The Johannine Writings, Part 2:
The Letters of John
The three Johannine Letters (1-3 John), like the Gospel (discussed in Part 1), have been traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle. However, there is no evidence for this whatsoever in the Letters themselves. The author, while probably known to his immediate readers, remains unknown to us, identifying himself (in 2 and 3 John) simply as “the Elder” (o( presbu/tero$). Commentators disagree somewhat on whether the same person also wrote 1 John, but this is probably the best (and simplest) explanation. All three letters certainly stem from the same Community, referred to by the traditional label “Johannine” —a group of regional congregations, sharing a common tradition and heritage, which also produced the Gospel of John. This region has traditionally been identified as Asia Minor, especially the area around Ephesus, which is also the provenance of the book of Revelation—and this may well be correct. The Letters almost certainly were written sometime after the Gospel (or at least a version of it) had been produced, and are typically thought to date from the end of the 1st century (c. 90-100 A.D.).
The Johannine Gospel and Letters share the same basic religious and theological outlook, including a common style, vocabulary, and mode of expression, etc. Indeed, portions of 1 John could have been lifted straight out of the Gospel Discourses (and vice versa), so close are they in terms of their language and style. As a result, we may fairly well assume that the Gospel and Letters also reflect a common eschatology—that of the Johannine Community—and a comparative study of the writings (esp. of the Gospel and 1 John) generally bears this out. Eschatology is not particularly emphasized in 1 John, due primarily to the prominence of the specific conflict within the Community that is being addressed. I have discussed this historical-critical aspect at length in recent Saturday Series studies on 1 John. The situation is somewhat analogous to that of Galatians, in which the theological-religious question of the place of the Torah among believers, and the opposition of those who claim that is still binding for believers, dominates the letter.
There are, however, a number of eschatological references throughout 1 John, which generally reflect the idea that believers are living in the end-time (i.e. the end of the current Age), while the New Age has already been realized for believers, in the present, through the Spirit. For more on this “realized” eschatology, and its relation to Johannine theology, cf. the discussion in Part 1. Several of the passing references and allusions in 1 John illustrate this:
- 1 John 2:8b:
“…(in) that [i.e. because] the darkness leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and the true light already shines”
—that is, the New Age (of eternal Light and Life) is already being realized for believers in Christ.
- 1 John 2:13-14:
“…you have been victorious over the Evil (One)” (stated twice)
—the final victory over evil has already been achieved (perfect tense of the vb. nika/w) through the work of Jesus Christ (Jn 16:33) and our trust in him.
- 1 John 2:17:
“And the world leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and (with it) its impulse for (evil), but the (one) doing the will of God remains [me/nei] into the Age.”
—this is a general statement of the transitory nature of the world (with its impulse for what is corrupt and evil), but also specifically of the idea that the current Age is coming to an end.
- 1 John 3:14a:
“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into Life”
—i.e., the Judgment has already occurred for believers; cf. the discussion on John 5:24 in Part 1.
- 1 John 4:17:
“In this love has been made complete with us, (so) that we might hold outspokenness (before God) in the day of Judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is, (so) also are we in this world.”
—our identity as believers in Christ (present aspect) gives us assurance that we (will) pass through the Judgment (future aspect).
- 1 John 2:8b:
Other verses could be cited, to the effect that believers already possess the eternal life which otherwise was thought to be experienced (by the righteous) only after the final Judgment (cf. 2:25; 5:11-13, etc). Even so, when considering the eschatology of the Johannine Letters, two passages especially stand out, which need to be considered in more detail—(1) 2:18-27 (along with 4:1-6), and (2) 2:28-3:10. I have already discussed these at length in earlier studies, but without much attention being paid to the eschatological emphasis; this will be the focus here.
1 John 2:18-27 (with 4:1-6)
The eschatological statement in verse 18 is clear and direct, and informs everything that follows in the passage:
“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you heard that against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes, even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which you (can) know that it is (the) last hour.”
The author clearly believes that he and his readers are living in the end time, the “last hour” (e)sxa/th w%ra) of the current Age. While this belief may be problematic for Christians today (living 1900+ years after the fact), there can be no real doubt of the imminent eschatology that characterized early Christian thought, especially in the 1st century A.D. It may be amply demonstrated from nearly every writing of the New Testament, as the articles in this series attest (see esp. the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament). The noun w%ra (“hour”) often has eschatological significance—cf. Dan 8:17f; Sirach 18:19; Mark 13:11, 31-32; Matt 24:44; 25:13; John 5:25, 28; Rev 3:3, 10; 14:7, 15; and note also the eschatological dimension of the use of the word in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:35, 41; 15:33 par; Lk 22:53; Jn 13:1). However, the expression “the last hour” is rare, occurring only here in the New Testament, “the last days” or “last day” being more common (Acts 2:17; James 5:3; 2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3; Heb 1:2; Jn 6:39-40ff; 11:24; 12:48). It would seem to indicate a specific moment rather than a period of time, perhaps emphasizing here all the more that the end was imminent.
The presence of those who are “against the Anointed” is particularly noted as a clear indicator that it is the “last hour” and that the end is near. The Greek adjective is a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), usually transliterated in English as “antichrist”, but literally meaning “against the Anointed (One)” —that is, against the Messiah. The prefix a)nti/ fundamentally means “against”, i.e. someone or something that is opposed to the Messiah; however, it could also denote something that stands “in place of” (or in exchange for) the Messiah, i.e. a false Messiah or Messianic imitation. I discuss the term further in the first part of my article on the Antichrist Tradition. It appears to have been coined by Christians, with specific reference to Jesus as the Anointed One (i.e. Jesus the Christ). Thus, it here it means “opposed to Jesus as the Christ”.
The author gives us some indication of what he has in mind when he calls certain people “antichrists” (a)nti/xristoi). A careful study of this section (2:18-27, note the adjective again in v. 22), along with 4:1-6, where the term is also used (v. 3), as well as several other references in the letter (and 2 John, vv. 7-9), allows us to reconstruct the historical situation to some degree. There were certain individuals who, according to the author, had separated from the main Johannine Community (“they went out of [i.e. from] us”, 2:19), and who espoused a view of Jesus (as the Christ) considered to be false or in error. As a result, these persons demonstrated that they were false believers (and false prophets), who effectively denied Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God (vv. 22-23). Thus, from the author’s standpoint, they could rightly be characterized as “against the Anointed”. The specific Christological point at issue is difficult to determine precisely; it appears to have involved an unwillingness to recognize the reality (and saving power) of Jesus’ humanity—especially the reality of his death. I discuss the matter in some detail in the aforementioned Saturday Series studies; here, the main thing to note is that these people, with their false view of Jesus Christ, are identified as an eschatological manifestation of “antichrist”.
From an eschatological standpoint, the main difficulty for interpretation lies in the first part of the statement in verse 18:
“…you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed’ comes”
h)kou/sate o%ti a)nti/xristo$ e&rxetai
The present form of the verb e&rxetai (“comes”) is perhaps better rendered in English syntax as “is to come” or “is coming”, implying an (eschatological) expectation that something (or someone) referred to as “antichrist” will appear at the end time. The author is clearly referencing an existing tradition of some sort, but the precise nature and significance of this tradition is uncertain, and continues to be debated. I would outline three possibilities:
- The expectation of a wicked (world) ruler, as in 2 Thess 2:1-12, in which case it could be considered an early form of the later Antichrist Tradition, following especially after the “wicked tyrant” motif from the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic writings.
- A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
- A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.
Many commentators assume the first view—that it is a reference to an early form of the later Antichrist tradition. If so, it would seem that the author is contradicting this tradition. Essentially he would be saying: “you have heard that this Antichrist figure is coming, but he has already come, and in the form of these false believers (antichrists)”. I do not think that this is correct. It seems more in keeping with the thought of the letter—and of the wider Johannine tradition and theology—that the author is referring to a tradition that he accepts, that of an Antichrist-spirit (or spirit-being) who appears, and is dominant on earth, at the end-time. The false believers who espouse this false view of Jesus are a specific manifestation of this end-time spirit, themselves being inspired (perhaps unwittingly) by evil and deceptive spirits (4:1-3ff). This is fully in accord with the Johannine view of the world in the current Age, dominated by the power of evil (and the Evil One)—cf. Jn 3:19; 7:7; 17:15; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18-19; also Jn 1:10, 29; 8:23; 12:31; 14:17, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8ff; 1 Jn 2:15ff; 3:1, 13. The situation in the world only becomes more intense and acute as the moment of the end comes closer, with evil becoming ever more prevalent and pervasive throughout humankind.
For further discussion on the matter, consult Part 3 of my study on the Antichrist Tradition.
1 John 2:28-3:10
In early Christian writings of this period, it was common for authors to couch their ethical and religious instruction in eschatological terms. Indeed, the imminence of their eschatology gave a special sense of urgency to the instruction; to paraphrase—since the end is near, and Jesus will soon appear, how much more ought we to remain faithful and vigilant, etc.
1 John 2:28-3:10 opens with an eschatological statement, similar to that in the previous section (2:18-27, above). Even more to the point, the end-time appearance of “anti-Christ” (v. 18) is parallel to the end-time appearance of Christ himself, and immediately precedes it. That the return of Jesus is in view in vv. 28ff is confirmed by the use of the noun parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”), a common technical term in early Christianity for the end-time coming of Christ, even though this is the only occurrence of the word in the Johannine Writings. In 2 Thess 2:8-9, Paul uses parousi/a for the appearance of Christ and the anti-Christ (i.e. “the lawless one”) both, heightening the parallel between the two.
“And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him, (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|, i.e. appear], we might hold outspokenness, and not feel shame from him, in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us).” (v. 28)
This statement reflects the standard early Christian eschatology, though phrased somewhat in distinctive Johannine terms. In fact, the passage is a good example of the interplay between “realized” (present) eschatology and a traditional future eschatology. The present (“realized”) aspect is dominant in the Johannine Writings (especially the Gospel), and is expressed clearly here in verse 29, using a formulation that defines believers (“the ones doing justice/righteousness”) as having “come to be (born)” out of God. That is to say, true believers are already God’s offspring, in union with him—an eternal identity that normally would be reserved for the righteous in the afterlife, following the Judgment (i.e., eschatological). This is stated even more precisely in 3:1:
“You must see (then) what sort of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring of God—and (so) we are.”
The present tense form of the verb of being (e)sme/n, “we are”) is emphatic, emphasizing both an essential identity and present reality. Even so, our identity as God’s children/offspring will be made complete in the end, at the return of Jesus—i.e. the future eschatological aspect. For early Christians, this was understood primarily in terms of the end-time resurrection, when believers would be transformed into a divine, exalted state of existence. The Johannine writings tend to downplay this metaphysical aspect (but cf. the prior discussion on resurrection in the Gospel), and, indeed, here the transformation is expressed by the Johannine idiom of seeing (= knowing)—by seeing God we come to be like Him; this is the declaration in 3:2:
“Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh, i.e. appear] what we will be; (but) we have seen [i.e. known] that, when it should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|] (for us), we will be like Him, (in) that we will see [o)yo/meqa] Him even as He is.”
Throughout this section there is wordplay involving the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”, i.e. appear, be manifest), something that, sadly, is obscured or lost in most translations. In the main line of argument, it refers to the appearance or manifestation of Jesus (the Son of God) on earth—both in his earlier/first (vv. 5, 8) and future/second (2:28) appearances, both being understood by early Christians as eschatological events. Here in 3:2, however, the verb has a slightly different meaning—it refers to the manifestation of believers as the children of God (cf. the earlier article on Romans 8:18-25). And yet, this manifestation is tied to the manifestation of Jesus (i.e. his return). Something similar is expressed (by Paul) in Colossians 3:1-4 (discussed in an earlier article), with a different sense of “realized” eschatology—through our union with Christ (in the Spirit), we are already present with him in heaven, and this reality will be experienced fully at the moment of his appearance (from heaven).
The transformation of the righteous (believers) through a consummate vision of God (i.e. seeing Him) reflects an eschatological expectation that has a long history. For Jewish thought, its roots go back deep into Old Testament tradition, finding later expression, for example, in the writings of Philo (e.g., On Abraham 57-59) and subsequent Rabbinic tradition. An especially memorable declaration is found in Pesiqta Rabbati 11.7 (46b): “In this world, Israelites cleave to the Holy One…but in the time to come they will become like Him.” (cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 , p. 425). In the Matthean Beatitudes, Jesus pairs seeing God with being called sons (or children) of God (Matt 5:8-9), just as here in 1 John; on the eschatological/afterlife context of the Beatitude-form, cf. my earlier study. Both here and in Matt 5:8, the verb o)pt–an—omai is used for the future tense of seeing; literally, it refers to gazing with (wide) open eyes, especially appropriate for the idea of beholding God Himself. Paul describes this eschatological vision (for believers) in somewhat different terms, though just as memorably, in 1 Cor 13:12 and 2 Cor 3:18.
This eschatological (and theological) discussion concludes with the ethical-religious exhortation in verse 3:
“And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself holy [i.e. pure], even as that (one) is pure.”
The lack of explicit subject-references, as well as ambiguous use of pronouns, in these verses creates some difficulty for interpretation (and translation). Does “he/him” in vv. 2-3 refer to God the Father or Jesus? to Christ or to the believer? In verse 2, it would seem that it is the relationship between the believer and God the Father that is primarily in view, and it is possible that this continues into verse 3. In this case, our hope is upon Him (i.e. the Father), and we are to purify ourselves because He Himself is pure—traditional instruction reflecting Lev 19:2, etc (compare Matt 5:45 par).
On the other hand, the hope (e)lpi/$) of the believer is better understood in terms of the hope that we hold in Christ (“upon him”). The noun e)lpi/$ frequently has an eschatological connotation in the New Testament—the future hope, of salvation, resurrection, eternal life, etc. This hope tends to be located in the person of Christ; moreover, the demonstrative pronoun “that (one)” (e)kei=no$) is often used as a distinctive way of referring to the person of Jesus, and so at times here in 1 John (2:6; 3:5, 16; cp. 3:7; 4:17). I take the focus in verse 3 as being on Jesus, parallel to the original exhortation in 2:28 (“remain in him”), after a shift in focus (in 2:29-3:2) on God the Father:
- Exhortation (2:28): “remain in him” (Christ)
- Exposition (2:29-3:2): the identity of believers as children of God (God the Father)
- Main premise (2:29): our life and conduct should reflect our identity as children of God (even as Jesus is the Son of God)
- Present reality (3:1)—we are God’s children now, resembling Him (“realized” eschatology)
- Future reality (3:2)—we will be like God Himself, seeing Him clearly (future eschatology)
- Exhortation (3:3): purify ourselves (in Christ)