The Sending of the Spirit, Part 1: Book of Acts (1)

There are two accounts of the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Disciples—in the Gospel of John (20:19-23) and Luke-Acts (Acts 2:1-4ff). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between these two passages, whether to harmonize them (the traditional-conservative view) or to regard them as separate traditions (the critical view). I will address these issues briefly in Part 3 when discussing the account in John. Here I will be looking at the (Pentecost) narrative in Acts.

It should be pointed out that the Holy Spirit has a special emphasis in Luke-Acts. One can see this already in the early chapters:

a. The Infancy Narrative(s): Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27
b. The Baptism of Jesus: Luke 3:21-22. Compare the description in v. 22 with the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark (key difference in italics):

Mark 1:10

kai\ eu)qu\$ a)nabai/nwn e)k tou= u%dato$ ei@den sxizo/meno$ tou\$ ou)ranou\$ kai\ to pneu=ma w($ peristera\n katabai=non ei)$ au)to\n
“…and right away stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down into him”

Matthew 3:16

eu)qu\$ a)ne/bh a)po\ tou= u%dato$: kai\ i)dou\ h)new/|xqhsan [au)tw=|] oi( ou)ranoi kai\ ei@den [to\] pneu=ma [tou=] qeou= katabai=non w(sei peristera\n [kai\] e)rxo/menon e)p’ au)to\n
“…right away he stepped up from the water, and see—the heavens opened for him and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down as if a dove [and] coming upon him”

Luke 3:21b-22
(the passage cannot properly be translated without including all of vv. 21-22, the sequence e)ge/nto + infinitives and acc. being difficult to render into English):

e)ge/neto de\ e)n tw=| baptisqh=nai a%panta to\n lao\n kai\  )Ihsou= baptisqe/nto$ kai\ proseuxome/nou a)new|xqh=nai to\n ou)rano\n kai\ katabh=nai to\ pneu=ma to\ a%gion swmatikw=| ei&dei w($ peristera\n e)p’ au)to\n, kai\ fwnw\n e)c ou)ranou= gene/sqai: su\ ei@ o( ui(o\$ mou
“And it came to be, in the dipping of all the people—and Jesus (also) being dipped and praying—the opening (passive) of heaven and stepping down (active) of the Holy Spirit in a bodily sight [i.e. shape/form] as a dove upon him and a voice out of heaven coming to be: ‘You are my Son…'”

The accounts in Mark and Matthew could be understood as a private vision to Jesus; Luke’s language, on the other hand, seems to imply a tangible manifestation visible to everyone.

c. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry (before and after the Temptation): Luke 4:1, 14, 18. Note especially: Mark 1:12 says that the Spirit “cast/drove out” (e)kba/lei) Jesus into the desert, Matthew 4:1 that Jesus was “brought up by [lit. under]” (a)nh/xqhu(po\) the Spirit; while Luke 4:1 states that Jesus was “led in”  (h&geto e)n) the Spirit, being “full of the Holy Spirit” (plh/rh$ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou).

In addition, Luke on numerous occasions speaks of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” individuals (1:35; 2:25; 4:18), as well as persons being “filled with” the Spirit (1:15, 41, 61; 4:1) or “in the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1; 10:21), language which is really not found in the other Gospels, and which will reoccur frequently in the book of Acts. Also, while there are a few instances of the promise of the Spirit to believers in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:8; 13:11 and par.), only Luke speaks of the “sending” of the Spirit (24:49, “the promise of my Father”), which foreshadows the narrative in Acts (cf. Acts 1:8). There are similar parallels in John (14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13, etc), which, of course, also has an account of the sending of the Spirit (20:19-23).

Turning to the Pentecost narrative in Acts, it is most useful to keep in mind the context and structure of the early chapters, which I outline as follows:

  1. Lukan Introduction (1:1-5)—a long, complex and difficult sentence (cf. Luke 1:1-4), which turns into an historical summary (vv. 2-4a) and concludes with a direct address of Jesus to his disciples (vv. 4b-5).
  2. The Ascension (1:6-11), comprising:
    (a) the question regarding the Kingdom and Jesus’ reply to his disciples(vv. 6-8),
    (b) the visible ascension with theophanic/apocalyptic imagery (v. 9),
    (c) appearance of the (Heavenly) men and their address to the disciples
  3. A summary narrative (1:12-14) recording the return of the disciples to Jerusalem, and their united presence in the Upper Room (the Twelve [minus Judas Iscariot], some women, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers). This summary parallels Luke 24:52-53, and is an important bridge between the Ascension and the following narrative.
  4. The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)—two key parts, both of which act as seminal motifs for the remainder of the book:
    a) Peter’s speech (vv. 15-22)—the first of many such speeches in Acts, centering on quotation/interpretation of Scripture (a tradition regarding Judas Iscariot has been inserted parenthetically, vv. 18-19)
    b) The selection/commission of a disciple (Matthias) for (apostolic) ministry (vv. 23-26)
  5. The Pentecost Narrative (chapter 2)
    5a. Narrative of the coming of the Spirit (2:1-13: a detailed outline will be given in Part 2)
    5b. Peter’s Speech (2:14-40), again centered on quotation/interpretation of Scripture.
    5c. Historical/editorial summary (2:41-47).

This same structure will be carried out through much of Acts; for example, in the next two chapters:

  • Main historical narrative, including notable ministry work, miracles, etc. (“Acts”) of the Apostles (3:1-11; 4:1-22)
  • Speech (or intercourse), centered on a passage (or passages) of Scripture, and containing early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) (3:12-26; 4:23-30)
  • Historical/editorial summary (none in ch. 3; 4:31)

Each of sections 1-4 (which make up Acts 1) is important thematically for an understanding of the Pentecost Narrative. Here I summarize some key notes:

Section 1: Lukan Introduction (Acts 1:1-5):

  • The historical summary (vv. 2-4a) has, at its heart the double phrase:
    oi!$ kai\ pare/sthsen e(auto\n zw=nta meta\ to\ paqei=n au)to\n e)n polloi=$ tekmhri/oi$,
    di’ h(merw=n tessera/konta o)ptano/meno$ au)toi=$ kai\ le/gwn ta\ peri\ th=$ basilei/a$ tou= qeou=
    “…and to whom [i.e. the disciples] he stood himself alongside [i.e. presented himself] alive after his suffering in many fixed marks [i.e. signs/proofs],
    through forty days being seen by them and recounting/relating the (things) about the kingdom of God”
    We can break down chiastically the elements of this phrase:

Living presence of God/Christ in his disciples
[to whom he stood himself alongside alive…]
—   Demonstration that He is the Messiah and Son of the Living God
[…after his suffering in many fixed marks/signs]
—   Ministry and proclamation
[through days being seen by them and recounting/relating…]
The Kingdom of God
[…the things about the Kingdom of God]

These are all seminal themes and motifs of the Book of Acts, and, one might say, form the core of the Gospel message.

  • The narration continues in v. 4a and blends into an address (in direct speech) of Jesus to his disciples. Again note the key elements:

a. Stay in (do not depart from) Jerusalem (see Luke 24:52; Acts 1:12)
b. Remain about (i.e. wait) for the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49)
which you have heard from me (see Acts 1:13-14, also Luke 24:53)
c. Reprise of John’s testimony:
“(On the one hand), John dipped/dunked in/with water,
but (on the other hand), you will be dipped/dunked in the Holy Spirit
after not many (of) these days”

Section 2: The Ascension (Acts 1:6-11):

Note again how one can break this passage down chiastically:

    • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
      • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
        —At their seeing/looking
        —      He was raised up(on)
        —      A cloud took him under
        —Away from their eyes
    • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

The theme of the Kingdom—shorthand for “Kingdom of God (or Heaven)”—is most significant; I will be discussing it later this week in more detail. One can, I think, outline four principal ways of understanding the phrase:

    1. As the Eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. As an eschatological (Messianic) Kingdom, on earth, the establishment of which will involve: (a) judgment/defeat of the nations and enemies of God, and (b) restoration of the Davidic inheritance to Israel.
    3. In the person and work of Jesus—the miracles, teaching, foundation of the church, atoning death and resurrection, etc.
    4. As the (spiritual) presence and power of God in the heart, mind, and lives of believers.

Other interpretations are possible, but they likely will end up being a variation on one of the above. These four meanings can be found in the New Testament—even, I think, in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom—but probably #1 and 4 are most common. The thorniest question scholars raise is to what extent #2 is part of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that his proclamation “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.) would have been understood in this manner—of eschatological/Messianic expectation—by his contemporaries; and this certainly seems to be what the disciples have in mind here at Acts 1:6.

Let us briefly examine the disciples’ question:

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|  )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom (meaning #2 above) common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

Indeed, I would maintain that the idea of the “restoration of the kingdom”, or, one may say, the “restoration of Israel” is an important idea both in Jesus’ teaching and in the book of Acts.

Section 3: Summary narrative (1:12-14):

I have already mentioned a couple of themes found in this short passage; but, to reiterate, in light of the above comments:

  • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
    a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
    b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
  • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
  • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
    • ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
    • pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
    • h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
    • o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. qumo/$ is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
    • th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

Section 4: The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26):

Here it is important to emphasis again the theme of the Twelve. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected.

This sets the stage for the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-14ff) which I will discuss in Part 2.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34, continued)

Exodus 32-34

Last week we looked at chapters 32-34 of Exodus from the standpoint of textual, source, and historical criticism, introducing some of the issues and questions which commentators face when dealing with this section of the book. These are important, and should not be ignored; however, ultimately, we must grapple with the text as it has come down to us, whenever and however it was composed, and in whatever manner the various traditions came to be incorporated. This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.

In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):

  • Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
    —The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
  • Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
    —The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
    —Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
    —The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
    —Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
  • Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
    —Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
    —Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
  • Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
    —Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
    —Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
  • Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
    Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
  • Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
    —Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)

There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:

    • Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
      • The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
      • Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)

The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:

    1. The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
    2. As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.

Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, from recent weeks. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. b§rî¾, tyr!B=), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to fore:

    • The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
    • The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
    • The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails
1. Moses as the people’s representative

Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods. The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.

2. The identity of Israel as God’s people

Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.

3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant

Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:

    • The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
    • Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
    • Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.

Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).

The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. I would ask that you read chapter 33 (and on into chap. 34) most carefully. We will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34 in next week’s study. Pay attention to each detail and nuance in the text. If you are unable to read Hebrew, make use of whatever tools are at your disposal to study the actual Hebrew words and phrases used. Try to follow carefully the dialogue between Moses and YHWH. How does this relate to the preceding chapters, and to the covenant theme of the narrative? Study and meditate on these points, and I will see you again, God willing…next Saturday.

“…Spirit and Life”: John 1:4

As discussed in the introduction, this series of word study notes deals with the key thematic motifs of Spirit (pneu=ma) and Life (zwh/), as joined together in the statement by Jesus in Jn 6:63: “the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life”.

These notes will begin with the Johannine writings, as both terms have special significance in these works. The noun zwh/ occurs 36 times in the Gospels (compared with 16 in the Synoptics combined). There are 13 further occurrences in the First Letter; if we include references (16) in the book of Revelation (considered as a Johannine work), there are 65 total, nearly half of all occurrences (135) in the New Testament. The primary verb za/w (“live”), from which zwh/ is derived, is also frequent in the Gospel of John (17 out of 140 in the NT), especially used as verbal adjective or substantive. The verb zwopoie/w (“make [a]live”) also occurs twice in the Gospel.

The noun pneu=ma (“breath, spirit”) is more common in the New Testament, often in reference to the Spirit of God (or Holy Spirit). It occurs 24 times in the Gospel of John, and in all but 2 (or 3) instances, the reference is to the Spirit of God; the specific expression “Holy Spirit” appears three times (1:33; 14:26; 20:22). Thus the Spirit is more prominent in John than the other Gospels (though Luke is relatively close), and evinces a marked development of the early Gospel Tradition. The Johannine Discourses of Jesus are extremely complex literary pieces, reflecting a level of theological and Christological expression (and interpretation), though they certainly derive from authentic sayings and teachings of Jesus. For a survey of the evidence from the Synoptic Gospels, cf. the Introduction.

I begin with the first relevant passage in the Gospel of John, from the initial section of the Prologue (1:1-18).

John 1:4

An analysis of this verse is complicated because there is a variant reading involved. It is not a textual variant per se—rather, it is reflected more in the way that verses 3 and 4 are punctuated. In order to see this in context, I begin with verse 1 (note that for the sake of simplicity, I translate lo/go$ conventionally as “Word”):

“In the beginning was [h@n] the Word, and the Word was [h@n] toward God, and the Word was [h@n] God. This (One) was [h@n] in the beginning toward God.” (vv. 1-2)

The first two verses are governed by a four-fold use of the verb of being (ei)mi), in the imperfect active (indicative) form h@n (“he was…”). There are three components in verse 1, each characterized by an h@n phrase:

    • in the beginning was the Word
    • the Word was toward [pro/$] God [qeo/$ w/definite article]
    • the Word was God [qeo/$ w/out definite article]

Verse 2 restates the first two phrases: “This (One) was in the beginning | toward [pro/$] God”. The preposition pro/$ likely reflects the idea of facing God (or even moving toward him), suggesting that the Word is in close proximity (and intimacy) with God. What is most important is to realize how the verb of being (h@n, “was…”) characterizes the divine, eternal Being and Existence. In standard theological parlance, we might say that this relates to the inner life of the Godhead.

This brings us to verses 3 and 4, which can be understood (and translated) several ways. The crux lies in the last two words of verse 3 (o^ ge/gonen), indicated by italics below:

    • Translation (punctuation) #1:
      “All (thing)s came to be through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be (of) that which has come to be. In him was life…”
    • Translation (punctuation) #2:
      “All (thing)s came to be through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be. That which has come to be in him was life…”

Many commentators prefer the latter punctuation, citing a number of key early Church Fathers in support of it (cf. R. E. Brown, Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, pp. 6-7). Those who favor it also note the supposed “staircase” parallelism of the poetic lines, whereby the start of one line picks up where the previous line leaves off—i.e. “…came to be” // “that which has come to be…” However, in my view, this is incorrect. The strongest argument against punctuation #2 (above) is the specific use (and meaning) of the verb gi/nomai in the context of the Johannine Prologue (and elsewhere in the Gospel). The verb of being (ei)mi) governs verses 1-2, while gi/nomai, a verb of becoming (“come to be, become”) governs v. 3. The verb gi/nomai in the Prologue refers to creation—i.e., that which comes to be (in contrast to God, who Is), especially creatures (human beings) who come to be born. Punctuation #1 above preserves this distinction accurately:

“All (thing)s came to be [e)ge/neto] through him, and apart from him not even one (thing) came to be [e)ge/neto] (of) that which has come to be [ge/gonen].”

The three-fold use of gi/nomai parallels the three-fold use of ei)mi (h@n) in verse 1. In conventional theological parlance, verse 1 deals with the life/existence of the Godhead, while verse 3 deals with creation (and the central role of Word in the process of creation). According to this interpretation, verse 4 has a clear and simple symmetry:

“In him was [h@n] life, and the life was [h@n] the light of men”

The dual use of the verb of being (ei)mi [h@n]) marks a return to a focus on the divine Being/Existence emphasized in vv. 1-2:

    • “in him [i.e the Divine Word] was Life”
    • “th(is Divine) Life was the Light…”

Here there is definitely a kind of step-parallelism:

    • In him was Life
      • Life was the Light of men

This first occurrence of the noun zwh/ in the Gospel of John is significant in the way that it defines the term, not in the traditional sense of the blessed life to be inherited by the righteous at the end-time, but as the life which God possesses (in Himself). This reflects a more profound sense of what might be referred to as “eternal life”—not as everlasting life, but as divine life, the life which is in God. The two halves of verse 4 are virtually a summary of the Johannine Gospel message:

    • The Word (i.e. Jesus, the Son) shares the Life of God and holds it in himself (cf. 5:26, etc)
    • This Life is communicated to human beings in the world (i.e. believers) through/by the Son (Jesus, who is also the [living] Word)

The sense of verse 4, in my opinion, becomes quite confused if one adopts the second punctuation (#2) cited above: “That which has come to be in him was life…”. First it mixes together the verbs gi/nomai and h@n in a way that is most difficult to interpret. What exactly does this statement mean? The difficulty is reflected by the fact that there are two distinct ways of interpreting this reading:

    • That which has come to be in him was life…” or
    • “That which as come to be was life in him

The first phrasing suggest that Life (zwh/) was the thing which “came to be” in the Word. The second phrasing allows for the idea that something which “came to be” in the Word was given life, or was identified with Life. In either instance, there is a strange mixing of Creation with the Divine Life which is not at all clear. Admittedly, within the thought and theology of the Gospel, believers come to be “in” Christ, united with him (and God the Father), but this idea does not seem to be in view at this point in the Prologue. Rather, it is introduced in vv. 12-13, only after it is stated that the Word was [h@n] “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|) [v. 10]. This a foreshadowing of the incarnation, of the Word coming to be born as a human being (vv. 14ff).

What does it mean to say that the Life (h( zwh/) was “the Light of men”? As in the case of the noun zwh/, the word “light” (fw=$) has a special significance in the Gospel of John. It does not typically refer to ordinary light (except in a symbolic sense), nor of human reason, etc as “light, enlightenment”; rather, it relates specifically to the knowledge and awareness of God the Father (and his Truth, etc) which is revealed and manifest in the person and work of Jesus. The Life which Jesus (the Son and Word) possesses is communicated to human beings (believers), bringing Light to them. While this is almost certainly the sense of verse 4, many commentators recognize that the Johannine Prologue likely draws upon ancient Wisdom traditions. In this regard, the “light of men” could be understood in a more general sense—i.e. God and the Divine Word as the source of enlightening wisdom. However, such Wisdom traditions are sublimated in the Prologue as we have it, having been reinterpreted from a Christological viewpoint. We will see further examples of this as we continue through the remaining passages in the Gospel dealing with the motifs of “Life” and “Spirit”.