June 17: 1 John 3:2

1 John 3:2

“(So) loved (one)s, now we are (the) offspring [te/kna] of God; but it (has) not yet been made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh] what we will be—(for) we have seen [i.e. know] that, when he should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|], we shall be like him, (in) that we shall see him just as he is.” (3:2)

This is one of the most important—and distinctive—statements in 1 John regarding believers as the “offspring [te/kna] of God”. It gives to the theme an eschatological dimension that tends to be lacking from other occurrences in the Johannine writings. The eschatological context is central to the section as a whole (cf. 2:28-29, and the prior notes on these verses), as it is for the flanking ‘antichrist’ sections of 2:18-27 and 4:1-6. Here, however, it is specifically applied to the birth/offspring theme. It strongly indicates that, while we (as believers) are already the offspring/children of God now (in the present), at the end-time appearance of Jesus, we will become something even more—or, that our identity as God’s offspring will be realized in a greater and more complete way.

The author contrasts the present (e)sme/n, “we are”) and future tenses (e)so/meqa, “we will be”) of the verb of being. As pointed out in the previous note, the verb of being (ei)mi) carries special theological significance in the Johannine writings, tending to be used of a Divine subject, and often in the context of essential predication. Typically, it is the Son (Jesus) or God the Father who is the Divine subject; in the third person, the predicative statement takes the form of “He | is | {such}”, while in the first person it is “I | am | {such}” (as in the famous “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel). It is extremely rare for such essential predication to use the future tense of the verb (“He/I will be…”), but it is particularly appropriate in the case of believers as the Divine subject.

This present-future juxtaposition is significant, too, from the standpoint of the Johannine eschatology. The Gospel tends to emphasize a ‘realized’ eschatology—that is to say, the end-time events (resurrection, last judgment, etc) are realized for human beings already now, in the present. At the same time, there remains a future fulfillment for these events as well. Note, for example, how these two aspects of the eschatology are presented together in John 5:19-29.

Along these same lines, the author here suggests that there is both a present and future aspect to the identity of believers as the “offspring of God”. Currently, we already are God’s offspring, but it has not yet [ou&pw] been revealed what we will be, in the imminent future, when Jesus appears again (viz., his ‘second’ coming to be alongside [parousi/a, v. 28]). Cf. a similar development of the offspring-theme by Paul in Romans 8:18-25ff.

The future aspect is very much tied to the appearance of Jesus, as can be seen by the way the author formulates his point in the Greek:

not yet
has it been made to shine forth (what)
we will be
he has been made to shine forth
we will be

The “shining forth” (vb fanero/w) of our identity coincides with the “shining forth” (same verb) of Jesus upon his coming, and, indeed, is patterned after it. The syntactical patterning of the author’s words reflects the patterning that will take place in real life. This is also indicated by the expression “like to him” (o%moioi au)tw=|), stating that the (new) identity of believers will be one of Divine likeness. The precise significance of this likeness is a matter of interpretive debate, to be discussed below. However, first, it is worth pointing out how the expression “like to him” functions as the predicate nominative for an essential predicative statement here, using (however rarely) the future tense of the verb of being: “we will be [e)so/meqa] like him [o%moioi au)tw=|]”. Thus, in 3:1-2, there are two such predicative statements (cf. the previous note), with believers as the (divine) subject, using the present and future tense, respectively:

    • “| we are | (the) offspring of God”
    • “| we will be | like to him”

A precise understanding of the second statement hinges upon whether the dative pronoun au)tw=| (“to him”) refers to God the Father or Jesus the Son. There is disagreement among commentators on this point, with strong arguments to be made on both sides. The explanatory clause that follows does not help in this regard, since it is equally ambiguous: “(in) that we shall see him [au)to/n] just as he is [e)stin]” —does this refer to Jesus the Son or God the Father?

Overall, the evidence would seem to favor a reference to the Son of God (Jesus), which does not exclude a subordinate allusion to the beatific idea of seeing God (the Father), since, from the Johannine standpoint, one sees the Father through the Son. It is worth summarizing the basic line of argument in support of the idea that verse 2b refers to the Son, rather than the Father.

In favor of a reference to Son (Jesus) is the immediate context of the preceding verb fanerwqh=| (“[when] he should be made to shine forth”), which almost certainly refers to the end-time appearance of Jesus (cf. 2:28), even though the specified subject earlier in 3:1 is God the Father; first-century Christian readers would understand Jesus as the implicit subject of this verb, without requiring it to be specified. With the Son (Jesus) established, as the implied subject of fanero/w (passive), it is unlikely that a different point of reference should follow, without any further clarification. Thus, the sequence “when he should be made to shine forth, we shall be like him” means, “when the Son (Jesus) appears, we shall be like him [viz., like the Son]”.

From a Johannine theological standpoint, this could be interpreted as follows: Currently we, as believers, are God’s offspring (children) in a spiritual way, inwardly, invisibly, and through the Spirit; however, at the end-time appearance of the Son, we will come to share in that Divine Sonship in a way that is not possible now. By seeing the Son, we become transformed into his likeness (cp. 2 Cor 3:18). The phrase “just as he is” (kaqw/$ e)stin) is probably meant to distinguish the Son’s appearance in full Divine/eternal glory from his earlier incarnate appearance as a human being. The current state of believers (as God’s children) is more comparable to the incarnate appearance of the Son on earth. Indeed, following the Son’s departure, believers effectively have taken his place, as God’s children, carrying on Jesus’ mission in the world. The author essentially makes this point, it would seem, in 4:17, where he states that believers are just like Jesus, but with the important qualifying expression “in this world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw| tou/tw|):

“…just as [kaqw/$] that (one) is [e)stin], (so) even we are [e)sme/n] in this world.”

As believers, we are the offspring of God in the world, but the time will come when we will be transformed, so as to share in the eternal glory of the Divine Sonship, experiencing it in a way that is not possible for us during our limited human existence on earth.

For a good summary of the alternate line of argument—viz., that the pronouns, etc, in 3:2b refer to God the Father, rather than the Son, see the discussion by R. E. Brown (The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 30 [1982]), pp. 392-6.

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