Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

John 20:31 Purpose Statement and the Aorist Subjunctive

In John 20:30-31, we read the following:

“30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

In my article “What is the Good News of the Bible?”, I commented on these verses as follows:

In these verses, John is specifically telling us that he wrote his gospel to teach people how to have life. The Gospel of John is the only book in the Bible that was specifically written to teach people how to get saved. It is the book through which we must interpret the rest of Bible in regard to how to have eternal life.

However, many people would point out that the corresponding Greek word for “believe” in the phrase “that ye might believe” is a present subjunctive in the Critical Text (i.e., the CT, which is the Greek text used for most modern translations of the Bible), not the aorist subjunctive found in the Textus Receptus (i.e., the TR, which is the Greek text that underlies the King James Version) and Majority Text (i.e., MT, which is the Greek text of the Byzantine tradition, consisting of about 90% of extant manuscripts). The difference is not noticeable in English translations, but from the perspective of New Testament Greek, the difference is potentially meaningful. If the present subjunctive is the correct reading, it would carry the meaning of “that ye might continue to believe,” thereby indicating that John was writing to believers with the intention of strengthening them in their faith. On the other hand, if the aorist subjunctive is the correct reading, it would carry the meaning of “that ye might come to believe,” thereby indicating that John was writing to unbelievers with the intention of evangelizing them so that they could become believers.

In this article I will use internal evidence from the Gospel of John to show that the aorist subjunctive is the correct reading. In particular, I will do the following:

1. Show that the aorist subjunctive of the verb “to believe” (i.e., the Greek word pisteuo) is more common than the present subjunctive in similar contexts and that the aorist subjunctive better fits the overall theme of the Gospel of John

2. Show that the phase “might have life” (i.e., the subjunctive form of Greek word echo + “life”) is basically an idiomatic expression in the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, that refers to obtaining life as an inceptive action, meaning that this phrase naturally applies to unbelievers who are coming to believe, not believers who are continuing to believe

3. Show that the Gospel of John dedicates most of its first 12 chapters to private and public conversations with unbelievers with the intent that they would become believers

4. Show that the signs mentioned in John 20:30 were not exclusively performed for disciples and believers, meaning that the use of a present subjunctive in 20:31 would be inappropriate

Section 1: Use of the aorist subjunctive in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John employs the word pisteuo (i.e., “to believe”) 99 times, overwhelmingly more often than any other book in the New Testament. pisteuo acts as the thematic word for the whole book. Among the uses, the aorist subjunctive occurs at least 10 times (based on the CT) and possibly as many as 16 times (based on the TR).

The debated texts regarding the aorist subjunctive and present subjunctive of the Greek word pisteuo in the Gospel of John are John 6:29, 17:21, 19:35, and 20:31. In addition, there are two instances where both the TR and CT agree regarding the aorist subjunctive, but disagree regarding the verb. These verses are John 10:38 and 12:47 where the TR has the verb pisteuo and the CT has the verbs ginosko (“to know”) and phylasso (“to keep”), respectively.

Excluding the six questionable texts mentioned above, the aorist subjunctive of the verb pisteuo occurs 10 times (in both the TR and CT) in the Gospel of John at John 1:7, 4:48, 6:29, 8:24, 9:36, 11:15, 11:40, 11:42, 13:19, and 14:29. The present subjunctive of the verb pisteuo occurs once in the Gospel of John at John 10:38. From this data alone, we can see that the use of the aorist subjunctive is more common than the present subjunctive.

Among the uses of the aorist subjunctive of pisteuo, John 1:7 is particularly meaningful because it is the first occurrence of the verb pisteuo in the Gospel of John and operates as a purpose statement for John the Baptist’s ministry and for the Gospel of John in general. “He came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” Of particular note is the goal that “all men” might believe in the Light, indicating that the purpose here was certainly evangelistic. Later, while speaking with unbelievers, Jesus spoke of John the Baptist, saying, “Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved” (John 5:33-34). Here we find the aorist subjunctive of sozo (“to be saved”), which is significant because in saying this, Jesus is indicating that He himself has the same goal as John the Baptist, which is to evangelize unbelievers and turn them into believers. This means that inception of belief, not continuance of belief, was the primary goal.

Although I didn’t initially intend to comment on any of the debated verses listed above, I think John 6:29 is particularly important in this investigation. What we find is Jesus telling another group of unbelievers, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” From the context, the aorist subjunctive certainly seems to be the correct reading. For starters, the people Jesus was talking with were unbelievers according to verses 26 and 27. Second, they use the aorist subjunctive themselves when responding to Jesus in verse 30, thereby admitting that they had not yet believed. Verse 29 is sandwiched in between this context, making it highly unlikely that the present subjunctive was the original reading here. Hypothetically speaking, however, even if the present subjunctive were the original reading here, it is unlikely that it would be conveying the “kind of action” that we have come to expect from the present tense. In other words, it would not mean “that ye continue believing.” Jesus had just rebuked them in verse 26 for failing to grasp the significance of the miracle he performed. Furthermore, in verse 27, He indicates that they had not yet obtained eternal life, something that is only obtainable by believing in Jesus for it (John 3:16-18). Therefore, if the present subjunctive of pisteuo is the correct reading, it is probably operating as a substantive clause (i.e., a clause used as a noun) that answers to the demonstrative pronoun “houtos” (“this”) and should be translated as the gerund “believing.” It is only in the subjunctive mood because it is combined with the conjunction hina (“that”), but is not used as a purpose clause. In this case, John 6:29 would mean “This is the work of God: your believing on him whom he hath sent,” which could be interpretively translated as “God’s work is your believing on him whom he hath sent.” (I learned this interpretation from Carl W. Conrad, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington University and frequent contributor at the B-Greek Biblical Greek Forum.) In such a case, we see that John 6:29 also supports the purpose statement in John 1:7. As a result, we would have John the Baptist, Jesus, and God all working toward the same goal of converting unbelievers into believers.

In light of the above discussion, when we get to John 20:31, it seems reasonable, based on the previous uses of the aorist subjunctive and the purpose statement of John 1:7, that it also employs the aorist subjunctive. In such a case, we would have two equivalent purpose statements, one at the very beginning and one at the very end of the Gospel of John acting as bookends.

Section 2: “Might have life” is basically an idiomatic expression used in contexts of obtaining life as an inceptive action

If the present subjunctive of pisteuo in John 20:31 is the correct reading, then “that believing you might have life through his name” would refer to an ongoing possession of life that had already started in the past, rather than the initial reception of it. While it is certainly true that life is ongoing and abiding, the Greek expression translated “might have life” (present subjunctive mood of the Greek word echo + “life”) is never used in this manner in any other passage of Scripture. On the contrary, the expression “might have life” is always used to signify the initial reception of life. In this respect, the aorist subjunctive of pisteuo would correspond as a better antecedent than the present subjunctive of pisteuo.

Let’s look at the other verses where we find “might have life”:

Matt 19:16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

John 3:15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 5:40 And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.

John 6:40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 10:10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

In all of these verses, it is “inception of life” not “ongoing life” that is being emphasized. In particular, Matthew 19:16 is especially useful because we see the rich young ruler employing the aorist subjunctive in the expression “what good thing shall I do.” As for the expression “may have eternal life,” Jesus tells us specifically in the very next verse in Matthew 19:17 that it refers to reception of life, not the ongoing experience of it, when he responds to the rich young ruler’s question by saying, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Here we see that “have” in verse 16 corresponds to “enter” in verse 17, and “eternal life” in verse 16 to “life” in verse 17. Jesus also responds to the rich young ruler’s use of the aorist subjunctive by employing the aorist imperative, “keep the commandments,” signifying that Jesus also equates “entering life” with an inceptive act.

At the same time, the Apostle John has an expression for “ongoing life.” It is found in 1 John 5:13 where we read, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” In this case, John was clearly writing to people who were already believers, as he explained throughout his letter (e.g., 1 John 1:3-4, 2:12-14, etc.). In this regard, he uses the present subjunctive of believe twice. But instead of writing “that you might have life,” he writes “that you may know that you have eternal life.” There is a big difference between “having life” (i.e., “entering life”) and “knowing you have life” (i.e., coming to a realization or being reminded of what you already have). In 1 John 5:13, the present subjunctives work perfectly. However, in the case of John 20:31, all the data is pointing to the aorist subjunctive being the correct reading.

Section 3: The content of the Gospel of John is primarily written for unbelievers to show them how to have life

Unlike any other book in the New Testament, the Gospel of John dedicates many chapters to teaching unbelievers how they can have life. In fact, most of the first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John are dedicated to this. It is only in a short section of Chapter 12 and then chapters 13 to 17 that we find teachings for disciples. Content wise, the Gospel of John was primarily written with the unbeliever in mind.

In Chapter 1, the prologue sets forth the theme of the book, being highly evangelical (John 1:7, 1:12). After this, we have the testimony of John the Baptist that points people toward Christ, in order that they should believe in Him (Acts 19:4, John 3:36). On account of John’s testimony, some of the disciples, especially Andrew come to believe in Christ (John 1:41), and later Nathanael also comes to believe in Him (John 1:50).

In Chapter 2, we have Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding banquet, resulting in His disciples believing in Him (John 2:11). (Now, we usually think of a disciple as someone who has already believed, but in the case of Jesus’ disciples, He sometimes had unbelieving disciples, such as we learn by comparing John 6:60 and 6:64.) Later we learn that because of the miracle of the wine, “many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (John 2:23).

In Chapter 3, we have Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was an unbeliever who was curious about Jesus. He knew that He was a “teacher come from God,” but was unaware of his need of being born again (John 3:3). Jesus reveals to him that this “born again” experience occurs by believing in Him (John 1:12, 3:15). After this, John the Baptist again bears witness of Jesus and concludes with his well-known words in John 3:36, directing unbelievers to belief in the Son.

In Chapter 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, another unbeliever (John 4:7-26). After this, he speaks to more Samaritans, resulting in many of them becoming believers (John 4:39-42). Following this, Jesus performs His second recorded miracle in the Gospel of John, resulting in the nobleman and his family becoming believers (John 4:43-54).

Likewise, chapters 5 to 10 are dedicated to Jesus’ encounters with unbelievers, whereby Jesus pleads with them so that they might become believers.

In chapters 11 and 12, we still have much of the content dedicated to unbelievers. For example, on account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, many of the Jews came to belief in Jesus (John 11:45 and 12:11). Later, we find that Greeks are also seeking Him and that many of the chief rulers also believed (John 12:20 and 12:42). Chapter 12 ends with a final warning about the danger of rejecting Jesus words in unbelief (John 12:44-50). In these verses, Jesus once again indicates that believing in Him means “receiving His testimony as being true,” just as He told Nicodemus in John 3:11-12 and John the Baptist described in John 3:32-33, and that belief in His words results in eternal life (John 12:50).

It isn’t really until chapters 13 to 17 that the focus turns away from evangelism. In those chapters, we are presented with Jesus’ intimate teachings for His disciples. Those teachings do not focus on “continuing to believe,” but rather, emphasize the need to “love one another.” In fact, the Apostle John basically sums up the whole Gospel of John in his first letter when he says, “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (1 John 3:23). It is striking to note that John uses the aorist subjunctive “should believe” followed by the present subjunctive “[should] love one another.” Of course, this is conjecture on my part, but it is as if the Apostle John in his first letter is basically using the aorist subjunctive of “believe” to sum up the first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John, and the present subjunctive of “love” to sum up chapters 13 to 17. In other words, the first 12 chapters are for unbelievers who need to come to belief in Jesus, while chapters 13 to 17 are for believers who need to abide in Jesus’ teaching and love one another.

Since Jesus’ teachings to unbelievers emphasized the need to “believe,” but His teachings for disciples emphasized the need to “love one another,” it only makes sense that the “believe” statement in John 20:31 employs the aorist subjunctive.

Section 4: The signs mentioned in John 20:30 were not exclusively performed for the disciples and believers, meaning that the use of a present subjunctive in 20:31 would be inappropriate

Let’s look at the verses 20:29-31 in Young’s Literal Translation:

Jesus saith to him, ‘Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; happy those not having seen, and having believed.’ 30 Many indeed, therefore, other signs also did Jesus before his disciples, that are not written in this book; 31 and these have been written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in his name.’

I cited Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) because the King James Version (KJV) omits the conjunction oun (“therefore”) at the beginning of verse 30. This conjunction is in the TR, MT, and CT.

In verse 29, Jesus refers to people who “have not seen, and yet have believed” (KJV). The “have not seen” and “have believed” are aorist participles and do not really refer to past tense actions. The aorist participle behaves differently than the aorist indicative. A. T. Robertson on page 859 of “The Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research” comments on John 20:29 by saying, “Cf. Jo. 7:39; 16:2; 20:29, in all of which examples the simple punctiliar action is alone presented in a timeless manner.” By using the aorist participles in John 20:29, Jesus is expressing a timeless truth regarding people who would believe without seeing. By saying this, we can be pretty certain that Jesus had in mind unbelievers who come to believe in Him.

In verse 30, we find the conjunction “therefore” (YLT), which connects this verse with verse 29. Jesus did many signs in the presence of His disciples for the following two reasons: (1) To foster and restore belief among His disciples, such as Thomas and (2) to provide His disciples with eyewitness testimony of the signs so that they could tell other people about them and have them become believers. And this coincides exactly with what we read in John 17:20. “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;” In this verse, “shall believe” is the future participle in the TR, but the present participle in the MT and CT. However, Max Zerwick says in his grammatical analysis of John 17:20 that “the present participle stands for the future participle” and the translator notes in the NET Bible say that “Although πιστευόντων (pisteuontōn) is a present participle, it must in context carry futuristic force.” In this regard, John 17:20 is certainly speaking of unbelievers who become believers through the word of Jesus’ disciples. This is vital information because it means that the disciples would be conveying information on what Jesus said and did, including the signs, (John 21:25) to other people so that they could become believers. This means that the signs were not performed exclusively for the sake of the disciples and believers. If this is true, then this also means that the aorist subjunctive must be the correct reading in John 20:31. If the present subjunctive were correct, then the signs would have had to have been performed exclusively for believers, since the present subjunctive conveys the meaning of “that ye might continue to believe.” Unbelievers haven’t even started believing, so it would be impossible for them to “continue to believe.”

The good thing is that we don’t need to guess about the purpose of the signs. There are several verses in the Gospel of John that indicate that the signs were meant for unbelievers. In John 2:23, we read, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.” In this verse, we certainly have unbelievers becoming believers. In John 4:48 we read, “Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” In this verse, Jesus is again speaking with an unbeliever who later became a believer because of the sign of healing that Jesus performed. In John 5:36 we read, “But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.” In this verse, Jesus is speaking to the unbelieving Jews and telling them that the works He does bear witness of Him. In John 6:26 we read, “Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.” In this verse, we see that the miracles should have influenced the priorities of the people, but sadly, there were still thinking with their stomachs. In John 6:62 we read, “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” In this verse, we learn that the resurrection was also meant to be a sign. In this respect, the resurrection certainly plays a significant role in unbelievers becoming believers. In John 7:31, we read, “And many of the people believed on him, and said, When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than these which this man hath done?” In this verse, we see that the miracles were at least partially influential in the belief of many people. In Chapter 9, Jesus performed a miracle on a blind man and it became instrumental in the man becoming a believer (John 9:38). In John 10:38, we read, “But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” In this verse, Jesus is pleading with the unbelieving Jews to at least believe in the works He was doing. In John 11:45, we read, “Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.” In this verse, many of the Jews saw the miracle that Jesus performed on Lazarus, and as a result, they became believers. In John 12:11, we read, “Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” In this verse, we learn that even more of the Jews became believers on Jesus when they saw Lazarus alive. In John 12:17-18, we read, “The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record. For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle.” In this verse, we see that people who believed because of the miracle told other people about it, and they too probably became believers. John 12:17-18 certainly reminds us of John 17:20 and John 20:29-31.

In John 20:30-31, we see that the Apostle John writes down a record of the signs for a group of people whom he addresses as “ye” (the plural of “you”). In keeping with John 17:20 and “those who believe without seeing” in John 20:29, it seem natural that “ye” is referring to unbelievers who would be becoming believers. Let’s see if we can at least partially identify this group of people who are referred to as “ye.”

In the Gospel of John, we find explanations of words such as Rabbi, Messiah, and Passover (John 1:38, 1:42, 6:4). Needless to say, believers, disciples, and Jews would not need these types of words explained. It would be like explaining what a taco was to a Mexican person or what sushi was to a Japanese person. From the use of these explanations, we can see that John is writing his gospel with the intention that it would be read by unbelievers from all over the world. In this respect, A. T. Robertson in his Word Pictures of the New Testament on John 1:38 says, “Rabbi (Ραββει [Rabbei]). Aramaic title for ‘Teacher’ which John here translates by Διδασκαλε [Didaskale] as he is writing late and for general readers.” Yes, indeed, John was writing for general readers. In this respect, we can be highly certain that the “ye” in John 20:31 was used of a group of people who needed to be evangelized.

Since we have established that the signs were at least partially intended for unbelievers to help them become believers, and that the Gospel of John was written for “general readers,” it is only natural that the correct reading in John 20:31 is the aorist subjunctive. As mentioned above, for the present subjunctive to be correct, the signs would have had to have been exclusively for believers. In addition, the Gospel of John would have had to have been written exclusively for believers who correspond to the “ye” in John 20:31. This was the case in 1 John 5:13, as shown above, but was certainly not the case for the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of John, only the aorist subjunctive makes sense in John 20:31.