July 1: 1 John 5:18

1 John 5:18

“We have seen that every(one) having come to be (born) of God does not sin, but (instead) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him, and (so) the evil does not touch him.” (5:18)

This is the final Johannine passage to be examined, dealing with the theme of the birth of believers as the children of God. It happens to be the most difficult of all the Johannine references dealing with this theme. The difficulty has to do with the grammatical ambiguity in the verse—rather typical of Johannine syntax, and particularly so in 1 John. Our author regularly leaves the subject of verbs, and the referent of pronouns, unspecified, in such a way that it is not always clear whether they refer to God the Father, Jesus the Son, or, on occasion, the believer. This verse is rife with such ambiguity.

We may divide the verse into three parts, corresponding to three clauses (abc). The first clause is straightforward enough:

“every(one) having come to be (born) of God does not sin” (18a)
pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= qeou= ou)x a(marta/nei

This statement essentially repeats those of 3:6 and 9 (discussed in earlier notes); verse 9 is closest:

“every(one) having come to be (born) of God does not do the sin”

In that instance the author uses the verb poie/w (“do”) + the noun a(marti/a (“sin”, with the definite article); here the author uses the verb a(marta/nw (“sin”), as in verse 6:

“every(one) remaining in him does not sin”

The statement in 5:18 essentially combines these two, summarizing the message of 3:4-9.

Serious difficulties arise in the second clause:

“but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him” (18b)
a)ll’ o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n

The substantive participle here differs in tense (aorist) from that of the first clause (perfect). The expression o( gegennh/meno$ e)k tou= qeou=, using the perfect tense, is always used of believers; but is the same true here with the aorist tense? This would be unusual, and the difference in tense has led some commentators to posit that the reference in this clause is to Jesus (the Son). This would be fully consonant with both the message of 3:4-9 and of the Johannine theology as a whole. It is by abiding/remaining in the Son that believers can be free from sin. The power of sinlessness, and of removing sin, comes from the Son; thus, it would be quite proper to say that the Son “keeps watch over” the believer, protecting him/her from sin and evil (see below on Jn 17:12). Moreover, the Son, quite clearly, could be described as being ‘born’ of the Father.

The problem with this interpretation, is that the idiom of the verb genna/w + e)k (“come to be [born] of [God]”) in the Johannine writings always applies to believers, not to Jesus. The verb genna/w is used of Jesus in Jn 18:37, but in reference to his human birth (i.e., incarnation) on earth. If applied to Jesus here in v. 18b, this would be the only instance where the verb referred to Jesus’ Divine birth (as the Son) from God.

If the expression with aorist tense is a variation of the typical expression (with the perfect), referring to the believer, then the object pronoun au)to/n (“him”) must be understood reflexively:

“but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) himself”

Some manuscripts make this explicit by using the reflexive pronoun (e(auto/n).

This line of interpretation is also in accord with 3:4-9, and the Johannine theology as a whole. Indeed, verse 3 clearly emphasizes the need for the believer to “make himself holy/pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto/n), and the exhortation to “remain” in the Son (and in the truth, and in love), fulfilling the great duty (e)ntolh/) required of all believers, is a central theme. Moreover, the verb thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”) is usually applied to the disciple/believer, in just such a context—viz., of remaining in Jesus (in his word and love), and of fulfilling the e)ntolh/; cf. 2:3-5; 3:22, 24; 5:3; Jn 8:51-52ff; 14:15, 21, 23-24; 15:10, 20; 17:6.

Another possibility, though less plausible grammatically, is that the clause should be read as:

“but (as for) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God, (God) keeps watch (over) him”

The participle refers to the believer, but God is the subject of the verb thre/w. In favor of this interpretation is the fact that the closest parallel to 5:18f, with its use of the verb thre/w, is found in John 17 (vv. 11-12, 15), where the reference is to God the Father “keeping watch (over)” believers; verse 15 is particularly close:

(Jesus praying to the Father, on behalf of his disciples):
“I do not request that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep watch (over) [thrh/sh|$] them out of [i.e. away from] the evil.”

In verse 12, it is the Son (Jesus) who watches over the disciples (during his earthly ministry). But, with his departure from earth, the Son asks the Father to watch over them, in his place. In the Last Discourse, this role is given to the Spirit-Paraclete (cf. my earlier notes on the Paraclete-sayings).

Thus, there are three ways to explain the subject of the verb thre/w in 5:18:

    • The believer keeps watch over himself/herself, viz., by remaining in the Son, and thus keeping free from sin [3:3, and most occurrences of the verb thre/w]
    • The Son keeps watch over the believer, keeping him/her free from sin [Jn 17:12, and the context of 3:5, 8]
    • The Father keeps watch over the believer [Jn 17:11, 15]

To this, a fourth option can be added. In a few manuscripts and other witnesses (including the Latin Vulgate), instead of the participle gennhqei/$ (“[hav]ing come to be [born]”), the reading is the noun ge/nnhsi$ (“coming to be [born]”, i.e., “birth”):

“but the coming to be (born) keeps watch (over) him”

That is to say, the birth from God itself watches over the believer (and keeps him/her from sin); it is because the believer has been born (as the offspring of God) that he/she is able to be free from sin (3:9, see above).

In the next daily note, we will continue this discussion on 5:18.

 

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