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

1 John 4:1-6, continued

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

I wish to examine two additional themes this week.

2. Believers “born of [ek] God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. “remain in” (ménœ + en)

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

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

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

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

b. “be in” (eimi + en)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 8:28)

John 8:28

The next Johannine “son of man” saying is found in 8:28. The depth and complexity of the great Sukkot-Discourse (chapters 7-8 [excluding 7:53-8:11]) creates many challenges for commentators. As in the case of the Last (Farewell) Discourse (13:31-16:33), the Sukkot-Discourse is properly a Discourse-complex, comprised of a number of shorter, interconnected Discourse-sections. For each such section, the typical pattern for the Johannine Discourses is generally followed:

    • Principal statement/saying by Jesus
    • Response by his hearers, reflecting a misunderstanding of the true meaning of his words
    • Exposition by Jesus

The Discourse-section containing the “son of man” saying is 8:21-30. The principal saying by Jesus occurs in verse 21:

“I lead (myself) under—and you will seek (for) me, but you will die away in your sin!
(The place) where I lead (myself) under, you are not able to come (there).”

The verb u(pa/gw means “lead under”, i.e., go under cover, put (oneself) out of sight, be hidden, etc. It can be used in the very general sense of “go away”, but it would be rather misleading to translate it so here; it is important to preserve the aspect of being “under cover”, i.e., not able to be seen. The verb is used with frequency in the Gospel of John, and often in the special Christological sense of the Son’s departure back to God the Father (in heaven). That is how the verb is being used here in the Sukkot-Discourse (8:21-22, cf. earlier in 7:33; 8:14), anticipating a similar usage in the Last Discourse (13:3, 33, 36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 16).

Those who hear Jesus’ words without trusting in him—or, even worse, in hostile opposition to him—will not be able to follow him to God the Father in heaven. Indeed, they will die off in their sin, and will have no experience of the Divine (eternal) life that comes through trust in Jesus.

This is the thrust of Jesus’ saying. In the remainder of the Discourse-section, the pattern of Response/Exposition is repeated, producing a dialogue exchange. The first response by Jesus’ hearers is in verse 22; clearly they have not understood the meaning of his words, which he then restates, expounding the saying with greater Christological clarity:

“You are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above; you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world. So I said to you that you will die away in your sins—for, if you would not trust that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi], (then) you shall die away in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

Jesus’ hearers cannot follow him to the Father (in heaven) because they do not belong to the Divine/heavenly things (“the [thing]s above [a&nw]”), but belong, rather, to the things below [ka/tw], in “this world”. This above/below contrast is part of the Johannine dualistic manner of thought and expression. Believers are “from above” (3:3ff), having come to be born from above, from the Spirit of God. On the contrast between believers and “the world” (o( ko/smo$), cf. throughout the Last Discourse, and also the great Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17 (where the noun ko/smo$ occurs 18 times); the theme also features prominently in 1 John (2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1-5, 17; 5:4-5, 19).

Verse 24 contains an “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) saying by Jesus, an example of the essential predication that occurs throughout the Gospel (and Letters) of John. This, however, is one of the few instances where a predicate nominative is omitted, leaving only the Divine subject (Jesus, “I”) and verb of being (ei)mi). There are three such occurrences in the Sukkot-Discourse—here in v. 24, again in verse 28 (see below), and finally, at the conclusion, in verse 58: “Before Abraham’s coming to be [gene/sqai], I am [e)gw/ ei)mi]”. The lack of a predicate nominative places the emphasis squarely on the verb of being, which, here in verse 58, is contrasted with the verb of becoming (gi/nomai). This is an important theological distinction, reflecting the way that the Johannine writings tend to distinguish the verb of being from that of becoming. The verb of being tends to be applied to God (or to a Divine subject), as is reflected by the essential predication formula. By contrast, the verb of becoming properly applies to created (human) beings. Humans come to be, but only God is. The distinction between ei)mi and gi/nomai is most notable in the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The other absolute “I am” saying is found in 13:19.

Thus, for Jesus to say simply “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi), it represents the ultimate attribution of Deity (on the Old Testament background for this Divine self-predication, see, e.g., Exod 3:14; 6:7; 7:5; Isa 43:25; 45:18; 51:12; 52:6; Hos 13:4; Joel 2:27; cf. the summary in Brown, pp. 533-8)—a point that Jesus’ opponents clearly recognized, based on their response (v. 59, compare 5:18). It is therefore strange that so many commentators are unwilling (or reluctant) to read the simple e)gw/ ei)mi here in v. 24 (and 28) the same way. This will be discussed further on verse 28, below.

Another exchange, between Jesus and his hearers, occurs in vv. 25-26. Jesus’ claim that he belongs to “the (thing)s above”, and that he is “not of this world”, leads them to ask “who are you? [su\ ti/$ ei@]”. Again, the use of the verb of being here is significant, even if the speakers do not understand its significance (in the Johannine context). The question represents the very essence of the Johannine Gospel—the identity of Jesus, who he is. As direct as the question might be, Jesus will not give to them a direct answer—at least, not in wording that they would clearly understand. Indeed, the Greek phrasing Jesus employs is suitably ambiguous; in answer to the question “who are you”, he replies:

“The beginning, that which even I speak to you.”
th\n a)rxh\n o% ti kai\ lalw= u(mi=n

For a concise summary of the various ways this line has been interpreted, see Brown, pp. 347-8; von Wahlde, p. 382. The most plausible explanation is (to paraphrase): “What I have been saying to you from the beginning”. However, it is possible to read it in an even more banal way, as an expression of frustration by Jesus: “Why do I even speak to you at all?”. Whatever the intended surface meaning to be conveyed by Jesus, there can be no real doubt that the statement contains a much deeper theological meaning—one which echoes the opening words of the Prologue—identifying Jesus as “the beginning”, i.e., as the Word/Wisdom (and Son) of God who was with the Father “in the beginning”. On this theological use of a)rxh/, couched in the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”), cf. 1 John 1:1 and 2:13-14 (cp. 2:7, 24; 3:8, 11; 2 Jn 5-6).

The message regarding his identity is central to his mission, the purpose for which God the Father sent Jesus (the Son) to earth. Having come from God the Father, having been with Him from the beginning, Jesus naturally speaks the very words of God (v. 26):

“I hold many (thing)s about you to speak and to judge, but the (One hav)ing sent me is true, and I speak to the world the (thing)s that I (have) heard alongside Him.”

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ ambiguous and provocative answer leads to another response by his hearers (v. 27), presented by the Gospel writer as a simple summary, to the effect that “they did not know that he said (this) to them (about God) the Father”. This expression of their lack of understanding prompts Jesus to offer a further exposition of his words:

“When you would lift up high [u(ywshte] the son of man, then you will know that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi], and (that) from myself I do nothing—but (rather), just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these (thing)s.” (v. 28)

The initial statement of verse 28 is a “son of man” saying that resembles (and echoes) the earlier one in 3:14:

“And, just as Moshe lifted high [u%ywmen] the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the son of man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai].”

This saying informs the use of the expression “the son of man” here, and so the earlier study (on 3:14) must be consulted.

As noted above, commentators have been strangely unwilling to recognize the ‘absolute’ use of “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) here in verse 28 (and in v. 24, cf. above), in spite of its clear use in v. 58. Many translators render e)gw/ ei)mi here as “I am he”, either as a reference to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, or as “the Son of Man”. According to this line of interpretation, Jesus is using the expression “the son of man” here as a Divine (or Messianic) title, referring to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14. The translation of the first part of the verse, then would be:

“When you lift up high the Son of Man, (then) you will know that I am he…”

In my view, such a reading is wholly incorrect and thoroughly distorts the Johannine theological (and Christological) message here in the Gospel. The expression “the son of man” is, principally, a self-reference by Jesus, as if he were to say: “When you lift me up high, (then) you will know that I am…” —that is, you will know that I am the Son of God, who was with the Father (in heaven) from the beginning. The remainder of the verse clearly confirms that Jesus’ identity as the Son is being emphasized, essentially reiterating the point made in v. 26 (cf. above).
The possible influence of Dan 7:13f on the use of the expression “the son of man” (by Jesus) in the Gospel Tradition has been discussed in the earlier studies on the Synoptic sayings (esp. Mk 13:26; 14:62 par). It will be treated in more detail as this series comes to a close.

While the expression “the son of man” is principally used as a self-reference by Jesus here in v. 28, it certainly carries with it the Johannine theological associations we have discerned from the prior studies:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe
    • The incarnation of the Son, whose mission on earth culminates in his sacrificial death, which serves to confer life to those who believe

On the latter point, in particular, I think that one may admit an allusion to the incarnation (and Jesus’ impending death) in the concluding verse 29:

“And the (One hav)ing sent me is with me; He did not set me forth alone, (in) that I do the (thing)s pleasing to Him at all times.”

The “sending” (vb pe/mpw) and “setting forth” (or “sending away”, a)fi/hmi) of the Son certainly involves his incarnation (1:14) in the person of Jesus. But the incarnate mission of the Son on earth is not done alone, apart from God the Father; rather, the Father remains with (meta/) him. This may allude to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (1:32-33), suggesting that the Father’s presence is realized for Jesus through the Spirit. However, the Johannine writings say surprisingly little about how the Son’s relation to the Father was realized, in the incarnate ‘state,’ during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

In any case, the Son’s earthly mission culminates in the death of Jesus, and his death is certainly to be included as a principal component of the “lifting up high” (vb u(yo/w) of the Son. The verb u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”) is a principal Johannine verb for the exaltation of Jesus. This exaltation encompasses his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. It does, however, begin with Jesus’ death, and that is the primary point of reference both in 3:14 and here in 8:28. In this regard, the verb u(yo/w is specifically associated with the expression “the son of man”, occurring also in 12:32, 34 (to be discussed). This is not surprising, since, in the wider Gospel Tradition, the expression was frequently used in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death, as we saw in our study on the Synoptic Sayings (esp. the three Passion predictions, Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par). The formulation using the verbal particle dei= (“it is necessary [for]…”) is very much reminiscent of the Synoptic Passion predictions.

In 3:14 and 12:32, 34, the verb u(yo/w occurs in a passive form, but here in 8:28, it is active (“when you lift up high…”). It indicates the people’s role in putting Jesus to death. The passive form, by contrast, could be read as an example of the so-called Divine passive (passivum divinum), with God the Father as the implied actor. This would tend to emphasize the aspect of giving honor to the Son, parallel to the use of the verb doca/zw for the exaltation of Jesus.

The Discourse-section 8:21-30 concludes with the narrative summary in v. 30: “(With) his speaking these (thing)s, many (people) trusted in him”. This concurrence of the use of the expression “the son of man” with an emphasis on trusting in Jesus is significant, both in relation to the earlier use of the expression in the Bread of Life Discourse (cf. parts 1, 2, and 3 of the previous study), and to the next occurrence, in 9:35. It is this reference which will be examined in our next study.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 29 (1966).
Those marked “von Wahlde” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John. Volume 2: Commentary on the Gospel of John, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (2010).

 

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:62)

John 6:62

The third occurrence of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in chapter 6 is the saying by Jesus in verse 62. The first two occurrences (in vv. 27 and 53) were discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this study. Verses 60-71 are an integral component of the ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse, even though they are outside of the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59).

The relationship of vv. 60-71 to the main sections of the Discourse can be debated, on historical-critical and source-critical grounds. However, from a literary standpoint, there is no question that they are connected with the Discourse proper. This means that the ‘grumbling’ response by the disciples in verse 60f, refers back to Jesus’ words and teaching in the Discourse. The lo/go$ (“account, word”) they speak of—viz., “this lo/go$ is harsh, who is able to hear it?” —must refer to the sayings by Jesus in the Discourse (and their exposition).

In this regard, the response by the disciples mirrors the earlier responses by Jesus’ hearers (in vv. 28 [also 30-31], 41-42, and 52). This follows the typical pattern for the Johannine Discourses:

    • Principal saying/statement by Jesus
    • Response by his hearers, indicating that they have misunderstood the true meaning of his words
    • Exposition by Jesus

Sometimes, in the longer Discourses, the Response/Exposition portion of the pattern is repeated.

Which aspect of Jesus’ saying(s) are the disciples responding to when they call it “harsh” (or “hard, tough,” sklhro/$)? It is worth comparing their response to that of Jesus’ hearers in the Discourse. The sayings in Parts 2 and 3 of the Discourse, each of which relates back to the principal statement in v. 27, are “I am” sayings of Jesus:

    • I am the bread of life
      the (one) coming toward me shall not (ever) hunger,
      and the (one) trusting in me shall at no time thirst.” (v. 35)
    • I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—
      if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age…” (v. 51)

The saying in verse 51 contains both points of objection raised by Jesus’ hearers:

    • Jesus has “stepped down” (i.e., come down) from heaven
      “…(they) muttered about him that he said ‘I am the bread having stepped down out of heaven’ … how can he say (this)…?” (vv. 41-42)
    • It is necessary to “eat” Jesus—specifically, his “flesh”
      “How is this man able to give (us) [his] flesh to eat?” (v. 52)

Since the third section (vv. 51-58) immediately precedes v. 60, it would be natural that the “harsh” word be identified with the saying in v. 51, and with the idea that one must “eat” Jesus’ flesh (and “drink” his blood). However, what follows in vv. 61-62 suggests rather that it is the idea of Jesus’ heavenly origin that is the main point of difficulty for the disciples. Here is how Jesus responds to them:

But Yeshua, having seen that his learners [i.e. disciples] muttered about this, said to them: “Does this trip you up? Then, if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was (at) the first…?” (vv. 61-62)

Syntactically, the question posed by Jesus is incomplete, containing only the conditional clause (the “if” portion), but missing the apodosis (i.e., the “then” portion). He asks, “if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was (at) first…?” Most translators and commentators attempt to fill out the question, but there is some uncertainty regarding how Jesus intends it. I am inclined to interpret the question as a rebuke to the disciples, along the lines of:

“Then, if you could view the son of man stepping (back) up to where he was at first, would that help you to trust in my word?”

The point at issue is the heavenly origin of Jesus, as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. This is the fundamental Christological point of the entire Gospel, and it can only be grasped through trust, not by physical sight. Throughout the Gospel, these two levels of sight/seeing are juxtaposed: physical sight (i.e., ordinary seeing with the eyes) vs. spiritual sight. In the Johannine theological idiom, the latter represents the true meaning of the various sight/seeing verbs used in the Gospel. Through the eyes of faith, given to the believer by God Himself, one is able to recognize the truth of who Jesus is—viz., the Son of God, sent from heaven by the Father. Seeing Jesus in the ordinary sense (with one’s eyes) is meaningless if it does not lead to trust in him. This is the thrust of Jesus’ famous rebuke to Thomas in 20:27ff (see esp. verse 29). The juxtaposition of these two levels of seeing is perhaps most clear in chapter 9, the episode of the Blind Man. At the beginning of the narrative, the focus is on physical sight (and blindness); however, by the end of the episode (vv. 35-41), the focus has shifted to trust in Jesus. The one who sees, trusts in Jesus, while the one who is truly blind is unable/unwilling to trust.

The sight/seeing verb used in verse 62 is qewre/w, meaning “look (closely) at, view, observe, perceive”. It occurs quite frequently in the Gospel of John—24 times (out of 58 NT occurrences), compared with 16 in the Synoptics. It was used earlier in the Bread of Life Discourse (v. 40), where it is parallel (and synonymous) with the verb pisteu/w (“trust”), referring to trust in Jesus (as the Son). That is also the meaning, for example, in 12:45. In the Last Discourse, Jesus (and the Gospel writer) plays on the dual-meaning of the verb—that is, the two levels of “seeing” (cf. above)—14:17, 19; 16:10, 16-17ff.

The force of Jesus’ rebuke here in v. 62 is that his disciples should not need to see him go back up to heaven in order to trust in his heavenly origin. Their response in v. 61 suggests that, at least at this point in the narrative, they are not yet able to recognize the full truth of who Jesus is. It is only at the end of the Last Discourse (cf. 16:30ff) that they truly begin to understand. The confession by Peter here in vv. 68-69, like the fuller declaration by Martha in 11:27, anticipates the moment when Jesus’ disciples will finally recognize the truth regarding his identity.

How, then, shall we explain the use of the expression “the son of man” in this context? First, it is clearly used by Jesus as a self-reference. He could just as well have asked, “what if you were to see me stepping (back) up to where I was at first…?”. More important is the use of the expression earlier in the Discourse (vv. 27, 53)—particularly, in the initial saying of verse 27. Throughout the Discourse, Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from heaven”; and when he (“th[is] son of man”) gives the bread, he is actually giving himself. Thus, the emphasis is on the fact that he has come down from heaven.

The important Johannine verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., come down) occurs seven times in the Discourse (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 51-52, 58), while the corresponding verb a)nabai/nw (“step up,” i.e., go up, ascend) is used here in v. 62. Both of these verbs were used in the “son of man” sayings of 1:51 [study] and 3:13-14 [study], and thus reflect important thematic associations for the expression within the Gospel of John:

    • The heavenly origin of Jesus
    • That Jesus (the Son) came down to earth, sent by the Father

A third, related theme, is the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus. This was discussed in the second part of this study (on verse 53, in the context of vv. 51-58), and is alluded to again in verse 63 (see below). The idea of the Son’s incarnation (as human flesh [and blood]) cannot be separated from the motif of the Son’s descent from heaven. Moreover, both the Son’s incarnation, and the mission for which he sent down to earth (by the Father), relate specifically to Jesus’ death. This, indeed, is the emphasis in vv. 51-58, and must be regarded as part of the “harsh word” that the disciples find difficult to accept. Jesus’ teaching in the Discourse entails a double difficulty—stemming from the very expression “the bread out of heaven”:

    • “out of heaven” —the heavenly origin of Jesus
    • “bread” —that it is necessary to “eat” Jesus (that is, his “flesh”)

If Jesus’ question in verse 62 addresses the first difficulty, his words in verse 63 would seem to address the second:

“The Spirit is the (thing) making alive—the flesh does not benefit anything! The utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.”

It is inconceivable that this statement, in the context of the chapter 6 Discourse, does not refer back to vv. 51-58, and to the apparent eucharistic language used in those verses. If so, then the noun sa/rc (“flesh”) here must refer to the use of the same noun (six times) in vv. 51-56. Just as one cannot recognize the truth of who Jesus is through ordinary (physical) sight, so also one cannot receive life through the ordinary (physical) eating of bread/flesh. The nature of both the seeing and eating is spiritual. Moreover, the Spirit is the source of the Divine (eternal) life, which one receives (and experiences) through trust in Jesus. By trusting in his word (“the utterances which I have spoken”)—the message regarding who he is—one both “sees” and “eats”. The emphasis in vv. 51-58 is not ritualistic (sacramental), but spiritual. For a more detailed study of verse 63, see my recent article and notes in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”.

Returning to the use of the expression “the son of man”, there is, in v. 62, a two-fold emphasis—emphasizing two particular thematic associations which we have already highlighted:

    • As a self-reference by Jesus (viz., “th[is] son of man”), since the emphasis is on the identity of Jesus himself as the incarnate Son who has come down from heaven
    • That he has, indeed, come down from heaven—a Christological principle that entails both the incarnation of the Son, and the life that he is able to give as a result of his mission on earth

In the next study, we will turn to the next occurrence of the expression “the son of man”, in 8:28.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:53)

John 6:53

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. The first of these (in verse 27), discussed previously, occurs within the first of the three sections (vv. 25-34) that comprise the Discourse proper (vv. 22-59):

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)

Each of these three parts builds upon the one prior. In Part 1, Jesus expounds the Scriptural tradition of manna as “the bread from heaven” (Exod 16:4; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), implicitly identifying himself as the true “bread out of heaven”, which God the Father has sent down. In Part 2 (vv. 35-50), this identification is made explicit, utilizing the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$), within an “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statement by Jesus (v. 35). In Part 3, the identification is further refined in a second “I am” statement (v. 51), using the expression “the living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n).

The exposition in Part 2 can be divided into two sections (vv. 35-40, 43-50), separated by the questioning (and skeptical) response from Jesus’ hearers. This follows the basic pattern of the Johannine Discourses. Two main points are made in the first expository section: (1) Jesus has come down from heaven, having been sent by the Father; and (2) the purpose of this mission is to give (eternal) life to all who believe in him (viz., as the Son of God). This is basic Johannine theology, and it provides the theological explanation for the identification of Jesus as “the bread of life” (as “the bread out of heaven”). In the second expository section (vv. 43-50), in response to the audience’s questions (v. 42), Jesus further emphasizes the need for people to trust in him, and offers a measure of theological explanation as to how this trust takes place (vv. 44-46).

The fundamental expository development of the manna motif is thus two-fold: (1) that Jesus himself is the true “bread out of heaven”, and (2) that “eating” this bread means trusting in Jesus as the Son of God. There is not the slightest suggestion that the idiom of eating here has any other meaning.

This brings us to the third part of the Discourse (vv. 51-58), in which the “son of man” reference occurs. It is important to keep in mind that the entire Discourse is ultimately rooted in the first saying by Jesus, in verse 27, where the expression “the son of man” occurs:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], which the son of man shall give…”

The second and third sayings explain and elucidate (Christologically, note the “I am” formulation) the primary saying of v. 27:

    • I am the bread of life
      the (one) coming toward me shall not (ever) hunger,
      and the (one) trusting in me shall at no time thirst.” (v. 35)
    • I am the living bread (hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—
      if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age…” (v. 51)

The message is fundamentally the same in each of these sayings: the person who trusts in Jesus shall possess (and experience) eternal life. The parallelism of vv. 35 and 51 further confirms that “eating” the bread of life (Jesus) means trusting in him.

However, the second of these “I am” sayings (v. 51) is closer in form to the initial saying of v. 27. Note the parallel in the first portion of each saying:

    • “…(work for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age”
    • “if any(one) should eat of this bread, he shall live into the Age”

And also in the second portion:

    • “…which the son of man shall give”
    • “…and the bread which I will give…”

The parallel makes clear that the expression “the son of man” is primarily used by Jesus here as a self-reference, interchangeable with the pronoun “I”. This confirms much of our analysis from the earlier studies on the Synoptic “son of man” sayings. The final words of verse 51 provide the essential expository information that will be further developed in this section:

“…and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”

That is to say, Jesus’ identity as the “bread of life” (or “living bread”) is specifically focused on his flesh (sa/rc). In verse 53 (see below), this is further expanded to include his blood (ai!ma); the preparation for this expository development is provided by the reference to both eating and drinking, in v. 35. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the motif of eating and that of drinking—in the Johannine theological idiom, they both refer to trusting in Jesus, and to the life that is conferred to the believer as a result of that trust. One only need to compare the “living water” (drinking) theme in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10-14, cf. also 7:37-39) with the “living bread” (eating) theme here in chapter 6.

The statement by Jesus in verse 51 naturally leads to another questioning response (demonstrating a lack of understanding) by his hearers (v. 52). The difficulty expressed in vv. 42-43 had to do with the idea that Jesus had come down from heaven; here, the problem lies in the idea of eating his “flesh”. Jesus responds with a further exposition (vv. 53-58) of his saying. The “son of man” reference occurs in the initial statement of this exposition:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: if you should not eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you do not hold (any) life in yourselves.” (v. 53)

Here, the phrase “the flesh of the son of man” is precisely parallel with “my flesh” (in v. 51), demonstrating (again) that the expression “the son of man” is principally a self-reference by Jesus. This is also confirmed by the statement that follows in v. 54:

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…”

This represents the positive side of the negative statement in v. 53: the one who does eat Jesus’ “flesh” does have life, while the one who does not eat his “flesh” does not have life. This is typical of the dualistic manner of Johannine thought and expression. For stylistic variation (and dramatic emphasis), the verb trw/gw (lit. “wear away” by chewing), in the sense of “devour, consume”, is used in verse 54ff instead of the more general fa/gw (“eat”). The verb trw/gw is quite rare in the New Testament; of the six occurrences, four are here in vv. 54-58.
It is no less rare in the LXX, occurring only in the compounds e)ktrw/gw (Mic 7:4) and katatrw/gw (Prov 24:22e).

In verse 55, Jesus further emphasizes that his “flesh” and “blood” is true food and drink (just as he is the true “bread from heaven”). The natural consequences of this idiom of eating/drinking are developed in vv. 56-57. Just as a person takes in food and drink, and then the life-giving nutrients, etc, are assimilated and made active within the person, so the believer who consumes the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus assimilates the Divine life (and life-giving power) of the Son. This is expressed in decidedly Johannine terms. First, in verse 56, the key verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is utilized. This is the principal Johannine way of expressing the union of the believer with God—viz., the believer “remains in” God, and God “remains in” the believer. This abiding union with God the Father is achieved through the Son—that is, through trust in the Son (i.e., eating/drinking him):

“The (one) devouring my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

It is only by being (i.e. remaining) “in the Son” that we are able to be “in the Father”. In verse 57, the focus is on the life-giving power of the Son, which was given to him by the Father:

“Just as the living Father sent me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also the (one) devouring me—that (one) shall live through me.”

This is another essential Johannine theme, one which featured prominently in the chapter 5 Discourse. Indeed, the theme is central to the “son of man” reference in v. 27, as it occurs within the overall context of vv. 19-30 (cf. the discussion in the prior study). Note, in particular, the statement in verse 26:

“For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, thus also He has given (it) to the Son to hold life in himself.”

The Son, in turn, gives life to whomever he wishes—that is, to all those who trust in him.

These themes and points of emphasis are summarized in v. 58, at the close of the Discourse, as Jesus returns to the manna tradition with which he began the Discourse:

This is the bread (hav)ing come down out of heaven; and (it is) not at all as our fathers ate and (then) died away—the (one) devouring this bread shall live into the Age!”

Conclusions

The use of the expression “the son of man” in verse 53, as noted above, functions primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. Its meaning and significance, in this Johannine context, follow the points of emphasis that we have already outlined from the prior studies (on the sayings in 1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27, and 6:27):

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

If there is anything distinctive which is to be added to these theological themes, based on the saying in v. 53 (in the context of vv. 51-58), it relates specifically to the motif of Jesus’ flesh (and blood). These two idiomatic terms— “flesh” (sa/rc) and “blood” (ai!ma)—carry a correspondingly two-fold significance:

    • “flesh” —the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus (cf. 1:14; 1 Jn 4:2; 2 Jn 7)
    • “blood” —the life-giving power of Jesus’ death (19:34 [cp. verse 30]; 1 Jn 1:7; 5:6, 8)

The nouns sa/rc and ai!ma hardly occur at all in the Johannine writings outside of this theological-christological nexus.

As we have seen from our studies on the Synoptic sayings, the expression “the son of man” was particularly used by Jesus in connection with his suffering and death. This applies to the three Passion-predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par; cf. also 9:9, 12), but the expression also occurs a number of times in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:21, 41 par; Matt 26:2; Lk 22:48), in dramatic anticipation of Jesus’ suffering/death. Especially notable, as a parallel to Jn 6:53, is the saying in Mark 10:45:

“For the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul, (as) a loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

This resembles the thought expressed by Jesus at the Last Supper:

“this is my blood…having been poured out over many” (Mk 14:24 par)

The symbolism of the bread and wine—as Jesus’ “body” and “blood” —relates to his impending death, which will function as a sacrificial act, enabling human beings (viz., those who trust in him) to be set free from bondage (to sin).

Nearly all commentators recognize that there is eucharistic language present in vv. 51-58. The inclusion of flesh and blood, even though “flesh” alone would make a more natural parallel to “bread”, strongly suggests that there is an intentional reference (or allusion) to the eucharist (i.e., the Lord’s Supper ritual) at work in this section. Indeed, the wording in v. 51 (“…which I give over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”) seems to echo that of Mk 14:24 par (“…having been poured out over [u(pe/r] many”).

The precise relationship of vv. 51-58 to the eucharist has been (and continues to be) much debated by scholars and commentators. I have discussed the matter in earlier notes and articles, most recently as a supplemental note in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” (cf. the article on Jn 6:63). I will not repeat those discussions here. In any case, with regard to the specific use of the expression “the son of man”, the principal point is that, as in the Synoptic Last Supper account, Jesus’ “flesh” (or “body”) and “blood” refer to his death. Only secondarily, by way of symbolism, do they refer to the (eucharistic) elements of the Lord’s Supper rite.

As a result of our study on verse 53 (in context), we may expand our list of Johannine themes associated with the expression “the son of man” to include four fundamental themes:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe
    • The incarnation of the Son, whose mission on earth culminates in his sacrificial death, which serves to confer life to those who believe

In the next part of this study, we shall turn our attention to the “son of man” reference in verse 62.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

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

1 John 4:1-6

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

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

1. “The Spirit of Truth”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 5: 1 John 5:20, continued

1 John 5:20, continued

(see the previous note)

Like all three statements in the triad, v. 20 begins with the conclusive declaration “we have seen that…” (oi&damen o%ti). Through the use of the plural, the author implicitly includes his audience with himself, as being among the Community of true believers. He assumes that here, by the end of the treatise, his readers/hearers will affirm the truth of what he presents. Let us briefly examine each phrase and element of the statement.

“the Son of God is come” (o( ui(o/$ tou= qeou= h%kei). This declares that the Son of God has come in the person of Jesus Christ—an allusion to both the incarnation and the mission for which the Father sent him to earth. The use of the present tense of the verb may seem a bit peculiar in this regard; however, it emphasizes the presence of the Son in and among us, and thus can be understood in terms of the Son’s continuing/abiding presence. The verb h%kw can specifically refer to being here. According to the author, the opponents hold an erroneous (false) view of the Son’s coming; on the nature of their Christology, see my earlier notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

“and he has given to us (the) ability to think through” (kai\ de/dwken h(mi=n dia/noian). A key aspect of Johannine theology is the point that the Son has received from the Father (Jn 3:35, etc), and has, in turn, given these things to us as believers. The verb di/dwmi (“give”) is used frequently, in the Gospel (and in 1 John), in this special theological sense. Here, it is said that one of the things the Son gave to us is the “(ability) to think (things) through” (dia/noia), the only occurrence of this word in the Johannine writings. But this does not refer to any ordinary mental or intellectual ability; rather, it is best explained in terms of the regular Johannine idiom of knowing (and seeing), using the verbs ginw/skw and ei&dw (along with other sight/seeing verbs). That is to say, the Son has given us the ability to know and to see the truth; the noun dia/noia could be translated fairly here as “insight” (this is how von Wahlde renders it, pp. 201, 207). This insight (and ability to see) comes only through trust in Jesus (as the Son) and our birth (as believers) from the Spirit (cf. John 3:3ff).

“that we should know the True (One)” (i%na ginw/skwmen to\n a)lhqino/n). Again, this is not ordinary cognitive knowledge, but knowledge of God, given to us through the Spirit. The Son came to make known the Father—a key Johannine theological point. The statement here would seem to echo the important confessional declaration in Jn 17:3:

“And this the life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]: that they should you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

The title “the True (One)” is essentially shorthand here for the expression “the only true God”. It also reflects the fundamental Divine attribute/characteristic of truth. Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, this attribute is specifically associated with the Spirit (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6); indeed, the Spirit is even identified with the Truth itself (5:6), an instance of Johannine essential predication where the Spirit is the Divine subject. There is an equally strong association with the Son, including an essential predicative statement (Jn 14:6) comparable to that of 1 Jn 5:6. As a fundamental Divine attribute, truth (a)lh/qeia) can be identified with God Himself—and so also with the Son and the Spirit, respectively.

“and we are in the True (One)” (kai\ e)smen e)n tw=| a)lhqinw=|). As believers, we do not only know God, we are in (e)n) Him, united with Him in a bond of union. This, again, reflects the identity of believers as the offspring/children of God, born of Him. Having been born of His Spirit, we are united with Him through the Spirit; just as the Son (Jesus) is united with the Father, so are we as His children. Indeed, it is through the Son that we are able to be united with the Father, our union with Father and Son both being realized through the Spirit. Both the Spirit and the Son are the truth (5:6; Jn 14:6), the very truth that is God Himself.

“in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed” (e)n tw=| ui(w=| au)tou= Ihsou= Xristw=|). As noted above, it is because we are “in the Son” that we are in the Father. The embedded confessional statement—viz., that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—echoes the theme from earlier in the treatise, that only those who remain rooted in the truth of who Jesus is, with a correct trust in him, can truly be said to be united with the Son and the Father. The opponents, who have departed from the truth of Jesus Christ, have union with neither the Son nor the Father (2:22-23, cf. the earlier notes on the Christology of the opponents).

“This is the true God and (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$). This statement identifies God with both truth (a)lh/qeia) and life (zwh/)—both key Johannine theological terms (and themes) that occur frequently in the Gospel and First Letter. The Divine life, possessed by God, is, by its nature, eternal life. Our union with the Son (through the Spirit) enables us to share in this Divine truth and life; indeed, it is our possession as the offspring/children of God. Again, this declaration echoes the confessional statement in Jn 17:3.

The structure of verse 20 follows a logical causal chain (cf. von Wahlde, p. 201):

    • “the Son of God is come,
      • and he has given to us the ability to know/see [dia/noia],
        • that we should know the True (One),
          • and (so) we are in the True (One)”

The climactic statement “and (so) we are in the True (One)” is another example of Johannine essential predication, applied to believers as the Divine subject. The subject (“we,” i.e., believers) is implied, while the predicate nominative, in this instance, is a prepositional phrase, defining our abiding union with God:

(we) | are [e)smen] | in the True (One) [e)n tw=| a)lhqinw=|]”

A variation on this formulation (of essential predication) utilizes the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, “this”) for the Divine subject in an oblique (or general/comprehensive) way. We have an example of this in the closing statement of verse 20:

This [ou!to$] | is [e)stin] | the true God and eternal Life

The pronoun refers back to God as “the True (One)”, though it could also refer to the Son (“His Son, Yeshua [the] Anointed”). The ambiguity may be intentional. Certainly, as noted above, the Divine attributes of truth and life apply to the Son just as they do to the Father. The parallelism in the preceding phrases argues for a dual reference here:

    • “in the True (One) [i.e. God the Father]”
    • “in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Eternal life may properly be defined by this: as being in the Son, and thus also in the Father.

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

July 4: 1 John 5:20

1 John 5:20

As discussed in the previous note, a key message in the closing statements of 1 John (in vv. 18-20) is that believers in Christ are, and can remain, free from sin. This freedom is rooted in the very identity of believers—true believers—as the offspring (te/kna) of God. This has been the theme of these notes throughout: believers as the children of God. As we have seen, in addition to the use of the keyword te/knon (“offspring,” i.e., “child”, plur. te/kna), the Johannine writings make use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) as an idiom with the expression e)k tou= qeou= (“out of God”). This birth language and imagery is basic to the author’s way of describing the true believer in Christ—such believers “have come to be (born) of God”.

The language stems from Johannine tradition—the theological idiom and mode of expression—but the author of 1 John has made particular use of it. Most commonly, a substantive (perfect) participle, with the definite article, is used: “the (one) having come to be (born)” (o( gegennhme/no$). Often it is preceded by the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“all, every”)—pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= qeou= (“every[one] having come to be [born] of God”). Through this Divine birth, which comes about as the result of trust in Jesus as the Son of God, the believer shares the Divine attributes and characteristics; being united with the Son, believers (now fellow children of God) share the very attributes which the Son possesses—including sinlessness, and the power to be free of sin (cf. 3:5-6, 8-9).

The point is emphasized again (in 5:18) at the close of the author’s work. Throughout 1 John, this issue of the relation of the believer to sin has been an integral part of the overall message and rhetorical thrust of the treatise. As we have discussed, the central theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The author addresses his audience as though they are true believers, while the “antichrist” opponents are regarded as false believers. Throughout, the author exhorts his readers/hearers to reject the false teachings (and example) of the opponents; they are to remain in the truth, remaining faithful to the great duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers (3:23, etc).

This, ultimately, the author’s primary theological (and rhetorical) point. Believers, born of God, are united with the Son—they/we are “in the Son”. Through the Son, we are also united with the Father; the union with Father and Son both, being realized through the presence of the Spirit (3:24; 4:13, and see the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel). However, it is necessary that believers remain in the Son, and thus remain in this binding union with God. This aspect of remaining/abiding, utilizing the key verb me/nw, has been emphasized repeatedly by the author, just as it is in the Gospel (see especially the Vine-illustration section, 15:1-16). There are two sides to the dynamic of remaining; the Son remains in the believer, through the Spirit, but the believer must also remain in the Son. One can only remain in the Son by remaining in the truth of his word (primarily, the message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son of God) and in his love.

In the author’s view, the false believers (viz., the opponents) have departed from the truth, and so, by departing from the Community of true believers, have shown themselves to be false believers. By rejecting the opponents, the Johannine Christians will remain faithful to the e)ntolh/ and will keep free of the great sin (viz., violation of the two-fold e)ntolh/). Yet, the consequences of remaining in the Son are even more comprehensive: for it enables the believer to remain free of all sin. The very presence and power of God, abiding in us (as His offspring), protects us from the sin and evil of the world (vv. 18b-19). This is how I understand the second clause of verse 18 (see the prior discussion on 18b). However, it is also possible to read this clause as referring to the believer guarding himself/herself from sin and evil. This, indeed, is also part of the author’s message (see the wording in 3:3), which he alludes to again in his final words (v. 21).

In closing, I wish to discuss briefly the structure of verse 20. This third of the triad of statements (in vv. 18-20) has been carefully constructed by the author, combining an essential Johannine confessional statement with a summary of Johannine theology, as applied by the author for the purposes of his writing. This will be done in the continuation of this note.

July 3: 1 John 5:18-20

1 John 5:18, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

July 2: 1 John 5:18, continued

1 John 5:18, continued

In the previous note, we examined three principal ways of reading/interpreting the second clause (b) of verse 18, particularly with regard to the subject of the verb thre/w (“keep watch [over]”):

    • [#1] The believer keeps watch over himself/herself, viz., by remaining in the Son, and thus keeping free from sin:
      “but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him(self)”
    • [#2] The Son keeps watch over the believer, keeping him/her free from sin:
      “but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • [#3] The Father keeps watch over the believer:
      “but (as for) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God, He keeps watch (over) him”

There are sound arguments for and against each of these options. Let us examine them briefly.

1. “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) himself”. According to this approach, the participle refers to the believer, who is both the subject and object of the verb thre/w, with the accusative (object) pronoun au)to/n being read reflexively.

In favor of this approach is the fact that, elsewhere in the Johannine writings, the idiom genna/w + e)k—and, particularly, the use of the substantive participle (with definite article) + e)k qeou= (“of God”)—always refers to the believer. This idiom regularly uses the perfect tense, so the use of the aorist here is a bit unusual; but this may simply be an instance of stylistic variation, switching to the aorist in the second clause to avoid immediately repeating the perfect form of the participle from the first clause. Also, the idea of the believer watching over himself/herself would be in accord with the context of the parallel in 3:4-9—specifically, the statement in 3:3, where the believer is exhorted to “make himself pure/holy” (a(gni/zei e(auto/n). The fact that some manuscripts read the reflexive pronoun (e(auto/n) here in v. 18 indicates that this is how a number of early Christians (including some copyists) understood the clause.

A strong argument against this approach is the fact that the verb thre/w, which occurs relatively frequently in the Johannine writings (18 times in the Gospel, 7 in 1 John), is never used by the author(s) in this reflexive sense. In every other instance, where disciples/believers are the subject of the verb, the context involves keeping/guarding the required e)ntolh//e)ntolai/ (“duty” or ‘command[s]’)—Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 3:22, 24; 5:3. This is in accordance with traditional usage of thre/w, for the “keeping” of the Torah regulations, etc (Jn 9:16; cf. Matt 19:17; Acts 15:5, etc). Parallel, and generally synonymous in meaning, is the idea of keeping the “word” of God, and/or the “word/s” of Jesus—Jn 8:51-52, 55; 14:23-24; 15:20; 17:6; 1 Jn 2:5 (cf. Matt 28:20; Rev 3:10, etc). In the few instances where believers are the object of the verb, it is God the Father or Jesus the Son who is the subject (Jn 17:11-12, 15; cf. 1 Thess 5:23; Jude 1). A reflexive use of thre/w is rare elsewhere in the New Testament as well, though there are a few examples that would parallel a reflexive usage here (1 Tim 5:22; James 1:27; Jude 21; Rev 16:15).

2. “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him”. In this approach, the participial expression “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God” (o( gennhqei/$ e)k tou= qeou=) refers to Jesus as Son of God, rather than believers as the offspring/children (te/kna) of God. Some commentators have felt that this distinction is indicated by the shift in tense in the participle—from perfect (the usual tense when the expression refers to believers) to the aorist.

In favor of this interpretation is the fact that, as noted above, in the few other instances where believers are the object of the verb thre/w, either God the Father or Jesus the Son is the subject. The Son is the subject in Jn 17:12 (cf. also Jude 1). The parallel context in 3:4-9, as well as the theological orientation of 1 John as whole, also supports the idea that it is the Son (Jesus) who guards believers, protecting them from evil and keeping them free from sin. This sinlessness of the believer is the result of sharing in (“remanining in”) the sinlessness of the Son (and his sin-removing power), as is clear from the context of 3:4-9 (see esp. verses 5 and 8).

However, as noted above, in the Johannine writings, the application of the idiom genna/w + e)k, especially when phrased with a substantive verbal noun (participle) + definite article, always refers to believers, never Jesus. This would be the only instance where the expression referred to the Son. The verb genna/w is used of the Son in Jn 18:37, but in reference to his human birth (on earth, in the person of Jesus, cp. the use of gi/nomai in 1:14), not to his Divine ‘birth’ as God’s Son. This is an extremely strong argument against option #2.

3. “(as for) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God, He [i.e. God] keeps watch (over) him”. In this approach, the initial phrase of 18b is a casus pendens, a suspended phrase that is identified with the object pronoun of the main phrase; placed ahead of the main phrase, it anticipates and informs/modifies the object.

Strongly in favor of this approach is the way that it balances the natural identification of both the participial expression and the object pronoun with the believer. As noted above, when the believer is it the object of the verb thre/w, we would expect that either God (the Father) or Jesus (the Son) would be the subject. The Father is the subject in Jn 17:11, 15, which provides the closest Johannine parallel to vv. 18b-19; Jn 17:15 is especially close in wording and theme:

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

As compelling as this argument may be, the overall thrust of the message in 1 John would suggest that it is the Son, rather than the Father, who would be seen as directly protecting the believer. After all, the believer remains/abides in the Son, and it is through the Son that they/we are united with the Father. Moreover, as noted above, it is by sharing in the sinlessness (and sin-removing power) of the Son, that believers are able to be free from sin (see especially 3:5 and 6). At the same time, as a counter-argument (in favor of this approach), the author of 1 John also views the birth of the believer itself as being the source/basis of sinlessness (cf. 3:9, and here in 5:18a). This birth comes from God; we are not born from the Son, though we do remain in him, once we are born as God’s offspring. The aspects of birth and remaining go hand-in-hand, as the parallelism of 3:6 and 9 makes clear.

Summary. Johannine usage would seem to require that both the participial expression and the object pronoun refer to the believer. This means that only approaches #1 and #3 above are feasible. Several factors favor option #3, two of which are most notable, and can be taken together: (1) the verb thre/w is never used reflexively, with the believer as the subject, elsewhere in the Johannine writings (such usage also being quite rare in the New Testament at large); and (2) when the believer is the object of the verb, either God the Father or Jesus the Son is the subject. The message and theology of 1 John tend to favor seeing the Son as the subject, but the parallels in Jn 17:11, 15 (esp. verse 15) strongly favor the Father. This also could be supported syntactically, as the implicit subject of the verb would most naturally relate back to the immediately preceding noun (qeo/$, “God”, “…of God” [e)k tou= qeou=]). This does, of course, assume a casus pendens construction.

In Johannine theology (and in the syntax of the theological idiom), Father and Son are often interchangeable as referents, since the Son’s words and actions are equally those of the Father. However, the Father is the ultimate source, since everything that the Son has is given to him from the Father (cf. Jn 3:35). One can thus speak of God the Father “keeping watch over” believers, protecting them from evil, and keeping us free from sin, even if it is more proper to view the Son as filling this role. Actually, it may be more precise to attribute the role to the Spirit (cf. the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel), through whom we, as believers, are in union with both the Son and the Father.

At this point, it would be rash to attempt a definitive explanation of the difficult clause in v. 18b. My own interpretation has shifted somewhat over the years, though always recognizing the difficulties involved. Presently, I do see option #3 as having the most to recommend it, being best supported by the Johannine evidence as a whole. This remains something of a minority view among commentators, though it has been held by notable scholars such as Balz, Beyer, Segond, and Schnackenburg. Apparently, it is also held by Maarten J. J. Menken in his more recent commentary (2010, p. 115) on the Letters (this work, in Dutch, has not been accessible to me; cf. van der Watt, Communities, p. 204). Many of the critical commentaries published in recent decades offer surveys of the various interpretive approaches to the verse, akin to what I have done here; as a representative example, see Brown, pp. 620-2.

In the next daily note, the last of this series, I will offer some final comments on verse 18, in the context of vv. 18-20 as the closing unit of 1 John.

References above marked “Brown” are to: Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 30 (1982).
“van der Watt, Communities” refers to the article by Jan G. van der Watt, “On Ethics in 1 John”, in Communities in Dispute: Current Scholarship on the Johannine Epistles, edited by R. Alan Culpepper and Paul N. Anderson, Society of Biblical Literature [SBL]: Early Christianity and Its Literature, No. 13 (SBL Press: 2014).

July 1: 1 John 5:18

1 John 5:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious difficulties arise in the second clause:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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