Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10 (continued)

1 John 2:28-3:10, continued

This is a continuation of last week’s study (on 1 John 2:28-3:10). If you have not already done so, I would urge you to read through the discussion last week before proceeding. As previously noted, the passage is comprised of two parallel sections; indeed, the parallelism of the instruction is precise, as each section has the same general outline:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

We have already noted how Christology is at the center of the instruction, and, in many ways, is the key to a correct interpretation of the passage as a whole. The first three components were examined in the study last week; now, building on those results, we shall proceed to consider the final three.

1 John 3:5 / 3:8B

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

Both statements use the verb form ephanerœ¡th¢, literally “he was made to shine forth”. This verb (phaneróœ) is rather frequent in the Johannine Writings—9 times in the Gospel and 9 in the First Letter—as part of the key (dualistic) imagery of light vs. darkness. It often has the generic meaning of “appear”, but the Johannine context makes preserving the etymological connection with light especially important. Jesus as the Light of God (Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9f; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8-10) shines for human beings on earth, and the Elect ones (believers) recognize and come to the light. Thus the motif of “shining” relates to the appearance of Jesus on earth—that is, as a human being (i.e. the incarnation), and, in particular, the work that he performed during his earthly life. The purpose of his work and life is made clear in these verses, with the concluding hína-clauses (“so that…”):

    • “he would take away [ár¢] sins” [some manuscripts read “…our sins”]
    • “he would loose [lýs¢] the works of the Diábolos

These are parallel statements which should be understood as generally synonymous—that is to say, “taking away” sins is essentially the same as “loosing” the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ (“loose[n]”), often has the meaning “dissolve”, i.e. “destroy”. The reference to the Diábolos (literally “one throwing over [accusations/insults]” or “one casting [evil] throughout”) continues the thought of the previous statement (v. 8a, discussed in last week’s study), where by the ones “doing the sin” are identified as belonging to (or born of) the Devil (ek tou diabólou), i.e. they are children of the Devil rather than children of God.

This echoes several passages in the Gospel where sin is closely connected with the Evil One. The most notable example comes from chapter 8 of the great Feast of Tabernacles discourse. The statement by Jesus in verse 19 connects acceptance of him with knowledge of God the Father. The dialogue that follows builds on this idea, using dualistic language to identify those who do not accept the Son (Jesus) as belonging to a different Father—children of the Devil, rather than being children of God (vv. 42-47). Their sin is that of unbelief, which reflects their identity as belonging to the Devil, and it is from this sin that others spring out (including hatred, violence, and murder).

In Jn 16:8-11 (also discussed last week), sin is also defined there as failing to trust in Jesus. The context of these verses has to do with the work of the Spirit/Paraclete who makes known the truth to the world—that is, the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done. Failing to trust in Jesus means that the person belongs not to God, but to the Devil; and, as verse 11 makes clear, the Devil (here called the Chief/Ruler of the world) has already been judged. It was the life and work of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection, which judged both the world (i.e. the current world-order of darkness) and the Devil. All who commit the ultimate sin of unbelief are judged along with their ‘Father’ the Devil.

Sin (and sins) are referred to here as “the works of the Devil”. In Pauline terms, this would be described as the power of sin that held humankind in bondage, with Sin (and Death) personified as a kind of world-ruler generally identified with the figure of the Satan/Devil. Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) freed humankind, making it possible to escape from this bondage through trust in him. However, the Johannine imagery relates more to the essential identity of human beings—believers belong to God and Christ, while all others (non-believers, i.e. those who sin) belong to the Devil. Believers do the works of God and Christ, non-believers do the works of the Devil.

An important point in the first Christological statement above (v. 5) is that there is no sin in Jesus (“sin is not in him”). Here the singular hamartía (without the definite article) refers to sin in the general sense, and is a declaration of the sinlessness of Jesus. This may be seen as relating to the declaration by Jesus in Jn 14:30 that the Chief of the world “holds nothing on me”. Any sense of the sinlessness of believers, as expressed in 1 John, must be understood in terms of the sinlessness of Jesus.

1 John 3:6a / 3:9

    • “Every one remaining in him does not sin;” (3:6a)
    • “Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not do the sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him; and he is not able to sin, (in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God.” (3:9)

These statements are similar in meaning (and parallel) to those in 2:29 and 3:7bc (discussed last week). Clearly “doing justice” is related to “not doing sin”; these are flip sides of the same coin. Here we have a more precise formulation in terms of religious identity (“every one…”). Believers—true believers, that is—are described with a pair of participles, so that there is a sense of dynamic (verbal) action that characterizes their essential identity:

    • “the (one) remaining [ménœn] in him”
    • “the (one) coming to be (born) [gegenn¢ménos] out of God”

Both verbs—ménœ (“remain”) and gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”)—are key terms in the Johannine writings. More than half of the occurrences of ménœ in the New Testament are in the Gospel (40) and Letters (27) of John. It is a common verb, but virtually everywhere it is used in the Johannine writings it carries the special theological and spiritual meaning of the union believers share with the Son (Jesus) and the Father. It is reciprocal: Jesus remains in believers, and believers remain in Jesus. The verb gennᜠdefines this identity in a different way, according to the image of being born of God, i.e. as children of God, even as Jesus is the Son. It is our union with the Son (and the Father), through the presence and power of the Spirit, that makes this “birth” possible (see esp. John 3:3-8). The verb occurs 18 times in the Gospel, and 10 in the First Letter; the substantive verbal noun (participle with the definite article) is especially distinctive of 1 John (see also Jn 3:6, 8). Thus, insofar as believers “do not sin”, this is predicated upon two things: (1) being born out of God (as His offspring), and (2) remaining in Jesus.

However, the author explains this a bit further in verse 9b, when he adds the detail that, for the person born out of God, the seed (spérma) of God also remains in him/her. A careful study of the language and thought of Johannine writings leaves little doubt that this “seed” is to be identified with the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we come to be born of God, and it is thus the life-producing seed. What needs to be pointed out, is that this same seed remains in us. The Spirit of God the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, and represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers.

The statements regarding sin in these verses are essentially two:

    • “every one remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]”
      “every one coming to be born out of God does not do (the) sin [hamartían ou poieí]”
    • “…and he is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be born out of God”

Are the differing forms of the first statement saying the same thing? The expression “do the sin” was used in verse 4, with the definite article (literally “the sin” (h¢ hamartía). I argued that this use of the singular referred to the fundamental Johannine definition of sin (in Jn 16:9, etc) as unbelief—failing or refusing to trust in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. At the same time, the singular (without the definite article) in v. 5b seems to mean sin in a general sense. There would appear to be three levels of meaning to the noun hamartía and the concept of “sin”:

    1. “the sin” (singular with definite article)—the fundamental sin of unbelief
    2. “sin” (singular without the definite article)—sin in the general or collective sense, and
    3. “sins” (plural)—individual sins committed by human beings

The verb hamartánœ relates to all three of these meanings, but here especially to the first two.

1 John 3:6b / 3:10

    • “every one sinning has not seen him and has not known him” (3:6b)
    • “…every one not doing justice is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the (one) not loving his brother” (3:10)

Again we see the close connection between sin and justice (dikaiosýn¢, or “just-ness, right-ness”). Previously we had the equation doing justice = not sinning; similarly, here we have the reverse of this: sinning = not doing justice. Recall above that the use of the substantive verbal noun (participle with definite article) indicated the essential identity and character of a believer; now the same syntax is used to refer to the non-believer (or false believer). That this characterizes the non-believer is clear from the phrases “has…seen/known him” and “out of God [i.e. belonging to God, born of God]”. This typical Johannine language, used throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Thus the “one sinning” clearly is not (and cannot be) a true believer in Christ.

But is this “sinning” meant in the general sense, or does it have a particular meaning in its context here? The final phrase of verse 10 (and of the passage) confirms that the intended meaning is quite specific, by the identification of the “one sinning / not doing justice” as “the one not loving his brother”. There can be little doubt that the use of “brother” in context means one’s fellow believer. Love (agáp¢) between believers is a fundamental mark of the Christian identity, and central to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John. It is part of the great command—the only command—under which believers are bound. Actually, the great command is a two-fold command, presented succinctly in 3:23:

“And this is His entol¢¡ [i.e. command]: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and (that) we should love each other, even as he [i.e. Jesus] gave us the entol¢¡.”

Thus the essential definition of sin must be expanded to include a failure to love one another. That this is primarily in mind for the author is clear enough by the section which follows our passage (3:11-24). Beginning with a statement of the love-command (v. 11), and the key illustration in v. 12 from the story of Cain and Abel, the author’s instruction turns entirely to the demonstration of love as the mark of the true believer. Remember that the issue of those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community is at the heart of the letter, and informs this section on love, even as it does the prior section on sin. We may thus summarize the teaching regarding sin as follows:

There are four levels of meaning to hamartía and the concept of sin (compare with the list of three above):

    1. “sins” (plural) = individual sins committed by human beings
    2. “sin” (singular, without the definite article) = sin in the general sense
    3. “sin” (singular, with the article) = the fundamental sin of unbelief
    4. “sinning” (verb hamartánœ) = principally, violations of the two-fold command

The main point at issue in 1 John, especially here in 2:28-3:10, is not the first two levels of meaning (as the casual reader might assume), but specifically the last two. For the true believer, it is impossible to sin in the sense of (3.) and (4.); indeed, sin, in either of these senses, marks the distinction between the true and false believer. To see this clearly, let us cite the concluding statement of verse 10 in full:

“In this it is shining [i.e. clear/apparent] (who are) the offspring of God and the offspring of the Diábolos: every one not doing justice [i.e. sinning] is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the one not loving his brother.”

What then of meanings (1.) and (2.) above? The work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection, frees believers from sin in the general sense (1:7; 2:2), as is indicated in the pair of Christological statements of vv. 5, 8b (see above). This leaves meaning #1, which, I would argue, is the only sense of sin that applies to the true believer in Christ. Believers will (or may) occasionally commit sins, as the author makes quite clear in 1:8-2:2 and 5:16ff. The same power that frees us from sin in the general sense, also cleanses us from individual sins we commit. In that way, believers do take part in the sinlessness of Jesus, and the power that he has over sin.

We will touch on this question of sin (as it relates to the believer) again in these studies on 1 John. Hold on to these past studies, meditating on the line of interpretation I have presented, as there will be occasion to develop it further. However, for next week, I wish to move ahead in the letter, looking at 4:1-6 in detail. In so doing, we will survey again the preceding instruction (on love) in 3:11-24, taking great care in considering how 4:1-6 fits into the overall structure and argument of the letter. I hope to see you here for this study…next Saturday.

August 1: Romans 8:3-4

This is the second of two notes on 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3-4; the passage in 2 Corinthians was discussed in the previous day’s note.

Romans 8:3-4

“For the powerless (thing) of the Law [i.e. what the Law lacked power to do], in which [i.e. in that] it was weak through the flesh, God (has done), sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us—the (one)s not walking about according to (the) flesh, but according to (the) Spirit.”

The relevant portion parallel to 2 Cor 5:21 is indicated by italics above; here it is extracted out, along with the Greek text:

“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”
pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$ kai\ peri\ a(marti/a$ kate/krinen th\n a(marti/an e)n th=| sarki/, i%na to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou plhrwqh=| e)n h(mi=n

Here are 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3b-4a in translation side-by-side:

2 Cor 5:21

“the (one) not knowing sin, He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be (the) justice/righteousness of God in him”

Rom 8:3b-4a

“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, … (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”

I feel it is best to proceed here by comparing the key words and phrases between the two passages:

“the one not knowing sin”
(to\ mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an)
“his own Son”
(to\n e(autou= ui(o/n)

It is interesting to consider these expressions as complementary: in Corinthians, the emphasis is on Jesus’ lack of familiarity with sin; in Romans, it is on Christ as the (beloved) son and heir (cf. Rom 4:13ff; 5:10; 8:12-17), highlighting the importance and preciousness of the sacrifice God makes. Based on Rom 4:13ff (cf. also throughout Gal 3-4), there is probably here an allusion to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, which may already have been present in Christian thought prior to Paul.

“He made (to be) sin”
(a(marti/an e)poi/hsen)
“sending in the likeness of flesh of sin”
(pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$)

Does Romans here explain the phrase in Corinthians? This is certainly possible, though it raises some interesting questions regarding the traditional view of Christ’s sinlessness. Was sin dwelling in his flesh just as it is for other human beings (cf. Rom 7:13-20)? In order for the expression to have its full significance, this would seem to be the case. It certainly could be affirmed without admitting that Christ committed any sin. On the other hand, the expression “in the likeness of flesh of sin” could be taken to mean that it was not actually “flesh of sin”; but, then, in what way was it like sinful human flesh? If all that Paul meant to say was that Jesus had a “human nature”, without sin, this is a curious way to state it. Needless to say, the entire matter is extremely sensitive from an orthodox Christological standpoint.

“over us” (u(pe\r h(mw=n) “about sin” (peri\ a(marti/a$)

The preposition u(pe/r fundamentally means “over”, while peri/ means “around, about”; however, both can be understood as “on behalf of, for the sake of, because of”, depending on the context. In Corinthians, Paul uses traditional early Christian language for the atoning, sacrificial work of Christ, which takes place “over us”, that is, for our sake. In Romans, the focus is more what is done about (and to) sin—i.e. the power of Sin, especially that which dwells (“houses”) in the flesh (Rom 7:17-18, 20). This is clear from the clause which follows: “he (God, through Christ) judged against sin in the flesh”. Does this mean Christ himself took on sinful flesh—that sin dwelt in his flesh, in common with humankind? There would seem to be three main possibilities:

    • There was no sin in his flesh; he was human, but it was not “flesh of sin”. To say that God “judged against sin in the flesh” means that it was judged through the suffering (and death) of the sinless flesh of Christ.
    • The “curse” or effect of sin was in his flesh, but not the power of sin itself. God judged against what sin had done to human beings in the flesh.
    • Sin did “dwell” in his flesh, and it was this that God judged against. Christ himself knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21) in the sense that: (a) he did not commit sin, and (b) was not enslaved by the power of sin; however God made him to be sin, in order to deal with sin.

The first of these accords with orthodox Christology, especially the blunt declaration in 1 John 3:5; however, the last of these, in my view, seems closer to Paul’s thought in Romans, though perhaps not without further qualification. Ultimately, the most important point is that the power of sin was destroyed and made inactive through the death (and resurrection) of Christ, allowing believers to be set free from bondage to sin and death (Rom 6:6-11).

“so that we…” (i%na h(mei=$) “so that… in us” (i%nae)n h(mi=n)

Both passages conclude with a i%na purpose-/result-clause (“so that…”), indicating primarily the purpose, but also the result, of God’s work in Christ. The difference of focus or location in terms of the believer (“we/us”) is relatively slight, and complementary—in Corinthians, the emphasis is on what happens to us, in Romans, on what takes place in us.

“we might come to be”
(genw/meqa)
“might be (ful)filled (in us)”
(plhrwqh=|)

Both verbs are aorist subjunctive forms, indicating the possibility or potential of what God can (and) will accomplish in the person of the believer, based on what he has already done (past action). The aorist subjunctive often carries an imperitival force, i.e., “we should/shall become…” In Corinthians, indeed, it is a matter of what the believer will become; in Romans, on the other hand, something is completed or fulfilled (“filled [up]”) in (and among) believers.

“(the) justice/righteousness of God”
(dikaiosu/nh qeou=)
“the just/right (thing) of the Law”
(to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou)

These expressions reflect what it is that we as believers will become, or what will be fulfilled in us, respectively. In 2 Corinthians, it is the “justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God”, an expression which Paul uses in Romans (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21-22; 10:3, cf. also 3:25-26; 6:13). It is best, I think, to consider this as an attribute of God Himself (subjective genitive), which he demonstrates primarily and fundamentally in the person and work of Jesus Christ. An important emphasis in Romans is that this justice/righteousness has been manifested in Christ altogether separate and apart from the Old Testament Law (cf.  Rom 3:21ff, etc), so it is interesting that the parallel passage in 2 Cor 5:21 specifically mentions the Law (no/mo$). The fact is, that Romans very much builds upon the idea, already discussed in Galatians, that Christ, by his sacrificial death, fulfills the Law for human beings. In Gal 3:10-13, this takes place by Jesus becoming the curse of the Law himself (par. to the idea of being “made sin”). The curse came into effect (pronounced as judgment) when the Law, representing the terms of the covenant between God and his people, was violated. According to Paul’s view, human beings, held in bondage under the power of sin, are incapable of fulfilling the Law (i.e. the Law of God, as expressed in the Torah). In Rom 8:3-4, God judges against sin itself in the flesh, removing its enslaving power over those who trust in Christ.

What about the specific expression in 2 Cor 5:21? how exactly do believers “become” or “come to be” the justice/righteousness of God. According to what Paul teaching and relates in his letters (especially in Galatians and Romans), I would suggest three aspects of this process:

    1. Justification—this is essentially what is described in Rom 8:3-4: (a) Christ is made sin and, through his death, becomes the curse, (b) this sacrificial acts fulfills and completes the requirement of the Law, (c) through Christ God judges sin itself, removing its enslaving power, (d) believers in Christ are thus made right before God, and (e) now have the freedom and ability to fulfill the Law, through the Spirit, no longer by observing the Torah itself.
    2. Union with Christ (“in Christ”)—believers are united with Christ, and thus participate in the very justice/righteousness of God which he himself manifests and embodies. It is communicated in the believer through the power of the Spirit, which is also the Spirit of Christ.
    3. Resurrection/Glorification—Experience of God’s justice/righteousness is also eschatological, with the completion of salvation in the end-time judgment. Ultimately it is the body (“flesh” in the strict sense) which remains to be redeemed and loosed from bondage. Paul never loses sight of this future aspect of salvation.