April 12: John 17:21a, 22b

John 17:21-23

Line 1: John 17:21a, 22b

This is the first of five notes on the five line pairs in John 17:21-23. As discussed in the previous daily note, in these verses there are two parallel 5-line stanzas; the formal parallelism is precise, as I have outlined. It thus makes sense to examine together the corresponding lines in both stanzas. The first line, in v. 21a and 22b respectively, states the central request Jesus makes here in the Prayer-Discourse to God the Father, on behalf of believers (all believers, v. 20). The two lines state this request concisely, and are virtually identical:

      • “…that they all would be one” (v. 21a)
        i%na pa/nte$ e^n w@sin
      • “…that they would be one” (v. 22b)
        i%na e^n w@sin

The only difference is the inclusion of the adjective pa=$ (plur. pa/nte$), “all”, in the first line. It is clearly implied in the parallel line as well, without any need for the modifier to be repeated. The word translated “one” is the neuter (e%n) of the primary numeral ei!$. The neuter does not represent an abstraction as much as it does the collective—the many (believers) as a single entity, or community. As previously noted, in Hebrew/Aramaic, this would be rendered by the noun dj^y~ (yaµad), as indeed it was used by the Community of the Qumran texts. Cf. The Community Rule [1QS]: “…(in order) to be as a dj^y~” (5:2), “…in their being gathered (in)to the dj^y~” (5:7). Quite literally (and concretely), e%n denotes “one (thing)”, a point that will be discussed in the following notes.

Jesus’ request is existential—it refers to what believers would be (w@sin). This is expressed by the present subjunctive of the verb of being. Since Jesus makes this request of God the Father, the implication is that the condition has not yet been realized. In the narrative context of the Prayer-Discourse—his impending death and his departure to the Father, referenced throughout the Last Discourse—this must be related to his request for the Spirit to be sent (14:16; 15:26, also 14:26; 16:8ff). With his death, the disciples will be scattered (16:32), only to be gathered back together following his resurrection, symbolized by their being gathered in one place (even though it was out of fear, 20:19ff, cp. Lk 24:36ff; Acts 1:12ff; 2:1), where they receive the Spirit from the exalted Jesus (20:22). This basic type-pattern is fulfilled for future believers, in all places, and continues the subjunctive wish of Jesus in the Prayer-Discourse. Some translators render it as “may be” or “might be”, but this, I feel, misreads the force of Jesus’ request. In some ways, it is closer to the nature of a command, directed as much toward the believers themselves as it is to God the Father whom he addresses (cp. 11:42). He could as easily have said (to the disciples/believers), “I ask of you that you would (all) be one”. Compare also the use of imperatives in a prayer setting, such as in the Lord’s Prayer. When addressing God, it seems rather impious to translate these as “you must…”, etc, the preferable rendering being rather that of an entreaty (“may you…”, “please…”).

Going beyond the text to certain theological ramifications regarding this sort of prayer-language, it may be said that the believer ought to make the request to God with the sense of trust that it will be done, or even that it has been done (cf. 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, 26ff). These references in the Last Discourse center this mindset in the relationship (i.e. union) believers have with Jesus the Son and God the Father, the very point of 17:20-23. The nature of this relationship will be elucidated by a study of the following lines.

The immediate context of this request for unity has to do with trust (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus (v. 20). This might suggest that the unity of believers is Christological—based on a proper understanding and recognition of who Jesus is (Messiah & Son of God) and what he has done. The centrality of trust (pi/sti$) within the Johannine writings cannot be minimized; it represents one half of the dual-command (or duty) required of all believers (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). Indeed, much of First John is devoted to the problem of division in the Community, being caused by false (“antichrist”) believers who, according to the author, espouse an erroneous view of Jesus. Centuries of Christological disputes have similarly been the source of much division, and, as a result, many Christians have sought to establish unity in terms of definitive creeds or statements of faith/belief. However, at the same time, Jesus’ request for unity would seem, in some sense, to be separate from the question of trust, since he is speaking of all who trust (i.e. all believers), and makes the additional request that they would be one.

If we wish to understand exactly what Jesus (and the Gospel writer) have in mind, it will be necessary to examine the remaining lines of the stanza(s), beginning with line 2 (vv. 21b, 22c-23a), in the next note.

 

February 12: Revelation 21:27

Revelation 21:27

“And (in) no (way) shall all (that is) [i.e. anything] common come into her, and (even more) the (one) doing (what is) stinking and false, (none shall come in) if not [i.e. except for] the (one)s having been written in the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of life of [i.e. belonging to] the Lamb.”

Verse 27 essentially concludes the description of the “new Jerusalem”, and it is, I think, fundamental to a proper understanding of the vision as a whole, especially the details in vv. 24-26 (discussed in the previous note). The declaration in verse 27 defines who will dwell in the city; and this definition has both a negative (who/what will not) and positive (who will) aspect. Dwelling within the city is here expressed in terms of entering it (vb ei)se/rxomai, “come into”).

    • Negative—who/what does not come into the city:
      “all (that is) common” (pa=n koino/n)— “common” (koino/$) referring to the ordinary things of the world, in direct contrast to that which is holy (a%gio$) and of God.
      “the (one) doing (what is) stinking and false” —the noun bde/lugma (“stinking [thing]”) refers generally to the evil and wickedness in the world (characteristic of the “great city”, Babylon, 17:4-5); it also signifies a special kind of eschatological wickedness, or idolatry, that desecrates the sacred things of God (cf. Mark 13:14 par, citing Daniel 9:27 LXX); the related verb bdelu/ssw was used earlier in verse 8.
    • Positive—who does come into the city:
      “the (one)s having been written in the scroll of life of the Lamb” —this is a way of identifying believers in Christ, also used in 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, often in direct contrast to those who are not true believers; the idiom is based, in part, on citizenship-rolls in the Greco-Roman world, i.e., a list of names of those who rightly belong to a particular city.

Based on this contrast, the inclusion of the neuter pa=n koino/n (“all [that is] common”) seems a bit out of place; it is derived from the Old Testament imagery, and especially of the future/ideal Jerusalem as the “holy city” (Isa 52:1 and 35:8; cf. also Zech 14:19-20; Psalms of Solomon 17:30; 11Q19 [Temple Scroll] 47:3-5). In a technical religious sense, to be “common” means it is impure or ‘unclean’. The “new Jerusalem”, as the dwelling place of God, is holy and sacred throughout, as is indicated by the purity and clarity of its design (vv. 11, 15-21).

This dualism of holy vs. common, together with the reference to the “nations” that, apparently, still surround the “new Jerusalem”, creates certain difficulties of interpretation, as was mentioned in the previous note. If believers dwell within the city, then are these nations and kings non-believers? Were not all the non-believers punished/destroyed in the Judgment scenes of the prior chapters? Who exactly are these “nations”?

In the previous note, I touched upon the most relevant and informative parallel to this imagery in the book of Revelation—the vision scene of chapter 7, with its two-fold depiction of believers as the people of God:

    • 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8)
    • A great multitude from all the Nations (vv. 9ff)

In early Christianity, the imagery found in prophecies such as Isaiah 60:3ff, with its theme of the nations coming (to Jerusalem) to give homage and worship to the God of Israel, was applied directly to the proclamation of the Gospel and early Christian mission to the Gentiles. In other words, the eschatological/Messianic imagery was re-interpreted in the context of Gentiles (the “nations”) coming to faith in Christ. These Gentile believers, together with their fellow Israelite/Jewish believers, formed the true people of God, the people of the new Covenant. Paul was the most fervent and consistent advocate of this new theological and religious approach, but it can be seen throughout the New Testsment, and features prominently in the visionary narrative of Revelation (as has been discussed). The symbolism of the nations and their gifts in vv. 24-26 must be interpreted in this light. Consider, then, the details of this description:

    • “the nations will walk about through her light” —believers from the nations, who are in the city (and so walk through the light of God which pervades it); in a sense, the nations, as such (i.e. the ethnic divisions and distinctions), are sanctified and made holy this way.
    • “the kings of the earth carry their honor/splendor into her” —the presence of believers is here depicted as a gift from the nations (their kings); through the coming of Gentiles into the city (as believers), the nations, figuratively speaking, give all that is their true honor and splendor—believers being the glory (do/ca) of the nations.
    • “her gate-ways certainly shall not be shut by day…” —these ‘gifts’ are eternal, they are not based not natural (worldly) or temporal factors, “day” now being derived from the light of God Himself, without any darkness or “night”; for believers, these gate-ways are always open, while they are closed/barred to the wicked.
    • “and they will bring the honor and the value of the nations into her” —this essentially re-states the situation in v. 24b; the dual-reference to the honor (do/ca) of the nations is best understood as (1) the entry of believers in the city, followed by (2) the specific honor/worship of God which they give, eternally, as they come ever through the always-open gates.

This imagery of the nations coming to faith in Christ may seem incongruous with the previous visions, if we attempt to read them as a continuous and consistent narrative. In point of fact, however, chapters 21-22 represent the climax of the book, in which all of the previous themes, and many of the earlier visionary symbols, are brought together, and restated in new forms and combinations. Throughout the book, Old Testament motifs, which would have originally related to Israel (as the people of God), have been applied to believers. Moreover, even the Scriptures, which had been given a Messianic and eschatological interpretation in Jewish writings of the period, have been reinterpreted in light of Christian eschatology. This is certainly true of Isa 60:3ff in relation to the description of the “new Jerusalem”. In 11:1ff, believers are concentrated in the Temple sanctuary, while outside the “great city” is overrun by the wickedness of the nations. Now the situation has been transformed, and the entire city is the dwelling of believers, while the nations eternally bring holy gifts (that of the believers themselves) into her.

While the description of the city proper concludes at the end of chapter 21, the theme of the “new Jerusalem” continues in the opening verses of chapter 22 (vv. 1-5), which are also transitional to the final sections of the book. We will consider the scenario of 22:1-5 in the next daily note.

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February 2: Revelation 21:6b-8

Revelation 21:6b-8

The remainder of this introductory section (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-6a) to the vision continues God’s words from verse 6a; it shifts from His self-identification to the relationship He holds with His people. As I have discussed throughout these notes, the motif of the “people of God” is central to the visionary narrative, even though the actual expression really does not occur prior to this final vision. This thematic emphasis is confirmed by two aspects of the symbolism in the book:

    • The scenes depicting a multitude of people surrounding God (His throne) and the exalted Christ (the Lamb), and
    • The various Old Testament imagery, occurring throughout the visions, otherwise related to Israel as the people of God

Like many of the symbols in the book of Revelation, there are both heavenly and earthly aspects to this idea of believers as the people of God. Believers are gathered in heaven (in an exalted state), and, at the same time, are enduring persecution and distress on earth. The clearest blending of this people-of-God imagery, applied to faithful believers in Christ, is found in the two scenes involving the 144,000 in chapters 7 and 14:1-5; this, of course, draws upon the fundamental symbolism of the twelve tribes of Israel, something the final vision will also build upon (vv. 12-14). The point will be discussed further in the next note.

Indeed, it is only here in the climactic vision, centered around the motif of the “new Jerusalem”, that the identity of believers in Christ as the true people of God becomes explicit; cf. the previous note on vv. 3-4, with its allusion to Ezek 37:27; Lev 26:11-12, and many other passages involving the covenantal language of the Old Testament. Now, in addition to this language, we have the idea of believers as the sons (i.e. children) of God, even as Israel had been regarded as His “son” (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Isa 43:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 1:10; 11:1) in the old Covenant. And, as God’s sons/children, faithful believers will receive the divine inheritance that belongs to a true son. This is very much the principal idea here in verses 6b-8:

“I will give (freely) as a gift out of the fountain of the water of life to the (one) thirsting. The (one) being victorious will receive these (thing)s as (his) lot, and I will be God to him and he will be my son.” (vv. 6b-7)

There are three components to his promise of divine/heavenly reward; they are presented in reverse order, in the sense that each statement depends on the one that follows:

    • The believer is related to God as His son/child =>
      • The true/faithful believer will receive the divine/eternal inheritance =>
        • Believers have eternal life, using the symbolism of drinking the “water of life”

This generally corresponds with the promises in the letters of chapters 2-3, which declare that the believer who remains faithful, in the face of the evil and persecution of the end-time period of distress, i.e. is victorious (vb nika/w), he/she will receive the eternal/heavenly reward. The reward of eternal life is expressed through a variety of symbols and images, among which is this motif of drinking from the “water of life”. This particular image is ancient and widespread, based upon the natural life-giving characteristics of water. Of the many Old Testament passages, one may note Psalm 35:10; Prov 13:14; 14:27; Isa 43:20; 44:3; Jer 2:13; 17:13; Zech 14:8; for the specific idea of thirsting after God (and the water He gives), cf. Psalm 42:2; 63:1; Isa 41:17-18; 55:1, etc. The eschatological motif of “living water” coming out of Jerusalem derives primarily from Zechariah 14:8 (cf. also Joel 3:18; Ezek 47:1-12).

In the Old Testament / Near Eastern idiom, the expression “living water” refers to natural flowing water, as from a river, stream, or fountain/spring (phgh/). The latter is in view here, as it also is in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, where the motif of “living water” likewise serves as an image for eternal lifeJn 4:10-14; 7:37-39; cf. also 6:35, 53ff.

“But for the fearful (one)s and (the one)s without trust and (the one)s having made themselves to stink—even murderers and prostitute(-seeker)s and drug-handlers and image-servers, and all th(ose acting) false(ly)—their portion (is) in the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (v. 8)

Believers are contrasted in verse 8 with the wicked, or non-believers. It is easy for modern readers to misunderstand the manner of expression here, for several reasons. The first involves the specific setting of the book of Revelation. Throughout the visions, the focus has been primarily on the coming period of distress, which believers at the time where thought to be entering. During this period, the faith (“trust”, pisto/$) of believers in Christ would be increasingly (and severely) tested. Out of fear of persecution (and death), there was the danger that some might fall away; this is why being “fearful” (deilo/$) is paired here with being “without trust” (a&pisto$), i.e. faithless, without faith in God and Christ.

The second thing to note regarding the narrative context in Revelation is that, during the time of distress, when the forces of evil are especially dominant and active on earth, a turning away from faith means identifying oneself as belonging to the evil powers symbolized by the Dragon and Sea-Creature of chapters 13-14ff. At the pinnacle of the end-time distress, the choice is stark and clear—remain faithful and endure suffering/death, or turn and embrace the evil authority of the Sea-Creature (as manifest in the Roman Empire, etc). The use of the verb bdelu/ssw (indicating a reaction to something that stinks), may be an intentional allusion to the eschatological tradition in Mark 13:14 par (cf. Dan 9:27 LXX) and the related noun bde/lugma (“stinking thing”).

It is also important to understand the rhetorical force of such “vice lists” in the New Testament and early Christianity. They are part of a traditional kind of religious and ethical instruction, with strong parallels in Jewish tradition and in Greco-Roman philosophy as well. The lists are a way of dramatically summarizing the kinds of wickedness that the righteous (i.e. believers) must avoid. Paul uses them rather frequently to emphasize the clear contrast between believers and the wickedness/immorality traditionally associated with non-believers (“the nations”). In 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 he utilizes the same motif of inheritance, stating bluntly that those who do such things will surely not inherit the Kingdom of God (i.e. receive eternal life).

Readers today might well question how this instruction would relate to non-Christians (non-believers) who generally conduct themselves in an upright and virtuous manner. However, such concerns were quite foreign to the thought-world of early Christianity, where non-believers were more or less identified with immorality and wickedness in a stock manner. We should not, however, assume that this was always taken literally, at face value, especially since “prostitution” and “idolatry” were often used figuratively for a lack of trust in God, even when no actual prostitution or idol-worship took place. Similarly, in Jesus’ teaching, anger and hatred toward others could be equated with “murder”, and so forth (Matthew 5:21-22, 43ff; cp. 1 John 3:11-12ff).

Even so, there is certainly a clear and precise contrast between believer and non-believer here in vv. 6b-8, as may be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • Reward: Drinking from the Water of Life
      • Those who are victorious (believers) will inherit
        • Identification of believers as the Sons/Children of God
      • Those who are wicked (non-believers) will have their portion
    • Punishment: Submerged in the Lake of Fire (cf. 19:20; 20:15)
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Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.

Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Literary Criticism

The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:

    • Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
      • Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
      • Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
      • Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
      • Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
    • Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13

If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:

    • Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
      • Love as fulfillment of the dual-command which marks the true believer, vv. 5-6
      • Trust in Jesus–warning against those who violate the command, i.e. those who mark themselves as false believers, vv. 7-11
    • The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12

Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.

In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:

    • Love: Sign of the true believer (vv. 5-6)
    • Trust: Warning against the false believers (vv. 7-11)

To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:

“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”

Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.

Historical Criticism

When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”

The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:

    • Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
    • They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
    • They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
    • This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth

The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:

“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”

In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).

Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:

“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.

Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.

January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.

December 25: Romans 8:3, 19ff

For the daily notes during these days of Christmas, I will be interrupting the current notes (on the Book of Revelation) to present a short series on the birth of Jesus as the Son of God. I have dealt with the subject extensively in an earlier Christmas series (The Birth of the Son of God), but here this season I wish to focus on the development of the birth/sonship motif, from a theological and religious point of view. In discussing Romans 8:18-25 recently (as part of the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”), we saw how the idea of believers as “sons of God” was closely tied to the resurrection. Chapter 8 of Romans addresses the new life believers have in Christ, as the climax of a four-part “order of salvation” laid out by Paul in the main body of the letter (1:18-8:39). The sonship theme was introduced in verse 3, with the declaration that God sent “His own Son” to free humankind from bondage to sin and death—in Paul’s unique theological language, the “law of the Spirit” sets believers free “from the law of sin and death”. Now, by union with Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, believers have the essential identity as “sons of God”, even as Jesus himself is the “Son of God”.

This is the substance of the Pauline theology, and its soteriology, and it serves well as the framework by which we may study the birth/sonship motif in the New Testament. Jesus is God’s Son, and those who believe in him are likewise sons (or children) of God. How was this realized and understood by the earliest Christians, and how did this use of birth and sonship imagery develop within early Christian thought? The theological structure employed by Paul in Romans 8 is useful for considering these fundamental questions. It begins with the saving work of Jesus Christ (as God’s Son, vv. 1-2ff), and concludes with the realization of believers as God’s sons in the future glory of the resurrection (vv. 18-25), summarized by a trio of statements:

“For the stretching of the head of creation looks (out) toward receiving the uncovering of the sons of God.” (v. 19)
“…the creation itself will be set from from the slavery of decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God” (v. 21)
“…we ourselves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), we also groan in ourselves, looking (out) toward receiving (our) placement as sons, (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).” (v. 23)

In point of fact, Christian life may be said to begin with the resurrection of Jesus, and concludes with our own resurrection (as believers). The development of Christian thought parallels the life-span of the believer, even as it also mirrors the “order of salvation” outlined by Paul (in Romans 8). And it is genuinely a development—theology does not emerge fully formed, but proceeds according to a natural growth, involving a principle we may call “progressive revelation”, or, perhaps better stated, “progressive realization“. As believers, we are only made aware of the different aspects of birth and sonship in stages, over the course of time. This is true for the individual, as also for the Christian Community as a whole. There are two sides to this development, and each mirrors the other:

    • The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus—his identity as God’s Son first recognized [the first Gospel preaching]
      • The Baptism of Jesus—he is seen as God’s Son throughout his life and work on earth [the Gospel Narrative]
        • The Birth of Jesus—he is God’s Son from the moment of supernatural conception (by the Spirit) [the Infancy Narratives]
          • His pre-existent Deity as God’s Son [the Johannine Prologue, etc]
            Believers (the Elect) belong to God as His offspring
        • The Birth of believers—the presence and work of the Spirit [faith/conversion]
      • The Baptism of believers—new birth/life symbolized by ritual means [baptism rite]
    • The resurrection and exaltation of believers—our identity as God’s offspring fully realized

I will be devoting a daily note to each of these (eight) points in the outline. The first half of this sequence is theological and Christological—that is, it reflects the history and development of doctrine, regarding the person of Jesus Christ (and his Deity). This second half is religious and experiential—it represents the Christian life of the believer.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21 (continued)

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 gennᜠ(“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”.

Textual Criticism

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 gennᜠis 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 gennᜠ 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¢r霠 (“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.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21

1 John 5:13-21

The section 5:13-21 represents the conclusion and closing of 1 John. The lack of any final greeting or benediction demonstrates again that the work is not a letter or epistle in the traditional sense (compared with 2 and 3 John, for example). It has more the character of an instructional treatise which was intended, presumably, for general circulation among the ‘Johannine’ congregations. The similarity between 5:13 and the conclusion of the Johannine Gospel (20:31) is doubtless intentional, as the author of 1 John clearly has drawn upon the thought and language of the Gospel (tradition says they were written by the same person [the apostle John], but that is far from certain). Compare:

“But these (thing)s have been written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, (so) trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)
“I wrote these (thing)s to you (so) that you would have seen [i.e. would know] that you hold (the) Life of the Age, (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (1 Jn 5:13)

This closing section may be divided into three parts, each of which deals with the theme of sin and the believer, much as in the opening section of the main body of the letter (1:5-10ff):

    1. Praying for believers who sin, that they may be restored to life (vv. 14-17)
    2. The protection of believers from sin and evil, through union with Jesus (vv. 18-20)
    3. Closing exhortation for believers two guard themselves from “idols” (v. 21)

In each part there is at least one major critical question that needs to be addressed:

    • The meaning and significance of sin that is “unto death” (vv. 16-17)
    • The textual and syntactical basis for the theology/Christology in vv. 18-20
    • The significance and purpose of v. 21, i.e. what is meant by “images/idols”?

1 John 5:14-17

This portion begins with an assurance for believers that God will hear (and answer) their prayers, when they make a request “in the name” of Jesus (the Son of God). This promise draws upon Jesus’ own words in the Gospel, esp. the Johannine Last Discourse (14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26f), and is phrased here in a similar manner. The promise given by Jesus allows believers to be “outspoken” (noun parrh¢sía) in making a request of God. It is taken for granted that any such request by a true believer will be “according to His will” (katá to thél¢ma autoú). The author may have felt it necessary to specify the point, to help Christians understand, perhaps, why certain prayers did not always seem to be answered.

This brings us to the issue of praying for believers who sin, which is the main point the author wishes to address. Here are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning (a) sin not toward death, he shall ask, and He [i.e. God] will give life to him, to the (one)s sinning not toward death. There is sin toward death, (and) I do not say that (one) should make a request about that. All injustice is sin, and there is sin not toward death.”

There are two main difficulties here that have challenged commentators for generations: (1) the precise meaning of “sin” (noun hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in context, and (2) the significance of the expression “toward death” (prós thánaton). With regard to the first point, it is necessary to examine closely the author’s understanding of “sin” as expressed in the letter up to this point. The noun occurred 13 times, the verb 7 times. There are two main sections where the question of sin—that is, sin and the believer—is discussed: in 1:5-2:6 and 2:28-3:10. In the first of these it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin (1:7-2:2), while in the second he essentially states that they do not (3:6, 8-9). The same apparent contradiction is found here in vv. 16-19 as well.

I discussed the matter at some length in the earlier studies on 2:28-3:10; based on that analysis, I would here delineate again the specific theological vocabulary of the author (regarding “sin”), based on his distinctive use of the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ:

    • The plural of the noun (hamartíai) refers to individual sins a human being commits, and which believers also may commit on occasion (1:9; 2:2, 12; 4:10)
    • The singular of the noun without the definite article signifies sin in the general (or generic) sense (1:7-8; 3:5 [second occurrence], 9)
    • The singular with the definite article (h¢ hamartía, “the sin”), primarily refers to violation of the great two-fold command (3:23-24), a sin which no true believer can commit (3:4, 5 [first occurrence?], 8)
    • The use of the verb , which refers to the act of sinning, can refer either to sin in the general sense (1:10; 2:1), or the specific sense of violating the great command (3:6, 8-9?), depending on the context.

Applying this information to 5:16-17, we may note that the noun hamartía occurs four times, without the article, suggesting that the reference is to sin in a more general sense. This would be appropriate for the distinction that is apparently being made—i.e., between two different kinds (or categories) of sin. The verb occurs twice (in v. 16), both as a verbal noun (participle) which indicates that the action characterizes the person, i.e. “(the one[s]) sinning”. In 3:6, “the (one) sinning” is set in direct contrast with “the (one) remaining in him”, i.e. the true believer in Christ. Thus, “the one sinning” serves effectively as the label for an unbeliever (or, one who is not a true believer). This should be kept in mind when considering the similar use of the articular substantive participle in 5:16 (“the ones sinning…”).

The second main question has to do with the expression prós thánaton, and the distinction between sin that is “toward death” and that which is, by contrast, “not toward death”. The preposition prós (“toward”) should be understood in the dynamic sense of something leading toward death—i.e. death as the fate or end result of “the one sinning”. The problem is how this applies specifically to the issue of sin and the believer. Many solutions have been offered for this much-debated question; however, in my view, there are really only two viable lines of interpretation. This first of these is based on traditional ethical instruction among early Christians, the second on the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary. Let us briefly consider each of these.

1. The Ethical Interpretation

For early Christians, as part of their ethical and religious instruction, was the basic idea that there were certain kinds of sinful behavior that no believer should (or would) ever demonstrate in his or her daily life. Paul, in particular, presents several of these “vice lists” as part of the exhortation and instruction in his letters—Romans 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; cf. also 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 5:3-5, etc. Such instruction is traditional, with little that is distinctly Christian about it, the moral sensibilities being shared by Jews and pagans (in the Greco-Roman world) alike. For Christians, it would have represented the minimum standard of morality. Paul makes clear that no true believer could ever be characterized by such sinful behavior, as in Gal 5:21 where he states: “the (one)s practicing such (thing)s will not receive the kingdom of God as (their) lot [i.e. will not inherit it]” (similarly in 1 Cor 6:10).

This traditional righteous/sin or virtue/vice contrast was developed within early Christianity, being expressed in terms of two “paths” or “ways”, one leading to life, and the other to death. For example, in the early Christian writing known as the “Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles”, this dualistic contrast serves to structure the first half of the book, beginning with the opening verse:

“There are two ways—one of life, and one of death—and much carries through (that is different) between the two ways.” (1:1)

The immediate inspiration for this construct comes via the Gospel tradition, from Jesus’ illustration in the Sermon on the Mount (7:13-14). Indeed, when the Didache presents the “Way of Life” (1:2-4:14), it begins with Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. The “Way of Death” (5:1ff) consists of a lengthy list of blatant kinds of sinful behavior, similar to the Pauline vice lists. Much of the “Way of Life” also entails avoiding such evils (chaps. 2-4). Implicit in the very imagery is the basic principle that the person on the “way of life” could not possibly (at the same time) be on the separate “way of death”.

If we apply this line of interpretation to 1 John 5:16-17, then sin that is “toward death” could be understood as the kind of blatant and egregious sin typified by the vice lists, representing the way leading toward death, and no true believer could be on that path, sinning in such a way. Believers may indeed commit sin, but only sin that is “not toward death”, meaning they would never sin in such a grossly immoral manner. While this interpretation makes good sense, and is fully in keeping with early Christian teaching, it seems somewhat out of place in the context of 1 John, where the emphasis is more keenly focused on the two-fold commandment (3:23-24)—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—and those (false believers) who violate it.

2. The Interpretation based on Johannine Theology

As noted above, in discussing the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary, in relation to the idea of “sin”, special emphasis is placed in the letter on “the one[s] sinning” the sin—meaning they violate the two-fold command. That is to say, while claiming to be believers, they do not have proper belief in Jesus and/or do not demonstrate true love to their fellow believers. This marks them as false believers, since no true believer can ever violate the two-fold command. The entire structure of the main body of the letter (especially in its second half, 3:11-5:12), alternates between these two components of the two-fold command: trust in Jesus and love. Sin, in its fundamental sense, is a violation of these two; and, in particular, it is the lack of proper belief in Jesus—who he was and what was accomplished through his life and death—which is central to the Johannine understanding of sin. In the Last Discourse of the Gospel, which is so similar to 1 John in language and thought, sin is virtually identified with unbelief (16:8-9, see also 15:22-24).

So then, according to this line of interpretation, the sin that is “toward death” is the great sin, the violation of the two-fold command. Those committing this sin are fated for death, and cannot be true believers at all. Genuine believers may commit sins, and be forgiven/delivered from them, but never the great sin. I am inclined to this particular interpretation, as it is more consistent with the overall teaching and emphasis in 1 John.

This may also help to explain why the author indicates that his readers should not make any request of God for those committing the sin “toward death”. Since those who violate the two-fold command cannot be true believers, there is no point praying to God on their behalf as though they were. The same might be said in regard to the ethical interpretation (#1 above)—i.e. those engaged in blatantly immoral behavior could not be true believers—but that sort of ethical emphasis has been the focus in the letter to this point. The author never once suggests that the ‘false’ believers are immoral in the conventional religious sense; rather, they are “antichrist” and guided by evil spirits in their false view of Jesus. They also commit “murder” and other terrible sins, but only figuratively, in that they do not demonstrate love to other believers—i.e., lack of love = hate = murder (3:10-15).

Does this mean that we should not pray for Christians who hold beliefs regarding Jesus that we might consider to be in error? Believers today should be extremely cautious in making such a widespread application. It is a legitimate question, but one which I feel it better to address when we come to a discussion of 2 and 3 John, where issues involving the ‘false’ believers or separatist Christians of 1 John are dealt with on a more practical level. Before proceeding to 2 and 3 John, it is necessary to bring our examination of 1 John to a close with a study on verses 18-21. In so doing, we will again be required to consider the Johannine understanding of sin in relation to the believer. I hope you will join me for this challenging study, next week.