April 3: John 16:16-33

John 16:16-33

In the previous note, we examined the concluding words of Jesus in the Last Discourse (16:33); today, I wish to look more closely at the final discourse-unit (vv. 16-33) as a whole. The unit itself follows the Johannine discourse format:

    • Initial saying of Jesus (v. 16)
    • Response/misunderstanding by his audience (vv. 17-18)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true/deeper meaning of the saying (vv. 19-29)

Here is the central saying/statement by Jesus:

“A little (while), and you (will) no longer look on me; and again a little (while), and you will (look) at me (with open) eyes.”

This repeats an important theme of the Last Discourse: the departure of Jesus from his disciples (and from the world). The theme is stated several different ways, most notably at the beginning of the Discourse (13:33, par 7:33-34), and again in the discourse-unit 14:1-4ff, where a saying by Jesus regarding his going away leads into the dialogue with his disciples. In all of these passages, the difficulty for interpretation is that Jesus’ departure can be understood on a least two different levels:

    • His death and burial, which would be the most immediate point of reference based on the narrative context (i.e. the Passion setting of the Discourse).
    • His (final) departure back to the Father, which appears to be the better sense for the Discourse as a whole.

Along with this, the disciples’ seeing Jesus, and his coming (back) to them, can be interpreted on three different levels:

    • His appearing to them after the resurrection
    • His end-time appearance from heaven, and
    • His presence in the interim, through the Spirit

All of this is further complicated by the fact that, apparently, Jesus ascends/returns to the Father shortly after the resurrection (implied in 20:17ff), while his ultimate ascension/return is not narrated in the Gospel at all.

From the standpoint of the Passion Narrative, the tendency would be to read 16:16 in terms of Jesus’ impending death and burial (a fitting subject for Holy Saturday), yet confusion remains regarding the true point of reference. Within the narrative (the discourse), the disciples were also confused by this (vv. 17-18): “What is this that he says to us?…”. The key, of course, lies in the exposition by Jesus (vv. 19ff), though often in the Johannine Discourses Jesus does not provide the sort of conventional, straightforward explanation that his audience is expecting.

Let us briefly examine the first part of this exposition, beginning with verse 20:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you that you will weep and mourn, and (by contrast) the world will delight; but (yet) your sorrow will come to be delight.”

The reference to weeping (vb klai/w, loud crying/wailing) and mourning (vb qrhne/w) connotes funerary practices in the ancient world. Indeed, qrh=no$ can be a technical term for a funeral dirge or lament. As such, this would certainly be appropriate for the death and burial of Jesus. The “delight” (xara/) that the world (ko/smo$) might feel regarding his death simply reflects the fundamental idea that the “world” (i.e., the order of the things in the current Age of wickedness) is opposed to God, hostile to Him and to His Son, Jesus. This is all part of the Johannine theological vocabulary.

The message of encouragement for the disciples is that the “sorrow” (lu/ph) they experience from his death/departure will be changed into (“will come to be”, genh/setai) their own true delight. The use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), which can connote coming to be born, along with this juxtaposition of sorrow-joy, leads into the illustration of childbirth in verse 21:

“When a woman should produce (a child), she holds sorrow, (in) that her hour (has) come; but when the child comes to be (born) [gennh/sh|], she no longer remembers the distress [qli/yi$], through the delight (she feels) that a man [i.e. child] (has) come to be (born) into the world.”

Almost imperceptibly, this illustration blends together aspects of Jesus’ suffering/death with the eschatological suffering that believers will experience following his death and departure. As previously discussed, the use of the word “hour” (w%ra) likewise encompasses (and combines) both of these aspects. Moreover, the motif of the woman in labor was commonly used as an eschatological image, though it could just as well serve as a general symbol of the suffering that is characteristic of the human condition.

In the Old Testament, childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered (such as in Jesus’ illustration here). Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; Gal 4:19. In the Genesis Creation narrative, the pains associated with childbirth are part of the “curse” —the suffering and ‘evil’ —that marks the current Age. In a similar sense, the pains of women also serve to symbolize the suffering that comes in relation to God’s JudgmentPsalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43.

The illustration used by Jesus suggests the idea of deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9—which also can have an eschatological significance. Perhaps the closest Old Testament parallel is in Isa 26:17-18, though 66:7-8 expresses a similar idea. In several other New Testament passages, the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, are unquestionably used in an eschatological sense or context. Most notably, we have Jesus’ prophecy (in the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13 par]) of the coming events/phenomena that mark the end-time period of distress; he describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Other eschatological references of note are:

    • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31.
    • Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
    • The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.

In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.

The other clear eschatological allusion in Jn 16:21 involves the use of the word qli/yi$ (“distress”), which came to be a technical term in early Christianity for the end-time ‘period of distress’ that will come upon humankind, and which will entail, specifically, the persecution and oppression of believers. Such use of the word derives primarily from the Greek version (LXX) of Daniel 12:1 (cf. also LXX Zeph 1:14-15; Hab 3:16). Jesus uses it in this sense in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:19, 24 par), and it occurs repeatedly in the book of Revelation (1:9; 2:22; 7:14 etc). Other references, by Paul, and elsewhere in the New Testament, are almost certainly eschatological as well, though less explicitly so—e.g. 1 Thess 3:3, 7; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rom 2:9, etc.

The illustration of the woman in labor is applied to the situation of the disciples in verse 22:

“And so you, (on the one hand) now you hold sorrow, but (on the other hand) again I will (look) at you with (open) eyes, and your heart will have delight, and your delight no one takes (away) from you.”

In verse 16, the vantage point was the disciples seeing Jesus; here the same relationship is established from the opposition direction—Jesus will see the disciples again; in both instances the future sense of seeing is expressed by the verb o)pta/nomai (“[look] with [open] eyes”), i.e. Jesus and the disciples will gaze at one another. Does this refer to an initial post-resurrection appearance (20:19-23) by Jesus, or does it reflect the eschatological dimension of v. 21, or both? The idea that “no one takes” away the disciples’ delight suggests something more permanent than the initial joy of seeing the resurrected Jesus again—is it an allusion to the presence of the Spirit (20:22)?

The expression “in that day” (vv. 23, 26), also occurring earlier in 14:20, might perhaps clarify the context of Jesus’ statement further; however, the same ambiguity attends its use in the Discourse. The immediate Passion setting of the narrative suggests that it refers to the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but its use elsewhere in the New Testament rather indicates that it has an eschatological connotation—cf. Mark 13:11, 32 par; Matt 7:22; Luke 6:23; 17:31; 2 Thess 1:10; 2 Tim 1:18; 4:8. Since here in vv. 23-27, the focus is on what God the Father will do for believers in Jesus’ name—i.e. when they pray and make request to him—the context would have to be the time after Jesus’ (final) departure/return to the Father, while he remains present with his disciples (believers) through the Spirit. Thus the eschatological sense of the expressions “that day”, and “(the) hour” (that is coming), is best understood in terms of the New Age that believers in Christ experience now, in the present, following the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the “realized” eschatology that dominates the Johannine Gospel—believers experience the end-time events of the resurrection, passing through the Judgment, and inheriting eternal life, in the present, through the Spirit.

According to the early Christian eschatology, the period during which believers experience the New Age, through the Spirit, would be relatively brief; Jesus’ was expected to return very soon, to deliver his people (believers) and to usher in the Judgment. The imminence of this eschatology is not nearly so prominent in the Gospel of John, and is offset by the emphasis on the present (“realized”) aspect. Even so, the early Christian outlook, involving (1) the death and resurrection of Jesus, (2) the New Age realized for believers as they live in the world during the period of distress, and (3) the return of Jesus—all understood as end-time events—was much tighter and closely-knit than it would be for believers living centuries later (or today, after 1900+ years).

Let us consider the thematic outline of Jesus’ exposition, in light of our study so far:

    • The sadness and mourning that will be experienced initially as a result of Jesus’ death and burial (v. 20)
    • Illustration of the woman in labor (v. 21)—the sadness they experience is part of the pain/suffering they will have during the end-time period of distress
    • At the same time, with the resurrection, they will have joy, and it will continue all through the time of distress (v. 22); they will see Jesus again, both immediately after the resurrection, and through the abiding presence of the Spirit
    • While Jesus is with the Father, he will remain present, united with believers through the Spirit, giving them access to the divine/eternal life and power of God; this is explained in terms of:
      • Prayer, making request/petition to the Father in Jesus’ name (vv. 23-24)
      • Instruction/understanding regarding the Father (vv. 25-27)

This exposition comes between the initial statement in v. 16 and restatement of it, in terms of Jesus’ return back to the Father, in verse 28. It bridges the gap between the moment of his death, and his  exaltation/return to the Father. Jesus returns to the moment of his death in the conclusion to the discourse (verse 32), as he establishes again the idea that his Passion begins the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) for believers. Yet, even at the darkest point of this suffering, we can be assured that, as believers, we also share in the joy and victory that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished.

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

John 16:33; 19:30

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

John 16:33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 19:30

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

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

“It has been completed” (tete/lestai)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 1: John 13:1; 17:1, etc

John 13:1; 17:1, etc

“Before the festival of the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], Yeshua, having seen that his hour (had) come…” (13:1)
“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s, and, (hav)ing lifted up his eyes unto the heaven, said: ‘Father, the hour has come—may you bring honor to [your] Son, (so) that the Son would bring honor to you…'” (17:1)

These verses more or less reprise what Jesus had stated in 12:23 (cf. also v. 27), discussed in the recent daily notes:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be given honor.”

Today I wish to look specifically at the use of the term w%ra (“hour”) in these sayings of Jesus. The noun w%ra is a common enough word, occurring 26 times in the Gospel of John; however, as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary, it has a special significance, and one that the Johannine writings inherited from the wider Gospel Tradition. There are two main uses of the word w%ra that should be noted:

    1. A specific reference to the Passion—the suffering and death—of Jesus, and
    2. As a distinct eschatological term.

The two are closely related and interconnected, as we shall see. Interestingly, in the eschatological references the word is anarthrous (without the definite article), while the word with the article is reserved for references to Jesus’ Passion.

1. The hour of Jesus’ Passion

The Gospel frequently refers to the coming of “the hour” (or “my/his hour”), in which the suffering and death of Jesus is clearly in view. The authenticity of this idiom is confirmed by the independent usage in the Synoptic Tradition (Mark 14:41 par; Lk 22:14, 53). In addition to the Johannine statements cited above (12:23 [also twice in v. 27]; 13:1; 17:1), there are several other passages in the first half of the Gospel (the “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12, during the time of Jesus’ ministry), where it is pointed out that the hour “had not yet come”:

    • 2:4: (Jesus) “…my hour (has) not yet [ou&pw] arrived [vb h%kw]”
    • 7:30: (narration) “So they sought to seize him, and (yet) no one cast the(ir) hand upon him, (in) that [i.e. because] his hour had not yet come [ou&pw e)lhlu/qei].”
    • 8:20: (narration) “…and no one seized him, (in) that [i.e. because] his hour had not yet come [ou&pw e)lhlu/qei].”

To this should be added Jesus’ words in 7:6, 8, where he uses kairo/$ (“moment”, point in time) instead of w%ra (“hour”), with virtually the same meaning—kairo/$/w%ra could easily reflect different Greek renderings of an Aramaic original.

2. An Eschatological hour

The other main use of the word w%ra, as noted above, is eschatological, and these references, while also referring to an hour that is coming, do not use the definite article. The eschatological aspect is clearest in the repeated occurrences in 4:21, 23 and 5:25, 28-29, respectively, where the context is (a) allusion to the New Age as an ideal time of righteousness and worship of God, and (b) the resurrection at the end of the current Age. Note:

    1. “…an hour comes when not on this mountain [i.e. Gerizim of the Samaritans] and not in Yerushalaim (either) will you kiss toward [i.e. worship] the Father” (4:21)
      “But an hour comes, and now is, when the true kissers toward (God) [i.e. worshipers] will kiss toward [i.e. worship] the Father in (the) Spirit and in Truth…” (4:23)
    2. “Amen, Amen, I relate to you that an hour comes, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and the (one)s hearing shall live.” (5:25)
      “You must not wonder (at) this, that an hour comes in which all the (one)s in the memorial(-tomb)s will hear his voice…” (5:28f)

The qualifying statements in 4:23 and 5:25 use the same phrasing— “an hour comes and now is [nu=n e)stin]” —an example of the pronounced emphasis on “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (discussed in a recent article). The end-time event of the resurrection, as well as the manifestation of the Spirit in the New Age, are already experienced (realized) by believers now, in the present.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, this coming “hour”, with its indefiniteness, emphasizes the suddenness and unexpectedness (and imminence) of the coming of the end—the return of Jesus, the great Judgment, etc. The principal sayings of Jesus and other passages in this regard are: Mark 13:32 par; Matt 24:44, 50; 25:13; Luke 12:39-40, 46; Rom 13:11; 1 John 2:18; Rev 3:3, 10; 14:7, 15 (on the hour of Judgment, cf. also Rev 9:15; 18:10, 17, 19).

3. How these two aspects fit together

While often overlooked by Christians today, the very identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) is eschatological (I discuss this in more detail in a recent article). All of the Messianic figure-types were understood as figures who would appear at the end-time, at the end of the current Age, to bring about the Judgment and the deliverance of God’s people. What is unique about the Christian view of Jesus as the Messiah is that he did not fulfill all that was expected of the Messianic figures during his time on earth. This must wait until his second appearance (return), and yet it does not change the fact that what took place during his first appearance was understood by early Christians as marking the end-time—the time right before the end of the current Age.

Indeed, it was the death of Jesus that marked the onset of the period of distress (qli/yi$) that would precede the end. As such, the Passion references to “the hour” (cf. above, Mk 14:41; Lk 22:53 etc) have genuine eschatological significance—a fact often not fully recognized by commentators today. Following Jesus’ death (and ultimate departure), his disciples (believers) would face a time of increasing persecution and oppression (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc), and this is much of what Jesus has in mind when he speaks of them entering into “(the time of) testing” (peirasmo/$, Matt 6:13; Mk 14:38), when even the faith of his close disciples will be put to the test (Mk 14:27ff par; 13:13b par).

This eschatological dimension of Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death) is expressed in the Gospel of John by several more sayings using the term w%ra (“hour”); the emphasis is on the suffering that his disciples (believers) will face in the world, in a time of increasing darkness and evil (before the end):

    • “…but an hour comes that every one (hav)ing killed you off would consider (himself) to bring [i.e. do] a service toward God” (16:2)
    • “See, an hour comes, and (indeed it) has come, that you should be scattered, each (one) into his own (thing)s…” (16:32, cp. Mk 14:27 par)

The addition of the perfect tense (“and it has come”) in 16:32 reflects the Passion context of the sayings in 12:23 and 17:1 (cf. above), where the same perfect form e)lh/luqen (“[it] has come”) is used. In other words, now that the moment of Jesus’ Passion has arrived, the disciples will also experience this “hour” of suffering and distress, in their own way. The paradox is that, while believers must endure the end-time darkness and evil in the world, they/we also experience the reality of the coming New Age now, in the present, through the Spirit. This is expressed by the eschatological w%ra-sayings noted above (4:21-23; 5:25, 28f), but also by Jesus’ words throughout the Last Discourse, which include the w%ra-saying in 16:25:

“I have spoken these (thing)s to you in (word)s along the way [i.e. illustrations, figures of speech, etc], (but) an hour comes when I will no longer speak to you in (word)s along the way, but with outspokenness I will give forth (the) message about the Father”

There are two levels of meaning to this statement, in the context of the Last Discourse: (1) Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after his resurrection, and (2) his abiding presence with believers through the Spirit. Both aspects are important in marking the death and resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of the New Age for believers (compare the famous words of Peter’s Pentecost speech, 2:16-17ff, citing Joel 2:28-32). Following Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation to the Father), with the coming of the Spirit, the old Age comes to an end (even before the current Age actually ends), and the New Age begins. This is fundamentally eschatological, in every sense, and must be recognized as a powerful component of the Passion narrative in the Gospels.

 

 

March 25: John 12:27-30

John 12:27-30

Verse 27

“Now my soul has been disturbed, and what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But, (it was) through this [i.e. for this reason] that I came into this hour.”

Like many of the sayings in this discourse, verse 27 appears to reflect a separate and distinct tradition—one which, in the Synoptics, is located in the Gethsemane (Garden) scene of the Passion narrative. It corresponds to Mark 14:34-36 par (note the points of similarity in italics):

“…’My soul is sad (all) around (me), unto the (point of) death’…and going forward a little, he fell upon the ground and spoke out toward (God) [i.e. prayed], (saying) that, if it is able (to happen), the hour might go along (away) from him, and he said: ‘Abba, Father, all (thing)s are able (to be done) by you—(so) may you carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me!…'”

There is nothing like this in the Garden scene of the Johannine Passion Narrative (19:1-11)—no sense of anguish or a troubled soul, no prayer to God—instead, Jesus appears calm and authoritative throughout, even to the point that those who come to arrest him at first shrink back in fear and awe. A comparable saying in 19:11, while resembling Mk 14:36 par, has a very different emphasis. Quite possibly, the tradition has been relocated, transferred to a different point in the narrative. The same thing seems to have happened with regard to the Eucharistic tradition of the bread and cup; in the Gospel of John, it is completely absent from the Last Supper scene in chapter 13, occurring instead, in a different form, as part of the Bread of Life discourse (6:51-58).

The Johannine location of this saying may be the result of thematic “catchword”-bonding, due the common use of the term “hour” (w%ra) with verse 23, and the contextual emphasis on Jesus’ impending death. Even here, the idea of Jesus’ suffering, so prominent in the Synoptic Passion scene (cf. especially the additional details [textually uncertain] in Lk 22:43-44), is either negated or downplayed considerably in the verse 27 saying. Instead of requesting to be saved (i.e. rescued) from the hour (of suffering and death), Jesus asks rhetorically (the syntax being best understood as a question), whether he should make such a request of the Father. To this, he effectively answers in the negative, using the adversative particle a)lla/ (“but rather…”), with the declaration that his sacrificial death was the very reason and purpose (dia\ tou=to, “through this”) for his coming into the world (cf. 3:16; 18:37, etc). His earthly life and mission reaches its completion (19:30) with “this hour” —i.e., the moment of his death.

Verse 28-31

“Father, may you bring honor (to) your name!” (v. 28a)

It may well be that verses 26, 27, and 28ff, are separate, independent traditions, which have been combined here, based on thematic and catch-word bonding. All three (26b, 27, 28) involve reference to “the Father”, and are to be understood, thematically, in the context of Jesus’ death. The declaration in v. 28a, of course, brings immediately to mind the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in the Synoptic (Matthew-Luke/Q) tradition:

    • Pa/ter do/caso/n sou to\ o&noma (Jn 12:28)
      “Father, may you bring honor (to) your name”
    • Pa/tera(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou (Matt 6:9 par)
      “Father…may your name be treated (as) holy”

For a discussion of the wording in the Lord’s Prayer, cf. my earlier note. The Johannine statement uses the same verb (doca/zw) as in v. 23, with the fundamental meaning “treat/regard with esteem/honor [do/ca]”. As in the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the idea is that God will bring honor to His name in the sense that He will cause it to be honored by His people—i.e. people (believers) will treat it with the honor that is its due. In the context of the Johannine theology (and Christology), this understanding of God’s name (o&noma) is tied to the manifestation of the God the Father in the person of Jesus the Son. On the ancient religious background of names and naming, cf. my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. The main Johannine passages in this regard are: the discourse in chapter 5 (esp. verses 43-47), the climax of the Good Shepherd discourse (10:25-30), and, especially, throughout the great Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (cf. verses 6, 11-12, 26).

Verses 28-29 continue with the Father’s answer to Jesus’ prayer, manifest as an audible voice out of heaven:

“Then there came a voice out of the heaven: ‘Indeed I brought (it) honor [e)do/casa], and will again honor [doca/sw] (it)!’ Then the throng (of people), the (one)s having stood (by) and (hav)ing heard (it), (begin to) say, ‘There has come to be thunder!’, (while) others say, ‘A Messenger has spoken to him!'”

The heavenly voice emphatically declares, in both the past (aorist) and future tense, a fulfillment of Jesus’ request that God’s name be given honor. In light of the Johannine theological/Christological context, this is best understood as:

    • Past (e)do/casa, “I honored [it]”)—the time of the Son’s mission on earth, being completed with this “hour” of his suffering and death; from a literary standpoint, this covers the first half of the Gospel (the “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12), and the various signs (miracles, etc) which revealed Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.
    • Future (doca/sw, “I will honor [it]”)—the death and resurrection of Jesus (the Son), and all that follows it—especially his return to the Father and presence of the Spirit in and among believers (expounded in the Last Discourse and Prayer-discourse [chaps. 14-17]).

Here again, there is a parallel with the Synoptic Tradition—especially the Transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8 par), which has a comparable position in relation to Mk 8:31-9:1 as Jn 12:28-30 has to vv. 23-27 (discussed in the prior notes). Both lines of tradition deal with Jesus’ impending death, as well as the idea of the appearance of the Son of Man in glory/honor (do/ca), and are climaxed with a declaration by a voice from heaven (Mk 9:7 par). Moreover, both the Transfiguration scene and Jn 12:28-30 clearly allude to the tradition of the Sinai theophany. The details in the Lukan version (9:28-36) of the Transfiguration especially bring out this association, while, in the Johannine discourse, there are two primarily details:

    • The voice of God (YHWH) which sounds like thunder (Exod 19:19), and
    • The inability of the people to hear/receive this voice (Exod 20:18ff)

These two motifs have been rendered within the Johannine discourse-format—i.e., the feature of the misunderstanding of Jesus’ words by his audience; here, the people misunderstand the heavenly voice, much as the disciples fail to understand the significance of the Transfiguration scene. The association of God’s voice with thunder goes back to the ancient Near Eastern storm-theophany traditions—that is, of the deity (here, YHWH) manifest in the storm. The common Hebrew word for thunder, loq, literally means “voice”, i.e. thunder as the voice of God.

Jesus’ response to the misunderstanding of the crowd is interesting:

“Yeshua gave forth (an answer) and said: ‘(It is) not through me [i.e. for my sake] (that) this voice has come to be, but through you [i.e. for your sake]’.” (v. 30)

This is similar to his words in the prior Lazarus episode (11:42), when he states that his prayer to God was for the sake of the crowd standing around him, rather than because of his own need. Yet, if the crowd here could not understand the heavenly voice (and/or its significance), then how could it have been for their sake? It is possible that this relates to a distinction of believers from the rest of the world—it is only believers (those belonging to God) who are able to hear and recognize His voice (the rest of the ‘crowd’ mistakes it for thunder or the voice of an Angel). Moreover, from a literary standpoint, Jesus’ words ultimately are directed, not at the crowd of people in the historical narrative, but to the readers/hearers of the Gospel.

The same sort of dynamic occurs in the next portion of the discourse—the saying/exchange in vv. 31-34—which will be discussed in the next daily note.

 

March 24: John 12:26

John 12:26

“If any (one) would serve me, he must follow (the same path as) me, and where I am, there also my servant will be; (and) if any (one) would serve me, the Father will value him (greatly).”

This is the third of the three sayings which follow the initial declaration in verse 23. They all relate to the theme of discipleship—of following Jesus, even to the point of imitating (or participating in) his sacrificial death. As previously noted, there are similar sayings (and parables) in the Synoptic Gospels; indeed, there is a general parallel between 12:23-26ff and the discourse-block in Mark 8:31-9:1 par, which contains a similar cluster of discipleship-sayings. The saying here in verse 26 corresponds, more or less, to that of Mk 8:34 par, with the emphasis on following Jesus, using the same verb a)kolouqe/w:

“If any (one) wishes to follow [a)kolouqei=n] in back of me, (surely) he must deny himself and take up his stake [i.e. cross-piece] and follow [a)kolouqei/tw] me.”

The fundamental meaning of this verb entails following the same road or path (ke/leuqo$) that another person takes. The Synoptic saying uses the regular prepositional expression o)pi/sw (“in back of, behind”). In the Johannine saying, the emphasis is not on following behind Jesus, but on ending up in the same place that he does. Thus, we have a rather different aspect of discipleship here—one which corresponds entirely with the distinctive Johannine theology of the Gospel. The same basic point is made in Last Discourse (Jn 14:3-4):

“And if I should travel and make ready a place for you, I (will) come and will take you along toward myself, (so) that where [o(pou=] I am, (there) also you would be. And (the place) where [o(pou=] I lead (the way) under [u(pa/gw], you have seen [i.e. you know] the way (there).”

In both 12:26 and 14:3-4, the locational particle o(pou= (indicating “at whichever [place]”, i.e. “[the place] where”) is used. The lack of the preposition o)pi/sw is significant—the believer does not follow behind Jesus, but exists, united with him, in the same place. This all occurs with Jesus’ death and resurrection, as the Passion-context of these sayings would indicate. After this—that is, following his death, resurrection, and return to the Father—believers are united with him through the Spirit (in the present), and ultimately will be together with him in heaven (in the future). This does not eliminate the traditional idea of discipleship (cp. the Synoptic sayings), but, rather, gives to it a new and deeper meaning.

Significant also is the way that the Johannine saying here introduces the idea of serving (vb diakone/w). The verb is used in the Gospel of John only here in chapter 12—the Passion narrative setting of the Anointing of Jesus (v. 2), and twice here in v. 26. The related noun dia/kono$ (“servant”) is equally rare, occurring outside of this verse only in early Cana miracle-episode (2:5, 9). The terminology is more common in the Synoptics, including the idea that following Jesus (as a disciple) entails serving him (cf. Mark 15:41 par; Luke 8:3). Elsewhere, the emphasis is on Jesus acting as a servant—giving of himself to serve others—and on the need for his disciples to follow the same example (Mk 10:43-45; par Matt 20:26-28; Lk 17:7-10; 22:26-27, cf. also 12:37). While the Gospel of John does not contain any comparable sayings, the idea is expressed clearly in the Last Supper scene in chapter 13—the washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 4-11), along with the explanation of what this signifies (vv. 12-20); there is a definite parallel with the setting of Lk 22:26-27.

Thus, in the Johannine context especially, the idea of serving is closely connected with the sacrificial death of Jesus, even as it is in a saying such as Mk 10:45 par. We may well infer here, in Jn 12:26, that for the disciple to serve Jesus means participation in his death, just as the parable in v. 24 also indicates. One is reminded of the statement by Ignatius of Antioch, in the early second century; himself following Jesus’ example, on his way to being put to death for his faith in Christ, he calls himself “the (grain of) wheat of God” (Romans 4:1). Indeed, with his death he declares “then I will be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ” (v. 2).

It is this aspect of the believer’s participation in Jesus death that explains the relationship of these sayings to the initial Son of Man statement in v. 23 (as well as the narrative introduction of vv. 20-22). I will be discussing this further in the next daily note. The reference to God the Father at the close of v. 26 is also of special importance, since it serves to unite the discipleship-sayings with what follows in vv. 27-30, to be studied in the next note.

March 22: John 12:20-23

John 12:20-23

The daily notes here leading into Holy Week will focus on John 12:20-36. In the previous note, I discussed the place of this section in the context of chapters 11-12, as the conclusion to the first half of the Gospel (the “Book of Signs”, 1:19-12:50).

“And there were some Greeks out of the (one)s stepping [i.e. coming] up (to Jerusalem so) that they might kiss toward [i.e. worship] (God) in the festival. So (then) these (persons) came toward {Philip}, the (one) from Beth-Saida of the Galîl, and inquired (of) him, saying: ‘Lord [i.e. Sir], we wish to see Yeshua’. (Then) {Philip} comes and relates (this) to {Andrew}, (and) {Philip} and {Andrew} come and relate (it) to Yeshua. And Yeshua gives forth (an answer) to them, saying:

‘The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored’.”

This is the historical tradition that serves as basis for the discourse. Verses 20-22 provide the narrative introduction, while the remainder of the discourse essentially functions as an exposition of the initial saying of Jesus in verse 23. The regular discourse-feature of the audience response (and misunderstanding) is introduced further on in the discourse (vv. 29, 33-34). In terms of the Johannine discourses, this one is rather loosely constructed. It takes the form of a sequence of individual sayings, which may well have originally been uttered by Jesus on separate occasions, but gathered together and connected based on common theme and wording (i.e. catchword bonding). This is typical of many discourse-blocks in the Synoptic Gospels, while the Johannine discourses, by comparison, tend to be more developed literary pieces.

Almost certainly we can determine that verses 20-22 represent an authentic historical tradition. The details appear, on the surface, to be irrelevant to the sayings that follow in vv. 23ff. The references to Philip and Andrew, while characteristic of the Johannine tradition (1:40-48; 6:5-8; 14:8-9), are entirely incidental to the passage here. Apparently the Gospel writer has drawn from a specific historical tradition to introduce the discourse, without altering it significantly to fit the scenario. Even the mention of the “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus is not followed through in the discourse—they disappear without further mention (did they ever actually meet with Jesus?). This is rather typical of the Johannine discourses; note, for example, how Nicodemus, after his involvement in the opening of that discourse (3:1-9), is not mentioned again in the remainder, which consists entirely of exposition by Jesus.

The detail of these “Greeks” coming to see Jesus is actually more significant that it might seem at first glance. Here the word  (Ellhne/$ refers, not simply to Greek-speakers, but to non-Israelite Greeks (and Romans), i.e. Gentiles. Their statement “we wish to see Yeshua”, and the idea of their “stepping up” (vb a)nabai/nw) and “coming toward” (vb prose/rxomai) him, expressed in the idiom of the Johannine theological vocabulary, indicates that these are believers—Gentiles who would come to trust in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, to “see” (i)dei=n) is an idiomatic way of referring to trust in Jesus, and of union with God the Father through Jesus the Son. Even in ordinary Greek expression seeing and knowing are interconnected, with the verb ei&dw (“see”) used interchangeably with ginw/skw (“know”); this is all the more so in the Johannine writings, where one sees/knows God the Father through Jesus the Son.

The immediate context of the passage, too, tends to confirm this theological aspect of the Greeks coming to Jesus. We would note, for example, the declaration by Jesus in 10:16, where he states that

“…I hold other sheep which are not out of [i.e. from] this yard, and it is necessary for me to lead them also, and they will hear my voice—and they will come to be a single herd [i.e. flock], (and) one herder [i.e. shepherd].”

There can be little doubt that this is an allusion to believers coming to Jesus from the surrounding nations and peoples (i.e. other yards). The discourse that follows here also contains a saying of Jesus that reflects this idea more directly, when he declares

“and I, if [i.e. when] I should be lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (people) toward me.” (12:32)

It is perhaps significant that we are never told whether those Greek actually were able to meet with Jesus—that is, to come toward [pro/$] him. The scene gives a foreshadowing of what will occur after (and as a result of) Jesus’ death and resurrection; in other words, believers from the other nations/peoples will only be able to come toward Jesus, when his work on earth is complete (19:30).

This leads us to the initial saying of Jesus in verse 23:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored.”

This is one of the few “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John; while frequent in the Synoptic tradition, such Johannine sayings are less common, though the ones which occur are notable—1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28, etc. The sayings with an eschatological context are quite rare (5:27); most follow the Synoptic line of tradition, of sayings whereby Jesus refers to his impending suffering and death. The statement here involves the lifting/raising high (vb u(yo/w) of the Son of Man, essentially repeating that from the earlier discourse in 3:14f:

“And, even as Moshe lifted high the snake in the desolate land [i.e. desert], so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him would hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The allusion to the episode in Numbers 21:4-9 makes rather clear that the idea of Jesus’ death on the stake (crucifixion) is in view. The snake raised on the pole brings healing, to everyone who sees it; so also Jesus’ death (his body raised on the stake) brings salvation to every one who sees—that is, trusts in—him. The coming of the Greeks toward him indicates, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, that the moment for his death is close at hand. This is made explicit in the saying here: “The hour has come…”. The word w%ra (“hour”) has this specific connotation in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:35, 41 par; cf. also Luke 22:53). Indeed, a nearly identical declaration is made in Mk 14:41: “the hour came [i.e. has come]—see, the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)”. The same idiom occurs in the Gospel of John, in the narration (7:30; 8:20; 13:1), but also in the parallel saying of Jesus in 2:4—one statement occurring at the beginning of the “Book of Signs”, the other at its conclusion:

“My hour has not yet arrived” (2:4)
“The hour has come…” (12:23)

The moment of his death is further explained here as the time when the Son of Man will be honored. The verb doca/zw fundamentally means “esteem, treat/regard with honor”. It is a distinctive Johannine word, occurring 23 times in the Gospel, compared with 14 in all three Synoptic Gospels combined. It is especially prevalent in chapters 13-17 (13 of the 23 occurrences), in the context of the Passion Narrative; its use in the saying here was anticipated in the Lazarus episode (11:4), and again in the narrative aside at 12:16. The word do/ca essentially refers to how a person regards or considers something, i.e., the regard or esteem one has for it. When applied to God, in a religious context, it relates to the honor and respect one ought to show Him; moreover, by extension, it also signifies to the attributes and characteristics which make Him worthy of honor—His greatness, holiness, purity, etc. These may be summarized as His “splendor” or “glory” (the customary English translation of do/ca). What applies to God the Father applies just as well to Jesus the Son—however, here, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, it refers to two distinct aspects of Jesus’ work on earth: (1) the completion of his mission (with his sacrificial death, 19:30 etc), and (2) his exaltation following his death (resurrection and return to the Father). These two aspects play on the common motif of Jesus being “lifted up” —his death (lifted up on the cross), and his exaltation (raised from the death and lifted to heaven).

This will be discussed further on the saying in verse 28, where the verb doca/zw is again used.

March 19: John 11:50-52ff

In the days leading up to Holy Week, I will be examining, in some detail, the ‘discourse’ section of John 12:20-36, looking at each specific saying or tradition in the passage. As an introduction, however, I feel it is important to set this passage in its overall context within the Gospel of John. The first half of the Gospel—1:19-12:50—is often referred to as the “Book of Signs”, since it is largely comprised of a number of miracle episodes (or similar historical traditions) which serve as signs (shmei=a) that manifest or reveal Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (and Anointed One), cf. 2:11 etc. The historical tradition tends to be the base upon which a discourse is constructed (in the literary sense)—the discourse of Jesus, in each instance, expounding the true significance (theological and Christological) of the sign. The raising of Lazarus is the last (and greatest) of these signs, and the narrative in chapter 11 serves as the climax to the “Book of Signs”. The concluding verses of the chapter (vv. 45-54, 55-57) are transitional to chapter 12, which both concludes the first half of the Gospel and foreshadows the Passion Narrative in the second half (chaps. 13-20). Here is an outline of 11:55-12:50:

    • Narrative introduction (Passover setting)—11:55-57
    • Traditional Episode #1: Anointing of Jesus—12:1-11
      • Johannine conclusion referring back to the Lazarus scene (vv. 9-11)
    • Traditional Episode #2: Triumphal Entry—12:12-19
      • Johannine conclusion referring back to the Lazarus scene (vv. 17-19)
    • Discourse Scene: Passion Sayings—12:20-36a
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 36b)
    • CONCLUSION to the Book of Signs—12:37-50:
      • Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (allusions to 1:19-28 etc), vv. 37-43
      • Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (summary of the Discourses), vv. 44-50

There are clear parallels to 11:55-12:19 in the Synoptic Tradition—cf. Mark 11:1-11; 14:1-9 par—though with a difference in the ordering the traditions (i.e. in John the Triumphal Entry occurs after the Anointing of Jesus). Clearly, this establishes the close affinity with the Passion Narrative; this is also true for the discourse-scene in 12:20-36, as we shall see in the upcoming notes. As for the preceding narrative in 11:45-54, it functions as a transition between the Lazarus episode and the Passion-traditions in chapter 12—an association also echoed in 12:9-11, 17-19. The most striking feature of the narrative in 11:45ff is the central detail of the High Priest Caiphas’ prophecy, regarding Jesus, in vv. 50-52. I have discussed this in a prior note, but I felt it worth reproducing here, at least in part, as an introduction to these Passion-season notes.

John 11:50-52

This tradition found in verses 50-52 occurs in no other Gospel, and critical commentators would tend to question its historicity. However, there is some basis for the idea that High Priest could, and would, utter prophecies regarding events that would take place during the year—cf. Josephus, Antiquities 11.327, 13.299. As an anointed figure, in the service, ideally, of God and the Israelite/Jewish religion, the prophetic gift was a natural characteristic of the Priesthood, in terms of the phenomenology of religion. Whether or not the Gospel writer would recognize this gift in Caiaphas, he interprets the High Priest’s words ultimately as prophetic, though in a way, and at a level of meaning, different than Caiaphas intended. It is an example of supreme irony in the Gospel narrative—the words of Jesus’ enemies unwittingly become a prophecy of the true effect and result of Jesus’ death.

We should distinguish between the statement by Caiaphas in verse 50, and the explanation by the Gospel writer in vv. 51-52 which summarizes an earlier prophecy. The setting of the utterance in v. 50 involves the effect of Jesus’ miracles on the people, which is especially significant in the context of the raising of Lazarus (vv. 1-44). The concern expressed by the Jewish Council in verse 48 is that people will come to trust in Jesus in greater numbers because of these miraculous signs (cf. 7:31; 10:25-26, 37-38; 12:18-19, etc). Regarding Jesus as a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, the popular support could easily create such disturbance and prove a sufficient threat to Roman authority that it would cause the Romans to act. Josephus describes a number of such would-be Messianic figures in the 1st century prior to the war of 66-70 (Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-72; War 7.437ff; cf. also Acts 5:36; 21:38; Mark 13:5-6, 21-22 par). In the face of such danger, Caiaphas gives his advice in verse 50—

“and you do not take account [i.e. consider, realize] that it bears together (well) for us that one man should die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the people, and (that) the whole nation should not be destroyed”

i.e., it is better for one man to die rather than the entire nation. The wording suggests a kind of substitution—sacrifice this one would-be Messiah for the good of the nation. This is straightforward enough, but what follows in vv. 51-52 gives much greater scope to this saying. The explanation (presumably by the Gospel writer) refers to a prophecy given by Caiaphas in his role as High Priest that year. According the narrative, he prophesied

“that Yeshua was about to die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the nation—and not over the nation [i.e. Judea] only, but (so) that even the offspring of God having been [i.e. which had been] scattered he might bring together into one”

According to this amazing prophecy, Jesus’ death would somehow result in the entire Jewish people—including those in the Diaspora—being reunited. It is impossible to recover the precise meaning of this historical tradition, i.e. the prophecy as Caiaphas might have uttered it. Early Christian tradition, as represented by the Gospel of John, interprets it in terms of Jesus’ death, in a new and unique way. Let us examine briefly the key words and phrases in vv. 51-52.

Dying “over” [u(pe/r] the people/nation. We find this idea essentially in the Gospel tradition, in Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper (Mark 14:24; par Lk 22:19-20 MT):

“This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many”

A similar idea expressed in Mk 10:45 uses the preposition a)nti/ (i.e. “in exchange for”) instead of u(pe/r. The preposition u(pe/r should be understood both in its literal sense (blood poured over/upon people) and in the figurative sense (i.e. “on behalf of”). Jesus’ death is presented as a sacrificial offering comparable to that by which the (old) Covenant was established in Exod 24:5-8. The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ death similarly in terms of a sacrificial offering over people—cf. 2:9; 5:1; 6:20; 7:25, 27; 9:7, 24; 10:12—specifically an offering on behalf of sin.

In the Gospel of John we also find the expression in the context of Jesus’ sacrificial death—i.e. 6:51; 10:11, 15; and the associated tradition that believers should follow his example (13:37-38; 15:13). The closest parallel to Caiaphas’ prophecy is the illustrative language used by Jesus in 10:11, 15 (cf. below).

“Offspring of God” [te/kna qeou=]. While Caiaphas presumably would have used this expression to refer to Israelites/Jews as the “children of God”, for the Gospel writer (and other early Christians) it had a deeper meaning, as we see clearly in Jn 1:12. It is used specifically as a title of believers, indicating their spiritual status, in the first Johannine letter (3:1-2, 10; 5:2), and similarly in the Pauline writings (Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15, cf. also Eph 5:1, 8).

The verbs diaskorpi/zw and suna/gw. These two verbs must be taken in tandem, whereby Jesus’ death will “bring together” (vb. suna/gw) the ones who have been “scattered throughout” (vb. diaskorpi/zw). Caiaphas certainly means this in the sense of reuniting the Jewish people (Israel) that has been scattered throughout the Greco-Roman world (and other nations)—i.e. the Diaspora or “Dispersion”. The Old Testament Prophetic background for this can be found in passages such as Isa 11:12; Mic 2:12; Jer 23:3; 31:8-11; Ezek 34:16, etc. While early Christian thought retained something of this theme (cf. Acts 1-2), it is understood in terms of Israelites and Jews responding to the Gospel and coming to faith in Jesus. Yet, the mission to the Gentiles also meant that the concept had to be extended—to all believers throughout the world, Jew and Gentile both.

In the Gospel tradition, the verb diaskorpi/zw occurs once in connection with Jesus’ death—in Mk 14:27 par (citing Zech 13:7), referring to the persecution which the disciples will face following his death (cp. Acts 5:37). The verb suna/gw (from which the noun sunagwgh/, “synagogue” is derived) occurs elsewhere in the Gospel of John at 4:36, and, most notably, in the miraculous Feeding episode (6:12-13). In particular, the motif of the gathering together of the fragments came to be interpreted by early Christians as a distinct sacramental (Eucharistic) image expressing the unity of believers. This is clear in Didache 9:4, which seems to contain an allusion to Jn 11:52:

“Just as this broken (bread) was scattered throughout [dieskorpisme/non] upon the mountains above, and (then) was brought together [sunaxqe/n] and came to be one [e%n], so may your ekklesia [i.e. Church] be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom”

Thus, we may say that the true meaning of Caiaphas’ prophecy is that Jesus’ sacrificial death will bring all believers together, at a level of fundamental and essential unity.

“One” [ei!$, e%n]. This aspect of unity is confirmed by the last word of the prophecy—literally, “one” (ei!$, n. e%n). While it may be understood in the simple sense of a people united as a community, it has a far deeper (theological) meaning in the Gospel of John. There are two interrelated themes in the Gospel: (1) the unity of believers in Christ, and (2) our spiritual participation in the unity shared by the Son (Jesus) and the Father. Both themes are prevalent throughout the Fourth Gospel (esp. the Last Discourse, chapters 14-17), and involve use of the specific word ei!$ (“one”):

    1. Unity of Believers in Christ—Jn 10:16; 17:11, 21-23
    2. Unity of Father and Son (and Spirit)—1:3; 10:30; cf. also 1 Jn 5:8

Perhaps Jesus’ statement in 10:14-16 best approximates the essential message of Caiaphas’ prophecy (verbal parallels in bold italics):

“I am the excellent (Shep)herd, and I know the (sheep that are) mine and the (ones that are) mine know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I set down my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over the sheep. And I hold other sheep which are not out of this (sheep)fold, and it is necessary for me to bring them (also), and they will hear my voice—and there will come to be one herd [i.e. flock] (of sheep) and one (Shep)herd.”

Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5

Continuing the post-Easter celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, during the upcoming weeks (through Pentecost) in this Monday Notes on Prayer feature, I will be examining the great prayer (or prayer-discourse) of Jesus in John 17. This prayer is unique due to its form and position within the Gospel of John. Like other instances of Jesus’ sayings and teachings in the Gospel Tradition, as they are adapted and included in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ words here reflect a distinctive Johannine discourse format. Indeed, chapter 17 represents the last of the great discourses of Jesus—it serves as fitting conclusion, not only to the Last Discourse sequence of 13:31-16:33, but to all of the prior discourses as well. Many of the words, images, and themes from the earlier discourses are recapitulated and restated here. It is thus proper and fitting to refer to chapter 17 by the term “prayer-discourse”. Even though it is technically a monologue, with Jesus addressing God the Father, certain structural and formal attributes of the discourses can be detected. This discernable literary style, so distinct to the Gospel of John (and absent from the Synoptics), of course, raises questions as to the relationship between chapter 17 as we have it, and the original/authentic words of Jesus. However, this is a question which applies to all of the discourses in John and cannot be limited to Jesus’ Prayer in chap. 17; I will, for the most part, not be addressing it in these notes.

The Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 is extremely rich and complex, and may be outlined or divided numerous ways. At several points, I will offer my own structural analysis; to begin with, it would seem that verses 1-5 have a clear chiastic structure, and can be treated as a unit:

    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 1)
      • Jesus’ authority over all the Father has given to him (v. 2)
        • Statement on “eternal life” in relation to the Son and Father (v. 3)
      • Jesus’ work involving all the Father has given to him (v. 4)
    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 5)

John 17:1-5

Verse 1

The narrative introduction (v. 1a) to the Prayer-Discourse, with the action/gesture of Jesus described, is similar to the moment of prayer in the Lazarus scene (11:41), and also reflects the earlier episode in 12:27-28ff (see below). The language and imagery, however, is traditional, and can be seen elsewhere in the Gospels, as for example in the miraculous feeding episode (Mark 6:41 par; cf. John 6:5). Overall, in the Johannine context, these simple words take on added meaning:

“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s and, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said…”

Three details, distinct to the theological (and Christological) language of the Johannine discourses, can be noted here:

    1. On the surface, and at the narrative level, the verb “spoke” (e)la/lhsen) simply refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the ‘Last Supper’ (13:31-16:33). However, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly makes the point that everything he “speaks” (vb. lale/w) or says comes from what he (as the Son) has heard God (the Father) say to him. It is part of the wider Johannine theme of Jesus’ intimate relationship to, and identification with, God the Father. The most relevant passages in this regard are: 3:31-34; 5:30ff; 7:16-18; 8:26-29, 38-40ff; 12:49; 14:10, 24ff; 15:15; cf. also 6:63; 16:13.
    2. Here the verb “lift up” (e)pai/rw) refers to Jesus’ reverent gesture of raising his eyes upward during prayer. However, again, the verb ai&rw (“take [up], lift, carry”), along with others related to “raising, lifting, etc” (a)nabai/nw, u(yo/w), features prominently in the Johannine Discourses. The image of Jesus being “lifted up” has a two-fold meaning: (1) his death on the cross, and (2) his return to the Father—both aspects inform the idea of his being “glorified” (cf. below). Some of the most significant passages are: (a) for ai&rw, 1:29; 10:18, 24, and the resurrection context of 11:39, 41; (b) for u(yo/w, 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 24; (c) for a)nabai/nw, 1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17, and note the contrastive play on words in 7:8ff; 12:20, etc.
    3. Jesus’ act of looking up toward heaven also has special meaning in the Johannine context. The entire thrust of the Last Discourse relates to Jesus’ impending departure, his return back to the Father (in Heaven). Thus the simple gesture of looking up here becomes a theological picture that, in a sense, summarizes the entire setting of the Last Discourse. For this referential point of “heaven” as Jesus’ place of origin and return, cf. 1:51; 3:13, 27, 31; 6:31-58; 12:28.

Jesus’ initial statement, or invocation, in v. 1b, likewise can be divided into three parts—three distinct phrases, from a syntactical standpoint; they can be understood as a step-chain of relation:

    • “Father, the hour has come” (Pa/ter, e)lh/luqen h( w%ra)
      • “may you give honor to your Son” (do/caso/n sou to\n ui(o/n)
        • “(so) that the Son might give honor to you” (i%na o( ui(o\$ doca/sh| se/)

Certainly, the last two phrases form a clause-pair marked by the coordinating particle i%na (“[so] that”). The initial phrase more properly serves as the prayer invocation and could stand apart; however, I prefer to keep the sequential chain intact throughout the entirety of vv. 1-5. Indeed, the temporal statement at the beginning (“the hour has come”) can be seen as parallel to the time indication at the close of v. 5: “before the world(‘s coming) to be”. This demonstrates the stark difference between the Johannine and Synoptic handling of this tradition—i.e. Jesus’ saying that his “hour” (w%ra) has come. In the Synoptic tradition, it refers specifically to his Passion, to the moment of his arrest which marks the beginning of his suffering (and death). It is foreshadowed in Jesus’ prayer to Father (Mark 14:35, cf. also v. 37 par); but the declaration comes in verse 41 par:

“…the hour came [i.e. has come]! See—the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!”

The Matthean version uses a different verb, but has the perfect tense in common with Jn 17:1:

“…See—the hour has come near [h&ggiken] and the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!” (Matt 26:45)

In Luke, the tables are turned and the emphasis is not on Jesus’ hour (i.e. his passion/suffering), but on the evil character of the moment (esp. of Judas and those who take him captive):

“…but this is your hour and the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness!” (cf. also 4:13, and note a similar sort of contrast in John 7:6-7)

How different is the feel of the Johannine statement by Jesus in John 17:1! It shares with the Synoptic tradition a Last Supper setting, and, as such, is certainly related to the idea of his impending death, but there is little sense of that in the immediate context of chapter 17. Interestingly, the Gospel of John does retain the traditional association of the expression with Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death), but in a different location, at an earlier point in the narrative (12:23ff):

“The hour has come [e)lh/luqen] that the Son of Man should be given honor [docasqh=|].”

Note the similarity of wording to 17:1, especially the important use of the verb doca/zw; the reference to his suffering and death comes in the illustration (v. 24) and sayings on discipleship (vv. 25-26) which follow. The Gospel of John has nothing like the Synoptic Prayer/Passion scene in the Garden, but Jesus’ declaration in 12:27ff in many ways is similar to it and takes its place. Again, it differs markedly from the Synoptic tradition in two respects: (1) the use of the verb doca/zw gives it a significance beyond the basic idea of his suffering/death, and (2) it includes the Johannine emphasis on the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father). Both of these points are central to the setting of the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17. Thus, even though Jesus’ suffering and death is not principally in view in 17:1, it is still an important component to the idea of Jesus’ being “given honor” or glorified by the Father. It is this that we will explore next week as we examine verses 1-5 in greater detail.

April 15 (2): Acts 7:55-56

This is the last in the series of daily notes for Easter Season, during which we have explored the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and John. Today’s note is on Acts 7:55-56—the last Son of Man verse in Luke-Acts, and one of only four occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” outside of the Gospels (the others being Heb 2:6 [quoting Ps 8:4ff] and Rev 1:13; 14:14 [referring to Dan 7:13]).

Acts 7:55-56

Most of the Son of Man sayings in Luke relate either to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, or (2) his exaltation to Glory (and future return in Judgment). As I have previously discussed, the use of “son of man” in the first instance would seem to identify Jesus specifically with humankind in its mortality (weakness, suffering and death); in the second, he identifies himself as the Divine/Heavenly figure (of Daniel 7:13ff) who will appear at the end-time Judgment by God. These two aspects of the expression “Son of Man” are present during the night of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22:22, 48 and Lk 22:69), and also in the Angelic announcement of Lk 24:7 where the predictions of Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:22, 44-45; 18:31-33) are connected with the Resurrection.

When we turn to the book of Acts, the theme of Jesus’ suffering (and death) continues—both with regard to the message that is proclaimed by the disciples (Acts 1:16; 2:23ff; 3:13-15, 17-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30 etc), and as a pattern for their own experience of suffering and persecution (cf. throughout chapters 3-7), predicted by Jesus himself (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). So also the theme of Jesus’ exaltation (cf. below). Acts 7:55-56 represents the climactic moment of the Stephen narrative, which spans chapters 6-7:

  • 6:1-7: Introduction, setting the stage for the conflict
  • 6:8-15: The conflict with Stephen, including his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin
  • 7:1-60: The Sermon-Speech and Execution of Stephen
    • 7:1: The question of the High Priest to Stephen, which serves as the immediate narrative introduction to the Speech
    • 7:2-53: The Sermon-Speech of Stephen
    • 7:54-60: The response to the Speech and Execution of Stephen
  • 8:1a: Transitional verse, mentioning Saul/Paul’s role in the execution
  • 8:1b-4: Narrative summary describing the onset of Persecution (led by Saul)

Of the three major scenes in Acts which show the early believers in conflict with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42), it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

  • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
    —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
  • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
    —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
  • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
    —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
  • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
    —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
  • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
    —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
  • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
    —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
  • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
    —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
  • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
  • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
  • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
    —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
  • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
    —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
  • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
  • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
  • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
    —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
    —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
  • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
    —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc). Let us compare specifically the Son of Man parallel:

Jesus’ saying (Lk 22:69):

“From now on, the Son of Man will be sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the power of God”

The formula in Mark/Matthew is:

“[From now] you will see the Son of Man sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the Power, and coming with/upon the clouds of Heaven

The declaration by Stephen (in Acts 7:56) is:

“I behold the heavens opening through and the Son of Man standing out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of God

The preceding narrative in verse 55 adds the following details: (1) he saw the glory of God, and (2) Jesus is specifically identified as the Son of Man (“Jesus standing at the right hand of God”).

The use of the verb dianoi/gw (“open through[out], open thoroughly”) is interesting, as it appears to be a favorite of Luke’s—7 of the 8 occurrences in the New Testament are in Luke-Acts, and five of these refer to the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, and of coming to faith, etc. Note:

    • Luke 24:31—”and their eyes were opened through [dihnoi/xqhsan] and they knew upon [i.e. recognized] him…”
    • Luke 24:32—”Were our hearts not burning [i.e. being set on fire] [in us] as he spoke with us in the way, as he opened through [dih/noigen] to us the Writings [i.e. Scriptures]?”
    • Luke 24:45—”Then he [i.e. Jesus] opened through [dih/noicen] their mind for th(eir) bringing together the Writings [i.e. understanding the Scriptures]”
    • Acts 16:14—”a certain woman {Lydia}… of whom the Lord opened through [dih/noicen] (her) heart”
    • Acts 17:3—Paul gathered through [i.e. discussed, argued] with them from the Scriptures, “opening through [dianoi/gwn]…that it was necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer and stand up (again) out of the dead, and that this Yeshua is the Anointed (One)…” (cf. Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46)

The early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) are still connected in many ways with the Gospel narrative, so it is fitting perhaps that they close with this vision by Stephen of the Son of Man, a fulfillment of the sayings by Jesus such as that in Luke 22:69. His vision confirms the reality of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and of his identity as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. Christ’s presence in heaven at God’s right hand was a common motif in early Christian tradition (Acts 2:25, 33ff; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3, etc), largely influenced by Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-28), on the other hand, narrates the spread of Christianity outside of Judea, out into the wider Greco-Roman world, and thus focuses more precisely on the message (the Gospel) of Jesus, and how people respond to it. If Stephen saw a vision of heaven “opened”, that is, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, so also do believers have their hearts and minds “opened” to the truth, and, in turn, proclaim the message of Christ to others, “opening” and explaining the Scriptures.

April 14 (1): John 1:51

In today’s note for the third day of Easter (Easter Tuesday), I continue the study of the Son of Man saying in John 1:51, begun yesterday (for more on the Son of Man sayings in John, cf. the earlier note). Here I will be looking more specifically at the meaning of the saying in the context of the Gospel narrative.

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

In the previous note, I explored four images or traditions which seem to be especially relevant for an interpretation of the saying, based on similarities in language and concept: (1) the baptism of Jesus, (2) the resurrection/ascension, (3) his (future) coming in glory, and (4) the dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. It must be admitted, however, that none of these are sufficient, nor do they entirely fit the position and context of the saying in John. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the narrative and thematic structure of the Gospel, in order to gain a better understanding of the ultimate significance of the saying. I will proceed, briefly, according to the following outline:

    1. The location of the saying, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
    2. Its connection with the other Son of Man sayings in John
    3. Its possible purpose as a comprehensive symbol

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section may be divided as follows:

    • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
    • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
      • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
    • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
    • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel. In the previous note, I mentioned several parallels with the Baptism of Jesus, and, given the position of the saying in relation to the Baptism (and the Baptist’s testimony) in this section, it is likely that some sort of allusion is intended. Interestingly, and altogether typical of John’s Gospel, the Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51. That the saying concludes the first section (1:19-51) means that it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

    1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (cf. especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
    2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, cf. my earlier note. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

    • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching—a statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—as the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central and climactic to the Discourse.
    • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death/resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated in those which use the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

  • With the Father in Heaven (Divine Pre-existence)
    • Descent (“stepping down”) from Heaven (Incarnation)
      • Death—being “lifted up” on the cross
        • Glorified—Life—Father-Son (Jn 13:31)
      • Resurrection—lifted/raised from the dead
    • Ascent (“stepping up”) into Heaven (Exaltation)
  • Return to the Father in Heaven

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doca/zw (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. A Comprehensive Symbol?

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

    • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the previous note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
    • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
    • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
    • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
      Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
      Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves together form a bracketing chiasm:
      “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
      —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
      —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      “My God” (Deity)
      Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
    • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb o)pta/nomai, o&ptomai/o&yomai would indicate (esp. Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22). As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
      • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
        you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
      • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
        Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.