October 10: Revelation 12:1-6

Revelation 12-13

An intriguing aspect of the book of Revelation, following a common Apocalyptic literary model, is the way that visions develop one out of the other, often overlapping in detail and outlook, restating the same message in different and creative ways. In the first half of the book, the visions, for the most part, were relatively straightforward, expressed either in terms of: (a) scenes of worship and ritual in Heaven, or (b) vivid pictures of the Judgment which is coming upon the earth. While these aspects continue in the remainder of the book, they are presented within a more complex visionary narrative. The main theme of this narrative may be summarized as: conflict between the people of God and the wicked nations. Expressed in more traditional dualistic terms, we might better say—conflict between the people of God and the peoples/nations of Satan. This is the primary matrix in which nearly all of chapters 12-19 are set. The central theme of conflict was present throughout the opening chapters, but only begins to take a definite literary/narrative shape in chapter 11. Now in chapters 12 and 13, it is woven out in a visionary tableau, which establishes: (1) the history of the conflict (chap 12), and (2) the current manifestation in the time of distress (chap 13).

Chapter 12 has a fairly straightforward (and symmetric/chiastic) structure, which I would outline as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: Conflict on earth—The woman and her child are threatened by the dragon
      —Vv. 7-9: War in heaven—Victory of Michael and the (good) Angels
      —Vv. 10-12: War in heaven—Victory Hymn, with praise and warning
    • Vv. 13-17: Conflict on earth—The woman and her children are threatened by the dragon

The outer portions (vv. 1-6, 13-17) refer to conflict on earth, in which a mythical dragon-being attacks a woman and her children. The inner section (vv. 7-12) narrates a parallel conflict in heaven, in which the dragon is understood as a heavenly being. The main difference is that the conflict in heaven ends in victory, while the conflict on earth remains to be fought (chap. 13).

Revelation 12:1-6

The opening words establish a new kind of vision:

“And a great sign [shmei=on] was seen in the heaven…”

The word shmei=on occurs only in the second half of the book (chapters 12-19, seven times). This marks the distinctive character of these visions, different from those in the preceding chapters. Even though the sign appears in heaven, what it describes and narrates takes place on earth. Actually, two signs appear, indicating the conflict which will take place between the two (symbolic) figures:

    • A Woman
      • cast about [i.e. clothed/draped] with the sun
      • down under her feet (is) the moon
      • a crown of twelve stars upon her head
      • she holds a child in her stomach [i.e. is pregnant]
    • A Great Fabulous (Serpent)
      • the color of red
      • having seven heads and seven horns
      • (royal cloth) bound around each of the seven heads
      • his tail drags down a third of the stars to the earth

The point of conflict between the two clearly involves the child she is bearing:

    • “being in pain and (be)ing tormented, she cried (out) to produce (the child) [i.e. to give birth]” (v. 2)
    • “the fabulous (serpent) stood in sight of the woman being about to produce (the child), (so) that it might gobble down the product [i.e. child/offspring] when she should produce (it)” (v. 4)

I have kept the translation above excessively literal, to make clear the verbal relationship between the child (“product/offspring”, te/knon) and the act of giving birth (“produce”, ti/ktw). The point is that the woman is in the process of bringing forth a child, and the ‘dragon’ stands by waiting during it all. The conflict between woman and dragon begins (in earnest) once the child is born. The reason is made clear in verse 5, where the special nature of the child is described:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Despite the rather clear allusion to Jesus‘ birth in v. 5, the imagery in the vision is more complex than a simple history of his life. Consider how this is expressed in verse 6:

“And the woman fled into the desolate (land), where she holds a place there having been made ready from God, (so) that there they might nourish her for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days.”

This does not correspond with anything in the Gospel narratives per se; rather, like many of the visions in the book of Revelation, it represents a blending of elements:

    • The woman fleeing from attack—believers fleeing from persecution (cf. below)
    • The desert location—traditionally the place where people encounter God, experiencing suffering and deprivation along the way
    • The place “made ready”—Messianic language from Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1
    • A place of refuge coming from God—The righteous/believers find security and salvation from God alone
    • The strengthening of the woman—a time of growth and testing for the people of God
    • The time frame of 1,260 days (= 3½ years)—symbolic designation of the end-time period of distress

The reference to the 1,260 days is perhaps a bit misleading, as though there are two periods of 3½ years being referenced. The book of Revelation, it would seem, conceives of a single 3½-year period which represents the time of suffering and distress which is to come upon the world at the end-time Judgment. The motif of 3½ years, expressed variously in the book, ultimately comes from Daniel (7:25; 9:27; 12:7). The woman is in the desert, ready for the time of distress, but the 1,260 days themselves do not take place until verse 14, after the vision of heavenly warfare in vv. 7-12. If we are to attempt an historical approximation, it would be as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: The period from the conception/birth of Jesus to the present time (i.e. time of the author and his audience)
      Interlude: Vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12)
    • Vv. 13-17: The present time through the period of distress (“3½ years”)
Symbols of the Woman, Child, and Dragon

Like nearly all of the visionary figures in the book of Revelation, the Woman (gunh/), Child (te/knon), and Fabulous Serpent (dra/kwn), all function as symbols with a wider meaning than a simple identification with specific/historical personages. I would suggest the following line of interpretation:

    • Woman—the people of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect; that is to say, as a figure, it has a broader meaning than “Israel” or even “believers in Christ”
    • Child—this child, the product/offspring of the people of God, has a two-fold meaning:
      (1) the (first) male son—Jesus Christ, in his human/earthly life
      (2) the other children (v. 17)—Believers in Christ
    • Dragon/Serpent—the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; like the Woman (people of God), it has both heavenly and earthly aspects.

A bit more perhaps should be said regarding the dra/kwn, a word typically rendered by the transliteration in English as “dragon”, but which more properly refers to a creature with a fabulous/fascinating appearance; it is usually understood as a (hybrid) creature resembling a serpent. Various forms of this sort of creature are attested in myths and legends worldwide. The multi-headed serpent also appears in many traditions, but is especially familiar to Greek readers from writings such as Apollonius’ Argonautika 4.153ff. The most famous such monster is the Typhon/Typhoeus (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc); though more relevant to the context here in the book of Revelation is the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545).

Legendary serpent-creatures are also mentioned in the Old Testament, based on ancient Near Eastern concepts and terminology—cf. Psalm 73:13-14; Job 7:12; 26:13; 41:1; Isa 27:1; Ezek 32:2; Jer 51:34. They did not represent evil as such; rather, they tended to symbolize chaos and disorder, including the destruction connected with warfare (e.g., Jer 51:34; Psalms of Solomon 2:25; Sibylline Oracles 5:29). The Jewish and early Christian association of the serpent/dragon with evil, was largely due to the role of the snake/serpent in the Creation narrative (Genesis 3), acting as one who tempts people to sin and disobedience against God. In the vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12), the book of Revelation specifically identifies the dra/kwn with the figure of Satan (i.e., the Devil); a similar identification is made in 20:2. The Genesis narrative also refers to a conflict between the serpent and the woman (and her children), 3:15, which may well be in view here in chap. 12.

In the next daily note, we will examine the vision of warfare in heaven (vv. 7-12), before returning to the woman/dragon conflict in vv. 13-17.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:6-8 (conclusion)

1 John 5:6-8 (concluded)

This discussion continues that of the last several notes in this series, focusing specifically on the relation of the Spirit to the “water” and “blood” in verses 6-8. It is possible to treat all three verses as a single sentence, and this is probably the best way to render them:

“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and in blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (of this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth, (so) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood—and the three are (together) into one.”

The statement as a whole can be divided into two parts:

    • The one coming—Yeshua the Anointed—in water and blood
    • The one giving witness—the Spirit—(together with) water and blood

In the previous note, I explored the initial statement(s) regarding the Spirit in verse 6b. I also pointed out three aspects which needed to be examined:

    • The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus in the Johannine Gospel and Letters
    • The connection between the Spirit and water, especially as a symbol of birth and life for those who trust in Jesus
    • The connection between the Spirit and the death (i.e. blood) of Jesus

We will touch briefly on each of these in turn.

1. The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus

In the Gospel of John, this can be summarized as follows (for more detail on these passages, see the earlier notes in this series):

(An asterisk marks passages which clearly draw upon early Tradition shared by the Synoptics)

    • 1:32-33*—The Spirit comes down (lit. “steps down”) upon Jesus and remains on/in him (cf. Mark 1:10 par)
    • 1:33b (also v. 26)*—It is said that Jesus will dunk (i.e. baptize) people “in the holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8 par)
    • 3:5-8—Those who trust in Jesus “come to be (born) out of the Spirit” (cf. below)
    • 3:34—It is said that Jesus “gives the Spirit” (i.e. to believers); he does not give it “out of (a) measure”, rather, in a new, complete way, different from how the Spirit was given previously to prophets and chosen ones. Verse 35 indicates that the Spirit is given to Jesus (the Son) by the Father.
    • 4:23-24—The context (verses 7-15ff) suggests that the “living water” Jesus gives is associated with the Spirit
    • 6:63—Jesus states that the Spirit gives life (“makes [a]live”), and, again, that he gives the Spirit to his disciples, etc. The Spirit is identified specifically with the words (“utterances”) Jesus speaks (i.e. his life-giving power as the Living Word).
    • 7:39—The Gospel writer explicitly identifies the Spirit with the “living water” of which Jesus is the source for believers (vv. 37-38). It is stated that the Spirit did not come unto the disciples until after Jesus was given honor (‘glorified’), i.e. by the Father, through his death and resurrection.
    • 14:16-17, 25-26—God the Father will send the Spirit (“Spirit of Truth”) to believers, at Jesus’ request and in his name
    • 15:26-27; 16:7ff—Jesus will send the Spirit (“Holy Spirit”, “Spirit of Truth”) to believers from the Father
    • The Spirit continues Jesus’ work with believers, teaching them, speaking Jesus’ own words and giving witness about him (14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15)
    • 19:30—The description of Jesus’ death likely carries a double-meaning in the context of the Gospel, alluding to his giving the Spirit (“…he gave along the pneu=ma [breath/spirit/Spirit]”)
    • 20:22—After his resurrection, Jesus specifically blows/breathes in(to) the disciples; it is clear that he is giving them the Spirit (“Receive the holy Spirit”)

This Johannine portrait thus entails three primary aspects: (a) Jesus receives the Spirit from the Father (indicated specifically [1] at the Baptism and [2] following the Resurrection); (b) Jesus gives the Spirit to believers (described variously); and (c) the Spirit represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. This is generally confirmed by the references in 1 John, though the emphasis is on the Spirit as a witness, testifying and declaring the truth about Jesus to (and through) believers (3:24; 4:1-6, 13; and here in 5:6-8).

2. The connection between the Spirit and Water

For a summary of the Gospel passages, cf. the previous note. The primary emphasis is on the symbol of water as a source of life, with life-giving properties and power. This is expressed by two basic motifs:

  • Drinking—i.e. the quenching of thirst and the preservation/restoration of life to the human body and soul. Especially important is the traditional expression “living water” (* below), which, in the ancient semitic idiom, originally referred to the flowing water of a natural spring or stream (note the play on this idea in 4:6-12), but is used by Jesus in a symbolic sense. Here are the relevant references (those which explicitly mention the Spirit are marked in bold):
    • 2:6-9—the drinking of water/wine (note the possible allusions to 6:51-58 and 19:34)
    • 4:7-15ff—water which Jesus gives that results in (eternal) life (vv. 10-11*, reference to the Spirit in vv. 21-24)
    • 6:53-56—drinking Jesus’ “blood” which he gives (eucharistic allusion, reference to the Spirit in v. 63)
    • 7:37-39—the “living water” (v. 38*) which Jesus gives is identified with the Spirit by the Gospel writer (v. 39)
  • Birth—water is naturally associated with the birth process, and this image is utilized by Jesus in the discourse-dialogue with Nicodemus in chapter 3 (vv. 3-8). Here it is applied specifically to the “birth” of believers, a motif which appears elsewhere in the Gospel (1:13) and frequently in the First Letter (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). In these references the expression is “come to be (born) out of God [e)k {tou=} qeou=]”, while in Jn 3:3-8 we find “…out of the Spirit” and “…from above”; for the most part, these expressions are synonymous. The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used in this spiritual/symbolic sense, is always related to believers, with the lone exception, it would seem, of the second occurrence in 1 Jn 5:18, where many commentators feel it refers to Jesus (the Son).
    • If we are to recognize the secondary motif of Baptism, it probably should be understood in terms of this same birth-symbolism, at least in the context of the Gospel and letters of John. Birth imagery is embedded in the early Gospel tradition of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par; Jn 1:34 MT), i.e. Jesus as God’s “Son”, and is marked by the presence of the Spirit (1:32-33). Also, insofar as Jesus “baptizes” believers in the Spirit (1:33 par), the author(s) of the Gospel and Letters would likely associate this with the idea of being “born of God” or “born of the Spirit”, though it is not clear the extent to which there is an allusion to Baptism in Jn 3:3-8.
3. The connection between the Spirit and the Death (“Blood”) of Jesus

In the Gospel Tradition, there is little, if any, clear relationship between the Spirit and Jesus’ death. The closest we come is the basic idea, expressed both in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, that the Spirit would come to believers only after Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” to the Father. There is then an implicit (though indirect) association between Jesus’ death and the coming/sending of the Spirit. The Gospel of John, in particular, blends together the two aspects of death and exaltation, joining them into at least three different images: (1) descent/ascent, (2) “lifting up/high”, and (3) “giving/granting honor” (i.e. “glorify”). All three of these Johannine motifs can refer variously (or at the same time) to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension/return to the Father.

It is also possible that there is a more direct association between the Spirit and Jesus’ death in the Gospel of John. I note three verses:

    • 7:39—The Gospel writer states: “For the Spirit was not yet [i.e. had not yet come], (in) that [i.e. because] Yeshua was not yet glorified”. The verb doca/zw, “regard with honor, give/grant honor”, “glorify” is usually understood in reference to Jesus resurrection (and ascension to the Father), but, in the Gospel of John, it applies equally to Jesus’ death. In other words, the statement could be taken to mean, essentially, that it is Jesus’ sacrificial death which makes it possible for the Spirit to come.
    • 19:30—The description of Jesus’ death generally follows the Gospel tradition in Mark 15:37b; Matt 27:50b; Luke 23:46. However, in light of the important Johannine theme of Jesus giving the Spirit, it is possible (even likely) that there is a dual meaning to the words pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma:
      —”…he gave along the [i.e. his] spirit/breath”
      —”…he gave along the Spirit”
      I might note in passing, that there is a fascinating similarity of wording between Luke 23:46 and John 20:22; though coming via different Gospels, this is another interesting (possible) connection between Jesus’ death and the giving of the Spirit.
    • 19:34—Many commentators have interpreted the “blood and water” which come out of Jesus’ side (and the importance the Gospel writer gives to this detail) as containing at least an allusion to the Spirit. The close connection between water and the Spirit, and of Jesus as the direct source of this “living water”, increases the likelihood that such an allusion may be intended. If so, then it is likely that there is an association between the Spirit and Jesus’ blood as well.

It will help to consider the other references to “blood” (ai!ma) in the Gospel and Letters of John:

    • John 1:13—Here blood is set parallel with flesh (specifically “the will of the flesh”), in the context of human birth. Both “blood” and “flesh” signify (ordinary) human life and birth, which is contrasted with being “born out of God” (= “born out of the Spirit“). For a similar parallel between “flesh” and “blood”, cf. 1 Jn 4:2-3 and here in 5:6-8.
    • John 6:51-58 (vv. 53-56)—Here, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse, Jesus, in eucharistic language and imagery that is similar to Mark 14:23-24 par, speaks of drinking his “blood”. The (believer) who “eats” his body and “drinks” his blood holds “the Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life); this body/blood is the “bread” which Jesus gives, sacrificially, for the life of the world. While there may be a sacramental allusion (to the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) in these verses, the overall emphasis of the Bread of Life discourse is spiritual. This is confirmed by what follows (esp. verse 63).
    • 1 John 1:7—The author declares “…the blood of Yeshua cleanses us from all sin”. This echoes the sacrificial character (and power) of Jesus’ death—and, specifically, the blood he shed (Jn 19:34)—expressed in the Gospel tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:24 par). In the context of the letter, it is uniquely tied to the Johannine theme of sin/righteousness in terms of obedience to the two-fold command of trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believer (3:23-24, etc). There is no direct reference to the Spirit here, but there is a definite allusion in verse 8, “the Truth…in us”.
Conclusion

If the “water” and “blood” in 5:6ff represent two aspects of Jesus’ human life—his birth/life and death, respectively—then, in light of the examination above, in what sense does this water and blood “give witness” along with the Spirit?

Water—Based on the principal themes and associations outline above, it is possible to identify:

    • Drinking—Elsewhere in the New Testament, believers are said to “drink” of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13), just Jesus describes in Jn 4:10-14; 7:37-38. This is experienced symbolically, through the sacraments of baptism and the eucharistic cup (cf. the context of 1 Cor 10-12), but not only in this limited way. Rather, through the Spirit, we experience the very presence of Jesus, including his human life which he sacrificed for us. It is a spiritual presence, which Paul likewise associates with the motif of drinking in 1 Cor 10:4.
    • Birth—As a result of trust in Jesus, believers experience a new birth (Jn 3:3-8ff). We come to be born “out of [i.e. from] God” (“from above” vv. 3, 7); this birth is spiritual, taking place through the power and presence of the Spirit, as indicated by the parallel expression “out of the Spirit” (vv. 5-6, 8). Just as ordinary human birth takes place “out of water” or “in/through water”, so this new birth for believers occurs through the “living water” of the Spirit. Certain Baptismal language and imagery preserves this same “new birth” motif.

Blood—This symbolic aspect of Jesus’ death has three important associations:

    • The coming/giving of the Spirit takes place through, and as a result of, Jesus’ sacrificial death (cf. Jn 7:39; 19:30, 34, and the discussion above)
    • Believers “drink” Jesus’ blood in a symbolic and spiritual sense (his life-giving presence), expressed in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
    • According to the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death, his “blood” cleanses believers of sin (1 Jn 1:7). Similarly, the Spirit (as “water”) cleanses us, as indicating by the baptism and washing imagery in John 1:26ff and 13:5-11. There is also a cleansing aspect associated with the Spirit as the Living Word of God and Christ (cf. 15:3).

If I may summarize. The life-giving power and presence of Jesus is communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit. This divine and eternal (spiritual) Life which Jesus gives includes his human life which he sacrificed on our behalf, transformed through his resurrection and exaltation (glorification). It is specifically the real human life of Jesus (his birth, life, and death) which the author of 1 John is emphasizing, against the apparent “docetic” view of Jesus held by the separatists (“antichrists”). The Spirit bears witness to us of the human life Jesus sacrificed in order to give us Life, and along with this, the very essence (“water” and “blood”) of this life testifies to us. Through the Spirit, we experience this testimony, not only through symbolic rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but at all times, and in all aspects of our life in Christ.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

In the previous note I examined the context of 1 John 5:6 and began exploring the statements made in the verse itself. I noted the parallel with 4:2-3, especially the two expressions “in the flesh” and “in/through water and blood” which I regard as being closely related in thought. If the expression “come in the flesh [e)n sarki/]” refers to Jesus being born and appearing on earth as a true human being, then it stands to reason that “in/through water and blood” in 5:6 follows this same basic meaning. There appears to be little apparent difference here in the use of the prepositions dia/ (“through water and blood”) and e)n (“in water and…blood”), though it is possible that distinct aspects of Jesus birth/life as a human being are implied. We see the same interchangeability of the prepositions in Hebrews 9:12, 25 and Rom 6:4 / Col 2:12 (Brown, p. 574).

Before proceeding, I should point out that many Greek manuscripts and versions have a different reading of the first phrase in verse 6 (“the one coming through water and blood”), variously adding “and (the) Spirit” (or “and the holy Spirit”), to form a triad. That this reading is secondary, and not original, is strongly indicated by the fact that the reference to the Spirit appears at different points in the phrase; the most widespread of these variant readings is: “through water and blood and (the) Spirit” (a A 104 424c 614 1739c, etc). It may simply reflect the influence of what follows in vv. 6b-8. However, if early Christians understood the verse as referring to Jesus’ birth (cf. below), then the addition of “and (the) Spirit” in 6a could have theological significance (i.e. to safeguard the idea of the virginal conception, and the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ conception); on this, cf. Ehrman, pp. 60-1.

What exactly does the author mean when stating that Jesus came “through (or in) water and blood”? There would seem to be three main possibilities recognized by commentators:

    1. It refers to the birth and death of Jesus, respectively—fundamentally, to his (incarnate) human life on earth
    2. Similar to #1, it refers to the baptism and death of Jesus—to his mission on earth
    3. It refers specifically to Jesus’ death, following Jn 19:34
    4. In relation to #2, the reference is primarily sacramental—to baptism (water) and the eucharist (esp. the cup [blood])

In my view, the last of these can be eliminated. There is little indication anywhere else in the letter that either sacrament (Baptism or the Lord’s Supper) is in view. While it is possible that “water” and “blood” could be shorthand keywords for Baptism and the Eucharist, it seems quite out of place here in the letter, where the emphasis is clearly on the person and identity of Jesus. Otherwise, I can find no other definite Johannine references to (Christian) baptism, despite the emphasis on baptism in the early Gospel traditions recorded in Jn 1:19-34 and 3:22-23ff; there are eucharistic allusions in chapter 6 of the Gospel (esp. vv. 51-58), but the Lord’s Supper (i.e. as a ritual or sacrament introduced by Jesus) is completely absent from the Last Supper scene in John.

The choice, then, is between interpretations #1-3 above. There can be little doubt that “blood” refers to the sacrificial death of Jesus. The statement in 1:7 (“the blood of Yeshua…cleanses us from all sin”) reflects the idea of Jesus’ death (the shedding/pouring of blood) as a sacrificial offering, already found in the Gospel tradition of Mark 14:24 par (recording Jesus’ own words); there are, indeed, two aspects to this sacrificial motif:

    • The blood shed and poured on the altar (and upon the people) at the establishment of God’s covenant with Israel (cf. Exod 24:3-8)
    • The blood of the sin offering poured/sprinkled on the altar (Lev 4:1-5:13, etc)

While the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper (and the symbolic drinking of Jesus’ “blood”), the language in 6:51-58 is quite similar (esp. vv. 51b, 53). It is only in the Fourth Gospel that the shedding of Jesus’ blood is actually narrated and described (19:34, cf. below).

More difficult is determining exactly what is signified by “water”. There are seven other significant Johannine passages, in the Gospel and Letters, involving water (all from the Gospel):

    • The traditions related to John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus (1:26-34, cf. also 3:22ff)
    • The miracle of turning water into wine (2:6-9ff)
    • The discourse/dialogue with Nicodemus (3:5-8)
    • The “living water” dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:7-15)
    • The “living water” declaration by Jesus (7:37-38f)
    • The washing of the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper scene (13:5ff)
    • The “blood and water” which came out of Jesus’ side after his death (19:34)

Commentators have sought to associate these passages variously with Baptism (cf. above), but the only instance where such an association can plausibly be made is in 3:3-8, and yet I am not at all convinced that (Christian) baptism is being referred to by Jesus in that passage (except, possibly, in a secondary sense). As far as water being related to the baptism of Jesus, it is noteworthy that the Gospel of John appears to downplay this episode; it is not even narrated directly, but only indirectly, through the testimony of the Baptist. The traditional detail from the Baptism scene which the author emphasizes is two-fold:

    • The presence of the Spirit (1:32-33), and
    • The identification of Jesus as the Son and Chosen (i.e. Anointed) One of God (1:34)

It thus seems unlikely to me that the author of the letter is specifically referring to Jesus’ baptism in 5:6-8. This leaves options #1 and 3 above. In analyzing each of these, it is important to consider the significance of water in the Gospel. I find three distinct themes or aspects:

    • A figure and symbol of the Spirit
    • Symbolic of the new/eternal Life which Jesus gives
    • Association with the sacrificial death of Jesus

The evidence cited above appears to be divided rather equally between these, with the first two being particularly emphasized. I would divide the passages into two primary themes:

    1. Life through the Spirit—1:26 (cf. 32-33); 3:3-8 (birth motif); 4:7-15ff; 7:37-39
    2. Association with Jesus’ death (i.e. blood)—2:6-9ff (cp. 6:51-58); 13:5ff; 19:34

Now, in Johannine thought, Life and the Spirit are closely associated with the idea of birth—especially the motif of believers coming to be born (i.e. a new, spiritual birth). This is expressed most clearly in John 3:3-8, where water and the Spirit are tied together in a manner similar to water and blood in 1 Jn 5:6-8; note the parallelism of logic:

    • born out of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5)—i.e. not out of water alone, but also of the Spirit (cp. the same contrast in 1:26)
    • come in/through water and blood—not only water, but also blood (1 Jn 5:6)

It is important to understand the contrast Jesus establishes in Jn 3:5ff; as verse 6 makes clear, there is a parallel between water and flesh, indicating that the idea of human birth is in view:

    • water = “flesh”—ordinary, physical human birth and life
    • water and Spirit—the new spiritual life (“from above”) given to a human being through trust in Jesus

Based on this thematic logic, I believe that the birth (and human life) of Jesus is primarily in view in 1 John 5:6:

    • coming through/in water = Jesus’ birth and (incarnate) life
    • coming through/in blood = Jesus’ sacrificial death

These reflect the beginning and end points of Jesus’ earthly life and mission, and, significantly, “water and blood” are featured in the two episodes which open and close Jesus’ ministry on earth:

    • The miracle at Cana (2:1-11)—water and wine (= “blood”)
    • The death of Jesus (19:34)—blood and water

Both elements (water and blood) reflect Jesus’ human life which he sacrificed (poured out) for us. The issue for the author of 1 John is that there were would-be believers (“antichrists”, who have separated from the Johannine congregations) who did not correctly believe (and confess) that Jesus “came in the flesh”—that he was born and lived on earth as a true human being (i.e., an early “docetic” view of Christ). Now, if Jesus did not exist as a true flesh-and-blood human being, then neither did he shed real (human) blood on behalf of humankind. For later Christian authors and theologians in the second and third centuries, this was the most serious consequence of a docetic Christology—if Jesus was not a real human being like us, then he could not have truly suffered and died on our behalf, and this effectively nullifies the salvific meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. In combating the docetic views of “Gnostics” and others at the time, proto-orthodox theologians such as Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian were absolutely clear on this point. The same point, it would seem, was recognized already by the author of First John. Consider the logic:

    • Jesus came “in the flesh“—i.e. incarnation, existence as a real human being
      • = came “in/through water“—a real earthly life on earth, including the period of his ministry (the beginning of which is marked by water-motifs in 1:26-34; 2:1-11)
      • not only a real earthly life (in/through water), but Jesus also
        • came “in/through blood“—a real (human) death and shedding of blood, which has saving power for humankind

Johannine theology is unique in the way that these essential Christological motifs are tied so closely to the presence of the Spirit. The association between the Spirit and water is clear enough from the passages we have studied (and are cited above); however, the precise relationship between the Spirit and blood is not as readily apparent. And yet, the statements in vv. 6b-8 bring all three elements, or aspects, together into a triad. This is the subject which we will be discussing in the next note.

References above marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982). Those marked “Ehrman” are to B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

May 22: Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20

In this series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, it is now time to turn our attention to the Holy Spirit references in Luke-Acts. As we shall see, the Spirit is such an important theme, developed throughout the two-volume work, that it is important to study the Gospel and Acts in tandem. However, it is necessary first to begin with the Holy Spirit in relation to the key tradition of Jesus’ miraculous birth (properly, his conception).

The Conception/Birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)

It is generally agreed by commentators that the Infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 & Luke 1-2 represent a later level of Gospel tradition than, for example, the Passion and Resurrection narratives or most of the sayings/parables of Jesus, etc. This does not mean that they are unhistorical, only that the traditions likely were collected, developed and given basic written/narrative form at a slightly later point in time. As a basic estimate, if the core Passion narrative took shape c. 30-40 A.D., then the Infancy narrative(s), by comparison, may have developed c. 50-60 A.D. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that no reference is made to the birth of Jesus in early preaching recorded in the book of Acts (at the historical level, c. 30-50+ A.D.), and is scarcely mentioned in the letters of Paul, etc. The story of Jesus’ birth would seem to have played little or no role in the earliest Christian preaching and instruction. Despite this fact, it is clear that both Matthew and Luke draw upon a common set of basic traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, which must pre-date by a number of years the written Gospels (i.e. sometime before 70 A.D.). A central tenet and belief in this Gospel tradition is the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ birth. This is recorded in three verses—twice in Matthew’s narrative, and once in Luke (part of the famous Angelic annunciation to Mary):

Matthew 1:18—Following an introductory genealogy (vv. 1-17), the Infancy narrative proper begins in verse 18:

“The coming-to-be [i.e. birth] of Yeshua (the) Anointed was thus: His mother Maryam being called to mind (for marriage) [i.e. betrothed/engaged] to Yôseph, (but) before their coming together, she was found holding (child) in (the) womb out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:20—Verse 19 briefly narrates Joseph’s character (di/kaio$, “just/right[eous]”) and his decision to loose Mary from the engagement quietly/secretly. In verse 20, a Messenger of the Lord (i.e. Angel) appears to Joseph in a dream and makes the following declaration:

“Yôseph, son of Dawid, you should not fear to take along Maryam (as) your woman [i.e. wife]: for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Both passages use the specific phrase “out of the holy Spirit” [e)k pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou]. For the idea of being born out of the Holy Spirit, see the important references in John 3:5-6, 8, where it is applied to believers. Here it refers to Jesus, and to his actual (physical/biological) birth. When we turn to the Lukan narrative, we find the reference to the Holy Spirit in a very similar context—as part of an Angelic announcement, but to Mary rather than Joseph.

Luke 1:35—This is part of the famous Annunciation passage (Lk 1:26-38), which we may outline as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27)—summarizing the setting for the heavenly Messenger Gabriel’s appearance to Mary
    • The Angel’s Greeting (v. 28)
      —Mary’s response: surprise and uncertainty (v. 29)
    • The Angel’s announcement (vv. 30-33), prefaced by the traditional assurance (“Do not fear…”)
      —Mary’s response: question (“How will this be so…?” v. 34)
    • The Angel’s response: the sign (vv. 35-37)
      —Mary’s response: acceptance (v. 38)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 38b)

This follows the basic narrative pattern in the Old Testament for Angelic appearances (including birth announcements), as I have discussed in prior notes (and cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1977, 1993,  pp. 155-60, 296-8). The core announcement of verses 30-33 may further be divided:

    • Assurance (v. 30)—”Do not fear, Maryam, for you have found favor alongside [i.e. before] God”
    • Birth announcement (v. 31)—”And, see! you will take/receive together in (the) womb and you will produce a son, and you will call his name ‘Yeshua'”
    • Fivefold promise/prophecy of the child’s future (vv. 32-33)—
      • “he will be great”
      • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest'”
      • “the Lord God will give to him the (ruling) seat of his father Dawid”
      • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Ya’aqob into the Age”
      • “there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom”

There are unquestionable Messianic phrases and concepts in the prophecy of vv. 32-33. Mary’s response (question) relates to the apparent impossibility of her having a child: “How will it be so, seeing (that) I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Here the verb “know” preserves a Semitic idiom for sexual relations, and expresses the tradition of Mary’s virginity prior to bearing Jesus (also found in Matt 1:18 [above]). In verses 35-37 the Messenger gives a three-fold sign, explaining or confirming the truthfulness of the announcement:

    • Prophecy regarding the Divine source of Jesus’ conception (v. 35)
    • The miraculous conception by Elizabeth, who (being old/barren) similarly could not naturally bear a child (v. 36)
    • A declaration of the power of God to bring about anything he has uttered, i.e. through His Messenger (v. 37)

The reference to the Holy Spirit is in the prophecy of verse 35:

“The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you—therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

The first part of the verse presents two synonymous phrases in (poetic) parallel:

  • The holy Spirit—will come upon [e)pi] you
    The power of the Highest—will cast shade upon [e)pi] you

Despite an orthodox tendency to relate these two phrases with different members of the Trinity (“power” being associated with the Son), there can be little doubt that “holy Spirit” and “power of the Highest” are more or less synonymous expressions here. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the Spirit was not so much a distinct person as a manifestation of the presence and (life-giving) power of God (YHWH). This is important in light of how the concept and theme of the Holy Spirit is developed throughout Luke-Acts. The Infancy narratives preserve much of the Old Testament/Jewish background from which the new Faith (Christianity) would come forth—indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the important religious forms and patterns found in Old Testament tradition. The reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (“out of the holy Spirit”) simply indicates the divine source of Jesus’ conception, without saying anything about how this takes place. By contrast, in Luke’s account, the Angel provides vivid and colorful imagery—but how exactly should we understand these two verbs (e)pe/rxomai [“come upon”], e)piskia/zw [“cast shade upon”]) as they are used here?

e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”)—of the nine New Testament occurrences of this verb, seven are in Luke-Acts, most notably a parallel reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in Acts 1:8. This prophecy by Jesus, similar and with a position in Acts comparable to the prophecy of Gabriel, will be discussed in an upcoming note. The verb can have the sense of something literally (physically) coming upon a person, but more commonly in the general sense of something happening (i.e. coming near) which will dramatically affect the person. It is used several times in the Old Testament in a sense similar to that of Acts 1:8 (cf. 1 Sam 11:7; Isa 32:15 LXX).

e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon”)—this verb really only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (with two parallel references), including twice in Luke-Acts in a context that is especially relevant to its use here:

  • Luke 9:34 par—the cloud in the Transfiguration scene is said to “cast shade/shadow upon” the three disciples; this image, of course, alludes to the Old Testament theophany of YHWH at Sinai and in the Desert (cf. Exod 13:21ff; 19:9, 16). For the verb used of the divine Cloud in the LXX, cf. Exod 40:34f.
  • Acts 5:15—it is related that Peter’s shadow was thought (by the people) to bring healing to the sick when it “cast shade/shadow upon” them. It is not clear from the context of the narrative whether this genuinely took place, or reflects a popular belief associated with Peter.

These two occurrences inform its use in Lk 1:35; the basic meaning is two-fold, as a vivid expression for the manifestation to human beings of (a) the presence of God (i.e. the Cloud), and (b) the power of God. It is unwise to read anything further than this into the text. The result of this divine “overshadowing”, of course, is declared in the last portion of verse 35: “therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, the Son of God”. It is probably best to read the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) as a substantive in apposition to “Son of God”, both being predicate to the verb “will be called”; in other words, we have here two names or titles which (will) belong to Jesus:

Birth of the Son of God: Mark 1:9-11 par

The octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) in the West has traditionally commemorated the baptism of Jesus. It is in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as recorded in the Gospels, that we find some of the most intriguing and provocative references to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes).

Mark 1:9-11 par

The core narrative, in its clearest form, is that of Mark 1:9-11:

  • In verse 9 it is simply stated that Jesus was dunked/dipped (i.e. baptized) in the Jordan river by John
  • In verse 10, a three-fold sequence of ascent/descent is narrated:
    • Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
      —he saw the heavens splitting open
    • The Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai/nwn] (out of heaven) into/unto him
  • In verse 11—”there came to be a voice out of the heavens: “You are my Son the (be)loved, I think/consider good in you [i.e. I think well of you, I have delight in you]”

Both Matthew and Luke include tradition(s) regarding John’s ministry (Matt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20), which expands the narrative. Luke’s account of the baptism itself (Lk 3:21-22) is rather brief, shorter even than that in Mark, with several extra details:

  • It is mentioned that, while being baptized, Jesus was praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God]”)
  • Instead of Jesus seeing the heavens split open, it is simply stated that “the heaven opened up”
  • It is said that the Spirit descends in bodily appearance as a dove
  • (For the textual variants involving the words of the heavenly voice, cf. below)

Matthew includes a brief exchange between John and Jesus (Matt 3:13-15), but otherwise his account of the baptism is essentially a blend of the wording in Mark and Luke. The heavenly voice differs slightly—”This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good“—as a declaration rather than a personal address to Jesus.

The Gospel of John does not given an account of the baptism as such—it is narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony in Jn 1:29-34. The concluding declaration essentially takes the place of the heavenly voice in identifying Jesus as God’s Son:

“and I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34)

The Johannine account (Jn 1:29-34) is discussed in more detail in an upcoming note.

Textual variants in Luke 3:22 and John 1:34

There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:

  1. In John 1:34 (cf. above), instead of “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), several manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2* syrs,c) read “the (one) gathered out [i.e. Chosen one] of God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=) or the conflation “the Chosen Son of God” (a ff2c syrpal sah). The conflate reading is certainly secondary, but some scholars have argued that “the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” is original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 69-70). However, the external manuscript evidence, as well as Johannine usage, would seem to favor “the Son of God”.
  2. In Luke 3:22, a number of (Western) witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) record the heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7—”You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”—instead of the declaration “You are my (be)loved Son…” It is also attested by quite a few Church Fathers in the 2d-4th centuries, and a minority of textual critics accept it as original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 62-67). I have discussed the question in some detail in a previous note.

Psalm 2:7, of course, was one of the principal “Messianic” passages interpreted as referring to Jesus in the early Church, as I have noted on a number of occasions. The oldest application seems to have been to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven—i.e., the moment when he is “born” as God’s Son—as indicated by its use in Acts 13:32-33ff [note the similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36]; cf. also Rom 1:4 and Rom 8:22-23, 29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. Orthodox Christology would come to understand Psalm 2:7 (along with Ps 110:1) in terms of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent Sonship, as association which is already reflected in Heb 1:5ff. Actually, Hebrews seems to combine both views—Jesus as pre-existent Son and “Son” as a result of the resurrection/exaltation—based on a careful study of chapter 1 and the way Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are cited in chapter 5 (cf. also Heb 2:8-13, etc). We find a similar combination in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:6-11).

The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:35)

There is a clear parallel with the Baptism of Jesus in the Transfiguration scene narrated in the Synoptics (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Lk 9:28-36) and referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18. In Mark 9:7, a voice from Heaven declares:

This is my Son the (be)loved, hear [i.e. listen to] him!”

The italicized portion is closest to the form of the divine voice in Matthew’s account of the Baptism (cf. above), also reflected in the Matthean Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:5):

This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good—hear him!”

The words in italics are identical to that of the voice in Matt 3:17, which strongly suggests that an original 2nd person address there was modified to match the form in the Transfiguration scene (and vice versa!). The Lukan version (Lk 9:35) matches the shorter form in Mark, with one major difference (noted by italics):

“This is my Son the (One) gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One], hear him!”

Instead of the adjective a)gaphto/$ (“[be]loved”), Luke has the participle e)klelegme/no$ (“having been gathered out”). While many manuscripts of Lk 9:35, naturally enough, read a)gaphto/$ (harmonizing with Matt/Mark), e)klelegme/no$ is most likely original (cf. TCGNT, p. 124, and Ehrman, pp. 67-68). The verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “select, choose”) is relatively common in Luke-Acts (11 of the 22 NT occurrences), but is used elsewhere in the Synoptics only once (Mark 13:20).

Finally, we should mention the reference to the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17, which, interestingly enough, matches the version in Matthew (specifically Matthew’s account of the Baptism):

“This is my Son, my (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good”
Differs from Matt 3:17 only in word order and inclusion of a second mou (“my”)

The Symbolism of Baptism

A number of key passages in the New Testament which refer either to believers as “sons/children” of God, or specifically as being “born”, are in a context relating in some way to baptism. Most of these have already been discussed in the previous Christmas season notes; I point out here again the most relevant passages:

  • John 3:3-8—especially significant is the expression “come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5), parallel to “come to be (born) from above” in v. 3. Nearly all of the instances in the New Testament where water and Spirit are juxtaposed refer to baptism—either of Jesus or of believers (Mark 1:8-10 par; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47; 11:16; the reference in 1 John 5:6-8 is more complicated).
  • Galatians 3:26-27ff—the idea of believers as the “sons of God” (v. 26, cf. also v. 29) is connected specifically with baptism in verse 27.
  • Romans 6:3-4ff; 8:12-23, 29—In Paul’s thought, baptism is symbolic of the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4ff; cf. also Col 2:12). As pointed out above, it is through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood as God’s “Son” in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:4, etc), and it is also the means by which believers are “born” as “sons/children” of God, at least in one strand of Christian tradition (cf. Rom 8:12-23, 29; 1 Pet 1:3; Heb 2:10, also 1 Cor 15:20, 23, 36-37, 42ff). On the specific expression “firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), cf. the prior article.

This concludes the series of Christmas season notes, devoted to the theme of “the Birth of the Son of God”. During this season, it is right and proper that we should celebrate both Jesus own birth—whether from Mary, in the Baptism, by his Resurrection, or eternally from God—as well as our own birth as sons and daughters, children of God, in union with Christ. It is to be hoped that this survey and study of all the New Testament passages related to this theme has been informative and enriching, in at least some small way, for those who have followed it.

References above marked “TCGNT” are to the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1994/2002); those marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Birth of the Son of God: The Firstborn

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

One specific image related to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the firstborn. In Greek, the word typically translated “firstborn” is prwto/toko$ (prœtótokos), which is more accurately rendered “first-produced“. The component word to/ko$ (tókos), like te/knon (téknon), both derive from the verb ti/ktw and refer fundamentally to something which is produced, as in the concrete sense of something coming out of the ground (from a seed) or out of the mother’s body. The word te/knon (plural te/kna) is normally translated “child”, but I have tried to preserve something of the etymology by rendering it as “offspring”. The term prwto/toko$ is used eight times in the New Testament (Luke 2:7; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev 1:5, cf. also Lk 2:23). The corresponding Hebrew word is rokB=, referring to something which comes early (or first); the closely related plural word <yr!WKB! refers to the early/first ripened grain and fruit that is harvested (i.e. “firstfruits”). In Greek, a different word (a)parxh/) is used for “firstfruits”, unrelated to prwto/toko$ (“firstborn”); it specifically means the beginning of i.e. the harvest.

Significance of the Firstborn

The (theological) importance of “firstborn” in the New Testament and early Christian thought has to be understood in terms of the ancient cultural background of the idea, especially within the context of Israelite religion. Three aspects should be noted:

1. The uniqueness of the Firstborn

Until other children are born to a husband and wife, the firstborn is unique—an only child. This is a simple fact; and yet, the uniqueness of the firstborn/only child (especially of a son) becomes an important image in Judaism and early Christianity, in two respects—the uniqueness of Israel as God’s (chosen) people, and Jesus’ unique position as God’s “Son”. Both of these points are discussed below, but it is worth pointing out that an only child may be expressed in Greek by the term monogenh/$ (monogen¢¡s). Sometimes translated (rather inaccurately) as “only-begotten”, monogenh/$ literally means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and is often used in the general sense of “only (one), one of a kind, unique,” etc. It occurs in the New Testament with the basic meaning of “only (child)”—cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb 11:17; however, in the Gospel of John it is used in reference to Jesus as the only/unique Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; also 1 Jn 4:9). In this regard, it is significant that neither the Gospel nor the Letters of John refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi] of God”, always using “offspring/children [te/kna] of God” instead—only Jesus is truly the Son [ui(o$] of God.

2. The special position of the Firstborn

Apart from any theological or religious significance, the firstborn child is bound to hold a special place for its parents (particularly the mother). In the ancient Near East, far more than in Western societies today, there was a decided negative stigma attached to the woman who was barren or otherwise childless (cf. for example, the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth in Luke 1:25). Consider also the far higher rate of infant mortality, along with inherent dangers of childbirth, in ancient cultures—the birth of the first living child would have been a particular source of joy and relief. Within the family and household, the firstborn held a position of prominence, with the first born son being regarded as the primary (or sole) heir (cf. Gen 27:19, 32; 29:26; 43:33; 48:18; 49:3, etc).

Beyond this, however, according to the ancient tradition recorded in the Pentateuch (and preserved as commands in the Torah), God declared that all firstborn—especially the first born males, of humans and animals alike—are set apart, belonging specially to Him (Exod 13:2, 12). This is expressed dramatically within the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:22-23; 11:5; chaps 12-13) and as a legal-religious principle throughout the Torah (Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:12-13, etc). It would seem that, initially, the idea was that the firstborn sons would serve as priests before God for the family and community, eventually being replaced, within the priestly construct centered around the Tabernacle/Temple, by the members of the tribe of Levi (Num 3:40-50; 8:16-18). With the Levites now serving this role, but in order to preserve the consecrated status of the firstborn, a ritual was established by which the family would symbolically “buy back” the child—sometimes referred to as the redemption of the firstborn (cf. Num 3:46ff). Joseph and Mary fulfilled this regulation for Jesus at the Temple precincts (according to Luke 2:22b-23). Interestingly, Paul also connects sonship with redemption in Galatians 4:4-7, but in a different sense: Christ, through his sacrificial death, buys humankind out from bondage under the Law (and from slavery to sin), which makes it possible for believers (in Christ) to become sons of God. For more on this, see below.

3. Israel as God’s “Firstborn”

In several key Old Testament passages (Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Mal 3:1, also Sirach 36:17), the people of Israel (collectively) are referred to as God’s “son” in a symbolic or spiritual sense. Twice, however, Israel is specifically called God’s firstborn son—in Exod 4:22 and Jer 31:9—the reference in Exodus begin connected with the death of the firstborn in Egypt. It was through the Exodus that Israel, in a very real sense, was “born” as God’s children. For more on this association, see the deutero-canonical Wisdom 18:5-19 (esp. verse 13). Eventually, the righteous would be described as God’s “son” (or “sons, children”) in a similar manner (cf. my earlier note on this point).

Jesus and Believers as “Firstborn”

To begin with, simply on the historical level, Mary gave birth to Jesus as her “firstborn” child (Luke 2:7, cf. Matt 1:25). According to Gospel tradition (in the Infancy narratives), Mary was a virgin prior to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus (Lk 1:27, 34; Matt 1:18-25); this, in and of itself, provides special significance to the idea of Jesus as “firstborn”. As mentioned above, his parents faithfully fulfilled the religious and legal requirement with regard to the consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22-23). The reference to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) has prompted a good deal of speculation on the question of whether Joseph and Mary and other (natural) children together, especially in the overall context of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are several other ways that Jesus may be understood as the “firstborn”, that is, of God:

  • The use of monogenh/$ in reference to Jesus as the only (true) Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9, and cf. above)—reflecting a special relationship to God the Father, indicating divine nature and pre-existence. Cf. also the use of “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6.
  • The Anointed One (“Messiah/Christ”) as the “son of God”—drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern idea of the king as God’s “son”, a similar idea is expressed of the Israelite (Davidic) ruler in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, both passages coming to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition (cf. 4Q174; Acts 13:32-33; Heb 1:5; 5:5), where it was applied to Jesus. In Psalm 89:27, this Davidic ruler is further called God’s “firstborn”; there may be similar ‘Messianic’ reference to a king as (God’s) firstborn in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q369 (cf. also 4Q458).
  • Jesus as “firstborn” (or “firstfruits”) in terms of the resurrection. As I have previously discussed, by all accounts, it is in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to Heaven), that Jesus was understood to be “born” as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching—cf. Acts 13:32-37 (citing Psalm 2:7, and note a similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36, cp. Heb 1:5, 13; 5:5); and Romans 1:3-4. The same early kerygma would seem to underlie the references to Jesus as “firstborn” in Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; and Rev 1:5.

Along with the numerous passages in the New Testament where believers are called the “sons” (ui(oi/) or “offspring/children” (te/kna) of God, in several instances, the expression “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) is also used:

Romans 8:29

“…(the ones) whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) before(hand) (to be) together in (the) form/shape of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-produced [prwto/toko$ i.e. ‘firstborn’] among many brothers”

Here the key phrase is summo/rfou$ th=$ ei)ko/no$ tou= ui(ou= au)tou= (“together in the form/shape of the image of His Son”). Paul elsewhere refers to Jesus as the ei)kw/n (“image”) of God in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15—the last of these is noteworthy since it combines ei)kw/n specifically with prwto/toko$—and cf. also 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18, where likewise believers are said to become formed into the image of Christ. In Paul’s thought, this conformity with Christ is the result of our identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:5-11; 8:9-11; Gal 2:19-20, etc). This takes place through trust/faith in Christ and by the work of the Spirit, symbolized in the ritual of baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:12). Earlier in Rom 8:18-25 Paul develops the image of creation groaning (like a woman in labor) waiting for the manifestation of (i.e. giving ‘birth’ to) the “sons of God” (believers); and we, too, groan within for the same thing (v. 23)—even though we are already God’s “sons/children” through faith in Christ and by the Spirit, this will not be fully realized until the resurrection at the end-time (described as “the redemption [lit. loosing from {bondage}] of our bodies”).

Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5

The expression prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n (“first-produced [i.e. firstborn] out of the dead [pl.]”) in Col 1:18; Rev 1:5 must be understood in a similar manner as the use of prwto/toko$ in Rom 8:29. Christ, in being raised from the dead, becomes the first of many “sons/children” (believers), who will likewise be raised at the end time—even now, we are united spiritually in his resurrection. In this sense, we, as believers, are not only “children of God”, but are in union with the true (firstborn) Son, and partake of this (collective) “firstborn” status.

Hebrews 12:23

The reference in Heb 12:22-24 is to the divine/heavenly inheritance that waits for believers, and that is already being experienced now, by faith (cf. chapter 11):

22but you have come toward mount ‚iyyôn {Zion} and (the) city of (the) living God, Yerûshalaim {Jerusalem} upon-the-Heaven(s), and the multitude of Messengers all gathered (in one place), 23and the assembly of the first-born having been written from (the list) in the Heavens, and God (the) judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just/righteous (one)s having been made complete, 24and Yeshua (the) mediator of the new (agreement) set forth, and the blood of (ritual) sprinkling…”

It may not be clear in translation, but the nouns throughout vv. 22-24 are in the dative case, each related back to the verb proselhlu/qate (“you have come toward…”)—that believers approaching Heaven will encounter:

    • Mount Zion, identified also as “city of the living God” and “Jerusalem upon the Heavens [i.e. Heavenly Jerusalem]”
    • The multitude of (heavenly) Messengers [i.e. Angels] all gathered together, as in the town/city square (a)gora/)
    • The assembly of the firstborn…the spirits of the just/righteous ones… (v. 23ff)

In context, the identification of the “firstborn” is not entirely certain. Some commentators have thought that it is parallel with the “multitude of (heavenly) Messengers” in v. 22, referring to the Angels. The reference to the firstborn being enrolled or registered (“written [down] from [the list]”) in Heaven, however, makes it more likely that human saints (believers) are meant—cf., for example, Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:29; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 13:18; 17:8. It is interesting the way that verses 23-24 are structured:

    • Assembly of the first born
      —written down in Heaven
    • God the Judge of all
    • Spirits of the just/righteous ones
      —made complete
    • Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant

The parallelism seems to make clear that the “firstborn” are the same as the “just/righteous” ones—i.e., human believers. The basic scenario is that of standing before God as Judge, with Jesus in his mediating role as Priest, who has established a new covenant between God and His people (believers), through his sacrificial and atoning death (note the qualifying phrase in verse 24, “the blood of [ritual] sprinkling”).

Birth of the Son of God: The Kingdom of God

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

As a follow-up to the recent notes on believers as “sons/children of God”, today I would like to examine the connection between sonship and the kingdom of God. It is not possible in this relatively brief discussion to provide a comprehensive treatment of the “kingdom of God” as a concept or topic; however, a number of key points and observations will be offered here.

The Kingdom

To begin with, contrary to some commentators, I find little distinction between the use or meaning of the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven (lit. ‘of the Heavens’)”. The latter is found exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew, and a comparison of parallel passages and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, demonstrates more or less decisively that the expressions are synonymous (and interchangeable). Which is not to say that the Gospel of Matthew does not have specific reasons for using “Heaven” instead of “God”. Exactly how, or to what extent, the different idioms (in Greek) relate to the actual words of Jesus (the ipsissima verba, probably spoken in Aramaic) continues to be debated.

The Kingdom-concept appears to have a fairly wide range of meaning, but it is possible, I believe, to isolate three primary aspects or elements:

  1. Rule and authority—that is to say, of God as king. While, from the human perspective, God rules and exercises sovereignty, primarily from heaven, he has also made his will known to people on earth—principally through the commands and communication revealed and preserved in the Scriptures. Eventually, God will enforce his rule more fully and directly upon the world (at the end time).
  2. Dominion—by this is meant the area (domain) that is subject to God and the means by which he rules; one may divide this into two additional aspects: (a) the people who are under his rule and obedient to it (i.e. the “righteous”), and (b) the rule of God in terms of the Law (or “laws”, i.e. commands, precepts, etc) under which the ‘Kingdom’ is governed. According to Pauline thought and terminology, especially, the “Law of God” is synonymous with the “Will of God”.
  3. Eschatology—at the time of the New Testament, and in Jesus’ own day, the “Kingdom of God” was understood primarily in terms of the rule of God which will be realized over humankind (and all things) and the end of the (present) Age. Several related ideas and expectations were brought together, variously, in this context: (a) God’s end-time Judgment of human beings, (b) the specific judgment against the wicked/idolatrous “Nations”, (c) the restoration of Israel, and (d) the reward of the righteous (who have been suffering during the current wicked Age). The expectation of an Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah/Christ), from the line of David, whose appearance would attend (or govern) these eschatological events, appears to have been relatively common in the 1st centuries B.C/A.D.

The initial proclamation of Jesus was to announce that this coming Kingdom was now arriving: “The time has been (ful)filled, the Kingdom of God has come near…!” (Mark 1:15 par). The vast majority of references to “the kingdom of God/Heaven” in the New Testament, in fact, come from Jesus’ own teaching (and virtually all from the Synoptic Gospels, except for John 3:3-5). These can generally be divided into several categories:

“Inheriting” and “Entering” the Kingdom

A principal metaphor, encompassing both ethical and eschatological aspects of the Kingdom concept, is that of inheriting or entering the Kingdom. The two idioms are, it would seem, generally synonymous, and are rooted clearly in the idea of believers (or the righteous) passing the (end-time) judgment before the heavenly/divine tribunal. This is especially so in terms of “entering” the Kingdom; whereas inheritance may also carry the connotation that believers (or the righteous) have already (previously) been appointed a share (i.e. lot) and place in the Kingdom. It is certainly true that one sees a kind of “realized” eschatology throughout much of the New Testament, drawn largely, I would say, from the basic idea of the covenant God established with his people (Israel)—if believers remain faithful, they will inherit that which God has prepared for them.

“Enter” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23-25; Luke 18:17, 24-25; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; see also Mark 9:43, 45; Matt 7:13; 8:11; 18:8-9; 19:17; 25:21, 23; Lk 11:52; 13:24, 29; Heb 3:11, 18-19; 4:1-6, 10-11; 10:19; Rev 21:27; 22:14 and John 10:1-2, 9.

“Inherit” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5. For the parallel idea of inheriting eternal life, cf. Mark 10:17 par; and for similar language involving inheritance, cf. Mark 12:7 par; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:32; Gal 3:18ff; 4:30; Col 1:12; 3:24; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Heb 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4.

With regard to each of these expressions, there are two particular ideas or images which especially relate to believers as “sons/children of God”:

It is necessary to examine this last image in a bit more detail.

Believers as Heirs (to the Kingdom)

As indicated above, this motif is connected with the idea of believers (or the righteous) inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the sons who inherit the father’s estate, and, especially the eldest/firstborn son. This is expressed in early Christian thought by the theological (and Christological) premise that Jesus is the true “Son” and heir of God (cf. Mark 12:7 par; Hebrews 1:2; Romans 8:17), which is further reinforced by reference to the Kingdom as belonging to Christ (“my Kingdom”, etc)—Luke 1:33; 22:29-30; 23:42; John 18:36; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15; 12:10; also Matthew 16:28; 26:29; Luke 19:12ff; Heb 1:8. Believers are heirs through Christ, and heirs together with him (Romans 8:17). The concept of believers as heirs of God is important within Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, contrasting the freedom of believers in Christ with slavery under the Law (the old covenant) and sin—cf. throughout Galatians 3-4 and Romans 4:13ff; 8:12-30. For other New Testament references, see James 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7; Eph 3:6; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7ff. At least once in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching, believers are specifically referred to as “sons of the Kingdom [ui(oi\ th=$ basilei/a$]” (Matt 13:38, but note the somewhat different use in Matt 8:12).

The specific motif of the firstborn son will be discussed in the next article in this series.

Birth of the Son of God: Matt 5:9, 45; Lk 6:35, etc

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

In the previous article, I looked at the theme of believers as “sons/children of God” in terms of birth—i.e., of being born—especially in the famous passage of John 3:3-8. Today, I will be surveying the New Testament references where believers are specifically called “sons” (or “children/offspring”) of God.

To begin with, we must look at the Old Testament and Jewish background of the idea. In several key passages, the people of Israel, collectively, are referred to as God’s “son”—Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6. Eventually, largely through the influence of Wisdom traditions, the righteous generally are described, on various occasions, as God’s children—cf. Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5; 16:10, 21, 26; 18:4-5; 19:6; Sirach 4:10; 23:1, 4; Jubilees 1:23-25; Psalms of Solomon 17:30. In Wisdom 2:18 and 18:13 there is a clear parallel between Israel and the righteous person: they are both called the “son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=).

In order to see how this was applied within the New Testament—both in the teaching of Jesus and as a theological/ethical motif in the Letters—let us look briefly at the relevant passages, in context:

1. “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)

Matthew 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35

“Happy the peace-makers, (in) that they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9)

This is the 7th Beatitude from the set in Matthew (5:3-12), part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In some ways it summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon (esp. that of Matt 5:21-48), as indicated by the parallel reference in Matt 5:45. As a conclusion of the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus states:

“…how as [i.e. so that] you might come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of your Father in the heavens”

The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), like the cognate genna/w (“come to be [born]”), can be used in the sense of birth/begetting, as previously indicated with regard to passages such as John 1:12-14; Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4ff, etc. The Lukan version of this saying is found in Lk 6:35:

“…and you will be [e&sesqe] sons of the Highest [ui(oi\ u(yi/stou]”

This expression matches that used of Jesus, by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Mary, in the context of Jesus’ birth:

“…and he will be [e&stai] great and (the) Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]” (Lk 1:32)

In the setting of the Beatitudes, coming to be (born) as sons of God, is effectively synonymous with inheriting/entering the Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Kingdom of the Heavens”)—Matt 5:3, 10, cf. also 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21. I will discuss this particular image in more detail in the next article in this series.

Luke 20:36

Like the Beatitudes, which have a strong eschatological emphasis, the reference in Luke 20:36 is to believers (or the righteous), i.e. those considered worthy by God (v. 35), who, in their heavenly existence (in the Kingdom of God/Heaven), will be “equal to the angels”, and, like them, are “sons of God”:

“…for they are equal to (the) Messengers and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection”

It is through the resurrection that believers are ‘born’ as sons of God. For an understanding of the resurrection in terms of birth imagery, cf. also Acts 13:33 (citing Psalm 2:7); Rom 8:18-23, 29; 1 Cor 15:20-23; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5.

Galatians 3:26

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”

In Galatians 3-4, Paul is drawing the Old Testament imagery of the children/descendants of Abraham, which he refers to as children of the promise. Christ is identified as the promised seed of Abraham (v. 16), and believers in Christ are the “sons of the promise” (v. 29). The reference to believers here as the “sons of God” draws upon the Old Testament background of the people Israel (collectively) as the “son of God” in a symbolic or spiritual sense.

Romans 8:14-15, 19, 23 (Gal 4:4-7)

Romans 8:12ff builds upon Paul’s earlier argument in Galatians 4:4-7, using similar language and phrasing at several points. In particular, Rom 8:14-15 is close to Gal 4:5b-6, as can be seen by comparison side by side:

Romans 8:14-15

“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive (the) spirit of slavery again into fear, but (rather) you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry (out) ‘Abba, Father!’

Galatians 4:5b-7a

“…(so) that we might receive from (God) placement as sons. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God set forth out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ So (too) then, you are no longer a slave, but a son…”

Here sonship is understood properly in terms of our (present) faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit. The future eschatological aspect of sonship (cf. above) comes out in vv. 19ff, with the image of creation itself waiting and groaning (in labor) to give birth. Creation (or the creature, lit. the thing formed), Paul states, is

“…looking to receive from (God) the uncovering [a)poka/luyi$] of the sons of God

The “sons of God” (i.e. believers, with/in Christ) are in the world, but their true nature and identity has not been manifested; this will only happen at the end time. Paul parallels the labor pains of creation with our own inward groaning as believers—we, too, long to see our identity realized in full:

“…and not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking to receive from (God) placement as sons…” (v. 23)

Ultimately this realized in the final resurrection, which Paul describes as “the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies”.

2. “Sons” (ui(oi/)

In several other passages, believers are referred to as “sons” in a context where it seems clear that this is generally synonymous with fuller expression “sons of God” (above).

2 Corinthians 6:18

In 2 Cor 6:16-18, a chain (catena) of Old Testament references are cited: Leviticus 26:12, Isaiah 52:11, and (it would seem) 2 Samuel 7:14. The last of these has been adapted—originally, 2 Sam 7:14 read “I will be for a Father to him, and he will be for a son to me”; however, in 2 Cor 6:18 it has been modified as “I will be unto a Father to you [pl.], and you will be unto sons and daughters to me”. Originally, the reference was to the (Davidic) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic sense; here it now refers to believers—male and female—together, much as faithful Israel and the righteous could be thought of as God’s “son” (cf. above). In 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, sonship is conditional on proper religious and ethical behavior, much as the prophecy of 2 Sam 7:14 is conditional (cf. verses 14bff). See also the connection between sonship and righteousness in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount (above).

Romans 9:26

Here we have another Scripture citation (from Hos 1:10), in the context of Gentiles (those who were “not My people”) coming to faith in Christ—”they will be called sons of the living God“. Sonship is based on acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Christ.

Hebrews 2:10

As part of a litany describing and extolling Christ’s work, the author includes: “leading many sons into glory“. The implication is that believers come to be “sons of God” along with Christ.

Hebrews 12:5-8

Believers are exhorted and disciplined by God as sons are by a father. If we are obedient and attentive, then we prove ourselves to be legitimate sons (vv. 8ff). Once again, we see the ethical basis and context of sonship clearly described.

Revelation 21:7

There is here another allusion to 2 Sam 7:14 (cf. above), within an obvious eschatological setting, with the ethical aspect now understood in terms of faithful endurance and victory in the face of intense persecution and suffering during the end time. It also draws on the traditional idea of inheriting the kingdom of God (above):

“The one being victorious will obtain as (his) lot [i.e. inherit] these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son

3. “Offspring/children of God” (te/kna qeou=)

This expression occurs numerous times in the Gospel and First Letter of John, generally in place of “sons of God” (which neither work uses). It is to be found in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2, 10; 4:4; 5:2. The ‘birth’ of believers as children of God is similar to Paul’s understanding of believers as “sons of God” (cf. above)—it is the result of trust/faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit (see the previous article for more on 1:12-14, along with 3:3-8, in this regard). 1 John 3:1-2 is interesting in the light of how names functioned in ancient thought:

  • 1 Jn 3:1: believers are called children of God (“that we might be called [klhqw=men] offspring/children of God”)—this is tied fundamentally to the idea and act of naming (i.e. naming a child), cf. Luke 1:32, 35; our being called “children of God” is specifically related to the love God showed to us (through the work of his Son, Jn 3:16, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:1-2: believers now are children of God (“now we are [e)smen] offspring/children of God”)—in ancient thought, the name embodied and represented the essential identity of a person, often in a quasi-magical manner; in Old Testament tradition, naming scenes could have a prophetic quality, which carries over into the New Testament (see esp. Luke 1:13ff, 31-33; Matt 1:21, also 16:17-19, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:2: believers will be sons of God (“…what we will be [e)so/meqa]”)—a person’s identity is fundamentally tied to his/her future destiny; ultimately believers will be something more than “offspring/children of God”—when Jesus appears again at the end time, we will see him in glory, and will be “like him”, i.e. like the Son (ui(o/$). This is perhaps part of the reason why 1 John (and the Gospel of John) does not use the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)—believers may be born as offspring (te/kna) of God, but only Jesus is truly the Son.

Paul seems to use “sons of God” and “offspring/children of God” more or less interchangeably—for example, compare Romans 8:16-17, 21 (and 9:8) with 8:14-15, 19, 23; 9:26 (see above). For other Pauline use of the expression, see Philippians 2:15 and the near parallel in Ephesians 5:1.

Birth of the Son of God: John 3:3-8

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

The next several daily notes will explore the idea of believers as “sons of God”, which ultimately cannot be separated in Christian thought from the idea of Jesus himself as the “Son of God”. I have discussed this relationship already in a number of the prior Christmas season notes (on the theme of the “Birth of the Son of God”), but it is necessary to examine in more detail just how this is expressed in the New Testament. Today I will look specifically at the motif of believers in Christ being born. This involves use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), which is related to the more general verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), as I have noted on a number of occasions previously. It is used once of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of John (Jn 18:37), along with a parallel use of gi/nomai in context of the incarnation (Jn 1:14, and vv. 15, 30). For the birth of believers, genna/w occurs in John 1:13

“the (one)s who…came to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan] out of God”

which is parallel to verse 12 (using gi/nomai):

“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring [i.e. children] of God”

The spiritual birth of believers is described with more detail and involved imagery in the famous third chapter of John.

John 3:3-8

This is part of the great dialogue (3:1-21), that begins with the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-10ff). Nicodemus starts with a polite and (semi-)reverent address (v. 2); Jesus’ response sparks the brief exchange that follows:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God” (v. 3)

The use of genna/w, along with a&nwqen (“from above”), which Nicodemus understands in the sense of “again”, is the cause of his confusion—thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical/biological birth (v. 4). Jesus’ answer is almost precisely parallel to his statement in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

In several respects, this is an example of synonymous (and/or synthetic) parallelism—first with regard to being born:

    • “from above” (a&nwqen)
    • “out of… (the) Spirit” (e)kpneu/mato$)

And, secondly, in terms of its result and effect:

    • “…(able) to see the kingdom of God”
    • “…(able) to come into [i.e. enter] the kingdom of God”

The inclusion of u%dato$ (“out of water and [the] Spirit”) is somewhat problematic (I have discussed various ways of interpreting the phrase in earlier notes); here it is sufficient to point out: (a) the traditional association between water and the Spirit (in the context of cleansing/holiness), and that (b) water and Spirit are connected in the New Testament primarily with the imagery surrounding baptism (Mark 1:8, 10 par; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47). Originally, the water for ritual dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism) was associated with cleansing; but early in Christian application, especially related to the baptism of Jesus (cf. the Gospel accounts), water came to be symbolic of a new “birth”—i.e. entry into a new life and mode of being. In Pauline terms, one dies (symbolically, with Christ’s death) and is ‘reborn’ (with Christ’s resurrection); it is precisely in context of the resurrection that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching and teaching (cf. the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33ff). The conjunction between water and the Spirit in 1 John 5:6 is more complex, and cannot be dealt with here. As far as the expression “from above” (a&nwqen) in John 3:3, this is part of the dualistic contrast in John between above and below (3:31; 8:23; 19:11), ascent and descent (Jn 1:51; 3:13; 6:62, etc), and so forth.

Within the context of the dialogue, this birth of believers is tied to the Son’s sacrificial death and exaltation (vv. 11-16), and to our trust/faith in Christ as the Son of God (vv. 17-21, cf. also 1 Jn 4:15; 5:10-13, etc). 1 John uses the same expression as in Jn 3:3, “come to be born out of God (or, out of Him)”, six (actually seven) times—always in connection with the adjectival particle pa=$ (“all, every”), to establish the condition or test for being “born of God”. This ‘birth’ has a two-fold aspect, in terms of: (a) ethical behavior (righteousness), and (b) faith/trust in Christ (as the Son of God):

  • 1 Jn 2:29—”every one doing right(eousness) has come to be born out of Him
  • 1 Jn 3:9—”every one having come to be born out of God does not do sin” (cf. also at the end of this verse)
  • 1 Jn 4:7—”every one loving has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:1—”every one trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:4—”every (thing) having come to be born out of God is victorious (over) the world”—identified with faith/trust
  • 1 Jn 5:18—”every one having come to be born out of God does not sin” (cf. 3:9)

All six (or seven) occurrences of genna/w are perfect forms—that is, indicating a past action or condition that continues on through the present (and future). Three times (2:29; 4:7; 5:1) it is an indicative in the predicate position; the other three times (3:9; 5:4, 18) it is a participle substantively modifying pa=$ o( (“every one/thing th[at]…”).

Other New Testament Passages

Galatians 4:21-31

In Gal 4:21-31, Paul also refers to spiritual birth, in the context of the Abraham narratives in Genesis—specifically interpreting the promise to Abraham, which is inherited by believers through trust in Christ and through the Spirit (Gal 3:14-18, 29). The Hagar/Sarah allegory (cf. Gen 16-17) is used to symbolize slavery and freedom—the freedom in Christ vs. slavery under the Law (and sin). Verses 23 and 29 have parallel expressions:

“the one having come to be born [gege/nnhtai]…through the promise” (v. 23)
“the one coming to be born [gennhqei\$]…according to (the) Spirit” (v. 29)

1 Peter 1:3, 23

The expression “born from above” in Jn 3:3-8 is sometimes translated “born again”; while it can be understood this way (and it is part of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words), “born again” more properly renders the verb a)nagenna/w (“come to be [born] again”), which is used only in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23.

  • v. 3our being born again, which is followed by a chain of result/purpose clauses beginning with ei)$ (“into/unto”), vv. 3-5:
    • into [ei)$] a living hope—through the resurrection of Jesus
      • into [ei)$] a lot [i.e. inheritance]…in heaven
        • into [ei)$] salvation, to be uncovered [i.e. revealed] in the last time
  • v. 23having been born again
    • through the living word/account [lo/go$] of God (parallel with the “living hope” of v. 3)—this is qualified two ways:
      —not out of decaying [i.e. corruptible, perishing] seed
      —remaining/abiding [me/nonto$] (into the Age, v. 25)

The imperishable seed (spo/ra, literally, “[thing] sown”) from which believers are born is also mentioned (using the different word spe/rma) in 1 John 3:9 (above)—here is the full reference:

“Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed is in him and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God”

Note the precise chiasm in this verse:

    • Come to be born out of God
      • Does not sin
        • God’s seed is in him
      • Not able to sin
    • Come to be born out of God

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul uses seed [spe/rma] to refer to believers under the image “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13, 16, 18; 9:7-8; Gal 3:16, 19, 29)—we come to be “children of the promise” through Christ (cf. above). Note also a similar expression in Heb 2:16.

The idea of spiritual ‘rebirth’ (or “regeneration”) is also expressed in Titus 3:5, using the nouns paliggenesi/a (“coming to be [i.e. born] back [again]”, cf. also Matt 19:28) and a)nakai/wsi$ (“being [made] new again, renewal”, cf. in Rom 12:2).

January 13: Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22

The Octave of Epiphany (that is, seven days after Epiphany), January 13, is the traditional date (in the West) for celebrating the Baptism of Jesus by John; although more recently, it has been commemorated on the Sunday after Epiphany. All four Gospels contain accounts of the Baptism (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; and, in a roundabout way, John 1:29-34), and it was a keystone reference in early preaching (Acts 1:1-15; 10:37; 13:24-25), primarily as a way of marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. However, very quickly it became a fundamental Christological text—the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Divine Voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God; and it is perhaps not surprising that major textual variants are associated with both of these elements.

Nearly all Christians, then and now, have believed that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God”; however, the problem has always been exactly how, or in what way, this is to be understood—that is, what does the title and attribution actually entail?

To begin with, in the early Church there would seem to be four principal ideas associated with the “birth” of Jesus as God’s “Son” (I cite them roughly in chronological order of development—at least, in so far as they appear in the New Testament):

  1. By the resurrection, God glorified Jesus, declaring/appointing him as His Son: Rom 1:3-4; Acts 10:33f; also (later) Hebrews 1:5. The last two references specifically cite Psalm 2:7.
  2. At his baptism, God declared Jesus to be His Son: Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22; also John 1:34; and cf. Acts 10:37-38. The language used by the Divine Voice seems to echo Psalm 2:7 (see on the key variant at Luke 3:22 below); see also the parallel occurrence in the Transfiguration scene (Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:35; and 2 Peter 1:17).
  3. The incarnation proper: Jesus was “born” in human flesh as God’s Son: Matthew 1:20, 23; see especially in the Lukan Infancy Narrative—1:31-32, 35, 43; 2:11, 40; see also Gal. 4:4; Rom. 8:3; and (perhaps) the variant reading of John 1:13.
  4. Begotten in eternity as pre-existent Son of God: John 1:1-18 (esp. vv. 14, 18); 3:16-18; and elsewhere in the gospel and epistles of John. For other possible references to pre-existence, see Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4; Heb 1:2-12; for the pre-existence of Christ, without specific reference to sonship, see esp. Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20.
    (For the moment, I am excluding other references in the Gospels: confessions of disciples, statements by hostile witness, the devil and demons, etc.)

Today, certainly, we tend to think of Jesus as Son of God, in terms of #3 and 4 above; whereas it is clear that, for many in the early Church, #1 and 2 were at least as important. In fact, according to theologians and apologists of the second and third centuries, there were a number of “Gnostics” and Jewish Christians who held rather a different view of the person of Christ on this basis:

(1) Some apparently held that Jesus was an “ordinary” human being (yilo$ a&nqrwpo$) who was raised by God to the status of Divine Son, either at the resurrection/ascension, or at his baptism. This Christological view is generally referred to, somewhat inaccurately, as Adoptionism (i.e, Jesus was ‘adopted’ as God’s Son). It was claimed that Jewish-Christians such as the so-called Ebionites, and several prominent arch-heretics (Theodotus, Artemon, Paul of Samosata, etc.), along with their followers, held Adoptionist views. See Irenaeus Against Heresies I.26.2; III.21.1; V.1.3; Origen, Against Celsus V.61; Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies VII.22-23 [35f]; X.18-19 [23f]; Eusebius, Church History III.27; V.28; VII. 27-30; Epiphanius, Panarion 54.

(2) Other “Gnostic” believers seem to have thought in terms of a two-person union: the unique human being Jesus (possessing a kind of divine, purified flesh) joined together with the Divine Christ (to make the combined being “Jesus Christ”). This conjunction took place at the baptism, and ended (was separated) at his death on the cross. According to the essential Gnostic/dualistic worldview, the Divine could have no real contact with the evil, corrupt material order; this particular Christology (Separatism) allowed for only marginal connection with human nature—just enough for the Christ to bring the necessary knowledge of salvation to humankind. The arch-heretic Cerinthus, as well as the Valentinians, are generally described as espousing a Separatist Christology. See Irenaeus Against Heresies I.7.2, 21.2, 26.1, 30.12-15; III.16; Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 27; Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies VI.26-30, 46; VII.15, 21-24; X. 17; Eusebius, Church History III.28; Epiphanius, Panarion 28.

Many of the scripture passages cited above could be interpreted along the lines of these Christological (Adoptionist and Separatist) ‘heresies’. It was perhaps the passages describing Jesus’ Baptism which were most problematic, as a number of the patristic citations will attest. In this regard, I point out two major variant readings, one from Mark’s account, the other from Luke:

Mark 1:10:

Here it states that the Holy Spirit w($ peristeran katabai=non ei)$ au)to/n (“coming down as a dove into/unto him”), which is the reading of many of the best manuscripts (B D f13 2427 pc), and is probably original. However, the majority of witnesses (a A L W Q f1 33 Byz lat syr) read instead w($ peristeran katabai=non e)p’ au)to/n (“coming down as a dove upon him”). The preposition ei)$ can mean “in(to)”, or more generally “unto”, often with a sense of direction implied (“to/toward”). However, in the more concrete sense, the phrase could be taken to mean that the Spirit came down “into” Jesus, i.e., to empower/join with him—an idea perhaps susceptible to a Gnostic interpretation. I am not aware of any Church Father who cites this variant, though Irenaeus does suggest that those who “separate Jesus from Christ” prefer the Gospel of Mark (Against Heresies III.11.7), and could well make use of the verse. Matthew and Luke, if they make use of Mark’s Gospel, have changed the preposition; in any event, they both read e)pi instead of ei)$ (a few MSS of Matthew actually read pro$ [“toward”], which softens the image even further).

Luke 3:22:

In the majority of Manuscripts, the Heavenly Voice states: su ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaph/to$, e)n soi eu)do/khsa (“You are my beloved Son, in you I have [good] pleasure [lit. think well off]”), which is identical with the Majority text of Mark (1:11), and similar to that of Matthew (3:17, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I have [good] pleasure”). However, in Codex D [Bezae] and a number of Old Latin MSS (a b c d ff2, l, r1) and quite a few Church Fathers, the reading is: ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/, e)gw/ sh/meron geg/nnhka/ se (“You are my Son, today I have caused you to be [born] [i.e. begotten you]”)—a quotation from Psalm 2:7. The primary patristic citations for this reading are as follows: Justin Martyr [Dialogue with Trypho 88, 103], Clement of Alexandria [Paedagogus I.25], Origen [Commentary on John I.29 {32}], Methodius [Symposium VIII.9], the Didascalia [93], Lactantius [Institutes IV.15], Hilary of Poitiers [On the Trinity VIII.25], Augustine [Harmony II.14, Enchiridion 49, Against Faustus 23], and so forth; it was also, apparently, the text found in the so-called Gospel According to the Hebrews [cf. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 11, 12] and Gospel of the Ebionites [cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13], which may be derived from Luke’s reading, and in the Apocryphal Acts [e.g., Acts of Peter and Paul sect. 29]. It is sometimes difficult to know when a Church Father is citing a specific Gospel, but most of these references would seem to be from Luke.

Normally, when a reading is found in just a single Greek manuscript (and in only one language among Versions), that would be enough to mark it clearly as secondary; however, when the reading is also attested by such a wide range of early Church Fathers and writings, it should give one pause. In terms of transcriptional probabilities, it does seem more likely that scribes would harmonize according to a parallel passage in another Gospel, than to a quotation from the Greek OT. Yet, there can be no doubt that early Christians would have read and understood the Heavenly voice in the Markan (and Matthean) account largely in terms of Psalm 2:7—clearly it was a popular Messianic (and Christological) passage, for it is cited on at least three other occasions (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5) in the New Testament. So, the textual evidence remains divided, and a number of scholars do accept the minority reading as original (for a good summary and defense of this position, see Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture pp. 62-67, and notes).

However, even if the minority reading does not represent the original text, most of the Church Fathers who cite it (see above) certainly thought that it did, and realize how it could be misconstrued or misunderstood. They take pains to clarify that Jesus did not “become” God’s Son at his baptism—that he was already Son of God at his birth (and before). In so doing, the text had to be explained to avoid the metaphysical implications of the passage. Today, most commentators do not labor under the heavy weight of Psalm 2:7 as a Christological passage—rather, the second Psalm is recognized, in its historical context, as primarily referring to the ordination/inauguration of the (Davidic) king, utilizing common Near Eastern symbolism of king as “son of God”. As such, it still retains all of its Messianic force applied to Jesus, but it is not meant to bear the full burden of Orthodox Christology. A thoughtful, balanced understanding of Jesus Christ as Son of God, takes into account the entire witness of the New Testament (and Early Church)—including the Baptism narratives; and I would suggest that both readings of Luke 3:22 are worthy of consideration.

The Greek word ba/ptw properly means to “dip” (prim. into a liquid, such as cloth into dye); the intensive verb bapti/zw by extension means to “sink, submerge, immerse” or, metaphorically, “overwhelm”. So, instead of “John the Baptist”, one would translate more literally as “John/Yoµanan the Dipper [or Immerser]” and the Baptism of Jesus would be referred to as “the Dipping [or Immersing] of Jesus/Yeshua”. However, this does not necessarily mean that the first ‘Baptisms’ (either by John or early Christians) were properly full-immersions. The commonly received image is of a person standing (or kneeling) partly submerged, with water lifted out and poured over the head; and this may well be what was done, at the historical level, for Jesus. And, while it is hardly worth fighting over, I would suggest that there is value to the ancient symbolism of “entering the waters” (meaning at least a partial immersion), which ought to be preserved (or restored) in congregations today.