1 John 2:15-17
In the final portion of 1:5-2:17, the author gives a somewhat more traditional ethical application to his contrastive light-darkness theme. The darkness (skoti/a) represents the world (o( ko/smo$)—that is, the current world-order, dominated by sin and darkness, and fundamentally opposed to God. The author will develop this motif of opposition in the “antichrist” sections, describing certain persons whom (as a group) he treats as opponents, false believers who belong to the darkness rather than the light.
There are two parts to this final ethical section in 2:12-17. First, in vv. 12-14, the author addresses his readers as a group, treating them as if they are true believers. These believers (tekni/a) collectively are divided into two groups—older men (“fathers,” pate/re$) and younger ones (“young [men],” neani/skoi). Formally, the author uses a three-fold address, given twice:
- “I write to you, little children [tekni/a]
(in) that [o%ti] the sins have been taken away for you through his name” (v. 12)
- “I wrote to you, (dear) little children [paidi/a]
(in) that [o%ti] you have known the Father” (v. 13c)
- “I write to you, little children [tekni/a]
This semi-repetitive wording is a bit peculiar, but altogether typical of Johannine style. The author addresses all the believers, collectively, as tekni/a, a diminutive form of te/kna (“offspring, children”), a distinctly Johannine way of referring to believers as the offspring/children of God; in v. 13c the plural paidi/a (“little children”) is used, with identical meaning. Two characteristics of believers (i.e., all true believers) are given:
- their sins have been removed through Jesus’ name
- they have known the Father
Within these basic parameters, there are the following characteristics, broken down according to the older-younger division, but which essentially still apply to all believers:
- they have known the (one who is) from the beginning (a)p’ a)rxh=$)
- they have been victorious [vb nika/w] over the evil (one)
The two attributes are closely related, with the second following as a natural consequence of the first. In the Johannine theological idiom, knowing the one who is “from the beginning” means having genuine trust in Jesus, recognizing him as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. This trust leads to victory over the evil and darkness of the world (“the evil”) and its Chief, the Devil (“the evil one”); there is an obvious echo of Jesus’ climactic declaration in the Last Discourse (16:33; cf. also 12:31; 16:11). Like Jesus, believers also are victorious over the world, through their/our trust in him (1 Jn 5:4-5). The additional information given in v. 14b helps to explain how this victory is realized and achieved:
- “you are strong
and the word [lo/go$] of God remains in you”
- “you are strong
The use of the noun lo/go$ along with the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”) alludes to the prologue (1:1), and the special Christological significance of this language. As I have discussed, there is an indirect allusion to the Spirit in the prologue, one that is more explicit and clearly expressed here. The living Word (lo/go$) of God that “remains” in the believer refers to the spiritual presence of the Son (Jesus), being present through the Spirit. This is the idea expressed in 4:4, indicating that the Spirit—and the Son’s presence through the Spirit—is the source of believers’ victory over the world.
After affirming the identity of his readers as true believers, the author gives a warning to them regarding the darkness of “the world” (o( ko/smo$). If they heed this warning, then his readers will demonstrate that, indeed, they are true believers; if they fail the test, then they will make clear that the are “walking about” in the darkness, and are false believers, not true. The warning is simple enough:
“You must not love the world, nor the (thing)s in the world.” (v. 15a)
Here, the word ko/smo$ (“world-order”) carries the strong negative meaning that we see throughout the Johannine writings; cp. this with the more general, neutral sense in, e.g., Jn 3:16, where the idiom of ‘loving the world’ means something quite different in context.
Here in vv. 15ff it is possible to understanding love for the world in two related ways:
- In the neutral-negative sense of the ordinary components of human daily life (bi/o$, cf. below) and society; when these are loved over and against love of God, such love is evil and to be condemned. The statement by the Gospel writer in 12:43 is a good example of this aspect.
- In the evil-negative sense of that which is actively opposed and hostile to God. Jesus touches upon this stronger, dualistic aspect in Jn 3:19, where the same light-darkness contrast is employed: “men loved the darkness more than the light”. Cf. also 5:42; 8:42.
In both instances, the negative meaning of ko/smo$—the current world-order and its darkness—is related to a failure (and/or unwillingness) of people to trust in Jesus. The wording of v. 15b, and the thought it expresses, is close to Jesus’ statement in 5:42:
- “But I have known you, that you do not hold the love of God in yourselves” (Jn 5:42)
- “If anyone should love the world, (then) the love of the Father is not in him” (v. 15b)
The love of God, abiding within a person, refers principally to one’s trust in Jesus, and the abiding presence of Father and Son (through the Spirit) that results. As I have discussed, in the Johannine theological idiom, sin is understood primarily in terms of failure/unwillingness to trust in Jesus; however, this does not mean that the author denies or disregards the more conventional ethical-religious aspect(s) of sin (cf. 1:7-2:2). Indeed, here in verse 16, the author frames the negative aspect of ‘love for the world’ in traditional ethical terms:
“(for it is) that every(thing) th(at is) in the world—the impulse of the flesh for (things), the impulse of the eyes for (them), the boasting of (one’s) life [bi/o$] (in the world)—(does not come) out of the Father, but out of the world (itself).”
The noun e)piqumi/a means, literally, “(the) impulse [qumo/$] upon [e)pi] (something)”; in English, the idiom would be “set one’s heart (or mind) upon (something)”. In a negative, ethical sense, e)piqumi/a connotes an impulse toward something that is unlawful or sinful. Paul uses the word frequently in his letters (19 times [including 6 in the Pastorals], half of all NT occurrences); it is also relatively common in the Petrine letters (8 times), and cf. also James 1:14-15; Jude 16, 18. It is extremely rare in the Gospels, and is used, in this ethical sense, only in Mark 4:19. The expression “e)piqumi/a of the flesh” more or less corresponds to Paul’s concept of the “flesh” (sa/rc) as the aspect of the human being, which, even after coming to trust in Jesus, is still subject to the impulse toward sin. Even believers experience such impulses, which can lead to sin—where sin is defined in the conventional sense of occasional moral or religious failures. Sometimes what a person sees, in the world, will prompt a worldly/sinful impulse—thus the added expression “e)piqumi/a of the eyes”.
In the Johannine writings, the noun zwh/ (“life”) always is used in the theological sense of Divine/Eternal Life. Here, the world bi/o$ refers to “life” in the sense of a human life (of a certain length and circumstances) lived in the world. The “boasting” of such a life suggests that a person takes delight in worldly riches and honor; in such a way, ‘loving the world’ reflects a mindset that is opposed to God, and will lead one to reject Jesus, even as the Gospel writer describes in 12:43.
Finally, the author reminds his readers that the current world-order (ko/smo$) is only temporary, and will soon pass away (vb para/gw). This is a common thought expressed by early Christians, and is very much tied to the imminent eschatology held by first-century believers. Paul says something quite comparable in 1 Corinthians 7:31. By concluding 1:5-2:17 on this note, the author anticipates the eschatological emphasis of the “antichrist” section that follows in vv. 18-27.