My review of Chris Tilling’s monograph,, Paul’s Divine Christology is now published (in SCJ). If you click the SCJ link, you can gain (free) access to all of the book reviews in the current edition. There’s more than 60-pages worth, so you’ll certainly get your fill. Happy reading.
Tag Archives: bible
Recently I began going over my notes on NT Greek, mainly trying to decide on matters of content if I were to teach it. (Since I’ve never had to teach NT Greek, I figured it be best to know how I would if called on to do so). In the midst of this review, I (re)discovered one little anecdote that commonly appears in Greek textbooks: the “old” proposal that the NT was written in a special type of Greek for a specific purpose. As the late Rodney Decker says:
In the nineteenth century, it was frequently assumed that the Greek of the New Testament was not Classical Greek, but rather a special dialect of Greek created by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of accurately conveying divine revelation: “Holy Spirit Greek” as it was sometimes called.
–Koine Greek Reader (2007), 246.
Two things struck me about this claim (and others like it):
- The use of “frequently” to describe the assumption. Admittedly, I am neither a grammarian nor a student of the history of ancient languages–specifically NT Greek. I say that to say this: I’m open to correction for what I’m about to say. In all the searching/reading that I’ve done, I have not seen this assumption as widespread as the term, “frequently” suggests. However, I have frequently (almost routinely) seen the assumption that this assumption (or understanding) was widespread. But that’s a different discussion for another time.
- The use of “special dialect” to describe the nature of the language. This is important because it signals the crucial difference between a dialect and a language. For comparison, think: Eubonics vs. Klingon. One is an adaptation and form of an existing language, while the other is language sui generis. Thus, I appreciate Decker’s more tame (or even sober) description, in comparison to how others have portrayed things.¹ For example, Reggie Kidd describes the old view as: “many concluded that the New Testament was written in a secret, in-house ‘Holy Ghost Greek’ ” (With One Voice , 166). That’s simply taking things (and the evidence) a bit too far.
Almost without fail, the culprits involved in perpetrating this “Holy Spirit/Ghost Greek”–especially as an entirely new language–are identified as Hermann Cremer (1834-1903) and Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901). Occasionally, some (e.g. Decker) will briefly mention Richard Rothe (1799-1867) as the source or inspiration for Cremer’s ideas, with Thayer following suit. However, after I read Cremer’s argument in context, and his use of Rothe, I did not see him advocating a NT Greek language sui generis via the Holy Spirit. Here’s why:
Lexical works upon the New Testament Greek have hitherto lacked a thorough appreciation of what Schleiermacher calls “the language-moulding power of Christianity.” A language so highly elaborated and widely used as was Greek having been chosen as the organ of the Spirit of Christ, it necessarily followed that as Christianity fulfilled the aspirations of truth, the expressions of that language received a new meaning, and terms hackneyed and worn out by the current misuse of daily talk received a new impress and a fresh power. But as Christianity stands in express and obvious antithesis to the natural man (using this phrase in a spiritual sense), Greek, as the embodiment and reflection of man’s natural life in its richness and fulness, presents this contrast in the service of the sanctuary. This is a phenomenon which repeats itself in every sphere of life upon which Christianity enters, not, of course, always in the same way, but always with the same result–namely, that the spirit of the language expands, and makes itself adequate to the new views which the Spirit of Christ reveals. The speaker’s or writer’s range of view must change as the starting-point and goal of all his judgments change; and this change will not only modify the import and range of conceptions already existing, but will lead to the formation of new conceptions and relationships. In fact, “we may,” as Rothe says. . .”appropriately speak of a language of the Holy Ghost. For in the Bible it is evident that the Holy Spirit has been at work, moulding for itself a distinctly religious mode of expression out of the language of the country which it has chosen as its sphere, and transforming the linguistic elements which it found ready to hand, and even conceptions already existing, into a shape and form appropriate to itself and all its own.” We have a very clear and striking proof of this in New Testament Greek.
–H. Cremer, Lexicon of New Testament Greek (1892), vi.
The usual criticisms laid against Cremer’s statement are:
- he spoke way too soon and concluded too much, because
- later papyri discoveries (cf. Deissmann) revealed that the Greek of the NT was the everyday language of the Empire in and around the time of Jesus; thus “the Greek of the NT was not a language invented by the Holy Spirit (Hermann Cremer had called it ‘Holy Spirit Greek’)”², and
- his assumptions relied upon faulty views of inspiration–namely, the so-called “mechanical inspiration theory”, whereby not only the content of the NT but also its very language were given by the Holy Spirit³
My problem is that I do not see any of these criticisms as relevant or applicable to Cremer’s statement. He was not (as I read him) advocating a language sui generis, as the criticisms suggest; he was arguing primarily for the Holy Spirit’s role in using existing language and giving existing terms and concepts fresh meanings to be used by NT writers. Moreover, while I acknowledge the existence of a “mechanical inspiration theory”, I do not think we can see it as a presupposition to Cremer’s argument, mainly because he is not assuming (or even agreeing with) one of the necessary premises of that theory–i.e. the Holy Spirit invented that language.
All of that to say: if we’re going to mention the Holy Spirit Greek anecdote, let’s give Cremer (and possibly even Rothe) better credit.
¹ Nigel Turner is said to declare: “Bibl[ical] Greek is a unique language with a unity and character of its own” and that “We now have to concede that not only is the subject-matter of the Scriptures unique but so also is the language in which they came to be written or translated” (Syntax , 4, 9–quoted [and slightly adapted] from Wallace, Greek Grammar , 26). However, S. Porter suggests that Turner backed off a bit from this definitive position–i.e. that we’re dealing with a unique language. Turner’s slightly revised view, according to Porter, says the Greek of the NT is “distinguishable dialect of spoken and written Jewish Greek” (Grammatical Insights , 183–quoted from Porter, “Introduction” in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays , 29).
² D. Wallace, Greek Grammar (1996), 25.
³ cf. C.-W. Jong, The Original Language of Luke Infancy Narrative (2004), 8.
Let’s be honest: the book of Revelation (or, the Apocalypse) is a bit wild and even tantalizing, often resulting in confusion and debate. Unfortunately, these results persist due to the rather unhelpful (and other “un-” adjectives) interpretations of people like CI Scofield, Hal Lindsey, John Walvoord, and Harold Camping (just to name a few)–all of whom seem to find delight in debates, and who tend to read the text of Revelation through a predetermined (or pre-established) theological grid for the sake of maintaining that grid.
Fortunately, there are a handful of people who are committed to reading the text in a way that is sensitive to the history, culture, and theology of the time in which it appeared, with the hope of alleviating (some of) the confusion and debate, while allowing (most of) the wild and tantalizing bits to remain–primarily because they serve a purpose. Two of these people have written on the book of Revelation, and both now have lecture files available online for intellectual (and spiritual) consumption:
- The first is by M. Robert Mulholland. These are video files of his Seminary course at Asbury (KY).
- The second is by G.K. Beale. These are audio files of his lectures given at Lanesville Church (MA), back in the early-to-mid 90s, .
I cannot recommend either (or both) of these highly enough. While I have not listened to his lectures (yet), Beale’s work (especially his little pamphlet in the NIGTC series) was influential in my earlier studies and subsequent teaching of Revelation. I can only imagine that the lectures stress the needed balance between scholarship and pastoral concerns. And I can say that Mulholland’s lectures are worth every minute. He is engaging, insightful, knowledgeable, and deeply considerate of the needs of the students.
I need your help and would greatly value your input/insight. For the past two years (maybe more), I’ve been toying with the idea of writing commentaries on the NT–primarily, to begin with, the letters of Paul. I know: go figure. My plan is to start small(ish) and work my way toward the longer Pauline letters. I should say this plan also involves a consideration of the level of theological detail/content of the letters. In other words: I want to begin with letters that address only a small handful of topics and work my way through those where discussion is more involved. (NB: this is not to suggest that the ones with fewer topics are less important than the others). Accordingly, my tentative schedule is as follows:
- 1-2 Thessalonians
- Colossians and Philemon
- Pastorals (i.e. 1-2 Timothy, Titus)
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
However, when it comes to coverage and content, I’ve been rather stuck on what to include. There are loads of details that I find fascinating but would surely bore the socks off of just about everyone else. That is to say: I realize and accept that commentaries are not everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee) and that their often technical nature tends to be kryptonite for most would-be readers. Because of this, I thought it best to ask around and see what would be interesting or of value to readers. Hence, I need your help.
In the main, and if you are unfamiliar with commentaries, most writers will adhere to a general two-part format, which might include any number of sub-topics:
- Introductory matters
- Date and place of writing
- Occasion (i.e. why the letter was written)
- Major themes
- Structure (i.e. outline of the letter)
- Placement in the canon
- Detailed comments on the text/document
- Text-critical issues (i.e. dealing with variants in the Greek manuscripts)
- Analysis of key words, phrases, clauses, sentences–usually referring to the Greek
- Connections with (similar) NT ideas/themes/teachings
- Relevance for the church–whether past, present, and/or future
Riveting stuff, I know. By and large, this format and many of its features, specifically their content, reflect the ongoing dialogue between scholars in the field, with the hope that non-specialist wanderers will find it interesting or even informative. Moreover, the kinds of topics discussed–and the level at which they are discussed–are often determined by the aims or purpose of a given commentary series.
For example: the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series is geared more for academics while the Interpretation (Int) series is orientated more for pastors and church-goers. (NB: this is not to suggest that the Interpretation series is not academically minded; all of the contributors in this series are experts in their respective fields). For comparison, with regard to the letter to the Galatians: the ICC¹ expends 65 pages on introductory matters, while the Int² covers just shy of 11 pages. And in terms of total coverage, the Int falls short of 160 pages (excluding bibliography) and the ICC swells to just over 500 pages (excluding bibliography and indexes).
So, to come back round to my request for assistance: what kinds of things, or level of details, would you like to see in a NT commentary? What interests you? What bores you tears? What would be something that would enhance your reading and/or understanding of a NT text? What questions would you like answered–or at least addressed? What about style and/or format? I’m looking for insight from anyone who is willing to offer it, no matter if you are an expert in NT scholarship or if you have a scintilla of understanding about Christianity or somewhere in between. I would love to hear from you so that I can write for you.
¹ This refers to E. de Witt Burton’s 1920 commentary in the ICC series.
² This refers to C. Cousar’s 1982 commentary in the Int series.
Monday, 06-Jan-2014 marked the beginning of my first (official) online course that I’m teaching for Johnson University. The course is a 7-week intensive study of 1 Corinthians for the MA in Intercultural Studies program. To be fair, the course is really a 5-week intensive on 1 Corinthians, seeing that week 1 deals with introductory matters and week 7 is missions orientated–in view of what we learn from 1 Corinthians, of course.
While preparing for/writing the course, I had the opportunity to revisit the text in a rather detailed manner–something that I have not done since the middle of October. (I took a break from 1 Corinthians because I needed to, seeing that I spent nearly 5 years exegeting the thing). In this revisiting, I was also able to look at a few things more closely–things that I could only consider briefly when doing my PhD. One of these bits was the Thanksgiving portion of the letter (i.e. 1 Cor 1.4-9), which contains a number of salient details relevant to what Paul argues in the letter.
In my preparations for this course, I wanted to interact with English translation and consider how they deal with certain portions of the text. When I did this with the Thanksgiving section, something struck me as rather surprising. The specific passage in mind is 1 Cor 1.4-5, which I translate as: “I always give thanks to my God concerning you for the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus, since in all things you were made rich in him [Jesus]–in all speech and all knowledge” (εὐχαριτω τω θεω μου παντοτε περι ὑμων ἐπι τη χαριτι του θεου τη δοθειση ὑμιν ἐν Χριστω ͗Ιησου, ὁτι ἐν παντι ἐπλουτισθητε ἐν αὐτω, ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει).
By and large, the majority of English translation agree on the big ticket items in this passage: God is always the recipient of Paul’s thanksgiving, the Corinthians are always the indirect object, God’s grace is always the “thing” given to the Corinthians, Christ Jesus is always the agent through whom God’s grace comes, the Corinthians are always rich in/because of Christ, and there is always something about “speech” and “knowledge.” Admittedly, some will add a flourish here and there, ostensibly to make the text “come alive” to its readers, and these flourishes range between “Hey, that’s quite good” (e.g. “Every time I think of you–and I think of you often!–I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus” [MSG]) and “Okay . . . I think I see what you’re doing” (e.g. “I never stop thanking my God for being kind enough to give you Christ Jesus” [CEV]).
Moreover, especially when comparing translations on the final clause (i.e. “in all speech and all knowledge”), there are a few that offer what look to be explanatory interpretations of what (they think) Paul is saying. For example, while the Greek simply says, “in all speech and all knowledge”, others will suggest further details:
- Amplified Bible: “in full power and readiness of speech (to speak your faith) and complete knowledge and illumination (to give you full insight into its meaning)”
- Complete Jewish Bible: “particularly in power of speech and depth of knowledge”
- Darby’s Translation: “in all word (of doctrine), and all knowledge”
- Living Bible: “He has helped you speak out for him and has given you a fill understanding of truth”
- New Living Translation: “with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge”
All of these kinds of flourishes and explanatory interpretations could be seen as exercising artistic or literary license, which is sometimes needed when doing translation. However, in one translation it appears as though the excitement of receiving their literary license caused the translators to forget everything else. The translation in question? The New International Reader’s Version (or NIrV)–published by the same people who did the NIV (and tried to corner the market with multiple types of it) and the late TNIV. The over-exuberant reading? Here you go (with reference to the Greek for comparison):
- Greek: ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει (“in all speech and all knowledge”)
- NIrV: “All your teaching of the truth is better. Your understand of it is more complete”
Excuse me?! How the . . . Have you read 1 Corinthians!? Did you happen to pick up a commentary on 1 Corinthians or even a scholarly article and, I don’t know, see what scholars have to say?! “Better” and “more complete” than what–a rock? Two minutes more reading of the letter will demonstrate that the Corinthians’ teaching and understanding are precisely what Paul addresses. And it’s clear that he ain’t happy with either (or both). “All your teaching of the truth is better. Your understanding of it is more complete.” Give me a break. You should have your license revoked, or at least suspended.
 I happen to like this one, mainly because I think it brings out Paul’s sarcasm, which obviously appeals to mine.
 Although, you can still access this version online.
On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.
In the first instance, I heard a pastor use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment. In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.
In the second instance, I read a scholar who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.
With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.
I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians, specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”
Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.
Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).
With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).
However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.
My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it. Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.
 This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
 For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
 Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
 In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
 At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.
This is something I wrote for my brother early last year. It’s a brief(ish) exposition on John 3.16–the favorite verse placarded at football games. This exposition was mostly me thinking out loud. I’m completely open to further insights and/or criticisms.
1. Historical Setting
The meeting with Nicodemus takes place early in Jesus’ public ministry. To summarize: in Galilee, Jesus calls a small handful of disciples; with his disciples and mother, Jesus attends a wedding-feast in Cana (of Galilee), at which point he performs his first miracle—although the source or cause of the miracle is known only by the disciples; he then makes a short stay in Capernaum (15 miles east of Cana) before traveling roughly 80 miles south to Jerusalem, in order to attend the Passover. However, instead of celebrating Jesus is enraged by what is being done in the Temple, and his actions bring him into immediate conflict with the religious elite.
It is on the heels of this conflict that the meeting with Nicodemus occurs. Since 2.23 says Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover, and since 3.22 says Jesus and his disciples traveled into the region of Judea, and since the encounter with Nicodemus falls between these passages; it is safe to assume that the conversation takes place while Jesus is still in Jerusalem. Whether or not the conversation occurred specifically in the Temple proper, we cannot be absolutely sure; it seems reasonable enough to assume that it happened somewhere within the Temple complex.
With regard to the meeting itself, two points should be noted. First, Nicodemus comes with an awareness of the “signs” (or miracles) that Jesus performed in the Temple (see 2.23). We can assume either that news about the “signs” quickly spread to Nicodemus or that he himself witnessed the “signs.” Second, Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, most likely in an attempt to safeguard himself from the Jews, those angered by Jesus’ previous statements (see 2.18-20; cf. 19.38). Although it is entirely possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because it would ensure an “uninterrupted conversation” (Beasley-Murray 1987: 47). Both of these points (i.e. “signs” and night-visit) will be crucial when we come to the question of theological themes.
2. Literary Relationship
John 3.1-21 is both preceded and followed by a discussion of Jesus’ identity, a discussion that pervades the entire Gospel narrative and one that has a specific goal (see 20.30-31). At the start of chapter 1, we read a theological summary of Jesus’ true identity, one that remains virtually unknown to many throughout the narrative. (Only the readers of the Gospel have knowledge of Jesus’ true identity). Following this we read various testimonies about Jesus, although they tend to be quite vague and even cryptic. Moreover, it becomes apparent in these instances that those testifying about Jesus are unaware of the full implications of what they are saying.
In chapter 2, we find illustrations of Jesus’ identity revealing itself in what he is able to do—e.g. water into wine, prophesying, performing signs and wonders. It is here that we find evidence of the disciples (and others witnessing the words and deeds of Jesus) as not fully aware of Jesus’ true identity; they simply marvel at what he does. In one text, John provides a parenthetical statement about the disciples’ later understanding of the events they witness now—see e.g. 2.20-22 (cf. 12.16). Then, following the dialogue with Nicodemus, we have John the Baptizer’s testimony about Jesus’ identity, although once again we are confronted with vague and cryptic remarks (see 3.22-36). However, despite the vagueness, these testimonies function as clues for understanding Jesus’ identity as the Gospel unfolds.
Between the descriptions of what Jesus is able to do and who he is, there is a discussion of why Jesus came. This specific discussion is the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, where the conversation begins with a question of identity but quickly moves to the topic of purpose. To say this differently: we see how Jesus’ identity is necessarily connected with his role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan that remains hidden but is being revealed in and through Jesus. Absolutely central to this conversation is the dilemma of how one is able to know Jesus’ true identity and purpose, and it is here we find a necessary distinction between ways of knowing.
3. Logical Structure
Based on the content and flow of the passage, John 3.1-21 divides fairly evenly. In the first half (3.1-11) we have Nicodemus (and ostensibly a select group of Jews—many of the pronouns in this section are plural) expressing a particular view of who Jesus is. It becomes obvious that this view is inadequate or even faulty, and the failure stems from an improper way of understanding or interpreting reality. In the second half (3.12-21) we have Jesus (and ostensibly his disciples—cf. 3.11 and Jesus’ use of “we”) expressing an alternate view, one that is perfectly adequate or reasonable—and not simply because Jesus is the one giving it. It is adequate or reasonable because it is consistent with the proper way of understanding or interpreting reality, and in this case that proper way is shaped by God’s revealed wisdom.
4. Theological Themes
In terms of order, the first theme to recognize is the tension between darkness and light. As noted earlier, Nicodemus “came to him [Jesus] at night” (3.2). While it might be historically the case, John’s interest in the time of the encounter is more theological. John has already used “darkness” as a description for the state of the world at the time of Christ’s incarnation, which he further describes as “light” coming into the world (see 1.4-5, 9-10). Moreover, the “darkness” is portrayed as unable to know (or comprehend) the “light,” and as a result the “darkness” rejects the “light.” The sting of 3.11 is that while Nicodemus and some of the Jews are sympathetic to Jesus because of his deeds (cf. 2.23; 3.2b), they remain opposed to him because they reject his testimony concerning who he is (see Lincoln 2005: 152). This introduces the second theme.
John 2 ends with Jesus not trusting those who only came to him because of the “signs” he performed (see Haenchen 1984: 1.192), a theme that reappears in the Gospel (e.g. 4.46-48; 6.14-15, 25-27). In short: faith dependent upon “signs” (or miracles) is neither a stable nor adequate faith (see Bultmann 1971: 131). Moreover, such faith operates according to a particular way of understanding or interpreting reality—especially the things of God—and this way is insufficient. However, it is this faith (or belief) and this particular way of understanding that stand behind Nicodemus’ question and dialogue with Jesus. Nicodemus understands only on a superficial (tangible?) level, which therefore hinders his ability to understand Jesus’ (hidden) meaning. For Jesus, true belief (or true faith) is about seeing beyond the “signs” and coming into the presence of the one who has the power and authority to perform them (see 6.32-40, 51-58).
This (in)ability to see beyond the superficial represents the third theme: the tension between ignorance and knowledge. Jesus’ refusal to trust those only seeking “signs” is said to be rooted in his knowledge of “what was in man” (2.25), which suggests a knowledge of identity and purpose, whereas Nicodemus’ failure to understand Jesus’ teaching is rooted in an improper way of knowing. In other words: Nicodemus is ignorant of God’s revelation in Jesus whereas Jesus has full knowledge of God’s wisdom. To put it yet another way: Nicodemus attempts to know God’s wisdom via human efforts or reasoning (bottom-up), while Jesus says such wisdom can only be known by God’s revelation (top-down). Thus, only by a transformation of mind can one know God’s wisdom and thereby his salvation, which results in entering the kingdom (see 3.3, 5; cf. 3.13; Rom 12.1-2; 1 Cor 2.10-12). Hence, one must be “born from above” (3.3).
Closely associated with this is the last theme: the tension between death and (eternal) life. Throughout the conversation the emphasis falls on (eternal) life, with death being primarily an implication (cf. 3.16, which contains the only [direct] reference to death in the entire passage). It is worth noting that the discussion on (eternal) life occurs in the context of God’s kingdom, God’s revelation, God’s salvation in Jesus, and the appropriate way for understanding all of these things. Moreover, it is no mistake that only here in John’s Gospel is (eternal) life necessarily linked with Jesus’ identity and purpose (see Brown 1971: 1.147; Ridderbos 1997: 136-39) and true belief in Jesus’ identity and purpose as the only way to (eternal) life (cf. Acts 4.12). We see this in 3.14b where Jesus affirms: “it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up”, with the reason for the necessity given in 3.15: “so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.” Thus, the possibility of (eternal) life is dependent upon Christ being “lifted up” (i.e. crucified) and participation in that (eternal) life is dependent upon belief in both the purpose and work of Christ.