Saturday Series: 1 John 1:5-2:2 (continued)

1 John 1:5-2:2, continued

We are here continuing from last week’s study with the sin-references in 1 John 1:5-2:2. As previously noted, this first section of the treatise (following the prologue, 1:1-4) is comprised of an initial statement (v. 5), followed by three rhetorical (and expository) units, each of which begins with an orienting clause according to the formula “If we should say…” (eán eípœmen…). Each such clause establishes a declarative statement, making a claim, which the author then proceeds to refute:

    • 1:6-7“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we hold common-bond with Him, and (yet) would walk about in the darkness”
      • Refutation: “we are false, and do not do the truth”
    • 1:8-9“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we do not hold (any) sin”
      • Refutation: “we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”
    • 1:10-2:2“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we have not sinned”
      • Refutation: “we make Him (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”

Three false claims regarding sin are stated, and then refuted. In some ways, this echoes the thrust of the Paraclete-saying in John 16:7b-11, in which it is promised that the Spirit (Paraclete) will show the world to be wrong (vb eléngchœ) about three things (v. 8), the first of which is sin (hamartía, v. 9). The world’s understanding of sin is wrong, and the Spirit will give witness of this, and of the true nature of sin.

The three claims can properly be divided into two groups. In the first (1:6a), the situation involves Christians who claim to be united with God (who is light, v. 5), and yet who walk in the darkness of the world. In the second (1:8a, 10a), the Christian is claiming to be without sin, presumably implying a state of sinless perfection. In both instances, according to the author, the claim is false, and demonstrates that the one making in the claim is a false believer. This emphasis relates to the central theme of 1 John, as I discern it: the contrast between the true and false believer. The opponents being dealt with in 1 John (especially in the “antichrist” sections of 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), due primarily to their view of Jesus Christ, are regarded by the author as false believers. Many commentators feels that the false claims regarding sin (1:6a, 8a, 10a) represent, in some measure, the actual views of the opponents.

After presenting and refuting each claim, the author proceeds, in each instance, to offer a true assessment regarding sin and the believer. In this week’s study, we will examine these statements.

Statement #1 (1:7)

The false claim:
“we hold common-bond with Him”, and yet, at the same time “we walk about in the darkness”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we are false, and do not do the truth”

The true believer does not “walk about in the darkness”. The verb used is peripatéœ (“walk about”), referring to a person’s regular and habitual behavior, which takes place on a daily basis. It is often used in a religious-ethical context, corresponding to the Old Testament use of the Hebrew verb h¹la½ (“walk”) especially in the reflexive (Hithpael) stem. See, for example, Paul’s use of the verb in Rom 6:4; 8:4; 2 Cor 5:7; Gal 5:16.

In the Johannine writings, “darkness” (here, skótos, but skotía in v. 5) fundamentally refers to that which is opposite (and opposed) to God. A dualistic light-darkness contrast is established in the Gospel Prologue (1:5) and runs all through the Johannine writings. The term kósmos (“world-order, world”), in its typical negative Johannine usage, represents the realm of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Like the figure of Judas in the Gospel narrative (13:30), the opponents have left the Community of true believers, and have gone out into the darkness of the world (4:1ff; 2 Jn 7). Here, “darkness” is a comprehensive term, and should not be limited to sin (in the sense of moral wrongdoing), though certainly its meaning includes all manner of sin.

What then is the true situation regarding the believer? The author declares this in verse 7:

“But, if we should walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (then) we hold common-bond with one another, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The false believer may claim to hold “common bond” (koinœnía) with God, but it is only the one who “walks about” (same verb, peripatéœ) in the light (and not the darkness) who truly holds this koinœnía. And the bond of unity is not only with God, but believers have a common-bond with each other as well. In so far as we walk about “in the light” —the same light (of truth and holiness, etc) in which God Himself abides—then we are cleansed (vb katharízœ) of all sin.

This cleansing comes through the blood of Yeshua the Son of God, referring to his sacrificial death. This alludes to the same idea of the removal of sin that we saw, for example, in the Lamb of God declaration in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion in the earlier study). Three points may be gleaned from the author’s statement here in v. 7, regarding the relationship of sin to the believer:

    • Cleansing from sin is possible, through participation in the life-giving power of Jesus’ death
    • We are cleansed of all sin (“from all sin,” apó pás¢s hamartías), and
    • The implication is that believers do, in fact, occasionally commit sin.
Statement #2 (1:9)

The false claim:
“we do not hold (any) sin”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”

The verb planᜠ(“go/lead astray”), along with the related nouns plán¢ and plános, is a key term in the Johannine writings. The opponents, as false believers, have gone astray, but they also lead people astray with their false views and teachings; they thus function as false prophets, and can be characterized as being “against the Anointed” (antichrist). Their false claims about sin, apparently, may be included among their false teachings.

The claim “we do not have/hold (any) sin” would seem to imply a state of sinless perfection, in which the Christian does not (ever) possess any sin, since it has been removed, cleansed through the work of Christ (v. 7). The author views such a claim as false, even though he himself, elsewhere in 1 John, seems to make comparable statements that are equally bold (a point we will examine in the next study).

In verse 7, the author indicated that believers do, in fact, commit sin, at least on occasion; but such sin will be removed/cleansed through the blood of Jesus. Here, in verse 9, he explains this further:

“If we acknowledge/confess our sins, He is trustworthy and right(eous), (so) that He should release (for) us our sins, and should cleanse us from all (that is) not right.”

The exposition of v. 7 here takes two forms: (a) the removal of sin is tied to public confession/ acknowledgment of it, and (b) it entails two aspects or components—(i) release from sin’s power/force, and (ii) cleansing from its presence.

The verb homologéœ means “give account as one” —that is, to make a statement that is in agreement with what others say or wish; it may be translated “(give) consent, admit, agree”. In the New Testament, it tends to be used in the sense of openly acknowledging something, before others or in their presence. Specifically, it can refer to a confession of faith/belief (see 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 Jn 7; Jn 9:22; 12:42; also Rom 10:9-10, etc) or of sin. Obviously, the latter is intended here (the only such use of the verb in the New Testament). Almost certainly, public confession in a congregational setting (of some sort) is intended.

The removal of sin, following confession, involves its release. The verb aphí¢mi means “send away”, which clearly indicates a removal; however, it sometimes carries the specific nuance of “release”, which is a fitting translation here given the use of the idiom of holding sin (vb échœ) in v. 8a. As discussed in a prior study, the commission-statement by Jesus, to the disciples, regarding sin in 20:23 could conceivably relate to a process of confession/release of sin in a congregational setting. At the very least, it is likely that other believers would have given some public assent to the process, recognizing that forgiveness had taken place.

The second aspect of this removal of sin involves the believer being cleansed (vb katharízœ) from the effect of sin’s presence. This is referred to in a comprehensive sense, corresponding to “all sin” in v. 7 (see above), with the phrase “from all (that is) not right”. The noun adikía literally means “lack of rightness”, but “(what is) not right” is a smoother rendering in English, and gets us closer to the general meaning. Sin carries with it much that is “not right”, but all of this is washed away, being cleansed by Jesus’ blood, when the sin is removed.

In verse 7, the singular of hamartía (“sin”), without the definite article, was used. This refers to sin in a general or collective sense. Here in verse 9, the plural of the noun (“sins”) is used, referring to individual/specific failings, wrongs, misdeeds, etc.

Statement #3 (2:1-2)

The false claim:
“we have not sinned”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we make Him (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”

The three refutations by the author build in force, to the point that, here, the one making the false claim regarding sin not only proves him/herself to be a false believer, but also makes God out to be false as well! This seems to foreshadow the idea, to be developed significantly in the remainder of the work, that the opponents are false prophets—they do not speak from the Spirit of God, but from another spirit, one that is false and which leads people astray.

The false claim of v. 10a itself is essentially a restatement of that in v. 8a, emphasizing the specific act (vb hamartánœ) of committing an individual sin. This corresponds with the use of the plural of the noun hamartía in verse 9 (see above).

In 2:1-2, the author gives his fullest exposition (thus far) regarding the relationship between sin and the believer, effectively summarizing and integrating the prior statements from 1:7, 9. He begins with a bit of paraenesis, giving general ethical-religious instruction to his readers and exhorting them:

“My (dear) offspring [i.e. children], I write these (thing)s to you (so) that you should not sin.”

The purpose of the instruction is that they should not sin; the subjunctive voice implies that there is the possibility that they may sin, but that they should not—and, indeed, must not. He continues:

“But if any(one) should sin, we hold (one) called alongside [parákl¢tos], toward the Father, Yeshua (the) Anointed (the) righteous (one)…”

That it is possible for the believer to sin seems to be clearly expressed here. And, if this should happen, then it is still possible for the sin to be removed/cleansed, and for a state of sinless purity to be restored. As stated in 1:7, this is achieved through Jesus Christ the Son of God. The same is expressed here by referring to Jesus as “(one who is) called alongside” —that is, to give help and assistance. The term is parákl¢tos, the same term used of the Spirit in the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15). In the first of these (14:16), the Spirit is referred to as another parákl¢tos, implying that there was one prior, and that Jesus was the first parákl¢tos. There is thus precedent for referring to Jesus by this descriptive title.

He gives help on behalf of believers—specifically, believers who sin—interceding for them before God the Father. The expression here is “toward” (prós) the Father, which literally could mean facing toward Him or coming/moving toward Him. In any case, Jesus is near to the Father, in His presence, functioning as a mediator (between human beings and God), in the manner of a priest. Verse 2 brings out this aspect:

“…and he (himself) is (the) hilasmós over our sins—and not over ours only, but also over (the sin of) the whole world.”

The noun hilasmós is extremely difficult to translate in English. It is ultimately derived from the adjective híleœs, meaning “merciful”. The verb hiláskomai has the basic meaning “be merciful, show mercy”, and is frequently used in religious (and ritual) contexts, whereby the goal (for the worshiper) is for God to be merciful, responding in a gracious, propitious, and beneficial manner. The noun hilasmós essentially refers to the means by which this is achieved. Thus, here, to say that Jesus is the hilasmós “over our sins”, signifies that he is the means by which God shows mercy to us, with regard to our sins—that is, by removing them and cleansing us from their effect. The only other occurrence of the word in the New Testament is in 1 Jn 4:10, where the context is essentially the same, but with a reference to Jesus as God’s Son in salvific language that seems to echo Jn 3:16f.

Through Jesus’ blood—his sacrificial death—the power of sin is removed, even as is declared in Jn 1:29. His death provides the means for removal for all sin, not merely those committed (occasionally) by believers. The closing words of v. 2 share with the Lamb of God declaration in Jn 1:29 the universal focus of the entire world— “the sin of the world”.

In our study next week, we will turn our attention to the important (and difficult) sin-references in 3:4-9, also examining briefly the reference to the forgiveness of sin in 2:12.

Saturday Series: John 20:23

John 20:23

The final sin-reference in the Gospel of John comes near the end of the Gospel, in the commission-scene of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, 20:19-23. As is typical, the Gospel writer has taken an established historical tradition and has developed it in the light of the distinctive Johannine theology. In this instance, however, the brevity and terseness of the material creates particular challenges for interpretation, especially with regard to the sin-reference in verse 23.

The core Gospel tradition is centered in verses 19-21. Here, the Johannine tradition is comparable to that in Luke 24:36-40; this is one of several points in the Resurrection-narrative material where the Lukan Gospel (at least in the ‘non-Western’ witnesses) and Johannine Gospel closely resemble each other, indicating that they share a common source of tradition. Both Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23 blend the resurrection-appearance of Jesus with a commissioning of his disciples (implying the impending departure of Jesus, to the Father in heaven). At the historical level, this may involve the compression and telescoping of several events into a single narrative episode. The same sort of thing occurs in the Matthean Gospel (28:16-20) and in the ‘long ending’ of Mark’s Gospel (16:14-18).

John’s account is the briefest of the four, particularly in comparison with the Lukan episode, with which it otherwise has certain features in common (see above). This means that Johannine stylistic and theological development of the material is, here, relatively slight. Given the dramatic preparation for the moment in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), the brevity of the narrative is rather surprising.

Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples is presented in just three verses; there are three components to the commission, one in each verse:

    • The saying in verse 21, announcing the disciples’ role in continuing the mission of Jesus
    • The giving of the Spirit in verse 22, which enables the disciples to continue Jesus’ mission
    • The saying regarding sin in verse 23, which must, by its context, refer to the nature and content of the disciples’ mission.

Each of these components, in its own way, reflects the Johannine theology and mode of expression; they also, in their narrative context, relate back to Jesus’ teaching in the Last Discourse. In particular, the giving of the Spirit represents the fulfillment of the promises in the Paraclete-sayings (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15); it is thus here the central component of the three:

    • The announcement of the disciples’ mission (v. 21)
      • The giving of the Spirit (v. 22)
    • The nature/content of the disciples’ mission (v. 23)

In terms of linguistic style and syntax, the declaration in verse 21 is the most Johannine:

“Just as the Father has sent me forth, (so) also do I send you.”

Similar language and sentiment can be found throughout the Last Discourse, and in the chap. 17 Discourse-Prayer—see especially verse 18, where the symmetry is more precise:

“Just as the Father (has) sent me forth into the world, (so) also I (have) sent them forth into the world.”

The disciples of Jesus thus are obligated to fulfill the duty and mission given to them by the Son (Jesus), just as the Son fulfilled the duty/mission given to him by the Father. The missions are similar and related; indeed, one should view them as stages in a single continual (and ongoing) mission. The Spirit will enable the believers to perform this continuing mission, while Jesus himself will continue to be present, teaching and guiding the disciples (believers) through the Spirit.

Given the importance of this missional emphasis throughout chapters 13-17, it is surprising that the description of the mission itself, at the moment of the commissioning, is so brief, and is limited (in the narrative) to the sin-reference of verse 23 (compare Lk 24:47-49; Matt 28:19; [Mk 16:15-18]). Here is the verse in question:

“For whomever you would release the(ir) sins, they have been released, (and) for whomever you would hold (them) firm, they are held firm.”

In considering this seemingly ambiguous statement, a number of questions arise, which must be addressed if we are to understand and interpret the verse correctly.

First, we have the use of the noun hamartía (“sin”). Here it occurs in the plural (tas hamartías, accusative), literally “the sins”. The only other instance of the plural in the Gospel is at 8:24 (twice). In our studies on the subject of the Johannine view of sin, I have discussed repeatedly how the Gospel writer evinces two very distinct, but related, understandings of sin: (1) sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious misdeeds or wrongdoings, and (2) sin in the specific theological/Christological sense of refusing (or failing) to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The latter has priority, representing the great sin; as long as a person commits the great sin of unbelief, it is impossible for all other sins to be removed.

We have seen how, in using the singular of hamartía (“[the] sin”) the author can play on both levels or aspects of meaning—sin in the general sense, as well as the great sin of unbelief. However, the noun in the plural seems to limit the focus to sin in the general sense—that is, of ethical-religious wrongs committed by a person (of various sorts). As I discussed in earlier study on 1:29, this was also the focus of the singular of the noun in the Lamb of God declaration. Thus, the first and last sin-references in the Gospel deal with sin in the general/conventional sense of the term.

In the declaration of 1:29, it is stated that the Lamb of God “takes (away)” sin. In the context of the Johannine theology (and the Gospel narrative), this can only refer to trust in Jesus, and in the life-giving (and cleansing) power that comes through participation in his sacrificial death. Here, now, at the end of the Gospel, the idea of the removal of sin reappears, but in connection with the mission and ministry of believers. Before addressing the particular interpretive difficulties relating to this connection, let us examine the verbs used (and their tenses) here in verse 23.

Syntactically, the sentence in v. 23 can be divided into two parallel statements, employing a contrast between the verbs aphí¢mi (a)fi/hmi) and kratéœ (krate/w). The verb aphí¢mi literally means “send away”, sometimes with the specific nuance of “release”. It is often used in the context of forgiving sin, and thus of removing sin and its effects (guilt, punishment, etc). The verb occurs frequently in this context elsewhere in the New Testament (and in the Synoptic Gospels), but nowhere else in the Gospel of John. Though the verb is used 13 other times in the Gospel, this is the only instance where it is directly connected with the idea of sin. The only other such Johannine usage is in 1 Jn 1:9 and 2:12.

The verb kratéœ means “take/grab firm hold”. Its use here in the context of sin is a bit puzzling, since, though the verb occurs 47 times in the New Testament, this is the only instance where it is used in reference to sin. It is also the only occurrence of the verb in the Gospel and Letters of John; thus it is by no means a Johannine term, and was likely included here as part of an inherited Gospel tradition (saying of Jesus). Given the meaning “hold firm”, the contrastive parallel with aphí¢mi strongly suggests that the nuance “release” for that particular verb is being emphasized, and so it should be translated.

Here, then, are the two statements, in parallel:

    • “for whomever you would release the(ir) sins,
      they have been released”
    • “for whomever you would hold (their sins) firm,
      they are held firm”

The disciples are given the ability to perform these two actions (“releasing” and “holding firm”) regarding sin. Before considering how this treatment of sin relates to the disciples’ mission, some comments on the tense (and mood) of these verbs is required.

In each statement, the first occurrence of each verb is in a subjunctive form, but with a difference in tense: aphí¢mi in the aorist (aph¢¡te), and kratéœ in the present (krat¢¡te). It is hard to know to what extent the author (or Jesus as the speaker [translated into Greek]) intends a distinction between the tenses. If a distinction is intended, it is relatively subtle (and difficult to translate in English). The aorist could be taken to mean that the effect of the action (i.e., “releasing” the sin/guilt from a person) occurred at single point or moment in the past, while the present tense of the action (i.e., “holding firm” the person’s sin/guilt) is something that continues in the present (elsewhere in the Gospel, in Johannine terminology, this is often expressed by the verb ménœ [“remain”, see 9:41]).

The use of the subjunctive indicates the occasional nature of the action (i.e., “whenever you would do {such}…”). The preceding conditional particle (án), along with the indefinite pronoun, confirms this emphasis: “for whomever you would do {such} regarding their sins…”.

The use of the perfect tense in the second phrase indicates that, for an action which takes place at a moment (in the past), the effects of it continue into the present (and future). Each of the forms is a passive perfect, which is best explained as an example of the so-called Divine passive (passivum divinum)—that is, where God is the implied or assumed actor. The action has the same force in each instance: “has been released” (aphéœntai), “has been held firm” (kekrát¢ntai). For the first verb, there is some textual confusion, with a good number of manuscripts reading either a present or future tense form (aphíentai, apheth¢¡setai); however, the perfect tense is almost certainly correct, and is in better keeping with the Johannine theological orientation and emphasis.

How do these actions relate to the disciples’ mission? Here, the evidence seems to cut different ways. On the one hand, the missional focus, in the context of the Gospel narrative (and specifically the Last Discourse), suggests that the actions would be centered on the proclamation of the Gospel. Based on a person’s response to the message regarding who Jesus is, one is either “released” from sin or “held firm” in it. When one trusts in Jesus, this results in the removal of sin (1:29); whereas, if one refuses to trust, the person’s sin remains (9:41). In this setting, the verse 23 declaration would mean that the disciple, in continuing the mission of Jesus, has been given the authority to ‘pronounce’ whether a person’s sin has been released/removed or whether it remains firmly in place.

The pronouncing action by the disciple/believer is tied to the effecting action performed by God (indicated by the passive perfect verb forms). This has been compared with the declarations in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18; many commentators see some relation between these Matthean formulations and Jn 20:23, perhaps even that both ultimately derive from a common historical tradition.

While the missional setting in the Gospel narrative (especially the context of the Last Discourse) suggests that verse 23 relates primarily to the proclamation of the Gospel (and of a person’s response to it), other factors have led commentators to the view that verse 23 has discipline within the Christian Community in view. It must be admitted that the Gospel context of v. 23 argues against this particular approach; however, given the apparent parallels with Matt 16:19 and 18:18 (especially the latter saying), it needs to be considered a bit further.

The strongest support for verse 23 referring to action within a Community setting comes, not from the Gospel, but from 1 John—particularly the section 1:5-2:6 dealing the believer’s relationship to sin. As noted above, this passage (and the verses following) contains the only other Johannine use of the verb aphí¢mi in reference to sin—that is, to the forgiveness and removal of sin and its effects. These occur in 1:9 and 2:12, respectively. The first reference is at the heart of the 1:5-2:6 passage, and is worth quoting:

“If we confess/acknowledge our sins, He is trust(worthy) and right(eous), (so) that He would release [aph¢¡] our sins and cleanse us from all lack of right(eous)ness.”

The idea that this cleansing comes through the blood of God’s Son Yeshua (v. 7) ties this Johannine reference to the Gospel declaration in 1:29 (see the discussion above). The use of the verb homologéœ (lit. “give account as one”) indicates a communal (public) setting for the believer’s confession. In such a setting, it is probable that designated ministers and/or the congregation as a whole would respond in some way to the member’s confession, perhaps affirming the release/removal and cleansing of sin, as stated in verse 9.

Certainly, being free of sin is an important characteristic of the true believer, according to the author of 1 John. Indeed, one who belongs to the Community of true believers is one whose sin has been “released” (again the use of aphí¢mi, in 2:12). Given this importance of the matter, it would be surprising indeed if other believers were not to play some key role in the handling and treatment of sin within the Community. An indication of this is seen in 5:16-17, where the author briefly touches upon the practice of believers praying to God on behalf of a fellow believer who has sinned (or is sinning). The context of 1 John clearly indicates that such prayer is part of the love that true believers show to one another, following the example of Jesus himself. In this way, believers are likewise continuing Jesus’ mission.

This evidence from 1 John at least raises the possibility that Jn 20:23 could refer to activity of disciples/believers within a Community setting, as well as in the primary missional setting indicated by the Gospel narrative.

Next week, in these series of studies, we will turn to the sin-references in the Letters of John, of which we have already had a glimpse above.


October 19: John 15:3

John 15:3

“Already you are clean [kaqaroi/], through the word that I have spoken to you.”

This is the final statement of the initial illustration (vv. 1-3), but it is also transitional, as Jesus begins his exposition (and application) of the illustration for his disciples. Before we proceed with a detailed exegesis of verse 3, let us examine a bit further the relationship of the verse to the prior v. 2, in its development of the thematic motif of cleansing. Verse 2 used the verb kaqai/rw (“[make] clean”), while here we have the related adjective kaqaro/$ (“clean, clear, pure”). There are three other occurrences of this adjective in the Johannine writings—all in Jn 13:10-11, in the foot-washing episode of the Last Supper scene, which establishes the narrative setting for the Last Discourse.

These occurrences were discussed briefly in the previous note; let us now examine them in more detail:

    • “If I should not wash you, (then) you have no part with me.” (v. 8b)
    • “The (one) having bathed has no business washing, if not (only) his feet; but (his) whole (body) is clean [kaqaro/$]” (v. 10a)
    • “and (so) you are clean [kaqaroi/], but not all (of you)” (v. 10b) /
      “not all (of you) are clean [kaqaroi/]” (v. 11b)

The important symbolism of this episode is conveyed in a subtle fashion, with the true meaning only hinted at. The weight of the symbolism is indicated by Jesus’ warning to Peter in verse 8:

“If I should not wash [ni/yw] you, (then) you have no part [me/ro$] with me.”

It is necessary for Peter to be washed (vb ni/ptw) by Jesus; this is certainly true for all of the disciples, but Peter is particularly singled out in the narrative. There are various reasons for this, including, I believe, an important contrastive parallel between Peter’s (temporary) denial of Jesus and the (complete) defection by Judas. Note, in particular, how this is developed throughout chapter 13 (up to verse 30, following the departure of Judas), and compare the similar contrast in 6:66-71.

Many commentators see in the washing motif of this episode a primary reference to baptism. I find this line of interpretation to be quite off the mark; at best, there is only a loose secondary allusion to baptism. The principal significance of the washing theme/motif is two-fold: (1) the cleansing of the disciple/believer (from sin), and (2) participation in the sacrificial death of Jesus. In order to have a part or share (me/ro$) with Jesus, these two aspects, as symbolized by the foot-washing, must be applied (by Jesus) to the disciple.

The statement in verse 10a gives us the important distinction that only the feet must be cleansed. It is only the feet that accumulate dirt, during the normal activity of moving/traveling about, to the extent that washing is required or desirable. If a person has otherwise bathed (vb lou/w), then the whole (o%lo$) rest of the body is clean, and only the feet need to be washed. In v. 10b, Jesus declares that the disciples are fully clean (kaqaroi/, plur.) in this way, and need only for their feet to be cleansed. The dirt that naturally accumulates on the feet represents the sin of the disciple/believer, which needs to be cleansed (by Jesus). Such occasional sins are quite different from the fundamental sin of unbelief. Even Peter’s denial of Jesus can be forgiven, in contrast to the betrayal and defection of Judas; Peter’s (implicit) restoration represents the repentance and forgiveness of the believer, while Judas’ departure into the darkness (vv. 29-30) represents the sin of unbelief.

Along these lines, it is possible to read the body/feet juxtaposition as symbolic of the collective body of the disciples. Judas represents the portion (feet) that is unclean, while the rest of disciples (who remain with Jesus to hear the Last Discourse) represent the remainder of the body that is clean. The wording and emphasis in vv. 10-11 tends to support such an interpretation.

The association of the foot-washing with Jesus’ death is also key to the episode’s meaning. In addition to the location of this episode, at the Last Supper and at the beginning of the Passion narrative (cf. verses 1-3), the symbolism of the act undertaken by Jesus (vv. 4-5) seems to allude to the self-sacrificial character of his death. It is this aspect that Jesus emphasizes in the short explanation he gives in vv. 12-17. The washing by the disciples of each other’s feet (vv. 14-15) must be viewed as a demonstration of the sacrificial love that believers are commanded to show to one another, following the example of their Lord Jesus (vv. 13-14, 34-35). Believers must follow even to death, being willing to lay down their lives in love for one another, just as Jesus has done (15:12-13; cp. 10:11, 15, 17-18). Jesus’ words to Peter in vv. 37-38 (cp. 21:18-19) confirm this thematic emphasis.

The two aspects of the foot-washing motif—cleansing from sin and participation in the death of Jesus—are combined together in the two Johannine occurrences of the verb kaqari/zw (“make clean, cleanse”), which is so close in meaning to kaqai/rw (in v. 2). These are found in 1 John 1:7, 9, in a passage (1:5-2:2) dealing specifically with sins committed by the believer. Contrary to the claims of some Christians (1:8, 10), believers do, on occasion, sin, but they/we are cleansed of all such sin through the “blood” (i.e., the sacrificial death) of Jesus. This is stated generally in verse 7:

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

The actual process is described, somewhat cursorily, in verse 9:

“If we would give account (of) [i.e. confess/acknowledge] our sins, he is trustworthy and right(eous), (so) that he should put away [i.e. remove/forgive] the sins for us, and should cleanse [kaqari/sh|] us from all (that is) not right.”

Here sin is defined by the parallel term a)diki/a, literally a “lack of what is right,” i.e., “what is not right”. As noted above, this a)diki/a for the believer is symbolized by the dirt that can accumulate on one’s feet during the daily activity of moving/traveling about. Following repentance and confession of such a)diki/a, the believer is cleansed from it. The role of Jesus (the Son) in this process is elucidated in 2:1-2; the use of the noun i(lasmo/$ alludes again to the sacrificial character of Jesus’ death, and the efficacy of the cleansing “blood”. It should be emphasized again that Jesus is the one who cleanses the disciples/believer in the symbolism of the foot-washing: “If I should not wash you…” (13:8).

Before proceeding to an examination of 15:3, let us first note the general parallel between this statement and the declaration in 13:10 (cf. above):

Already you are clean [kaqaroi/], through the word that I have spoken to you.”
and (so) you are clean [kaqaroi/], but not all (of you)”

In the next daily note will look at v. 3, examining each word in some detail.

October 18: John 15:2 (concluded)

John 15:2, concluded

The final area to investigate, in this study on verse 2, is the precise meaning and significance of the parallel verbs ai&rw and kaqai/rw. As I discussed in a prior note, the action of the “land-worker” (God the Father) on the vine is the same (cutting/pruning), but the effective result is different based on the nature/character of the branch that is involved. The two clauses in verse 2 are thus parallel, but contrastive, and the contrast rests in the description of the branch: “bearing fruit” (fe/ron karpo/n) or “not bearing fruit” (mh\ fe/ron karpo/n). The contrast is amplified by the corresponding verb—ai&rw or kaqai/rw.

Let us begin with the first verb (and clause):

“Every broken (branch) in me not bearing fruit, he takes it (away)” (v. 2a)

The noun klh=ma is typically translated as “branch”; however, it properly denotes something that is broken. Thus, in the context here, klh=ma alludes to the worker’s act of cutting/pruning—i.e., the “breaking (off)” of branches. Even though the branch is in the vine (“in me”), it is cut (off) as part of the pruning process. However, this particular branch is not bearing any fruit, and so, the pruning of it simply removes it, without any effect to the fruit-bearing of the vine. This is expressed by the verb ai&rw (“take [away]”).

This verb (ai&rw) was discussed in an earlier article on the “Lamb of God” declaration in 1:29. The verb has two principal meanings: (a) “take up”, and (b) “take away”. The usage of the verb in the Gospel of John reflects both of these meanings. The first meaning, with the ordinary sense of taking/picking up an object, occurs in 5:8-12; 8:59, and figuratively in 10:18. The second meaning, referring to taking away (i.e. removing) an object, is more frequent—2:16; 11:39, 41, 48; 17:15; 19:15, 31, 38; 20:1-2, 13, 15—and can also be used similarly in a figurative sense (16:22). This usage suggests that the meaning of ai&rw in 1:29 is “take away” (i.e., remove), a point confirmed by the thrust of the Johannine theology, and the parallel in 1 Jn 3:5:

    • “See, the lamb of God—the (one) taking (away) [ai&rwn] the sin of the world” (1:29)
    • “you have seen that that (one) was made to shine forth, (so) that he might take (away) [a&rh|] sin…” (1 Jn 3:5)

The use of ai&rw in these two references is relevant for an understanding of v. 2a—both in the principal meaning of the verb (“take away, remove”), and in the (theological) context of removing something that is fundamentally in opposition to God. In 1:29 (and 1 Jn 3:5) the negative/harmful thing that is removed is sin (a(marti/a), while here in v. 2 it is the branch that is “not bearing fruit”. In the previous note, looking at the agricultural illustration in 4:31-38, we saw how the “fruit” that is harvested is defined specifically in terms of eternal life. There is a comparable emphasis in the saying by Jesus in 12:24 (cf. the earlier note), whereby the death of the seed (i.e., Jesus’ sacrificial death) produces new life (i.e. eternal life) out of the ground. The Son (Jesus) is the source of life, having received it himself from the Father.

Thus, the absence of fruit implies the absence of this (eternal) life, meaning that the branch is effectively dead. There is thus a reasonably close parallel between the idea of taking away sin (1:29) and of taking away what is dead (15:2a).

Let us turn now to the second clause, and the use of the verb kaqai/rw:

“and, every (branch that is) bearing fruit, he cleans it, (so) that it might bear more fruit.” (v. 2b)

The verb kaqai/rw means “(make) clean”; it is close in meaning to the related verb kaqari/zw, with both being derived from the adjective kaqaro/$ (“clean, clear, pure”). Occasionally, kaqai/rw can be used in the sense of “prune”, i.e., cleaning/clearing the branches of a vine, etc., and it obviously has this meaning here. The verb kaqari/zw is far more common; indeed, kaqai/rw occurs only here in the New Testament (it is also rare in the LXX, occurring just twice [2 Sam 4:6; Isa 28:27]). However, the conceptual similarity between the two verbs—both denoting the idea of cleansing—means that we are justified in examining the Johannine use of kaqari/zw, as well as the root adjective kaqaro/$, in order to elucidate the significance of kaqai/rw here.

Let us begin with the adjective kaqaro/$ (“clean, clear, pure”), which occurs 4 times in the Gospel, all four in the context of the Last Discourse. In spite of its relative rarity, the usage in 13:10-11 is instructive, since it establishes the theme of cleansing in the narrative setting for the Last Discourse. The adjective is featured in the foot-washing episode of the Last Supper scene (13:1-11). The author clearly sees important symbolism in this episode, though the precise significance is, to some extent, only hinted at. The reader is in something of the same position as the disciples (Peter, in particular), to whom Jesus says: “What I do here, you have not seen [i.e. known] yet, but you will know [i.e. understand it] after these (thing)s” (v. 7).

The episode has a loose discourse-format, as Jesus makes a series of statements (vv. 7, 8b, 10, 11b) which the disciples (represented by Peter) cannot properly understand (vv. 8a, 9, [11a]). Let us briefly consider the three statements in vv 8b-11:

    • “If I should not wash you, (then) you have no part with me.” (v. 8b)
    • “The (one) having bathed has no business washing, if not (only) his feet; but (his) whole (body) is clean [kaqaro/$]” (v. 10a)
    • “and (so) you are clean [kaqaroi/], but not all (of you)” (v. 10b) /
      “not all (of you) are clean [kaqaroi/]” (v. 11b)

These statements are interrelated, building upon each other inductively to form a coherent message. Because this message relates to the final statement of the Vine-illustration (v. 3), it is proper to examine the three occurrences of kaqaro/$ here, along with the two Johannine occurrence of the verb kaqari/zw (1 Jn 1:7, 9), in the note on verse 3, our next daily note in this series.

Saturday Series: John 8:31-47

John 8:31-47

The next sin-reference in the Gospel of John comes in the next section (8:31-47) of the Sukkot Discourse of chapters 7-8 (see last week’s study on 8:21-30). As I have previously mentioned, the Sukkot Discourse (excluding 7:53-8:11) actually is comprised of a series of interrelated discourses—or, we may say, discourse-units. Each of these follows the basic pattern of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus:

    • Saying/statement by Jesus
    • Response by his hearers (often in the form of a question), indicating that they have misunderstood the true/deeper meaning of his words
    • Exposition by Jesus
    • [Sometimes the Question/Exposition pattern is repeated, forming a longer exchange between Jesus and his hearers]

Here, in this section (and discourse-unit) we are examining, the principal statement by Jesus is:

“If you remain in my word, (then) truly you are my learners [i.e. disciples], and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (vv. 31-32)

This declaration emphasizes the theme of freedom, and of being set/made free (vb eleutheróœ); however, this idea of freedom represents the climax of a chain of relation and causality:

    • “If you remain in my word, (then) =>
      • you will know the truth, and (then) =>
        • the truth will set you free.”

Remaining in Jesus’ “word” (lógos) is a fundamental characteristic demonstrating that one is a true disciple of Jesus (i.e., a believer in Christ). The common verb ménœ (“remain”) is an important Johannine keyword; in the Gospel and Letters, where it occurs with great frequency, it is almost always used in a special theological sense—that is, of the believer abiding in God, and God in the believer. One abides/remains in God (the Father) through Jesus (the Son), and one abides/remains in the Son through the presence of the Spirit. This is the essence of the Johannine theology.

The idea of remaining (or abiding) in Jesus’ word also has special theological (and Christological) meaning, related to the specific use of the noun lógos (see especially the Prologue, 1:1ff, and compare 1 John 1:1ff). Since Jesus the Son is the incarnate Word (Logos) of God, to abide in this Word means abiding in the Son (i.e., the person of Christ) himself. At the same time, lógos also refers to the words spoken by Jesus—that is, his teaching and proclamation. In the Johannine writings, these two aspects of the word lógos cannot be separated.

Clearly, the Jews hearing Jesus at the time could not possibly have understood the true meaning of his statement, with all its theological implications. Naturally, and in the pattern of the Discourses, his audience would respond with a question or statement indicating their misunderstanding. Interestingly, what they latch onto is the freedom-motif. They understand well enough the implications of this motif in context: those who are Jesus’ disciples will be set free; and, since most of the Jews in the audience were not his disciples, they therefore were not free (meaning they were in some kind of slavery or bondage). There is clearly a measure of resentment in their response:

“We are (the) seed of Abraham, and not to any one have we been enslaved at any time; how (then) can you say that ‘You shall be made free’?” (v. 33)

Though the people misunderstand the full meaning of Jesus’ words, they do recognize that he is talking about freedom (eleuthería) in something of a religious sense. This is the only way to explain their appeal to being the descendants (lit. “seed”) of Abraham. Much as Paul, in Galatians and Romans, also utilizes the figure of Abraham, the Jews responding to Jesus seem to use Abraham as a shorthand way of referring to their position as God’s chosen people, entailing a unique relationship to God the Father (YHWH) sealed by a covenant bond; this bond ultimately goes back to YHWH’s promise(s) to Abraham (cf. my earlier studies on the Covenant in the series “The People of God”).

In Jesus’ own response that follows, he explains further what he means when he speaks of freedom and slavery, defining those concepts in terms of sin (hamartía):

“Every (one) doing sin is a slave of sin.” (v. 34)

The implication is that the people (i.e., Jesus’ hearers) are slaves to sin, and the indication of this state of slavery is the fact that they are doing (poiœ¡n) sin. The Johannine writings frequently make use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) as a way of referencing the fundamental (and defining) characteristic of a person—i.e., “the one doing {such}”; distinctly Johannine is the use of the adjective pás (“all, every”) to amplify this attribution, giving it a universal scope: “every one doing {such}”. This idiom, with its syntax, is made to apply particularly to the contrast between those belonging to God (i.e., believers) and those belonging to the world.

Thus, in Johannine theological terms, the phrase “every one doing sin” should be taken as characteristic of non-believers or unbelievers—those who refuse (or are unable) to trust in Jesus. But how is the term “sin” (hamartía) to be understood here? In last week’s study, I proposed that the concept of sin in the Johannine writings has two aspects or levels of meaning: (1) sin in the general or conventional sense of ethical-religious wrongs and misdeeds; and (2) sin in specific (theological) sense of unbelief (i.e., failing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God). Here, in verse 34, Jesus seems, on the surface, to be speaking of sin in the former aspect, i.e., the general sense of moral wrongs and misdeeds, etc; however, the latter (theological) aspect suddenly comes into view if we translate the verse literally, rendering precisely the singular noun with the definite article:

“Every (one) doing the sin is a slave of the sin.”

On a practical level, there must have been a number of Jews in Jesus’ audience who generally lived and acted in a moral and upright way, so that one could not have realistically referred to them as being “slaves of sin”. However, in at least one respect, they were unquestionably enslaved—with regard to the great sin of unbelief. By doing this sin, i.e., rejecting Jesus and failing/refusing to trust in him, these people show themselves to be slaves to their unbelief, to the point that they would even act with violence against Jesus. The hostility of Jesus’ audience toward him throughout most of the Sukkot Discourse is clear enough; the discourse-units all contain some mention of the desire of people to arrest and/or kill him (7:19-20, 30, 44ff; 8:20, 40, 59). While some did respond with trust to Jesus’ teaching (8:30, and the statement in v. 31 is directed to them), the overall reaction of the crowd was hostility and rejection.

The Christological orientation of the concept of sin, suggested above, would seem to be confirmed by Jesus’ words as he continues his exposition:

“And the slave does not remain in the house into the Age, (but) the Son (does) remain into the Age.” (v. 35)

On the surface, Jesus is simply making an illustration based on the distinction between a household slave/servant and a son (compare Paul’s illustration in Gal 4:1-7). However, according to the true/deeper meaning of his words, Jesus is making a theological point: “the Son (of God) remains into the Age”. It is a Christological declaration of the Son’s (i.e., Jesus’ own) Divine and eternal status. The Son (and those who “remain” in him, v. 31; i.e., believers) are contrasted with the “slave” (i.e., unbelievers). The “slave” does not trust in the Son, and thus is enslaved to sin. Consider how Jesus expresses this in the statement that follows:

“Therefore, if the Son should make you free, (then) being free you shall be” (v. 36)

I have translated this verse quite literally, as a careful rendering of the words being used is particularly important here. The verb eleutheróœ (“make/set free”) is used in the first clause, as it is in verse 31 (see above). It is the Son (Jesus) who makes a person free. Given the sin-context in v. 34, we are perhaps justified in reading this statement in light of the “Lamb of God” declaration in 1:29 (see the earlier study). Through trust in Jesus as the Son, which includes trust in his sacrificial death (as the slain Lamb) with its life-giving power, a person’s sin is “taken away”, and the person is thus set free.

The second clause of v. 36 describes the condition of the believer who has been set free (from sin). There are three components to this clause, the first two of which should be taken together:

    • being [óntœs] free [eleútheroi]”
    • you shall be [ésesthe]”

The first word is a participle of the verb of being. At many points in the Gospel of John, the verb of being has a distinctly theological significance, reflecting the very being and essential attributes, etc, of God. Its use here suggests that the freedom (adjective eleútheros) possessed by the believer has a Divine character; its Divine source was already indicated in the first clause (see above). It also connotes the reality of the believer’s freedom; this is a true and complete freedom from sin (and the effects of sin), but its reality is also rooted in the believer’s abiding union with God (see above on the Johannine use of the verb ménœ, “remain”).

The verb of being also occurs, in the future tense (“you shall be”), as the third component of the second clause. The future tense here may be explained in terms of the Johannine eschatology. The promise of true freedom for the believer has two eschatological aspects: (1) the believer will be free from the end-time Judgment and the death it brings; but also (2) this freedom is also realized now, in the present, through the presence of the Spirit (compare the association of the Spirit with freedom in 2 Cor 3:17). The power of sin is undone and removed (1:29) by trust in Jesus (the Son); trust itself eliminates the great sin of unbelief, and the life-giving power of Jesus’ death cleanses us from (i.e., removes) all other sin.

Next week, we will continue this study, looking at the remainder of the Discourse-unit, including the further sin-reference in verse 46.

Saturday Series: John 8:21-30 (continued)

John 8:21-30, continued

In picking up from last week’s discussion on the references to sin in Jn 8:21-30, there are two questions which need to be addressed: (1) how does this passage relate to the earlier sin-reference in 1:29, and (2) what is the significance of the parallel versions of the statements in vv. 21 and 24, using the singular and plural forms, respectively, of the noun hamartía?

With regard to the first question, the statement in verse 24 is key:

“if you do not trust that I am, you will die off in your sins”

The fate of dying in one’s sin(s) thus is tied directly to whether or not the person trusts (vb pisteúœ) in Jesus. This trust is defined in terms of the essential predication (“I am,” egœ¡ eimi), that is characteristic of God (the Father), being applied to Jesus (the Son). This is a roundabout (and distinctly Johannine) way of affirming Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In other words, unless a person trusts that Jesus is the eternal/pre-existent Son sent by the Father, that person will die in his/her sin(s). This fate of dying, lost in sin, must be contrasted with the salvation and eternal life that comes through trust in Jesus.

The famous declaration in 3:16-17 brings this out with particular clarity, and it helps us to understand the significance of the earlier Lamb of God declaration (1:29) in this regard. In each instance, the relationship between Jesus and the world (ho kósmos) is at issue:

    • “See, the Lamb of God—the (one) taking (away) the sin of the world.” (1:29)
    • “God sent forth the Son into the world…(so) that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17)

As previously discussed, in these passages, the noun kósmos is not (primarily) used in the negative sense that is so distinctive and typical of the Johannine writings. Instead, the principal meaning here is of humankind generally—i.e., of all the people on earth, in the inhabited world. The idiom of the world “being saved” is parallel, and essentially synonymous in meaning, with its sin being “taken away”. In the earlier study on 1:29, I discussed the use of the verb aírœ (“take up”) in that verse, and determined that the primary meaning there is “take away” (i.e., remove). Thus, the Lamb of God takes away (removes) sin, which is central to the idea of people (in the world) being saved.

As in 8:24, the statement in 3:16 makes clear that one is saved through trust in Jesus; combining this with the declaration in 1:29 leads to the conclusion that the Lamb of God “takes away” sin when one trusts in Jesus as the Lamb. As I discussed, the Passover lamb is the principal figure that informs the “Lamb of God” concept, and, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is identified with the Passover lamb primarily in the context of his death on the cross. The lamb is “lifted up” on the cross, in a way that is comparable to the application of the bronze-serpent tradition (Num 21:9) in 3:14-15:

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

These words occur immediately prior to the salvation-statement(s) in 3:16-17, and clearly frame the concept of one’s trust in Jesus in terms of trusting in his exaltation (i.e., being “lifted up”). In the Gospel of John, the exaltation of Jesus represents a process that includes: his death, resurrection, and return to the Father in heaven. The exaltation begins with his sacrificial death—as the Passover lamb who is slain, and whose blood protects (i.e., saves) people from death and judgment. When one trusts in Jesus the Son, this necessarily entails trusting in the sacrificial nature of his death and its life-giving power (represented by the image of blood). It is not enough to trust that Jesus is the Son of God, if that trust does not include this understanding and belief regarding the cleansing (i.e., sin-removing) and life-giving power of his death. This is a point that the author of 1 John argues vigorously against certain ‘opponents’ who apparently hold a rather different view of Christ’s death.

But what of the second question mentioned above? Is there any particular significance to the author’s use of both the singular and plural forms of the noun hamartía in 8:21 and 24?

    • “…you shall seek me, and (yet) you shall die off in your sin [hamartía]; for the (place) to which I go away, you are not able to come (there)” (v. 21)
    • “…if you do not trust that I am, (the) you will die off in your sins [hamartíais]” (v. 24)

In 1:29, the singular hamartía (“sin”) was used in a general or collective sense—that is, for the sin(s) that the people in the world possess, and the condition of sin(fulness) that controls and dominates the world of humankind. It is possible that the variation between singular and plural in 8:21, 24 simply expresses this same general/collective sense of sin. However, I believe that the author (and Jesus as the speaker) is utilizing a clever bit of wordplay (something that occurs frequently in the Johannine Discourses), bringing out two important and distinct aspects of sin. The plural refers to sin in the general/conventional sense, as wrongs, errors, and misdeeds committed by people; however the singular refers to sin in a specific sense—which, I would argue, is the primary sense of sin in the Johannine writings.

If we translate the genitive expressions in 8:21, 24 in an ultraliteral way, it may help us to perceive the distinction:

    • “you will seek me, and (yet) you will die off in the sin of you”
    • “if you do not trust that I am, (the) you will die off in the sins of you”

In v. 21, Jesus tells his audience that they will not be able to follow him, and so will die off in their sin (“the sin”). What is this sin? It is the great sin—the sin of unbelief, of not trusting in Jesus. As v. 24 makes clear, when a person possesses this great sin, it means that all other sins remain and cannot be removed; thus the person will die in “the(se) sins”. R. E. Brown, in his famous commentary on the Gospel (Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 29, p. 350) states the matter this way:

We note that “sin” is in the singular in vs. 21, for in Johannine thought there is only one radical sin of which man’s many sins (plural in vs. 24) are but reflections. This radical sin is to refuse to believe in Jesus and thus to refuse life itself.

I generally concur with Brown’s analysis in this regard, though I am perhaps not so quick as he to connect this idea of one great sin with the Synoptic tradition of the unforgivable sin (of blaspheming the Holy Spirit).

In any case, I would maintain that the Johannine writings understand two distinct levels, or aspects, of sin, which can be distinguished here in 8:21, 24 by the use of the singular and plural, respectively:

    • Singularthe great sin of not trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)
    • Plural—sin in the conventional ethical-religious sense of wrongs and misdeeds that a person commits.

As we proceed through the remaining sin-references in the Johannine writings, this important distinction will come more clearly into view, along with certain theological, Christological, and spiritual implications.

Next week, we will examine the next section of the Sukkot Discourse in chaps. 7-88:31-47, with the statement regarding sin in verse 34. This passage defines sin through thematic idiom of slavery and bondage/freedom. The further reference in verse 46 will also be discussed.


Saturday Series: John 5:14; 9:2-3ff

It will be worth pausing to consider some conclusions that may be drawn from the previous two weeks’ studies (1, 2) regarding the declaration in Jn 1:29:

“See, the lamb of God—the (one) taking up the sin of the world!”

The expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú) is best understood in relation to the tradition of the Passover lamb. The traditional designation of the Passover lamb as a sacrifice (ze»aµ, see Exod 12:27) likely led early Christians to associate it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, including the offerings for sin and, for example, the expiatory offerings related to the Day of Atonement (see Hebrews 8-10). Moreover, it was shown (based on evidence from Josephus’ Antiquities) that there were Jews of the period who attributed to the blood of the Passover lamb the power to purify the devout worshiper. These factors would have fit well with the developing Christian concept of Jesus’ blood cleansing believers from sin (see 1 John 1:7). It is certain that the Gospel writer applied the motif of the Passover lamb particularly to the sacrificial death of Jesus (19:14, 33-36).

The use of the verb aírœ (“take/lift up”) should be understood primarily in the sense of “take away”, referring to the removal of sin. The verb in 1 John 3:5 is used in precisely this context, and is confirmed by the verb’s overall use throughout the Gospel. At the same time, the influence of Isa 53:7ff on the “lamb of God” concept allows for the secondary meaning of “bear, carry”, with the idea that Jesus (the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12, see Acts 8:32-33ff) takes upon himself the burden of the people’s sin, interceding with God on their behalf. The Hebrew verb for this in verse 12 is n¹´¹°, which has a meaning comparable to Greek aírœ, even though the Septuagint (LXX) translates n¹´¹° there with a different verb (anaphérœ, “bring up, bear, carry”).

The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article is rather typical of Johannine style, as a way of indicating a vital characteristic of an individual or group. Here the participle aírœn (“taking up”) is presented as a fundamental characteristic of Jesus, under the symbolic motif of the “lamb of God”, declaring him to be “the (one) taking up [ho aírœn] the sin of the world”. As the statement in 1 John 3:5 makes clear, the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth, and thus a central function of his earthly ministry (including his death), was to take away sin (see also verse 8b). This same emphasis is expressed in Jn 1:29 by the use of the substantive participle.

The sin that Jesus “takes away” through his death (as the slain “lamb”) is qualified as being “of the world”. This genitive formulation can be explained as adjectival, in two possible ways:

    • Possessive—i.e., the sin is something belonging to the world, which it possesses.
    • Descriptive—referring to an attribute or characteristic, i.e., the world as sinful.

The noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used two different, but related, ways in the Johannine writings: (1) in the neutral sense of the inhabited world (i.e., the places on earth where people dwell, and those people themselves), and (2) in the negative sense as a domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. The negative meaning of the word tends to dominate in the Gospel and Letters of John, in a way that is quite distinctive among early Christians. While the negative aspect may be present in 1:29, through the genitival relationship to the head noun “sin” (hamartía), indicating sin as a basic characteristic of the world, primarily the neuter aspect is in view. The “world” here refers to humankind generally—i.e., to all the people in the inhabited world; compare the usage in 3:16-17.

In this regard, it would be natural to explain the use of the singular noun hamartía as referring to sin either in a general or collective sense. That is, it either refers to the sinfulness of the world (i.e., humankind) or to all of its sins taken collectively. I would not wish to make a more precise interpretation until we have examined the remaining sin-references in the Gospel. However, it is worth noting that the sin attributed to the world (or humankind) as a whole finds its counterpart in a number of instances where sins/wrongs committed by individuals are mentioned. Two, in particular, stand out, contained within similar healing-miracle stories—in chapters 5 and 9, respectively.

In the story of the healing of the paralytic man (5:1-9ff), at the conclusion of the narrative (verse 14), Jesus locates the man who was healed and warns him: “you must not sin any (more), (so) that there should not come to be any(thing) worse (happening) to you.” The apparent implication is that the man’s prior disabled condition was the result of sin. And yet, this very connection, so common in the ancient ways of thinking, is explicitly denied by Jesus in the case of the blind man (in the chapter 9 episode):

“And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him, saying: ‘Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents—that he came to be (born) blind?’ Yeshua gave forth (the answer): ‘This man did not sin, nor (did) his parents, but (rather it was so) that the works of God might be made to shine (forth) in him.'” (vv. 2-3)

The theme of sinning runs as a thread throughout this narrative, and I will be examining it in more detail in an upcoming study. However, for the moment, it is important to focus on the traditional-conventional understanding of sin that is reflected in these historical traditions (of the two healing miracles). Two details, in particular, may be highlighted: (i) the verb hamartánœ (“do wrong, err, sin,” lit. “miss [the mark]”) is associated with a common (and expected) standard of ethical and religious behavior; and (ii) that “doing wrong” in this way can have decidedly negative/harmful effects on a person’s life and health. The same conventional use of the verb hamartánœ can be seen in the famous episode of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11 [vv. 7, 11]), which, though it most likely was not part of the original Johannine Gospel, presumably reflects an historical tradition comparable to that of the healing miracles in chaps. 5 and 9.

This conventional religious-ethical view of sin is important, in large part, because of the backdrop it provides for the deeper understanding expressed elsewhere in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus. Next week, we will begin exploring the passage where the concept of sin (and sin references) are most prominent—the Sukkot Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 (esp. 8:21-47).

Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).