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

John 3:13-14, continued

John 3:14

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

This “son of man” saying follows upon the one in verse 13 (discussed in the previous study). While it is possible that these sayings once circulated separately, they are clearly connected here, being integral—indeed, central—to the Johannine Discourse of Jesus in chap. 3 (3:1-21). In this case, the initial conjunction (kai/), connecting verse 14 with v. 13, would seem to have a coordinating (and explicative) force (i.e., “and so…”).

The bonding motif, uniting the two sayings, is the idea of ascent. In verse 13 (as in 1:51, cf. the earlier study) the verb used is a)nabai/nw (“step up”), while here in v. 14 it is u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”). Both verbs are important Johannine keywords, used throughout the Gospel, with special theological (and Christological) meaning. In verse 13, the “stepping up” of the son of man (Jesus) is anticipated, and this is expressed with greater clarity in v. 14.

We may isolate two component clauses to the saying, reflecting two distinct lines of tradition:

    • Phrase 1: An illustrative comparison from Scripture, viz., a particular Moses tradition (Numbers 21:4-9, vv. 8-9)
    • Phrase 2: A “son of man” saying rooted in the Gospel Tradition, comparable to the three Passion-prediction sayings by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars)

Before turning to the Moses-tradition, let us consider the resemblance of v. 14b to the Synoptic Passion-predictions—all of which utilize the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) as a self-reference by Jesus. The first prediction, in particular, bears a close formal resemblance:

    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to be lifted up high” (v. 14b)

In the Synoptic saying, the chain of infinitives covers the full range of Jesus’ Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection. By contrast, here in John, a single infinitive (of the verb u(yo/w) suffices. The parallel suggests that the verb corresponds similarly to the range of Jesus’ Passion (entailing both his death and resurrection), though it is his impending death that would seem to be primarily in view (cf. below).

The illustration of the bronze snake, set up by Moses on a ‘pole’ (Num 21:8f), certainly is suggestive (visually) of Jesus being placed upon a stake. Thus, it would seem that the primary reference is to Jesus’ crucifixion; the other occurrences of the verb u(yo/w (8:28; 12:32, 34) would tend to confirm this (see esp. the comment in 12:33).

However, the Hebrew word for the pole or staff, upon which the snake was set, is sn@, which specifically refers to a signal-flag or banner—viz., something placed up high (and waved) so that everyone can see it (and rally to it). This brings out additional associations for the symbolism. In the original Moses tradition, the snake served as signal-flag, so that, whenever a person was bitten by a snake, he/she could look to the elevated bronze snake, and thus be healed (lit. “live”). In verse 8, the verb ha*r* (“see”) is used, but in v. 9 it is the verb fb^n`, which can imply a more intense or careful looking (i.e., gazing at, contemplating).

Given the theological importance of the sight/seeing motif in the Gospel of John, it is no surprise that this aspect of the tradition is particularly brought out by the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker). This becomes clear from the expository application that follows in verse 15:

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

In the Johannine theological idiom, seeing means trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)—see, in particular, this correlation in the chapter 9 narrative (esp. vv. 35-41). Thus, everyone “seeing” the raised snake corresponds to everyone “trusting in” Jesus.

What significance, if any, is there to the use of the expression “the son of man” here in v. 14, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus? If we limit our analysis to the parallel with the Synoptic Passion-prediction (Mk 8:31 par, see above), then there would seem to be a specific association between the expression and the suffering (and death) of Jesus. This, in turn, represents a natural extension of the poetic use of the expression in the Old Testament Scriptures, in which the limitation and weakness of the human condition—including its mortality—tends to be emphasized. Jesus identifies himself with these aspects of the human condition.

However, if we turn to the prior occurrences of the expression in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13) there would seem to be a rather different orientation and point of emphasis. As we saw in our studies on each of these references [1:51 and 3:13], there are two key thematic motifs associated with the expression “the son of man”: (1) the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (2) the descent/ascent motif. The principal point in verse 13 is Jesus’ descent to earth from heaven; implicit in the saying is the expectation that, after his descent (stepping down) to earth, he will then ascend (stepping back up) to heaven.

It is in this regard that the verb u(yo/w (“lift up high”) can be understood as signifying something more than Jesus’ death on the cross. Indeed, while the Johannine understanding of Son’s exaltation may begin with his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, it also includes his resurrection and ultimate return to the Father (in heaven). Jesus’ suffering and death begins a process of exaltation that reaches its climax with his return to heaven. We shall find this same Christological dynamic at work in the remaining “son of man” sayings as well.

Given the parallel between verse 14b and Mark 8:31 par (see above), it would be enough to explain Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” here on that basis. However, in light of the proximity to the saying in v. 13, we may fairly assume that the expression in verse 14 carries the same theological import as it does in v. 13 (and 1:51). In other words, Jesus’ identity as the “son of man” must be understood in terms of the distinctive Johannine theology. As we begin to expound this in the context of the descent/ascent motif, we can isolate two principal theological strands:

    • Descent: Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his incarnation on earth as a human being (“son of man”)
    • Ascent: A process of exaltation that begins with his death (i.e., suffering of the “son of man”), and culminates with his return to heaven.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The association with Moses in verse 14 raises an interesting (possible) point of interpretation for verse 13. Indeed, it is possible that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) intends a specific comparison, between Jesus and Moses, in v. 13. Central to this theory is the idea of Moses’ ascension, as it is found in Jewish tradition. When Jesus declares that “no one has stepped up into heaven”, he may have the ascension of Moses specifically in mind. For traditions regarding an ascent by Moses, see Meeks, pp. 104ff, 110-111, 192-5, 235-6 (cf. Moloney, p. 56f).

Such a comparison is made more plausible by the thematic relationship, between Jesus and Moses, that runs through much of the Gospel. This begins in the Prologue (1:14-18, esp. vv. 17-18), where the comparative superiority of Jesus is established. These verses draw upon various Moses/Exodus traditions, particularly the theophany (YHWH’s revelation to Moses) in chapters 33-34—and especially the notice in 33:23 (cf. Deut 4:12ff). The wording in v. 18 of the Prologue resembles that of 3:13:

    • “no one has seen God at any time”
    • “no one has stepped up into heaven”

If the phrase in 1:18 alludes to Moses (Exod 33:23), then it is plausible that the similar phrase in 3:13 does so as well (particularly given the reference to Moses in v. 14).

References above marked “Meeks” are to Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (Brill: 1967).
Those 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 3:13-14)

John 3:13 and 14

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

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

John 3:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) “the son of man”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Johannine “Son of Man” Sayings

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

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

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

John 1:51

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

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

Here is the saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Allusion to Genesis 28:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Components of the Saying

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

(a) “the heaven(s) having opened up”

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

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

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

(b) “the Messengers of God”

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

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

(c) “stepping up and stepping down”

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

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

(d) “upon the son of man”

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Luke 19:11ff; 21:31; 22:16ff)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou

Having examined the various references to the Kingdom of God (and its coming) in the Gospel of Luke, we must pay attention to how the theme is treated at the close of the Gospel, leading into the book of Acts. There are four passages of interest: (1) the parable in 19:11ff, (2) the statement in 21:31 (at the close of the Eschatological Discourse), (3) the references in the Last Supper scene (22:16ff), and (4) the reference in 23:42. All of these are significant for an understanding of how the Lukan Gospel writer viewed the coming of the Kingdom.

Luke 19:11ff

First, there is the parable in 19:12-27, similar in many respects to the parable in Matt 25:14-30, though the relation between the two, and whether they reflect a common underlying “Q” tradition, remains a matter for debate. The literary context of the two is certainly different. Luke sets this parable (of the Ten Minas) at the end of the Journey narrative (9:51-18:31ff), as Jesus and his disciples draw near to Jerusalem. The Lukan introduction (v. 11) makes clear that, contrary to the expectation of some people, Jesus would not be establishing the Kingdom on earth (as a Messianic Kingdom) when he arrived in Jerusalem. According to the author, Jesus tells this parable

“…because of his being near to Yerushalaim, and their thinking that the kingdom of God was about [me/llei] to show up paraxrh=ma.”

The adverb paraxrh=ma is somewhat difficult to translate. It basically denotes something happening at the time it is needed; however, this was often generalized to mean “at the very moment”, “on the spot”, i.e., immediately, instantly. This certainly is how the word is used here, referring to the idea (held by some, if not many, of Jesus’ followers) that the Kingdom of God would “show up” (vb a)nafai/nw) as soon as Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. Clearly, this would not be the case, as the narrative demonstrates, and as the Gospel writer here declares ahead of time.

As we saw from the earlier notes on the Triumphal Entry scene, the Synoptic narrative reinterprets the popular Messianic expectation, expressed (by the crowds) in that episode, regarding Jesus’ identity as the Davidic (royal) Messiah. The Gospel of Luke follows the Synoptic narrative, but goes even further in presenting a different view of Jesus’ Kingship—and thus, of his relation to the coming Kingdom of God.

The Lukan Gospel had already dealt with this popular expectation at several earlier points in the Gospel—most notably, in 17:20-21ff, where Jesus redirects the expectation of how the Kingdom would come, providing important insight as to the true nature of this Kingdom (see the earlier study on this passage). Much the same thing occurs here with the parable in 19:12-27. In the Lukan parable, Jesus is clearly identified with the nobleman who goes off “into a region far away” in order to “receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12). In the Gospel (and Lukan) context, this refers to the impending death (and resurrection) of Jesus. The basic message, then, is that the Kingdom of God cannot come until after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

There are two other important components to this message, as expressed by the parable: (a) it involves Jesus himself receiving a kingdom, and (b) it also entails Jesus’ subsequent return (i.e., his second coming [parousia] at the end-time). Both of these are relevant to the remaining passages.

Luke 21:31

Toward the close of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13; par Lk 21:5-36), Jesus gives an eschatological illustration based on observation of the fig-tree (Mk 13:28-29). Just as, when the fig-tree puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near, so when one sees the eschatological events (described by Jesus in the Discourse) coming to pass, it is a sign that the end is near—and, with it, the coming of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ return, vv. 26-27). Luke follows the Synoptic/Markan tradition, but uniquely includes a reference to the “kingdom of God”:

“…when you should see these (thing)s coming to be, you may know that the kingdom of God is near!” (21:31)

In this context, the coming of the Kingdom of God is eschatological, being tied to the end-time return of Jesus. This is significant because, elsewhere in the Gospel, Luke seems to indicate that the Kingdom was already present in the person of Jesus during his earthly ministry (e.g., 11:20, cf. the earlier study)—a ministry that would continue through his disciples and the early Christian missionaries. In spite of this important thematic emphasis, Luke still affirms a future eschatological aspect to the coming of the Kingdom.

Luke 22:16ff

In order to understand this eschatological orientation of the Kingdom theme, it is necessary to realize that, for early Christians, the period of end-time events begins with the suffering and death of Jesus. The Messianic Age was not inaugurated with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (see above), but it would be with Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are definite eschatological allusions throughout the Gospel Passion narratives, quite apart from the obvious literary context of the Eschatological Discourse (immediately preceding, as it does, the Synoptic Passion narrative).

The Kingdom-theme is strongly present in the Passion narrative, as was previously discussed (in the Holy Week notes related to the Triumphal entry scene). A vital emphasis in the narrative is on Jesus’ identity as the royal/Davidic Messiah who must first suffer and die. Luke brings out this Kingdom-theme more than the other Synoptic authors. The Gospel writer does this, in part, by the added Kingdom-references in the Last Supper scene.

In the core Synoptic tradition, after Jesus’ consecration of the cup of wine (Mk 14:23-24), in which he identifies the wine as symbolizing his blood (that is, his death), he adds the following statement:

“Amen, I say to you, that no longer, not (at all) shall I drink out of the produce of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (v. 25)

Once again, the Lukan author reproduces the tradition, but with slight modification; he also includes a second reference by Jesus to the Kingdom, parallel to the first:

“…(I have very much) set (my heart) upon eating this Pesah [i.e. Passover] with you, before my suffering; for I say to you, that not (again) shall I eat it until that time when it should be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. (22:15-16)
(regarding the wine):
“…I shall not (again) drink from the produce of the vine from now (on), until the (time) when the kingdom of God should come.” (v. 18)

In Luke’s version, this statement regarding the wine precedes the symbolic consecration of the bread and cup (vv. 19-20 [though 19b-20 are omitted by some Western textual witnesses, cf. my earlier note]). For the purposes of this study, the most important aspect of this expanded Kingdom-reference is the way that the author ties Jesus’ eating/drinking in the Kingdom of God with the eschatological coming of the Kingdom. This brings together the two themes from 19:11ff and 21:31 (discussed above): (i) Jesus’ receiving the Kingdom upon his death and resurrection, and (ii) the future coming of the Kingdom.

Luke further expands this Kingdom-theme within the Last Supper scene by including a short block of sayings/teachings by Jesus (vv. 24-30), comprised of two traditions that are (effectively) located elsewhere in the other Gospels. The second of these (vv. 28-30) resembles Matthew 19:28, and there is disagreement among commentators as to whether these represent two versions of a single (“Q”) tradition. In any case, Jesus here promises his disciples (the Twelve) that, having remained faithful to him throughout the time of distress (“testing”), they will receive a ruling place alongside Jesus himself in the Kingdom: “and I will set through to you, even as my Father set through to me, a kingdom” (v. 29). They will eat alongside Jesus at the Father’s table in the Kingdom (v. 30a), and will sit on thrones, ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel (v. 30b). The importance of this twelve-symbolism for Luke will be discussed in the next study.

The coming of the Kingdom is thus eschatological, but it is also tied to the Kingship of Jesus—viz., the Kingdom which he receives (alongside God the Father) upon his resurrection and exaltation (to heaven).

Luke 23:42

This same emphasis is found in 23:42, a tradition found only in the Gospel of Luke—namely, the dying request of the ‘repentant thief’ on the cross:

“Yeshua, remember me when you should come into [ei)$] your kingdom.”

The implication is that Jesus will receive his kingdom after his death, when he enters it (cp. 24:26). On this idiom of “entering” the Kingdom of God, see the previous study.

It should be pointed out that the text cited above is the reading of MSS Ë75 (the oldest relevant Papyrus), B, L, and the Latin versions. But the reading of the majority of Greek manuscripts (a, A, C2, R, W, Y, 0124, 0135, family 1 & 13 mss, and the later Koine/Byzantine text tradition) has the preposition e)n (“in”), rather than ei)$ (“into”).  The reading with e)n could be taken as a reference to Jesus’ future coming, i.e., “in/with” his kingdom (cf. the context of 21:31, above).  If the majority text is correct, then Jesus’ response to the thief may represent another Lukan ‘redirection’ of a popular Messianic expectation. That is to say, the thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes to set up his kingdom, but Jesus responds that the thief will be with him in paradise today.

In next week’s study, we shall look at how the Lukan Gospel writer further develops this Kingdom-theme in the early chapters of the book of Acts.

 

 

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Matthew)

The “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Matthew

As discussed in the previous article on the Gospel of Luke, the most widely-accepted view regarding the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels posits that Matthew and Luke each made use of the Gospel of Mark and the so-called “Q” material as a common source. This approach, though not without its difficulties, remains the most plausible option for a functioning hypothesis, and so I have followed it for the purpose of this study. Thus, for the Gospel of Matthew (as for Luke), in examining the use of the expression “the son of man”, we must consider: (a) how the Markan and “Q” source material was included and adapted, as well as (b) references or aspects that are original or unique to Matthew.

From a structural standpoint, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Matthean Gospel is the way that the author has grouped together teachings of Jesus—individual traditions, or clusters of traditions—into larger discourse-sections (or ‘sermons’). These discourses punctuate the Gospel—in chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25 (to which one may add chap. 23)—and provide a certain theological framework that is interwoven with the narrative framework (drawn largely from the Markan narrative).

The Matthean Discourses actually represent expansions of previous, shorter discourse-sections. For example, the underlying “Q” material that formed the core of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7) likely corresponds, more or less, with the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:20-49). To this core, various other sayings and teachings of Jesus—some “Q” traditions, and others being unique to Matthew (“M” material)—have been added and arranged. The same is true with regard to chapters 10 (expanding the core tradition of Mk 6:7-13), 13 (expanding the sequence of parables in Mk 4:1-34), and 24-25 (expanding the “Eschatological Discourse” of Mk 13). To a lesser degree, chapters 18 and 23 are built up around core Synoptic/Markan and “Q” traditions, respectively.

The Matthean Gospel thus has a parallel arrangement running through the work: the narrative sequence (drawn from Mark), and the discourse/sermon sequence. With regard to the “son of man” references, it would seem best to analyze the data for each sequence in turn. We begin with the narrative sequence.

The Synoptic/Markan narrative, while generally followed by the Matthean Gospel writer, has also been disrupted and re-arranged at various points. The disruptions are largely due to the presence of the Discourses. For example, the Markan narrative is followed up to 1:20 (4:22), but then is interrupted to include the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5-7); when it resumes in chapters 8-9, the material from Mk 1:21-2:17 is presented, but in a different order (with the summary in 1:39 essentially being repositioned [and expanded] to introduce the Sermon on the Mount [4:23-25]).

The first occurrence of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) is at 8:20, following the Sermon on the Mount (the expression does not occur in the Sermon). Verses 18-22 are “Q” sayings (par Lk 9:57-60) on the theme of discipleship, and, in particular, on the cost involved in following Jesus. In the context of the narrative sequence, the two sayings of vv. 19-22 occur between the call of the first disciples (4:18-22) and the call of Matthew (9:9ff). In the intervening Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides a range of essential ethical-religious instruction for those who would be his disciples.

Let us briefly survey the references in the narrative prior to the central episode of Peter’s confession (16:13-20, par Mk 8:27-30); the sequence of references is as follows:

As in the Markan and “Q” source-material, these occurrences of the expression “the son of man” function primarily as a self-reference by Jesus (i.e., “this son of man”, namely himself). Any significance beyond this relates to Jesus’ identification with the human condition, especially with regard to human weakness and suffering. This extends to the anticipation of Jesus’ suffering and death that would occur in Jerusalem. The Matthean treatment of the “sign of Jonah” tradition (12:39-40ff) clearly brings this out—identifying the “sign” with Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection). The Lukan version—and the underlying “Q” tradition itself—focuses instead on the ministry (preaching) of Jesus. His preaching is contrasted with that of Jonah. The prophet Jonah’s preaching led to the repentance of the people of Nineveh; by contrast, Jesus’ own contemporaries (in Galilee) have not responded to him in a similar way, even though he is a far greater (and Messianic) Prophet.

In both 12:32 and 40, the expression (as a reference to Jesus) is connected with the theme of discipleship. Only the person who responds with trust to Jesus, and who, as a true disciple, will confess him publicly, will be able to pass through the Judgment and be saved. This thematic emphasis is intrinsic to the “Q” traditions themselves, and is brought out even more strongly in Luke’s treatment of the material (see the discussion in the previous article).

The focus on the suffering and death of Jesus comes more clearly into view with the central cluster of references in chapters 16-17ff. In this regard, the Matthean author is following the Synoptic/Markan narrative, and the three ‘Passion predictions’ by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). What is most interesting, however, is the way that the Gospel writer treats the expression “the son of man” so unequivocally as a self-reference by Jesus, entirely interchangeable with the use of the first person pronoun (“I”). Compare the question posed by Jesus to his disciples (in Mark and Matthew, respectively):

    • “Who do men count/consider me to be?” (Mk 8:27)
    • “Who do men count/consider the son of man to be?” (Matt 16:13)

The Gospel writer clearly (it seems) does not consider the expression to be a Messianic or special Christological title per se, otherwise Jesus’ question would make no sense—viz., he would be giving his disciples the answer before he even finished asking the question (cf. Hare, p. 131f). Note the similar interchange, between expression and pronoun, in the first Passion prediction:

    • “And he began to teach them that it is necessary for the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “From then (on), Yeshua began to show to his learners that it is necessary for him to go forth to Yerushalaim and to suffer many (thing)s…” (Matt 16:21)

In chapters 16-20, references to Jesus’ suffering and death (17:9, 12, 22; 20:18, 28) alternate with references to his exaltation (and future return), 16:27-28; 17:9; 19:28. It will be useful to examine the original Matthean contributions to this presentation.

The saying in 16:27, though formulated differently, corresponds to Mark 8:38. It is possible that the saying was reworked (or replaced) because of the similar “Q” tradition that the author would include in 10:32-33 (where Jesus uses the personal pronoun instead of the expression “the son of man”). But the author has retained the motif of the “son of man” coming in glory:

    • “…the son of man…when he should come in the splendor [do/ca] of his Father with the holy Messengers” (Mk 8:38)
    • “For the son of man is about to come in the splendor [do/ca] of his Father with his/His Messengers…” (Matt 16:27)

The following saying in v. 28 also corresponds to the Markan parallel (9:1), being nearly identical, but with one key difference:

    • “…there are some of those having stood here who shall not taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!” (Mk 9:1)
    • “…there are some of those having stood here who shall not taste death until they should see the son of man coming in his kingdom!” (Matt 16:28)

The coming of the Kingdom is defined in terms of the coming of the son of man (Jesus) in glory. This clearly refers to the exaltation of Jesus, but also (it would seem) to his future (second) coming at the end-time. The saying in 10:23 (to be discussed) would indicate that the author had Jesus’ second coming (i.e., parousia) in mind. However, it is Jesus’ exalted position in heaven that is being emphasized in 19:28, a Matthean addition to the Synoptic tradition in Mk 10:17-31 (19:16-30) that has a loose parallel in Lk 22:28-30. The emphasis on the heavenly position of the son of man (on a ruling throne) anticipates the eschatological references in chaps. 24-25. It also reiterates the important discipleship context that attends a number of the “son of man” sayings (esp. the “Q” sayings) we have examined (see above):

“Amen, I say to you, that you, the (one)s having come on the path with [i.e. followed] me, in the (time of all things) coming to be (born) again, when the son of man should sit upon the throne of his honor/splendor [do/ca], you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

These sayings reflect the eschatological outlook of early Christians. As the Messiah, following his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, Jesus will be sitting (in a ruling position) at the “right hand” of God, a position that he will continue to hold into the New Age. The end of the current Age was thought to be imminent, so that the New Age would very soon be ushered in—indeed, within the lifetime of some, if not most, of the first disciples. The exaltation of Jesus, followed by his subsequent return to earth (in glory), would mark the end of the current Age, and, with it, the final Judgment. This aspect of the “son of man” references will be discussed further in the continuation of this article, and again at the conclusion of this series.

Finally, the remaining “son of man” references in the narrative (26:2, 24, 45, 64) generally follow the Synoptic/Markan narrative, building upon the earlier association between the expression and the anticipation of Jesus’ impending suffering and death (in Jerusalem). Matthew is unique in the way that the Gospel writer opens the Passion narrative with a reiteration of the Passion-predictions:

And, when it came to be (that) Yeshua (had) completed all these words, he said to his learners: “You have seen [i.e. know] that after two days the Pesah [i.e. Passover] comes to be, and the son of man is given along to be put to the stake [i.e. crucified].” (26:1-2; cp. Mk 14:1)

Otherwise, the Gospel writer, in preserving the Synoptic/Markan references, emphasizes both the suffering of Jesus (including his betrayal, 26:24, 45) and his subsequent exaltation (26:64)—compare Mk 14:21, 41, 62. This balancing of the two aspects—suffering/death and exaltation—is, on the whole, typical of the use of the expression throughout the Gospel Tradition, but it is particularly significant (and noteworthy) in the Matthean presentation of the traditional material. In contrast with the Gospel of Luke, where the emphasis tends to be on the suffering aspect, Matthew gives somewhat greater prominence to Jesus’ exaltation.

References above marked “Hare” are to Douglas R. A. Hare, The Son of Man Tradition (Fortress Press: 1990).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 4)

The Climactic Sayings of Mark 13:26 and 14:62

Of the “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of Mark, most relate in some way to the human suffering of Jesus—and, particularly, to the suffering and death (viz., his Passion) which he would experience in Jerusalem. This is the focus of the three Synoptic Passion-predictions by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:33f), but also clearly applies to the other occurrences of the expression in 9:9, 12; 10:45, and 14:21, 41. As I discussed (in Parts 2 and 3), the expression “the son of man” in these sayings, in addition to serving as a self-reference by Jesus, likely alludes to the poetic use of the expression in the Old Testament. The relevant references, given previously in the Introduction, are: Num 23:19; Job 16:21; 25:6; 35:8; Psalm 8:5[4]; 80:18[17]; 144:3 ; Isa 51:12; 56:2; Jer 49:18, 33; 50:40; 51:43. In this poetic usage, the Hebrew <d*a* /B# (once vona$ /B#), “son of man”, is paired with “man” (<d*a*, vona$, vya! or rb#G#), as a way of referring to humankind or a human being generally (Psalm 146:3; cf. Part 1 on the sayings in Mk 2:10, 28), often emphasizing the limitation and weakness of the human condition.

In Mark 8:38, is the expression “the son of man” used in a rather different context—implying an eschatological judgment setting, as well as an exalted position for Jesus in heaven (alongside God the Father). This same emphasis features, even more prominently, in 13:26 and 14:62. These two sayings represent the climactic “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of Mark, and both are particularly important (and distinctive) in the way that they allude to the heavenly figure in Daniel 7:13-14.

I have discussed this Scripture passage in prior articles, as a supplemental note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and, more recently, in the series “The Old Testament and the Gospel Tradition”. These articles can be consulted for discussion on the context and interpretation of Dan 7:13f. The relevant portion of the prophetic vision begins:

“and, see!—with the clouds of the Heaven(s), (one) like a son of man [vn`a$ rb^K=]…”

The Aramaic vn`a$ rB^, corresponding to the Hebrew <d*a* /B# (or vona$ /B#), here simply refers to the human appearance (“like a son of man”, i.e., like a human being) of the heavenly figure in the vision. The human appearance of this figure is in marked contrast to the beasts elsewhere in the vision. Those beasts symbolize wicked/corrupt earthly power (i.e., kings and their kingdoms), while this “(one) like a son of man” represents heavenly power (and a corresponding king/kingdom). Indeed, the figure comes “with the clouds of the Heaven(s)”, drawing upon ancient storm-theophany imagery, such as is applied to YHWH in numerous Scriptural poems; for the motif of God coming/riding on the clouds, see Psalm 18:10-13; 104:3ff; Isa 19:1; Jer 4:13; Ezek 1:4ff; Nah 1:3b.

This heavenly figure, with human appearance, approaches the throne of YHWH:

“…(he) was coming, and unto (the) Ancient of Days he approached, and they brought him near in front of Him.”

This heavenly figure is then given an everlasting Kingdom, with authority over all peoples and nations on earth (v. 14).

Mark 13:26

The “son of man” saying in Mark 13:26 is part of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (chap. 13 par), coming at a climactic point in the Discourse. The narrative setting for this collection of eschatological teaching is significant, preceding as it does the Passion Narrative (chaps. 14-15). It strongly indicates that there is a profound eschatological significance to Jesus’ suffering and death; indeed, his suffering/death may be said to mark the beginning of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$ [cf. Dan 12:1 LXX]). Note, for example, the implications of Jesus’ wording in 14:38, 41 (cf. especially the Lukan formulation in 22:53b). This period of distress represents the “birth pains” of the New Age (Mk 13:8 par); and Jesus, in the Discourse, describes the things which will occur before the end (of the current Age), from three vantage points: (a) the nations and people on earth generally (vv. 5-8), (b) his disciples (vv. 9-13), and (c) the people of Jerusalem and Judea (vv. 14-23).

Following the period of distress, with all its attendant travail and suffering, the end will be ushered in (vv. 24-27) by the appearance of “the son of man” from heaven:

“And then they shall see the son of man coming on (the) clouds, with much power and splendor.” (v. 26)

The wording clearly alludes to Daniel 7:13, even though the scenario has a different orientation. In the Daniel 7 vision, the “(one) like a son of man” is coming on the clouds toward God, in heaven. By contrast, here in Mk 13:26 par,  the “son of man” is coming on the clouds to earth, to gather up the righteous (v. 27) and to usher in the end-time Judgment (implied by vv. 24-25). Yet the eschatological context for both references is essentially the same: they refer to the establishment of a Divine/heavenly kingdom, entailing the judgment of the nations, the destruction of the wicked, and the exaltation/reward of the righteous (cf. Dan 7:14, 23-27). The framing of this scenario within the Eschatological Discourse owes much to the conclusion of the book of Daniel (12:1-4ff).

Of all of the “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of Mark, the occurrence of the expression in 13:26 could most plausibly be interpreted as referring to a heavenly being separate from Jesus himself. Indeed, a number of commentators have explained the saying, at least in its original form (as spoken by Jesus), in precisely this way. This interpretative approach was mentioned previously, in connection with the saying in 8:38; however, here it is rather more plausible. From the standpoint of Jesus’ first hearers, it is by no means obvious that he is referring to himself by the expression “the son of man”. Nothing in the Gospel, up to this point, suggests that Jesus has been using the expression with Daniel 7:13 in mind.

Early Christians, of course, reading the passage with Christological hindsight, could understand verse 26 perfectly well as a reference to the future return of Jesus, following his resurrection and exaltation to heaven; but what sense would this have made to Jesus’ own disciples (or to others) at the time? Admittedly, the reference is somewhat problematic, if viewed as an authentic saying by Jesus, with “the son of man” as a self-reference. And yet, the expression is clearly used as a self-reference everywhere else in the Gospel—Jesus refers to himself as “th(is) son of man”, i.e., this person (namely, myself). It must be regarded so here as well, both from Jesus’ own standpoint (as speaker), and from the standpoint of the early Gospel Tradition.

What, then, are we to make of its usage here by Jesus? Before proceeding to give an answer, let us first examine the final “son of man” saying.

Mark 14:62

The saying in Mark 14:62 par occurs at the climax of the Sanhedrin interrogation scene (vv. 53-65), a key episode within the Passion narrative. In the Markan version, the high priest asks Jesus:

“Are you the Anointed (One), the Son of the Blessed (One)?” (v. 61)

Jesus responds with bold affirmation (“I am”), and then adds:

“…and you shall see the son of man being seated at (the) right-hand of the power (of God), and coming with the clouds of the heaven!” (v. 62)

Again, the expression “the son of man” functions as a self-reference—i.e., “you shall see th(is) son of man…”, “you shall see me…”. At the same time, however, there is a definite allusion (even more clear than in 13:26) to Dan 7:13f, where the expression “(one) like a son of man” occurs. Here, certainly, Jesus’ use of the expression as a self-reference, identifying himself with the human conditions, dovetails with the expression from Dan 7:13; not only does he identify with the human condition (on earth), but also with exalted position of the human-like figure in heaven. That is to say, Jesus here is identifying himself with the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13ff, the one who receives the kingdom and rule over all humankind. In this exalted position, he is also associated specifically with the “holy ones” among God’s people, just as the “son of man” in 13:26f comes with the holy angels (from heaven) and then gathers together the holy ones (righteous/believers) on earth (cp. Dan 7:27; 12:1-3).

There are a number of critical interpretative questions surrounding 14:62 par, not the least of which involve the small but significant differences in detail between the three Synoptic versions.

In Matthew, for example, the question by the high priest (26:63) is phrased so that it more closely mirrors the confession by Peter (16:16; cp. Mk 8:29); indeed, the two are virtually identical:

You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God.”
su\ ei@ o( xristo\$ o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou= tou= zw=nto$

“…I would require an oath of you…(to say)
if you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God!”
ei) su\ ei@ o( xristo\$ o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=

Otherwise, the Matthean version of Jesus’ response (26:64) closely follows Mark. The Gospel writer gives Jesus’ initial affirmation an ironic twist; instead of the bold Markan “I am”, Jesus points back to the high priest’s own question (mirroring Peter’s confession): “You (have) said (it) [su\ ei@pa$]”. Matthew expands the beginning of the remainder of the response, but the core of it is essentially identical with Mark’s version. The two notable points of difference are: (1) it is introduced by the temporal expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”), and (2) the preposition e)pi/ is used rather than meta/, i.e., “…coming upon [e)pi/] the clouds of heaven”. The difference in preposition is minor, corresponding to the same difference between the LXX (e)pi/) and Theodotion (meta/) Greek versions of Dan 7:13 (the Aramaic preposition [<u!] is better rendered by the meta/ in Theodotion and Mark). As for the temporal expression a)p’ a&rti, which matches the corresponding a)p’ tou= nu=n (“from now”) in Luke’s version (22:69), it serves to position more clearly the “son of man” saying in relation to the impending death of Jesus. After his death (and resurrection), “from now on”, Jesus will have an exalted position (at God’s right hand) in heaven.

In both of the “son of man” sayings under investigation here, Luke’s version either eliminates or downplays the association with Daniel 7:13-14. In the saying corresponding to Mark 14:62 par, the Daniel allusion is omitted altogether, leaving only an implicit reference to Psalm 110:1 (i.e., Jesus at God’s right hand):

“But, from now (on), you shall see the son of man sitting at (the) right-hand of the power of God!” (22:69)

In 21:27 (corresponding to Mk 13:26 par), the wording is altered slightly, possibly to bring out the parallel with Jesus’ ascension (in Acts 1:9-11). Just as Jesus is taken up (to heaven) in a cloud (singular), so he will return (from heaven) in/on a cloud (again, singular). The plural “clouds” brings out more clearly than in Luke’s version an allusion to Daniel 7:13f (cf. above).

The main point of reference, as Luke’s version of the climactic saying (22:69 [Mk 14:62]) so clearly highlights, is the exaltation of Jesus to heaven, following his death and resurrection, where he will have an exalted place at God’s right hand. While evidence for the influence of Dan 7:13f on the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus’ exaltation is extremely slight, the motif of his position at “the right hand of God” (Ps 110:1) was a frequent and widespread component of the Christological portrait—[Mk 16:19]; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. In Acts 7:55-56, the Lukan author essentially records the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in 22:69. Even though it is Stephen, a believer, who sees the exalted Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God, this occurs (based on the narrative context) as part of an interrogation before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), mirroring the Gospel account of Jesus’ own interrogation before the Council.

Thus, the principal point of the “son of man” saying in Mark 14:62 par is not the (future) return of Jesus from heaven, but his exaltation to heaven; indeed, this orientation matches the the setting of the Daniel passage. How, then, did this aspect of Dan 7:13f, applied to Jesus’ exaltation, become applied to the idea of his future return (in Mk 13:26 par)? For early Christians, considering the matter after Jesus’ resurrection (and departure/ascension), this would have been an obvious extension—viz., Jesus’ exaltation would naturally be followed by his (imminent) return to earth at the end-time Judgment (cf. Revelation 1:7).

But could this same usage reasonably be attributed to Jesus himself, speaking to his disciples during his earthly ministry? The literary context of Daniel 7:13-14 certainly assumes an eschatological framework. After the judgment of the nations (and their kingdoms), the kingdom bestowed upon the heavenly figure will be an eternal/everlasting dominion, ruling over all people on earth. There will never be another kingdom, implying that human history, as it had previously been known, has effectively come to an end. The human people of God (“holy ones”) will, in their own way, also rule over this kingdom—note the parallels in wording between vv. 14 and 27. Moreover, as has been noted previously, the thought, wording, and imagery of Dan 12:1-4ff had a tremendous influence on early Christian eschatology, and on the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, in particular. The heavenly figure “Michael” (v. 1) will appear at the end-time, in the midst of a period of great distress (qli/yi$, cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par), ushering in (it is implied) the end-time judgment, which also involves the salvation (and ultimate exaltation) of the righteous (vv. 2-3).

If Jesus identified himself with the heavenly figure of Dan 7:13-14, then it would not be surprising if he also saw himself essentially as fulfilling the role of “Michael” in 12:1ff—that is, the exalted heavenly being who will appear at the end-time to usher in the Judgment and bring salvation to the righteous (for more on this eschatological/Messianic figure-type, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Admittedly, presenting this portrait to his disciples prior to his death and resurrection would, almost certainly, have created a good deal of confusion. However, at least two possibilities should be considered in this regard. First, the eschatological “son of man” reference in Mk 13:26 par, with its allusion to Dan 7:13ff, could have been made (originally) in a vague or ambiguous manner, referring clearly to the end-time appearance of the heavenly redeemer-figure of Daniel 7ff, but not (yet) referring clearly to Jesus himself as that figure. Second, one must at least entertain the possibility that some of the eschatological sayings/teachings of Jesus could have been made after the resurrection, in which case, an eschatological “son of man” saying such as Mk 13:26 par would presumably have made more sense to Jesus’ disciples (cf. the context of Acts 1:9-11). The current position of the eschatological sayings in the Gospels is primarily topical, rather than historical/chronological. This can be seen by the way that such material is grouped together in distinct (literary) sections of the Gospels (including the “Eschatological Discourse” itself), and also by Matthew’s inclusion (in the Discourse) of eschatological (“Q”) material that occurs in an entirely different location/setting in Luke (cf. the discussion in Parts 2 and 3 of my earlier article on the “Eschatological Discourse”).

For the next article in this series, we will explore the “son of man” sayings and references that occur in the so-called “Q” material shared by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 1

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology

Our final area of study in this series is the relation of John 1:14 to the wider view of Christ, held by early believers, and as expressed in the New Testament. To what extent does the Johannine Christology of the Prologue (and its underlying Logos-poem) reflect the beliefs and thought of first-century Christians? In what ways does this Christology represent a natural development of the early Gospel traditions, or should it be characterized more as a distinctly Johannine creative expression?

Due to the scope of the study, which involves much of the New Testament, I will not be going into the kind of exegetical detail that I did in the first two divisions. Rather, the study will proceed as a survey, looking at the more salient points and citing certain references and phrasing when appropriate. This study will build upon the results from the prior articles, framed in terms of the Johannine Christology found in the Prologue (and particularly verse 14). It is to be divided into three parts, focusing on:

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts)
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Here, in Part 1, we begin with the first of these topics.

The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

John 1:14 speaks of the incarnation (“became flesh”) of the Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God, even though, throughout the remainder of the Gospel (and in the Letters), the principal identification is of Jesus as the Son of God. The word lo/go$ has considerable theological importance in the Johannine writings, but, outside of the Gospel Prologue, the profound Christological use of the term is, at best, only indirectly alluded to or implied. By contrast, the Gospel repeatedly refers to Jesus as the Son (ui(o/$) who was sent (by God the Father) from heaven to earth. This theology implies the idea of the Son’s pre-existence; Jesus’ words in 8:58 and 17:5, 24 state the Christological point even more directly.

In the Prologue, the Gospel writer appears to have taken an existing ‘Logos-poem’, developing and applying it to the context of the Gospel he was composing (or had composed). The Logos-poem itself draws upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, involving the personification of Divine Wisdom (cf. Prov 8:22-31), but expressed through the philosophical/theological use of the term lo/go$, rather than utilizing the term sofi/a (“wisdom”) itself. This usage of the word lo/go$ in the Johannine Logos-poem has much in common with the way the term is used, for example, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, as we have discussed.

In verses 14-18 of the Prologue, the Gospel writer makes the transition from the term lo/go$ (i.e., the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God) to the term ui(o/$ (i.e., the Son of God). This transition is enabled through the use of the adjective monogenh/$ (“only [Son]”) in v. 14 (cf. also v. 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9). The idea of Jesus as the incarnate Logos is absent from the Synoptic Gospels; nor does the term monogenh/$ occur (in this theological/Christological sense). However, the idea that Jesus is the unique Son of God is found at various points in the wider Gospel Tradition, going back to the early historical tradition and the earliest expressions of Christian belief.

In this article, we will examine the outlines of this belief in the Divine Sonship of Jesus, considering how it may relate to the Johannine Christology (of the Prologue, etc). I wish to focus on three areas:

    • The early exaltation Christology—viz., the Sonship of Jesus defined by his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s right hand in heaven)
    • The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism
    • The birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives
1. The early exaltation Christology

By all accounts, the earliest Christology can be characterized as an exaltation Christology—that is, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God was defined primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. This exaltation resulted in his obtaining a status and position at the “right hand” of God in heaven (cf. Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). The early Gospel proclamation (kerygma), as we find it preserved in the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament), tends to define the Sonship of Jesus primarily in terms of this exaltation—see, for example, the declaration in Acts 2:36, the citations of Ps 110:1 and 2:7 (in the specific context of the resurrection) in Acts 2:34-35 and 13:33 (cp. Heb 1:5; 5:5), and Paul’s statements in 1 Thes 1:10 and Rom 1:3-4 (the latter perhaps quoting from an early credal statement).

Within the Gospel Tradition itself, the identification of Jesus as the exalted Son tends to be framed by way of the title “(the) Son of Man” (cf. Mk 13:26, 32; 14:61-62 par; Matt 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:36ff pars; 25:1). This Gospel usage of the expression “(the) Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou), which unquestionably derives from authentic historical tradition (and Jesus’ own usage), is a complex matter. Four aspects of its use must be recognized:

    • As a self-reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”, so that, when Jesus speaks of “the son of man”, he is simply referring to himself
    • The Son of Man sayings, where Jesus uses the expression to identify with the suffering and mortality of the human condition
    • The Passion statements and predictions, where the human mortality of Jesus (the Son of Man) refers specifically to his own impending death (and resurrection)
    • The eschatological Son of Man sayings, in which Jesus seems to identify himself with a heavenly figure who will appear on earth and usher in the end-time Judgment

All four of these aspects are combined in the famous declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:62 par, which is clearly influenced by Daniel 7:13-14, and thus refers indirectly to the idea of Jesus’ exaltation. For more on the Gospel use of the title “Son of Man”, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with my series on the Son of Man sayings; see also my note on Dan 7:13-14.

The Gospel of John preserves this exaltation Christology, but adds to it a highly developed pre-existence Christology. The two aspects of Jesus’ Sonship are thus balanced, much as we see, for example, in the ‘Christ hymn’ of Phil 2:6-11. In the Johannine theological idiom, the exalted status which Jesus receives (following his death and resurrection) is understood as a return—that is, to the glory which he, the Son, possessed in the beginning (17:5). The “Son of Man” references in the Gospel of John are instructive in this regard (1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34; 13:31). They refer not only to the exaltation (“lifting high”) of the Son of Man, but to his coming down to earth (from heaven)—i.e., during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The pairing of the related verbs katabai/nw (“step down”) and a)nabai/nw (“step up”) highlight this dual-aspect. In the Johannine Gospel, the emphasis is squarely on the Son’s heavenly origin.

The Son’s heavenly origin is clearly the focus in the Gospel Prologue as well. The emphasis on his pre-existent glory (do/ca) balances the traditional idea of Jesus’ post-resurrection exaltation, as does the specific image of the Logos/Son possessing this glory “alongside” (para/) the Father. One is immediately reminded of the traditional idiom of the exalted Jesus standing “at the right hand” (i.e., alongside) God in heaven (cf. above).

2. The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism

The Gospel Tradition also expresses the idea of Jesus’ Divine Sonship through the specific tradition(s) surrounding his baptism. In particular, the heavenly voice at the baptism declares, quite unequivocally, that Jesus is God’s Son (Mk 1:11; par Matt 3:17; Lk 3:22), a declaration that is essentially repeated in the Synoptic Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:7 par Matt 17:5 [where the declarations are identical]; Lk 9:35).

In my view, this idea of Jesus’ Sonship should be understood in a Messianic sense. This seems particularly clear by the Lukan version of the declaration in the Transfiguration scene:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e., chosen]…”

The use of the participle e)klelegme/no$ (from the verb e)kle/gomai) unquestionably has Messianic significance, referring to Jesus as the “Chosen (One)”. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) has this in mind, given the occurrence of the related adjective e)klekto/$ in 23:35: “…the Anointed [xristo/$] of God, the Chosen (One)”. Interestingly, in some manuscripts, the Johannine version of the heavenly declaration at the baptism (Jn 1:34) also uses the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ rather than the noun ui(o/$ (“Son”):

    • “This is the Son [ui(o/$] of God”
      [Majority Text]
    • “This is the Chosen (One) [e)klekto/$] of God”
      [the reading of Ë5vid a* and other versional witnesses]
    • “This is the Chosen Son of God”
      [a conflation of the two readings attested in a number of versional witnesses]

The original Gospel tradition almost certainly alludes to Isaiah 42:1, Jesus’ baptism (marking the beginning of his time of ministry) being seen as a fulfillment of this prophetic passage—the heavenly declaration corresponding to v. 1a, and the descent of the Spirit to v. 1b. For more on this connection, cf. my earlier study in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Jesus is thus identified with the Deutero-Isaian Servant figure, and as a Messianic Prophet, chosen by God and anointed by His Spirit. Again, it is Luke’s Gospel that brings out this Messianic identification most clearly, identifying Jesus, in particular, with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff (4:18-19, cf. also 7:22 par). Cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

By the time the Gospels were completed, Jesus’ Messianic identity as the royal/Davidic figure type (cf. Parts 68 of “Yeshua the Anointed”) had completely eclipsed that of the Prophet figure-types. It is thus not surprising that the Sonship emphasized in the baptism scene would come to be understood in terms of the royal/Davidic type as well. The textual tradition of the Lukan version of the heavenly declaration (3:22) contains a variant reading to this effect, whereby the heavenly voice quotes Psalm 2:7. Certainly, in the Lukan and Matthean Infancy Narratives (cf. below), Jesus is identified exclusively as the Davidic Messiah, with his Sonship defined on those terms.

The place of the baptism of Jesus (and the heavenly declaration) within the Johannine Christology is problematic and remains debated by scholars. The main event at the baptism (in all four Gospel accounts) is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (Jn 1:32-33). In the Synoptics, the clear implication is that the presence of the Spirit is tied to Jesus’ Messianic identity (Isa 42:1; 61:1), empowering him to fulfill his ministry, working miracles as a Spirit-anointed Messianic Prophet (according to figure-types of Elijah and Moses). Luke’s Gospel particularly emphasizes this role of the Spirit, in relation to Jesus’ identity as a Messianic Prophet (4:1ff, 14, 18-19ff, 24ff [note the Elijah/Elisha references in vv. 25-27]).

However, in the Gospel of John, both Jesus’ Sonship and the role of the Spirit are described very differently, and the traditional material preserved in the baptism scene thus needs to be interpreted and explained accordingly. I am devoting an extensive supplemental note to this subject.

3. The Birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives

In the detailed exegesis of Jn 1:14 given previously, in the articles of the first two divisions of our study, I discussed the evidence in support of the expression “became flesh” (sa/rc e)ge/neto) as referring to a human birth—viz., of the birth of the Logos as a human being. For many Christians, this would simply be taken for granted, given the tendency to harmonize 1:14 with the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives—thus assuming that 1:14 refers to Jesus’ birth.

There is, however, no real indication that the Gospel of John, in any way, has been influenced by the Matthean and/or Lukan narrative (or any of their underlying traditions). The Gospel writer certainly was aware of the expectation that the royal/Davidic Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (7:42), but there is no evidence that he understood Jesus to have been born there—indeed, the author’s handling of the matter in 7:41-43 could be taken as suggesting the opposite.

More seriously, there are two ways in which the Gospel of John differs markedly from the Infancy Narratives: (1) the lack of emphasis on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, and (2) the Johannine emphasis on Jesus’ birth as an incarnation. As we conclude Part 1 of this article, let us briefly consider each of these points.

The identification of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (xristo/$), that is, the Messiah, is central to the Johannine theology—as, indeed, it was for virtually all early Christians. However, as I have discussed (particularly in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), there were a number of different Messianic figure-types present in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and these should not be reduced to the single (royal/Davidic) type that subsequently came to dominate eschatological and Messianic thought. In 7:40-43 (discussed above), there is a distinction made between “the Prophet” (that is, a Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses) and “the Anointed One” (the Davidic Messiah). Similar distinctions are made in 1:20-25.

It is not clear whether the title o( xristo/$, throughout the Gospel, refers strictly to Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, or whether it has broader or more general Messianic significance. In any case, Johannine Christians would have identified Jesus with all relevant Messianic figure-types, both “the Prophet” (esp. patterned after Moses) and the Davidic Messiah. The Gospel explicitly identifies Jesus as “the King of Israel” (1:49), and, like the Synoptic tradition, beginning with the ‘triumphal entry’ and throughout the Passion narrative, gives certain emphasis to the theme of Jesus’ kingship (12:13, 15; 18:33ff, 39; 19:3, 12-21). In my view, the title o( xristo/$, in the Gospel of John, entails both Prophet (Moses) and Kingly (Davidic) aspects; overall, however, it is the association with Moses that is specifically established in the Prologue, and which is more dominant which the thematic structure and theology of the Gospel.

This is to be contrasted with the Infancy Narratives, where the Davidic Messiahship of Jesus is unquestionably given emphasis, and which is tied directly to Jesus’ birth—Matt 1:1ff, 20; 2:1-6ff (citing Mic 5:2), 15; Luke 1:27ff, 69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff. In the Lukan narrative, the Sonship of Jesus is defined by this particular Messianic paradigm, as the statements in 1:32-33 and 35 make abundantly clear. There is no real sense, in either narrative, that Jesus’ birth represents the incarnation of a pre-existent Divine being; to be sure, the Lukan and Matthean accounts are typically read that way, but this largely under the harmonizing influence of Jn 1:14.

The Johannine confessional statements (cf. especially in 11:27 and 20:31) effectively summarize the Johannine theology: Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) and the Son of God. He is, indeed, the Messiah (both Prophet and King), but also something more—the eternal and pre-existent Son of God. In Parts 2 and 3, we will consider the New Testament parallels to this pre-existence Christology, focusing (in Part 2) on the influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and evidence for this outside of the Johannine writings.

November 16: John 15:16 (3)

John 15:16, continued

“(It was) not you (who) gathered me out, but I (who) gathered you out; and I set you (so) that you should lead (yourself) under and should bear fruit, and (that) your fruit should remain, (so) that, whatever you would ask (of) the Father in my name, He should give to you.”

“…(so) that you should lead (yourself) under and should bear fruit”
i%na u(mei=$ u(pa/ghte kai\ karpo\n fe/rhte

In the previous note, we examined the idea that Jesus set (vb ti/qhmi) the disciples, whom he chose, in a special position (in relationship to him). Now, in the next clause, he expresses the purpose of this placement—the purpose being indicated by the governing particle i%na (“[so] that…”). The particle governs two phrases, represented by two verbs. Let us consider each of them.

1. u(pa/gw. This verb means “lead (oneself) under”, that is, hide oneself, go out of sight, disappear; often it is used in the more general sense of “go away”. It is a common verb, used primarily in narrative. While it occurs in all four Gospels, it is most frequent in the Gospel of John (32 times, out of 79 NT occurrences). It is another distinctive Johannine term; even though it can be used in the ordinary sense (of a person going away), e.g., 4:16; 6:21, etc., it tends to have special theological (and Christological) significance as well.

In particular, it is used in the specific context of the exaltation of Jesus—that is, his death, resurrection, and return to the God the Father (in heaven). Specifically, the death of the Son (Jesus), and his return to the Father, represent dual-aspects of a departure-theme that runs through the Gospel, becoming most prominent in the Last Discourse, as the death of Jesus draws near. The verb u(pa/gw is used to express this idea of the Son’s departure. It features in the Sukkot Discourse-complex (7:33; 8:14, 21-22; and note the ironic foreshadowing in 7:3), before being reprised in the Last Supper scene (13:3). Its introduction at the beginning of the Last Supper narrative sets the stage for the theme in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), where it occurs repeatedly—13:33, 36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 16, and here in 15:16.

There are several other references where the verb carries an important, but somewhat different, nuance:

    • 3:8—where it is used of the invisible coming and going of the Spirit, and of the one who is born of the Spirit (i.e., the believer)
    • 6:67—it is used (indirectly) of disciples who had been following Jesus, but who now ceased (i.e., went away), thus demonstrating that they were not true disciples
    • 12:11—here it is used in the opposite sense, of people who “go away” to follow Jesus, trusting in him
    • 12:35—its proverbial use in connection with the light-darkness motif, has to do with whether a person can see (i.e. know) where he/she is going; the person who has the light, and who can see, is a true believer and disciple of Jesus

Based on this evidence, the theological usage of u(pa/gw in the Gospel can be summarized as two-fold:

    • It refers to the departure of Jesus (the Son), back to the Father, with the completion of his mission
    • It is used (in various ways) to characterize the activity and identity of the true disciple/believer

These two aspects help us to understand the significance of the verb here in v. 16, in the context of the Last Discourse. This significance is rooted in the principal idea of the disciple/believer as an appointed representative of Jesus, one who is sent forth (i.e., the fundamental meaning of the term a)po/stolo$ [apostle]) to continue his mission. The two aspects of u(pa/gw are thus thematically related here:

    • Jesus goes away, back to the Father, having completed his (part of the) mission
    • The disciples (believers) go forth, in Jesus’ name, to continue the mission

2. fe/rw (“bear, carry, bring”)—This verb is used here with the object karpo/$ (“fruit”), as it is throughout the Vine-passage (vv. 2, 4-5, 8); the same expression, “bear fruit”, is used in 12:24 (discussed in an earlier note). In prior notes, I have mentioned that this idiom is to be understood principally in terms of the mission of believers, insofar as they/we are following in the example of Jesus (and his mission). This line of interpretation is more clearly established here, with the strong (if allusive) connection of v. 16 to the historical tradition of the calling of the (Twelve) disciples. The Twelve were specifically chosen to represent Jesus, continuing (and extending) his mission over a wider geographic territory. The same idea applies to the addressees of the Last Discourse—which includes the Twelve (sans Judas), but also encompasses all those who are true disciples/believers.

And what is the mission for believers? From the Johannine standpoint, it is essentially equivalent to fulfilling the two great duties (e)ntolai/) Jesus has given to us: (1) keeping/guarding his word(s), and (2) showing love to one another, according to his example (of sacrificial love); these two duties are defined by the phrases “remain in my word” (8:31, cf. 15:7) and “remain in my love” (15:9-10)—which are aspects and components of the general command “remain in me” (15:4ff). The first duty, guarding the word(s) of Jesus entails the proclamation of the Gospel, since the “word” of Jesus is largely synonymous with the Gospel message. This is particularly so in the Johannine context, where the “word(s)” of Jesus (esp. the great Discourses) are centered on his identity as the Son of God, the heavenly/eternal Son sent to earth by God the Father, and all that this theological affirmation implies.

October 16: John 15:2 (12:24)

John 15:2, continued

In considering how to interpret the idiom of “bearing fruit” (vb fe/rw + karpo/$) in the context of the Vine-illustration (cf. the previous note on v. 2), it is necessary to examine the use of this same terminology elsewhere in the Gospel of John. There are two relevant references: (1) 4:36, in the context of the discourse-illustration of vv. 31-38, and (2) the saying in 12:24. As the saying by Jesus in 12:24 is closer in form and substance to the statement in 15:2, we will look first at that reference.

John 12:24

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, (that) if the kernel of the grain, falling into the earth, should not die off, (then) it remains alone; but, if it should die off, (then) it bears much fruit.”

This saying is part of the Discourse-unit of 12:20-36. The narrative introduction is established in vv. 20-22, describing the unusual circumstances of some Greek visitors to Jerusalem (for the Passover festival) who expressed an interest in seeing Jesus (“we wish to see [i)dei=n] Yeshua”). In the Gospel of John, the idiom of seeing (and the specific use of the verb ei&dw, along with other sight-verbs), has theological and Christological significance. To see Jesus means coming to know and trust in him. Thus, this short episode, occurring toward the close of Jesus’ public ministry (as narrated by the Gospel), likely is meant by the author as a foreshadowing of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. At the historical level, the “Greeks” (or Greek-speakers) should probably be understood as Gentile converts (proselytes) or ‘God-fearers’ (such as Cornelius [cf. Acts 10-11]).

This allusion to the Christian mission is a sign that Jesus’ own mission on earth is nearing its end. This is the significance of the central declaration in verse 23:

“…the hour has come that the Son of Man should be shown honor [docasqh=|]”

Throughout the Gospel, the title “the Son of Man” (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) is used specifically in reference to the heavenly origin of Jesus—as the Son sent by God the Father to earth.

The verb doca/zw essentially means “recognize”, typically in the sense of giving/showing honor to a person, sometimes by placing the person in an esteemed/honored position. It is one of several verbs in the Gospel used in the specific theological context of the exaltation of Jesus. Within the Johannine Christological narrative, the exaltation of Jesus involves a process that covers (and includes) Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to the Father (in heaven). Jesus’ passion (and the passion narrative), preceding his death, marks the beginning of the process of exaltation. For other occurrences of the verb doca/zw with this meaning, cf. 7:39; 12:16; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5; it occurs three more times in this passage (v. 28).

Thus, the immediate context of verse 24 is the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation, anticipating his impending suffering and death. As noted above, his death marks the end of his earthly mission, and foreshadows the beginning of the believers’ mission. This is the light in which we must read verse 24. The dying (vb a)poqnh/skw, “die off/away”) of the seed in the ground (or “earth”, gh=) clearly alludes to Jesus’ impending death. And yet, the proverbial and gnomic character of this saying suggests that it applies to the disciple of Jesus (i.e., believer in Christ) as well. The following verse 25 more or less confirms this point:

“The (one) being fond of his soul loses it, but the (one) hating his soul in this world shall guard it into (the) life of the Age [i.e., eternal life].”

This saying resembles comparable discipleship-sayings in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 8:35; Matt 10:39; 16:25; Luke 9:24; 17:33), and likely derives from the same underlying historical tradition(s). The implication is that the disciple must be willing to sacrifice his/her own life (“in this world”)—dying, if necessary—in order to obtain eternal life. This attitude of willing self-sacrifice follows the example of Jesus himself. In the Synoptics, this teaching is best expressed by the saying regarding the disciple “taking up his cross” and following Jesus; versions of this saying are preserved in both the Synoptic/Markan and “Q” lines of tradition (Mk 8:34 par; Matt 10:38 par). In the Gospel of John, this same principle is expressed primarily in terms of the “love command” (13:1, 14ff, 34-35; 15:12-13; cf. also 10:11-17). In both the Johannine and Pauline writings, we also find the idea that the believer shares/participates in Jesus’ death, and its life-giving power, through the Spirit, as symbolized by the rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The servant who follows Jesus in this manner, willing to share in his suffering and death, will be shown/given honor (same verb, doca/zw) by God the Father, just as Jesus (the Son) is exalted (v. 26; cp. 21:19).

It is in this context that we are to understand the motif of “bearing fruit”. Consider the short dialogue and exposition by Jesus that follows (vv. 27-36), in which he discusses further the nature and effect of the Son’s exaltation (beginning with his death). Here, in verse 32, an earlier Son of Man saying (3:14; 8:28; cp. in v. 34) is reprised, utilizing the verb u(yo/w (“raise/lift high”) to express the theme of exaltation:

“…and I, if I should be lifted high [u(ywqw=] out of the earth, I will drag all (people) toward myself.”

Most commentators translate the prepositional expression e)k th=$ gh=$ as “from the earth”; however, this misses the important connection with the agricultural imagery in verse 24. The seed, falling “into the earth” (ei)$ th\n gh=n), dies, and then produces new life/growth that comes up “out of the earth” (e)k th=$ gh=$). The “fruit” (karpo/$) motif, in this agricultural context, thus refers to the life that is produced through the death of Jesus (the Son), and which is then communicated to the world. This Divine/eternal life is made available to every one who trusts in him; so powerful is this source of life that believers find themselves dragged (vb e(lku/w) toward it. The qualifying idiom “much fruit” (polu/$ karpo/$) in verse 24 should be understood in relation to the idea of “all (people)” (i.e., all believers) being drawn/dragged to the eternal life that the Son gives.

 

Saturday Series: John 8:21-30 (continued)

John 8:21-30, continued

In picking up from last week’s discussion on the references to sin in Jn 8:21-30, there are two questions which need to be addressed: (1) how does this passage relate to the earlier sin-reference in 1:29, and (2) what is the significance of the parallel versions of the statements in vv. 21 and 24, using the singular and plural forms, respectively, of the noun hamartía?

With regard to the first question, the statement in verse 24 is key:

“if you do not trust that I am, you will die off in your sins”

The fate of dying in one’s sin(s) thus is tied directly to whether or not the person trusts (vb pisteúœ) in Jesus. This trust is defined in terms of the essential predication (“I am,” egœ¡ eimi), that is characteristic of God (the Father), being applied to Jesus (the Son). This is a roundabout (and distinctly Johannine) way of affirming Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In other words, unless a person trusts that Jesus is the eternal/pre-existent Son sent by the Father, that person will die in his/her sin(s). This fate of dying, lost in sin, must be contrasted with the salvation and eternal life that comes through trust in Jesus.

The famous declaration in 3:16-17 brings this out with particular clarity, and it helps us to understand the significance of the earlier Lamb of God declaration (1:29) in this regard. In each instance, the relationship between Jesus and the world (ho kósmos) is at issue:

    • “See, the Lamb of God—the (one) taking (away) the sin of the world.” (1:29)
    • “God sent forth the Son into the world…(so) that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17)

As previously discussed, in these passages, the noun kósmos is not (primarily) used in the negative sense that is so distinctive and typical of the Johannine writings. Instead, the principal meaning here is of humankind generally—i.e., of all the people on earth, in the inhabited world. The idiom of the world “being saved” is parallel, and essentially synonymous in meaning, with its sin being “taken away”. In the earlier study on 1:29, I discussed the use of the verb aírœ (“take up”) in that verse, and determined that the primary meaning there is “take away” (i.e., remove). Thus, the Lamb of God takes away (removes) sin, which is central to the idea of people (in the world) being saved.

As in 8:24, the statement in 3:16 makes clear that one is saved through trust in Jesus; combining this with the declaration in 1:29 leads to the conclusion that the Lamb of God “takes away” sin when one trusts in Jesus as the Lamb. As I discussed, the Passover lamb is the principal figure that informs the “Lamb of God” concept, and, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is identified with the Passover lamb primarily in the context of his death on the cross. The lamb is “lifted up” on the cross, in a way that is comparable to the application of the bronze-serpent tradition (Num 21:9) in 3:14-15:

“And, just as Moshe lifted high the serpent in the desolate (land), so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should hold (the) life of (the) Age [i.e. eternal life].”

These words occur immediately prior to the salvation-statement(s) in 3:16-17, and clearly frame the concept of one’s trust in Jesus in terms of trusting in his exaltation (i.e., being “lifted up”). In the Gospel of John, the exaltation of Jesus represents a process that includes: his death, resurrection, and return to the Father in heaven. The exaltation begins with his sacrificial death—as the Passover lamb who is slain, and whose blood protects (i.e., saves) people from death and judgment. When one trusts in Jesus the Son, this necessarily entails trusting in the sacrificial nature of his death and its life-giving power (represented by the image of blood). It is not enough to trust that Jesus is the Son of God, if that trust does not include this understanding and belief regarding the cleansing (i.e., sin-removing) and life-giving power of his death. This is a point that the author of 1 John argues vigorously against certain ‘opponents’ who apparently hold a rather different view of Christ’s death.

But what of the second question mentioned above? Is there any particular significance to the author’s use of both the singular and plural forms of the noun hamartía in 8:21 and 24?

    • “…you shall seek me, and (yet) you shall die off in your sin [hamartía]; for the (place) to which I go away, you are not able to come (there)” (v. 21)
    • “…if you do not trust that I am, (the) you will die off in your sins [hamartíais]” (v. 24)

In 1:29, the singular hamartía (“sin”) was used in a general or collective sense—that is, for the sin(s) that the people in the world possess, and the condition of sin(fulness) that controls and dominates the world of humankind. It is possible that the variation between singular and plural in 8:21, 24 simply expresses this same general/collective sense of sin. However, I believe that the author (and Jesus as the speaker) is utilizing a clever bit of wordplay (something that occurs frequently in the Johannine Discourses), bringing out two important and distinct aspects of sin. The plural refers to sin in the general/conventional sense, as wrongs, errors, and misdeeds committed by people; however the singular refers to sin in a specific sense—which, I would argue, is the primary sense of sin in the Johannine writings.

If we translate the genitive expressions in 8:21, 24 in an ultraliteral way, it may help us to perceive the distinction:

    • “you will seek me, and (yet) you will die off in the sin of you”
    • “if you do not trust that I am, (the) you will die off in the sins of you”

In v. 21, Jesus tells his audience that they will not be able to follow him, and so will die off in their sin (“the sin”). What is this sin? It is the great sin—the sin of unbelief, of not trusting in Jesus. As v. 24 makes clear, when a person possesses this great sin, it means that all other sins remain and cannot be removed; thus the person will die in “the(se) sins”. R. E. Brown, in his famous commentary on the Gospel (Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 29, p. 350) states the matter this way:

We note that “sin” is in the singular in vs. 21, for in Johannine thought there is only one radical sin of which man’s many sins (plural in vs. 24) are but reflections. This radical sin is to refuse to believe in Jesus and thus to refuse life itself.

I generally concur with Brown’s analysis in this regard, though I am perhaps not so quick as he to connect this idea of one great sin with the Synoptic tradition of the unforgivable sin (of blaspheming the Holy Spirit).

In any case, I would maintain that the Johannine writings understand two distinct levels, or aspects, of sin, which can be distinguished here in 8:21, 24 by the use of the singular and plural, respectively:

    • Singularthe great sin of not trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)
    • Plural—sin in the conventional ethical-religious sense of wrongs and misdeeds that a person commits.

As we proceed through the remaining sin-references in the Johannine writings, this important distinction will come more clearly into view, along with certain theological, Christological, and spiritual implications.

Next week, we will examine the next section of the Sukkot Discourse in chaps. 7-88:31-47, with the statement regarding sin in verse 34. This passage defines sin through thematic idiom of slavery and bondage/freedom. The further reference in verse 46 will also be discussed.