July 3: 1 John 5:18-20

1 John 5:18, continued

“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)

Based on our analysis in the previous note, there are two different ways the second clause of this verse can be read:

    • “but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him(self)”
    • “but (as for) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God, He [i.e. God] keeps watch (over) him”

Both are entirely valid in terms of the Johannine theology and the message of 1 John as a whole. Presently, I am inclined to favor slightly the second option, as being more consistent with Johannine usage, regarding the verb thre/w (“keep watch [over]”). Let us turn now to the final clause:

“and (so) the evil does not touch him” (18c)
kai\ o( ponhro\$ ou)x a%ptetai au)tou=

The emphasis in the first clause was on the believer being free from sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw); here, in the third clause, it is on being protected from evil (adj. ponhro/$). The substantive use of the adjective (with the definite article), “the evil”, is ambiguous. It could be used as a general reference to evil—viz., “th(at which is) evil”. However, most commentators believe that it is a personalized (or personified) use, which should be translated “the Evil (one)” —that is, as a reference to the Satan/Devil.

Regardless, it is clear from verse 19 that the reference is to the evil that is at work in the world, and which dominates the world:

“…the whole world lies stretched out in the evil” (19b)
o( ko/smo$ o%lo$ e)n tw=| ponhrw=| kei=tai

This is another substantive (articular) use of the adjective ponhro/$, and could be taken to mean that the whole world is under the control/influence of “the Evil one” (viz., the Devil). In the Johannine writings, as I have frequently discussed, the term “the world” (o( ko/smo$) tends to be used in a starkly negative (and dualistic) sense—as a realm of darkness and evil, inhabited by human beings, that is fundamentally opposed to God. As such, “the world” is also opposed to Jesus (the Son of God), and to believers (as the offspring of God). Indeed, the author uses the term a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”, against Christ), and speaks of the “spirit of antichrist” that is currently at work in the world (4:3b), and which leads the world astray (v. 6). The dualistic contrast, between believers and the world, is a prominent theme in the Johannine writings. It features especially in the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33), and the great Discourse-Prayer of chap. 17, and runs throughout 1 John. The opponents, who are false believers and “antichrists”, belong to the world, and not to God; whereas all true believers belong to God. This is the point made in verse 19:

“We have seen that we are of God, and (that) the whole world lies stretched out in the evil.”

The first phrase is another example of Johannine essential predication, with believers as the Divine subject. The components of these predicative statements are: (i) Divine subject | (ii) verb of being | (iii) predicate nominative (noun/phrase). Here in v. 19a, the subject is implicit:

(we) | are [e)smen] | of God [e)k tou= qeou=]

The simple prepositional phrase e)k tou= qeou= (“of God”) has two related meanings: (a) in the sense of belonging to God, and (b) as a shorthand for the idiom genna/w + e)k tou= qeou=, “come to be (born) of God”, i.e., believers born out of God, as his offspring. This idiom has been used repeatedly in 1 John, including twice here in v. 18 (see above). By contrast, the false believers, who belong to the world, are the offspring of the Devil (3:8, 10; cf. Jn 8:44).

It is likely that the substantive o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) refers in a personal way to the Devil (“the Evil [one]”)—or, at least, that the expression includes such a point of reference. In the Gospel of John, the Devil is referred to as the “chief/ruler [a&rxwn] of the world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and this association is almost certainly intended here in v. 19. The same substantive use occurs in 2:13-14; 3:12; and Jn 17:15; as well as, famously, in the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; cf. also 5:37; 13:19, 38, etc).

As the offspring of God, believers are protected (by God) from the evil in the world, and from the Evil one who is the chief of the world. A more precise theological formulation would state that the Son (Jesus) protects us (cf. Jn 17:12), and that his protective presence and power (which is also that of the Father) is realized through the Spirit (Jn 14:17; 16:8-12ff). Since the Son has been victorious over the world (and its evil, 16:33; cp. 1 Jn 3:8), we also are victorious over it (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5) through our union with him. This is an essential and vital attribute which belongs to us, insofar as we are true believers in Christ. As God’s own offspring, we are victorious over the world, and are protected from its sin and evil. However, this protection—and freedom from sin—is maintained only insofar as we remain (vb me/nw) in Him. This means remaining in the Son, and, specifically, remaining firmly rooted in trust and love—the great two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers.

Structurally, these statements are part of the final unit of 1 John (vv. 18-20). Through a triad of confessional declarations, each of which begins with the phrase “we have seen that…” (oi&damen o%ti), the author summarizes the message of his treatise, and the purpose for his writing. In closing, let us also consider this summary:

    • We have seen that the (one) having come to be (born) of God does not sin…and (that) the evil does not touch him.” (v. 18)
    • We have seen that we are of God, and (that) the whole world lies outstretched in the evil.” (v. 19)
    • We have seen that the Son of God is come…and we are in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed…” (v. 20)

From the standpoint of theological priority, we may say that these statements are given in reverse order. In particular, the last statement (v. 2o) comes first: The Son of God comes to earth, and gives to us (i.e., believers) the ability to become the offspring of God (cf. Jn 1:12-13ff). As the result of this birth, we are united with the Son, as the offspring of God; we are in the Son, and, through the Son, also in the Father.

Once we are born of God, we realize the consequences of this; and we can see clearly the contrast with the world (v. 19). While we, as believers, are of God, the world is dominated by evil. Those who are of the world are the offspring (in more figurative sense) of the Devil (“the Evil one”). Throughout 1 John, the thematic emphasis has been on the contrast between the true and false believer.

A further consequence of our being God’s offspring, born of Him, is that we are protected from the sin and evil that dominates the world (v. 18). In particular, we have the ability to be free from sin, and we will be free from it, insofar as we remain in the Son—remaining firmly rooted in true faith (trust) and genuine love, fulfilling the great e)ntolh/ (3:23).

In the next daily note, I will offer some final comments on this theme of freedom (from sin), as well as provide some further observations on the final statement by the author (in verse 20).