1 John 5:13-21, continued
Verses 13-21 of 1 John 5 form the conclusion of the letter; last week, we examined the first section (vv. 13-17), and now it remains to explore the final four verses. This portion is notable, since it serves as an effective summary of the letter’s message, and, indeed, of the Johannine theology as a whole. It may be divided into four components—the three principle statements of vv. 18-20, along with a closing (if cryptic) exhortation in verse 21. Each of these contains at least one significant critical issue, and, in addressing them we can again illustrate the principles and methods of Biblical Criticism at work.
To begin with, we have the three main statements in vv. 18-20; each begins with the first person plural perfect indicative verb form oídamen— “we have seen“, which can also be rendered “we have known“. The verb eídœ properly means “see”, but is also used equivalent to ginœ¡skœ (“know”). In the Johannine writings, especially, the motifs of seeing and knowing are interchangeable and go hand in hand.
1 John 5:18
“We have seen [oídamen] that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards him, and (so) the Evil does not attach (itself to) him.”
There are two text-critical questions which are key to a proper understanding of this verse. In addition, there is an important point of interpretation, related to the issue of sin and the believer. Let us begin with this last point.
Sin and the Believer (revisited)
The primary message of vv. 18-20, and of 1 John as a whole, is centered on the identity of the true believer in Christ. The letter essentially begins and ends with the question of the believer’s relationship to sin. The question is both theological and practical, centered on the apparent contradiction that a believer both can, and cannot, commit sin. In 1:6-2:2, it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin, and yet, following this, we have the declarations in 3:4-10 (esp. vv. 6, 9) that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. Likewise, in 5:13-17, it is understood that believers commit sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”), yet here again, in verse 18, is a declaration (nearly identical with that in 3:9) that the true believer does not sin. How can such seemingly contradictory statements be harmonized or explained?
We have discussed this thorny question several times in previous studies (on 2:28-3:10, and last week on 5:13-17). Let me here briefly summarize four ways of interpreting these passages:
- The sinlessness of the believer represents the ideal, to which every Christian should seek for his/her own life; it is realized essentially through our union with Christ, but still has to be experienced practically through faithfulness to Christ (and the guidance of the Spirit) in daily life.
- The intended contrast is between occasional sins by the believer (that are confessed and forgiven, 1:7, 9) and a pattern of sinfulness that characterizes the person and their true identity.
- The believer is sinless insofar as he/she remains in Christ. Sin occurs when the person (momentarily) falls out of this union; however, through forgiveness, he/she is restored. This line of interpretation draws on the Vine illustration by Jesus in John 15—the forgiven believer is ‘grafted’ back in to the vine.
- Believers may commit occasional sin, but no true believer can sin in the sense of violating the great two-fold command (3:23-24, etc)—the only command binding for believers. Violation of the two-fold command is the sin, which no true believer can ever commit.
There are certainly elements of truth to each of these lines of interpretation; however, what is important here is how the author of 1 John understood the matter. In my view, the overall evidence from the letter itself, taken in combination with key parallels in the Johannine Gospel, suggests that the last (fourth) option above is to be preferred as the primary emphasis. Especially important is the theological vocabulary involving the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ—on this, see the summary in last week’s study. The significance of sin in 1 John (and the Johannine Gospel) relates fundamentally to trust in Jesus—in other words, sin is defined not in terms of immorality or religious failing, but as unbelief. To be sure, the author would have taken for granted that true believers would live moral and upright lives, but that sort of ethical instruction is not what is being emphasized in the letter. Throughout, the author’s arguments center on the two-fold command (stated succinctly in 3:23-24), stressing that the ‘false’ believers (called “antichrist”) who separated from the Community have demonstrated both a lack of true belief in Jesus and a lack of true love for others.
Of special importance is the identity of the true believer defined in terms of being born of God, utilizing the verb gennáœ (“come to be, become”) in its uniquely Johannine sense of coming to be born out of God. That was the language used in 3:9f and again here: “every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin”. Instead, the believer, born out of God, is protected from evil—particularly from the evil of “antichrist”.
The main text-critical question in verse 18 involves the substantive participle (with definite article) ho genn¢theís. This is an aorist participle, parallel to the perfect participle (of the same verb) earlier in the verse. The perfect participle is the more common Johannine usage, especially when referring to believers—i.e., as “the (one) having come to be (born)”, ho gegenn¢ménos. It is not immediately clear whether the aorist form, similarly meaning “the (one hav)ing come to be (born)”, refers to the believer or to Jesus. The verb gennáœ is almost always used of believers in the Johannine writings (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8ff, etc), but Jesus is the subject at least once, generally referring to his human birth/life, in 18:37. That some copyists understood both occurrences of the verb here in verse 18 as referring to believers is indicated by the manuscripts that read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”) instead of autón (“him”); with the reflexive pronoun, the verse would read:
“every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God guards himself…”
That is to say, the believer guards himself/herself from evil, i.e. so that the true believer will not sin. This makes the verse more of an ethical exhortation than a theological statement. In a few manuscripts and witnesses, the meaning is clarified by reading the noun génn¢sis (“coming to be [born]”, i.e. birth) instead of the participle genn¢theís. According to this reading, it is the spiritual birth itself that protects the believer. While this is closer to the Johannine theology, it is almost certainly not the original reading. Even though the verb gennáœ is rarely used of Jesus in the Johannine writings, it would seem to be the best way of understanding the statement in verse 18. Believers are children of God, having come to be “born out of God”, just as Jesus, the Son of God came to be “born out of God” (Jn 1:12-13, 14, 18). Our union with God the Father is based on our union with Jesus the Son, and it is his sinlesseness (and power over evil) that protects us from sin and evil.
The second text-critical question involves the substantive adjective (with definite article) ho pon¢rós, “the evil (one)”. There is a certain ambiguity with this language—does it refer to the evil that is in the world, or to an evil person, the “Evil One” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). The same sort of ambiguity occurs, famously, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13), but a much closer parallel is found in the the Prayer Discourse of Jesus in chap. 17 of the Johannine Gospel, where Jesus prays that God would protect his disciples (believers) from “the evil” (17:15), using the same verb t¢réœ (“keep watch [over]”) as here in v. 18. Most likely, the author is thinking in terms of “the Evil (One)”, the Satan/Devil who is the opponent of God and controller of the evil in the world; however, in the Johannine theology, there is little difference between the evil in the world and the Evil One who dominates the world, as is clear from the statement in v. 19.
1 John 5:19
“We have seen [oídamen] that we are out of God, and (that) the whole world is stretched out in the Evil.”
Here the contrast is between believers—again using the motif of being born out of God—and the world. This is a key point in the Johannine theology, expressed many times in both the Gospel and Letter. The usage of the word kósmos (“order, arrangement”, i.e. world-order, how things are arranged in the world) in the Last Discourse(s) of Jesus (chaps. 14-17) is quite close to that in 1 John. It is in those chapters that Jesus most clearly establishes the conflict between believers (his disciples) and the world (kósmos)—see 14:17ff, 27, 30-31; 15:18-19; 16:8-11, 20-21, 28, 33, and all through chap. 17 (where kósmos occurs 18 times). The noun occurs almost as frequently in 1 John (24 times). The world—the current world-order—is dominated by darkness and evil. Jesus was sent by God the Father into the world, to free believers from its power; now believers remain in the world, but we are no longer dominated by the power of sin and evil.
That the current world-order is thoroughly and completely evil is clearly expressed here in verse 19: “the whole world is stretched out in the evil”. Here the substantive adjective ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) is perhaps better understood as a domain or kingdom, rather than a person. It is where the world lies stretched out (vb keímai), though this could still be personified as the hand or presence of the Evil One. According to the author of 1 John, those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community went out into the world, into the domain of evil. True believers, by contrast, do not belong to the world.
1 John 5:20
“And we have seen [oídamen] that the Son of God comes here (to us), and has given to us (the ability to work) through (the) mind [diánoia], (so) that we would know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true and in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed.”
This is the third and final oídamen-statement; these statements reflect a theological progression which may be outlined as follows:
- Believers are protected from sin and evil, since they/we are “born out of God”, even as Jesus (the Son) was “born out of God”.
- As ones “born out of God”, believers do not belong to the world, which is thoroughly dominated by Evil.
- This birth allows believers to know and recognize the truth—the truth of God and His Son (Jesus), with whom they/we are united. This is also the truth of their/our identity (as true believers).
The first verb and tense used are curious—the present tense of the relatively rare h¢¡kœ, “he comes here” (h¢¡kei). We might rather expect the past tense—i.e., he came, and so now we can know the truth, etc. Perhaps the closest parallel is in 8:42 of the Gospel:
“…for I came out of God, and come (to you) here [h¢¡kœ]…”
The present tense indicates the immediate encounter of human beings with Jesus the Son of God, in the present, prompting either trust or unbelief as a result. This is a present reality for all people, both believers and unbelievers alike. The truth of who Jesus is stands as the essence our identity as believers. Moreover, we continue to encounter him, in the present, through the presence and work of the Spirit.
By freeing believers from the power and influence of the evil in the world (and the Evil One), it is possible for them to know and recognize the truth—and this truth has two aspects or components: (1) the truth of God Himself (and His Son), and (2) the truth of our identity as believers, that we are in God (and in His Son). The substantive adjective ho al¢thinós (“the true”) is parallel with the substantive ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) in vv. 18-19, and there is a similar sort of ambiguity—does it refer to that which is true, or the one who is true? Here, the context more clearly indicates that it refers to a person, namely God the Father; some manuscripts make this specific by adding the noun theós, “God”, though this is scarcely necessary, given the closing words of v. 20.
The final declaration in verse 20 summarizes all three oídamen-statements of vv. 18-20. The syntax, however, is problematic, causing some difficulty of interpretation; literally it reads:
“This is the true God and Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”
The demonstrative pronoun hoútos (“this”) is rather ambiguous. The nearest antecedent is “Yeshua the Anointed”, but the demonstrative pronoun could still refer back to an earlier subject (compare the syntax in 2 John 7). There are, in fact, four possibilities for how this statement can be understood:
- The demonstrative pronoun (“this [one]”) refers to Jesus, in which case it is Jesus who is called both “true God” and “eternal Life”
- It refers back to the substantive “the (one who is) true” (i.e. God the Father), and identifies the substantive explicitly as “the true God” who is also “eternal Life”
- It is a dual reference, matching the earlier statement: “the (one who is) true [i.e. God the Father] and His Son”, i.e. “the one who is true” = “the true God”, and “His Son Yeshua the Anointed” = “eternal Life”
- It refers comprehensively to what is stated in verse 20 (and/or all of vv. 18-20), i.e. this is all said of the true God and the eternal life that comes through His Son.
In my view, the some combination of the second and third options best fits both the syntax and the Johannine theology. A rather close parallel is the declaration in John 17:3:
“And this is the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—that they should know you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed”
Here the adjective al¢thinós and the expression “the true God” unquestionably refer to God the Father, but in connection with His Son Jesus, the two—Father and Son—joined together as a unified pair. If I might paraphrase the closing words of v. 20 in this light, I think that the following well captures the meaning:
“The ‘one who is true’ —this is the true God, who, with His Son Yeshua, is the source of eternal Life.”
1 John 5:21
“(My dear) offspring, you must guard yourselves from the images.”
The letter ends with this curious exhortation (and warning). The meaning and purpose in context is difficult to determine, and has somewhat perplexed commentators. There is a general parallel here with the thought of verse 18:
“the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God keeps watch over him [i.e. over the believer], and the Evil does not attach itself to him”
The reading with the reflexive pronoun (see above) would offer a closer formal parallel:
“the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God keeps watch over himself…”
The verb fylássœ (“guard”) in v. 21 is generally synonymous with t¢réœ (“keep watch [over]”) in v. 18. It would serve as a fitting corollary to the statement in v. 18:
- V. 18: The believer’s union with Jesus, as one “born out of God”, protects him/her from evil (and sin)
- V. 21: At the same time, it is necessary for the believer to guard him/herself from the influence of evil
Perhaps the main difficulty in verse 21 is how to interpret the significance and force of the word eídœlon (“image”, here plural “images”). There are several possibilities:
- “Images” in the simple and concrete sense of (Greco-Roman) pagan religious images (idols); or, perhaps a specific reference to food, etc, that has been consecrated to such images (Acts 15:20 par; 1 Cor 8-10; Rev 2:14, 21).
- As a shorthand term for the influence of (Greco-Roman) paganism in general
- As a similar shorthand pejorative for false religious belief, specifically that of the ‘false’ believers opposed by the author of 1 John
The second option seems most appropriate, given the setting of the letter and those believers to whom it is being addressed. And yet, there is very little religious or ethical instruction of the sort elsewhere in the letter (2:15-17 comes closest), so its sudden appearance here is surprising. Perhaps the author felt it necessary to include such an exhortation, in passing, as a reminder of the baleful influence of the pagan culture that surrounded his readers. Already well aware of this, his audience presumably would not require any more explanation.
Personally, I am inclined to the third option above, which, if correct, would preserve the author’s warning as a more integral part of vv. 18-21 (and the letter as a whole). Since the overall message and thrust of the letter was to warn his readers against those false (“antichrist”) believers who had separated from the Community, it seems likely that the author would continue this focus to the very end. Perhaps this helps to explain the emphasis in verse 20 on the true God (see above)—in contrast to the false “gods” of idolatry. However, instead of the traditional contrast between Christianity and Paganism, in 1 John it is between true and false belief in Jesus. In 2:22-23, the author treats the “antichrist” views of the ‘false’ believers as effectively the same as denying both the Son of God and God the Father himself! It would not be taking things much further to equate such false belief in God with the “idols” of false religion.
This study of the closing verses of 1 John have touched upon text-critical, historical-critical, and literary-critical issues—the latter, in particular, dealing with the vocabulary, syntax, and style of the author (compared with the Johannine Gospel, etc). All of these aspects and approaches are necessary to take into consideration when studying a passage. They will not always lead to definitive solutions to questions of interpretation, but such critical analysis, when done honestly and objectively, and in an informed way, should bring valuable elucidation to the Scriptures. Having now concluded a representative analysis on many of the key passages and issues in First John, it is now time to turn our attention to the second and third Letters. This we will do, God willing, next Saturday…I hope you will join me.