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

John 5:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Acts 1:3, 6)

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

The Lukan handling of the Kingdom-theme, including the specific idea of the coming of the Kingdom of God, finds its ultimate realization in the Book of Acts. This is true, even though explicit references to the Kingdom are relatively rare. The entire narrative of Acts, from its introduction (1:1-5ff) to the closing words (28:31), reflects the author’s understanding of the Kingdom.

We can see this in the introduction, or prologue, to the work (1:1-5), a long and complex sentence which effectively summarizes the Gospel and transitions to the opening of the Acts narrative (in 1:6ff). The sentence moves from the author’s words (to Theophilus, v. 1) to Jesus’ own words (v. 5), directly addressing his disciples regarding a central theme of the book—the coming of the Holy Spirit. At the heart of the introductory sentence, is the author’s notice regarding the time Jesus’ spent with his disciples after his resurrection (v. 3). He was seen by them regularly over a period of forty days, during which time he would speak to them of “the (thing)s about the kingdom of God” (ta\ peri\ th=$ boulei/a$ tou= qeou=).

As was discussed in recent studies, the Gospel writer presents the period of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:31) as a time of extensive teaching by Jesus, as he prepares his followers for what was to come in Jerusalem. At the same time, they were being prepared for the early Christian mission—the subject of the book of Acts, anticipated and prefigured at a number of points in the Gospel (most notably, the mission of the seventy[-two] disciples in 10:1-12ff). The period of instruction included a significant amount of teaching regarding the Kingdom of God—a fitting subject for instruction, given that proclamation of the Kingdom (and its coming) was central to the disciples’ mission (9:2, 60; 10:9, 11). In this regard, the disciples were simply continuing (and extending) Jesus’ own mission (4:43; 8:1).

According to the Lukan author, the Kingdom of God was also the focus of Jesus’ teaching during the forty days of his post-resurrection period with the disciples. Again, this teaching is in preparation for the coming mission. The early Christian mission is anticipated by Jesus’ words in verse 5, echoing the declaration by John the Baptist (3:16 par) and applying it directly to the disciples in the present. The promise is that the Holy Spirit would soon come upon them, immersing them with its presence and power, after which the disciples would be empowered to embark on their mission.

The narrative proper begins in vv. 6-8. Immediately preceding Jesus’ departure (ascension) into heaven (vv. 9-11), he gives one final bit of teaching to his disciples. Again, the teaching is in regard to the Kingdom of God, and it offers us important insight as to how the Kingdom is defined in Luke-Acts. Jesus’ words are prompted by a question from his disciples:

“in [i.e. at] this time are you (going to) re-establish the kingdom for Yisrael?” (v. 6)

The compound verb a)pokaqi/sthmi is somewhat difficult to translate. The basic meaning is “set down from”, specifically, set something down from what (or where) it was before—i.e., restore, re-establish. The Israelite kingdom that was lost (following the Exile) was expected to be restored at the end-time, in the Messianic Age. This was an important component of Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation during the first centuries B.C./A.D. It is reflected in the crowds’ acclamation of Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem (19:38 par), being anticipated by the earlier notice in 19:11 (cf. 2:25, 38; 17:20; 23:51).

The disciples’ question suggests that they still understood the Kingdom in similar socio-political terms. As the Messiah, Jesus was expected to establish the Kingdom on earth, as a restoration (in the New Age) of the old Israelite kingdom. In the Gospel, the author radically reinterprets this expectation regarding the Kingdom. To a large extent, this reinterpretation of Jesus’ Kingship (and identity as the royal/Davidic Messiah) follows the Synoptic Tradition, as we discussed at length in recent studies. However, the Lukan author goes somewhat further in re-framing Jesus’ Kingship—and thus, also the Kingdom of God—in particular, through the important twin themes of (a) the proclamation of the Gospel, and (b) the coming of the Spirit.

While not entirely denying the validity of the disciples’ question, Jesus fundamentally redirects it (v. 7f), much as he does with the question regarding the Kingdom in 17:20-21 (cf. the earlier study on this passage). Ultimately, he presents his disciples with a very different understanding of the Kingdom (v. 8), defined in terms of the central (Lukan) themes mentioned above:

    1. the coming of the Spirit
      “but you shall receive power, (with) the holy Spirit (hav)ing come upon you…”
    2. the proclamation of the Gospel
      “…and you shall be my witnesses, both in Yerushalaim and in all Yehudah and Shomeron, and (even) unto the last (part) of the earth.”

This is how the Lukan author presents the Kingdom-theme, as the theme unfolds throughout the book of Acts. The Kingdom comes, and is established on earth, as believers proclaim the Gospel, and through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.

As far as other explicit references to the Kingdom in the book of Acts, they generally follow the earlier references to the mission of the disciples (see above), and the central focus of that mission—viz., the proclamation of the Kingdom. The early Christian missionaries are engaged in a similar activity. Only proclamation of the Kingdom now means, precisely, the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. The first such reference to the Kingdom, in this context, is 8:12; later on, it is used on occasion to characterize the missionary activity of Paul (19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; cf. also 14:22).

The book of Acts concludes, much as it began (see above), with an essential reference to the Kingdom (28:31). It summarizes Paul’s missionary work (in Rome), and, by extension, the entire early Christian mission narrated in Acts:

“proclaiming the kingdom of God, and teaching the (thing)s about the Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, with all outspokenness [parrhsi/a]…”

Note the parallel with the earlier expression “the (thing)s about [ta\ peri/] the kingdom of God” (1:3, see above). Here we have “the (thing)s about the Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed”, in tandem with “the kingdom of God”. This further confirms that, in Luke-Acts, proclaiming the Kingdom is virtually synonymous with proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. It is a mission that continues to the present day; as believers proclaim the Gospel, the Kingdom of God is established on earth, thus fulfilling the petition from the Lord’s Prayer.

In the next few studies, we will turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew, and the Kingdom-petition of the Lord’s Prayer as it is presented and developed within the context of the Matthean Gospel.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 2)

Psalm 103, continued

For the Introduction (vv. 1-5) of the Psalm, and the first two stanzas (vv. 6-8, 9-11) of the central hymn, see Part 1 of this study.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18 (cont.)

Third Stanza: Vv. 12-14
Verse 12

“Like (the) distance of (the sun’s) rising from (its) setting,
(so) He has made distant from us our breaches (of faith).”

The theme of this stanza picks up from that of the previous (vv. 9-11, cf. the discussion in Part 1)—viz., YHWH’s mercy and compassion in forgiving the sins of His people. In particular, this first couplet builds upon the prior couplet (v. 11), comparing the greatness of YHWH’s loving devotion (ds#j#) with the distance (height) between heaven and earth. Similarly here, the motif of distance (using the root qjr) is employed to express the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Instead of a vertical distance (heaven-earth), a horizontal (east-west) distance is used.

The verb qj^r* means “be far/distant” and occurs in both lines, to express the comparison. In the first line, a stative infinitive is used, for the (fixed) distance between the rising (jr*z+m!) and setting/darkening (br*u&m^) of the sun, i.e., between east and west. In the second line, there is a Hiphil (causative) perfect form, indicating how YHWH puts far away His people’s sins. He removes them from us, virtually to the ‘other side of the world’.

The noun uv^P# essentially refers to a breach of trust, sundering the bond of relationship between two persons or parties. Implicit in the use of the term is the idea of a violation of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH, whereby His people break faith/trust, viz., by failing to live up to the terms of the covenant—the Torah precepts and regulations. In this respect, the sins that YHWH removes/forgives are defined in terms of violations of the Torah.

Verse 13

“Like (the) deep love of a father over (his) sons,
(so) YHWH has love over (those) fearing Him.”

The comparison in this second couplet is formed according to the pattern of the first (v. 12). The greatness of YHWH’s compassion and devotion, expressed in vv. 11-12 by the motif of distance (see above), is here captured through the verb <j^r* (note the alliterative wordplay with qj^r* [v. 12]). This verb essentially conveys the idea of a deep love that one person has toward another; the strong connotation is that of caring for a person, treating them with compassion, etc. The example given in line 1 is of the love that a father has for (lit. over, lu^) his sons; this example, can, of course, be rendered more inclusively, as the love a parent has for his/her children.

YHWH has similar love toward His people. The motif of Israel as YHWH’s sons/children, and He as their Father, occurs with some frequency in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 63:7[8]; Jer 31:9). Here the relationship is limited to, or defined in terms of, the devout/faithful ones of Israel (“[those] fearing Him”). YHWH is particularly a loving Father to those who are faithful to Him (and to the covenant).

Verse 14

“For He (indeed) knows our (very) form,
(and is) mindful that we (are but) dust.”

Here the idiom of YHWH as Father shifts to that of Creator. The two idioms are closely related, as, in ancient Near Eastern religious tradition, the Creator is often referred to as “Father”. See, in particular, Deuteronomy 32:6b for the pairing of these ideas. The noun rx#y@ (“form”) alludes to the traditional mythological image of God as an artisan who forms/fashions a vessel (or image) out of raw material—such as a potter who shapes his work out of the clay. As Creator, YHWH knows the form of each human being; in particular, He knows the form/shape of His people, including their innermost parts (cf. vv. 1ff), and so is able to create them.

The final line anticipates the Wisdom theme in the fourth stanza, emphasizing the limited and transient nature of a created human being. The reference to human beings as “dust” is traditional (Gen 2:7; 3:19, etc); the noun rp*u* can also be used for dirt in a broader sense—including the specific consistency of “mud” or “clay”, which would well fit the artisan/potter allusion here in the verse (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28).

The verb form rWkz` is a bit unusual; as a (passive) participle, or, possibly, an infinitive (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28), it functions here as a verbal adjective. The verb rk^z` is typically translated “remember”, but properly it means “have in mind” or “bring to mind”. Here the verbal adjective carries the meaning “mindful of”, emphasizing again YHWH’s care and concern for His people (cf. on the verb <j^r* in v. 13, above).

Fourth Stanza: Vv. 15-18
Verse 15

“Humanity—like (the) grass (are) its days;
like a blossom of the field, so it blossoms.”

The Wisdom-theme introduced in verse 14, continues here in vv. 15-16, emphasizing the transitory nature of human life on earth. We have seen such an emphasis in previous Psalms, including the comparison of humankind with the grass and flower of the field, that flourishes only briefly—cf. Psalm 37:2; 72:16; 90:5; 102:5[4], 12[11]; cp. Job 8:12; 14:2; Isa 40:6-8.

The noun vona$, rather more so than the parallel vya!, can refer to humankind collectively (or generally), and should be read this way here.

Verse 16

“Then (the) wind passes over him, and he is no more;
even his standing place will not recognize him any longer.”

The brief ‘blossoming’ of a human being on earth (v. 15) is contrasted with his/her vanishing. When the grass or flower has withered (and died), the wind “passes over” it, blowing it away. This aspect of the example is then applied to a human being, to illustrate how he/she ceases to exist (“he is no more”, using the negative particle of absence [or non-existence], /ya@). Even the place where that ‘flower’ stood (“his standing place”) soon will no longer recognize (vb rk^n`) him—there will be no acknowledgment that he was ever there.

Verse 17

“But (the) devotion of YHWH (is), from distant (ages past),
and until (the) distant (future), over (those) fearing Him,
and His loyalty (remains) for (the) sons of sons—”

The transitory nature of human beings (vv. 15-16) is contrasted with the lasting permanence of YHWH. In particular, His devotion and loyalty toward His people—viz. those who are faithful to the covenant (“[those] fearing Him”)—extends from the distant past all the way into the distant future. These two temporal aspects of the noun <l*ou are here combined, so as to express emphatically the idea of “forever”.

The verse has an extended 3+3+3 (tricolon) format, as is fitting for this climactic moment at the close of the hymn. A third line has been added for emphasis (and dramatic effect). It is not simply that YHWH’s devotion lasts for all time, throughout the Ages—it also applies to all the people living during that time, generation after generation (“sons of sons”).

The frequently used nouns ds#j# and hq*d*x=, due to their relatively wide range of meaning, defy easy or consistent translation. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), as I have repeated noted, carries the meaning of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion” when used in the context of the covenant-bond; throughout this Psalm, I have translated it as “devotion”. The noun hq*d*x= basically means “rightness” (i.e., what is right), but the precise meaning can fluctuate depending on the specific context. Here, in light of the parallel with ds#j#, it should be understood in terms of YHWH’s loyalty toward His people (and the covenant). With regard to the covenant-bond, YHWH will always do what is right.

Verse 18

“for (those) guarding His binding (agreement),
and for (those) mindful to do His charges.”

This awkward, irregular couplet reads like a gloss on the final line of v. 17, and may represent a secondary addition to the original hymn. It effectively clarifies that YHWH’s covenant loyalty to the future generations of Israel (“sons of sons”) applies only to those who are similarly loyal to the covenant (tyr!B=, “binding agreement”). This means, of course, fulfilling the requirements and precepts of the Torah.

The suffixed noun wyd*Q%P! is virtually impossible to translate with any sort of poetic concision. The range of meaning of the root dqp, as it is used in the Scriptures, is notorious, and has long vexed translators. In this context, the plural noun <yd!Q%P! means something like “(thing)s (we are required to) attend to”, or “(thing)s (we must) take care of”. It refers to the requirements (regulations and precepts, etc) of the Torah. For lack of any better option, I have followed Allen (p. 25) in translating it as “charges” (i.e., things we are charged with doing).

Conclusion: Verses 19-22

Verse 19

“YHWH in the heavens has set firm His throne,
and (in His) Kingship He rules over all!”

This couplet is transitional, between the Hymn and the conclusion of the Psalm (vv. 20-22). The call to bless YHWH is based upon his Sovereignty over all of creation. The throne of YHWH’s Kingship is in the heavens (viz., the upper half/dome of the cosmos) which arches over the earth below, covering it completely. Thus, YHWH’s Kingship extends over all the earth (and over all humankind).

It is preferable to understand YHWH Himself (rather than “His kingdom/kingship”) as the subject of the verb lv^m* (“rule [over]”). On this point, see Dahood (III, p. 28f), who explains the apparent feminine singular form (which would agree with the noun tWkl=m^) as an archaic masculine form (qatala pattern). He adds that this form was likely used for poetic-stylistic reasons, to lengthen the syllabic count of the second line. The suggestion is intriguing, and I have tentatively followed it.

Verse 20

“Bless YHWH, (you) His Messengers,
mighty of power (and) doers of His word,
(ready) to hear at (the) voice of His word!”

The conclusion of the Psalm properly begins here with verse 20, a call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) parallel to that of vv. 1-5 (see the exegesis in Part 1). The focus in that first call was on the inward microcosm of the Psalmist’s soul. Here, the focus is on the outward macrocosm of the entire universe (viz., all of creation). He begins with the heavenly “messengers” of YHWH, the mighty (divine) beings who carry out the Creator’s wishes at His command (“word”). The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb has the plural “words” (<yr!b*D=) rather than the singular; the emphasis would then be on the individual commands, rather than a collective reference.

Metrically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 21

“Bless YHWH, all (you) His armed warriors,
(those) attending to Him (and) doing His pleasure!”

A second group of divine/heavenly beings is addressed. Like the “messengers”, these beings also attend to YHWH, responding with obedience to His word, ready to carry it out. Here, the word (and will) of YHWH is expressed in terms of what delights or pleases Him (“His pleasure”).

They are specifically referred to as “armed warriors”, i.e., soldiers. This derives from an ancient militaristic tradition which viewed the heavenly beings—especially those related to the celestial and atmospheric phenomena of the natural world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, winds, rain)—as soldiers who fight at YHWH’s command (and on behalf of His people). This line of tradition was preserved in the title “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy). Here the masculine plural <ya!b*x= (“armed warriors”) is used, rather than the feminine plural toab*x= (“armed forces, armies”).

Verse 22

“Bless YHWH, all (you who are) His works,
in all standing-places under His rule!
*          *         *           *         *         *
May you bless, O my soul, YHWH!”

It is possible that this final couplet, like vv. 20-21, also refers to the divine/heavenly beings. However, it would seem that the scope of the call has widened to include all creation—all created beings. As created beings, they are YHWH’s “works”. In every place where one might stand under YHWH’s rule—which is to say, everywhere on earth and in all of creation—the beings created by Him should bless YHWH, giving praise and honor to Him. The blessing is to be an acknowledgment of YHWH’s Kingship and His ruling presence and power in the universe.

The closing couplet is expanded into a tricolon (to match the initial tricolon of v. 20) by repeating the initial line of the Psalm (v. 1). Thus, in the call to worship YHWH, the macrocosm of the entire universe is joined to the microcosm of the individual worshiper’s soul.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

“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.

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

The “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Matthew, continued

In the initial portion of this article, we examined the “son of man” references that occur throughout the narrative sequence of the Gospel of Matthew. For the most part, the Gospel writer follows the Synoptic/Markan narrative (though with some re-ordering), and also includes a number of “Q” traditions (shared with the Gospel of Luke). The author’s treatment of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) similarly follows his use of this traditional material. The most original contributions are found in the way that Jesus’ declaration(s) in Mark 8:38-9:1 are adapted (16:27-28), and by the inclusion of the saying in 19:28 within the Synoptic tradition of Mk 10:17-30 par (cf. Lk 22:28-30).

If I may summarize the main results of our analysis of the narrative references:

    • The Matthean Gospel writer unquestionably saw the expression “the son of man” by Jesus primarily as a self-reference; the interchangeability between the expression and the personal pronoun (compare 16:13, 21 with Mk 8:27, 31), in the declarations by Jesus occurring at the heart of the Gospel, makes this especially clear.
    • In Matthew, as in Luke, the “son of man” sayings bring out the Gospel’s thematic emphasis on discipleship. Just as Jesus identifies with the human condition (and its suffering), so the disciple of Jesus must take on a similar cost (of hardship and self-sacrifice) in following him.
    • The suffering and death of Jesus is particularly in focus, but balanced (more so than in Luke) with an emphasis on the exaltation of Jesus.

The “son of man” saying in 19:28, in particular, blends together these last two thematic emphases.

The Matthean Sermon-Discourses

As was discussed, the Matthean narrative is punctuated by a series of Discourses (or ‘Sermons’), built up out of smaller discourse-sections, around which other teachings by Jesus (sayings, short parables, etc) have been added. The great ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7) is the first of these Discourses, in which Jesus presents a range of essential ethical-religious instruction for anyone would be his disciple. In chapter 10, Jesus subsequently instructs his disciples in preparation of their mission. Further on, in chapter 13, Jesus teaches his followers about the Kingdom of God, and (in chap. 18) on certain social aspects of being his disciple—viz., on belonging to the Kingdom, and how one is to relate to fellow members of the Kingdom. Finally, in chapters 24-25, the disciples are given further instruction on their mission (i.e., the early Christian mission), in connection with the coming end of the Age (and the Judgment).

The most significant Matthean occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (in 16:27-28 and 19:28), as noted above, have an eschatological orientation. This is also true for all of the occurrences of the expression in the Sermon-Discourses—10:23; 13:37, 41; 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31.

Matthew 10:23

As part of the discourse (chap. 10) in which Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission—and, by extension, all believers for the coming early Christian mission—he instructs them in regard to the hostility and persecution that they will experience (vv. 16-25). In the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mk 13 par), this persecution (vv. 9-13) is framed in eschatological terms, as part of the end-time period of distress (vv. 19, 24). Matthew’s version of that Discourse (see below) has only a shortened form of the section related to the disciples’ mission (24:9, 13-14), having transferred the portion corresponding to Mk 13:9-12 largely to the chap. 10 discourse. This means, however, that there is a definite eschatological aspect to Jesus’ instruction here in chap. 10.

When facing persecution, the disciples are told to move (“flee”) from one city to the next (v. 23a). Jesus then adds the following declaration:

“For, amen, I say to you, that you shall (surely) not complete (going through) the cities of Yisrael, before [lit. until] the son of man should come.” (v. 23b)

This saying, like the instruction regarding persecution, is rather out of place in the narrative context—viz., the disciples’ initial mission during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It is much more appropriate in the context of the Eschatological Discourse (chap. 24f), set in Jerusalem, not long before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Indeed, the eschatological reference to the son of man’s (i.e., Jesus’) end-time appearance makes almost no sense here, from a narrative standpoint, occurring as it does before he has even once told his disciples of his impending death and resurrection. The arrangement of the material in chapter 10, however, is topical, not chronological.

In any case, the imminence of the son of man’s end-time appearance would seem to be expressed quite clearly by Jesus here in v. 23. The implication is that not all that much time will pass before his coming—indeed, some (if not many) of the first disciples will still be alive at his parousia. The declaration by Jesus in 16:28, in the Matthean formulation of the saying (cp. Mk 9:1), carries the same implication, as does the famous statement in 24:34 par. We have already discussed the “son of man” reference in 16:28:

“Amen, I say to you, that there are some of the (one)s having stood here who (surely) shall not taste death, until they should see the son of man coming in his Kingdom!”

However problematic these statements may be for later generations of Christians (and for many of us today), the imminent eschatology held by first-century believers is well-established, and we should avoid the inclination to try and explain away their belief in this regard. For a thorough survey of the subject, see my earlier article (and specifically the portion covering the Gospels) in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Matthew 13:37, 41

In chapter 13, the Gospel writer has expanded the collection of Kingdom-parables in Mark 4:1-34, by including a number of additional parables and sayings—vv. 24-30, 32, 36-43, 44-50, 51-52—and by omitting (or otherwise not including) one of the parables found in Mark (4:26-29). The parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30) functions as a corollary to the parable of the Sower. As in that earlier parable, an explanation by Jesus is recorded for the parable of the Weeds (vv. 36-43). In this explanation, it is declared that sower of the seed is “the son of man” (v. 37)—that is, Jesus, in his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel (of the Kingdom). As is clear from chapter 10 (see above), the disciples (and other believers) will be continuing this mission of Jesus. It is noteworthy that in Matthew, these parables come after the disciples’ mission, whereas in Mark, the parables (chap. 4) come before the mission (6:7-13).

It is also explained that the harvest, involving the separation of the weeds from the grain, represents the end-time ‘harvest’, when the righteous will be separated from the wicked (vv. 39-43). The harvest, marking the end of the growing season, was a natural metaphor for the end of the Age—e.g., Joel 3:13ff; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:14-20. The parable of the Net (vv. 47-50) has a similar eschatological message.

In any case, in the parable of the Weeds, it is “the son of man” who will do the gathering (i.e., separating out the righteous), through the mediation of heavenly Messengers under his command (“his Messengers”), v. 41. Much the same scenario is described in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:27; par Matt 24:34). This eschatological reference to the Messengers (angels) confirms that the “son of man” declarations in 16:27-28 refer to the end-time appearance of Jesus (from heaven), i.e., his parousia (cf. 24:3, 27, 37, 39).

Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44

The Matthean Gospel writer has also expanded the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13 par), adding to it other eschatological sayings and parables of Jesus, including a number of “Q” traditions (vv. 43-44, 45-51, 26-27, 37-39, 40-41, 28) which Luke locates at different points of the narrative (12:39-40, 42b-46; 17:23-24, 26-27, 34-35, 37b). The expression “the son of man” occurs several times in this “Q” material (vv. 27, 37, 39, 44 par), and the references were examined in Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings.

The fundamental point in these references is that the coming of the son of man will coincide with the coming of the end-time Judgment. His appearance will be sudden and unexpected (v. 44 par), like lighting flashes that instantly light up the entire sky (v. 27 par). Matthew includes the Noah/Flood illustration, but not the Lot/Sodom illustration (Lk 17:28-29, 32). It is difficult to be certain whether or not the latter was originally part of the “Q” tradition inherited by the Gospel writer; it seems likely that it was, though, as a natural pairing (cf. 2 Peter 2:5ff), it might have been added at any point in the tradition. In Matthew, Jesus specifically utilizes the Noah/Flood reference as the type-pattern for the end-time Judgment, pointing out that the coming of the “son of man” will be just like the coming of the Flood (vv. 37, 39 par)—the righteous (believers) will be saved, while the rest of humankind will perish under the Judgment.

Naturally enough, Matthew also retains the climactic “son of man” reference in Mk 13:26f par (v. 30f), but includes certain details which are worth discussing briefly. The declaration in Mk 13:26 is preserved in v. 30b, with only slight variation:

“…they shall gaze with (open) eyes (at) the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor.”

Mark has “in/with [e)n] the clouds”, while Matthew more clearly draws upon the ancient storm-theophany imagery, viz., of the deity coming (or ‘riding’) upon (e)pi/) the clouds. However, the precise wording here actually stems from Daniel 7:13 LXX, “upon the clouds of heaven” (e)pi\ tw=n nefelw=n tou= ou)ranou=). The Matthean version of the tradition thus conforms more precisely to the “son of man” reference in Dan 7:13f.

The Gospel writer has also included an additional detail, in v. 30a; prior to the actual appearance of the son of man:

“Then shall shine forth the sign of the son of man in heaven, and all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth shall beat themselves…”

There are differences of opinion regarding what is meant by the sign (shmei=on) of the son of man. It may simply refer to a brilliant theophanous light (the verb fai/nw literally meaning “shine”) that announces the son of man’s coming. Other commentators prefer to explain it is a visual symbol of something, such as Jesus’ crucifixion (i.e., cross), or even as a representation of Jesus himself (crucified). If the Gospel writer understands the reference to the peoples “beating themselves” (i.e., in mourning) as an allusion to Zech 12:10, then they may, indeed, be responding to the fact that the “son of man” (i.e., the exalted Jesus) had been crucified (cp. John 19:37). Revelation 1:7 similarly brings together Dan 7:13 and Zech 12:10. If the death (crucifixion) of Jesus is being specifically referenced here, then it provides us with another indication of how the Matthean author has balanced two primary Gospel contexts where the expression “the son of man” is used: (a) the suffering and death of Jesus, and (b) his exaltation and (future) return in glory.

Matthew 25:31

The Gospel writer has further expanded the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, by including three eschatological parables in chapter 25. Two of these (vv. 1-13, 31-46) are unique to Matthew, while the other (vv. 14-30) is similar to the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:12-27 (and may derive from a common [“Q”] tradition). All three of these parables refer in some way to the end-time Judgment, but only the third (vv. 31-46) specifically has a Judgment setting. Indeed, it can only marginally be described as a parable; it is more akin to some of the visions in the book of Revelation, providing a vivid portrait of the end-time Judgment.

In any case, it is clear from the opening (v. 31) that the Judgment takes place only after the coming of the son of man (see on 24:30f above):

“And, when the son of man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him, then he shall sit upon (the) throne of his splendor, and the nations shall be gathered together in front of him, and he shall mark them off from each other, just as a herder marks off the sheep from the goats.” (vv. 31-32)

The idea of the separation of the righteous from the wicked was a central component of the Judgment parables in 13:24-30 (+ 36-43) and 47-50 (see above). Clearly, in this instance, though the holy Messengers (angels) are involved, it is the son of man himself who oversees the Judgment. The peoples (“nations”) are all brought together in front of him, as he sits upon his throne. As the exalted/heavenly ruler, the son of man (Jesus) will proceed to pass judgment upon humankind. Though it is not specifically indicated here, it is fair to assume that Jesus is acting as God the Father’s representative, acting with His authority, in overseeing the Judgment.

In all respects this scenario represents a more developed form of a line of tradition preserved elsewhere in the “son of man” sayings (16:27, etc), in which we find both the motif of the end-time Judgment, and the idea of the “son of man” appearing (in glory, with the angels) at the end-time.

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.

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 1)

Psalm 103

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 1-6, 9-14, 20-21); 2QPs (vv. 2, 4-6, 8-11)

This Psalm is a carefully structured hymn to YHWH, calling on people to praise and give thanks to God for all that he has done. The focus is both individual and corporate. This is indicated by the parallel call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) that brackets the Psalm (vv. 1-5, 20-22). The opening blessing comes from the standpoint of the ‘inward parts’ of the individual worshiper (represented by the Psalmist/protagonist). This inward focus is balanced by the cosmic orientation of the concluding blessing—as the Psalmist calls on all created beings everywhere (human and angelic) to praise YHWH.

The main hymn (vv. 6-18) emphasizes the love, compassion and forgiveness of YHWH, and is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 33-34. The division of the hymn into four stanzas (cf. Allen, p. 29f) seems to be most reasonable. The stanzas are each composed of three couplets (vv. 6-8, 9-11, 12-14), with the fourth (concluding) stanza having an expanded form (vv. 15-18). There is a didactic aspect to the hymn, designed to instruct the Community, and to exhort them to remain faithful to the covenant. The Wisdom-elements in the final stanza are part of this emphasis.

The date of the Psalm is difficult to determine. The use of the second person feminine (yk!-) suffix has been thought to indicate Aramaic influence (cf. GKC §91e), and thus to reflect an Exilic (or post-Exilic) date. Similarly, vv. 15-16 have been considered to be dependent upon Isa 40:6-8. Such a time-frame for the Psalm is certainly possible; however, it may be that use of the yk!– suffix is primarily stylistic and poetic, intended for assonance with the imperative yk!r&B* (cf. Allen, p. 26).

Metrically, Psalm 103 consistently follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a few exceptions. The superscription simply attributes the Psalm to David (dw]d*l=, “[belonging] to David”).

The Psalm is relatively well-preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 2QPs—with only a handful of minor variant readings.

Introduction: Vv. 1-5

Verse 1

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and all my inner parts, His holy name!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on everything within him to bless YHWH. The verb Er^B* essentially means “greet with praise/blessing”, usually in a religious (ritual) context, implying a consecrated setting. The precise relationship between this verb and the noun Er#B# (“knee”) is still debated, as kneeling certainly would serve as a gesture (and position) for blessing and worship.

The “middle parts” (i.e., inner parts), <yb!r*q=, are parallel with vp#n#, a noun usually rendered as “soul”, but which specifically denotes the mouth/throat and what passes through it (esp. the breath). This is particularly significant for the Psalmist as a singer; it is naturally that he would begin with the mouth/throat, and his breath, the sound and vibrations which pass through to form music of praise to God. Yet, it is the inward aspect of his life-breath (“soul”) that is being emphasized. His ‘inner parts’ (“all my inner parts”) function as microcosm which will be matched by the macrocosm of all things (outwardly) in creation (vv. 20-22).

The plural form of the noun br#q# occurs only here in the Scriptures; in this context (of a person’s insides or inner-organs), the dual (<y]b^r*q=) is regularly used.

In the second line, the literal expression is “(the) name of His holiness”; for poetic concision, I have translated this conventionally as “His holy name”.

Verse 2

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and do not forget all His dealings—”

The first line of v. 1 is repeated here, and again serves to conclude the Psalm (v. 22c). By the repetition, emphasis is put on the Psalmist speaking to his soul (and inner parts), exhorting and urging himself—and, by extension, all worshipers—to honor YHWH by remembering the things He has done. The act of remembering here is framed in negative terms (viz., as not forgetting, vb jk^v*). As for what God has done, this is expressed by the noun lWmG+, from a root (lmg) with a relatively wide range of meaning. The basic verbal sense is of something being completed, often in the context of an interaction between people, and frequently emphasizing how one treats or deals with another, either in a positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful, punitive) way. Here the sense of the plural noun is “all the ways YHWH has dealt with His people”.

Verse 3

“the (One) forgiving all your deviations,
the (One) healing all your sicknesses,”

A sequence of participial phrases follows in vv. 3-5, the articular verbal noun (participle) in each instance capturing a definitive attribute of YHWH, a regular action that he performs on behalf of His people, reflecting His nature and character as God, and demonstrating His devotion to the covenant-bond. The formulation is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 34:6-7ff, and expresses here much the same thought as in that famous passage. The idea of YHWH forgiving the “crookedness” (/ou*) of the people is similarly found in Exod 34:7, but using the verb ac*n` (“lift/take [away]”), rather than jl^s* (which does occur in v. 9). The noun /ou* implies a bending away from what is right, but also could be understood in terms of a crooked and twisted (i.e., perverse) character.

The healing of sickness/disease is naturally paired  with the forgiving of sin; in the ancient world, particularly, sickness and ailments of various kinds tended to be viewed as the result of sin (and Divine punishment of sin). When YHWH forgives the people’s sins, the healing of illness and disease follows.

The second person feminine suffix (yk!-, “your”) refers back to the feminine noun vp#n# (“soul”).

Verse 4

“the (One) redeeming your life from (the) Pit,
the (One) encircling you (with) devotion and love,”

The verb la^G` (“redeem”) is generally parallel with jl^s* (“pardon, forgive”) in v. 3. Human crookedness and sickness, if not forgiven and healed, naturally leads to death and destruction, which here is represented by the noun tj^v^. This noun properly refers to a hole (or pit) dug for a grave, and thus also connotes the death and decay which belongs to the grave. Like the verb tj^v*, the noun can be understood in this associated or abstract sense of “destruction, ruin”. The root lag refers to the ancient Near Eastern social context of a relative who (through payment) ‘redeems’ his kin (and/or their property) from servitude, etc; it can also encompass the idea of protecting (or rescuing) someone from danger, etc.

Redemption from the Pit (i.e., death/grave) can be understood in two different ways: (i) rescuing a person when the danger of death (and the grave) threatens, or (ii) actually bringing a dead person out of the grave. The latter instance would imply an afterlife setting (cf. Dahood, III, p. 26).

The verb rf^u* properly means “encircle, surround”, though in the Piel (and Hiphil) it tends to have the more specific (denominative) meaning “crown” (from the noun hr*f*u&). Either translation (“encircling” or “crowning”) would be valid, though I prefer the meaning “encircle” here, as it captures the important aspect of being “surrounded” by YHWH’s love and protection.

The noun ds#j#, which occurs frequently in the Psalms, has been much discussed in these studies. It has the basic meaning “goodness, kindness”, but in the context of the covenant-bond between YHWH and His people, it carries the connotation of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. The noun <j^r^ denotes a deep love; the plural here could indicate the many acts (and/or feelings) of love/compassion by YHWH, but it could also be understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e. great love/compassion.

Verse 5

“the (One) filling your long (life) with good,
(so that) your youth is renewed like the eagle!”

Having brought the righteous/devoted one’s soul out of the Pit, and then surrounding (or crowning) it with love, YHWH proceeds to give to it long life—but a life that is also perpetually new and youthful, even as it lasts long into the future. This idiomatic language is best understood in an afterlife context, i.e., with God in heaven (see above), though it could conceivably apply to a blessed life on earth as well.

With other commentators (Dahood, III, p. 26; Allen, p. 26), I revocalize (and emend slightly) the MT Ey@d=u# (“your ornament[?]”) to yk!d@u), as suffixed form of the noun dou (du)), meaning “duration”, in the sense of “long life” or “(ever)lasting life”. On the eagle soaring as a motif of the renewal of life and strength (i.e., youthfulness), cf. Isa 40:31.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18

First Stanza: Vv. 6-8
Verse 6

“The (One) making right—(it is) YHWH—
and (true) judgment for (the) oppressed.”

The pattern of substantive participial phrases (vv. 3-5) continues into the hymn, where the Psalmist makes clear again that YHWH is the One doing all these things. The focus in the hymn shifts from the individual soul of the devout/righteous worshiper to the people as a whole. Indeed, the theme of individual salvation (from sin and death) gives way here to a social (corporate) sense of righteousness and justice.

YHWH makes things right, i.e., does what is right (hq*d*x=), for His people—and especially for those who are oppressed. Acting as Judge, he renders right (and beneficial) judgments on their behalf.

Verse 7

“He made known His ways to Moshe,
and to (the) sons of Yisrael His deeds.”

This couplet summarizes what YHWH has done for His people (Israel) during their history, and especially during the formative (Mosaic) period of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The making known of His ways to Moses refers primarily to the revelation (of the Torah) at Sinai, but it also alludes to the subsequent revelation to Moses (associated with the restoration/renewal of the covenant) in Exod 33-34 (see below).

Verse 8

“Loving and showing favor (is) YHWH,
long of nose and abundant in devotion.”

This verse is essentially a quotation of the Divine declaration to Moses in Exod 34:6 (see above). While it declares YHWH’s essential character, it also epitomizes His covenant relationship with His people. Four different (but related) attributes are presented here, two in each line. In the first line we have the adjectives <Wjr^ (“loving, compassionate”) and /WNj^, the latter defining YHWH as one who “grants/bestows favors”.

In the second line, the expression “long of nostrils” (or “long of nose”) is an idiom for being slow to anger, i.e., the opposite of being ‘short-tempered’ (“short of nose”); in certain respects the expression is parallel to the adjective <Wjr^ in line 1. The second expression “abundant of devotion” utilizes the familiar noun ds#j# (on which, see verse 4 above). This also is parallel with the second adjective of line 1—both terms referring principally to YHWH’s loyalty and devotion to the covenant-bond.

There is a subtle bit of alliterative wordplay, between the adjective br^ here in v. 8 and the verb byr! in v. 9.

Second Stanza: Vv. 9-11
Verse 9

“Not to the end shall He contend (with us),
and not for ever shall He keep (angry).”

This second stanza of the hymn illustrates and expounds the principle laid out in verse 8, regarding the devotion and loyalty YHWH shows to His people. When He is angry (because of the people’s lack of faithfulness) and “contends” (vb byr!) with them (i.e., punishes them), His anger does not last forever. Once discipline and punishment has been meted out, anger is replaced by mercy and compassion.

Two common temporal expressions are used, each of which conveys the sense of a duration of time lasting far into the future (i.e., everlasting). The first, jx^n#l*, means something like “to (the) utmost”, properly in the sense of “continuing in force” (or “…with [full] strength”); the simple rendering “to (the) end” is used above. The second expression, <l*oul*, occurring many times in the Psalms, means “(in)to (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “for ever”.

Verse 10

“Not according to our sins does he act to(ward) us,
and not according to our deviations does he deal with us.”

Though YHWH may punish sin, He does not deal with His people as their sins deserve. Even in His severe judgment against His people, His actions are tempered by mercy.

Verse 10 represents the first divergence from the regular 3-beat (3+3) meter of the Psalm; the longer lines read 4+4.

Verse 11

“But like (the) height of (the) heavens over the earth,
(so) His devotion is strong over (those) fearing Him.”

Through it all, YHWH’s loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) remains firm, strong and mighty, towering over the faithful ones (“[those] fearing Him”). There is a bit of wordplay here, between the verbal noun H^b)G+ (vb hb^G`, “be high”) and the verb rb^G` (“be strong/mighty”). An allusion to a strong tower is likely (cf. Allen, p. 26). The all-encompassing strength and height/breadth of YHWH’s devotion is like the great arching dome of the heavens over the earth. It is spread out over His people, just as the dome of the heavens spreads over the earth.

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed next week, in Part 2.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Weeks (Part 1)

Weeks (Shavuot)

This is the lastest installment of a periodic series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4).

Name and Origin

The designation “weeks” is a loose English translation of the Hebrew plural noun toub%v* (š¹»¥±ô¾). The noun is derived from the root ubv, indicating the number seven (ub^v#, hu*b=v!); it denotes a period of seven days, thus corresponding with a “week” of days in English parlance. In Exodus 34:22, there is mention of a “festival of seven-day periods” (toub%v* gj^), utilizing the noun gj^, as a specialized term for a processional or pilgrimage festival—that is, involving a procession of pilgrims attending the festival at a centralized location. It is one of three such festivals mentioned in Exodus 23:14-17 and 34:18-24. The festival is sometimes referred to as Shavuot, an anglicized transliteration (š¹»¥±ô¾) of the plural noun toub%v*. Greek-speaking Jews came to refer to the festival as penthkosth/ (pent¢kost¢¡), the “fiftieth (day)” (see below).

Like the Passover festival, the festival of “Weeks” has agricultural origins, marking the time of the (wheat) harvest. This is clear from the name given in Exod 23:16, “festival of the gathering [i.e. harvest],” where the noun ryx!q*, refers to the gathering/collecting of the grain (and binding it in sheaves). It specifically refers to the beginning of the harvest, as the qualifying phrase indicates: “the first-fruits [<yr!WKB!] of your activities [spec. works/labors] which you have sown in the field”. In 34:22, the wheat (plur. <yF!j!) harvest is specified.

As a pilgrimage festival (gj^), all adult males are expected to travel to the central religious shrine of the Community, and to appear before YHWH (“be seen before [the] face of the Lord YHWH”, 23:17; 34:23). This implies the presentation of sacrificial offerings, dedicated to YHWH, at the shrine. The short notices in Exodus make no mention of any specific offerings that are required. However, Leviticus 23:15-21 provides detailed instructions for the grain offering that represents the “first-fruits” of the harvest, in the form of two baked loaves that are to be waved ([Wn, noun hp*WnT=) back and forth, in a ritual manner, before YHWH (vv. 16b-17). Other offerings of sacrificial animals (seven year-old lambs, two rams, one bull) are prescribed, as burnt offerings from the Community, along with a sin-offering (he-goat), and a <l#v# offering [cf. chap. 3] (two year-old lambs), accompanied by the required grain and drink offerings (vv. 18-20). Numbers 28:26-31 gives similar instructions. These elaborate sacrificial offerings unquestionably represent a development of an earlier (simpler) ritual tradition associated with the harvest.

Leviticus 23:15-16a also indicates the time-frame for the festival, as it came to be established. Once the first sheaf of grain from the harvest is presented as an offering before YHWH (vv. 9-14), seven šabbats (totB*v^), or ‘weeks’, are counted off (v. 15), resulting in a period of 49 days—to which an additional day is counted (the day after the final ‘week’), viz., the fiftieth day (v. 16). It is this tradition which led to the festival of Weeks/Shavuot being called the “fiftieth (day)” (penthkosth/ [pent¢kost¢¡] in Greek).

In the Levitical code, as in the older Exodus traditions (see above), the festival of Weeks/Shavuot is closely connected with the festival of Passover and the days of ‘unleavened bread’. Following the instructions for Passover (vv. 4-8), the ritual offering for the first sheaf of grain is described (vv. 9-14), and then the instruction regarding the harvest festival (Weeks/Shavuot) itself (vv. 15-21) is given.

The offering of the first sheaf is to be made on the “day after the šabbat [i.e. Sabbath]” (v. 15)—but which šabbat is meant? The connection with the Passover, in light of its agricultural origins, seems to suggest that the šabbat day immediately following the days of Unleavened Bread is intended. However, a different line of rabbinical interpretation understands this šabbat in a more general, symbolic sense, applying it to the first day of the Unleavened Bread festival. Thus, the counting would begin from the second day of that festival (Nisan 16), with the festival of Weeks/Shavuot then being celebrated on Sivan 6. This allows for celebration on a fixed day of the calendar, whereas the beginning of harvest itself could occur on various days from year to year.

Deuteronomy 16:9-12 provides a simpler presentation of the festival. It mentions only a voluntary offering (hb*d*n+) from each person/family, based on one’s means (and the success of the harvest). How this relates to the prescribed offerings of Lev 23:16-20 par may be debated.

Old Testament Tradition

There is no other direct reference to the festival of Weeks/Shavuot in the Old Testament Scriptures. However, there is a longstanding tradition, connecting the time/date of the festival with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. The chronological notice in Exodus 19:1 provides the basis for this association, as it indicates that the people of Israel arrived in the Sinai outback in the third month—which is the month (“new moon”) during which Weeks/Shavuot would have been celebrated. The revelation at Sinai (chap. 19) and the giving of the initial Torah (chaps. 20-23), followed by the ratification of the covenant (chap. 24), thus, according to tradition, were thought to correspond to the time of the festival.

Similarly, 2 Chronicles 15:8-15 mentions a covenant-renewal ceremony, during the reign of Asa, which took place during the third month, doubtless under the influence of the Sinai Covenant Tradition. It may well be that this ceremony took place during the Weeks/Shavuot festival, even as the dedication of the Temple in the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 8 par) took place in connection with Sukkot. The pilgrimage festivals would the best time for such a large public ceremony, when considerable numbers of people would be present in Jerusalem.

This basic line of tradition, associating the third month (and thus Weeks/Shavuot) with the covenant between God and His people, can also be seen in the book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.). This work presents not only the Sinai covenant (1:1), but also the Noahic (6:10) and Abrahamic (14:1ff) covenants, as being established in the third month. The Sinai covenant tradition also informs the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as we shall examine in Part 3 of this article.

In Part 2, we shall further explore the festival of Weeks/Shavuot in Jewish tradition, including references and allusions to the festival in the Qumran texts.

NOTE: I have coordinated this article for the Christian celebration of Pentecost. In 2024, in the Western Churches, Pentecost falls on Sunday May 19. However, it should be noted that, in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot (Sivan 6-7) falls on June 12-13 this year.