Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letters of John

The Johannine Writings, Part 2:
The Letters of John

The three Johannine Letters (1-3 John), like the Gospel (discussed in Part 1), have been traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle. However, there is no evidence for this whatsoever in the Letters themselves. The author, while probably known to his immediate readers, remains unknown to us, identifying himself (in 2 and 3 John) simply as “the Elder” (o( presbu/tero$). Commentators disagree somewhat on whether the same person also wrote 1 John, but this is probably the best (and simplest) explanation. All three letters certainly stem from the same Community, referred to by the traditional label “Johannine” —a group of regional congregations, sharing a common tradition and heritage, which also produced the Gospel of John. This region has traditionally been identified as Asia Minor, especially the area around Ephesus, which is also the provenance of the book of Revelation—and this may well be correct. The Letters almost certainly were written sometime after the Gospel (or at least a version of it) had been produced, and are typically thought to date from the end of the 1st century (c. 90-100 A.D.).

The Johannine Gospel and Letters share the same basic religious and theological outlook, including a common style, vocabulary, and mode of expression, etc. Indeed, portions of 1 John could have been lifted straight out of the Gospel Discourses (and vice versa), so close are they in terms of their language and style. As a result, we may fairly well assume that the Gospel and Letters also reflect a common eschatology—that of the Johannine Community—and a comparative study of the writings (esp. of the Gospel and 1 John) generally bears this out. Eschatology is not particularly emphasized in 1 John, due primarily to the prominence of the specific conflict within the Community that is being addressed. I have discussed this historical-critical aspect at length in recent Saturday Series studies on 1 John. The situation is somewhat analogous to that of Galatians, in which the theological-religious question of the place of the Torah among believers, and the opposition of those who claim that is still binding for believers, dominates the letter.

There are, however, a number of eschatological references throughout 1 John, which generally reflect the idea that believers are living in the end-time (i.e. the end of the current Age), while the New Age has already been realized for believers, in the present, through the Spirit. For more on this “realized” eschatology, and its relation to Johannine theology, cf. the discussion in Part 1. Several of the passing references and allusions in 1 John illustrate this:

    • 1 John 2:8b:
      “…(in) that [i.e. because] the darkness leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and the true light already shines”
      —that is, the New Age (of eternal Light and Life) is already being realized for believers in Christ.
    • 1 John 2:13-14:
      “…you have been victorious over the Evil (One)” (stated twice)
      —the final victory over evil has already been achieved (perfect tense of the vb. nika/w) through the work of Jesus Christ (Jn 16:33) and our trust in him.
    • 1 John 2:17:
      “And the world leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and (with it) its impulse for (evil), but the (one) doing the will of God remains [me/nei] into the Age.”
      —this is a general statement of the transitory nature of the world (with its impulse for what is corrupt and evil), but also specifically of the idea that the current Age is coming to an end.
    • 1 John 3:14a:
      “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into Life”
      —i.e., the Judgment has already occurred for believers; cf. the discussion on John 5:24 in Part 1.
    • 1 John 4:17:
      “In this love has been made complete with us, (so) that we might hold outspokenness (before God) in the day of Judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is, (so) also are we in this world.”
      —our identity as believers in Christ (present aspect) gives us assurance that we (will) pass through the Judgment (future aspect).

Other verses could be cited, to the effect that believers already possess the eternal life which otherwise was thought to be experienced (by the righteous) only after the final Judgment (cf. 2:25; 5:11-13, etc). Even so, when considering the eschatology of the Johannine Letters, two passages especially stand out, which need to be considered in more detail—(1) 2:18-27 (along with 4:1-6), and (2) 2:28-3:10. I have already discussed these at length in earlier studies, but without much attention being paid to the eschatological emphasis; this will be the focus here.

1 John 2:18-27 (with 4:1-6)

The eschatological statement in verse 18 is clear and direct, and informs everything that follows in the passage:

“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you heard that against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes, even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which you (can) know that it is (the) last hour.”

The author clearly believes that he and his readers are living in the end time, the “last hour” (e)sxa/th w%ra) of the current Age. While this belief may be problematic for Christians today (living 1900+ years after the fact), there can be no real doubt of the imminent eschatology that characterized early Christian thought, especially in the 1st century A.D. It may be amply demonstrated from nearly every writing of the New Testament, as the articles in this series attest (see esp. the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament). The noun w%ra (“hour”) often has eschatological significance—cf. Dan 8:17f; Sirach 18:19; Mark 13:11, 31-32; Matt 24:44; 25:13; John 5:25, 28; Rev 3:3, 10; 14:7, 15; and note also the eschatological dimension of the use of the word in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:35, 41; 15:33 par; Lk 22:53; Jn 13:1). However, the expression “the last hour” is rare, occurring only here in the New Testament, “the last days” or “last day” being more common (Acts 2:17; James 5:3; 2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3; Heb 1:2; Jn 6:39-40ff; 11:24; 12:48). It would seem to indicate a specific moment rather than a period of time, perhaps emphasizing here all the more that the end was imminent.

The presence of those who are “against the Anointed” is particularly noted as a clear indicator that it is the “last hour” and that the end is near. The Greek adjective is a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), usually transliterated in English as “antichrist”, but literally meaning “against the Anointed (One)” —that is, against the Messiah. The prefix a)nti/ fundamentally means “against”, i.e. someone or something that is opposed to the Messiah; however, it could also denote something that stands “in place of” (or in exchange for) the Messiah, i.e. a false Messiah or Messianic imitation. I discuss the term further in the first part of my article on the Antichrist Tradition. It appears to have been coined by Christians, with specific reference to Jesus as the Anointed One (i.e. Jesus the Christ). Thus, it here it means “opposed to Jesus as the Christ”.

The author gives us some indication of what he has in mind when he calls certain people “antichrists” (a)nti/xristoi). A careful study of this section (2:18-27, note the adjective again in v. 22), along with 4:1-6, where the term is also used (v. 3), as well as several other references in the letter (and 2 John, vv. 7-9), allows us to reconstruct the historical situation to some degree. There were certain individuals who, according to the author, had separated from the main Johannine Community (“they went out of [i.e. from] us”, 2:19), and who espoused a view of Jesus (as the Christ) considered to be false or in error. As a result, these persons demonstrated that they were false believers (and false prophets), who effectively denied Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God (vv. 22-23). Thus, from the author’s standpoint, they could rightly be characterized as “against the Anointed”. The specific Christological point at issue is difficult to determine precisely; it appears to have involved an unwillingness to recognize the reality (and saving power) of Jesus’ humanity—especially the reality of his death. I discuss the matter in some detail in the aforementioned Saturday Series studies; here, the main thing to note is that these people, with their false view of Jesus Christ, are identified as an eschatological manifestation of “antichrist”.

From an eschatological standpoint, the main difficulty for interpretation lies in the first part of the statement in verse 18:

“…you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed’ comes”
h)kou/sate o%ti a)nti/xristo$ e&rxetai

The present form of the verb e&rxetai (“comes”) is perhaps better rendered in English syntax as “is to come” or “is coming”, implying an (eschatological) expectation that something (or someone) referred to as “antichrist” will appear at the end time. The author is clearly referencing an existing tradition of some sort, but the precise nature and significance of this tradition is uncertain, and continues to be debated. I would outline three possibilities:

    • The expectation of a wicked (world) ruler, as in 2 Thess 2:1-12, in which case it could be considered an early form of the later Antichrist Tradition, following especially after the “wicked tyrant” motif from the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic writings.
    • A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
    • A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.

Many commentators assume the first view—that it is a reference to an early form of the later Antichrist tradition. If so, it would seem that the author is contradicting this tradition. Essentially he would be saying: “you have heard that this Antichrist figure is coming, but he has already come, and in the form of these false believers (antichrists)”. I do not think that this is correct. It seems more in keeping with the thought of the letter—and of the wider Johannine tradition and theology—that the author is referring to a tradition that he accepts, that of an Antichrist-spirit (or spirit-being) who appears, and is dominant on earth, at the end-time. The false believers who espouse this false view of Jesus are a specific manifestation of this end-time spirit, themselves being inspired (perhaps unwittingly) by evil and deceptive spirits (4:1-3ff). This is fully in accord with the Johannine view of the world in the current Age, dominated by the power of evil (and the Evil One)—cf. Jn 3:19; 7:7; 17:15; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18-19; also Jn 1:10, 29; 8:23; 12:31; 14:17, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8ff; 1 Jn 2:15ff; 3:1, 13. The situation in the world only becomes more intense and acute as the moment of the end comes closer, with evil becoming ever more prevalent and pervasive throughout humankind.

For further discussion on the matter, consult Part 3 of my study on the Antichrist Tradition.

1 John 2:28-3:10

In early Christian writings of this period, it was common for authors to couch their ethical and religious instruction in eschatological terms. Indeed, the imminence of their eschatology gave a special sense of urgency to the instruction; to paraphrase—since the end is near, and Jesus will soon appear, how much more ought we to remain faithful and vigilant, etc.

1 John 2:28-3:10 opens with an eschatological statement, similar to that in the previous section (2:18-27, above). Even more to the point, the end-time appearance of “anti-Christ” (v. 18) is parallel to the end-time appearance of Christ himself, and immediately precedes it. That the return of Jesus is in view in vv. 28ff is confirmed by the use of the noun parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”), a common technical term in early Christianity for the end-time coming of Christ, even though this is the only occurrence of the word in the Johannine Writings. In 2 Thess 2:8-9, Paul uses parousi/a for the appearance of Christ and the anti-Christ (i.e. “the lawless one”) both, heightening the parallel between the two.

“And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him, (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|, i.e. appear], we might hold outspokenness, and not feel shame from him, in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us).” (v. 28)

This statement reflects the standard early Christian eschatology, though phrased somewhat in distinctive Johannine terms. In fact, the passage is a good example of the interplay between “realized” (present) eschatology and a traditional future eschatology. The present (“realized”) aspect is dominant in the Johannine Writings (especially the Gospel), and is expressed clearly here in verse 29, using a formulation that defines believers (“the ones doing justice/righteousness”) as having “come to be (born)” out of God. That is to say, true believers are already God’s offspring, in union with him—an eternal identity that normally would be reserved for the righteous in the afterlife, following the Judgment (i.e., eschatological). This is stated even more precisely in 3:1:

“You must see (then) what sort of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring of God—and (so) we are.”

The present tense form of the verb of being (e)sme/n, “we are”) is emphatic, emphasizing both an essential identity and present reality. Even so, our identity as God’s children/offspring will be made complete in the end, at the return of Jesus—i.e. the future eschatological aspect. For early Christians, this was understood primarily in terms of the end-time resurrection, when believers would be transformed into a divine, exalted state of existence. The Johannine writings tend to downplay this metaphysical aspect (but cf. the prior discussion on resurrection in the Gospel), and, indeed, here the transformation is expressed by the Johannine idiom of seeing (= knowing)—by seeing God we come to be like Him; this is the declaration in 3:2:

“Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh, i.e. appear] what we will be; (but) we have seen [i.e. known] that, when it should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|] (for us), we will be like Him, (in) that we will see [o)yo/meqa] Him even as He is.”

Throughout this section there is wordplay involving the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”, i.e. appear, be manifest), something that, sadly, is obscured or lost in most translations. In the main line of argument, it refers to the appearance or manifestation of Jesus (the Son of God) on earth—both in his earlier/first (vv. 5, 8) and future/second (2:28) appearances, both being understood by early Christians as eschatological events. Here in 3:2, however, the verb has a slightly different meaning—it refers to the manifestation of believers as the children of God (cf. the earlier article on Romans 8:18-25). And yet, this manifestation is tied to the manifestation of Jesus (i.e. his return). Something similar is expressed (by Paul) in Colossians 3:1-4 (discussed in an earlier article), with a different sense of “realized” eschatology—through our union with Christ (in the Spirit), we are already present with him in heaven, and this reality will be experienced fully at the moment of his appearance (from heaven).

The transformation of the righteous (believers) through a consummate vision of God (i.e. seeing Him) reflects an eschatological expectation that has a long history. For Jewish thought, its roots go back deep into Old Testament tradition, finding later expression, for example, in the writings of Philo (e.g., On Abraham 57-59) and subsequent Rabbinic tradition. An especially memorable declaration is found in Pesiqta Rabbati 11.7 (46b): “In this world, Israelites cleave to the Holy One…but in the time to come they will become like Him.” (cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 [1982], p. 425). In the Matthean Beatitudes, Jesus pairs seeing God with being called sons (or children) of God (Matt 5:8-9), just as here in 1 John; on the eschatological/afterlife context of the Beatitude-form, cf. my earlier study. Both here and in Matt 5:8, the verb o)pt–an—omai is used for the future tense of seeing; literally, it refers to gazing with (wide) open eyes, especially appropriate for the idea of beholding God Himself. Paul describes this eschatological vision (for believers) in somewhat different terms, though just as memorably, in 1 Cor 13:12 and 2 Cor 3:18.

This eschatological (and theological) discussion concludes with the ethical-religious exhortation in verse 3:

“And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself holy [i.e. pure], even as that (one) is pure.”

The lack of explicit subject-references, as well as ambiguous use of pronouns, in these verses creates some difficulty for interpretation (and translation). Does “he/him” in vv. 2-3 refer to God the Father or Jesus? to Christ or to the believer? In verse 2, it would seem that it is the relationship between the believer and God the Father that is primarily in view, and it is possible that this continues into verse 3. In this case, our hope is upon Him (i.e. the Father), and we are to purify ourselves because He Himself is pure—traditional instruction reflecting Lev 19:2, etc (compare Matt 5:45 par).

On the other hand, the hope (e)lpi/$) of the believer is better understood in terms of the hope that we hold in Christ (“upon him”). The noun e)lpi/$ frequently has an eschatological connotation in the New Testament—the future hope, of salvation, resurrection, eternal life, etc. This hope tends to be located in the person of Christ; moreover, the demonstrative pronoun “that (one)” (e)kei=no$) is often used as a distinctive way of referring to the person of Jesus, and so at times here in 1 John (2:6; 3:5, 16; cp. 3:7; 4:17). I take the focus in verse 3 as being on Jesus, parallel to the original exhortation in 2:28 (“remain in him”), after a shift in focus (in 2:29-3:2) on God the Father:

    • Exhortation (2:28): “remain in him” (Christ)
    • Exposition (2:29-3:2): the identity of believers as children of God (God the Father)
      • Main premise (2:29): our life and conduct should reflect our identity as children of God (even as Jesus is the Son of God)
      • Present reality (3:1)—we are God’s children now, resembling Him (“realized” eschatology)
      • Future reality (3:2)—we will be like God Himself, seeing Him clearly (future eschatology)
    • Exhortation (3:3): purify ourselves (in Christ)

February 2: Revelation 21:6b-8

Revelation 21:6b-8

The remainder of this introductory section (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-6a) to the vision continues God’s words from verse 6a; it shifts from His self-identification to the relationship He holds with His people. As I have discussed throughout these notes, the motif of the “people of God” is central to the visionary narrative, even though the actual expression really does not occur prior to this final vision. This thematic emphasis is confirmed by two aspects of the symbolism in the book:

    • The scenes depicting a multitude of people surrounding God (His throne) and the exalted Christ (the Lamb), and
    • The various Old Testament imagery, occurring throughout the visions, otherwise related to Israel as the people of God

Like many of the symbols in the book of Revelation, there are both heavenly and earthly aspects to this idea of believers as the people of God. Believers are gathered in heaven (in an exalted state), and, at the same time, are enduring persecution and distress on earth. The clearest blending of this people-of-God imagery, applied to faithful believers in Christ, is found in the two scenes involving the 144,000 in chapters 7 and 14:1-5; this, of course, draws upon the fundamental symbolism of the twelve tribes of Israel, something the final vision will also build upon (vv. 12-14). The point will be discussed further in the next note.

Indeed, it is only here in the climactic vision, centered around the motif of the “new Jerusalem”, that the identity of believers in Christ as the true people of God becomes explicit; cf. the previous note on vv. 3-4, with its allusion to Ezek 37:27; Lev 26:11-12, and many other passages involving the covenantal language of the Old Testament. Now, in addition to this language, we have the idea of believers as the sons (i.e. children) of God, even as Israel had been regarded as His “son” (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Isa 43:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 1:10; 11:1) in the old Covenant. And, as God’s sons/children, faithful believers will receive the divine inheritance that belongs to a true son. This is very much the principal idea here in verses 6b-8:

“I will give (freely) as a gift out of the fountain of the water of life to the (one) thirsting. The (one) being victorious will receive these (thing)s as (his) lot, and I will be God to him and he will be my son.” (vv. 6b-7)

There are three components to his promise of divine/heavenly reward; they are presented in reverse order, in the sense that each statement depends on the one that follows:

    • The believer is related to God as His son/child =>
      • The true/faithful believer will receive the divine/eternal inheritance =>
        • Believers have eternal life, using the symbolism of drinking the “water of life”

This generally corresponds with the promises in the letters of chapters 2-3, which declare that the believer who remains faithful, in the face of the evil and persecution of the end-time period of distress, i.e. is victorious (vb nika/w), he/she will receive the eternal/heavenly reward. The reward of eternal life is expressed through a variety of symbols and images, among which is this motif of drinking from the “water of life”. This particular image is ancient and widespread, based upon the natural life-giving characteristics of water. Of the many Old Testament passages, one may note Psalm 35:10; Prov 13:14; 14:27; Isa 43:20; 44:3; Jer 2:13; 17:13; Zech 14:8; for the specific idea of thirsting after God (and the water He gives), cf. Psalm 42:2; 63:1; Isa 41:17-18; 55:1, etc. The eschatological motif of “living water” coming out of Jerusalem derives primarily from Zechariah 14:8 (cf. also Joel 3:18; Ezek 47:1-12).

In the Old Testament / Near Eastern idiom, the expression “living water” refers to natural flowing water, as from a river, stream, or fountain/spring (phgh/). The latter is in view here, as it also is in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, where the motif of “living water” likewise serves as an image for eternal lifeJn 4:10-14; 7:37-39; cf. also 6:35, 53ff.

“But for the fearful (one)s and (the one)s without trust and (the one)s having made themselves to stink—even murderers and prostitute(-seeker)s and drug-handlers and image-servers, and all th(ose acting) false(ly)—their portion (is) in the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (v. 8)

Believers are contrasted in verse 8 with the wicked, or non-believers. It is easy for modern readers to misunderstand the manner of expression here, for several reasons. The first involves the specific setting of the book of Revelation. Throughout the visions, the focus has been primarily on the coming period of distress, which believers at the time where thought to be entering. During this period, the faith (“trust”, pisto/$) of believers in Christ would be increasingly (and severely) tested. Out of fear of persecution (and death), there was the danger that some might fall away; this is why being “fearful” (deilo/$) is paired here with being “without trust” (a&pisto$), i.e. faithless, without faith in God and Christ.

The second thing to note regarding the narrative context in Revelation is that, during the time of distress, when the forces of evil are especially dominant and active on earth, a turning away from faith means identifying oneself as belonging to the evil powers symbolized by the Dragon and Sea-Creature of chapters 13-14ff. At the pinnacle of the end-time distress, the choice is stark and clear—remain faithful and endure suffering/death, or turn and embrace the evil authority of the Sea-Creature (as manifest in the Roman Empire, etc). The use of the verb bdelu/ssw (indicating a reaction to something that stinks), may be an intentional allusion to the eschatological tradition in Mark 13:14 par (cf. Dan 9:27 LXX) and the related noun bde/lugma (“stinking thing”).

It is also important to understand the rhetorical force of such “vice lists” in the New Testament and early Christianity. They are part of a traditional kind of religious and ethical instruction, with strong parallels in Jewish tradition and in Greco-Roman philosophy as well. The lists are a way of dramatically summarizing the kinds of wickedness that the righteous (i.e. believers) must avoid. Paul uses them rather frequently to emphasize the clear contrast between believers and the wickedness/immorality traditionally associated with non-believers (“the nations”). In 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 he utilizes the same motif of inheritance, stating bluntly that those who do such things will surely not inherit the Kingdom of God (i.e. receive eternal life).

Readers today might well question how this instruction would relate to non-Christians (non-believers) who generally conduct themselves in an upright and virtuous manner. However, such concerns were quite foreign to the thought-world of early Christianity, where non-believers were more or less identified with immorality and wickedness in a stock manner. We should not, however, assume that this was always taken literally, at face value, especially since “prostitution” and “idolatry” were often used figuratively for a lack of trust in God, even when no actual prostitution or idol-worship took place. Similarly, in Jesus’ teaching, anger and hatred toward others could be equated with “murder”, and so forth (Matthew 5:21-22, 43ff; cp. 1 John 3:11-12ff).

Even so, there is certainly a clear and precise contrast between believer and non-believer here in vv. 6b-8, as may be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • Reward: Drinking from the Water of Life
      • Those who are victorious (believers) will inherit
        • Identification of believers as the Sons/Children of God
      • Those who are wicked (non-believers) will have their portion
    • Punishment: Submerged in the Lake of Fire (cf. 19:20; 20:15)
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January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

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

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 2)

Romans 8:18-25

Verses 18-25 are part of the wider section spanning chapter 8, the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans.

In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come. Thus, Rom 8:18-25 is fundamentally eschatological, marking the climax of this last division of the salvation history, at the point in time where believers are positioned—i.e., living at the end of the current Age.

Verse 18

“For I count [i.e. consider] that the sufferings of th(is) moment now (are) not brought up (as equal) toward the honor [do/ca] (be)ing about to be uncovered unto us.”

The noun pa/qhma has the basic meaning “suffering, misfortune”, something negative which happens to a person. Paul uses it (always in the plural, 9 times) in two primary contexts: (1) the sufferings in the flesh, i.e. the impulse toward sin which resides in the flesh (even for believers), along with the suffering this causes (Rom 7:25; Gal 5:24), and (2) the sufferings which believers endure (from non-believers, especially) for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Cor 1:5-7, etc). Both aspects are rightly considered as part of the suffering faced by believers in the present Age, which Paul (and his readers) saw as swiftly coming to a close. Here, the contrast is between the present suffering of believers, and the future honor/glory that waits for them. The present suffering, no matter how severe, does not measure up to the greatness of this future glory. The adjective a&cio$ draws upon the idiom of weighing—i.e. the weight of something which brings up the beam of the scales into balance. The implication is that the future glory far outweighs the present suffering (cp. 2 Cor 4:17).

The use of the auxiliary verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is another sign that for Paul this eschatological expectation was imminent. He fully expected that those believers to whom he was writing would soon be experiencing this do/ca— “about to be uncovered unto us”.

Verse 19

“For the (stretch)ing of the head of the (thing) formed (by God) looks out to receive th(is) uncovering of the sons of God.”

The statement is almost impossible to translate literally in English, with its wordplay involving the compound noun a)pokaradoki/a and verb a)pekde/xomai. Both compounds are based on the verbal root de/xomai, which denotes a person receiving something. The noun connotes an eager expectation, literally signifying the stretching of the head out (or up), i.e. in anticipation of something coming. The word kti/si$ means something (or someone) that has been formed, i.e. by God; it is used by Paul 5 times in chapter 8, emphasizing the nature of human beings as part of the current order of creation. In other words, believers are living in this (current) created order—that is, in the present Age—all the while waiting for, and expecting, the uncovering of the future glory. Note again the identification of believers as “sons (i.e. children) of God”. Moreover, Paul speaks as though creation itself, taken as a whole, shares in this expectation (cf. below on vv. 20ff); thus there is an inherent ambiguity in the word kti/si$—does it refer comprehensively to all that God has created, or simply to the created nature of human beings?

Verses 20-21

“For the (thing) formed was set under an (arranged) order, in futility, (and) not willingly (so), but through the (one) setting (it) under the (arranged) order—upon hope—(in) that even the (thing) formed it(self) will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God.”

Paul’s syntax here is notoriously difficult to interpret with precision, though the basic idea is clear enough. Several strands of theological language and religious tradition are brought together:

    • A continuation of the slavery/freedom motif that has been developed throughout Romans. Human beings have been enslaved under the power of sin since the time of the first human (Adam), when sin (and the idea of sin) was introduced into the world (see chapters 5 and 7). Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers are freed from this bondage.
    • Metaphysical dualism—Related to the slavery/bondage theme is the idea that the current created order has ‘fallen’ into a condition dominated by death and decay (fqora/); as a result, human beings are trapped within this fallen order, needing rescue/deliverance by God (through Christ). In this regard, Paul shares much in common with many “Gnostics”, but differs from them fundamentally by his emphasis that the goal is not simply escape from the material condition, but that the material world itself would be transformed.
    • The Adam/Christ parallel—This was the main organizing principle for Paul’s line of argument in chapter 5, and it is likely that he is alluding to it again here. It is the mythic-narrative corollary to the slavery vs. bondage contrast, defining it according to the narratives surrounding two contrasting persons—one introducing sin into the world, the other delivering the world from sin.

The difficult syntax of vv. 20-21, can, I think, be clarified by considering the thematic structure of the phrases as a chiasm:

    • Creation set under an arranged order of things—in futility
      • It is set under this arranged order through Adam’s sin (implied)
        • Yet this arrangement is based upon an underlying hope
      • It will be set free from this order, through Christ’s saving work (implied)
    • Creation will be freed into a new order of things—out of slavery/decay

According to this line of interpretation, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta is Adam (representing all of humankind). By refusing to put himself under God’s order (cp. use of the vb u(pota/ssw in 8:7; 10:3), he effectively placed the world under a ‘fallen’ order (with the introduction of the enslaving power of sin). Many commentators would see God as the implied subject of u(pota/canta, influenced perhaps by the language in 1 Cor 15:27-28 and the tradition of God (YHWH) cursing the ground, etc, in Genesis 3. While theologically correct, this is unlikely in the rhetorical context here, given the emphasis on the nature of the bondage that Paul describes throughout Romans, and the specific Adam/Christ parallel in chapter 5. Closer to the thought in Romans (and Galatians) would be the idea that the Law subjected creation to the bondage under sin (Rom 7:7-13; Gal 3:22ff). Chapters 5 and 7 present two ways of viewing and explaining the same dynamic—of how humankind came to be enslaved to the power of sin.

The honor (do/ca) that awaits for believers is to be understood primarily in terms of the coming resurrection, as Paul makes clear in the following verses. It is established here by the formal parallel between do/ca and fqora/ (“decay”), the latter indicating the mortality of the created order, in bondage under the power of death.

Verses 22-23

“For we have seen that all th(at has been) formed groans together and is in pain together, until th(is moment) now; and not only (this), but also (our)selves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit, even we (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking out to receive (our) [placement as sons], (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).”

Two different images are employed here, both of which were traditionally used in an eschatological context: (1) the pain of giving birth, and (2) harvest imagery. Both images refer to the climax of a period (of growth and labor, etc), thus serving as suitable figure-types for the end of the current Age. The birth-pain imagery was used especially in reference to the end-time period of distress (cf. Mark 13:9, 17 par; Luke 23:28-29ff, etc), while the harvest tended to prefigure the end-time Judgment (Matt 3:12 par; 13:39-43; Mark 4:29; Rev 14:15ff; cf. also Luke 10:2; Jn 4:35). This judgment-motif involved the separation of the righteous from the wicked (i.e. the grain from the chaff), which was understood in terms of the gathering of believers to Jesus at the moment of his end-time return (Mk 13:26-27 par; Rev 14:15-16). Paul, at least, specifically included the resurrection of dead believers in this gathering (1 Thess 4:14-17), and clearly made use of harvest-imagery in his discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 20-23, 36ff). Jesus himself was the “beginning (fruit) from (the harvest)” (a)parxh/), and believers share this same status, through the Spirit, possessing the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Paul means when he says that as believers we hold “the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit“; elsewhere the Spirit is described as a kind of deposit (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), guaranteeing for us the promise of resurrection.

Because believers continue to live in the world, in the current created order, as human beings, we groan suffering along with all of creation, since our bodies (our “flesh”) remain under the old bondage to sin and death. We must still confront the impulse to sin in our flesh, and we all face the reality of physical death. Our deliverance from this bondage will not be complete until the transformation of our bodies, as stated here by Paul— “the loosing of our body from (bondage)”, using the noun a)polu/trwsi$. His temporal expression a&xri tou= nu=n is a shorthand for the tou= nu=n kairou= (“of the moment now”) in verse 18, another indication of the imminence of Paul’s eschatology—that is, it was about to happen now.

There is some textual uncertainty regarding the noun ui(oqesi/a (“placement as son[s]”) in verse 23, as it is omitted in a number of key manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). If secondary, then the text originally would have read: “…looking out to receive the loosing of our body from (bondage)” —i.e., the reference would be entirely to the resurrection, without any mention of the ‘adoption’ motif. However, as the sonship-theme was central to vv. 12-17, as also the expression “sons of God” in v. 19, the use of ui(oqesi/a would be entirely fitting here in v. 23. The resurrection serves to complete the realization of believers as the sons (children) of God.

Verses 24-25

“For in hope we are saved; but hope being looked at is not hope, for who hopes (after) that which he (can) look at? But if we hope (for) that which we do not look at, (then) we look to receive (it) through (our) remaining under.”

This “hope” (e)lpi/$, and related verb e)lpi/zw) is the same as that mentioned by Paul at the center of vv. 20-21, where the fallen created order, currently in bondage to sin and death, is said to be based upon an underlying hope (“upon hope”, e)f’ e)lpi/di). Now this hope is defined as the salvation of humankind—believers—with their/our identity as sons/children of God. This ultimate deliverance is not something that can be looked at or seen clearly in the material world, for two reasons: (1) salvation is primarily eschatological, realized only at the end of the current Age, and (2) it is currently experienced only through the presence of the Spirit, which is not objectively visible to people at large. With trust and patience, believers endure suffering in the present Age—the temptation of the flesh and persecution by the world—captured by the word u(pomonh/, which literally means “remaining under”, i.e. under obedience to God and Christ. This is the attitude we are to have while waiting for the final salvation—the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:20

1 John 5:20

This is the last note in this series dealing with First John. It treats what may be regarded as the final word of the letter (verse 21 functioning as a coda), though the declaration in 5:20 is actually part of a sequence of three statements, each beginning with the expression oi&damen o%ti (“we have seen that…”), and each dealing with the idea of being born of God:

    • V. 18: “We have seen [oi&damen] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God…”
    • V. 19: “We have seen [oi&damen] that we are out of God…”
    • V. 20: “And we have seen [oi&damen] that the Son of God reached (us)…”

The verb ei&dw means both “see” and “know” (i.e. perceive, recognize), and is interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”); especially in the Johannine writings there is a close (theological) relationship between “seeing” and “knowing”. The way the verb is used here in vv. 18-20, it has two levels of meaning:

    1. What believers have known and recognized from the beginning (1:1ff), ever since they first heard the Gospel message of Jesus, and experienced his presence through the Spirit.
    2. What the author has established for his audience throughout the letter.

The rhetorical thrust (“we have seen…”) essentially includes the readers into the author’s own sphere—the implication being that they will certainly agree with him and confirm, in their own hearts and minds, the truth of what he has said to them in the letter.

I have discussed verse 18 extensively in the three previous notes (July 5, 8, and 9). It uses the expression genna/w (“come to be [born]”) + e)k [tou=] qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”)—an expression which was used repeatedly in both the Johannine Gospel and First Letter (Jn 1:13 [also 3:3-8]; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). The verb genna/w, used in this symbolic sense of a (spiritual) “birth” from God, always applies to believers; it is thus worth revisiting briefly the text-critical question surrounding the second occurrence of the verb in v. 18. The phrase involved is:

a)ll’ o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It is also possible to read the last word as au(to/n or e(auto/n (as in some MSS), in which case the subject of the phrase is definitely the believer:

“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

In other manuscripts, the reading is not a verbal participle (gennhqei/$), but the related noun ge/nnhsi$ (“[a] coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”), which would mean that it is the spiritual “birth” from God itself which protects the believer. This reading, while making good sense, is almost certainly not original, but was likely introduced as a way of explaining the text. In my view, contrary to a number of commentators, the expression o( gennhqei/$ most probably refers to Jesus. The Johannine fondness for wordplay and dual-meaning makes this all the more likely. It may also relate to the idea expressed in 3:9, which is otherwise very close in form and thought to 5:18, where it is stated that “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains/abides in him [i.e. the believer]”. The “seed” (spe/rma) is best understood as the living and abiding presence of Jesus (God’s Son), through the Spirit. This would seem to be confirmed again by what follows here in verse 20. A thematic outline may help establish the connection:

    • Verse 18—The relation of the believer (the one born of God) to Jesus (the one born of God); this relationship (and identity) protects and preserves the believer from sin.
    • Verse 19—The contrast between this identity of the believer (born of God) and “the world” which is dominated by sin and evil—i.e., what we are, and what we are not.
    • Verse 20—The nature of this identity of the believer, and our relationship to Jesus (as the Son of God).

Let us examine verse 20 more closely:

“And we have seen that the Son of God reached (us) and has given to us a thorough mind [dia/noia], (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true—in His Son, Yeshua (the) Anointed. This is the true God and (the) Life of the Age.”

The principal statement is bracketed by references to Jesus as God’s Son; this is vital to an understanding of the verse, as it governs the structure of the statement, which I outline here as a chiasm:

This outline may be summarized:

This is very nearly a perfect epitome of Johannine theology, conforming to everything we find in both the Gospel and the First Letter. Somewhat more difficult is the concluding statement of the verse:

ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$
“This is the True God and (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal Life].”

Particularly problematic is the relation of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this”) to the previous sentence, as well as the predicate statement which follows. There are several possibilities:

    • The pronoun identifies the substantive o( a)lhqino/$ (“the true [one], the [one who is] true”) as God the Father—i.e., “this (one) is the true God“—who is also “the Life of the Age”.
    • It identifies “the One who is True” as God the Father (the True God), and His Son (Jesus) as “the Life of the Age”.
    • It identifies Jesus as both “the True God” and “the Life of the Age”.
    • It summarizes the entire Gospel message about both God the Father and Jesus (the Son)—i.e., “this is (the message of) the True God and Eternal Life”.

Sound arguments can be made for each of these four interpretations, and I find it almost impossible to make a conclusive choice. Most likely, based on Johannine usage, the expression “the Life of the Age” should be understood in relation to Jesus; he is identified as “(the) Life”, and the immediate source of Life for believers, in numerous places (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2; 5:11-12, etc). Yet it is also entirely appropriate to refer to the Gospel message as “Life” in a similar way (cf. Jn 6:63; 12:50; 17:3; 20:31). The opening words of 1 John (1:1-2) seem to play on both of these meanings of “the Life”, and it is likely that a similar dual-meaning is present in the closing words of the letter as well.

Many commentators question whether Jesus would have been identified directly as “the true God”. While there is no doubt that, in both the Gospel and First Letter, the essential deity of Jesus (including his pre-existence and union with the Father) is clearly expressed, his identification as o( qeo/$ (“the [one true] God”) is less certain. Note, for example, the careful wording in John 1:1c (qeo/$ without the definite article). I have discussed the famous textual question in Jn 1:18 on a number of occasions (cf. the most recent treatment). As the textual evidence between qeo/$ (“God”) and ui(o/$ (“Son”) is rather evenly divided, one cannot simply read qeo/$ without futher ado. Even so, most manuscripts also read qeo/$ without the definite article in verse 18, for whatever that might signify (and it remains much disputed).

Syntactically, in 5:20, it is worth noting that the most proximate reference for ou!to$ would be Jesus, as the phrase “…His Son Yeshua the Anointed” immediately precedes the demonstrative pronoun. However, this is by no means a certain indicator of the pronominal relationship; consider the example of 2 John 7:

“…the ones not giving common account of [i.e. confessing] Yeshua (as hav)ing come in the flesh. This [ou!to/$] is the (one speaking) false(ly) and the (one who is) against the Anointed [i.e. ‘antichrist’]!”

Clearly, in this case, ou!to$ refers back to “the ones not confessing Jesus…” rather than to “Jesus”. Based on this syntax, ou!to$ in 1 Jn 5:20 would more likely refer back to “the One who is True” (i.e. God the Father), rather than to Jesus. At the same time, the syntax in 2 Jn 7 would suggest that both the pronoun and the two expressions (“the True God” and “the Life of the Age”) refer to a single subject, in which case, Jesus is the more probable subject.

Despite the many difficulties in deciding between the options listed above, I am inclined to favoring the second and fourth, or, perhaps, some combination of the two:

    • The two expressions “the True God” and “the Life of the Age” relate back to the two subjects—God the Father (“the One who is True”) and Jesus Christ (His Son), respectively.
    • As the concluding declaration of the letter, the pronoun ou!to$ also effectively summarizes the entire content of the letter; parallel with the opening words (1:1-2), it refers to the Gospel message, of what (the true) God has done for us through his Son Jesus, which leads to eternal Life for those who believe.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

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

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.

September 3 (2): John 1:12-13

John 1:12-13

This is the second of two daily notes on John 1:12-13, 16-17. The previous note looked at vv. 12 and 16-17 in the use of the verbs di/dwmi and lamba/nw—”give” and “receive”—to express the divine revelation granted to believers in the person of Jesus (the Son). Today I will be focusing on verse 12-13 for the description of what is given to believers, utilizing the image of birth and sonship. In part, this discussion is related to the article (Part 5) on Election in the current series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. I have already discussed these verses in prior notes, and will refer to these at several points.

Verses 12-13 follow the statements in vv. 10-11, of the Son (the Word [lo/go$] and Light [fw=$]) coming into the world (v. 9):

    • “He was in the world…and the world did not know him” (v. 10)
    • “He came to his own, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside” (v. 11)

Here are vv. 12-13 in translation:

” But as (many) as received [i.e. did receive] him, he gave to them (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to become (the) offspring of God—to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God have come to be (born).”

I have tried to retain the Greek syntax here, as far as possible, to illustrate the important structure of the first half of the sentence (v. 12) in particular. There are two parallels at work, which can be shown in outline form:

    • They received him
      —he gave to them…
      —to become the offspring of God
    • The ones trusting in his name

According to the outer pairing, to “receive” the Son (Jesus) means to “trust” (i.e. believe, have faith) in his name. I discussed this identification in the previous note; for the significance of the name, cf. the recent note on the “name of the Father”. The second, inner pairing connects Jesus’ giving with the believers’ becoming. This same association (using the verbs di/dwmi and gi/nomai) is found in vv. 16-17, as I also discuss in the prior note; consider:

“The Law was given [e)do/qh] through Moses, but favor and truth came to be [e)ge/neto] through Jesus Christ”

The contrast here is one of fullness and completeness—Moses/Christ, the “favor” shown by God in the Law compared with the “favor and truth” manifest in the person of Christ. The common verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) has special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John, and is used very carefully, both in the Prologue and throughout, along with the verb of being (ei)mi) and the verb e&rxomai (“come”), etc. Note the precise way these are used together in the Baptist’s declaration (1:15, 30). Within the prologue, the verb gi/nomai refers literally to creation—coming into existence, coming to be (vv. 3, 10), especially of a human being born into the world (v. 6). It is thus of great moment when it is used of the pre-existent Word and Light: “and the Word became [e)ge/neto] flesh and camped/dwelt among us…”. There can be little doubt that this same sense of incarnation is meant in both verse 15 and here in v. 17. It thus also informs the use in v. 12 as well; note the formal parallelism:

    • God gave favor (the Law) through Moses
      • Favor came to be through Christ (i.e. the Word coming to be flesh)
    • Christ gave believers this favor (authority)
      • Believers come to be children of God

The Word “came to be flesh” means came to be born, i.e. as a human being. It is something of the reverse process for believers—human beings are born as sons/children of God. I have discussed this aspect of vv. 12-13 in a note from a prior Christmas season series. On the textual issue and variants in verse 13, these are also addressed in an earlier note. Jesus refers to this spiritual birth (i.e. born from above, born again) in the famous discourse with Nicodemus (3:3-8), and the image of believers as “born of God” is found often in 1 John (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). In these passages, it is the related verb genna/w, referring more precisely to one coming to be born, which is used. Literally, believers are born “out of” (e)k) God, and this idiom informs the shorter expression, frequent in the Gospel and First Letter, of being (or coming) e)k tou= qeou=, “out of [i.e. from] God”. Cf. especially 1 Jn 3:10, where being “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is synonymous with being “offspring/children of God” (te/kna tou= qeou=). The word te/kna is more or less interchangeable with ui(oi/ (“sons”) and “sons of God” has essentially the same meaning as “offspring of God”. Both expressions are found in the New Testament—for “sons of God”, cf. Matt 5:9; Luke 20:36; Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26 (cf. also Matt 5:45; Lk 6:35; Rom 9:26); “children of God” is the typical expression in John (11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2), but also occurs in Paul (Rom 9:8; Phil 2:15), being equivalent to “sons of God” (Rom 8:16, 21, cp. verses 14, 19). The expression “sons/children of light” has a similar meaning, being applied to believers, usually in an ethical context (cf. Lk 16:8; 1 Thess 5:5; Eph 5:8). The noun te/kna is more appropriate for the Johannine idea of being born from or “out of” God, since its fundamental meaning is something “brought forth, produced” (cf. the verb ti/ktw).

What Christ gives to the believer, according to verse 12, is the e)cousi/a (exousía) to become the offspring of God. This word is difficult to translate in English; derived from the verb e&cestin (e)k + the verb of being ei)mi), it has the basic meaning of something which comes from (lit. out of) a person, and, as such, is in the control or ability of a person to handle or accomplish. It may properly convey the sense of ability/capability, but also of permission—that is, something permitted, or over which permission is granted. The noun e)cousi/a is usually translated as “power” or “authority”. In the Gospel of John, it refers primarily to what God the Father has given to Jesus (the Son)—i.e., placed in his charge and control (5:27; 17:2), including control over his own life and death (10:18). This latter point is especially emphasized in the brief dialogue with Pilate (19:10-11). To understand the precise significance of the word here in 1:12, it is important to look at the use in 17:2:

“…even as you [i.e. the Father] gave to him [i.e. the Son] e)cousi/a o(ver) all flesh, (so) that, (for) every (one) that you have given to him, you should give to them (the) life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life]”

The verb di/dwmi (“give”) occurs three times in this verse:

    • The Father gives (aorist indicative, “gave”) to the Son power/control over all human beings (“all flesh”)
    • The Father gives (perfect, “have given”) specific human beings (the elect, believers) to the Son
    • The Father gives (aorist subjunctive, “should give”) them (believers) eternal life

Believers (the Elect) are in the care/control of the Son; the eternal life which we receive is given only in that context—i.e., our relationship/connection with the Son. For a good description of the dynamic that is involved, we should compare Jesus’ statements in 5:26 and 6:57:

“For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, so also He gave the Son life to hold in himself”
“Even as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also…that one [i.e. the believer] will live through me”

The theological chain is clear and straightforward:

    • The Father gives the Son life to hold in himself (through the Father)
    • The Son gives believers life to have in themselves (through the Son)

This is the sense of the power/control/authority with believers now have, to become children (“sons”) of God through Christ (the Son). This giving and becoming occurs in connection with our trust (pi/sti$) in Christ, which we first experience at a particular moment in time—that is, when we come to him, come to faith. However, there is also a sense in which believers are already (born) of God, even before coming to faith. Consider Jesus’ words to Pilate in Jn 18:37, where he states that he was born and came into the world

“…that I should (bear) witness to the truth—every (one) being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”

That is to say, only the person who comes (i.e. is ‘born’) out of the truth, will be able to hear the voice of truth. I would suggest that the same idea is present in vv. 12-13 as well. I point again to the Greek syntax preserved in translation (cf. above):

    • Believers receive Christ (i.e. trust in him)
      —He gives to them authority/ability to become children of God (i.e. born of God)
    • The ones trusting in his name (i.e. believers) are those who
      —were born out of God (i.e. are children of God)

Verse 13 also clearly expresses the point, given threefold emphasis, that this birth—and, indeed, our very receiving Christ—is not the result of our own (human) will and choice, but comes directly from God. This represents a somewhat different aspect of our Christian identity which we are not accustomed to recognizing or considering. It is also the point at which the early Christian (Johannine) sense of religious identity corresponds most closely with gnostic thought. You will find this addressed further in the article (Part 5) on Election.

September 3 (1): John 1:12, 16-17

John 1:12, 16-17

These next two daily notes—on John 1:12-13, 16-17—relate to articles and areas of study in the current series Gnosis and the New Testament: the article on “Knowledge and Revelation in John” and Part 5 (on Election). Today’s note deals with the first area, especially the motif of revelation in terms of giving and receiving. These twin aspects are expressed by the verbs di/dwmi (“give”) and lamba/nw (“take [hold of], receive”), both of which occur frequently in the Gospel of John and are found here in the Prologue as well. First, in verse 12:

“but as (many) as received him, he gave to them (the) authority to become (the) offspring of God, to the (one)s trusting in his name”

There is a simple and precise parallelism at work:

    • they received [e&labon] him
    • he gave [e&dwken] to them

Verse 11, the first half of the sentence, places this in context: “he came into/unto his own (thing)s, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside (them)”. This specifies what was already stated in verse 10, that the Word/Logos (i.e. the Son) “was in the world, but the world did not know him”. From the more abstract expression “the world” (o( ko/smo$) we move to the neuter plural “his own (thing)s” [i.e. the things of humankind, in a particular place, etc], then to the more specific plural “his own (people)” [i.e. the Israelite/Jewish people]. The word translated “receive” in v. 11 is the compound form paralamba/nw (“take/receive along[side]”). While it is not always necessary (or possible) to translate the prepositional (prefixed) component of such verbs, here it is probably best to preserve the specific meaning of para/ (“along[side]”), which conveys a sense of nearness and intimacy. This preposition is often used with definite (theological) significance in the Gospel of John, especially when describing the relationship of the Son to the Father—i.e., as coming “(from) alongside [para/]” the Father, cf. verse 14. The same aspect of nearness should be assumed in the use of the simple lamba/nw in v. 12 as well—i.e., those who receive the Son (the Word and Light) alongside them. The Gospel narrative shows this at work; in verse 39, when the first disciples choose to follow Jesus, they went “and remained alongside [para/] him that day” (cf. also 4:40; 14:25, etc). The verb here is me/nw (“remain, abide”) which, later in the Gospel, comes to have immense spiritual and theological significance: for Christ (and his word[s]) remaining in [e)n] the believer, and the believer remaining in Christ (6:56; 8:31; 15:4-10; and frequently in 1 John). There are thus two aspects to the idea of receiving as expressed by the verb lamba/nw:

    • Receiving the Son (Christ) alongside [para/], close by, so as to remain/abide with him
    • Receiving the Son (Christ) in [e)n]—i.e. remaining/abiding within the believer, and among believers

That the second aspect follows upon (and completes) the first may be seen from the saying of Jesus in 8:31 (discussed in an earlier note), when Jesus declares to those who have just recently come to trust in him: “if you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples”.

The second verb in the tandem is di/dwmi (“give”), which occurs quite often in John. The associated meanings are interrelated, in at least two ways; first—

    • The Father gives to the Son, and
      • The Son, in turn, gives to his disciples (believers); to which we may add
        • The Spirit also gives to believers, and
        • {Believers give to others}

and, secondly—

    • The Father gives the chosen ones (disciples/believers) to the Son
      —The Son keep/guards them in the Father’s name; so also
      —The Father keeps/guards them in His name (through the Spirit)
    • The Son returns to give (bring/lead) believers back with him to the Father

Here, in verse 12, it is the comprehensive sense of this dynamic—and, especially, the inner aspect—which must be understood by the use of di/dwmi. It is stated that the Son (Word and Light) “gave to them [i.e. believers] the authority to become offspring of God”. This idea of becoming children of God will be discussed in the next note; here, it is important to emphasize the aspect of giving that is expressed—what the Son gives to those who receive him is the ability to be transformed, born anew (from above) through a spiritual birth (cf. 3:3-8).

When we turn to verses 16-17, the emphasis has shifted to the person of Jesus as the Son (of God). Verse 16 picks up from v. 14 (15 being parenthetical), which declares, in rather exalted language, the appearance (i.e. incarnation) of the Son on earth:

“And the Logos came to be flesh and set up tent [i.e. camped/dwelt] among [e)n] us, and we looked with wonder (at) his splendor [do/ca], (the) splendor as of (the) only (one who has) come to be [i.e. only son] (from) alongside [para/] the Father, full of (His) favor and truth”

Verses 16 and 17 are subordinate statements, each beginning with the (connecting) particle o%ti, which I leave untranslated here:

    • V. 16: “out of his fullness we all received [e&labon] even favor a)nti favor”
    • V. 17: “the Law was given [e)do/qh] through Moshe, and favor and truth came to be through Yeshua (the) Anointed”

There is some difficulty in interpreting verse 16 because of the ambiguity surrounding the preposition a)nti/, “against, opposite”, which has a wide range of figurative meanings (“in place of, in exchange for, on behalf of”, etc). Unfortunately, this is the only occurrence of the separate preposition in the Johannine writings, so we cannot compare it with any other instance in the Gospel. In all likelihood, it is meant to express a contrast, which is developed in v. 17—Moses/Jesus, Law/Favor. This suggests a)nti should be understood here in the sense of “in place of”—in place of the favor (xa/ri$) Israel received through the Law, believers have received favor and truth through Christ. The expression “favor and truth” (xa/ri$ kai\ a)lh/qeia) should perhaps be viewed as a hendiadys (two words expressing a single concept)—i.e. true favor. By this interpretation, we need not see Christ as replacing the Law of Moses, though this idea is found at times in the New Testament, both in the Pauline and Johannine writings. A better way of saying it is that the favor of God manifest in Christ is full and complete, while the Torah is only partial, pointing the way to the person of Jesus (cf. Jn 5:39-40). It is out of [e)k] this fullness that all believers (“we all”) receive this (full) favor. If we compare verse 16 in light of v. 12 (cf. above), then this favor (xa/ri$) may be identified with the “authority” (e)cousi/a) that we have been given to become children of God. A careful reading of verse 17 reveals the connection between the verbs di/dwmi (“give”) and gi/nomai (“come to be, become”)—what believers were given is the ability to become. This will be explored in greater detail when verses 12-13 are examined in the next note.

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

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

Mark 1:9-11 par

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Symbolism of Baptism

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

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

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

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