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. Janet Henriksen

    I am wary of searching for patterns, as it can lead to simplification and a narrow view (part of stereotyping). Firstly what is written is communication. If we, as part of understanding the message, see a pattern that helps us undertsand the message it is good. But I worry that seeking patterns for the sake of patterns may hinder us to see the message. If we look at a text and set aside preconceptions …

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Janet, I share you worry 🙂 which is why I am still a chaistic skeptic of sorts. I don’t search and some times don’t see chaisms where others do. However, there are times when even I can not deny it. See

      In this case I have to disagree. Because if the author used a particular pattern that was meant to be interpreted in particular way according to the canons of his time, that means that we should go back find out how it was interpret and attempt to interpret it accordingly too. I think it is true that the package is part of the message. How something comes across/packages is very important and we must now discount it.

  2. […] sections. Whatever the reason we give or allow for John’s omission it is to be likely found in his original design for this […]

  3. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    The everlasting dominion from Dan. 7,14 and Ps.2 is a part of the everlasting covenant of David ,
    The Tabernacle of David (Isaiah 16:5 ; Amos 9:11-13; Act.15:16-17) and the key of David (Isaiah 22:22; Rev. 3:7 ) are also. Isaiah 16:5 : ‘ a THRONE shall be ESTABISHED .. One shall sit upon it the tabernacle of David , judging ‘ Ez.37 , 24 My Servant David shall be King 25 and my servant David shall be their Prince forever 26 everlasting covenant 27 My tabernacle shall be with them..’ Isaiah 22:22’/ Rev. 3:7 THE KEY OF the house of David will lay upon his shoulders.. he shall open and no one shall shut, he shall shut and no one shall open’ John was merging Ps. 2:9 in Rev. 2,27; 12,5:19,5 ( a scepter –rod – iron). Dan.7,11 in Rev. 19:20;20;21, 8 (the fiery lake= second dead ) Isaiah 22,22 in Rev.3,7 (key of David). Personal I think John was merging Isaiah 22,22 in John 5:27-29 and Rev.20 ( (a) key of David … upon his shoulders ‘ – ‘given Him authority ‘ and (b) open and no shall shut , shall shut and no one shall open in ; Rev .20 shall have everlasting life or live in everlasting (second dead), together with Dan, 12,2. Personal I think also that Rev. 4 and other parts in Revelation are a description of the tabernacle of David who should be raised up as in the days of old (Amos 9:11-13). Eli, I want to ask you, can there be a connection in thinking between ‘the days of old ‘ and the word(s) , ‘in the beginning ,beresjiet, en arche’ ?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Charles this comment. A lot to think about. I am certainly open to the idea that John merged other scriptures into John 5.19-30. As far as your previous question about the Ancient of Days. I quate the following from the Harper’s Bible Dictionary. I think its right on target:

      Ancient of Days, an expression used three times (Dan. 7:9, 13, 22) to designate the divine judge in Daniel’s eschatological vision of the four beasts. The expression in Aramaic literally means ‘advanced in days’ but is not intended to suggest that God ages. Instead, it conveys the qualities of wisdom and venerability which one who is ‘advanced in days’ would possess. A parallel expression in the Ugaritic epic of Aqhat (3.6.48) describes the chief Canaanite god, El, as ‘the king, father of years.’ See also Apocalyptic Literature; Daniel, The Book of. (Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed.) (29). San Francisco: Harper & Row.)

      1. Drs, Charles van den Berg

        Thanks ! Again I learned a lot ! I know
        Harper’s Bible Dictionary is a work of great value. But it is very difficult obtainable in my country . And I also think online not available .Pity.

  4. Wesley "Dr Ley" Rose

    You have an uncanny ability to see down the long hallway of scriptural spirit and and the homogeneous message of salvation in Christ.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think you are right. I give thanks and praise to the One to whom I owe my allegiance. Thank you for your encouragement.

  5. Ramón Sánchez

    This is an excellent and vibrant area of study. thanks for opening this door.
    I don’t have a doubt that John is a carefully designed text aimed to teach, reject and reafirm. Elsewhere, I have learned that most original manuscripts were rolls of a definitive lenght, therefore, the writer must be careful to select whatever was going to be written for most probably the survival of a roll was as a unit, thus, if a missing part was in another roll probably it would likely be lost or considered apart of the lenthier one, thus not of equal importance. Then, the strategy of “composing” the text was as part of its writing as the writing as such.
    In this context, schiasm, and any other means of reinforcing a given textual rendition, was indeed carefully not only written, but placed within the roll in order for it to be maneuvered. A given number of rounds of the scroll was determined to be a sort of “key” to its finding and reading.
    When Jesus read in the sinagogue He knew what He wanted to read, thus, his maneuvering of the scroll was that of a learned and versed Jew. That’s why his status as teacher was recognized and disputed to be discredited but never denied.
    About the schiasm per se, I’ll return next.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Ramon, thank you for your comments. They are always I very helpful.

  6. Michelle

    Dr. Eli,

    Thank you for sharing the Old Testament prophecies that are the basis for Jesus’ words in John. And thank you so much for sharing Psalm 2 divided into the different speaking parts! Are most of the Psalms separated like that?

    When you said, “they failed to provide meaningful leadership for God’s people Israel,” you reminded me of Ezekiel 34.

    For someone who is a skeptic of chiasm, you certainly provided an excellent example. I join the others in saying, WOW.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think every psalm is different. You rightfully preempted my next section comment. I will indeed treat in the context of Ez. 34 :-).