June 18: 1 John 3:3

1 John 3:3

“And (so), every(one) holding this hope upon him makes himself holy [a(gni/zei], as that (one) is [e)stin] holy [a(gno/$].” (3:3)

The eschatological aspect of the birth/offspring theme (see the prior notes on 2:28-29 and 3:1, 2) informs the exhortation here in verse 3. The initial kai/ conjunction, in relation to the previous verses, suggests a conclusion—viz., “and so…”. Because of the promise that we, as believers, will ultimately come to share in the Sonship of Jesus, coming to be like him, we should prepare for this now, in the present. Based on the wording in v. 2, this likeness to the Son goes beyond the current identity of believers as the children of God. Though we truly are God’s offspring (te/kna), born of His Spirit, we are not the Son (ui(o/$)—that designation is reserved for God’s only Son (Jn 1:14; 3:16). The eschatological implication of vv. 1-2 is that believers will come to be transformed into the image/likeness of the Son, sharing in his Divine Sonship in a way that is not possible currently (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).

From an ethical standpoint, we, as believers, ought to be preparing for this transformation by seeking to become more like the Son now, in the present. That is the significance of the verb a(gni/zw here in verse 3. The verb, derived from the adjective a(gno/$ (cf. the related a%gio$), basically means “make clean/pure”, specifically in a religious sense. The fundamental meaning derives from the verb a&zomai, denoting the state of being in awe (or reverent fear), especially before a deity (in a ritual/cultic setting). The adjective a(gno/$ signifies the purity that is required of the worshiper when he/she stands before God (in the sanctuary, etc). Eventually, both a(gno/$ and a%gio$ came to be used in the more general religious sense of “holy”, encompassing both the ritual and ethical-moral aspects of religion. The term a(gno/$ would seem to preserve more of the ritual aspect, and is used much less commonly in the New Testament, compared with a%gio$.

The verb a(gni/zw is also relatively rare, occurring just seven times in the New Testament. Its connection with the ritual/ceremonial emphasis (of a(gno/$) is clear by its use, for example, in John 11:55, where it refers to the self-purification that devout pilgrims and worshipers would undertake in preparation for the Passover. There is a similar ritual context in Acts 21:24, 26 and 24:18. However, the verb has a more generalized use in James 4:8 and 1 Peter 1:22, where the focus is inward, referring to the purification of a person’s heart. This usage certainly encompasses the ethical aspect of a(gno/$ (cf. James 3:17; 1 Peter 3:2), and relates to the intention and integrity of the person, rather than a superficial performance of religious duties. The purification of the heart, however, has the practical result of pure and right behavior, such that a person’s purity will be evident and visible in their conduct (see Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:2).

The use of the reflexive pronoun (e(autou=) makes clear that the believer actively makes himself/herself pure. There is similar reflexive wording in 1 Timothy 5:22, with the exhortation to “keep yourself pure [a(gno/$]”. Paul gives a more general exhortation in Philippians 4:8, urging believers to set their minds on that which is holy/pure (a(gno/$). The only other Johannine usage of this terminology, as noted above, is in John 11:55, where the verb (used reflexively) refers to Jewish worshipers “purifying themselves” for the Passover.

The author of 1 John makes use of this ritual language, but applies it in an ethical (and spiritual) sense. Already in 2:6, the author has made clear that the true believer—that is, the “(one) remaining” in the Son (Jesus)—should follow the example of Jesus during his earthly life/ministry, “walking about” as he “walked about”. The same point was made earlier in our passage here (2:29), with the implicit declaration that the true believer, as a matter of regular conduct, does “what is right” (dikaiosu/nh), just as the Son (Jesus), being right[eous] (di/kaio$), does what is right. In the remainder of the passage (vv. 4-9), this “right-ness” (dikaiosu/nh) is juxtaposed, and contrasted, with “sin” (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw). Certainly, we may understand the act of purifying oneself (vb a(gni/w) here specifically in relation to sin (cf. 1 Tim 5:22; James 4:8). However, the Johannine understanding of sin is complex, and cannot be reduced to the conventional sense of ethical-religious error and wrongdoing. This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

One further theological point should be made regarding the wording of verse 3. The author distinguishes the holiness/purity of the believer from that of the Son (Jesus); though they may be similar, the dynamic involved is not the same. For the believer, the verb a(gni/zw (“make holy”) is used; but, in the case of the Son, the adjective a(gno/$ (“holy”) is used, in conjunction with the verb of being. This is another example of Johannine essential predication—simple predicative statements, providing essential information about a (Divine) subject. These statements contain three elements: (i) Divine subject, (ii) verb of being, and (iii) predicate noun (or phrase). In this instance, it is a predicate adjective, functioning essentially as a substantive; the statement is:

that (one) [e)kei=no$] | is [e)stin] | holy [a(gno/$]”

A demonstrative pronoun is frequently used for Jesus; indeed, the author of 1 John makes use of it on a number of occasions, including elsewhere in this passage (vv. 5, 7, 16; see also, e.g., 2:6; 4:17). Here, the predicate adjective precedes the verb of being, indicating that the verb is specifically being emphasized (in emphatic position)—viz., “just as that (one) is holy”.

A characteristic of believers (as the offspring of God) is thus that they/we “make theirselves/ourselves holy”, following the example of the Son himself, who is holy. But what, precisely, does the author have in mind, with regard to this holiness? The answer is expounded in the following verses 4-9, which I have already discussed at some length in prior notes and articles. Here, I will be treating these verses in a summary fashion, providing links for more detailed study when appropriate.

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