How To Interpret This Chiasm? (john 5.19-30)

Interpreting Chiasm

Last time we talked about an ancient literary device that we call today – chiasm. Before you read this section, make sure to review the prior (Click here to do so – Was the Gospel of John “simply” written or carefully designed?).

The earlier post showed how John 5.19-30 can be seen as chiastic structure; carefully designed by its original author. This week we are going to see how knowing this is a chiasm can help us better interpret the original authors intention.

As we saw before, this chiasm contains four basic concepts that are first stated as A, B, C and D and then restated slightly differently but in reverse order as  D, C, B, A.

Because of the chiastic structure, we can easily see that John 5.19-30 is a clear literary unit. While it still should be read in the context of what preceded and what followed it, it must be primarily viewed as a text that is meant to be read and studied as a unit.

Another extremely important function of the chiasm is to point the reader/hearer to the key concept within the literary unit. While everything in John 5.19-30 can be said to be important, within the unit there is a section that is highlighted as being of greater importance. Which verse or verses are the most important? Simply put it is the center verse/s, the point at which the forward movement stops and then begins to move in a backward direction. In terms of content, that formation (in this case D1 and D2) is emphasized as the crucial point of the entire literary unit.

Through his brilliant literary creation, the author of this Gospel first states and then restates in reverse order essentially the following three ideas:

  1. Jesus is utterly dependent on his Father, which causes him to act only in accordance with the will of the Father (A1 and A2)
  2. The Father and the Son in equal measure give life to the dead. Because of the arrival of the Son, the hour of resurrection for wicked and righteous draws near (B1 and B2)
  3. The Father has fully commissioned the Son to rule/judge in his place (C1 and C2)

At that point, the author makes us aware of the reverse point, by showing the emphasis he meant to give this literary unit. We read in John 5.24-25:

D1 24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

D2 25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live.

In this text the emphasis should be summarized as follows:

  1. Hearing and believing the words of the Royal Son (Jesus) saves from death and justifies in God’s court of law. 
  2. Israel’s God will show His covenant power by enabling the dead to hear and therefore believe the words of His Royal Son (D1 and D2).


Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Foundation of the Chiasm

As we look into the Old Testament background of the theological statements clearly presented and highlighted in John 5.19-30, we are of course drawn to several key passages from the prophets. The prophetic words of Daniel in 12.2-3 and his earlier vision in 7:13-14 are evoked and play a major role in this text.

Dan. 12.2 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Dan. 7:13-14 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

After reading both texts from Daniel, we see:

1) By the time of the writing of Daniel, there was already a clear prophetic hope and expectation concerning resurrection from the dead. (A section of this text also reminds us of a depiction of Israel’s return from exile back to the Lord her God and to the Land of Israel promised to her for everlasting possession (Ezekiel 37.1-14), and is a powerful image of the massive/collective resurrection from the dead.)

2) Daniel’s vision spoke of someone to whom Israel’s god (the Ancient of Days) would give his own dominion, glory and kingdom’ authority.  The ascending figure of the son of man, commissioned in Daniel 7:14 to rule the world on behalf of Israel’s deity, is fulfilled at the time of Jesus’ ascension to the heavenly throne (Luke 24.50-52).

In John 5.19-30 the texts cited from Daniel are then merged with the idea of the Royal Son of God from Psalm 2. (See also the What does it mean to be God’s Son in the Old Testament, Logos Theology in pre-Christian Jewish Tradition and ReReading John 3.16). We read in Psalm 2 the words that were once likely sang in Jerusalem Temple in separate voices as its choir of priests performed before Israel’s God:

Narrator: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

The Nations: “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

Narrator: He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

Israel’s God: “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

King of Israel: I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Narrator: Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

From this we can clearly see the ideas present in John 5.19-30 are the composite of the collected ideas gathered and merged into one. Together they find in this brilliant Johanine Chiasm a new, more systematized emphasis. Jesus is the real authority, not hoi Ioudaioi; they failed to provide meaningful leadership for God’s people Israel. Jesus has come to take charge.

Stay tuned to news from this study group (make sure to sign up for updates if you don’t already receive them). There will be much more outside-of-the-box-but-still-solidly-scriptural-thinking to consider in future posts as we continue to travel with Jesus through his ancient world.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    To be clear . When is it Chiasm or when is it not?
    Chiasm is a reversed parallelism, but not every parallelism is a chiasm.
    Besides the chiastic structure the Bible is full of other types of parallelism.
    For example: A-B-B-A , A-B-C-B-A structure is chiasm.
    A-B-A-B , A-A-B-B, A-B-C-A-B-C is a parallelism, but not a chiasm.
    There is the about-turn , but not a real turning point, not a real centrum .
    And that’s always the case when you have to do with a chiasm.

  2. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    In question was: can there be chaism Synthetic parallelism (additional).
    I think it is also a fact , at least in a part:
    A1 What the SON SEES
    A2 What the SON HEARS
    How wonderful fits it in the great concept what’s showing to us in the Gospel of John;
    ‘No man has ever seen God , the only begotten SON , Who is in the bosom of the FATHER, He has declared Him ‘ (John 1:18)( Who the SON SEES , SEES the FATHER 14:9) , His testimony is what He has seen and heard from the FATHER ( 3,32 – 5,19.30-8,38) The FATHER SEND the SON ( A1 vers 23 A2 vers 30) to JUDGE in the name and the authority and the power and in the place of the FATHER (A1 vers 22 A2 vers 30) , the LIGHT Who has come in the world to JUGDE between THE LIGHT and the DARKNESS ( 3:19) ,
    for the reason that THE BLIND will SEE and those who SEE will become BLIND (9:39),
    (because Jesus as the LIGHT in the world is THE WAY TO THE FATHER (14:9)
    , so that they KNOW AND SEES THE FATHER ( 14:7) . Special is , that it becomes revealed trough THE SPIRIT , Who , likes the SON , will not speak ON HIS OWN (CAN NOT TO WITHOUT HIM 16, 13-15 compare A1 A2 ).
    So I think this chiasm is an true interpretation because how it fits in the great message of John.

  3. Eric Luxton B.Th

    Well done .. indeed. Given that the Apostle was Jewish and being an octogenarian according to popular study at the time of writing the Gospel, thus placing its production well into the post temple – Roman dispersion times. Given also that the initial audience at the time of the production of the writing was also a Jewish – Christian ekklesia, thus your argument holds great weight.. well done (ps I am presently engaging in post grad studies) blessings

  4. Stephen Lockwood

    This now causes me to think more deeply on the meaning of these saying. As always, when you are given new ideas that help you understand more deeply, you need to back up and think things through. WOW!

  5. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    Below I repost my comment with a alternative chiastic structyre for John. 5.19-30,
    as you asked me:
    You give the chiasctic structure A B C DD C B A . However another one A B C B A seems also very strong and clear.

    A The Son can do nothing of Himself ( 19-23)
    (can do nothing without)
    B An hour is coming and now is , when the dead shall here the voice of the Son (24-25)
    (an hour is coming – the dead shall hear his voice)
    C And He (the Father) gave Him ( the Son) authority to execute judgment (26-27) – point of reverse
    B An hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice (28-29)
    (an hour is coming – the dead shall hear is voice )
    A I can do nothing on My own initiative (30)
    (can do nothing without)

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Charles, I asked you to post it here so that the group could see that reading chiasms is not easy and it has more then one interpretive angle. What I like about your breakdown vs. mine, is that it seem to fit with the big Gospel of John message (as I see it).

  6. Mahlon McLean

    This blows my mind. Several years ago I noticed this pattern in Scripture but never knew it had a name. I always related it to the menorah, the word being the light of the world just as the menorah was the light of the tabernacle. This is not the only chasm in John. He also recorded 8 miracles which follow the same pattern. The menorah connection here being that the Gospel of John is the only one that specifically mentions Channukah, the feast of dedication, during which the 8-branched menorah is used. His Word is awesome.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Can you unpack this a bit?

      1. Mahlon McLean

        It is a little difficult to describe in words but it becomes more apparent with a physical illustration. The pattern of the menorah connects the first lamp with the 7th, the second with the 6th, the third with the fifth, and the 4th as the center with all the others pointing towards it. Of course the Channukah Menorah has 8 candles representing the 8 days the oil lasted.

        Chiasms when laid out in linearly follow the same pattern, A1 B1 C1 D1 D2 C2 B2 A2. It is obvious that not all chiasms are of 7 or 8 branches but it is still the same pattern.

    2. Eric Luxton

      Hi Eli, I recommend this work for our study group. I found it very helpful. – Blessings

    3. Drs, Charles van den Berg

      Even though there is a wonderful pattern, but from my personal point of view, I don’t see here a chiasm.
      In this case, it must be A1 – B 1 – C 1 – D1 – D2 – C2 – B2 – A 2.
      I don’t see a real centrum, and a turning point (D1- D2) worked out in the part above and below of it.
      I don’ t sees the parallel between A 1 and A2, B1 and B2, C 1 and C2.
      However, when you still see a chiasm in the underlying text, can you unpack it?
      A1 ( 1. Jesus changed water into wine. Joh 2,1-11)
      B1 ( 2. Healing of the son of a Roman Joh. 4,46-54)
      C1 ( 3. Healing of a man who was ill Joh. 5,1-18 )
      D1 ( 4. Feeding of the five thousand Joh. 6,1-15)
      D2 ( 5. Jesus Christ is walking on the sea Joh. 6,16-21)
      C2 ( 6. Healing of the blind born Joh. 9 )
      B2 ( 7. Lazarus raised from the dead Joh. 11,1-44)
      A2 ( 8. Second wonderful fishing Joh. 21,1-14)

      1. Mahlon McLean

        A1 – Turning water into wine
        2:1 takes place in Galilee
        The third day
        Wine provided
        Jesus commanded “fill the water pots”
        Water pots filled to the last drop
        Take the wine

        A2- the draught of fish
        21:1-14 takes place in Galilee
        “the third time”
        A meal provided
        Jesus commanded “cast the net into the water”
        Nets full to the last fish
        Bring of the fish.

        B1 – Healing the nobleman’s son
        4:43-50 after two days
        His son is sick
        Parenthetical explanation of the place
        “At the point of death” only B1 and B2 mention death
        “You will not believe”
        The servants met him.
        “Thy son lives”

        B2 -Raising of Lazarus the sisters’ brother
        11:1-44 Jesus waited for 2 days.
        Lazarus was sick
        Parenthetical explanation of the person (Mary)
        Lazarus is dead (only here and B1)
        “That you may believe”
        Martha met Him
        “Lazarus, Come forth.”

        C1 – The impotent man 5:1-47
        Takes place in Jerusalem
        At the pool of Bethesda
        Longstanding condition – 38 years.
        Jesus saw him and took the initiative
        “The same day was the Sabbath.”
        “Afterward Jesus finds him.”
        Sin only mentioned in C1and C2.
        “My Father works hitherto and I work.”
        A double reference to Moses.

        C2 – The man born blind 9:1-41
        Takes place in Jerusalem
        At the pool of Siloam
        Longstanding condition blind since birth.
        Jesus saw and took the initiative.
        “It was the Sabbath day.”
        “And when He had found him”
        Sin mentioned only here and C1.
        “I must work the works of Him that sent me.”
        A double reference to Moses.

        D1- The feeding of the 5000 6:1-14
        The only miracles with D2 recorded in the other gospels
        “Jesus went up into the mountain”
        “Many disciples went back”
        Followed by a discourse.

        D2 – Jesus walked on the sea 6:15-21
        Only signs with D1 recorded in other gospels.
        “Jesus departed again into a mountain”
        “Many of the people believed.”
        Followed by a discourse.

        Excerpted from Bullinger, E.W., The Companion Bible, Appendix 176, p. 194.

        I hope this clarifies the parallelism regarding the 8 miracles recorded in John’s Gospel. The appendix from which the above is taken has a much more thorough and rigorous explanation but I think this shows that the signs recorded by John form a chiasm of their own.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Dear Mahlon, I have a rule not to approve comments that are that long, but in this case I would do it.  Perhaps, this is a good example of some of the reasons of why I am suspicious of chiastic interpretations. There are too many unproovables here for me to say: “yes!” But I could still be wrong? Naturally.

          1. Mahlon McLean

            I was concerned about the length of the comment but I could think of no other way to give a meaningful response. I appreciate your willingness to post it despite the length. Thank you.

            I can certainly understand your reluctance to endorse a chiastic interpretation based on this example. It is not the strongest but I think it is a valid example. Thank you again.

        2. Drs, Charles van den Berg

          Thank you Mahlon. I see the repetition of the words, but not the central theme in the center, what then becomes developed in the part above and below . So I am missing the elementair basis of a chiasm here. But I could be wrong.But their can be a synonym parallelism in it ?

  7. Ernie Carrasco

    Excellent study!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Ernie.

  8. Sonia Willats

    Thank you for firmly rooting this beautiful Messianic chiasm in the OLD TESTAMENT prophesies, so that he shines forth in all His glory as the crowned King of Israel, crowned not by a foreign nation, but by the G-d of Israel. Blessed be He!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Sonia, it is not that hard to do. That is the source. 🙂

  9. dr. james willingham

    I am somewhat acquainted with the literary device known as the Chiasm. It is interesting to reflect on the reality of the subtlety of Holy Scripture. Long ago I postulated that the Bible, being inspired by omniscience, should reflect such a depth of wisdom as would be commensurate with such a source of inspiration. Reasoning from that and looking for the intelligence that would indicate it, I found that the truths of Scripture are basically two sided and apparently contradictory, that they are designed to produce a tension in the mind of the believer, a desirable tension which will enable the believer to become balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic. In short, a seductive advertisement by God of His gospel as displayed in the life of one of His chosen people, a way of by-passing the defense mechanisms of sinners.

    I do think you have a missed a point and that is the voice of the Lord, i.e., His will expressed however is the means causing the hearing and believing, life before the response is obviously required by the facts of the case.

  10. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Agree? Disagree? Think there is yet another interpretive option? Share it with me (Dr. Eli) and the rest (near 1000 real people in this study group)! Be the first one to get this conversation going!