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

1 John 3:4-9, concluded

In these studies on the concept of sin in the Johannine writings, our examination of 1 John 3:4-9 demonstrates how the tenets of Biblical Criticism can help to elucidate difficult interpretive problems. One begins with the Greek (or Hebrew) text, giving careful consideration to the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax utilized by the author. Then the cultural and historical background of the text is examined, along with the thought-world of the author and the original audience (as far as this can be determined). Also essential to this critical study is a thorough analysis of the literary context of a passage—the structure of the work as a whole, the rhetorical approach, the author’s goal and purpose in writing, and all the various literary devices employed in pursuing the intended goal.

All (or most) of these aspects of critical study have been touched upon in our examination of 1 John 3:4-9, and in relation to longstanding interpretive problem inherent in these verses. This ‘sin problem’ involves the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and those in 3:4-9; the same basic contradiction is repeated, for good measure, in 5:16-17 and 18. Our studies on 1 John 3:4-9 have proceeded with the ‘sin problem’ clearly in view.

There have been numerous attempts by scholars to resolve the apparent contradiction. They vary in approach, but none has proven particularly successful; certainly, no proposed solution to date has garnered much of a consensus among New Testament scholars. Many commentators today seem more or less resigned to the fact that the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John cannot really be solved.

In bringing the study on 1 John 3:4-9 to a close, I wish to present four interpretative approaches which have been reasonably popular among commentators in recent decades. I will discuss these briefly, before offering two distinct, but somewhat divergent, approaches of my own.

Four Approaches to the ‘Sin Problem’ of 1 John

1. One explanation, especially popular among conservative (and evangelical) commentators, is that the author of 1 John is making a distinction between occasional sins (which a believer may commit) and a pattern of regular or habitual sinning. The author maintains that believers can (and do) commit occasional sins (1:8-2:2; 5:16-17), but then declares that they will not engage in regular or repeatedly sinful behavior (3:4-9; 5:18).

There is a certain attractiveness to this solution, since it generally reflects Christian experience and makes for practical ethical instruction. However, I find the approach to be quite unconvincing, and do not think that it is at all what the author is emphasizing in 3:4-9. Much of the solution hinges on the use of the present tense throughout 3:4-9, compared, for example, with the use of the perfect tense in 1:10 or the aorist in 2:1. The present tense here, it is argued, implies a regular (progressive, continuous) action. However, this need not be the emphasis; indeed, it does not seem to be the emphasis in 3:9c. Moreover, the present tense is also used in 1:8, which weakens the argument based on a supposed distinction in tenses.

Those who take this approach would do better to focus on the use of the substantive participle (with definite article) throughout 3:4-9. This syntax, typical of Johannine style, is used to define believers (or non-believers) according to the action or condition indicated by the verbal expression—e.g., “the one(s) doing {such}…”. This certainly implies a regular and characteristic behavior. However, this very usage ultimately works against the proposed solution. Note, for example, the way that the false believer is characterized as “the (one) sinning” in verse 6; however, the opposite is not stated the same way. Rather, the true believer is characterized as “the (one) remaining in him”, as a result of which, he/she does not sin. Admittedly, the participial expression “the (one) doing the right (thing)” in v. 7 is formally parallel to “the (one) doing the sin” in v. 4, but this does not solve the problem of the language the author uses in vv. 6 and 9.

2. Another common approach is to interpret the author’s teaching in 3:4-9 from a paraenetic and exhortational standpoint. That is to say, the sinlessness language in vv. 6 and 9 represents the ideal for which believers must strive. It is as though when, in verse 6, the author says “every (one) remaining in him does not sin”, he really means “…should not sin”. Again, this would represent sound and practical instruction, and such exhortational emphasis is, indeed, present in verse 3: “Every (one) holding this hope upon him [i.e. upon Christ] purifies himself, even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is pure”.

However, the author’s emphasis in vv. 4-9 does not seem to be exhortational, but, rather, is theological. He is describing the nature of the true believer, in contrast to that of the false believer, a nature that is defined in relation to their/our union with the Son (Jesus). Since the Son removed sin, and is himself free from sin (vv. 5, 8), the one who abides/remains in him is similarly free from sin (vv. 6, 9). The absoluteness of the statement in v. 9c, in particular, defies the proposed solution. The claim that “the (one) having come to be (born) of God…is not able to sin” goes beyond an exhortation to the believer—it defines what it means to be a true believer.

3. A third interpretative approach understands the sinlessness of the believer (vv. 6, 9) in terms of the power or ability to avoid sin. Believers are not completely free from sin, except insofar as they allow this power to work within them, submitting to its internal guidance. This approach has more to recommend it than the previous two. In particular, the central emphasis, in verse 9, on the “seed” of God that “remains” within the believer, would seem to provide strong support for this line of interpretation. It would be much stronger, however, if verse 9c was worded differently: “…is able not to sin”, rather than “…is not able to sin”. The author’s actual wording (with the negative particle ou preceding dýnatai [“is able”]) suggests that it is not even possible for the true believer to sin.

4. The fourth approach is, in some ways, a variation on #2 (see above), but with an eschatological orientation. Sinlessness is the ideal and goal for the believer, but it is to be realized with the coming of the end. Even the seemingly absolute language in verse 9 could be explained on these terms. It is the eschatological destiny of every true believer to be completely free of sin. While one may currently struggle to avoid sin, and (indeed) may occasionally sin, our sinless perfection will soon be realized, with the return of Christ, when our identity as “those born of God” will be made complete.

The immediate context of vv. 4-9 argues strongly in favor of this interpretive approach. After all, the section opens with an eschatological instruction (2:28-3:3) which includes the idea that, upon the return of Christ, believers will come to be something more than what we currently are (3:2). A sinless perfection, reflecting the Son’s own sinlessness (cf. verse 2 in light of v. 5), certainly could be seen as part of this fully realized identity.

Even so, this eschatological approach to the sin-problem, for all its merit, still falls short and remains unsatisfactory. Its greatest weakness is that it does not do full justice to the author’s language in vv. 4-9, particularly the declarations in verse 9.

Two Alternative Approaches

I would offer two rather different approaches to the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. These approaches are based, correspondingly, upon the results of our critical study on the idea of sin in the Johannine writings. Each approach is rooted in a distinctive element of the Johannine theological idiom—an idiomatic language of which the author of 1 John makes extensive use. Indeed, this mode of theological expression defines and governs his rhetorical approach. There are, in particular, two components which I would emphasize as being key to understanding the author’s thought regarding sin and the believer:

    • The use of the verb ménœ, and
    • The Johannine dual-layer understanding of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ)
1. The use of the verb ménœ

In our studies on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) has been discussed extensively. This verb, which is used in a unique theological sense throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, occurs quite frequently in 1 John (24 times). The greatest concentration of occurrences is in the central division of the letter (2:28-3:24), where ménœ occurs 8 times, but this usage is enhanced when we consider it in the context of the five occurrences of the verb in vv. 24 and 27 (twice in v. 27).

The thrust of the exhortation in this section (see approaches #2 and #4 above) involves the verb ménœ, established by the imperative at the beginning of 2:28: “You must remain [ménete] in him…”. This exhortation is paired with the key occurrences of the verb in 3:6 and 9, the very sin-references which are at issue. Each reference expresses a different aspect of the believer’s union with the Son (and with the Father). In verse 6, the bond of union is described from the believer’s standpoint:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin”

The implication seems clear: if the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. In verse 9, the same point is made (9a), but includes a consideration of the bond from God’s standpoint:

“His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him,
and (so) he [i.e. the believer] is not able to sin”

Essentially, these central lines from verse 9 (bc) are added to the declaration in verse 6, as may be outlined as follows:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (9a)
      • “(in) that His seed remains in him” (9b)
      • “and (so) he is not able to sin” (9c)
    • “(in) that he has come to be (born) of God” (9d)

The subordinate clause of 9d restates the participial expression of 9a (parallel with that of v. 6a). The central lines (bc) are expository; they explain further the situation in line a/d. We may summarize this point as follows: the believer, who has come to be born of God, does not sin, because the seed of God remaining in the believer means that he/she is not able to sin.

How, then, can a believer possibly sin? Only if the believer does not remain in the Son. If the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. If, however, the believer—in whatever way, or for whatever reason—fails to remain, even temporarily, then it is possible to sin. This approach is not without certain difficulties, which I will be discussing in some detail at a later point. Yet I believe that it offers a solid basis for understanding and explaining the author’s view of sin (in relation to the believer).

2. The two aspects of “sin” in the Johannine writings

In these studies, we have seen how there are two distinctive ways of understanding sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the Johannine writings:

    1. in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failings and wrongdoings
    2. in the theological (Christological) sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God

The Gospel of John, in particular, plays on both of these layers, or aspects, of meaning, giving decided emphasis to the second. From the Johannine standpoint, refusing to trust in Jesus represents the great sin, and, indeed, the true nature of sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9). Yet the two aspects are related. The great sin of unbelief is, in a real sense, the basis for all other sins. This may be understood several ways. Perhaps the clearest example of the relation involves the idea that Jesus’ mission on earth resulted in the removal of sin (Jn 1:29; 1 Jn 3:5, 8). But this is only realized for the believer; if one does not trust in Jesus, then the sin is not removed—indeed, in that case, a person’s sins all remain (Jn 9:41).

I am convinced that the author of 1 John (if he is not the same person as the Gospel writer) has the same dual-layered understanding of sin, and that he also moves between these two aspects of meaning (for the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). This dual-meaning may provide the key to solving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John. It could be stated, simply, as follows: the true believer can sin according to the first aspect of meaning, but not the second. That is to say, the true believer may (occasionally) commit sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failure or wrongdoing; however, he/she is not able to sin in the fundamental sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus.

The latter understanding of sin should actually be defined more properly in terms of violating the great ‘command’ (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. In both the Gospel and First Letter, there is only one such entol¢¡, but it is two-fold, with two components, and so can also be regarded as two entolaí. In the Gospel, this dual ‘command’ is presented primarily in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), and especially in the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17), where the verb ménœ occurs eleven times. This two-fold entol¢¡ effectively defines what it means to remain in the Son (Jesus)—one remains in his word (lógos), and also in his love (agáp¢). I have illustrated this with the following simple diagram:

The only way a believer can fail to remain in the Son is by either failing to remain in his word or in his love.

The author of 1 John evinces a comparable dual-command, a two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. However, he formulates and frames it somewhat differently. It is presented clearly in 3:23, at the end of the central section (2:28-3:24) of the letter. He defines it as: (1) true/proper trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (2) love for one’s fellow believer, according to Jesus’ own example. The true believer will not, and cannot, violate this dual-command; however, the false believer can (and does) violate it.

The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The “antichrist” opponents, whom the author combats (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), are false believers, who demonstrate that they possess neither true faith in Christ nor true love. By contrast, the author treats his readers as being among the true believers. This positioning of his audience is actually part of the author’s rhetorical strategy—a position from which he can warn them not to be led astray by the teachings and example of the “antichrists”. It is no coincidence that the central section of 2:28-3:24 is framed by the two “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). The author exhorts his readers to “remain” in Christ, by remaining rooted in both his “word” (i.e., the truth of the Gospel message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son) and his “love” (maintaining the bond of unity with other believers).

The very exhortation implies that it is possible for a (true) believer to lapse from this state of “remaining”, at least temporarily, and to be led astray. The focus in 1 John is on being led astray by false believers (who function as false prophets of the end-time). Yet, the true believer will never violate the fundamental entol¢¡ of trust and love. Even if, like Peter, in the Gospel narrative (13:36-37; 18:15-18ff), the believer may lapse into the darkness of sin and doubt, it is possible to be restored into the abiding union (cf. Jn 20:1-6ff; 21), and once again to remain in the Son.

Before bringing this series of studies to a close, and, as a way to test and evaluate the two proposed solutions to the ‘sin problem’ which I have offered above, we shall examine the final sin-passage in 1 John (5:16-18). This we shall do next week.

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

1 John 3:4-9, continued

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

Verses 7-9

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

Statement #1 (verse 7):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statement #2 (verse 8):

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

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

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

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

Statement #3 (verse 9):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:4-9, continued

Last week, in our study on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John was discussed. This label refers to the apparently contradictory statements made by the author, to the effect that believers in Christ both do, and do not, commit sin—that they both can, and can not, sin. In the opening section 1:5-2:2, the author clearly refutes (and indirectly condemns) claims of sinlessness, claims which may represent the views held by a certain group of opponents (called “antichrist” in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). In particular, the claims in 1:8a and 10a are refuted:

    • “we do not hold (any) sin” (hamartían ouk échomen)
    • “we have not sinned” (oux h¢mart¢¡kamen)

It is clear from the context that the author is referring to sin committed by believers, a point that is confirmed by the general parallel in 5:16-17. This means that believers can, and occasionally do, sin. And yet, here in 3:4-9 (also in 5:18), the author seems to be claiming just the opposite:

    • (the believer) “does not sin” (ouk hamartánei), v. 6a
    • (the believer) “does not do sin” (hamartían ou poieí), v. 9a
    • (the believer) “is not able to sin” (ou dýnatai hamartánein), v. 9c

I have filled in the subject “the believer”, even though the author uses different terminology:

    • “every (one) remaining in him [i.e. in Christ]” (v. 6a)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God” (v. 9a, c)

This syntactical terminology, utilizing a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article, along with the adjective pás (“every”), is particular to the Johannine style and theological idiom. It is used in both the Gospel and the Letters, as a way of referring to believers—true believers—in Christ. The verbal noun serves as a designation, describing the nature, characteristics, and behavior of believers: “the one(s) doing/being {such…}”.

Here, two distinctive verbs are used, both of which are Johannine keywords: (1) the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), and (2) the verb of becoming (gennáœ), in the specific context of birth (i.e., coming to be born). The believer comes to be born of God (ek theoú), and then remains/abides in Him (en autœ¡). The ‘birth’ is spiritual, taking place through the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8). The remaining/abiding also is realized through the Spirit (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13; Jn 14:17ff); however, the focus of the verb ménœ in the Johannine writings is the believers relationship to the Son (Jesus). The believer abides in the Son, and the Son abides in the believer; and it is through the Son that one is similarly united with the Father. All of this—our abiding union with both Father and Son—is realized through the presence of the Spirit.

The two aspects of the living identity of the believer are expressed by the substantive participles in vv. 6 and 9: birth (coming to be [born]), and the duration of life (abiding/remaining).

Let us consider the sin-references carefully within the context of vv. 4-9. One may view the statements in vv. 6 and 9 as the climax of two parallel discourse-units—vv. 4-6 and 7-9. We shall examine the structure and rhetorical progress of each unit.

Verses 4-6

This unit is comprised of three statements, corresponding to each of the designated verses:

Statement 1 (verse 4):

“Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing); indeed, the sin is the lawless (thing).”

The author utilizes the same syntactical expression noted above—substantive participle with definite article, preceded by the adjective pás (“every”): “every (one) doing the sin”. This describes the nature and character of a certain type of individual, or group. It will become clear that it designates the opposite of the true believer, though this has not yet been established explicitly within the author’s line of argument.

The thrust of the statement is the identification of “sin” (lit. “the sin”, h¢ hamartía) with “lawlessness” (lit. “the lawless [thing]”, h¢ anomía), that which is “without law” (ánomos). This identification was discussed last week, along with the use of anomía (and ánomos) elsewhere in the New Testament. This is the only occurrence of anomía in the Johannine writings. The author would seem to be drawing upon two fundamental aspects of the term, as it is understood and used by early Christians. The first aspect highlights the idea of opposition to the law (nómos) of God. This can refer to immorality and “lawlessness” generally; however, I believer that the author is making use of the noun here in order to prepare his audience for the theme that will dominate verses 11-24: that of fulfilling the duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) that is required of all (true) believers. The legacy of the Old Covenant, emphasizing obedience to the regulations and commands of the Torah (the Law), informs the author’s wording. The person who is “without law” disregards the entol¢¡ of God, and even comes to oppose it—like the opponents who are called “antichrist” (against the Anointed).

The second aspect is eschatological. In early Christian eschatological tradition, the noun anomía designates the wickedness of the end-time, with its opposition to God and distortion of the truth. The eschatological context of our passage was established in 2:29-3:3 (see the discussion in the previous study). Almost certainly, the author has in mind, primarily, the false views of the opponents, whom he refers to as “antichrists” of the end-time; note how the “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6), describing the opponents and their view of Christ, frames the central section of 2:28-3:24. It is unlikely that the author would use the loaded term anomía here without having the sin of the opponents fully in view. The opponents are the principal example of the would-be believer who sins: “the (one) doing the sin”.

Statement 2 (verse 5):

“And (yet) you have seen [i.e. know] that that (one) was made to shine forth (so) that he might take (away) sin—and there is not (any) sin in him.”

In this second statement, sin is related to the person of the Son (Jesus Christ), referred to simply by the demonstrative pronoun ekeínos (“that [one]”). There are two components to this double-statement: (1) the earthly mission of the Son was to “take away” (vb aírœ) sin, and (2) there is not any sin in him. The connection of the first component to the ‘Lamb of God’ declaration in Jn 1:29 was discussed last week (see also the earlier study on that verse). The Son both removes sin (for believers), and is himself free of sin.

The interpretative key for this verse—the center of vv. 4-6—is the closing prepositional expression “in him” (en autœ¡), that is “in the Son”, “in Christ”. There is a dual-meaning to the use of this expression, in context. On the one hand, it means that Jesus Christ himself has no sin. At the same time, it also alludes to the condition of the believer who is “in him”. If there is no sin “in him”, then anyone who is “in him” will also be free of sin. This is an essential principle to keep in mind when considering the idea of the believer’s sinlessness.

Statement 3 (verse 6):

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin; (while) every (one) sinning has not seen him, and has not known him.”

The initial phrase is parallel with that of verse 4 (see above); note the contrastive (antithetical) juxtaposition:

    • “Every (one) doing the sin…”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him…”

The participial expression “doing the sin” is more or less synonymous (if not equal) to the participle “sinning” here in v. 6b. We can fill out the comparative thought in vv. 4 and 6a as follows:

    • “Every (one) sinning (does what is lawless)”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin”

Thematically, it is possible to combine the phrases of these statements, treating them as a chiasm:

    • sinning
      • acting “without law”
        (the false believers, i.e. the opponents)
      • remaining in Christ
        (the true believers)
    • does not sin

The second half (b) of verse 6 is easy to understand: the person characterized by sin (“the [one] sinning”) is not, and cannot, be a true believer. The interpretive difficulty is found in the first half (a). Much depends on the force of the phrase “does not sin” (ouk hamartánei): does this mean “does not ever sin” or “does not regularly sin”? Some commentators simply assume the latter; indeed, certain English translations (such as the ESV) actually build this line of interpretation into their translation: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning”; similarly, for example, in verse 4, “Every one who makes a practice of sinning”. I find such an overly-interpretive translation to be quite irresponsible; most likely, it was employed to circumvent the author’s apparent contradictions, thus avoiding the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John altogether.

Yet the interpretive approach itself is not without merit. As discussed above, the use of the substantive participle characterizes a person or group—indicating one’s essential nature and, we may assume, regular behavior as well. It goes without saying that a true believer would not be characterized by sinful behavior, persistent immoral conduct, and the like. But is that what the author is emphasizing here in verse 6? It seems unlikely, given the parallel statements in verse 9:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
    • “indeed he is not able to sin, (in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) of God”

Next week, we will examine verses 7-9, comparing the author’s line of argument in that discourse-unit with the earlier unit of vv. 4-6. In so doing, we will begin to formulate an interpretive approach to the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9

1 John 3:4-9

After a hiatus for the Christmas season, the Saturday Series returns, with a continuation of the studies on sin in the Gospel and Letters of John. In the most recent studies, we examined the sin references in 1 John 1:5-2:2. In that passage, the author of 1 John combats the idea that believers are completely without sin. In three different units, the author presents three different false claims or ideas about sin (in relation to the believer)—1:6a, 8a, 10a—and, in each instance, refutes the claim (v. 6b, 8b, 10b), and then presents the true view regarding sin and the believer (vv. 7, 9; 2:1-2). It has been thought that the false claims regarding sin represent positions held by the opponents which the author otherwise combats in 1 and 2 John. These opponents, who are discussed most directly in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6 (also 2 Jn 7ff), are described principally in terms of their Christology (that is, their view of Jesus Christ); however, it is certainly possible that they also held views regarding the nature of sin—and of the relationship of sin to the believer in Christ—which the author found objectionable.

An interesting aspect of 1 John, in this regard, is that the author, while combating the idea (in 1:5-2:2) that believers are without sin, makes several statements, elsewhere in the letter, to the effect that believers do not (and, indeed, can not) sin. These seemingly incongruous—even contradictory—statements have long proved a challenge for commentators on the Johannine writings. We may refer to this as the “sin problem” in 1 John. Does the author contradict himself in these sin references? There have been numerous attempts to harmonize the references, or to explain them in various ways. These explanations, on the whole, are far from convincing. But they raise another, in some ways more interesting question: why does the author use language and wording which, on the surface, seems so similar to the very ideas that he condemns (in 1:5-2:2)? If the ‘false’ claims regarding sin in that earlier passage do, indeed, represent the views of the opponents—people whom he takes great pains to oppose (and warn his readers against)—why does the author risk confusing the matter by putting forward his own (apparent) claims of sinlessness in 3:4-9 (repeated in 5:18)?

There is no simple solution to the “sin problem” in 1 John. In the course of this study, mention will be made of several proposed solutions, none of which I find particularly satisfying or convincing. I have made certain proposals of my own—of interpretive approaches, rather than a definitive solution—and will present these again here, after the references in 3:4-9 (and 5:18) have been examined.

Let us begin with the structural context of our passage. The unit 3:4-9 is part of a larger section (2:28-3:10) which also comprises the central division of 1 John—2:28-3:24. There are two sections to this division: (1) 2:28-3:10, and (2) 3:11-24. The central division is flanked by the two “antichrist” passages, 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, in which the author deals most directly with the opponents, referring to them as antíchristoi—that is, those who are “against the Anointed”, “against (Jesus) Christ”. This refers primarily to their Christology, which the author regards as false. Their view of Christ is false, and thus they are false believers; even worse, by promoting their false view, they act as ‘false prophets’, inspired by a false and deceiving spirit (and not the holy Spirit of God), which threatens to lead astray even many genuine believers. The central theme of 1 John is the contrast between the true believer and the false believer. In the “antichrist” sections of 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the focus is on defining the false believer, while in the central section of 2:28-3:24 the emphasis is on the true believer.

Significantly, the section begins with an urgent exhortation (and warning) to the author’s readers (whom he treats as true believers), in light of this threat posed by the opponents, and the danger of being led astray by their false teachings. The exhortation features the Johannine key verb ménœ (“remain”):

“And now, (my dear) offspring [i.e., children], you must remain [ménete] in him…” (2:28a)

In the Johannine writings, this common verb (“remain, stay, abide”) has special theological meaning, referring to the abiding union which the believer has, with God the Father, through Jesus Christ (the Son). This union comes through trust in Jesus, and is realized through the presence of the Spirit. The previous section closed with an emphatic usage of the verb (vv. 24 [3x], 27 [2x]), and its usage frames the central section, occurring here and at the close (3:24 [2x]), while also being used throughout the line of argument (vv. 6, 9, 14-15, 17). The idea of remaining in Christ, expressed by the verb ménœ, is thus central to this section, and defines what it means to be a true believer.

The exhortation to remain is is framed in eschatological terms, by which the author (like nearly all first-century Christians) has in mind an imminent eschatologythat is, he and his readers are living in the ‘last days’, with the end being very near. The presence of the “antichrist” false believers is a sign that the end is near (2:18), and the true believer must remain firmly rooted in the truth, and must be guided by the true Spirit of God. Here is how the author states the eschatological urgency in v. 28b:

“… (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth [i.e. appears], we might hold an outspokenness, and not move (away) from him with shame, in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousía] (of us).”

That is to say, if we remain in Christ, as true believers, then we can face the end, when he appears, boldly and with confidence. The eschatological emphasis continues in 2:29-3:3, as the author develops this aspect of his exhortation. The closing of the exhortation is significant for its ethical orientation, providing an important transitional link to the sin-references that follow:

“And every (one) holding this hope, upon him, makes himself holy, even as that (one) is holy.” (3:3)

The verb hagnízœ (“make holy”), used reflexively with the pronoun h(e)autos (“himself, oneself”), is best rendered in English as “purify oneself, make oneself pure”. This idea of purity is obviously significant in relation to the the question of sin and the believer (and the possibility of sinlessness). Indeed, in verses 4-9, this matter of sin becomes the author’s main concern. He begins with something of a definition regarding sin (hamartía):

“Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing); indeed, the sin is the lawless (thing).” (v. 4)

The author explains that sin (hamartía), by definition, means that which is “without law” (anomía, adj. ánomos), i.e., lawlessness. The noun anomía occurs only here in the Johannine writings. It is not a Johannine term, which suggests that the author has a particular purpose in introducing it here. The a– prefix of the noun is privative, indicating a lack, or being without something; specifically, it refers to being without any law (nómos). The early Christian use of the noun anomía generally follows the Jewish usage. There are two main contextual aspects to its use in the New Testament: (1) religious-ethical, and (2) eschatological. As regards the first aspect, the meaning can be general—i.e., violating or ignoring what is moral and right—or can specifically refer to violating/ignoring the commands, etc, of the Torah. According to either sense, the one “without law” acts in a manner that disregards the Law of God. The noun, as such, occurs in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12), and also occurs in the Pauline Letters, where it is specifically juxtaposed with the idea of purity (Rom 4:7; 2 Cor 6:14; Titus 2:14), much as we see here in 1 John (v. 3, see above).

The other context where anomía is used is eschatological; “lawlessness”, or being “without (any) law”, involving a disregard of the Law of God, is a basic characteristic of the end time. Indeed, just before the end, it was expected that things on earth would increasingly grow worse and worse, with evil and wickedness becoming ever more prevalent among human beings. First-century believers understood themselves to be living during this period of time right before the end. The noun is used with this significance in the Matthean version of Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and is also implied in 13:41. Paul’s use of the term in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and 7 is closer to the eschatological context of 1 John, with its emphasis on the opponents as demonically-inspired “antichrists” of the end-time. The “man of lawlessness” or “lawless (one)” (vv. 3, 8) may well draw upon the same early form of the Antichrist tradition to which our author seems to allude in 2:18.

It is quite likely that the author of 1 John intends both of these aspects of meaning: sin is both a violation/disregard of God’s Law and also represents the wickedness (characteristic of “antichrist”) prevalent at the end-time.

In our previous studies, I have discussed how, in the Johannine writings (and certainly in the Gospel of John) there is a dual-aspect to the idea of sin (utilizing the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). On the one hand, there is the conventional religious-ethical meaning (i.e., sin as wrong-doing or a failure to do what is right); on the other hand, there is the special theological (and Christological) aspect of sin as a failure (and/or refusal) to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. This second aspect is primary in the Gospel of John: the sin of unbelief is the great sin.

But how is this terminology intended here in 1 John? In 1:5-2:2, sin was understood in the general (ethical-religious) sense of wrongs and misdeeds, etc, done by human beings. Is that how the terms are being used here? The author’s statement that follows in verse 5 would suggest so:

“And we have seen [i.e. we know] that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appeared] (so) that he might take (away) the sin, and there is not (any) sin in him.”

This wording seems to echo the Lamb of God declaration in the Gospel (1:29), using the verb aírœ (“take up”) in a similar sense: the effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death was to take away (i.e. remove) sin for those who trust in him; for more on this, see the earlier studies on Jn 1:29. Here, the noun hamartía, with or without the definite article, refers to sin in a general (and comprehensive) sense, in two ways: (i) all the sin that a human being does, and (ii) sin (and sinfulness) as a personal attribute or characteristic. Jesus’ death removes sin from the believer, and he (Jesus) himself was without sin (“there is not sin in him”). These two aspects of the sin-reference in v. 5 are important for the author’s understanding of the believer’s relationship to sin. The implications are clear: sin is removed from the believer; and, at the same time, since Jesus is without sin, the one who remains in Jesus partakes in that same sinlessness. This would suggest that the true believer, the one who remains in Jesus, is free of all sin (i.e., is sinless). The author states as much in verse 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (6a)

The converse is stated, with similar bluntness, in 6b:

“every (one) sinning has not seen him and has not known him.”

The implication of the author’s statements seems clear: the believer who remains in Jesus does not sin, while the one who does sin (“the [one] sinning”) cannot be a true believer.

How does this square with the teaching in 1:5-2:2, where the author seems to argue rather the opposite point?—viz., that believers do, in fact, sin (see above). Is he contradicting himself? This is a key interpretive question, and will be discussed next week, in our continuation of this study on 1 Jn 3:4-9.

Saturday Series: John 8:21-30

John 8:21-40ff

In our previous studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine writings, we saw how the initial references to sin in the Gospel (in 1:29 and 5:14 [discussed along with 9:2-3])—using the verb hamartánœ and/or the noun hamartîa—refer to sin either in the general or the conventional ethical-religious sense. That is to say, the references are to wrongs that people do, either against others or against God, including moral failings, inappropriate behavior, and so forth. The terms can apply to humankind collectively (1:29), or to specific individuals (5:14; 9:2-3; cf. also 8:7, 11).

However, at several points in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, a somewhat different understanding of sin begins to emerge. The first sin-references of this sort are found in the great Sukkot Discourse that covers chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). It is so-named because of its setting in Jerusalem during the Sukkot festival (7:2), the Hebrew term s¥kkô¾ (toKs%) being translated loosely as “booths”, i.e., festival of Booths (older translations often used the rather inappropriate rendering “Tabernacles”).

The Sukkot Discourse is better described as a Discourse-complex, containing a number of different Discourse-units, each of which generally follows the literary pattern of the Johannine Discourses. These Discourse-units are interrelated and interlocking, with common themes and motifs, built up into a single dramatic narrative; however, each unit also has its own structure, dramatic arc, and thematic emphasis. Each unit is punctuated by a narrative statement or interlude. I will be discussing the Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 in detail as part of an upcoming set of articles dealing with the Sukkot/Booths festival.

The sin references come from the final two Discourse units 8:21-30 and 31-59. Let us consider the first of these passages.

John 8:21-30

The Gospel Discourses tend to begin with a statement or saying by Jesus, the true meaning of which is misunderstood by his listeners. For the Discourse-unit of 8:21-30, this occurs in verse 21:

“I (am about to) lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], and you will seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; for (the) place to which I lead (myself) under, you are not able to come (there).”

The verb hypágœ basically means “go off, go away”, but recognition of the more fundamental meaning, “lead (oneself) under”, is important for preserving the idea that Jesus is about to disappear from view, and will no longer be seen by the people. Ultimately, this reference is to his exaltation—that is, to his death, resurrection, and departure back to the Father (in heaven)—but his audience cannot possibly understand this. This typical Discourse-feature of misunderstanding is expressed here by the response of Jesus’ audience (designated “the Judeans/Jews”) in verse 22. Again, following the typical Discourse-pattern, the question (reflecting a basic misunderstanding) prompts a further explanatory statement by Jesus:

“You are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above; you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die off in your sins; for, if you should not trust that I am, (then) you shall die off in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

Within the literary framework of the Discourses, it is in these expository statements by Jesus that the distinctive Johannine theology (and Christology) is expressed. That is to say, the true (and deeper) meaning of Jesus’ words, which his audience does not (or cannot) understand, is of a theological and Christological nature—focusing on the truth of who Jesus is.

This Christology, already expressed throughout the earlier Discourses (and in the opening chapters 1-2), affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. Here, the same fundamental message is framed by way of two distinctive idioms that are basic to the Johannine theology:

    • The contrast between what is above (i.e., God in heaven) and what is below (i.e., in the world), using the contrastive pair of adverbs kátœ (“below”) and ánœ (“above”).
    • The specific use of the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) to designate the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently contrasts himself (and his disciples/believers) with the world.

In additional to these two theological components, vv. 23-24 also feature two important bits of syntax that are similarly used to express the Johannine theology and Christology:

    • The use of the preposition ek (“out of”), which carries two principal (and related) meanings: (a) origin (i.e., coming from somewhere or someone), and (b) the characteristic of belonging to someone (or something). The Johannine theology alternates between these meanings, sometimes playing on both in the same reference. A specific nuance of (a) utilizes ek in the context of birth—often using the verb of becoming (gennáœ), i.e., coming to be born out of someone.
    • The essential predication, utilizing the verb of being (eimi); as spoken by Jesus, in the first person, these are the famous “I am” (egœ eimi) declarations that run throughout the Gospel. This essential predication is theological—that is, it applies to God, implying a Divine subject. The very use of the expression egœ eimi (“I am”) by Jesus thus implies his identity as the Son of God.

All four of these theological elements occur in verse 23:

    • Above/below contrast: “you are of the (thing)s below [kátœ], (but) I am of the (thing)s above [ánœ]”
    • Contrastive use of kósmos: “you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world”
    • Use of the preposition ek: “you are of [ek] the (thing)s below…you are of [ek] this world…”
    • Essential predication (“I am”): “…I am of the (thing)s above…I am not of this world…. if you should not trust that I am, then…”

Thus, what his audience cannot understand is that Jesus is speaking here of his identity as the Son sent from God the Father. Interestingly, when “the Jews” respond by asking him directly, “who are you?” (v. 25a), he seems to evade the question with an ambiguous answer (v. 25b). This, however, is simply a furthering of the Discourse-motif of people misunderstanding the meaning of Jesus’ words. Translations tend to obscure this aspect, and even many commentators do not seem to grasp exactly what the author (and Jesus as the speaker) is doing, through some subtle syntactical wordplay. Consider, for example, how the audience’s question matches the essential predication (see above) built into Jesus’ statement:

    • Statement: “I am [egœ¡ eimi]”
    • Question: “Who are you [sý … eí]”?

Jesus’ seemingly evasive response to this question is equally pregnant with theological meaning. On the surface, he tells them (with a hint of impatience), “What I have been saying to you from the beginning!” However, one must pay special attention to the syntax here; a literal rendering of the Greek, following the Greek word order, would be:

“(From) the beginning, which I have even been saying to you.”

Read in this literal way, Jesus’ hidden answer to the question “Who are you?” is “(from) the beginning” (t¢¡n arch¢¡n). From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this can only mean “the one who is from the beginning”, i.e., Jesus as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God. There are numerous references or allusions to this special theological use of the noun arch¢¡ in the Johannine writings—most notably, in the Gospel Prologue (Jn 1:1-2), and in 1 John 1:1; 2:13-14. Jesus’ further exposition in vv. 26-29 only confirms this theological emphasis, and his identity as the Son sent by the Father.

How does all of this relate to the Johannine understanding of sin? Consider again the principal saying in this Discourse-unit (in v. 21) and its exposition (in vv. 23-24):

    • “…you shall seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; (for) the place to which I go away, you cannot come (there)”
    • “you are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above…if you do not trust that I am, (then) you will die off in your sins”

The seeking of Jesus (and not finding him) by the people is explained as not trusting in his identity as the Son of God (designated by the essential predication “I am”). And the people cannot trust in him this way because they belong to “the things below” and to “this world”, while Jesus the Son belongs to the realm of God the Father above. Thus, they are lost in their sin and will “die off” in it.

Two key interpretive questions must be addressed, in order to gain a clearer sense of how the Gospel understands the idea of sin. First, we must ask: how does the Christological emphasis in vv. 21-30 relate to the earlier statement in 1:29? The Discourse-unit here clearly connects the idea of people dying in their sin with a failure to trust in Jesus (as the Son of God). It stands to reason that this dynamic was alluded to earlier in the “lamb of God” declaration in 1:29, and we must explore this connection further.

Second, there are two parallel forms of the sin-reference here in Jesus’ saying (8:21) and its exposition (vv. 23-24). In the first, the singular of the noun hamartía (“sin”) is used, while, in the second, the plural is used (“sins”). Is this a distinction without any real difference, or does the singular and plural carry a deeper meaning that needs to be drawn out? I believe that the latter is definitely the case, but the point requires some explanation.

In next week’s study, each of these two questions will be addressed, even as we begin to turn to the next of the sin-references, in 8:34ff.

Saturday Series: John 5:14; 9:2-3ff

It will be worth pausing to consider some conclusions that may be drawn from the previous two weeks’ studies (1, 2) regarding the declaration in Jn 1:29:

“See, the lamb of God—the (one) taking up the sin of the world!”

The expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú) is best understood in relation to the tradition of the Passover lamb. The traditional designation of the Passover lamb as a sacrifice (ze»aµ, see Exod 12:27) likely led early Christians to associate it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, including the offerings for sin and, for example, the expiatory offerings related to the Day of Atonement (see Hebrews 8-10). Moreover, it was shown (based on evidence from Josephus’ Antiquities) that there were Jews of the period who attributed to the blood of the Passover lamb the power to purify the devout worshiper. These factors would have fit well with the developing Christian concept of Jesus’ blood cleansing believers from sin (see 1 John 1:7). It is certain that the Gospel writer applied the motif of the Passover lamb particularly to the sacrificial death of Jesus (19:14, 33-36).

The use of the verb aírœ (“take/lift up”) should be understood primarily in the sense of “take away”, referring to the removal of sin. The verb in 1 John 3:5 is used in precisely this context, and is confirmed by the verb’s overall use throughout the Gospel. At the same time, the influence of Isa 53:7ff on the “lamb of God” concept allows for the secondary meaning of “bear, carry”, with the idea that Jesus (the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12, see Acts 8:32-33ff) takes upon himself the burden of the people’s sin, interceding with God on their behalf. The Hebrew verb for this in verse 12 is n¹´¹°, which has a meaning comparable to Greek aírœ, even though the Septuagint (LXX) translates n¹´¹° there with a different verb (anaphérœ, “bring up, bear, carry”).

The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article is rather typical of Johannine style, as a way of indicating a vital characteristic of an individual or group. Here the participle aírœn (“taking up”) is presented as a fundamental characteristic of Jesus, under the symbolic motif of the “lamb of God”, declaring him to be “the (one) taking up [ho aírœn] the sin of the world”. As the statement in 1 John 3:5 makes clear, the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth, and thus a central function of his earthly ministry (including his death), was to take away sin (see also verse 8b). This same emphasis is expressed in Jn 1:29 by the use of the substantive participle.

The sin that Jesus “takes away” through his death (as the slain “lamb”) is qualified as being “of the world”. This genitive formulation can be explained as adjectival, in two possible ways:

    • Possessive—i.e., the sin is something belonging to the world, which it possesses.
    • Descriptive—referring to an attribute or characteristic, i.e., the world as sinful.

The noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used two different, but related, ways in the Johannine writings: (1) in the neutral sense of the inhabited world (i.e., the places on earth where people dwell, and those people themselves), and (2) in the negative sense as a domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. The negative meaning of the word tends to dominate in the Gospel and Letters of John, in a way that is quite distinctive among early Christians. While the negative aspect may be present in 1:29, through the genitival relationship to the head noun “sin” (hamartía), indicating sin as a basic characteristic of the world, primarily the neuter aspect is in view. The “world” here refers to humankind generally—i.e., to all the people in the inhabited world; compare the usage in 3:16-17.

In this regard, it would be natural to explain the use of the singular noun hamartía as referring to sin either in a general or collective sense. That is, it either refers to the sinfulness of the world (i.e., humankind) or to all of its sins taken collectively. I would not wish to make a more precise interpretation until we have examined the remaining sin-references in the Gospel. However, it is worth noting that the sin attributed to the world (or humankind) as a whole finds its counterpart in a number of instances where sins/wrongs committed by individuals are mentioned. Two, in particular, stand out, contained within similar healing-miracle stories—in chapters 5 and 9, respectively.

In the story of the healing of the paralytic man (5:1-9ff), at the conclusion of the narrative (verse 14), Jesus locates the man who was healed and warns him: “you must not sin any (more), (so) that there should not come to be any(thing) worse (happening) to you.” The apparent implication is that the man’s prior disabled condition was the result of sin. And yet, this very connection, so common in the ancient ways of thinking, is explicitly denied by Jesus in the case of the blind man (in the chapter 9 episode):

“And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him, saying: ‘Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents—that he came to be (born) blind?’ Yeshua gave forth (the answer): ‘This man did not sin, nor (did) his parents, but (rather it was so) that the works of God might be made to shine (forth) in him.'” (vv. 2-3)

The theme of sinning runs as a thread throughout this narrative, and I will be examining it in more detail in an upcoming study. However, for the moment, it is important to focus on the traditional-conventional understanding of sin that is reflected in these historical traditions (of the two healing miracles). Two details, in particular, may be highlighted: (i) the verb hamartánœ (“do wrong, err, sin,” lit. “miss [the mark]”) is associated with a common (and expected) standard of ethical and religious behavior; and (ii) that “doing wrong” in this way can have decidedly negative/harmful effects on a person’s life and health. The same conventional use of the verb hamartánœ can be seen in the famous episode of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11 [vv. 7, 11]), which, though it most likely was not part of the original Johannine Gospel, presumably reflects an historical tradition comparable to that of the healing miracles in chaps. 5 and 9.

This conventional religious-ethical view of sin is important, in large part, because of the backdrop it provides for the deeper understanding expressed elsewhere in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus. Next week, we will begin exploring the passage where the concept of sin (and sin references) are most prominent—the Sukkot Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 (esp. 8:21-47).

Saturday Series: John 1:29

A careful critical study of Scripture is essential for establishing the theology of early Christians, as recorded and represented in the New Testament. Beyond this, it is important to realize that the theology of the New Testament is actually comprised of a number of distinct theologies—tied to the thought and expression of different individuals and communities. There are at least two major Communities represented by the New Testament Scriptures; these may be labeled the Pauline and Johannine. The first refers to the congregations founded by Paul during his missionary work, and to his influence over them; the second refers to the churches among which the Gospel and Letters of John were first written and distributed.

As with Paul and the Pauline churches, there was a shaping influence over the Johannine congregations, attributable either to the writer of the Gospel and letters (if the same person) or to a Johannine ‘school’ of thought and expression shared by a number of individuals. In the Saturday Series studies for September-October, I will be exploring one particular area of Johannine theology: the concept and understanding of sin. In the technical parlance of systematic theology, this area of study is referred to as hamartiology.

Each reference to “sin”, where either the Greek noun hamartía (a(marti/a) or verb hamartánœ (a(marta/nw) is used, in the Gospel and Letters of John, will be carefully examined. The result of this critical and exegetical study will allow us to gain a relatively clear and accurate picture of the Johannine understanding of sin. This will also serve as a demonstration of how New Testament Criticism helps us to establish New Testament theology. Different areas of Biblical Criticism—textual, historical, literary, etc—will be touched upon in our study.

John 1:29

We begin with the first occurrence of the hamart– (a(mart-) word-group in the Gospel of John. This verse is part of the first major section of the Gospel, following the Prologue (1:1-18). A brief consideration of the narrative structure of this section, from a literary-critical standpoint, will help us understand verse 29 in context.

The section 1:19-51 is structured as a sequence of four episodes, narrated as four “days”, during which the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus (see Jn 3:30):

    • 1:19-28—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity
    • 1:29-34—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus
    • 1:35-42—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness
    • 1:43-51—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness

This structure is discerned from the wording used to demarcate the three sections of vv. 29-51, each of which begins with the phrase t¢¡ epaúrion, “upon the (morning) air” (i.e. “upon the morrow”, in conventional English, “the next day, next morning”). Here is the precise wording in verse 29:

“Upon the (morning) air [t¢¡ epaúrion], he [i.e. John] looks [blépei] (at) Yeshua coming toward him, and says…”

It will be useful to outline this first ‘day’ covered by vv. 29-34. Structurally and thematically, it is best represented as a chiasmus, in which statements by the Baptist, regarding the true identity of Jesus, are enclosed by a pair of declarations given in more traditional (and symbolic) language:

    • Witness of John the Baptist—Jesus coming toward [erchómenon prós] him (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 29
      • Statement of John the Baptist concerning the true nature and superiority of Jesus (v. 30); his baptizing reveals Jesus to Israel (v. 31)
      • Statement of John the Baptist (v. 32); Jesus’ true nature (and superiority) revealed in John’s baptizing (v. 33)—descent of the Spirit & Divine announcement (baptism of Jesus implied)
    • Witness of John the Baptist— “This (one) is the Son of God”, v. 34

This outline can be expanded with a bit more detail, in terms of the action of the scene:

    • Declaration 1— “See! the Lamb of God…” (v. 29)
      • Jesus coming toward John (vv. 29-30)
      • John came to baptize (Jesus) (vv. 31, 33)
        [The Baptism of Jesus, as described by John]
      • The Spirit stepping down (i.e. coming down) and remaining on Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Before this, John had not seen/known Jesus (i.e. recognized his identity) (vv. 31, 33)
    • Declaration 2— “This is the Son of God” (v. 34)
      [Note: Some MSS read “this is the Elect/Chosen (One) of God”]

As noted above, over these four ‘days’, the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus. This is part of a wider theme that runs through chapters 1-3, contrasting John the Baptist with Jesus. This contrast is established in the Prologue (vv. 6-8, 15), and then developed in the remainder of the chapter. On the first ‘day’ of the opening narrative (vv. 19-28), John the Baptist explicitly denies that he is the Messiah. Three different Messianic figure-types are mentioned (vv. 20-21, 25), on which see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Then, by contrast, throughout the rest of the narrative, a sequence of Messianic titles is applied to Jesus, indicating that he (and not the Baptist) is the Messiah. The narrative concludes with the visionary “Son of Man” saying by Jesus in verse 51, introducing the important Johannine theme of Jesus’ heavenly origin (as the Son), utilizing the idiom of descent/ascent (literally, “stepping down/up”, expressed by the verb pair katabaínœ / anabaínœ).

Another key Johannine theme is of John the Baptist as a witness (martyría, vb martyréœ) to Jesus’ Messianic identity (and Divine/heavenly origin as God’s Son). Again, this theme is established in the Prologue (vv. 7-8, 15), and then developed in the narrative—focused in the first two ‘days’ (vv. 19-28, 29-34). The Baptist’s declaration in verse 29 is part of this witness:

“Upon the morrow he looks (at) Yeshua coming toward him and says: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sin [t¢¡n hamartían] of the world!'”

Jesus is specifically identified by the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú). The text of this verse is quite secure, but the precise interpretation has proven something of a challenge for commentators. What, exactly, is the significance of the expression “the lamb of God”? Before considering this question, let us look at how the noun hamartía is used here. First, a note on the hamart– word-group.

The basic meaning of the verb hamartánœ (a(marta/nw) is “miss (the mark)”, i.e., fail to hit the target. From this concrete meaning, it came to be used in the more general sense of “fail (to do something)”, and then in the ethical-religious sense of “fail to do (what is right),” i.e., do wrong. In the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, hamartánœ frequently translates the verb µ¹‰¹° (af*j*), which has a comparable range of meaning, and tends to be used in the ethical-religious sense of “do wrong”, i.e., sin. The singular noun hamartía (a(marti/a) can refer: (a) to a single/particular sin, (b) sins collectively, or (c) to sin in a general sense (or as a concept).

In verse 29, the singular noun is used, with the definite article—literally, “the sin” (in the accusative case, t¢¡n hamartían). The expression is “the sin of the world”, where the noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used in the general/neutral sense of the entire inhabited world, i.e., all human beings (on earth). Since all of humankind is involved, the singular hamartía is clearly being used either in sense (b) or (c) above—that is, of sins taken collectively, or of sin understood in the general sense. Both meanings would apply—i.e., to any and all sins committed by human beings. It is also possible to view the genitive expression (“…of the world”) as reflecting the nature and character of the world (and of human beings in it)—that it is fundamentally sinful, characterized by sin. This is very much in keeping with the negative use of the word kósmos in the Johannine writings, referring to the “world” as the domain of darkness and evil, which is opposed to the light and truth of God.

Next week, we will look specifically, and in some detail, at the expression “the lamb of God” in verse 29 (repeated in v. 35), noting how it relates to “the sin of the world”.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do 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”

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.