April 2 (2): John 16:33; 19:30

John 16:33; 19:30

This second daily note (for Good Friday) looks at two declarations by Jesus in the Passion narrative of the Gospel of John. Each marks the end, or climax, of the narrative, in different ways: 16:33 is the end of the Last Discourse (the teaching/ministry of Jesus to his disciples), while 19:30 marks the very end of his earthly life and ministry, and serves as the climax to the entire Passion Narrative. There is thus a clear parallelism between these two declarations, and they also express a common theme and message. It will be worth examining each statement in this regard.

John 16:33

“…I have been victorious (over) the world!”

This triumphant declaration makes a fitting end to the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), and the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, in terms of the teaching he gives to his disciples. The Last Discourse is actually a complex literary work, containing a number of distinct units, each of which forms a discourse in its own right—that is, it generally follows the basic Johannine discourse format: (1) statement by Jesus, (2) reaction/misunderstanding by the audience, and (3) exposition by Jesus explaining the true/deeper meaning of his words. The unit 16:16-33 is just such a discourse:

    • Initial saying/statement by Jesus (v. 16)
    • Response/misunderstanding by the disciples (vv. 17-18)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 19-28)
    • Conclusion (vv. 29-33), which also forms the close of the Last Discourse as a whole

The saying in verse 16 will be discussed in tomorrow’s daily note (for Holy Saturday). Here I wish to focus on the conclusion in vv. 29-33. It begins with an exclamation by the disciples, in which they seem now to have a true understanding of just who Jesus is. This is important from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, and the place of the Last Discourse within it. After the departure of Judas (13:30), Jesus is able to speak directly to his close (i.e. true) disciples, and this collection of teaching comprises the Last Discourse, much as the Sermon on the Mount has a similar place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew (chaps. 5-7).

This direct instruction is revelatory, in a way that his teaching in the earlier discourses was not. At the start of the Last Discourse, the disciples still have difficulty understanding what Jesus says to the them (14:5ff), but at its conclusion, their eyes are opened and they can see the truth with greater clarity:

“The learners [i.e. disciples] say to him: ‘See, now you speak in outspoken (terms) [i.e. plainly/directly], and you say not even one (thing) to us (by) a (word) along the way [i.e. illustration, figure of speech]. Now we have seen [i.e. known] that you have seen [i.e. known] all (thing)s, and you hold no business [i.e. have no need] that any (one) should inquire (of) you. In this we trust that you came from God!'” (vv. 29-30)

While this trust is real enough, Jesus, in response, points out how their trust will be tested:

“Yeshua gave forth (an answer) to them: ‘Now do you trust? See, an hour comes—and (indeed) has come—that you shall be scattered, each (one) unto his own (thing)s, and you shall leave me (all) alone…” (vv. 31-32a)

I discussed the use of the term “hour” (w%ra) in a previous note; it has a dual-meaning in the Gospel of John: (a) the moment of Jesus’ suffering and death, and (b) the coming period of distress before the end. Both of these aspects are combined here, fully in line with the early Christian eschatology and understanding of the nature and significance of Jesus’ death. The hour that “has come” is indeed the time of Jesus’ suffering and death, as is clear from the Passion context here. At the same time, the death/departure of Jesus marks the beginning of the end-time period of distress—a time of intense (and increasing) darkness in the world, which will result in the suffering and persecution of believers. This will be discussed further in the next note. The idea of the disciples being “scattered” (vb skorpi/zw), is stated more famously in the Synoptic saying of Jesus (Mark 14:27 par, citing Zech 13:7).

While the hour of darkness (cf. Lk 22:53) that comes with Jesus’ Passion may introduce a time of great distress (qli/yi$) for all humankind (including believers), at the same time believers in Christ are victorious over this darkness and evil in the world, in spite of all they might suffer. This is the paradox at the heart of the Passion Narrative—how suffering and death can result in victory and life. The source of this victory is expressed by Jesus in the remainder of verse 32:

“…you shall leave me (all) alone; and (yet) I am not alone, (in) that [i.e. because] the Father is with me.”

The Christological declaration again identifies Jesus’ relationship (as the Son) to God the Father, but also emphasizes the union he has with the Father. He is never alone because the Father is always with him. Believers ultimately share in this same union, through the presence of the Spirit—a teaching expounded throughout the Last Discourse (and the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17). It is the presence of Jesus, through the Spirit, that is in view in the closing words of the Discourse (v. 33):

“I have spoken these (thing)s to you (so) that you would hold peace in me. In the world you hold distress [qli/yi$], but you must have courage—I have been victorious [neni/khka] (over) the world!”

The perfect tense of the verb nika/w (“have victory, be victorious”) is important, since it typically signifies a past action or condition which continues into the present. Even as Jesus has been victorious—through his earthly life and death—over the darkness and evil in the world, so also believers, who are united with him, share in this victory. This is why the author of 1 John can similarly declare to his readers (as believers) that they “have been victorious” over “the evil” in the world (and/or “the Evil One”, i.e. the Satan/Devil)—2:13-14; 4:4. Indeed, believers, as ones who have “come to be born” (as offspring/children) of God, by this very fact of their identity, are able to be victorious over the world (5:4-5).

John 19:30

This victory by Jesus encompasses his entire life and existence on earth. However, the moment of victory is especially to be noted at the completion of his life and ministry—that is, at the moment of his death. The Synoptic Passion narrative emphasizes the end-time darkness, and foreshadowing of Judgment, at the moment of Jesus’ death—i.e., the darkness over the land (Mk 15:33 par), his cry of abandonment (v. 34 par), his final cry at death (v. 37 par), and the tearing of the Temple curtain (v. 38 par). The portrait of Jesus’ death is rather different in the Gospel of John—none of the aforementioned Synoptic details are present. There is even a positive contrast to the tearing of the Temple curtain (“from above unto below”, i.e. from top to bottom)—Jesus’ garment is kept intact and untorn (19:23-24; on the parallel between the Temple and Jesus’ body, cf. 2:21-22).

The only real indication of suffering on Jesus’ part in the Johannine narrative is the brief mention of his thirsting in vv. 28-29 (cp. Mark 15:36 par). And, instead of a great cry at the moment of his death, Jesus, with his final words (actually a single word in Greek), utters a declaration similar in meaning to that of 16:33 (cf. above):

“It has been completed” (tete/lestai)

This refers to the completion (te/lo$, vb. tele/w) of his earthly mission. It relates to how the word e)ntolh/ is used in the Johannine writings. Typically,  that noun is rendered “command(ment)”, but this is rather misleading, especially in the Johannine context. The word properly refers to something given to a person to complete or accomplish (te/lo$/te/llw)—that is, a duty or charge placed on (e)n) someone. Thus, with his sacrificial death, Jesus (the Son) fulfills the e)ntolh/ given to him by the God the Father (10:18; 12:49-50; 15:10). The related verb teleio/w (“complete, bring to completion”) is used in this same sense in 4:34; 5:36; 17:4 (cf. also 19:28); Jesus words (to the Father) in 17:4 are especially close in meaning, in light of the context of his Passion:

“I honored you upon the earth, (hav)ing completed [telei/wsa$] the work that you have given me, that I should do (it)”

Other traditional details of the crucifixion scene are given a new meaning in the Johannine narrative, including the very moment of Jesus’ death (also in v. 30), which reads:

“And, (hav)ing bent the head, he gave along the spirit [pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma].”

On the surface, this would simply indicate that Jesus breathes his last breath (i.e. “gave along his spirit”), as in Mark 15:37:

“And Yeshua, (hav)ing released a great voice [i.e. cry], breathed out [e)ce/pneusen] (his last).”

The Lukan version (23:46) is closer in sense to Jn 19:30, seeming to be a combination of the Markan/Synoptic and Johannine versions:

“And, (hav)ing given voice to a great voice [i.e. cry], Yeshua said, ‘Father, into your hands I place along my spirit [parati/qemai to\ pneu=ma/ mou]. And, (hav)ing said this, he breathed out (his last).”

The strong emphasis on the Spirit throughout the Gospel of John, along with the important idea that the death/resurrection of Jesus results in the presence of the Spirit in believers, suggests that there is a bit of dual-meaning wordplay in 19:30, and that the phrase pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma could rightly (and more literally) be rendered: “…he gave along the Spirit” (cf. 20:22).

The same idea seems to be at work in the detail of the “blood and water” that come out of Jesus’ body after his death (v. 34). Many commentators have sought to explain this as an authentic historical/physiological detail. While this may be legitimate—and the Gospel writer does take care to point out that it was an actual observable event (v. 35)—it rather obscures the importance of the detail from a theological standpoint. The “blood and water” represents the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (and incarnate life) that is conveyed to believers through the Spirit. The parallel with the Spirit is clear enough (both come from Jesus after his death), but receives absolute confirmation, from the Johannine theological standpoint, in 1 Jn 5:6-8 (considered in the previous note).

If we might summarize the Johannine theology surrounding Jesus’ death:

    • It represents the completion of the mission given to him by the Father
    • His death ‘releases’ the life-giving power he possesses (from the Father, as the Son), manifest in his earthly life and death (“water and blood”)
    • This life giving power is communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit
    • The (eternal) life given through the Spirit, makes believers complete—and is, in a real sense, the final completion of Jesus’ mission (cf. Jn 17:23).

 

April 2 (1): John 6:51-58; 1 John 5:6-8

John 6:51-58; 1 John 5:6-8

One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58), the precise reason for which remains uncertain. This interpretation is easier to maintain for critical scholars who tend to view the Discourses, etc, as primarily the product of early Christians, rather than representing the authentic words/sayings of Jesus himself. At the historical level indicated by the narrative setting of the Bread of Life discourse, for example, allusions to the Eucharist, while obvious to early Christian readers, would have been completely unintelligible for Jesus’ Galilean contemporaries (the people with whom he is said to be speaking in the Discourse). The same is true of the supposed references to (Christian) baptism in 3:5ff, and so forth.

There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:

“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world.”

The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:

This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”

By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:

“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many’.”

The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)

“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)

Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb me/nw (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ.

Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb me/nw, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:

“You must remain [mei/nate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [me/nh|] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [me/nhte] in me.”

The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:

    • Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
    • Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit

This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:

    • Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
    • The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit

The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (e)ntolh/) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:

“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”

Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).

However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.

This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc).

1 John 5:6-8

Within the Johannine congregations, there was apparently some controversy over the place of Jesus’ death in the Gospel message. The author of 1 John refers to ‘false’ believers (whom he calls a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”, i.e. antichrist), who, by their (erroneous) view of Jesus, effectively deny him as the Messiah and Son of God. The details of their Christology are difficult to determine (I discuss the matter at length in several recent Saturday Series studies), but it can be pieced together, to some extent, by a careful examination of the main passages (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:1-12; 2 Jn 7-11). I would maintain that the key is found in 5:6-8. A true/proper belief in Jesus (as the Anointed and Son of God) entails an affirmation that

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not through the water only, but through the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that the Spirit is the truth. (For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood—and the three are into the one.”

This is a most challenging passage, which commentators have sought to interpret in various ways. I discuss it in several earlier notes and articles (most recently in a Saturday Series study). In my view, “the water” refers primarily to Jesus’ birth and life as a human being, while “the blood” refers to his death (as a human being). The importance the author gives to affirming that Jesus came both “in the water” and “in the blood” strongly suggests that the ‘false’ believers, in some sense, denied the second portion—the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or the significance of it. Certainly, the Johannine Gospel tends to downplay the human suffering of Jesus (compare the Passion narrative and crucifixion scene with that in the Synoptics), and some in the Community may have distorted or exaggerated this aspect of the Gospel portrait of Jesus.

Be that as it may, the central theological point in 1 Jn 5:6-8 is that the Spirit conveys the meaning (and reality) of both Jesus’ human life (“water”) and death (“blood”) for believers—uniting both aspects together into a single, life-giving power. This very symbolism is expressed in the Gospel, following the death of Jesus, when “blood and water” came out of him (19:34), parallel with the earlier notice that, at the moment of his death, he “gave along the Spirit” (v. 30). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, the second for Good Friday.

 

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

These recent studies on 1 John have alternated, along with the letter, between the themes of love (agápe) and trust (pístis), which represent the two components of the great command for believers (3:23-24). The section in 3:11-24 dealt with love, followed by an extensive dual-exposition in 4:7-5:4 (discussed in the previous two studies). In 4:1-6, the subject was trust in Jesus, and a similar dual-exposition follows in 5:5-12. In the earlier study on 4:1-6, we saw how, in the author’s mind, the duty (or command) to trust in Jesus was being violated by those who had separated from the Community–they held a view of Jesus that differed from the Christology of the Community, as expressed in the Johannine Gospel. This was first introduced in 2:18-27, where it was clear that, for the author, the great evil of these ‘false’ believers involved their Christology. Even so, it was never specified as to what, precisely, the ‘antichrist’ pseudo-believers held regarding Jesus that made them so dangerous for the Community. In 2:22, it was to be inferred that they refused to accept Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), essentially denying Jesus as the Son (of God) as well. However, it is extremely unlikely that the ‘false’ believers denied that Jesus was either the Messiah or Son of God. Something about their belief regarding Jesus was, for the author, tantamount to denying the very person of Christ.

In 4:1-6, the nature of this Christological view was clarified: it involved a denial, or refusal to accept, that Jesus the Anointed One had come in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lythóta, v. 2). I noted how this appears to be similar to the Docetic Christology held by certain so-called Gnostics—i.e., a belief that Jesus the Son of God only seemed to be a real flesh and blood human being during his time on earth. Such Docetism tends to derive from a strong dualistic worldview, such as certainly would characterize much gnostic (and Gnostic) thought. The fundamental incompatibility between the realm of the Divine and the material world made it hard for many Gnostics to accept that the Son of God could actually become part of the fallen material world (i.e. as a real human being). Ignatius of Antioch, writing to believers in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Tralles, attacked a “Docetic” view of Christ similar to that of the later Gnostics (Ephesians 7:2; Smyrneans 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; 5:2; Trallians 9:1-2; 10:1). The location of the Johannine congregations, and provenance of the writings, is often thought to be in the same region of Asia Minor (confirming the tradition that connected the apostle of John with Ephesus). Moreover, Ignatius was probably writing (c. 110 A.D.) not all that long after 1 John itself was written (90’s A.D.?), and it is possible that he is addressing some of the same issues (compare Smyrneans 5:2 with 1 John 4:2; cf. also the Epistle of Polycarp 7:1).

However, in my view, the Christology of the ‘false’ believers attacked by the author of 1 John was not Docetic per se, and this is confirmed in 5:5-12, where the true nature of the ‘antichrist’ understanding of Jesus is finally made clear. By piecing the evidence from 2:18-27, 4:16, and 5:5-12 together, with a little detective work, we can reconstruct (partially) the Christology of the ‘false’ believers—at least, the aspect of it which was deemed so objectionable to the author of 1 John. This falls under the heading of historical criticism.

Verse 5

“[And] who is the (one) being victorious over the world, if not [i.e. except] the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God?”

This rhetorical question is transitional, picking up from the concluding statement of the previous section (v. 4), identifying the trust (pístis) of the true believer, i.e. trust in Jesus, as the thing which brings victory (vb nikáœ) over the evil and darkness of the world. That declaration leads here into the section on trust in Jesus, once again identifying the true believer with this component of the great command by the use of the articular participle (“the [one] trusting”)—i.e. trust characterizes the believer. Of course, for the author, “trust” entails a correct understanding of just who Jesus is and what he did, that it is to say, the content of this trust is Christological.

Verse 6

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood, Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the truth.”

This is the key verse for a proper understanding of the ‘antichrist’ view of Jesus. Unfortunately, a precise interpretation remains difficult. The author actually states the matter rather clearly, in terms that doubtless would have been immediately evident to many of his readers. In referring to Jesus as “having come through water and blood”, the author was making a definitive Christological statement. The interpretive difficulty for us is in expounding the phrase “in water and blood” which serves as a shorthand for a more complex theological frame of reference. That Christians in the first centuries had the same sort of difficulties in explaining it would seem to be evident by the notable textual variants; instead of “(having come) through water and blood”, there are four main variants, all of which include “(the) Spirit”:

    • “through water and blood and spirit” (di’ hydatos kai haimatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and spirit and blood” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos kai haimatos)
    • “through water and (the) Spirit” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and blood and the Holy Spirit

The first variant above is the one with the best manuscript and versional support. The inclusion of the “Spirit”, forming a triad, is doubtless influenced by what follows in vv. 7-8; however, in my view, copyists who introduced such changes did not understand at all the point the author was making. Special emphasis is given to the blood, meaning that, apparently, the ‘false’ believers did accept that Jesus came in (or through) water. But what does it mean to say that Jesus came “in water” or “through water”. There does not seem to be any real difference here between the preposition en (“in”) or dia (“through”)—they both express the manner in which Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, i.e. as a human being. Commentators have debated the significance of water here, but I believe that it refers primarily, and fundamentally, to Jesus’ birth. The closest parallel to this use of water-imagery is in the famous Nicodemus episode in the Gospel (Jn 3:1-14ff). Water is contrasted with the Spirit, in the context of the idea of a person’s birth. The key statement by Jesus is in verse 5:

“…if (one) does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

In verse 6, the contrast shifts from water/Spirit to flesh/Spirit, indicating that being “born out of water” is essentially the same thing as a person’s fleshly (i.e. physical human) birth. The point is that a person needs to be born of the Spirit (from above) in addition to one’s normal physical birth. If the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted Jesus’ physical birth as a human being, then their Christology was not Docetic as such. Where, then, was the problem or error in their belief? It is centered on a failure to accept that Jesus also came “in blood” / “through blood”. If “water” refers to Jesus’ birth, then “blood” most almost certainly refers to his death. There are three other Johannine passages where blood (haíma) is mentioned, and they all relate specifically to the sacrificial death of Jesus (Jn 6:53-58; 19:34; 1 Jn 1:7). Moreover, the joining of “water and blood” is of great importance in the Passion narrative, a physical (and historical) detail to which the author imports considerable theological significance (Jn 19:34-35ff).

Thus, it would be fair to infer that, while the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted the human birth of Jesus, they somehow refused to accept that he endured a normal human death, and that this constituted their fundamental error. If so, the basis for their view may be found in the Gospel narrative itself. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine Passion narrative contains little or no “passion”, no obvious signs of human suffering. There is no scene of anguish in the garden; instead, Jesus is depicted as fully in control at every moment, even speaking with such authority that those coming to arrest him cower and fall back (18:4-9). The Johannine narrative does include mention of Jesus’ being whipped and mocked by the soldiers (19:1-5), but that brief episode is flanked by extensive dialogues between Jesus and Pilate in which Jesus essentially declares his divine identity; by comparison, in the Synoptics, he says almost nothing before Pilate. Finally, on the cross, there is no sign of suffering, no mention of taunting by the crowds, no cry of anguish or feeling of being abandoned by God. Instead, Jesus appears calm and fully in control; at the end, instead of letting out a death-cry, he states “it has been completed”, and releases his spirit (19:30). Given this Gospel portrait, it would be understandable for a Johannine Christian to minimize or relativize the suffering and death of Jesus. It may also explain why the Gospel writer places such importance on the detail of the water and blood that come out of Jesus’ side (19:34-35), since it serves to confirm the concrete physical reality of his death.

It may also be that the ‘false’ Johannine believers downplayed the significance of Jesus’ death in relation to our salvation and the coming of the Spirit. Again the detail of Jn 19:34 may indicate the importance of “water and blood” in this regard. Jesus’ sacrificial death completed his saving work on earth. His death effectively gives life to those who partake in it (i.e. “drink his blood”, 6:53ff), and releases the Spirit (19:30, cp. 20:22) for those who believe. The Spirit itself gives witness to the truth of the “water and blood” —the reality of who Jesus is and what his work on earth accomplished. The introduction of the Spirit here in v. 6b is a subtle way of stating that, if a person denies the true significance of Jesus’ death, he/she denies the Spirit, and, as a result, cannot be a true believer who is united to God and Christ through the Spirit.

Verses 7-8

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The “Textus Receptus” edition of the Greek New Testament mistakenly introduced an expanded form of these two verses, based on the reading of a handful of late manuscripts and Latin witnesses; the expanded form reads:

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And the (one)s giving witness on earth are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The trinitarian insertion is secondary, and quite foreign to 1 John, as nearly all commentators today would admit. It is another example of how later readers and copyists so poorly understood the nuances of the author’s line of argument, so as to be led astray by facile similarities (the ‘three in one’ phrasing) and to introduce a trinitarian formula where it does not belong. The main point, as noted above, is that, for true believers, the Spirit confirms what one already believes and experiences regarding the “water and blood” of Jesus’ incarnate life and death. Indeed, it is by the Spirit’s witness that we are able to believe this about Jesus; to deny the significance of Jesus’ sacrificial death is to deny the witness of the Spirit.

What then of the curious phrase “and the three are into the one”? If it has nothing to do with the Trinity (as indeed it does not), what exactly is the author trying to say? I would interpret it as follows:

The expression “water and blood” represents two aspects of a single witness—involving the life and (life-giving) death of Jesus. To this, the Spirit becomes a third component. The presence and work of the Spirit allows people to accept the truth of who Jesus was and what he did, and further confirms this truth in and among believers. Thus, numerically, there are “three” components, but a single witness, a single truth—three leading and directing into one, for one purpose. While this does not refer to the Trinity, it does relate to a certain kind of theological triad; I have previously offered a simple diagram which illustrates this Johannine triad:

Clearly the Spirit is at the center of this triadic relationship.

Verses 9-12

“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; (and it is) that this is the witness of God that He has given witness to about His Son. The (one) trusting in the Son of God holds the witness in himself; the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) false, (in) that he has not trusted in the witness that God has given witness to about His Son. And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life], and this Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds the Life, and the (one) not holding the Son of God does not hold the Life.”

This is a wonderful example of the repetitive Johannine style which belies a clear and careful structure. There are many such examples in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, but also here in 1 John. Note how the related noun and verb martyría (“witness”) and martyréœ (“give witness”) are used repeatedly (8 times). Also consider how the conjunctive particle hóti (“that”) is variously used, which makes precise translation and interpretation a bit of a challenge. There is actually a clear parallelism in this passage which, while not so obvious in typical English translations, is immediately apparent in the Greek (which I render quite literally above). Note the structure:

    • Statement about the witness (martyría) of God: that it is about His Son (v. 9)
      • Identification of the believer as one trusting in the witness (v. 10)
    • Statement about the witness of God: that it is in His Son (v. 11)
      • Identification of the believer as one holding the witness [the Son] (v. 12)

Here is how this structure is played out in the Greek:

    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría tou theoú…perí tou huioú autoú (v. 9)
      “this is the witness of God…about His Son”
      • ho pisteúœn eis ton huión tou theoú échei t¢n martyrían (v. 10)
        “the one trusting in the Son of God holds this witness…”
    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría …h¢ zœ¢¡ en tœ huiœ¡ autoú estin (v. 11)
      “this is the witness …the Life is in His Son”
      • ho échœn ton huión échei t¢n zœ¢¡n (v. 12)
        “the one holding the Son holds the Life…”

The overall thrust of this line of argument is that trust in Jesus is fundamentally tied to one’s identity as a true believer, one who “holds” the Life of God through the presence of the Spirit. Those who refuse to accept the truth of who Jesus was effectively deny both the Gospel message (about the Son) and the witness of the Spirit (the abiding presence of the Son). This, in turn, is tantamount to a denial of God, since He is the one who ultimately gives this witness. If we consider the passage again from the standpoint of its historical background, then the argument is that the Johannine Christians who denied the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or its significance, were effectively denying the Gospel message, the witness of the Spirit, and even God Himself. Almost certainly these ‘false’ believers, whoever they were, would not at all characterize themselves this way; but, from the standpoint of the author of 1 John, the matter was clear: they could not be true believers, but, instead, were a manifestation of “antichrist” (being against Christ). We will discuss the ramifications of this further when we come to study 2 and 3 John.

Next week, the focus will turn again to how the author of the letter understood hamartía (“sin”), and what he meant by the use of the term. We have already discussed this in earlier studies (on 2:28-3:10), but it will take on importance again as the author brings his work to a close in 5:13-20. This section is notorious among commentators, due in particular to the statements regarding sin in verses 16-17. However, there are several other critical points and questions which need to be addressed as well. I hope you will join me.

September 30: Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev 7:9-10

Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:

With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)

The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.

    • “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
    • “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
    • The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
Rev 7:11-12

The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.

Rev 7:13-14

The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.

Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:

    • they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
    • they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”

Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.

Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:

    • Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
    • Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
    • Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment

As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”

Rev 7:15-17

This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:

“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”

The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:

    • Believers serving as priests (cf. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), day and night, in the sanctuary—both of the Temple, and, more particularly, of the older Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)
    • The Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) indicating God’s presence, and the protection which that brings

Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).

Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17

The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):

    1. The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
    2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.

As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.

September 24: Revelation 5:9-10

Revelation 5:1-14 (continued)

The vision of the Lamb in chapter 5 climaxes with the song in verses 9ff, just as the throne-vision of chapter 4 concludes with a similar song—the parallelism between the two halves of the chap. 4-5 vision were discussed in the previous daily note. The song begins in vv. 9-10, sung by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders, before being taken up by the heavenly multitudes in vv. 11-13.

Rev 5:9-10

“and they sang a new song, saying, ‘a&cio$ are you to take the paper-roll and to open up its seals, (in) that [i.e. because] you went to the market-place [i.e. bought] for God in [i.e. with] your blood, (purchasing) out of every offshoot [i.e. tribe] and tongue [i.e. language] and people and nation, and you made them a kingdom and sacred officials [i.e. priests] for our God, and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth’.”

It is worth noting again the opening word of the song, which begins as in 4:11, to be repeated here in 5:11. The adjective a&cio$ is rather difficult to translate literally in English. Fundamentally, the underlying idea is of bringing something into balance (i.e. being weighed/measured on the scales), as, literally, “bringing [vb. a&gw] up” the beam of the scale. The adjective itself signifies something which is thus of an equal, or proper, weight. As an honorific, especially when used in a religious context (in reference to God, etc), it indicates that someone is deserving of honor and praise, etc, and so should be given the appropriate reverence and respect. It is typically translated in such instances as “worthy”. However, in this case, the parallelism between chapters 4 and 5 connotes a deeper theological meaning—that the Lamb (i.e. the exalted Jesus) is of the same “weight” (Heb. db)K*) as God, and, in his divine position/status, shares with God the Father the ruling authority, etc (including effective ownership of the seal on the scroll). It is possible that this is what is signified by the characterization of the song as “new” (kaino/$). A song of praise and worship to God is obvious and natural for any religious person; it is the extension of this song to the Lamb (Jesus) which is new. On the motif of a “new song”, cf. Psalm 40:3; 96:1; Isa 42:10).

The emphasis on the blood of the Lamb helps to clarify the sacrificial image. In the previous note, on verse 6, I outlined three sacrificial motifs with which Jesus’ death is associated in the New Testament: (1) the Passover Lamb, (2) the offering for sin/guilt, and (3) the sacrifice at the establishment of the Covenant. The Last supper scene, before Jesus’ impending death, blends together all three of these:

    • The context of the Passover meal (Mark 14:1, 12ff, 22ff par); in John’s account, Jesus is put to death on the day of Passover eve, identifying him more precisely with the Lamb that is slain (13:1; 18:28; 19:14).
    • The establishment of the (new) Covenant—the wine-cup is identified specifically as “the blood of the [new] covenant” (Mark 14:24 par)
    • A sacrifice for sin (Matt 26:28; cf. also John 1:29)

While the Lamb’s blood features prominently in the Passover narrative (Exod 12:7, 13), symbolizing God’s deliverance of his people and their protection (from death), here there is a more precise connection with the Covenant scene in Exodus 24. The blood thrown upon the people (v. 8), identifies that they are bound to God by the agreement (covenant) that has been established. The blood marks them as His people and consecrates them as “a holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6). This is exactly the tradition which is being referenced here, and it is also the primarily meaning of the Last Supper symbolism—”this is my blood of the covenant th(at is) poured out over many“. Only here in Revelation, the “many” (polloi/) have been expanded and given a universal scope: “out of every tribe/race and tongue and people and nation”. According to the tradition of the (old) Covenant, Israel was purchased by God, from among all the other peoples/nations on earth, to be his own chosen people (Exod 15:16, etc). Now, the new people of God (believers in Jesus), have been similarly purchased, but as individuals taken from every conceivable ethnic and racial background. In order to preserve the etymology and concrete sense of the verb a)gora/zw, I have given it an excessively literal translation above. It signifies a person going to the market-place (a)gora/) and purchasing something. In this case, the “market-place” is the entire inhabited world—all peoples and nations, etc.

As mentioned above, verse 10 draws upon the ancient covenant tradition, and especially, the language in Exodus 19:6. The same wording and imagery is used in 1 Peter 1:5, 9—believers in Christ are the true people of God, fulfilling the very characteristics previously applied to Israel under the (old) Covenant. We are a “holy nation” and a “royal priesthood” (“kingdom of priests”). This is stated succinctly here in v. 10a, as it was earlier in 1:6. However, special attention must be given to the concluding statement in v. 10b:

“and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth”

First, one should note the variant readings involving the verb basileu/w (“rule/reign as king”). The textual evidence is divided between the present tense (basileu/ousin, “they rule as king[s]”), and the future tense (basileu/sousin, “they will rule as king[s]”)—the difference being a single letter (s). It is an important distinction, since it effects how one should interpret the nature and character of the believers’ reign. The present tense (supported by A 046 1006 1611 and other minuscules and versions), indicating that believers currently rule as kings on earth, would suggest a symbolic, or spiritual reign. By contrast, the future tense (read by a P 1 94 1854 2053 2344 and many other MSS and versions) most likely would be understood in an eschatological sense—in the Age to Come, believers will rule (with Christ). Moreover, the specific phrase “will rule upon the earth” would seem to indicate a concrete manifestation of the Kingdom of God (and Christ) on earth at the end of the current Age. For some commentators, this is readily identified with a (literal) Millennial Kingdom, in light of 20:1-6. Verse 6, in particular, is emphasized, though it should be noted that it applies specifically to those who were put to death for their faith in Jesus—following the resurrection, “they will be sacred officials [i.e. priests] of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as king with him (for) a thousand years”. By contrast, 5:10 indicates that all believers will function as priests and kings. This will be discussed further when we come to 20:1-6; the question of the precise eschatological expectation, in terms of God’s Kingdom being established on earth, will also be addressed at several points as we continue through the book.

In the next daily note, we will look at the concluding song in verses 11-13.

April 11 (3): John 19:34, 37

In celebration of Holy Saturday, I will be discussing one of the few events narrated in the Gospels following Jesus’ death, that of the soldier ‘piercing’ Jesus’ side in John 19:34ff. The Gospel of John records two details, each of which is tied to an Old Testament Scripture:

    1. The soldiers are ordered to break the legs of the crucified victims (in order to hasten death), but when they come to Jesus they see that he is already dead (19:31-33). The Scripture indicated in verse 36 is not absolutely certain; it may be Exodus 12:46 [cf. 12:10 LXX] or Num 9:12 (neither is cited verbatim, cf. also Psalm 34:20). The identification would seem to be with Jesus as the slain Passover Lamb—see the context of Jn 19:14; also Jn 1:29, 36.
    2. A soldier ‘pierces’ Jesus side (19:34, 37), discussed below.

John 19:34 reads:

a)ll’ ei!$ tw=n stratiwtw=n lo/gxh| au)tou= th\n pleura\n e&nucen kai\ e)ch=lqen eu)qu\$ ai!ma kai\ u%dwr
“but one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear-tip and straightway [i.e. right away] came out blood and water”

The verb often translated “pierce” (nu/ssw, nússœ) would be more accurately rendered “jab, stab”, perhaps implying here that the soldier’s action was not intended to produce a wound, but rather to check that Jesus was dead (in spite of verse 33). Christian tradition was quick to fill out some of the details: for example, the soldier’s name was identified as Longinus, after lo/gxh (lónch¢, “spear/lance”, technically the spear head or tip), and the wound was naturally enough specified as on the right side (see the Ethiopic version, and so typically in Christian art). The spear itself became a powerful symbol, especially in Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it was related typologically with the Angel’s sword that barred the way to Paradise (Gen 3:24)—i.e., Christ’s death opened the way for us to Paradise again (a popular theme in the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, etc). Later, the spear would play a role in the rich Grail traditions of the West (see down below).

Two elements here should be looked at in greater detail: first, the blood and water that came out from Jesus’ side (v. 34b); and second, the Scripture citation from Zechariah 12:10 (v. 37).

The Blood and Water

“…and right away came out blood and water”—there have been many attempts to explain this enigmatic detail; especially popular in modern times have been the various medical theories (treating it as a realistic phyisiological detail) which try to explain what may have occurred (cf. the standard Commentaries). These are interesting, but, I would say, somewhat misplaced. At the historical-traditional level, “blood and water” more than likely simply represent a common popular understanding of human (internal) physiology—the two obvious fluid elements contained in the human body, which for a healthy person, ought to be evenly balanced; see, for example, the Jewish tradition in the Midrash Rabbah (15.2) on Lev 13:2ff. The Synoptic tradition might have more emphasized blood coming out—see Mark 14:24 (and par) “this is my blood of the testament th(at) is poured out over many”. However, in the Gospel of John, the mention of water here alongside blood is especially significant. Apart from this verse, “blood” (ai!ma) is mentioned only two other places: in Jn 1:13 and Jn 6:53-56. The first passage contrasts those who come to be born “out of” (that is, from/by) blood (plural), the will of flesh, or the will of man with those who come to be born out of God (from the Spirit, cf. Jn 3:3-8). The second passage is part of the “Bread of Life” discourse; I have discussed these verses in an earlier post, see also here below.

Water is a more prevalent symbol in the Gospel of John. There are four (or five) principal passages:

    • The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2:1-11)
    • The first portion of the discourse with Nicodemus, regarding being born “from above”, identified with being born “out of [i.e. from/by] the Spirit” (Jn 3:3-8)
    • The discourse with the Samaritan Woman, where Jesus contrasts water from the well with the “living water” he gives (Jn 4:7-15ff)
    • The saying of Jn 7:37-38, part of the discourse[s] Jesus spoke during the Feast of Booths (ch. 7-8), again emphasizing “living water” for those who believe (drink from) Jesus.
    • [One should probably add the foot-washing episode and discourse in Jn 13:1-15ff].

It is possible, I think, to connect the passages involving water and blood according to the theology of the Gospel, and so to glimpse what significance the two motifs together might have in Jn 19:34:

    • Identification of water and wine—miracle at Cana (2:7-9ff)
    • Identification of wine and blood implied—the Eucharistic nuance of Jn 6:53-58 (cf. Mark 14:24 par). Note also the theme in Jn 6:35ff of coming to (and believing in) Jesus, which is parallel to the eating (his flesh) and drinking (his blood) in vv. 51ff.
    • These two passages, taken together, effectively connect, at the symbolic level, water and blood.
    • Coming to (and believing in) Jesus is also symbolized by drinking “living water” in Jn 4:7ff and 7:37-38
    • Water is identified with the Spirit in Jn 3:3-8.
    • Blood is essentially connected with the Spirit as well in Jn 6:60ff (esp. verse 63).
    • The passages in John 3 and 6, taken as a whole, demonstrate a Spiritual interpretation and presence for both Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood).
    • Blood and water also both cleanse the believer—see the foot-washing scene in Jn 13:1-15ff, for this same idea with blood, cf. 1 John 1:7.

The first Epistle of John is generally understood as coming from the same basic school of thought (if not the same author) as the Gospel—it uses much common language and style, and shares many theological concepts. In addition to 1 John 1:7, we should also consult 1 Jn 5:6-8, where we see the same triad—water-blood-Spirit—which can be distilled from the Gospel passages mentioned above. It would perhaps be better to view the equation as: water-blood + Spirit. Verse 6 states that Jesus is “the one who came through water and blood“, which I take to be primarily a reference to the Incarnation, and is presumably meant to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against early “docetic” views of Christ). If so, then we should probably view the “blood and water” of Jn 19:34 in the same light; only here it is sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death that is most prominent (note the order “blood and water” instead of “water and blood”). 1 Jn 5:7 adds the Spirit to blood-water as part of the “witness”, and, I believe, it is appropriate to add the Spirit, by way of interpretation, to Jn 19:34 as well. It should perhaps be understood in relation to the “living water” that flows from Jesus, which the believer receives within by faith (and the power of the Spirit). Jesus’ sacrificial death releases this cleansing and life-giving power to us—when we drink of it (by faith and the Spirit), the same life comes to be in us.

The Citation from Zechariah 12:10

In Jn 19:37, the Gospel writer explains the ‘piercing’ described in v. 34 as a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, which is cited thus:

o&yontai ei)$ o^n e)ceke/nthsan
“they will look with (open) eyes unto the (one) whom they pierced”

The Hebrew Masoretic text reads “and they will look unto me the (one) whom they struck through [i.e. pierced]”. The first person pronominal suffix (“me”) would suggest that God is the referent, but this is admittedly difficult in context, and a number of MSS instead read “him”. Verses 10-14 have primarily the theme of mourning, and the association with verses 1-9 (describing a great war and judgment against the nations) may indicate that the people who remain in the land are mourning those who have been killed (i.e., as martyrs), and as a result the people turn and look to God. This is more or less the approach taken by many Jewish commentators; however, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a), we find an example of a messianic interpretation (by R. Dosa)—it is the Messiah (ben Joseph) who is pierced, and the people mourn for him. The most common early Christian interpretation is that it refers to Jesus’ return (parousia)—the people (Jews and Gentiles), especially those who are responsible for his death, will look upon him as he comes in glory. This is certainly the way the verse is used in the Johannine book of Revelation (Rev 1:7); cf. also Justin Martyr’s First Apology §52. However, I suspect that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning here in the Gospel. Consider, for example, the thematic signficance of seeing/looking, especially the way that the verb o)pta/nomai is used—Jn 1:39, 50-51; 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-19. In these passages the emphasis is primarily upon believers seeing/beholding Jesus (and his glory); elsewhere in the Gospel we find the familiar message that those who see Jesus also see the Father—this seeing is parallel with (and corresponds to) knowing, and is salvific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the sayings regarding the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). As I discussed in an earlier post, this “lifting high” reflects both Jesus’ sacrificial death and his exaltation/glorification; by looking on this symbol, we also see the Father, and are drawn to Christ; in turn, we are led by him to the Father.

There is perhaps no better image for meditation and contemplation on the eve of Easter than Christ, the one pierced, who has poured out his blood and water (his “soul unto death”, Isa 53:12), lifted high above us, where we can all look upon him with open eyes.

The spear that pierced Jesus’ side took on a surprisingly important role in medieval Grail lore, as part of a complex of images. It was paired with the cup from the Last Supper, which caught the blood which came out after Jesus was pierced. In the Grail romances, pagan religious beliefs and mythology blend together with Christian symbols and sacramental thought. The cup (eventually identified as the “Grail”) and spear both became magical-sacred objects in these tales, housed in the mysterious Grail castle. In the middle Ages, these were not necessarily idle myths—the Grail (and related Arthurian) legends could be used as a powerful expression of Christian spirituality, as we find in the 13th century Quest for the Holy Grail. In later centuries, they continued to exert a strong artistic influence, perhaps best exemplified in Richard Wagner’s ultimate musical opera Parsifal.

Join me each Saturday for an introduction to the methods and principles of Biblical criticism. These Saturday studies attempt to illustrate the importance of a sound critical-exegetical approach to Scripture, and to demonstrate how it works in practice. If you are interested in going deeper into the text of the Scriptures, but are perhaps intimidated by the idea of studying the original Greek and Hebrew, then these Saturday studies are especially for you.