26 years ago: John 9

I have long loved John chapter 9.  Posts on this blog have touched on it a few times.  In ridding myself of some old files, I found evidence that I’d felt attached to this chapter as early as my twenties.  Twenty-six years ago today, I’d apparently presented a short message, first reading the entire chapter (and if you have time now, you might also read it now) and then making the comments below to the gathered Christians at the Cedars Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

Sometimes we, too, are guilty of ignoring the obvious, undeniable, simple facts.

We react blindly to the visible and to threatening situations—threatening because they’re unusual and uncomfortable.

We accuse the wrong people for the wrong things, not wanting to SEE truth and actuality.

Some things are really simple, and we make them difficult, denying them and pointing a finger elsewhere in order to keep from having to truly examine the realities.

[Pray for healing of hardness of heart; unwillingness to be taught & be led by Spirit; spiritual blindness.  Let us SEE.  Keep us from attacking bringers of good news because we don’t want to listen or consider.]

B. Casey, 6/27/90

See also




LS Symbolisms

Here is a small collection of miscellaneous Lord’s Supper thoughts I’ve entertained in recent months.

As this little piece has developed, it reminds me of “Hook’s Points,” an erstwhile series written by Cecil Hook, now living non-physically eternally, who was a friend to many while inspiring and challenging them.  (Here is a sample selection of “Hook’s Points.”)  I don’t lay claim to Cecil’s perpetually beautiful attitude, but I like to challenge traditional thinking much as he liked to.

Lift Him up
Typically, pulpit furniture is elevated higher than the table used for communion.  In a church in Georgia about 25 years ago, one elder-shepherd convinced the others to reverse the furniture.  Then, the table was elevated, and the preacher praught from down low (although he wasn’t a low-down guy).  Problem was, the table was then more removed from the people who were said to be communing around it, and the preaching seemed even more emphasized.

By the way, the phrase “lift Him up” in John’s gospel has nothing to do with notions of worship that use “high” imagery.  And it certainly has nothing to do with furniture elevations.  It has to do with the cross.

Color me traditional, if possible
When some in my tradition are feeling threatened by change, they’ve been known to say, “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting chips and Coke for the Lord’s Supper!”  In my experience, those who want change are customarily more careful and intentional than those who are content with the status quo; neither side is characterized by the flippant carelessness.  However, I do assume that Jesus cares more that we remember Him than that we get the elements exactly right.  After all, who knows the exact chemical makeup of the wine served at the Last Supper, or how the unleavened bread felt or looked?  If we are sincerely bent on remembering Him and His atoning death, I suppose we will do things and use things that foster that remembering.

Still, I’m not going to buy white grape juice for the purpose of communion when red grape juice is available.  The blood-symbolism is the thing, isn’t it?

And while you’re at it, what is “eschatology” again?
“Transubstantiation” and “intinction” are big words associated with communion in some traditions.  (“Eschatology” is a more important word, and it’s only indirectly connected with communion.)

Sometimes I think words obscure  more than they reveal.  Ironically, “transubstantiation” refers to a supposed revealing of the Christ in the eating of the bread:  namely, that the substance of the bread is miraculously transformed into His actual body, and that the wine also becomes  His blood.  In the course of insisting such things occur, though, what ends up being revealed more than the Christ is the audacity of human superimpositions on scripture.

Oh, the lengths to which overzealous (and, in some cases, corrupt) “Christians” have historically gone in order to develop exclusive dogmas and denominations!  Frankly, the paranormal realities that may or may not occur when I slip a bit of cracker or matzah onto my tongue are not my concern.

I have only experienced “intinction” on isolated occasions.  It refers to the mingling of bread and juice/wine before ingesting either.  Intinction doesn’t appear to reflect the commemorative pattern of which we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1Corinthians (leaving alone Acts 2 and Acts 20, which I take as referring to something larger and related, but not identical).  This “method” does, however, bring into sharp relief the symbolism of the bloody flesh that was part of our Lord’s suffering.

I would have to say that on the half-dozen occasions I’ve observed the memorial using the intinction method, my spirit has meditated differently and newly, and quite possibly more deeply.  I suspect that, just as with any other habit, the newness of the intinction experience would tend to wear off after a while, but perhaps it could be a good method to use now and again . . . until He comes (he appended eschatologically, with reference to 1Cor 11:26).

~ ~ ~

At some point in the future, I plan to jot a few more notes on Lord’s Supper methodologies, including who does the walking/serving and the eating — in other words, who’s involved in which aspects and how it might all be accomplished.  If you have other ideas, thoughts, or ponderings related to communion, please share them in the meantime.

Two sights

The middle of Mark 8 records an incident in which Jesus healed a blind man in a village called Bethsaida.

The end of Mark 10 records another healing of a blind man.  This one was half-identified as being someone’s son (Bar-Timaeus).

Exegetical insights in the text of Mark reveal that these incidents are part of a larger subsection that essentially constitute the conceptual middle of Mark’s gospel — which is, on one level, a documentary creation.  Some say that these “twin” healings of blind men form an inclusio or “sandwich” structure, part of an overall emphasis that includes the three “passion predictions” in chapters 8, 9, and 10.  The first healing is the one in which the vision came in two stages — first, out of focus, then just read.  The second healing is a bit more pointed in its spiritual implications.  Mark appears to be saying something about the relationship of 1) physical sight and 2) spiritual sight as he paints his overall picture of those — the Master’s disciples — who follow Jesus “along the way.”

John 9 has for decades been a favorite chapter.  It recounts the healing of another blind man and presents powerful portrayals of various characters, including the Jewish leadership, the blind man, and the man’s parents.  I wrote rather extensively, although not particularly conclusively, about that chapter here.  The focus in John 9 ends up on spiritual sight.  I would ask you at least to read Steve’s very meaningful comments on that post, written several months ago.

Moisés Silva¹ has said some important things about historicity of the gospels:

1.  [Speaking of the notion that the “religious teachings” of the Bible may be affirmed while “rejecting its historical claims”]:  “the resulting incoherence is logically unbearable.”

2.  “In the case of the Gospels, every indication we have is that the writers expected their statements to be taken as historical.”  A contrast is subsequently drawn between general events and parables.  In addition, John’s gospel famously includes testimonials that affirm historicity:

“The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.”  (Jn 19:35)

“Jesus did [emphasis mine -bc]” other things that were not recorded.  (Jn 20:31)

3.  There is, still, substantial difference between a) the historical sensibilities of ancient authors and b) the stress placed on “clear and strict chronological sequence” by our contemporary concepts of historicity.

Believers accept that the healings of blind men really occurred.  That historicity is is a given for me, but layers of truth may be present.  While I’m not sure that the Mark healings have quite the same symbolic significance (physical sight ≈ spiritual sight) as the John story has, all three of these show something astounding about our Jesus. 

~ ~ ~

Thus ends a month of blogposts with a “two” motif. 

For February, I have in the preparation stages a few essays on aspects of scripture. 

At some point by March, I want to share some proseuchlations² about sight and focus, sort of picking up where the above post left off.


¹Moisés Silva, “‘But These Are Written That You May Believe’:  The Meaning of the Gospels,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics:  The Search for Meaning, Walter C. Kaiser and Moisés Silva, p. 106.

² I’m coining the difficult-to-pronounce (and probably-better-left-unprounced) term proseuchlation, using part of the Greek root for pray, to describe a prayer-ish contemplation.


Two births

I might more aptly have titled this “Two Generations,” but I didn’t want to imply I was talking about parents/children or genealogy, as such.

It isn’t my intent here to toe any party line (or even to rebel against one) around concepts like regeneration or being “born again” or baptism.  My interest in those things is strong (see footnote 1 for links to prior essays, if interested), and some of that may well be predicted here, but . . . this is intended simply to exegete a short John text within the complete document. 

I find that John 1:13 contrasts two senses of being generated or born.  This text appears (although it might not have been originally scripted  in this sequence) pre-Nicodemus, and long before any 16th- or 19th- or 20th/21st-century concepts, e.g., of being “born again.”

Here is the NASB95 rendering of verses 12-13 together:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And here is my attempt at a word-for-word, interlinear Greek-English rendering of the last part of the same verse:

who   not   out of     bloods
οἳ     οὐκ     ἐξ          αἱμάτων | haimaton — pl., think hematology, the study of blood

not    out of    will              of flesh
οὐδὲ   ἐκ         θελήματος   σαρκὸς | sarkoscf. sarcoma, a flesh-eating tumor

not    out of     will               of man
οὐδὲ   ἐκ        θελήματος     ἀνδρὸς | andros — think androgen, a male sex hormone

but    out of   God’s    generating
ἀλλ᾿   ἐκ        θεοῦ    ἐγεννήθησαν | egennethesan — see below

Although most English translations don’t render these thoughts in a way that shows the parallelism, the connections are there.  The word choices and syntax in this remarkable text are . . . well, remarkable.  So I am remarking!  🙂

The only bona fide verb in 1:13 is the final word.  It comes from γεννάω | gennaoto become the father of, to produce  (BAG Lexicon 1957).  Taking this range of meanings perhaps a step further in English, we might add to generate.  The aorist tense of this verb is not particularly significant; it indicates, relatively simply, that something was done in the past.  The “mood” of the verb is passive, and that aspect seems more significant here:  God is the active agent, and the human is simply the passive  recipient of God’s productive/fatherly action.

The NASB, the NIV, the ESV, and other English translations I glanced at have all opted to insert the idea of being born/birthed at the beginning of this verse.  This word-order inversion isn’t necessarily a bad idea if one is interested in the general import.  It does, however, obscure some of the specific beauty of this text, which contrasts two births/”begettings” and delays mention — with strong effect — of the supernatural one:

  1. the one that arises out of blood, out of flesh, and out of the sexual desire or will² of a male
  2. the one that arises out of God (the last four words in the original)

It appears to me that the idea of being begotten/produced is significant — both in the literary micro-context and in the book-level context of John.  A similar word (see footnote below) is used six times prior to v13.  Furthermore, these notions of being begotten/produced/birthed/generated appear first in v12, with a somewhat related idea in v13, followed by a repetition of the v12 idea in v14:

12 to them He gave the right to become ____,

13 those who have been begotten  by God

14 the word became  flesh

In the above verses, the words for “become” and “begotten” are not the same.  Please see footnote 3 below if interested in more detail here.  At the least, the verbs in vv 12 and 14 are the same, and they flank the important notion of being fathered/begotten by God.  This insight into generative origin may be just as theologically significant as the more-often-quoted, poeticized v14 in its entirety.

Via e-mail, Dr. Paul Pollard has made this observation about the micro-context of v12:  “. . . that for those who have received him (12a), and continue to believe in him (12c), they are entitled to become God’s children (12b).  Verse 13a then shows that becoming the children of God is not by appeal to family connections, or genealogy. . . .”  Exegetically derived points such as this are always, always helpful in our efforts to read the text — and to hear God — more thoroughly.

The word ἀλλ’ | all’  (the antecedent of “but” at the beginning of the last phrase in v13) is considered to set up a strong contrast with what has gone before.  There is another word that could have been used here, if the contrast weren’t so clear-cut, so emphatic.  What the text of John has is something like this (ignore the redundant English, if you please):  ” . . . but instead were begotten by God.”

The two kinds of begettings/births are distinct.  It is my hope that this little insight about God’s action in spiritual birth has brought someone closer to this great Father.  It has done that for me when I needed it today — to the point that I regret that I now need to do some work that I get paid to do.

Brian (1/9/15)

¹ Here are three links that refer to, and/or attempt to explicate, portions of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus:

That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Rebirth, as Jesus taught it

The misread part of John 3

² Here, some might choose the word “lust” for “will” or “desire” — but presumably not in a negative sense.  Immediately prior, “flesh” appears to be used without the later, negative Docetist or Pauline connotation — e.g., in Romans 7 and 8, where it is contrasted with the πνεῦμα | pneuma (spirit) nature.  It is significant that, in the next verse, Jesus is said to have become (ἐγένετο | egeneto)  flesh.  Neither flesh nor a man’s will appears to be cast negatively here.

³ The ice is getting thin, and my ear for similar sounds and potential Greek etymological connections has gotten me in trouble before, but the ideas of the ginomai and gennao word families seem related.  In other words, to become (a being verb) seems possibly connected to the original begetting, which endowed them with the right to become/be in the first place.  I am becoming damp here and may soon be “all wet” — and not just for mixing English ice/water metaphors.  🙂  The abridged Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT gives this gloss for ginomai (vv 12 and 14):  “to be born” (adding very little other than the mention of John 8:58 — ” . . . before Abraham was born, I am“), where both the contrast and connection again appear).  Kittel’s gloss for gennao (v13) is “to bear, beget.”  Moreover, in Warren Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament, these two words are shown in the same “cognate word group.”  Essentially, I would suggest that, though the two verbs may be as distinct as the two births I’m attempting to delineate, the verb-concepts are at least syntactically related in John.


Johannine insights #5 — women

Before I return Robert Kysar’s book John:  The Maverick Gospel to the library, the second of his two appendices is worthy of comment.  This eight-page section was as valuable for me as any other section of similar length.

Women do play important roles in the Synoptic gospels, as well as in John, but “the Gospel of John is remarkable for its intentional presentation of women as models of faith.”  Despite the significant nature of women’s appearances in John, Kysar suggests that the author slips in certain messages about women almost subliminally.

Chapters 5 to 10 are dominated by men, as is the section from chapter 13 through 17, which is devoted to the apostles.  Other than those long sections, women’s appearances dot the document:

  • Mary, Jesus’ mother — ch 2
  • Samaritan woman — ch 4
  • Martha — ch 11
  • Mary — ch 12
  • Woman at the foot of the cross — ch 19
  • Mary Magdalene — ch 20

Of the above, I will focus on a) the Samaritan woman and b) Mary Magdalene, as highlighted by Kysar.

1.Kysar notes that the Samaritan woman holds her own in discussion with Jesus.  Her misunderstanding of Jesus comes across ironically and/or humorously to the reader, but John does not appear to make light of her.  (Male disciples also misunderstand things in John.)  The woman’s supposed immorality, i.e., that she was with a man who was not her husband, does not receive any sustained attention.  Rather, this woman shows up as “perceptive and bright,” and this impression seems to contrast with the impression we get of the Jewish leader Nicodemus in the prior chapter.

We must also not fail to notice that this woman is a missionary of sorts.  Kysar finds her to be John the Immerser’s “female counterpart” in terms of testimony.  (For John’s role as witness, see chapter 1, chapter 3, and more.)

“[The Samaritan woman] is the model of how one’s encounter with Jesus’ word provokes faith, and an example of the way faith bubbles over into witness.  Because of her, the reader of the Gospel knows that no matter who you are — no matter what your status in society may be — the revelation of God in Christ is for you!”

2.  Kysar considers Mary Magdalene the paragon of female faith in the gospel.  She comes to the tomb (ch. 20) that supposedly holds Jesus “in order to express her affection for him,” like the other Mary in ch. 12.  She receives (the risen) Jesus with joy, like Martha.  When she immediately goes to share the news of Jesus’ resurrection, Kysar’s says, “The image of the witness of the Samaritan woman comes to mind” — i.e. in that they both had evangelized.

“Mary Magdalene is the personification of all that it means to be a disciple.  But she is still more.  She is cast in the eminent role as the first to discover the empty tomb, the first to witness the risen Christ, and the first to announce the good news of the resurrection.  Not even Peter or the beloved disciple is so privileged.”  Mary Magdalene, Kysar says, “is the apostle to the apostles.”

Although I find a hint of 20th-century feminist influence in Kysar’s appendix on women, the real reason for my regurgitation of some of this scholar’s emphases is that these women do indeed appear in John’s gospel as models of faith.

Models of faith, it seems, are eminently worthy for all readers to consider, no matter their gender.


Johannine insights #4 — senses and faith

If you’re ready for a deep, sustained study of a New Testament text, may I suggest John?  And may I suggest printing the words below for reference as you work through the first twelve chapters?  Or, just put this in your “gospels” or “John” or “faith” or “Jesus” file for later reference.  Or maybe buy Robert Kysar’s and/or Raymond Brown’s books!  (Here is a blogger’s recommendation of Kysar’s book.)

I have gained a caboodle of insights into John’s gospel through readings in Raymond Brown’s commentary work in the Anchor Bible series.  Additional insights via Robert Kysar, John: The Maverick Gospel have proven helpful, as well as observations made in live classes by Dr. Paul Pollard and Dr. Tom Alexander.

Kysar may or may not be an ethnically Jewish name, but I suspect he has some personal, historical reasons for going over the top in expressing antitheses to anti-Semitism in John.  (I tend to pass over material that seems to be reading 20th- and 21st-century concerns into a 1st-century gospel narrative.  Worry about anti-Semitism might be more of a publisher’s political or economic concern.  Anti-Semitism is a thing of the 19th and 20th centuries, really.)  However, on the upside . . . I’d like to share worthwhile excerpts from Kysar’s book on the topics of the development of faith as connected withseeing and hearing.

~ ~ ~

In even a cursory reading of John’s gospel, one perceives a great deal of material about “the Jews” and various groups and individuals who develop, or don’t develop, faith.  In connection with faith development, John pays special attention to a seemingly intentional group of miraculous signs.  Below is Kysar on signs, faith and believing, seeing, and hearing.

The signs (semeion) are works of God, wonders, or expressions of the power of God that produce faith. This is true of each of the seven or eight major signs performed by Christ in the gospel.

[John’s] is a startling use of the term [semeion.]  When [the synoptic] gospels employed the term in relationship to Jesus’ marvelous acts, it is most often given a negative connotation. . . . The interest in seeing a sign as a basis for faith is condemned as an expression of distrust and suspicion.  Strange, then, that [John] uses it in a positive way.

[In John,] the signs performed by Jesus seem to have an ambiguous role in relation to believing in the revelation offered by Christ.

    1. Changing the water into wine (ch 2)
    2. Healing the nobleman’s son (ch 4)
    3. Healing the man who had been crippled for 30 years (ch 5)
    4. Feeding a multitude (ch 6)
    5. Walking on the water and the miraculous landing (ch 6)
    6. Healing of the man born blind (ch 9)
    7. Raising of Lazarus (ch 11)
    8. Catching a miraculous number of fish (ch 21)

These incidents are told in such a way as to suggest that they lead to faith. . . .  The implication is that these signs are offered as evidence that Jesus really is the

However, the evangelist seems to draw a line between believing in Jesus for the sake of his wondrous acts and “seeing signs.” . . . To follow Jesus simply for the sake of his gifts or benefits is not enough. . . . To “see the sign” involved something more than benefiting from this person who can supply your needs.

And what then is meant by “seeing signs”? . . . It seems that seeing wonderful acts of Jesus is more than a visual perception of what Jesus does or the experience of benefiting from those acts.  It is an insight into the identity of the performer of the sign. . . .

. . .

In [some] cases, the signs are regarded as a positive means of provoking faith in people.  Elsewhere the fourth gospel has much more serious reservations about the effectiveness of signs in producing genuine faith.  They seem powerless to arouse faith in some who experienced them. . . . It pictures Jesus speaking in such a way as to cast doubt on the whole faith grounded in the experience of the signs. Read once again the healing of the son of the officer in royal service (4:48-53). Jesus did the healing only after complaining about belief based on signs and wonderful acts. Is first 48 of the story a mild rebuke . . .? Or is it a repudiation of all signs-based faith? Is Jesus saying that faith founded upon wondrous acts has no value at all? Or . . . are we to infer from these words that faith based on signs is inferior . . .?

. . .

The Greek words for seeing are used in the fourth gospel interchangeably for a sensory perception and a faith perception. Examples of the difference between these two are 1:47 and 14:8. . . .  (Two different words are used in these verses. -bc)

John has a profound understanding of the relationship between these two types of perception. . . .

[John’s] understanding of how experience lends itself to faith is also reflected in other ways.  The obviously metaphorical use of “see” in 9:39 makes sense now.  Surely, Jesus’ mission is to accomplish some healing — the bestowal of physical capacities for sight and hearing — but [John] means something more.  Jesus grants the gift of perceiving the truth about life and existence. . . .

Much the same thing is true when we turn to [John’s] use of the words meaning “to hear” or “to listen. . . .”

Hearing may be a purely sensory act, as in 6:60, where the words of Jesus are heard but there is no real perception of their meaning.  It may also be the experience from which faith is born (5:24).  In the latter case, a discernment of Jesus’ true identity begins with normal hearing but goes beyond it.

For additional posts on John’s gospel, click here.


Johannine insights #3 — a device?

John’s gospel says a few things about food.  In at least five specific contexts in the document, “food” or “bread” shows up.

John’s gospel also says a few things about “works.”  In 25 verses in John (found in chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 17) the root εργον (ergon — think ergonomic — work-laws) shows up.  The reader should understand that, in John, “works” are presented¹ pretty much exclusively positively, despite how they are painted in some Christian circles these days.

Hear Jesus as John has quoted Him:

4:32  But He said to them, “I have afood to eat that you do not know about.”

4:33  So the disciples were saying to one another, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?”

4:34  Jesus *said to them, “My bfood is to do the cwill of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.

a.  In the first instance of “food” above, the Greek word is “brosin.”  This word appears again in John — twice in chapter 6.
b.  In the second instance, the Greek word is “broma.”  This word is not used anywhere else in John.
c.  The Greek word translated “will” is “thelema.”  Its final two letters are the same as in the word “broma.”

I suspect that John changed from “brosin” to “broma” (both meaning “food”) in v. 34 for a reason.

Below is the text of 4:34 a) in Greek, b) in transliterated English, and c) followed by an awkward translation in the same word order.

4:34  Ἐμὸν βρῶμά ἐστιν ἵνα  ποιήσω τὸ θέλημα τοῦ 
      emon broma estin hina poieso to thelema tou 
      My    food  is   that I do   the will  of the one

πέμψαντός  με καὶ   τελειώσω   αὐτοῦ τὸ ἔργον
pemphantos me kai   teleioso   autou to ergon
 who sent  me and    complete  His (the) work

With thanks to Raymond Brown and others, I suggest that the word choice “broma” (food) may be intentional, and that the intentionality may be related to the word “thelema” (will).  Although the expression “my food is that I do the will” is fairly clear, the expression is also symbolic.  Food  isn’t actually will,  but Jesus is linking the two figuratively.

The emphasis lent by assonance in the -ma syllable — broma … thelema — may be seen as clarifying and stressing Jesus’ words, as recorded by John.

For additional posts on the gospel of John, click here.


¹ I started to write “the concept of ‘works’ is presented positively,” but I suspect that would have been eisegesis, to some degree — reading current-day concerns into an ancient text.  I don’t know that there was a “concept” of works per se in the 1st century.


Johannine insights #2 — overturning

As siblings and I continue to excavate verbally, we note that John’s gospel is intentional in presenting Jesus’ miraculous works/signs.

Many scholars see John chapters 2-4 as a textual unit.  The “bookends” of this section, mentioning Cana and Galilee (2:1,11; 4:46,54), are striking features.  The section as a whole includes the water-to-wine sign, the overturning of the tables in the temple, the conversation with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and the healing of the official’s son (in that order).  That the first and second signs are enumerated and placed geographically indicates some emphasis, at least.

The first part of this gospel — chapters 1-12 —  is sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs,” and it might have been completed years prior to the ultimate compilation we know as the gospel of John.  One theory about this first section is that it is intentionally constructed to speak to the replacement of elements of Judaism.  It is, in part, in this respect that I understand the second incident of John 2 — the overturning of the tables in the temple.  On one hand, there is the obvious:  that Jesus, as Messiah-come, had perfect authority to do what He did, and He wasn’t happy about what was going on, so he made a rather strong point by stopping it.  But on another level, John may be saying to his audience that the temple — represented Jewish strongholds and systems — was being replaced.  (More of this theme shows up in chapter 4 as Jesus converses with a Samaritan woman.)

This table-turning thing (which might have been an antecedent of the English figure of speech “turn the tables”) is no miraculous sign, and there is no recorded coming-to-faith that results from this action.  Still, the event is notable and unique.  Our friend Susan has observed, “Jesus does a lot of things that are not typical of Jesus.”  This overturning of the tables fits that bill; if nothing else, it is a consequential act that makes the reader aware that something is (or will be) up between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.


That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Johannine Insights #1

So many Christianese expressions take on lives of their own.  One of the many is “born again.”

Some say “born again” means this; some say it means that.  Speaking anecdotally, I’d say that Baptist and quasi-Baptist soteriological uses of the phrase exceed the sum of uses by most other believers.  In some cases, the use is off-base; it is an inept use of the phrase that aims to subtract either half of the agency (compare 3:3 to 3:5, water and Spirit) in the birthing process.

The fact is, “born again” is a Christianese expression that I would argue probably ought to be euthanized, in deference to the richer, more appropriate translation of John 3:3.  The better rendering of gennethe anothen (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) is “born from above,” and the expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament documents.¹

Words often have ranges of possible meanings, and the Greek anothen is no exception.  Anothen can mean

  • from above, from a higher place
  • from heaven, from God
  • from the first, from the beginning
  • anew, again

In the John 3 conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of heavenly things.  Although John (the writer) has Nicodemus initially not tracking with Jesus — mistaking the meaning — the larger context virtually dictates that Jesus intended one of the first two meanings — the “above” or “higher” significance rather than the simpler “again” one.  (The dual layers of meaning here fit well within John’s framework.)

Nicodemus did misunderstand, it appears, choosing the other meaning — perhaps because “again” is easier to deal with than “from above.”

“A man can’t be born of his mother again, can he?”

Jesus reiterated His point, and more emphatically this time:

One cannot see, or enter, the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Thus said the Messiah, probing and dealing with this searching Jew — who was, not incidentally, a man of considerable pedigree and earthly (i.e., lower-world) influence.  The Spirit is, of course, from the “upper” or “above” world.

The meaning of the expression at hand² is more clear when one perceives the contextual emphasis on heavenly (non-earthly) things.  Of course it’s not human birth that Jesus is speaking of; rather, it’s a birth related to the Spirit — which is from above.  Later, at the end of our chapter 3, immersion again appears, as does the Spirit (compare to 3:5).  Also significantly, in verse 27 John the Immerser testifies — first, seemingly obliquely — that Jesus is from heaven (i.e., from above).  The succeeding emphasis on “above-ness” in verses 31-35 leads the interpreter to see gennethé ánothen as belonging to a larger context.

The best translation of 3:3,² then, uses the idea of being “born from above.”

So, let’s strike the Christianese expression “born again” from our vocabularies — not because it is a wrong idea in itself.  Far from it:  to be born from above, of water and Spirit, is truly to be born a second time, born anew.  There are other ways through which we might speak aptly of the process or results of having been initiated.¹  But it is more communicative of truth to translate the Greek of John 3:3 in a more contextually aware manner.

Jesus said, “Unless you are born from above. . . .”


¹ 1Peter uses another word formula in 1:3 and 1:23 — and this also comes to us in several English versions as “born again.”  This is a different Greek expression — written by a different author, to a different audience, in a different scenario, and not using the word “anothen” at all.

²  It is disappointing, yet not surprising, that only a couple of available, printed, English translations have opted for “from above” — the modern NETBible and the older Young’s Literal Translation.


It’s one or the other

Continuing from the last post:  I resist the notion that believers today ought to concern themselves directly with the Old Covenant or with any of its provisions or laws.  That covenant was limited in terms of 1) time, 2) place, and 3) one of the parties thereto.

It should be acknowledged that Jesus said, “I came not to abolish [the Law and Prophets] but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).  One must be aware of the historical and literary contexts of that statement in order to interpret it well.  Here, I make no claim to thoroughly treating the passage contextually — only to raising sample concerns.

Historical Context

Jesus made that statement within a very real context:  first-century Israel.  Israelites were all around him, and it may be asserted that they were the dominant group in Judea and Galilee.  Jesus, being both teacher and God, well knew the rich history of the Israelites — with whom God had dealt since Abram-Isaac-Jacob and Moses.

So, when a first-century Jew said something authoritative about fulfilling and not abolishing the Law, it meant something different, when compared with the import of such a statement from, say, a Zionist or Seventh-day Adventist today.

Literary Context

There is also the matter of the appearance of this statement within a document written and compiled by Matthew.  A viable, valid interpretation will take an inquiring posture — inquiring of this one document on its own, that is — as to what Law means within that document, and what fulfillment means, and how Jesus is presented as dealing with Kingdom and Law and Jews and Pharisees and such.

I also acknowledge that God — as manifest in the picture of Jesus’ almost-motherly lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39) — may still have “feeling” for the Jews that once constituted His people.  To be sure, He dealt first-hand with that people-group for a very long time, and those dealings are instructive and revealing.

To have one’s memory refreshed about the nature of God can be wonderfully enriching.  There remains the question of the present, though.  I cannot believe that God wants anyone to live now under a covenant/legal system that John and Saul-Paul and others worked so hard to controvert.

Aside:  I read a bit last month about the origins of the Seventh-day Adventists.  There was a connection, way back in the middle 1800s, with the Baptist and Church of Christ groups.  Suffice it to say that, after coming to know just a few particulars about William Miller, Ellen G. White, and Millerism, and Post-Disappointment Millerism, I find no reason to read any more about this sadly ill-informed cult.  (I do not know whether the Seventh Day Baptists claim or have much tie with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.)

I’m currently digging in John and dealing with many textually significant questions.  It seems clear that, no matter whether one thinks this document was written a) only by John or b) by a community that surrounded the elderly apostle, the wonders and words and witnesses in John are, among other things, showing this:  that Jews may either reject or accept Jesus as “Messiah,” and their choice makes all the difference.  I see no way that a Bible-believing Christian can read NC scripture and come out with the view that Jews may be saved, post-Jesus of Galilee, by virtue of their Jewish heritage.

The scenario has been the same for 2,000 years.  One only needs to choose.

It’s either Moses or the Messiah.

It’s Islam or the Incarnate One.

It’s pandering to this life, or accepting the Lord Who became Lamb.

It’s one or the other.

What we do with Jesus makes the difference.  He was either false, or crazy, or exactly Who He said He was.  More memorably, quotably, and alliteratively:

He is either a liar, a lunatic, or truly Lord.

For more on the above informative, provocative, demanding “trilemma,” see this article, and note especially C.S. Lewis’s Formulation.

For more teaching on Old vs. New: