly, in this case, ou!to$ refers back to “the ones not confessing Jesus…” rather than to “Jesus”. Based on this syntax, ou!to$ in 1 Jn 5:20 would more likely refer back to “the One who is True” (i.e. God the Father), rather than to Jesus. At the same time, the syntax in 2 Jn 7 would suggest that both the pronoun and the two expressions (“the True God” and “the Life of the Age”) refer to a single subject, in which case, Jesus is the more probable subject.

Despite the many difficulties in deciding between the options listed above, I am inclined to favoring the second and fourth, or, perhaps, some combination of the two:

    • The two expressions “the True God” and “the Life of the Age” relate back to the two subjects—God the Father (“the One who is True”) and Jesus Christ (His Son), respectively.
    • As the concluding declaration of the letter, the pronoun ou!to$ also effectively summarizes the entire content of the letter; parallel with the opening words (1:1-2), it refers to the Gospel message, of what (the true) God has done for us through his Son Jesus, which leads to eternal Life for those who believe.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

In the previous note, I discussed the opening declaration in verse 18, along with the various (and seemingly contradictory) statements in the letter to the effect that Christians both do commit sin and do not (indeed, cannot) commit sin. There is no simple answer or solution to this difficulty, but I have sought to analyze it carefully, based on the overall language and ideas expressed throughout the letter. However, before proceeding to a more precise interpretation, it is necessary to examine the distinction in vv. 16-18 regarding sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) and sin which is not so. Here again are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

Sin which is “toward death”

The simplest explanation of the expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) is something which leads toward death or results in it (cf. John 11:4). The underlying idea is presumably legal, particularly as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). Certain violations of law—i.e. serious crimes against society or religious transgressions—specifically result in death for the offender (Exod 21:12ff; Num 18:22, et al). Some commentators understand the idea of the transgressor being “cut off”, at least in certain passages, as referring to a punishment by God of death. Naturally, in such legal and religious-cultural settings, certain sins result in death (or a sentence of death) while others do not. How might this apply to the situation in 1 John? A number of interpretations have been offered by commentators over the years; these include:

    • The distinction involves especially serious or egregious sins—religious and/or ethical violations—in the basic sense indicated above.
    • It reflects something akin to the thought in James 1:14-15, of sinful behavior which is cultivated and allowed to grow, leading to “death”; this would perhaps relate to the interpretation that the present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6, 9; 5:18, etc, refers to continual, habitual sinning, rather than occasional failings by the believer.
    • The distinction involves ‘ordinary’ sinning (i.e. moral lapses, etc) vs. more serious sins (i.e. “blasphemy”) against God’s own person, perhaps in a specific theological/Christological sense.
    • It relates to the “unforgivable sin” (i.e. against the Holy Spirit) of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8:38 par.

The first option certainly fits the fundamental religious/ethical background which presumably underlies the expression. Indeed, early Christians preserved the basic idea of especially serious (and blatant) sins which no true believer ever should, or would, commit. There are a number of examples of such “vice lists” in the New Testament, which are generally in accord with both Jewish and Greco-Roman standards of decency and morality—e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:22-23. In Rom 1:32, Paul specifically declares that those who commit such gross transgressions are “deserving of death“. This draws upon traditional Israelite and Jewish religious thought, as expressed in the Torah (cf. above). He similarly states (again using traditional language) that those engaged in such behavior will certainly not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21).

The problem with this view is that such traditional ethical instruction is really not to be found in the letter. Only in 2:15-17 do we see anything of the sort, and, even there, the emphasis is more generally on the character of “the world” rather than on specific types of sin. The closing statement of the letter (5:21) appears, at first glance, to be a traditional warning against (pagan, Greco-Roman) idolatry; yet, based on the overall orientation of the letter, it is likely that the warning should be understood as a coded statement, referring to the false views of those described in 2:18-25 and 4:1-6, etc, symbolically as idol-worship. So, this leaves us with two options: (1) in 5:16-18 the author is referring to something (types of serious immorality, etc) not otherwise emphasized in the letter, or (2) the sin that is “toward death” relates to something other than violation of traditional religious and moral behavior. In my view, the latter is more likely and fitting with the rhetorical thrust of the letter. If so, then it would also eliminate the second interpretation cited above. As I argued in the previous note, the use of the present tense of a(marta/nw does not necessarily indicate continual/habitual sinning, but more properly the simple distinction between past and present sins.

I would suggest that the third and fourth views listed above are rather closer to the mark, though the dynamic must be understood in terms of Johannine thought (i.e. that of the Letters and Gospel). Jesus’ specific saying regarding the “unforgivable sin” (against the Holy Spirit) is foreign to 1 John, though it may provide a loose parallel in the way that early Christians may have understood certain “sins” as directed specifically against the person of Christ and/or the Spirit.

It is useful at this point to consider the statement made by the author in verse 17:

“All sin is injustice [a)diki/a], and (yet) there is sin which is not toward death.”

The noun a)diki/a literally refers to something which is “without justice, without right(eous)ness”; we might say that it is “lacking right-ness”. This blanket statement refers to “all sin” (pa=sa a(marti/a). At the same time, it would seem that the author agrees with the general assessment in James 1:14-15 that all sin eventually leads to death (on this point, cf. below). What, then, is the sin which is, or leads, “toward death”? Let us look at the key references to “death” (qa/nato$) in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter, specifically with those which relate to the believer (rather than the sacrificial death of Jesus):

    • Jn 5:24—the person hearing Jesus’ word, and trusting in him (and the One who sent him), holds the “Life of the Age” (eternal life) and “has stepped across out of death (and) into Life”. Humankind in the world is dominated by sin and darkness, and is on a path which leads to (ultimate) death in the end-time Judgment. Only those who trust in Jesus have Life, and are transferred out of this realm (and path) leading to death.
    • Jn 8:51-52—here we find a slightly different formulation of the same idea: that the person (believer) who keeps/guards Jesus’ word will never “see/taste death”. The motifs of “hearing” and “keeping” Jesus’ word are two aspects of the principal idea of trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father).
    • 1 Jn 3:14 reflects both of these declarations by Jesus, defining them specifically in terms of love for one’s fellow believer:
      “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across out of death (and) into Life, (in) that [i.e. because] we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.”

We have discussed previously how, in Johannine thought, the entirety of the Christian life is summarized by just two “commandments” (e)ntolai/); actually, it is better understood as a single, two-fold duty: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). This may be deduced from evidence all throughout the Gospel and Letters, and is stated precisely in 3:23-24. Every true believer observes (keeps) this two-fold command; by contrast, the one who violates it is not a true believer. This background provides what I consider the best avenue for interpreting 5:16-18, which I would summarize as follows:

    • Believers may sin at various times, but they do not (and cannot) sin in the sense of violating the two-fold command which is fundamental to one’s Christian identity.
    • “False” believers, such as the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations, may claim to be true Christians, but they are not, since they violate the two-fold command—i.e., they do not have proper trust in Jesus, and/or do not demonstrate true love. As non-believers (belonging to “the world”), who thus act in a manner “against the Anointed” (i.e. ‘anti-christ’), they do not possess Life, and remain on the path leading toward death.
    • It is thus these false/non-believers who sin “toward death”; true believers cannot sin in this way.

From what we read in the letter (and also in 2 John 7-11), it is clear that those who separated from the Johannine congregations, holding (and proclaiming) a false view of Jesus, were exerting some measure of influence in the various churches. This setting informs the warnings in 1 Jn 4:1ff and 2 Jn 8ff—i.e., the need for believers to be on guard and to “test” the “spirits” of those speaking about Jesus.

Life and Death in 1 Jn 5:16

Another difficulty in the interpretation of vv. 16-18 is the way “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) relate in this passage. The syntax of verse 16 is actually rather ambiguous; I translate it here without any explanatory gloss:

“If any one should see his brother sinning sin not toward death, he will ask and he will give him life…”

We must first determine the point of reference for the subject/object of the phrase in italics—who gives and who receives life? There are three options:

    • The person (believer) making the request is the one who gives life to the believer who is sinning
    • God gives life to the sinning believer
    • God gives life to the one making the request

I would say, with most commentators, that the second option is to be preferred, though it is possible that the phrase expresses the idea that the believer’s request effectively results in (God) giving life to the one sinning. How should we understand “life” here? Throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, the word zwh/ virtually always refers to the (eternal) Life possessed by God, and which God, through Jesus (and the Spirit), gives to believers. Yet, if believers already possess this Life, and are not sinning “toward death” (cf. above), in what sense is the believer given “life” here? I note several possibilities:

    • Here, in fact, the reference is to the danger of physical death as a result of sin
    • The language simply reflects the basic distinction of sin and evil as the opposite of life (i.e. death), in a general sense
    • Sin puts the believer (temporarily) out of union with God and Christ (i.e. “death”); only after confession/admission of sin and forgiveness/cleansing is this union (“life”) restored
    • The forgiveness provided to the sinning believer is part of the same life-giving power of God which Christ possesses; this is inherent both in the saving work of his sacrificial death (“blood”), and through the (priestly) intercession he performs on our behalf (1:7-9; 2:1-2). Since Jesus himself is Life (Jn 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2, and cf. the upcoming note on 5:20), he gives life in all that he says and does.

The last option is the one best in keeping with Johannine thought, and, I should say, is to be preferred. In the next note, I will be reviewing aspects of this overall study (on 5:16-18, etc), and will attempt to bring the strands together into a more concise and definite interpretation.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:11-13

1 John 5:11-13

Verses 9-12 represents the final section in the body of the letter, with vv. 11-12 as the concluding statement. This section builds upon what was stated in vv. 6-8 (cf. the previous notes), particularly the idea that the Spirit gives witness (“the one giving witness”, vb. marture/w) regarding Jesus Christ and the true/correct understanding of him. This witness (marturi/a) by the Spirit is closely related to the humanity of Jesus, both his birth/life as a real human being, and the reality (and importance) of his physical death. As we have discussed, this point of Christology appears to have been emphasized especially by the author, against a “docetic” view of Jesus, such as was apparently held by the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations.

In verse 9, this witness by the Spirit is identified as God’s own witness—

“(and it is) that this is the witness [marturi/a] that God has given (as a) witness about His Son” (v. 9b)

a witness which is greater than any human witness we might receive (9a). This contrast may be intended to distinguish the mainstream Johannine congregations (who accept the witness of God’s Spirit and hold a correct view of Jesus) from the separatists who give testimony (about Jesus) which is not from God. Verse 10 sets the witness of God (his Spirit) specifically in the context of trust in Jesus—this is the point of separation, the dualistic contrast between those who trust/believe (correctly) and those who do not:

“The (one) trusting in the Son of God holds [e&xei] th(is) witness in himself, (but) the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) a false (speak)er, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the witness which God has given (as a) witness about His Son.”

The witness which a (true) believer has, or holds, in him/herself is best understood as the Spirit, according to the prior statements in vv. 6-8. As I discussed in the previous note, the three-fold witness reflects two aspects of Jesus’ human life (“water” and “blood”), given sacrificially on our behalf, communicated to us (believers) through the presence of the Spirit. Believers possess (“hold”) this life through the Spirit. This identification is made more clear by the statement which follows in verse 11:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age, and (that) th(is) Life is in His Son.”

As I have discussed at length in earlier notes, the expression “Life of the Age” (zwh/ ai)w/nio$) originally had an eschatological connotation (i.e. the divine/heavenly life which the righteous would enter/inherit in the Age to Come), but was applied by Christians—especially in the Johannine writings—to the divine/eternal/spiritual Life which believers hold even now (in the present) in Christ. This re-interpretation is indicated even here in this verse, by the way that the expression “Life of the Age” is so easily treated as equivalent to “Life” (in Christ, “in His Son”). The dualistic contrast in verse 10 is repeated in the concluding v. 12:

“The (one) holding the Son holds Life, (but) the (one) not holding the Son does not hold Life.”

The highly expressive (and symbolic) thought expressed in the Johannine writings is indicated in these verses, by the different objects which believers are said to “hold” (vb. e&xw):

    • the witness of God (v. 10) = the witness of the Spirit (vv. 6-8)
    • the Son (of God) (v. 12a)
    • (divine/eternal) Life (v. 12b)

These are all more or less interchangeable in Johannine thought, and are best represented by the Spirit, which is the presence of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son) in the believer. This life-giving power and presence is realized spiritually, through the Spirit.

Verse 13

In terms of the structure of the letter, it is best to treat vv. 13-21 as the conclusion. That this sections begins with verse 13 is confirmed by the close parallel with John 20:31, the conclusion of the Gospel proper. It is worth comparing the two statements (note the portions in italics):

And these (thing)s I have written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)

These (thing)s I wrote to you, to the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God, (so) that you would have seen [i.e. known] that you hold (the) Life of the Age.” (1 Jn 5:13)

The wording and thought is so similar that the two statements were either the work of the same person, or one was written after the pattern of the other (or after a common pattern). It effectively repeats the theme and points made in the previous verses, and makes it clear that they relate to the main purpose of the letter. This purpose is indicated by the perfect subjunctive form of the verb ei&dw (“see, perceive, know”)—ei)dh=te, “you would/might have seen”. Here the perfect tense, or aspect, is best understood as an intensive, reflecting either a particular result, or a current state/condition (i.e., of those the author is addressing)—i.e., “would/might surely come to see/know”. The same verb form is used by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 2:10 par):

“(so) that you might (surely) come to see [i.e. know] that the Son of Man holds [e&xei] authority to release [i.e. forgive] sins upon earth…”

Interestingly, there is a formal similarity in the object of knowledge in both passages:

    • “that you hold Life…”
    • “that the Son of man holds authority to release sin…”

As we shall see (in the next note), the motifs of sin, forgiveness, and life, all appear in the subsequent verses 14-17. How do the remaining verses of the conclusion relate to this statement in verse 13? I would divide the section as follows:

    • Opening statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 13)
    • Instruction: Prayer for the forgiveness of sin (vv. 14-17)
      —On the effectiveness of prayer/request to God (vv. 14-15)
      —The purpose/result of prayer: Life and Death in relation to sin (vv. 16-17)
    • Exhortation: Protection from sin for the true believer (vv. 18-19)
    • Closing statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 20)
    • Concluding warning [coded statement?] (v. 21)

Most of the New Testament letters contain a teaching/exhortation section toward the end of the letter; sometimes this is built into the epistolary conclusion, as is the case in 1 John. This will be discussed briefly in the next note.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 3:14-15

1 John 3:14-15

Verse 11 of chapter 3 begins a new section of the letter, which continues on through verse 24. The theme is clear from the initial statement in verse 11:

“(And it is) that this is the message which you heard from the beginning: that we should love (each) other.”

In 2:8, the author treats the directive to love as a new command (cf. John 13:34), while here he describes it as something which believers have heard “from the beginning”. This builds on the play between “old” and “new” in 2:7ff—the two-fold command to trust in Jesus and to love one another (3:23-24) is both old and new. This may be understood in many ways; certainly for the early (Jewish) believers, faith in Christ and love for one’s neighbor could be viewed as a fulfillment of the Old Law (Torah), cf. Romans 10:4; 13:10, etc. It is also something which believers have been taught from the very beginning (i.e. since they first heard the Gospel message). Yet, it continues to be restated and presented anew in the life of each community and to each generation of believers. The very thrust of 2:7-11, and again here in 3:11-24, suggests that there may have been Christians who were not truly living out the directive to love. Indeed, this would appear to be at the heart of the author’s polemic in the letter (which takes on prominence in 4:1ff), marking those who have separated from the Community as being without the proper love (for the Community).

The rivalry between the world and believers in Jesus, as also between “true” and “false” believers, is indicated clearly by verses 12-13, where the ancient example of Cain and Abel is introduced. Here is an illustration of someone hating his brother—just the opposite of love. This hate leads to murder, and the author, along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-26), equates hate with murder/manslaughter, even if no actual killing occurs. This hatred of one’s brother is further equated with the world’s hatred of believers (v. 13). In verses 14-15, this conflict is defined in terms of the dualistic contrast between life (zwh/) and death (qa/nato$):

“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into life, (in) that we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.” (v. 14)

The verb metabai/nw specifically means “step across”, with the preposition meta/ indicating a change of place or position (lit. within [a boundary]), i.e. from one point to the next—in this case from death to life. The same language and imagery is found in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (Jn 5:24):

“Amen, amen, I relate to you that the (one) hearing my word/account [lo/go$], and trusting in the (one) sending me, holds (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across out of death (and) into Life.”

This fits the motif of resurrection—of the dead hearing the voice of the Son (of God)—in John 5:19-29. In vv. 24-25, the end-time resurrection is given a new interpretation (i.e. “realized” eschatology) for believers in Christ, and it is this spiritual sense of resurrection that we find also in First John. The “Life of the Age” is defined more generally as “Life”, i.e. in Christ, and in the Spirit. The opposite of 3:14 is stated in verse 15, continuing the dualistic contrast (Abel/Cain, love/hate, life/death):

“Every one hating his brother is a man-killer [a)nqrwpokto/no$], and we have seen [i.e. known] that every man-killer does not hold [i.e. have] the Life of the Age remaining [i.e. abiding] in him.”

This statement follows the fundamental ethnical-religious principle that a murderer (who in the law would be put to death) will surely not pass through the Judgment and inherit eternal life (cf. Exod 20:13; Num 35:16ff; Matt 5:21ff; Rom 1:29ff; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Hatred toward one’s brother (i.e. toward a fellow believer) is regarded as the equivalent of murder or manslaughter. We must understand that, for the author, “hating” (vb. mise/w) does necessarily require the kind of overt ill-feeling and hostility usually associated with the word. It is better defined here as the absence/opposite of the true love which believers ought to have toward one another. The nature of this love is clear from verse 16 (following Jesus’ words in 13:14-15, 34-35; 15:12-17)—it entails following Jesus’ own example of sacrificial love, laying down one’s own life for another.

Moreover, it is clear that, the one who fails to love violates the fundamental ‘command’ of Christ (and God the Father), and is thus sinning. And, according the theology in the letter, any one who sins this way has not been “born of God”, and possesses neither the living Word nor the Spirit of God. The significance of this for the remainder of the letter is indicated by verses 23-24, where the command to love is linked to the command to trust in Jesus—i.e. the two-fold command which governs all true believers. This will be discussed further, in the next note.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 2:25

1 John 2:25

In the previous note on 1 John 1:1-2, we examined the use of the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from the beginning”) in the opening words, noting the parallels with the Prologue to the Gospel (John 1:1ff). I pointed out that the “word” (lo/go$) in the first verse of the Letter (the expression “the Word of Life” [o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$]) is to be understood and carrying a dual meaning:

    1. the Living Word of God (identified with Jesus), and
    2. the word/account of Jesus (i.e. the Gospel message).

It so happens that there is a similar double-meaning to the expression “from the beginning [a)p’ a)rxh=$]”, which occurs seven more times in the letter (2:7, 13-14, 24 [twice]; 3:8, 11), and twice more in 2 John 5-6. The word a)rxh/ (“beginning, first, leading”) does not appear in the Johannine letters apart from this expression.

In 2:7, which begins a section of exhortation and instruction (vv. 7-17), the author says:

“Loved (one)s, (it is) not (about something) new laid on (you) to complete (that) I write to you, but (about something) old laid on (you) to complete, which you hold from the beginning [a)p’ a)rxh=$]—th(is) ‘old’ (charge) laid on (you) to complete is the word [lo/go$] which you heard.”

He goes on to write:

“(But) again, I (do) write to you (about) a new (charge) laid on (you) to complete—which is true in him and in you—(in) that the darkness is leading [i.e. passing] along and the true Light already shines.” (v. 8)

I have translated the word e)ntolh/ here in an excessively literal manner, according to its fundamental meaning, rather than with the customary “command(ment)”, which can be quite misleading in the context of the Johannine writings. We are not dealing with a specific set of religious or ethical “commands”—certainly not of the Old Testament Law (Torah), nor even a collection of Jesus’ teaching such as we find in the Sermon on the Mount. A careful reading of both the Gospel and the Letters makes clear that there are really only two commands as such: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and divine Son sent by God, and (2) love for one another, following Jesus’ example. The author states this specifically in 3:23-24.

Moreover, it is clear from vv. 9ff, that the new ‘command’ in 2:8 is the command to love one another, which Jesus gave to his disciples in Jn 13:34-35. What, then, is the old ‘command’? As the author identifies this in v. 7 with “that which you hold/held from the beginning”, we must conclude that it is essentially equivalent to the first ‘command’ in 3:23—namely, trust in Jesus Christ as God’s Son. Both of these ‘commands’—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—are the tests by which the author (and, we must assume, the communities/churches he represents) defines one’s identity as a true Christian. The emphasis in 2:7ff suggests that there may have been Christians in the Johannine churches, or known to them, who demonstrated a true faith in Christ but were perhaps not exhibiting true love. At any rate, this is the thrust of the exhortation (and warning) in 2:9-11.

We see, then, that in 2:7ff, the expression “from the beginning” refers not to eternity and the beginning of Creation (as in John 1:1), but rather to the beginning of believers’ trust in Jesus, and subsequent new/spiritual “birth” as children of God. In particular, the context is of the word (lo/go$) heard from the beginning, which I take to mean primarily the Gospel message (i.e. truth about Jesus), but also the presence and work of the Spirit which teaches believers the truth, and continues Jesus’ own work. In 2:13-14, this is defined in terms of knowledge of God the Father (and Jesus the Son):

“…you have known the (one) from the beginning

This is probably best understood as “the (one who is) from the beginning”, returning to the context of John 1:1ff and 1 John 1:1-2. It is also likely that there is some wordplay involved; at least the syntax here is slightly ambiguous. What is clear, however, from the remainder of the letter, is that true knowledge is more or less synonymous with proper/correct belief in Jesus (cf. John 17:3, etc)—i.e. just what is meant in saying that he is the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God.

When we turn to 2:24-25, we find the author once again reflecting the language and thought of the discourses of Jesus from the Gospel (note esp. the use of the verb me/nw, “remain, abide”):

“(That) which you heard from the beginning, you must (let/have) it remain [mene/tw] in you. If (that) which you heard from the beginning should remain [mei/nh|] in you, (then) you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.” (v. 24)

The exact reference of “that which you heard from the beginning” is again somewhat ambiguous. Primarily, it refers to the Gospel message (i.e. the truth) about Jesus; yet, the use of me/nw indicates something deeper as well—the abiding presence of Jesus (the Living Word), both through the Spirit and also the love which fills and works in the believer. The association with the Spirit (as the abiding presence of Christ) is confirmed by what follows in vv. 26-27, referring to the “anointing” (xri/sma) which remains/abides in the true believer.

The author concludes the thought from v. 24 in verse 25:

“And this is the message which he presented as a message [i.e. announced] to us: the Life of the Age.”

The noun e)paggeli/a is rather difficult to translate literally in English. The fundamental meaning of the verb a)gge/llw is “give a message, report, declare”. The prefixed preposition e)pi/ is an intensive, emphasizing a message/report about something or upon a subject, etc. Used in the sense of a declaration, it can refer specifically to something one offers or promises to do. The latter connotation typically applies to the noun e)paggeli/a in the New Testament, and is often translated as “promise”. Again, it is wise to translate as literally as possible, preserving the fundamental meaning, recognizing that it can be understood here on two levels: (1) the message of the Gospel (about Jesus) given to us, and (2) what God has declared or promised to us. With regard to the latter, it is important to note that the noun e)paggeli/a (with the verb e)page/llw) is specifically associated with the Spirit in a number of passages, including Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33ff; Gal 3:14ff; Eph 1:13; cf. also Rom 9:8; Gal 4:23ff.

On the one hand, according to the traditional background of the expression “Life of the Age”, verse 25 simply asserts the (eschatological) promise of eternal life for the believer. However, as we have seen in the earlier notes in this series, the discourses of Jesus (and the Gospel as a whole), reflect a “realized” eschatology—believers experience the reality of the divine/eternal Life already in the present, through trust in Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. The author of the Letter certainly shares this basic outlook, and expresses it in his use of “Life” and “Life of the Age” elsewhere in the letter, such as in 3:14-15, the passage we will examine in the next note.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 1:1-2

The Johannine Letters (1 John)

In this series, we now turn to the Letters of John, to see how the words “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) are used in these other Johannine writings. Many commentators believe that both the Gospel and the Letters (esp. the First Letter) may be written by the same author. Tradition does ascribe them to the same person (John the Apostle), though technically the works are anonymous. At the very least, it is clear that the Gospel and First Letter draw upon similar language and imagery, sharing the same basic theological (and Christological) point of view. Critical commentators have typically explained this by way of a Johannine Community or “School”. Both tradition and internal factors have led many scholars to see these writings (along with the book of Revelation) as being the product of distinct Christian communities in Asia Minor (centered around Ephesus).

An especially complex critical issue lies in the fact that the Johannine discourses (indicated as being spoken by Jesus) and the Letters of John (esp. 1 John) are often so close in thought and wording. Many passages in 1 John could have been lifted right out of the discourses. This raises the question as to the Gospel writer’s role in the creation/composition of the discourses. Most critical scholars would view the discourses as largely the product of the author, while traditional-conservative commentators, naturally enough, are more inclined to seem them as reflecting the actual words of Jesus (with some amount of translation and editing allowed). The situation is akin to that of the Sermon-Speeches in the book of Acts—though they are said to be spoken by different persons (and even in different languages?), much of the actual (Greek) language and wording seems to reflect that of the author of Luke-Acts. For more on this latter question, see my earlier series on the Speeches of Acts.

The words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) occur only in the First Letter, thus the discussion will generally be limited to that writing. The second and third Letters will be referenced only to give supplemental information, or to help clarify an idea or expression in 1 John. The relevant passages to be discussed are:

1 John 1:1-2

The first two occurrences of the word zwh/ (“life”) come from the introductory sentence of the Letter (vv. 1-3a), which, as even a casual reading should make clear, is similar in thought and expression to the opening of the Gospel Prologue (1:1-4ff). This is only confirmed by a study of the Greek words and phrases involved. Consider the opening words of the letter:

“That which was from the beginning…”
o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$

A comparison with John 1:1 suggests that here the demonstrative pronoun o%$ refers to the “Word” (lo/go$) indicated in the opening of the Prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word…”
e)n a)rxh=| h@n o( lo/go$

The combination of the word a)rxh/ (“beginning”), reflecting Genesis 1:1 [LXX], with the verb of being (ei)mi, the spec. form h@n, “was”), makes it likely that the author of the letter had the Gospel Prologue (or a similar tradition) in mind. The distinctive use of the verb of being in the Prologue (and elsewhere in the Gospel) is theological—referring to God as source of all being and existence.

However, the fact that a neuter form of the demonstrative pronoun (o%) appears at the start of 1 John, indicates that the reference is more generalized and comprehensive—i.e. “(all) that which…”—that is to say, both to the Living Word (Lo/go$) of God, identified with Jesus, and to the “word” or account (lo/go$) of Jesus (i.e. the Gospel message). This dual-meaning of lo/go$ appears a number of times in the letter, beginning here in v. 1 (cf. below).

Before proceeding to examine several key words and phrases, here is the opening sentence of vv. 1-3a in translation:

“(That) which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which our eyes have seen (clearly), which we have looked (upon), and (which) our hands have felt, about the word of Life—and th(is) Life was made to shine forth, and we have seen (it clearly) and give witness and give up as a message to you the Life of the Age(s) which was toward the Father and made to shine forth to us—(that) which we have seen (clearly) and have heard, we also give up as a message to you, (so) that you also might also hold common (bond) with us.”

Despite the repetitiveness in much of this statement (preserved accurately above), the basic idea is clear enough, and it is fully in accord with the outlook of the Gospel writer; note the conceptual structure:

    • The Word which was from the beginning (i.e. with God the Father)
    • This Word was made to shine forth to us (in the person of Jesus)
    • (1) We have seen/heard/felt this (incarnate) Word
      (2) and we, in turn, give witness about it to others
    • This witness is the word of the (Gospel) message

At the very center of this statement is the expression “Word of Life” (o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$), which, as I indicated above, has a dual-meaning: (a) Jesus as the Living Word of God (and source of Life), and (b) the message (word/account) regarding Jesus, which will lead to Life for those who trust in him. In the Gospel, the noun zwh/ virtually always refers to the Life which God possesses (i.e. divine, eternal Life), and which is given to believers through Jesus. Just as God the Father’s word and voice gives life to all things (Gen 1:3ff; cf. also Psalm 119:25, 107, etc), so that of the Son (Jesus) gives this same life (Jn 1:3-4; 5:24-29; 6:63; 11:43, etc).

Verse 2 is essentially a parenthesis which explains this Life; there appears to be a loose chiastic structure to its logic:

    • This Life (i.e. the divine/eternal Life)
      —Manifest to us (in the person of Jesus)
      ——We have seen it
      ——We give witness/message of it
      —Manifest to us (through Jesus’ gift)
    • The Life which was with [lit. toward] God

The closing reference to Life uses the expression “Life of the Age”, which appears repeatedly in the Gospel, and which I have discussed at length in earlier notes. It typically refers to the Life given by Jesus to believers, which is also identified numerous times in the Gospel with the Spirit. This same association may be intended here, though the actual word pneu=ma does not occur until chapter 3 of the letter.

If there were any doubt regarding the connection between John 1:1-3 and vv. 1-3 here in the letter, there is added confirmation in the fact that in verses 5ff light is introduced as a thematic motif, just as it is in vv. 4-5ff of the Gospel Prologue. The theme includes the same dualistic light vs. darkness contrast. This may help to explain the interesting use of the preposition pro/$ in Jn 1:1-2 and 1 Jn 1:2. It is typically translated “with”—i.e. the Word was with God—but properly it indicates direction or location, i.e. of motion toward something, or facing toward (i.e. before, in front of) something. Presumably the latter is intended here—the Living Word facing toward God the Father. This would seem to be confirmed by the close association with light-imagery and use of the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”). Christ the Son and Living Word of God faces the Father and is (perfect) reflection of the Father’s Light, etc. That same Light is then made to shine forth to believers.

“…Spirit and Life” (continued): Acts and the Pauline Letters

Having examined all of the relevant passages in the Gospel of John, before proceeding to the Johannine Letters, it will be useful to look at some of the key references to the Spirit and Life in the remaining New Testament writings.

I have already discussed the passages in the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts, dealing with the Holy Spirit, in an earlier series of notes on “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition” (the articles “The Spirit in Luke-Acts” cover the Acts references).

Life (zwh/) in Luke-Acts

There are five occurrences of the noun zwh/ in the Gospel of Luke, along with nine of the related verb za/w (“live”). Most of these are derived from the wider Synoptic tradition, such as the use of the expression zwh/ ai)w/nio$ (“Life of the Age”) in 10:25 (+ the verb za/w in v. 28); 18:18, 30. In these episodes, a devout/religious person asks Jesus “What should I do to receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) Life of the Age?”—that is, to inherit the divine/heavenly (eternal) life given to the righteous in the Age to Come (after the Judgment). In the first episode, Jesus elicits from the man the answer of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (Deut 6:5 + Lev 19:18), which came to be understood in early Christian terms as the so-called Love-command (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8; cf. also John 13:34-35; 15:9-13; 1 Cor 12:31b-14:1a, etc). In the second episode, Jesus emphasizes the need to follow him, and, in the process, give up the worldly things valued in this life. The only other occurrence of zwh/ in something like the sense of “eternal life” is the saying in 12:15, and in a similar context—i.e., the “life” of a person does not come out of an abundance of (material) possessions.

The verb za/w also refers to “eternal life” in Lk 10:28; we may also note the traditional citation of Deut 8:3 in the Temptation scene: “it is not upon bread alone that man will live” (Lk 4:4)—i.e., one “lives” through the life-giving Word of God. The discourses of Jesus in John develop this idea, as we have seen, especially in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6 (and the key-verse of this series, 6:63). A similar idea is expressed in the Lukan version of the saying in 20:38: “But he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live in/by him”. The giving of new (spiritual) life to persons lost or “dead” in sin, so familiar in the Johannine discourses, also appears at the conclusion of the Prodigal Son parable: “…this brother of yours was dead and came alive (again), and had ruined [i.e. lost] (himself) and was found!” (15:32).

Of course, the verb is also used of the actual resurrection of Jesus, as in 24:5, 23; Acts 1:3; 25:19 (on the symbolic/spiritual idea of resurrection, cf. John 5:21-24ff; 11:21-27), and similarly of physical raising of persons from the dead in the book of Acts (9:41 etc).

An interesting use of the verb is in Acts 7:38, where Stephen, in his sermon-speech, refers to the words given by God to Moses as “living sayings/declarations” (lo/gia zw=nta), the idea being that words spoken by the living God are themselves living. The concept of God as the source of life is expressed twice by Paul in sermon-speeches, delivered in a non-Jewish (Greco-Roman) setting—of the one true living God (14:15), and cf. especially the famous philosophical formula cited in 17:28: “for in Him we live and move and have being [e)sme/n]”.

“Life” in the Pauline Letters and Theology

Paul uses the verb za/w (“live, have life”) frequently in his letters (more than 50 times in the undisputed letters). Sometimes it is meant in the ordinary sense of human life (and/or daily living), but quite often it denotes divine/eternal or spiritual Life.

Paul also makes use of the verb zwopoie/w (“make [a]live”)—7 of the 11 occurrences in the New Testament are found in his letters (cf. also John 5:21 [twice]; 6:63; 1 Pet 3:18):

    • Rom 4:17; 8:11—where the reference is specifically to the life-giving (and resurrection) power of God
    • 1 Cor 15:22, 36, 45—the life-giving power of Jesus, specifically through his resurrection (on the last reference, cf. below)
    • 2 Cor 3:6—the life-giving power of the Spirit (Spirit/Law [“Letter”] contrast), cf. also Gal 3:21

The noun zwh/ (“life”) is somewhat less common, occurring 28 times in the undisputed letters (with 9 more in Ephesians and the Pastorals). The specific expression “Life of the Age” (zwh/ ai)w/nio$) occurs five times—Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23; Gal 6:8 (cf. also 1 Tim 1:16; 6:12; Tit 1:2; 3:7)—usually in a strongly ethical context (but note the emphasis on the “favor” [xa/ri$] of God in Rom 5:21; 6:23).

The remaining Pauline passage which are particularly relevant may summarized as follows:

“Life” in the other New Testament Writings

Before continuing on to look at the references to the Spirit in the Pauline letters, it is worth surveying briefly other occurrences of the noun zwh/ and verb za/w in the rest of the New Testament (excluding the Johannine letters and book of Revelation):

    • The basic idea of eternal life (in the sense of always living) is applied variously to the figure of Melchizedek (as a type/figure of Jesus) in 7:3, 8, 16, 25
    • The figure of God as living (cf. above), along with his Word as living—3:12; 4:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22
    • Of the sacrificial (priestly) work of Jesus, which leads to Life—10:20 (“living way”)
    • One lives through trust in Jesus—10:38 (citing Hab 2:4, cf. above)
    • The expression “crown of life” as a motif for eternal Life (1:12)
1 Peter
    • Life through (the death and resurrection of) Jesus—1:3 (“living hope”); 2:24
    • Participation/union of believers with Jesus, i.e. we are “living” as he is “living”—2:4-5
    • The living (and life-giving) Word of God—1:23
    • Life comes to believers through the favor [xa/ri$] of God—3:7 (“favor of life”)
    • Believers live “in the Spirit”—3:18 (vb. zwopoie/w); 4:6
2 Peter & Jude

“Gnosis” in the NT: John 17:3 (cont.)

John 17:3 (continued)

In the previous study, I looked at the statement of John 17:3 in the context of the prayer-discourse of chapter 17. Today, I will be examining the statement itself in a bit more detail.

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

This is clearly connected with Jesus’ words in verse 2, though the precise relationship is not absolutely certain (cf. the discussion in the prior note):

“Even as you [i.e. the Father] have given to him [i.e. the Son] authority o(ver) all flesh, (so) that (for) every (one) that you have given him, he should give to them life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life].”

Verse 3 explains and defines what this “eternal life” is. The word zwh/ (“life”) appears frequently in the Gospel of John, and usually denotes eternal life—that is, the divine or spiritual life which God the Father possesses (with the Son) and which is, and will be, granted to faithful believers in Christ. The specific expression “life of the Age[s]” makes the meaning clear (Jn 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50); the very expression has a definite eschatological orientation—the life believers will enter/inherit at the end, in the “Age to Come”. Life (zwh/) appears most frequently, as a key-word, in the discourse of 5:17-47 (esp. vv. 24-29, 39-40) and in the “Bread of Life” discourse of chapter 6 (11 times). In the language of the Johannine discourses, to have or receive life is a primary idiom for salvation, since the specific words “save, saving, salvation” (sw|/zw and related words) are not commonly used in the Gospel and letters of John. This means that there is a definite soteriological significance to Jn 17:3. Eternal life—i.e. salvation—is defined specifically in terms of knowledge: “that they should know [ginw/skwsin]…”

While knowledge and salvation are often connected in various ways in the New Testament, as I have discussed in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, such a direct and explicit association is extremely rare. It sounds extremely “gnostic” in orientation—salvation in terms of knowledge (gnw=si$). Let us first consider the precise object of this knowledge in verse 3, which is two-fold:

    • “you”, i.e. God the Father—YHWH the Creator, according to the Old Testament Scriptures and Israelite religious tradition, specifically that He is:
      —”the on(ly) [mo/no$] true [a)lhqino/$] God”, which is, of course, a central tenet of Yahwist/Israelite monotheism (cf. Exod 34:6; Isa 37:20, etc)
    • “Yeshua (the) Anointed”—that is, Jesus identified by the title “Anointed (One)” (Messiah, Christ); for more on this title as applied to Jesus, cf. the articles of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Here, too, something specific is involved:
      —”the (one) whom you se(n)t forth”; the verb a)poste/llw (“set forth from”) appears frequently in John, used of Jesus, including 7 times within chapter 17

Thus, in addition to (correct) knowledge of the true God of (Israelite) monotheism, believers are given knowledge of Jesus as the Anointed One who has come from God. While there is certainly a tinge of orthodoxy to this statement, it should not be limited to that sense. Indeed, in terms of the actual words (and thrust) of Jesus’ prayer, we are better informed by the terminology of vv. 6, 11-12, 26, where there are four important references to the name (o&noma) of God the Father; there is a clear symmetry present in the passage:

    • “I have shone forth [e)fane/rwsa] your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world” (v. 6)
      —”keep/guard them in your name which you have given to me” (v. 11)
      ——”that they might be one, even as we (are)”
      —”I kept/guarded them in your name which you have given to me” (v. 12)
    • “I made known [gnwri/zw] your name to them…” (v. 26)

(On the use of these two verbs fanero/w and gnwri/zw to signify divine revelation, cf. Part 3 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”)

Now, the name of God in the Old Testament and Israelite religion, strictly speaking, is the name represented by the four letters (tetragrammaton) hwhy [YHWH], originally vocalized something like Yahweh (cf. my earlier article on this name). However, Jesus is not referring here to giving his followers the simple factual information about this name, such as one might read in a Semitics textbook, or even as presented in Exod 3:13-14. In the ancient world, a person’s name was thought to reflect and encapsulate the essence, nature and character of that person, in a manner quite foreign to our way of thinking today. To “know” a person’s name meant effectively the same thing as knowing the person. There was a quasi-magical aspect to the name—speaking it allowed one to access the reality and the person behind the name. In Old Testament/Israelite religious tradition, this underlies the expression of “calling” on the name of YHWH (cf. Acts 2:21 & Rom 10:13, citing Joel 2:32). In order to speak a name, one must first know it, and what it represents. Jesus makes known to his followers the name (o&noma) of God the Father, which means making the Father (Himself) known to them. In Gospel tradition, Jesus is associated with Psalm 118:26 as the one who comes to the people “in the name of the Lord (YHWH)” (cf. John 12:13 par)—from the standpoint of Jesus in the Gospel of John, this means one who comes from the Father, the “Son” who reflects the character of his Father and who reproduces His words and actions. In early Christian tradition, the “name of the Lord (YHWH)” merged and became transformed into “the name of the Lord (Jesus)”; the declaration in Joel 2:32 thus carries a double-meaning (cf. Acts 8:16; 9:28; 19:5; 1 Cor 5:4; 6:11; Col 3:17; James 5:14, etc).

In John 17:11-12, this name is described by Jesus as “the name which you have given to me”. This can be understood two ways—first, in the sense that God the Father has given it to him (as the word/lo/go$) so that Jesus can make it known to his followers. However, as part of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven following the resurrection—expressed in Gospel tradition in terms of his coming to be seated at the “right hand” of God—Jesus himself was identified as the Lord, as indicated above. In Philippians 2:9, we have the famous declaration (a kind of credal statement):

“Therefore God even/also lifted him high over (all) and granted to him the name (that is) over every name…”

Almost certainly this name given to Jesus is not “Jesus” but the very name of God (YHWH), probably understood and expressed by the title Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) which was often used to render hwhy (YHWH) in Greek. This is significant due to the close relationship, and unity, between Father and Son presented in the Gospel of John—a theme which runs through all of chapter 17. The Son kept watch over his followers, the believers, guarding them in the name which the Father gave to him (v. 12). Now, as Jesus is about to depart from earth (and return to the Father), he asks the Father Himself to guard believers in that name. According to the Johannine context of chapters 14-16, this should be understood in terms of the (coming) presence of the Spirit. This idea of keeping close watch reflects the sense of intimacy and unity which is unquestionably an aspect of “knowledge” in the Gospel of John.

“Gnosis” in the NT: John 17:3

John 17:3

Today’s note, supplemental to the current series “Gnosis and the New Testament” will examine the statement in John 17:3, perhaps the most explicitly “gnostic”-sounding declaration in the entire New Testament:

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

A question to be addressed right away is whether this statement is part of the actual words of Jesus in his prayer-discourse of chapter 17 or is an explanatory statement by the author of the Gospel (and/or his source). The specific reference to “Yeshua (the) Anointed” (Jesus Christ) strongly suggests the latter. If so, then the author/editor is specifically clarifying Jesus’ words in verse 2:

“Even as you [i.e. the Father] have given to him [i.e. the Son] authority o(ver) all flesh, (so) that (for) every (one) that you have given him, he should give to them life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life].”

However, it is often difficult to know for certain where or when an author/editor’s comment could be interrupting the words of Jesus. This is especially true for the discourses of Jesus in John, which demonstrate an intricate blending of Jesus’ own words with an interpretive layer which gives added meaning and significance to his words. The discourse in 3:1-21 is another good example; commentators continue to debate whether Jesus’ words as such end with verse 15 or continue on through 21 (note also the wording in v. 11); similarly, whether John the Baptist’s word end at verse 30 or continue through v. 36. I see little (if any) substantial difference with regard to the meaning of 17:3, whether it represents the actual words of Jesus or a comment by the author, since, as noted above, the discourses of Jesus in John consistently seem to blend these two components throughout, so that Jesus’ own words are enhanced by a level of interpretation.

In the prior study on John 8:32, I mentioned the format or pattern which makes up the discourses of Jesus in John. This applies also to the great chain of discourses in chapters 13-17, with the exception of chapter 17, which is uniquely a kind of monologue, which I would qualify as a prayer-discourse. Here, Jesus is addressing God (the Father) in the presence of his followers, much as we see in 11:41-42. It serves as a perfect and exalted climax to the discourse(s) of chs. 13-17. It is so deep and rich in its structure and language, that no single outline will be entirely satisfactory; here, I have followed, with some modification, the outline offered by R. E. Brown (in his Anchor Bible [AB] commentary [Vol. 29A, p. 749], based on the earlier work of A. Laurentin):

    • Narrative setting (v. 1a)
    • Prologue—saying/statement (vv. 1b-3)
      —”Response” (v. 3)
    • Refrain:
      (a) Jesus’ relationship with the Father: the pre-existent glory (vv. 4-5)
      (b) Jesus has shone forth (manifest) the Father’s name (v. 6)
    • Part 1—Prayer/petition (vv. 7-12)
    • Part 2—Prayer/petition (vv. 13-23)
    • Refrain:
      (a) Jesus’ relationship with the Father: the pre-existent glory (vv. 24)
      (b) Jesus has shone forth (manifest) the Father’s name (vv. 25-26)

(Cf. also my study on chapter 17 in the Monday “Notes on Prayer” series)

The initial prayer statement in vv. 1-2 functions in a manner similar to the saying of Jesus with opens the great discourses (cf. 8:31-32 and the prior study). The statement in verse 3 (cf. above) could be said to function like the response by Jesus’ hearers in the discourses, except that here it reflects the understanding and faith of believers, rather than the misunderstanding (and unbelief) of those hearing his words. The “refrain” of vv. 4-6 (followed again in vv. 24-26), contains two great themes (and keywords) of chapter 17: (1) do/ca (“honor, splendor, glory”) and (2) fanero/w (“shine [forth], cause to appear, [make] manifest”). Another important word is the verb di/dwmi (“give”) which occurs 17 times in the chapter. It has a two-fold meaning—(a) that which the Father has given to the Son, and (b) what the Son has given to believers. Interestingly it is the believers who are at the heart of what God the Father has given to the Son, creating a reciprocal relationship—Father-Son-Believers—involving an intricate and repetitive language. The central portion of the prayer-discourse I also divide here into two parts (vv. 7-12, 13-23), each with a similar structure (cf. Brown, p. 749); each part:

    • begins with the particle nu=n (“now…”), and then contains, in turn:
    • a pronouncement (7-8, 13-14)
    • a main petition (9, 15ff)
    • reference to glory (10, 22)
    • reference to unity (11, 21-23)

There is a kind of logical chain running through the prayer:

    • The pre-existent glory (do/ca) which the Son and Father shared
    • –Believers were given to the Son
    • ––The Son came into the world from the Father
    • –––The Son shines forth the Father’s name (making it known) to believers
    • ––––The Son glorifies the Father in this work
    • –––––The death/resurrection/exaltation of the Son
    • ––––The Father glorifies the Son
    • –––Believers will make the Son and Father (His name) known to others
    • ––Believers remain in the world
    • –Believers are one (united) with the Son
    • Believers will inherit the glory shared by Father and Son, and so be one (united) with them both

It is important to read the statement in verse 3 in light of the overall context and structure of the prayer-discourse. The Son gives to the chosen ones (believers) the life-of-the-Age, i.e. life of the Age-to-Come, which ultimately means eternal life with God and Christ in Heaven. How is this life given to believers? This is expressed in various ways, with different images, throughout the Gospel, but here, as in 8:31ff, it is perhaps best understood in terms of the word(s) (logo$, r(hma[ta]) which Jesus “speaks”—cf. especially the statements in Jn 5:24 and 6:63 (also v. 68). The expression “word(s) of life”, along with the same underlying association, in relation to the Gospel message (of Christ), is also found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 5:20; 13:46, 48; Phil 2:16; 1 John 1:1). It is clear from the discourses of Jesus in John that this “word” does not simply represent the sayings and teachings of Jesus, but the presence of Christ himself, as the Son (of God) and living Word who reveals and manifests the Father (his name). Further, it is certainly to be identified also with the (Holy) Spirit, as indicated specifically in Jn 6:63. In chapters 14-16, the Spirit (Paraclete) is said to function effectively as the abiding presence of Christ in and with the believer (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:13ff; cf. also 20:22).

It is now time to look a bit more closely at the statement in 17:3, which I will do in the next study.