1 John 2:28-3:24
The central theme of 1 John, the contrast between true and false believers, was established in the first section (1:5-2:17), utilizing the dualistic light/darkness motif. The two “antichrist” sections, 2:18-27 (cf. the previous article) and 4:1-6, focus primarily on the presence and activity of the false believers (i.e., the opponents), while the section in between (2:28-3:24)—the central section of the entire work—emphasizes the nature and character of the true believer. This is presented within three thematic subsections, framed by two essential exhortations related to the believer’s identity:
- Opening exhortation: “remain in him” (2:28)
- The believer in relation to sin and righteousness (2:29-3:10)
- The believer in relation to love (3:11-18)
- The two-fold duty [e)ntolh/] of believers (3:19-24a)
- Closing assurance: “that he remains in us” (3:24b)
From an interpretative standpoint, the first subsection on sin and righteousness is the most difficult, particularly in 3:6-9, where the author makes statements which seem to contradict what he argued earlier in 1:8-2:2. I address the matter in a set of supplemental notes.
As it happens, sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw) and righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) are two of the three subjects mentioned in the Paraclete-saying of Jn 16:7b-11, of which the Spirit will bear witness, exposing the world and proving it to be wrong. And the exposition there of the true nature of sin (v. 9) and righteousness (v. 10) should be seen as having a bearing on the apparent contradiction between 1 Jn 1:8-2:2 and 3:6-9. The first passage explains how believers do sin, while the second passage explains how they do not sin. And, whatever else one may argue about the relationship of the believer to sin, as expressed in 1 John, one point is absolutely clear: the true believer will not (and cannot) sin in the primary sense of violating the great dual ‘command’ of 3:23-24—trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), and love for other believers (following Jesus’ own example).
Important in this regard is the Johannine motif of believers coming to be born of God, as His offspring. This is introduced in 1 John at 2:29-3:1. First, there is the specialized use of the verb of becoming (genna/w) in 2:29:
“If you have seen that He is righteous [di/kaio$], (then) you know that every (one) doing righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] has come to be (born) [gege/nnhtai] out of Him.”
Then the use of the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1:
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring [te/kna] of God—and (so) we are. Through this [i.e. for this reason] the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him.”
From the Johannine theological standpoint, “doing righteousness” essentially means remaining in God’s Son (Jesus), through the Spirit, since righteousness is defined principally in the person of Jesus, who (as God’s Son) manifests the righteousness of God (the Father). For more on this, cf. my recent note on the discussion of righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) in Jn 16:10. The person who does this righteousness shows himself/herself to be a true believer, a child of God who has come to be born out of Him.
As one remains in the Son (through the Spirit), one faithfully fulfills the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) of trust and love. The latter (love, a)ga/ph) is particularly emphasized in this section, with sin defined largely in terms of a failure to love. By contrast, love is a fundamental characteristic of God Himself (4:16, etc), and his offspring will love in a similar manner. God first showed love to believers by giving them/us the ability to become His children (Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8, 16ff, etc). This was achieved through the mission of His Son (v. 8), culminating in his sacrificial death, exaltation, and the sending of the Spirit.
The pairing of the verb genna/w and the noun te/kna is repeated in vv. 9-10:
“Every (one) having come to be (born) [gegennh/meno$] out of God does not do sin, (in) that His seed remains in him, and (so) he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) [gege/nnhtai] out of God.” (v. 9)
The idea of “doing righteousness” (cf. above) is expressed here by its precise opposite, i.e., “not doing sin”. Not only has the believer come to be born out of God, but God’s seed (spe/rma) remains in the believer. This use of spe/rma provides support for commentators who would insist that the Johannine use of genna/w be understood primarily in the male sense of “beget” rather than the female “give birth”. I prefer to render genna/w in the more general (causative) sense of “cause to be (born),” which can be used of either a male or female parent.
Regardless of the specific birth/begetting imagery that is intended, there can be little doubt that the “coming to be” for the believer takes place in a spiritual way, through the Spirit, and that God’s “seed” that remains in the believer should be understood in reference to the Spirit. The usage in the Gospel would seem to make this quite clear. Let us begin with the statement in the Prologue, which follows the wording of 1 John in describing believers as coming to be born “out of God” (e)k qeou=):
“But, as many as received him, to them he gave (the) e)cousi/a to become [gene/sqai] (the) offspring [te/kna] of God—to the (one)s trusting in his name, those 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) [e)gennh/qhsan].” (Jn 1:12-13)
In the Nicodemus-Discourse, this same language is used (by Jesus), describing believers coming to be born:
“if one should not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] from above [a&nwqen], he is not able to see the kingdom of God” (3:3, cf. also v. 7)
“if one should not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (3:5)
Coming to be born “from above” means the same as coming to be born “out of water and the Spirit”. As I have discussed elsewhere, I believe the emphasis in the expression in v. 5 is on a contrast between an ordinary human birth (“out of water”) and a spiritual birth (“out of the Spirit”)—i.e., a contrast between ordinary water and the living water of the Spirit (cf. 1:26, 33; 4:10-15; 7:37-39). Thus, from the Johannine theological standpoint, coming to be born “out of God” is the same as coming to be be born “out of the Spirit”. The believer is described as:
“every (one) having come to be (born) out of the Spirit” (3:8)
pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= pneu/mato$
The accords fully with the usage in 1 John (3:9, first phrase), except that pneu=ma (“Spirit”) substitutes for qeo/$ (“God”), which is hardly surprising, given the theological declaration in Jn 4:24 that “God (is) Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). Birth imagery also occurs in the Last Discourse (16:21), in the context of the coming of the Spirit (16:7b-15); and one may certainly interpret the initial giving of the Spirit (20:22) as a ‘new birth’ (a coming to be), in light of the rather clear allusion to Gen 2:7 (LXX e)ge/neto, “he became…”).
Returning to 1 Jn 3:9-10, the birth imagery is particularly emphasized within the syntax of the author’s statements. Consider first in verse 9:
- “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God
- does not do sin
- he is not able to sin
- he has come to be (born) out of God”
The initial transformation of coming to be born out of God, as his offspring (te/kna), is followed by the abiding presence of God’s seed (spe/rma) that remains in the believer. This abiding “seed” (of God’s holy Spirit) enables the believer to be holy and without sin (“not able to sin”). Again, however, it must be remembered that “sin,” in the Johannine sense, primarily refers to violation of the great dual-command (or duty, e)ntolh/) of trust and love. Principally, the latter component of love (a)ga/ph) is in view for the author, as vv. 10-11ff makes clear. The true believer cannot sin in this sense of hating (= not showing love to) another believer:
“every (one) not doing righteousness [= doing sin] is not [i.e. has not been born] out of God, and (so it is for) the (one) not loving his brother” (v. 10)
In vv. 11-18, the author further discusses this fundamental duty of the believer to love, framing it as a message given by Jesus “from the beginning” (v. 11), as a practical example of “walking in the light”, developing the light-vs-darkness motif of 1:5ff. Believers love each other, while the world hates believers (v. 13; cf. Jn 15:18-25; 17:14; cp. 7:7). In the view of the author, any supposed believer who does not show proper love to other believers (and to the Community of true believers), actually hates them, and thus behaves just like the non-believers and hostile opponents of God in the world. Love is a fundamental sign of the true believer:
“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death and into life [cf. Jn 5:24], (in) that we love the brothers; the (one) not loving (them) remains in death.” (v. 14)
True love—that is, the love possessed by the true believer—follows Jesus’ own example, corresponding to the sacrificial love which he showed in “laying down” his soul for believers (v. 16). This love ought to be demonstrated every day, in all sorts of practical ways (vv. 17-18), even as Jesus did for the first disciples. His love, which is God’s own love, remains in the true believer (Jn 15:9-10; 17:26; cf. 5:42; 13:35; 15:13; 1 Jn 2:15; 4:16-18) through the presence of the Spirit. Paul says much the same thing in Romans 5:5, and also describes in Galatians 5 how the practical fulfillment of the ‘love command’ (vv. 6, 13-15) is realized through the guidance of the Spirit (vv. 16ff). Paul’s idea of “walking about in the Spirit” (cp. Rom 6:4; 8:4) is essentially equivalent to the Johannine idiom of “walking about in the light” (1 Jn 1:7).
Finally, as we come to the concluding verses 19-24 of this central section, the author summarizes his discussion regarding the nature (and characteristics) of the true believer:
“[And] in this we shall know that we are out of [i.e. born of, belonging to] the truth, and in front of Him we shall persuade our heart…” (v. 19)
I would argue that the expression “out of the truth” (e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$) is essentially a shorthand for the fuller phrase “coming to be (born) out of the truth”, in which case “the truth” is more or less synonymous with both “God” and “the Spirit”. The latter identification is confirmed by the bold declaration in 5:6: “the Spirit is the truth”. The idea of believers being ‘born of’ the truth, and belonging to the truth, is very much part of the Johannine theological idiom, with the same wording being used by Jesus in the Gospel:
“unto this [i.e. for this reason] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world, that I should give witness to the truth; every (one) being [i.e. who is] out of the truth [e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$] hears my voice” (18:37)
The question that follows from Pilate (v. 38)— “What is (the) truth?” —receives its (belated) answer in 1 Jn 5:6: “The Spirit is the truth”. The Spirit, abiding in the (true) believer, teaches all things and guides the believer “in the way of all truth” (Jn 16:13). Through the Spirit, Jesus the Son—who also is the truth (14:6)—and God the Father, the source of all truth, abides in the believer. This assurance is referenced here in verse 20:
“…if our heart show know (something) against (us), (realize) that God is greater than our heart and knows all things”
Believers have this confidence before God, so as to ask of Him whatever we wish (cf. Jn 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24). His answer to our requests depends on our remaining in Him (through the Spirit). Under the Spirit’s guidance and teaching, we fulfill completely the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of us as believers (v. 22). This duty is declared clearly and unmistakably in verse 23:
“And this is His e)ntolh/: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and should love each other, just as he gave (the) e)ntolh/ to us.”
Those who fulfill this duty will remain in God, and He in them:
“And the (one) keeping His e)ntolh/ remains [me/nei] in Him, and He (remains) in him…” (v. 24a)
All of this ultimately is realized through the presence of the Spirit:
“…and in this we know that He remains in us, out of the Spirit which He gave to us.” (v. 24b)
Jesus (the Son) gave believers the Spirit, but God the Father is the ultimate source; the Father gave the Spirit to the Son, so that he might give it, in turn, to believers (His children). Even though there are numerous references and allusions to the Spirit earlier in 1 John (as discussed in the previous notes and articles), this is the first explicit reference and occurrence of the word pneu=ma. It is surely significant the actual word is introduced here at this supremely climactic moment, at the heart of the author’s work, where he declares the nature and identity of the true believer in Christ.
Having gone through this study of the central section of 1 John (2:28-3:24), it should give us deeper insight as we turn to the second “antichrist” section (4:1-6), in the next article. It is here that the author begins to develop his contrast between true and false believers, dealing with the subject more directly in terms of the Johannine spiritualism and the role of the Spirit.