Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

Saturday Series: 2 & 3 John

This is the final study in this Series focusing on the Letters of John. In exploring these writings, I have approached the studies variously from the standpoint of the different areas of Biblical Criticism. One particularly important aspect is that of historical criticism, since a proper understanding of the Johannine Letters requires that, as far as possible, the historical setting and background is analyzed carefully. The theological (and Christological) arguments in 1 and 2 John, as we have seen, are closely tied to the views of a specific group of Christians (whom the author regards as false believers), who have, in some sense, separated from the Johannine Community, espousing a view of Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), which, according to the author, contradicts the truth of the Johannine Gospel and the witness of the Spirit. It is possible to reconstruct this historical scenario, at least to some extent. This was part of the previous study, on 2 John, where the Christological dispute in vv. 7-11 was compared with similar statements made in 1 John. Clearly we are dealing with the same situation in both letters.

2 and 3 John: Historical Criticism

Is it possible to bring the matter into more precise detail? Let us here consider the nature of 2 and 3 John, letters written to different parts of the Johannine Community. When speaking of this “Community”, it is best to understand it in terms of a group of congregations (house-churches) located throughout a relatively wide region. Tradition has identified this as the region of Asia Minor, centered around the site of Ephesus; it is as good a surmise as any, though there is no direct evidence for a specific geographic location in the letters themselves. Scholars recognize at least a general relationship between the book of Revelation and the Johannine Letters (and Gospel); and, if these writings stem from the same “Community”, then it certainly would be located in Asia Minor, as 1:4 and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2-3 demonstrate.

The Setting of 2 John

The Address: Verse 1 (also vv. 4-5, 13)

“The Elder, to the (noble) Lady gathered out [eklektós, i.e. chosen] (by God), and to her offspring [i.e. children], whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all the (one)s having known [i.e. who have known] (the) truth…”

1. The Author of 2 (and 3) John: “the Elder”

New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the opinion that 2 and 3 John were written by the same person. The author does not identify himself by name, but instead refers to himself as “the Elder” (ho presbýteros, v. 1). Opinion is divided as to whether this same person wrote 1 John as well. This would seem to be the best (and simplest) explanation; certainly, all three letters stem from the same Community, Tradition, and religious-theological outlook, and utilize a common style and vocabulary. According to tradition, the author of all three Letters (and the Gospel) was John the Apostle; however, there is no evidence for this in the Letters, nor there any real indication that the author was an apostle (let alone one of the Twelve).

The title presbýteros (“elder”), based on comparable evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (in the period c. 60 A.D. and later), signifies a minister with a leading role and authoritative position in a congregation (or group of congregations)—Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-19; Titus 1:5. Certain “elders” (presbýteroi), especially those with close ties to the founding missionaries (apostles) in a region, could be expected to oversee multiple congregations (see the role of Timothy and Titus in the Pauline Pastoral Letters). The information in 2 and 3 John suggests that the author functions as a regional overseer. Certainly, 1 John (if written by the same author) appears to have been intended for believers (i.e. groups of congregations) over a relatively wide area.

2. The Addressee of 2 John: “the chosen Lady”

2 John is addressed “to the gathered out [i.e. chosen] Lady” (eklekt¢¡ kyría). Commentators have debated how this title should be understood, with two main options for interpreting it:

    • It refers to an individual, well-known to the author, but otherwise unnamed (presumably), given the honorific title (“[noble] Lady”). She clearly would have been a prominent person in the Community—a minister and/or host of a house-church, such as Prisc(ill)a, Phoebe, and Chloe in Paul’s circle (Rom 6:1-3; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19).
    • It is figurative, referring to a particular group of believers (congregation), to a house-church or group of churches (community).

Arguments can be made in favor of each, but it would seem that the second option is to be preferred. The context suggests that the author is writing to a congregation. He refers to adult believers as her “offspring/children” (tékna, vv. 1, 4, 13). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the adjective eklektós (“gathered out, chosen”) typically occurs in the plural, being used of believers generally (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14, etc), though occasionally a specific individual is in view (Rom 16:13). The noun used for a congregation, ekkl¢sía (a group “called out” to assemble together), is feminine, and so it is natural to personify it as a woman; in English, the feminine personification here might be translated loosely as “sister-Church”. I am inclined to view the “Lady” of 2 John as a separate presbyterial community (i.e. group of congregations), distinct from the author’s own, but part of the same wider Johannine Community. The author may still exert some influence over it, but it is not the congregation/community with which he most directly belongs. Note how in verse 4 he speaks of “your children”, while in 3 John 4, in a comparable statement, he says “my children”.

Verses 9-11

In this conclusion to the body of the letter, the author gives specific advice regarding the Christological error held by the ‘false’ believers (vv. 7ff, and throughout 1 John [see above]). The seriousness of this “antichrist” belief is emphasized again in verse 9:

“Every one leading (the way) forward [proágœn], and not remaining [ménœn] in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not hold God; (while) the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son.”

To “lead (the way) forward” (verb proágœ) may sound like a good thing, but here the sense of the verb is decidedly negative—it means that these ‘false’ believers have left behind the true teaching of the Johannine Gospel (which ultimately derives from Jesus’ own words about himself, i.e. the Discourses). This is not simply a matter of affirming a particular doctrine—to “remain” (the key Johannine verb ménœ) fundamentally refers to the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) through the Spirit. In other words, those who espouse a false teaching about Jesus (as understood by the author and his Community) cannot be true believers, nor can they speak and teach from the Spirit.

What are the practical implications of this division within the Community? In verses 10-11 the author gives instruction for all who are true believers, who would remain rooted in the truth:

“If any (one would himself) come toward you and not bear this teaching, you must not take [i.e. receive] him into (the) house and you must not say to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’, for the (one) saying to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’ has a common (share) in his evil works.”

Much was said in 1 and 2 John regarding these false “antichrist” believers, but only here do we find any instruction as to what other Christians should do about them. The implication is that they should be avoided completely, along the lines of “excommunication” or “shunning” in later traditions (see Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:9ff). Most Christians who read this today understand the instruction in general terms, of providing hospitality in one’s own home; however, given the house-church setting of these early congregations, it is possible to understand “(the) house” (oikía) here as referring to house where the congregation met for worship. If the “Lady” of the letter is an individual, who hosted a house church (see above), then this is all the more likely in context. In other words, it is a special warning not to allow such persons to have a place within the congregational meeting.

Even so, the author undoubtedly would have extended this instruction to the private home as well (see below on the setting of 3 John), given his prohibition against even greeting one of these false “antichrist” believers. I have translated the verbal infinitive chaírein rather literally, as “(May there) be joy (to you)”; however, this essentially served as an ordinary greeting, without necessarily connoting anything deeper. Thus, even the simple conventions of polite society are to be avoided; the “antichrists” truly are to be shunned. The dangers and pitfalls in attempting to apply this instruction today are discussed below, at the end of this study.

The Setting of 3 John

In contrast with 2 John, the Third Letter is written to a person that, it would seem, is part of the author’s own presbyterial community (compare the wording of v. 4 with 2 John 4, as noted above). This would entail a number of individual congregations (house-churches), each with its own ministers and/or elders; presumably, the author, as an overseeing Elder, holds a position of influence and authority. There are two main characters in the letter, the first of which is Gaius, a common Latin name; he is the person the author is addressing in verse 1:

“The Elder, to the (be)loved Gaius, whom I love in (the) truth.”

This is essentially the same form of address as in 2 John; on the question of whether “the Lady” is an individual or represents a congregation/community (“sister-church”), see above. The wording the author uses in verses 3-4 suggests that, while Gaius may not belong to the same immediate congregation as the author, he is still part of the same ‘presbyterial community’, i.e. the congregations over which the author considered himself to have presbyterial oversight and influence:

“For I had great delight (in the) coming of brothers and (their) giving witness of you in the truth, even as you walk about in (the) truth. I do not hold (any) delight greater than this, that I should hear (of) my offspring [i.e. children] walking about in the truth.”

It was necessary for the author to hear reports from other messengers in order for him to be aware of how Gaius was conducting himself; and yet, he still considers Gaius to be one of his “children” (compare 2 John 4). This reference to the “coming of brothers and (their) giving witness” is vitally important to any proper understanding of the historical background and setting of the Johannine letters. In a Community built up of small house-churches, over a relatively large territory, it could be quite difficult to maintain communication and, with it, the community organization essential to the life and function of the Church. Nearly all such work required personal visits from messengers and other traveling Christians; even communication through written letters entailed a personal visit, sometimes over fairly long distances. As a result, it was a common and frequent occurrence for a local congregation to receive traveling ministers and other Christians into the “house” (see above on 2 John 10-11).

Central to the message of 3 John is the praise and exhortation the author gives to Gaius, in regard to his showing hospitality and support to believers in their travels:

“(My be)loved, you do (the) trust(worthy thing in) whatever you would (do as) work unto the brothers, and this (even for) strangers—(and) the(se persons) gave witness of your love in the sight of the congregation [ekkl¢sía]—(for) whom you will do well, (hav)ing sent them forward (as) brought up (according to the way) of God; for (it was) over the name (that) they went out, taking not one (thing) from the nations. Therefore, we ought to take these (sorts of people) under (our care), (so) that we might come to be workers together with (them) in the truth.” (vv. 5-8)

I have translated these verses quite literally, and there are some syntactical difficulties in rendering from the Greek; however, the basic idea is clear enough. The author has heard from certain traveling Christians (publicly, in the congregation) how they had received hospitality and support from Gaius. Along with this, Gaius is encouraged to continue such support in the future. It is clear that these persons Gaius took in were traveling ministers or missionaries, as it is said that they “went out over the name“, that is, on behalf of the name of Jesus Christ.

Here we have one of the only examples in the Johannine letters of how believers demonstrate the love that is required by the great command, the one true duty of the Christian (1 John 3:23-24, etc). In practical terms, this is done by showing care, support, and hospitality to other believers, even to those who are strangers, especially when they are traveling (and thus in a vulnerable position). We may rightly say that the Johannine Community, with its network of house-churches, was bound together (or, should be) through this sort of love, reflecting the very unity we share in Christ (John 13:20, 34-35; 17:20-25, etc). These traveling ministers/missionaries depended entirely on support from other believers, since they took “not one thing from the nations” (i.e. from non-believers).

The opposite—a failure to provide hospitality to traveling ministers, etc—is demonstrated by the example of Diotrephes in verse 9:

“I wrote some(thing of this) to the congregation [ekkl¢sía], but the (one who is) fond of being first (among) them, Diotrephes, will not receive us upon (himself).”

Unfortunately, this notice is brief and enigmatic enough (from our vantage point today) as to leave us almost entirely in the dark about the exact situation. It has also produced no end of speculation. What was the position of Diotrephes? Did he belong to the same congregation/community as Gaius? as the author? A plausible reconstruction, based on a careful analysis of the wording in verses 9-10, may be offered here as follows:

Diotrephes is in a position of some prominence in a local congregation, presumably as a minister/elder, and/or as the host of a house-church. The author’s disparaging characterization of him as one who “is fond of being first” (verb philoprœteúœ) should perhaps be understood in light of the New Testament evidence that first-century congregations, in their ideal form, would have been relatively egalitarian. By this is meant that the leading/gifted ministers served more or less as equals, and that the elders of particular congregations were all on an equal footing with each other. Diotrephes may have violated such principles in seeking to exercise greater (individual) control over his congregation. A bit more is said regarding Diotrephes’ conduct in verse 10:

“Through this [i.e. for this reason], if I should come, I will keep under memory (all) his works that he does—babbling evil accounts (about) us, and, not containing himself about these (thing)s, he does not receive the brothers upon himself, and the (one)s being willing (to do so) he cuts off and throws (them) out of the congregation.”

One senses here, not merely a partisan divide, but a measure of personal animosity between the author and Diotrephes. Does this relate to the situation involving the false “antichrist” believers who had ‘separated’ from the Community? Many commentators believe so; however, the author is so vocal about the matter in 2 John (and throughout 1 John), it is hard to imagine that he would not mention it again here if the Christological issue were at the root of the division. In all likelihood, the situation has more to do with general considerations regarding how to handle traveling ministers and missionaries, especially those who may not be particularly well-known by a local congregation.

Establishing the reliability—pedigree and qualifications, etc—of traveling ministers was a serious matter in early Christianity and created many challenges for local congregations. Especially within a charismatic, egalitarian setting, which seem to have characterized both the Pauline and Johannine congregations, the giftedness of the minister was of great importance. However, it could be difficult to know for certain if such talented and influential ministers were genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Almost certainly, many of the ‘false’ believers—those who espoused the view of Jesus attacked so severely by the author of these letters—claimed to speak as prophets. Yet the author unequivocally calls them false prophets, who speak from an evil spirit that is opposed to Christ (“antichrist”). He offers his readers tests and instruction on how to recognize such false teaching, but it would not be easy to put them into practice to any extent.

Diotrephes appears to be doing precisely what the author himself advocates in 2 John 10-11—refusing welcome and support to traveling ministers he deems false or unreliable. The difference is that, from the author’s standpoint, his refusal is based on opposition to teaching that contradicts the Gospel message of Christ, while Diotrephes acts out of personal ambition and animosity. Almost certainly Diotrephes would describe the situation quite differently, if we had his own testimony preserved for us. Perhaps he felt threatened by the presence of traveling ministers, over whom he and his congregation did not have any direct control. His actions could even have been reasonable, in terms of the goal of protecting his congregation. Given the strong emphasis on the role of the Spirit as the primary guide and authority in the Johannine Community, with the egalitarianism suggested at many points in the letters (and the Gospel), perhaps the best explanation is that Diotrephes was violating these fundamental principles by attempting to exert more personal control over the congregation, to the point of excluding outsiders and traveling ministers/missionaries.

It would seem that Gaius and Diotrephes were in relatively close proximity, either part of the same congregation, or belonging to neighboring congregations. It is possible that Gaius is one of those who has been “thrown out” by Diotrephes, and that he continues to provide support to ministers aligned with the author. In any case, the context strongly indicates that the author is appealing to Gaius (vv. 6, 8, 11) as a local avenue for support to his ministers/missionaries since they have been excluded from Diotrephes’ congregation. Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, is presumably one of these missionaries; the author is writing to introduce him to Gaius, in hopes that he will be received in a similar manner.

Conclusion

While it may be possible to reconstruct the historical situation and context of the 2 and 3 John, at least in part, applying the instruction in the letters to the life-setting of individual Christians and congregations today is more problematic. Certainly the exhortation associated with the two-fold command—trust in Jesus and love for our fellow believers—is just as relevant (and applicable) for us today. In particular, to demonstrate love through showing care, and offering hospitality and support, to other believers—including ministers and missionaries who need our assistance—remains central to Christianity, and can be expressed today many different ways. Also the emphasis on a careful (and correct) understanding of the Gospel Tradition regarding the person and work of Jesus continues to be of the greatest importance, and, sadly, is rather lacking in much of modern Christianity. Special care in regard to Christological statements and definitions is much needed, especially when so many of the traditional statements from the past are now so poorly understood.

How, then, should we respond when we encounter or experience differences in understanding on key theological or Christological questions? Should we adopt the advice given in 2 John—and, if so, how is this to be done? Doubtless, many believers today would continue to uphold the famous maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…”; but therein lies the difficulty—how do we determine what the “essentials” are, and how should they be treated in comparison with “non-essentials”. Are Christological differences enough to bar communication and association between believers? Certainly, this has proven to be so at times in the past, often with unfortunate and even tragic results. And yet, to act as though such differences do not matter is equally perilous, and can quickly lead to the negation of any meaningful sense of Christian identity.

I would maintain that, for believers in Christ, it is not any Christological definition or understanding as such, but the abiding presence of the Spirit, that must serve as the unifying force. Yet, to judge from the Gospel and the Letters, this was clearly a central point and fundamental emphasis for the Johannine Community as well, and it did not prevent painful and disruptive divisions, with the author’s community banning believers considered to be false, and finding themselves being banned by others in turn. Is it possible to maintain the spirit of the instruction in 2 and 3 John while finding new ways and methods for achieving the author’s goals? I leave that to the consideration of each believer and community. Bridging the divide between ancient and modern times, between the thought-world of first-century Christianity and of the Church today, remains of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of Biblical interpretation.

Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.

Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Literary Criticism

The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:

    • Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
      • Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
      • Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
      • Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
      • Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
    • Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13

If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:

    • Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
      • Love as fulfillment of the dual-command which marks the true believer, vv. 5-6
      • Trust in Jesus–warning against those who violate the command, i.e. those who mark themselves as false believers, vv. 7-11
    • The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12

Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.

In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:

    • Love: Sign of the true believer (vv. 5-6)
    • Trust: Warning against the false believers (vv. 7-11)

To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:

“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”

Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.

Historical Criticism

When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”

The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:

    • Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
    • They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
    • They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
    • This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth

The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:

“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”

In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).

Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:

“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.

Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21 (continued)

1 John 5:13-21, continued

Verses 13-21 of 1 John 5 form the conclusion of the letter; last week, we examined the first section (vv. 13-17), and now it remains to explore the final four verses. This portion is notable, since it serves as an effective summary of the letter’s message, and, indeed, of the Johannine theology as a whole. It may be divided into four components—the three principle statements of vv. 18-20, along with a closing (if cryptic) exhortation in verse 21. Each of these contains at least one significant critical issue, and, in addressing them we can again illustrate the principles and methods of Biblical Criticism at work.

To begin with, we have the three main statements in vv. 18-20; each begins with the first person plural perfect indicative verb form oídamen— “we have seen“, which can also be rendered “we have known“. The verb eídœ properly means “see”, but is also used equivalent to ginœ¡skœ (“know”). In the Johannine writings, especially, the motifs of seeing and knowing are interchangeable and go hand in hand.

1 John 5:18

We have seen [oídamen] that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards him, and (so) the Evil does not attach (itself to) him.”

There are two text-critical questions which are key to a proper understanding of this verse. In addition, there is an important point of interpretation, related to the issue of sin and the believer. Let us begin with this last point.

Sin and the Believer (revisited)

The primary message of vv. 18-20, and of 1 John as a whole, is centered on the identity of the true believer in Christ. The letter essentially begins and ends with the question of the believer’s relationship to sin. The question is both theological and practical, centered on the apparent contradiction that a believer both can, and cannot, commit sin. In 1:6-2:2, it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin, and yet, following this, we have the declarations in 3:4-10 (esp. vv. 6, 9) that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. Likewise, in 5:13-17, it is understood that believers commit sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”), yet here again, in verse 18, is a declaration (nearly identical with that in 3:9) that the true believer does not sin. How can such seemingly contradictory statements be harmonized or explained?

We have discussed this thorny question several times in previous studies (on 2:28-3:10, and last week on 5:13-17). Let me here briefly summarize four ways of interpreting these passages:

    • The sinlessness of the believer represents the ideal, to which every Christian should seek for his/her own life; it is realized essentially through our union with Christ, but still has to be experienced practically through faithfulness to Christ (and the guidance of the Spirit) in daily life.
    • The intended contrast is between occasional sins by the believer (that are confessed and forgiven, 1:7, 9) and a pattern of sinfulness that characterizes the person and their true identity.
    • The believer is sinless insofar as he/she remains in Christ. Sin occurs when the person (momentarily) falls out of this union; however, through forgiveness, he/she is restored. This line of interpretation draws on the Vine illustration by Jesus in John 15—the forgiven believer is ‘grafted’ back in to the vine.
    • Believers may commit occasional sin, but no true believer can sin in the sense of violating the great two-fold command (3:23-24, etc)—the only command binding for believers. Violation of the two-fold command is the sin, which no true believer can ever commit.

There are certainly elements of truth to each of these lines of interpretation; however, what is important here is how the author of 1 John understood the matter. In my view, the overall evidence from the letter itself, taken in combination with key parallels in the Johannine Gospel, suggests that the last (fourth) option above is to be preferred as the primary emphasis. Especially important is the theological vocabulary involving the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ—on this, see the summary in last week’s study. The significance of sin in 1 John (and the Johannine Gospel) relates fundamentally to trust in Jesus—in other words, sin is defined not in terms of immorality or religious failing, but as unbelief. To be sure, the author would have taken for granted that true believers would live moral and upright lives, but that sort of ethical instruction is not what is being emphasized in the letter. Throughout, the author’s arguments center on the two-fold command (stated succinctly in 3:23-24), stressing that the ‘false’ believers (called “antichrist”) who separated from the Community have demonstrated both a lack of true belief in Jesus and a lack of true love for others.

Of special importance is the identity of the true believer defined in terms of being born of God, utilizing the verb gennᜠ(“come to be, become”) in its uniquely Johannine sense of coming to be born out of God. That was the language used in 3:9f and again here: “every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin”. Instead, the believer, born out of God, is protected from evil—particularly from the evil of “antichrist”.

Textual Criticism

The main text-critical question in verse 18 involves the substantive participle (with definite article) ho genn¢theís. This is an aorist participle, parallel to the perfect participle (of the same verb) earlier in the verse. The perfect participle is the more common Johannine usage, especially when referring to believers—i.e., as “the (one) having come to be (born)”, ho gegenn¢ménos. It is not immediately clear whether the aorist form, similarly meaning “the (one hav)ing come to be (born)”, refers to the believer or to Jesus. The verb gennᜠis almost always used of believers in the Johannine writings (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8ff, etc), but Jesus is the subject at least once, generally referring to his human birth/life, in 18:37. That some copyists understood both occurrences of the verb here in verse 18 as referring to believers is indicated by the manuscripts that read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”) instead of autón (“him”); with the reflexive pronoun, the verse would read:

“every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards himself…”

That is to say, the believer guards himself/herself from evil, i.e. so that the true believer will not sin. This makes the verse more of an ethical exhortation than a theological statement. In a few manuscripts and witnesses, the meaning is clarified by reading the noun génn¢sis (“coming to be [born]”, i.e. birth) instead of the participle genn¢theís. According to this reading, it is the spiritual birth itself that protects the believer. While this is closer to the Johannine theology, it is almost certainly not the original reading. Even though the verb gennᜠ is rarely used of Jesus in the Johannine writings, it would seem to be the best way of understanding the statement in verse 18. Believers are children of God, having come to be “born out of God”, just as Jesus, the Son of God came to be “born out of God” (Jn 1:12-13, 14, 18). Our union with God the Father is based on our union with Jesus the Son, and it is his sinlesseness (and power over evil) that protects us from sin and evil.

The second text-critical question involves the substantive adjective (with definite article) ho pon¢rós, “the evil (one)”. There is a certain ambiguity with this language—does it refer to the evil that is in the world, or to an evil person, the “Evil One” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). The same sort of ambiguity occurs, famously, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13), but a much closer parallel is found in the the Prayer Discourse of Jesus in chap. 17 of the Johannine Gospel, where Jesus prays that God would protect his disciples (believers) from “the evil” (17:15), using the same verb t¢r霠 (“keep watch [over]”) as here in v. 18. Most likely, the author is thinking in terms of “the Evil (One)”, the Satan/Devil who is the opponent of God and controller of the evil in the world; however, in the Johannine theology, there is little difference between the evil in the world and the Evil One who dominates the world, as is clear from the statement in v. 19.

1 John 5:19

We have seen [oídamen] that we are out of God, and (that) the whole world is stretched out in the Evil.”

Here the contrast is between believers—again using the motif of being born out of God—and the world. This is a key point in the Johannine theology, expressed many times in both the Gospel and Letter. The usage of the word kósmos (“order, arrangement”, i.e. world-order, how things are arranged in the world) in the Last Discourse(s) of Jesus (chaps. 14-17) is quite close to that in 1 John. It is in those chapters that Jesus most clearly establishes the conflict between believers (his disciples) and the world (kósmos)—see 14:17ff, 27, 30-31; 15:18-19; 16:8-11, 20-21, 28, 33, and all through chap. 17 (where kósmos occurs 18 times). The noun occurs almost as frequently in 1 John (24 times). The world—the current world-order—is dominated by darkness and evil. Jesus was sent by God the Father into the world, to free believers from its power; now believers remain in the world, but we are no longer dominated by the power of sin and evil.

That the current world-order is thoroughly and completely evil is clearly expressed here in verse 19: “the whole world is stretched out in the evil”. Here the substantive adjective ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) is perhaps better understood as a domain or kingdom, rather than a person. It is where the world lies stretched out (vb keímai), though this could still be personified as the hand or presence of the Evil One. According to the author of 1 John, those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community went out into the world, into the domain of evil. True believers, by contrast, do not belong to the world.

1 John 5:20

“And we have seen [oídamen] that the Son of God comes here (to us), and has given to us (the ability to work) through (the) mind [diánoia], (so) that we would know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true and in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

This is the third and final oídamen-statement; these statements reflect a theological progression which may be outlined as follows:

    • Believers are protected from sin and evil, since they/we are “born out of God”, even as Jesus (the Son) was “born out of God”.
    • As ones “born out of God”, believers do not belong to the world, which is thoroughly dominated by Evil.
    • This birth allows believers to know and recognize the truth—the truth of God and His Son (Jesus), with whom they/we are united. This is also the truth of their/our identity (as true believers).

The first verb and tense used are curious—the present tense of the relatively rare h¢¡kœ, “he comes here” (h¢¡kei). We might rather expect the past tense—i.e., he came, and so now we can know the truth, etc. Perhaps the closest parallel is in 8:42 of the Gospel:

“…for I came out of God, and come (to you) here [h¢¡kœ]…”

The present tense indicates the immediate encounter of human beings with Jesus the Son of God, in the present, prompting either trust or unbelief as a result. This is a present reality for all people, both believers and unbelievers alike. The truth of who Jesus is stands as the essence our identity as believers. Moreover, we continue to encounter him, in the present, through the presence and work of the Spirit.

By freeing believers from the power and influence of the evil in the world (and the Evil One), it is possible for them to know and recognize the truth—and this truth has two aspects or components: (1) the truth of God Himself (and His Son), and (2) the truth of our identity as believers, that we are in God (and in His Son). The substantive adjective ho al¢thinós (“the true”) is parallel with the substantive ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) in vv. 18-19, and there is a similar sort of ambiguity—does it refer to that which is true, or the one who is true? Here, the context more clearly indicates that it refers to a person, namely God the Father; some manuscripts make this specific by adding the noun theós, “God”, though this is scarcely necessary, given the closing words of v. 20.

The final declaration in verse 20 summarizes all three oídamen-statements of vv. 18-20. The syntax, however, is problematic, causing some difficulty of interpretation; literally it reads:

“This is the true God and Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The demonstrative pronoun hoútos (“this”) is rather ambiguous. The nearest antecedent is “Yeshua the Anointed”, but the demonstrative pronoun could still refer back to an earlier subject (compare the syntax in 2 John 7). There are, in fact, four possibilities for how this statement can be understood:

    • The demonstrative pronoun (“this [one]”) refers to Jesus, in which case it is Jesus who is called both “true God” and “eternal Life”
    • It refers back to the substantive “the (one who is) true” (i.e. God the Father), and identifies the substantive explicitly as “the true God” who is also “eternal Life”
    • It is a dual reference, matching the earlier statement: “the (one who is) true [i.e. God the Father] and His Son”, i.e. “the one who is true” = “the true God”, and “His Son Yeshua the Anointed” = “eternal Life”
    • It refers comprehensively to what is stated in verse 20 (and/or all of vv. 18-20), i.e. this is all said of the true God and the eternal life that comes through His Son.

In my view, the some combination of the second and third options best fits both the syntax and the Johannine theology. A rather close parallel is the declaration in John 17:3:

“And this is the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—that they should know you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Here the adjective al¢thinós and the expression “the true God” unquestionably refer to God the Father, but in connection with His Son Jesus, the two—Father and Son—joined together as a unified pair. If I might paraphrase the closing words of v. 20 in this light, I think that the following well captures the meaning:

“The ‘one who is true’ —this is the true God, who, with His Son Yeshua, is the source of eternal Life.”

1 John 5:21

“(My dear) offspring, you must guard yourselves from the images.”

The letter ends with this curious exhortation (and warning). The meaning and purpose in context is difficult to determine, and has somewhat perplexed commentators. There is a general parallel here with the thought of verse 18:

“the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God keeps watch over him [i.e. over the believer], and the Evil does not attach itself to him”

The reading with the reflexive pronoun (see above) would offer a closer formal parallel:

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

The verb fylássœ (“guard”) in v. 21 is generally synonymous with t¢réœ (“keep watch [over]”) in v. 18. It would serve as a fitting corollary to the statement in v. 18:

    • V. 18: The believer’s union with Jesus, as one “born out of God”, protects him/her from evil (and sin)
    • V. 21: At the same time, it is necessary for the believer to guard him/herself from the influence of evil

Perhaps the main difficulty in verse 21 is how to interpret the significance and force of the word eídœlon (“image”, here plural “images”). There are several possibilities:

    • “Images” in the simple and concrete sense of (Greco-Roman) pagan religious images (idols); or, perhaps a specific reference to food, etc, that has been consecrated to such images (Acts 15:20 par; 1 Cor 8-10; Rev 2:14, 21).
    • As a shorthand term for the influence of (Greco-Roman) paganism in general
    • As a similar shorthand pejorative for false religious belief, specifically that of the ‘false’ believers opposed by the author of 1 John

The second option seems most appropriate, given the setting of the letter and those believers to whom it is being addressed. And yet, there is very little religious or ethical instruction of the sort elsewhere in the letter (2:15-17 comes closest), so its sudden appearance here is surprising. Perhaps the author felt it necessary to include such an exhortation, in passing, as a reminder of the baleful influence of the pagan culture that surrounded his readers. Already well aware of this, his audience presumably would not require any more explanation.

Personally, I am inclined to the third option above, which, if correct, would preserve the author’s warning as a more integral part of vv. 18-21 (and the letter as a whole). Since the overall message and thrust of the letter was to warn his readers against those false (“antichrist”) believers who had separated from the Community, it seems likely that the author would continue this focus to the very end. Perhaps this helps to explain the emphasis in verse 20 on the true God (see above)—in contrast to the false “gods” of idolatry. However, instead of the traditional contrast between Christianity and Paganism, in 1 John it is between true and false belief in Jesus. In 2:22-23, the author treats the “antichrist” views of the ‘false’ believers as effectively the same as denying both the Son of God and God the Father himself! It would not be taking things much further to equate such false belief in God with the “idols” of false religion.

This study of the closing verses of 1 John have touched upon text-critical, historical-critical, and literary-critical issues—the latter, in particular, dealing with the vocabulary, syntax, and style of the author (compared with the Johannine Gospel, etc). All of these aspects and approaches are necessary to take into consideration when studying a passage. They will not always lead to definitive solutions to questions of interpretation, but such critical analysis, when done honestly and objectively, and in an informed way, should bring valuable elucidation to the Scriptures. Having now concluded a representative analysis on many of the key passages and issues in First John, it is now time to turn our attention to the second and third Letters. This we will do, God willing, next Saturday…I hope you will join me.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21

1 John 5:13-21

The section 5:13-21 represents the conclusion and closing of 1 John. The lack of any final greeting or benediction demonstrates again that the work is not a letter or epistle in the traditional sense (compared with 2 and 3 John, for example). It has more the character of an instructional treatise which was intended, presumably, for general circulation among the ‘Johannine’ congregations. The similarity between 5:13 and the conclusion of the Johannine Gospel (20:31) is doubtless intentional, as the author of 1 John clearly has drawn upon the thought and language of the Gospel (tradition says they were written by the same person [the apostle John], but that is far from certain). Compare:

“But these (thing)s have been written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, (so) trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)
“I wrote these (thing)s to you (so) that you would have seen [i.e. would know] that you hold (the) Life of the Age, (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (1 Jn 5:13)

This closing section may be divided into three parts, each of which deals with the theme of sin and the believer, much as in the opening section of the main body of the letter (1:5-10ff):

    1. Praying for believers who sin, that they may be restored to life (vv. 14-17)
    2. The protection of believers from sin and evil, through union with Jesus (vv. 18-20)
    3. Closing exhortation for believers two guard themselves from “idols” (v. 21)

In each part there is at least one major critical question that needs to be addressed:

    • The meaning and significance of sin that is “unto death” (vv. 16-17)
    • The textual and syntactical basis for the theology/Christology in vv. 18-20
    • The significance and purpose of v. 21, i.e. what is meant by “images/idols”?

1 John 5:14-17

This portion begins with an assurance for believers that God will hear (and answer) their prayers, when they make a request “in the name” of Jesus (the Son of God). This promise draws upon Jesus’ own words in the Gospel, esp. the Johannine Last Discourse (14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26f), and is phrased here in a similar manner. The promise given by Jesus allows believers to be “outspoken” (noun parrh¢sía) in making a request of God. It is taken for granted that any such request by a true believer will be “according to His will” (katá to thél¢ma autoú). The author may have felt it necessary to specify the point, to help Christians understand, perhaps, why certain prayers did not always seem to be answered.

This brings us to the issue of praying for believers who sin, which is the main point the author wishes to address. Here are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning (a) sin not toward death, he shall ask, and He [i.e. God] will give life to him, to the (one)s sinning not toward death. There is sin toward death, (and) I do not say that (one) should make a request about that. All injustice is sin, and there is sin not toward death.”

There are two main difficulties here that have challenged commentators for generations: (1) the precise meaning of “sin” (noun hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in context, and (2) the significance of the expression “toward death” (prós thánaton). With regard to the first point, it is necessary to examine closely the author’s understanding of “sin” as expressed in the letter up to this point. The noun occurred 13 times, the verb 7 times. There are two main sections where the question of sin—that is, sin and the believer—is discussed: in 1:5-2:6 and 2:28-3:10. In the first of these it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin (1:7-2:2), while in the second he essentially states that they do not (3:6, 8-9). The same apparent contradiction is found here in vv. 16-19 as well.

I discussed the matter at some length in the earlier studies on 2:28-3:10; based on that analysis, I would here delineate again the specific theological vocabulary of the author (regarding “sin”), based on his distinctive use of the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ:

    • The plural of the noun (hamartíai) refers to individual sins a human being commits, and which believers also may commit on occasion (1:9; 2:2, 12; 4:10)
    • The singular of the noun without the definite article signifies sin in the general (or generic) sense (1:7-8; 3:5 [second occurrence], 9)
    • The singular with the definite article (h¢ hamartía, “the sin”), primarily refers to violation of the great two-fold command (3:23-24), a sin which no true believer can commit (3:4, 5 [first occurrence?], 8)
    • The use of the verb , which refers to the act of sinning, can refer either to sin in the general sense (1:10; 2:1), or the specific sense of violating the great command (3:6, 8-9?), depending on the context.

Applying this information to 5:16-17, we may note that the noun hamartía occurs four times, without the article, suggesting that the reference is to sin in a more general sense. This would be appropriate for the distinction that is apparently being made—i.e., between two different kinds (or categories) of sin. The verb occurs twice (in v. 16), both as a verbal noun (participle) which indicates that the action characterizes the person, i.e. “(the one[s]) sinning”. In 3:6, “the (one) sinning” is set in direct contrast with “the (one) remaining in him”, i.e. the true believer in Christ. Thus, “the one sinning” serves effectively as the label for an unbeliever (or, one who is not a true believer). This should be kept in mind when considering the similar use of the articular substantive participle in 5:16 (“the ones sinning…”).

The second main question has to do with the expression prós thánaton, and the distinction between sin that is “toward death” and that which is, by contrast, “not toward death”. The preposition prós (“toward”) should be understood in the dynamic sense of something leading toward death—i.e. death as the fate or end result of “the one sinning”. The problem is how this applies specifically to the issue of sin and the believer. Many solutions have been offered for this much-debated question; however, in my view, there are really only two viable lines of interpretation. This first of these is based on traditional ethical instruction among early Christians, the second on the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary. Let us briefly consider each of these.

1. The Ethical Interpretation

For early Christians, as part of their ethical and religious instruction, was the basic idea that there were certain kinds of sinful behavior that no believer should (or would) ever demonstrate in his or her daily life. Paul, in particular, presents several of these “vice lists” as part of the exhortation and instruction in his letters—Romans 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; cf. also 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 5:3-5, etc. Such instruction is traditional, with little that is distinctly Christian about it, the moral sensibilities being shared by Jews and pagans (in the Greco-Roman world) alike. For Christians, it would have represented the minimum standard of morality. Paul makes clear that no true believer could ever be characterized by such sinful behavior, as in Gal 5:21 where he states: “the (one)s practicing such (thing)s will not receive the kingdom of God as (their) lot [i.e. will not inherit it]” (similarly in 1 Cor 6:10).

This traditional righteous/sin or virtue/vice contrast was developed within early Christianity, being expressed in terms of two “paths” or “ways”, one leading to life, and the other to death. For example, in the early Christian writing known as the “Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles”, this dualistic contrast serves to structure the first half of the book, beginning with the opening verse:

“There are two ways—one of life, and one of death—and much carries through (that is different) between the two ways.” (1:1)

The immediate inspiration for this construct comes via the Gospel tradition, from Jesus’ illustration in the Sermon on the Mount (7:13-14). Indeed, when the Didache presents the “Way of Life” (1:2-4:14), it begins with Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. The “Way of Death” (5:1ff) consists of a lengthy list of blatant kinds of sinful behavior, similar to the Pauline vice lists. Much of the “Way of Life” also entails avoiding such evils (chaps. 2-4). Implicit in the very imagery is the basic principle that the person on the “way of life” could not possibly (at the same time) be on the separate “way of death”.

If we apply this line of interpretation to 1 John 5:16-17, then sin that is “toward death” could be understood as the kind of blatant and egregious sin typified by the vice lists, representing the way leading toward death, and no true believer could be on that path, sinning in such a way. Believers may indeed commit sin, but only sin that is “not toward death”, meaning they would never sin in such a grossly immoral manner. While this interpretation makes good sense, and is fully in keeping with early Christian teaching, it seems somewhat out of place in the context of 1 John, where the emphasis is more keenly focused on the two-fold commandment (3:23-24)—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—and those (false believers) who violate it.

2. The Interpretation based on Johannine Theology

As noted above, in discussing the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary, in relation to the idea of “sin”, special emphasis is placed in the letter on “the one[s] sinning” the sin—meaning they violate the two-fold command. That is to say, while claiming to be believers, they do not have proper belief in Jesus and/or do not demonstrate true love to their fellow believers. This marks them as false believers, since no true believer can ever violate the two-fold command. The entire structure of the main body of the letter (especially in its second half, 3:11-5:12), alternates between these two components of the two-fold command: trust in Jesus and love. Sin, in its fundamental sense, is a violation of these two; and, in particular, it is the lack of proper belief in Jesus—who he was and what was accomplished through his life and death—which is central to the Johannine understanding of sin. In the Last Discourse of the Gospel, which is so similar to 1 John in language and thought, sin is virtually identified with unbelief (16:8-9, see also 15:22-24).

So then, according to this line of interpretation, the sin that is “toward death” is the great sin, the violation of the two-fold command. Those committing this sin are fated for death, and cannot be true believers at all. Genuine believers may commit sins, and be forgiven/delivered from them, but never the great sin. I am inclined to this particular interpretation, as it is more consistent with the overall teaching and emphasis in 1 John.

This may also help to explain why the author indicates that his readers should not make any request of God for those committing the sin “toward death”. Since those who violate the two-fold command cannot be true believers, there is no point praying to God on their behalf as though they were. The same might be said in regard to the ethical interpretation (#1 above)—i.e. those engaged in blatantly immoral behavior could not be true believers—but that sort of ethical emphasis has been the focus in the letter to this point. The author never once suggests that the ‘false’ believers are immoral in the conventional religious sense; rather, they are “antichrist” and guided by evil spirits in their false view of Jesus. They also commit “murder” and other terrible sins, but only figuratively, in that they do not demonstrate love to other believers—i.e., lack of love = hate = murder (3:10-15).

Does this mean that we should not pray for Christians who hold beliefs regarding Jesus that we might consider to be in error? Believers today should be extremely cautious in making such a widespread application. It is a legitimate question, but one which I feel it better to address when we come to a discussion of 2 and 3 John, where issues involving the ‘false’ believers or separatist Christians of 1 John are dealt with on a more practical level. Before proceeding to 2 and 3 John, it is necessary to bring our examination of 1 John to a close with a study on verses 18-21. In so doing, we will again be required to consider the Johannine understanding of sin in relation to the believer. I hope you will join me for this challenging study, next week.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

These recent studies on 1 John have alternated, along with the letter, between the themes of love (agápe) and trust (pístis), which represent the two components of the great command for believers (3:23-24). The section in 3:11-24 dealt with love, followed by an extensive dual-exposition in 4:7-5:4 (discussed in the previous two studies). In 4:1-6, the subject was trust in Jesus, and a similar dual-exposition follows in 5:5-12. In the earlier study on 4:1-6, we saw how, in the author’s mind, the duty (or command) to trust in Jesus was being violated by those who had separated from the Community–they held a view of Jesus that differed from the Christology of the Community, as expressed in the Johannine Gospel. This was first introduced in 2:18-27, where it was clear that, for the author, the great evil of these ‘false’ believers involved their Christology. Even so, it was never specified as to what, precisely, the ‘antichrist’ pseudo-believers held regarding Jesus that made them so dangerous for the Community. In 2:22, it was to be inferred that they refused to accept Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), essentially denying Jesus as the Son (of God) as well. However, it is extremely unlikely that the ‘false’ believers denied that Jesus was either the Messiah or Son of God. Something about their belief regarding Jesus was, for the author, tantamount to denying the very person of Christ.

In 4:1-6, the nature of this Christological view was clarified: it involved a denial, or refusal to accept, that Jesus the Anointed One had come in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lythóta, v. 2). I noted how this appears to be similar to the Docetic Christology held by certain so-called Gnostics—i.e., a belief that Jesus the Son of God only seemed to be a real flesh and blood human being during his time on earth. Such Docetism tends to derive from a strong dualistic worldview, such as certainly would characterize much gnostic (and Gnostic) thought. The fundamental incompatibility between the realm of the Divine and the material world made it hard for many Gnostics to accept that the Son of God could actually become part of the fallen material world (i.e. as a real human being). Ignatius of Antioch, writing to believers in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Tralles, attacked a “Docetic” view of Christ similar to that of the later Gnostics (Ephesians 7:2; Smyrneans 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; 5:2; Trallians 9:1-2; 10:1). The location of the Johannine congregations, and provenance of the writings, is often thought to be in the same region of Asia Minor (confirming the tradition that connected the apostle of John with Ephesus). Moreover, Ignatius was probably writing (c. 110 A.D.) not all that long after 1 John itself was written (90’s A.D.?), and it is possible that he is addressing some of the same issues (compare Smyrneans 5:2 with 1 John 4:2; cf. also the Epistle of Polycarp 7:1).

However, in my view, the Christology of the ‘false’ believers attacked by the author of 1 John was not Docetic per se, and this is confirmed in 5:5-12, where the true nature of the ‘antichrist’ understanding of Jesus is finally made clear. By piecing the evidence from 2:18-27, 4:16, and 5:5-12 together, with a little detective work, we can reconstruct (partially) the Christology of the ‘false’ believers—at least, the aspect of it which was deemed so objectionable to the author of 1 John. This falls under the heading of historical criticism.

Verse 5

“[And] who is the (one) being victorious over the world, if not [i.e. except] the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God?”

This rhetorical question is transitional, picking up from the concluding statement of the previous section (v. 4), identifying the trust (pístis) of the true believer, i.e. trust in Jesus, as the thing which brings victory (vb nikáœ) over the evil and darkness of the world. That declaration leads here into the section on trust in Jesus, once again identifying the true believer with this component of the great command by the use of the articular participle (“the [one] trusting”)—i.e. trust characterizes the believer. Of course, for the author, “trust” entails a correct understanding of just who Jesus is and what he did, that it is to say, the content of this trust is Christological.

Verse 6

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood, Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the truth.”

This is the key verse for a proper understanding of the ‘antichrist’ view of Jesus. Unfortunately, a precise interpretation remains difficult. The author actually states the matter rather clearly, in terms that doubtless would have been immediately evident to many of his readers. In referring to Jesus as “having come through water and blood”, the author was making a definitive Christological statement. The interpretive difficulty for us is in expounding the phrase “in water and blood” which serves as a shorthand for a more complex theological frame of reference. That Christians in the first centuries had the same sort of difficulties in explaining it would seem to be evident by the notable textual variants; instead of “(having come) through water and blood”, there are four main variants, all of which include “(the) Spirit”:

    • “through water and blood and spirit” (di’ hydatos kai haimatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and spirit and blood” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos kai haimatos)
    • “through water and (the) Spirit” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and blood and the Holy Spirit

The first variant above is the one with the best manuscript and versional support. The inclusion of the “Spirit”, forming a triad, is doubtless influenced by what follows in vv. 7-8; however, in my view, copyists who introduced such changes did not understand at all the point the author was making. Special emphasis is given to the blood, meaning that, apparently, the ‘false’ believers did accept that Jesus came in (or through) water. But what does it mean to say that Jesus came “in water” or “through water”. There does not seem to be any real difference here between the preposition en (“in”) or dia (“through”)—they both express the manner in which Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, i.e. as a human being. Commentators have debated the significance of water here, but I believe that it refers primarily, and fundamentally, to Jesus’ birth. The closest parallel to this use of water-imagery is in the famous Nicodemus episode in the Gospel (Jn 3:1-14ff). Water is contrasted with the Spirit, in the context of the idea of a person’s birth. The key statement by Jesus is in verse 5:

“…if (one) does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

In verse 6, the contrast shifts from water/Spirit to flesh/Spirit, indicating that being “born out of water” is essentially the same thing as a person’s fleshly (i.e. physical human) birth. The point is that a person needs to be born of the Spirit (from above) in addition to one’s normal physical birth. If the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted Jesus’ physical birth as a human being, then their Christology was not Docetic as such. Where, then, was the problem or error in their belief? It is centered on a failure to accept that Jesus also came “in blood” / “through blood”. If “water” refers to Jesus’ birth, then “blood” most almost certainly refers to his death. There are three other Johannine passages where blood (haíma) is mentioned, and they all relate specifically to the sacrificial death of Jesus (Jn 6:53-58; 19:34; 1 Jn 1:7). Moreover, the joining of “water and blood” is of great importance in the Passion narrative, a physical (and historical) detail to which the author imports considerable theological significance (Jn 19:34-35ff).

Thus, it would be fair to infer that, while the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted the human birth of Jesus, they somehow refused to accept that he endured a normal human death, and that this constituted their fundamental error. If so, the basis for their view may be found in the Gospel narrative itself. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine Passion narrative contains little or no “passion”, no obvious signs of human suffering. There is no scene of anguish in the garden; instead, Jesus is depicted as fully in control at every moment, even speaking with such authority that those coming to arrest him cower and fall back (18:4-9). The Johannine narrative does include mention of Jesus’ being whipped and mocked by the soldiers (19:1-5), but that brief episode is flanked by extensive dialogues between Jesus and Pilate in which Jesus essentially declares his divine identity; by comparison, in the Synoptics, he says almost nothing before Pilate. Finally, on the cross, there is no sign of suffering, no mention of taunting by the crowds, no cry of anguish or feeling of being abandoned by God. Instead, Jesus appears calm and fully in control; at the end, instead of letting out a death-cry, he states “it has been completed”, and releases his spirit (19:30). Given this Gospel portrait, it would be understandable for a Johannine Christian to minimize or relativize the suffering and death of Jesus. It may also explain why the Gospel writer places such importance on the detail of the water and blood that come out of Jesus’ side (19:34-35), since it serves to confirm the concrete physical reality of his death.

It may also be that the ‘false’ Johannine believers downplayed the significance of Jesus’ death in relation to our salvation and the coming of the Spirit. Again the detail of Jn 19:34 may indicate the importance of “water and blood” in this regard. Jesus’ sacrificial death completed his saving work on earth. His death effectively gives life to those who partake in it (i.e. “drink his blood”, 6:53ff), and releases the Spirit (19:30, cp. 20:22) for those who believe. The Spirit itself gives witness to the truth of the “water and blood” —the reality of who Jesus is and what his work on earth accomplished. The introduction of the Spirit here in v. 6b is a subtle way of stating that, if a person denies the true significance of Jesus’ death, he/she denies the Spirit, and, as a result, cannot be a true believer who is united to God and Christ through the Spirit.

Verses 7-8

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The “Textus Receptus” edition of the Greek New Testament mistakenly introduced an expanded form of these two verses, based on the reading of a handful of late manuscripts and Latin witnesses; the expanded form reads:

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And the (one)s giving witness on earth are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The trinitarian insertion is secondary, and quite foreign to 1 John, as nearly all commentators today would admit. It is another example of how later readers and copyists so poorly understood the nuances of the author’s line of argument, so as to be led astray by facile similarities (the ‘three in one’ phrasing) and to introduce a trinitarian formula where it does not belong. The main point, as noted above, is that, for true believers, the Spirit confirms what one already believes and experiences regarding the “water and blood” of Jesus’ incarnate life and death. Indeed, it is by the Spirit’s witness that we are able to believe this about Jesus; to deny the significance of Jesus’ sacrificial death is to deny the witness of the Spirit.

What then of the curious phrase “and the three are into the one”? If it has nothing to do with the Trinity (as indeed it does not), what exactly is the author trying to say? I would interpret it as follows:

The expression “water and blood” represents two aspects of a single witness—involving the life and (life-giving) death of Jesus. To this, the Spirit becomes a third component. The presence and work of the Spirit allows people to accept the truth of who Jesus was and what he did, and further confirms this truth in and among believers. Thus, numerically, there are “three” components, but a single witness, a single truth—three leading and directing into one, for one purpose. While this does not refer to the Trinity, it does relate to a certain kind of theological triad; I have previously offered a simple diagram which illustrates this Johannine triad:

Clearly the Spirit is at the center of this triadic relationship.

Verses 9-12

“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; (and it is) that this is the witness of God that He has given witness to about His Son. The (one) trusting in the Son of God holds the witness in himself; the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) false, (in) that he has not trusted in the witness that God has given witness to about His Son. And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life], and this Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds the Life, and the (one) not holding the Son of God does not hold the Life.”

This is a wonderful example of the repetitive Johannine style which belies a clear and careful structure. There are many such examples in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, but also here in 1 John. Note how the related noun and verb martyría (“witness”) and martyréœ (“give witness”) are used repeatedly (8 times). Also consider how the conjunctive particle hóti (“that”) is variously used, which makes precise translation and interpretation a bit of a challenge. There is actually a clear parallelism in this passage which, while not so obvious in typical English translations, is immediately apparent in the Greek (which I render quite literally above). Note the structure:

    • Statement about the witness (martyría) of God: that it is about His Son (v. 9)
      • Identification of the believer as one trusting in the witness (v. 10)
    • Statement about the witness of God: that it is in His Son (v. 11)
      • Identification of the believer as one holding the witness [the Son] (v. 12)

Here is how this structure is played out in the Greek:

    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría tou theoú…perí tou huioú autoú (v. 9)
      “this is the witness of God…about His Son”
      • ho pisteúœn eis ton huión tou theoú échei t¢n martyrían (v. 10)
        “the one trusting in the Son of God holds this witness…”
    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría …h¢ zœ¢¡ en tœ huiœ¡ autoú estin (v. 11)
      “this is the witness …the Life is in His Son”
      • ho échœn ton huión échei t¢n zœ¢¡n (v. 12)
        “the one holding the Son holds the Life…”

The overall thrust of this line of argument is that trust in Jesus is fundamentally tied to one’s identity as a true believer, one who “holds” the Life of God through the presence of the Spirit. Those who refuse to accept the truth of who Jesus was effectively deny both the Gospel message (about the Son) and the witness of the Spirit (the abiding presence of the Son). This, in turn, is tantamount to a denial of God, since He is the one who ultimately gives this witness. If we consider the passage again from the standpoint of its historical background, then the argument is that the Johannine Christians who denied the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or its significance, were effectively denying the Gospel message, the witness of the Spirit, and even God Himself. Almost certainly these ‘false’ believers, whoever they were, would not at all characterize themselves this way; but, from the standpoint of the author of 1 John, the matter was clear: they could not be true believers, but, instead, were a manifestation of “antichrist” (being against Christ). We will discuss the ramifications of this further when we come to study 2 and 3 John.

Next week, the focus will turn again to how the author of the letter understood hamartía (“sin”), and what he meant by the use of the term. We have already discussed this in earlier studies (on 2:28-3:10), but it will take on importance again as the author brings his work to a close in 5:13-20. This section is notorious among commentators, due in particular to the statements regarding sin in verses 16-17. However, there are several other critical points and questions which need to be addressed as well. I hope you will join me.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:7-5:4 (continued)

1 John 4:7-5:4, continued

Last week, we explored the first two sections (4:7-16a) of this exposition on the theme of Christian love. We saw how the two sections were closely parallel to each other, in structure and thematic emphasis. In both instances love was defined and explained in terms of Christology—who Jesus is and what God has done (for us) through him. The next two sections, 4:16b-5:4, draw upon the same themes and points of emphasis, even reproducing much of the phrasing, but present the instruction in a very different way. I would outline this as follows:

    • 4:16b-19Definition of Love: The essential identity of Believers, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son
      • Definition—Union of Believers with God (v. 16b)
      • Exposition/Instruction—Believers and the Judgment, in two statements (vv. 17-18)
        • Union of Believers with God the Father (through Jesus the Son) is the completion of God’s Love (v. 17)
        • This union has delivered us from Death and the Judgment, thus removing all Fear (v. 18)
      • Closing statement on Christian Love (v. 19)
    • 4:20-5:4Manifestation of Love: The identity of Believers demonstrated through love, as obedience to the Great Command of God
      • Love as the mark of the true believer (4:20-21)
        • Love as the great command of God (v. 21)
      • Trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer (5:1-2)
        • Trust in Jesus (together with Love) as the great command of God (v. 2)
      • Closing statement on the two-fold Great Command (vv. 3-4)

Determining the message (and theology) of a passage requires that careful attention is paid its structure—the form and style in which the material is presented to readers. This sort of critical analysis falls under the heading of literary criticism. Utilizing the outline above, let us examine each component in each of these two sections.

1 John 4:16b-19

Verse 16b

“God is love, and the (one) remaining [ménœn] in love remains [ménei] in God, and God remains [ménei] in him.”

As noted above, this statement is a definition of love (agáp¢), comprised of two parts: (1) the initial statement, and (2) a dual/reciprocal expository clause. The initial statement is, simply: “God is love” (ho theós agáp¢ estin), already stated previously in verse 8. Far more than an emotion or feeling, or even an attribute of God, love is identified as the person of God Himself (similarly identified with light in 1:5). This explains the clause which follows, defining love in terms of the believer’s union with God. The clause summarizes verses 12-15 of the previous section, expressed by the important Johannine verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), used with great frequency in both the Gospel and First Letter. The “remaining” is reciprocal—the believer in God and God in the believer.

Sometimes this Johannine language suggests a causal relationship—i.e. because we love, we come to abide in God; or, the reverse, because we abide/remain in God, we are able to love. While there is some truth in those formulations—the latter being closer to the Johannine emphasis—here we are actually dealing with a simple equation: God = Love. Thus, if a believer has love, it is the same as saying that he/she has God the Father. And, according to the theology of the Gospel and Letters (expressed in many passages), one is only able to see/know God the Father, and be united with Him, through the Son. This is also the point of the Christological declarations in vv. 9-10 and 13-14f.

Verse 17

“In this [en toútœ] love has been completed with us, (so) that [hína] we may hold outspokenness in the day of judgment—that [hóti], even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is, (so) also we are, in the world.”

The expression en toútœ (“in this”) was made use of, as a key point of syntax, in the previous sections. A similar mode of expression in English would be, “By this (we know that…)”. Sometimes the expression refers back to a preceding statement, other times ahead to what follows. When looking ahead, it usually refers to a hóti-clause, with the particle hóti rendered as “(in) that, because”, indicating the reason. The sentence here has both a hína– and a hóti-clause. The hína-clause, expressing result, is subordinate. The main statement may be isolated as follows: “Love has been completed with us in this: that even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is, so also we are, in the world”. Even while we (believers) are in the world, we are (esmen) just as Jesus is (estin). In each instance, the verb of being is emphatic (marked by italics).

The statement “love has been completed with us” is nearly identical to that in verse 12b, the only real difference being use of the preposition metá (“with”) instead of en (“in”). I do not see any fundamental difference in this change of prepositions—the statements are effectively the same. God’s love was shown primarily through the sending of His Son (Jesus), and the work done by him during his life on earth. However, this love is completed only after the Son’s work was completed (i.e. his death and resurrection, Jn 19:30, etc), upon which, at the Son’s return to the Father, the Spirit comes to dwell in and among believers. The Spirit represents the abiding union believers have with Father and Son, as indicated here in verse 13, as well as throughout the Johannine Writings. This union, through the Spirit, reveals the identity of believers as children of God—i.e. we are (Children) just as Jesus is (the Son). This is true even during the time we are living on earth, prior to the great Judgment.

Verse 18

“There is not (any) fear in love, but complete love casts out fear, (in) that [i.e. because] fear holds (in it the threat of) cutting [i.e. punishment], and the (one) fearing has not been completed in love.”

This is a roundabout way of saying that the believer, united with God the Father and Son, does not need to fear the coming Judgment (v. 17, see above). The author of First John clearly felt that he and his readers were living in the end times (“the last hour”, 2:18), and that the end-time Judgment (preceded by the return of Jesus) would soon take place. Believers have no need to fear the great Judgment, since they/we have already been saved from it, passing through it. This is a fundamental principle of the “realized” eschatology in the Johannine Writings (see especially John 3:18ff; 5:24). This statement builds upon the identification of believers as those in whom love has been “completed” (vb teleióœ).

Verse 19

“We love, (in) that [i.e. because] He first loved us.”

This basically restates the definition in verse 16b, along with the principal definitions in the prior sections (vv. 7-8, 10, 11). It does not indicate a temporal sequence as much as it does priority—our love is based on God’s love, i.e. His abiding presence in us which marks us as His children.

1 John 4:20-5:4

In this section, the emphasis shifts from the definition of love to the demonstration of it among believers.

Verse 20

“If one would say that ‘I love God’, and (yet) would hate his brother, he is false; for the (one) not loving his brother, whom he has seen, is not able to love God, whom he has not seen.”

The statement “I love God” summarizes the previous section, as a definition of love in terms of the believer’s identity. Here, however, it functions as a claim that is to be tested, through the person’s own attitude and conduct. The author throughout says very little about how Christian love is demonstrated, in a practical sense. The example of Cain and Abel was used in the earlier section on love (3:11ff), but only as an extreme illustration of the person who fails to love (i.e. hates) a fellow believer. It is quite unlikely that any of the ‘false’ believers—those who had separated from the Community—would have acted with violence, or even in a harsh or abusive manner, toward others. Closer to the mark is the emphasis on caring for the needs of fellow believers (3:16-17). As we shall see, when we come to a study of 2 and 3 John, the separatist/partisan divisions within the congregations were being manifest in an unwillingness to show hospitality (offering support, etc) toward other Christians.

To say that the would-be believer is “false”, means not only that he/she speaks falsely (by claiming to love), but that the person is, in fact, a false believer. Previously, this was described in terms of being a “false prophet” and “against the Anointed” (antíchristos), especially when dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus; the same applies when dealing with the theme of love, since trust and love are two sides of the same coin. Referring to a believer’s union with God as “seeing” (= knowing) Him, is part of the Johannine theological idiom, occurring throughout the Gospel and First Letter.

Verse 21

“And this is the entol¢¡  we hold from Him: that the (one) loving God should also love his brother.”

As previously discussed, the word entol¢¡  literally refers to a charge or duty placed on a person as something to complete. It is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be misleading, especially as used in the Johannine writings. There is, in fact, just one such “command” for believers, stated clearly and precisely in 3:23. As has been noted a number of times in these studies, it is a two-fold command, and its two components—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—form the very basis for the structure of 1 John, especially in the second half of the letter. The two themes alternate, with love being emphasized in 4:7-5:4. The true believer, claiming to love God, will obey the “command” to love other believers, in the manner that God the Father (and Jesus the Son) also shows love.

1 John 5:1

“Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) has come to be (born) out of God, and every (one) loving the (One) causing (him) to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

As if on cue, the emphasis shifts from love to trust, combining the two themes together as a reflection of the two-fold command. Trust in Jesus was the focus in 4:1-6, and is again in the section that follows (5:5ff). Here it is included because of the reference to the two-fold command that concludes this section (parallel to that in 3:23-24). It also reflects the Christological aspect of love central to the instruction in 4:7-16. Note especially how the articular participle is utilized to express the believer’s essential identity— “the (one) trusting“, “the (one) loving“. Here the language is typically Johannine, especially with the repeated idiom of being born “out of” God (vb gennᜠ+ ek).

Verse 2

“In this [en toútœ] we know that we love the offspring of God: when we love God and do his entolaí.”

This is parallel to the statement on the two-fold “command” (entol¢¡) in 4:21, blending the emphasis on trust in Jesus back into the primary theme of love. It makes the same statement as 4:21, only in reverse:

    • We keep his command (and love God) = we love our fellow believer (4:21)
    • We love our follow believer (“offspring of God”) = we love God and keep his command (5:2)

The word tékna (“offspring”, i.e. “children”), literally something produced, effectively captures the sense of the Johannine idiom of believers being “born out of [ek]” God. It is the regular term in the Gospel and Letters for believers as sons/children of God.

Verses 3-4

“For this is the love of God: that we keep watch (over) His entolaí, and His entolaí are not heavy (to bear). (Indeed, it is) that every (thing) having come to be (born) out of God is victorious over the world, and this is the victory th(at is) being victorious over the world—our trust.”

This closing definition of love is framed entirely in terms of the two-fold “command” (entol¢¡) of God, in keeping with the prior statements in this section, and also the parallel in 3:23-24. At the same time, verse 4 prepares for the section which follows (verses 5ff), focusing on trust in Jesus. Both components of the two-fold command together bracket vv. 3-4:

    • “this is the love of God…” (mark of the believer)
      • “every (thing/one) having come to be born out of God” (essential identity of the believer)
    • “this is…our trust (in Jesus)” (mark of the believer)

The statement that the “command(s)” of God are “not heavy” is meant, I think, to convey the idea that both trust and love come naturally out of the believer’s own fundamental identity. In the case of love, it is God’s own love—indeed, His own presence and power, through the Spirit—at work, and not based on any specific attempt to demonstrate love through obedience of commands, etc. Though a contrast with the Old Testament Law (Torah) belongs to the Pauline writings rather than the Johannine, we find traces of a similar emphasis at numerous points in the Gospel (beginning with the Prologue, 1:16-18) and here in the First Letter as well. It is no longer the Torah, nor, indeed, even the specific teachings of Jesus (given during his time on earth) that are the primary guide for believers—rather, it is the living, abiding presence of God the Father and Son in the Spirit (Jn 14:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 2:27; 3:24; 4:2ff; 5:6).

Next week, we will turn our attention to the section which follows in 5:5-12, where the Spirit takes on greater prominence in the author’s instruction. It is also here that we finally will be able to gain a clearer sense of the historical situation in the letter, in terms of the specific Christological view, held by the ‘false’ believers, which the author is so concerned to warn his readers about. Thus, our focus will turn again to historical criticism, attempting to reconstruct, as far as possible, the background and setting of the letter’s message. There are also several key text-critical questions which will need to be addressed. I hope you will join me as we continue this study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:7-5:4

1 John 4:7-5:4

In the previous studies on 1 John 4:1-6, the focus was on the theme of trust in Jesus; now it shifts to the theme of Christian love. This reflects the two components of the dual “great command” (3:23-24), and the body of the letter, especially in its second half, alternates between the two. The first section on love was 3:11-24, with verse 11 stating the love-command as a summary of the Gospel message. The so-called love-command derives from Jesus’ own teaching and the Gospel tradition (Mark 12:30-33 par; Matt 5:43ff; John 13:34-35); by the middle of the first century (c. 50-60 A.D.) the principle was well-established that the Old Testament Law was effectively summarized and fulfilled (for Christians) by this one command (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8ff, etc).

It can be difficult to get a clear sense of what love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) entails in First John. In the Gospel, in the great Last Discourse, which otherwise so resembles the language and style of the letter, it is defined in terms of Jesus’ own sacrificial death, and of his disciples’ willingness to follow his example, in giving of their lives for others (15:13, and the symbolism of the foot-washing, 13:1, 5-20). This point of emphasis is generally followed in 1 John (3:16-17), though not so much in our section 4:7ff. In spite of the beauty and power of this passage, it seems rather repetitive in nature, with “love” referred to in the most general sense. This, however, belies a very careful structure, in which thematic relationships are developed and expounded. Ultimately it reveals the true sense of what love means for the author, in the context of his writing, but it takes some pointed study and effort on our part to see it clearly. This is another example of how the message (and theology) of a passage can be elucidated by an examination of its literary style and structure—referred to as literary criticism.

1 John 4:7-16

There would seem to be four main parts to this section. The first two (vv. 7-10, 11-16a) make up a dual instruction which builds upon—and expounds—the earlier two-fold instruction in 3:11-22. Here these two parts each begin with an address to the readers as “loved (one)s”, agap¢toí—the adjective agap¢tós, related to agáp¢. Thus, the emphasis on love is built into the very address. In fact, these sections have a parallel outline and thematic structure:

    • Initial address (“loved ones…”) and exhortation to love, obeying the love-command (v. 7a, 11)
    • Statement on love as an essential and identifying characteristic of the true believer (v. 7b-8, 12)
    • Christological statement, beginning with the phrase “In this…” (en toútœ…) (v. 9, 13-14)
    • Definition of love, by way of a Christological statement (v. 10, 15-16a)
Verse 7a, 11

The initial address and exhortation, in each section, is virtually identical, differing only in the order of the phrases, and specific wording and emphasis:

    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], we should love [agapœ¡men] each other,
      (in) that [i.e. because] love [agáp¢] is out of [ek] God” (v. 7a)
    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], if God loved [agáp¢sen] us this (way),
      (then) we ought to love [agapán] each other” (v. 11)

In each instance, the obligation or duty placed on believers is based on the love that God showed. In v. 11 this is stated in terms that closely echo the famous declaration in John 3:16, using the same demonstrative adverb (hoútœs). “This” refers to the love God showed by sending His Son to earth, as a human being; here it serves as a foreshadowing of the Christological statement in verse 9. In verse 7a, the same idea is expressed by way of the preposition ek, used in the distinctive Johannine sense of coming out of God—that is, being born out of God, the way Jesus as the Son “comes to be (born)” out of the Father. Believers, too, are similarly born “out of” God.

Verses 7b-8, 12

According to the outline above, these verses represent the essential identification, so important in the letter, of true believers as those who fulfill the great command—that is, here, the command to love one another. In the first section (vv. 7b-8), this is framed by way of a dualistic contrast, such as is used so frequently in the Johannine Writings (Gospel and Letters):

    • “and every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God,
      (but) the (one) not loving (has) not known God, (in) that [i.e. because] God is love.”

It is a contrast between the believer and non-believer—or, more appropriately to the purpose of the letter, between the true believer and the false, with believers defined by the distinct Johannine motifs of being born out of God, and knowing God. Actually this statement joins with the prior address/exhortation in v. 7a to form a single chiastic declaration:

    • “love is [estin] out of God”
      • “every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God” (true believer)
      • “the (one) not loving (has) not known God” (false believer)
    • “God is [estin] love”

Love comes “out of” God because He, in His very nature, is love, and believers who are born “out of” God must similarly have love at their core. A different point of emphasis is made in verse 12:

    • “No one has looked at God at any time; (but) if we would love each other, (then) God remains in us, and His love is (there) having been completed in us.”

Three distinctly Johannine theological motifs are present here, known from both the Gospel Discourses and the First Letter, namely—(1) the idea of seeing God the Father, which only occurs through seeing (i.e. trust in) the Son; (2) use of the verb ménœ (“remain”) as signifying the abiding presence of God (Father and Son) in believers, through the Spirit, and of believers in the Son (and Father) through the same Spirit; and (3) the verb teleióœ (“[make] complete”), specifically in relation to Jesus (the Son) completing the work given to him by the Father, which results in believers being made complete. Here, the presence of the Son and Father (i.e. the Spirit) is also identified specifically as love.

Verses 9, 13-14

We now come to the central Christological statement in each section. This is of vital importance, since it demonstrates clearly that the author’s understanding of love (agáp¢) is fundamentally Christological. The statement in the first section is virtually a quotation of John 3:16:

    • In this [en toútœ] the love of God was made to shine forth in us, (in) that [i.e. because] God se(n)t forth His Son, the only one coming to be [monogen¢¡s], into the world (so) that we would live through him.” (v. 9)
    • “For God loved the world this (way) [hoútœs]—even so (that) He gave (His) only Son coming to be [monogen¢¡s], (so) that every one trusting in him should not go away to ruin, but would hold life…. that the world would be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Love is defined specifically as God sending/giving His Son to the people on earth (spec. the elect/believers), so that they, through his sacrificial death, would be saved from the power of sin/evil in the world and have (eternal) life. This corresponds to the earlier (two-fold) Christological declaration in 3:5, 8a:

    • “and you have seen that this (one) was made to shine forth, (so) that he would take away sin, and sin is not in him.” (3:5)
    • “unto this [i.e. for this purpose] was the Son of God made to shine forth, (so) that he would loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diabólos. ” (3:8)

In both statements, the same verb is used as here in v. 9phaneróœ (“shine forth”, passive “made to shine forth”). It is a verb that epitomizes and encompasses the entire Johannine Christology. The Eternal Light (the Son) “shines forth” onto earth, i.e. appears on earth as a flesh and blood human being (Jesus). This manifestation covers his entire life and work on earth, culminating in his sacrificial death—his atoning work which brings life to all believers in the world. The same is summarized, though with different terminology, in the Christological statement here in the second section (vv. 13-14); it, too, begins with the expression “in this” [en toútœ]:

    • In this [en toútœ] we know that we remain in him and he in us, (in) that [i.e. because] he has given to us out of His Spirit, and we have looked at (it) and give witness to (it), that the Father has se(n)t forth His Son as Savior of the world.”

In sentences such as vv. 9 and 13f, beginning with en toútœ (“in this”), it can sometimes be difficult to know if the expression refers back to something stated before, or ahead to what follows. Here both statements relate primarily to what follows, namely the hóti-clause (“[in] that, because…”). We, as believers, know that we have this union with the God the Father—He remaining in us, and we in Him—because of what He has given to us from out of His Spirit. The Johannine use of the preposition ek (“out of”) again refers to being “born” out of God and belonging to Him. This occurs through the Spirit—and it is the Spirit which allows believers to recognize and proclaim the truth of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior. In Johannine terms, this refers to the first component of the great command—trust in Jesus as the Son of God and Anointed One. As we discussed in the previous studies, those who separated from the Community, and, apparently, held a false/incorrect view of Jesus, were sinning by violating this fundamental command (which no true believer could transgress). Not surprisingly, this first part of the command is closely related, by the author, to the second (love).

Verses 10, 15-16a

The final element of these two sections is a definition of love which is set clearly in the context of the prior Christological statement:

    • “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and se(n)t forth His Son (as a) way of gaining acceptance (from Him) over our sins.” (v. 10)
    • “Whoever would give account as one (with us) that Yeshua is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God; and we have known and trusted the love that God holds in us.” (vv. 15-16a)

In detail these are very different statements, but they reflect the specific wording and points of emphasis in the two sections as a whole (see above). If one were to put both statements together, it would then give a most interesting, and thorough, exposition of Christian love, from the Johannine viewpoint:

    • “This is love…” (definition of love)
      • Our love is based on God’s love toward us…
        • sending His Son (Jesus) to save us from the power of sin and have life
          • [giving account of this—i.e. trust in Jesus as mark of the true believer]
        • Jesus as the Son of God—union with God and His abiding presence in us
      • …the love God holds in us (which is the basis for our love)

In the next study, we will examine this further, as we consider the following sections in 4:16b-19 and 4:20-5:4. Read through these passages, thinking about how they relate to the two prior sections (discussed above). What is the precise relationship between trust in Jesus and Christian love, and how does this relate to the historical situation addressed in the letter and its overall purpose and message?

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

1 John 4:1-6, continued

Last week, we examined 1 John 4:1-6 in the context of the thematic and rhetorical structure of the letter, and also looked at the first three verses in detail. This section deals with the theme of trust in Jesus, just as the prior section (3:12-24) dealt with the theme of love. These two—love and trust in Jesus—are the two components of the great “commandment of God” (v. 23) which all true believers will uphold (and can never violate). Verses 1-3 of chapter 4 presents the author’s key teaching in the letter on trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer. It builds upon the earlier instruction of 2:18-27 (discussed in a previous study). We have noted how 1 John is aimed at warning readers against certain people who have separated from the Community, and thus demonstrated themselves to be false believers (described as antíchristos, “against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22, and again here in 4:3). The author distinguishes them as ones who violate the first component of the great command—which is to say, they do not trust that Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God (2:22-23). However, as Christians who previously had belonged to the Community, presumably they did, in fact, accept Jesus as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, confessing and affirming both points of doctrine. Thus, it would seem that the author has something very specific in mind, a way of understanding just what an identification of Jesus by these titles means. We get a glimpse of what this is by the defining statement (of true belief) in verse 2 of our passage:

“every spirit which gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

On the surface this would imply that the ‘false’ believers did not accept the incarnation of Jesus (as a human being); this would be the obvious sense of the phrase “having come in the flesh” (en sarkí el¢lythóta). Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by the fact that there are two important variant forms of the text in verse 3, where the opposing view of the ‘false’ believers (“false prophets”, v. 1) is stated. It is necessary first to discuss this.

The Text-critical question in 1 John 4:3

As I noted in the previous study, there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

The first reading (with the verb homologéœ), which rather blandly contradicts the true statement in v. 2 with a simple negative particle (), is by far the majority reading, attested in every Greek manuscript and nearly all the ancient versions as well. The second reading (with lýœ) is known from only a small number of witnesses, and almost all by way of Latin translation (lýei ton I¢soún [“looses Yeshua”] typically rendered in Latin as solvit Iesum). In spite of this, many commentators would accept this minority reading as original. Let us consider the evidence and reasons for this.

External Evidence

The only Greek manuscript which contains the reading with lýœ is the 10th century uncial MS 1739, and there only as a marginal note explaining that the reading was found in writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen—all Church Fathers who lived and wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D. It is to be found in Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies (III.16.8), a portion surviving only in Latin (with the verb form solvit, “dissolves”); it is also cited in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, in a portion surviving in Latin (65), though there may be an allusion to it in Greek as well (16.8). In fact, Origin knew both readings, as did the Latin author Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.16.4; Prescription Against Heretics 23) writing at roughly the same time. The minority text (with solvit [in Latin]) is known by several other writers of the 4th and 5th century (e.g., Priscillian Tractate 1.31.3), and is the reading in a number of Old Latin manuscripts (ar c dem div p) in addition to the Latin Vulgate. The only other Greek evidence for the reading (with lýœ) comes from the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7.32), who cites it as an “ancient reading” (meaning it was not the one commonly known at the time), using it against the Christological views of the Nestorians (as those who “separated” the two natures of Jesus).

Internal Evidence and Transcriptional Probability

“Internal evidence” in textual criticism refers to things like the style and vocabulary of the New Testament author, which reading is more likely to be original on this basis, and which is more likely to have been changed or entered into the text through the copying by scribes. This latter aspect is often referred to as “transcriptional probability”. An important principle of textual criticism is difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is to be preferred), meaning that copyists are more likely to alter the text from a word or phrase that is more unusual or difficult to understand to one that is more common or easier to understand. And a good number of commentators consider the reading pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún (“every spirit that looses Jesus“) to be the more difficult. What exactly does this mean—to “loose” Jesus? According to this view, at some point one or more scribes (probably in the early 2nd century) changed the text from “looses” to the blander “does not give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess/agree]”, using the same verb as in verse 2. But is this feasible?

For one thing, as many commentators have noted, the use of the negative particle   with an indicative verb form is unusual, and is itself hard to explain as a scribal change. It is more appropriate before a participle, as in the parallel statement in 2 John 7 (see also John 3:18). In fact, the evidence from 2 John 7 cuts both ways: it can be taken as a sign that the reading with homologéœ is original, or that scribes harmonized the reading with lýœ, ‘correcting’ it in light of 2 Jn 7.

What about the use of the verb lýœ—does it fit with the author’s style and would he use it here in such a context? The verb occurs only once elsewhere in the Johannine letters, at 1 Jn 3:8, where it is stated that Jesus appeared on earth so that he might “loose” (lýs¢, i.e. “dissolve”) the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ literally means “loose[n]”, sometimes in the sense of dissolving or destroying, but also in the sense of releasing someone (or something) from bondage, etc. In the book of Revelation (often considered a Johannine writing), it is always used (6 times) in the sense of releasing a person; whereas, in the Gospel of John, it can be used either in the general sense of loosening straps, bonds, etc (1:27; 11:44), or in the negative sense (above) of dissolving something (2:19; 5:18; 7:23; 10:35), as in 1 Jn 3:8. The most relevant occurrence in the Gospel is at 2:19, where it is part of the Temple-saying of Jesus:

“Loose [lýsate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again).”

In the Synoptic version (in the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene), the reported saying (Mk 14:58 par) uses the compound verb katalýœ (“loose[n] down”), but the meaning is essentially the same—the Temple being dissolved, i.e. its stones broken down and destroyed (cf. Mark 13:1 par where the same verb is used). The verb lýœ typically is not used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” when a person is the object; however, in Jn 2:19 the object of the Temple (a building) is applied to the person of Jesus by the Gospel writer (vv. 21-22), so it is conceivable that the author of 1 John could be doing something similar here.

Conclusion/Summary

I would say that, while an argument can be made for the originality of the reading with lýœ, and that its use in 4:3 would be, to some extent, compatible with Johannine style and theology, it is hard to ignore the absolutely overwhelming textual evidence of the manuscripts and versions. I find it difficult to explain how a scribal change could so effect every single known Greek manuscript, and, at the same time, all of the ancient versions (except for the Latin). It seems much more likely that the reading with the verb lýœ was introduced as a gloss or explanation of the majority reading, perhaps as a marginal note (such as in MS 1739) that made its way into the text. Indeed, if the majority reading (with m¢ homologeí) is original, it is not immediately clear just what contrast the author is making. In what way do the “false prophets” not confess/acknowledge Jesus Christ having “come in the flesh”? Is it a simple denial of the reality of the incarnation, or something else? For the writers of the 2nd-5th centuries, mentioned above, who attest the reading with lýœ, they seem to understand it in the sense of ‘heretics’ who separate the person of Jesus—i.e., dissolving the bond between the divine Christ (Son of God) and the human Jesus. This, however, would likely not have been the false Christology attacked by the author of 1 John (see below).

1 John 4:4-5

You are out of [ek] God, (my dear) offspring, and you have been victorious over them, (in) that the (one) in you is greater that the (one) in the world. They are out of [ek] the world—through this they speak out of [ek] the world, and the world hears them.”

At this point, in his exhortation to his readers, the author draws a sharp contrast with the “false prophets”, emphatically using the pronouns “you” (hymeís) and “they” (autoí). The rhetorical thrust of this is clear. He addresses his audience as true believers, contrasting them with the false believers who have separated from the Community and hold the erroneous view of Jesus. This aspect of religious identity is established by the familiar Johannine use of the prepositions ek (“out of”) and en (“in”). We have seen how the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and First Letter) play on the different uses of the preposition ek. Here it connotes coming from someone (or something), in the sense of being born out of them, as well as the idea of belonging to someone. True believers belong to God, being born of Him, while false believers belong to the World (the evil World-order, kósmos).

The use of the perfect tense (nenik¢¡kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) here is significant. I see two aspects of meaning at work. First, is the rhetorical purpose. The author wishes to persuade his readers not to be influenced or misled by the views of the “false prophets”; he does this by indicating to them that this has already happened—they have already been victorious over the false believers. It is a clever way of urging them to act and respond in a certain way. At the same time, the verb indicates the real situation for true believers—they have already been victorious over the world because Jesus was victorious through his life and work on earth, and believers now share in this power (through the presence of the Spirit in them, v. 4b). The verb nikᜠis a distinctly Johannine term. Of the 28 occurrences in the New Testament, 24 are in the Gospel of John (1), the First Letter (6), and the Book of Revelation (17). In the Gospel and Letter, it is always used in relation to “the world” (ho kósmos)” or “the evil (one)” (ho pon¢rós). In Jn 16:33 Jesus declares that “I have been victorious over the world”, that is, over the evil and darkness that governs the current world-order. It also means that he has been victorious over the Ruler of the world—the Evil Spirit of the world, the “Evil One” (i.e. the Satan/Devil), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8. The language here in vv. 4-6 very much echoes that of the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, especially in the Last Discourse (14:17; 15:19; 17:6-25).

1 John 4:6

“We are out of [ek] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not out [ek] God does not hear us. Out of [ek] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of straying [plán¢].”

The statement “we are out of God” parallels the “you are out of God” in v. 4. This might indicate that it is the authorial “we”, referring to the author himself, perhaps along with other leading ministers. Paul makes frequent use of the authorial “we” in his letters. According to this view, the statement here in v. 6a is meant to persuade readers to listen to what he (the author) is saying. However, I do not believe this is the force of the statement here; rather, “we/us” is being used to identify the Community of true believers, in contrast to the ‘false’ believers who have separated. Since it is the Community of true believers, all genuine believers will hear what is said, since the message is spoken and taught under the guidance of the Spirit. By contrast, those who belong to the world, speak under the influence of the evil Spirit of the world.

This is a clear and marked example of Johannine dualism, with its stark contrast between the domain of God/Christ/Believers and the Devil/World/Non-believers. The closing words bear this out. The “Spirit of Truth” is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God (and Christ) who dwells in and among believers (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 5:6). This is what the author refers to with the phrase “the (one) in you” (v. 4b). The corresponding expression to pneúma t¢s plán¢s is a bit harder to translate. The noun plán¢ essentially refers to wandering or going astray; it is an abstract noun used here in opposition to al¢¡theia (“truth”). It characterizes the Evil Spirit (of the world) as one who leads people astray, i.e. misleading or deceiving them; a natural translation of the noun in English would be “deception” (Spirit of Deception). As it happens, this sort of language is known from other Jewish writings of the period, especially in the Community Rule (1QS) of the Qumran texts, in the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”, where two similarly opposing Spirits (of truth and deceit) are described (1QS 3:17-25). This Evil Spirit is what the author is referring to by the phrase “the (one) in the world” (v. 4b); it also the spirit of antíchristos (“against the Anointed”, v. 3).

Summary

If we are to attempt a historical reconstruction of the views of the false believers (“false prophets”, antichrists) who separated from the Community, it is necessary to bring together, as we have done, the two sections dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus2:18-27 and 4:1-6. In the first passage we learn that the author defines these people as those who do not trust in Jesus—that is, they fail/refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Anointed and Son of God (2:22-23), and thus violate the great command (3:23). In the second passage, we gain a clearer sense of what is involved: these false believers do not acknowledge (with the rest of the Community) Jesus the Anointed as having coming in flesh. This would seem to indicate a denial of the incarnation, a refusal to accept that Jesus appeared on earth as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In classic theological language, this Christological view is referred to as docetism, from the Greek (dokéœ), meaning that Jesus only seemed to be a real human being. It is associated with a number of so-called Gnostic groups and systems of thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early 2nd century, not long after the time when the Johannine letters are often thought to have been composed, attacks an early form of docetic Christology (Smyrn. 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; Trall. 9:1-2; 10:1, etc), and appears to cite 1 John 4:2 for this purpose (in Smyrn. 5:2). Ignatius writes to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Tralles), which is usually considered to be (the most likely) provenance of the Johannine Writings as well.

However, I do not think that the view of the false believers in 1 John is docetic per se. The situation is a bit more complex than that. The answer, I feel, lies in the final section of the letter dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus (5:5-12), which we will soon examine in an upcoming study. But first we must turn to the next section of the letter, on the theme of love, beginning with 4:7. It is a rich and powerful exposition, perhaps the single most extensive treatment on Christian love in the entire New Testament. We will only be able to consider certain aspects of it in the space and time available to us, but it is a subject that will be well worth the study.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).