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

John 5:27, continued

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

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

And, in vv. 26-27:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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