Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6 (continued)

1 John 4:1-6, continued

Last week, we examined the first of several themes—several aspects of the Johannine Tradition—which were utilized by the author of 1 John, for the purposes of addressing the conflict surrounding the “antichrist” opponents. Our focus has been on 4:1-6, the second of the sections where the opponents are called antíchristoi (“against the Anointed”). The first theme to be explored (1.) was entitled “The Spirit of Truth”, based on the use of the expression in verse 6 (see also Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). We looked at the author’s references to the Spirit in vv. 1-6, in light of the spiritualistic tendencies in the Johannine Tradition, emphasizing the role of the Spirit in prophecy and the teaching of believers, with priority being given to the Spirit as an internal (inner) witness to the truth.

I wish to examine two additional themes this week.

2. Believers “born of [ek] God”

A central Johannine theological principle is that believers—true believers—are born of God, as His offspring. The theological idiom used to express this—the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) + the preposition ek (“out of, from”)—occurs repeatedly in the Johannine writings. It is introduced in the Gospel Prologue (1:13), is the focus of the Nicodemus Discourse (3:3-8), and is alluded to in section(s) 8:31-47 (see v. 41) of the Sukkot-Discourse. It is even more common in 1 John, where it occurs 10 times, usually with the verb in the perfect tense, and as a substantive participle (with the definite article)—ho gegenn¢ménos ek [tou Theou], “the (one) having come to be (born) out of [God]”. This theological idiom, identifying true believers as those “born of God”, features prominently in the central section (2:28-3:24, see 2:29 and 3:9), and in 4:7-5:4a (see 4:7; 5:1, 4), and again at the close of the work (5:18).

Even when the verb is not used, the preposition by itself can sometimes serve as a shorthand for the fuller expression—that is, “of God” (ek tou Theou) can stand for “having come to be born of God”. The preposition ek occurs in every verse of our section (9 occurrences in vv. 1-6). When used in the context of God (and of believers), it carries two principal meanings: (i) “from” or “out of”, indicating an origin or source; (ii) and the idea of belonging, i.e., being “of” someone or something. The birth idiom relates to both aspects of meaning, but principally the first. Believers come from God, in the sense of being born from Him; but, at the same time, they/we also belong to Him, as His offspring.

As this theme relates to 4:1-6, it is applied primarily to the role of the Spirit (v. 1). The Spirit that is at work in and among true believers comes from God; by contrast, the spirit that inspires false believers (such as the opponents), comes from a different source. It is called the “spirit of Antichrist” (v. 3), in that it speaks “against [antí] the Anointed” (vv. 2-3). This refers specifically to the opponents’ false view of Jesus Christ, which they espouse and proclaim (as the inspired truth). The author summarizes this false view, in confessional terms, as not acknowledging/confessing that Jesus Christ has “come in the flesh”. Though the precise Christology of the opponents remains somewhat uncertain, and continues to be debated (see my recent sets of notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3), the author has it particularly in focus, as the false teaching of which he is warning his readers.

In vv. 4-6, the emphasis switches from warning to exhortation. A key rhetorical strategy used by the author is to treat his readers/hearers as though they are true believers. As true believers, they surely will reject the opponents’ false teaching, and will resist the evil influence of these false believers. This strategy is reflected in the exhortation of verses 4ff:

“You are of [ek] God, (dear) offspring [teknía], and (so) you have been victorious (over) them, (in) that [i.e. because] the (One) in you is greater than the (one) in the world.” (v. 4)

Note the use of the preposition ek to express the identity of the believer as the offspring (or children) of God. The noun tekníon (plur. teknía) is a diminutive of téknon (plur. tékna), “offspring”, the regular Johannine term for believers as children born of God. By contrast, the opponents (false believers), and all others who would accept their teaching, are not of God; rather, they are “of the world” (v. 5). This use of the noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) reflects another prominent Johannine theme, whereby “the/this world” refers to the domain of darkness and evil that is fundamentally opposed to God. It is also opposed to the offspring of God (i.e., believers). The dualistic theme of the contrast, between believers and the world, is found throughout the Johannine writings—both in the Gospel (esp. chapters 13-17) and 1 John (2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1-5, 17; 5:4-5, 19).

The message of vv. 4-5 is reiterated in verse 6, at the close of the section. The author subtly indicates that all of his readers, insofar as they agree with his position (regarding the opponents and the conflict surrounding them), are to be identified as true believers, and the offspring/children of God. In verse 4, he declares “you are of God”, while here in v. 6 he says, “we are of God”. By this rhetorical device, he positions the audience along with himself (and his circle) as belonging to the Community of true believers. True believers will listen to the inspired voice of the Community, and will reject the teaching of the opponents; it is only false believers, those who belong to the world, who will listen to the opponents’ “false prophecy”.

3. Believers are (and remain) “in God”

If the Johannine writings employ a special theological meaning for the preposition ek (“out of”), they also do so for the preposition en (“in”). The preposition en has a place in the Johannine theological idiom, mainly through two featured expressions: one using the verb of being (eimi), and the other the important Johannine verb ménœ (“remain, abide”). Let us start with this second expression.

a. “remain in” (ménœ + en)

Like gennᜠ+ ek (see above), the verb ménœ + en is used as a fundamental descriptive attribute of the true believer. Actually, these two idioms represent two aspects of the believer’s identity (and life): (i) the believer first is born out of God, and then, as God’s offspring, (ii) remains in Him. This second aspect refers to the uniting bond, by which the believer experiences an abiding union with God. Both birth and union are achieved through the mediation of the Son (Jesus), and are realized through the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit’s role in the birth is clearly indicated in Jn 3:3-8, while the Spirit’s presence as the basis of the abiding union is implied in a number of passages (see esp. Jn 14:16-17; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13).

The verb ménœ, used in this theological sense, is distinctly Johannine. It also occurs more frequently in the Johannine writings (68 times [including once in Revelation]) than elsewhere in the New Testament (50 times). It occurs 40 times in the Gospel, compared with just 12 times in the Synoptic Gospels combined. It is even more frequent (relatively so) in 1 John, where the verb occurs 24 times within 5 short chapters. Most notable, are the repeated occurrences in the “antichrist” section 2:18-27 (vv. 29, 24 [3x], 27 [2x]), and the central section of 2:28-3:24 (2:28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24 [2x]), where the principal theme of the contrast between true and false believers is emphasized. There are also important occurrences in 4:7-5:4a (4:12-13, 15, 16 [3x]).

The true believer remains “in” the Son (Jesus), by remaining faithful to his word (esp. the message regarding who he is) and his love (viz., following his example).

Through the Son, the believer also remains “in” God the Father. As noted above, this union is ultimately realized through the Spirit. False believers, such as the opponents, do not remain in the truth, but (instead) have departed from it. As such, they are not true believers, and do not have an abiding union with the Son (or the Father), cf. 2:23. A related Johannine theme (discussed previously) of great importance is the duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) that is required of every believer. Following Johannine tradition, the author of 1 John defines this entol¢¡ as two-fold (3:23): (i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example. The true believer fulfills this entol¢¡, and so remains in the truth (and in the Son). The opponents (like all other false believers) violate this entol¢¡, and, in so doing, commit the great sin. These themes are developed extensively throughout the central section (2:28-3:24).

b. “be in” (eimi + en)

In addition to the verb ménœ, the preposition en is also used with the verb of being (eimi). The verb of being has a special place within the Johannine theological idiom, as a marker of Deity—used in relation to a Divine subject. We can see this distinction most clearly in the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18), where the verb of being is applied to God (vv. 1-2, 4, 8-10, 15), while the verb of becoming (gínomai) is used of created (human) beings (vv. 3, 6, 10, 12)—including the incarnation of the Logos/Son, born as a human being (vv. 14-15, 17). Human beings “come to be”, but only God is.

The same theological implications attend the famous “I am” (egœ¡ eimi) sayings of Jesus in the Gospel. However, these sayings are actually part of a wider phenomenon in the Johannine writings, which I refer to as essential predication. These are simple predicative statements which provide essential information about the (Divine) subject. The components of these statements are: (i) Divine subject, (ii) verb of being, and (iii) predicate noun/phrase. Most commonly, the Son (Jesus) is the Divine subject, but the statements are also applied to God the Father, or (more rarely) to the Spirit, or to a particular Divine attribute. Frequently, especially in 1 John, essential predication is also applied to believers (as the Divine subject)—that is, as the offspring of God.

On occasion, in these essential statements, the verb of being is absent, but implied. This is true also for the idiom eimi + en. For example, in Jn 14:11, Jesus declares “I (am) in the Father, and the Father (is) in me”; in the prior v. 10, the verb of being was partially specified: “I (am) in the Father, and the Father is [estin] in me”. In the famous Vine-illustration section of the Last Discourse (15:1-12ff), Jesus extends this same idiom, to the union between himself (the Son) and believers, though using the verb ménœ (“remain”, see above) rather than the verb of being. That these expressions are closely related (and largely synonymous) is indicated by 14:17, where Jesus, speaking of the relationship between believers and the Spirit (Paraclete), says: “…he remains [ménei] alongside you, and will be [estai] in [en] you”. The use of eimi + en is particularly prevalent in chapter 17 (vv. 10-11ff, 21, 23, 26), with or without the verb of being made explicit.

This usage becomes much more frequent in 1 John, and represents, along with the related idiom ménœ + en, a vital part of the Johannine vocabulary (and syntax) that the author employs. We see this here in verse 4 of our section. First there is the essential predicative statement at the beginning of the verse (parallel to v. 6, see above):

“You | are [este] | of God”
“We | are [esmen] | of God”

In this instance, the true believers (“you/we”) stand as the Divine subject (i.e., the offspring of God), while the prepositional expression “of God” (ek tou Theou) stands as the predicate phrase. The same formulation is applied, in a negative (antithetical) way, at the beginning of v. 5: “they [i.e. the opponents, false believers] | are [eisin] | of the world”. Then, in the remainder of v. 4, a second predicative statement occurs, utilizing the relational preposition en:

“the [One] in you | is [estin] | greater than the (one) in the world”

Here, the Divine subject is the Spirit of God, though it could just as well be taken as referring to the Son (Jesus), or even to God the Father. In terms of the Johannine theology, the abiding union of believers with God occurs through the Son, but is realized through the Spirit. The Spirit is referred to here as “the (One) in you”, reflecting the use of the idiom eimi + en (and ménœ + en) discussed above. The predicate phrase, in this instance, is a comparative, continuing the important theme of the contrast between God and the world, as between the true and false believer.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

I hope that this study on the Johannine Letters has been helpful in illustrating how early Christian theology and religious tradition came to be developed and adapted in response to certain conflicts that emerged within the congregations. Next week, we will turn our attention to the Pauline Letters, as we look at a number of examples where similar kinds of developments took place within the Pauline churches.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This study continues our series examining how conflicts within the early Christianity shaped the theology and religious worldview of the New Testament. The initial set of studies has focused on the Letters of John (see the prior studies on 2 John 4-11 and 1 John 2:18-27, as well as the previous study exploring the central section of 1 John). We will be looking at 1 John 4:1-6, focusing on several important Johannine themes, which the author has adapted, as a way of confronting and addressing the conflict involving the “antichrist” opponents. In so doing, we will also consider briefly some of the themes and points emphasized in the central section (2:28-3:24).

1 John 4:1-6

This passage must be considered in the context of the entire central bloc of material spanning 2:18-4:6. In 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the author deals directly with the conflict involving a group of ‘opponents’ whom he refers to as antíchristoi, people “against [antí] the Anointed [Christós]” (i.e., against Christ)—2:18, 22; 4:3 (see also 2 John 7). These two “antichrist” sections flank the central division of the treatise (2:28-3:24), which expounds the author’s central theme: the contrast between the true and false believer.

By all accounts, the opponents, no less that the author and his adherents, were Johannine Christians who were rooted in the Johannine Tradition. Both groups likely knew (and used) some version of the Gospel of John, and would have shared a common religious tradition, theological vocabulary, and mode of expression. For this reason, in order to combat what the author regards as the false teaching (and example) of the opponents, it was necessary for the author to develop, adapt, and apply certain aspects of the Johannine Tradition. I wish to examine several of these here.

1. “The Spirit of Truth”

In both the Gospel and 1 John there is a strong emphasis on truth. The noun al¢¡theia occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings (45 out of 109 NT occurrences); it occurs 25 times in the Johannine Gospel, compared with just 7 in the Synoptic Gospels. Also the related adjectives al¢th¢¡s and al¢thinós occur with some frequency—17 out of 26 for al¢th¢¡s, and 13 out of 28 for al¢thinós (23 out of 28 if one includes the book of Revelation as Johannine). Truth, of course, is a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God, and naturally applies to the Son (Jesus) and his teaching, etc, as well. However, in the Johannine writings, there is also a distinctive association with the Spirit. The expression “the Spirit of truth” (to pneúma t¢¡s al¢theías) occurs three times in the Gospel (in the Paraclete-sayings of the Last Discourse), 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and also here in 1 John 4:6 (see below). A close association between the Spirit and truth, as a fundamental Divine attribute, is expressed famously in Jn 4:23-24, and the author of 1 John goes so far as to identify the Spirit with truth itself (5:6; compare a similar identification of the Son [Jesus] with truth in Jn 14:6).

According to the Johannine theology, which is rooted in the broader early Christian tradition, believers in Christ receive the Spirit of God (Jn 4:10ff/7:37-39; 6:63; 20:22; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13), and are also born of God’s Spirit (Jn 3:3-8). It is through the Spirit that believers, as God’s offspring, are united with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. That is to say, our abiding union as believers, in the Son and in the Father, is realized through the Spirit. As a theological point, this is not stated explicitly in the Johannine writings, but it may be plainly inferred from a number of passages. First, since God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), any union with Him must take place in a spiritual manner, at the level of the Spirit. Secondly, there are the statements regarding the Spirit-Paraclete by Jesus in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:8-15) where it is clear that, even after his departure back to the Father, the Son (Jesus) will continue to be present in and among believers through the Spirit. The context of these statements, in the Last Discourse, and also the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17, well establishes the principle that the abiding union of believers with the Son and the Father is realized through the Spirit. This theology is confirmed by the author’s words in 3:24 and 4:13 as well.

Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to be present within believers—all believers—and continues to teach them the truth of God. In light of this role of the Spirit, as it is described in the Paraclete-sayings, there would seem to have been a notable spiritualistic emphasis, or tendency, within the Johannine congregations. The teaching that comes through the internal witness of the Spirit takes priority over the external teaching (by other human beings), since this witness of the Spirit is that of God Himself (and His Son, Jesus).

Such an emphasis on the teaching of the Spirit was a basic component of early Christian identity, rooted in Old Testament prophetic and eschatological tradition. The early Christians viewed their experience (of receiving the Spirit) as the fulfillment of a number of key prophecies (Joel 2:28-32; Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29, etc) regarding the restoration of God’s people in the New Age. God will ‘pour out’ His Spirit upon His people in a new way, with the result that the Instruction (Torah) of God will be written within, on their hearts (cp. 2 Corinthians 3:6-18). Of particular importance is the “new covenant” prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which indicates that, in the New Age, God’s people will no longer need to be taught the Torah, because it will be written in their hearts.

This prophecy had enormous influence on early Christians, but it seems to have been taken particularly seriously by the Johannine Community. There is an allusion to Jer 31:33-34 (by way of Isa 54:13) in Jn 6:45, and I believe that it informs the Paraclete-sayings as well (see above on the teaching role of the Spirit). The priority of the internal witness of the Spirit is also expressed in 1 John, featuring prominently in all three sections—2:18-27, 4:1-6, and 5:4b-12—that deal most directly with the “antichrist” opponents. Particularly in 2:21ff and 27, the author emphasizes that believers are taught by the Spirit; I take the references to “the anointing” as referring to the Spirit, though not all commentators agree on this point. The witness of the Spirit is sufficient; believers do not need any other human being to teach them regarding the truth—specifically the truth of who Jesus is (Messiah and Son of God), and what was accomplished through his earthly ministry.

But this creates a problem. If all believers are taught the truth by the Spirit, how can Christians such as the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus? Indeed, from the author’s standpoint, these opponents have a false belief in Jesus, and thus cannot be true believers at all; rather, they are false believers, and also false prophets. This is how the author characterizes them in 4:1: “…many false prophets [pseudoproph¢¡tai] have gone out into the world”. The noun proph¢¡t¢s means “foreteller”, but this does not always mean telling the future (i.e., beforehand); rather, the corresponding Hebrew term n¹»î° properly means a “speaker” (spokesperson), one who speaks as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to others. According to the early Christian ideal, all believers function as prophets in this way, and the Johannine churches seem particularly to have emphasized an egalitarian approach to prophecy.

If the opponents (as “false prophets”) are speaking a false word regarding Jesus, then they cannot be inspired by the Spirit of God (the Spirit of truth); instead, they must be speaking from a different spirit. Throughout 4:1-6, the author contrasts this ‘spirit’ with the Spirit of God, beginning here in verse 1:

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit; but (instead) examine the spirits, (to see) if it is of God.”

There is, of course, only one Spirit that is from God; however, the plural here refers to the idea that each person, who would speak about God, as a prophet, speaks under the influence of a spirit. If they are not inspired by God’s Spirit, then they speak by a different spirit that is not from God. The author puts forward a test, by which believers may examine the prophetic word, and this test is Christological (vv. 2-3). More to the point, the Christological significance is related to the controversy surrounding the opponents (and their understanding of the person of Christ). Unfortunately, from our standpoint, the defining phrase “having come in (the) flesh” does not tell us as much about the opponents’ Christology as we might like to know. Did they deny the reality of the incarnation, holding to an early docetic view of Christ? Or did they, in some way, deny or minimize the importance of the life and ministry of Jesus? The parallel confessional statement in 5:6 suggests that it was the death of Jesus, and/or its significance, that was particularly at issue. For further discussion on the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ, see my earlier notes and articles on the subject, especially the sets of notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

Two Johannine themes are thus brought together here in 4:1-6, in an attempt to combat the views of the opponents: (1) the Johannine principle of the internal witness of the Spirit (in teaching the truth), and (2) the eschatological aspect of prophecy (and false prophecy). The opponents are false prophets of the end-time; their view of Jesus, which they speak and teach, being false, does not come from the Spirit of God, but from a different spirit—a false and deceiving spirit. It is a spirit that is opposed to God, and is “against Christ” (antichrist). Indeed, the spirit that does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” (v. 2), is a “spirit of antichrist” (v. 3), a deceiving spirit of false prophecy that is at work in the world. It is a spirit that belongs to “the world” (in the thoroughly negative Johannine sense of the term kósmos); those who speak from this spirit (i.e., the opponents) belong to the world, and only others who belong to the world (i.e., false believers) will listen to and accept what they say (v. 5).

The true believer, however, belongs to God (as His offspring), and not to the world. The Spirit of God dwells within every true believer, and this Spirit is far greater than the false/deceiving spirit of “antichrist” that is in the world (v. 4). Because the Son (Jesus) was victorious over the world (Jn 16:33), believers, who are united with him, share this same victory (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). In this immediate context, “victory” (vb nikáœ) refers specifically to rejecting the false teaching of the opponents and resisting their influence. The true believer should not—and will not—let himself/herself be led astray by the false teaching and example of the opponents. Here again, the author draws upon early Christian eschatological tradition, regarding the ‘false prophets’ of the end-time who lead people astray (vb planáœ)—see Mark 13:6, 22 par; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14, etc).

The author offers an exhortation (and warning) to his readers not to be led astray by these particular “false prophets” (2:26; cf. also 1:8; 3:7). At the close of this section (v. 6), the author establishes a stark contrast, between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of going/leading astray [plán¢]”. The noun plán¢ is derived from the verb planáœ, and carries the same eschatological significance—see 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Pet 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11. True believers possess the Spirit of truth, are guided and taught by it, and speak from it; false believers, by contrast, are guided by a false spirit, being led astray by it, and also leading others astray. Just as the true believer will not listen to the false spirit, so the false believer cannot (and will not) hear the Spirit of truth. Note the way that the author frames this in terms of “us” (i.e., true believers) vs. “them” (false believers, viz. the opponents):

“We are of God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of God does not hear us. Out of this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray.” (v. 6)

Next week, we shall examine several other Johannine themes, which the author employs in his effort to deal with the conflict surrounding the opponents.

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:24

1 John 2:28-3:24

In the previous study, as in the two prior, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of both 1 and 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. The section covering 2:28-3:24 represents the central division of First John, in which the author presents, most clearly and directly, the principal theme of his work: namely, the contrast between the true and false believer. This is done through an exposition and application of a number of key Johannine principles. The primary principle expounded by the author is the idea of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of every believer.

This key noun was used earlier, in 2:3-8, both in the plural and singular, presented as something which Jesus has given to believers, a duty placed on them, which they are obligated to fulfill. In the Gospel of John, the noun entol¢¡ is used by Jesus in two different ways. First, it refers to the duty (and mission) which God the Father gave him (the Son) to complete, when He sent him to earth—10:18; 12:49-50; 15:10b. Second, it refers to the duty (and mission) that the Son, in turn, gives to his disciples (believers)—13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10a, 12. The two uses are clearly related, and the seeds of the dual-entol¢¡ may be glimpsed from a consideration of the duty/mission given by the Father to the Son. Two aspects of this mission may be ascertained:

    1. A directive, from the Father, regarding what the Son should say (and do), and which may be summarized as representing the word of the Father (12:49-50)
    2. The culmination of his mission is that the Son would lay down his own life, as a self-sacrifice, demonstrating the love and care he has for those (i.e., his disciples/believers) whom he holds dear (10:18; cf. 15:10)

These same two aspects are applied to the entol¢¡ that the Son (Jesus) gives to his disciples (and to all believers). This may be summarized based the teaching of Jesus in 15:4-10, and his use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”). Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in his word(s), and to have his word(s) remain in them (15:7; cf. 8:31); similarly, they are to remain in his love, and to have his love remain in them (15:9-10, 12; cf. 14:21). These two aspects define and explain what it means for the believer to remain in Jesus, as can be illustrated by the following simple diagram (which I have used on prior occasions):

The two-fold duty (entol¢¡) for the believer thus may be defined as:

    1. Remain rooted and faithful to Jesus’ words (i.e., teachings), which, in the Gospel relates primarily to the message regarding who Jesus is—viz., the Son sent from heaven by God the Father, and the mission he was sent to fulfill.
    2. Stay faithful to the example of Jesus in showing love (to fellow believers), being willing to lay down one’s own life for the sake of others.

In First John, this same two-fold entol¢¡ applies, as defined in 3:23:

“And this is His entol¢¡—that:

        • that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed,
          and
        • (that) we should love each other, just as he gave (the) entol¢¡ to us.”

In some ways, the duty to show love takes priority, as is indicated by its position in the Last Discourse (13:34-35; see vv. 1, 23), and its prominence in 15:9-17 (see also the closing words of 17:26). Similarly, the aspect of love seems to have priority, both in 1 John (2:5ff, see below) and 2 John (vv. 5-6).

The duty to remain in Jesus’ words is now defined in terms of trusting in Jesus as the Son of God—that is, trusting in the message (word) of who he is, a message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching (see this emphasis at the beginning of 1 John, 1:1-4). In 2 John, this trust-aspect of the entol¢¡ is defined by the Johannine keyword “truth” (al¢¡theia), vv. 3-4ff—that is, the truth of who Jesus is, and what he did (and said).

The Johannine principle of the dual entol¢¡, of trust (or truth) and love, was applied in 2 John to the conflict with the “antichrist” opponents (vv. 7-11), as we discussed in the earlier study. The same is true of the situation in 1 John. Indeed, the dual entol¢¡ is utilized even more comprehensively, as a structuring principle for the entire work. Note the way that the two aspects alternate as guiding thematic emphases, according to the following outline:

The “trust” sections each deal rather directly with the opponents, and their view/teaching regarding Jesus Christ. The “love” sections, at first glance, do not seem as relevant to the conflict, and yet, I would maintain that the author still has the opponents in view throughout. The contrast between the true and false believer is meant, primarily, to address the conflict surrounding the opponents. The important point to observe is that, in the author’s view, the opponents have shown themselves to be false believers, in that they violate both aspects of the great entol¢¡they do not hold a genuine trust in Jesus, nor do they show proper love to those who are believers.

Key to the author’s rhetorical strategy is the way that he utilizes language and wording, theological principles and points of emphases, that likely would have been familiar to many, if not most, of his readers. It is quite possible that even the opponents, as Johannine Christians, would have affirmed many of the author’s statements, even if they were to interpret them in a very different way.

With this framework in place, next week we will undertake a detailed survey of the section (2:28-3:24), with an eye toward examining how the author applies the Johannine language and precepts to the conflict that is at the heart of his work.

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

1 John 2:18-27

In the previous two studies, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. In particular the key Johannine theme, of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) required of every true believer—trust and love—is expounded and applied in relation to the conflict surrounding the “antichrist” opponents (v. 7). A genuine trust in Jesus Christ is defined in terms of the opponents’ Christology (and their false trust, vv. 7-9ff), while love for one’s fellow believers involves protecting them from the opponents’ influence (see vv. 10-11).

The same conflict is present in 1 John. This is clear from the similarity in wording between 2 John 7 and 1 John 4:3. The author of 1 John (if he is not the same person who penned 2 John) provides a more extensive and developed treatment of the conflict involving the opponents, whom he also calls antíchristos (antichrist). The central section, or division, of 1 John is 2:28-3:24. In this section, the author offers a presentation of what it means to be a true believer. By contrast, in the flanking sections (2:18-27 & 4:1-6), the focus is on the false believer. The principal theme of the treatise is the contrast between the true and false believer; the opponents are identified as false believers, while, in the author’s rhetorical strategy, his audience is essentially treated as true believers. This approach serves the purpose of both exhorting and warning Johannine Christians to remain faithful to the truth, in the face of the danger posed by the ‘antichrist’ opponents.

At various points throughout 1 John, we can see how this conflict has shaped the Johannine discourse. Various teachings and traditions, the language and manner of expression, have been adapted or interpreted so as to address the conflict involving the opponents. The first ‘antichrist’ section, 2:18-27, provides a number of examples for consideration. We begin with verse 18:

“Little children, it is the last hour. And, just as you (have) heard that (the one) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristoi]—(and) from this we know that it is (the) last hour.”

The chiastic parallelism of this statement demonstrates how the author can use certain literary and grammatical-syntactical means in order to apply Johannine tradition to the situation involving the opponents. Note the structure:

    • “Little children, it is the last hour
      • you have heard that antichrist comes
      • even now many antichrists have come to be
    • (thus) we know that it is the last hour.”

The framing statements regarding “the last hour” relate to the eschatological expectation of Johannine Christians. The author, and doubtless many (if not all) of his addressees, held an imminent eschatology, with a strong belief that he/they were living in the time just before the end of the current Age. Part of this expectation, apparently, was that someone (or something) called “against the Anointed” (antíchristos) would come, just before the end, during the end-time period of distress (see Dan 12:1; Mark 13:19, 24 par; Rev 1:9; 7:14, etc). The author uses the term antíchristos (a)nti/xristo$) without explanation, nor does he offer any additional information regarding this expectation, which suggests that we are dealing with a tradition that was familiar to his audience. It is not at all clear whether the term here refers to an individual human being, a spirit-being, or an impersonal (spiritual) force. Possibly all three are involved; cf. the expectation elucidated by Paul in 2 Thess 2:1-12. For more on this subject, see my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition” (the Johannine references are discussed in Part 3).

In any case, the author clearly interprets this eschatological expectation in terms of the opponents. They are manifestations of this antíchristos—indeed, through the presence and activity of the opponents, many ‘antichrists’ have come to be. These antíchristoi are human beings, and yet the author also recognizes that a distinct spirit of ‘antichrist’ is at work.

The author does not immediately explain how (or in what way) the opponents are “against the Anointed”. This is because the main point(s) at issue are only expounded progressively, throughout the three sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:4b-12) that deal most directly with the opponents’ views. What the author initially tells us about these ‘antichrists’ is that they have departed from the Johannine Community—or, at least, what the author regards as the Community of true believers:

“They went out of [ek] us, (in) that they were not of [ek] us; for, if they were of us, they would have remained [vb ménœ] with us—but (this was so) that it would be made to shine forth [i.e., be made apparent] that they are not of us.” (v. 19)

This is an example of how the distinctive Johannine theological language is applied to the situation involving the opponents. Two bits of Johannine vocabulary and style are employed. First, there is the preposition ek (“out of”), used two different ways, with a dual meaning: (a) “out of, [away] from”, in the sense of departing/leaving the group, and (b) “(part) of”, i.e., belonging to, the Community. Even more distinctive is the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), an important Johannine keyword that is used (with special theological meaning) many times throughout the Gospel and First Letter. The true believer remains—both in Christ and in the bond of Community—while false believers (such as the opponents) do not remain. The opponents, like Judas in the Gospel narrative, depart from the Community of true believers, going out into the darkness of the world (Jn 13:30; 1 Jn 4:1ff). This could simply refer to their departure from the truth (specifically with regard to their view of Jesus), or it may mean that a more tangible separation/division within the Johannine churches has taken place.

In verses 20-21, and again in verse 27, two additional Johannine features are related to the conflict. First, there is the allusion to the Spirit in verse 20:

“And (yet) you hold an anointing from the Holy (One), and have seen [i.e. know] all (thing)s.”

Though the point has been disputed by some commentators, it is best to understand the noun chrísma (“anointing”) here as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Related to this emphasis on the role of the Spirit, is the use of the noun al¢¡theia (“truth”) in verse 21:

“I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen [i.e. do not know] the truth, but (in) that you have seen [i.e. do know] it, and that every(thing) false is not of [ek] the truth.”

This would seem to reflect a fundamental spiritual (and spiritualistic) principle within the Johannine Community (see the recent article in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”). The indwelling presence of the Spirit means that every true believer is able to know and recognize the truth, through the internal witness of the Spirit. However, the presence and activity of the opponents has created a challenge to this principle, since there are certain Johannine Christians (the opponents) who, according to the author, are spreading false teachings. Such false teachings can not come from the same Spirit of God. This is a point that the author develops more clearly in 4:1-6.

A key rhetorical strategy of the author, as noted above, is to address his audience as though they are all true believers. Being true believers, who are taught (internally) by the Spirit (who is the truth, 5:6), they will be able to recognize teaching that is false. The implication is that the readers/hearers should be able to recognize the falseness of the opponents’ teachings.

And it is the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ that is most at issue. The author provides his first summary of the matter here in vv. 22-26. The main principle is that the ‘antichrist’, one who is “against the Anointed”, denies that Jesus is the Anointed (Christ/Messiah). This is another way of saying that the opponents deny Jesus as the Anointed. However, the precise meaning of the author in this regard is not entirely clear, and has been much discussed and debated by commentators. For a relatively in-depth treatment of the issue, see my earlier three-part article “1 Jn 2:22 and the Opponents in 1 John”. I will touch on the matter again in an upcoming study within this series.

What is most important is that, for the author, the opponents’ Christology (their view of Jesus) means that they are not true believers. By effectively denying Jesus, they show that they do not possess the bond of union with either the Son of God (Jesus) or God the Father (vv. 22-23). The presence of the Spirit (i.e., the “anointing”), and its internal witness, is the ultimate source of authority for believers (see again the aforementioned article), to the extent that there is no need to be taught (externally) by another human being (v. 27). But how, then, can individual believers be certain that their understanding is true, guided by the Spirit of God, and has not been led astray by false teachings (coming from other spirits)? The author gives an initial answer to this question in verse 24:

“(As for) you, that which you (have) heard from the beginning must remain in you. If it should remain in you, that which you heard from the beginning, (then) you also shall remain in the Son and in the Father.”

The only way for the believer not to be led astray, is to remain in the true teaching (regarding Jesus Christ). The author uses the key expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s) to summarize the true teaching. It echoes his words in the prologue (1:1-4), which, in turn, seem to be inspired by the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The implication is that the internal witness/teaching of the Spirit will conform to the established Gospel tradition, regarding the person and work of Jesus. Any teaching which deviates from the truth of the Gospel cannot come from the Spirit of God, but from a different (false/deceiving) spirit. By remaining in the truth of the Gospel tradition, one is sure to remain united (through the Spirit) with the Father and the Son.

It is the Gospel account, rooted in historical tradition, of who Jesus is, and what he said/did during his earthly ministry, that is principally in view. The opponents, in their view of Jesus, have departed from the Gospel tradition. This, at least, is how the author of 1 John understands the matter. Their teaching denies the truth of who Jesus is, and so they are “against the Anointed”. Their teaching is a malevolent reflection of the end-time spirit of Antichrist, capable of leading many believers astray.

Next week, we will continue this study, examining how the author of 1 John further adapts the Johannine tradition and theology to address this vital conflict. We shall turn our attention to the central section of the work (2:28-3:24), isolating a number of key elements that are particularly emphasized and employed by the author.

Saturday Series: 2 John 4-11 (continued)

2 John 4-11, continued

As mentioned in last week’s study, the author of 2 John (“the Elder”) frames his message in terms of the dual-theme of truth (al¢¡theia) and love (agáp¢). These are primary themes in the Johannine writings, occurring throughout the Gospel and First Letter . They are established here in the opening of 2 John (vv. 1-3), and then are subsequently developed/expounded in the body of the letter.

Of particular importance is the positioning of the truth-love thematic pair in relation to the keyword entol¢¡, another important Johannine term that is used throughout the Gospel and First letter. The noun entol¢¡ denotes a duty that is placed on a person, which he/she is then obligated to complete. It is often translated flatly as “command(ment)”, but this can be somewhat misleading, especially in the Johannine theological context. The term is introduced at the start of the body of the letter (v. 4), with particular reference being made to the entol¢¡ of believers loving one another. For more on how the author establishes this in vv. 4-5, see the discussion in the previous study.

In actuality, the author divides his message (vv. 4-11) in two parts, focusing first on the thematic component of love (vv. 4-6), and then on truth (vv. 7-9ff). The author of First John (if he is not the same person), does much the same thing, alternating between the themes of trust (pístis) and love in the body of his work:

In First John, it is clear that trust and love represent the two components of a single entol¢¡the great duty that all believers are required to fulfill. Indeed, the author states this quite plainly at the end of the central section (3:23f). The author of 2 John would seem to hold a similar outlook, only he utilizes the Johannine keyword al¢¡theia (“truth”) in place of pístis (“trust”). However, the meaning and focus is essentially the same. The Gospel (esp. the Last Discourse of Jesus, 13:31-16:33) likewise affirms a single (two-fold) entol¢¡, defined in terms of remaining in Jesus’ word (lógos/rh¢¡ma) and in his love (agáp¢).

 

As mentioned above, verses 4-6 focus on the entol¢¡ of love. However, in verse 6, the author begins transitioning to the theme of truth/trust. This is done rather cleverly, using an elliptical and illusive style that is typical of the Johannine writings. Keeping in mind that the noun entol¢¡, in this context, refers, not to customary ethical-religious ‘commands’ (such as the Ten Commandments), but specifically to the duty of believers to love each other, the author seems to be using circular language in verse 6:

    • “And this is the love—
      • that we should walk about according to his entolaí;
    • this is the entol¢¡
      • that we should walk about in it [i.e. the love]”

If believers love, then they will live/act (“walk about”) fulfilling the duty required of them; but the duty is that they love. Actually, as mentioned above, love is only one aspect of the two-fold entol¢¡; the second aspect is trust, referenced here in 2 John under the label “truth” (al¢¡theia).

The final phrase of verse 6 (“that we should walk about in it”) is ambiguous, since the feminine pronoun aut¢¡ could refer to any one of three prior nouns, all of which are feminine, also being closely interrelated in Johannine thought: agáp¢ (“love”), al¢¡theia (“truth”), and entol¢¡ (the duty believers are required to fulfill). All three are valid as a referent for the pronoun, and this ambiguity has led to considerable disagreement among commentators as to which is intended. The immediate context of verse 6 suggests that “it” refers to love; however, the overall arc of vv. 4-6, and the transition here to vv. 7-9, argues in favor of a reference to truth. Von Wahlde (p. 223f) effectively illustrates the chiastic framework of vv. 4-6, whereby the initial phrase “walking about in (the) truth” in v. 4 has a natural parallel in the final phrase of v. 6 (“we should walk about in it”).

From a Johannine theological standpoint, the term “truth” covers both components of the great duty—(i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ example. One cannot fulfill this duty without fulfilling both components; moreover, violation of either aspect means violation of the entire command. When the author speaks of the need for believers to love one another, this also entails the affirmation (and confirmation) of genuine trust in Jesus among believers.

The conflict within the Johannine Commmunity involving the “antichrist” opponents forced apostolic leaders and missionaries (such as the “Elder”) to define the great entol¢¡ (trust and love) in relation to this conflict. For the first time in recorded Church history, we find Christians in disagreement over what trust in Jesus specifically entails. In other words, this is the first known Christological controversy. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God? Where is the dividing line between a true confession of faith and one that is false?

For the author(s) of 1 and 2 John, as well as (we may assume) many others in the Johannine churches, the view(s) expressed by the opponents were false, demonstrating that the opponents were actually false believers. By promoting a false view of Christ, they could be considered “against Christ” (antichrist). It is likely that the opponents held the author and his circle in similarly low regard.

While First John gives us an extensive treatment of the conflict, it is presented in a more seminal way here in Second John. This probably means that 2 John was written prior to 1 John, but this is far from certain; indeed, some commentators would argue just the opposite. In any case, the author states the matter quite simply and directly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many plánoi (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not giving common account of Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this [i.e. such a person] is (the) plános and the antíchristos!”

The author refers to the opponents by two labels. The first (used twice) is plános, which means someone who leads people astray. The second is antíchristos, literally “against (the) Anointed”, where the prefix anti– can connote both opposition and the idea of a (false) replacement. The term antíchristos was used of the opponents in 1 John (2:18, 22; 4:3). While the other term (plános) was not used in 1 John, the basic idea (going astray and leading people astray) is certainly present, through the related noun plán¢ (4:6) and verb planᜠ(1:8; 2:26; 3:7).

The great error of these people, according to the author, is that they do not confess Jesus Christ as “coming in the flesh”. The precise nature of their view of Christ has been the subject of longstanding debate among commentators and historians of doctrine. I have discussed the matter at length in a number of recent articles and series of notes (links to which you will find below). For the purposes of this study I wish to focus, not so much on the nature of the opponents’ Christology, but on the author’s response to it, and how this shapes the message of 2 John.

An important detail of the statement in verse 7 is the notice that a number of these opponents have “gone out into the world”. Given the distinctiveness of the noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) as a Johannine keyword, this phrase can be understood two different ways. First, it can mean that the opponents have left the Community of true believers, and, like Judas (Jn 13:30), have gone out into the darkness of the world (in opposition to God and Christ); cf. 1 Jn 2:19. Second, it can be understood in the neutral sense of traveling about, acting as missionaries, spreading their beliefs into other areas and among other congregations. Both of these aspects of meaning are doubtless intended by the author. Compare the same wording in 1 Jn 4:1.

What follows in vv. 8-11 makes clear that some of the opponents (i.e., people holding their views) are traveling about as missionaries and representatives, and that congregations (such as those of the “Lady”) are likely to encounter them. As false teachers (1 John calls them false prophets, 4:1ff) who would lead people astray, the author perceives a serious threat posed by the opponents traveling among the various Johannine congregations (house-churches), where, as Christian travelers and missionaries, some might be inclined to give them hospitality (and a hearing).

The author’s warning is given in verse 8, and then he proceeds (in verse 9) effectively to declare that the opponents—and all those who follow their view of Jesus—are not true believers in Christ. The author does this with a typically Johannine formulation:

“Every one leading forward and not remaining in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not have/hold God…” (v. 9a)

The use of a substantive participle (with definite article) preceded by the adjective pás (“all/every”) is typical of Johannine style, and occurs frequently in 1 John. It is a way of describing the essential nature/character of a person or group, i.e., “everyone doing/being {such}”. The verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) is another important Johannine keyword, occurring many times in the Gospel, and with even greater relative frequency in 1 John. The person who remains in Christ (that is, as a true believer) will remain in both his word and his love; conversely, anyone who does not remain in his word or love, does not remain in him (and thus, is not a true believer).

The author expounds this Johannine idea of remaining in Jesus’ word in terms of holding to a true view of Christ (i.e., true faith), one that is firmly rooted in the Gospel Tradition (viz., the Discourses and Jesus’ own witness regarding his identity as the Son). By not remaining in the truth, the opponents have left it, leading the way forward (vb proágœ), in a negative sense. Only the person who remains in the true teaching, and who thus possesses true faith/trust in Jesus, is a true believer, holding union with the Son (Jesus) and God the Father (v. 9b). All of this is expressed in traditional Johannine language, applied to the specific context of the conflict involving the opponents.

The body of the letter concludes (vv. 10-11) with instruction on what should be done when encountering the opponents (as travelers/missionaries). Here the themes of love (vv. 4-6) and truth (vv. 7-9) merge together again. The response to the opponents demonstrates fidelity to the truth (i.e., trust in Jesus) but also love for fellow believers, by protecting them from the opponents’ false teaching. The author’s advice is straightforward:

“If any(one) comes to you and does not carry this [i.e. the true] teaching, do not receive him into (the) house, even a ‘glad tidings’ you must not say to him” (v. 10)

In other words, give no hospitality to such people, and do not even offer any good wishes to them. The use of the noun oikía (“house”) could refer to a private home, but probably the congregation (house-church, meeting in a home) is primarily in view. In any case, the purpose of the instruction is clearly to prevent the opponents from further spreading their views throughout the churches. This is the purpose of First John as well, but here we see the instruction (and warning) being addressed to a specific congregation (and/or church leader).

The author concludes by emphasizing again that the opponents must be avoided, as thoroughly as possible. Even to offer such a person words of greeting or well-wishes, in the author’s view, means that you are “…making common bond with his evil deeds” (v. 11).

It is interesting that in 3 John, the same author condemns this practice of refusing hospitality to traveling Christians (v. 10, cf. vv. 5-8). The author’s view of the matter was thoroughly dualistic in this regard: all true believers are to be welcomed, while all false believers are not to be welcomed. In the Johannine writings, love (agáp¢) refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the love between believers (i.e., true believers). As note above, by shunning false believers, other (true) believers are protected, and the unity of the Church (that is, the Community of true believers) as a whole is maintained. In this regard, the shunning of false believers is actually an act of love. This, I am sure, is how the author of 2 John would view the matter.

In our next study, we shall look at this same conflict (involving the “antichrist” opponents) as it is dealt with in First John, and how the author’s response to the conflict shapes the distinctive theological expression of that work.

For discussion on the Christology of the opponents, see my earlier studies on 1 Jn 2:22 (parts 1, 2, 3) and 4:2-3 (parts 1, 2, 3), as well as the article in the series “Spritualism in the New Testament”.

References above marked “von Wahlde” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, Volume 3: Commentary on the Three Johannine Letters, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (2010).

 

Saturday Series: 2 John 4-11

Beginning in May, and continuing through the Summer, the Saturday Series will focus on the role that cultural-religious conflict has played in shaping early Christian belief and practice, as expressed in the New Testament Scriptures. This involves historical criticism—examining the historical background of the texts—but also various aspects of literary criticism, including rhetorical criticism—analyzing the author’s purpose in writing, the central proposition(s), the arguments and literary-rhetorical devices used in support, and so forth.

We will begin with the conflict that is at the heart of the Letters of John (esp. 1-2 John). These writings attest to the existence and activity of a group of opponents, whom the author considers antíchristoi, people who are “against the Anointed”, i.e., “antichrists”. In recent notes and articles—including the Saturday Series studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine Writings—the views of these opponents have been discussed. It is my contention that the conflict involving these “antichrist” opponents is central to First John, and represents the principal reason and purpose for the author writing as he does.

The same is true of Second John, though, in some ways, the brevity and relative simplicity of the letter allows us to obtain a clearer glimpse of the situation. Second John also provides an excellent test case for a study on the influence of religious conflict on early Christian thought and practice. For this reason, our studies will begin with 2 John.

It is quite possible that the same author who penned 2 and 3 John (“the Elder”) also wrote 1 John. However, even if he did not, 1 and 2 John clearly derive from the same religious and theological setting—Christians with a shared culture, language, and belief system. It is generally assumed that this involved a number of congregations throughout a particular geographical region (usually identified with Asia Minor, and the area centered around Ephesus), and which is typically referred to by scholars as the Johannine Community—the Community within which the Johannine Writings (Gospel, Letters, and [probably] the book of Revelation) were first produced and distributed.

More than this, the authors of 1 and 2 John, if they are not the same person, also share a distinctive language, style, and manner of expression, utilizing a common vocabulary, syntax, and so forth. The two letters also clearly are addressing issues related to a common group of opponents. That is to say, the same basic historical, cultural, and religious conflict is at the heart of both writings.

The Conflict in 2 John

Because of how short 2 John is, it is very easy to outline its structure:

    • Epistolary Prescript (Introduction/Greeting), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-11
    • Epistolary Postscript (Conclusion), vv. 12-13

Two aspects of the Introduction are important to note, as they relate to the body of the letter and the author’s purpose (causa) in writing. The first of these is the addressee of the letter: “the chosen Lady and her offspring”. The adjective eklektós (lit. “gathered out”) identifies this “Lady” as a believer (or group of believers). The denotation (of being “selected out, elect, chosen”) reflects early Christian usage and the distinctive religious identity of believers in Christ—see Rom 16:13; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:4ff; Rev 17:14; cf. also Mark 13:20, 27 par.

It seems clear that the author is writing to a Christian congregation, though there remains uncertainty as to whether the “Lady” refers to a specific individual, or is figurative for the congregation itself. In the former instance, she would to be regarded as a prominent figure in congregation, perhaps the host of a house-church. Similarly, her “offspring” could refer to the actual children of a particular woman, but, more likely, the term “offspring” is a way of designating the members of the congregation/community. The same term (tékna, “offspring, children”) is used in such a figurative sense by the author of 1 John (3:1-2, 10; 5:2; cf. also 3 John 4).

The congregation of the “Lady” would seem to be some distance removed from the author and his circle, but still closely aligned with it in thought and practice. The idea of a “sister-church” may be appropriate. In any case, it suggests a network of relations between Johannine congregations, across a particular geographic area. In this regard, the “Elder” is functioning in the manner of an apostolic missionary, similar to Paul, for example. Like Paul, he seems to be concerned with establishing and maintaining a sense of unity among the congregations. First John likely reflects a similar purpose—that is, uniting the Johannine churches, exhorting them in their identity as believers in Christ, and warning them against the opponents.

Such a network of churches would have to be maintained through a combination of letters and personal visits (see v. 12). The letters themselves would be delivered by traveling missionaries (or other trusted believers). Paul’s letters reflect this dynamic in vivid detail, and we can see it clearly in 2 and 3 John as well. The opponents also would have written and traveled to many of the churches as well, something which the author regarded as representing a dangerous (and nefarious) influence on the Johannine churches. His own efforts are meant to counteract the opponents’ influence.

The second important feature in the Introduction is the author’s use of the words love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) and truth (al¢¡theia). These are key Johannine terms, which occur extensively throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Though common terms, they take on a special theological (and Christological) significance within the Johannine writings. This vocabulary is fundamental for defining what it means to be true believer in Christ. The author’s use of the terminology in the Introduction effectively positions the “Lady” congregation, along with himself (and his own circle/congregation), as true believers:

“…to the gathered out [i.e. chosen/elect] Lady and her offspring, whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all th(ose) having known the truth—through the truth th(at) remains in us, and (which) shall be with us into the Age” (vv. 1-2)

He concludes with a blessing (v. 3) that ends, emphatically, with the expression “…in truth and love”.

This terminology is especially important since, in the author’s view, the opponents do not manifest either truth or love—indeed, they fundamentally violate the duty of the believer, that duty which defines a person as a genuine believer: viz., to remain in the truth (i.e., true faith) and in love.

The Johannine language used by the author existed prior to the conflict with the opponents, and is used to address that conflict; but, in the process, the theological meaning and significance of the language would develop and be further clarified. In the body of 2 John, we are able to see something of this interaction between the Johannine theology and the conflict that surrounded the Johannine opponents.

2 John 4-11

The author’s rhetoric is carefully crafted, built up through several short discourse-units, each of which reflect the Johannine language and style, especially as one sees it expressed in 1 John. He begins by praising the members of the “Lady” congregation, effectively identifying them as true believers:

“I was very glad that I have found your offspring walking about in (the) truth [peripatoúntas en al¢theía], just as we received the (charge) laid on (us) to fulfill, (from) alongside the Father.” (v. 4)

The phrase “offspring walking about in the truth” is Johannine language that clearly identifies people as true believers. The very expression “in the truth” (en al¢theía) serves this purpose—i.e., referring to believers as those who are, and who remain, “in the truth”. At the same time, the use of the verb peripatéœ (“walk about”) reflects a traditional ethical-religious idiom for the regular/habitual behavior of people. The one who “walks about” in the truth, fulfills the Christian identity throughout his/her daily life (see 1 John 1:6-7; 2:6, 11). The substantive use of a participle, to express the essential identity and character of a person—here, for example, one “walking about in the truth” —is typical of Johannine style.

The author of 1 John similarly treats his audience as if they are, effectively, true believers—as opposed to false believers, such as the opponents. This is an important aspect of the author’s rhetoric, both in 1 and 2 John.

Another important Johannine keyword is the noun entol¢¡, which is often translated flatly as “command(ment)”, but which properly refers to a duty placed on (en-) someone which they are obligated to complete (the component –tol¢¡ is related to the noun télos and the verb téllomai, “complete, fulfill”). The true believer fulfills the duty that God has placed on us. The characteristic conduct of “walking in the truth” is defined specifically in terms of fulfilling this duty (entol¢¡) that we have received from God.

In verse 5, the author’s tone shifts from praise to exhortation:

“And now, I would ask (of) you, (dear) Lady, not as a new entol¢¡ being written to you, but (as one) which we hold from (the) beginning: that we would love (each) other.”

The duty required of the (true) believer is to love one another. In the Johannine tradition, this duty (entol¢¡) goes back to the words of Jesus himself (Jn 13:34-35; 15:9-13, 17) and is emphasized extensively throughout 1 John. There are actually two components to the great duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) required of every believer: (i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, following the example of Jesus. The author of 1 John expresses this quite clearly in 3:23-24, and the alternation of themes trust-love-trust-love-trust is an organizing principle for the main body of his treatise (2:18-5:12). Much the same is true, though on a smaller scale, for the author of 2 John. He divides the body of his letter between the themes of love (vv. 4-6) and trust (vv. 7-9ff). The theme of truth covers both components of the entol¢¡, but applies more directly, in 2 John, to the aspect of trust in Jesus.

Next week, as we continue this study, we shall see how the author of 2 John positions the conflict with the opponents in this love-truth / love-trust matrix. This will also allow us to glimpse ways in which such conflicts worked to shape and develop the early Christian theology.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18, continued

In the study last week, I noted the close parallel between 1 John 5:18 and 3:9. This strongly suggests that two verses are closely related, and that the later reference (in 5:18) may be used to explain further the meaning and force of the sin-reference in 3:9 (discussed at length in prior studies). The formal parallelism in wording, between the two statements, is readily apparent—the main clause being nearly identical in each:

    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God…
      pás ho gegenn¢ménos ek toú Theoú

      • …does not do sin” (3:9a)
        hamartían ou poieí
      • …does not sin” (5:18)
        ouk hamartánei

Based on this close similarity, as noted above, it is fair to assume that the explanatory clauses which follow, in each reference, are also related. The hóti-clause in 3:9b is, again:

“…(in) that [hóti] His seed remains [ménei] in him”

This is the stated reason why the one having been born of God (i.e., the true believer) “does not sin”. It is because [hóti] God’s seed “remains” in the believer. The significance of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) in this context, within the Johannine theology, has been discussed extensively throughout these studies. Indeed, it is this distinctive use of the verb which serves as the basis for one of my proposals toward addressing the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John (see last week’s study and the one prior).

Now let us turn to the explanation provided by the author in 5:18:

“…but [allá] the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him”

There is an ambiguity here of subject and (pronoun) object, much as there also is in 3:9b. However, the ambiguity in that earlier reference is much easier to decipher. Literally, the clause in 3:9b reads “his seed remains in him”. But, based on the context, and Johannine language, it is clear that this means “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him [i.e. the believer]”. The situation is not so straightforward in the case of 5:18, as nearly all commentators recognize. There are two main ways to explain the Greek syntax:

    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the Son, Jesus] keeps watch (over) him [i.e. the believer]
    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

Some manuscripts read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”), rather than the ordinary pronoun autón (“him”). Such a reading would provide confirmation for the second interpretation (above). However, even if the reading autón is regarded as original, the second interpretation is still possible, since the ordinary pronoun (i.e., autós, etc) can be used reflexively.

The parallel with 3:9 strongly favors the first option—namely, that Jesus, the Son (i.e., the one born of God), protects the believer. God’s “seed”, in the Johannine theological context, is best understood as the living Word (Logos) of God, who is the Son, abiding in the believer. God’s eternal Word is manifest, primarily, through the person of His Son. Alternatively, the “seed” may be understood as the Spirit of God; but this would differ little, in terms of the Johannine theology, since the believer’s abiding union with the Son (and the Father) is realized through the Spirit (3:24; 4:13). Moreover, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), then also His Word is Spirit, and is experienced through the Spirit (cf. Jesus’ statement in Jn 6:63).

The problem with this interpretation of 5:18 is that the idiom “the one coming to be born of God”, using the substantive verbal noun (participle), of the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), followed by the preposition ek (“[out] of”, in the expression “of God” or “of the Spirit”), always refers to believers, not to Christ. The verb gennᜠis applied to Jesus in John 18:37, but in the context of his human birth, not to a Divine/spiritual birth as God’s Son. Moreover, the idea of believers guarding themselves from sin/evil, keeping themselves pure, etc, is not at all out of place in the context of 3:4-9, as the exhortation in 2:28-29 and 3:3 makes clear.

As it turns out, both lines of interpretation are quite valid—both in terms of the Johannine theology and the literary context of 1 John. Overall, the theological focus, along with the immediate parallel in 3:9, favors the first interpretation (i.e., the Son protects the believer), while Johannine usage (vocabulary and syntax) tends to favor the second interpretation (i.e., the believer guards him/herself). A third option is available, by way of a minority reading for the clause in 5:18

“…but the coming to be (born) [i.e., birth, génn¢sis] keeps watch (over) him”

that is to say, it is the very spiritual birth, the coming to be born (as God’s offspring), which protects the believer from sin. In some ways, this provides the closest parallel with 3:9b, since the idea of God’s “seed” being present, in the believer, generally corresponds to the idea of the believer’s birth (as His offspring). However, the textual (manuscript) evidence argues firmly against this reading, and it is adopted by few, if any, commentators today.

Possibly in favor of the first interpretation (that it is the Son who protects the believer) is the use of the aorist tense (for the participle), genn¢theís, rather than the perfect tense (i.e., gegenn¢ménos), which is typically used when referring to the birth of believers as God’s offspring. It has been suggested that the difference in tense here is meant to convey a certain distinction—viz., between the Son and believers. However, though this would make an attractive solution, it is precarious to based one’s interpretation on such slight evidence as the supposed distinction between tenses.

Even so, I am inclined to favor (slightly) the interpretation that understands the second participial expression as a reference to Jesus the Son (“the one born of God”), whose abiding presence protects the believer (“the one born of God” [first participle]) from sin and evil.

Continuing the comparison between 3:9 and 5:18, there is a comparable parallel between 3:9c and the final clause of 5:18. In each instance, the implications of the Divine protection, provided to the believer, are stated boldly. In 3:9c, we have (again) the difficult declaration (discussed previously):

“…and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God”

Essentially, this restates the declaration of v. 9a, giving a chiastic structure to the verse (cf. the outline in the earlier study). However, what is to be most noted is the absolute character of the declaration—that the true believer, the one “born of God”, is not able to sin. This compares with the corresponding clause in 5:18:

“…and the evil does not touch him”

Indeed, the statement that evil does not (or cannot) touch the believer is comparable to the statement that he/she is not able to sin. One should perhaps understand the substantive adjective (with the definite article) ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) as a personification or personal reference— “the evil one” (compare 2:13-14; 3:12; Jn 17:15), i.e., the Satan/Devil (see 3:8, 10), elsewhere called, in the Johannine writings, “the chief (ruler) [árchœn] of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Whether understood more abstractly, or as a person, this evil fundamentally characterizes “the world” (ho kósmos)—that is, the present world-order (especially at the end of the current Age), which is opposed to God, and is dominated by sin and darkness. The “antichrist” false believers (2:18-27; 4:1-6), the opponents whose views the author combats throughout 1 John, are part of this evil world. The thoroughness of this negative portrait of “the world” is made clear in verse 19, by way of a typical dualistic Johannine contrast:

“We have seen that we are of God [ek tou Theou], and (that) the whole world lies outstretched in the evil.”

Again “the evil”, as in v. 18, can be understood as “the evil one”. The expression “of God” is a shorthand for “having been born of God”, but it also implies, more generally, the idea that believers belong to God. In any case, “the world” is so thoroughly dominated by sin and darkness, that only through the abiding presence of God—His Spirit, Son, and Word—can we, as believers, be protected, so that the evil of the world “does not touch” us. It was as a result of the Son’s fulfillment of his mission, for which the Father sent him to earth, that the power of the world (with its sin and evil) has been overcome (Jn 12:31; 16:33; cf. 1 Jn 3:5, 8). Now believers are, and can be, victorious over the world, through the life and truth that the Son, through the Spirit, provides. This is an important emphasis in 1 John and a key part of the author’s exhortation (2:13-14, 15-17; 3:1; 4:4ff; 5:4-5). The contrast between believers and the world is a fundamental theme that runs through the Johannine writings.

Next week, we will bring this series of studies, on the Johannine view of sin, to a close. As part of this conclusion, some final comments on the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John will be offered, along with a review of the pair of approaches to the problem which I have proposed.

 

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-17

Last week, I presented two alternative approaches to solving the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. The term ‘sin problem’, as has been discussed, refers to the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and 3:4-9. In the former passage, it is clear that believer can, and do (at times), commit sin; whereas, in the latter passages, the author boldly states that the true believer does not—and, indeed, can not (“is not able to”)—sin.

I have proposed a pair of solutions—one of which is based on the author’s use of the Johannine key verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), and the other which is based on a dual-layered Johannine understanding of sin (hamartía). As a way of evaluating these proposals, and to give further consideration to the ‘sin problem’, we must turn to the final sin-reference in 1 John.

The final section of the letter is 5:13-20, in which the author sums up his arguments and presents the summary in the context of his causa—that is, his purpose and reason for writing. Verse 13 states this purpose rather clearly:

“I have written these (thing)s to you (so) that you might have seen [i.e. know] that you hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], to (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.”

This differs from the stated purpose of the Gospel (20:31), which was that the readers/hearers would come to trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and thus would have (eternal) life. In 1 John, the author is writing to believers, and so the purpose is that his readers might see/know that they hold this life. The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The author addresses his audience as true believers, in contrast with the “antichrist” opponents whose views he combats throughout (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). And yet, there is the very real possibility that these believers might be “led astray” by the false teaching of the “antichrists”. If the Johannine Christians remain firm in their trust, in accordance with what the author has outlined in his letter, then they can know that they are, indeed, true believers who possess eternal life.

We saw from the context of 3:4-9 that a person’s relationship with sin is a key factor in defining what it means to be a true believer. The author, in this passage, does not use the idiom “true believer”; rather, the true believer (as opposed to the false) is defined by certain substantive verbal nouns (participles):

    • “every (one) remaining in him” (vb ménœ), v. 6
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (vb gennᜠ+ ek), v. 9
      these then relate to:
    • “the (one) doing the right (thing)”, in contrast to “the (one) doing the sin” (vv. 4, 7)

The true believer, thus, is the person who has come to be born of God (as His offspring), and then remains in Him. One remains in God the Father by remaining in the Son; and one remains in the Son by remaining in his word, and in his love.

My two approaches to the ‘sin problem’ can be summarized as follows:

    • Approach 1:
      If the believer remains in the Son (his word and love), then he/she will not (and cannot) sin; only by falling out of the abiding relationship can one commit sin (in the general sense).
    • Approach 2:
      Sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) is understood here in the fundamental (theological) sense of unbelief—particularly, by violating the great two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers (3:23). One may occasionally sin, in the general sense (of ethical-religious failings or wrongdoing), but a true believer cannot sin in this fundamental sense.

As we turn to the final sin-reference in 5:16-18, we see the author does, in fact, distinguish between two kinds of sin: one that is “toward death” (prós thánaton)—that is, which leads to death—and one which does not. The implication is that the believer can, on occasion, commit the kind of sin which does not lead “to death”:

“If any(one) should see his brother sinning a sin not toward death, he shall make request (about it to God), and He will give him life—(that is,) to the (one)s sinning (the sin) not toward death.”

The author continues:

“There is a sin toward death; (but it is) not about that (sin) which I say (that) you should make a request (of God).”

If a fellow believer (“brother”) commits sin, and one becomes aware of it, then one should pray to God on the sinning believer’s behalf; and God will hear this prayer, and will restore the sinning believer to life (“will give him life”). This applies to any sin except the sin that leads “to death”. The point is clarified in verse 17:

“All th(at is) not right [adikía] is sin; and (yet) there is sin (that is) not toward death.”

Sin is here defined as that which is “without right(ness)” (adikía), i.e., “not right”, wrongdoing, etc. Back in 3:4, sin was similarly defined as that which is “without law” (anomía, adj. ánomos), i.e., “lawless, against (God’s) law”. In other words, all wrongdoing and improper conduct is sin, yet there is a kind of sin which leads “to death” that is fundamentally distinct. This sin “to death” is different enough that the author suggests one should not even pray to God about it. This would seem to be best explained on the premise that the person committing the “sin toward death” is not a true believer at all.

Such an explanation would be fully in keeping with the central theme of 1 John—namely, the contrast between the true and false believer. The true believer will not violate the great entol¢¡—of trust and love (3:23)—while the false believer violates both aspects; indeed, the false believer has neither genuine trust in Christ nor possesses the love of Christ.

The false believers which the author has in mind, primarily, throughout his work, are the “antichrist” opponents. These persons, whom the author regards as false prophets of the end-time, espouse a false view of Jesus, and thus do not possess true belief in him as the Son of God. Further, they also violate the second half of the dual-command: the duty to show love to one’s fellow believers. Apparently they demonstrate their lack of love simply by the way that they have separated from the Community (of true believers), 2:19. Possibly, the author’s words regarding the demonstration of love in 3:16-17 are also an indication of ways that (according to him) the opponents violate the command.

In my view, the author’s framing of the matter in 5:16-17, in light of the overarching theme of his letter, means that the “sin toward death” is the sin of the “antichrists”, by which they violate both components of the great command—true faith in Christ and genuine love for others (following Christ’s example). The true believer, on the other hand, will not violate this great command.

If the author’s handling of the ‘sin problem’ here in 5:16-17 provides support for my second proposal, what of the first proposal? Does the author’s teaching here relate to the key idea of the believer remaining in the Son? Verses 16-17 may not be directly on point for this question, but verse 18 that follows does seem to relate:

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

This verse is clearly parallel with 3:9, and helps to explain it. I will be discussing this further next week, as we begin to bring this series of studies to a close.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (concluded)

1 John 3:4-9, concluded

In these studies on the concept of sin in the Johannine writings, our examination of 1 John 3:4-9 demonstrates how the tenets of Biblical Criticism can help to elucidate difficult interpretive problems. One begins with the Greek (or Hebrew) text, giving careful consideration to the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax utilized by the author. Then the cultural and historical background of the text is examined, along with the thought-world of the author and the original audience (as far as this can be determined). Also essential to this critical study is a thorough analysis of the literary context of a passage—the structure of the work as a whole, the rhetorical approach, the author’s goal and purpose in writing, and all the various literary devices employed in pursuing the intended goal.

All (or most) of these aspects of critical study have been touched upon in our examination of 1 John 3:4-9, and in relation to longstanding interpretive problem inherent in these verses. This ‘sin problem’ involves the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and those in 3:4-9; the same basic contradiction is repeated, for good measure, in 5:16-17 and 18. Our studies on 1 John 3:4-9 have proceeded with the ‘sin problem’ clearly in view.

There have been numerous attempts by scholars to resolve the apparent contradiction. They vary in approach, but none has proven particularly successful; certainly, no proposed solution to date has garnered much of a consensus among New Testament scholars. Many commentators today seem more or less resigned to the fact that the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John cannot really be solved.

In bringing the study on 1 John 3:4-9 to a close, I wish to present four interpretative approaches which have been reasonably popular among commentators in recent decades. I will discuss these briefly, before offering two distinct, but somewhat divergent, approaches of my own.

Four Approaches to the ‘Sin Problem’ of 1 John

1. One explanation, especially popular among conservative (and evangelical) commentators, is that the author of 1 John is making a distinction between occasional sins (which a believer may commit) and a pattern of regular or habitual sinning. The author maintains that believers can (and do) commit occasional sins (1:8-2:2; 5:16-17), but then declares that they will not engage in regular or repeatedly sinful behavior (3:4-9; 5:18).

There is a certain attractiveness to this solution, since it generally reflects Christian experience and makes for practical ethical instruction. However, I find the approach to be quite unconvincing, and do not think that it is at all what the author is emphasizing in 3:4-9. Much of the solution hinges on the use of the present tense throughout 3:4-9, compared, for example, with the use of the perfect tense in 1:10 or the aorist in 2:1. The present tense here, it is argued, implies a regular (progressive, continuous) action. However, this need not be the emphasis; indeed, it does not seem to be the emphasis in 3:9c. Moreover, the present tense is also used in 1:8, which weakens the argument based on a supposed distinction in tenses.

Those who take this approach would do better to focus on the use of the substantive participle (with definite article) throughout 3:4-9. This syntax, typical of Johannine style, is used to define believers (or non-believers) according to the action or condition indicated by the verbal expression—e.g., “the one(s) doing {such}…”. This certainly implies a regular and characteristic behavior. However, this very usage ultimately works against the proposed solution. Note, for example, the way that the false believer is characterized as “the (one) sinning” in verse 6; however, the opposite is not stated the same way. Rather, the true believer is characterized as “the (one) remaining in him”, as a result of which, he/she does not sin. Admittedly, the participial expression “the (one) doing the right (thing)” in v. 7 is formally parallel to “the (one) doing the sin” in v. 4, but this does not solve the problem of the language the author uses in vv. 6 and 9.

2. Another common approach is to interpret the author’s teaching in 3:4-9 from a paraenetic and exhortational standpoint. That is to say, the sinlessness language in vv. 6 and 9 represents the ideal for which believers must strive. It is as though when, in verse 6, the author says “every (one) remaining in him does not sin”, he really means “…should not sin”. Again, this would represent sound and practical instruction, and such exhortational emphasis is, indeed, present in verse 3: “Every (one) holding this hope upon him [i.e. upon Christ] purifies himself, even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is pure”.

However, the author’s emphasis in vv. 4-9 does not seem to be exhortational, but, rather, is theological. He is describing the nature of the true believer, in contrast to that of the false believer, a nature that is defined in relation to their/our union with the Son (Jesus). Since the Son removed sin, and is himself free from sin (vv. 5, 8), the one who abides/remains in him is similarly free from sin (vv. 6, 9). The absoluteness of the statement in v. 9c, in particular, defies the proposed solution. The claim that “the (one) having come to be (born) of God…is not able to sin” goes beyond an exhortation to the believer—it defines what it means to be a true believer.

3. A third interpretative approach understands the sinlessness of the believer (vv. 6, 9) in terms of the power or ability to avoid sin. Believers are not completely free from sin, except insofar as they allow this power to work within them, submitting to its internal guidance. This approach has more to recommend it than the previous two. In particular, the central emphasis, in verse 9, on the “seed” of God that “remains” within the believer, would seem to provide strong support for this line of interpretation. It would be much stronger, however, if verse 9c was worded differently: “…is able not to sin”, rather than “…is not able to sin”. The author’s actual wording (with the negative particle ou preceding dýnatai [“is able”]) suggests that it is not even possible for the true believer to sin.

4. The fourth approach is, in some ways, a variation on #2 (see above), but with an eschatological orientation. Sinlessness is the ideal and goal for the believer, but it is to be realized with the coming of the end. Even the seemingly absolute language in verse 9 could be explained on these terms. It is the eschatological destiny of every true believer to be completely free of sin. While one may currently struggle to avoid sin, and (indeed) may occasionally sin, our sinless perfection will soon be realized, with the return of Christ, when our identity as “those born of God” will be made complete.

The immediate context of vv. 4-9 argues strongly in favor of this interpretive approach. After all, the section opens with an eschatological instruction (2:28-3:3) which includes the idea that, upon the return of Christ, believers will come to be something more than what we currently are (3:2). A sinless perfection, reflecting the Son’s own sinlessness (cf. verse 2 in light of v. 5), certainly could be seen as part of this fully realized identity.

Even so, this eschatological approach to the sin-problem, for all its merit, still falls short and remains unsatisfactory. Its greatest weakness is that it does not do full justice to the author’s language in vv. 4-9, particularly the declarations in verse 9.

Two Alternative Approaches

I would offer two rather different approaches to the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. These approaches are based, correspondingly, upon the results of our critical study on the idea of sin in the Johannine writings. Each approach is rooted in a distinctive element of the Johannine theological idiom—an idiomatic language of which the author of 1 John makes extensive use. Indeed, this mode of theological expression defines and governs his rhetorical approach. There are, in particular, two components which I would emphasize as being key to understanding the author’s thought regarding sin and the believer:

    • The use of the verb ménœ, and
    • The Johannine dual-layer understanding of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ)
1. The use of the verb ménœ

In our studies on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) has been discussed extensively. This verb, which is used in a unique theological sense throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, occurs quite frequently in 1 John (24 times). The greatest concentration of occurrences is in the central division of the letter (2:28-3:24), where ménœ occurs 8 times, but this usage is enhanced when we consider it in the context of the five occurrences of the verb in vv. 24 and 27 (twice in v. 27).

The thrust of the exhortation in this section (see approaches #2 and #4 above) involves the verb ménœ, established by the imperative at the beginning of 2:28: “You must remain [ménete] in him…”. This exhortation is paired with the key occurrences of the verb in 3:6 and 9, the very sin-references which are at issue. Each reference expresses a different aspect of the believer’s union with the Son (and with the Father). In verse 6, the bond of union is described from the believer’s standpoint:

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

The implication seems clear: if the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. In verse 9, the same point is made (9a), but includes a consideration of the bond from God’s standpoint:

“His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him,
and (so) he [i.e. the believer] is not able to sin”

Essentially, these central lines from verse 9 (bc) are added to the declaration in verse 6, as may be outlined as follows:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (9a)
      • “(in) that His seed remains in him” (9b)
      • “and (so) he is not able to sin” (9c)
    • “(in) that he has come to be (born) of God” (9d)

The subordinate clause of 9d restates the participial expression of 9a (parallel with that of v. 6a). The central lines (bc) are expository; they explain further the situation in line a/d. We may summarize this point as follows: the believer, who has come to be born of God, does not sin, because the seed of God remaining in the believer means that he/she is not able to sin.

How, then, can a believer possibly sin? Only if the believer does not remain in the Son. If the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. If, however, the believer—in whatever way, or for whatever reason—fails to remain, even temporarily, then it is possible to sin. This approach is not without certain difficulties, which I will be discussing in some detail at a later point. Yet I believe that it offers a solid basis for understanding and explaining the author’s view of sin (in relation to the believer).

2. The two aspects of “sin” in the Johannine writings

In these studies, we have seen how there are two distinctive ways of understanding sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the Johannine writings:

    1. in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failings and wrongdoings
    2. in the theological (Christological) sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God

The Gospel of John, in particular, plays on both of these layers, or aspects, of meaning, giving decided emphasis to the second. From the Johannine standpoint, refusing to trust in Jesus represents the great sin, and, indeed, the true nature of sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9). Yet the two aspects are related. The great sin of unbelief is, in a real sense, the basis for all other sins. This may be understood several ways. Perhaps the clearest example of the relation involves the idea that Jesus’ mission on earth resulted in the removal of sin (Jn 1:29; 1 Jn 3:5, 8). But this is only realized for the believer; if one does not trust in Jesus, then the sin is not removed—indeed, in that case, a person’s sins all remain (Jn 9:41).

I am convinced that the author of 1 John (if he is not the same person as the Gospel writer) has the same dual-layered understanding of sin, and that he also moves between these two aspects of meaning (for the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). This dual-meaning may provide the key to solving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John. It could be stated, simply, as follows: the true believer can sin according to the first aspect of meaning, but not the second. That is to say, the true believer may (occasionally) commit sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failure or wrongdoing; however, he/she is not able to sin in the fundamental sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus.

The latter understanding of sin should actually be defined more properly in terms of violating the great ‘command’ (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. In both the Gospel and First Letter, there is only one such entol¢¡, but it is two-fold, with two components, and so can also be regarded as two entolaí. In the Gospel, this dual ‘command’ is presented primarily in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), and especially in the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17), where the verb ménœ occurs eleven times. This two-fold entol¢¡ effectively defines what it means to remain in the Son (Jesus)—one remains in his word (lógos), and also in his love (agáp¢). I have illustrated this with the following simple diagram:

The only way a believer can fail to remain in the Son is by either failing to remain in his word or in his love.

The author of 1 John evinces a comparable dual-command, a two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. However, he formulates and frames it somewhat differently. It is presented clearly in 3:23, at the end of the central section (2:28-3:24) of the letter. He defines it as: (1) true/proper trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (2) love for one’s fellow believer, according to Jesus’ own example. The true believer will not, and cannot, violate this dual-command; however, the false believer can (and does) violate it.

The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The “antichrist” opponents, whom the author combats (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), are false believers, who demonstrate that they possess neither true faith in Christ nor true love. By contrast, the author treats his readers as being among the true believers. This positioning of his audience is actually part of the author’s rhetorical strategy—a position from which he can warn them not to be led astray by the teachings and example of the “antichrists”. It is no coincidence that the central section of 2:28-3:24 is framed by the two “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). The author exhorts his readers to “remain” in Christ, by remaining rooted in both his “word” (i.e., the truth of the Gospel message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son) and his “love” (maintaining the bond of unity with other believers).

The very exhortation implies that it is possible for a (true) believer to lapse from this state of “remaining”, at least temporarily, and to be led astray. The focus in 1 John is on being led astray by false believers (who function as false prophets of the end-time). Yet, the true believer will never violate the fundamental entol¢¡ of trust and love. Even if, like Peter, in the Gospel narrative (13:36-37; 18:15-18ff), the believer may lapse into the darkness of sin and doubt, it is possible to be restored into the abiding union (cf. Jn 20:1-6ff; 21), and once again to remain in the Son.

Before bringing this series of studies to a close, and, as a way to test and evaluate the two proposed solutions to the ‘sin problem’ which I have offered above, we shall examine the final sin-passage in 1 John (5:16-18). This we shall do next week.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

In our study on 1 John 3:4-9, we have examined the climactic sin-references in verses 6 and 9. Each of these verses marks the climax of a parallel unit—vv. 4-6 and 7-9, respectively. There is, indeed, a parallelism to the three statements in each unit:

    • Statement 1, contrasting the true and false believer:
      “the (one) doing the sin” (v. 4)
      “the (one) doing the right (thing)” (v. 7)
    • Statement 2, describing the mission of the Son (Jesus) with regard to the removal of sin; he appeared (lit. was made to shine forth):
      “…(so) that he might take away sin” (v. 5)
      “…(so) that he might dissolve the works of the Diábolos” (v. 8b)
    • Statement 3, regarding the sinlessness of the (true) believer in Christ:
      “every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (v. 6)
      “every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (v. 9)

The implications of statements 2 and 3, when taken together, are clear: the Son, through his mission, removed sin, and thus the true believer, who remains in him, does not sin.

As I discussed in the previous study, verse 9 formulates this characteristic of the true believer according to two distinctly Johannine theological idioms: (1) the motif of birth, using the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) + the preposition ek (“[out] of”); and (2) the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”). Both of these aspects are emphasized in verse 9. As I noted, the birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer, as the chiastic arrangement of the verse indicates:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

If we are to understand how the believer can be sinless (and “unable to sin”) —in apparent contradiction to what the author wrote earlier (in 1:5-2:2; see also 5:16-17)—the key is in this central motif of God’s seed remaining in the believer. In this regard, it is necessary to address two interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained?

First, the context makes clear that the word spérma (“seed”) here refers to the believer’s birth from God (lit. “out of God,” ek tou Theou). Because the male image of “seed” (spérma, i.e. ‘sperm’) is utilized, some commentators believe that the principal idea that is being emphasized is the begetting of the believer, rather than the birth per se. The seed-motif certainly implies a begetting by God as Father; this “seed” literally comes “out of” God, to be implanted within the believer. It is a Divine seed, and enables the birth of the believer as God’s own “offspring” (téknon). Though the idea of ‘begetting’ is certainly present, it is, in fact, the birth of the believer that is principally in view.

The noun spérma occurs only rarely in the Johannine writings. Even though the theological birth-motif occurs with some frequency, especially in 1 John (2:29; 3:1-2, 10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18; see also Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 8:39ff; 11:52), the noun spérma is not used elsewhere in this context, except indirectly in Jn 8:33, 37 (compare the following vv. 39-47). The only other occurrence in the Gospel and Letters (Jn 7:25) simply uses the word in the figurative sense of a person’s offspring (or descendant).

There are, however, instances elsewhere in the New Testament where spérma is used in a theological sense. Most notably, there is Jesus’ parable of the Sower, in which the “seed” that is sown is explained as symbolizing the “Word (of God)”, Mark 4:14ff par. In that Synoptic passage, the noun spérma is implied, but then is used explicitly in a subsequent parable (v. 31), and in the Matthean parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43), where it has a comparable meaning. In these Kingdom-parables, the “word” or “account” (lógos) of God refers specifically to the preaching/teaching of Jesus (regarding the Kingdom of God). The Son’s “word” (lógos) also has a central place in Johannine tradition, even if this is expressed rather differently than it is in the Synoptics, with a stronger theological (and Christological) orientation.

The closest parallel to 1 Jn 3:9 is found in 1 Peter 1:23; indeed, the wording and thought is quite similar, referring to believers as:

“having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed [sporá], but undecaying, through the Word of God living and remaining”

The parallels with Johannine thought, and to v. 9 in particular, are noteworthy:

    • the use of the verb gennᜠ(here the compound anagennáœ) + the preposition ek, to express the idea of the birth of believers
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun sporá instead of spérma)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zœ¡ntos)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A different kind of parallel can be found in Paul’s use of the noun spérma in Galatians 3 (vv. 16, 19, 29) and Romans 4 (vv. 13, 16, 18; also 9:7-8). There the expression is “seed of Abraham”, identifying believers as the true offspring/descendants of Abraham, and thus able to inherit the covenant promises made by God. It is actually Jesus who is the “seed”, but believers take on the same identity through trust in him. Ultimately, this is another way of referring to believers as the sons/children of God (see Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17ff; 9:8). A similar “seed of Abraham” theme appears in the Gospel of John (8:31-47).

There are two ways of understanding the “seed” motif in 1 John 3:9: (a) as the implanted Word of God, and (b) as the living Spirit of God which enables our “birth” (Jn 3:5-8) as His offspring. In Johannine thought, these two aspects are tied together, and it would be a mistake to create a false dichotomy by suggesting that the interpreter here must choose a single aspect. In responding with faith/trust, the believer receives the Word—the Word of God the Father, manifest in and through the Son. It comes to remain (i.e., abide) within the believer. However, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), His Word also is Spirit (see 6:63). The believer is united with both Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit; it is the Spirit that remains in the believer (1 Jn 3:23; 4:13), and His Word through the Spirit. Primarily, then, the “seed” that remains in the believer is the Spirit of God, but it is also His Word.

2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

The Johannine writings use the verb ménœ to express both sides of the abiding union of the believer with God. There are two sides because this union is reciprocal: the believer remains in God, and God remains in the believer. The union with God the Father is realized through the Son: this means, the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer.

With regard to these two sides of the union, we may draw a comparison with the covenant-bond—indeed, this spiritual union, between God and believers, represents a new covenant, patterned to some extent after the old bond between God and His people. In the old covenant-bond, YHWH remained ever-faithful to His people (see Deut 7:9, etc); the question was, whether the people would remain faithful to Him. Much the same situation applies to the new covenant. The Son (and Father) remains in believers, but will believers be faithful and remain in Him?

The exhortations to “remain”, found in both the Gospel and First Letter, show the importance of this question, as it is framed. The principal passage in the Gospel is the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17) of the Last Discourse, which I have discussed at length in a recent series of notes. In verses 4-10, the verb ménœ occurs ten times, and once more in v. 16. These instances begin (v. 4) with an imperative: “you must remain [meínate] in me”. Actually, both sides of the bond of union are mentioned, though only the believer’s side is there specifically an imperative: “you must remain in me, and I in you”. In the remainder of vv. 4-10, Jesus explains to his disciples what will happen if they should not remain (vv. 4, 6), and, conversely, what it means if they are faithful and do remain (vv. 5, 7). The emphasis in vv. 9-11ff is on remaining in the Son’s love; but the Vine passage also expresses the importance of remaining in his word (v. 7, see 8:31). Remaining in the Son means remaining in his word and his love, as I have illustrated:

This is the great two-fold command, as it is formulated by Jesus in the Gospel. First John continues this tradition of a two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of every believer, but formulates it somewhat differently (see 3:23-24).

The implication of 1 John 3:9 is that, if the believer will take care to remain in the Son—which means remaining in his word and his love—then the Divine “seed” which remains in the believer will enable the believer to be free from sin. As noted above, this “seed” refers essentially to God’s Spirit (which is the Spirit shared by His Son), but the Spirit, in turn, embodies and manifests the living presence of both the Word and Love of God. Even as the Son manifested the Father’s Word and Love during his earthly mission, so it is now realized for believers through the Spirit.

As in John 15:4, so also 1 John employs the verb ménœ in the imperative (2:24, 27-28). Actually the form of the verb in 2:27-28 is ambiguous; it could be read as either an indicative or an imperative. It is best read as an imperative in v. 28, but many commentators feel that the indicative is more appropriate in v. 27. In any case, the exhortation is clear enough: “you must remain in him” (ménete en autœ¡). There would be no point in making such an exhortation, with its implicit warning, if there were not the possibility that the believer, through carelessness or neglect, could cease (or fail) to remain in the Son. In the context of 3:9, we could formulate the author’s argument as follows: if the believer remains in the Son, then the abiding presence of the Son (and Father), through the Spirit, will keep the believer from sin; however, if the believer ceases, even temporarily, to remain in the Son, then it is possible to sin.

In next week’s study, the last in this set on 1 John 3:4-9, I will discuss the feasibility of this line of interpretation, in light of the wider context of First John, and of the Johannine writings as a whole. I will also touch upon other approaches and proposed solutions which commentators have variously adopted as a way of resolving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John.