As discussed in the previous note, verse 8 describes the role of the Spirit (the para/klhto$) as that of exposing/showing (vb e)le/gxw) the world (ko/smo$) to be wrong. He will show the world to be wrong about (peri/) three things in particular, expressed by a triad of nouns:
Of these three, the meaning of the first (a(marti/a) is most straightforward, being understood (and translated) generally as “sin”. Thus the statement in verse 8 reads: “and that (one) will show the world (to be wrong) about sin [peri\ a(marti/a$]…”.
However, sin (a(marti/a, vb a(marta/nw) has a very distinct meaning and significance in the Johannine writings. While not ignoring or denying the conventional ethical-religious meaning (cf. 5:14; 9:2-3ff; 20:23), the word (and concept) is very much defined in Christological terms, informed by its use in the Johannine theological context. We can see this most particularly by the explanation given (by Jesus) in verse 9:
“about sin, (on the one hand,) (in) that they do not trust in me“
The exposition in vv. 9-11 is governed syntactically by a me\n…de/… construction (“on the one hand…on the other…”). Here the particle me/n indicates the first item of the triad—three parts of a witness the Spirit gives against the world.
Sin is clearly identified here with a failure to trust (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus. People (i.e., those belonging to “the world”) are unwilling or unable to recognize the truth about who Jesus is, and thus do not trust in him. The main section in the Gospel dealing with the question of sin is section 8:21-30 of the great Sukkot Discourse-complex in chapters 7-8. In verse 21, Jesus first states the matter in a rather puzzling way:
“I go away, and you will seek me, and (yet) in your sin you will die off—for, (to the place) where I go away, you are not able to come.”
Throughout this discourse, as in the Last Discourse, Jesus plays on a double-meaning of the idea that he is “going away” (vb u(pa/gw). At the level of the world (that is, his hostile audience in the Sukkot Discourse), the reference is simply to Jesus having gone off somewhere (to another geographical location, cf. 7:35-36). However, according to the true meaning of Jesus’ words, he is returning back to the Father, indicating his Divine/heavenly origin as the Son of God. The world cannot find him, because he will not have gone away to another physical place, but to a spiritual place (4:23)—back to the Father.
On the surface, Jesus’ statement that unbelievers will die in their sin suggests that here a(marti/a is being used in its ethical-religious sense. By rejecting Jesus, they will not find forgiveness for their moral and religious failings and wicked behavior. Certainly, the Gospel does indicate that Jesus’ earthly mission, and his sacrificial death, was intended to “take away” the world’s sins (1:29). The author of 1 John makes clear that, by our participation in the death of Jesus, the cleansing power of his “blood”, communicated through the Spirit (cf. Jn 6:51-58, 63), does ‘take away’ our sin (1 Jn 1:7ff, discussed in a recent note).
However, the expression “in your sin”, lit. “in the sin of you” (e)n th=| a(marti/a| u(mw=n), can be understood another way—viz., as referring to the great sin of unbelief. Jesus’ opponents will die in this sin. Verses 23-24 demonstrate, indeed, how the expression is to be understood, within the Johannine theological idiom:
“You are out of [i.e. from] the (place) below [ka/tw], I am out of [i.e. from] the (place) above [a&nw]; you are out of [i.e. from] this world, I am not out of [i.e. from] this world. So I said to you that you will die off in your sins; for, if you would not trust that I am [e)gw\ ei)mi], you will die off in your sins.”
The expression “in your sins [plur.]” here is defined in terms of “in your sin [sing.]”. All other sins are secondary to, and ultimately relate back to, the great sin of unbelief. The essential predicative expression “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) is fundamental to the Johannine theology, occurring repeatedly throughout the Gospel. The reason why Jesus’ opponents will die ‘in their sins’ is because they are ‘in the (great) sin’ of unbelief; that is, they refuse to trust in Jesus, recognizing and accepting his identity as the Divine Son (with the attribute of “I Am”) sent by the Father.
The Spirit will expose the true nature of the world’s sin. Showing the world to be wrong “about sin” can be understood on two levels. First, the world’s understanding about the nature of sin (in general) is shown to be wrong. According to the world’s standards, a person may appear to be living in a moral and upright manner—like, to be sure, many of the religious leaders who were hostile to Jesus—and yet still commit the great sin of rejecting God’s Son.
When people encounter the witness as to who Jesus is, their own true identity is exposed and made known. If they belong to God, they will be drawn to the light, and will trust in Jesus; if they belong to the world (which is opposed to God), they will be shown to be hostile to the light, lovers of darkness, and will not trust in him. This witness (of the Spirit) exposes and reveals the world’s sin, and brings it under judgment; Jesus’ own witness, during his earthly ministry, did the same thing (cf. 3:19-21; 15:22ff [cp. 9:41]), and now the Spirit is continuing his work of bearing witness.
Thus, the second meaning of “about sin” relates to the world’s sin. This is the great sin of unbelief—refusing to trust in Jesus—and it shows that those who belong to the world, being lovers of darkness, are steeped in various kinds of sin, which cannot (and will not) be forgiven, because of their unbelief. The cleansing power of Jesus’ blood (1 Jn 1:7, cf. above) is only communicated to believers, those who belong to God, through the abiding presence of the Spirit.
In the next daily note, we will turn to the second item of the triad— “about rightness” (peri\ dikaiosu/nh$)—and how this is explained in verse 10.
* * * * *
As an interesting side note, the idea of a person’s true nature, and of the sinfulness of their heart, being exposed by the Spirit is also found in the Jewish Testament of Judah (part of the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”), chapter 20. It utilizes the same expression, “Spirit of truth”, as the Johannine Paraclete-sayings. As previously noted, the same expression occurs in the Qumran Community Rule text (1QS 3:18-29; 4:21), and the contextual usage in the Testament of Judah is very similar:
“The things of truth and the things of error are written in the affections of man, each one of whom the Lord knows. There is no moment in which man’s works can be concealed, because they are written on the heart in the Lord’s sight. And the spirit of truth testifies to all things and brings all accusations. He who has sinned is consumed in his heart and cannot raise his head to face the judge.” (20:3-5, translation by H. C. Kee, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Charlesworth ed. [Anchor Bible Reference Library]).