Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Gospel of John

The Johannine Writings, Part 1:
The Gospel of John

The final (two-part) article in this series will examine the Johannine Writings—that is, the Gospel and Letters of John. They are called “Johannine” because of their traditional ascription to John the Apostle; technically speaking, however, they are anonymous, and we cannot be entirely certain about their authorship. Scholars today do retain the label “Johannine”, but more properly in reference to the Community (i.e. the regional congregations, etc) within which these writings were produced and first distributed. The Gospel and Letters share a common religious and theological outlook, with many similarities in language, style, mode of expression, points of emphasis, etc. If they were not written by the same person, they almost certainly were the product of the same Community. The Book of Revelation is often considered to be another “Johannine” writing, but whether it stems from the same Community as the Gospel and Letters remains a point of debate among scholars. In any case, I have discussed the Book of Revelation at length in an extensive series of daily notes, and so will not be devoting a separate article to it here. Only the Gospel and Letters of John will be examined.

When considering the Gospel of John, in terms of its eschatology, one notices immediately that there is nothing in it remotely like the great “Eschatological Discourse” in the Synoptics, nor the many eschatological parables and sayings (“Son of Man” sayings, etc) preserved in those Gospels. Indeed, the eschatology in the Gospel of John is somewhat limited, based primarily on two areas:

    1. References to the Resurrection in chapters 5 and 11, and
    2. References to Jesus’ (future) coming/return in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33)

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Johannine eschatology is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology. As this term will be used throughout this article, it may be worth defining and explaining what is meant by it beforehand. I would summarize it as follows:

The idea that things and events thought to occur in the future, at the end (and in the afterlife), are experienced (or “realized”) by believers in Christ now, in the present.

Commentators tend to make too much of the distinction between “realized” and future eschatology in the New Testament. In point of fact, early Christian eschatology was characterized by both aspects throughout. It was a fundamental belief that the person and work of Jesus, as the Messiah, marked the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. However, as Jesus did not fulfill this Messianic expectation entirely in his lifetime, nor did he usher in the great end-time Judgment, etc, these final eschatological events would have to wait until his future return—which early Christians believed was imminent, to occur very soon. This dichotomy, together with the experience of the presence and work of the Spirit, created a unique eschatological situation among Christians. The time prior to Jesus’ return—that is, the present period—is understood to be a short interim, during which the realization of the New Age is experienced by believers through the Spirit. And, because the Gospel of John places such emphasis on the role and presence of the Spirit (whether implicitly or directly), it tends to give more emphasis to the present, “realized” aspect of eschatology.

1. The Resurrection

There are two main passages in the Gospel of John dealing with the resurrection—that is, of the resurrection of the dead understood to take place at the end-time. In Jewish eschatology of the period, this resurrection was more or less limited to the righteous; however, by the end of the 1st-century A.D., there is more evidence for belief in a general resurrection—i.e. of all humankind, the righteous and wicked alike. The righteous would pass through the Judgment, into eternal life, while the wicked would face (eternal) punishment. This is the traditional eschatological expectation, and both Gospel passages deal with it, interpreting and applying it in a distinctive way.

John 5:19-29

This section is part of the great Discourse of Jesus in chapter 5, based upon the Gospel tradition (healing miracle & Sabbath controversy episode) narrated in verses 1-9ff. Verses 9b-16 are transitional, introducing and developing the Sabbath theme, and establishing the framework for the Discourse proper, which follows the basic form-pattern of the Johannine Discourses:

    • Statement/saying by Jesus (v. 17)
    • Reaction by his audience, expressing misunderstanding (v. 18)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of the saying (vv. 19-47)

The lengthy exposition is complex, and may be divided into two parts:

    • The Son performs the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
    • These works are a witness to the Son (and to the Father)—vv. 31-47

The first part (vv. 19-30) is also divided into two sections, like poetic strophes, in which the same theme and motifs are repeated:

    • The Son gives eternal/spiritual life to those who believe—vv. 19-24
    • The Son gives new life (resurrection) at the end time (to those who believe)—vv. 25-30

These two aspects of the resurrection power at work in Jesus very much correspond to the “realized” and future aspects of early Christian eschatology. The “realized” aspect is emphasized in vv. 19-24, in which the traditional understanding of the resurrection (and the Judgment) is given a new interpretation:

“For, just as the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes alive th(ose) whom he wishes. For the Father judges no one, but all judgment he has given to the Son, (so) that all should give honor to the Son, even as they give honor to the Father. The (one) not honoring the Son does not honor the Father, the (One hav)ing sent him.” (vv. 21-23)

The power of judgment and resurrection both are concentrated in the person of Jesus, God’s Son; as a result, the entirety of the end-time (eschatological) framework of resurrection and the Judgment is defined in terms of whether one recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son. Judgment is moved from the future, into the present, so that it occurs already (i.e. it is “realized”) based on a person’s trust (or lack of belief) in Jesus:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that the (one) hearing my word/account and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me, holds (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across, out of death (and) into Life.” (v. 24)

The parallel declaration in verse 25 couples this “realized” eschatology with the more traditional future view:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that (the) hour comes—and is now (here)—when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and the (one)s hearing shall live.”

In vv. 19-24, the idea of resurrection was spiritual, understood in terms of the life that comes from trust in Jesus; now, in vv. 25-29, it is a physical resurrection that is in view, such as will take place at the end (together with the Judgment, vv. 28-29). However, there are two main differences here with the traditional understanding of the resurrection: (1) as in vv. 19-24, it is Jesus the Son of God who holds the power of the resurrection (and the Judgment), and (2) people are already experiencing this (physical) resurrection from the dead now. The latter point is, primarily, an allusion to the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, which we shall now consider.

John 11—The Raising of Lazarus (esp. verses 23-27)

The narrative episode of the raising of Lazarus (chapter 11) illustrates the very teaching in the Discourse, discussed above (on 5:19-29). The Lazarus-narrative itself, while relatively straightforward, contains within it two small sections with Discourse-elements:

    • Verses 7-16—especially the dialogue of vv. 11-16, in which the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ words in verse 11.
    • Verses 17-27—the dialogue between Jesus and Martha

It is in the latter dialogue (which I have discussed in considerable detail in an earlier series of notes), that we find the subject of the end-time resurrection again being addressed; it very much follows the basic Johannine Discourse-pattern:

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 23)
    • Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)
    • Exposition by Jesus on the true meaning of his words (vv. 25-27)

Let us briefly consider each of these.

Statement by Jesus (v. 23)

“Yeshua says to her, ‘Your brother will stand up [i.e. out of the dead]'”

This is a declaration that Lazarus will be raised from the dead, using the Greek verb a)ni/sthmi (lit. “stand up”). The verb can be used either in a transitive (“make [someone] stand up”) or intransitive sense. By the time of Jesus, among Greek-speaking Jews, it had come to have a technical meaning in reference to the raising of the dead—with the related noun a)na/stasi$ (“resurrection”). It was used previously (four times), in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the Bread from Heaven”, i.e. which has come down out of Heaven. This is followed by a dual (parallel) statement regarding the will of God (the Father):

  • “And this is the will of the (One) having sent me—
    • that every(thing) which he has given to me I shall not lose (anything) out of it
      • but I will make it stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 39)
  • “For this is the will of my Father—
    • that every(one) th(at is) looking (closely) at the Son and trusting in him might hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]
      • and I will make him stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 40)
Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)

“Martha says to him, ‘I have seen [i.e. known] that he will stand up [a)nasth/setai] in the standing-up [a)nasta/sei] in the last day’.”

Martha clearly understands Jesus as referring to the traditional idea of the end-time resurrection (“in the last day”). This is entirely reasonable; indeed, in the Bread of Life discourse (cf. above), Jesus uses the verb in precisely the same context— “and I will make him stand up in the last day” (6:39, 40). In 5:19-29, it was declared that Jesus (as God’s Son) holds the power over the end-time resurrection (and the Judgment). However, there was a deeper meaning to his words in that passage (cf. above), which expressed a special kind of “realized” eschatology—and a similar line of exposition follows here in vv. 25ff.

Exposition by Jesus (vv. 25-27)

“Yeshua said to her, ‘I am the standing-up and the life—the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live; and every (one) living and trusting in me shall (surely) not die away into the Age.'” (vv. 25-26)

As in 5:19-29, the power of resurrection and life is concentrated in the person of Jesus (the Son); as a result, this pulls the future aspect of the resurrection into the present, where Jesus is among his disciples. Here the exposition has been compressed into a single, almost elliptical declaration. It is not possible here to analyze this remarkable statement in detail (for an extensive exegetical study, cf. the earlier notes on vv. 25-26). What is most important to note, from an eschatological standpoint, is the way that the three different aspects of resurrection—also found in 5:19-29—are combined together:

    • Raised into eternal life at the end-time—Martha’s understanding
    • Raised into new life in the present—the miracle of raising Lazarus
    • Raised into eternal life (now) through trust in Jesus—the reality for believers

The first aspect represents the traditional framework of Jesus’ teaching (and Martha’s misunderstanding); the second is illustrated by the Gospel tradition (the miracle) at the heart of the narrative; and the third reflects the ultimate message of the Gospel, summarized by Martha’s climactic confession:

“Yeshua said to her…’Do you trust this?’ (And) she says to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God, the (one) coming into the world‘.” (vv. 26-27)

2. The Return/Coming of Jesus (The Last Discourse)

The great Last Discourse of Jesus (13:31-16:33), set within the narrative during the Last Supper on the eve of his Passion, is perhaps better viewed as a sequence of separate Discourses, encompassing a range of (Johannine) Gospel tradition. Many important themes, from earlier in the Gospel, are brought together and developed/expressed in a new way. Within this matrix, two key themes especially dominate the Discourse:

    • Jesus’ impending departure, back to the Father (i.e. the Son’s return to the Father), and
    • The sending/coming of the Spirit (also called para/klhto$, “one called alongside”)

These are twin themes that go hand-in-hand: Jesus’ departure leads to the coming of the Spirit, and, indeed, is the reason for it. Complicating the situation, within the fabric of the Discourse, are several references to Jesus’ coming back to his disciples. The richness of the Discourse is such that it is possible to understand these references on three different levels:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

It is not always easy to know for certain which aspect is primarily in view, especially in light of the emphasis on the Spirit and the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (cf. above). I offer an overview of the eschatology of the Discourse in a separate note. Here, I wish to focus on two specific passages in the Discourse, which, as it happens, tend to reflect the future and present (“realized”) aspects, respectively.

Future—John 14:1-4

“Your heart must not be disturbed; you trust in God, (now) also trust in me. In the house of my Father (there) are many (place)s to stay [monai/]—and, if not, I (would have) told you, (for it is) that I travel to make ready a place for you. And if I would travel and make ready a place for you, (then know that) I come again and will take you along toward myself, (so) that (at) what(ever) place I am, you also may be (there). And (the) place where I lead myself under [i.e. go away, go back], you have seen the way (there).”

Most commentators are agreed that this statement by Jesus refers to his end-time return (from heaven). At the historical level, this may seem rather out of place. After all, his disciples had difficulty understanding (and accepting) the idea of his death and resurrection, much less that of a future return (which assumes the resurrection and ascension, etc). From a literary standpoint, however, it would have made perfect sense to early Christians and readers of the Gospel. Moreover, it follows the general pattern of the Johannine Discourses, whereby a statement by Jesus is not fully or properly understood by his audience (including his disciples). Accepting the authenticity of the saying, the disciples surely would not have understood its true significance until sometime later (cp. the asides in 2:21-22 and 7:39).

Even if we grant the reference to Jesus’ future return, when he will gather all believers to himself (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:13-18), this basic tradition takes on new meaning within the Johannine context. This can be illustrated from two important details: (1) the vocabulary of the passage, especially the idea of “remaining” (vb me/nw), and (2) the individual discourse that follows (vv. 5-11ff), based on the specific statement in verse 4 (on knowing/seeing the “way” [o%do$]).

1. The ‘dwellings’ of God’s “house” are referenced with the plural noun monai/, i.e., places to remain or stay; it is related to the verb me/nw (“remain”), which has special theological significance in the Johannine writings. It occurs 40 times in the Gospel (compared with just 12 in the three Synoptics combined), including 14 occurrences in the Last Discourse. Its significance is two-fold: (a) it refers to the believer’s trust (and continued trust) in Jesus, and (b) it denotes the believer’s union with God the Father (and Jesus the Son), through the presence of the Spirit. Thus, believers can be said to have dwelling-places (monai/) with God now, in the Spirit, just as well as when they/we are in heaven, in the future.

2. The exposition on verse 4, about believers seeing the way to God, has a similar Christological emphasis—i.e., the way is seen/known through the person of Jesus (the Son), and our union with him. The latter point is only hinted at (in verse 6 and 12-14), until the theme of the coming/sending of Spirit is introduced in vv. 15-17. These verses are transitional to the focus on the present (“realized”) eschatology that dominates in vv. 18-24ff.

Present (“Realized”)—John 14:18-24

Once again, in verse 18, Jesus announces his departure and return:

“I will not leave you bereaved (of a father)—I come toward you. A little (while) yet, and the world no longer (will) look upon me, but you do look upon me, (in) that I live, (so) you also will live.” (vv. 18-19)

The motifs of Jesus’ own resurrection, and the future resurrection of the righteous (believers), are blended together here in a unique way (cf. above). Because Jesus (the Son) is going away, his disciples will no longer have access to God the Father; so, in a real sense, they would be orphans, bereaved (o)rfano/$) of their father. This could refer to Jesus’ impending death, his ultimate departure to the Father, or both. For more on this dual-aspect, cf. the supplemental article on the thematic structure of the Discourse. However, Jesus promises that he will not leave them without a father (God the Father), and announces again that “I come”. The immediate context (vv. 15-17, 25ff) clearly indicates that, in this instance, his coming refers, not to his traditional end-time return, but to his presence with believers through the Spirit. According to the Gospel narrative (cf. 20:19-23), this coming/sending of the Spirit took place, for Jesus’ immediate disciples, very soon after his resurrection (cp. the comparable, but very different, tradition in Luke-Acts). It will effectively be repeated for every person who comes to trust in Christ through the message of the Gospel (17:20-21ff; 20:29, 31, etc).

Other Eschatological References

There are several other eschatological references that could be cited from the Gospel of John. In closing, I would offer this brief survey of four references (and categories of references), that are worth noting.

1. References to the Judgment

There are a number of passages in the Johannine Discourses where Jesus refers to the Judgment (kri/si$), which is certainly eschatological, whether viewed specifically in an end-time or afterlife setting. As in 5:19-29 (cf. above), two points of emphasis are typically made: (a) the power of Judgment belongs to the Son (Jesus), and (b) the Judgment is defined almost entirely in terms of trust in Jesus. While this does not eliminate the traditional future aspect of the Judgment (cf. 5:29; 12:48), it places the emphasis squarely on the present—i.e., those who refuse to accept Jesus have already been judged (and condemned), while those who trust (believers) have already passed through the Judgment into eternal life. This was stated clearly enough in 5:24, and similarly in 3:19-21: “And this is the Judgment: that the light has come into the world, and the men [i.e. people] loved the darkness more than the light…. But the (one) doing the truth comes toward the light…”.

Similar declarations are found in 9:39 and 12:31:

“Unto Judgment I came into the world, (so) that the (one)s not seeing would see, and the (one)s seeing would come to be blind” (9:39)
Now is (the) Judgment of this world, (and) now the chief of this world shall be thrown out” (12:31)

The Spirit testifies regarding this same Judgment (16:8-11), again defined specifically in terms of trust in Jesus, with the sin of humankind understood as a lack of trust.

2. The Destruction of the Temple

The Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13 par) is built upon a prediction, by Jesus, of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:2 par). The Temple’s destruction (fulfilled in 70 A.D.) is to be taken as a definite indicator that the end is near (vv. 4, 14, 24, 28-30 par), and with it the return of Jesus and beginning of the great Judgment. However problematic this chronology might be for Christians today, there can be little doubt that the destruction of the Temple was a key eschatological event for believers at the time. I discuss the matter at length in the articles on the Eschatological Discourse, and on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian Eschatology.

The Gospel of John contains nothing like the Eschatological Discourse, nor the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction that features so prominently in it; however, there is a statement regarding the destruction of the Temple (the Temple-saying), in John 2:19, part of the Johannine version of the Temple-action episode (the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple, vv. 13-22):

“Loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up).”

This is quite similar to the statement reported at the Sanhedrin interrogation (‘trial’) of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 14:57-58 / Matt 26:60-61). There the Synoptic tradition indicates that it was reported by false witnesses; yet, if we accept the authenticity of the Johannine saying (in substance), then it would seem that Jesus did, in fact, make a statement of that sort, however it may have been misrepresented by unreliable or hostile witnesses. Jesus himself does not explain the saying—it is the Gospel writer who gives the explanation, as an aside (vv. 21-22). Many critical commentators assume that Jesus’ statement, in its original context, was eschatological, very much along the lines of the prediction in Mark 13:2 par—i.e., the destruction of the Temple marks the end of the current Age, and God, through his Anointed Jesus, would introduce a new Temple in the New Age. To the extent that such a view is correct, the eschatological aspect, in the Johannine version, has been transformed into a Christological statement, the Temple being identified with the person of Jesus. Thus, any eschatological significance for the saying follows the present, “realized” emphasis that dominates throughout the Gospel of John—the death and resurrection of Jesus marks the end of the current Age, and a New Age for believers, realized through the Spirit.

3. The “Son of Man” saying in John 1:51

There are relatively few “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John, compared with the Synoptics, and those which do occur, tend to emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus (cp. Mk 9:12, 31; 10:33 par), rather than his end-time appearance—cf. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31. Only in 5:27 do we find the clear eschatological context of the Son of Man overseeing the end-time Judgment.

The “Son of Man” saying in 1:51 is perhaps the most enigmatic verse in the entire Gospel. It has been interpreted many ways, including as an eschatological reference—that is, to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man (Jesus) in glory. There are certainly elements of this saying that resemble several eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics:

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down [i.e. ascending and descending] upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51)

Matthew’s version (16:27-28) of a core Son of Man saying in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:

“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)

Several points should be made about the context and significance of this Synoptic passage:

    • The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
    • It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
    • The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.

I discuss these and other aspects of the saying in Jn 1:51 at length in prior notes and articles.

4. The Tradition in John 21:20-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (chap. 21,the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Embedded in the brief (traditional) narrative, is a saying by Jesus regarding this disciple, which, we can assume, was a relatively well-known part of the Johannine tradition. The context is clearly eschatological, related to the end-time return of Jesus. The very point being addressed in the tradition more or less proves the imminent eschatology—i.e. that Jesus’ return would occur within the lifetime of the apostles (and first generation of believers)—that was widespread in early Christianity during the first-century. I discuss this passage as part of the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Eschatology and the Structure of the Last Discourse

This note is supplemental to the current article on the Gospel of John. The great Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) of the Gospel is built around a major eschatological theme: the departure and return of Jesus. However, the way this theme is developed within the Discourse-sequence is quite complex, operating at two (or three) levels, in terms of the eschatology of the Gospel. Generally speaking, this two-level exposition corresponds with the two aspects of early Christian eschatology—future and present (“realized”). Moreover, as I noted in the article, Jesus’ departure and return can be understood three different ways:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

Several of the key passages are discussed in the main article, but I feel it will be helpful to supplement that discussion with a brief analysis of the structure of the Discourse.

The Structure of the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33)

In an earlier article, I presented a detailed thematic outline of the Last Discourse, which I would divide into three distinct, interconnected discourses, with an introduction and conclusion that relate more directly to the literary (and historical) setting of the Last Supper scene (chap. 13):

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

In terms of the literary/historical setting of the narrative, the departure of Jesus would refer primarily to his impending death, when he would be separated from his disciples for a short time. To judge by Jesus’ words in 20:17, in context, this departure (in the present) involved a return to the Father (cf. below). The introduction and conclusion to the Discourse seem to refer to the imminent events of his Passion and death:

    • 13:31-38—Announcement of his going away (v. 33), followed by a prediction of Peter’s denial (vv. 36-38, cf. 18:15-18, 25-27 par)
    • 16:29-33—Jesus’ prediction of his disciples being ‘scattered’ (cp. Mark 14:27 par), following the (second) announcement of his going away (vv. 16-17)

Within this framework, Jesus’ departure & return are presented in both future and present (“realized”) aspects. In terms of the handling of the Gospel tradition, this may be outlined as a parallel step-sequence:

PRESENT:

    • Jesus’ departure—his death
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cf. 20:17)
        • His return to the disciples, with the coming/bringing of the Spirit (20:19-23)
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in the Spirit

FUTURE:

    • Jesus’ departure—leaving the world
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cp. Acts 1:9-11 etc)
        • His end-time return to his disciples
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in heaven

How is this expressed within the Last Discourse? I believe it is possible to illustrate this by working from the thematic outline above, isolating a multi-level concentric structure that reflects the eschatological development—from traditional to “realized” (i.e., realized in/through the Spirit):

  • His death and return (13:31-38, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 33)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (14:1-4ff)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (14:15-24ff)
        • His disciples in the world, united with Father and Son in the Spirit (15:1-16:4a)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (16:4b-15)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (16:4bff, 16-24)
  • His death and return (16:16ff, 25-29, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 16)

The first layer represents the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the literary (and historical) setting of the Discourse. The second layer reflects the traditional (future) eschatology—Jesus’ end-time return in glory, parallel with his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand). The third, inner layer represents the “realized” eschatology so prominent and important to the theology of the Discourses. And, at the center of the great Discourse, is the central theme of believers living in the world, while not belonging to the world, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the presence of the Spirit; this is expressed primarily by way of the Vine/Branches illustration of 15:1-17.

Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

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

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

Literary Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

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

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

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

January 2: Hebrews 1:1-5

Jesus as the Son of God: The Pre-existent and Eternal Son

In these notes, we have been examining the development of the early Christian awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In the earliest Gospel preaching, it was the resurrection of Jesus (and his exaltation to heaven) that marked his “birth” as God’s Son. This Christological awareness then came to extend back into Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—all the way to his baptism (marking the beginning of his ministry), and even to his very birth as a human being. Eventually, many believers came to realize that Jesus must have had an existence with God the Father even prior to his birth. Essentially this is the doctrine of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, tied to specific beliefs regarding his deity (or divine nature). There are different ways, or degrees, by which Jesus’ pre-existence may be understood, the nuances of which, I believe, tend to reflect the development of early Christology in the second half of the first century A.D. (c. 60-100).

Belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus is hardly to be found in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (in particular, it is absent from the early Gospel preaching preserved in the book of Acts). Paul gives evidence of a such a belief, to some extent, in his letters (late-50s and early 60s). It is expressed primarily in terms of Jesus’ role in creation, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions (Prov 8:27; Sirach 24:1ff; Wisdom 7:12, 21; 8:4; 1 Enoch 42; cf. Attridge, p. 40), in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36 (cp. John 1:3, 10). Several of Paul’s references to Jesus as the Son (of God) seem to presume a heavenly existence prior to his human birth and life (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3, and note the opening words of Rom 1:3). This is of significance for the study being undertaken in these Christmas-season notes, exploring how early believers understood Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God.

Of special interest is the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, which joins together the idea of divine/heavenly pre-existence with the older tradition of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to God’s right hand. The same may be said of the hymnic section in Colossians 1:15-18, which, if genuinely Pauline, was probably written at about the same time. In neither passage is the Sonship of Jesus related to the idea of his pre-existence; however, elsewhere in the New Testament—in the letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John—those Christological elements are combined.

The dating of Hebrews is problematic, though it was likely written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. Many commentators would view it as contemporary with the Gospel of John (c. 90?), though I tend to think that it may have been written somewhat earlier. In terms of its place within the development of early Christology, Hebrews seems to stand midway between Paul and the Gospel of John. Its Christology is clearly expressed in the opening (exordium) of the letter, 1:1-4.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The first four verses of Hebrews represent a single long sentence, regarded by many commentators as perhaps the finest such opening in the New Testament (from a literary and rhetorical standpoint). Here are the verses in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers, upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written. The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). It generally follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*n…fe/rwn…

The first two clauses deal with the Son’s authority over creation, both in terms of its end (“heir of all things”) and its beginning (“made the Ages”). The latter draws upon the ancient Wisdom traditions (cf. above), whereby God made the universe using Divine Wisdom (personified) as the intermediary. The Son, as the living Word (Lo/go$) and Wisdom of God, performs this same creative role. This idea is expressed famously in the Johannine prologue (1:3, 10), but Paul alludes to the same basic belief at several points in his letters (1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; also Col 1:16f). The citation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 repeats this (pre-existent) aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).

The third relative clause is compound, made up of two participial phrases, each expressing the unique deity of Jesus (as the Son):

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n)
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=)

The first participle is the verb of being (ei)mi, “being” [w&n]), indicating what the Son truly is. Again this breaks down into a further pair of genitival phrases:

    • a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray (of light) coming out from a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo, On the Creation §146). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.
    • xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18), i.e. for the imprinting of the Divine image upon the mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15, the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews. The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under”, and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

The second participle is the verb fe/rw (“bear, carry”), and it expresses how the Son’s divine character is manifest in the world—he carries all things, meaning that he supports and sustains all of Creation. This is done “by the utterance [r(h=ma] of his power”, which blends the Wisdom/Creation traditions (cf. above) with the fundamental religious/cosmological idea of God creating the universe by His speaking a word. Both of these ideas are established more clearly in the Johannine Prologue (1:1-3ff), but they are certainly present here as well, and relate to the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son. The same divine power that brought the world into existence now providentially sustains it.

The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son–that is, in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Verse 3b summarizes this concisely:

“(hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness in high (place)s”

Interestingly, the actual death and resurrection of Jesus, so central to the early Gospel preaching, is not even stated, but simply taken for granted. The author moves from the atoning/saving aspect of Jesus’ work straight to his exaltation. In some ways, this reflects the unique theological emphasis in the letter, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office. The closing lines in verse 4 build upon the idea of the Son’s superiority (over the Angels), again expressed in terms of his exaltation after his death. The language and thought, in this respect, is quite similar to that of the Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:9-11).

It is at this point that the author introduces the citation of Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14):

“For to who among the Messengers did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)’, and again: ‘I will be unto a Father for him, and he will be unto a Son for me’?” (v. 5)

In inclusion of 2 Sam 7:14 confirms the Messianic context of the birth/sonship motif in Psalm 2:7. As we have seen, this originally applied to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and, in particular, his death and resurrection. In this he was to be recognized as God’s Son, but still in the figurative sense that the Messianic interpretation would have entailed. Now, however, a deeper Christological meaning has been given to it, since Jesus is now seen as God’s Son from before the beginning of Creation. This also gives to all the birth and sonship images a new depth, as the author continues in verse 6:

“And, again, when He brought His first-formed (child) into the inhabited (world), He says: ‘And all the Messengers of God must kiss toward [i.e. worship] him’.”

The citation presumably comes from Deut 32:43 LXX, but it is the wording used to frame the citation that is especially significant. It refers to the Son’s incarnation, or coming into the world of human beings (cp. John 1:9ff, 14). But here the context makes quite clear two important points about Jesus as God’s Son: (1) he is God’s “firstborn” child prior to the incarnation, and (2) the citation of Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14) also applies to his sonship prior to the incarnation. This represents a genuine development in early Christian belief regarding the “birth” and sonship of Jesus, one quite similar with what we find in the Gospel of John. This will be examined in the next daily note (on John 1:12-13 and 14); here, it remains to consider again how the author of Hebrews frames this dual aspect of Jesus’ sonship—the ‘older’ aspect of his resurrection/exaltation, and the ‘newer’ aspect of his pre-existent deity. Chapter 1 closes with a pair of Scripture quotations (from the Psalms) applied to Jesus as the Son. It is part of the running comparison between the Son and the other heavenly beings (Angels):

“And toward the Messengers He says (v. 7)… But toward the Son (He says, v. 8)…”

The first passage, from Psalm 45:6-7, alludes to the exaltation of Jesus, of his being raised (as Son) to the throne of God; the second passage (Psalm 102:25-27), by contrast, implies the Son’s pre-existence, with its Creation-setting: “You, Lord, down at (the) beginning, set (the foundation for) the earth, and the heavens (are) the works of your hands”. In the original Psalm, of course, the “Lord” (ku/rio$) is YHWH, but here it is meant to apply more properly to Jesus, based on the common dual-use of ku/rio$ among early Christians. The final citation of Psalm 110:1 (v. 13), a Messianic passage at least as important as Psalm 2:7 (compare Acts 2:34-35 with 13:32-33), demonstrates again how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God has been transformed in the light of the growing Christological awareness. In Acts 2, this Scripture is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation, while here in Hebrews it has an altogether new and deeper meaning—one which combines the exaltation motif with divine pre-existence.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

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

1 John 5:13-21, continued

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

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

1 John 5:18

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

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

Sin and the Believer (revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

Textual Criticism

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

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

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

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

1 John 5:19

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

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

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

1 John 5:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 5:21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21

1 John 5:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 5:14-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Ethical Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Interpretation based on Johannine Theology

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

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

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 7-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 9-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 4:7-5:4, continued

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

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

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

1 John 4:16b-19

Verse 16b

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

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

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

Verse 17

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

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

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

Verse 18

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

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

Verse 19

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

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

1 John 4:20-5:4

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

Verse 20

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

1 John 5:1

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-4

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

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

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

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

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