Saturday Series: 1 John 4:7-5:4 (continued)

1 John 4:7-5:4, continued

Last week, we explored the first two sections (4:7-16a) of this exposition on the theme of Christian love. We saw how the two sections were closely parallel to each other, in structure and thematic emphasis. In both instances love was defined and explained in terms of Christology—who Jesus is and what God has done (for us) through him. The next two sections, 4:16b-5:4, draw upon the same themes and points of emphasis, even reproducing much of the phrasing, but present the instruction in a very different way. I would outline this as follows:

    • 4:16b-19Definition of Love: The essential identity of Believers, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son
      • Definition—Union of Believers with God (v. 16b)
      • Exposition/Instruction—Believers and the Judgment, in two statements (vv. 17-18)
        • Union of Believers with God the Father (through Jesus the Son) is the completion of God’s Love (v. 17)
        • This union has delivered us from Death and the Judgment, thus removing all Fear (v. 18)
      • Closing statement on Christian Love (v. 19)
    • 4:20-5:4Manifestation of Love: The identity of Believers demonstrated through love, as obedience to the Great Command of God
      • Love as the mark of the true believer (4:20-21)
        • Love as the great command of God (v. 21)
      • Trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer (5:1-2)
        • Trust in Jesus (together with Love) as the great command of God (v. 2)
      • Closing statement on the two-fold Great Command (vv. 3-4)

Determining the message (and theology) of a passage requires that careful attention is paid its structure—the form and style in which the material is presented to readers. This sort of critical analysis falls under the heading of literary criticism. Utilizing the outline above, let us examine each component in each of these two sections.

1 John 4:16b-19

Verse 16b

“God is love, and the (one) remaining [ménœn] in love remains [ménei] in God, and God remains [ménei] in him.”

As noted above, this statement is a definition of love (agáp¢), comprised of two parts: (1) the initial statement, and (2) a dual/reciprocal expository clause. The initial statement is, simply: “God is love” (ho theós agáp¢ estin), already stated previously in verse 8. Far more than an emotion or feeling, or even an attribute of God, love is identified as the person of God Himself (similarly identified with light in 1:5). This explains the clause which follows, defining love in terms of the believer’s union with God. The clause summarizes verses 12-15 of the previous section, expressed by the important Johannine verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), used with great frequency in both the Gospel and First Letter. The “remaining” is reciprocal—the believer in God and God in the believer.

Sometimes this Johannine language suggests a causal relationship—i.e. because we love, we come to abide in God; or, the reverse, because we abide/remain in God, we are able to love. While there is some truth in those formulations—the latter being closer to the Johannine emphasis—here we are actually dealing with a simple equation: God = Love. Thus, if a believer has love, it is the same as saying that he/she has God the Father. And, according to the theology of the Gospel and Letters (expressed in many passages), one is only able to see/know God the Father, and be united with Him, through the Son. This is also the point of the Christological declarations in vv. 9-10 and 13-14f.

Verse 17

“In this [en toútœ] love has been completed with us, (so) that [hína] we may hold outspokenness in the day of judgment—that [hóti], even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is, (so) also we are, in the world.”

The expression en toútœ (“in this”) was made use of, as a key point of syntax, in the previous sections. A similar mode of expression in English would be, “By this (we know that…)”. Sometimes the expression refers back to a preceding statement, other times ahead to what follows. When looking ahead, it usually refers to a hóti-clause, with the particle hóti rendered as “(in) that, because”, indicating the reason. The sentence here has both a hína– and a hóti-clause. The hína-clause, expressing result, is subordinate. The main statement may be isolated as follows: “Love has been completed with us in this: that even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is, so also we are, in the world”. Even while we (believers) are in the world, we are (esmen) just as Jesus is (estin). In each instance, the verb of being is emphatic (marked by italics).

The statement “love has been completed with us” is nearly identical to that in verse 12b, the only real difference being use of the preposition metá (“with”) instead of en (“in”). I do not see any fundamental difference in this change of prepositions—the statements are effectively the same. God’s love was shown primarily through the sending of His Son (Jesus), and the work done by him during his life on earth. However, this love is completed only after the Son’s work was completed (i.e. his death and resurrection, Jn 19:30, etc), upon which, at the Son’s return to the Father, the Spirit comes to dwell in and among believers. The Spirit represents the abiding union believers have with Father and Son, as indicated here in verse 13, as well as throughout the Johannine Writings. This union, through the Spirit, reveals the identity of believers as children of God—i.e. we are (Children) just as Jesus is (the Son). This is true even during the time we are living on earth, prior to the great Judgment.

Verse 18

“There is not (any) fear in love, but complete love casts out fear, (in) that [i.e. because] fear holds (in it the threat of) cutting [i.e. punishment], and the (one) fearing has not been completed in love.”

This is a roundabout way of saying that the believer, united with God the Father and Son, does not need to fear the coming Judgment (v. 17, see above). The author of First John clearly felt that he and his readers were living in the end times (“the last hour”, 2:18), and that the end-time Judgment (preceded by the return of Jesus) would soon take place. Believers have no need to fear the great Judgment, since they/we have already been saved from it, passing through it. This is a fundamental principle of the “realized” eschatology in the Johannine Writings (see especially John 3:18ff; 5:24). This statement builds upon the identification of believers as those in whom love has been “completed” (vb teleióœ).

Verse 19

“We love, (in) that [i.e. because] He first loved us.”

This basically restates the definition in verse 16b, along with the principal definitions in the prior sections (vv. 7-8, 10, 11). It does not indicate a temporal sequence as much as it does priority—our love is based on God’s love, i.e. His abiding presence in us which marks us as His children.

1 John 4:20-5:4

In this section, the emphasis shifts from the definition of love to the demonstration of it among believers.

Verse 20

“If one would say that ‘I love God’, and (yet) would hate his brother, he is false; for the (one) not loving his brother, whom he has seen, is not able to love God, whom he has not seen.”

The statement “I love God” summarizes the previous section, as a definition of love in terms of the believer’s identity. Here, however, it functions as a claim that is to be tested, through the person’s own attitude and conduct. The author throughout says very little about how Christian love is demonstrated, in a practical sense. The example of Cain and Abel was used in the earlier section on love (3:11ff), but only as an extreme illustration of the person who fails to love (i.e. hates) a fellow believer. It is quite unlikely that any of the ‘false’ believers—those who had separated from the Community—would have acted with violence, or even in a harsh or abusive manner, toward others. Closer to the mark is the emphasis on caring for the needs of fellow believers (3:16-17). As we shall see, when we come to a study of 2 and 3 John, the separatist/partisan divisions within the congregations were being manifest in an unwillingness to show hospitality (offering support, etc) toward other Christians.

To say that the would-be believer is “false”, means not only that he/she speaks falsely (by claiming to love), but that the person is, in fact, a false believer. Previously, this was described in terms of being a “false prophet” and “against the Anointed” (antíchristos), especially when dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus; the same applies when dealing with the theme of love, since trust and love are two sides of the same coin. Referring to a believer’s union with God as “seeing” (= knowing) Him, is part of the Johannine theological idiom, occurring throughout the Gospel and First Letter.

Verse 21

“And this is the entol¢¡  we hold from Him: that the (one) loving God should also love his brother.”

As previously discussed, the word entol¢¡  literally refers to a charge or duty placed on a person as something to complete. It is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be misleading, especially as used in the Johannine writings. There is, in fact, just one such “command” for believers, stated clearly and precisely in 3:23. As has been noted a number of times in these studies, it is a two-fold command, and its two components—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—form the very basis for the structure of 1 John, especially in the second half of the letter. The two themes alternate, with love being emphasized in 4:7-5:4. The true believer, claiming to love God, will obey the “command” to love other believers, in the manner that God the Father (and Jesus the Son) also shows love.

1 John 5:1

“Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) has come to be (born) out of God, and every (one) loving the (One) causing (him) to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

As if on cue, the emphasis shifts from love to trust, combining the two themes together as a reflection of the two-fold command. Trust in Jesus was the focus in 4:1-6, and is again in the section that follows (5:5ff). Here it is included because of the reference to the two-fold command that concludes this section (parallel to that in 3:23-24). It also reflects the Christological aspect of love central to the instruction in 4:7-16. Note especially how the articular participle is utilized to express the believer’s essential identity— “the (one) trusting“, “the (one) loving“. Here the language is typically Johannine, especially with the repeated idiom of being born “out of” God (vb gennᜠ+ ek).

Verse 2

“In this [en toútœ] we know that we love the offspring of God: when we love God and do his entolaí.”

This is parallel to the statement on the two-fold “command” (entol¢¡) in 4:21, blending the emphasis on trust in Jesus back into the primary theme of love. It makes the same statement as 4:21, only in reverse:

    • We keep his command (and love God) = we love our fellow believer (4:21)
    • We love our follow believer (“offspring of God”) = we love God and keep his command (5:2)

The word tékna (“offspring”, i.e. “children”), literally something produced, effectively captures the sense of the Johannine idiom of believers being “born out of [ek]” God. It is the regular term in the Gospel and Letters for believers as sons/children of God.

Verses 3-4

“For this is the love of God: that we keep watch (over) His entolaí, and His entolaí are not heavy (to bear). (Indeed, it is) that every (thing) having come to be (born) out of God is victorious over the world, and this is the victory th(at is) being victorious over the world—our trust.”

This closing definition of love is framed entirely in terms of the two-fold “command” (entol¢¡) of God, in keeping with the prior statements in this section, and also the parallel in 3:23-24. At the same time, verse 4 prepares for the section which follows (verses 5ff), focusing on trust in Jesus. Both components of the two-fold command together bracket vv. 3-4:

    • “this is the love of God…” (mark of the believer)
      • “every (thing/one) having come to be born out of God” (essential identity of the believer)
    • “this is…our trust (in Jesus)” (mark of the believer)

The statement that the “command(s)” of God are “not heavy” is meant, I think, to convey the idea that both trust and love come naturally out of the believer’s own fundamental identity. In the case of love, it is God’s own love—indeed, His own presence and power, through the Spirit—at work, and not based on any specific attempt to demonstrate love through obedience of commands, etc. Though a contrast with the Old Testament Law (Torah) belongs to the Pauline writings rather than the Johannine, we find traces of a similar emphasis at numerous points in the Gospel (beginning with the Prologue, 1:16-18) and here in the First Letter as well. It is no longer the Torah, nor, indeed, even the specific teachings of Jesus (given during his time on earth) that are the primary guide for believers—rather, it is the living, abiding presence of God the Father and Son in the Spirit (Jn 14:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 2:27; 3:24; 4:2ff; 5:6).

Next week, we will turn our attention to the section which follows in 5:5-12, where the Spirit takes on greater prominence in the author’s instruction. It is also here that we finally will be able to gain a clearer sense of the historical situation in the letter, in terms of the specific Christological view, held by the ‘false’ believers, which the author is so concerned to warn his readers about. Thus, our focus will turn again to historical criticism, attempting to reconstruct, as far as possible, the background and setting of the letter’s message. There are also several key text-critical questions which will need to be addressed. I hope you will join me as we continue this study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:7-5:4

1 John 4:7-5:4

In the previous studies on 1 John 4:1-6, the focus was on the theme of trust in Jesus; now it shifts to the theme of Christian love. This reflects the two components of the dual “great command” (3:23-24), and the body of the letter, especially in its second half, alternates between the two. The first section on love was 3:11-24, with verse 11 stating the love-command as a summary of the Gospel message. The so-called love-command derives from Jesus’ own teaching and the Gospel tradition (Mark 12:30-33 par; Matt 5:43ff; John 13:34-35); by the middle of the first century (c. 50-60 A.D.) the principle was well-established that the Old Testament Law was effectively summarized and fulfilled (for Christians) by this one command (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8ff, etc).

It can be difficult to get a clear sense of what love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) entails in First John. In the Gospel, in the great Last Discourse, which otherwise so resembles the language and style of the letter, it is defined in terms of Jesus’ own sacrificial death, and of his disciples’ willingness to follow his example, in giving of their lives for others (15:13, and the symbolism of the foot-washing, 13:1, 5-20). This point of emphasis is generally followed in 1 John (3:16-17), though not so much in our section 4:7ff. In spite of the beauty and power of this passage, it seems rather repetitive in nature, with “love” referred to in the most general sense. This, however, belies a very careful structure, in which thematic relationships are developed and expounded. Ultimately it reveals the true sense of what love means for the author, in the context of his writing, but it takes some pointed study and effort on our part to see it clearly. This is another example of how the message (and theology) of a passage can be elucidated by an examination of its literary style and structure—referred to as literary criticism.

1 John 4:7-16

There would seem to be four main parts to this section. The first two (vv. 7-10, 11-16a) make up a dual instruction which builds upon—and expounds—the earlier two-fold instruction in 3:11-22. Here these two parts each begin with an address to the readers as “loved (one)s”, agap¢toí—the adjective agap¢tós, related to agáp¢. Thus, the emphasis on love is built into the very address. In fact, these sections have a parallel outline and thematic structure:

    • Initial address (“loved ones…”) and exhortation to love, obeying the love-command (v. 7a, 11)
    • Statement on love as an essential and identifying characteristic of the true believer (v. 7b-8, 12)
    • Christological statement, beginning with the phrase “In this…” (en toútœ…) (v. 9, 13-14)
    • Definition of love, by way of a Christological statement (v. 10, 15-16a)
Verse 7a, 11

The initial address and exhortation, in each section, is virtually identical, differing only in the order of the phrases, and specific wording and emphasis:

    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], we should love [agapœ¡men] each other,
      (in) that [i.e. because] love [agáp¢] is out of [ek] God” (v. 7a)
    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], if God loved [agáp¢sen] us this (way),
      (then) we ought to love [agapán] each other” (v. 11)

In each instance, the obligation or duty placed on believers is based on the love that God showed. In v. 11 this is stated in terms that closely echo the famous declaration in John 3:16, using the same demonstrative adverb (hoútœs). “This” refers to the love God showed by sending His Son to earth, as a human being; here it serves as a foreshadowing of the Christological statement in verse 9. In verse 7a, the same idea is expressed by way of the preposition ek, used in the distinctive Johannine sense of coming out of God—that is, being born out of God, the way Jesus as the Son “comes to be (born)” out of the Father. Believers, too, are similarly born “out of” God.

Verses 7b-8, 12

According to the outline above, these verses represent the essential identification, so important in the letter, of true believers as those who fulfill the great command—that is, here, the command to love one another. In the first section (vv. 7b-8), this is framed by way of a dualistic contrast, such as is used so frequently in the Johannine Writings (Gospel and Letters):

    • “and every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God,
      (but) the (one) not loving (has) not known God, (in) that [i.e. because] God is love.”

It is a contrast between the believer and non-believer—or, more appropriately to the purpose of the letter, between the true believer and the false, with believers defined by the distinct Johannine motifs of being born out of God, and knowing God. Actually this statement joins with the prior address/exhortation in v. 7a to form a single chiastic declaration:

    • “love is [estin] out of God”
      • “every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God” (true believer)
      • “the (one) not loving (has) not known God” (false believer)
    • “God is [estin] love”

Love comes “out of” God because He, in His very nature, is love, and believers who are born “out of” God must similarly have love at their core. A different point of emphasis is made in verse 12:

    • “No one has looked at God at any time; (but) if we would love each other, (then) God remains in us, and His love is (there) having been completed in us.”

Three distinctly Johannine theological motifs are present here, known from both the Gospel Discourses and the First Letter, namely—(1) the idea of seeing God the Father, which only occurs through seeing (i.e. trust in) the Son; (2) use of the verb ménœ (“remain”) as signifying the abiding presence of God (Father and Son) in believers, through the Spirit, and of believers in the Son (and Father) through the same Spirit; and (3) the verb teleióœ (“[make] complete”), specifically in relation to Jesus (the Son) completing the work given to him by the Father, which results in believers being made complete. Here, the presence of the Son and Father (i.e. the Spirit) is also identified specifically as love.

Verses 9, 13-14

We now come to the central Christological statement in each section. This is of vital importance, since it demonstrates clearly that the author’s understanding of love (agáp¢) is fundamentally Christological. The statement in the first section is virtually a quotation of John 3:16:

    • In this [en toútœ] the love of God was made to shine forth in us, (in) that [i.e. because] God se(n)t forth His Son, the only one coming to be [monogen¢¡s], into the world (so) that we would live through him.” (v. 9)
    • “For God loved the world this (way) [hoútœs]—even so (that) He gave (His) only Son coming to be [monogen¢¡s], (so) that every one trusting in him should not go away to ruin, but would hold life…. that the world would be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Love is defined specifically as God sending/giving His Son to the people on earth (spec. the elect/believers), so that they, through his sacrificial death, would be saved from the power of sin/evil in the world and have (eternal) life. This corresponds to the earlier (two-fold) Christological declaration in 3:5, 8a:

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

In both statements, the same verb is used as here in v. 9phaneróœ (“shine forth”, passive “made to shine forth”). It is a verb that epitomizes and encompasses the entire Johannine Christology. The Eternal Light (the Son) “shines forth” onto earth, i.e. appears on earth as a flesh and blood human being (Jesus). This manifestation covers his entire life and work on earth, culminating in his sacrificial death—his atoning work which brings life to all believers in the world. The same is summarized, though with different terminology, in the Christological statement here in the second section (vv. 13-14); it, too, begins with the expression “in this” [en toútœ]:

    • In this [en toútœ] we know that we remain in him and he in us, (in) that [i.e. because] he has given to us out of His Spirit, and we have looked at (it) and give witness to (it), that the Father has se(n)t forth His Son as Savior of the world.”

In sentences such as vv. 9 and 13f, beginning with en toútœ (“in this”), it can sometimes be difficult to know if the expression refers back to something stated before, or ahead to what follows. Here both statements relate primarily to what follows, namely the hóti-clause (“[in] that, because…”). We, as believers, know that we have this union with the God the Father—He remaining in us, and we in Him—because of what He has given to us from out of His Spirit. The Johannine use of the preposition ek (“out of”) again refers to being “born” out of God and belonging to Him. This occurs through the Spirit—and it is the Spirit which allows believers to recognize and proclaim the truth of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior. In Johannine terms, this refers to the first component of the great command—trust in Jesus as the Son of God and Anointed One. As we discussed in the previous studies, those who separated from the Community, and, apparently, held a false/incorrect view of Jesus, were sinning by violating this fundamental command (which no true believer could transgress). Not surprisingly, this first part of the command is closely related, by the author, to the second (love).

Verses 10, 15-16a

The final element of these two sections is a definition of love which is set clearly in the context of the prior Christological statement:

    • “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and se(n)t forth His Son (as a) way of gaining acceptance (from Him) over our sins.” (v. 10)
    • “Whoever would give account as one (with us) that Yeshua is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God; and we have known and trusted the love that God holds in us.” (vv. 15-16a)

In detail these are very different statements, but they reflect the specific wording and points of emphasis in the two sections as a whole (see above). If one were to put both statements together, it would then give a most interesting, and thorough, exposition of Christian love, from the Johannine viewpoint:

    • “This is love…” (definition of love)
      • Our love is based on God’s love toward us…
        • sending His Son (Jesus) to save us from the power of sin and have life
          • [giving account of this—i.e. trust in Jesus as mark of the true believer]
        • Jesus as the Son of God—union with God and His abiding presence in us
      • …the love God holds in us (which is the basis for our love)

In the next study, we will examine this further, as we consider the following sections in 4:16b-19 and 4:20-5:4. Read through these passages, thinking about how they relate to the two prior sections (discussed above). What is the precise relationship between trust in Jesus and Christian love, and how does this relate to the historical situation addressed in the letter and its overall purpose and message?

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6 (continued)

1 John 4:1-6, continued

Last week, we examined 1 John 4:1-6 in the context of the thematic and rhetorical structure of the letter, and also looked at the first three verses in detail. This section deals with the theme of trust in Jesus, just as the prior section (3:12-24) dealt with the theme of love. These two—love and trust in Jesus—are the two components of the great “commandment of God” (v. 23) which all true believers will uphold (and can never violate). Verses 1-3 of chapter 4 presents the author’s key teaching in the letter on trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer. It builds upon the earlier instruction of 2:18-27 (discussed in a previous study). We have noted how 1 John is aimed at warning readers against certain people who have separated from the Community, and thus demonstrated themselves to be false believers (described as antíchristos, “against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22, and again here in 4:3). The author distinguishes them as ones who violate the first component of the great command—which is to say, they do not trust that Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God (2:22-23). However, as Christians who previously had belonged to the Community, presumably they did, in fact, accept Jesus as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, confessing and affirming both points of doctrine. Thus, it would seem that the author has something very specific in mind, a way of understanding just what an identification of Jesus by these titles means. We get a glimpse of what this is by the defining statement (of true belief) in verse 2 of our passage:

“every spirit which gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

On the surface this would imply that the ‘false’ believers did not accept the incarnation of Jesus (as a human being); this would be the obvious sense of the phrase “having come in the flesh” (en sarkí el¢lythóta). Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by the fact that there are two important variant forms of the text in verse 3, where the opposing view of the ‘false’ believers (“false prophets”, v. 1) is stated. It is necessary first to discuss this.

The Text-critical question in 1 John 4:3

As I noted in the previous study, there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

The first reading (with the verb homologéœ), which rather blandly contradicts the true statement in v. 2 with a simple negative particle (), is by far the majority reading, attested in every Greek manuscript and nearly all the ancient versions as well. The second reading (with lýœ) is known from only a small number of witnesses, and almost all by way of Latin translation (lýei ton I¢soún [“looses Yeshua”] typically rendered in Latin as solvit Iesum). In spite of this, many commentators would accept this minority reading as original. Let us consider the evidence and reasons for this.

External Evidence

The only Greek manuscript which contains the reading with lýœ is the 10th century uncial MS 1739, and there only as a marginal note explaining that the reading was found in writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen—all Church Fathers who lived and wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D. It is to be found in Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies (III.16.8), a portion surviving only in Latin (with the verb form solvit, “dissolves”); it is also cited in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, in a portion surviving in Latin (65), though there may be an allusion to it in Greek as well (16.8). In fact, Origin knew both readings, as did the Latin author Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.16.4; Prescription Against Heretics 23) writing at roughly the same time. The minority text (with solvit [in Latin]) is known by several other writers of the 4th and 5th century (e.g., Priscillian Tractate 1.31.3), and is the reading in a number of Old Latin manuscripts (ar c dem div p) in addition to the Latin Vulgate. The only other Greek evidence for the reading (with lýœ) comes from the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7.32), who cites it as an “ancient reading” (meaning it was not the one commonly known at the time), using it against the Christological views of the Nestorians (as those who “separated” the two natures of Jesus).

Internal Evidence and Transcriptional Probability

“Internal evidence” in textual criticism refers to things like the style and vocabulary of the New Testament author, which reading is more likely to be original on this basis, and which is more likely to have been changed or entered into the text through the copying by scribes. This latter aspect is often referred to as “transcriptional probability”. An important principle of textual criticism is difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is to be preferred), meaning that copyists are more likely to alter the text from a word or phrase that is more unusual or difficult to understand to one that is more common or easier to understand. And a good number of commentators consider the reading pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún (“every spirit that looses Jesus“) to be the more difficult. What exactly does this mean—to “loose” Jesus? According to this view, at some point one or more scribes (probably in the early 2nd century) changed the text from “looses” to the blander “does not give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess/agree]”, using the same verb as in verse 2. But is this feasible?

For one thing, as many commentators have noted, the use of the negative particle   with an indicative verb form is unusual, and is itself hard to explain as a scribal change. It is more appropriate before a participle, as in the parallel statement in 2 John 7 (see also John 3:18). In fact, the evidence from 2 John 7 cuts both ways: it can be taken as a sign that the reading with homologéœ is original, or that scribes harmonized the reading with lýœ, ‘correcting’ it in light of 2 Jn 7.

What about the use of the verb lýœ—does it fit with the author’s style and would he use it here in such a context? The verb occurs only once elsewhere in the Johannine letters, at 1 Jn 3:8, where it is stated that Jesus appeared on earth so that he might “loose” (lýs¢, i.e. “dissolve”) the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ literally means “loose[n]”, sometimes in the sense of dissolving or destroying, but also in the sense of releasing someone (or something) from bondage, etc. In the book of Revelation (often considered a Johannine writing), it is always used (6 times) in the sense of releasing a person; whereas, in the Gospel of John, it can be used either in the general sense of loosening straps, bonds, etc (1:27; 11:44), or in the negative sense (above) of dissolving something (2:19; 5:18; 7:23; 10:35), as in 1 Jn 3:8. The most relevant occurrence in the Gospel is at 2:19, where it is part of the Temple-saying of Jesus:

“Loose [lýsate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again).”

In the Synoptic version (in the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene), the reported saying (Mk 14:58 par) uses the compound verb katalýœ (“loose[n] down”), but the meaning is essentially the same—the Temple being dissolved, i.e. its stones broken down and destroyed (cf. Mark 13:1 par where the same verb is used). The verb lýœ typically is not used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” when a person is the object; however, in Jn 2:19 the object of the Temple (a building) is applied to the person of Jesus by the Gospel writer (vv. 21-22), so it is conceivable that the author of 1 John could be doing something similar here.

Conclusion/Summary

I would say that, while an argument can be made for the originality of the reading with lýœ, and that its use in 4:3 would be, to some extent, compatible with Johannine style and theology, it is hard to ignore the absolutely overwhelming textual evidence of the manuscripts and versions. I find it difficult to explain how a scribal change could so effect every single known Greek manuscript, and, at the same time, all of the ancient versions (except for the Latin). It seems much more likely that the reading with the verb lýœ was introduced as a gloss or explanation of the majority reading, perhaps as a marginal note (such as in MS 1739) that made its way into the text. Indeed, if the majority reading (with m¢ homologeí) is original, it is not immediately clear just what contrast the author is making. In what way do the “false prophets” not confess/acknowledge Jesus Christ having “come in the flesh”? Is it a simple denial of the reality of the incarnation, or something else? For the writers of the 2nd-5th centuries, mentioned above, who attest the reading with lýœ, they seem to understand it in the sense of ‘heretics’ who separate the person of Jesus—i.e., dissolving the bond between the divine Christ (Son of God) and the human Jesus. This, however, would likely not have been the false Christology attacked by the author of 1 John (see below).

1 John 4:4-5

You are out of [ek] God, (my dear) offspring, and you have been victorious over them, (in) that the (one) in you is greater that the (one) in the world. They are out of [ek] the world—through this they speak out of [ek] the world, and the world hears them.”

At this point, in his exhortation to his readers, the author draws a sharp contrast with the “false prophets”, emphatically using the pronouns “you” (hymeís) and “they” (autoí). The rhetorical thrust of this is clear. He addresses his audience as true believers, contrasting them with the false believers who have separated from the Community and hold the erroneous view of Jesus. This aspect of religious identity is established by the familiar Johannine use of the prepositions ek (“out of”) and en (“in”). We have seen how the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and First Letter) play on the different uses of the preposition ek. Here it connotes coming from someone (or something), in the sense of being born out of them, as well as the idea of belonging to someone. True believers belong to God, being born of Him, while false believers belong to the World (the evil World-order, kósmos).

The use of the perfect tense (nenik¢¡kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) here is significant. I see two aspects of meaning at work. First, is the rhetorical purpose. The author wishes to persuade his readers not to be influenced or misled by the views of the “false prophets”; he does this by indicating to them that this has already happened—they have already been victorious over the false believers. It is a clever way of urging them to act and respond in a certain way. At the same time, the verb indicates the real situation for true believers—they have already been victorious over the world because Jesus was victorious through his life and work on earth, and believers now share in this power (through the presence of the Spirit in them, v. 4b). The verb nikᜠis a distinctly Johannine term. Of the 28 occurrences in the New Testament, 24 are in the Gospel of John (1), the First Letter (6), and the Book of Revelation (17). In the Gospel and Letter, it is always used in relation to “the world” (ho kósmos)” or “the evil (one)” (ho pon¢rós). In Jn 16:33 Jesus declares that “I have been victorious over the world”, that is, over the evil and darkness that governs the current world-order. It also means that he has been victorious over the Ruler of the world—the Evil Spirit of the world, the “Evil One” (i.e. the Satan/Devil), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8. The language here in vv. 4-6 very much echoes that of the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, especially in the Last Discourse (14:17; 15:19; 17:6-25).

1 John 4:6

“We are out of [ek] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not out [ek] God does not hear us. Out of [ek] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of straying [plán¢].”

The statement “we are out of God” parallels the “you are out of God” in v. 4. This might indicate that it is the authorial “we”, referring to the author himself, perhaps along with other leading ministers. Paul makes frequent use of the authorial “we” in his letters. According to this view, the statement here in v. 6a is meant to persuade readers to listen to what he (the author) is saying. However, I do not believe this is the force of the statement here; rather, “we/us” is being used to identify the Community of true believers, in contrast to the ‘false’ believers who have separated. Since it is the Community of true believers, all genuine believers will hear what is said, since the message is spoken and taught under the guidance of the Spirit. By contrast, those who belong to the world, speak under the influence of the evil Spirit of the world.

This is a clear and marked example of Johannine dualism, with its stark contrast between the domain of God/Christ/Believers and the Devil/World/Non-believers. The closing words bear this out. The “Spirit of Truth” is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God (and Christ) who dwells in and among believers (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 5:6). This is what the author refers to with the phrase “the (one) in you” (v. 4b). The corresponding expression to pneúma t¢s plán¢s is a bit harder to translate. The noun plán¢ essentially refers to wandering or going astray; it is an abstract noun used here in opposition to al¢¡theia (“truth”). It characterizes the Evil Spirit (of the world) as one who leads people astray, i.e. misleading or deceiving them; a natural translation of the noun in English would be “deception” (Spirit of Deception). As it happens, this sort of language is known from other Jewish writings of the period, especially in the Community Rule (1QS) of the Qumran texts, in the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”, where two similarly opposing Spirits (of truth and deceit) are described (1QS 3:17-25). This Evil Spirit is what the author is referring to by the phrase “the (one) in the world” (v. 4b); it also the spirit of antíchristos (“against the Anointed”, v. 3).

Summary

If we are to attempt a historical reconstruction of the views of the false believers (“false prophets”, antichrists) who separated from the Community, it is necessary to bring together, as we have done, the two sections dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus2:18-27 and 4:1-6. In the first passage we learn that the author defines these people as those who do not trust in Jesus—that is, they fail/refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Anointed and Son of God (2:22-23), and thus violate the great command (3:23). In the second passage, we gain a clearer sense of what is involved: these false believers do not acknowledge (with the rest of the Community) Jesus the Anointed as having coming in flesh. This would seem to indicate a denial of the incarnation, a refusal to accept that Jesus appeared on earth as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In classic theological language, this Christological view is referred to as docetism, from the Greek (dokéœ), meaning that Jesus only seemed to be a real human being. It is associated with a number of so-called Gnostic groups and systems of thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early 2nd century, not long after the time when the Johannine letters are often thought to have been composed, attacks an early form of docetic Christology (Smyrn. 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; Trall. 9:1-2; 10:1, etc), and appears to cite 1 John 4:2 for this purpose (in Smyrn. 5:2). Ignatius writes to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Tralles), which is usually considered to be (the most likely) provenance of the Johannine Writings as well.

However, I do not think that the view of the false believers in 1 John is docetic per se. The situation is a bit more complex than that. The answer, I feel, lies in the final section of the letter dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus (5:5-12), which we will soon examine in an upcoming study. But first we must turn to the next section of the letter, on the theme of love, beginning with 4:7. It is a rich and powerful exposition, perhaps the single most extensive treatment on Christian love in the entire New Testament. We will only be able to consider certain aspects of it in the space and time available to us, but it is a subject that will be well worth the study.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).

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

1 John 2:28-3:10, continued

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:5 / 3:8B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:6a / 3:9

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

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

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

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

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

The statements regarding sin in these verses are essentially two:

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:6b / 3:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 2:28 / 3:7a

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

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

1 John 2:29 / 3:7bc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:4 / 3:8a

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

Last week we embarked on a series of studies on the Letters of John, beginning with the ‘prologue’ of 1 John (1:1-4). We noted the similarities with the Prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John, an indication that the author is drawing upon both the manner of expression and the fundamental thought of the Johannine Gospel. This is particularly important in the light of the relation of the Letters (and the Gospel) to the Johannine Community—that group of congregations, presumably unified in thought and organization, in which those writings were produced and circulated. It is worth considering again the wording in 1:3-4, especially the use of the subjunctive in the central clause (note the portion in italics):

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

It would seem that the force of the subjunctive éch¢te, “that you might hold, that you would hold”, is part of a deliberative rhetoric by the author—meant to convince his readers to align themselves with his view, and to avoid/reject the opposing position. This seems clear enough from the language used: “that you might also hold common (bond) with us“. The two pronouns are in emphatic position; and, indeed, as we shall see, there is a definite us/them contrast that runs through the letters. Most commentators would interpret this as a sign of a serious conflict within the Community, even though the precise nature and extent of it remains uncertain.

1 John 2:18-27

Today’s study will focus on 1 John 2:18-27, from the standpoint, primarily, of historical criticism—that is, of determining the historical background and setting of both the particular passage and the work as a whole. Sound historical-critical analysis must begin with text as we have it, working from it based on careful exegesis. Even if it is necessary to read between the lines a bit, this ought to be done in a cautious manner; indeed, it is just at this point that close scrutiny of specific words and phrases is most vital.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to examine briefly the two prior passages—2:3-11 and 12-17. The first is a three-fold discussion regarding Christian identity which is fundamental to the overall argument of the writing. It begins as follows, in verse 3:

“And in this we know that we have known him—if we keep watch (over) his entolai.”

The Greek plural entolaí is typically translated “commandments”, but this can be somewhat misleading in context. Literally, the word entol¢¡ refers to a charge or duty placed on (i.e. given to) someone to complete. The conventional translation suggests that the author is referring to something like the ‘commandments’ in the Law of Moses, or a similar set of commands given by Jesus in his teaching. This, however, does not appear to be correct, a point which will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming study. In the Johannine tradition, and for the author of 1 John, there is only one ‘command’ or duty for believers, and it is a dual, two-fold command, stately precisely in 3:23:

    • Trust in Jesus as God’s Son, and
    • Love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example

These are the marks of a true Christian. In verses 4-11, the author lays out three basic ‘tests’ for one who claims to be a true believer:

    • “the one considering [i.e. claiming] (that) ‘I have known him‘”, but who does not keep/guard the two-fold command (“his entolai“) [vv. 4-5]
    • “the one considering (himself) to remain in him, but does not walk (i.e. live/act/behave) as Jesus walked, i.e. who does not follow Jesus’ own example [vv. 6ff]
    • “the one considering (himself) to be in the Light, but does not show love to his fellow believer (“hating his brother”), and so is actually in darkness [vv. 9-11]

Such a ‘false’ believer, being in darkness, cannot possibly belong to God, given the declaration in 1:5 (cf. also 2:8, and throughout the Gospel and First Letter). In 2:12-17, the focus shifts from the false believer to the true, and the author writes exhorting and admonishing his readers (as true believers), to remain in the truth, avoiding/resisting that which is false and evil, living according to the Word of God that remains in them (v. 14). In vv. 15-17, this is framed as part of the dualistic contrast between God and the world (kósmos, the current world-order).

This brings us to 2:18-27, which opens with an ominous (eschatological) warning:

“Little children, it is the last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) against the Anointed [antíchristoi], (from) which we know that it is the last hour.”

The significance of both the ‘Antichrist’ tradition and the imminent eschatology in this passage will be discussed as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. What is clear is that (a) the author believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” of the current Age, and (b) that this was indicated by the rise of these persons who are “against the Anointed One”. Whatever the author’s understanding of an underlying ‘Antichrist’ tradition (i.e. such as expressed in 2 Thess 2:1-12), he is using the term antíchristos differently, according to the basic meaning of the word—to characterize belief and/or behavior which is “against Christ”, or, more specifically, “against Jesus as the Anointed One”. In each verse that follows, the author describes those who are “against the Anointed”, and, at the same time, urges his readers not to follow in their path.

Verse 19

“They went out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n] but they were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], for if they were out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], they would have remained with us [meth’ h¢mœ¡n]; but (this happened so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be revealed] that they all were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n].”

There is a bit of wordplay, using the expression ex h¢mœ¡n (“out of us”), which is lost in most English translations. It plays on two meanings of the preposition ex (e)c, “out of”). In the first use of the expression here (“they went out of us”), the sense of the preposition is “(away) from”, like the spatial sense of going “out of” (i.e. leaving) a room; here it refers to people who, according to the author, have left the Community. In the last three occurrences of the expression, “out of us” signifies origin and identity—i.e., “coming out of”, as in a birth, and so belonging to a person or group (like a child to a family). In the central clause, the two meanings are brought together: if these people truly belonged to the (rest of the) Community, they would not have left it. This last point is expressed in Johannine language, familiar from the Gospel, using the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)—if they had belonged as believers with the rest of us, they would have remained with us. In the Gospel and letters of John, the verb ménœ has profound theological significance in terms of Christian identity—the believer “remaining” in Christ, and Christ “remaining” in the believer. The author goes so far as to state that the divisive conflict within the Community has taken place (according to God’s own purpose) so that it might be revealed those who are true believers, and those who are not.

Verse 20

“And you hold (the) anointing [chrísma] from the Holy (One), and you all have seen [i.e. known].”

The translation “Antichrist(s)” in verse 19 loses the important connection here between chrísma (“anointing”) and antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). There is an emphatic contrast intended between the author’s audience, assumed to be true believers, and those who have left the Community. The true believer holds the anointing of Christ (the Anointed One), and so could never be “against the Anointed”. Though it has to be inferred here, in speaking of “anointing” the author means the presence of Jesus in and among believers through the Spirit. The title “Holy (One)” (hágios) here almost certainly signifies Jesus (rather than God the Father), parallel (and partially synonymous) with “Anointed (One)”. The adjective pántes (“all”) is in emphatic position, stressing that this is so for all true believers. Some manuscripts read pánta (“all things”), but this would seem to be a ‘correction’, since otherwise the verb oídate (“you have seen”) lacks a clear object (compare v. 27). The implication is that all believers, through the presence of the Spirit, can see/know the truth—that is, the truth of who Jesus is, his example that we are to follow, etc.

Verse 21

“And I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen the truth, but (rather) that you have seen it, and (have seen) that every lie is not out of the truth.”

There is a definite rhetorical purpose for the author to continue to address his reader with the presumption that they are true believers, repeatedly confirming this point. It would seem that it is intended to persuade his audience to stay away from the ‘false’ believers who have separated, and to treat them as non-believers (belonging to the world). This will become increasingly clear as we proceed through the letters, and is a point that needs to be considered with the utmost care. At any rate, here the author affirms that his readers, as true believers, have seen the truth (and will surely continue to do so). The language in the final clause mirrors that used in verse 19. A lie does not come out of the truth, in the sense of belonging to it, even as those who separated from the Community do not belong to it. This implicitly characterizes them as false believers.

Verse 22

“Who is the false (one) if not the (one) denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)? This is the (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos]: the (one) denying the Father and the Son.”

Here the false believer is defined more precisely as one “denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)”. From this verse alone, it is impossible to know just what this denial (vb arnéomai) entails. The verb literally means “fail/refuse to speak”, but could also denote “speak/utter against”, bringing it more in line with the idea of being “against” the Anointed One. A superficial reading might suggest Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah; however, given the obvious Christian context of 1 John, this can scarcely be correct. Presumably everyone in the Community, even those who separated from it, would have affirmed the basic identification of Jesus as the Anointed One, however the title was understood precisely. And this seem to be just what was at issue—what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Anointed One? As history has proven, believers can adhere to a common Christological belief, while understanding it in very different ways. The second portion of verse 22, I think, brings more clarity to how the author views the matter: denying Jesus as the Anointed One is essentially the equivalent of denying the Father and the Son. As the Gospel John makes abundantly clear, the person of Jesus is fundamentally defined in terms of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus as God’s Son.

Verse 23

“Every (one) denying the Son does not even hold the Father, (but) the (one) giving common account of the Son holds the Father also.”

The opposite of denying (arnéomai), or failing to properly acknowledge, Jesus is to give an account as one (vb homologéœ) regarding him, i.e. to recognize and confess belief in him in unity with other believers. The logic is clear and simple: those who ‘deny’ Jesus cannot have a bond or relationship with God as their Father; however, if they properly recognize Jesus, which means being united with him, then they are united with the Father (as His children) as well. This all reinforces the idea that those who separated from the Community are not (and could not have been) united with God (and Christ) as believers.

Verse 24

“(That) which you heard from the beginning, it must remain in you; (and), if it should remain in you, (that) which you heard from the beginning, (then) indeed you will remain in the Son and in the Father.”

Here, remaining in union with God the Father and Jesus the Son is dependent on the message/truth which believers have heard (and accepted) remaining in them. This formulation clearly echoes that of 1:1-4 (see the previous study), with its key use of the expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s), embued with theological and Christological meaning. The message about who Jesus is, which goes back to the very beginning—both of the proclamation of the Gospel and the Creation itself—will continue to be upheld by every true believer. We still do not know, at this point in the letter, precisely how the view of those who separated from the Community differs, only that, in the mind of the author, it contradicts the fundamental message of the Gospel.

Verse 25

“And this (truly) is the message which he gave about (this) to us—the Life of the Age.”

The expression “life of the Age [i.e. Age to Come]” is an eschatological idiom, signifying the future blessed life (in heaven) for the righteous, but which, in the Johannine writings, has special theological meaning: as the (eternal) Life which God possesses, and which He gives to His Son (Jesus), and, through him, to believers. Thus the message (angelía) is not merely the words of the Gospel that are proclaimed about Jesus, but the life-giving power and presence of Jesus (the Son) himself. An even clearer definition of “Eternal Life” along these lines is found in the Gospel (17:3; cf. also 20:31, etc). The compound noun epangelía, literally a message about something, is often used in the sense of what a person will do about something, i.e. a promise, and so the word is typically translated in the New Testament. Here it should be understood more generally, in terms of the (Gospel) message about Jesus—who he is (in relation to the Father), and what God has done through him—that believers have heard and accepted “from the beginning”.

Verse 26

“I write these (thing)s to you, about the (one)s making you stray (from the truth).”

Here, in spite of assurances to his readers that they are true believers, the author clearly recognizes the real (and present) danger that there are people causing members of the Community to go astray (vb. planáœ). He uses a present participle, indicating that this is active and ongoing at the time he is writing. As noted above, the author clearly wishes to convince his readers of the error of these people, and to avoid them, regarding them instead as false believers. The statement “I write these things” should be understood of the letter (1 John) as a whole—the purpose of writing was to warn his readers of these people who might make them go astray.

Verse 27

“And (as for) you, the anointing which you received from him, it remains in you and you do not hold (the) need that any (one) should teach you; but, as his anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not (something) false, (so) also, even as it taught you, you are to remain in it.”

This verse summarizes the previous instruction, functioning as a reinforcing exhortation to readers. The precise force of it depends on a minor, but significant, textual question involving the last three words. The verb ménete (again the important Johannine vb ménœ, “remain”) can be read as either a present indicative (“you [do] remain”) or an imperative (“[you must] remain”):

    • “even as it taught you, (so) you remain in it” (indicative)—i.e. one naturally follows as a consequence of the other for believers, the emphasis being on the work of the “anointing” (i.e. the Spirit)
    • “even as it taught you, (so) you must remain in it” (imperative)—the emphasis shifts to the believer, his/her response to instruction by the Spirit/Anointing, involving a willingness to remain in the Spirit’s teaching.

I believe that at least some measure of imperative force is intended, based on the importance of the message which the author is intending to convey to his readers, exhorting them to remain fully rooted in the Community and the view of Jesus Christ which the author affirms for the Community. I have sought to preserve this, while recognizing the textual ambiguity, by translating “you are to remain…”.

Should the final pronoun in the prepositional phrase (en autœ¡) be understood as a reference to the anointing (“in it“), or to the person (Jesus) who relates to the believer through the anointing (“in him“). On the basic assumption that the anointing essentially refers to the Spirit (a point to be clarified in upcoming studies), which is also the manifest presence of Jesus in and among believers, either translation would be acceptable. I believe that the immediate point of reference in the closing words, consistent with the sense of verse 27 as a whole, is to the anointing (i.e. the Spirit). The same question of translation, of course, comes up when rendering passages mentioning the Spirit—should the Spirit be referred to as “it” or “he”? It is largely a matter of preference, though there are theological implications also which should not be ignored.

I hope that the exegetical treatment of 1 John 2:18-27 above is helpful in elucidating the circumstances under which the author is writing. We may summarize this briefly as:

    • There has been a conflict (and split) in the Community, with certain members (and congregations?) separating from the rest.
    • These people hold a view of Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) which is viewed as erroneous and/or incompatible with the Johannine Gospel message.
    • This view of Jesus is characterized as “denying” him, and/or speaking “against” him—thus the label of these people as “against the Anointed” (antichrist).
    • This aspect of their view of Jesus, and their willingness to separate from the rest of the Community, marks them as false believers.
    • To some extent, these people (and their view of Jesus) have influenced others in the Community, causing some to “go astray”. In spite of the author’s assumption, in his writing, that his readers are true believers, he clearly recognizes the danger that they may still be misled by the ‘false’ ones.

The views of these ‘false’ believers are further explained in the remainder of 1 John, and we will have occasion to study this in greater depth. However, next week, I wish to shift the focus a bit, moving from historical criticism to a particularly difficult and challenging theological aspect of the work—namely, the seemingly contradictory message presented in 1 John: that believers both are and are not able to sin, and that the true believer both does and does not commit sin. This is addressed at several points in the letter; we will begin with an examination of 2:28-3:10. I would ask you to read this passage carefully, bringing out for yourself any of the questions that naturally come up for Christians today; I expect you will find them addressed, in some fashion, in our study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 1 John 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 8: Revelation 1:4-6

Revelation 1:4-6

Verses 4-6 represent the standard greeting of the epistolary introduction. The author, already mentioned in verse 1, introduces himself and addresses his audience:

“Yohanan, to the seven (gatherings of believer)s in Asia (that are) called out (to assemble): Favor and Peace to you from the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming, and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne, and from Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness, the first-produced of the (ones who are) dead, and the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth.” (vv. 4-5a)

The author identifies himself by the Hebrew name Yohanan (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek ( )Iwa/nnh$) and Anglicized as “John”. Traditionally, this person as been equated with John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, with the ‘Johannine’ Gospel and Letters being similarly ascribed to him. However, the Gospel and Letters are actually anonymous, and, indeed, as I have discussed previously (cf. my recent note) there are certain indications that the letters were not written by an Apostle. Only in the book of Revelation does the name “John” appear as author or source of the writing. However, nowhere is he identified as John the Apostle; in fact, here, too, there is evidence indicating that the author was not an Apostle. This will be discussed further in the note on verse 9.

John addresses his epistle-book to Christians in seven cities in Asia (the Roman province of Asia [Minor]), the same cities to whom the “letters” in chapters 2-3 are addressed. The word e)kklhsi/a, in its distinctive early Christian usage, is perhaps best rendered “congregation”, but I have given it an excessively literal (glossed) translation above, so as to capture its basic meaning. It is derived from the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”), and typically refers to citizens, or members of a community, who are summoned (“called out”) to public assembly. However, in Greco-Roman society, e)kklhsi/a appears rarely to have been used for religious assemblies or associations. This particular Christian usage stems largely from the idea of the corporate assembly (lh^q^) of the people Israel in Old Testament tradition. Almost certainly, there is also an allusion to believers being chosen (i.e. “called”) by God, whereby the connotation of the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”) blends with that of e)kle/gw (“gather out”, i.e. “choose”).

There is unquestionably a religious context to the greeting, as in most of the letters in the New Testament, where the “favor” (xa/ri$) and “peace” (ei)rh/nh) comes from God and Christ (together), being invoked as a kind of blessing upon the believers who are addressed (cf. Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Philem 3; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2). Note the dual-formula, in the uniquely expanded form it occurs here in the book of Revelation:

    • from (a)po/) the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming [i.e. the Living God]
      —and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne
    • from (a)po/) Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness…

At first glance, it might seem that this is a three-fold formula, with the “seven Spirits” as a source of blessing parallel to God and Jesus; but this would probably be incorrect. It is best to view the phrase “and from the seven Spirits…” as subordinate to the Living God who sits on the throne. There is, however, a kind of synonymous parallelism between God and Jesus, which needs to be emphasized (cf. below).

Instead of the more traditional “God the Father”, here we have the peculiar triadic phrase in italics above:

o( w*n kai\ o( h@n kai\ o( e)rxo/meno$

The initial title o( w&n (“the [One] being [i.e. existing/living]”) derives primarily from Exodus 3:14 [LXX]: e)gw/ ei)mi o( w&n (“I am the [One] being/existing”)—cf. further, Josephus Antiquities 8.350; Philo Life of Moses I.75; Allegorical Interpretation III.181. However, there are also parallels in Greco-Roman literature, including a similar three-fold description of Deity which encompasses past, present, and future (e.g., Homer Iliad 1.70; Hesiod Theogony 1.38; Plutarch Moralia 354C); especially noteworthy is the triadic formula in Pausanias (Description of Greece 10.12.10), “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus shall be” (cf. Koester, p. 215).

The elegant customary translation, “the one who is and who was and who is to come”, glosses over the difficulty of the Greek syntax. The phrase is actually comprised of two articular participles, with an indicative verb (+ article) in between:

    • “the [one] being” (o( w&n)
    • “the [one who] was” (o( h@n)
    • “the [one] coming” (o( erxo/meno$)

Rhythmically, it is appealing, but grammatically it is quite awkward. The use of the definite article with an indicative verb (literally, “the was”) is strange indeed. Also unusual is the fact that there is no case inflection following the preposition a)po/ (“from”), as though the expressions, being Divine titles, were undeclinable. I would suggest that this phrase (repeated in verse 8 and 4:8, and echoed again in 11:17; 16:5) be understood in three ways:

    1. In the traditional sense of comprehensive existence—past, present, future.
    2. As a chiastic formula, in which the two participial expressions emphasize the eternal Life and Being possessed by God:
      —”the One being/existing”
      —”the One coming (to be)”
      With the indicative verb reflecting God’s presence and action in history.
    3. In an historical sense:
      (i) “the One being”—eternal existance
      (ii) “the One who was”—(past) manifestation in history
      (iii) “the One coming”—i.e. (present/future) coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people

With regard to the “seven Spirits [pneu/mata]” in the presence (lit. “in the sight”) of God’s throne, these are best understood as heavenly beings (i.e. ‘Angels’), as I discussed in a previous note. The throne of God, emphasizing kingship and (royal) power, features prominently in Apocalyptic writings, and, often in such visionary literature, a description of the throne and its (heavenly) surroundings is included. There are specifically seven Angels mentioned in Tobit 12:15 and 1 Enoch 20:1-7. Of course, seven, as a symbolic number, representing completeness, etc, is especially frequent in the book of Revelation. Clearly, there is a thematic connection between these seven “Spirits” and the seven congregations of the greeting and the subsequent letters in chapters 2-3.

The blessing invoked by the author comes from God (the Father), but also, equally, from Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). On the particular title Xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”), here used as a virtual second name of Jesus (according to established Christian convention), see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. As in the case of God, Jesus is also referred to with a three-fold expression (drawn from Psalm 89, especially vv. 19-37):

    • “the trust(worthy) witness” (Ps 89:37)—We typically do not tend to think of Jesus as a witness (it is believers who do the witnessing), but this characteristic was certainly applied to him by early Christians, and appears frequently in the Gospel of John. It was already used in verse 1 (cf. the previous note), in the expression “the witness of Jesus Christ”, which, as I discussed, does not mean witness about Jesus, but rather witness by Jesus (subjective genitive).
    • “the first-produced of the dead” (Ps 89:27a)—The adjective prwto/toko$ is often translated “firstborn”, but literally means “first-produced“, as of a plant coming up out of the ground. Here, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus as the (pre-existant) Son of God (in a Johannine or Nicene sense), but, rather, relates specifically to his resurrection from the dead (i.e. of those who are dead). The adjective is used in this sense in Romans 8:29 (see v. 23); Col 1:18 (cp. verse 15); and cf. also Heb 12:23. This association is explained clearly in Acts 26:23. Jesus himself touches on the imagery in the beautiful illustration of Jn 12:24.
    • “the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27b)—This reflects the standard Messianic association, by which early Christians applied the Davidic ruler figure-type to Jesus. Again, the earliest Christian preaching connected this precisely (if not exclusively) with his resurrection and exaltation to heaven (Acts 2:24ff, 36, etc). However, it was also in his exaltation (to God’s right hand) that Jesus possessed a status virtually identical to that of God the Father, sharing his kingly rule (as Son and Heir). In early Christian thought, Jesus’ Sonship was defined primarily in terms of the resurrection (cf. Acts 13:33f; Rom 1:4; Heb 5:5ff). The book of Revelation expresses this in a most distinctive way, as we shall see.

The concluding portion of the greeting switches to a declaration of praise—to both God and Christ, though it is primarily the latter who is being addressed, as the wording indicates:

“To the (one) loving us and loosing us out of our sins, in his blood, and (so that) he made us (to be) a kingdom, sacred officials [i.e. priests] to his God and Father—to him be honor and strength into the Ages [of the Ages]. Amen.” (vv. 5b-6)

That Jesus’ death (his blood) served as a sacrificial offering which brought release (and/or cleansing) from sin, is a central tenet of Christian belief, expressed numerous times in the New Testament. There are several striking references among the relevant passages in the Johannine writings—Jn 1:29; 6:51, 53ff; (19:34); 1 Jn 1:7, 9; 2:2; 3:5; 4:10; 5:6, 8. As we shall see, this is also a theme that features prominently in the book of Revelation. It should be noted that some manuscripts read “washing us” instead of “loosing us”, understanding the verb to be lou/w rather than lu/w. This appears to be a ‘correction’, since the idea of washing (i.e. cleansing from sin) better fits the natural image of blood (and cf. the usage in 1 Jn 1:7, etc). However “loosing” is almost certainly correct, and reflects a different, primary aspect of Christ’s sacrificial work—loosing us from debt/bondage to sin. A similar idea, in relation to sin, is expressed by the verb a)fi/hmi (“set [free] from, release”), often translated in this context as “forgive”.

The idea that believers in Christ constitute a kingdom—i.e. the kingdom of God, ruled by Christ—appears many times in the New Testament, usually in terms of receiving or inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor 15:50; 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; Col 1:13; Heb 12:28; James 2:5, etc). The twin concept of believers as priests of God is specifically drawn from ancient Israelite/Old Testament tradition (Exod 19:6; cf. also Isa 61:6). We find this also occasionally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9; cf. also Rom 12:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 3:6ff, etc).

The praise and “glory” (do/ca, esteem/honor) here accorded to Jesus is precisely that which is given to God, and this a most important theological (and Christological) emphasis in the book. We will be exploring this further in the notes on verses 9-20. However, first it is necessary to examine the final portion of the epistolary introduction—the declarations in vv. 7 and 8—which we will do in the next daily note.

“…Spirit and Life” (concluded): The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation

We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.

Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to association this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

    • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
    • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
    • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
    • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:

1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:

“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”

This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).

The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.

2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:

“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)

The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):

    • The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
    • He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book

There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:

    • 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
    • 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.

3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).

“Spirit” and “Life”

At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:

1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:

I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”

However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:

“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)

2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:

a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).

The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.

b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).

c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).

d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.

This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next (already being posted on this site), which deals with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.

References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.