“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:53)

John 6:53

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. The first of these (in verse 27), discussed previously, occurs within the first of the three sections (vv. 25-34) that comprise the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59):

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)

Each of these three parts builds upon the one prior. In Part 1, Jesus expounds the Scriptural tradition of manna as “the bread from heaven” (Exod 16:4; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), implicitly identifying himself as the true “bread out of heaven”, which God the Father has sent down. In Part 2 (vv. 35-50), this identification is made explicit, utilizing the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$), within an “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statement by Jesus (v. 35). In Part 3, the identification is further refined in a second “I am” statement (v. 51), using the expression “the living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n).

The exposition in Part 2 can be divided into two sections (vv. 35-40, 43-50), separated by the questioning (and skeptical) response from Jesus’ hearers. This follows the basic pattern of the Johannine Discourses. Two main points are made in the first expository section: (1) Jesus has come down from heaven, having been sent by the Father; and (2) the purpose of this mission is to give (eternal) life to all who believe in him (viz., as the Son of God). This is basic Johannine theology, and it provides the theological explanation for the identification of Jesus as “the bread of life” (as “the bread out of heaven”). In the second expository section (vv. 43-50), in response to the audience’s questions (v. 42), Jesus further emphasizes the need for people to trust in him, and offers a measure of theological explanation as to how this trust takes place (vv. 44-46).

The fundamental expository development of the manna motif is thus two-fold: (1) that Jesus himself is the true “bread out of heaven”, and (2) that “eating” this bread means trusting in Jesus as the Son of God. There is not the slightest suggestion that the idiom of eating here has any other meaning.

This brings us to the third part of the Discourse (vv. 51-58), in which the “son of man” reference occurs. It is important to keep in mind that the entire Discourse is ultimately rooted in the first saying by Jesus, in verse 27, where the expression “the son of man” occurs:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], which the son of man shall give…”

The second and third sayings explain and elucidate (Christologically, note the “I am” formulation) the primary saying of v. 27:

    • I am the bread of life
      the (one) coming toward me shall not (ever) hunger,
      and the (one) trusting in me shall at no time thirst.” (v. 35)
    • I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—
      if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age…” (v. 51)

The message is fundamentally the same in each of these sayings: the person who trusts in Jesus shall possess (and experience) eternal life. The parallelism of vv. 35 and 51 further confirms that “eating” the bread of life (Jesus) means trusting in him.

However, the second of these “I am” sayings (v. 51) is closer in form to the initial saying of v. 27. Note the parallel in the first portion of each saying:

    • “…(work for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age”
    • “if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age”

And also in the second portion:

    • “…which the son of man shall give”
    • “…and the bread which I will give…”

The parallel makes clear that the expression “the son of man” is primarily used by Jesus here as a self-reference, interchangeable with the pronoun “I”. This confirms much of our analysis from the earlier studies on the Synoptic “son of man” sayings. The final words of verse 51 provide the essential expository information that will be further developed in this section:

“…and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”

That is to say, Jesus’ identity as the “bread of life” (or “living bread”) is specifically focused on his flesh (sa/rc). In verse 53 (see below), this is further expanded to include his blood (ai!ma); the preparation for this expository development is provided by the reference to both eating and drinking, in v. 35. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the motif of eating and that of drinking—in the Johannine theological idiom, they both refer to trusting in Jesus, and to the life that is conferred to the believer as a result of that trust. One only need to compare the “living water” (drinking) theme in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10-14, cf. also 7:37-39) with the “living bread” (eating) theme here in chapter 6.

The statement by Jesus in verse 51 naturally leads to another questioning response (demonstrating a lack of understanding) by his hearers (v. 52). The difficulty expressed in vv. 42-43 had to do with the idea that Jesus had come down from heaven; here, the problem lies in the idea of eating his “flesh”. Jesus responds with a further exposition (vv. 53-58) of his saying. The “son of man” reference occurs in the initial statement of this exposition:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: if you should not eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you do not hold (any) life in yourselves.” (v. 53)

Here, the phrase “the flesh of the son of man” is precisely parallel with “my flesh” (in v. 51), demonstrating (again) that the expression “the son of man” is principally a self-reference by Jesus. This is also confirmed by the statement that follows in v. 54:

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…”

This represents the positive side of the negative statement in v. 53: the one who does eat Jesus’ “flesh” does have life, while the one who does not eat his “flesh” does not have life. This is typical of the dualistic manner of Johannine thought and expression. For stylistic variation (and dramatic emphasis), the verb trw/gw (lit. “wear away” by chewing), in the sense of “devour, consume”, is used in verse 54ff instead of the more general fa/gw (“eat”). The verb trw/gw is quite rare in the New Testament; of the six occurrences, four are here in vv. 54-58.
It is no less rare in the LXX, occurring only in the compounds e)ktrw/gw (Mic 7:4) and katatrw/gw (Prov 24:22e).

In verse 55, Jesus further emphasizes that his “flesh” and “blood” is true food and drink (just as he is the true “bread from heaven”). The natural consequences of this idiom of eating/drinking are developed in vv. 56-57. Just as a person takes in food and drink, and then the life-giving nutrients, etc, are assimilated and made active within the person, so the believer who consumes the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus assimilates the Divine life (and life-giving power) of the Son. This is expressed in decidedly Johannine terms. First, in verse 56, the key verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is utilized. This is the principal Johannine way of expressing the union of the believer with God—viz., the believer “remains in” God, and God “remains in” the believer. This abiding union with God the Father is achieved through the Son—that is, through trust in the Son (i.e., eating/drinking him):

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

It is only by being (i.e. remaining) “in the Son” that we are able to be “in the Father”. In verse 57, the focus is on the life-giving power of the Son, which was given to him by the Father:

“Just as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also the (one) devouring me—that (one) shall live through me.”

This is another essential Johannine theme, one which featured prominently in the chapter 5 Discourse. Indeed, the theme is central to the “son of man” reference in v. 27, as it occurs within the overall context of vv. 19-30 (cf. the discussion in the prior study). Note, in particular, the statement in verse 26:

“For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, thus also He has given (it) to the Son to hold life in himself.”

The Son, in turn, gives life to whomever he wishes—that is, to all those who trust in him.

These themes and points of emphasis are summarized in v. 58, at the close of the Discourse, as Jesus returns to the manna tradition with which he began the Discourse:

This is the bread (hav)ing come down out of heaven; and (it is) not at all as our fathers ate and (then) died away—the (one) devouring this bread shall live into the Age!”


The use of the expression “the son of man” in verse 53, as noted above, functions primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. Its meaning and significance, in this Johannine context, follow the points of emphasis that we have already outlined from the prior studies (on the sayings in 1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27, and 6:27):

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

If there is anything distinctive which is to be added to these theological themes, based on the saying in v. 53 (in the context of vv. 51-58), it relates specifically to the motif of Jesus’ flesh (and blood). These two idiomatic terms— “flesh” (sa/rc) and “blood” (ai!ma)—carry a correspondingly two-fold significance:

    • “flesh” —the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus (cf. 1:14; 1 Jn 4:2; 2 Jn 7)
    • “blood” —the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (19:34 [cp. verse 30]; 1 Jn 1:7; 5:6, 8)

The nouns sa/rc and ai!ma hardly occur at all in the Johannine writings outside of this theological-christological nexus.

As we have seen from our studies on the Synoptic sayings, the expression “the son of man” was particularly used by Jesus in connection with his suffering and death. This applies to the three Passion-predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par; cf. also 9:9, 12), but the expression also occurs a number of times in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:21, 41 par; Matt 26:2; Lk 22:48), in dramatic anticipation of Jesus’ suffering/death. Especially notable, as a parallel to Jn 6:53, is the saying in Mark 10:45:

“For the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul, (as) a loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

This resembles the thought expressed by Jesus at the Last Supper:

“this is my blood…having been poured out over many” (Mk 14:24 par)

The symbolism of the bread and wine—as Jesus’ “body” and “blood” —relates to his impending death, which will function as a sacrificial act, enabling human beings (viz., those who trust in him) to be set free from bondage (to sin).

Nearly all commentators recognize that there is eucharistic language present in vv. 51-58. The inclusion of flesh and blood, even though “flesh” alone would make a more natural parallel to “bread”, strongly suggests that there is an intentional reference (or allusion) to the eucharist (i.e., the Lord’s Supper ritual) at work in this section. Indeed, the wording in v. 51 (“…which I give over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”) seems to echo that of Mk 14:24 par (“…having been poured out over [u(pe/r] many”).

The precise relationship of vv. 51-58 to the eucharist has been (and continues to be) much debated by scholars and commentators. I have discussed the matter in earlier notes and articles, most recently as a supplemental note in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” (cf. the article on Jn 6:63). I will not repeat those discussions here. In any case, with regard to the specific use of the expression “the son of man”, the principal point is that, as in the Synoptic Last Supper account, Jesus’ “flesh” (or “body”) and “blood” refer to his death. Only secondarily, by way of symbolism, do they refer to the (eucharistic) elements of the Lord’s Supper rite.

As a result of our study on verse 53 (in context), we may expand our list of Johannine themes associated with the expression “the son of man” to include four fundamental themes:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe
    • The incarnation of the Son, whose mission on earth culminates in his sacrificial death, which serves to confer life to those who believe

In the next part of this study, we shall turn our attention to the “son of man” reference in verse 62.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: 1 Jn 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

An important structuring principle of 1 John is the thematic alternation between the subjects of trust (pi/sti$) and love (a)ga/ph), respectively. These represent the two branches of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers, as summarized by the author of 1 John in 3:23. Trust is the dominant theme in 2:18-27, then love in 2:28-3:24, then trust again in 4:1-6, and love again in 4:7-5:4. The dual-command is essentially restated by the author in 5:1:

    • Trust (v. 1a):
      “Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) [cf. 2:22f] has come to be (born) out of God”
    • Love (v. 1b):
      “and every (one) loving the (One) causing to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

Both aspects of the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) for believers here are particularly expressed in the distinctive Johannine (theological) idiom, using the verb of becoming (genna/w), along with the preposition e)k (“out of”), in the context of the begetting/birth of a child (i.e., believers as the offspring [te/kna] of God). The one who fulfills the great two-fold duty is shown to be a true believer and a genuine child of God. Those who do not fulfill (or who violate) the command, are, by contrast, false believers, who belong to the world and show themselves to be children of the Devil. The opponents, according to the author, are such false believers who violate both parts of the e)ntolh/.

Here in the next section (5:5-12), the  focus shifts back to the believer’s trust. It has much in common with the previous two sections on trust (2:18-27; 4:1-6), referred to as the “antichrist” sections because of the distinctive use of the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”)—2:18, 22; 4:3 [par 2 Jn 7]. The term is applied to the opponents, because of what the author regards as their false view of Jesus Christ. The interpretive question regarding the nature of the opponents’ Christology has been discussed extensively in supplemental notes on 2:22f and 4:2f, respectively. The author seems to have the opponents’ view in mind here in 5:5-8ff as well (cf. below).

At the close of the previous section (5:4), the author reiterates his exhortation from 4:4, assuring his readers that they (if indeed they are true believers) are victorious over the world. This verb (nika/w), was also used earlier in 2:13-14. As discussed in the previous article, the verb is something of a Johannine keyword, being especially prominent in the book of Revelation (17 of the 28 NT occurrences). The theme of being victorious over the world (o( ko/smo$), in the negative Johannine meaning of the term, echoes the climactic declaration by Jesus in the Last Discourse (Jn 16:33). It is one’s trust in Christ that allows the believer to share in Jesus’ victory over the world:

“(For it is) that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God is victorious [nika=|] (over) the world; and this is the victory [ni/kh] that made (us) victorious [nikh/sasa] (over) the world—our trust [pi/sti$].”

This statement prepares the way for the author’s discussion on pi/sti$ in 5:5ff, as he expounds the nature of genuine trust—the trust that marks a person as a true believer:

“[And] who is the (one) being victorious [nikw=n] (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting [pisteu/wn] that Yeshua is the Son of God?” (v. 5)

Trust and victory are essentially synonymous, as the parallel use of the participles of the verbs nika/w and pisteu/w makes clear; i.e., trusting (pisteu/wn) in Jesus means being victorious (nikw=n). The Christological statement here (“Jesus is the Son of God”) matches the fundamental Johannine confessional statements in the Gospel (11:27; 20:31), which are reaffirmed by the author throughout 1 John (1:3; 3:23; 5:20)—viz., that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christ), the Son of God. While the precise nature of the opponents’ view of Jesus remains disputed, it is clear that the author regarded it as false, representing a dangerous error. According to him, the opponents did not have a genuine trust in Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God).

In verse 6, the author gives us, I think, a better idea of the opponents’ error as he begins to expound in more detail the true view (as he sees it) of Jesus Christ:

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and in blood…”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) is epexegetical, giving us more information about this person Jesus (Yeshua) who we, as believers, understand to be the Son of God. Here in v. 6, as earlier in the confessional statements of 2:22f and 4:2f, the focus is specifically on Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Christ). In other words, when we speak of “Yeshua (the) Anointed”, specifically, as the Son of God, what is meant?

In my view, the author here is further elaborating the Christological statement in 4:2, as can be seen by a comparison of the parallel wording:

    • “Yeshua (the) Anointed having come [e)lhluqo/ta] in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/]” (4:2)
    • “(Yehsua the Anointed), the (one) (hav)ing come [e)lqw/n]…in water and in blood [e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ e)n tw=| ai%mati]” (5:6)

Initially, the author uses the preposition dia/ (“having come through [dia/]…”), but then switches to the preposition e)n (“in”), which matches the expression in 4:2:

    • “in (the) flesh” (e)n sarki/)
    • “in water and in blood” (e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ e)n tw=| ai%mati)

Thus it would seem that the expression “in water and blood” is meant to clarify the earlier expression “in (the) flesh”; that is, Jesus Christ (the Son of God) coming in the flesh means that he came in water and blood (lit., “in the water and in the blood”). In previous notes examining the Johannine use of the noun sa/rc, as well as the specific expression “in (the) flesh” ([e)n th=|] sarki/), it was determined that the principal idea in these Christological statements involved Jesus existence and life as a human being. It is thus fair to assume that the expression “in water and in blood” should be understood in this light.

Most commentators explain the noun ai!ma (“blood”) here as referring to the death of Jesus; this corresponds with the Johannine usage elsewhere (Jn 6:53-56; 19:34; 1 Jn 1:7), and also reflects a widespread early Christian manner of expression regarding Jesus’ death (Mk 14:24 par; Matt 27:24-25; Acts 5:28; 20:28; Rom 3:25; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12-14ff; 10:19; 13:12; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; Rev 1:5; 5:9, etc). But what of the term u%dwr (“water”)? Given the required context (viz., Jesus’ existence and life as a human being), and the juxtaposition with Jesus’ death, there would seem to be two possible explanations:

    • A reference to Jesus’ human birth, in contrast to his death
    • A reference to his baptism—as marking the beginning of his earthly mission, with his death marking its end

The majority of commentators prefer the second option, often simply taking it for granted. There are, indeed, very few I have found who would explain “water” here as a reference to Jesus’ birth. And yet, in my view, the evidence from the Gospel (u%dwr occurs nowhere else in 1-3 John, outside of vv. 6, 8 here) favors the birth motif—including, we might say, the more generalized concept of birth as the beginning of life.

In the Gospel, the noun u%dwr is used principally in connection with the Spirit, contrasting ordinary physical/material water with the living water of God’s Spirit. This contrast is most explicit in 4:10-15 and 7:37-39; elsewhere, it is expressed in two important ways:

    • The contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist, drawing upon the traditional saying by the Baptist (1:26, 33; cf, Mark 1:8 par)—i.e., baptizing in water vs. baptizing in the Spirit.
    • The birth imagery of 3:3-8, in the Nicodemus Discourse

In each of these instances, “water” (u%dwr) refers to ordinary physical water, in contrast to the Spirit. Because of this marked contrast, and because Jesus’ own baptism is so closely connected with the presence of the Spirit, I feel it is rather more appropriate that the author (in 5:6ff) uses “water” as a way of referring to Jesus’ birth. In this regard, the usage in Jn 3:3-8 is directly applicable, since it contrasts a normal human birth “out of water” with a divine/spiritual birth “out of the Spirit” (v. 5ff); that this is the meaning of “out of water” in Jn 3:5 is clear from the parallel “out of the flesh” in v. 6. Indeed, this is precisely the same parallel we find in 1 Jn 4:2 / 5:6—i.e., “having come in the flesh” / “having come in water…”.

If “water” thus symbolizes Jesus’ human birth (and earthly life), it also alludes to his sacrificial death. This is indicated by the symbolic use of water (by Jesus) in the Last Supper narrative (13:5ff), and is represented even more clearly by the historical detail noted in 19:34f—the “blood and water” that came out of Jesus’ side after his death. In light of the wording in 19:30, it is likely that the water in v. 34 is meant to allude specifically to the “living water” of the Spirit that Jesus gives. The gift of the Spirit is only possible after Jesus’ death, with the life-giving power and efficacy of his sacrificial death being communicated to believers through the Spirit (cf. 1 Jn 1:7 and Jn 6:51-58 [in light of v. 63]).

The similarity of motif between water and wine in the Cana miracle episode (2:1-11) and water and blood in 19:34, is not, in my view, a coincidence. The two episodes mark the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and symbolize, in different ways, the power of his life and death, respectively. The Spirit is associated closely with Jesus’ earthly life (from at least his baptism, cf. above), and also with his death. It is thus significant that the author emphasizes the same association here in vv. 6ff:

“…and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the truth.”

The Spirit gives witness (vb marture/w) to Jesus Christ “having come…in water and in blood”. This rather clearly refers back to 4:1-6 (cf. the previous article), and the fundamental idea that the indwelling Spirit teaches the truth to believers, while false believers are not inspired by the Spirit of God, but by a different (lying/deceiving) spirit. In particular, the Spirit teaches the truth about Jesus Christ; thus, the true believer, guided by the Spirit, will affirm (and confess) the true view of Jesus, while false believers (like the opponents) will not. In 4:6, the Spirit was referred to by the traditional expression “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cp. 1QS 3:18-19, etc); here, however, the author goes a step further and declares that the Spirit is the truth, forming a kind of belated answer to the question posed by Pilate in Jn 18:38.

The Christological issue, and the point of conflict between the author and the opponents, involves the reality and/or significance of Jesus’ death. The opponents apparently accepted the reality of Jesus’ human birth, but were unwilling to embrace his death. Or, following the more common line of interpretation (cf. above), they understood the importance of Jesus’ baptism (when the Spirit descended upon him), but denied the significance of his sacrificial death. The Spirit, as the author emphasizes, bears witness to the reality (and importance) of both Jesus’ birth/baptism and his death. For more on this aspect of the opponents’ Christology, cf. the recent 3-part supplemental note on 4:2-3 (pts 1, 2 & 3).

In verses 7-8, the author’s emphasis shifts slightly:

“(And it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three: the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and the three are unto/into [ei)$] the one.”

In v. 6, the Spirit was a witness of the water and blood; now, the Spirit is a witness along with the water and blood, witnessing to the truth of who Jesus is—viz., the Anointed One and Son of God. If Jesus thus came through the water (i.e., a human birth and earthly life), and through the blood (i.e., his sacrificial death), he also has come now through the Spirit, abiding in and among believers through the Spirit. The internal testimony of the Spirit will agree with the historical tradition (preserved in the Gospel) regarding Jesus’ birth/life and death—i.e., the three will affirm the same truth about Jesus, functioning “as one (witness)”.

Being God’s own Spirit, the witness of the Spirit is the witness given by God the Father Himself, as the author declares in verse 9:

“If we receive [i.e. accept] the witness of men, the witness of God is greater, (in) that this is the witness of God that He has given as a witness about His Son.”

The idea of giving witness, utilizing the noun marturi/a and the verb marture/w, is an important Johannine theme, recurring throughout the Gospel and Letters—cf. Jn 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:11, 26ff, 32-33; 4:39; 5:31-39; 7:7; 8:13-14ff; 10:25; 15:26-27; 18:37; 19:35; 21:24; here in 1 Jn 5:6-11; 3 Jn 12; it also features prominently in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 20:4; 22:16ff, etc). God gives witness about His Son, not only through the Spirit, but through the reality of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth/life and death, as preserved in the historical tradition(s) of the Gospel. The record of Jesus’ life and death goes back to the first disciples who were first-hand witnesses (1:1-4). The point must be stressed again, from the author’s standpoint, that the witness of the indwelling Spirit (about Jesus) will agree with the Gospel record of his earthly life and death (“water and blood”). The emphasis on the role of the Spirit is given again in verse 10:

“The (one) trusting in the Son holds th(is) witness in himself; (but) the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) false [i.e. a liar], (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the witness which God has given as a witness about His Son.”

Two key points, and fundamental theological principles in 1 John, are again stressed: (1) the contrast between the true and false believer; and (2) the indwelling/abiding presence of God’s Spirit as a witness to the truth. The reason why the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus is that they are false believers, and thus do not possess God’s Spirit.

The author concludes the section with a fine summary of the Johannine theology:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], and this Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds th(is) Life, (while) the (one) not holding the Son of God does not hold the Life.” (vv. 11-12)

The emphasis, in the context of the author’s argument, is two-fold: (a) the witness regards the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God; and (b) the implicit teaching that the Divine/eternal life which God gives to believers (i.e., those trusting in His Son) comes through the reality of the Son’s incarnate life and death. In particular, the emphasis is on Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death (“blood”), which communicates life to believers. The opponents’ great error, apparently, was in their denial of the reality (and/or importance) of Jesus’ death; for this reason, they, unlike all true believers, do not have access to this eternal life. As noted above, the life-giving power of Jesus’ death is communicated to believers through the Spirit (on this, cf. my earlier note on 1:7); believers “hold” eternal life within them through the abiding presence of the Spirit (3:24).

These articles on 1 John will be brought to a close with a supplemental article that specifically addresses the relation of the opponents to the spiritualism of the Johannine Community (and its writings).

April 19: 1 John 1:7ff

1 John 1:7

There are five Johannine passages where the word ai!ma (“blood”) occurs, four of which refer to the death of Jesus. We have already discussed the two of these which are found in the Gospel—6:51-58 (vv. 53-56) and 19:34—and considered the theological relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. Now it remains to examine the two passages in 1 John.

The first reference comes from the opening section (following the Prologue), 1:5-2:1. The central message of 1 John (2:18-5:12) is framed by ethical-religious instruction involving the relation between the believer and sin. In these framing passages, it is recognized that believers will at times commit sin, in the sense of religious and moral failings, or lapses. The promise is that such sin can be forgiven. Here is how the author states the matter in 1:7:

“If we would walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (the) we hold common bond [koinwni/a] with each other, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The verb kaqari/zw (“cleanse”) has ritual significance, and occurs primarily in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, and the relevant portions of Hebrews (interpreting the ancient sacrificial ritual). It occurs only here (and in v. 9) in the Johannine writings; nor is it used in the undisputed Pauline writings (but only in [2 Cor 7:1]; Eph 5:26; Titus 2:14). The author of 1 John is almost certainly drawing upon traditional early Christian language, which he accepts and utilizes, even though this ritual terminology tends to conflict with the spiritual emphasis that runs through the Johannine Gospel and First Letter.

The idea that the blood of Jesus would cleanse believers from sin ultimately derives from the role of blood in the ancient sacrificial ritual, practiced in Israel and codified in the Torah regulations. These are found principally in the book of Leviticus, the most extensive discussion on the significance of blood being found in chapter 17 (vv. 10-14). Blood symbolizes (and embodies) the life of a living being (human or animal), and, as such, serves a vital symbolic and quasi-magical role in the sacrificial ritual. We may identify three principal aspects, governing three distinct usage of blood in the ritual:

    • To represent the effectiveness of a binding agreement (covenant) on the parties involved—specifically, the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. This is most clearly depicted in the covenant ratification ceremony in Exod 24:1-11 (vv. 6-8).
    • To consecrate people, places, and objects, primarily for the purpose of ensuring the holiness (and purity) of all elements of the sacrificial ritual (see, for example, in Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15, 23-24; 9:9, etc).
    • As a substitutionary offering, to God, in place of the life of the individual. This relates primarily to the various forms of sin offering (Leviticus 4, 16, etc). The blood from the slaughtered animal is splashed against the altar, as a symbolic way of offering it to God (since it is not burnt with the rest of the animal).

Only the last two aspects/uses could be considered as related to “cleansing” —and the latter only in the sense of the removal (expiation) of sin and its effects. Interestingly, in the Gospel tradition, it is the covenant-ratification context that is specifically related to Jesus’ blood—viz. in the ‘words of institution’ during the Last Supper (Mark 14:24 par). And this does not specifically relate to any cleansing or to the idea of removal of sin; indeed, compare the very different context for the mention of cleansing in the Johannine version of the Last Supper (13:10; 15:3). However, it is clear that early Christians were quick to make the connection between Jesus’ blood (and his death) and the sacrificial offerings for sin; note, for example, the Matthean version of the Last Supper, with the ‘words of institution’ include the phrase “for the putting away [i.e. forgiveness] of sin” (26:28). Hebrews combines all three aspects of the ritual blood-symbolism, associating them with Jesus’ sacrificial death in chapters 910, and adding to them a fourth (mentioned in 11:28): the apotropaic use of blood in the Passover rite, as protection against death and destruction (i.e., judgment, sent by God).

How does the author of 1 John interpret and utilize this blood-symbolism? We must consider two points: (1) the Christological tradition he is drawing upon, and (2) the distinct (Johannine) theological context of his message in 1:5-2:1. First, the role and place of Jesus is referenced three ways in this passage:

    • The sacrificial power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his death) to cleanse the believer from sin (1:7)
    • The position of Jesus alongside God the Father (in Heaven), interceding on behalf of believers (2:1), and
    • The implication that Jesus himself is a i(lasmo/$ over our sins (2:2). The noun i(lasmo/$ is notoriously difficult to translate in English, but it essentially denotes, in a religious and sacrificial context, the means by which a person appeases God, obtaining favor, graciousness, and/or mercy from Him. It effectively refers to the sacrificial offering (esp. the offering for sin).

How are these different concepts related? The last two concepts are traditional: (a) the exalted Jesus now stands alongside God the Father (at His right hand) in heaven, and (b) Jesus’ death functioned as a sacrificial offering (spec. a sin offering). The author of 1 John adopts these notions as part of the early Christian tradition and belief which he inherited. It is the blood-reference in 1:7, along with the use of the noun para/klhto$ in 2:1, that reflects the distinctive Johannine interpretation and application of this tradition.

The noun para/klhto$ literally means “one called alongside,” to offer help and assistance to someone. In the context of 2:1, Jesus is called alongside God the Father (lit. he comes “toward” [pro/$] the Father), to give help on behalf of believers. If Jesus is present with the Father in heaven, is he not also present with believers? From the Johannine theological standpoint, this is realized through the idea that there is another para/klhto$, through whom Jesus continues to remain with believers. This, of course, is the Holy Spirit, according to the teaching in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7ff), in which the term para/klhto$ (“[one] called alongside”) is used repeatedly. Though the author does not state this explicitly in 1:7ff, it is fair to assume that the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood is understood and being communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit. This would be in accord with the spiritual interpretation of the eucharistic language in Jn 6:51-58, discussed in the previous note.

Two other aspects of the author’s statement in 1:7 indicate that the presence of the Spirit is central to his thought. First, there is the idea of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) in the light (e)n tw=| fwti/). One is immediately reminded of Paul’s expression of walking about (same verb) in the Spirit (pneu/mati [preposition implied], Gal 5:16; cf. also Rom 8:4; cp. 6:4). Beyond this, there is the Johannine use of the light (fw=$) motif, as a fundamental Divine attribute which God the Father possesses, and which is shared by Jesus (the Son). It is used as such throughout the Gospel (1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46), and similarly in 1 Jn 2:8-10. However, here in 1:5, it is presented as an essential predicate: “God is light” (o( qeo\$ fw=$ e)stin). This is comparable to other predicative statements in the Johannine writings—most notably, in Jn 4:24: “God is Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). Some commentators might prefer to identify God’s light with His truth, but this still points right back to the Spirit, given the declaration in 5:6: “the Spirit is the truth” (to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia). This verse will be discussed further in the next daily note.

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.

“…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”.

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 & the Trinitarian addition

1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

In the previous note, I argued that the expression “in/through water and blood” in 1 Jn 5:6 refers to two aspects of Jesus’ humanity (that is, his real humanity, against a “docetic” view of Christ): (1) his human birth and life, and (2) his sacrificial death (involving the shedding of blood). Both of these appear together at the time of his death (“blood and water”, Jn 19:34), and may be prefigured (i.e. water and wine [= blood]) in the episode at Cana at the beginning of his earthly ministry (2:1-11). It is Jesus’ very life (water and blood) which is poured out on behalf of humankind. If this interpretation is correct, then we must ask exactly how the Spirit relates to these two aspects, since, in vv. 6b-8, the Spirit is joined to “water” and “blood” to form a triad.

Let us first consider how this is introduced by the author:

“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.” (v. 6)

There are two phrases involved. The first is:

“the Spirit is the (one) giving witness”
to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin to\ marturou=n

The basic meaning of this is clear enough: the Spirit gives witness (to believers) of Jesus’ coming “in/through water and blood”—i.e. of his real human life and sacrificial death. It may seem a bit strange for us today that there would be Christians who might deny or object to Jesus Christ as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In modern times, the opposite is more often the case—many people accept Jesus’ humanity and death on the cross, but object to the idea that he was divine or the “Son of God” in any real sense. The context of 1 John suggests a Christian setting which espoused a “high” Christology—i.e., Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God—but which was a distance removed from any memory of Jesus’ actual earthly life and ministry. Thus Johannine Christians could easily confess Jesus as the “Son of God” but have genuine doubts or questions about whether, or to what extent, he was actually a human being like us. The author of the letter goes out of his way, at several points, to emphasize this point. We see it already in the opening verses (1:1ff), where he speaks of Jesus as the “word of Life” which “we” (i.e. the apostles or an earlier generation of believers) have heard, seen with eyes, felt with hands, etc—Jesus was a real human being who walked and lived among us. Most scholars regard the Johannine Letters as addressed to a later (second or third) generation of Christians, dated c. 90-100 A.D., and this is likely to be close to the mark.

An important point in the Last Discourse is that the Spirit/Paraclete will teach and instruct believers, giving witness of things both to them and through them (14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15); in particular, 15:26f states:

“…that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will give witness about me, and you also will give witness…”

Thus the first statement about the Spirit in 1 Jn 5:6 is fully in accord with the view of the Spirit presented in the Gospel, and is confirmed again in 2:26-27, with the idea that the Spirit (“the anointing”) instructs believers in all things. In the view of the author, true believers will hold a correct view of Jesus because they hold the Spirit who gives true witness about Jesus. This leads to the second statement:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth”
o%ti to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia

In the Gospel, this is expressed by the title “Spirit of Truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13) and also in 1 Jn 4:6. The Spirit is also associated closely with Truth in Jn 4:23-24, and also with the indwelling word/presence of God in 1 Jn 1:8; 2:4, etc. That Jesus and God the Father also also identified as Truth (Jn 1:14, 17; 14:6; 18:37, etc) simply confirms the basic Johannine idea that the Spirit is both the Spirit of God the Father and of Jesus (the Son). Interestingly, this statement in 1 Jn 5:6b seems to provide a belated answer to the question by Pilate in Jn 18:38:

    • Question: “What is (the) truth?”
    • Answer: “The Spirit is (the) Truth”

In the immediate context of the letter, however, the emphasis is on the truthfulness of the Spirit’s witness. Since the Spirit is Truth itself, it/he can only speak the truth, as indicated by Jesus in Jn 16:33: “…he will lead the way for you in all truth”.

While it might seem that the Spirit is sufficient to give witness for believers, in verses 7-8 the author of the letter turns to the ancient legal principle that testimony in a court of law must be confirmed by at least two witnesses (i.e. two or three witnesses). This is expressed a number of times in the Old Testament Law (cf. Deut 19:15, etc), and appears in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (5:30-46; 8:16-19). In Jn 5:30ff, Jesus cites four different sources of testimony that give witness about his identity (as the Son sent by the Father). Here the author of the letter cites three:

“(so) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood—and the three are (together) into one.” (vv. 7-8)

This thematic formula of three-in-one certainly helps explain the trinitarian addition, found in some Latin (Vulgate) manuscripts, which, inappropriately, made its way into the 16th/17th century “Textus Receptus” editions of the New Testament (see spec. the KJV of vv. 7-8). It is, however, clearly a secondary addition (interpolation), as virtually all today commentators agree. We must avoid reading later theological concepts (from Nicene orthodoxy, etc) into the passage, and focus instead on the thought-world of the author and the (Johannine) congregations whom he is addressing. The main question is: how exactly does the Spirit relate to the “water” and “blood” which, as I have argued, symbolize the human life (and sacrificial death) of Jesus. There are are several avenues to explore:

    • 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

This will be done in the next note which will conclude our extended discussion on 1 John 5:6-8.

“…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).

Saturday Series: Exodus 24:1-11

Exodus 24:1-11

The past two weeks we have examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called “the account of the agreement” (s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb š¹µâ) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (b§rî¾) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (±ôlâ, hl*u)) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew šelem (<l#v#, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun ze»aµ, verb z¹»aµ), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diath¢¡k¢] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb µ¹zâ (hz`j*) in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). For next week, even as you think and meditate upon these covenant episodes we have studied, I would ask you to read on through the remainder of Exodus, considering how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Law, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

Blessings to you in your study…and I will see you next Saturday.

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.