Chiasm in John 15, Part I

In a previous post, I showed that poetry is utilized in unsuspecting Biblical texts. John 5:16-18 served as an example of the A-B-A form typical of Hebrew parallelism.  That was followed by a lengthier post, which dissected the parallel structure in John 5:24-30.  Both passages have the potential to focus our powers of observation, that we might recognize what is at the center of God’s truth, and to expand our sense of wonder.

I have come to learn that the vocabulary term for this poetic device is “chiasm.” In a chiasm, certain phrases or ideas are mirrored around a central principle. Thus, the pattern might look like A B C D C B A.  In prose, the way most of us are accustomed to reading, we read the passage as a whole unit and concentrate on the progression of the argument from A to Z.  But if respect is paid to the poetic form, we would read the passage more slowly, focusing on each piece individually from A to … A!  Why?  Because the structure behind the words serves a unique purpose.  The chiasm draws special attention to what is at the center (the D section, for instance).  Like a flashlight in the dark, it focuses a spotlight on one particular object.  The objects surrounding the light are no less relevant – they are still present and contribute to the overall meaning – but a chiasm will emphasize what is truly at the heart of the message.

The gospel of John is riddled with these passages.  Chiasms can span across multiple chapters or several can be found within one chapter.  Again, their function is to keep us from losing sight of the most important part of Jesus’ message.

Here is my analysis of John 15.  In the spirit of humility, I will caution that I have no qualifications as a Bible commentator; I very well could draw conclusions that are not intended.  However, I hope my appeal to the literary form along with the comments that follow will serve you well in your own application of this passage.

First, let’s look at the common allegory of the vine and the branches.  This imagery continues throughout much of chapter 15, though verses 1-5 may be isolated with its own internal chiasm as the only lines whose language specifies “the vine.”

John 15:1-5 Sub Unit

What is in the middle and, therefore, most important?  The central relationship between persons.  Whether Jesus refers to his relationship with the Father or his relationship with us, the dynamics are the same.  We are “to abide” or, as modernized versions put it, “to remain” in him.

Another chiasm follows.  In verses 5-7, we find a series of “if, then” statements. These reveal the consequences of remaining, or not remaining, in Christ.

John 15:5b-7 Sub Unit

Perhaps a chiastic structure is not necessary here.  For us, we might do just as well to read it as a list of three mutually exclusive statements bearing either a promise or a condemnation.  We tend to think individualistically.  But for Jesus, thinking of a broader populace, his priority is for men to have a right relationship. In fact, other statements he makes in the surrounding context are consistent with this primary concern (e.g. John 17:20-21).

Drawing this section to a close, a third chiasm may be found in John 15:8-11.

John 15:7-11 SubUnit

By fitting these words to a chiastic structure, it definitely breaks the paragraph form of our traditional prose.  This is an example of where I can foresee trained scholars isolating and studying a different portion of the text.  Nevertheless, the central principle reinforces what we have seen already: we are to abide in him. Furthermore, we see the effects of remaining in Jesus restated.  God reaps the glory that He is due and we receive an incomparable joy.

Much more to point out in the structure of John 15, but I will save that for my next post.  I think that is a good word to end on.  Let our lives bear fruit, or produce an out-flowing of good works, a manifestation of our gratitude towards a loving God.  Above all, let us be satisfied in Christ and rest in the joy he blesses us with.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Chiasm in John 15, Part II | The Workshop of Worship
  2. Trackback: Chiasm in John 15, Part III | The Workshop of Worship

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