Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Gospel of John

The Johannine Writings, Part 1:
The Gospel of John

The final (two-part) article in this series will examine the Johannine Writings—that is, the Gospel and Letters of John. They are called “Johannine” because of their traditional ascription to John the Apostle; technically speaking, however, they are anonymous, and we cannot be entirely certain about their authorship. Scholars today do retain the label “Johannine”, but more properly in reference to the Community (i.e. the regional congregations, etc) within which these writings were produced and first distributed. The Gospel and Letters share a common religious and theological outlook, with many similarities in language, style, mode of expression, points of emphasis, etc. If they were not written by the same person, they almost certainly were the product of the same Community. The Book of Revelation is often considered to be another “Johannine” writing, but whether it stems from the same Community as the Gospel and Letters remains a point of debate among scholars. In any case, I have discussed the Book of Revelation at length in an extensive series of daily notes, and so will not be devoting a separate article to it here. Only the Gospel and Letters of John will be examined.

When considering the Gospel of John, in terms of its eschatology, one notices immediately that there is nothing in it remotely like the great “Eschatological Discourse” in the Synoptics, nor the many eschatological parables and sayings (“Son of Man” sayings, etc) preserved in those Gospels. Indeed, the eschatology in the Gospel of John is somewhat limited, based primarily on two areas:

    1. References to the Resurrection in chapters 5 and 11, and
    2. References to Jesus’ (future) coming/return in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33)

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Johannine eschatology is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology. As this term will be used throughout this article, it may be worth defining and explaining what is meant by it beforehand. I would summarize it as follows:

The idea that things and events thought to occur in the future, at the end (and in the afterlife), are experienced (or “realized”) by believers in Christ now, in the present.

Commentators tend to make too much of the distinction between “realized” and future eschatology in the New Testament. In point of fact, early Christian eschatology was characterized by both aspects throughout. It was a fundamental belief that the person and work of Jesus, as the Messiah, marked the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. However, as Jesus did not fulfill this Messianic expectation entirely in his lifetime, nor did he usher in the great end-time Judgment, etc, these final eschatological events would have to wait until his future return—which early Christians believed was imminent, to occur very soon. This dichotomy, together with the experience of the presence and work of the Spirit, created a unique eschatological situation among Christians. The time prior to Jesus’ return—that is, the present period—is understood to be a short interim, during which the realization of the New Age is experienced by believers through the Spirit. And, because the Gospel of John places such emphasis on the role and presence of the Spirit (whether implicitly or directly), it tends to give more emphasis to the present, “realized” aspect of eschatology.

1. The Resurrection

There are two main passages in the Gospel of John dealing with the resurrection—that is, of the resurrection of the dead understood to take place at the end-time. In Jewish eschatology of the period, this resurrection was more or less limited to the righteous; however, by the end of the 1st-century A.D., there is more evidence for belief in a general resurrection—i.e. of all humankind, the righteous and wicked alike. The righteous would pass through the Judgment, into eternal life, while the wicked would face (eternal) punishment. This is the traditional eschatological expectation, and both Gospel passages deal with it, interpreting and applying it in a distinctive way.

John 5:19-29

This section is part of the great Discourse of Jesus in chapter 5, based upon the Gospel tradition (healing miracle & Sabbath controversy episode) narrated in verses 1-9ff. Verses 9b-16 are transitional, introducing and developing the Sabbath theme, and establishing the framework for the Discourse proper, which follows the basic form-pattern of the Johannine Discourses:

    • Statement/saying by Jesus (v. 17)
    • Reaction by his audience, expressing misunderstanding (v. 18)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of the saying (vv. 19-47)

The lengthy exposition is complex, and may be divided into two parts:

    • The Son performs the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
    • These works are a witness to the Son (and to the Father)—vv. 31-47

The first part (vv. 19-30) is also divided into two sections, like poetic strophes, in which the same theme and motifs are repeated:

    • The Son gives eternal/spiritual life to those who believe—vv. 19-24
    • The Son gives new life (resurrection) at the end time (to those who believe)—vv. 25-30

These two aspects of the resurrection power at work in Jesus very much correspond to the “realized” and future aspects of early Christian eschatology. The “realized” aspect is emphasized in vv. 19-24, in which the traditional understanding of the resurrection (and the Judgment) is given a new interpretation:

“For, just as the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes alive th(ose) whom he wishes. For the Father judges no one, but all judgment he has given to the Son, (so) that all should give honor to the Son, even as they give honor to the Father. The (one) not honoring the Son does not honor the Father, the (One hav)ing sent him.” (vv. 21-23)

The power of judgment and resurrection both are concentrated in the person of Jesus, God’s Son; as a result, the entirety of the end-time (eschatological) framework of resurrection and the Judgment is defined in terms of whether one recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son. Judgment is moved from the future, into the present, so that it occurs already (i.e. it is “realized”) based on a person’s trust (or lack of belief) in Jesus:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that the (one) hearing my word/account and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me, holds (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across, out of death (and) into Life.” (v. 24)

The parallel declaration in verse 25 couples this “realized” eschatology with the more traditional future view:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that (the) hour comes—and is now (here)—when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and the (one)s hearing shall live.”

In vv. 19-24, the idea of resurrection was spiritual, understood in terms of the life that comes from trust in Jesus; now, in vv. 25-29, it is a physical resurrection that is in view, such as will take place at the end (together with the Judgment, vv. 28-29). However, there are two main differences here with the traditional understanding of the resurrection: (1) as in vv. 19-24, it is Jesus the Son of God who holds the power of the resurrection (and the Judgment), and (2) people are already experiencing this (physical) resurrection from the dead now. The latter point is, primarily, an allusion to the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, which we shall now consider.

John 11—The Raising of Lazarus (esp. verses 23-27)

The narrative episode of the raising of Lazarus (chapter 11) illustrates the very teaching in the Discourse, discussed above (on 5:19-29). The Lazarus-narrative itself, while relatively straightforward, contains within it two small sections with Discourse-elements:

    • Verses 7-16—especially the dialogue of vv. 11-16, in which the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ words in verse 11.
    • Verses 17-27—the dialogue between Jesus and Martha

It is in the latter dialogue (which I have discussed in considerable detail in an earlier series of notes), that we find the subject of the end-time resurrection again being addressed; it very much follows the basic Johannine Discourse-pattern:

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 23)
    • Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)
    • Exposition by Jesus on the true meaning of his words (vv. 25-27)

Let us briefly consider each of these.

Statement by Jesus (v. 23)

“Yeshua says to her, ‘Your brother will stand up [i.e. out of the dead]'”

This is a declaration that Lazarus will be raised from the dead, using the Greek verb a)ni/sthmi (lit. “stand up”). The verb can be used either in a transitive (“make [someone] stand up”) or intransitive sense. By the time of Jesus, among Greek-speaking Jews, it had come to have a technical meaning in reference to the raising of the dead—with the related noun a)na/stasi$ (“resurrection”). It was used previously (four times), in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the Bread from Heaven”, i.e. which has come down out of Heaven. This is followed by a dual (parallel) statement regarding the will of God (the Father):

  • “And this is the will of the (One) having sent me—
    • that every(thing) which he has given to me I shall not lose (anything) out of it
      • but I will make it stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 39)
  • “For this is the will of my Father—
    • that every(one) th(at is) looking (closely) at the Son and trusting in him might hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]
      • and I will make him stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 40)
Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)

“Martha says to him, ‘I have seen [i.e. known] that he will stand up [a)nasth/setai] in the standing-up [a)nasta/sei] in the last day’.”

Martha clearly understands Jesus as referring to the traditional idea of the end-time resurrection (“in the last day”). This is entirely reasonable; indeed, in the Bread of Life discourse (cf. above), Jesus uses the verb in precisely the same context— “and I will make him stand up in the last day” (6:39, 40). In 5:19-29, it was declared that Jesus (as God’s Son) holds the power over the end-time resurrection (and the Judgment). However, there was a deeper meaning to his words in that passage (cf. above), which expressed a special kind of “realized” eschatology—and a similar line of exposition follows here in vv. 25ff.

Exposition by Jesus (vv. 25-27)

“Yeshua said to her, ‘I am the standing-up and the life—the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live; and every (one) living and trusting in me shall (surely) not die away into the Age.'” (vv. 25-26)

As in 5:19-29, the power of resurrection and life is concentrated in the person of Jesus (the Son); as a result, this pulls the future aspect of the resurrection into the present, where Jesus is among his disciples. Here the exposition has been compressed into a single, almost elliptical declaration. It is not possible here to analyze this remarkable statement in detail (for an extensive exegetical study, cf. the earlier notes on vv. 25-26). What is most important to note, from an eschatological standpoint, is the way that the three different aspects of resurrection—also found in 5:19-29—are combined together:

    • Raised into eternal life at the end-time—Martha’s understanding
    • Raised into new life in the present—the miracle of raising Lazarus
    • Raised into eternal life (now) through trust in Jesus—the reality for believers

The first aspect represents the traditional framework of Jesus’ teaching (and Martha’s misunderstanding); the second is illustrated by the Gospel tradition (the miracle) at the heart of the narrative; and the third reflects the ultimate message of the Gospel, summarized by Martha’s climactic confession:

“Yeshua said to her…’Do you trust this?’ (And) she says to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God, the (one) coming into the world‘.” (vv. 26-27)

2. The Return/Coming of Jesus (The Last Discourse)

The great Last Discourse of Jesus (13:31-16:33), set within the narrative during the Last Supper on the eve of his Passion, is perhaps better viewed as a sequence of separate Discourses, encompassing a range of (Johannine) Gospel tradition. Many important themes, from earlier in the Gospel, are brought together and developed/expressed in a new way. Within this matrix, two key themes especially dominate the Discourse:

    • Jesus’ impending departure, back to the Father (i.e. the Son’s return to the Father), and
    • The sending/coming of the Spirit (also called para/klhto$, “one called alongside”)

These are twin themes that go hand-in-hand: Jesus’ departure leads to the coming of the Spirit, and, indeed, is the reason for it. Complicating the situation, within the fabric of the Discourse, are several references to Jesus’ coming back to his disciples. The richness of the Discourse is such that it is possible to understand these references on three different levels:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

It is not always easy to know for certain which aspect is primarily in view, especially in light of the emphasis on the Spirit and the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (cf. above). I offer an overview of the eschatology of the Discourse in a separate note. Here, I wish to focus on two specific passages in the Discourse, which, as it happens, tend to reflect the future and present (“realized”) aspects, respectively.

Future—John 14:1-4

“Your heart must not be disturbed; you trust in God, (now) also trust in me. In the house of my Father (there) are many (place)s to stay [monai/]—and, if not, I (would have) told you, (for it is) that I travel to make ready a place for you. And if I would travel and make ready a place for you, (then know that) I come again and will take you along toward myself, (so) that (at) what(ever) place I am, you also may be (there). And (the) place where I lead myself under [i.e. go away, go back], you have seen the way (there).”

Most commentators are agreed that this statement by Jesus refers to his end-time return (from heaven). At the historical level, this may seem rather out of place. After all, his disciples had difficulty understanding (and accepting) the idea of his death and resurrection, much less that of a future return (which assumes the resurrection and ascension, etc). From a literary standpoint, however, it would have made perfect sense to early Christians and readers of the Gospel. Moreover, it follows the general pattern of the Johannine Discourses, whereby a statement by Jesus is not fully or properly understood by his audience (including his disciples). Accepting the authenticity of the saying, the disciples surely would not have understood its true significance until sometime later (cp. the asides in 2:21-22 and 7:39).

Even if we grant the reference to Jesus’ future return, when he will gather all believers to himself (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:13-18), this basic tradition takes on new meaning within the Johannine context. This can be illustrated from two important details: (1) the vocabulary of the passage, especially the idea of “remaining” (vb me/nw), and (2) the individual discourse that follows (vv. 5-11ff), based on the specific statement in verse 4 (on knowing/seeing the “way” [o%do$]).

1. The ‘dwellings’ of God’s “house” are referenced with the plural noun monai/, i.e., places to remain or stay; it is related to the verb me/nw (“remain”), which has special theological significance in the Johannine writings. It occurs 40 times in the Gospel (compared with just 12 in the three Synoptics combined), including 14 occurrences in the Last Discourse. Its significance is two-fold: (a) it refers to the believer’s trust (and continued trust) in Jesus, and (b) it denotes the believer’s union with God the Father (and Jesus the Son), through the presence of the Spirit. Thus, believers can be said to have dwelling-places (monai/) with God now, in the Spirit, just as well as when they/we are in heaven, in the future.

2. The exposition on verse 4, about believers seeing the way to God, has a similar Christological emphasis—i.e., the way is seen/known through the person of Jesus (the Son), and our union with him. The latter point is only hinted at (in verse 6 and 12-14), until the theme of the coming/sending of Spirit is introduced in vv. 15-17. These verses are transitional to the focus on the present (“realized”) eschatology that dominates in vv. 18-24ff.

Present (“Realized”)—John 14:18-24

Once again, in verse 18, Jesus announces his departure and return:

“I will not leave you bereaved (of a father)—I come toward you. A little (while) yet, and the world no longer (will) look upon me, but you do look upon me, (in) that I live, (so) you also will live.” (vv. 18-19)

The motifs of Jesus’ own resurrection, and the future resurrection of the righteous (believers), are blended together here in a unique way (cf. above). Because Jesus (the Son) is going away, his disciples will no longer have access to God the Father; so, in a real sense, they would be orphans, bereaved (o)rfano/$) of their father. This could refer to Jesus’ impending death, his ultimate departure to the Father, or both. For more on this dual-aspect, cf. the supplemental article on the thematic structure of the Discourse. However, Jesus promises that he will not leave them without a father (God the Father), and announces again that “I come”. The immediate context (vv. 15-17, 25ff) clearly indicates that, in this instance, his coming refers, not to his traditional end-time return, but to his presence with believers through the Spirit. According to the Gospel narrative (cf. 20:19-23), this coming/sending of the Spirit took place, for Jesus’ immediate disciples, very soon after his resurrection (cp. the comparable, but very different, tradition in Luke-Acts). It will effectively be repeated for every person who comes to trust in Christ through the message of the Gospel (17:20-21ff; 20:29, 31, etc).

Other Eschatological References

There are several other eschatological references that could be cited from the Gospel of John. In closing, I would offer this brief survey of four references (and categories of references), that are worth noting.

1. References to the Judgment

There are a number of passages in the Johannine Discourses where Jesus refers to the Judgment (kri/si$), which is certainly eschatological, whether viewed specifically in an end-time or afterlife setting. As in 5:19-29 (cf. above), two points of emphasis are typically made: (a) the power of Judgment belongs to the Son (Jesus), and (b) the Judgment is defined almost entirely in terms of trust in Jesus. While this does not eliminate the traditional future aspect of the Judgment (cf. 5:29; 12:48), it places the emphasis squarely on the present—i.e., those who refuse to accept Jesus have already been judged (and condemned), while those who trust (believers) have already passed through the Judgment into eternal life. This was stated clearly enough in 5:24, and similarly in 3:19-21: “And this is the Judgment: that the light has come into the world, and the men [i.e. people] loved the darkness more than the light…. But the (one) doing the truth comes toward the light…”.

Similar declarations are found in 9:39 and 12:31:

“Unto Judgment I came into the world, (so) that the (one)s not seeing would see, and the (one)s seeing would come to be blind” (9:39)
Now is (the) Judgment of this world, (and) now the chief of this world shall be thrown out” (12:31)

The Spirit testifies regarding this same Judgment (16:8-11), again defined specifically in terms of trust in Jesus, with the sin of humankind understood as a lack of trust.

2. The Destruction of the Temple

The Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13 par) is built upon a prediction, by Jesus, of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:2 par). The Temple’s destruction (fulfilled in 70 A.D.) is to be taken as a definite indicator that the end is near (vv. 4, 14, 24, 28-30 par), and with it the return of Jesus and beginning of the great Judgment. However problematic this chronology might be for Christians today, there can be little doubt that the destruction of the Temple was a key eschatological event for believers at the time. I discuss the matter at length in the articles on the Eschatological Discourse, and on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian Eschatology.

The Gospel of John contains nothing like the Eschatological Discourse, nor the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction that features so prominently in it; however, there is a statement regarding the destruction of the Temple (the Temple-saying), in John 2:19, part of the Johannine version of the Temple-action episode (the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple, vv. 13-22):

“Loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up).”

This is quite similar to the statement reported at the Sanhedrin interrogation (‘trial’) of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 14:57-58 / Matt 26:60-61). There the Synoptic tradition indicates that it was reported by false witnesses; yet, if we accept the authenticity of the Johannine saying (in substance), then it would seem that Jesus did, in fact, make a statement of that sort, however it may have been misrepresented by unreliable or hostile witnesses. Jesus himself does not explain the saying—it is the Gospel writer who gives the explanation, as an aside (vv. 21-22). Many critical commentators assume that Jesus’ statement, in its original context, was eschatological, very much along the lines of the prediction in Mark 13:2 par—i.e., the destruction of the Temple marks the end of the current Age, and God, through his Anointed Jesus, would introduce a new Temple in the New Age. To the extent that such a view is correct, the eschatological aspect, in the Johannine version, has been transformed into a Christological statement, the Temple being identified with the person of Jesus. Thus, any eschatological significance for the saying follows the present, “realized” emphasis that dominates throughout the Gospel of John—the death and resurrection of Jesus marks the end of the current Age, and a New Age for believers, realized through the Spirit.

3. The “Son of Man” saying in John 1:51

There are relatively few “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John, compared with the Synoptics, and those which do occur, tend to emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus (cp. Mk 9:12, 31; 10:33 par), rather than his end-time appearance—cf. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31. Only in 5:27 do we find the clear eschatological context of the Son of Man overseeing the end-time Judgment.

The “Son of Man” saying in 1:51 is perhaps the most enigmatic verse in the entire Gospel. It has been interpreted many ways, including as an eschatological reference—that is, to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man (Jesus) in glory. There are certainly elements of this saying that resemble several eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics:

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down [i.e. ascending and descending] upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51)

Matthew’s version (16:27-28) of a core Son of Man saying in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:

“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)

Several points should be made about the context and significance of this Synoptic passage:

    • The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
    • It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
    • The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.

I discuss these and other aspects of the saying in Jn 1:51 at length in prior notes and articles.

4. The Tradition in John 21:20-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (chap. 21,the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Embedded in the brief (traditional) narrative, is a saying by Jesus regarding this disciple, which, we can assume, was a relatively well-known part of the Johannine tradition. The context is clearly eschatological, related to the end-time return of Jesus. The very point being addressed in the tradition more or less proves the imminent eschatology—i.e. that Jesus’ return would occur within the lifetime of the apostles (and first generation of believers)—that was widespread in early Christianity during the first-century. I discuss this passage as part of the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Eschatology and the Structure of the Last Discourse

This note is supplemental to the current article on the Gospel of John. The great Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) of the Gospel is built around a major eschatological theme: the departure and return of Jesus. However, the way this theme is developed within the Discourse-sequence is quite complex, operating at two (or three) levels, in terms of the eschatology of the Gospel. Generally speaking, this two-level exposition corresponds with the two aspects of early Christian eschatology—future and present (“realized”). Moreover, as I noted in the article, Jesus’ departure and return can be understood three different ways:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

Several of the key passages are discussed in the main article, but I feel it will be helpful to supplement that discussion with a brief analysis of the structure of the Discourse.

The Structure of the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33)

In an earlier article, I presented a detailed thematic outline of the Last Discourse, which I would divide into three distinct, interconnected discourses, with an introduction and conclusion that relate more directly to the literary (and historical) setting of the Last Supper scene (chap. 13):

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

In terms of the literary/historical setting of the narrative, the departure of Jesus would refer primarily to his impending death, when he would be separated from his disciples for a short time. To judge by Jesus’ words in 20:17, in context, this departure (in the present) involved a return to the Father (cf. below). The introduction and conclusion to the Discourse seem to refer to the imminent events of his Passion and death:

    • 13:31-38—Announcement of his going away (v. 33), followed by a prediction of Peter’s denial (vv. 36-38, cf. 18:15-18, 25-27 par)
    • 16:29-33—Jesus’ prediction of his disciples being ‘scattered’ (cp. Mark 14:27 par), following the (second) announcement of his going away (vv. 16-17)

Within this framework, Jesus’ departure & return are presented in both future and present (“realized”) aspects. In terms of the handling of the Gospel tradition, this may be outlined as a parallel step-sequence:

PRESENT:

    • Jesus’ departure—his death
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cf. 20:17)
        • His return to the disciples, with the coming/bringing of the Spirit (20:19-23)
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in the Spirit

FUTURE:

    • Jesus’ departure—leaving the world
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cp. Acts 1:9-11 etc)
        • His end-time return to his disciples
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in heaven

How is this expressed within the Last Discourse? I believe it is possible to illustrate this by working from the thematic outline above, isolating a multi-level concentric structure that reflects the eschatological development—from traditional to “realized” (i.e., realized in/through the Spirit):

  • His death and return (13:31-38, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 33)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (14:1-4ff)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (14:15-24ff)
        • His disciples in the world, united with Father and Son in the Spirit (15:1-16:4a)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (16:4b-15)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (16:4bff, 16-24)
  • His death and return (16:16ff, 25-29, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 16)

The first layer represents the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the literary (and historical) setting of the Discourse. The second layer reflects the traditional (future) eschatology—Jesus’ end-time return in glory, parallel with his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand). The third, inner layer represents the “realized” eschatology so prominent and important to the theology of the Discourses. And, at the center of the great Discourse, is the central theme of believers living in the world, while not belonging to the world, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the presence of the Spirit; this is expressed primarily by way of the Vine/Branches illustration of 15:1-17.

January 8: Baptism (John 3:22-23; 4:1-3; Matt 28:19)

Baptism by Jesus and his Disciples

Having considered the ministry of John the Baptist as the principal source of the early Christian practice of baptism (cf. the previous note), we must now look at how this developed in the Gospel Tradition. This could be examined in terms of the specific tradition regarding Jesus’ own baptism, or the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; I have discussed those aspects at length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (Division 1), and here will simply note the evidence for the continuation of the practice of ritual dunking/washing (i.e. baptism) as performed by Jesus and his disciples. The evidence for this is slight, but important.

John 3:22-23; 4:1-3

The Gospel of John contains the tradition that Jesus and his digsciples performed dunkings/washings (baptisms), apparently continuing the practice from John’s ministry:

“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, Yeshua and his learners [i.e. disciples] came into the Yehudean {Judean} land, and there he wore through (a path) with them and performed dunkings [e)ba/tpizen]. And Yohanan also was (there) dunking [bapti/zwn] (people) in Aynon near Salim, (in) that [i.e. because] many waters were there, and (people) came to be alongside and were dunked [e)bapti/zonto]” (3:22-23)

“So when Yeshua knew that the Perushis {Pharisees} heard that ‘Yeshua makes and dunks [bapti/zei] more learners [i.e. disciples] than Yohanan’ —yet, indeed, Yeshua did not perform dunkings [e)ba/tpizen], but (only) his learners—he left Yehudah and went (away) from (there) again into the Galîl.” (4:1-3)

These are the only references in the Gospels which state that Jesus’ disciples performed baptisms during the period of his ministry. The use of the imperfect tense in 3:22 and 4:2 indicates that this was regular activity, done repeatedly. One may only guess as to why there is no other mention of this (and none in the Synoptic Gospels); it may be part of a general tendency among early Christians to separate themselves from followers of John the Baptist. Something of this rivalry is indicated in these very passages (cf. also Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), and is almost certainly related to the strong emphasis in chapters 1-3 on the contrast between John and Jesus, making clear the superiority of Jesus and his identity as the Messiah (1:6-9, 15, 19-27, 29-34, 35-37). This is very much the focus here in 3:22-36, where the historical notice in vv. 22-23 leads into the testimony of John (on his place in relation to Jesus, vv. 25-30), and the Christological exposition that follows (vv. 31-36).

Given this concern over subordinating John (and his ministry) to Jesus—something also seen, to a lesser extent, in the Synoptic Tradition—the detail that Jesus’ disciples continued to perform similar baptisms may be trusted as authentic (on entirely objective grounds). It is not the sort of thing that early Christians would be inclined to invent. That Jesus’ disciples would continue dunking people in the manner of John is not surprising, considering that, according to Jn 1:35ff, at least two of Jesus’ first disciples (Andrew being one) had previously been followers of John. Many critical commentators would go further that this, claiming that Jesus himself had begun as John’s disciple. In point of fact, from a theological standpoint, there is nothing at all unacceptable about this theory, though doubtless the idea will make many Christians uncomfortable. If Jesus had been a disciple of John, it was preparatory to the beginning of his own ministry, which also marks the start of the core Gospel narrative, in which we see John ‘passing the mantle’ over to Jesus.

Apart from the aforementioned critical theory, there are certain key similarities between the ministry of Jesus (especially in its beginnings) and that of John:

    • An emphasis on the need for repentance in light of the coming kingdom of God (and the Judgment)—Mark 1:4, 15 par, etc; Matt 3:7-8ff par; indeed, Matthew has John and Jesus declaring the same message (3:2; 4:17)
    • Both tended to frequent desert/wilderness locations
    • They both quickly gained popularity, drawing crowds around them
    • They each were similarly identified as Messianic figures, especially the Anointed Prophet according to the pattern of Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)

Given these basic similarities, there is every reason to think that the baptisms performed by Jesus and his disciples had the same religious and symbolic significance as those performed by John—that is, they symbolized the washing/cleansing from sin, when accompanied by confession and repentance.

Matthew 28:19

The only other Gospel reference to the disciples baptizing is in the “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew (28:18-20). While this passage is unique to Matthew, it corresponds roughly to similar post-resurrection commission scenes in Luke (24:44-49) and John (20:21-23), as well as in the Markan ‘Long Ending’ ([16:14-18]). The central statement in the Matthean commission is verse 19 (cp. [Mk 16:16]):

“So (then), traveling (out) you must make all the nations (to be) learners [i.e. disciples], dunking [bapti/zonte$] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Many critical commentators are inclined to doubt or question the authenticity of the trinitarian formula here, regarding it instead as a reflection of early Christian belief (rather than Jesus’ own words at the time). I discuss this, along with other critical issues, in an earlier set of notes on Matt 28:18-20 and Lk 24:44-49 (Notes 1, 2, 3, 4). To repeat here several arguments in favor of authenticity (on objective grounds):

    • The instruction regarding baptism itself, as well as most of Matt 28:18-20 in context, is fully compatible with the sayings and teaching of the historical Jesus, based on an entirely objective analysis of the Gospel Tradition. For a number of examples and references illustrating this, cf. the aforementioned notes.
    • The common elements and parallels between the various post-resurrection Commission passages in the Gospels, which surely represent separate strands of tradition (given their differences), strongly suggest an underlying historical core.
    • Luke 24:47-49 provides independent attestation for the inclusion of a baptismal ‘formula’ as part of the Commission, which is also associated with the Holy Spirit (Lk 24:49; Acts 2:38) and the Father. The other points of similarity between Lk 24:47-49 and Matt 28:18-20 were noted earlier.

On the contrary, one must, I think, be willing to admit that:

    • Many of the parallels and similarities cited (in the earlier note) are relatively loose, and could be said to be outweighed by the significant differences in detail. On the basis of traditional-conservative desire to harmonize, it would actually prove quite difficult to piece together all of these details (and separate Commission passages) into a genuinely convincing whole (judged honestly and objectively).
    • Assuming that Matt 28:19 is authentic, it is most strange that there really is no evidence for it (or its influence) anywhere else in the New Testament. By all accounts, based on the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, early believers were only ever baptized “in the name of Jesus” (to be discussed in the next daily note). If the apostles and early Christians were following Jesus’ example and instruction (as presumably they would be), then it is likely that Jesus’ original saying would have been something along the lines of: “baptizing them in my name…” (cf. Lk 24:47 / Acts 2:38)
    • The earliest attestation for the saying/instruction of Matt 28:19 is found in Didache 7:1, 3, which is typically dated from the early 2nd (or late 1st) century A.D. A fair date for the traditions in the Didache might be c. 70-80 A.D., which likely coincides with the completed form of the Gospel of Matthew. The trinitarian form (and formula) of baptism is attested in the second and third centuries, but, as far as we know, not earlier than c. 70 A.D.

In the next note, I will explore this idea of being baptized in the name of Jesus, which represents a distinctive early Christian development of baptism itself.

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.

January 2: Hebrews 1:1-5

Jesus as the Son of God: The Pre-existent and Eternal Son

In these notes, we have been examining the development of the early Christian awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In the earliest Gospel preaching, it was the resurrection of Jesus (and his exaltation to heaven) that marked his “birth” as God’s Son. This Christological awareness then came to extend back into Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—all the way to his baptism (marking the beginning of his ministry), and even to his very birth as a human being. Eventually, many believers came to realize that Jesus must have had an existence with God the Father even prior to his birth. Essentially this is the doctrine of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, tied to specific beliefs regarding his deity (or divine nature). There are different ways, or degrees, by which Jesus’ pre-existence may be understood, the nuances of which, I believe, tend to reflect the development of early Christology in the second half of the first century A.D. (c. 60-100).

Belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus is hardly to be found in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (in particular, it is absent from the early Gospel preaching preserved in the book of Acts). Paul gives evidence of a such a belief, to some extent, in his letters (late-50s and early 60s). It is expressed primarily in terms of Jesus’ role in creation, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions (Prov 8:27; Sirach 24:1ff; Wisdom 7:12, 21; 8:4; 1 Enoch 42; cf. Attridge, p. 40), in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36 (cp. John 1:3, 10). Several of Paul’s references to Jesus as the Son (of God) seem to presume a heavenly existence prior to his human birth and life (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3, and note the opening words of Rom 1:3). This is of significance for the study being undertaken in these Christmas-season notes, exploring how early believers understood Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God.

Of special interest is the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, which joins together the idea of divine/heavenly pre-existence with the older tradition of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to God’s right hand. The same may be said of the hymnic section in Colossians 1:15-18, which, if genuinely Pauline, was probably written at about the same time. In neither passage is the Sonship of Jesus related to the idea of his pre-existence; however, elsewhere in the New Testament—in the letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John—those Christological elements are combined.

The dating of Hebrews is problematic, though it was likely written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. Many commentators would view it as contemporary with the Gospel of John (c. 90?), though I tend to think that it may have been written somewhat earlier. In terms of its place within the development of early Christology, Hebrews seems to stand midway between Paul and the Gospel of John. Its Christology is clearly expressed in the opening (exordium) of the letter, 1:1-4.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The first four verses of Hebrews represent a single long sentence, regarded by many commentators as perhaps the finest such opening in the New Testament (from a literary and rhetorical standpoint). Here are the verses in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers, upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written. The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). It generally follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*n…fe/rwn…

The first two clauses deal with the Son’s authority over creation, both in terms of its end (“heir of all things”) and its beginning (“made the Ages”). The latter draws upon the ancient Wisdom traditions (cf. above), whereby God made the universe using Divine Wisdom (personified) as the intermediary. The Son, as the living Word (Lo/go$) and Wisdom of God, performs this same creative role. This idea is expressed famously in the Johannine prologue (1:3, 10), but Paul alludes to the same basic belief at several points in his letters (1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; also Col 1:16f). The citation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 repeats this (pre-existent) aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).

The third relative clause is compound, made up of two participial phrases, each expressing the unique deity of Jesus (as the Son):

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n)
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=)

The first participle is the verb of being (ei)mi, “being” [w&n]), indicating what the Son truly is. Again this breaks down into a further pair of genitival phrases:

    • a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray (of light) coming out from a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo, On the Creation §146). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.
    • xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18), i.e. for the imprinting of the Divine image upon the mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15, the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews. The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under”, and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

The second participle is the verb fe/rw (“bear, carry”), and it expresses how the Son’s divine character is manifest in the world—he carries all things, meaning that he supports and sustains all of Creation. This is done “by the utterance [r(h=ma] of his power”, which blends the Wisdom/Creation traditions (cf. above) with the fundamental religious/cosmological idea of God creating the universe by His speaking a word. Both of these ideas are established more clearly in the Johannine Prologue (1:1-3ff), but they are certainly present here as well, and relate to the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son. The same divine power that brought the world into existence now providentially sustains it.

The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son–that is, in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Verse 3b summarizes this concisely:

“(hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness in high (place)s”

Interestingly, the actual death and resurrection of Jesus, so central to the early Gospel preaching, is not even stated, but simply taken for granted. The author moves from the atoning/saving aspect of Jesus’ work straight to his exaltation. In some ways, this reflects the unique theological emphasis in the letter, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office. The closing lines in verse 4 build upon the idea of the Son’s superiority (over the Angels), again expressed in terms of his exaltation after his death. The language and thought, in this respect, is quite similar to that of the Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:9-11).

It is at this point that the author introduces the citation of Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14):

“For to who among the Messengers did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)’, and again: ‘I will be unto a Father for him, and he will be unto a Son for me’?” (v. 5)

In inclusion of 2 Sam 7:14 confirms the Messianic context of the birth/sonship motif in Psalm 2:7. As we have seen, this originally applied to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and, in particular, his death and resurrection. In this he was to be recognized as God’s Son, but still in the figurative sense that the Messianic interpretation would have entailed. Now, however, a deeper Christological meaning has been given to it, since Jesus is now seen as God’s Son from before the beginning of Creation. This also gives to all the birth and sonship images a new depth, as the author continues in verse 6:

“And, again, when He brought His first-formed (child) into the inhabited (world), He says: ‘And all the Messengers of God must kiss toward [i.e. worship] him’.”

The citation presumably comes from Deut 32:43 LXX, but it is the wording used to frame the citation that is especially significant. It refers to the Son’s incarnation, or coming into the world of human beings (cp. John 1:9ff, 14). But here the context makes quite clear two important points about Jesus as God’s Son: (1) he is God’s “firstborn” child prior to the incarnation, and (2) the citation of Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14) also applies to his sonship prior to the incarnation. This represents a genuine development in early Christian belief regarding the “birth” and sonship of Jesus, one quite similar with what we find in the Gospel of John. This will be examined in the next daily note (on John 1:12-13 and 14); here, it remains to consider again how the author of Hebrews frames this dual aspect of Jesus’ sonship—the ‘older’ aspect of his resurrection/exaltation, and the ‘newer’ aspect of his pre-existent deity. Chapter 1 closes with a pair of Scripture quotations (from the Psalms) applied to Jesus as the Son. It is part of the running comparison between the Son and the other heavenly beings (Angels):

“And toward the Messengers He says (v. 7)… But toward the Son (He says, v. 8)…”

The first passage, from Psalm 45:6-7, alludes to the exaltation of Jesus, of his being raised (as Son) to the throne of God; the second passage (Psalm 102:25-27), by contrast, implies the Son’s pre-existence, with its Creation-setting: “You, Lord, down at (the) beginning, set (the foundation for) the earth, and the heavens (are) the works of your hands”. In the original Psalm, of course, the “Lord” (ku/rio$) is YHWH, but here it is meant to apply more properly to Jesus, based on the common dual-use of ku/rio$ among early Christians. The final citation of Psalm 110:1 (v. 13), a Messianic passage at least as important as Psalm 2:7 (compare Acts 2:34-35 with 13:32-33), demonstrates again how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God has been transformed in the light of the growing Christological awareness. In Acts 2, this Scripture is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation, while here in Hebrews it has an altogether new and deeper meaning—one which combines the exaltation motif with divine pre-existence.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10 (continued)

1 John 2:28-3:10, continued

This is a continuation of last week’s study (on 1 John 2:28-3:10). If you have not already done so, I would urge you to read through the discussion last week before proceeding. As previously noted, the passage is comprised of two parallel sections; indeed, the parallelism of the instruction is precise, as each section has the same general outline:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

We have already noted how Christology is at the center of the instruction, and, in many ways, is the key to a correct interpretation of the passage as a whole. The first three components were examined in the study last week; now, building on those results, we shall proceed to consider the final three.

1 John 3:5 / 3:8B

    • “And you have seen [i.e. known] that this (one) was made to shine forth (so) that he would take away sins, and sin is not in him.” (3:5)
    • “Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth, (so) that he would loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diábolos” (3:8b)

Both statements use the verb form ephanerœ¡th¢, literally “he was made to shine forth”. This verb (phaneróœ) is rather frequent in the Johannine Writings—9 times in the Gospel and 9 in the First Letter—as part of the key (dualistic) imagery of light vs. darkness. It often has the generic meaning of “appear”, but the Johannine context makes preserving the etymological connection with light especially important. Jesus as the Light of God (Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9f; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8-10) shines for human beings on earth, and the Elect ones (believers) recognize and come to the light. Thus the motif of “shining” relates to the appearance of Jesus on earth—that is, as a human being (i.e. the incarnation), and, in particular, the work that he performed during his earthly life. The purpose of his work and life is made clear in these verses, with the concluding hína-clauses (“so that…”):

    • “he would take away [ár¢] sins” [some manuscripts read “…our sins”]
    • “he would loose [lýs¢] the works of the Diábolos

These are parallel statements which should be understood as generally synonymous—that is to say, “taking away” sins is essentially the same as “loosing” the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ (“loose[n]”), often has the meaning “dissolve”, i.e. “destroy”. The reference to the Diábolos (literally “one throwing over [accusations/insults]” or “one casting [evil] throughout”) continues the thought of the previous statement (v. 8a, discussed in last week’s study), where by the ones “doing the sin” are identified as belonging to (or born of) the Devil (ek tou diabólou), i.e. they are children of the Devil rather than children of God.

This echoes several passages in the Gospel where sin is closely connected with the Evil One. The most notable example comes from chapter 8 of the great Feast of Tabernacles discourse. The statement by Jesus in verse 19 connects acceptance of him with knowledge of God the Father. The dialogue that follows builds on this idea, using dualistic language to identify those who do not accept the Son (Jesus) as belonging to a different Father—children of the Devil, rather than being children of God (vv. 42-47). Their sin is that of unbelief, which reflects their identity as belonging to the Devil, and it is from this sin that others spring out (including hatred, violence, and murder).

In Jn 16:8-11 (also discussed last week), sin is also defined there as failing to trust in Jesus. The context of these verses has to do with the work of the Spirit/Paraclete who makes known the truth to the world—that is, the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done. Failing to trust in Jesus means that the person belongs not to God, but to the Devil; and, as verse 11 makes clear, the Devil (here called the Chief/Ruler of the world) has already been judged. It was the life and work of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection, which judged both the world (i.e. the current world-order of darkness) and the Devil. All who commit the ultimate sin of unbelief are judged along with their ‘Father’ the Devil.

Sin (and sins) are referred to here as “the works of the Devil”. In Pauline terms, this would be described as the power of sin that held humankind in bondage, with Sin (and Death) personified as a kind of world-ruler generally identified with the figure of the Satan/Devil. Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) freed humankind, making it possible to escape from this bondage through trust in him. However, the Johannine imagery relates more to the essential identity of human beings—believers belong to God and Christ, while all others (non-believers, i.e. those who sin) belong to the Devil. Believers do the works of God and Christ, non-believers do the works of the Devil.

An important point in the first Christological statement above (v. 5) is that there is no sin in Jesus (“sin is not in him”). Here the singular hamartía (without the definite article) refers to sin in the general sense, and is a declaration of the sinlessness of Jesus. This may be seen as relating to the declaration by Jesus in Jn 14:30 that the Chief of the world “holds nothing on me”. Any sense of the sinlessness of believers, as expressed in 1 John, must be understood in terms of the sinlessness of Jesus.

1 John 3:6a / 3:9

    • “Every one remaining in him does not sin;” (3:6a)
    • “Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not do the sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him; and he is not able to sin, (in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God.” (3:9)

These statements are similar in meaning (and parallel) to those in 2:29 and 3:7bc (discussed last week). Clearly “doing justice” is related to “not doing sin”; these are flip sides of the same coin. Here we have a more precise formulation in terms of religious identity (“every one…”). Believers—true believers, that is—are described with a pair of participles, so that there is a sense of dynamic (verbal) action that characterizes their essential identity:

    • “the (one) remaining [ménœn] in him”
    • “the (one) coming to be (born) [gegenn¢ménos] out of God”

Both verbs—ménœ (“remain”) and gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”)—are key terms in the Johannine writings. More than half of the occurrences of ménœ in the New Testament are in the Gospel (40) and Letters (27) of John. It is a common verb, but virtually everywhere it is used in the Johannine writings it carries the special theological and spiritual meaning of the union believers share with the Son (Jesus) and the Father. It is reciprocal: Jesus remains in believers, and believers remain in Jesus. The verb gennᜠdefines this identity in a different way, according to the image of being born of God, i.e. as children of God, even as Jesus is the Son. It is our union with the Son (and the Father), through the presence and power of the Spirit, that makes this “birth” possible (see esp. John 3:3-8). The verb occurs 18 times in the Gospel, and 10 in the First Letter; the substantive verbal noun (participle with the definite article) is especially distinctive of 1 John (see also Jn 3:6, 8). Thus, insofar as believers “do not sin”, this is predicated upon two things: (1) being born out of God (as His offspring), and (2) remaining in Jesus.

However, the author explains this a bit further in verse 9b, when he adds the detail that, for the person born out of God, the seed (spérma) of God also remains in him/her. A careful study of the language and thought of Johannine writings leaves little doubt that this “seed” is to be identified with the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we come to be born of God, and it is thus the life-producing seed. What needs to be pointed out, is that this same seed remains in us. The Spirit of God the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, and represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers.

The statements regarding sin in these verses are essentially two:

    • “every one remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]”
      “every one coming to be born out of God does not do (the) sin [hamartían ou poieí]”
    • “…and he is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be born out of God”

Are the differing forms of the first statement saying the same thing? The expression “do the sin” was used in verse 4, with the definite article (literally “the sin” (h¢ hamartía). I argued that this use of the singular referred to the fundamental Johannine definition of sin (in Jn 16:9, etc) as unbelief—failing or refusing to trust in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. At the same time, the singular (without the definite article) in v. 5b seems to mean sin in a general sense. There would appear to be three levels of meaning to the noun hamartía and the concept of “sin”:

    1. “the sin” (singular with definite article)—the fundamental sin of unbelief
    2. “sin” (singular without the definite article)—sin in the general or collective sense, and
    3. “sins” (plural)—individual sins committed by human beings

The verb hamartánœ relates to all three of these meanings, but here especially to the first two.

1 John 3:6b / 3:10

    • “every one sinning has not seen him and has not known him” (3:6b)
    • “…every one not doing justice is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the (one) not loving his brother” (3:10)

Again we see the close connection between sin and justice (dikaiosýn¢, or “just-ness, right-ness”). Previously we had the equation doing justice = not sinning; similarly, here we have the reverse of this: sinning = not doing justice. Recall above that the use of the substantive verbal noun (participle with definite article) indicated the essential identity and character of a believer; now the same syntax is used to refer to the non-believer (or false believer). That this characterizes the non-believer is clear from the phrases “has…seen/known him” and “out of God [i.e. belonging to God, born of God]”. This typical Johannine language, used throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Thus the “one sinning” clearly is not (and cannot be) a true believer in Christ.

But is this “sinning” meant in the general sense, or does it have a particular meaning in its context here? The final phrase of verse 10 (and of the passage) confirms that the intended meaning is quite specific, by the identification of the “one sinning / not doing justice” as “the one not loving his brother”. There can be little doubt that the use of “brother” in context means one’s fellow believer. Love (agáp¢) between believers is a fundamental mark of the Christian identity, and central to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John. It is part of the great command—the only command—under which believers are bound. Actually, the great command is a two-fold command, presented succinctly in 3:23:

“And this is His entol¢¡ [i.e. command]: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and (that) we should love each other, even as he [i.e. Jesus] gave us the entol¢¡.”

Thus the essential definition of sin must be expanded to include a failure to love one another. That this is primarily in mind for the author is clear enough by the section which follows our passage (3:11-24). Beginning with a statement of the love-command (v. 11), and the key illustration in v. 12 from the story of Cain and Abel, the author’s instruction turns entirely to the demonstration of love as the mark of the true believer. Remember that the issue of those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community is at the heart of the letter, and informs this section on love, even as it does the prior section on sin. We may thus summarize the teaching regarding sin as follows:

There are four levels of meaning to hamartía and the concept of sin (compare with the list of three above):

    1. “sins” (plural) = individual sins committed by human beings
    2. “sin” (singular, without the definite article) = sin in the general sense
    3. “sin” (singular, with the article) = the fundamental sin of unbelief
    4. “sinning” (verb hamartánœ) = principally, violations of the two-fold command

The main point at issue in 1 John, especially here in 2:28-3:10, is not the first two levels of meaning (as the casual reader might assume), but specifically the last two. For the true believer, it is impossible to sin in the sense of (3.) and (4.); indeed, sin, in either of these senses, marks the distinction between the true and false believer. To see this clearly, let us cite the concluding statement of verse 10 in full:

“In this it is shining [i.e. clear/apparent] (who are) the offspring of God and the offspring of the Diábolos: every one not doing justice [i.e. sinning] is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the one not loving his brother.”

What then of meanings (1.) and (2.) above? The work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection, frees believers from sin in the general sense (1:7; 2:2), as is indicated in the pair of Christological statements of vv. 5, 8b (see above). This leaves meaning #1, which, I would argue, is the only sense of sin that applies to the true believer in Christ. Believers will (or may) occasionally commit sins, as the author makes quite clear in 1:8-2:2 and 5:16ff. The same power that frees us from sin in the general sense, also cleanses us from individual sins we commit. In that way, believers do take part in the sinlessness of Jesus, and the power that he has over sin.

We will touch on this question of sin (as it relates to the believer) again in these studies on 1 John. Hold on to these past studies, meditating on the line of interpretation I have presented, as there will be occasion to develop it further. However, for next week, I wish to move ahead in the letter, looking at 4:1-6 in detail. In so doing, we will survey again the preceding instruction (on love) in 3:11-24, taking great care in considering how 4:1-6 fits into the overall structure and argument of the letter. I hope to see you here for this study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10

This week, in our studies on the Johannine Letters, we turn to a theological problem in 1 John which has challenged commentators for centuries—the apparent contradictory statements indicating that a Christian does and does not sin, or, indeed, can and cannot sin. The difficulty is obviously more pointed in the latter instance, which may be illustrated by comparing the following two statements:

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him [i.e. God] (to be) false…” (1:10)
“Everyone coming to be (born) out of God…is not able to sin.” (3:9)

The main passage making it clear that Christians do (and can) sin is 1:7-10; the statements that they do not (and cannot) are primarily found in the current passage under discussion. There are two (or three) such statements in our passage (vv. 6, 9), with another in 5:18:

    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (3:6)
    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin [hamartían ou poieí]…” (3:9a)
      “…and is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God” (3:9b)
    • “…every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (5:18)

The statement in 5:18 is actually a conflation of those in 3:6 and 3:9a. One popular way of explaining the apparent contradiction is the idea that the use of the present tense in these four statements refers to habitual sin, or a lifestyle characterized by sinful behavior, rather than occasional sins. Some English versions circumvent the problem for the average reader by building this interpretation into the translation. However, far too much is made of this supposed grammatical difference. For example, in 1:8 the present tense is used when it is essentially stated that believers do sin: “if we say that we do not hold/have sin, we lead ourselves astray”. Also the perfect tense, used in 1:10, would generally indicate a past action or condition that continues into the present: “if we say that we have not sinned [i.e., = do not sin], we make Him (to be) false”.

Beyond this, the author’s statements, especially in 3:6ff, are fundamental to his overall theology, and should not be made to hinge on a subtle grammatical distinction. There have, indeed, been many other attempts at explanation. A proper solution is to be derived from careful study of the Johannine thought-world, beginning with 1 John, then widening to consider the Gospel along with the other two letters. One should avoid importing solutions or doctrinal issues that are foreign to these writings. I offer here three possibilities for consideration:

    • The statements in 3:6 etc. represent the ideal, while those in 1:7-10 etc. reflect the practical reality for believers. To frame this more in accordance with Johannine thought, we might say that the fundamental identity of believers is sinless, based on our union with the sinless Christ. However, this sinlessness is maintained for believers through confession (of sin) and forgiveness (through the intercession of Jesus). According to Luther’s famous expression, the nature of believers is two-fold: simul iustus et peccator (“at once righteous and sinner”).
    • Christians are sinless only so far as we remain in Christ. This idea of “remaining”, using the verb ménœ, is central to Johannine theology, in both the Gospel and letters (the verb occurs 40 times in the Gospel and 27 in the letters—more than half of all NT occurrences [118]). This is expressed most famously by the Vine illustration in Jesus’ Last Discourse (15:1-11). To use this illustration, if one remains in the Vine, the believer is unable to sin; only when one fails to remain in, through neglect, etc, does the believer sin. Through confession/forgiveness, the believer is ‘grafted’ back into the Vine and once again remains/abides.
    • In 3:6, etc, the author is not referring to sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the general ethical-religious sense; rather, here it specifically means violation of the two-fold command (3:23f), which no true believer can violate. In this regard, sin is identified as “lawlessness” (anomía) in a very specific sense.

Before any determination can be made on the viability of these (or any other) solution, it is necessary to examine the context and setting of the statements in 3:6 and 9. New Testament theology, which ultimately serves as the basis for Christian theology, must be derived from careful exegesis and critical analysis of the key passages in question. From the standpoint of Biblical Criticism, this falls generally under the heading of literary criticism—the vocabulary, style, structure, literary/rhetorical devices, etc, used by the author.

In last week’s study (on 2:18-27), we saw how the thrust of the letter, up to that point, related to a conflict and division within the Johannine congregations. Certain members, characterized as false believers, who, according to the author, held a view of Jesus considered to be contrary to the Johannine Gospel (and called antichrist, “against the Anointed”), had apparently separated from the Community. The author clearly felt a real danger that these “separatists” could lead astray others in the congregations, and so is writing to warn and persuade his readers against the views (and actions) of these ‘false’ believers. We must keep this in mind as we study the portion that follows (2:28-3:10).

In terms of its structure, our passage follows the basic pattern of 2:18ff, begun earlier in vv. 12ff, of paraenesis (i.e. instruction, exhortation), whereby the author addresses his fellow believers as “(my) children”, using either the diminutive teknía or paidía. The latter term (used at 2:18) literally means “little children”, while the former (teknía, here and in v. 12) is harder to translate, something like “(my dear) offspring“. 2:28-3:10 is comprised of two parallel instructions, each beginning with teknía. The parallelism is precise, a fact which may be obscured by the digression in 3:1-3; if we temporarily omit those verses, then there are six components, or statements, in each section:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

Christology is thus at the heart of the instruction, and the parallel declarations in 3:5, 8b must kept clearly in mind as we study the statements in 2:27-3:4, 6, 7-8a, 9-10. Let us now examine carefully each of the six parallel components.

1 John 2:28 / 3:7a

    • “And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him…” (2:28)
    • “(My dear) offspring, no one must lead you astray” (3:7a)

The idea of remaining (vb ménœ) in Christ (“in him” en autœ¡) is parallel to not being “led astray” (vb planáœ), the implication being that the one who is led astray no longer remains in Christ. In light of Jesus’ words of warning in John 15:4-7, this must be taken most seriously. The influence and views of those who have separated from the Community is certainly in mind here as that which could lead believers astray (see the discussion on 2:18-27). The exhortation in 2:28 is set within an eschatological context (as is that in 2:18ff): “…you must remain in him, (so) that, if [i.e. when] he should be made to shine forth (to us), you would hold an outspoken (confidence) and not feel shame from him in his coming to be alongside (us) [parousía]”. The return of Jesus to earth, believed by the author to be imminent (2:18), and marking the moment of the final Judgment, is a key part of the urgency of this exhortation. We must keep this eschatological dimension in mind throughout our study as well.

1 John 2:29 / 3:7bc

    • “If you have seen [i.e. known] that he is just, (then) you know that also every (one) doing justice has come to be (born) [gegénn¢tai] out of him.” (2:29)
    • “every (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just” (3:7bc)

This statement expresses a fundamental (two-fold) principle of Johannine theology: (1) as Jesus is just/righteous [díkaios], so his true followers (believers) will be as well; and (2) the just-ness [dikaiosýn¢] of believers comes from that of Jesus himself, through our union with him. Here we also have the basic problem of how to translate the dikaio- word group, whether by “just/justice” or “right[eous]/righteousness”. Either way, we must, I think, here avoid the tendency of understanding dikaios[yn¢] in terms of conventional ethical-religious behavior. The author certainly would have taken for granted that true believers would think and act in a moral and upright manner; I doubt that is really at issue here, since, presumably, those who separated from the Community were quite moral (in the conventional sense) as well. Many commentators assume that they were licentious, but I find not the slightest hint of that in the letters. Moreover, it is worth noting that, throughout Church history, separatist groups and supposed ‘heretics’ have tended toward an ideal of ascetic purity much more so than toward flagrant immorality.

How, then, should we understand díkaios and dikaoisýn¢ here? We must look to the evidence of how these words are used elsewhere in the Johannine writings. They occur infrequently in the Gospel, but there is one key passage, 16:8-11, in the great Last Discourse, where Jesus is speaking of the work that the Spirit/Paraclete will do after his departure back to the Father. As it happens, sin (hamartía) and justice/righteousness are juxtaposed in that passage, much as they are in 1 John 2:28-3:10:

“and, (at his) coming, that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will expose (to) the world (the truth) about sin and about justice and about judgment:
(on the one hand) about sin, (in) that they do not trust in me;
(on the other) about justice, (in) that I go back to the Father and you (can) look at me no longer…”

Here sin is defined as failing (or refusing) to believe in Jesus; and, I would say, that justice is similarly to be understood as the truth of who Jesus is. The work of the Spirit is described with the verb eléngchœ, which has the basic judicial meaning of exposing the guilt, etc, of someone—more precisely here, that of exposing the truth of the matter. Indeed, the Spirit is closely identified with Truth in the Johannine writings, being called “the Spirit of truth” in verse 13 (also 14:17; 15:26; and see 1 John 4:6; 5:6). The truth of Jesus’ identity is defined here by two phrases:

    • “I go back to the Father” — i.e., the raised/exalted Jesus’ return to the Father, confirming his identity as the Son.
    • “you see me no longer” — this is a shorthand way of referring to the time after his departure, in which the disciples will “see” Jesus only through the (invisible) presence of the Spirit. The abiding presence of the Spirit confirms the reality of who Jesus is, and marks the true believer.

Thus “sin” and “justice” (dikaiosýn¢) here have a very specific and distinct meaning. The terms are not being used in the ordinary ethical-religious sense, but in a decidedly theological and Christological sense. What of the dikaio- word group elsewhere in the Johannine letters? The noun occurs only in our passage (2:29; 3:7, 10), but the adjective (díkaios) three other times in 1 John:

    • In 1:9 and 2:1, it is used as a title/attribute of Jesus, specifically in the context of his relation to the Father (as Son), with the power to cleanse/forgive sin. This is an importance point of emphasis which we will be exploring further.
    • In 3:12, immediately following our passage, it characterizes Abel in contrast to the evil of Cain. The two are brothers, and, as such, the illustration represents the contrast between true and false believers—another important point for our passage.

As in the earlier statement in 2:28, that in v. 29 is followed by an exposition with an eschatological emphasis, only much more extensive (3:1-3). It is beyond the scope of our study to examine these verses in detail, but the following brief points should be noted:

    • Believers are identified as “the offspring (i.e. children) of God”, using the same noun (teknía) as in the opening exhortations (2:28a; 3:7a). This expounds the important Johannine verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), used repeatedly as a way of identifying (true) believers as those who are born from God. This essential identity is in complete contrast to that of “the world [kósmos]”.
    • The identity of believers will not be realized fully until the end-time appearance of Jesus; currently, they/we experience him through the Spirit, but ultimately the union will be even more complete.

1 John 3:4 / 3:8a

    • “Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing), and (indeed) the sin is the lawless (thing).” (3:4)
    • “Every (one) doing the sin is out of the Diábolos, (in) that from the beginning the Diábolos sins.” (3:8a)

Here, being “out of [ek] the Diábolos” is a precise contrast to coming to be born “out of [ek] God” (or “out of Christ”). The word diábolos literally signifies one who “throws over” accusations, insults, etc, but it came to be used in a technical sense for the Evil One opposed to God (= “the Satan” of Old Testament tradition). We might, perhaps, translate the term literally as “the one casting (evil) throughout”. In any case, here the Diábolos (“Devil”) is part of a dualistic contrast with God and Christ, in much the same way the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used in the Johannine writings. In John 16:11 (see above), we find the title “the chief of this world” (ho árchœn tou kósmou toútou, also in 14:30), a title more or less synonymous with diábolos.

In the first statement (3:4), sin (hamartía) is identified with anomía, a term literally meaning something “without law” (ánomos), i.e. “lawless (thing)”, “lawlessness”. This noun does not occur elsewhere in the Johannine writings, and, indeed, is relatively rare in the New Testament (13 other occurrences). How are we to understand its use here, which would seem to be quite important for a correct understanding of “sin” in our passage? In a Jewish (or Jewish Christian) context, anomía and ánomos could refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), and to non-Jews (Gentiles) and non-observant Jews as being “without the Law”. Paul occasionally uses the term this way, but more frequently it signifies “lawlessness” in the general sense of wickedness and opposition to God. However, there are two distinct connotations for anomía among Christians in the first century, either (or both) of which are likely significant in regard to its use here:

    • The term came to be used in an eschatological context, as a way to describe the wickedness and social/moral upheaval of the current Age, especially as it comes to a close at the end-time. It occurs in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (Matt 24:12; cf. also 13:41), and again, more prominently, in 2 Thess 2:3, 7 (see the upcoming article on 2 Thess 2:1-12 in the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”). The author of 1 John clearly believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” right before the end (2:18), so his use of anomía here likely has an eschatological emphasis.
    • The word anomía (also anóm¢ma) was occasionally used to translate the Hebrew b®liyya±al, a term of uncertain derivation but tending to be associated with death, or more generally to the idea of hostility, chaos, and confusion (i.e. disorder). The frequent expression “son/man of Beliyya’al” essentially refers to a person who violates and disrupts the order of things—either in a specific social or religious setting, or within society at large. This may well serve as the basis for Paul’s expression “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3. In 2 Cor 6:14, anomía is parallel to Belíar, a transliteration in Greek (with variant spelling) of b®liyya±al. Belial/Beliar came to be used as a title of the Evil One (equivalent to “the Satan”, “Devil”) in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., and frequently occurs in an apocalyptic/eschatological context. For more on 2 Cor 6:14ff, see the recent Saturday series studies on that passage.

We should consider here also the specific wording in these statements, especially the phrase ho poiœ¡n t¢n hamartían. The verb poiéœ (“do, make”) occurs 13 times in 1 John, always in the present tense—either an indicative or an articular participle. In both instances, the verb serves to summarize the fundamental character and identity of a person, but particularly so with the participle (“the [one] doing”); the active behavior of a person indicates his/her identity. But what does it mean to “do sin”? Is this simply a matter of committing sins, i.e. moral/religious failings or transgressions, or is something more involved? Much depends on whether or not there is specific force intended in the definite article preceding hamartían: is it “the one doing sin” or “the one doing the sin”? In all other instances with the definite article (1:9; 2:2, 12; 3:5; 4:10); the noun is plural, indicating the sins a person commits—i.e., committing sin in the conventional sense. In my view, the articular use of the singular here means something different and quite specific: the sin. And what is the sin? I would maintain that is best understood in light of John 16:8ff (see above), where sin—ultimately, the sin that is judged—is failing/refusing to trust in Jesus, i.e. to accept the truth of who he is. This sin is a fundamental transgression of the two-fold command (3:23), the only “law” which is binding for believers. As such, this sin of unbelief is “lawlessness” (anomía), quite apart from the general wickedness that may be associated with unbelief.

For those accustomed to reading 2:28-3:10 with the assumption that religious-ethical behavior is in view, the line of interpretation developed thus far in our study may seem somewhat surprising, even disconcerting. However, that it is generally on the right track, can, I believe, be shown by a careful examination of the rhetorical thrust of 1:1-2:27 (see the prior two studies). Throughout the letter, the emphasis has been on need for Christians to preserve the message about Jesus—the truth of who he is and what he has done—that is contained, specifically, in the Johannine Gospel. Certain people, whom the author characterizes as false believers, have left the Community, and hold/express a view of Jesus that is considered to be contrary to this Gospel (antichrist, “against the Anointed”). We will see this emphasis come more clearly into view in our passage as we proceed, beginning with the Christological declarations in 3:5 and 8b. I hope you will join me next Saturday for the continuation of this important study.

Special Note on Imminent Eschatology in the Gospels

As part of the recent article on “imminent eschatology” in the New Testament, I pointed out four key passages in the Gospels—four distinct Gospel traditions—which are particularly notable in this regard:

The first three are sayings of Jesus, while the fourth is an historical tradition (containing a saying of Jesus) specific to the Gospel of John. All four are distinctive in that they go beyond the general idea that the end of the current Age (and with it the coming Judgment and coming of the Kingdom) would soon occur. Each of these traditions may be taken to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) would take place within the lifetime of the first disciples. For many commentators, and Christians in general, this proves highly problematic, as it might suggest, at the very least, that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself!) were mistaken about the time of the end. Due to the controversial nature of these passages, it is necessary to examine each of them closely, looking at them from several aspects: (1) if they all truly mean what they appear to mean, (2) how early Christian may have understood or adapted them in context, and (3) attempts by commentators to explain and/or harmonize them with other New Testament references and theological/christological concerns.

1. Mark 9:1 (par Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)

This saying of Jesus is part of the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, occurring in all three Gospels, though with significant variation. In this regard, it is highly instructive as a case study on the development of the Gospel Tradition. It occurs at the same point in all three Gospels—part of a block of sayings/teaching (Mk 8:34-9:1) set between Peter’s confession (8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The sayings deal with faithfulness in following Jesus (i.e. discipleship) and may be separate traditions which were joined together (at a very early point) based on that theme. The last two sayings are eschatological in orientation:

    • The motif of judgment at the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man (8:38)
    • The saying in 9:1 on the coming of the Kingdom of God

Here is Mark’s version of the latter saying:

“Amen, I say/relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!”

Luke’s version (9:27) is quite close to the Markan:

“But I say/relate (this) to you truly: there will be some of the (one)s having stood (in) this (place) who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God.”

The main difference is the absence of the qualifying phrase “in power”. Matthew’s version (16:28) is actually identical with the Markan, except for the closing words (in italics):

(Matt) “…until they should see the Son of Man having come in his kingdom”
(Mark) “…until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power

How should this saying be interpreted? Clearly Jesus, speaking to his (close) disciples, is declaring that at least some of them will not die (“taste death”) until they see the Kingdom. This would seem to imply something which will take place during their lifetime. There are three primary ways to interpret this:

    • It refers to the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), witnessed by three disciples, in which Jesus appears in glorified manner
    • It refers to Jesus’ exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly appearance [at God’s right hand]), witnessed variously by the disciples
    • It is a reference to the end-time coming of the Kingdom of God and/or appearance of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ future return, in early Christian terms)

The literary context of the Gospel narrative makes the first option attractive—i.e., the saying is meant as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration experience. However, it must be said that this is really only plausible in Luke’s version (with its simple reference to “the kingdom of God”); the Markan and Matthean versions do not allow for this. It is conceivable that the Lukan omission of “in power” was meant to soften the eschatological implications of the saying, making it a better fit to the disciples’ experience during Jesus’ ministry, and in their subsequent experience after his resurrection.

This leaves the second option as the best choice if we wish to isolate something which definitely took place during the disciples’ lifetime. Certainly, there are other sayings in the Gospels where Jesus appears to identify the Kingdom of God with his own person and activity. There also can be no doubt that, in early Christian belief, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One (Messianic ruler, etc) and Son of God, was associated primarily with his resurrection and ascension (cf. the early preaching in Acts, Rom 1:4, Phil 2:9-11, etc). At least one early believer/disciple (Stephen, Acts 7:55-56) had a vision of Jesus (identified as the Son of Man) standing at God’s right hand in heaven; and, of course, a number of disciples witnessed Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-7, etc), along with his ascension (Acts 1:9-11), which may be said to involve Jesus’ coming in(to) his Kingdom. There is an interesting variant in the words of the “good thief” on the cross in Luke 23:42. The reading of some of the oldest/best manuscripts is “…when you come into [ei)$] your kingdom”, whereas the majority text reads “…when you come in [e)n] your kingdom”, which could be taken to mean his future coming in glory, something made specific in the reading of Codex Bezae [D] (“…in the day of your coming”).

In spite of this ambivalence of interpretation, an original reference by Jesus to his resurrection/exaltation seems unlikely here. If we take the Markan and Matthean versions together, it comes very close to the eschatological saying in Mk 13:26 par:

    • “some of the ones standing here…should see
      • the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mk)
      • the Son Man coming in his Kingdom” (Matt)
    • “they will see the Son of Man coming…with great power” (Mk 13:26)

This eschatological interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the prior reference to the Judgment and the coming of the Son of Man with the Angels in Mk 8:38 par. It is hard to avoid the implication that Jesus is referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, and that this, apparently, is to take place within the lifetime of his disciples.

[For the interesting parallel of the saying in John 1:51, which also involves the promise of seeing the Son of Man appear in glory, along with the presence of Angels, cf. my earlier study on that verse.]

2. Mark 13:30 (par Matt 24:34; Luke 21:32)

Another saying from the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, this declaration by Jesus is part of the “Eschatological Discourse” (for a survey and outline, cf. the recent study). Here there can be no doubt whatsoever about the eschatological context of the saying, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. Also, by comparison with the variation we saw for Mk 9:1 par (cf. above), this saying is essentially fixed in the tradition. Here is Mark’s version (13:30):

“Amen, I say/relate to you that this genea/ shall (surely) not pass along until the (time at) which all these (thing)s should come to be.”

Matthew’s version (24:34) is a bit simpler in its syntax (“…until all these [thing]s…”), but otherwise identical. Luke here (21:32) is identical to Matthew, except for reading “all (thing)s” instead of “all these (thing)s”.

It is interesting to consider the syntactical similarity with Mark 9:1 par (above):

    • Both sayings begin a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n (“Amen, I say/relate to you…”)
    • Both sayings have the same structure utilizing a double negative particle (ou) mh\) for emphasis (i.e. “not at all, surely/certainly not”), along with aorist subjunctive verb forms
    • This structure sets a clear conditional statement or assertion, framed the same way by the two subjunctive verb forms—i.e., “…{it/this} shall surely not happen…until {this} should occur”
    • The condition is temporal, or time-factored, governed by the particle e%w$ (“until”)—except for Mk 13:30 which expresses this a bit differently (me/xri$ ou!, “until the [time at] which”)
    • In both sayings, the time-condition seems to relate to the death of people who are currently alive

Let us now consider the saying in Mark 13:30 par in context. It comes after (1) the discussion of the signs/events which are to occur before the end (vv. 5-23), and (2) the description of the end itself, i.e. the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This provides the contextual reference for “[all] these (thing)s” (tau=ta pa/nta) in v. 30—all of the things Jesus has been describing in vv. 5-27, including the appearance of the Son of Man. It is stated that “this genea/” will not pass away (i.e. disappear, die off) until all of this takes place. The interpretive crux involve the much-disputed meaning of “this genea/“.

The noun genea/ is related to the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and fundamentally refers to someone/something which comes to be (born). Often it signifies a group of people who share the same line of birth (i.e. family, tribe, race), or a particular time/period when people are born and live. It is usually translated in English as “generation”, a word actually related to the Greek. As with genea/ itself, the English word “generation” has a similarly elastic meaning. In conventional idiom, when referring to a distinct period of time, a “generation” typically refers to a period of about 30-40 years, reflecting the principal lifetime of a parent in relation to their child—for example, a family with children, parents, and grandparents would be said to involve three different generations. Sometimes, however, it can denote a more extensive period of time.

If we examine the 40+ occurrences of genea/ in the New Testament, we note that all but 10 are found in the Gospels, and there primarily in sayings by Jesus. The Gospel evidence can be rather easily summarized:

    • In the Matthean genealogy (4 times in 1:17), genea/ appears to be used in the conventional sense outlined above, indicating a person’s lifetime up to the point when his/her child comes of age—i.e. a period of ~30-40 years. The same basic usage is found, more generally, in Luke 1:48, 50, as also in Acts 13:36
    • The majority of the occurrences in the sayings involve the expression “this genea/“, “this generation, as here in Mk 13:30 par—cf. Mk 8:12, 38; Matt 11:16; 12:41ff; Lk 11:29-32, 50-51, etc. In all these instances, Jesus would seem to be referring to the people whom he is addressing, i.e. the people alive currently, at the time of his ministry. Cf. also the similar usage in Mk 9:19 par; Matt 12:39; 16:4; Lk 16:8, as well as in Acts 2:40. It is worth noting the negative sense of the expression “this generation”; on this, cf. below.

Paul seems to have used the word in reference to the people of the past, taken as a whole, or speaking generally (cf. Col 1:26; Eph 3:5; Acts 14:16, as also [by James] in Acts 15:21). On one occasion (Phil 2:15) he refers to the current generation (i.e. people currently alive) in a manner similar to Jesus. Three other New Testament occurrences are worthy of note. In Acts 8:33 (citing Isa 53:8), the word is used in a more general sense of a person’s life (coming to be born and lifetime); in Heb 3:10 it is used in reference to a specific past generation (“that generation”); in Eph 3:21 it refers to periods of time (i.e. past Ages).

There would seem to be little reason to understand the usage in Mk 13:30 par any other way than as a reference to the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking—i.e. the people currently alive at that time. All other occurrences of the expression “this generation” in Jesus’ sayings have this meaning, as do the similar instances in Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15. This renders highly problematic other attempts to work around the historical problem, such as that it refers to:

    • The Age (or dispensation) lasting from Jesus’ time, i.e. to the present
    • Humankind or the Israelite/Jewish people in general
    • A specific generation living at some time in the (distant) future

Though the first two of these allow for relatively smooth harmonizing of the historical difficulties, it introduces meaning and distinctions which are foreign to Jesus’ use of the word genea/ and the expression “this generation”. A number of Christians today prefer the last of these options; in its favor is the fact that it preserves the concrete sense of future events that will be fulfilled in a specific (and relatively brief) period of time, as well as retaining the typical meaning of the word genea/. However, it labors under two serious problems:

    • It requires a significant gap in time (as much as 2,000+ years) between Jesus’ original audience and the fulfillment of the predicted events, something for which there is little or no evidence in the text itself; this point will be discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, and when we come to the eschatology in the book of Acts.
    • It is contrary to Jesus’ use of the expression “this generation”, which otherwise always refers to the people whom he is currently addressing (this present generation, i.e. those alive at the time). I find no immediate examples where the expression “this generation” (genea/ au%th) refers to a specific future generation.

One must also keep in mind the fact that Jesus tends to use the expression “this generation” in the context of the Judgment which is about to come upon the people living at the time. The expression is almost always used in this negative sense. Especially noteworthy is Matthew 23:36, where Jesus speaks of the judgment which the (Israelite/Jewish) people, especially those in Judea/Jerusalem and the religious leaders centered there, will face for the death and persecution of the Prophets throughout the years (vv. 29-35), and states bluntly in verse 36 that “…all these (thing)s will come upon this (present) generation”. The language is virtually identical with that of Mk 13:30 par. Central to the Eschatological Discourse is the framework of Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (vv. 1-2) and his description of the great distress which will come upon Judea (vv. 14ff). The Lukan version (21:20-24, cf. also 19:43-44) presents this in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, such as came to pass in 70 A.D. Viewed in these terms, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were largely fulfilled (fairly accurately) in the 1st century A.D., other than the fact that the final Judgment (with the coming of the Son of Man) did not take place. For more on this important topic, cf. the concluding part (upcoming) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse.

3. Matthew 10:22-23

Our focus here will be on the saying in verse 23 (found only in Matthew); however, in order to set in its proper context, it needs to be examined in connection with verse 22:

“And you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name—but the (one) remaining under unto (the) completion [te/lo$], this (one) will be saved. (v. 22)
But when they pursue you in this city, flee into the other (one); for, amen, I say/relate to you (that) you shall (certainly) not complete the cities of Yisrael until the Son of Man should come!” (v. 23)

You will note immediately, the similar syntax of the saying in verse 23, comparing it with those in Mk 9:1 and 13:30 par (cf. above). All three sayings share a common structure, tone and meaning. If the first two are eschatological, it is extremely likely that this one (in its original context) is as well. As I discussed above, this is problematic for traditional-conservative commentators, and other devout readers, since it implies, again, that the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man will take place in the lifetime of the disciples. It is important to consider just what is expected to take place prior to the Son of Man’s appearance; two aspects are indicated: (1) a preaching ministry of the disciples (such as the immediate context of chap. 10), which takes them throughout Israelite territory; and (2) the persecution they will experience, forcing them to flee from one city to the next (cf. the mission narratives in Acts). The eschatological orientation here (cp. in the Eschatological Discourse, Matt 24:9-14 par) seems out of place in the context of chapter 10. Most likely verses 17-23 originated in a separate context and where joined with vv. 1-15f based on a common theme. As the verses stand now, they would imply that the disciples would not complete their mission in vv. 5ff before the coming of the Son of Man—an anachronism and historical implausibity!

Indeed, the persecution described here must be taken as a prophecy of future events which will occur after the resurrection—a period of mission work which will take place prior to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. In this regard, the instruction here is similar in tone and setting to that in the Eschatological discourse (24:9-13 par), only that, in the latter passage, a more extensive mission is described, one which reaches out in the Gentile world (i.e. of the Roman Empire). Mark’s account makes relatively little of this, but it is emphasized more prominently in Luke, as well as in Matthew’s version of the Discourse. The statement in Matt 24:14 goes beyond that in Mk 13:10, apparently referring to this mission work on a much grander scale:

“And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world), unto a witness for all the nations, and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive.”

Many commentators feel that there is incompatibility between 10:16-23 and 24:9-14, and, at the very least, there does appear to be some tension, especially if we accept the historicity of the Gospel narrative and assume that Jesus is addressing essentially the same group of disciples. One passage assumes a mission field limited to the land of Israel/Palestine, the other a worldwide mission (within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, at the very least). However, as I will be discussing in the final portion (Part 4) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, this does not necessarily require a radically different understanding of the period of time involved before the coming of the end.

4. John 21:22-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Chapter 21, which most critical commentators consider to be a secondary addition to the Gospel, to judge by the narrative context, may effectively be narrowing the identification to the disciples mentioned in verse 2. Be that as it may, the “Beloved Disciple” was clearly a prominent figure in the congregations which first read/produced/transmitted the Fourth Gospel. According to 19:35 and 21:24, he is recognized as a principal source for the information and traditions recorded in the Gospel; it is less likely that he is the actual author, in spite of the apparent wording in 21:24.

Verses 20-23 record an important historical tradition, set in the period after the resurrection (vv. 1, 14), while Jesus was still present with his disciples. Actually, there would seem to be two distinct lines of tradition in vv. 15-23—one involving Peter and the death he would face (vv. 15-19), and the other involving the Beloved Disciple and the idea that he would (or might) not die before Jesus’ return. Critical commentators view these as separate traditions, joined by verse 20[f] in the narrative. At any rate, it is Peter’s question (“And what of this [one], Lord?”) which brings forth the statement by Jesus:

“If I wish him to remain until I come, what (is that) to you? You must follow me.” (v. 22)

The implication of this saying, that the Beloved Disciple would remain alive until Jesus’ future return, is certain, at least from the standpoint of the Gospel writer who makes this clear in v. 23:

“(So) then this account [i.e. word/saying] went out into the brothers, that that learner [i.e. disciple] is not (going to) die away; but Yeshua did not say of him that he is not (going to) die away, but ‘If I wish him to remain until I come…'”

According to tradition, John the Apostle was among the very last of the original disciples to die, effectively living to the end of the 1st century. A number of commentators feel that the Beloved Disciple had recently died, or was approaching death, at the time that chap. 21 was written; this would explain why it was important to include this detail, since his death might have been seen as contradicting the words of Jesus. If the Beloved Disciple was, indeed, one of the last of the initial disciples to die off, his death would have marked a significant turning point in early Christian eschatology. Verse 23 offers objective confirmation of the belief, expressed or implied elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. above), that the end-time return of Jesus would take place in the lifetime of the first disciples. Once the first generation of believers had “passed away”, this belief would have to be re-examined, and Jesus’ sayings reconsidered. It is possible that we see signs of this already in the Synoptic Tradition, especially in the more developed form represented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (often thought to date from c. 70-80 A.D.). Luke, in particular, was aware of an extended period of missionary work in the Gentile world (the Roman Empire), spanning at least until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Of all the Gospels, his version of the Eschatological Discourse gives the most precise presentation of this particular historical framework.

Saturday Series: 1 John 1:1-5

Over the next month or so, these Saturday studies will focus on the Johannine Letters (1-2-3 John). Key passages in the letters will be highlighted, using the methods and principles of critical analysis—textual, historical, and literary criticism—to elucidate the text.

Even a casual reading, in translation, of both the Gospel and Letters of John, would make rather apparent the many similarities in language, style, and thought between these writings. If not written by the same person, then, at the very least, they share a common religious and theological worldview, and manner of expression, suggesting that they were both produced and read among a specific group of first-century believers. New Testament scholars typically refer to this as a Johannine “Community” or “School”. Community is the better term, in the sense of referring to a number of congregations in a particular region which were unified, to some extent, in thought and organization. Tradition ascribes all four writings (Gospel and Letters) to John the apostle (son of Zebedee); this is certainly possible, but technically the works are anonymous, and attribution to John should not be treated as established fact. A disciple of Jesus known as the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) is referenced in the Gospel as an eyewitness source of information and tradition, and it is often assumed that he was a central (perhaps the central) apostolic figure of the Johannine Community. I will regularly use the standard term “Johannine” without necessarily affirming the traditional identification of John the apostle as either the “Beloved Disciple” or author of the Gospel and Letters.

The location of the Johannine Community is also unknown, though tradition would identify it as the region around Ephesus, and, here too, the tradition may well be correct. In favor of Ephesus and Asia Minor are the following objective details:

    • The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John.
    • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
    • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
    • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

The emphasis on this idea of a Johannine Community relates to the importance of studying the Scriptures, first of all, in the historical-cultural context in which they were originally authored and distributed. Too often, there is a tendency for Christians to read Scripture out of context, as though the writings simply dropped down out of heaven fully formed. Any sound and reasonable view of the inspiration of Scripture must take full account of the natural processes by which the text took shape and was produced—this means a real life-setting of the work. Such a setting is easier to establish in the case of the Letters of Paul, where so much more detail is provided, but the critical analysis—under the heading of historical criticism— is just as necessary for the Letters of John. For a study on the background of the Letters, see my earlier article on the subject.

By way of introduction, we will begin with the first five verses of 1 John—the “prologue” (1:1-4) together with the initial declaration (in v. 5) of the work proper.

1 John 1:1-5

Every attentive reader will, I think, readily recognize the points of similarity between the “prologue” to 1 John (1:1-4) and the more famous Prologue of the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18). This is clear enough from the opening words:

1 John
Hó ¢¡n ap’ arch¢¡s
 ^O h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$
Th(at) which was from the beginning
Gospel
En arch¢¡ ¢¡n ho
 )En a)rxh=| h@n o(
In the beginning was the…

The form of the verb of being (eimi, here imperfect indicative ¢¡n, “was”) has profound theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John, and is used most carefully in the Prologue as a mark of divine/eternal existence and life, contrasted with the contingent coming to be (vb gínomai) of creation. Also important is the noun arch¢¡ (“beginning, first, fore[most]”)—note the Gospel references in 1:1-2; 2:11; 6:64; 8:25, 44; 15:27; 16:4. There are nine other occurrences in the Letters, always in the expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s): 1 Jn 2:7, 13-14, 24 [twice]; 3:8, 11; 2 Jn 5, 6. One might also note the important occurrences of arch¢¡ in the book of Revelation (3:14; 21:6; 22:13).

The very way that 1 John starts, with the neuter relative pronoun (“[that] which”), could almost be read as a reference to the Gospel Prologue; indeed, many commentators feel that the author of the Letter is intentionally drawing on Jn 1:1-18, as a “deliberate reflection” upon its wording and theological message (Brown, p. 174). This seems most likely. However, while the (poetic) syntax of the Gospel Prologue is rather smooth and elegant, that of 1 Jn 1:1-4 is anything but, as most commentators and translators will acknowledge. The four verses make up one long (and rather awkward) sentence in the Greek; translations typically break this up and smooth things out considerably. Here I give my rendering of 1:1-4:

“Th(at) which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked at (closely) and our hands felt (by touching), about the word/account [lógos] of Life—and th(is) Life was made to shine forth, and we have seen (it), and we bear witness and give forth (as) a message to you, the Life of the Ages [i.e. Eternal Life] which was (facing) toward the Father and was made to shine forth to us—th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”

I believe that a good deal of the grammatical awkwardness stems from the way that the thought/message of the Gospel Prologue is incorporated into the introductory message of the letter. It would seem that this took place two ways: (1) the initial (and repeated) use of the relative pronoun, and (2) the central proclamation (verse 2, highlighted in blue above) that interrupts the main statement. It is this proclamation that most clearly echoes the Gospel prologue:

    • “and th(is) Life was made to shine forth” (kai h¢ zœ¢¡ efanerœ¡q¢) [v. 2a]
      —Gospel: “and th(is) Life was the Light of men; and the Light shines…” (1:4)
    • “and we have seen (it)” (kai heœrákamen) [v. 2b]
      —Gospel: “and we looked at his splendor” (1:14, cf. also v. 18)
    • “and we bear witness [martyroúmen] and give forth (as) a message to you” [v. 2c]
      —Gospel: John the Baptist, in particular, bears witness to the Light/Life (1:6-8)
    • “the Life of the Ages which was [¢¡n] toward [prós] the Father” [v. 2d]
      —Gospel: “the Word [Logos] was [¢¡n] toward [prós] God…” (1:1) “this (one) was [¢¡n] in the beginning toward [prós] God” (1:2) “In him was [¢¡n] Life, and th(is) Life was [¢¡n]…” (1:4)
    • “and was made to shine forth to us” (kai efanerœ¡q¢ h¢mín) [v. 2e]
      —Gospel: 1:4f, 9ff, 14, 18 (see under v. 2a above)

The use of the relative pronoun adds to the complexity of 1:1-4 and requires some comment. It is a neuter pronoun, and, occurring as it does at the beginning of the sentence, is best understood in a general and comprehensive way. As I noted above, the allusions to the Gospel Prologue suggest that it is the unique message about Jesus, as presented in the Gospel of John, that is in view. I believe that this functions with three levels of meaning:

    1. Jesus as the eternal Word/Life/Light who came to earth as an incarnate (flesh and blood) human being
    2. The manifestation of this Life/Light on earth among other human beings—esp. his close disciples
    3. The message of Jesus—who he was and what he did—proclaimed by and among the first believers, down to the time of writing

The last of these is less prominent in the Gospel Prologue, but takes on special emphasis and importance in the Johannine Letters. The relative pronouns and points of reference in 1:1-4 shift subtly between these three levels of meaning, especially in vv. 1-3a—and it must be said that they are equally important (and interconnected) for the author. If the author is indeed making use of the (written) Gospel, then it is likely that 1 John was written somewhat later, after the Gospel (in some form) had already been in circulation in the Johannine churches. Probably he would have expected that his audience would understand and be familiar with his references to the Gospel Prologue, as well as the theology (and Christology) expressed by it. At any rate, the author’s own purpose in writing as he does is clear enough from the closing words in vv. 3-4:

“…th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) [koinœnía] with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) [koinœnía] (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”

The specific wording here is significant and should be examined carefully. In particular, it is worth asking: if the author is writing to fellow believers, united in thought and purpose (as part of the Community), then why would he have any doubt that they “might also hold common (bond) with us”? The use of the subjunctive here (éch¢te, “might hold, would hold”) I believe is telling, as it relates to a certain conflict within the Community. We will examine this conflict in next week’s study; in preparation, I would ask that you read the letter carefully, from verse 4 through the end of chapter 2, paying special attention to the discussion in 2:18-27. What sort of conflict is described there, and what is the nature of the dispute? How would you relate it back to what the author expresses in the prologue of 1:1-4? In closing, it is worth noting the way the author re-states the Gospel message in verse 5:

“And this is the message which we have heard from him [i.e. Jesus] and deliver up (as a) message to you: ‘that God is Light, and there is not any darkness in Him’!”

This declaration again echoes the language of the Gospel prologue (1:5), as well as reflecting the dualism (i.e. Light vs. Darkness) that is especially characteristic of Johannine thought (3:19; 8:12; 12:35-36, 46, etc). This dualistic imagery will play an important role in how the author frames the conflict which is at the heart of the letter’s message. This we will explore…next Saturday.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982).

Special article on the Letters of John

Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series (“…Spirit and Life”), touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

    • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
    • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
    • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

    • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
    • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
    • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
    • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

    • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
    • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
    • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
    • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

    • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
    • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
    • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
    • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
    • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it is often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions as a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation[?] of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow believers those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.