January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.

December 25: Romans 8:3, 19ff

For the daily notes during these days of Christmas, I will be interrupting the current notes (on the Book of Revelation) to present a short series on the birth of Jesus as the Son of God. I have dealt with the subject extensively in an earlier Christmas series (The Birth of the Son of God), but here this season I wish to focus on the development of the birth/sonship motif, from a theological and religious point of view. In discussing Romans 8:18-25 recently (as part of the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”), we saw how the idea of believers as “sons of God” was closely tied to the resurrection. Chapter 8 of Romans addresses the new life believers have in Christ, as the climax of a four-part “order of salvation” laid out by Paul in the main body of the letter (1:18-8:39). The sonship theme was introduced in verse 3, with the declaration that God sent “His own Son” to free humankind from bondage to sin and death—in Paul’s unique theological language, the “law of the Spirit” sets believers free “from the law of sin and death”. Now, by union with Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, believers have the essential identity as “sons of God”, even as Jesus himself is the “Son of God”.

This is the substance of the Pauline theology, and its soteriology, and it serves well as the framework by which we may study the birth/sonship motif in the New Testament. Jesus is God’s Son, and those who believe in him are likewise sons (or children) of God. How was this realized and understood by the earliest Christians, and how did this use of birth and sonship imagery develop within early Christian thought? The theological structure employed by Paul in Romans 8 is useful for considering these fundamental questions. It begins with the saving work of Jesus Christ (as God’s Son, vv. 1-2ff), and concludes with the realization of believers as God’s sons in the future glory of the resurrection (vv. 18-25), summarized by a trio of statements:

“For the stretching of the head of creation looks (out) toward receiving the uncovering of the sons of God.” (v. 19)
“…the creation itself will be set from from the slavery of decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God” (v. 21)
“…we ourselves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), we also groan in ourselves, looking (out) toward receiving (our) placement as sons, (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).” (v. 23)

In point of fact, Christian life may be said to begin with the resurrection of Jesus, and concludes with our own resurrection (as believers). The development of Christian thought parallels the life-span of the believer, even as it also mirrors the “order of salvation” outlined by Paul (in Romans 8). And it is genuinely a development—theology does not emerge fully formed, but proceeds according to a natural growth, involving a principle we may call “progressive revelation”, or, perhaps better stated, “progressive realization“. As believers, we are only made aware of the different aspects of birth and sonship in stages, over the course of time. This is true for the individual, as also for the Christian Community as a whole. There are two sides to this development, and each mirrors the other:

    • The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus—his identity as God’s Son first recognized [the first Gospel preaching]
      • The Baptism of Jesus—he is seen as God’s Son throughout his life and work on earth [the Gospel Narrative]
        • The Birth of Jesus—he is God’s Son from the moment of supernatural conception (by the Spirit) [the Infancy Narratives]
          • His pre-existent Deity as God’s Son [the Johannine Prologue, etc]
            Believers (the Elect) belong to God as His offspring
        • The Birth of believers—the presence and work of the Spirit [faith/conversion]
      • The Baptism of believers—new birth/life symbolized by ritual means [baptism rite]
    • The resurrection and exaltation of believers—our identity as God’s offspring fully realized

I will be devoting a daily note to each of these (eight) points in the outline. The first half of this sequence is theological and Christological—that is, it reflects the history and development of doctrine, regarding the person of Jesus Christ (and his Deity). This second half is religious and experiential—it represents the Christian life of the believer.

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.

November 3: Revelation 14:6-13

Revelation 14:6-13

This is the second of three visions in chapter 14 (on the first in vv. 1-5, see the previous note). In terms of the basic framework of early Christian eschatology, it marks the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) and announces the beginning of the great Judgment (kri/si$). It thus holds the same place as the half-hour of silence (at the opening of the seventh seal) in 8:1f; note the parallel structure:

  • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 5-6)
  • Vision of the 144,000, together with the Lamb (chapter 7)
  • Angels & the preparation for the Judgment (8:1-2)
  • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 8-9)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 12-13)
    • Vision of the 144,000 together with the Lamb (14:1-5)
    • Angels & the preparation/onset of the Judgment (14:6-13, 14-20)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 15-16)

While the 144,000 symbolize the People of God (believers) generally, there is also a specific reference to those who have faithfully endured the period of distress (7:14; 14:4-5), whether or not they were put to death for following Christ. Since the author/seer and the first readers of the book would have assumed that they were about to enter into this period (i.e. that it was imminent and about to begin), there is no real contradiction in this. Modern-futurist interpretation (in its various forms), of course, requires that the period of distress is yet to come, and so the 144,000 must symbolize future believers.
[The entire question of modern-futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation will be discussed at the end of this series]

The vision in 14:6-13 describes the appearance of three heavenly Messengers (Angels), each of whom delivers a different, but related, message regarding the coming Judgment.

Verses 6-7: First Messenger

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing in the middle of the heaven, holding (the) good message of the Ages to deliver (as) a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, upon every nation and offshoot (of the human race), and (every) tongue and people, declaring in a great voice: ‘You must fear God and give to him honor, (in) that [i.e. because] the hour of His Judgment (has) come, and you must kiss toward [i.e. worship] the (One) making the heaven and the earth and (the) sea and fountains of waters!'”

The image of the Messenger flying “in the middle of the heavens” echoes that of 8:13, confirming the Judgment-setting. There, however, it was a message of woe to the people on earth; here, along with the warning of the Judgment is a message of hope. The idea seems to be that God is giving humankind one final chance to repent and turn to Him, much as we saw in the earlier Trumpet-cycle depicting the Judgment—note the remnant motif (i.e., two-thirds survive) and the specific notice at the close of the cycle (9:20-21).

I have translated the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion literally (“good message of the Age[s]”). It is typically rendered “everlasting Gospel” or “eternal Gospel”; however, I feel it is especially important here to preserve the etymological meaning, since the “good message” relates to the consummation of the Ages, the end of the current Age. The Judgment marks the moment when God will eradicate evil and wickedness from the world, fully establishing His justice and rule over humankind. At the same time, no early Christian reader could hear the word eu)agge/lion without associating it with the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like many symbols in the book of Revelation, the great Judgment itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects—i.e. Judgment that takes place on earth, and that which takes place (subsequently) in Heaven. It would seem that the visions allow for the possibility of people turning to faith in God (and Christ?) during the earthly Judgment (cf. below).

For the expression “good news” (using the eu)aggel– word-group), its background and usage in connection with the Roman emperor and the imperial cult, see my earlier Christmas season note and the recent Word Study series on Gospel/eu)agge/lion.

The use of the aorist tense (h@lqen, “came”) in verse 7 is interesting, since it suggests that the Judgment is a past event, even though it is just now being announced by the Messengers. Most translations render this like a perfect (“has come”); it may be considered as an ingressive aorist, indicating the start of an action. The focus on God as Creator, may reflect a style of Gospel-preaching to (Gentile) non-believers (cp. Acts 14:15-18; 17:23-31), but may also refer back to the idolatry and false religion emphasized in the chap. 13 visions (cp. Wisdom 13:1-19; Rom 1:18-25; Koester, p. 612). The chain of terms in verse 7, summarizing all of the inhabited world, is a direct echo of 13:7.

Verse 8: Second Messenger

“And another Messenger, a second, followed declaring: ‘Babilim the great (has) fallen, fallen!—the (one) who has made all the nations drink out of the wine of the (evil) impulse of her prostitution!'”

This second Messenger continues the “good message”, concerning the end of the current (and wicked) Age, with an announcement regarding “Babel” (i.e. the city Babylon). Greek Babulw/n is a transliteration of the name, presumably deriving from Akkadian b¹b-ilim (“Gate of God”); Hebrew lb#B* (B¹»el) is a similar transliteration, while English Babylon comes from the Greek. The nation-state centered on the city of Babylon was the pre-eminent (imperial) power at the time of the Judean exile, thus making it a fitting symbol for the conquering imperial power (Rome) in the first-century A.D.—the time of the Judean distress (c. 40-70) as well as suffering/persecution of believers when the book of Revelation was written. Most commentators regard “Babylon” as a cypher for Rome, both here and in 1 Peter 5:13. On the whole this is correct, and the identification is made more clear and specific in chapter 17; however, I believe that the symbolism is actually somewhat broader in scope. The interpretive key lies in the vision(s) of 11:1-13, especially the reference to the “great city” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) in v. 8, which is there identified with Jerusalem (cf. also vv. 1-2), but also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”, names specifically indicating worldly power and wickedness. Here, too, Babylon is called “the great (city)” (h( mega/lh), and, I believe, the meaning is generally the same. Whether identified by the specific name “Sodom”, “Egypt”, “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Rome”, the symbol refers primarily to the center of earthly power and influence, which is fundamentally (at least in this current Age) wicked and opposed to God.

Again an aorist form (e&pesen, “fell”) is used to describe something which, from the standpoint of the overall narrative, has not yet taken place. The use of a past tense (whether aorist or perfect in Greek) is sometimes used in reference to future events, speaking of them as something already completed—i.e. proleptic aorist. The use of the prophetic (and precative) perfect in Hebrew does much the same thing, often used to assure readers that something will take place. The specific form of the message (regarding Babylon) derives from Old Testament tradition and the nation-oracles in Isaiah and Jeremiah—specifically Isa 21:9 and Jer 50-51 (50:2; 51:8). It will be greatly expanded in chapter 18.

As is frequently the case in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the noun pornei/a (lit. referring to acts of prostitution) is used figuratively for wickedness and faithlessness to God (i.e. ‘idolatry’ and false religion, etc).

Verses 9-11: Third Messenger

“And another Messenger, a third, followed them declaring in a great voice: ‘If any one kisses toward [i.e. worships] the wild animal and its image, and takes the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between his eyes or upon his hand, even (so) th(is person) he will drink of the impulse of God’s (anger) having been poured out (for him), without (being) mixed (with water), in the drinking-cup of His anger, and he will be tested severely (and proven false), in fire and sulphur, in the sight of (the) holy Messengers and in the sight of the Lamb!—and the smoke of their severe testing steps [i.e. goes] up into the Ages of Ages, and they hold no resting up (from this) day and night, the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] the wild animal and his image (and), indeed, if any one takes the engraved (mark) of its name!'”

I view the message in vv. 9-11 as comprised of a single long (elliptical) sentence, which I have sought to make more readable by punctuating with commas throughout. Its elliptical structure can be illustrated with a chiastic outline:

    • Any one who worships the creature…and takes its mark
      • he will drink from the cup of God’s anger (i.e. divine judgment)
        • they will be tested severely in fire (judged & punished)
          • in the sight of the holy Messengers and the Lamb
        • the smoke of their severe testing rises (judged & punished)
      • they have no rest from it day and night (i.e. eternal judgment)
    • ones who worships the creature…and take its mark

The description of the one who worships (lit. “kisses toward”, vb proskune/w, a common Greek idiom signifying worship/veneration) the “wild animal” (qhri/on, i.e. the Sea-creature) occurs both at the beginning and end of the message, a dual-emphasis that shows just how serious the matter is. It also confirms the context of the visions in chapter 14 as that of chap. 13, with its depiction of the wicked influence exerted by the Sea-creature over humankind. It is specifically stated that anyone who so venerates the Sea-creature (and its living ‘image’ on earth), and takes the engraved mark (xa/ragma) showing that he/she belongs to the creature, will face the full brunt of God’s anger (o)rgh/) in the Judgment. The immediate context of these verses makes clear that it is the heavenly aspect of the Judgment that is in view.

Drinking from a cup (poth/rion) is a traditional motif for the fate a person will experience, often in the negative sense of suffering and/or punishment. For the idiom in the Old Testament, cf. Psalm 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 49:12, etc. Jesus famously uses it in the garden scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par, cf. also 10:38-39 par). This cup is controlled by God, and given out to human beings (who meet their fate over the course of their lives). Here it is meant as a precise contrast with the wine that Babylon made the nations drink (v. 8; cf. Jer 51:7). In both instances the noun qumo/$ is used, which I regularly translate as “impulse” (for lack of a better option in English); it basically refers to a violent or passionate movement, as of air, breath, etc, sometimes internalized as a movement of the soul or mind. The wine Babylon gives is from her wicked impulse to “prostitution”, whereas the wine God makes people drink in the Judgment comes from His impulse to anger, to punish the wicked. This wine is said to be a&krato$, “without mixture”, that is, without being diluted by water—at its full strength.

The verb basani/zw (and related noun basanismo/$) is typically translated as “torment”, but more properly refers to an intense testing, as of metal that is tried by fire. That is the basic image here. The wicked, of course, are proven to be false in the fire of testing, which becomes a painful torture for them (a common denotation when basini/zw is used of human beings). The motifs of fire and sulphur, along with the rising smoke, allude to the destruction of cities (even a “great city”, cf. above), following the traditional imagery of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24, 28) which came to be used as a symbol of the end-time Judgment (Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. also Rev 11:8). Many Christians are naturally disturbed by the idea of the wicked being tormented endlessly; however, any ethical-religious issues we may have today are quite foreign to the text itself and its first-century setting. We should not try to soften or mitigate the imagery, nor should any attempt be made to view it as an absolute metaphysical description of the afterlife.

Verses 12-13: A Fourth Voice

“Here is the need for the holy (one)s to remain under [i.e. endure faithfully], the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and the trust of Yeshua. And I heard a voice out of the heaven saying, ‘Write (this): happy the (one)s th(at are) dying away in the Lord from now (on)’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘(so) that they will rest up out of [i.e. from] their beatings, for their works follow with them’.”

Verse 12 represents the author/seer’s own words to his readers. He stresses again the importance of remaining faithful to Christ during the end-time period of distress (which he and his audience are believed to be entering). The dangers for believers described in the chap. 13 visions—both in terms of being led astray and of being persecuted (and put to death) for remaining faithful—would have been realized already by the surrounding pagan culture and, especially, the imperial cult tied to Roman rule. What is envisioned in chapter 13 is a more extreme, intense, and wicked version of what Christians in Asia Minor, at the end of the 1st-century, were already facing. The description of believers in v. 12b echoes that of 12:17, there referring to believers as children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God on earth). See the prior note on that verse for a discussion of the plural noun e)ntolai/, usually translated “commandments”. In my view, the expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” is best understood and comparable to “the law [no/mo$] of God” in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21). It refers generally to the will of God, such as is expressed in the Old Testament law (Torah) and the teaching of Jesus, but should not be reduced to a specific set of commands or teachings. The pairing of expressions means that believers are people who generally live in a manner that corresponds to the will of God, and who also, specifically (and most importantly), have trust/faith in Jesus.

The final message is one of comfort for believers, given by a heavenly Messenger, and echoed by the Spirit. The main difficulty lies in the expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”); it can be understood three ways, moving from narrower to broader focus:

    • It refers to believers (or those who come to be believers) alive during the great Judgment on the earth. The message of the first Angel (cf. above) seems to allow for the possibility of people coming to faith during the Judgment, or just prior to its onset. Given the terrible events that will occur on earth at the Judgment (vividly described in the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles), death certainly would be a blessing.
    • It refers primarily to the period of distress that precedes the Judgment on earth; believers certainly will live through this (according to the visions of chaps. 12-13 and elsewhere in the book), and will suffer greatly. Here, too, death, even as a result of execution, would be a comfort.
    • It is meant more directly for the audience/readers of the book, who, it must be said, were expected to live into the (imminent) period of distress.

In my view, the last, and most inclusive interpretation best fits the context of both the vision and the book as a whole. In any case, the blessing (or happiness) of believers who die during this time is two-fold: (1) they receive rest from suffering and distress (referred to as “beatings” ko/poi, something with weakens or reduces strength), and (2) they are rewarded for their faithfulness (referred to here as “works”, e&rga).

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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.