Chiasm in John 15, Part III

This entry will serve as the third and final in a series of posts concerning the structure and meaning of John 15.  Click here for Part I and Part II.  I have tried to break these up for brevity, and while all three observations contribute to the meaning of Jesus’ words, I would argue that this last one is the most important. Parts I and Part II identified chiasms on a microscopic level.  They dissected the passage’s sub units, whereas my final task is to take a step back and look at the whole chapter from a broader view.

Verse numbers and chapter breaks are sometimes obscure to my understanding – probably the product of some Englishman in the 16th century responsible for compiling the King James Bible.  That does not mean that the separations are meaningless, or that we should neglect their organization, but I don’t always agree with or follow these labels.  Therefore, I am looking at John 15:1 – 16:3 as one collective thought.  These verses might be grouped into three major units:

John 15 - 1st Major Unit

John 15 - 2nd Major Unit

John 15 - 3rd Major Unit

Maybe I should have started with these major units because they are the least complex.  It follows the simple A-B-A form and so the chiasm pattern is readily seen.  The central, arguably most important message in this dialogue, is the command to love one another.  (Part II analyzed what that looks like as God modeled perfect love for us first.)  The end caps both show the result of remaining in Jesus’ love or not remaining in Jesus’ love.  One appeals to his disciples and presents a positive picture.  The other refers to the pagan world and presents an unquestionably negative picture, even by secular standards.

Let us learn from the words spoken and see them more clearly through the pattern in which they were recorded.  Let us respond to the vine allegory, the call to love, the blessings and consequences of heeding God’s commands.  Above all things, let us love one another.

Chiasm in John 15, Part II

In my last post, I described what a chiasm is and gave numerous examples from the gospel of John.  That discussion only scratched the surface.  Chapter 15 opens with the allegory of the vine and the branches, the call to remain in Jesus and bear fruit, and then it continues into verses 12-17 with the theme of love.  In prose, we hear the command and grasp this concept readily, but a quick read will neglect the central point.

John 15:12-17 Sub Unit

We are commanded to love one another for the reason that God loved us first!  Any religion or secular philosophy can promote the attitude of love; however, none but Christianity has a complete object or concrete purpose for love.  The act of calling us, what theologians would label “election,” is the highest act, or the most ultimate demonstration, of love conceivable.  Therefore, we obey the command to do likewise and extend our branches far, bearing fruit that will last.

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.

Parallelism in John 5

Last entry I broached the subject of poetic verse in scripture.  Even passages which are printed in prose have a certain majesty to them, concealing the Hebrew parallelism that is more commonly recognized in the Psalms.  Here’s a continuation of that thought for the skeptic and the curious alike.

John 5:16-18 suggests that John was speaking out of his Jewish culture.  The A – B – A pattern is a very brief instance of this parallelism.

Continue reading that passage to verses 24-30 – in some Bibles the last two paragraphs under that subheading – and you encounter another example of Hebrew parallelism.  Here’s the section in prose form:

24“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. 25I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. 27And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.
28“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. 30By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

Then here it is in poetic form.  (Click on the link below to expand the image.)

Ok, my analysis is certain to have some flaws or you might disagree with the labels I have given each section.  I do not claim to be a Bible commentator nor do I pretend to know everything about this passage.

Here’s what I do know, and I share this abstract idea for a purpose.  Dissect the passage and you will be amazed by the delicacy in its craftsmanship.  Jesus – that is, God speaking through the author John – declares in a neat poem who he is and what work he is doing (namely judgment and salvation). Take a step back from the microscope and look at the bigger picture; now with more pieces to the puzzle, with a greater vocabulary, you engage in the act of wonder and worship!

The power in these words is not only what they say but also how they say it! God addresses people of all cultures, from the Jews in the 1st century to average Americans in the 21st century.  We all have the opportunity to hear His voice, and, much like stacking a printed book side-by-side with a movie adaptation, we might even choose whether we want to hear it in poetry or in prose.

Scripture “Verse”

The preceding post entitled “Citing Sources” serves as a prologue to this post. While it is not necessary to read the previous, I still encourage you to do so. Here is a brief summary, whether you have read Steven Faulkner’s article or not:

Poetry is one way of ordering our souls.  It brings tremendous satisfaction to our lives by evoking a sense of wonder.  Wonder leads to love and, likewise, wonder leads to worship.

So how much do you engage the imagination or rouse your sense of wonder? How much poetry do you get in your life?  Perhaps you encounter more poetic verse than you might think.

The Bible contains numerous passages of poetry.  Arranged topically, the Old Testament has the books of Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.  You can then find other snippets of poetry in Exodus 15, 1 Samuel 2, Luke 1, Revelation 4, and everywhere in between.   But then this literary gopher pops up in places where you would not expect it.  Like a sun hidden behind the clouds, the gigantic gaseous sphere illuminates the sky while we are so accustomed to the façade of clouds that we only see a few rays peeking through.  That is because our 21st century translations appeal to prose.  Print the text however you wish, the bias of the original inspired authors is unavoidable.  The Bible was written by Hebrew people and poetry characterizes how the Hebrews wrote almost anything.

I was reminded of this last night while revisiting John 5:16-30, the selection from scripture which my small group studied this past week.  I was immediately struck by the first few lines which revealed a most intentional parallel structure:

16 So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him.  17 Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”  18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.


It follows an A – B – A pattern.

(A) Verse 16: Jesus works on the Sabbath; Jews wish to persecute Jesus

(B) Verse 17: Jesus affirms his work

(A) Verse 18: Jews wish to kill Jesus; Jesus works on the Sabbath

Maybe a coincidence or maybe such a brief passage that parallelism is found by accident.  Or maybe what I am reading is not merely a scripture verse, but an instance of scripture’s poetic verse.

How, then,  do I ever make the excuse that reading the Bible is a bore?  Or that I have read a passage before so I am familiar with what it says?  Why do I neglect memorizing scripture when it is already organized according to a mnemonic pattern?  Short answer: my wonder is too small.

Still not convinced?  Want to see more? Anticipate more illustrations of parallelism in Biblical texts as I publish future blog entries.  And be ready to engage the workshop of worship.

Scoop