July 4: 1 John 5:20

1 John 5:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2: 1 John 5:18, continued

1 John 5:18, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 1: 1 John 5:18

1 John 5:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious difficulties arise in the second clause:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

June 25: 1 John 3:10 (continued)

1 John 3:10, continued

“In this it is shining out [i.e. apparent], (who are) the offspring of God and the offspring of the Diábolos: every(one) not doing what is right [dikaiosu/nh] is not (born) of God—even the (one) not loving his brother.”

In concluding these notes on 1 Jn 2:28-3:10, we must look again at the specific significance of the terms dikaiosu/nh (“right[eous]ness”) and a(marti/a (“sin”, vb a(marta/nw), in the context of the Johannine theology (as it is used here by the author of 1 John). To this end, it is important to pay attention to the closing words of 3:10 (see the previous note)—namely, the qualifying phrase “and the (one) not loving his brother” (kai\ o( mh\ a)gapw=n to\n a)delfo\n au)tou=). This phrase is clearly related to the main phrase of verse 10b, but the nature of the relationship is not readily apparent. The phrases are, however, certainly parallel, both serving to define the “offspring [te/kna] of the Devil” (that is, false believers):

    • “the (one) not doing th(at which is) right”
    • “the (one) not loving his brother”

This distinctive Johannine syntax has been discussed extensively in the prior notes. The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) describes the characteristic behavior of a person (or group). In this case, the false believer (“offspring of the Devil”) does the opposite of the true believer (“offspring of God”). The true believer does “th(at which is) right” (h( dikaiosu/nh), while the false believer does not do this.

The force of the conjunction kai/ (“and”), joining the two phrases of v. 10b, is not entirely certain. Is it meant to show that the two phrases—and the corresponding characteristic actions—are synonymous, or that the second is in addition to the first? In the latter case, we would translate: “the (one) not doing th(at which is) right—and also the (one) not loving his brother”. Another alternative is that the act of “loving one’s brother [i.e. fellow believer]” is to be included, as a particularly important example, of what it means to “do what is right”. This line of interpretation is surely closer to the mark. However, I am convinced that, for the author of 1 John, the two phrases are essentially synonymous. That is to say, to “do that which is right” means “to love one’s brother”.

The key to a correct interpretation is the relationship of 2:28-3:10 to the following 3:11-24. One must note, in particular, the importance of the theme of love in that section, and also the emphasis on the duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of every believer, and which every true believer will fulfill. The idea of loving fellow believers dominates verses 11-18, and thus the closing phrase of verse 10 is transitional—transitioning from the righteousness/sin emphasis in 2:28-3:10 to the love/duty emphasis of 3:11-18. The emphasis in vv. 11-18 is on love, while that of vv. 19-24 is on the duty (e)ntolh/) of believers (note the repeated occurrence of the noun e)ntolh/ in vv. 22-24).

As discussed in the previous note, “doing th(at which is) right” is essentially the same as “not doing the sin”; the opposite is also true— “not doing what is right” means “doing the sin”. I have discussed the Johannine understanding of sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw) extensively in a recent series of studies. My conclusion (demonstrated in those studies) is that the Johannine writings evince a dual-layered understanding. At one level, “sin” is to be understood from a conventional standpoint, in terms of ethical-religious failures and misdeeds. However, at a second (and deeper) level, “sin” refers to a failure/refusal to trust in Jesus. Both levels of meaning are valid, but the second is primary, and represents the true meaning of sin. The same may be said of “righteousness” (“right-ness”, what is right, dikaiosu/nh). As the opposite of sin, the true meaning of “right-ness” is: to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. These distinctly Johannine theological meanings of a(marti/a and dikaiosu/nh are defined in Jn 16:8-11 (vv. 9, 10).

How does this apply to the use of the terms in 1 Jn 2:28-3:10? I would maintain that the dual-layered meaning described above absolutely applies. The conventional ethical-religious meaning of the terms is in focus in 2:28-3:10, but the deeper theological meaning is also present, and comes firmly into focus in 3:11-24. The love-reference in 3:10b marks the transition between these two aspects of meaning.

Let us consider how this relates to the broader theme of believers as the “offspring [te/kna] of God”, and to the contrast between the true and false believer (viz., “offspring of God” vs. “offspring of the Devil”). In the previous note, I mentioned how there are two aspects to this contrast: (i) essential identity, and (ii) practical manifestation. The identity of the true believer (as the offspring of God) is manifested by “doing what is right” and “not doing what is sin”. Conversely, the identity of the false believer (as the offspring of the Devil) is demonstrated by “not doing what is right” and by “doing what is sin”.

At the ethical-religious level, “sin” refers to various kinds of wrong-doing, and a failure to do what is right. Similarly, “right(eous)ness” refers to upright (moral) behavior and acts of religious devotion. The “right-ness” and the sinlessness of the Son (Jesus) is also to be reflected in the children (offspring) of God. Insofar as believers remain in the Son, they can (and will) be free from sin, and will act in a right manner, following the Son in doing what is right. This is the ethical-religious message of 2:28-3:10, and it applies to the statements in 3:4-9, in spite of the difficulty surrounding the ‘sinlessness’ claims in vv. 6 and 9.

However, at the theological level, the message is somewhat different. For, as noted above, at this level of meaning, “sin” refers to a failure/refusal to trust in Jesus, while “right(eous)ness” means the opposite—a genuine trust in Jesus as God’s Son, and that, through this trust, believers are united with the Son, so as to share in his righteousness (which is the very righteousness of God). In this regard, the false believer sins, while the true believer does what is right (and is entirely free from sin).

A related point of Johannine theology is that trust in Jesus also involves showing love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). The author of 1 John views these—trust and love—as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in verse 23, at the climactic point of this central division of his work, the author clearly defines the duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers:

“And this is His e)ntolh/:
that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and
(that) we should love one another,
just as he gave this e)ntolh/ to us.”

This concept of a two-fold e)ntolh/ is also found in the Gospel, expressed by Jesus in his Last Discourse to his disciples (13:31-16:33). There the trust aspect is framed in terms of being faithful to Jesus’ word(s). Yet, it is important to remember that, in the Johannine Gospel, Jesus’ teaching (“word[s]”) refers primarily to his identity as the Son. Thus, to be faithful to Jesus’ words means, fundamentally, to trust in the message of his identity as the Son of God, sent from heaven by God the Father. Such a line of interpretation is fully in keeping with the thought (and message) of the author of 1 John.

Also in common, between the Gospel and First Letter, is the use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) to express the identity of the true believer, in this regard. We have seen how often this verb was used in 1 John (including key occurrences in 2:28-3:10 [2:28; 3:6, 9; cf. 2:24, 27]), and this usage continues in 3:11-24—vv. 14-15, 17, and finally climaxing in v. 24. It also features prominently in the Last Discourse, particularly in the Vine-illustration section (where it occurs 11 times, in 15:4-7, 9-10, 16). The true believer is one who remains in the Son (Jesus), demonstrating this by fulfilling both aspects of the great e)ntolh/ (trust and love). I have utilized the following simple diagram to illustrate this:

The true believer trusts in Jesus, remaining in both his word and his love. The false believer, by contrast, does not. For the author of 1 John, it is the “antichrist” opponents who are principally in view when he speaks of false believers (“offspring of the Devil”). Although they, surely, would have considered themselves genuine believers in Christ, from the standpoint of the author (and his circle) they are false believers, since they hold to an erroneous view of Jesus Christ. They have departed from the truth of Jesus’ own word, away from the truth of who he is (and what he did during his earthly mission). Moreover, by departing from the Community of true believers, they also fail to show love to believers in Christ, and thus also violate the second part of the great e)ntolh/. Whether, or to what extent, the opponents manifested this lack of love in other practical or tangible ways, is hard to determine (but note the emphasis in vv. 16-18, esp. verse 17).

In the next daily note, we will continue exploring the birth/offspring theme in 1 John, turning to examine the remaining passages where the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna, “offspring”) and the idiom genna/w + e)k (“come to be [born] of”) are used.

 

June 22: 1 John 3:9

1 John 3:7-9, continued

For Statements 1 and 2, see the previous notes on verses 7 and 8.

Statement #3 (verse 9):

“Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him, and (so) he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God.”

The third, climactic, statement, as in verse 6, represents the key statement regarding the relation of the believer to sin. The parallel descriptive expression, again using the Johannine idiom of the substantive participle (with definite article, preceded by the adjective pa=$ [“every”]), characterizes the true believer:

    • “every (one) remaining in Him” (v. 6)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (v. 9)

This is very much Johannine terminology, particularly the distinctive use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”), as well as the verbal expression genna/w + e)k (“come to be [born] out of”). The true believer comes to be born from God, and then remains in Him. There are thus two stages to the Divine life of the believer: (1) the birth occurs as the result of trust in Jesus (as God’s Son), followed (2) by an abiding relationship that is realized through the Son. Ultimately, both the birth and the remaining are realized through the presence and activity of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8; 14:17ff; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13).

Interestingly, both aspects—birth and remaining—are emphasized here in verse 9. The birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spe/rma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer; note the chiastic arrangement of the verse:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

Both aspects relate to sinlessness, but it is the central aspect—God’s seed remaining in the believer—which is most relevant, since it refers to the life-time of the believer after he/she has been “born”.

If we are to understand how the believer can be sinless (and “unable to sin”) —in apparent contradiction to what the author wrote earlier (in 1:5-2:2; see also 5:16-17)—the key is this central motif of God’s seed remaining in the believer. In this regard, it is necessary to address two interpretive questions, which can be summarized as: (1) what is the “seed” of God, and (2) what does it mean for the seed to remain? The latter question needs to be addressed in relation to the Johannine use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”), where it is more common to speak the believer remaining in God.

1. The meaning of the expression “seed of God”

First, the context makes clear that the word spe/rma (“seed”) here refers to the believer’s birth from God (lit. “out of God,” e)k tou= qeou=). Because the male image of “seed” (spe/rma, i.e. ‘sperm’) is utilized, some commentators believe that the principal idea that is being emphasized is the begetting of the believer, rather than the birth per se. The seed-motif certainly implies a begetting by God as Father; this “seed” literally comes “out of” God, to be implanted within the believer. It is a Divine seed, and enables the birth of the believer as God’s own “offspring” (te/knon). Though the idea of ‘begetting’ is certainly present, it is, in fact, the birth of the believer that is principally in view.

The noun spe/rma occurs only rarely in the Johannine writings. Even though the theological birth-motif occurs with some frequency, as we have seen (especially in 1 John, 2:29; 3:1-2, 10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18; see also Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 8:39ff; 11:52), the noun spe/rma is not used elsewhere in this context, except indirectly in Jn 8:33, 37 (compare the following vv. 39-47). The only other occurrence in the Gospel and Letters (Jn 7:25) simply uses the word in the figurative sense of a person’s offspring (or descendant).

There are, however, instances elsewhere in the New Testament where spe/rma is used in a theological sense. Most notably, there is Jesus’ parable of the Sower, in which the “seed” that is sown is explained as symbolizing the “Word (of God)”, Mark 4:14ff par. In that Synoptic passage, the noun spe/rma is implied, but then is used explicitly in a subsequent parable (v. 31), and in the Matthean parable of the ‘Weeds’ (13:24-30, 36-43), where it has a comparable meaning. In these Kingdom-parables, the “word” or “account” (lo/go$) of God refers specifically to the preaching/teaching of Jesus (regarding the Kingdom of God). The Son’s “word” (lo/go$) also has a central place in Johannine tradition, even if expressed rather differently than it is in the Synoptics, with a stronger theological (and Christological) orientation.

The closest parallel to 1 Jn 3:9 is found in 1 Peter 1:23; indeed, the wording and thought is quite similar, referring to believers as:

“having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed [spora/], but undecaying, through the Word of God living and remaining”

The parallels with Johannine thought, and to v. 9 in particular, are noteworthy:

    • the use of the verb genna/w (here the compound a)nagenna/w) + the preposition e)k, to express the idea of the birth of believers
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun spora/ instead of spe/rma)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zw=nto$)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A different kind of parallel can be found in Paul’s use of the noun spe/rma in Galatians 3 (vv. 16, 19, 29) and Romans 4 (vv. 13, 16, 18; also 9:7-8). There the expression is “seed of Abraham”, identifying believers as the true offspring/descendants of Abraham, and thus able to inherit the covenant promises made by God. It is actually Jesus who is the “seed”, but believers take on the same identity through trust in him. Ultimately, this is another way of referring to believers as the sons/children of God (see Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17ff; 9:8). A similar “seed of Abraham” theme appears in the Gospel of John (8:31-47); cf. the recent note on this passage.

There are two ways of understanding the “seed” motif in 1 John 3:9: (a) as the implanted Word of God, and (b) as the living Spirit of God which enables our “birth” (Jn 3:5-8) as His offspring. In Johannine thought, these two aspects are tied together, and it would be a mistake to create a false dichotomy by suggesting that the interpreter here must choose a single aspect. In responding with faith/trust, the believer receives the Word—the Word of God the Father, manifest in and through the Son. It comes to remain (i.e., abide) within the believer. However, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), His Word also is Spirit (see 6:63). The believer is united with both Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit; it is the Spirit that remains in the believer (1 Jn 3:23; 4:13), and His Word through the Spirit. Primarily, then, the “seed” that remains in the believer is the Spirit of God, but it is also His Word.

2. The Divine seed “remaning” in the believer

The Johannine writings use the verb me/nw to express both sides of the abiding union of the believer with God. There are two sides because this union is reciprocal: the believer remains in God, and God remains in the believer. The union with God the Father is realized through the Son: this means, the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer.

With regard to these two sides of the union, we may draw a comparison with the covenant-bond—indeed, this spiritual union, between God and believers, represents a new covenant, patterned to some extent after the old bond between God and His people. In the old covenant-bond, YHWH remained ever-faithful to His people (see Deut 7:9, etc); the question was, whether the people would remain faithful to Him. Much the same situation applies to the new covenant. The Son (and Father) remains in believers, but will believers be faithful and remain in Him?

The exhortations to “remain”, found in both the Gospel and First Letter, show the importance of this question, as it is framed. The principal passage in the Gospel is the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17) of the Last Discourse, which I have discussed at length in a recent series of notes. In verses 4-10, the verb me/nw occurs ten times, and once more in v. 16. These instances begin (v. 4) with an imperative: “you must remain [mei/nate] in me”. Actually, both sides of the bond of union are mentioned, though only on the believer’s side is there specifically an imperative: “you must remain in me, and I in you”. In the remainder of vv. 4-10, Jesus explains to his disciples what will happen if they should not remain (vv. 4, 6), and, conversely, what it means if they are faithful and do remain (vv. 5, 7). The emphasis in vv. 9-11ff is on remaining in the Son’s love; but the Vine passage also expresses the importance of remaining in his word (v. 7, see 8:31). Remaining in the Son means remaining in his word and his love, as I have illustrated:

This is the great two-fold command, as it is formulated by Jesus in the Gospel. First John continues this tradition of a two-fold command (or duty, e)ntolh/) that is required of every believer, but formulates it somewhat differently (see 3:23-24).

The implication of 1 John 3:9 is that, if the believer will take care to remain in the Son—which means remaining in his word and his love—then the Divine “seed” which remains in the believer will enable the believer to be free from sin. As noted above, this “seed” refers essentially to God’s Spirit (which is the Spirit shared by His Son), but the Spirit, in turn, embodies and manifests the living presence of both the Word and Love of God. Even as the Son manifested the Father’s Word and Love during his earthly mission, so it is now realized for believers through the Spirit.

As in John 15:4, so also 1 John employs the verb me/nw in the imperative (2:24, 27-28). Actually the form of the verb in 2:27-28 is ambiguous; it could be read as either an indicative or an imperative. It is best read as an imperative in v. 28, but many commentators feel that the indicative is more appropriate in v. 27. In any case, the exhortation is clear enough: “you must remain in him” (me/nete e)n au)tw=|). There would be no point in making such an exhortation, with its implicit warning, if there were not the possibility that the believer, through carelessness or neglect, could cease (or fail) to remain in the Son. In the context of 3:9, we could formulate the author’s argument as follows: if the believer remains in the Son, then the abiding presence of the Son (and Father), through the Spirit, will keep the believer from sin; however, if the believer ceases, even temporarily, to remain in the Son, then it is possible to sin.

However, this line of ethical interpretation should not obscure the fundamental aspect of the Johannine understanding of sin, as with that of right(eous)ness (dikaiosu/nh)—namely, that it primarily refers to a person’s trust in Jesus as the Son of God. Specifically (as noted above), the terminology relates to the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of every believer, as summarized concisely by the author in verse 23. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 10).

June 19: 1 John 3:4-6

1 John 3:4-6

Verses 4-9 form a distinct unit, within the section of 2:28-3:10 and the division 2:28-3:24 as a whole. The verses have been carefully constructed, as evidenced by the formal and thematic parallelism between vv. 4-6 and 7-9. There are three statements in each of these sub-units (corresponding to the three verses), with a definite parallelism to the three statements in each unit:

    • Statement 1, contrasting the true and false believer:
      “the (one) doing the sin” (v. 4)
      “the (one) doing the right (thing)” (v. 7)
    • Statement 2, describing the mission of the Son (Jesus) with regard to the removal of sin; he appeared (lit. was made to shine forth):
      “…(so) that he might take away sin” (v. 5)
      “…(so) that he might dissolve the works of the Diábolos” (v. 8b)
    • Statement 3, regarding the sinlessness of the (true) believer in Christ:
      “every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (v. 6)
      “every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (v. 9)

The principal theme involves the relation of the believer to sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw). In many ways, this section expounds upon 2:28-3:3, particularly with regard to the positive exhortations, indicating that the true believer “does what is right” (2:29) and also “makes himself/herself pure” (3:3). These statements are formulated using the familiar Johannine syntax of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with the definite article, preceded by the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“every”). The author of 1 John regularly uses this formula as a way of defining what it means to be a (true) believer. Note the usage here:

    • “every(one) doing the right (thing)” [2:29]
      pa=$ o( poiw=n th\n dikaiosu/nh
    • “every(one) holding this hope…makes himself holy [or, keeps himself pure]” [3:3]
      pa=$ o( e&xwn th\n e)lpi/da tau/thna(gni/zei e(auto/n

The overarching theme of these verses is that of believers as the offspring (te/kna) of God, children “having come to be (born) of” (vb genna/w + e)k) Him. If the true believer, the child of God, “does what is right” and seeks to become/remain pure, then the opposite is surely true as well: he/she does not sin. This is the point made so boldly by the author in vv. 4-9—particularly by the concluding statements in vv. 6 and 9. And yet, these statements, to the effect that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin, would seem to be in stark contradiction to the earlier discussion in 1:5-2:2, where the author clearly indicates that believer can (and does occasionally) sin. The same apparent contradiction is found in 5:16-18.

I have discussed this famous “sin-problem” in earlier notes and articles—most recently, in a series of studies on 3:4-9. Verses 4-6 were specifically discussed in one of these studies, and the comments below represent an adaptation and abridgement of that study.

As mentioned above, the unit of vv. 4-6 is comprised of three statements, corresponding to each of the designated verses:

Statement 1 (verse 4):

“Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing); indeed, the sin is the lawless (thing).”

The author utilizes the same syntactical expression noted above—substantive participle with definite article, preceded by the adjective pa=$ (“every”): “every (one) doing the sin”. This describes the nature and character of a certain type of individual, or group. It will become clear that it designates the opposite of the true believer, though this has not yet been established explicitly within the author’s line of argument.

The thrust of the statement is the identification of “sin” (lit. “the sin”, h( a(marti/a) with “lawlessness” (lit. “the lawless [thing]”, h( a)nomi/a), that which is “without law” (a&nomo$). I have discussed this identification elsewhere, along with the use of a)nomi/a (and a&nomo$) elsewhere in the New Testament. This is the only occurrence of a)nomi/a in the Johannine writings. The author would seem to be drawing upon two fundamental aspects of the term, as it is understood and used by early Christians. The first aspect highlights the idea of opposition to the law (no/mo$) of God. This can refer to immorality and “lawlessness” generally; however, I believer that the author is making use of the noun here in order to prepare his audience for the theme that will dominate verses 11-24: that of fulfilling the duty (or ‘command’, e)ntolh/) that is required of all (true) believers. The legacy of the Old Covenant, emphasizing obedience to the regulations and commands of the Torah (the Law), informs the author’s wording. The person who is “without law” disregards the e)ntolh/ of God, and even comes to oppose it—like the opponents who are called “antichrist” (against the Anointed).

The second aspect is eschatological. In early Christian eschatological tradition, the noun a)nomi/a designates the wickedness of the end-time, with its opposition to God and distortion of the truth. The eschatological context of our passage was established in 2:29-3:3 (see the discussion in prior notes on 2:28-29 and 3:1-2).  Almost certainly, the author has in mind, primarily, the false views of the opponents, whom he refers to as “antichrists” of the end-time; note how the “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6), describing the opponents and their view of Christ, frames the central section of 2:28-3:24. It is unlikely that the author would use the loaded term a)nomi/a here without having the sin of the opponents fully in view. The opponents are the principal example of the would-be believer who sins: “the (one) doing the sin”.

Statement 2 (verse 5):

“And (yet) you have seen [i.e. know] that that (one) was made to shine forth (so) that he might take (away) sin—and there is not (any) sin in him.”

In this second statement, sin is related to the person of the Son (Jesus Christ), referred to simply by the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that [one]”, also in verse 3). There are two components to this double-statement: (1) the earthly mission of the Son was to “take away” (vb ai&rw) sin, and (2) there is not any sin in him. The connection of the first component to the ‘Lamb of God’ declaration in Jn 1:29 was discussed in an earlier study. The Son both removes sin (for believers), and is himself free of sin.

The interpretative key for this verse—the center of vv. 4-6—is the closing prepositional expression “in him” (e)n au)tw=|), that is, “in the Son”, “in Christ”. There is a dual-meaning to the use of this expression, in context. On the one hand, it means that Jesus Christ himself has no sin. At the same time, it also alludes to the condition of the believer who is “in him”. If there is no sin “in him”, then anyone who is “in him” will also be free of sin. This is an essential principle to keep in mind when considering the idea of the believer’s sinlessness.

Statement 3 (verse 6):

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin; (while) every (one) sinning has not seen him, and has not known him.”

The initial phrase is parallel with that of verse 4 (see above); note the contrastive (antithetical) juxtaposition:

    • “Every (one) doing the sin…”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him…”

The participial expression “doing the sin” is more or less synonymous (if not equal) to the participle “sinning” here in v. 6b. We can fill out the comparative thought in vv. 4 and 6a as follows:

    • “Every (one) sinning (does what is lawless)”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin”

Thematically, it is possible to combine the phrases of these statements, treating them as a chiasm:

    • sinning
      • acting “without law”
        (the false believers, i.e. the opponents)
      • remaining in Christ
        (the true believers)
    • does not sin

The second half (b) of verse 6 is easy to understand: the person characterized by sin (“the [one] sinning”) is not, and cannot, be a true believer. The interpretive difficulty is found in the first half (a). Much depends on the force of the phrase “does not sin” (ou)k a(marta/nei): does this mean “does not ever sin” or “does not regularly sin”? Some commentators simply assume the latter; indeed, certain English translations (such as the ESV) actually build this line of interpretation into their translation: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning”; similarly, for example, in verse 4, “Every one who makes a practice of sinning”.

I find such an overly-interpretive translation to be quite irresponsible; yet the interpretive approach itself is not without merit. As discussed above, the use of the substantive participle characterizes a person or group—indicating one’s essential nature and, we may assume, regular behavior as well. It goes without saying that a true believer would not be characterized by sinful behavior, persistent immoral conduct, and the like. But is that what the author is emphasizing here in verse 6? It seems unlikely, given the parallel statements in verse 9:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
    • “indeed he is not able to sin, (in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) of God”

In the next daily note, we will examine verses 7-9, comparing the author’s line of argument in that discourse-unit with the earlier unit of vv. 4-6. In so doing, we will begin to gain a greater understanding of how the author views the relation between the true believer (offspring “born of God”) and sin.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18, continued

In the study last week, I noted the close parallel between 1 John 5:18 and 3:9. This strongly suggests that two verses are closely related, and that the later reference (in 5:18) may be used to explain further the meaning and force of the sin-reference in 3:9 (discussed at length in prior studies). The formal parallelism in wording, between the two statements, is readily apparent—the main clause being nearly identical in each:

    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God…
      pás ho gegenn¢ménos ek toú Theoú

      • …does not do sin” (3:9a)
        hamartían ou poieí
      • …does not sin” (5:18)
        ouk hamartánei

Based on this close similarity, as noted above, it is fair to assume that the explanatory clauses which follow, in each reference, are also related. The hóti-clause in 3:9b is, again:

“…(in) that [hóti] His seed remains [ménei] in him”

This is the stated reason why the one having been born of God (i.e., the true believer) “does not sin”. It is because [hóti] God’s seed “remains” in the believer. The significance of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) in this context, within the Johannine theology, has been discussed extensively throughout these studies. Indeed, it is this distinctive use of the verb which serves as the basis for one of my proposals toward addressing the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John (see last week’s study and the one prior).

Now let us turn to the explanation provided by the author in 5:18:

“…but [allá] the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him”

There is an ambiguity here of subject and (pronoun) object, much as there also is in 3:9b. However, the ambiguity in that earlier reference is much easier to decipher. Literally, the clause in 3:9b reads “his seed remains in him”. But, based on the context, and Johannine language, it is clear that this means “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him [i.e. the believer]”. The situation is not so straightforward in the case of 5:18, as nearly all commentators recognize. There are two main ways to explain the Greek syntax:

    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the Son, Jesus] keeps watch (over) him [i.e. the believer]
    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

Some manuscripts read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”), rather than the ordinary pronoun autón (“him”). Such a reading would provide confirmation for the second interpretation (above). However, even if the reading autón is regarded as original, the second interpretation is still possible, since the ordinary pronoun (i.e., autós, etc) can be used reflexively.

The parallel with 3:9 strongly favors the first option—namely, that Jesus, the Son (i.e., the one born of God), protects the believer. God’s “seed”, in the Johannine theological context, is best understood as the living Word (Logos) of God, who is the Son, abiding in the believer. God’s eternal Word is manifest, primarily, through the person of His Son. Alternatively, the “seed” may be understood as the Spirit of God; but this would differ little, in terms of the Johannine theology, since the believer’s abiding union with the Son (and the Father) is realized through the Spirit (3:24; 4:13). Moreover, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), then also His Word is Spirit, and is experienced through the Spirit (cf. Jesus’ statement in Jn 6:63).

The problem with this interpretation of 5:18 is that the idiom “the one coming to be born of God”, using the substantive verbal noun (participle), of the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), followed by the preposition ek (“[out] of”, in the expression “of God” or “of the Spirit”), always refers to believers, not to Christ. The verb gennᜠis applied to Jesus in John 18:37, but in the context of his human birth, not to a Divine/spiritual birth as God’s Son. Moreover, the idea of believers guarding themselves from sin/evil, keeping themselves pure, etc, is not at all out of place in the context of 3:4-9, as the exhortation in 2:28-29 and 3:3 makes clear.

As it turns out, both lines of interpretation are quite valid—both in terms of the Johannine theology and the literary context of 1 John. Overall, the theological focus, along with the immediate parallel in 3:9, favors the first interpretation (i.e., the Son protects the believer), while Johannine usage (vocabulary and syntax) tends to favor the second interpretation (i.e., the believer guards him/herself). A third option is available, by way of a minority reading for the clause in 5:18

“…but the coming to be (born) [i.e., birth, génn¢sis] keeps watch (over) him”

that is to say, it is the very spiritual birth, the coming to be born (as God’s offspring), which protects the believer from sin. In some ways, this provides the closest parallel with 3:9b, since the idea of God’s “seed” being present, in the believer, generally corresponds to the idea of the believer’s birth (as His offspring). However, the textual (manuscript) evidence argues firmly against this reading, and it is adopted by few, if any, commentators today.

Possibly in favor of the first interpretation (that it is the Son who protects the believer) is the use of the aorist tense (for the participle), genn¢theís, rather than the perfect tense (i.e., gegenn¢ménos), which is typically used when referring to the birth of believers as God’s offspring. It has been suggested that the difference in tense here is meant to convey a certain distinction—viz., between the Son and believers. However, though this would make an attractive solution, it is precarious to based one’s interpretation on such slight evidence as the supposed distinction between tenses.

Even so, I am inclined to favor (slightly) the interpretation that understands the second participial expression as a reference to Jesus the Son (“the one born of God”), whose abiding presence protects the believer (“the one born of God” [first participle]) from sin and evil.

Continuing the comparison between 3:9 and 5:18, there is a comparable parallel between 3:9c and the final clause of 5:18. In each instance, the implications of the Divine protection, provided to the believer, are stated boldly. In 3:9c, we have (again) the difficult declaration (discussed previously):

“…and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God”

Essentially, this restates the declaration of v. 9a, giving a chiastic structure to the verse (cf. the outline in the earlier study). However, what is to be most noted is the absolute character of the declaration—that the true believer, the one “born of God”, is not able to sin. This compares with the corresponding clause in 5:18:

“…and the evil does not touch him”

Indeed, the statement that evil does not (or cannot) touch the believer is comparable to the statement that he/she is not able to sin. One should perhaps understand the substantive adjective (with the definite article) ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) as a personification or personal reference— “the evil one” (compare 2:13-14; 3:12; Jn 17:15), i.e., the Satan/Devil (see 3:8, 10), elsewhere called, in the Johannine writings, “the chief (ruler) [árchœn] of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Whether understood more abstractly, or as a person, this evil fundamentally characterizes “the world” (ho kósmos)—that is, the present world-order (especially at the end of the current Age), which is opposed to God, and is dominated by sin and darkness. The “antichrist” false believers (2:18-27; 4:1-6), the opponents whose views the author combats throughout 1 John, are part of this evil world. The thoroughness of this negative portrait of “the world” is made clear in verse 19, by way of a typical dualistic Johannine contrast:

“We have seen that we are of God [ek tou Theou], and (that) the whole world lies outstretched in the evil.”

Again “the evil”, as in v. 18, can be understood as “the evil one”. The expression “of God” is a shorthand for “having been born of God”, but it also implies, more generally, the idea that believers belong to God. In any case, “the world” is so thoroughly dominated by sin and darkness, that only through the abiding presence of God—His Spirit, Son, and Word—can we, as believers, be protected, so that the evil of the world “does not touch” us. It was as a result of the Son’s fulfillment of his mission, for which the Father sent him to earth, that the power of the world (with its sin and evil) has been overcome (Jn 12:31; 16:33; cf. 1 Jn 3:5, 8). Now believers are, and can be, victorious over the world, through the life and truth that the Son, through the Spirit, provides. This is an important emphasis in 1 John and a key part of the author’s exhortation (2:13-14, 15-17; 3:1; 4:4ff; 5:4-5). The contrast between believers and the world is a fundamental theme that runs through the Johannine writings.

Next week, we will bring this series of studies, on the Johannine view of sin, to a close. As part of this conclusion, some final comments on the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John will be offered, along with a review of the pair of approaches to the problem which I have proposed.

 

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (concluded)

1 John 3:4-9, concluded

In these studies on the concept of sin in the Johannine writings, our examination of 1 John 3:4-9 demonstrates how the tenets of Biblical Criticism can help to elucidate difficult interpretive problems. One begins with the Greek (or Hebrew) text, giving careful consideration to the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax utilized by the author. Then the cultural and historical background of the text is examined, along with the thought-world of the author and the original audience (as far as this can be determined). Also essential to this critical study is a thorough analysis of the literary context of a passage—the structure of the work as a whole, the rhetorical approach, the author’s goal and purpose in writing, and all the various literary devices employed in pursuing the intended goal.

All (or most) of these aspects of critical study have been touched upon in our examination of 1 John 3:4-9, and in relation to longstanding interpretive problem inherent in these verses. This ‘sin problem’ involves the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and those in 3:4-9; the same basic contradiction is repeated, for good measure, in 5:16-17 and 18. Our studies on 1 John 3:4-9 have proceeded with the ‘sin problem’ clearly in view.

There have been numerous attempts by scholars to resolve the apparent contradiction. They vary in approach, but none has proven particularly successful; certainly, no proposed solution to date has garnered much of a consensus among New Testament scholars. Many commentators today seem more or less resigned to the fact that the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John cannot really be solved.

In bringing the study on 1 John 3:4-9 to a close, I wish to present four interpretative approaches which have been reasonably popular among commentators in recent decades. I will discuss these briefly, before offering two distinct, but somewhat divergent, approaches of my own.

Four Approaches to the ‘Sin Problem’ of 1 John

1. One explanation, especially popular among conservative (and evangelical) commentators, is that the author of 1 John is making a distinction between occasional sins (which a believer may commit) and a pattern of regular or habitual sinning. The author maintains that believers can (and do) commit occasional sins (1:8-2:2; 5:16-17), but then declares that they will not engage in regular or repeatedly sinful behavior (3:4-9; 5:18).

There is a certain attractiveness to this solution, since it generally reflects Christian experience and makes for practical ethical instruction. However, I find the approach to be quite unconvincing, and do not think that it is at all what the author is emphasizing in 3:4-9. Much of the solution hinges on the use of the present tense throughout 3:4-9, compared, for example, with the use of the perfect tense in 1:10 or the aorist in 2:1. The present tense here, it is argued, implies a regular (progressive, continuous) action. However, this need not be the emphasis; indeed, it does not seem to be the emphasis in 3:9c. Moreover, the present tense is also used in 1:8, which weakens the argument based on a supposed distinction in tenses.

Those who take this approach would do better to focus on the use of the substantive participle (with definite article) throughout 3:4-9. This syntax, typical of Johannine style, is used to define believers (or non-believers) according to the action or condition indicated by the verbal expression—e.g., “the one(s) doing {such}…”. This certainly implies a regular and characteristic behavior. However, this very usage ultimately works against the proposed solution. Note, for example, the way that the false believer is characterized as “the (one) sinning” in verse 6; however, the opposite is not stated the same way. Rather, the true believer is characterized as “the (one) remaining in him”, as a result of which, he/she does not sin. Admittedly, the participial expression “the (one) doing the right (thing)” in v. 7 is formally parallel to “the (one) doing the sin” in v. 4, but this does not solve the problem of the language the author uses in vv. 6 and 9.

2. Another common approach is to interpret the author’s teaching in 3:4-9 from a paraenetic and exhortational standpoint. That is to say, the sinlessness language in vv. 6 and 9 represents the ideal for which believers must strive. It is as though when, in verse 6, the author says “every (one) remaining in him does not sin”, he really means “…should not sin”. Again, this would represent sound and practical instruction, and such exhortational emphasis is, indeed, present in verse 3: “Every (one) holding this hope upon him [i.e. upon Christ] purifies himself, even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is pure”.

However, the author’s emphasis in vv. 4-9 does not seem to be exhortational, but, rather, is theological. He is describing the nature of the true believer, in contrast to that of the false believer, a nature that is defined in relation to their/our union with the Son (Jesus). Since the Son removed sin, and is himself free from sin (vv. 5, 8), the one who abides/remains in him is similarly free from sin (vv. 6, 9). The absoluteness of the statement in v. 9c, in particular, defies the proposed solution. The claim that “the (one) having come to be (born) of God…is not able to sin” goes beyond an exhortation to the believer—it defines what it means to be a true believer.

3. A third interpretative approach understands the sinlessness of the believer (vv. 6, 9) in terms of the power or ability to avoid sin. Believers are not completely free from sin, except insofar as they allow this power to work within them, submitting to its internal guidance. This approach has more to recommend it than the previous two. In particular, the central emphasis, in verse 9, on the “seed” of God that “remains” within the believer, would seem to provide strong support for this line of interpretation. It would be much stronger, however, if verse 9c was worded differently: “…is able not to sin”, rather than “…is not able to sin”. The author’s actual wording (with the negative particle ou preceding dýnatai [“is able”]) suggests that it is not even possible for the true believer to sin.

4. The fourth approach is, in some ways, a variation on #2 (see above), but with an eschatological orientation. Sinlessness is the ideal and goal for the believer, but it is to be realized with the coming of the end. Even the seemingly absolute language in verse 9 could be explained on these terms. It is the eschatological destiny of every true believer to be completely free of sin. While one may currently struggle to avoid sin, and (indeed) may occasionally sin, our sinless perfection will soon be realized, with the return of Christ, when our identity as “those born of God” will be made complete.

The immediate context of vv. 4-9 argues strongly in favor of this interpretive approach. After all, the section opens with an eschatological instruction (2:28-3:3) which includes the idea that, upon the return of Christ, believers will come to be something more than what we currently are (3:2). A sinless perfection, reflecting the Son’s own sinlessness (cf. verse 2 in light of v. 5), certainly could be seen as part of this fully realized identity.

Even so, this eschatological approach to the sin-problem, for all its merit, still falls short and remains unsatisfactory. Its greatest weakness is that it does not do full justice to the author’s language in vv. 4-9, particularly the declarations in verse 9.

Two Alternative Approaches

I would offer two rather different approaches to the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. These approaches are based, correspondingly, upon the results of our critical study on the idea of sin in the Johannine writings. Each approach is rooted in a distinctive element of the Johannine theological idiom—an idiomatic language of which the author of 1 John makes extensive use. Indeed, this mode of theological expression defines and governs his rhetorical approach. There are, in particular, two components which I would emphasize as being key to understanding the author’s thought regarding sin and the believer:

    • The use of the verb ménœ, and
    • The Johannine dual-layer understanding of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ)
1. The use of the verb ménœ

In our studies on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) has been discussed extensively. This verb, which is used in a unique theological sense throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, occurs quite frequently in 1 John (24 times). The greatest concentration of occurrences is in the central division of the letter (2:28-3:24), where ménœ occurs 8 times, but this usage is enhanced when we consider it in the context of the five occurrences of the verb in vv. 24 and 27 (twice in v. 27).

The thrust of the exhortation in this section (see approaches #2 and #4 above) involves the verb ménœ, established by the imperative at the beginning of 2:28: “You must remain [ménete] in him…”. This exhortation is paired with the key occurrences of the verb in 3:6 and 9, the very sin-references which are at issue. Each reference expresses a different aspect of the believer’s union with the Son (and with the Father). In verse 6, the bond of union is described from the believer’s standpoint:

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

The implication seems clear: if the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. In verse 9, the same point is made (9a), but includes a consideration of the bond from God’s standpoint:

“His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him,
and (so) he [i.e. the believer] is not able to sin”

Essentially, these central lines from verse 9 (bc) are added to the declaration in verse 6, as may be outlined as follows:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (9a)
      • “(in) that His seed remains in him” (9b)
      • “and (so) he is not able to sin” (9c)
    • “(in) that he has come to be (born) of God” (9d)

The subordinate clause of 9d restates the participial expression of 9a (parallel with that of v. 6a). The central lines (bc) are expository; they explain further the situation in line a/d. We may summarize this point as follows: the believer, who has come to be born of God, does not sin, because the seed of God remaining in the believer means that he/she is not able to sin.

How, then, can a believer possibly sin? Only if the believer does not remain in the Son. If the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. If, however, the believer—in whatever way, or for whatever reason—fails to remain, even temporarily, then it is possible to sin. This approach is not without certain difficulties, which I will be discussing in some detail at a later point. Yet I believe that it offers a solid basis for understanding and explaining the author’s view of sin (in relation to the believer).

2. The two aspects of “sin” in the Johannine writings

In these studies, we have seen how there are two distinctive ways of understanding sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the Johannine writings:

    1. in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failings and wrongdoings
    2. in the theological (Christological) sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God

The Gospel of John, in particular, plays on both of these layers, or aspects, of meaning, giving decided emphasis to the second. From the Johannine standpoint, refusing to trust in Jesus represents the great sin, and, indeed, the true nature of sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9). Yet the two aspects are related. The great sin of unbelief is, in a real sense, the basis for all other sins. This may be understood several ways. Perhaps the clearest example of the relation involves the idea that Jesus’ mission on earth resulted in the removal of sin (Jn 1:29; 1 Jn 3:5, 8). But this is only realized for the believer; if one does not trust in Jesus, then the sin is not removed—indeed, in that case, a person’s sins all remain (Jn 9:41).

I am convinced that the author of 1 John (if he is not the same person as the Gospel writer) has the same dual-layered understanding of sin, and that he also moves between these two aspects of meaning (for the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). This dual-meaning may provide the key to solving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John. It could be stated, simply, as follows: the true believer can sin according to the first aspect of meaning, but not the second. That is to say, the true believer may (occasionally) commit sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failure or wrongdoing; however, he/she is not able to sin in the fundamental sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus.

The latter understanding of sin should actually be defined more properly in terms of violating the great ‘command’ (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. In both the Gospel and First Letter, there is only one such entol¢¡, but it is two-fold, with two components, and so can also be regarded as two entolaí. In the Gospel, this dual ‘command’ is presented primarily in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), and especially in the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17), where the verb ménœ occurs eleven times. This two-fold entol¢¡ effectively defines what it means to remain in the Son (Jesus)—one remains in his word (lógos), and also in his love (agáp¢). I have illustrated this with the following simple diagram:

The only way a believer can fail to remain in the Son is by either failing to remain in his word or in his love.

The author of 1 John evinces a comparable dual-command, a two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. However, he formulates and frames it somewhat differently. It is presented clearly in 3:23, at the end of the central section (2:28-3:24) of the letter. He defines it as: (1) true/proper trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (2) love for one’s fellow believer, according to Jesus’ own example. The true believer will not, and cannot, violate this dual-command; however, the false believer can (and does) violate it.

The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The “antichrist” opponents, whom the author combats (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), are false believers, who demonstrate that they possess neither true faith in Christ nor true love. By contrast, the author treats his readers as being among the true believers. This positioning of his audience is actually part of the author’s rhetorical strategy—a position from which he can warn them not to be led astray by the teachings and example of the “antichrists”. It is no coincidence that the central section of 2:28-3:24 is framed by the two “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). The author exhorts his readers to “remain” in Christ, by remaining rooted in both his “word” (i.e., the truth of the Gospel message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son) and his “love” (maintaining the bond of unity with other believers).

The very exhortation implies that it is possible for a (true) believer to lapse from this state of “remaining”, at least temporarily, and to be led astray. The focus in 1 John is on being led astray by false believers (who function as false prophets of the end-time). Yet, the true believer will never violate the fundamental entol¢¡ of trust and love. Even if, like Peter, in the Gospel narrative (13:36-37; 18:15-18ff), the believer may lapse into the darkness of sin and doubt, it is possible to be restored into the abiding union (cf. Jn 20:1-6ff; 21), and once again to remain in the Son.

Before bringing this series of studies to a close, and, as a way to test and evaluate the two proposed solutions to the ‘sin problem’ which I have offered above, we shall examine the final sin-passage in 1 John (5:16-18). This we shall do next week.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

In our study on 1 John 3:4-9, we have examined the climactic sin-references in verses 6 and 9. Each of these verses marks the climax of a parallel unit—vv. 4-6 and 7-9, respectively. There is, indeed, a parallelism to the three statements in each unit:

    • Statement 1, contrasting the true and false believer:
      “the (one) doing the sin” (v. 4)
      “the (one) doing the right (thing)” (v. 7)
    • Statement 2, describing the mission of the Son (Jesus) with regard to the removal of sin; he appeared (lit. was made to shine forth):
      “…(so) that he might take away sin” (v. 5)
      “…(so) that he might dissolve the works of the Diábolos” (v. 8b)
    • Statement 3, regarding the sinlessness of the (true) believer in Christ:
      “every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (v. 6)
      “every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (v. 9)

The implications of statements 2 and 3, when taken together, are clear: the Son, through his mission, removed sin, and thus the true believer, who remains in him, does not sin.

As I discussed in the previous study, verse 9 formulates this characteristic of the true believer according to two distinctly Johannine theological idioms: (1) the motif of birth, using the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) + the preposition ek (“[out] of”); and (2) the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”). Both of these aspects are emphasized in verse 9. As I noted, the birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer, as the chiastic arrangement of the verse indicates:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

If we are to understand how the believer can be sinless (and “unable to sin”) —in apparent contradiction to what the author wrote earlier (in 1:5-2:2; see also 5:16-17)—the key is in this central motif of God’s seed remaining in the believer. In this regard, it is necessary to address two interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained?

First, the context makes clear that the word spérma (“seed”) here refers to the believer’s birth from God (lit. “out of God,” ek tou Theou). Because the male image of “seed” (spérma, i.e. ‘sperm’) is utilized, some commentators believe that the principal idea that is being emphasized is the begetting of the believer, rather than the birth per se. The seed-motif certainly implies a begetting by God as Father; this “seed” literally comes “out of” God, to be implanted within the believer. It is a Divine seed, and enables the birth of the believer as God’s own “offspring” (téknon). Though the idea of ‘begetting’ is certainly present, it is, in fact, the birth of the believer that is principally in view.

The noun spérma occurs only rarely in the Johannine writings. Even though the theological birth-motif occurs with some frequency, especially in 1 John (2:29; 3:1-2, 10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18; see also Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 8:39ff; 11:52), the noun spérma is not used elsewhere in this context, except indirectly in Jn 8:33, 37 (compare the following vv. 39-47). The only other occurrence in the Gospel and Letters (Jn 7:25) simply uses the word in the figurative sense of a person’s offspring (or descendant).

There are, however, instances elsewhere in the New Testament where spérma is used in a theological sense. Most notably, there is Jesus’ parable of the Sower, in which the “seed” that is sown is explained as symbolizing the “Word (of God)”, Mark 4:14ff par. In that Synoptic passage, the noun spérma is implied, but then is used explicitly in a subsequent parable (v. 31), and in the Matthean parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43), where it has a comparable meaning. In these Kingdom-parables, the “word” or “account” (lógos) of God refers specifically to the preaching/teaching of Jesus (regarding the Kingdom of God). The Son’s “word” (lógos) also has a central place in Johannine tradition, even if this is expressed rather differently than it is in the Synoptics, with a stronger theological (and Christological) orientation.

The closest parallel to 1 Jn 3:9 is found in 1 Peter 1:23; indeed, the wording and thought is quite similar, referring to believers as:

“having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed [sporá], but undecaying, through the Word of God living and remaining”

The parallels with Johannine thought, and to v. 9 in particular, are noteworthy:

    • the use of the verb gennᜠ(here the compound anagennáœ) + the preposition ek, to express the idea of the birth of believers
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun sporá instead of spérma)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zœ¡ntos)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A different kind of parallel can be found in Paul’s use of the noun spérma in Galatians 3 (vv. 16, 19, 29) and Romans 4 (vv. 13, 16, 18; also 9:7-8). There the expression is “seed of Abraham”, identifying believers as the true offspring/descendants of Abraham, and thus able to inherit the covenant promises made by God. It is actually Jesus who is the “seed”, but believers take on the same identity through trust in him. Ultimately, this is another way of referring to believers as the sons/children of God (see Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17ff; 9:8). A similar “seed of Abraham” theme appears in the Gospel of John (8:31-47).

There are two ways of understanding the “seed” motif in 1 John 3:9: (a) as the implanted Word of God, and (b) as the living Spirit of God which enables our “birth” (Jn 3:5-8) as His offspring. In Johannine thought, these two aspects are tied together, and it would be a mistake to create a false dichotomy by suggesting that the interpreter here must choose a single aspect. In responding with faith/trust, the believer receives the Word—the Word of God the Father, manifest in and through the Son. It comes to remain (i.e., abide) within the believer. However, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), His Word also is Spirit (see 6:63). The believer is united with both Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit; it is the Spirit that remains in the believer (1 Jn 3:23; 4:13), and His Word through the Spirit. Primarily, then, the “seed” that remains in the believer is the Spirit of God, but it is also His Word.

2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

The Johannine writings use the verb ménœ to express both sides of the abiding union of the believer with God. There are two sides because this union is reciprocal: the believer remains in God, and God remains in the believer. The union with God the Father is realized through the Son: this means, the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer.

With regard to these two sides of the union, we may draw a comparison with the covenant-bond—indeed, this spiritual union, between God and believers, represents a new covenant, patterned to some extent after the old bond between God and His people. In the old covenant-bond, YHWH remained ever-faithful to His people (see Deut 7:9, etc); the question was, whether the people would remain faithful to Him. Much the same situation applies to the new covenant. The Son (and Father) remains in believers, but will believers be faithful and remain in Him?

The exhortations to “remain”, found in both the Gospel and First Letter, show the importance of this question, as it is framed. The principal passage in the Gospel is the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17) of the Last Discourse, which I have discussed at length in a recent series of notes. In verses 4-10, the verb ménœ occurs ten times, and once more in v. 16. These instances begin (v. 4) with an imperative: “you must remain [meínate] in me”. Actually, both sides of the bond of union are mentioned, though only the believer’s side is there specifically an imperative: “you must remain in me, and I in you”. In the remainder of vv. 4-10, Jesus explains to his disciples what will happen if they should not remain (vv. 4, 6), and, conversely, what it means if they are faithful and do remain (vv. 5, 7). The emphasis in vv. 9-11ff is on remaining in the Son’s love; but the Vine passage also expresses the importance of remaining in his word (v. 7, see 8:31). Remaining in the Son means remaining in his word and his love, as I have illustrated:

This is the great two-fold command, as it is formulated by Jesus in the Gospel. First John continues this tradition of a two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of every believer, but formulates it somewhat differently (see 3:23-24).

The implication of 1 John 3:9 is that, if the believer will take care to remain in the Son—which means remaining in his word and his love—then the Divine “seed” which remains in the believer will enable the believer to be free from sin. As noted above, this “seed” refers essentially to God’s Spirit (which is the Spirit shared by His Son), but the Spirit, in turn, embodies and manifests the living presence of both the Word and Love of God. Even as the Son manifested the Father’s Word and Love during his earthly mission, so it is now realized for believers through the Spirit.

As in John 15:4, so also 1 John employs the verb ménœ in the imperative (2:24, 27-28). Actually the form of the verb in 2:27-28 is ambiguous; it could be read as either an indicative or an imperative. It is best read as an imperative in v. 28, but many commentators feel that the indicative is more appropriate in v. 27. In any case, the exhortation is clear enough: “you must remain in him” (ménete en autœ¡). There would be no point in making such an exhortation, with its implicit warning, if there were not the possibility that the believer, through carelessness or neglect, could cease (or fail) to remain in the Son. In the context of 3:9, we could formulate the author’s argument as follows: if the believer remains in the Son, then the abiding presence of the Son (and Father), through the Spirit, will keep the believer from sin; however, if the believer ceases, even temporarily, to remain in the Son, then it is possible to sin.

In next week’s study, the last in this set on 1 John 3:4-9, I will discuss the feasibility of this line of interpretation, in light of the wider context of First John, and of the Johannine writings as a whole. I will also touch upon other approaches and proposed solutions which commentators have variously adopted as a way of resolving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

Last week, we looked in depth at verses 4-6, including the climactic sin-reference of v. 6. This week we will examine the second unit of the passage (verses 7-9), with its corresponding sin-reference in v. 9.

Verses 7-9

As in the case of vv. 4-6, we may divide this unit into three statements, corresponding to the three numbered verses.

Statement #1 (verse 7):

“(Dear) offspring, let no one lead you astray: the (one) doing th(at which is) right [dikaiosýn¢] is right [díkaios], even as that (one) is right [díkaios].”

This first statement corresponds with the first statement of vv. 4-6 (in verse 4). In each statement a person is characterized by the Johannine grammatical convention of using a substantive participle (with definite article). Two different kinds of person are differentiated by the contrasting verbal expressions that are used:

    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the sin [hamartía]” (v. 4)
    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the right-ness [dikaiosýn¢]” (v. 7)

Sin (hamartía) is contrasted with “right-ness” (dikaiosýn¢). The noun dikaiosýn¢ denotes that which is right (díkaios), in a general or inclusive sense. Both the noun and adjective are used here in verse 7. In a religious context, these terms are usually rendered as “righteous(ness)”, while, in a social or legal setting, they are more properly rendered as “just(ice)”. Both of these contexts are suggested by the explanation of sin as anomía, a condition of being or acting “without law” (ánomos), i.e., “lawlessness” (see the discussion on verse 4 last week). More fundamentally, the contrast is between “that which is right” and “that which is wrong” (i.e., sin).

The noun dikaiosýn¢ is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, compared with its extensive use by Paul; the same is true of the dikaio– word-group as a whole. In the Johannine letters, the noun occurs only in this section (three times, 2:29; 3:7, 10), while similarly it occurs in only one passage (16:8, 10) in the Gospel. The adjective díkaios is somewhat more frequent. In 1 John it is most notable that the use of the adjective follows early Christian tradition, utilizing it as a descriptive characteristic (and title) of Jesus as “(the) righteous (one)” (2:1; cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). In being righteous, the Son (Jesus) reflects the righteousness of God the Father (1:9; 2:29); as one who is right(eous), the Son does what is right. This is the point made here in v. 7.

The true believer, as one who has been “born of God”, reflects the righteous character of God even as the Son (Jesus) does. The true believer, thus, will similarly “do what is right”, even as the Son “does what is right”. This equation is established in 2:29, and is echoed again here in v. 7. If the true believer does what is right, then the non-believer (and false believer) does what is wrong. Moreover, if sin is defined as being contrary to law (lit. “without law”), as stated in v. 4, then, “right(eous)ness” must similarly be understood as that which follows and fulfills the law.

The Johannine theological interpretation of this ethical-religious language is indicated by the use of both hamartía and dikaiosýn¢ in Jn 16:8-11, one of the ‘Paraclete’ sayings by Jesus in the Last Discourse. When the Spirit comes (as one “called alongside”, parákl¢tos), he will show the world to be wrong about three things, in particular (v. 8): sin (hamartía), right(eous)ness (dikaiosýn¢), and judgment (krísis). The true nature of sin is given in verse 9, where it is defined as unbelief—the failure and/or unwillingness to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The true nature of right(eous)ness, in verse 10, is stated more indirectly, requiring a certain amount of interpretation. While there remains a lack of agreement among commentators, the basic idea seems to be that righteousness is rooted in Jesus’ identity as the Son, and that, following the completion of his earthly mission, with his exaltation, this identity has been confirmed by his return to the Father. True righteousness is the Divine righteousness of God (the Father), which is also reflected and manifested in the Son.

Statement #2 (verse 8):

“The (one) doing the sin is of the Diabólos, (in) that, from the beginning, the Diabólos sins; unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth—that he might loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diabólos.”

The second statement in vv. 7-9 also corresponds with the second statement of the first unit (vv. 4-6), in v. 5. Both statements refer to the purpose of the Son’s appearance on earth, the mission for which he was sent (by God the Father). In verse 5, the stated purpose is “that he might take away the sin”; here it is “that he might dissolve the works of the Devil”. Sin is thus characterized as the “work of the Devil” —that is, what the Satan (or the Devil) does. This relates to the definition of the true nature of judgment (krísis) in Jn 16:11 (see above). Through the Son’s mission on earth, which he faithfully completed, the world and its ruler (i.e., the Devil), has been judged. Even though the world continues, in the present, to be dominated by darkness and evil, fundamentally opposed to God, it has, in truth, already been judged.

An essential aspect of this judgment is that the power of the world (and of the Devil) has been dissolved, at least for believers in Christ. Sin and evil no longer have any power or control over believers. Being in the Son, united with him, believers now share in his victory over the world (Jn 16:33; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5).

The Son, who is present in us through the Spirit (“the [One] in you”, 4:4), frees us from the power of sin and evil. If this dynamic were explained in Pauline terms, we would say that we, as believers, were no longer in bondage to the power of sin. This means that we are no longer compelled to sin, and are able to avoid sin, living in a holy and righteous manner, in conformity to God’s will. However, we are still subject to impulses from the flesh which can prompt us toward sin; these can be resisted and avoided, but they are more or less continually present. It hard to know to what extent the Johannine author(s) may have held a comparable view, regarding sin and the believer. Certain features do seem to have been held in common, though the Johannine writings do not utilize the Pauline concept of the “flesh” as a way of explaining sin.

Statement #3 (verse 9):

“Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him, and (so) he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God.”

The third, climactic, statement, as in verse 6, represents the key statement regarding the relation of the believer to sin. The parallel descriptive expression, again using the Johannine idiom of the substantive participle (with definite article, preceded by the adjective pás [“every”]), characterizes the true believer:

    • “every (one) remaining in Him” (v. 6)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (v. 9)

This is very much Johannine terminology, particularly the distinctive use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), as well as the verbal expression gennᜠek (“come to be [born] out of”). The true believer comes to be born from God, and then remains in Him. There are thus two stages to the Divine life of the believer: (1) the birth occurs as the result of trust in Jesus (as God’s Son), followed (2) by an abiding relationship that is realized through the Son. Ultimately, both the birth and the remaining are realized through the presence and activity of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8; 14:17ff; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13).

Interestingly, both aspects—birth and remaining—are emphasized here in verse 9. The birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer; note the chiastic arrangement of the verse:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

Both aspects relate to sinlessness, but it is the central aspect—God’s seed remaining in the believer—which is most relevant, since it refers to the life-time of the believer after he/she has been “born”.

In order to understand these sin-references (and the ‘sin problem’) fully, and correctly, it is necessary to address two key interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

These questions will be discussed in the next study, as we bring this study of the sin-references in 1 John 3:4-9 to a close.