June 15: 1 John 3:1

1 John 3:1

“See what sort of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring [te/kna] of God—and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that it did not know Him.” (3:1)

The important Johannine theme of the ‘birth’ of believers as the “offspring” (te/kna) of God, introduced in 2:28-29 (see the previous note), continues here. This identity as God’s children (“offspring”) reflects the love God has for us. He is willing to call us His offspring, and, in fact we are His offspring. This juxtaposition between the verb kale/w (“call”) and the verb of being (ei)mi) has important theological implications, which can easily be lost in translation. The identity of believers, as the sons/children of God, is not merely symbolic or figurative, but real. This differs markedly from the use of the sonship motif in the Old Testament Scriptures, applied to the people of Israel as a whole (or limited to the righteous), or to the king, where the usage is figurative. YHWH might call Israel His “son(s)”, from an ethical-religious standpoint, and reflecting the covenant relationship His has with them; but the people are not His offspring in nature and essence.

In the Johannine writings, there is a special theological significance to the verb of being, which tends to be applied to a Divine subject. This is certainly the case for the many instances of essential predication that occur in the Gospel and Letters. These simple predicative statements, which provide essential information regarding the subject, follow a basic pattern: (i) [Divine] subject, (ii) verb of being, (iii) predicate noun (or phrase). The “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statements by Jesus in the Gospel are the most famous examples of Johannine essential predication.

Usually these predicative statements have the Son (Jesus) or God the Father as the subject; but, occasionally, the formula can be applied to believers, as it is, to some extent, here. The phrase “that we should be called (the) offspring of God” is followed by the short statement “and we are”, which functions as an example of essential predication. The statement consists of the verb of being, with the subject implied on the basis of context and the form of the verb—e)sme/n (“we are”). The predicate noun/phrase is also implied, referring back to “(the) offspring of God”; thus the predicative statement here can be filled out as: “we [i.e. believers] are the offspring of God”. Because believers are the children of God, it is possible for them/us to be treated as the Divine subject of the essential predication, much as the Son of God (Jesus) is elsewhere in the Johannine writings.

The noun ui(o/$ (“son”) is reserved for Jesus (the Son), but believers are still genuinely the offspring of God. The birth as His offspring is not merely symbolic, but real (as noted above). Believers come to be born (vb genna/w) out of (e)k, “from”) God Himself. The birth is real, though it is spiritual, not physical (see Jn 3:3-8). As believers, we are born from God’s Spirit, and are His offspring through the Spirit.

Another important Johannine theme is introduced at 3:1b—that of the contrast between believers and the world (o( ko/smo$). This lays the groundwork for the development of the principal theme of 1 John, here in the central division (2:28-3:24) of the author’s work, which is: the contrast between the true and false believer. This theme is part of the broader contrast between believers and the world (with false believers belonging to the world). Throughout the Johannine writings, the noun ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”), tends to be used in a categorically negative sense, as part of a dualistic mode of thinking and expression. The “world” represents the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God, being located and manifested principally on earth (‘below’), among human beings. This use of ko/smo$ occurs throughout the Gospel, but is most prominent in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33, where the noun occurs 20 times), and the subsequent Discourse-Prayer of chap. 17 (where it is even more frequent: 18 times, in vv. 5-6, 9, 11, 13-16, 18, 21, 23-25). Jesus prepares his disciples—and, by extension, all believers—for the hostility and opposition that they will face from the world during the course of their mission.

The contrast between God and the world was established in 2:15-17, just prior to the first section dealing directly with the ‘antichrist’ opponents (2:18-27). The contrast is then restated, in relation to the opponents, in the second ‘antichrist’ section (4:1-6), making it clear that, from the author’s standpoint, the opponents are false believers who belong to the world, not to God.

The same contrast is developed here in chapter 3, but from the more positive standpoint of what it means to be a true believer—since what is true can be distinguished from what is false, just as what is right (dikaiosu/nh, see the previous note on 2:29) can be seen in contrast to what is sin.

Because believers are the offspring of God, the world does not (and cannot) know them. There is a double meaning to the use of the verb ginw/skw (“know”) here. On the one hand, from the world’s standpoint, the world does not recognize the true believer as belonging to it, as one of its own. At the same time, from the standpoint of the truth, the statement in 3:1b means that the world cannot recognize that believers belong to God. It is precisely because (dia\ tou=to) believers are God’s own offspring that the world does not know them. Since the world does not know God Himself, they cannot know His offspring either.

Textual Note on 3:1

It should be pointed out that the short phrase “and (so) we are” (kai\ e)sme/n) is absent from a number of Greek manuscripts (K L), including most minuscules (which tend to be of later date), and the reading without the words was followed by the ‘Textus Receptus’, thus leading to the absence of the words from the King James Version (and other older English versions). However, the words are almost certainly original, being attested in an extremely wide range of manuscripts and other witnesses (Ë74 vid a A B C 33 81 614 1739 ith, 65 vg al). Possibly the words were omitted by accident, since, in the uncial writing, they would have resembled the previous word (klhqw=men); note the similarity—klhqwmen | kaiesmen. Cf. the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition (1994), p. 642.

June 14: 1 John 2:29

1 John 2:29

As discussed in the previous daily note, the Johannine theme of the ‘birth’ of believers as the “offspring” (te/kna) of God was introduced in 1 John at the beginning the central division of the work (2:28-3:24), as the author addresses his audience tekni/a, “(my) dear offspring…”, or “little children…”. It is in the central division that the author most clearly expounds his primary theme—that of the contrast between true and false believers.

The author’s message also has a strong eschatological orientation, as is clear from the references in 2:28 to Jesus’ being “made to shine forth” (vb fanero/w), and his “(com)ing to be alongside” (parousi/a). Both of these terms are part of the early Christian eschatological vocabulary, referring to the end-time (second) coming of Jesus. Like virtually all first-century Christians, the author of 1 John held an imminent eschatology, as is clear from the wording throughout—particularly in 2:18: “Little children, this is the last hour…”. The author believed that he and his audience were living at the end of the current Age, a period which traditionally was thought to represent a time of great distress (qli/yi$, Dan 12:1 LXX, Mark 13:19, 24 par; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rev 1:9; 7:14), when the forces of darkness and evil were particularly active and intense. This evil activity includes the presence of false prophets (and false messiahs) who would lead humankind astray (Mk 13:22 par; Matt 24:11; cf. 7:15; 2 Peter 2:1); even believers are not completely safe from their deceptions. The opponents, whose views and teachings are the focus of the author’s warnings, are called “antichrists” (2:18ff; 4:3; 2 Jn 7) and are regarded as false prophets of the end-time (4:1-6), capable of leading other Christians astray.

The exhortations and warnings in 2:28-3:24 have the same eschatological context. The emphasis on remaining in Christ—and in the truth of the Gospel regarding who Jesus is (and what he did)—is particularly urgent, given the malevolent influence of the “antichrist” opponents. The opponents have departed from the truth, holding false views regarding Jesus Christ, and are thus false believers (and also false prophets). The author encourages his audience to remain in the truth; if they do, then they will not be led astray, and will show themselves to be true believers—those who have been ‘born’ of God as His offspring.

This birth/offspring imagery is particularly emphasized in the first section (2:28-3:10), where the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna) and the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”, + e)k “out of”) occur multiple times. Following the use of the diminutive tekni/a in verse 28, the term te/kna (the first occurrence in 1 John) follows in 3:1, being preceded by the genna/w + e)k idiom in v. 29:

“If you have seen [i.e. known] that he is right(eous) [di/kaio$], (then) you know that also every(one) doing (what is) right [dikaiosu/nh] has come to be (born) [gege/nnhtai] out of [e)k] Him.”

This is the first instance in 1 John where believers in Christ—that is, true believers—are defined as those “having come to be (born) out of God”. The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle), with the definite article, reflects a typical Johannine manner of expression. It is a way of describing a person (or group) according to a characteristic attribute or behavior—viz., “the one(s) doing/being {such}…”. When the verb is genna/w, it is typically used in the perfect tense: “the (one[s]) having coming to be (born)”. The perfect tense usually indicates a past action (or state), the effect/results of which continue into the present. This aspect of continuing is reinforced, in the Johannine theological idiom, by use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”).

Two points are made regarding believers as the offspring of God here in v. 29. The first point is expressed by the first phrase: “If you have seen that he is right(eous)…”. The subject of the verb e)stin (“he is”) is ambiguous, but, given the point of reference in v. 28, it can only refer to Jesus Christ (the Son). Moreover, Jesus was specifically identified by the same adjective (as a substantive title) in 2:1, “(the) Right(eous one)”, an appellation which appears to have been a traditional designation for Jesus (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; cf. Lk 23:47). The true believer sees/knows who Jesus is—namely, that, as the Messiah and Son of God, he is the Righteous One, acting in accordance with what is right (dikaiosu/nh). This is part of what it means to have a genuine trust in Jesus.

If the first phrase sets the condition (protasis, “if…”), the remainder of the verse states the apodosis (“then…”): “then you know that every(one) doing (what is) right…”. The second point thus is: the true believer, following the example of Jesus himself (see v. 6), does what is right. If the Son does what is right, then believers, as the offspring/children of God, will also do what is right.

The noun dikaiosu/nh, with the definite article, denotes “the right (thing)”, or “th(at which) is right”, “what is right”; it should be understood in a collective or comprehensive sense (“right-ness”), rather than referring to a specific right deed. Again, the use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) indicates behavior that is characteristic of the believer: “the (one) doing…” (o( poiw=n). It is characteristic of the true believer that he/she “does what is right”. The author does not here indicate to his readers precisely what it means, in a practical sense, to “do what is right”. Doing right certainly would include the range of traditional religious-ethical conduct (cf. the context of 1:5-2:2ff), but the Johannine writings tend to express this, for believers, in a very particular way. The ethic of the believer in Christ is realized (and expressed) in terms of the Johannine theology—something that the author develops, in particular, throughout 2:28-3:24.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study on the birth/offspring theme in 2:28-3:10, examining 3:1.

 

June 11: John 8:39-46

John 8:39-46

In examining the Johannine theme of the spiritual birth of believers, it is worth noting that the idiom of the verb genna/w + the preposition e)k (“come to be [born] out of”) can be applied not only to believers (see the previous notes on 3:3-8 and 1:12-13), but also to their opposite—to non-believers and those who are hostile/opposed to Christ. This reflects a starkly dualistic outlook (and mode of expression) that pervades the Johannine writings. All human beings belong to one of two categories, presented as dualistic opposites—light vs. darkness, above vs. below, believers vs. the world, God and Christ vs. the “chief of this world” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). By this manner of expression, if one is not of God (and His Spirit), then that person must be of the Devil.

This dualistic contrast, of children of God vs. children of the Devil, features prominently in the Sukkot-Discourse complex of chapters 7-8. The theme is developed gradually, throughout the Discourse-sections of 8:12-59. The Johannine message of Jesus as the Son, sent from heaven by God the Father, is expounded in vv. 12-30, with particular emphasis on the word spoken by Jesus, bearing witness to his identity as the Son. The true disciple is one who trusts in this word (see v. 30), but then also remains in it (vv. 31-32).

At this point in the Discourse, some of Jesus’ hearers unwittingly introduce the birth/sonship motif, by referring to themselves (Israelites/Jews) as the “seed of Abraham” (v. 33). Jesus plays upon this self-identification, pointing out that, because they oppose him (and even seek to kill him), they cannot truly be Abraham’s children—since Abraham would not act in such away (vv. 37, 39-40, 56). This logic follows an important Johannine theme—viz., that the Son (Jesus), as a dutiful son, follows the example of his Father, faithfully doing what he sees the Father doing, and saying what he hears the Father saying (v. 38). In this regard, the speech and conduct of a person reveals who his/her father is. By opposing God’s Son, and seeking to have Jesus put to death, these people reveal that the Devil is their true father (vv. 38, 41ff).

Prior to verse 39, the expression “seed [spe/rma] of Abraham” is used; however, now the important Johannine word te/knon (plur. te/kna, “offspring”) is introduced. This shift enables the contrast, between children of God and children of the Devil, to be established and expounded in vv. 39-47. The response of these people to the Son (Jesus) sent by God the Father, and to his words (which are God’s words), shows that they cannot be true offspring (te/kna) of Abraham (v. 40).

In verse 41, there is a further conceptual shift, from being the offspring of Abraham to being the offspring of God. Again, it is Jesus’ opponents who unwittingly introduce the theme, ironically using Johannine theological terminology:

“We have not come to be (born) [gegennh/meqa] out of [e)k] prostitution [i.e. sexual immorality], but we have one Father, God!”

The Johannine idiom of genna/w + e)k is here utilized; in a roundabout way, these people are claiming to be the “offspring [te/kna] of God”, even though they are clearly not believers in Christ. In the remainder of this section (vv. 42-47), the verb genna/w is not used, but the preposition e)k does occur repeatedly. In the Johannine terminology, the preposition alone can stand for genna/w + e)k, as a reference to the birth (of believers) as the offspring of God. Actually, the preposition has a range of theological meaning, with three specific semantic layers or aspects that are in play here:

    • Indicating origin (“from”), specifically of Jesus (the Son) coming from (lit. “out of”) God the Father
    • The idea of birth—of (believers) being born of God
    • The more general idea of “belonging to”, viz., of believers being of God

The first aspect occurs in verse 42, as Jesus affirms his heavenly origin, with the preposition e)k doubled: “for I came out [vb e)ce/rxomai] out of [e)k, i.e. from] God”. By contrast, Jesus’ opponents have their origin (or source, their ‘birth’) from the Devil: “You are out of [e)k] (your) father the Dia/bolo$” (v. 44). As children of the Devil, they think and act and speak as their ‘father’ does. God is the source of truth (a)lh/qeia), while the Devil is the source of that which is false (to\ yeu=do$), vv. 44b-46. The essential contrast is stated concisely, in the climactic verse 47:

“The (one) being of [e)k] God hears the utterances [i.e. words] of God; for this (reason), you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [e)k] God.”

All three layers of meaning for the preposition e)k (see above) can be applied here:

    • Jesus as the Son who comes from God, and who hears God the Father speaking
    • Believers as those who are ‘born’ of God, and thus are able to hear the words of God (i.e., trusting in them)
    • Moreover, believers are truly of God, belonging to Him as His offspring

There are numerous parallels to this wording in the Johannine writings, most notably the statement by Jesus in Jn 18:37.

While the illustration of unbelievers as ‘children’ of the Devil may be useful, it should not be pressed too far. Unbelievers do not “come to be (born)” (vb genna/w) of the Devil in the manner that believers “come to be (born)” of God. The phrasing here in verse 47 is more proper, from a Johannine theological standpoint: a non-believer (or unbeliever) is, by definition, not born of God. This negation is fundamental to the distinction between a believer and a non-believer.

 

June 10: John 3:3-8

John 3:3-8

In the Johannine writings, the theme of believers as the sons/children of God is especially prominent, and is expressed primarily in two ways: (1) through the use of the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna), “offspring”; and (2) by the verb genna/w + the preposition e)k. The statement in 1:12b-13, discussed in the previous note, uses both of these elements.

The principal passage in the Gospel for this theme is the first section (vv. 3-8) of the Nicodemus Discourse in chapter 3. In these verses, the verb genna/w occurs eight times, four of which also use the preposition e)k (“out of”).

The verb genna/w is a verb of becoming, related to the more common gi/nomai, and with a comparable meaning. Both verbs can be used in the context of birth (i.e., coming to be born); however, this aspect of meaning is more regularly expressed by genna/w. The verb is relatively rare in the Synoptic Gospels, outside of the Matthean genealogy (1:1-16, where it occurs 40 times). It occurs primarily in the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives, in reference to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:20; 2:1, 4; Luke 1:35), but also to the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 57). Otherwise, it is used only rarely, in the context of an ordinary human birth (Mark 14:21; Matt 19:12; 26:24; Lk 23:29). The idiom of genna/w + e)k (i.e., “come to be born out of”) occurs only in Matt 1:20, in reference to the conception/birth of Jesus from the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the New Testament, outside of the Johannine writings, genna/w + e)k occurs only in Galatians 4:23 (cf. the earlier note on Gal 4:21-31).

As mentioned above, the verb genna/w occurs eight times in 3:3-8, the first section of the Nicodemus Discourse, in which the theme of birth is emphasized. Following the narrative introduction (vv. 1-2), the central statement by Jesus in verse 3 begins the Discourse:

“If one does not come to be (born) [e)ggenhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

The Johannine Discourses of Jesus follow a basic pattern, which is outlined below (applied to the chap. 3 Discourse):

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Response by his hearer(s), reflecting a lack of understanding (v. 4)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of his words (vv. 5-8)
    • A second response by his hearer(s), again demonstrating a lack of understanding (v. 9)
    • Further exposition by Jesus (here, in two parts: vv. 10-15, 16-21)

In the initial exposition (vv. 5-8), Jesus explains the meaning of his statement in v. 3. Nicodemus, in his initial response (v. 4), has difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “come to be (born) from above [a&nwqen]”. He understands the adverb a&nwqen in the figurative/temporal sense of “again”, specifically in the context of a person coming to be born “a second time”, repeating his/her physical birth (from the mother’s womb). Jesus, however, explains that the ‘birth’ of which he speaks is a Divine birth, coming from God (“from above”). Since God Himself is Spirit (a point to be made in 4:24), a birth from God must be a spiritual, not a physical, birth. Jesus rephrases his initial statement in verse 5:

“If one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

Being born “from above” is explained as being born “out of [e)k] water and (the) Spirit”, while “seeing” the Kingdom of God is explained in terms of “entering” (“coming into”) the Kingdom. In verses 6-8, the explanation of “from above” (a&nwqen) is further narrowed to “out of the Spirit”, without any mention of water. This has led commentators to debate the significance of “out of water” (e)c u%dato$) in verse 5. There are three lines of interpretation:

    • “water” and “Spirit” are essentially synonymous, perhaps in anticipation of the water-motif in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10, 13-14; cf. vv. 23-24; 7:37-39)
    • “water” and “Spirit” are supplemental, referring (most likely) to the baptism ritual and its symbolism; “Spirit” is primary (vv. 6, 8), but “water” (i.e., baptism) is still essential for the believer (in order to “enter” the Kingdom)
    • the conjunction kai/ (“and”) signifies that in addition to being born out of water (i.e., one’s physical/biological), it is necessary specifically to be born “of the Spirit”.

I am very much inclined toward the third approach, which seems to be more in keeping with the context of vv. 3-4, and the exposition by Jesus in verses 6ff. There is a clear contrast between an ordinary human birth (from the mother’s womb), and a Divine/heavenly birth from the Spirit of God. In this regard, “out of (the) flesh” (v. 6) seems to be parallel with “out of water” in v. 5. Moreover, I would maintain that this line of interpretation is in accord with the Jesus-John contrast that runs through chapters 1-3; in particular, John’s baptism with water is contrasted with Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit (1:26, 31, 33; cf. 3:22-23ff). This thematic contrast is undercut if the wording in verse 5 refers to the (physical) water of the baptism ritual.

The irony is that Nicodemus was not entirely incorrect in his understanding of a&nwqen as connoting “again, a second time”, because a second birth is indeed required.

In his initial exposition, Jesus does not explain how it is that one comes to be born “from above”, that is, “from the Spirit”. This is only expounded subsequently, in vv. 10-21. The final portion (vv. 16-21), in particular, implicitly declares that this spiritual birth takes place only when a person trusts in Jesus as the Son sent to earth by God the Father. The theological (and Christological) basis for this is established in the prior section (vv. 10-15), by way of the Johannine descent-ascent schema. The Son has descended (lit. “stepped down”) to earth from heaven (v. 13), and, when his mission on earth is completed (culminating with his death), he will ascend (“step up”) back to heaven (vv. 13a, 14). Both aspects (descent and ascent of the Son) are necessary for one’s trust in Jesus to be genuine (and full), enabling that person to both see and enter the Kingdom of God.

In comparison with his teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says very little about the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of John. In fact, there are only two passages where the Kingdom-theme is dealt with to any extent—here in 3:3-8, and the dialogue with Pilate in 18:33-38. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, it is not the Messianic kingship of Jesus that is emphasized, but, rather, his identity as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. Similarly, in place of the Kingdom as an eschatological concept, we find the twin Johannine themes of judgment (kri/si$, vb kri/nw) and life (zwh/). And, indeed, these are the two key themes introduced and expounded in the conclusion of the Discourse (vv. 16-21). The one who trusts in Jesus, possesses life, having already passed through the Judgment, while the one who does not trust, has already been judged.

This aspect of what it means to be a believer in Jesus is stated succinctly in verse 15, in relation to the descent-ascent of the Son:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him would hold (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]”

The parallel between the idiom of “entering the Kingdom” and “entering life”, whereby the two can be regarded as largely synonymous, is reasonably well established in the Gospel Tradition, within the teaching of Jesus (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par; 10:15, 17 par; Matt 19:17, 23-24 par; cf. also Matt 7:14, 21).

June 7: John 1:12-13

John 1:12-13

The theme of the sonship of believers is most prominent in the Johannine writings. Indeed, it is a key component of the Johannine theology, as expressed throughout the Gospel and Letters of John. In the Gospel, the theme is introduced within the Prologue (1:1-18), at verses 12-13.

As discussed in my recent study, and in an earlier set of notes, one theory regarding the composition of the Prologue, which has gained wide acceptance among commentators, is that the Gospel writer has adapted an existing Christ-hymn—presumably one which had been in use among the Johannine churches. There have been a number of plausible reconstructions, attempting to isolate the core hymn. While there remain differences of opinion regarding the portions that derive from an original hymn, there is general agreement that verses 6-8, 12-13, and 15 represent expository comments by the Gospel writer. These comments serve to integrate the hymn more fully into the Gospel narrative; in particular, the references to John the Baptist (vv. 6-8, 15) establish the important Jesus-John contrast that runs through chapters 1-3.

Far more essential to the message of the Gospel—and the Johannine theology—as a whole are the comments in vv. 12-13. Some commentators see verse 12a as part of the original hymn. Indeed, it does follow verses 9-11 quite naturally, and seems to provide a necessary climax for this portion of the hymn:

“He came unto his own,
and (yet) his own did not receive him;
but as (many) as did receive him,
to them he gave authority to become offspring of God”
(vv. 11-12a)

In my view, verses 9-11 refer primarily to the presence/activity of the Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God throughout history—particularly the history of the Israelite/Jewish people. While this section anticipates the incarnation of the Logos (in the person of Jesus), that is not the principal point of reference in these verses. To everyone who receives (i.e., accepts) the Word/Wisdom of God, the Divine Word/Wisdom enables that person to become a child of God. This is a theme of Wisdom literature (e.g., Wisd 2:13, 16-18; Sirach 4:10)—viz., that it is specifically the righteous person who is the true son/child of God.

Even if verse 12a is part of the original hymn, and refers primarily to the presence/activity of the Divine Wisdom generally, what follows in vv. 12b-13 definitely represents a Christological application of this tradition by the Gospel writer. Ahead of the actual reference to the incarnation of Christ (v. 14), the author introduces a key theme regarding believers in Christ—namely, that they/we are to be identified as the children (lit. “offspring,” te/kna) of God, on the basis of our trust in Jesus. The Johannine writings always use the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna) for believers, with the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) being reserved for Jesus (as the Son); believers are never referred to as the “sons [ui(oi/] of God” (cp. Gal 3:26; Rom 8:14, 19).

The continuation of verse 12 (including v. 13) reads:

“but as (many) as did receive him,
to them he gave authority to become offspring of God,
to the (one)s trusting in his name—
those who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out (the) will of man, but out of God have come to be (born).”

The qualifying phrase “to the (one)s trusting in his name” makes clear that the Gospel writer is interpreting vv. 9-12a specifically in terms of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word/Wisdom of God (v. 14).

An equally important point of interpretation for the Gospel writer is that this ‘birth’ of believers is in no way an ordinary physical/biological birth. This is emphasized by the three-fold denial in v. 13:

    • “not out of blood” —that is, not the result of the biological/chemical processes involving blood; the plural of the noun ai!ma (lit. “bloods”) could be meant to include the contributions from both the father and mother.
    • “not out of (the) will of (the) flesh” —that is, the biological-sexual drive for intercourse and procreation.
    • “not out of (the) will of man” —that is, the human desire and intention (by both father and mother) to have children.

Instead, the birth of a believer is entirely spiritual, coming from God Himself.

There is an interesting (minor) variant reading in v. 13, which is notable for its Christological implications. Instead of the plural (“those who…have come to be be born” [oi^e)gennh/qhsan]), a few textual witnesses read the singular (i.e., “the [one] who…came to be born” [o^e)gennh/qh]). This reading occurs in no surviving Greek manuscript, but is found in one Old Latin manuscript (b), and is attested by several early Christian writings of the 2nd-3rd centuries—the Epistle of the Apostles §3; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; and Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ §§19, 24. The singular reading, doubtless influenced by the preceding pronoun (“his [name]”) at the end of v. 12, makes the ‘birth’ in v. 13 that of Jesus himself—i.e., the incarnation, or, more specifically, his virginal conception and birth. There have been a few commentators, going back to Harnack and Schmid (cf. also Zahn, Blass, Loissey, Boismard, and others; for a thorough treatment, see Vellanickal, pp. 112-32), who have argued that the singular reading is original; however, the vast majority of scholars accept the overwhelming external evidence for the plural. On the significance of the singular reading in the context of the Christological debates of the 2nd-3rd centuries, see the discussion by Ehrman (pp. 26-27, 59).

The plural is certainly more in keeping with the Johannine theological idiom. And, indeed, the language in vv. 12b-13 is thoroughly Johannine—particularly the use of the substantive participle (with definite article), as a way of referring to believers, and the specific idiom of the preposition e)k (“out of”) + the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). Apart from the second occurrence (possibly) of the verb in 1 John 5:18, this theological use of genna/w always refers to believers. The verb is used of Jesus in Jn 18:37, but in reference to his human birth, not a Divine birth from God.

Verse 13 contains the first occurrence of this important genna/w + e)k (“come to be born out of”) idiom, referring to the spiritual birth of believers (and to the opposite, for unbelievers). It occurs nine more times in the Gospel (eight of which are in 3:3-8), and ten times in 1 John. The idiom is distinctively Johannine, reflecting the Johannine theology, and is virtually non-existent in the rest of the New Testament. In the next daily note, we will examine how this idiom is used to express the sonship-theme in 3:3-8.

References above marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press: 1993).
“Vellanickal” refers to Matthew Vellanickal, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings (Rome: Biblical Institute Press: 1977).

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

In our study on 1 John 3:4-9, we have examined the climactic sin-references in verses 6 and 9. Each of these verses marks the climax of a parallel unit—vv. 4-6 and 7-9, respectively. There is, indeed, a parallelism to the three statements in each unit:

    • Statement 1, contrasting the true and false believer:
      “the (one) doing the sin” (v. 4)
      “the (one) doing the right (thing)” (v. 7)
    • Statement 2, describing the mission of the Son (Jesus) with regard to the removal of sin; he appeared (lit. was made to shine forth):
      “…(so) that he might take away sin” (v. 5)
      “…(so) that he might dissolve the works of the Diábolos” (v. 8b)
    • Statement 3, regarding the sinlessness of the (true) believer in Christ:
      “every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (v. 6)
      “every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (v. 9)

The implications of statements 2 and 3, when taken together, are clear: the Son, through his mission, removed sin, and thus the true believer, who remains in him, does not sin.

As I discussed in the previous study, verse 9 formulates this characteristic of the true believer according to two distinctly Johannine theological idioms: (1) the motif of birth, using the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) + the preposition ek (“[out] of”); and (2) the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”). Both of these aspects are emphasized in verse 9. As I noted, the birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer, as the chiastic arrangement of the verse indicates:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

If we are to understand how the believer can be sinless (and “unable to sin”) —in apparent contradiction to what the author wrote earlier (in 1:5-2:2; see also 5:16-17)—the key is in this central motif of God’s seed remaining in the believer. In this regard, it is necessary to address two interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained?

First, the context makes clear that the word spérma (“seed”) here refers to the believer’s birth from God (lit. “out of God,” ek tou Theou). Because the male image of “seed” (spérma, i.e. ‘sperm’) is utilized, some commentators believe that the principal idea that is being emphasized is the begetting of the believer, rather than the birth per se. The seed-motif certainly implies a begetting by God as Father; this “seed” literally comes “out of” God, to be implanted within the believer. It is a Divine seed, and enables the birth of the believer as God’s own “offspring” (téknon). Though the idea of ‘begetting’ is certainly present, it is, in fact, the birth of the believer that is principally in view.

The noun spérma occurs only rarely in the Johannine writings. Even though the theological birth-motif occurs with some frequency, especially in 1 John (2:29; 3:1-2, 10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18; see also Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 8:39ff; 11:52), the noun spérma is not used elsewhere in this context, except indirectly in Jn 8:33, 37 (compare the following vv. 39-47). The only other occurrence in the Gospel and Letters (Jn 7:25) simply uses the word in the figurative sense of a person’s offspring (or descendant).

There are, however, instances elsewhere in the New Testament where spérma is used in a theological sense. Most notably, there is Jesus’ parable of the Sower, in which the “seed” that is sown is explained as symbolizing the “Word (of God)”, Mark 4:14ff par. In that Synoptic passage, the noun spérma is implied, but then is used explicitly in a subsequent parable (v. 31), and in the Matthean parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43), where it has a comparable meaning. In these Kingdom-parables, the “word” or “account” (lógos) of God refers specifically to the preaching/teaching of Jesus (regarding the Kingdom of God). The Son’s “word” (lógos) also has a central place in Johannine tradition, even if this is expressed rather differently than it is in the Synoptics, with a stronger theological (and Christological) orientation.

The closest parallel to 1 Jn 3:9 is found in 1 Peter 1:23; indeed, the wording and thought is quite similar, referring to believers as:

“having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed [sporá], but undecaying, through the Word of God living and remaining”

The parallels with Johannine thought, and to v. 9 in particular, are noteworthy:

    • the use of the verb gennᜠ(here the compound anagennáœ) + the preposition ek, to express the idea of the birth of believers
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun sporá instead of spérma)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zœ¡ntos)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A different kind of parallel can be found in Paul’s use of the noun spérma in Galatians 3 (vv. 16, 19, 29) and Romans 4 (vv. 13, 16, 18; also 9:7-8). There the expression is “seed of Abraham”, identifying believers as the true offspring/descendants of Abraham, and thus able to inherit the covenant promises made by God. It is actually Jesus who is the “seed”, but believers take on the same identity through trust in him. Ultimately, this is another way of referring to believers as the sons/children of God (see Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17ff; 9:8). A similar “seed of Abraham” theme appears in the Gospel of John (8:31-47).

There are two ways of understanding the “seed” motif in 1 John 3:9: (a) as the implanted Word of God, and (b) as the living Spirit of God which enables our “birth” (Jn 3:5-8) as His offspring. In Johannine thought, these two aspects are tied together, and it would be a mistake to create a false dichotomy by suggesting that the interpreter here must choose a single aspect. In responding with faith/trust, the believer receives the Word—the Word of God the Father, manifest in and through the Son. It comes to remain (i.e., abide) within the believer. However, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), His Word also is Spirit (see 6:63). The believer is united with both Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit; it is the Spirit that remains in the believer (1 Jn 3:23; 4:13), and His Word through the Spirit. Primarily, then, the “seed” that remains in the believer is the Spirit of God, but it is also His Word.

2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

The Johannine writings use the verb ménœ to express both sides of the abiding union of the believer with God. There are two sides because this union is reciprocal: the believer remains in God, and God remains in the believer. The union with God the Father is realized through the Son: this means, the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer.

With regard to these two sides of the union, we may draw a comparison with the covenant-bond—indeed, this spiritual union, between God and believers, represents a new covenant, patterned to some extent after the old bond between God and His people. In the old covenant-bond, YHWH remained ever-faithful to His people (see Deut 7:9, etc); the question was, whether the people would remain faithful to Him. Much the same situation applies to the new covenant. The Son (and Father) remains in believers, but will believers be faithful and remain in Him?

The exhortations to “remain”, found in both the Gospel and First Letter, show the importance of this question, as it is framed. The principal passage in the Gospel is the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17) of the Last Discourse, which I have discussed at length in a recent series of notes. In verses 4-10, the verb ménœ occurs ten times, and once more in v. 16. These instances begin (v. 4) with an imperative: “you must remain [meínate] in me”. Actually, both sides of the bond of union are mentioned, though only the believer’s side is there specifically an imperative: “you must remain in me, and I in you”. In the remainder of vv. 4-10, Jesus explains to his disciples what will happen if they should not remain (vv. 4, 6), and, conversely, what it means if they are faithful and do remain (vv. 5, 7). The emphasis in vv. 9-11ff is on remaining in the Son’s love; but the Vine passage also expresses the importance of remaining in his word (v. 7, see 8:31). Remaining in the Son means remaining in his word and his love, as I have illustrated:

This is the great two-fold command, as it is formulated by Jesus in the Gospel. First John continues this tradition of a two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of every believer, but formulates it somewhat differently (see 3:23-24).

The implication of 1 John 3:9 is that, if the believer will take care to remain in the Son—which means remaining in his word and his love—then the Divine “seed” which remains in the believer will enable the believer to be free from sin. As noted above, this “seed” refers essentially to God’s Spirit (which is the Spirit shared by His Son), but the Spirit, in turn, embodies and manifests the living presence of both the Word and Love of God. Even as the Son manifested the Father’s Word and Love during his earthly mission, so it is now realized for believers through the Spirit.

As in John 15:4, so also 1 John employs the verb ménœ in the imperative (2:24, 27-28). Actually the form of the verb in 2:27-28 is ambiguous; it could be read as either an indicative or an imperative. It is best read as an imperative in v. 28, but many commentators feel that the indicative is more appropriate in v. 27. In any case, the exhortation is clear enough: “you must remain in him” (ménete en autœ¡). There would be no point in making such an exhortation, with its implicit warning, if there were not the possibility that the believer, through carelessness or neglect, could cease (or fail) to remain in the Son. In the context of 3:9, we could formulate the author’s argument as follows: if the believer remains in the Son, then the abiding presence of the Son (and Father), through the Spirit, will keep the believer from sin; however, if the believer ceases, even temporarily, to remain in the Son, then it is possible to sin.

In next week’s study, the last in this set on 1 John 3:4-9, I will discuss the feasibility of this line of interpretation, in light of the wider context of First John, and of the Johannine writings as a whole. I will also touch upon other approaches and proposed solutions which commentators have variously adopted as a way of resolving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

Last week, we looked in depth at verses 4-6, including the climactic sin-reference of v. 6. This week we will examine the second unit of the passage (verses 7-9), with its corresponding sin-reference in v. 9.

Verses 7-9

As in the case of vv. 4-6, we may divide this unit into three statements, corresponding to the three numbered verses.

Statement #1 (verse 7):

“(Dear) offspring, let no one lead you astray: the (one) doing th(at which is) right [dikaiosýn¢] is right [díkaios], even as that (one) is right [díkaios].”

This first statement corresponds with the first statement of vv. 4-6 (in verse 4). In each statement a person is characterized by the Johannine grammatical convention of using a substantive participle (with definite article). Two different kinds of person are differentiated by the contrasting verbal expressions that are used:

    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the sin [hamartía]” (v. 4)
    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the right-ness [dikaiosýn¢]” (v. 7)

Sin (hamartía) is contrasted with “right-ness” (dikaiosýn¢). The noun dikaiosýn¢ denotes that which is right (díkaios), in a general or inclusive sense. Both the noun and adjective are used here in verse 7. In a religious context, these terms are usually rendered as “righteous(ness)”, while, in a social or legal setting, they are more properly rendered as “just(ice)”. Both of these contexts are suggested by the explanation of sin as anomía, a condition of being or acting “without law” (ánomos), i.e., “lawlessness” (see the discussion on verse 4 last week). More fundamentally, the contrast is between “that which is right” and “that which is wrong” (i.e., sin).

The noun dikaiosýn¢ is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, compared with its extensive use by Paul; the same is true of the dikaio– word-group as a whole. In the Johannine letters, the noun occurs only in this section (three times, 2:29; 3:7, 10), while similarly it occurs in only one passage (16:8, 10) in the Gospel. The adjective díkaios is somewhat more frequent. In 1 John it is most notable that the use of the adjective follows early Christian tradition, utilizing it as a descriptive characteristic (and title) of Jesus as “(the) righteous (one)” (2:1; cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). In being righteous, the Son (Jesus) reflects the righteousness of God the Father (1:9; 2:29); as one who is right(eous), the Son does what is right. This is the point made here in v. 7.

The true believer, as one who has been “born of God”, reflects the righteous character of God even as the Son (Jesus) does. The true believer, thus, will similarly “do what is right”, even as the Son “does what is right”. This equation is established in 2:29, and is echoed again here in v. 7. If the true believer does what is right, then the non-believer (and false believer) does what is wrong. Moreover, if sin is defined as being contrary to law (lit. “without law”), as stated in v. 4, then, “right(eous)ness” must similarly be understood as that which follows and fulfills the law.

The Johannine theological interpretation of this ethical-religious language is indicated by the use of both hamartía and dikaiosýn¢ in Jn 16:8-11, one of the ‘Paraclete’ sayings by Jesus in the Last Discourse. When the Spirit comes (as one “called alongside”, parákl¢tos), he will show the world to be wrong about three things, in particular (v. 8): sin (hamartía), right(eous)ness (dikaiosýn¢), and judgment (krísis). The true nature of sin is given in verse 9, where it is defined as unbelief—the failure and/or unwillingness to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The true nature of right(eous)ness, in verse 10, is stated more indirectly, requiring a certain amount of interpretation. While there remains a lack of agreement among commentators, the basic idea seems to be that righteousness is rooted in Jesus’ identity as the Son, and that, following the completion of his earthly mission, with his exaltation, this identity has been confirmed by his return to the Father. True righteousness is the Divine righteousness of God (the Father), which is also reflected and manifested in the Son.

Statement #2 (verse 8):

“The (one) doing the sin is of the Diabólos, (in) that, from the beginning, the Diabólos sins; unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth—that he might loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diabólos.”

The second statement in vv. 7-9 also corresponds with the second statement of the first unit (vv. 4-6), in v. 5. Both statements refer to the purpose of the Son’s appearance on earth, the mission for which he was sent (by God the Father). In verse 5, the stated purpose is “that he might take away the sin”; here it is “that he might dissolve the works of the Devil”. Sin is thus characterized as the “work of the Devil” —that is, what the Satan (or the Devil) does. This relates to the definition of the true nature of judgment (krísis) in Jn 16:11 (see above). Through the Son’s mission on earth, which he faithfully completed, the world and its ruler (i.e., the Devil), has been judged. Even though the world continues, in the present, to be dominated by darkness and evil, fundamentally opposed to God, it has, in truth, already been judged.

An essential aspect of this judgment is that the power of the world (and of the Devil) has been dissolved, at least for believers in Christ. Sin and evil no longer have any power or control over believers. Being in the Son, united with him, believers now share in his victory over the world (Jn 16:33; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5).

The Son, who is present in us through the Spirit (“the [One] in you”, 4:4), frees us from the power of sin and evil. If this dynamic were explained in Pauline terms, we would say that we, as believers, were no longer in bondage to the power of sin. This means that we are no longer compelled to sin, and are able to avoid sin, living in a holy and righteous manner, in conformity to God’s will. However, we are still subject to impulses from the flesh which can prompt us toward sin; these can be resisted and avoided, but they are more or less continually present. It hard to know to what extent the Johannine author(s) may have held a comparable view, regarding sin and the believer. Certain features do seem to have been held in common, though the Johannine writings do not utilize the Pauline concept of the “flesh” as a way of explaining sin.

Statement #3 (verse 9):

“Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him, and (so) he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God.”

The third, climactic, statement, as in verse 6, represents the key statement regarding the relation of the believer to sin. The parallel descriptive expression, again using the Johannine idiom of the substantive participle (with definite article, preceded by the adjective pás [“every”]), characterizes the true believer:

    • “every (one) remaining in Him” (v. 6)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (v. 9)

This is very much Johannine terminology, particularly the distinctive use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), as well as the verbal expression gennᜠek (“come to be [born] out of”). The true believer comes to be born from God, and then remains in Him. There are thus two stages to the Divine life of the believer: (1) the birth occurs as the result of trust in Jesus (as God’s Son), followed (2) by an abiding relationship that is realized through the Son. Ultimately, both the birth and the remaining are realized through the presence and activity of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8; 14:17ff; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13).

Interestingly, both aspects—birth and remaining—are emphasized here in verse 9. The birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer; note the chiastic arrangement of the verse:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

Both aspects relate to sinlessness, but it is the central aspect—God’s seed remaining in the believer—which is most relevant, since it refers to the life-time of the believer after he/she has been “born”.

In order to understand these sin-references (and the ‘sin problem’) fully, and correctly, it is necessary to address two key interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

These questions will be discussed in the next study, as we bring this study of the sin-references in 1 John 3:4-9 to a close.

January 24: John 1:12-13

John 1:12-13

For the remainder of January (and into February), the daily notes will feature a series on the theme of believers as the children of God. The starting point for this series is John 1:12-13, which provides a thematic corollary to the verse that follows (14). In John 1:14, the focus of our recent exegetical study series, we find reference to the idea that the Divine Word (Logos) came to be born as a human being. The same birth-motif prevails in vv. 12-13—believers in Christ, through trust in the incarnate Logos, are able to be born as the children (“offspring”) of God. The parallelism is clear: the Son of God is born as a human being, and human beings (believers) are then born as children of God.

Verses 12-13 are an integral part of the Johannine Gospel Prologue (vv. 1-18). The vocabulary, phrasing, and theological emphasis clearly are in accordance with the Gospel (and the Johannine writings) as a whole. However, as was discussed in the series on verse 14, many commentators are convinced that the Gospel writer has made use of an existing ‘Logos-poem’, adapting it for use in the Gospel, particularly within the context of chapters 13. This theory, on the whole, would seem to be correct; evidence in support of it was presented in the articles of the aforementioned series.

The main question, with regard to verses 12-13, is whether v. 12, in whole or part, should be included as part of the underlying Logos-poem. Verse 12a would seem to represent a natural continuation of the poem in vv. 9-11; note, in particular, how v. 12a flows naturally from v. 11:

“Unto his own (thing)s he came, and (yet) his own (people) did not receive him alongside. But as (many) as did receive him, to them he gave (the) e)cousi/a to become [gene/sqai] (the) offspring of God”

In the context of the Logos-poem up to this point (esp. in vv. 4-5, 9-11), the focus has been on the presence and activity of the Word/Wisdom of God among human beings, throughout human history (esp. the history of Israel). All through history, most people have rejected the Word and Wisdom of God; however, there have always been some who were willing (and able) to receive and accept it. Beginning in verse 14, the Word/Wisdom is manifest among human beings in an entirely new way—as a flesh-and-blood human being, in the person of Jesus. Believers who receive and accept Jesus—trusting in him (as the incarnate Word of God)—are akin to those individuals who accepted the Word in prior periods of human history.

In the context of vv. 14ff, the statement in v. 12a refers specifically to trust in Jesus as the Son (and Word) of God. Verses 12b-13, which likely represent expository comments by the Gospel writer (added to the Logos-poem), make this quite clear:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name” (12b)

The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) to characterize a group—and believers, specifically—is very much typical of Johannine style. Believers are defined as “the (one)s trusting” (oi( pisteu/ousin), or, in the singular, “the (one) trusting” (o( pisteu/wn)—3:15-16, 18, 36; 5:24; 6:35, 40, 47, 64; 7:38-39; 8:31; 11:25-26; 12:44, 46; 14:12; 17:20; 1 Jn 5:1, 5, 10, 13. There is a strong confessional aspect to these references. In First John, in particular, the author’s primary focus is on defining the true believer, in contrast to the false believer, and the nature of one’s confession of Jesus is at the heart of this definition.

Also fundamental to the Johannine theology is the use of the birth-motif, applied to believers, which we find here in verse 12b. The verb of becoming (gi/nomai, or, more commonly, the related genna/w) is used to express this, often including the qualifying prepositional expression e)k qeou= (“out of God”)—viz., one is born of, or from, God, as His offspring. The plural noun te/kna is occasionally used to express the same idea, as it is here—though it occurs more often in the Letters (e.g., 1 Jn 3:1-2, 10; 5:2) than in the Gospel. A te/knon denotes something that is “produced” or “brought forth”, the noun being derived from the verb ti/ktw—such as, for example, a child being produced (brought forth) from its mother.

Verses 12b-13 introduce this theological birth-motif, which the Gospel (and the Letters) further develop. It is expounded initially, by the Gospel writer, in verse 13:

“…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 (rather) out of God—have come to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan].”

In v. 12b, the verb gi/nomai was used, while, here in v. 13, it is the related genna/w. Both verbs essentially mean “come to be, become”, and can refer to a birth (i.e., coming to be born); however, the use of genna/w more properly, and clearly, indicates a birth. The believer’s birth “out of God” —that is, a Divine birth—is contrasted with three similar prepositional phrases, each of which represents a particular aspect of the ordinary birth-process for human beings:

    • “out of blood” (e)c ai(ma/twn)—the noun is plural and literally reads “out of bloods”, with the plural possibly alluding to the male (father) and female (mother) contributions to the embryo; in any case, the biological and physiological aspect of childbirth would seem to be emphasized here.
    • “out of (the) will of (the) flesh” (e)k qelh/mato$ sarko/$)—throughout the Gospel of John, as in much of the New Testament, the noun sa/rc (“flesh”) refers to human life and existence, in a general or comprehensive way; here the expression probably refers, in a roundabout way, to the sexual drive, and/or to other natural impulses which prompt human beings toward childbirth.
    • “out of (the) will of man” (e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro/$)—that is, the wish and/or decision of the individual (principally, the man, or would-be father) to produce a child.

None of these natural aspects, related to human childbirth, are involved in the birth of believers as the offspring of God. That is to say, it is not an ordinary human birth at all, since the person is born from God.

Before we proceed to examine other such birth-references in the Johannine writings, the next notes in this series will focus instead on such motifs—the birth of believers, as children/offspring of God, the Divine sonship of believers, etc—as they occur in the rest of the New Testament. We will begin, roughly in chronological order, with the relevant occurrences in the Pauline Letters.

July 13: 1 John 5:16-19 (8)

1 John 5:19

“We have seen that we are of [e)k] God, and (that) the whole world lies in the evil.”

The section 5:13-20 concludes with a series of three exhortative declarations (vv. 18, 19, 20) that each begin with the verb form oi&damen (“we have seen”). The verbal usage reflects the sense of unity and solidarity that the author wishes to establish, between himself and his readers, as members together (“we”) of the Community of true believers. The translation “we have seen” is a literal rendering of oi&damen; however, the verb ei&dw can also mean “know,” being essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw. In English idiom, for the context here, oi&damen would be translated simply as “we know…”.

This use of oi&damen (also in v. 15 [twice]) reflects the author’s declaration of his intent (and purpose of writing) in v. 13, at the beginning of the section:

“These (thing)s I have written to you, that you might have seen [ei)dh=te, i.e. might know] that you hold (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], to (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (cp. the end of the Gospel, 20:31)

It is also appropriate that the author effectively concludes his work emphasizing the fundamental theme of the contrast between true and false believers. This juxtaposition is part of a wider Johannine theme, contrasting believers with the world (o( ko/smo$). The negative sense of the noun ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”), as referring to the domain of darkness and evil (in which human beings are enmeshed) that is opposed to God, is distinctly Johannine, and the word tends to have this meaning throughout the Johannine writings. The contrastive relationship, between believers and the world, comes to be a dominant theme in the Gospel Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), along with the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17 (where ko/smo$ occurs 18 times, vv. 5-6, 9, 11, 13-16, 18, 21, 23-25). The usage in 1 John fully reflects the Johannine theological idiom—2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1, 3-5; 5:4-5; only in 2:2; 3:17 is the more neutral sense of ko/smo$ emphasized (i.e., as the inhabited world of human beings), while both meanings are at work in 4:1, 3, 9, 14, 17.

Believers belong to God (as His offspring), while non-believers (and false believers) belong to the world (as children of the Devil [the “chief of this world”, Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11]). That is the contrast being emphasized again here at the close of 1 John. On false believers (spec. the opponents in 1-2 John) as children of the Devil, see 3:8, 10; cp. Jn 8:41 (in the context of vv. 38-47).

Here in v. 19, the idea of believers as the offspring (te/kna) of God is expressed by the preposition e)k (“out of”), in the expression e)k tou= qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”), as a shorthand for the phrase “having come to be (born) [vb genna/w] out of God”. For this distinctive Johannine idiom in 1 John, cf. 2:29; 3:8-10; 4:4-7; 5:1, 4, 18; also 2:16ff, 21; 3:12, 19; 4:1-3; in the Gospel, cf. 1:13; 3:5-8, 31; 8:23, 41ff; also 15:19; 17:6, 14-16; 18:36, 37.

The idea that true believers belong to God, and not to the world, is seen most clearly in 4:4-6:

“You are of [e)k] God, (dear) offspring, and have been victorious (over) them [i.e. the ‘antichrists’, vv. 1-3], (in) that [i.e. because] the (One who is) in you is greater than the (one who is) in the world.” (v. 4)

As I have discussed, the expression “the (one) in you” (o( e)n u(mi=n) is best understood as a reference to the Spirit. God the Father is present, in and among believers, through His Son, and the Son abides in believers through the presence of the Spirit. By contrast, “the (one) in the world” (o( e)n tw=| ko/smw|) refers to the evil spirit of antichrist (v. 3) that is opposed to the holy Spirit of God. In v. 6, the evil spirit is called “the spirit of going/leading astray [pla/nh]”, in opposition to the “Spirit of truth [a)lh/qeia]”.

If the true believer (“you”) is described in v. 4, it is the false believer (“they”) who is referenced in v. 5:

“They are of [e)k] the world; through this [i.e. for this reason] they speak out of [e)k, i.e. from] the world, and the world hears them.”

In v. 6 (as here in 5:18-20), the author includes himself, together with his readers (“we”), as being among the true believers:

“We are of [e)k] God; the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of [e)k] God does not hear us.”

As noted above, this same language of belonging (using the preposition e)k), contrasting believers and the world, can be found in John 17—esp. verses 14-16, which are quite close in thought with what the author is saying here in 5:18-19 (cf. the previous note).

In v. 19a, the author repeats his declaration from 4:6: “we are of [e)k] God”. The implication, as in the references cited above, is that the author and his readers, correspondingly, are not “of [e)k] the world”. However, here the author states this in more general terms, by referring to the nature and condition of the world:

“…and the whole world lies in the evil”
kai\ o( ko/smo$ o%lo$ e)n tw=| ponhrw=| kei=tai

As in v. 18, as well as 2:13-14, 3:12 [1], and Jn 17:15, the substantive adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”), as a masculine noun with the article (o( ponhro/$, “the evil”), is best understood in a personal sense (i.e. “the evil one”), as a reference to the Satan/Devil. If so, then v. 19b needs to be translated something like:

“…and the whole world lies in (the hand of) the Evil (One)”

That the world, dominated as it is by darkness and evil, is under the control of the Devil (“Evil One”) is confirmed by the expression “the chief/ruler [a&rxwn] of this world” in Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. Because believers do not belong to the world, they/we are not under the power of the Evil One. Indeed, through trust in Jesus, believers have obtained victory over the world (2:13-14; 5:4-5). The victory achieved by Jesus Christ, through his sacrificial death (and exaltation)—cf. 3:8; Jn 12:31; 16:11, 33—is communicated to believers, in union with him, through the presence of the Spirit (4:4).

For this reason, the sin and evil of the world cannot touch the true believer (v. 18; cf. Jn 17:15). Even if we, as believers, may occasionally sin, through confession and forgiveness we are cleansed of all sin, with the result that the (eternal) life we possess from God is preserved/restored (1:7-2:2; 5:16).

In the next daily note, we will turn to examine briefly the author’s concluding statement in verse 20.

July 12: 1 John 5:16-19 (7)

1 John 5:18, concluded

Before proceeding to the final clause of 1 Jn 5:18 (c), let me summarize the results of the analysis in the previous note, regarding the interpretation of the difficult second clause (b). There would seem to be two options, for each of which a strong argument can be made in its favor:

    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] watches (over) him(self)”
      —the believer does this by keeping watch over God’s word that abides within, and by keeping (i.e. fulfilling) the two-fold command or duty (e)ntolh/) that God requires of all believers (3:23); cf. the other occurrences of the verb thre/w in 2:3-5; 3:22, 24; 5:3.
    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God [i.e. Jesus the Son] watches (over) him”
      —God abides in and among believers through the presence of His Son (Jesus), and the Son is present in the believer through the Spirit; God, through His Son (and the Spirit), protects believers from sin and evil (cf. John 17:11ff).

Let us now turn to the final clause (18c):

“…and the evil (one) does not touch him”
kai\ o( ponhro\$ ou)x a%ptetai au)tou=

The adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”) occurs six times in 1 John—in five of which, as a substantive (masculine noun) with the definite article (2:13-14; 3:12 [1], and 5:19). Most commentators understand this expression in a personal sense,  “the evil (one),” referring to the Satan/Devil, called elsewhere “the chief/ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); the same applies to the occurrence in Jn 17:15, which would seem to be close in meaning to v. 18 here:

“I do not request that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep [thrh/sh|$] them out of [i.e. away from] the evil (one).”

Jesus’ prayer is that God the Father would protect the disciples (believers) from the evil of the world (and the Devil), once he can no longer be present with them (vv. 11-12). Ultimately, Jesus will continue to be present through the Spirit (14:17ff), and the protection God provides should be understood on that basis.

The verb a%ptw (“touch”) occurs elsewhere in the Johannine writings only (and famously) in Jn 20:17. The corresponding Hebrew verb ug~n` is frequently used in the context of a physical disease or ‘plague’ afflicting a person (whether as judgment from God or directly by an evil spirit); in the New Testament, a%ptw tends to be used (primarily in the Gospels) in the opposite sense—i.e., in the context of the healing (by the touch of Jesus) from disease.

Here the “touch” is not one that results in disease and physical death, but, rather, which leads to sin and evil (and thus to eternal death). The influence of the world (ko/smo$, in the starkly negative sense) and its chief (the Devil) is clearly in view. The wicked (non-believers and false believers) belong to the world, while true believers belong to God, having been born from Him (vv. 18-19). Belonging to the world, moreover, means that a person effectively has the Devil as his/her father, having been born from him (3:8, 10, 12ff; cf. Jn 8:19, 42-47). The world is dominated by darkness and evil (Jn 3:19, etc), a point that is emphasized by the author here in verse 19 (to be discussed in the next daily note).

Is it possible to decide between the two ways of interpreting the central clause in v. 18b (outlined above)? The arguments seem to be equally strong on either side. On the one hand, the usage of the verb genna/w in the Johannine writings strongly favors the idea that the substantive participle (o( gennhqei/$) refers to the believer. On the other hand, the Johannine theology, together with the similar use of the verb thre/w in John 17, is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that it is Jesus the Son who protects the believer.

It would seem appropriate if one could somehow combine these two lines of interpretation. One might do so as follows:

The one born of God [i.e. the believer, as God’s offspring] is kept safe from evil through union with Jesus [God’s Son]. It is his abiding presence, through the Spirit, that allows the believer to be victorious over both the world and the evil one (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4f); and God the Father is Himself present through the Son, and He is ultimately the one protecting believers (Jn 17:11, 15, cf. above). God’s seed, which is best understood in terms of His life-giving Spirit, abiding in believers, keeps them from sin (3:9). The “seed”-concept can apply equally to the person of Jesus Christ—whether in terms of God’s living Word (lo/go$), or as God’s Son—who abides in and among believers through the Spirit. The victory and protection believers have over sin and evil (and the Evil One) comes through the mediation of Jesus Christ (3:8; cf. 1:7ff).