Monday, May 13, 2019

Commanding Love

Commanding Love
Below is a rough translation of John 13:31-35, along with some initial comments. This is a very brief pericope, selected for the lection – one would think – because of “new commandment” to love. However, the context is very important. Just before this pericope is the whole exchange between Jesus and Judas, when the two of them are the only ones who know that Judas’ betrayal is at hand. Following this text is when Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times. The astounding fact is that the whole language of loving one another as disciples is wedged between these two encounters of betrayal and denial. Lifting vv. 31-35 out of the context of betrayal and denial seems to make it just a morality piece, an injunction to love with sweet feelings and kind sentiments. Keeping these verses in this context makes it a call to a radical kind of love.

John includes a lot of time-laden words in these few verses: ‘When’, ‘now’, ‘immediately’, ‘yet’, and a second word meaning ‘now.’  Add to those words the various tenses of the verbs and there seems to be more than one layer of meaning in play – an intimate conversation between Jesus and the disciples and a sermon from John to his reading community.

Several other key words are important. “Glory” appears repeatedly in vv.31-32, and it seems to reference Jesus’ death. “Love” is repeated in vv.34-35. And v.33 makes reference to Jesus “going away” where neither the Judeans nor the disciples are able to go. That is a theme that arose in c.8 and will be an important part of the verses that immediately follow our pericope.

31 Οτε οὖν ἐξῆλθεν λέγει Ἰησοῦς, Νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ: 
Therefore when he left Jesus says, “Now the son of man was glorified, and God was glorified in him.
ἐξῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐδοξάσθη (2x) API: δοξάζω, 1) to think, suppose, be of opinion  2) to praise, extol, magnify, celebrate 
1. This story begins after Judas has left the room to go and arrange Jesus’s arrest. Judas is the antecedent to the ‘he’ in the first clause.
2. This is a curious verse to translate. The verb λέγει is a present tense, but it is modified by the original clause ‘Therefore, when [Judas] left ...’ giving it a past tense feel. The verbs ἐδοξάσθη are aorist passives, but they are modified by the word “Now,” giving them a present tense feel. Hence, most translations make the present tense past and the past tenses present.
3. I am retaining the literal tense, because this is a rough translation. I would agree with other translations and modify them during the refining process.
4. The word δοξά, which is at the heart of the verb ἐδοξάσθη, has a very interesting history. It means “opinion” or “thought,” or “appearance.” The latter is where we get the word ‘paradox,’ meaning ‘against the appearance.’ But, it can also mean “glory.” The verb here, δοξάζω, is almost exclusively translated as “glorify” in the gospels. It’s kind of fun, but hard to work out, to substitute – for example – “appearance” and “to appear” for “glory” and “to glorify” in this pericope. Hmm...

32 [εἰ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ] καὶ ὁ θεὸς δοξάσει αὐτὸν ἐν αὐτῷ, καὶ εὐθὺς δοξάσει αὐτόν. 
[If God has been glorified in him] God also will glorify him in him, and immediately he will glorify him.
ἐδοξάσθη: API 3s, δοξάζω, 1) to think, suppose, be of opinion  2) to praise, extol, magnify, celebrate 
δοξάσει (2x): FAI 3s, δοξάζω, 1) to think, suppose, be of opinion  2) to praise, extol, magnify, celebrate 
1. The first clause is not found in many of the earlier Greek manuscripts.
2. “God will glorify him in him” is very awkward, but the awkwardness is in the Greek text itself. Most translations make it “God will glorify him in himself,” treating the dative pronoun αὐτῷ as if it were a reflexive pronoun. Another possibility would be to read the accusative pronoun αὐτὸν as the reflexive pronoun: “God will also glorify himself in him.”
3. When a sentence has two masculine singular antecedents [God and Son of Man] then uses the pronoun “him” four times, the translator/interpreter has to decide which of the antecedents in indicated by the pronouns. 
4. The role of the word “immediately” and the future tense that follows seem to be referring to the crisis at hand, with Judas going to seal the deal of betrayal. Being “glorified”, then, refers to the soon-to-take-place betrayal and death.
5. What if we all looked at our impending death – whether by violent means or simply by nature of being finite – as our impending glorification? Would there be any fear left?

33 τεκνία, ἔτι μικρὸν μεθ' ὑμῶν εἰμιζητήσετέ με, καὶ καθὼς εἶπον τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ὅτι Οπου ἐγὼ ὑπάγω ὑμεῖς οὐ δύνασθε ἐλθεῖν, καὶ ὑμῖν λέγω ἄρτι. 
Children, yet a little I am with you; You will seek me, and just as I said to the Judeans, ‘Where I am going you are not able to go,” so I say to you now.
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ζητήσετέ: FAI 2p, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find
εἶπον: AAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ὑπάγω: PAI 1s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart 
δύνασθε: PMI 2p, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable  circumstances, or by permission of law or custom  
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. The adjective “little” (μικρὸν, with no article, hence “a little”) has no noun that it is modifying. Many translations insert time-related word like “a little while.”
2. ἄρτι is another temporal term, meaning ‘now’ but different from Νῦν in v.31.
3. I continue to follow Richard Horsley’s lead (although he was referring to Mark) that Ἰουδαίοις is better translated as “Judeans” than “Jews.”
4. In Jn.8:21 Jesus says (to either the Pharisees [8:13] or the Judeans more generally [8:22]): ‘I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ Jesus will press this matter further in the verses just following our pericope.
5. This assertion seems different from either “take up your cross and follow me” or “this day will you be with me in Paradise.”
6. If I am reading correctly, this is the only use of τεκνία in the gospels. Why suddenly “little children”?

34 ἐντολὴν καινὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους: καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους. 
A new command I am giving to you, in order that you may love one another; just as I loved you in order that you may love one another.
δίδωμι: PAI 1s, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
ἀγαπᾶτε (2x): PASubj 2p, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly
ἠγάπησα: AAI 1s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly  
1. I would suggest that the two uses of ἵνα gives this sentence a parallel structure between the first and second halves, as I have tried to indicate through the colors of my translation. The new command which Jesus gives and the love with which Jesus has loved the disciples are the parallels, set off by the phrase “just as,” each of which lead to the disciples’ love for one another.
2. The problem with this parallel structure is that “I give” is in the present and “loved” is in the past. I wonder, however, if the reason for the difference is that the person-to-person love that the disciples received from Jesus was confined to Jesus’ time among them bodily; while the command is ongoing call for John’s community.
3. Most translations, interpret the first ἵνα differently from the second one. The NRSV, for example, turns the second ἵνα into “should” and makes the second half of this sentence an elaboration of the first. The NIV makes the first ἵνα the beginning of a quote of the command itself. I certainly don’t know which of the possible translations of ἵνα is best, but it does seem to me that a sentence written so clearly as a parallel in Greek ought to reflect that parallel in English. So, whichever translation of ἵνα is best, I think it should at least be consistent in this sentence.
4. The challenge of translating the ἵνα in this text is similar to the challenge of translating it in John 15:9-17. (If interested, see comments that I made on that text at
The word ἵνα can be translated “that” or “in order that.”  If we translate ἵνα as “that” (like the KJV, ESV, NRSV), this verse reads as if “Love one another” is the new command itself. This is, of course, a very popular way of reading this text (and John 15).
But, if we translate it as “in order that,” something different appears. Instead of the ἵνα introducing the command, it shows the purpose of the command. That is to say, “Love one another” is not the command itself, but the command is given in order that the disciples would love one another. The question, then, would be: What is the new command (for which loving one another is the result)?
I would suggest that the whole demonstration of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is the command, per verses 15-17: “I have set you an example (or pattern), that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

35 ἐν τούτῳ γνώσονται πάντες ὅτι ἐμοὶ μαθηταί ἐστε, ἐὰν ἀγάπην ἔχητε ἐν ἀλλήλοις. 
In this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love in one another.”
γνώσονται: FMI 3p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
ἐστε: PAI 2p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἔχητε: PASubj 2p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold


  1. Mark,
    As you know, I no longer preach, but I am curious why you went with "command" for canon in v. 34? What if Jesus was using the idea of loving each other much as we use the idea of scripture as a canon? That is, there is much more to our discipleship than loving each; however, loving each other becomes the "rod" (canon) by which all our relationships are measured? Just wondering. Thanks for writing brother.

  2. Hi Scott,
    I've never seen ἐντολὴν translated as 'canon.' I welcome a word that takes it out of a strictly legalistic tone, since the OT understanding of 'law' was not as authoritarian as we often think of them. It's hard to imagine the psalmist saying "How I love your law," if it were this kind of imposed demand that intends to make us miserable - as many Christians seem to speak of the OT law.
    So, something more promising than "command" would be helpful. I'm not sure if 'canon'e communicates outside of our guild very well.
    What about 'goal,' 'aspiration,' 'standard,' or something like that? Would that sound like we'er watering the word down, or would it capture the non-offensiveness of the OT approach to the commands?

  3. I thought about reflecting on Tillich's words regarding the paradox of commanding someone to love - both here and in the Shema and in the Great Command. We think of 'love' as a feeling that strictly comes from within and 'command' as an order that strictly comes from without. Tillich reads the commands to love as 'theonomy,' where the command of God correlates with our innermost longings or interior sense of what is right.

  4. I've come to see the 'commands' as articulations of "best practices" for making sustainable community with God and others. In my mind, God's law is not something you follow because it is a law, but something that God makes a law because it is beneficial for life and community. Likewise, I'm seeing 'sins' not as breaking laws that God put on the books, but acting in ways that are destructive to life and community.
    I also think we are not always terribly attuned to what we want or need. Loving our enemy doesn't seem to be what we want or need, but living in a world where the cycle of hate and mistrust can only be broken by someone who is willing to be vulnerable and take a chance on loving another is what the law is about. We want a world where love wins, even if we don't realize that loving enemies is the only way to get there. Hence a law that seems onerous and heteronomous, but is actually theonomous a la Tillich.

  5. You re getting to the issue as I see it these days. Command is--in my world--what hierarchies use to get things done. So, a sargent commands soldiers, a hunter commands dogs, and there are external, as you note...but command is a "power" word. Tillich's theonomy understands that a bit, but it's the power (and threat of judgement) that seems undergird the use of the word. In that way, the command to love carries with it the very overtones of hierarchy and power that most of my other work finds suspect. I wonder how the cross fits into this?
    If the cross is somehow tied up into the desire to love? Thanks for thinking this through with me.

  6. Borg and Crossan situate Jesus in opposition to the imperial (Roman) and collaborative (religious hierarchy) domination systems... which allows the "new command" to rest against either civil law stipulating worship of the state/emperor or the kind of legalism that you allude to, Mark.

  7. Thanks for your take on v. 34. There is punctuation that breaks the line just as you take it. It's also in the SBL version of the Greek. My mind is dancing on the edge of a thought--

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. It's fun to watch your mind dance.

  8. I am one of six preachers in our small (60) Episcopal mission that follows what we call Total Ministry. Three of us are lay, and I am particulary unschooled, so every time I am humbled and daunted by my task. Certainly my sermons are guided by the Holy Spirit but I never feel that is enough. Leaning on your commentary (among others) gives me a breadth that would otherwise be lacking. I assemble a bunch of commentaries, save them for reflection, and then the Holy Spirit inspires me and sends me on my way. I am so grateful for your sharing of your knowledge, giving me the best possible context to elevate the faith of my congregation. Most of my sermons would not be much poorer without your help. I am now working on my 113th sermon and you have helped to guide me on most of them. When I do use your commentary directly I always credit you. I know our other preachers also benefit from your kind words.
    I am ashamed that I haven't thanked you before, and do realize that there are probably many more like me who do not respond with comments but are indebted nonetheless. Thank you again 113 times!
    Bill Bruneau, Saint Francis in the Redwoods Episcopal Church, Willits CA

    1. I, too, am priest at a tiny Episcopal church in Montana. Our town is 600-ish. I have reaped so much wisdom from this site, and from the comments section! And I send my thanks.

    2. Hi Bill and Ubicari, I am humbled by your words and grateful to be part of your journey with you. Thank you for your service to God's community throughout our world. The enormity of our brokenness seems only matched by the above-and-beyond enormity of God's love. Thank you for lifting that up to others.


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