John 15:13, continued
The believer’s duty (e)ntolh/) to show love is based upon the love that Jesus himself showed to his disciples (and to all believers). The sacrificial character of this love is expressed in verse 13 by the phrase “set (down) his soul over his dear (one)s [i.e. those dear to him]”. The specific expression involved is “set down (one’s soul) over”; the corresponding idiom in English is “lay down one’s life for…”, which is very close in both form and meaning. The two key components, indicated in bold, are: (1) the verb ti/qhmi (“set, put, place”) and (2) the preposition u(pe/r (“over”). Having discussed verse 13 as a whole in the previous note, we shall now look in more detail at these two elements.
The verb ti/qhmi occurs 18 times in the Gospel of John, but is not a particularly Johannine term. Being a common verb, and occurring frequently in narrative, in most of the occurrences it is used in the ordinary sense of setting/placing an object, etc. There are, however, three passages where the use of ti/qhmi is relevant for an understanding of v. 13 here. The first is in the Good Shepherd Discourse of chapter 10, specifically vv. 11-18. This section begins with an “I am” saying by Jesus—
“I am the good [kalo/$] herder.”
and then he qualifies the nature of this goodness (adj. kalo/$, in the sense of fineness, excellence) as follows:
“The good herder sets (down) [ti/qhsin] his soul over [u(pe/r] the sheep.”
This is precisely the same expression we find in 15:13. It clearly refers to the herdsman’s willingness to give up his own life to protect the sheep. The noun pro/baton denotes an animal that “steps forward”; it can refer to any quadruped that is herded, but is commonly used for sheep. In vv. 12ff, Jesus develops this illustration, expounding his self-identification with the “good shepherd” figure, and with the sacrificial action that demonstrates his “goodness”:
“…I set (down) my soul over the sheep” (v. 15)
Jesus is willing to give up his own life for the sake of his sheep (i.e., his disciples/believers), alluding to his impeding death on the cross. He knows those who belong to him, just as the Father knows him (the Son). Indeed the Father loves the Son especially because of this willingness of the Son to give up his life:
“Through [i.e. because of] this, the Father loves me: (in) that I set (down) [ti/qhmi] my soul, (so) that I might take it (up) again.” (v. 17)
Here is added to the illustration the idea of a person “taking (up)” (vb lamba/nw) again what was “set (down)”. In this context, it alludes to the resurrection of Jesus (i.e., ‘taking up’ his soul again) after his death. The Father’s love toward the Son encompasses both his sacrificial death and his return to life (resurrection)—both being components of the Son’s exaltation.
In the concluding verse 18, it is made clear that Jesus’ impending death is a willing self-sacrifice, made by the Son:
“No one takes it (away) from me, but I set it (down) from myself [i.e. on my own]. I hold (the) e)cousi/a to set it (down), and I hold (the) e)cousi/a to take it (up) again. This is the (duty laid) on (me) to complete [e)ntolh/] (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (v. 18)
The noun e)cousi/a is difficult to translate in English; basically it refers to something that is possible, or is in one’s power, to do. It indicates the ability to do something, but also can connote that one has been given permission (by a superior) to do it. Here, in this instance, it means that the Son (Jesus) has been given the ability to lay down his life and then take it up again, but also that this is something the Father has given him to do. Indeed, the self-sacrificial death (and resurrection) of the Son is described as an e)ntolh/—a duty placed on the Son (by the Father), which he is obligated to complete. The mission is completed at the moment of his death on the cross, as the declaration in 19:30 (“it has been completed”) makes clear.
The second occurrence of ti/qhmi which we must note also refers to the self-sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, but in a more subtle way. At the Last Supper with his disciples, as Jesus initiates the symbolic foot-washing action, we read:
“…he rises from the supper and sets (down) [ti/qhsin] his garments, and (ha)ving taken [vb lamba/nw] a linen cloth, ties it around himself” (v. 4)
The combination of the verbs ti/qhmi and lamban/w echoes 10:17-18, but, more specifically, the image of Jesus “setting down” his outer garment(s) here almost certainly alludes (by way of foreshadowing) to his upcoming death (cf. the reference to his garments in the Crucifixion scene, 19:23f). The context of chapter 13 (vv. 1ff) clearly has the impending death of Jesus in view.
If there was any doubt of the significance of the verb ti/qhmi in this context, the third reference, in the opening section of the Last Discourse, unquestionably confirms it. In the exchange between Jesus and Peter, the latter asks:
“Lord, for what (reason) am I not able to go on (the same) path with you now? My (own) soul I will set (down) [qh/sw] over [u(pe/r] you!” (v. 37)
Peter declares his willingness to follow Jesus to the death—a disciple being willing to lay down his own life for his master. Jesus’ challenge to Peter in response uses the exact same wording:
“Your (own) soul will you (indeed) set (down) over me?” (v. 38)
The question is followed by the famous prediction of Peter’s threefold denial. In Peter’s failure to remain faithful to Jesus, he did not show the love required of the true disciple, who would be willing to lay down his own life. However, his status as a true disciple was restored, after the resurrection, with his threefold affirmation of love and devotion for Jesus (21:15-19).
The exchange between Jesus and Peter follows immediately after the ‘love command’ —the declaration by Jesus of the duty of disciples/believers to love one another—in vv. 34-35. Thus, a willingness to lay down one’s life is very much connected with the duty to love, even as it is here in the Vine illustration passage.
Finally, we must mention several other occurrences in the Gospel of the preposition u(pe/r (“over”), where a similar reference to Jesus’ sacrificial death is indicated or implied. First, there is the “I am” declaration in the final section of the Bread of Life Discourse:
“I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven. If any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age; and, indeed, the bread that I will give is my flesh, (given) over [u(pe/r] the life of the world.” (6:51)
As many commentators have noted, this use of the pronoun u(pe/r seems to echo the eucharistic declaration by Jesus (at the Last Supper) in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:24; Lk 22:19-20). In the Markan form of this saying, Jesus’ blood is said to be poured out “over many”; in Luke, the sacrifice is directed toward the disciples (“over you”). The Lukan version is thus closer in sentiment to the Johannine words of Jesus to his disciples in the Last Discourse.
One of the most unusual Johannine traditions, recorded in the Gospel, is the unwitting (and ironic) prediction by Caiaphus of Jesus’ sacrificial death, when he:
“…foretold that Yeshua was about to die off over [u(pe/r] the nation—and not over the nation only, but (so) that also the offspring of God scattered throughout should be gathered together into one.” (11:51-52; cf. also v. 50; 18:14)
Clearly, in all these references, u(pe/r essentially means “on behalf of, for the sake of”.
The final reference of note occurs toward the end of the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17, being (in the narrative context) among the last words spoken by Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, before his death. In this instance, his impending death is described by the verb a(gia/zw (“make holy”, i.e., purify, sanctify, consecrate):
“and (it is) over [u(pe/r] them (that) I make myself holy, (so) that they (them)selves might be (one)s having been made holy in (the) truth” (17:19)
The death and resurrection of Jesus is for the sake of his disciples (and all believers). The Father consecrated the Son (10:36) for his mission, and now the Son consecrates himself, in preparation for its completion (19:30). By participating in the life-giving and cleansing power (cf. 1 Jn 1:7ff) of Jesus’ death, the disciples themselves are purified and made holy. Since the Son is the truth (14:6), believers are thus made holy in the truth (i.e., in Jesus); in particular, the cleansing that makes believers holy is communicated through the Spirit (who also is the truth, 1 Jn 5:6).