Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).

 

February 27: Revelation 22:18b-19

Revelation 22:18b-19

The declaration of the truthfulness of the book’s message, as testified formally by the exalted Jesus himself (v. 18a, cf. the previous note), is followed by a curse in vv. 18b-19. Such a “curse” is part of the ancient concept of the binding agreement, which utilized various religious and magical formulae as a way of guaranteeing adherence to the agreement. Quite frequently, deities were called upon as witnesses to the binding agreement, who would, it was thought, punish those who violated the terms of the agreement. Punishment (or “curse”) forms were built into the structure of the agreement, and the description of what would happen if the terms were violated was equally binding.

The exalted Jesus, functioning as God’s witness (1:1, etc), has the power and authority to effect the divine punishment for violating the agreement—which here must be understood in terms of verses 7ff, the expectation that all true and faithful believers will guard the message of the book. Anyone who violates this implicit agreement will face the punishment declared by Jesus in vv. 18b-19:

“If any(one) would set (anything else) upon these (thing)s, God shall set upon him the (thing)s (that will) strike, (those) having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]; and if any(one) would take (anything) away from the accounts of the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of this foretelling [i.e. prophecy], God shall take away his portion from the tree of life and out of the holy city, (all) the (thing)s having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll].”

This curse-formula follows the ancient lex talionis principle, whereby the punishment matches the nature of the transgression. The violation is two-fold, each part mirroring the other:

    • Violation: Put (anything else) upon [i.e. add to] what is in the book
      Punishment: God will put upon him (same verb, e)piti/qhmi) what is described in the book (i.e. the Judgment on the wicked)
    • Violation: Take (anything) away from what is in the book
      Punishment: God will take away from him (same verb, a)faire/w) what is in the book (i.e. the reward of eternal life for the righteous)

Some commentators would question whether this strictly refers to altering the book itself—its content and text—or if, instead, the primary reference is to faithful observance, etc, of the prophetic message. Certainly, there are examples, both in Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, of warnings given against tampering with a written work, especially one considered to be a sacred text—cf. Epistle of Aristeas 311; Josephus Against Apion 1.42; 1 Enoch 104:10-13; Artemidorus Onirocritica 2.70; Koester, p. 845). However, in this instance, a closer parallel is perhaps to be found in the traditional understanding of adherence to the Torah (the terms of the Covenant between YHWH and Israel), such as expressed in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32, etc:

“You shall not add (anything) upon the word that I (have) charged you (to keep), and you shall not shave off (anything) from it (either), (but you are) to guard (the thing)s charged (to you) of [i.e. by] YHWH your God, which (indeed) I have charged (you).” (Deut 4:2)

In the Greek LXX, the verb corresponding to “add upon” (Heb. [s^y` + preposition lu^]) is prosti/qhmi (“set/place toward [i.e. next to]”), which is close to the e)piti/qhmi (“set/place upon”) here in v. 18. The Hebrew “shave off from” (ur^G` + preposition /m!) is translated by the verb a)faire/w (“take [away] from”), just as here in v. 19.

Thus, once again, the book of Revelation draws upon Old Testament tradition, regarding Israel as the people of God (according to the old Covenant), applying it to believers in Christ (in the new Covenant). Just as one who willfully disobeyed or disregarded the Torah could not belong to the true people of God, based on the terms of the old Covenant, so one who similarly disobeyed the inspired message of Revelation’s prophecies could not be part of God’s people (believers) in the new Covenant. Since the message of the visions centered on the need to remain faithful to Jesus during the end-time period of distress, with a clear distinction between those who belong to the Lamb and those who belong to the forces of evil (Dragon and Sea-creature), a true believer would not (and could not) violate this message.

It is also likely that the curse was meant to warn people from tampering with the book itself; if so, I would tend to agree with Koester (p. 858) that this emphasis is secondary. The message, not the text, is primary; and yet, so vital is this message, in the context of the imminent/impending time of distress, that it is to be preserved and transmitted with the utmost care.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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February 22: Revelation 22:17-18a

Revelation 22:17

In the previous note, I treated verse 17 as the conclusion to the section spanning vv. 6-17; however, it is also possible to view it as transitional to the concluding section (vv. 18-21). I have chosen here to discuss verse 17 along with v. 18a:

“And the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come!’ And the (one) hearing must (also) say: ‘Come!’ And (the) one thirsting must come—the (one) willing (to do so), let him take/receive the water of life as a gift [i.e. freely]. I (myself) bear witness to every (one) hearing the accounts of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll…” (vv. 17-18a)

In verse 17 there are three distinct imperatives, exhorting/commanding people to come (vb. e&rxomai). Together these serve as a beautiful communal image of believers in the end-time; their response, as believers, is centered around the book of Revelation itself. Let us briefly consider each statement:

“And the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come! [e&rxou]'”

This reflects two aspects of the prophetic visions and messages in the book:

    • Source of the visions—their inspiration by the Spirit (pneu=ma) of God (and Christ), which communicates with the prophetic spirit of the seer
    • Content of the visions—their depiction of the community of true believers as the Bride (of Christ), i.e. the people of God in its exalted, heavenly aspect

It may also be that the community of believers adds its own (inspired) voice to that of the Spirit; certainly this would express the actual dynamic of how the prophetic gift was understood and realized in early Christianity.

“And the (one) hearing must (also) say: ‘Come! [e&rxou]'”

Once the prophetic message had been written down and made available for others, it would have been read aloud in the congregations—in the early Christian setting, such texts would have been heard, rather than read, by the majority of people (cf. the previous note on v. 16). Having received (i.e. heard) this message, true believers in the local congregation would add their voice to the inspired Community—i.e., the people of God in their earthly aspect.

“And (the) one thirsting must come [e)rxe/sqw]…”

Here the verb is a third person imperative, and it elucidates what is meant by the second person command, and how people (believers) respond to the command. The wording alludes to Isaiah 55:1 (as in 21:6b, cf. below), and reflects the true believer’s longing (i.e. “thirst”) for God and desire for eternal life. This is very much a Johannine motif—the verb and idiom occurs in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus (4:13-15; 6:35; 7:37, cf. also Matt 5:6); the exhortation in Jn 7:37 provides a close formal parallel:

“If any (one) should thirst, he must come [e)rxe/sqw, i.e. let him come] toward me and drink.”

Here, however, we are not dealing with a person’s response to the Gospel, but to their faithfulness in following Jesus, even in the face of suffering and testing, during the end-time period of distress. This is the significance of the believer’s response to the message of the book—he/she will take special care to remain faithful, aware of the severe tests and challenges to trust in Jesus that are coming, but also reminded of the promise of God’s ultimate victory over evil.

“the (one) willing (to do so), let him take/receive the water of life as a gift [dwrea/n, i.e. freely]”

The same statement, and allusion to Isa 55:1, occurred earlier in the “new Jerusalem” vision (21:6b, cf. the earlier note). Here the imperative is best rendered as an exhortative (“let him take/receive”, labe/tw), corresponding to the imperative pine/tw (“let him drink”) in Jn 7:37. The verb lamba/nw is often translated “receive”, but here it is perhaps better to render it in its fundamental sense as “take”. The context is that of the Paradise-motifs—river, tree of life—which symbolize eternal life, and which were inaccessible to humankind during the old order of Creation (i.e. the current Age). Now, however, in the New Age (and a new order of Creation), believers are able to come and take (i.e. eat and drink) from the tree and water of Life.

Revelation 22:18-21

Revelation 22:18a

“I (myself) bear witness [marturw=] to every (one) hearing the accounts of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]”

Here the exalted Jesus repeats his personal declaration from v. 16—again with the emphatic personal pronoun e)gw/ (“I”)—only this time he makes explicit the significance of his declaration as a witness (ma/rtu$), i.e. one who gives truthful and reliable testimony (cf. the previous note). It is once again the congregational setting, where the written accounts (lo/goi) of the visions in the book of Revelation are heard read aloud. Jesus himself bears witness that they are true; since he himself is the original witness who received the revelation from God (1:1), this confirms the truth of the message in a special way. In the Greek-speaking world of the time, official documents (esp. living wills and other binding agreements) would often begin with the person’s name, followed by marturw= (“I bear witness…”), e.g. P.Oxy. 105.13-14; 489.24-26; 490.15-16; cf. Koester, p. 844.

The remainder of the concluding section, beginning with vv. 18b-19, will be discussed the next few daily notes.

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February 18: Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

This is the third component within the parallel sections of vv. 6-17. Following the exalted Jesus’ announcement of his imminent return (vv. 7a, 12-13, cf. the previous note), there is a beatitude, or “macarism”, marked by the opening adjective maka/rio$ (makários, “happy”). The background of the beatitude-form is essentially eschatological, as I discuss in an earlier article (part of a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus). Here, of course, at the end of the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably so, referring to the blessed happiness that awaits for believers who remain faithful through the end-time period of distress. Ultimately, the source of this blessedness is the eternal life that the true believer is to experience, dwelling with God and Christ in the heavenly “Jerusalem” of the New Age (21:1-22:5).

The beatitude in verse 7b is brief and concise:

“Happy [maka/rio$] (is) the (one) keeping watch [thrw=n] (over) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll.”

As in vv. 6, 10, the reference is literary, i.e. to the book (bibli/on, “paper-roll, scroll”) of Revelation as a whole—all of the visions and messages contained in it. The beatitude thus relates to how people respond to the book (when they hear it read aloud, etc), and treat its contents. The verb thre/w means to “keep watch” over something; it is often used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, as part of ethical instruction and the exhortation to remain faithful as the end comes nearer (cf. earlier in 2:26; 3:3, 8, 10). This reproduces the beatitude in the opening of the book (1:3), where this aspect of imminence is clearly stated (“…for the moment [is] near.”).

The beatitude in verse 14 is more extensive:

“Happy (are) the (one)s washing their robes, (so) that their e)cousi/a will be upon the tree of life, and (that) they should enter into the gate-ways of the city.”

Here “keeping watch over” the prophecy is parallel with the expression “washing their robes” (plu/nonte$ ta\$ sto/la$ au)tw=n); however, in many (later) manuscripts, and some versions, the reading is instead the similar sounding poiou=nte$ ta\$ e)ntola/$ au)tou= (i.e., “doing His commands”, cp. 12:17; 14:12). The idiom of washing one’s robe (stolh/, a long ceremonial garment) was used earlier in 7:14, specifically in the context of believers who have remained faithful during the end-time period of distress (“…coming out of the great distress [qli/yi$]”). The implication of the parallelism, between verses 7b and 14, is that the true believer will accept the prophecies in the book, and will guard them with care. The verb thre/w is combined with the motif of keeping one’s garments clean in the beatitude of 16:15.

The idea of “washing” (vb plu/nw) alludes to the flowing (i.e. living, eternal) waters of the great river (of life) in the “new Jerusalem” (22:1), indicating a reward that corresponds to the believer’s actions. Here the same Paradise-setting is indicated by the motif of the “tree of life” (22:2, also 2:7); cf. the earlier note on 22:1-3a.

English translations tend to obscure the actual wording of the Greek in v. 14, as the subject of the second verb is not the believers themselves, but their e)cousi/a. The noun e)cousi/a is notoriously difficult to render accurately (and consistently) in English. Literally, it indicates something that comes out of a person’s own being, i.e. something he/she is able to do; however, it can specifically connote an ability that is given to the person from a superior, in which case, we might understand it in terms of permission. The word “authority” is perhaps the best option for capturing this semantic range in English. Here, the context is the ancient tradition of humankind being barred from access to the “tree of life”; in the New Age, for believers, this ‘curse’ is removed (v. 3), and we have the ability to come into the Garden of God and eat from the fruit of this tree. This access is part of the wider image of entering into the heavenly “city”, through the gate-ways that always stand open (21:25).

For the blessings described in v. 14, there is a corresponding curse in verse 15, defined in terms of being left outside (e&cw) the city (cp. Matt 8:12; 25:11-12, 30, etc):

Outside (are) the ‘dogs’ and the drug-handlers and the prostitute-(seek)ers and the murderers and the image-servers—indeed, every (one) being fond of, and doing, (what is) false.”

This more or less reproduces the vice-list of 21:8 (cf. also 9:20-21; 21:27), with the addition of the deprecatory label ku/ne$ (“dogs, hounds”); as a traditional term of opprobrium, it suggests both that a person is unclean and is deserving of contempt. On the idea of dogs (the actual animals) being excluded from the holy city, cf. the Qumran text 4Q394 fr. 8 iv. 8-9 (Koester, p. 843). The four terms, taken together, serve as a summary of human wickedness, traditionally associated (in Judaism and early Christianity) with the pagan culture of the “nations”:

    • fa/rmakoi (drug-handlers, drug-users)—a label for any kind of magical practice, perhaps best understood here, more generally and figuratively, for evil and mind-altering deception.
    • po/rnoi (those engaged in, or seeking, prostitution)—a traditional catch-term for any kind of immorality, sexual or otherwise.
    • fonei=$ (murderers, killers)—generally covering any kind of violent and lawless action.
    • ei)dwlola/trai (lit., ones serving images)—representing, not merely the idolatrous aspects of pagan religion, but false religion of any kind, and even, we may say, of pagan culture as a whole (i.e. the surrounding Greco-Roman world).

These are all summarized under the aspect of people “being fond of” (filw=n), as well as actually “doing” (poiw=n), what is false (yeu=do$).

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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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“…Spirit and Life” (concluded): The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation

We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.

Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to associate this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

    • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
    • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
    • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
    • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:

1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:

“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”

This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).

The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.

2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:

“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)

The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):

    • The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
    • He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book

There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:

    • 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
    • 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.

3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).

“Spirit” and “Life”

At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:

1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:

I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”

However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:

“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)

2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:

a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).

The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.

b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).

c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).

d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.

This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next (already being posted on this site), which deals with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.

References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.

“…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 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

In the previous note, I discussed the opening declaration in verse 18, along with the various (and seemingly contradictory) statements in the letter to the effect that Christians both do commit sin and do not (indeed, cannot) commit sin. There is no simple answer or solution to this difficulty, but I have sought to analyze it carefully, based on the overall language and ideas expressed throughout the letter. However, before proceeding to a more precise interpretation, it is necessary to examine the distinction in vv. 16-18 regarding sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) and sin which is not so. Here again are verses 16-17 in translation:

“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. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

Sin which is “toward death”

The simplest explanation of the expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) is something which leads toward death or results in it (cf. John 11:4). The underlying idea is presumably legal, particularly as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). Certain violations of law—i.e. serious crimes against society or religious transgressions—specifically result in death for the offender (Exod 21:12ff; Num 18:22, et al). Some commentators understand the idea of the transgressor being “cut off”, at least in certain passages, as referring to a punishment by God of death. Naturally, in such legal and religious-cultural settings, certain sins result in death (or a sentence of death) while others do not. How might this apply to the situation in 1 John? A number of interpretations have been offered by commentators over the years; these include:

    • The distinction involves especially serious or egregious sins—religious and/or ethical violations—in the basic sense indicated above.
    • It reflects something akin to the thought in James 1:14-15, of sinful behavior which is cultivated and allowed to grow, leading to “death”; this would perhaps relate to the interpretation that the present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6, 9; 5:18, etc, refers to continual, habitual sinning, rather than occasional failings by the believer.
    • The distinction involves ‘ordinary’ sinning (i.e. moral lapses, etc) vs. more serious sins (i.e. “blasphemy”) against God’s own person, perhaps in a specific theological/Christological sense.
    • It relates to the “unforgivable sin” (i.e. against the Holy Spirit) of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8:38 par.

The first option certainly fits the fundamental religious/ethical background which presumably underlies the expression. Indeed, early Christians preserved the basic idea of especially serious (and blatant) sins which no true believer ever should, or would, commit. There are a number of examples of such “vice lists” in the New Testament, which are generally in accord with both Jewish and Greco-Roman standards of decency and morality—e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:22-23. In Rom 1:32, Paul specifically declares that those who commit such gross transgressions are “deserving of death“. This draws upon traditional Israelite and Jewish religious thought, as expressed in the Torah (cf. above). He similarly states (again using traditional language) that those engaged in such behavior will certainly not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21).

The problem with this view is that such traditional ethical instruction is really not to be found in the letter. Only in 2:15-17 do we see anything of the sort, and, even there, the emphasis is more generally on the character of “the world” rather than on specific types of sin. The closing statement of the letter (5:21) appears, at first glance, to be a traditional warning against (pagan, Greco-Roman) idolatry; yet, based on the overall orientation of the letter, it is likely that the warning should be understood as a coded statement, referring to the false views of those described in 2:18-25 and 4:1-6, etc, symbolically as idol-worship. So, this leaves us with two options: (1) in 5:16-18 the author is referring to something (types of serious immorality, etc) not otherwise emphasized in the letter, or (2) the sin that is “toward death” relates to something other than violation of traditional religious and moral behavior. In my view, the latter is more likely and fitting with the rhetorical thrust of the letter. If so, then it would also eliminate the second interpretation cited above. As I argued in the previous note, the use of the present tense of a(marta/nw does not necessarily indicate continual/habitual sinning, but more properly the simple distinction between past and present sins.

I would suggest that the third and fourth views listed above are rather closer to the mark, though the dynamic must be understood in terms of Johannine thought (i.e. that of the Letters and Gospel). Jesus’ specific saying regarding the “unforgivable sin” (against the Holy Spirit) is foreign to 1 John, though it may provide a loose parallel in the way that early Christians may have understood certain “sins” as directed specifically against the person of Christ and/or the Spirit.

It is useful at this point to consider the statement made by the author in verse 17:

“All sin is injustice [a)diki/a], and (yet) there is sin which is not toward death.”

The noun a)diki/a literally refers to something which is “without justice, without right(eous)ness”; we might say that it is “lacking right-ness”. This blanket statement refers to “all sin” (pa=sa a(marti/a). At the same time, it would seem that the author agrees with the general assessment in James 1:14-15 that all sin eventually leads to death (on this point, cf. below). What, then, is the sin which is, or leads, “toward death”? Let us look at the key references to “death” (qa/nato$) in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter, specifically with those which relate to the believer (rather than the sacrificial death of Jesus):

    • Jn 5:24—the person hearing Jesus’ word, and trusting in him (and the One who sent him), holds the “Life of the Age” (eternal life) and “has stepped across out of death (and) into Life”. Humankind in the world is dominated by sin and darkness, and is on a path which leads to (ultimate) death in the end-time Judgment. Only those who trust in Jesus have Life, and are transferred out of this realm (and path) leading to death.
    • Jn 8:51-52—here we find a slightly different formulation of the same idea: that the person (believer) who keeps/guards Jesus’ word will never “see/taste death”. The motifs of “hearing” and “keeping” Jesus’ word are two aspects of the principal idea of trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father).
    • 1 Jn 3:14 reflects both of these declarations by Jesus, defining them specifically in terms of love for one’s fellow believer:
      “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across out of death (and) into Life, (in) that [i.e. because] we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.”

We have discussed previously how, in Johannine thought, the entirety of the Christian life is summarized by just two “commandments” (e)ntolai/); actually, it is better understood as a single, two-fold duty: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). This may be deduced from evidence all throughout the Gospel and Letters, and is stated precisely in 3:23-24. Every true believer observes (keeps) this two-fold command; by contrast, the one who violates it is not a true believer. This background provides what I consider the best avenue for interpreting 5:16-18, which I would summarize as follows:

    • Believers may sin at various times, but they do not (and cannot) sin in the sense of violating the two-fold command which is fundamental to one’s Christian identity.
    • “False” believers, such as the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations, may claim to be true Christians, but they are not, since they violate the two-fold command—i.e., they do not have proper trust in Jesus, and/or do not demonstrate true love. As non-believers (belonging to “the world”), who thus act in a manner “against the Anointed” (i.e. ‘anti-christ’), they do not possess Life, and remain on the path leading toward death.
    • It is thus these false/non-believers who sin “toward death”; true believers cannot sin in this way.

From what we read in the letter (and also in 2 John 7-11), it is clear that those who separated from the Johannine congregations, holding (and proclaiming) a false view of Jesus, were exerting some measure of influence in the various churches. This setting informs the warnings in 1 Jn 4:1ff and 2 Jn 8ff—i.e., the need for believers to be on guard and to “test” the “spirits” of those speaking about Jesus.

Life and Death in 1 Jn 5:16

Another difficulty in the interpretation of vv. 16-18 is the way “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) relate in this passage. The syntax of verse 16 is actually rather ambiguous; I translate it here without any explanatory gloss:

“If any one should see his brother sinning sin not toward death, he will ask and he will give him life…”

We must first determine the point of reference for the subject/object of the phrase in italics—who gives and who receives life? There are three options:

    • The person (believer) making the request is the one who gives life to the believer who is sinning
    • God gives life to the sinning believer
    • God gives life to the one making the request

I would say, with most commentators, that the second option is to be preferred, though it is possible that the phrase expresses the idea that the believer’s request effectively results in (God) giving life to the one sinning. How should we understand “life” here? Throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, the word zwh/ virtually always refers to the (eternal) Life possessed by God, and which God, through Jesus (and the Spirit), gives to believers. Yet, if believers already possess this Life, and are not sinning “toward death” (cf. above), in what sense is the believer given “life” here? I note several possibilities:

    • Here, in fact, the reference is to the danger of physical death as a result of sin
    • The language simply reflects the basic distinction of sin and evil as the opposite of life (i.e. death), in a general sense
    • Sin puts the believer (temporarily) out of union with God and Christ (i.e. “death”); only after confession/admission of sin and forgiveness/cleansing is this union (“life”) restored
    • The forgiveness provided to the sinning believer is part of the same life-giving power of God which Christ possesses; this is inherent both in the saving work of his sacrificial death (“blood”), and through the (priestly) intercession he performs on our behalf (1:7-9; 2:1-2). Since Jesus himself is Life (Jn 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2, and cf. the upcoming note on 5:20), he gives life in all that he says and does.

The last option is the one best in keeping with Johannine thought, and, I should say, is to be preferred. In the next note, I will be reviewing aspects of this overall study (on 5:16-18, etc), and will attempt to bring the strands together into a more concise and definite interpretation.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:11-13

1 John 5:11-13

Verses 9-12 represents the final section in the body of the letter, with vv. 11-12 as the concluding statement. This section builds upon what was stated in vv. 6-8 (cf. the previous notes), particularly the idea that the Spirit gives witness (“the one giving witness”, vb. marture/w) regarding Jesus Christ and the true/correct understanding of him. This witness (marturi/a) by the Spirit is closely related to the humanity of Jesus, both his birth/life as a real human being, and the reality (and importance) of his physical death. As we have discussed, this point of Christology appears to have been emphasized especially by the author, against a “docetic” view of Jesus, such as was apparently held by the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations.

In verse 9, this witness by the Spirit is identified as God’s own witness—

“(and it is) that this is the witness [marturi/a] that God has given (as a) witness about His Son” (v. 9b)

a witness which is greater than any human witness we might receive (9a). This contrast may be intended to distinguish the mainstream Johannine congregations (who accept the witness of God’s Spirit and hold a correct view of Jesus) from the separatists who give testimony (about Jesus) which is not from God. Verse 10 sets the witness of God (his Spirit) specifically in the context of trust in Jesus—this is the point of separation, the dualistic contrast between those who trust/believe (correctly) and those who do not:

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

The witness which a (true) believer has, or holds, in him/herself is best understood as the Spirit, according to the prior statements in vv. 6-8. As I discussed in the previous note, the three-fold witness reflects two aspects of Jesus’ human life (“water” and “blood”), given sacrificially on our behalf, communicated to us (believers) through the presence of the Spirit. Believers possess (“hold”) this life through the Spirit. This identification is made more clear by the statement which follows in verse 11:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age, and (that) th(is) Life is in His Son.”

As I have discussed at length in earlier notes, the expression “Life of the Age” (zwh/ ai)w/nio$) originally had an eschatological connotation (i.e. the divine/heavenly life which the righteous would enter/inherit in the Age to Come), but was applied by Christians—especially in the Johannine writings—to the divine/eternal/spiritual Life which believers hold even now (in the present) in Christ. This re-interpretation is indicated even here in this verse, by the way that the expression “Life of the Age” is so easily treated as equivalent to “Life” (in Christ, “in His Son”). The dualistic contrast in verse 10 is repeated in the concluding v. 12:

“The (one) holding the Son holds Life, (but) the (one) not holding the Son does not hold Life.”

The highly expressive (and symbolic) thought expressed in the Johannine writings is indicated in these verses, by the different objects which believers are said to “hold” (vb. e&xw):

    • the witness of God (v. 10) = the witness of the Spirit (vv. 6-8)
    • the Son (of God) (v. 12a)
    • (divine/eternal) Life (v. 12b)

These are all more or less interchangeable in Johannine thought, and are best represented by the Spirit, which is the presence of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son) in the believer. This life-giving power and presence is realized spiritually, through the Spirit.

Verse 13

In terms of the structure of the letter, it is best to treat vv. 13-21 as the conclusion. That this sections begins with verse 13 is confirmed by the close parallel with John 20:31, the conclusion of the Gospel proper. It is worth comparing the two statements (note the portions in italics):

And these (thing)s I have written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)

These (thing)s I wrote to you, to the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God, (so) that you would have seen [i.e. known] that you hold (the) Life of the Age.” (1 Jn 5:13)

The wording and thought is so similar that the two statements were either the work of the same person, or one was written after the pattern of the other (or after a common pattern). It effectively repeats the theme and points made in the previous verses, and makes it clear that they relate to the main purpose of the letter. This purpose is indicated by the perfect subjunctive form of the verb ei&dw (“see, perceive, know”)—ei)dh=te, “you would/might have seen”. Here the perfect tense, or aspect, is best understood as an intensive, reflecting either a particular result, or a current state/condition (i.e., of those the author is addressing)—i.e., “would/might surely come to see/know”. The same verb form is used by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 2:10 par):

“(so) that you might (surely) come to see [i.e. know] that the Son of Man holds [e&xei] authority to release [i.e. forgive] sins upon earth…”

Interestingly, there is a formal similarity in the object of knowledge in both passages:

    • “that you hold Life…”
    • “that the Son of man holds authority to release sin…”

As we shall see (in the next note), the motifs of sin, forgiveness, and life, all appear in the subsequent verses 14-17. How do the remaining verses of the conclusion relate to this statement in verse 13? I would divide the section as follows:

    • Opening statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 13)
    • Instruction: Prayer for the forgiveness of sin (vv. 14-17)
      —On the effectiveness of prayer/request to God (vv. 14-15)
      —The purpose/result of prayer: Life and Death in relation to sin (vv. 16-17)
    • Exhortation: Protection from sin for the true believer (vv. 18-19)
    • Closing statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 20)
    • Concluding warning [coded statement?] (v. 21)

Most of the New Testament letters contain a teaching/exhortation section toward the end of the letter; sometimes this is built into the epistolary conclusion, as is the case in 1 John. This will be discussed briefly in the next note.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 3:14-15

1 John 3:14-15

Verse 11 of chapter 3 begins a new section of the letter, which continues on through verse 24. The theme is clear from the initial statement in verse 11:

“(And it is) that this is the message which you heard from the beginning: that we should love (each) other.”

In 2:8, the author treats the directive to love as a new command (cf. John 13:34), while here he describes it as something which believers have heard “from the beginning”. This builds on the play between “old” and “new” in 2:7ff—the two-fold command to trust in Jesus and to love one another (3:23-24) is both old and new. This may be understood in many ways; certainly for the early (Jewish) believers, faith in Christ and love for one’s neighbor could be viewed as a fulfillment of the Old Law (Torah), cf. Romans 10:4; 13:10, etc. It is also something which believers have been taught from the very beginning (i.e. since they first heard the Gospel message). Yet, it continues to be restated and presented anew in the life of each community and to each generation of believers. The very thrust of 2:7-11, and again here in 3:11-24, suggests that there may have been Christians who were not truly living out the directive to love. Indeed, this would appear to be at the heart of the author’s polemic in the letter (which takes on prominence in 4:1ff), marking those who have separated from the Community as being without the proper love (for the Community).

The rivalry between the world and believers in Jesus, as also between “true” and “false” believers, is indicated clearly by verses 12-13, where the ancient example of Cain and Abel is introduced. Here is an illustration of someone hating his brother—just the opposite of love. This hate leads to murder, and the author, along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-26), equates hate with murder/manslaughter, even if no actual killing occurs. This hatred of one’s brother is further equated with the world’s hatred of believers (v. 13). In verses 14-15, this conflict is defined in terms of the dualistic contrast between life (zwh/) and death (qa/nato$):

“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into life, (in) that we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.” (v. 14)

The verb metabai/nw specifically means “step across”, with the preposition meta/ indicating a change of place or position (lit. within [a boundary]), i.e. from one point to the next—in this case from death to life. The same language and imagery is found in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (Jn 5:24):

“Amen, amen, I relate to you that the (one) hearing my word/account [lo/go$], and trusting in the (one) sending me, holds (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across out of death (and) into Life.”

This fits the motif of resurrection—of the dead hearing the voice of the Son (of God)—in John 5:19-29. In vv. 24-25, the end-time resurrection is given a new interpretation (i.e. “realized” eschatology) for believers in Christ, and it is this spiritual sense of resurrection that we find also in First John. The “Life of the Age” is defined more generally as “Life”, i.e. in Christ, and in the Spirit. The opposite of 3:14 is stated in verse 15, continuing the dualistic contrast (Abel/Cain, love/hate, life/death):

“Every one hating his brother is a man-killer [a)nqrwpokto/no$], and we have seen [i.e. known] that every man-killer does not hold [i.e. have] the Life of the Age remaining [i.e. abiding] in him.”

This statement follows the fundamental ethnical-religious principle that a murderer (who in the law would be put to death) will surely not pass through the Judgment and inherit eternal life (cf. Exod 20:13; Num 35:16ff; Matt 5:21ff; Rom 1:29ff; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Hatred toward one’s brother (i.e. toward a fellow believer) is regarded as the equivalent of murder or manslaughter. We must understand that, for the author, “hating” (vb. mise/w) does necessarily require the kind of overt ill-feeling and hostility usually associated with the word. It is better defined here as the absence/opposite of the true love which believers ought to have toward one another. The nature of this love is clear from verse 16 (following Jesus’ words in 13:14-15, 34-35; 15:12-17)—it entails following Jesus’ own example of sacrificial love, laying down one’s own life for another.

Moreover, it is clear that, the one who fails to love violates the fundamental ‘command’ of Christ (and God the Father), and is thus sinning. And, according the theology in the letter, any one who sins this way has not been “born of God”, and possesses neither the living Word nor the Spirit of God. The significance of this for the remainder of the letter is indicated by verses 23-24, where the command to love is linked to the command to trust in Jesus—i.e. the two-fold command which governs all true believers. This will be discussed further, in the next note.