The Johannine Letters (1 John)
In this series, we now turn to the Letters of John, to see how the words “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) are used in these other Johannine writings. Many commentators believe that both the Gospel and the Letters (esp. the First Letter) may be written by the same author. Tradition does ascribe them to the same person (John the Apostle), though technically the works are anonymous. At the very least, it is clear that the Gospel and First Letter draw upon similar language and imagery, sharing the same basic theological (and Christological) point of view. Critical commentators have typically explained this by way of a Johannine Community or “School”. Both tradition and internal factors have led many scholars to see these writings (along with the book of Revelation) as being the product of distinct Christian communities in Asia Minor (centered around Ephesus).
An especially complex critical issue lies in the fact that the Johannine discourses (indicated as being spoken by Jesus) and the Letters of John (esp. 1 John) are often so close in thought and wording. Many passages in 1 John could have been lifted right out of the discourses. This raises the question as to the Gospel writer’s role in the creation/composition of the discourses. Most critical scholars would view the discourses as largely the product of the author, while traditional-conservative commentators, naturally enough, are more inclined to seem them as reflecting the actual words of Jesus (with some amount of translation and editing allowed). The situation is akin to that of the Sermon-Speeches in the book of Acts—though they are said to be spoken by different persons (and even in different languages?), much of the actual (Greek) language and wording seems to reflect that of the author of Luke-Acts. For more on this latter question, see my earlier series on the Speeches of Acts.
The words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) occur only in the First Letter, thus the discussion will generally be limited to that writing. The second and third Letters will be referenced only to give supplemental information, or to help clarify an idea or expression in 1 John. The relevant passages to be discussed are:
1 John 1:1-2
The first two occurrences of the word zwh/ (“life”) come from the introductory sentence of the Letter (vv. 1-3a), which, as even a casual reading should make clear, is similar in thought and expression to the opening of the Gospel Prologue (1:1-4ff). This is only confirmed by a study of the Greek words and phrases involved. Consider the opening words of the letter:
“That which was from the beginning…”
o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$
A comparison with John 1:1 suggests that here the demonstrative pronoun o%$ refers to the “Word” (lo/go$) indicated in the opening of the Prologue:
“In the beginning was the Word…”
e)n a)rxh=| h@n o( lo/go$
The combination of the word a)rxh/ (“beginning”), reflecting Genesis 1:1 [LXX], with the verb of being (ei)mi, the spec. form h@n, “was”), makes it likely that the author of the letter had the Gospel Prologue (or a similar tradition) in mind. The distinctive use of the verb of being in the Prologue (and elsewhere in the Gospel) is theological—referring to God as source of all being and existence.
However, the fact that a neuter form of the demonstrative pronoun (o%) appears at the start of 1 John, indicates that the reference is more generalized and comprehensive—i.e. “(all) that which…”—that is to say, both to the Living Word (Lo/go$) of God, identified with Jesus, and to the “word” or account (lo/go$) of Jesus (i.e. the Gospel message). This dual-meaning of lo/go$ appears a number of times in the letter, beginning here in v. 1 (cf. below).
Before proceeding to examine several key words and phrases, here is the opening sentence of vv. 1-3a in translation:
“(That) which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which our eyes have seen (clearly), which we have looked (upon), and (which) our hands have felt, about the word of Life—and th(is) Life was made to shine forth, and we have seen (it clearly) and give witness and give up as a message to you the Life of the Age(s) which was toward the Father and made to shine forth to us—(that) which we have seen (clearly) and have heard, we also give up as a message to you, (so) that you also might also hold common (bond) with us.”
Despite the repetitiveness in much of this statement (preserved accurately above), the basic idea is clear enough, and it is fully in accord with the outlook of the Gospel writer; note the conceptual structure:
- The Word which was from the beginning (i.e. with God the Father)
- This Word was made to shine forth to us (in the person of Jesus)
- (1) We have seen/heard/felt this (incarnate) Word
(2) and we, in turn, give witness about it to others
- This witness is the word of the (Gospel) message
At the very center of this statement is the expression “Word of Life” (o( lo/go$ th=$ zwh=$), which, as I indicated above, has a dual-meaning: (a) Jesus as the Living Word of God (and source of Life), and (b) the message (word/account) regarding Jesus, which will lead to Life for those who trust in him. In the Gospel, the noun zwh/ virtually always refers to the Life which God possesses (i.e. divine, eternal Life), and which is given to believers through Jesus. Just as God the Father’s word and voice gives life to all things (Gen 1:3ff; cf. also Psalm 119:25, 107, etc), so that of the Son (Jesus) gives this same life (Jn 1:3-4; 5:24-29; 6:63; 11:43, etc).
Verse 2 is essentially a parenthesis which explains this Life; there appears to be a loose chiastic structure to its logic:
- This Life (i.e. the divine/eternal Life)
—Manifest to us (in the person of Jesus)
——We have seen it
——We give witness/message of it
—Manifest to us (through Jesus’ gift)
- The Life which was with [lit. toward] God
- This Life (i.e. the divine/eternal Life)
The closing reference to Life uses the expression “Life of the Age”, which appears repeatedly in the Gospel, and which I have discussed at length in earlier notes. It typically refers to the Life given by Jesus to believers, which is also identified numerous times in the Gospel with the Spirit. This same association may be intended here, though the actual word pneu=ma does not occur until chapter 3 of the letter.
If there were any doubt regarding the connection between John 1:1-3 and vv. 1-3 here in the letter, there is added confirmation in the fact that in verses 5ff light is introduced as a thematic motif, just as it is in vv. 4-5ff of the Gospel Prologue. The theme includes the same dualistic light vs. darkness contrast. This may help to explain the interesting use of the preposition pro/$ in Jn 1:1-2 and 1 Jn 1:2. It is typically translated “with”—i.e. the Word was with God—but properly it indicates direction or location, i.e. of motion toward something, or facing toward (i.e. before, in front of) something. Presumably the latter is intended here—the Living Word facing toward God the Father. This would seem to be confirmed by the close association with light-imagery and use of the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”). Christ the Son and Living Word of God faces the Father and is (perfect) reflection of the Father’s Light, etc. That same Light is then made to shine forth to believers.