Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, April 29, 2019

What does the Unity of the Church have to do with a Future Participle? (John 17:20)

When can a present refer to the future, and what is the "more difficult reading" in textual criticism.

John 17:20 gives us a good example of how textual criticism works, and also how time is totally absent in the non-indicative.

In Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, Jesus says he is praying “not only for these for whom I am interceding [i.e., the apostles], but also for those who will come to believe (τῶν πιστευόντων) in me through their word.” Why did I translate the present πιστευόντων as a future? There are actually two possible reasons.

One is because there is a variant form, πιστευσόντων, the future of πιστεύω that occurs in the TR and reflected in the KJV. But one of the basic tenets of textual criticism is a preference for the “harder reading.” In other words, which reading most likely gave rise to the other? Is it more likely that the present was changed to a future, or that the future was changed to a present?

It is hard to imagine a scribe changing the future to the present. The disples’ ministry had not yet technically begun, so Jesus is thinking of future conversions and the future indicative is clearer. However, you could see someone changing a present to a future to make that point explicit. This makes the present πιστευόντων the “more difficult” reading, which is why it was chosen by NA28.

In terms of external evidence, the future is quite weak and would fail to carry the day on its own — D(c) is fifth century, the Vulgate and Sahidic. The lack of early evidence is probably why the present was chosen by the new Cambridge Greek text.

Of course, the change was not necessary. As a participle, πιστευόντων is a non-indicative form, which means that it has no time element; all the emphasis is on the form’s aspect. When you look at the meaning of the verb — “believing” in and of itself is an imperfective action; it is continuous — and the fact that the participle is built off the present tense stem, it is obvious that Jesus is speaking aspectually of those who would be coming to faith in the future.

The use of “come to” is because contextually it is probably an inceptive idea, not just those who will believe but those who will come to believe through the ministry of the apostles.

This is one of my favorite passages in the New Testament because it is the one place where I personally (and you personally) am clearly in view, and Jesus’ prayer is for unity, unity with each other and unity with God. If people see the divine unity in the church, if we are one just as the Father and the Son are one, then the world will come to believe that God the Father sent God the Son (v 21).

How are we doing?