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:
- Jesus is utterly dependent on his Father, which causes him to act only in accordance with the will of the Father (A1 and A2)
- 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)
- 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:
- Hearing and believing the words of the Royal Son (Jesus) saves from death and justifies in God’s court of law.
- 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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