Last week we embarked on a series of studies on the Letters of John, beginning with the ‘prologue’ of 1 John (1:1-4). We noted the similarities with the Prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John, an indication that the author is drawing upon both the manner of expression and the fundamental thought of the Johannine Gospel. This is particularly important in the light of the relation of the Letters (and the Gospel) to the Johannine Community—that group of congregations, presumably unified in thought and organization, in which those writings were produced and circulated. It is worth considering again the wording in 1:3-4, especially the use of the subjunctive in the central clause (note the portion in italics):
“th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”
It would seem that the force of the subjunctive éch¢te, “that you might hold, that you would hold”, is part of a deliberative rhetoric by the author—meant to convince his readers to align themselves with his view, and to avoid/reject the opposing position. This seems clear enough from the language used: “that you might also hold common (bond) with us“. The two pronouns are in emphatic position; and, indeed, as we shall see, there is a definite us/them contrast that runs through the letters. Most commentators would interpret this as a sign of a serious conflict within the Community, even though the precise nature and extent of it remains uncertain.
1 John 2:18-27
Today’s study will focus on 1 John 2:18-27, from the standpoint, primarily, of historical criticism—that is, of determining the historical background and setting of both the particular passage and the work as a whole. Sound historical-critical analysis must begin with text as we have it, working from it based on careful exegesis. Even if it is necessary to read between the lines a bit, this ought to be done in a cautious manner; indeed, it is just at this point that close scrutiny of specific words and phrases is most vital.
Before proceeding, it will be helpful to examine briefly the two prior passages—2:3-11 and 12-17. The first is a three-fold discussion regarding Christian identity which is fundamental to the overall argument of the writing. It begins as follows, in verse 3:
“And in this we know that we have known him—if we keep watch (over) his entolai.”
The Greek plural entolaí is typically translated “commandments”, but this can be somewhat misleading in context. Literally, the word entol¢¡ refers to a charge or duty placed on (i.e. given to) someone to complete. The conventional translation suggests that the author is referring to something like the ‘commandments’ in the Law of Moses, or a similar set of commands given by Jesus in his teaching. This, however, does not appear to be correct, a point which will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming study. In the Johannine tradition, and for the author of 1 John, there is only one ‘command’ or duty for believers, and it is a dual, two-fold command, stately precisely in 3:23:
- Trust in Jesus as God’s Son, and
- Love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example
These are the marks of a true Christian. In verses 4-11, the author lays out three basic ‘tests’ for one who claims to be a true believer:
- “the one considering [i.e. claiming] (that) ‘I have known him‘”, but who does not keep/guard the two-fold command (“his entolai“) [vv. 4-5]
- “the one considering (himself) to remain in him“, but does not walk (i.e. live/act/behave) as Jesus walked, i.e. who does not follow Jesus’ own example [vv. 6ff]
- “the one considering (himself) to be in the Light“, but does not show love to his fellow believer (“hating his brother”), and so is actually in darkness [vv. 9-11]
Such a ‘false’ believer, being in darkness, cannot possibly belong to God, given the declaration in 1:5 (cf. also 2:8, and throughout the Gospel and First Letter). In 2:12-17, the focus shifts from the false believer to the true, and the author writes exhorting and admonishing his readers (as true believers), to remain in the truth, avoiding/resisting that which is false and evil, living according to the Word of God that remains in them (v. 14). In vv. 15-17, this is framed as part of the dualistic contrast between God and the world (kósmos, the current world-order).
This brings us to 2:18-27, which opens with an ominous (eschatological) warning:
“Little children, it is the last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) against the Anointed [antíchristoi], (from) which we know that it is the last hour.”
The significance of both the ‘Antichrist’ tradition and the imminent eschatology in this passage will be discussed as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. What is clear is that (a) the author believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” of the current Age, and (b) that this was indicated by the rise of these persons who are “against the Anointed One”. Whatever the author’s understanding of an underlying ‘Antichrist’ tradition (i.e. such as expressed in 2 Thess 2:1-12), he is using the term antíchristos differently, according to the basic meaning of the word—to characterize belief and/or behavior which is “against Christ”, or, more specifically, “against Jesus as the Anointed One”. In each verse that follows, the author describes those who are “against the Anointed”, and, at the same time, urges his readers not to follow in their path.
“They went out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n] but they were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], for if they were out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], they would have remained with us [meth’ h¢mœ¡n]; but (this happened so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be revealed] that they all were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n].”
There is a bit of wordplay, using the expression ex h¢mœ¡n (“out of us”), which is lost in most English translations. It plays on two meanings of the preposition ex (e)c, “out of”). In the first use of the expression here (“they went out of us”), the sense of the preposition is “(away) from”, like the spatial sense of going “out of” (i.e. leaving) a room; here it refers to people who, according to the author, have left the Community. In the last three occurrences of the expression, “out of us” signifies origin and identity—i.e., “coming out of”, as in a birth, and so belonging to a person or group (like a child to a family). In the central clause, the two meanings are brought together: if these people truly belonged to the (rest of the) Community, they would not have left it. This last point is expressed in Johannine language, familiar from the Gospel, using the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)—if they had belonged as believers with the rest of us, they would have remained with us. In the Gospel and letters of John, the verb ménœ has profound theological significance in terms of Christian identity—the believer “remaining” in Christ, and Christ “remaining” in the believer. The author goes so far as to state that the divisive conflict within the Community has taken place (according to God’s own purpose) so that it might be revealed those who are true believers, and those who are not.
“And you hold (the) anointing [chrísma] from the Holy (One), and you all have seen [i.e. known].”
The translation “Antichrist(s)” in verse 19 loses the important connection here between chrísma (“anointing”) and antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). There is an emphatic contrast intended between the author’s audience, assumed to be true believers, and those who have left the Community. The true believer holds the anointing of Christ (the Anointed One), and so could never be “against the Anointed”. Though it has to be inferred here, in speaking of “anointing” the author means the presence of Jesus in and among believers through the Spirit. The title “Holy (One)” (hágios) here almost certainly signifies Jesus (rather than God the Father), parallel (and partially synonymous) with “Anointed (One)”. The adjective pántes (“all”) is in emphatic position, stressing that this is so for all true believers. Some manuscripts read pánta (“all things”), but this would seem to be a ‘correction’, since otherwise the verb oídate (“you have seen”) lacks a clear object (compare v. 27). The implication is that all believers, through the presence of the Spirit, can see/know the truth—that is, the truth of who Jesus is, his example that we are to follow, etc.
“And I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen the truth, but (rather) that you have seen it, and (have seen) that every lie is not out of the truth.”
There is a definite rhetorical purpose for the author to continue to address his reader with the presumption that they are true believers, repeatedly confirming this point. It would seem that it is intended to persuade his audience to stay away from the ‘false’ believers who have separated, and to treat them as non-believers (belonging to the world). This will become increasingly clear as we proceed through the letters, and is a point that needs to be considered with the utmost care. At any rate, here the author affirms that his readers, as true believers, have seen the truth (and will surely continue to do so). The language in the final clause mirrors that used in verse 19. A lie does not come out of the truth, in the sense of belonging to it, even as those who separated from the Community do not belong to it. This implicitly characterizes them as false believers.
“Who is the false (one) if not the (one) denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)? This is the (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos]: the (one) denying the Father and the Son.”
Here the false believer is defined more precisely as one “denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)”. From this verse alone, it is impossible to know just what this denial (vb arnéomai) entails. The verb literally means “fail/refuse to speak”, but could also denote “speak/utter against”, bringing it more in line with the idea of being “against” the Anointed One. A superficial reading might suggest Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah; however, given the obvious Christian context of 1 John, this can scarcely be correct. Presumably everyone in the Community, even those who separated from it, would have affirmed the basic identification of Jesus as the Anointed One, however the title was understood precisely. And this seem to be just what was at issue—what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Anointed One? As history has proven, believers can adhere to a common Christological belief, while understanding it in very different ways. The second portion of verse 22, I think, brings more clarity to how the author views the matter: denying Jesus as the Anointed One is essentially the equivalent of denying the Father and the Son. As the Gospel John makes abundantly clear, the person of Jesus is fundamentally defined in terms of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus as God’s Son.
“Every (one) denying the Son does not even hold the Father, (but) the (one) giving common account of the Son holds the Father also.”
The opposite of denying (arnéomai), or failing to properly acknowledge, Jesus is to give an account as one (vb homologéœ) regarding him, i.e. to recognize and confess belief in him in unity with other believers. The logic is clear and simple: those who ‘deny’ Jesus cannot have a bond or relationship with God as their Father; however, if they properly recognize Jesus, which means being united with him, then they are united with the Father (as His children) as well. This all reinforces the idea that those who separated from the Community are not (and could not have been) united with God (and Christ) as believers.
“(That) which you heard from the beginning, it must remain in you; (and), if it should remain in you, (that) which you heard from the beginning, (then) indeed you will remain in the Son and in the Father.”
Here, remaining in union with God the Father and Jesus the Son is dependent on the message/truth which believers have heard (and accepted) remaining in them. This formulation clearly echoes that of 1:1-4 (see the previous study), with its key use of the expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s), embued with theological and Christological meaning. The message about who Jesus is, which goes back to the very beginning—both of the proclamation of the Gospel and the Creation itself—will continue to be upheld by every true believer. We still do not know, at this point in the letter, precisely how the view of those who separated from the Community differs, only that, in the mind of the author, it contradicts the fundamental message of the Gospel.
“And this (truly) is the message which he gave about (this) to us—the Life of the Age.”
The expression “life of the Age [i.e. Age to Come]” is an eschatological idiom, signifying the future blessed life (in heaven) for the righteous, but which, in the Johannine writings, has special theological meaning: as the (eternal) Life which God possesses, and which He gives to His Son (Jesus), and, through him, to believers. Thus the message (angelía) is not merely the words of the Gospel that are proclaimed about Jesus, but the life-giving power and presence of Jesus (the Son) himself. An even clearer definition of “Eternal Life” along these lines is found in the Gospel (17:3; cf. also 20:31, etc). The compound noun epangelía, literally a message about something, is often used in the sense of what a person will do about something, i.e. a promise, and so the word is typically translated in the New Testament. Here it should be understood more generally, in terms of the (Gospel) message about Jesus—who he is (in relation to the Father), and what God has done through him—that believers have heard and accepted “from the beginning”.
“I write these (thing)s to you, about the (one)s making you stray (from the truth).”
Here, in spite of assurances to his readers that they are true believers, the author clearly recognizes the real (and present) danger that there are people causing members of the Community to go astray (vb. planáœ). He uses a present participle, indicating that this is active and ongoing at the time he is writing. As noted above, the author clearly wishes to convince his readers of the error of these people, and to avoid them, regarding them instead as false believers. The statement “I write these things” should be understood of the letter (1 John) as a whole—the purpose of writing was to warn his readers of these people who might make them go astray.
“And (as for) you, the anointing which you received from him, it remains in you and you do not hold (the) need that any (one) should teach you; but, as his anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not (something) false, (so) also, even as it taught you, you are to remain in it.”
This verse summarizes the previous instruction, functioning as a reinforcing exhortation to readers. The precise force of it depends on a minor, but significant, textual question involving the last three words. The verb ménete (again the important Johannine vb ménœ, “remain”) can be read as either a present indicative (“you [do] remain”) or an imperative (“[you must] remain”):
- “even as it taught you, (so) you remain in it” (indicative)—i.e. one naturally follows as a consequence of the other for believers, the emphasis being on the work of the “anointing” (i.e. the Spirit)
- “even as it taught you, (so) you must remain in it” (imperative)—the emphasis shifts to the believer, his/her response to instruction by the Spirit/Anointing, involving a willingness to remain in the Spirit’s teaching.
I believe that at least some measure of imperative force is intended, based on the importance of the message which the author is intending to convey to his readers, exhorting them to remain fully rooted in the Community and the view of Jesus Christ which the author affirms for the Community. I have sought to preserve this, while recognizing the textual ambiguity, by translating “you are to remain…”.
Should the final pronoun in the prepositional phrase (en autœ¡) be understood as a reference to the anointing (“in it“), or to the person (Jesus) who relates to the believer through the anointing (“in him“). On the basic assumption that the anointing essentially refers to the Spirit (a point to be clarified in upcoming studies), which is also the manifest presence of Jesus in and among believers, either translation would be acceptable. I believe that the immediate point of reference in the closing words, consistent with the sense of verse 27 as a whole, is to the anointing (i.e. the Spirit). The same question of translation, of course, comes up when rendering passages mentioning the Spirit—should the Spirit be referred to as “it” or “he”? It is largely a matter of preference, though there are theological implications also which should not be ignored.
I hope that the exegetical treatment of 1 John 2:18-27 above is helpful in elucidating the circumstances under which the author is writing. We may summarize this briefly as:
- There has been a conflict (and split) in the Community, with certain members (and congregations?) separating from the rest.
- These people hold a view of Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) which is viewed as erroneous and/or incompatible with the Johannine Gospel message.
- This view of Jesus is characterized as “denying” him, and/or speaking “against” him—thus the label of these people as “against the Anointed” (antichrist).
- This aspect of their view of Jesus, and their willingness to separate from the rest of the Community, marks them as false believers.
- To some extent, these people (and their view of Jesus) have influenced others in the Community, causing some to “go astray”. In spite of the author’s assumption, in his writing, that his readers are true believers, he clearly recognizes the danger that they may still be misled by the ‘false’ ones.
The views of these ‘false’ believers are further explained in the remainder of 1 John, and we will have occasion to study this in greater depth. However, next week, I wish to shift the focus a bit, moving from historical criticism to a particularly difficult and challenging theological aspect of the work—namely, the seemingly contradictory message presented in 1 John: that believers both are and are not able to sin, and that the true believer both does and does not commit sin. This is addressed at several points in the letter; we will begin with an examination of 2:28-3:10. I would ask you to read this passage carefully, bringing out for yourself any of the questions that naturally come up for Christians today; I expect you will find them addressed, in some fashion, in our study…next Saturday.