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.