November 14: John 15:16

John 15:16-17

Verse 16

“(It was) not you (who) gathered me out, but I (who) gathered you out; and I set you (so) that you should lead (yourself) under and should bear fruit, and (that) your fruit should remain, (so) that, whatever you would ask (of) the Father in my name, He should give to you.”

Verses 16-17 represent the conclusion of the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17). These two verses reprise a number of key points and teachings from the illustration (and its exposition), stringing them together in summary fashion. The result, in verse 16, is an extremely awkward Greek sentence—the awkwardness of which is quite evident in the literal translation above.

It will be helpful, I think, to focus on each individual clause or phrase. While the syntax of the sentence may be convoluted, it actually represents a coherent statement from the standpoint of the Johannine theology. The phrases and clauses form a sequential and relational chain, which functions better on the narrative and theological level than it does on the grammatical.

“(It was) not you (who) gathered me out,
but I (who) gathered you out”
ou)x u(mei=$ me e)cele/casqe
a)ll’ e)gw\ e)celeca/mhn u(ma=$

The verse begins with a pair of parallel contrastive phrases, centered on the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”). To gather (le/gw, mid. le/gomai) someone out (e)k) essentially means to “pick out,” i.e., select or choose. This compound verb preserves the fundamental and primary meaning of le/gw (“collect, gather”); in the New Testament, it is only used in the middle voice (e)kle/gomai). The verb is relatively rare in the NT, occurring just 22 times; it is something of a Lukan term, occurring 11 times in Luke-Acts. Within the Gospels, it only appears once outside of Luke and John (Mk 13:20).

In the Gospel of Luke, e)kle/gomai is part of the Lukan version (6:12-16) of the Synoptic account of Jesus’ selection of the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13-19). These twelve disciples were specially chosen by Jesus to serve as his representatives, to carry out an extension of his mission. Mark’s account describes this process by a series of verbs, whereby Jesus

    • calls them toward him—vb proskale/w (mid. voice)
    • he made them (vb poie/w) to be his close associates
    • so that he might send them forth (vb a)poste/llw) to continue his mission

The designation a)po/stolo$ (apóstolos, one “se[n]t forth”) is derived from the latter verb (a)poste/llw, apostéllœ).

The Lukan account is much more streamlined, with the three principal verbal actions by Jesus expressed with greater precision:

    • “he gave voice toward [i.e. called to] his disciples” (vb prosfwne/w)
    • “and he gathered out from them twelve” (vb e)kle/gomai)
    • “whom he named (as one)s (he would) send forth [a)posto/loi]” (vb o)noma/zw)

Just as in Jn 15:16, Jesus is said to have “gathered out” (vb e)kle/gomai) his close disciples. However, the Johannine use of the verb in this context has deeper theological meaning, as we shall see.

There are three other occurrences of the verb in the Gospel of John. The first is in 6:70, part of a narrative (and discourse) unit (vv. 60-71) that functions as an appendix to the chap. 6 Bread of Life Discourse. In this unit, the disciples of Jesus are now his audience, and he is addressing his words specifically to them. The response to his teaching (cf. the discourse-unit of vv. 60-65) proves to be a test of discipleship—do they truly trust in him, and will they continue to follow him? It is here that vv. 66-71 foreshadows the setting of the Last Discourse (including the narrative introduction in chap. 13).

As in the Last Supper narrative, Peter and Judas represent two different kinds of disciples—the true and the false. It is in this context, following Peter’s confession of faith (vv. 68-69), that Jesus makes the statement: “Did I not gather out [e)celeca/mhn] you, the Twelve?” (v. 70). On the surface, Jesus’ words simply echo the historical tradition (Lk 6:13, cf. above). However, the parallel with chap. 13 (and the ensuing Last Discourse) indicates that there is a deeper meaning here as well. This can be glimpsed by considering the contextual parallel between 6:70 and 13:18:

    • “Did I not gather out you, the Twelve? And yet, one of you is a diábolos!”
    • “I do not say this about all of you; (for) I have seen [i.e. I know] (the one)s whom I (have) gathered out…”

In the foot-washing episode (13:4-16), Jesus speaks to his disciples and gives them important instruction regarding what it means to be a true disciple. Yet, here in v. 18, he declares “I do not say this about all of you”. As in 6:70, he is making a veiled reference to Judas’ status (as a false disciple). Judas was allowed to remain in the circle of disciples up to this point so that “the Scripture would be fulfilled…” (v. 18b)—that is, it was necessary for Judas to fulfill his determined role in the coming suffering and death of Jesus. With the departure of Judas, out into the darkness of the world (v. 30), only the true disciples of Jesus remain, and it is to them that he addresses the Last Discourse.

Jesus knows the ones who are truly his disciples (“I have seen…”), referring to them again by way of the verb e)kle/gomai: “…whom I (have) gathered out [e)celeca/mhn]”. Only now, the sense of how this verb is being used has shifted. It no longer follows the context of the original Gospel tradition regarding the choosing of the Twelve (cf. above). In that context, the Twelve are “gathered out” from the other disciples of Jesus, being specially chosen as his close associates and missionary representatives. Now, in the Johannine Gospel setting of the Last Discourse, the distinction is between the true disciple (represented by Peter) and the false disciple (i.e., Judas).

On a wider level, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology, the real distinction is between the true disciple (i.e., the true believer) and the world (o( ko/smo$). As I have discussed, the noun ko/smo$, in the Johannine writings, tends to be used in distinctively negative sense, referring to “the world” as a domain of darkness and evil that is fundamentally opposed to God. Ultimately, the true disciple (believer) is gathered out of the world. This, in fact, is how the verb e)kle/gomai is used in 15:19, just a few short verses after our sentence (v. 16):

“If you were of [e)k] the world, the world would have affection [vb file/w] (for you as) its own; but (it is) that you are not of [e)k] the world—rather, I (have) gathered you out [e)celeca/mhn] of [e)k] the world, (and) for this (reason) the world hates you.”

This same theological emphasis runs through the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17 (vv. 6, 11, 14-16, 18). The believers are not of (e)k) the world, but have been taken out of (e)k) the world and its darkness.

Here in v. 16, Jesus makes clear that it was he (the Son) who “gathered out” the believers, choosing them to be his disciples. The negative particle precedes the pronoun u(mei=$ (“you”), which means that the emphasis is on the pronoun—viz., “it was not you who chose…”. It was Jesus who chose the disciples, and not the other way around. Ultimately, it is the Father who “gathers out” the believers from the world, and gives them to the Son (Jesus). This is abundantly clear from the wording in chap. 17 (vv. 2, 6f, 9-10ff), but it can be seen elsewhere in the Gospel as well (e.g., 3:35; 6:37, 39, 44ff, 65; 10:29; 13:3).

In this regard, it is worth pointing out that Jesus (the Son), in his own way, stands as one chosen (i.e. “gathered out”) by God the Father. In the Gospel tradition, this refers to the Messianic identity of Jesus (cf. the use of e)kle/gomai in Lk 9:35; cp. 23:35, and Jn 1:34 [v.l.]). However, in the Gospel of John, overall, the Christological understanding has developed, so that the emphasis is now on the identity of Jesus as the Son sent from heaven by the Father. He was sent to earth by the Father to fulfill his mission, a mission which believers inherit and are expected to continue.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the next phrase(s) in verse 16.


Saturday Series: John 8:31-47 (continued)

John 8:31-47, continued

Last week, we examined the sin-reference in 8:34ff, within the context of the Discourse-unit 8:31-47 (part of the great Sukkot Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8). The Disourse-unit actually extends all the they way through to the end of the chapter (v. 59), however we will only be looking at the passage up to v. 47.

In verse 37, Jesus picks up on the Abraham theme that had been introduced by his audience in v. 33, in their response to the foundational saying/statement at the beginning of the discourse (vv. 31-32). In this way, the previous theme of freedom/bondage is developed to include the idea of person’s identity, based on his/her parentage or ancestry.

This line of theological development is actually rather subtle and complex. In the discourse, Jesus contrasts having God as one’s father with having the Devil as one’s father. In between these theological poles is set the ethnic-religious identity of having Abraham as one’s father. All Israelites and Jews have Abraham as their “father” (i.e., principal ancestor) in an ethnic and religious sense; Jesus acknowledges this even of those in his audience who are hostile or opposed to him: “I have seen [i.e. know] that you are (the) seed of Abraham…”. And yet, through their hostile reaction to Jesus, they reveal their true identity:

“…but (yet) you seek to kill me off, (in) that [i.e. because] my word [lógos] does not have space [i.e. a place] in you.” (v. 37)

Throughout the Gospel, there is a reciprocal balance between the twin concepts of being/remaining “in” (en) God (or the Son) and of God (or the Son) being/remaining “in” (en) the person. In verse 31, Jesus emphasized the importance of his word (lógos) remaining in the disciple, implying its presence in the disciple. Now here, in v. 37, Jesus declares that his word is not present in the unbeliever, one who is hostile and refuses to trust in him.

In verse 38, Jesus again highlights his relationship (as the Son) to God the Father. Since, as a dutiful Son, he speaks according to what his Father tells him, the word (lógos) he declares is actually the Father’s word. And, since his audience will not accept this word, they cannot possibly belong to God as His children—they cannot have God as their Father. This contrast is sharply formulated:

“The (thing)s which I have seen (from) alongside the Father, I speak; and (so) you, then, do the (thing)s which you (have) heard (from) alongside the father.”

There is no pronoun present in either instance of the articular noun ho pat¢¡r (“the father”), yet such is certainly implied as part of the contrast—i.e., “my Father” vs. “your father”.

In vv. 39-40, the people again take refuge in their ethnic-religious identity of being descendants of Abraham—i.e., having Abraham has their father. But, again, Jesus makes clear that their hostility toward him demonstrates that their true identity is quite different. In response, they finally make the claim that God is their father: “We have one father—God!” (v. 41b).

This sets the stage for the important theological exposition in vv. 42-47, in which a key Johannine theme is expressed and developed. Believers in Christ are the “offspring” (i.e., children) of God, coming to be born from Him (as their Father), and belonging to Him. The non-believer, by contrast, does not (and cannot) belong to God—rather, they belong to the world, and to its ruler, the Devil (cf. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; also 17:15; 1 Jn 5:19). This means, essentially, that the Devil is the ‘father’ of the unbeliever. Moreover, the world’s opposition to the things of God—and especially to His Son—ultimately leads to increasingly evil thoughts and actions. Consider how the sin of unbelief leads to other sins, as Jesus explains the matter:

“Through what [i.e. why] do you not know my speech? (It is) that [i.e. because] you are not able to hear my word [lógos]. You are of [ek] your father the Devil, and the impulses of your father toward (evil) you wish to do. That (one) was a man-killer from the beginning, and has not stood in the truth, (in) that [i.e. because] there is no truth in him. When he speaks th(at which is) false, out of his own (word)s he speaks, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the false (one) and the father of him.” (vv. 43-44)

The unbeliever follows the evil impulses (toward sin) that belong to the world and its ruler (the Devil). Moreover, unbelievers do not abide in the truth, and the truth is not in them; indeed, they share the nature and character of their ‘father’ the Devil. As a result, like the Devil, they cannot help but speak what is false. Here, truth (al¢¡theia), and its opposite (falseness), is to be understood in a distinctive theological (rather than conventional ethical-religious) sense, according to the Johannine theology. Truth is a fundamental attribute of God, to the point that His Spirit can be identified with truth itself (1 John 5:6). Similarly, His Son is the truth (14:6) and speaks the truth of God, making God the Father known to believers in the world.

This theological understanding of falseness (pseúdos / pseúst¢s) is closely related to the Johannine understanding of sin. The true nature of sin is not ethical-religious, just as the true father of the unbelieving person is not Abraham. In the Johannine worldview, sin is fundamentally defined as unbelief—a refusal to trust in who Jesus is: the Son of God sent to earth by the Father. This emphasis is delineated clearly in verses 45-47:

“But, (in) that [i.e. because] I say the truth, you do not trust in me. Which (one) of you shows me (to be wrong) about sin? If I say (the) truth, through what [i.e. why] do you not trust in me?” (vv. 45-46)

The pronoun egœ¡ (“I”) in verse 45 is emphatic, being in the first position. Jesus contrasts himself with the unbelievers of the world (and their ‘father’ the Devil)—they speak what is false, but he (Jesus) speaks what is true. Indeed, it is because they belong to what is false, that they cannot hear or accept the truth that he speaks. Again, this “truth” is theological and Christological in nature—it is firmly rooted in Jesus’ identity as the Son sent by the Father, who makes the Father known to the world.

The question Jesus asks in v. 46a has, I think, been somewhat misunderstood by commentators. It is typically translated along the lines of, “Who among you convicts me of sin?” The implication is that the people would be accusing him of being a sinner. The question certainly could be read that way, especially in light of the sin-references that follow in chapter 9 (to be discussed next week). However, the use of the verb eléngchœ suggests a deeper significance to the question.

There are two other occurrences of eléngchœ in the Gospel—in 3:20 and 16:8. The verb has a relatively wide semantic range, but the fundamental meaning is “show, demonstrate”, often in the particular sense of showing someone to be wrong about something. In the context of 3:20, its usage refers to a person’s evil deeds being exposed (i.e., shown for what they are) in the judgment—a judgment that occurs already in the present, based on one’s response to Jesus (whether trusting or refusing to trust). In 16:8, the verb describes the role and activity of the Spirit, which, Jesus promises, will show the world to be wrong about three things: sin, righteousness, and judgment. We will discuss the reference to sin (vv. 8-9) in more detail in an upcoming study. Here, it will suffice to point out the parallel with Jesus’ question in 8:46a, and the specific meaning of eléngchœ based on this parallel: “show me (to be wrong) about sin”.

The entire thrust of our passage makes clear that Jesus is essentially defining sin in terms of whether or not one trusts in him and accepts his word. His hostile opponents cannot prove him wrong on this point; on the contrary, they are confirming this understanding of the true nature of sin. Their unbelieving response to Jesus leads them to act out a range of sinful and evil impulses, including the desire to kill Jesus.

The climax of this hostile reaction comes in verse 59, at the close of the Discourse. We, however, shall conclude this study on a somewhat different note, with the theological formulation given (by Jesus) in v. 47:

“The (one) being of [ek] God hears the words of God; through [i.e. because of] this, you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [ek] God.”

This formulation is fully in the Johannine theological idiom. The verb of being defines the Divine nature of the believer—as one born of, and belonging to, God. The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with the definite article is also distinctively Johannine, as a way of describing the essential character and identity of a person— “the one being [i.e. who is] {such}”. The preposition ek (“out of”), as it is used here, is also a key element of the Johannine theological vocabulary. It has a dual significance: (1) origin, i.e., being “from”, and (2) belonging, i.e., being “of”. Frequently, the preposition alone serves as a shorthand for the fuller idiom involving the verb of becoming (gennáœ), in the specific sense of “coming to be born”, along with the preposition ek. In the Johannine writings this language is used almost exclusively for believers in Christ—i.e., those who have “come to be (born) out of God”. Given the emphasis of the father theme in this passage, there can be little doubt that birth—i.e., believers as offspring born of God—is implied by the use of ek here in v. 47.

If believers “are of God”, then the opposite is true of non-believers: they “are not of God”. As Jesus clearly states, the reason why his unbelieving (and hostile) audience does not hear/accept his words is that these people are “not of God”.

Next week, we will turn our attention to the sin references in chapter 9—the episode of the healing of the Blind Man.

Spiritualism and the Opponents in 1 John (Pt 1)

Having discussed the Johannine ‘opponents’ targeted by the author in 1-2 John, throughout these recent notes and articles, it is now time to consider the possible relationship of these opponents to the Johannine spiritualism, such as it may be discerned in the Johannine writings. It will be helpful first (here in Part 1) to summarize both the views of the opponents and the spiritualistic tendencies of the Johannine Christians (as evidenced by the Gospel and First Letter). Then the data will be applied and synthesized (Part 2), to see what conclusions we might draw.

For a more detailed examination and appraisal of the evidence referenced below, consult the various notes and articles, some of which are cited (with links) below.

The Opponents

In this context, the term “opponents” refers to certain Johannine Christians, whom the author of 1 and 2 John opposes, and whom he regards as false believers. He certainly considers them to be in opposition to the truth—and even to God Himself—calling them by the term a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”, i.e. antichrist), see 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7. Through their false view of Jesus Christ, they effectively deny the Son of God, thus denying the God the Father as well (1 Jn 2:22-23).

What we can reasonably know (and reconstruct) about the opponents is summarized by the following points. The information comes entirely from the author(s) of 1 and 2 John, and must be judged as having been presented from the standpoint of a hostile witness. Here is what I believe can be established regarding the opponents:

    • The author has in mind a single and distinct group of Christians.
    • They are/were part of the wider Johannine Community—that is, the congregations within which the Gospel and Letters of John were produced and distributed. This involves a (loose) network of churches over a geographical area; if the traditional location turns out to be correct, this is the region of Asia (Minor), centered around Ephesus.
    • The author treats this group as having separated from the main Community (1 Jn 2:19; cf. also 4:1). This is often regarded as a genuine secession and schism within the Johannine churches—the first such recorded in Church History.
    • It is likely that the opponents were engaged in their own missionary activity, spreading their views and beliefs throughout the network of Johannine congregations, presumably with the hope of converting other believers to their cause (cf. 1 Jn 2:26; 4:1ff; 2 Jn 7ff).
    • The author certainly regarded this missionary work as a dangerous rival to his own, urging his readers (in 2 Jn 8-11) not to support or give hospitality to the opponents; it is likely that the opponents did much the same, responding in a similar manner.
    • The author’s chief objection to the opponents involves their Christology, their view of the person of Jesus Christ, which the author references in 2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12, and 2 Jn 7ff.
    • The opponents almost certainly affirmed the fundamental Johannine confession (Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc)—viz., that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christ) and Son of God—in spite of the author’s polemical presentation of the matter. However, it is possible that they denied (the importance of) Jesus’ specific identity as the Jewish Messiah (cf. the supplemental notes on 1 Jn 2:22-23).
    • The opponents seem to have denied (or downplayed) the significance of Jesus’ earthly life as a human being. This may have centered on a rudimentary docetic Christology, effectively denying the incarnation of the Son/Logos of God and the reality of his human/earthly life (“in the flesh”); however, the extent of the opponents’ docetism (if such it may be called) remains unclear.
    • What the opponents principally denied (or downplayed) was the reality (and significance) of Jesus’ death. They may have accepted his birth as a human being (i.e., coming “in/through water”), but not his death (“in/through blood”). Alternately, “in/through water” could allude to Jesus’ baptism, focusing on his receiving of the Spirit from God.
    • The emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ sacrificial death would seem to be confirmed by the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (esp. to the Smyrneans); the opponents he combats resemble, in certain respects, the opponents in 1-2 John. The Ignatian ‘docetic’ opponents avoided partaking in the Lord’s Supper rite, apparently considering it to be of little or no importance. Cf. my discussion of the Ignatian evidence in an earlier note, and in the supplemental study on 1 Jn 4:2-3.
    • The author accuses the opponents of failing/refusing to show proper love to other believers (and thus violating the second branch of the great dual-command [1 Jn 3:23]). Their main crime, in this regard, simply involves their departure from the Community (2:19); however, based on 3:16-18, it is possible that the author also considered the opponents to have been neglectful of the material needs of other believers.
    • The claims of Christian sinlessness, which the author refutes in 1:7-2:2 (1:8, 10), may reflect the view of the opponents. If so, it can be difficult to discern the difference between their claims and the author’s own declarations regarding the ‘sinlessness’ of believers (cf. 3:9; 5:18). Cf. my recent discussion on this question.

The evidence for spiritualism (or spiritualistic tendencies) in the Johannine writings has been discussed and analyzed extensively in the articles of this series. Here I will merely summarize the key results of this analysis.

The Johannine view of the Spirit, on the whole, represent a distinct development of the early Christian understanding. The first-century Christian view, in turn, was rooted in Old Testament tradition—particularly the Spirit references in the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophetic books. For a list of the key references, with links to detailed notes, see the Introduction to this series. Two aspects of this Prophetic tradition are especially significant, presented in terms of two distinct (but related) ideas which characterize the New Age of Israel’s restoration:

    • God’s Spirit will come upon all of His people, rather than upon specially chosen/gifted individuals alone.
    • Through the abiding presence of the Spirit, God’s Law (Torah) will be written within each person, on the heart/mind; this will ensure that all people will faithfully fulfill the covenant and never again violate God’s Instruction. For this reason, essentially there is no longer any need for a written Torah (since is now ‘written on the heart’), nor for anyone to teach the people about the Torah (and how to observe it).

These are key principles that inform early Christian spiritualism, such as it can be discerned in the New Testament. The principles are applied to the person of Jesus Christ, identified as the Anointed One (Messiah) of the end-time. Through his presence and work on earth (culminating in his death, resurrection, and exaltation), Jesus has ushered in the New Age, in which God’s holy Spirit is poured out on His people (believers), in fulfillment of the Spirit-prophecies.

The Johannine spiritualism, it would seem, was shaped primarily by the Johannine Christology. Of the numerous distinctive points of emphasis, I would isolate three that are fundamental:

    • Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, with his unique relationship to God the Father; while this is common to the broader early Christology, it receives particular emphasis, reflecting a definite theological development, in the Johannine writings. Part of this development involves the shift to a pre-existence Christology, emphasizing Jesus’ existence as God’s Son (in heaven) even prior to his life on earth (see esp. the Gospel Prologue [1:1-18]).
    • Jesus (the Son) continues to remain with believers even after his return to the Father in heaven. His abiding presence (expressed primarily by the use of the verb me/nw) is realized for believers through the Spirit. The Johannine theological expression of this belief (and the basis for it) is best seen in the Paraclete-sayings of Jesus in the Gospel Last Discourse (cf. the detailed notes on 14:16-17, 26-27; 15:26-27; 16:7b-11, and 12-15).
    • Believers are regarded as the offspring (te/kna) or children of God; their/our relationship with God the Father is thus parallel with, and a continuation of, Jesus’ own relationship as God’s eternal Son. The main Johannine idiom used to express this dynamic is the verb of becoming (genna/w), in the specific sense of coming to be born, along with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”); sometimes the preposition alone is used, with the verb implied. This ‘birth’ for believers occurs through the Spirit, as is clear from the famous statements by Jesus in Jn 3:5-8.

All three of these points help to emphasize the priority of the Spirit, in a way that is distinctive to Johannine Christianity. In addition to the Paraclete-sayings, and the statements on being born of the Spirit in 3:5-8 (part of the Nicodemus Discourse), there are two other key passages in the Gospel which are indicative of spiritualism:

    • The Samaritan Woman Discourse (4:1-42), especially to the “living water” statements by Jesus in vv. 10-15, which, based on the parallel in 7:37-39, were certainly understood by the Gospel writer as referring to the Spirit. In addition, we find the statements in vv. 23-24, with their strong emphasis on the priority of the Spirit (cf. the earlier article).
    • The Bread of Life Discourse (6:22-59), which is followed by an exchange, between Jesus and his disciples (vv. 60-71), that includes the spiritualistic declaration of v. 63.

In both Discourses, Jesus speaks of his giving living water/bread for people to drink/eat. In each instance, the context clearly indicates the spiritual nature of what Jesus offers. In the case of the Bread of Life Discourse, it is himself that he offers, alluding to his own presence in believers, and the spiritual nature of this presence (i.e., through the Spirit). This is especially telling, considering the strong eucharistic language in vv. 51-58; a reading of vv. 51-58, in context, and in light of v. 63 (cf. the earlier article), suggests a spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Supper rite. A non-sacramental understanding of the Supper tradition is very much characteristic of Christian spiritualism. I discuss this possibility of such spiritualistic tendencies, in regard to public worship and the sacraments, for the Johannine Community in an earlier note.

In First John, the Spirit is not explicitly mentioned (by the word pneu=ma) until 3:24, but the central (and climactic) position of this reference (cf. also 4:13) is most significant. It occurs at the very end of the central section of 1 John (2:28-3:24), dealing with the nature of the true believer (in contrast to the false believer, i.e., the opponents). The identity of the true believer is realized, and confirmed, by the abiding presence of the Spirit. Moreover, the three key Johannine points of emphasis, outlined above, can be found running (abundantly) all through the author’s work.

The other important references to the Spirit are found in the three trust-sections—2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12—that is, the sections dealing with the first branch of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) required of all believers (3:23). The true believer has genuine (and correct) trust/faith in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, while false believers (i.e., the opponents) do not. In all three of these passages it is stated (or indicated) that the internal presence of the Spirit confirms the true view of Jesus Christ held by the true believer. This is most explicit in 5:6-8, but is also alluded to in 2:20-21ff, 27 and 4:2, 4ff. The references in 2:20f and 27, in particular, seem to be reflective of Johannine spiritualism, emphasizing the priority (and sufficiency) of the Spirit, as a source of knowledge and teaching (and religious authority) for the believer. For more on this point, and on the interpretation of the noun xri=sma (“anointing”) as a reference to the Spirit, cf. the article on 2:18-27.

In Part 2, I will attempt to bring together the evidence assembled above, synthesizing the results, to see how the Johannine Spiritualism may relate, specifically, to the views of the opponents, and to the way that the author (of 1-2 John) addresses them.

July 19: 1 John 5:21

1 John 5:21

As we come to the close of these notes and articles on 1 John—related to the current series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” (see the most recent article) —it is worth considering the author’s closing words in verse 21:

“Dear offspring, you must guard yourselves from the (false) images.”

This short injunction, with the author apparently warning his readers against ‘idols’ (lit. “images”), has long puzzled commentators. It seems like an afterthought, without any clear connection with the preceding sections. On the surface, of course, it is the kind of traditional-religious instruction that early Christians would have commonly given, particularly for those (non-Jewish) believers living in the midst of a thoroughly polytheistic Greco-Roman culture.

The term ei&dwlon (“[visual] appearance,” i.e., something that can be seen, an “image”) is rather rare in the New Testament (11 occurrences), used most frequently by Paul in his letters (7 times). It reflects the monotheistic tradition of the Old Testament, which, especially in the anti-polytheistic polemic of the Prophetic writings, tended to treat the deities worshiped by the surrounding peoples as having no real existence beyond the images used to represent them. Thus “images” (ei&dwla) came to serve as a short-hand designation, among Jews and Christians, for all false/foreign deities other than the one true God (El-YHWH).

The danger to early Christians posed by Greco-Roman polytheism is seen clearly in the apostolic letter (Acts 15:22-29ff), sent to believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, which included an instruction to avoid anything (spec. food/meat) that had been offered to “images” (vv. 20, 29; cf. 7:41). Paul treats the subject more extensively (without any reference to the Acts 15 letter) in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (the word ei&dwlon occurs in 8:4, 7; 10:19; cp. Rev 9:20). As an apostolic missionary to non-Jews in the Greco-Roman world, many of the Christian converts Paul would have encountered came out of a thoroughly polytheistic environment (cf. 1 Thess 1:9; 1 Cor 12:2). Worship of false/foreign deities (‘idols’) was seen as fundamentally incompatible with the new Christian religious identity (2 Cor 6:16), a mindset shared by Israelites and Jews as well (Rom 2:22). Cf. Paul’s penetrating early Christian appraisal of the nature (and origin) of polytheistic ‘idolatry’ in Rom 1:18-32.

What are we to make of the author’s warning against idols at the end of 1 John? Is it simply an example of conventional Christian ethical-religious instruction that the author has tacked on to the end of his treatise? Or is there something more involved? Commentators are somewhat divided on this point, but one’s interpretation of 5:21 tends to be colored by the prominence accorded to the conflict (with the opponents) in 1 John—is it just one among a number of issues and points of instruction offered by the author, or is it the central concern that governs the entire work?

The answer to this question likely will determine how one explains 5:21. There are two main lines of interpretation which can be labeled:

    • The ethical-religious explanation, and
    • The polemical explanation

According to this view, the warning in 5:21 is a piece of conventional religious instruction, along the lines of the other New Testament references (in Paul and Acts; cf. also Rev 9:20)—i.e. warning Johannine Christians to guard themselves against the idolatrous polytheism of the Greco-Roman world. A simple and straightforward reading of the language in 5:21 would tend to support this view. Moreover, while there is relatively little traditional ethical-religious instruction in 1 John, it is not entirely absent from the author’s work (e.g., 2:15-17; 4:17-18). Every other instance of the word ei&dwlon in the New Testament refers, more or less generally, to the idea of a pagan/polytheistic false deity (represented by its “image”).


A second, alternative, line of interpretation explains the author’s warning as part of the overall polemic against his opponents (i.e., the “antichrists” of 2:18-27; 4:1-6 [cf. also 2 Jn 7-11]). It seems proper to work under the assumption that, within the context of author’s central theme—that of a contrast between true and false believers—the opponents clearly are intended to represent the false believers. Primarily because of their false/erroneous view of Jesus Christ (referenced in the three trust-sections [2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12], and also 2 Jn 7ff), the opponents are regarded by the author as false believers (and deceiving false prophets)— “antichrists” of the end-time.

Since the opponents’ view of Christ is false, by which they effectively deny God’s Son, their view of God (the Father) is also false. By espousing a false deity, the opponents are thus no different from non-believers, and even pagan (polytheistic) idolators. This would be the logic of the author, according to his polemic.

We see a comparable example of polemical exaggeration by the author in 3:11-15, where he compares the opponents’ lack of love with Cain’s murder of his brother. In terms of the opponents’ violation of the command/duty to love one’s fellow believers, the author gives no indication of any immoral, oppressive, or violent behavior on their part. The only specific information he alludes to, in vv. 16-18, could be taken to mean that the author considers the opponents to have been neglectful in caring for the material needs of other believers. Beyond this, the worst one might say of the opponents, is that they may have followed the author’s example in 2 Jn 10-11, refusing to show hospitality to their own Johannine ‘opponents’.

The real demonstration of the opponents’ failure to show love simply involves their separation (according to the author) from the other Johannine Christians. Yet this violation of the second branch of the dual-command (3:23) is enough for the author to equate the opponents’ behavior with murder. Given this harsh polemical distortion, it would not be at all surprising if the author were to have equated the opponents’ violation of the first part of the dual command (i.e., trust in Jesus Christ) with idolatry. Clearly, their false view of Jesus (as the Son of God) would be tantamount to a false view of God the Father (El-YHWH), which (as noted above) would make them little different from polytheistic idolators.


Which line of interpretation for 5:21 is most likely to be correct? I suspect that this may be yet another example of Johannine double-meaning. The author may well have both ways of understanding his words—traditional ethical-religious and also polemical (against the opponents)—in mind. On the one hand, the readers can take the injunction at face value, remembering the importance of “guarding themselves” from the idolatrous polytheistic culture around them.

On the other hand, the author, throughout his work, has been warning his readers against the false views and teaching of the opponents—teaching which can lead them astray from the truth, with potentially dire consequences (2:18ff, 26f; 4:1-6). Such false teaching, characteristic of the “antichrists” and false prophets of the end-time, carries the same evil and seductive influence as the demonically-inspired “images” of paganism. Compare, for example, the way false (Christian) teaching is associated with pagan idolatry in the book of Revelation (2:14-15, 20ff).

A final possibility to consider, in light of the examples from the book of Revelation (above), is that the opponents might have downplayed the need to avoid things (i.e., food) that had been sacrificed to “images”, perhaps thinking, as some Christians at Corinth apparently did, that, since the deities represented by the images have no real existence, the images themselves cannot have any harmful effect on believers. This would be typical, in certain respects, of the spiritualistic tendencies that seem to have been characteristic of the Johannine churches; and the opponents may represent a more extreme example of such tendencies. However, if they were actually indifferent regarding the ‘things sacrificed to idols’, I would expect the author to deal with the issue more directly (like Paul and the author of Revelation), rather than in such a cursory fashion at the end of his work.

‘Idols’ (i.e., false/foreign deities) are to be contrasted with the one true God (v. 20; Jn 17:3). There is a similar contrast in 1 John between true and false belief—and the Christians who exhibit such belief (the opponents representing the false believers). I think it probable that the author is at least alluding again to the conflict involving the opponents here at the end of his treatise, expressing his exhortation in traditional ethical-religious language. This is all the more likely, given the precedent (attested in Jewish writings of the period) for speaking of ‘idols’ in a figurative sense—i.e., in reference to sins or evil inclinations of the heart (see e.g., Testament of Reuben 4:5-6; 1QS 2:10-11ff; 1QH 4.9-11ff; CD 20:8-10); cf. Brown, p. 628; von Wahlde [3], p. 207-8.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 (1982).
Those marked “von Wahlde [3]” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, Volume 3: Commentary on the Three Johannine Letters, Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (Eerdmans: 2010).


July 18: 1 John 5:20 (cont.)

1 John 5:20, continued

“And we have seen that the Son of God is here, and (that) he has given to us dia/noia, (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (that) we are in the (One who is) true, in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed—this is the true God and Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life].”

The middle two clauses of verse 20 (b) were discussed in the previous note, and the first two clauses (a) in the note prior; we now turn to the final two clauses (c).

Verse 20c:
    • “in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed—
      this is the true God and Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life].”

The first phrase here in v. 20c (the fifth clause, or phrase, of the verse), is epexegetical—that is, it explains or qualifies the previous statement: “we are in the (One who is) true”. This theological statement (cf. the discussion in the previous note) means that believers are “in” (e)n) God the Father (“the [One who is] true”). Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, this idea of being “in” God is expressed more fully by the use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”).

This is a fundamental Johannine theological idiom, which occurs in 1 John some 20 times. It is used to express the idea of the believer abiding in God (2:6, 10, 28; 3:6), or of God abiding in the believer (2:14; 3:9, 15, 17; 4:12), or both (2:24, 27; 3:24; 4:13, 15-16). Sometimes the idiom is expressed specifically in terms of the word/life/light/love, etc., of God, rather than God Himself, but these are simply specifications of the general theological principle, drawing upon particular attributes or characteristics related to the dynamic of the relationship between God and the believer.

The use of the verb of being (ei)mi) can substitute for the verb me/nw, whereby the union between the believer and God takes on a more essential quality, emphasizing its reality (or lack thereof) in the present. For the usage (ei)mi + e)n) in 1 John, cf. 1:8, 10; 2:4-5, 8, etc. The verb of being is used here in v. 20c: “we are [e)sme/n] in [e)n] (Him)”.

A central element of the Johannine theology is that God the Father abides in the believer (and the believer in God) through the presence of His Son (Jesus). And this quite clearly expressed by the author here; the statements (4&5) are parallel, with one building upon (and explaining) the other:

    • “we are in the One who is true [i.e. God the Father]” (because) =>
      • “(we are) in His Son Jesus Christ”

The Son makes the Father known to believers (cf. statements 1-3, v. 20ab), and is the means by which they/we are united with Him, coming to abide/remain “in Him”.

Verse 20 concludes with a final statement (6) that summarizes the entire Johannine theology:

“this is the true God and eternal Life”
ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$

There is debate as to the specific force of the initial demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this,” or “this one”). Commentators are divided as to whether the pronoun refers to God the Father or Jesus the Son. Given that Jesus (“His Son Yeshua…”) is the nearest antecedent, it would seem most natural that ou!to$ refers to him. However, as Brown (p. 625) notes, the pronoun can sometimes refer to an earlier subject; and there is a clear (Johannine) example of this in 2 John 7:

“(For it is) that many who lead (people) astray [pla/noi] have come into the world, the (one)s not giving account as one (of) [i.e. confessing/acknowledging] Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this (one) [ou!to$] is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one) against the Anointed [i.e. antichrist].”

Even though Yeshua is the noun preceding the demonstrative pronoun, the pronoun clearly refers back to the false believer(s), called [oi(] pla/noi (“[the one]s going/leading astray”). This grammatical parallel suggests that the demonstrative pronoun here in v. 20c refers back to God the Father, rather than Jesus. The use of the expression “the true God” (o( a)lhqino\$ qeo/$) would seem to confirm this (cp. Jer 10:10; 2 Chron 15:3; 1 Thess 1:9). Beyond this, the parallel declaration in the Gospel (17:3) is decisive:

“And this [au%th] is eternal Life: that they would know you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

In the literary context of chap. 17, Jesus is addressing God the Father, referring to Him (El-YHWH), in traditional Israelite-Jewish religious terms, as “the only true God”. Almost certainly, then, the expression “the true God” here in v. 20c likewise refers to God the Father.

However, the close parallel in thought and vocabulary between v. 20c and Jn 17:3 is instructive, in that it suggests that the author has a dual reference in mind. In other words, the demonstrative pronoun (“this”) refers to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. The Father is the primary point of reference, but He, as the Father, cannot be separated from His Son. Indeed, the two are inseparable, especially given the Johannine theological principle (discussed above) that believers experience the God the Father through His Son.

If God the Father is the primary referent for the expression “the true God”, then it is the Son of God (Jesus) who is primarily being referred to by the expression “[the] Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal Life]” (zwh\ ai)w/nio$). Even though God the Father is the ultimate source of life (cf. Jn 5:26; 6:57; 12:50, etc), the Father gives this life to the Son, who, in turn, is able to give it to believers (4:14; 5:39-40; 6:27, 33, 51ff, 63; 10:28; 17:2). Life is predicated of the Son as an essential attribute (Jn 1:4; 6:48; 11:25; 14:6), and believers come to possess (“hold,” vb e&xw) this life through trust in Jesus (Jn 3:15-16, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 8:12; 11:25; 20:31).

In 1 John, the author ties the possession of this eternal life, as a defining characteristic of the true believer, specifically to the fulfillment of the great dual-command (or two-fold duty [e)ntolh/]) as stated in 3:23: genuine trust in Jesus Christ (as the Son of God), and love for one’s fellow believers (according to Jesus’ own example). True believers fulfill this e)ntolh/, while false believers (like the opponents) disregard and violate it. Their false view of Jesus Christ (as the author sees it) means that they do not truly trust in him, and thus cannot hold eternal life in themselves.

The author establishes this logic at the very beginning of his work (1:1-2), and the references to “life” (zwh/) throughout the rest of 1 John (2:25; 3:14-15; 5:11-13ff) follow this same line of argument. In 5:11-13, at the close of the third and (final) section (5:5-12) dealing with trust in Jesus (in opposition to the false view of Christ held by the “antichrist” opponents), the author clearly and emphatically restates the Johannine definition of eternal life as the result of trust in Jesus. Through this trust, believers are united with God’s Son, coming to abide/remain in him; as noted above, it is through the presence of the Son that we, as believers, abide in the Father (and He in us).

Ultimately, our union with the Son is realized through the presence of the Spirit, though that particular theological point is only stated implicitly here in v. 20 (cf. the previous notes on 20a and 20b). The Spirit is the foremost of the things which the Son receives from the Father (cf. Jn 3:34-35), and which he then gives to believers. The association between the Spirit and the Life of God is so close as to almost be synonymous (cf. Jn 3:5-8ff; 4:10-15 [7:37-39]; 6:63). As the author of 1 John makes clear (3:24; 4:13), the presence of the Spirit is the ultimate evidence that we, as believers, abide/remain in God and thus possess eternal life.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 (1982).

July 13: 1 John 5:16-19 (8)

1 John 5:19

“We have seen that we are of [e)k] God, and (that) the whole world lies in the evil.”

The section 5:13-20 concludes with a series of three exhortative declarations (vv. 18, 19, 20) that each begin with the verb form oi&damen (“we have seen”). The verbal usage reflects the sense of unity and solidarity that the author wishes to establish, between himself and his readers, as members together (“we”) of the Community of true believers. The translation “we have seen” is a literal rendering of oi&damen; however, the verb ei&dw can also mean “know,” being essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw. In English idiom, for the context here, oi&damen would be translated simply as “we know…”.

This use of oi&damen (also in v. 15 [twice]) reflects the author’s declaration of his intent (and purpose of writing) in v. 13, at the beginning of the section:

“These (thing)s I have written to you, that you might have seen [ei)dh=te, i.e. might know] that you hold (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], to (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (cp. the end of the Gospel, 20:31)

It is also appropriate that the author effectively concludes his work emphasizing the fundamental theme of the contrast between true and false believers. This juxtaposition is part of a wider Johannine theme, contrasting believers with the world (o( ko/smo$). The negative sense of the noun ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”), as referring to the domain of darkness and evil (in which human beings are enmeshed) that is opposed to God, is distinctly Johannine, and the word tends to have this meaning throughout the Johannine writings. The contrastive relationship, between believers and the world, comes to be a dominant theme in the Gospel Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), along with the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17 (where ko/smo$ occurs 18 times, vv. 5-6, 9, 11, 13-16, 18, 21, 23-25). The usage in 1 John fully reflects the Johannine theological idiom—2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1, 3-5; 5:4-5; only in 2:2; 3:17 is the more neutral sense of ko/smo$ emphasized (i.e., as the inhabited world of human beings), while both meanings are at work in 4:1, 3, 9, 14, 17.

Believers belong to God (as His offspring), while non-believers (and false believers) belong to the world (as children of the Devil [the “chief of this world”, Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11]). That is the contrast being emphasized again here at the close of 1 John. On false believers (spec. the opponents in 1-2 John) as children of the Devil, see 3:8, 10; cp. Jn 8:41 (in the context of vv. 38-47).

Here in v. 19, the idea of believers as the offspring (te/kna) of God is expressed by the preposition e)k (“out of”), in the expression e)k tou= qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”), as a shorthand for the phrase “having come to be (born) [vb genna/w] out of God”. For this distinctive Johannine idiom in 1 John, cf. 2:29; 3:8-10; 4:4-7; 5:1, 4, 18; also 2:16ff, 21; 3:12, 19; 4:1-3; in the Gospel, cf. 1:13; 3:5-8, 31; 8:23, 41ff; also 15:19; 17:6, 14-16; 18:36, 37.

The idea that true believers belong to God, and not to the world, is seen most clearly in 4:4-6:

“You are of [e)k] God, (dear) offspring, and have been victorious (over) them [i.e. the ‘antichrists’, vv. 1-3], (in) that [i.e. because] the (One who is) in you is greater than the (one who is) in the world.” (v. 4)

As I have discussed, the expression “the (one) in you” (o( e)n u(mi=n) is best understood as a reference to the Spirit. God the Father is present, in and among believers, through His Son, and the Son abides in believers through the presence of the Spirit. By contrast, “the (one) in the world” (o( e)n tw=| ko/smw|) refers to the evil spirit of antichrist (v. 3) that is opposed to the holy Spirit of God. In v. 6, the evil spirit is called “the spirit of going/leading astray [pla/nh]”, in opposition to the “Spirit of truth [a)lh/qeia]”.

If the true believer (“you”) is described in v. 4, it is the false believer (“they”) who is referenced in v. 5:

“They are of [e)k] the world; through this [i.e. for this reason] they speak out of [e)k, i.e. from] the world, and the world hears them.”

In v. 6 (as here in 5:18-20), the author includes himself, together with his readers (“we”), as being among the true believers:

“We are of [e)k] God; the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of [e)k] God does not hear us.”

As noted above, this same language of belonging (using the preposition e)k), contrasting believers and the world, can be found in John 17—esp. verses 14-16, which are quite close in thought with what the author is saying here in 5:18-19 (cf. the previous note).

In v. 19a, the author repeats his declaration from 4:6: “we are of [e)k] God”. The implication, as in the references cited above, is that the author and his readers, correspondingly, are not “of [e)k] the world”. However, here the author states this in more general terms, by referring to the nature and condition of the world:

“…and the whole world lies in the evil”
kai\ o( ko/smo$ o%lo$ e)n tw=| ponhrw=| kei=tai

As in v. 18, as well as 2:13-14, 3:12 [1], and Jn 17:15, the substantive adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”), as a masculine noun with the article (o( ponhro/$, “the evil”), is best understood in a personal sense (i.e. “the evil one”), as a reference to the Satan/Devil. If so, then v. 19b needs to be translated something like:

“…and the whole world lies in (the hand of) the Evil (One)”

That the world, dominated as it is by darkness and evil, is under the control of the Devil (“Evil One”) is confirmed by the expression “the chief/ruler [a&rxwn] of this world” in Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. Because believers do not belong to the world, they/we are not under the power of the Evil One. Indeed, through trust in Jesus, believers have obtained victory over the world (2:13-14; 5:4-5). The victory achieved by Jesus Christ, through his sacrificial death (and exaltation)—cf. 3:8; Jn 12:31; 16:11, 33—is communicated to believers, in union with him, through the presence of the Spirit (4:4).

For this reason, the sin and evil of the world cannot touch the true believer (v. 18; cf. Jn 17:15). Even if we, as believers, may occasionally sin, through confession and forgiveness we are cleansed of all sin, with the result that the (eternal) life we possess from God is preserved/restored (1:7-2:2; 5:16).

In the next daily note, we will turn to examine briefly the author’s concluding statement in verse 20.

Sin and the Believer: The Apparent Contradictions in 1 John

A longstanding difficulty of interpretation within 1 John centers around the author’s seemingly contradictory statements, in which he says that believers both do (and can) and do not (and cannot) sin. This refers primarily to the bold declarations in 3:9 and 5:18:

    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin…and is not able to sin” (3:9)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin” (5:18)

The phrase “every one having come to be born out of God” essentially means “every true believer”. Thus, the message in these verses is that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. This would seem to be in blatant contradiction with the author’s teaching in 1:7-2:2, and also in 5:16f, where he makes clear that believers, do, in fact, occasionally commit sin.

The apparent contradiction between 1:7-2:2 and 3:9ff has garnered the most attention; however, the contradiction is perhaps even more blatant in 5:16-18, where, in the space of just three verses, the author seems to state that believers both do and do not sin.

One popular way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to contrast occasional sins with a regular/habitual pattern of sinful behavior. The explanation, in large part, hinges on the author’s use of the perfect tense (“have sinned”) in 1:10, and the present tense (“does sin”) in 3:9. Some English versions (such as the ESV) actually build this line of interpretation into their translation. However, on closer examination, this explanation is quite unconvincing. For example, it ignores the fact that the present tense is used in 1:8 (“has/holds sin”), as well as here in 5:16 (present participle, “sinning”). In any case, the question of habitual sinning does not seem relevant to the context of 5:16-19, where the emphasis is clearly on two different kinds (or categories) of sin (cf. below).

More common among modern-day commentators is the thought that the author’s seemingly absolute statements in 3:9 and 5:18—i.e., “the one born of God does not sin” —actually reflect the ideal for believers in Christ, and are intended as a mode of exhortation. In other words, the declaration that the believer does not sin really means that he/she should not sin. A more nuanced explanation, along these same lines, is that, for the author, believers possess the capability of avoiding all sin, with the possibility of actually doing so. The author’s eschatological outlook may also play a part in his view of sin—envisioning a time, soon to be (2:18), when the ideal of sinlessness for believers will be realized.

While these may seem like sensible ways of harmonizing the statements in 1 John, for the most part they do not reflect the actual thought-patterns of the author. I have proposed a pair of alternative solutions which, in my view, are more in keeping with the Johannine thought-world, mode of expression, and theological idiom. I will discuss briefly each of them below.

1. The me/nw solution

This first proposed solution, mentioned in a prior note, involves the specific idea of the believer abiding in God (and God in the believer), utilizing the verb me/nw (“remain”) in its distinctive Johannine theological sense; the verb occurs 24 times in 1 John, in 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 19, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16. As long as the believer “remains” in God, he/she is unable to sin; only when, through neglect, one falls out of a state of abiding (“remaining”) in God, does one become prone to committing sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”). Through confession and forgiveness, the condition of abiding in God (and God in the believer) is restored, and the believer once again “remains” in God.

The author’s use of the verb me/nw provides some confirmation for this line of interpretation. His exhortation to his readers (whom he otherwise seems to treat as true believers) to remain in God indicates that it is possible for believers not to remain. Consider the author’s instruction in 2:24ff and 28:

“That which you (have) heard from (the) beginning must remain [mene/tw] in you; if that which you heard from (the) beginning should remain [mei/nh|] in you, (then) you also shall remain [menei=te] in the Son and in the Father.” (v. 24)
“…as His anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not false, and even as it (has) taught you, (so) you remain [me/nete] in Him” (v. 27)
“And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain [me/nete] in him…” (v. 28)

The use of the imperative (the form in v. 27 could be read either as indicative or imperative), along with the aorist subjunctive, reflects the author’s sense of the necessity (and urgency) for believers to “remain” in God (and in the truth). There would be no need for such an exhortation if it were not possible for a believer to cease (even temporarily) from “remaining” in God. Note also the conditional language in 2:6, 17; 3:24, etc. Most clear is the author’s statement in 3:6

“Every (one) remaining in Him does not sin…”

with its clear implication that not sinning depends on remaining in God. The formal similarity (and syntagmatic parallel) between 3:6a and 3:9a suggests that there is a definite relationship between the two statements. This could be interpreted as complementary, indicating two distinct aspects that must exist, in tandem, in order to assure sinlessness for the believer; these may be combined as follows:

“Every one who has been born of God and who remains in Him does not sin.”

A serious objection to this interpretive approach comes via the Vine-illustration by Jesus in the Johannine Last Discourse (15:1-11), in which the verb me/nw occurs 10 times. There is an urgent sense of exhortation (and warning) in the illustration, similar to what we find with the use of me/nw in the aforementioned passages of 1 John (cf. above). However, the implication in verse 6, in particular, is that any “branch” (i.e., individual disciple/believer) who ceases to remain in the Vine, will perish (with eternal death in the Judgment being implied). Does the author of 1 John share this view, as he applies the me/nw-idiom in his own exhortation? What happens to the Christian who fails or ceases, even temporarily, to “remain” in God?

According to my proposed solution, the bond of union with God the Father (through the Son, and by the presence of the Spirit) can be restored. Upon confession and forgiveness (1:7ff), eternal life is fully restored to the believer (5:16, “and He will give life to him”), and he/she once again abides (“remains”) in God. However, as noted above, the use of me/nw in the Vine-illustration tends to argue against this line of interpretation.

2. A Dual-Significance of “Sin” (a(marti/a / a(marta/nw)

My second (alternate) proposed solution builds upon the clear context of the author’s sin-references—especially in the central section (2:28-3:24), but also in the final passage (5:13-20) that deals specifically with the distinction between two kinds of sin. This proposal is rooted in the premise that the author of 1 John, in relation to the Johannine understanding of sin as attested in the Gospel, assumes a dual-significance for the sin-concept expressed by both the noun a(marti/a and verb a(marta/nw. There are two distinct senses or levels of meaning involved:

    • Sin in the general sense, defined as a)diki/a (“without rightness,” i.e., that which is not right); all sin qualifies as a)diki/a (1:9; 5:17), and believers can (and do) occasionally commit particular sins (1:9)
    • Sin in the specific sense of the great sin that violates the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) required of every believer (3:23); true believers cannot (and will not) commit this sin.

In favor of this line of interpretation, I would note the clear context of the central section (2:28-3:24), in which sin is defined primarily in terms of violating the love-component of the dual command. The statement in 3:9, regarding the sinlessness (“not able to sin”) of the believer, must be understood in this light.

Also in favor of my proposal is the context of the sin-references in 5:16-19, where the statement regarding the believer’s sinlessness (v. 18) must be understood in relation to vv. 16-17 and the distinction between the sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and the sin that is “not toward death”. In v. 16, it is quite clear that believers can commit a sin that is “not toward death”, and that it can be forgiven, with the result that God will “give” (preserve and/or restore) life for the believer.

But what of the sin that is “toward death”? I have discussed this issue at length in the recent notes on 5:16-19. However, it is worth addressing it again briefly here.

On the sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton)

The author’s distinction between two kinds (or categories) of sin has long puzzled and provoked commentators. Generally, it has been accepted that the author does have in mind two different kinds of sin; for other ways of understanding the matter, cf. the discussion in Brown, pp. 613-18.

But what is the difference between these two kinds, and how are they to be defined? Perhaps the most common explanation draws upon the later distinction (in Catholic tradition) between a mortal and a venial sin. Usually this is defined in terms of traditional religious-ethical instruction; that is to say, some sins are so serious, and such blatant violations of religious and moral norms, that they cannot be forgiven and result in eternal death to the sinner.

From an early Christian (and New Testament) standpoint, the Pauline vice lists provide us with examples of such serious and gross sins. Included with the lists in 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 is the notice that people who do such things “shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. The implication is that no true believer would ever commit such sins.

I am quite confident that the author of 1 John (and his readers) would have shared (with Paul) the same basic assumption; a certain level of upright conduct was simply expected and assumed for believers in Christ (cf. 2:6, 15-16; 5:21). However, I do not think that such conventional religious-ethical instruction is the author’s focus in 5:16-19.

Closer to the mark, I would say, is the famous tradition of Jesus’ saying regarding the ‘blasphemy’ (lit. insult) against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28-29; par Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10). Jesus distinguishes this sin from all others—only the sin of giving insult to God’s holy Spirit can never be forgiven. The Synoptic context of this saying (cf. my earlier study on the tradition) relates to hostile opponents of Jesus, who attributed his miracle-working power to the influence of lesser/evil daimon-spirits rather than the Spirit of God (cf. Mk 3:22, 30). By so doing, they effectively blasphemed God and insulted His Spirit. In some ways, the opponents in 1 John were guilty of doing the same thing—i.e., speaking falsely about Jesus and misrepresenting the Spirit; for this reason the author refers to them as “antichrist” (2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7).

As I have discussed previously, the main body of 1 John is divided into sections which alternate thematically between the two components of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) required of all believers (3:23): trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus Christ (as the Son of God), and love (a)ga/ph) for one’s fellow believers (according to Jesus’ own example). In my view, the great (and unforgivable) sin, according to the author of 1 John, is the violation of this dual-command. The opponents violate both components, and thus are shown to be false believers. In the trust-sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12), sin is defined primarily in terms of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus (just as it is in Jn 16:9); in the love-sections (2:28-3:24; 4:7-5:4), sin is correspondingly defined in terms of failing (or being unwilling) to show love.

The sin that is “toward death” is best understood according to this line of interpretation, which reflects both the Johannine theology and the distinctive approach of the author of 1 John (in combating his opponents). His entire rhetorical strategy and purpose in writing is, in my view, governed by the conflict (within the Johannine congregations) centered around the “antichrist” opponents. The sin that violates the great command—true faith in Jesus Christ, and love for other believers—is the only sin that cannot be forgiven and which leads to eternal death. No true believer can or will ever commit this sin.

What of a Christian who commits the “sin (that is) toward death”? Most likely, the author would claim that such a person never was a true believer, never belonged to the Community of believers; it is just as he says of the opponents—their departure out of the Community proves that “they were not of [i.e. belonging to] us” (2:19). They belong to the evil of the world, while we, the true believers, belong to God (5:19, etc). This approach by the author is fully in keeping with his primary theme—viz., the contrast between the true and false believer in Christ.

*    *    *    *    *

It may be possible to give a more nuanced appraisal of the author’s understanding of sin, by his specific use of the noun a(marti/a and verb a(marta/nw. Based on earlier analysis of the sin-passages in 1 John, compared with the word-usage in the Johannine Gospel, I have proposed a possible delineation of  four levels of meaning to a(marti/a and the concept of sin:

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

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 (1982).

July 5: 1 John 5:16-19 (1)

1 John 5:16-19

This series of notes on 1 John 5:16-17ff is supplemental to the recent articles on 1 John in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”. Due to the author’s apparently enigmatic reference to sin that is “not toward death” (ou) pro\$ qa/naton), verses 16-17 have been much discussed and debated, among scholars, students, and other interested readers alike. I have discussed the verses previously on this site, but the matter is certainly deserving of a fresh (and in-depth) examination.

It is necessary to consider verses 16-17 in context—both in the immediate section (5:13-20), and within the framework of 1 John as a whole. Verses 16-17 are at the center of vv. 13-20, which is the final (concluding) section of 1 John (cf. the article on the prior section, 5:5-12).

To begin with the broader context of 1 John as a whole, 5:13-20 represents the third of three sections dealing with the subject of sin. The first of these was the introductory section 1:5-2:2, followed by the central section 2:28-3:24. Thus the passages on sin are part of the structural framework of 1 John, representing the beginning, middle, and end of the work, respectively. This is connected with a similar structuring principle, involving the Johannine Christological confession, which is most clearly stated in the Gospel at 11:27 and 20:31—viz., that Yeshua “is the Anointed (One), the Son of God”. In 1 John, this confession is referenced at a number of points, in abbreviated or shorthand form, but most notably by the phrase “His Son, Yeshua (the) Anointed”, which punctuates the author’s work—at the beginning (1:3), middle (3:23), and end (5:20), respectively.

It is thus important to understand the close association, in the author’s mind, between sin and Christology—that is, a true belief and confession of who Jesus is (and the significance of such belief). This association informs the author’s entire rhetorical strategy and purpose in writing, as he repeatedly, throughout his work, draws a pointed contrast between the true and false believer in Christ.

Central to this contrast, as a defining principle identifying the true believer, is the climactic statement in 3:23f, at the close of the central section of 1 John (2:28-3:24), in which the author states the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of every believer: trust (pi/sti$) and love (a)ga/ph)—trust in Jesus Christ (as the Son of God) and love for one’s fellow believer (following Jesus’ own example). According to the author’s polemic, the opponents (called “antichrist”) whom he has in view throughout the letter, and against whom he warns his readers (cf. also 2 Jn 7-11), violate both parts of the e)ntolh/, and thus are shown to be false believers.

In the main body of 1 John, the sections alternate thematically, emphasizing trust and then love, in turn:

    • Trust (2:18-27)— “antichrist” section #1
    • Love (2:28-3:24)
    • Trust (4:1-6)— “antichrist” section #2
    • Love (4:7-5:4)
    • Trust (5:5-12)— “antichrist” section #3 (implied)

In each trust-section, there is a central Christological confessional statement, which the opponents effectively deny; the opponents thus are called a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”, i.e., against Christ, anti-Christ)—2:18, 22; 4:3; cf. also 2 Jn 7. The term is not used in the final trust-section, but is certainly implied (v. 10).

The section on love in 2:28-3:24 is also the central sin-passage in 1 John (cf. above). Sin is defined primarily in terms of violating the great dual-command (e)ntolh/), particularly the second branch of it—love for one’s fellow believers.

With this overall context in mind, we can turn to the specific context of 5:13-20, which follows immediately upon the final section on trust (vv. 5-12, cf. above). There is a definite continuity of transition between these sections. Note how the trust-section concludes, with its summary of the Johannine theology:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], and th(is) Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds th(is) Life, (but) the (one) not holding the Son does not hold the Life.” (vv. 11-12)

The final section picks up from this theological declaration, emphasizing the Christological orientation of the author’s rhetorical strategy and purpose in writing:

“These (thing)s I have written to you, (so) that you (will) have seen [i.e. known] that you hold (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (v. 13)

The author treats his readers, insofar as they have genuine trust in Jesus, as true believers. The contrast, between the readers and the opponents (as false believers), is intentional. The section closes with a similar (and parallel) statement of solidarity, between the author and his readers as members of the Community of true believers (v. 20). Indeed, the section is punctuated by the perfect form oi&damen (“we have seen/known”), in vv. 15 (twice), 18, 19, 20, corresponding with the author’s purpose in v. 13. It is the author’s expectation (and hope) that his readers will show themselves to be true believers, in agreement with him, regarding the correct view of Jesus Christ, and will not be led astray by the false teaching of the opponents.

The main portion of the section (vv. 14-19) thus deals with the Community of true believers. It begins (vv. 14-15) with an affirmation of the promise, expressed by Jesus at several points in the Last Discourse (Jn 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24), that God the Father will answer believers’ prayers, when the requests are made in Jesus’ name (“in my name”). I have discussed these Johannine prayer-references in recent articles in the “Monday Notes on Prayer” feature on this site, and will address this aspect of vv. 14-15ff likewise in an upcoming study.

The context of what follows in vv. 16-17ff makes clear that the focus of believers’ prayer is not on one’s own needs, but on the needs of others. This is a reflection of the sacrificial love, following Jesus’ own example, that is the duty of every believer (cf. the discussion above).

With this contextual analysis in place, we are now in a better position to achieve an accurate interpretation of vv. 16-17ff. The principal theme of the remainder of the section (vv. 16-19) is sin (a(marti/a) and the believer’s relation to it. In the next daily note, we will begin a careful exegesis of these verses.


Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: 1 Jn 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

An important structuring principle of 1 John is the thematic alternation between the subjects of trust (pi/sti$) and love (a)ga/ph), respectively. These represent the two branches of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers, as summarized by the author of 1 John in 3:23. Trust is the dominant theme in 2:18-27, then love in 2:28-3:24, then trust again in 4:1-6, and love again in 4:7-5:4. The dual-command is essentially restated by the author in 5:1:

    • Trust (v. 1a):
      “Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) [cf. 2:22f] has come to be (born) out of God”
    • Love (v. 1b):
      “and every (one) loving the (One) causing to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

Both aspects of the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) for believers here are particularly expressed in the distinctive Johannine (theological) idiom, using the verb of becoming (genna/w), along with the preposition e)k (“out of”), in the context of the begetting/birth of a child (i.e., believers as the offspring [te/kna] of God). The one who fulfills the great two-fold duty is shown to be a true believer and a genuine child of God. Those who do not fulfill (or who violate) the command, are, by contrast, false believers, who belong to the world and show themselves to be children of the Devil. The opponents, according to the author, are such false believers who violate both parts of the e)ntolh/.

Here in the next section (5:5-12), the  focus shifts back to the believer’s trust. It has much in common with the previous two sections on trust (2:18-27; 4:1-6), referred to as the “antichrist” sections because of the distinctive use of the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”)—2:18, 22; 4:3 [par 2 Jn 7]. The term is applied to the opponents, because of what the author regards as their false view of Jesus Christ. The interpretive question regarding the nature of the opponents’ Christology has been discussed extensively in supplemental notes on 2:22f and 4:2f, respectively. The author seems to have the opponents’ view in mind here in 5:5-8ff as well (cf. below).

At the close of the previous section (5:4), the author reiterates his exhortation from 4:4, assuring his readers that they (if indeed they are true believers) are victorious over the world. This verb (nika/w), was also used earlier in 2:13-14. As discussed in the previous article, the verb is something of a Johannine keyword, being especially prominent in the book of Revelation (17 of the 28 NT occurrences). The theme of being victorious over the world (o( ko/smo$), in the negative Johannine meaning of the term, echoes the climactic declaration by Jesus in the Last Discourse (Jn 16:33). It is one’s trust in Christ that allows the believer to share in Jesus’ victory over the world:

“(For it is) that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God is victorious [nika=|] (over) the world; and this is the victory [ni/kh] that made (us) victorious [nikh/sasa] (over) the world—our trust [pi/sti$].”

This statement prepares the way for the author’s discussion on pi/sti$ in 5:5ff, as he expounds the nature of genuine trust—the trust that marks a person as a true believer:

“[And] who is the (one) being victorious [nikw=n] (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting [pisteu/wn] that Yeshua is the Son of God?” (v. 5)

Trust and victory are essentially synonymous, as the parallel use of the participles of the verbs nika/w and pisteu/w makes clear; i.e., trusting (pisteu/wn) in Jesus means being victorious (nikw=n). The Christological statement here (“Jesus is the Son of God”) matches the fundamental Johannine confessional statements in the Gospel (11:27; 20:31), which are reaffirmed by the author throughout 1 John (1:3; 3:23; 5:20)—viz., that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christ), the Son of God. While the precise nature of the opponents’ view of Jesus remains disputed, it is clear that the author regarded it as false, representing a dangerous error. According to him, the opponents did not have a genuine trust in Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God).

In verse 6, the author gives us, I think, a better idea of the opponents’ error as he begins to expound in more detail the true view (as he sees it) of Jesus Christ:

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and in blood…”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) is epexegetical, giving us more information about this person Jesus (Yeshua) who we, as believers, understand to be the Son of God. Here in v. 6, as earlier in the confessional statements of 2:22f and 4:2f, the focus is specifically on Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Christ). In other words, when we speak of “Yeshua (the) Anointed”, specifically, as the Son of God, what is meant?

In my view, the author here is further elaborating the Christological statement in 4:2, as can be seen by a comparison of the parallel wording:

    • “Yeshua (the) Anointed having come [e)lhluqo/ta] in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/]” (4:2)
    • “(Yehsua the Anointed), the (one) (hav)ing come [e)lqw/n]…in water and in blood [e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ e)n tw=| ai%mati]” (5:6)

Initially, the author uses the preposition dia/ (“having come through [dia/]…”), but then switches to the preposition e)n (“in”), which matches the expression in 4:2:

    • “in (the) flesh” (e)n sarki/)
    • “in water and in blood” (e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ e)n tw=| ai%mati)

Thus it would seem that the expression “in water and blood” is meant to clarify the earlier expression “in (the) flesh”; that is, Jesus Christ (the Son of God) coming in the flesh means that he came in water and blood (lit., “in the water and in the blood”). In previous notes examining the Johannine use of the noun sa/rc, as well as the specific expression “in (the) flesh” ([e)n th=|] sarki/), it was determined that the principal idea in these Christological statements involved Jesus existence and life as a human being. It is thus fair to assume that the expression “in water and in blood” should be understood in this light.

Most commentators explain the noun ai!ma (“blood”) here as referring to the death of Jesus; this corresponds with the Johannine usage elsewhere (Jn 6:53-56; 19:34; 1 Jn 1:7), and also reflects a widespread early Christian manner of expression regarding Jesus’ death (Mk 14:24 par; Matt 27:24-25; Acts 5:28; 20:28; Rom 3:25; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12-14ff; 10:19; 13:12; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; Rev 1:5; 5:9, etc). But what of the term u%dwr (“water”)? Given the required context (viz., Jesus’ existence and life as a human being), and the juxtaposition with Jesus’ death, there would seem to be two possible explanations:

    • A reference to Jesus’ human birth, in contrast to his death
    • A reference to his baptism—as marking the beginning of his earthly mission, with his death marking its end

The majority of commentators prefer the second option, often simply taking it for granted. There are, indeed, very few I have found who would explain “water” here as a reference to Jesus’ birth. And yet, in my view, the evidence from the Gospel (u%dwr occurs nowhere else in 1-3 John, outside of vv. 6, 8 here) favors the birth motif—including, we might say, the more generalized concept of birth as the beginning of life.

In the Gospel, the noun u%dwr is used principally in connection with the Spirit, contrasting ordinary physical/material water with the living water of God’s Spirit. This contrast is most explicit in 4:10-15 and 7:37-39; elsewhere, it is expressed in two important ways:

    • The contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist, drawing upon the traditional saying by the Baptist (1:26, 33; cf, Mark 1:8 par)—i.e., baptizing in water vs. baptizing in the Spirit.
    • The birth imagery of 3:3-8, in the Nicodemus Discourse

In each of these instances, “water” (u%dwr) refers to ordinary physical water, in contrast to the Spirit. Because of this marked contrast, and because Jesus’ own baptism is so closely connected with the presence of the Spirit, I feel it is rather more appropriate that the author (in 5:6ff) uses “water” as a way of referring to Jesus’ birth. In this regard, the usage in Jn 3:3-8 is directly applicable, since it contrasts a normal human birth “out of water” with a divine/spiritual birth “out of the Spirit” (v. 5ff); that this is the meaning of “out of water” in Jn 3:5 is clear from the parallel “out of the flesh” in v. 6. Indeed, this is precisely the same parallel we find in 1 Jn 4:2 / 5:6—i.e., “having come in the flesh” / “having come in water…”.

If “water” thus symbolizes Jesus’ human birth (and earthly life), it also alludes to his sacrificial death. This is indicated by the symbolic use of water (by Jesus) in the Last Supper narrative (13:5ff), and is represented even more clearly by the historical detail noted in 19:34f—the “blood and water” that came out of Jesus’ side after his death. In light of the wording in 19:30, it is likely that the water in v. 34 is meant to allude specifically to the “living water” of the Spirit that Jesus gives. The gift of the Spirit is only possible after Jesus’ death, with the life-giving power and efficacy of his sacrificial death being communicated to believers through the Spirit (cf. 1 Jn 1:7 and Jn 6:51-58 [in light of v. 63]).

The similarity of motif between water and wine in the Cana miracle episode (2:1-11) and water and blood in 19:34, is not, in my view, a coincidence. The two episodes mark the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and symbolize, in different ways, the power of his life and death, respectively. The Spirit is associated closely with Jesus’ earthly life (from at least his baptism, cf. above), and also with his death. It is thus significant that the author emphasizes the same association here in vv. 6ff:

“…and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the truth.”

The Spirit gives witness (vb marture/w) to Jesus Christ “having come…in water and in blood”. This rather clearly refers back to 4:1-6 (cf. the previous article), and the fundamental idea that the indwelling Spirit teaches the truth to believers, while false believers are not inspired by the Spirit of God, but by a different (lying/deceiving) spirit. In particular, the Spirit teaches the truth about Jesus Christ; thus, the true believer, guided by the Spirit, will affirm (and confess) the true view of Jesus, while false believers (like the opponents) will not. In 4:6, the Spirit was referred to by the traditional expression “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cp. 1QS 3:18-19, etc); here, however, the author goes a step further and declares that the Spirit is the truth, forming a kind of belated answer to the question posed by Pilate in Jn 18:38.

The Christological issue, and the point of conflict between the author and the opponents, involves the reality and/or significance of Jesus’ death. The opponents apparently accepted the reality of Jesus’ human birth, but were unwilling to embrace his death. Or, following the more common line of interpretation (cf. above), they understood the importance of Jesus’ baptism (when the Spirit descended upon him), but denied the significance of his sacrificial death. The Spirit, as the author emphasizes, bears witness to the reality (and importance) of both Jesus’ birth/baptism and his death. For more on this aspect of the opponents’ Christology, cf. the recent 3-part supplemental note on 4:2-3 (pts 1, 2 & 3).

In verses 7-8, the author’s emphasis shifts slightly:

“(And it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three: the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and the three are unto/into [ei)$] the one.”

In v. 6, the Spirit was a witness of the water and blood; now, the Spirit is a witness along with the water and blood, witnessing to the truth of who Jesus is—viz., the Anointed One and Son of God. If Jesus thus came through the water (i.e., a human birth and earthly life), and through the blood (i.e., his sacrificial death), he also has come now through the Spirit, abiding in and among believers through the Spirit. The internal testimony of the Spirit will agree with the historical tradition (preserved in the Gospel) regarding Jesus’ birth/life and death—i.e., the three will affirm the same truth about Jesus, functioning “as one (witness)”.

Being God’s own Spirit, the witness of the Spirit is the witness given by God the Father Himself, as the author declares in verse 9:

“If we receive [i.e. accept] the witness of men, the witness of God is greater, (in) that this is the witness of God that He has given as a witness about His Son.”

The idea of giving witness, utilizing the noun marturi/a and the verb marture/w, is an important Johannine theme, recurring throughout the Gospel and Letters—cf. Jn 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:11, 26ff, 32-33; 4:39; 5:31-39; 7:7; 8:13-14ff; 10:25; 15:26-27; 18:37; 19:35; 21:24; here in 1 Jn 5:6-11; 3 Jn 12; it also features prominently in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 20:4; 22:16ff, etc). God gives witness about His Son, not only through the Spirit, but through the reality of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth/life and death, as preserved in the historical tradition(s) of the Gospel. The record of Jesus’ life and death goes back to the first disciples who were first-hand witnesses (1:1-4). The point must be stressed again, from the author’s standpoint, that the witness of the indwelling Spirit (about Jesus) will agree with the Gospel record of his earthly life and death (“water and blood”). The emphasis on the role of the Spirit is given again in verse 10:

“The (one) trusting in the Son holds th(is) witness in himself; (but) the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) false [i.e. a liar], (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the witness which God has given as a witness about His Son.”

Two key points, and fundamental theological principles in 1 John, are again stressed: (1) the contrast between the true and false believer; and (2) the indwelling/abiding presence of God’s Spirit as a witness to the truth. The reason why the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus is that they are false believers, and thus do not possess God’s Spirit.

The author concludes the section with a fine summary of the Johannine theology:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], and this Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds th(is) Life, (while) the (one) not holding the Son of God does not hold the Life.” (vv. 11-12)

The emphasis, in the context of the author’s argument, is two-fold: (a) the witness regards the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God; and (b) the implicit teaching that the Divine/eternal life which God gives to believers (i.e., those trusting in His Son) comes through the reality of the Son’s incarnate life and death. In particular, the emphasis is on Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death (“blood”), which communicates life to believers. The opponents’ great error, apparently, was in their denial of the reality (and/or importance) of Jesus’ death; for this reason, they, unlike all true believers, do not have access to this eternal life. As noted above, the life-giving power of Jesus’ death is communicated to believers through the Spirit (on this, cf. my earlier note on 1:7); believers “hold” eternal life within them through the abiding presence of the Spirit (3:24).

These articles on 1 John will be brought to a close with a supplemental article that specifically addresses the relation of the opponents to the spiritualism of the Johannine Community (and its writings).

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: 1 Jn 4:1-6

1 John 4:1-6

This is the second of the two “antichrist” sections in 1 John (cf. the prior study on the first, 2:18-27); in between the two sections is the major unit of 2:28-3:24 (cf. the previous study), the central section of the work. In the “antichrist” sections, the focus is on the false believers (i.e. the opponents), while the central section deals primarily with the nature and characteristics of true believers (i.e., the author and those who agree with his position). This distinction between the true and false believer is a principal theme of 1 John.

While the role of the Spirit was emphasized in the first “antichrist” section, this spiritual (and spiritualistic) aspect of the author’s teaching is made more explicit in the second section—the actual word “spirit” (pneu=ma) occurring for the first time at the climax of the central section (3:24; cf. the discussion in the previous study).

Because of the author’s understanding, regarding the role of the Spirit, in 2:18-27—viz., that believers are taught (directly) by the indwelling Spirit (referred to as the “anointing,” xri=sma, vv. 20-21, 27)—it is of particular importance the way he begins the section here:

“Loved (ones), you must not trust every spirit, but consider the spirits, (to see) if (the spirit) is out of [i.e. from] God, (for it is) that many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (v. 1)

The author’s use of the plural pneu/mata (“spirits”), along with the expression “every spirit” (pa=n pneu=ma), suggests that he has in mind the existence (and activity) of many different spirit-beings—both good and bad—such as we find attested in a number of the Qumran texts. However, while the author presumably did accept the reality of multiple evil spirits, such a belief is almost certainly not his emphasis here. Rather, as becomes clear in vv. 2-6, there are really only two “spirits,” which are opposed to each other, and only one of them comes from God (being His holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” 4:6; 5:6).

Every person is influenced and inspired by one or the other of these two spirits, being dominated by it, much as we see, for example, in the “Treatise of the Two Spirits” portion (3:13-4:26) of the Community Rule text (1QS) from Qumran. That text essentially juxtaposes the same two “spirits” as our author does here in 1 Jn 4:6: “the Spirit of truth [a)lh/qeia]” vs. “the Spirit of going astray [pla/nh]”. The noun pla/nh here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) is used primarily in a causative sense, i.e., leading people astray, and connotes the idea of deception. Cf. the author’s use of the related verb plana/w in 2:26 (also 1:8; 3:7). In the Qumran “Two Spirits” treatise (1QS 3:18-19), the corresponding Hebrew expressions are tm#a$h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of truth”) and lw#u*h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of injustice”).

God’s holy Spirit leads believers into truth (cf. Jn 16:13), while the evil spirit (of injustice) leads other people into falsehood and error. This role of the Spirit within believers is emphasized by the author in 2:20-21, 27, echoing, it seems, the Paraclete-saying of Jesus in Jn 16:13 (cf. the earlier study and note on this saying). The point applies, of course, only to true believers; the false believer is not taught by God’s Spirit, but, rather, is influenced by the evil spirit that leads people astray (pla/nh, vb plana/w).

In verse 1, the author specifically refers to the opponents as “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai), drawing rather clearly upon the eschatological tradition that deceiving false prophets will be increasingly active (and prevalent) during the end-time period of distress. This is expressed, for example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mk 13:6, 22; par Matt 24:11, 24); cf. also Matt 7:15; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. The noun pla/nh and verb plana/w are used in similar eschatological contexts in Mark 13:5-6 par; 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; 3:17; Jude 11; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10.

Some commentators have thought that the author has a special prophetic gifting in mind, such as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1114; cf. also Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11. However, I do not think that this is the case. While it is possible that the opponents (or at least some of their leaders/teachers) may have claimed special inspiration (cp. Rev 2:20), I feel the author has something more basic in mind, which is very much related, as I see it, to the spiritualistic tendencies within the Johannine Community.

The implicit logic of the author goes something like this: All (true) believers are taught and led by the indwelling Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth, and which thus cannot teach anything that is false. Thus if any supposed believer speaks something that is false, and claims (or takes for granted) that it was derived from the Spirit’s teaching, such a person is, in fact, a false believer. He/she speaks, not from God’s holy Spirit, but from an evil and deceiving spirit. Every true believer, possessing the Spirit, functions as a prophet (cf. Joel 2:28-29 in Acts 2:17-18; cp. 1 Jn 2:27, in light of Jer 31:34, cf. also Jn 6:45 [Isa 54:13]), which means the false believer is, by definition, a false prophet. The opponents are false prophets because they are taught and speak by a false/deceiving spirit, rather than by the Spirit of God.

Yet how can one discern between the true believer, speaking from the Holy Spirit (2:20-21, 27), and the false believer speaking from another spirit? The author provides at least one clear test in verse 2:

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one [o(mologei=] (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in (the) flesh is out of [i.e. from] God…”

Evidence of the false/lying spirit, by contrast, is given in v. 3:

“…and every spirit that does not give account as one (of) Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God”

The test is Christological, regarding a one’s public confession regarding the person of Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). I have discussed verses 2-3 at length in a recent set of exegetical notes, which are supplemental to this article; for a detailed study of the many critical and exegetical issues in these verses, you should consult those notes. The verb o(mologe/w, which literally means “give account as one”, here refers to being in agreement with (and publicly affirming/confessing) a particular statement—viz., that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed having come in [the] flesh”). According to the author, the opponents denied or refused to affirm this statement (v. 3).

The precise Christology of the opponents has been much debated over the years, and there is as yet no consensus among commentators; a particular problem complicating the interpretation is how the confessional statement in 4:2f relates to the earlier one in 2:22f. I have discussed the matter at length in recent supplemental notes on each passage—i.e., on the opponents’ view as expressed in 2:22f (Pts 1, 2 & 3) and 4:2f (Pts 1, 2 & 3), respectively.

The main point for our study here is that the opponents’ false view of Jesus is a sign that they do not possess the Spirit of truth, but speak from a false/deceiving spirit, and are thus false believers. In verse 3b, the author again refers to them by the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), which literally means “against [a)nti/] the Anointed [Xristo/$]”. This term, used earlier in 2:18, 22 (cf. also 2 Jn 7), draws upon the eschatological tradition of false Messiahs who will appear at the end-time (Mk 13:6, 21-22 par; cf.  2 Thess 2:1-12); on the tradition of end-time false prophets, cf. above. For a detailed study on the significance and background of the term a)nti/xristo$, cf. my earlier article “The Antichrist Tradition” (Pt 1, 2, 3). Here, as in 2:18-27, the description “against the Anointed” is particularly appropriate, since the false view of Jesus by the opponents, according to the author, truly is “against Christ”. Moreover, it is inspired by the spirit of Antichrist:

“…and this is the (spirit) of (the one) against the Anointed, (of) which you (have) heard that it comes, and now is already in the world.” (v. 3b)

This echoes what the author said earlier in 2:18, and indicates that, from the author’s standpoint, the presence and activity of these false believers is a particular sign that the end is near (“it is [the] last hour”). The word “spirit” (pneu=ma) is not actually used here in v. 3b, but the neuter noun is implied by the neuter article to/, and can be glossed in translation (i.e., “the [spirit] of…”).

Verses 4ff emphasize the opposition (indicated by the prefix a)nti-, “against”) between the true and false believers. It is reflected specifically by the conflict and crisis involving these ‘opponents’ who have separated, according to the author, from the Community (of true believers). This conflict is very much part of the end-time period of distress which believers face (cf. Mk 13:9-13 par, etc); in particular, there is the real danger that even believers may be led astray by these “false prophets” (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24). In spite of this danger, the author assures his readers that the Spirit within them (believers) is greater than the false/lying spirit(s) at work in the world:

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

In the Johannine writings, the pronouns and verbal subjects are often ambiguous or unspecified, as is the case here. We may thus ask to whom precisely does the first relative pronoun o% (“the [one] who”) refer? The context of our passage, which contrasts the Spirit of God with the spirit of Antichrist strongly suggests that God (the Father) is the principal reference. However, from the Johannine theological standpoint, God the Father is present in believers through the Son (Jesus), and the Son, in turn, is present through the Spirit. Thus God, who is Spirit (Jn 4:24), is present in believers (“in you” [e)n u(mi=n]) through the Spirit (cf. 3:24). By contrast, the one “in the world” is Antichrist, and, specifically, the false/lying spirit of Antichrist (“that is now already in the world,” v. 3). That the false believers have gone out “into the world” (v. 1) is an indication of the evil spirit at work “in the world”.

The “world” (o( ko/smo$), in the Johannine writings, fundamentally represents the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Jesus was sent “into” the world, but does not belong to (i.e. is not “of”) the world; the same is true of believers; on this important theme, see especially the chapter 17 Prayer-Discourse in the Gospel (vv. 6, 9-11, 13-16, 18, 20-21, 23-25), also 15:18-19; 18:36-37. The Johannine writings regularly use the pronoun e)k (“out of”) with a special dual-significance: (a) origin, i.e., born out of [i.e. from]; and (b) belonging, i.e. being of someone/something. Thus, when the author here says that his readers (as true believers) are “out of [e)k] God” it means that they belong to God, and have come to be born (vb genna/w) from Him, as His offspring (te/kna); on the latter, cf. Jn 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18. They belong to God, not to the world; it also means they belong to the truth (Jn 18:37; 1 Jn 3:19), since they have been born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6, 8; cf. 4:24) who is the truth (1 Jn 5:6).

By saying that the opponents have gone out “into the world”, the author means this in a double-sense. First, as “false prophets,” they are engaged in a missionary effort, which is a false and antithetical version of the mission of believers (and of Jesus himself), cf. above. Based on the information in 2 Jn 7-11, we can say that the conflict between the opponents and the author’s circle reflects, in an early Christian milieu, the missionary work (of visits and letters) involved in sustaining a unified network of congregations over a geographical region. Second, by leaving the Community (of true believers), the opponents have truly gone into the world, in the decidedly negative (Johannine) meaning of the term ko/smo$ (cf. above). The departure of Judas in the Gospel narrative (13:21-30, see esp. verse 30) may be said to symbolize false believers such as the opponents. As false believers, they belong to the world, not to God; cf. how the author explains this in 2:19.

Because true believers belong to God, and abide in Him through the Spirit, being children of God, in union with Jesus the Son, they are victorious over the world, and need not be led astray by those who belong to the world (i.e., the opponents). The verb nika/w (“be victorious [over someone/something”) is practically a Johannine keyword; of the 28 NT occurrences, all but 4 are in the traditional Johannine writings—once in the Gospel (16:33), 6 in 1 John, and 17 in the book of Revelation. The use of the perfect tense here (nenikh/kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) reflects the earlier use in 2:13-14: “you have been victorious (over) the evil”. The object to\n ponhro/n, as a substantive (“the evil”), is understood by most commentators in a personal sense—the evil one, i.e., the Satan/Devil, referred to elsewhere in the Gospel as “the chief/ruler of this world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou tou/tou), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. If this reading is correct, then in 2:13-14, the author is effectively saying that the (true) believers have been victorious over the world and its “chief” (i.e., the Devil). This reflects precisely the wording of Jesus at the climactic moment of the Last Discourse (16:33):

“In the world you have distress, but take courage—I have been victorious (over) the world [e)gw\ neni/khka to\n ko/smon]!”

The perfect tense typically refers to a past action (or condition), the effect of which continues into the present. In this context, the past action is the mission of Jesus (spec. his sacrificial death) and believers’ trust in it. Through his death and exaltation, the power of the “chief of this world” was overcome and destroyed (Jn 12:31; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8); the effect of this continues in the present because of believers’ union with Jesus through the Spirit. The life-giving power and efficacy of Jesus’ death is communicated to us spiritually, through the Spirit (cf. 1:7; and the context of Jn 6:51-58, 63; 19:30, 34). However, this victory is realized only for true believers, who have a true and genuine trust in Jesus Christ. This emphasis, with regard to the occurrence of the verb nika/w, in 5:4-5, will be discussed in the next article in this series.

Here, in verse 5, the author makes clear again that the opponents (as false believers) do not belong to God, but to the world:

“(But) they are of [e)k] the world, (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] they speak out of [e)k, i.e. from] the world, and the world hears them.”

This wording very much resembles Jesus’ statement to Pilate in Jn 18:37, where he summarizes his mission, which is also essentially the mission of believers:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world: that I should give witness to the truth; every (one) being [i.e. who is] of [e)k] the truth hears my voice.”

Cf. also the theological propositions in Jn 3:31, 34:

“…The (one) being of [e)k] the earth is out of [e)k, i.e. belongs to] the earth and speaks out of [e)k, i.e. from] the earth.”
“For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the words of God.”

The same kind of language features prominently in the Sukkot Discourse (chaps. 78); cf. especially 8:47:

“The (one) being of [e)k] God hears the words of God; (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [e)k] God.”

True believers both hear and speak the truth, which comes from God and His Spirit (which is the truth, 5:6); the false believers who belong to the world (and not to God) do not hear/speak the truth, but only the false/deceiving word, which is opposed to the truth and comes from the world. According to the author’s reasoning, the true believer will accept the truth as spoken by other true believers, which comes from the teaching of the Spirit. The author, in his rhetorical strategy, has positioned both himself and his audience as true believers, with the implicit assumption that they, as true believers, will agree with his view (of Jesus Christ), rather than that of the opponents:

We are of [e)k] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) that is not of [e)k] God does not hear us. Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray [pla/nh].” (v. 6)

The author’s view of Jesus, as he presents it, corresponds with the earliest Gospel tradition, going back to the first disciples and the time of Jesus himself (cf. the prologue, 1:1-4). An important principle in his line of argument is that the inner teaching of the Spirit will, and must, correspond with the truth of this historical tradition (as preserved in the Gospel). If we read between the lines, we can see that, in the author’s view, the opponents have departed from this established tradition—regarding the reality, and the significance, of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Their Christological understanding thus cannot be true, and cannot represent the teaching of the Spirit.

In the next article, on 5:5-12, we will develop this interpretation further, considering in more detail how Christology and pneumatology are related for the author of 1 John. It is my contention that, for the author, the opponents not only have an erroneous Christology, but have distorted the Johannine spiritualism as well.