May 23: 1 John 1:2

1 John 1:2

Much of the syntactical awkwardness of the 1 John prologue (1:1-4) is due to the parenthetical clauses in verse 2. As indicated in the previous note, verse 3 picks up the main line of syntax from verse 1, with its repeated relative phrases (modifying the initial phrase). As a parenthesis, verse 2 is expository, expounding the significance of the expression “the word of life” (o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$) at the close of verse 1. The subject of verse 2 is “the life” (h( zwh/):

“and th(is) life was made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh], and we have seen and give witness and give forth as a message to you th(is) life of the age(s) [i.e. eternal life], which was toward the Father, and was made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh] to us”

The parallel use of the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”) brackets the statement. This verb is something of a Johannine keyword, occurring nine times each in the Gospel and First Letter. As applied to Jesus, it refers to his public appearance on earth, alluding both to the incarnation of the Logos (1:14ff, cf. verse 31) and to Jesus’ earthly ministry with his disciples. One may understand the passive voice in these instances as an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. In the Johannine theological idiom, this is otherwise expressed by the idea of God the Father sending the Son (Jesus) to earth.

The Logos was made to shine forth (on earth), but also specifically “to us” —that is, to believers, beginning with the first disciples (the implied eyewitnesses in verse 1). The same implication is repeated here in verse 2: “we have seen” (e(wra/kamen). In the Johannine Gospel, the motif of seeing has Christological significance—it signifies recognizing who Jesus is (i.e., the Son sent by the Father) and trusting in him.

Believers, from the first disciples to the present (when the author is writing), both “give witness” (vb marture/w) to Jesus and declare the message (vb a)pagge/llw) of who he is (and of what he has said and done, cf. verse 5ff). These two verbs are also part of the Johannine idiom, playing an important role in the Paraclete-sayings of the Last Discourse. The Spirit as a witness is specifically emphasized in the third saying (15:26-27), and is indicated again in the final saying(s) (16:7b-11ff). The only other Johannine use of a)pagge/llw (“give forth a message”) occurs in 16:25, where the reference is to Jesus (the Son) communicating the truth to believers “about the Father”; however, the parallel verb a)nagge/llw, which has nearly identical meaning, features prominently in the final Paraclete-saying (16:13-15), and is also used here in 1 Jn 1:5.

The implication of this vocabulary analysis is that the terminology, which applies here to the witness of believers to the truth of Jesus’ identity, is closely tied to the Johannine view of the Spirit’s witness. Indeed, in the third Paraclete-saying (15:26-27), the Spirit and the disciples (believers) work together as a witness—the Spirit bears witness to believers, who, in turn, give witness of the truth to others in the world (see esp. 17:18-21).

For this reason, I believe it is proper to find here in the prologue to 1 John a certain indirect allusion to the Spirit. This is confirmed, I think, by the use of the expression “the word of life,” when understood within the Johannine theological idiom—especially as expressed in the Gospel Discourses. An important component of this theology is the idea that Jesus (the Son) is said to give the Spirit to believers, and also to give life to them. On the specific motif of giving life (zwh/, which means Divine/Eternal Life), cf. 5:21ff; 6:27ff, 57; 10:28; 17:2-3, with many other clear allusions, tied to trusting/following Jesus (3:15-16, 36; 5:39-40; 8:12; 10:10ff; 11:25), including the important theological statement in the Prologue (1:4; cp. 14:6). Jesus’ giving of the Spirit brackets (and informs) the entire Gospel narrative (1:33; 19:30/20:22), is implied in 3:34, and features prominently in the Paraclete-sayings (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7bff). The two motifs of life and Spirit are combined in the image of the “living water” that Jesus gives (4:10-15; 7:37-39).

The wording of Jesus’ famous saying in Jn 6:63 seems especially relevant in this regard (cf. the earlier study on this verse):

“The Spirit is the (thing) making alive [vb zwopoie/w], the flesh is not useful (for) anything; the words [r(h/mata] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life [zwh/].”

The close association of the Spirit with both word and life makes an allusion to the Spirit in 1 Jn 1:1-2 all the more likely. The plural r(h/mata (lit. “utterances”) is used in Jesus’ saying, rather than the singular lo/go$, which means that the reference is to the message (words/teaching) that Jesus speaks to believers, rather than to his own person (as the Logos). Even so, this is one of the three aspects of the meaning of lo/go$ here in 1:1, as I explained in the previous note; the point is confirmed by the context of what immediately follows the prologue in verse 5.

By communicating the Spirit to believers, Jesus gives life to them/us—and, indeed, gives the Divine source of that (eternal) life, since God is Spirit (Jn 4:24). According to the Gospel tradition and narrative (20:22), the first disciples received the Spirit through the (meta)physical presence of the resurrected Jesus; for all other believers, this same takes place as a result of our trust, having received and accepted the Gospel witness, beginning with the witness of the first disciples (17:20-21, etc; see esp. the important closing statement in 20:29).

It is worth emphasizing again the close relation between the prologue of 1 John and the Gospel Prologue. Of particular theological importance is the essential predication, whereby Jesus is identified with the (pre-existent) Word (lo/go$) and Life (zwh/) of God; if we add to this the attribute of Light (fw=$), introduced in verse 5ff, then all three key Divine attributes from the Prologue (1:1-5ff)—Word, Light, Life—are similarly represented here in 1 John. Jesus is specifically identified with the Word and Life of God, while in verse 5 it is God the Father who is identified as Light; however, there can be no doubt of the Christological significance of the light-motif, with an understanding of Jesus (the Son) manifesting the “true light” (2:8ff), just as we see throughout the Gospel.

Why was the parenthetical statement in verse 2 included with such bold emphasis, so as to contribute to such a noticeably awkward syntax in the prologue? I have to wonder if the emphasis may be tied specifically to the rhetorical purpose and strategy of the author. He seems to out of his way to position both elements of the expression “the word of the life” —the Word and the Life—within a dual-meaning context. As outlined in the previous notes, the two aspects of meaning are: (1) Christological (the person of Jesus), and (2) Evangelistic (the message/traditions about Jesus). This is significant if, as I believe to be the case, the crisis (and the opponents) addressed by the author in 1 John relate to the spiritualism of the Johannine churches. One theory regarding the nature of this crisis is that it involved a tendency to localize the Word and Life of God in the abiding presence of the Spirit, in a way that devalued the importance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. This topic will be discussed in the upcoming articles (on 1 John) in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”.

In the next daily note, we will conclude our discussion on the prologue, looking specifically at verses 3-4.

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