May 25: 1 John 1:5-7

1 John 1:5-7

A key point of transition between the 1 John prologue (1:1-4) and the first major section of the work (1:5-2:17) is the noun koinwni/a, which I translate as “common-bond”, and which, as a keyword, reflects the ideal of unity among believers (cf. Acts 2:42). It is used at the close of the opening sentence (in verse 3, cf. the previous note), and occurs again in vv. 6-7. Even though the word does not occur in the Gospel of John, nor anywhere else in the Johannine writings, it may be said to express the underlying idea of unity—and of union—both among believers, and between believers and God, which is so important to the Johannine theology.

In the Gospel, these themes feature most prominently in the Last Discourse and the chapter 17 Prayer-Discourse, and, in this context, relate to the Paraclete-sayings; in other words, this unity/union is realized for believers through the presence of the Spirit. I have discussed the (indirect) allusions to the Spirit in the prologue, and will touch on them also here in vv. 5-7. The role of the Spirit is central to the author’s rhetorical approach in 1 John, being a reflection of a distinctive Johannine spiritualism.

The principal thematic emphasis of 1:5-2:17 is established at the beginning, in verse 5:

“And this is the message which we have heard from him, and (which) we give forth as a message to you: that God is light, and there is not (any) darkness in Him, not one (bit).”

The declaration in v. 5b is presented as a message given to his disciples by Jesus (“from him”). This is another element of continuity with the prologue, both in the emphasis on things Jesus said to his disciples (during his earthly ministry), and with the concept of preserving and transmitting that tradition to future believers, utilizing the verb a)nagge/llw (or its parallel, a)pagge/llw).

We do not have any actual saying by Jesus that corresponds to v. 5b; however, it certainly does reflect the teaching in the Gospel, combining two distinctive Johannine themes:

    • The identification of Jesus as the light (fw=$) of God, which shines in the darkness of the world—1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; cp. 1 Jn 2:8ff.
    • The idea that Jesus (as the Son) reveals God (the Father) to the world (spec. to believers), including His fundamental characteristics and attributes; this theme is particularly prominent in the Last Discourse and Prayer-Discourse—14:7-11, 20-23; 15:8ff; 16:15, 25ff; 17:2ff, 7ff, 12-14ff, 22ff, 26.

The contrast between light and darkness (skoti/a) is an essential component of the Johannine dualism. It is also a most natural and obvious point of contrast, which can be found utilized in many different religious and philosophical systems. One does not need to look much further than the Old Testament and Jewish tradition to find numerous examples (e.g., Gen 1:4-5; Job 12:22; 29:3; 30:26; Psalm 18:28; 139:11-12; Isa 5:20; 9:2; 42:16; Amos 5:18ff). The light-darkness juxtaposition is as much a part of the dualism in the Qumran texts, as in the Johannine writings; cf. for example, the ‘Two Spirits’ treatise in the Community Rule text (1QS 3:13-4:26).

From the Johannine standpoint, light characterizes God, while darkness characterizes the world (o( ko/smo$); and these are entirely opposite and opposed to each other—in particular, the world is fundamentally opposed to God and His truth. This means that the world is also opposed to God’s Son (Jesus) and to all of His offspring (believers). There is nothing at all (ou)demi/a) of the darkness in God or in His children.

The author expounds this light-darkness message in vv. 6-7, giving to it a practical (and most pointed) emphasis:

“If we say that we hold common-bond [koinwni/a] with Him, and (yet) should walk about in the darkness, (then) we are false and do not do the truth;” (v. 6)

This is the first, negative side of the instruction, and refers to false believers (vb yeu/domai, “be false, act falsely”)—that is, those who say they hold common-bond with God (i.e., as true believers), but yet “walk about” in the darkness. This contrast almost certainly relates to the ‘opponents’ of whom the author speaks in the “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). This contrast between true and false believers informs the entirety of 1 John as a treatise.

The positive side of the instruction, describing the true believer, comes in verse 7:

“but, if we should walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (then) we hold common-bond [koinwni/a] with each other, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

False believers walk about in darkness, but true believers walk about in the light. This idiom of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) goes back to Old Testament tradition, with the use of the corresponding Hebrew verb El^h* (“walk, go”, esp. in the reflexive Hithpael stem), to describe a person’s habitual behavior (in an ethical-religious sense). Paul famously uses the verb in Galatians 5:16, where walking about “in the Spirit” is more or less equivalent with the Johannine walking “in the light”; cf. also Romans 6:4; 8:4. The Johannine idiom, using the same verb (in the same sense), is found in 8:12; 11:9-10 and 12:35, which are worth citing (in order):

“I am the light of the world; the (one) following me shall not walk about [peripath/sh|] in the darkness, but shall hold the light of life.”

“if one should walk about [peripath=|] in the day, he will not strike (his foot) against (a stone), (in) that [i.e. because] he sees (by) the light of this world; but if one should walk about [peripath=|] in the night, he does strike (his foot) against (a stone), (in) that [i.e. because] the light is not in [i.e. with] him.”

“(For) yet a little time the light is in [i.e. with] you. You must walk about [peripatei=te] as you hold the light, (so) that darkness should not take you down; (for) indeed the (one) walking about [peripatw=n] in the darkness has not seen [i.e. does not know] where he leads (himself).”

The relation of the author’s instruction to these (Johannine) statements by Jesus will be discussed in the next daily note.

May 24: 1 John 1:3-4

1 John 1:3-4

Following the parenthesis of verse 2 (cf. the previous note), the main syntactical line of verse 1 is picked up in verse 3, repeating the relative clause/phrasing from verse 1: “…that which [o%] we have seen and heard…”, referring to the witness of the first disciples to the person of Jesus (the Son sent to earth by God the Father). The author includes himself as one of these witnesses (“we have seen…”). This has led some commentators to claim that the author was, indeed, one of the first disciples (early tradition identified him with John son of Zebedee).

However, it is more likely that this is part of the author’s conscious rhetorical and apologetic strategy; he aligns himself with the historical (and authoritative) Gospel tradition that goes back to the first disciples (as eye/ear-witnesses) and the earthly ministry of Jesus. At the same time, it is possible that he has the ‘Beloved Disciple’ in mind, who, apparently, had an unusually long life-span, and may have outlived the other early disciples (cf. the tradition in the Gospel appendix, 21:20-23). If the implications of this traditional information is correct, the elders in the Johannine Community (such as the author[s] of 1-3 John) likely would have known the ‘Beloved Disciple,’ prior to his death.

What follows in verse 3 marks the principal clause of the prologue, to which the preceding relative phrases (with their accusative relative pronouns) are subordinate:

“…we even give (it) forth as a message [vb a)pagge/llw] to you…”

If we were to rearrange the phrasing to make a more conventional statement, it would read:

“We give forth that which was from the beginning…as a message to you”
or, alternately:
“We give forth…(this) about the word of life…as a message to you”

What believers give now, in the present, is an authoritative message about the Son (Jesus), identified as the Divine “word of life”. They/we bear witness to Jesus’ identity and to the life that he gives. In the previous note, I discussed the strong reasons for seeing an indirect allusion here to the Spirit in the expression “the word of life”. But what believers give (to others) is not the living Word, or the Life itself, but a message and witness about (peri/) this Life. It is a message that corresponds with the witness of the first disciples, who saw what Jesus did, and heard what he said, during his earthly life.

In the subordinate i%na-clause that follows, and which brings the sentence of vv. 1-3 to a close, the purpose of this witness-message is stated:

“…(so) that [i%na] you also might hold common-bond [koinwni/a] with us; and, indeed, our common-bond (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

The purpose thus is that the author’s readers would be joined, holding things in common, with him (and his circle of adherents). The author clearly identifies his community with the community of true believers, by adding that “our common-bond” is with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This is important for understanding the author’s overall purpose in writing, which he establishes here in the prologue.

The noun koinwni/a is relatively rare in the New Testament, being used primarily (12 of 19 occurrences) in the letters of Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 1:9; 10:16; 2 Cor 6:14; Phil 3:10). It is often translated “fellowship,” but this seems rather too tepid a translation; nor does it properly capture the essential meaning of the word, which denotes something that people hold in common (koino/$). I feel that “common-bond” is a more appropriate rendering, especially since it also touches upon the idea of a covenant (Heb tyr!B=, a binding agreement) between believers and God, just as we see expressed here.

The noun koinwni/a occurs in Acts 2:42, as a characteristic of the first believers (in Jerusalem), reflecting their unity, as well as their sense of community and shared purpose (o(moqumado/n). However, somewhat surprisingly, the word is used nowhere else in the Gospels or Acts, and is not at all part of the vocabulary of Jesus in his teaching (as it was preserved and translated into Greek). It does not occur in the Gospel of John, even where we might most expect it, in the Last Discourse and the great Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17. The strong emphasis on unity in the Prayer-Discourse is similar to what we find here in verse 3 of the prologue; even though koinwni/a is not used in the Gospel, the underlying thought is very much present (esp. in chaps 13-17).

A strong argument can be made that, in the Gospel, the unity between believers and God, and among believers, is realized through the presence of the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that both God the Father and the Son (Jesus) are present in and among believers. Indeed, God’s abiding presence depends upon the Spirit, since He Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24). Foremost of what Jesus gives to believers is the Spirit (1:33; 3:34; 4:10-15; 7:37-39; 15:26f; 16:7b-11ff; 19:30/20:22), and he continues to be present, communicating to them/us through the Spirit (6:63; 16:12-15; cf. also the other Paraclete-sayings).

In terms of the author’s rhetorical purpose, if his readers will join (in agreement) with him, as he hopes, then they will demonstrate that they share this common-bond, sharing in the Spirit of truth, and are to be considered part of the Community of true believers. Knowing that those who receive and respond to his writing are to be counted among the true believers, possessing a true faith in Christ and the true witness of the Spirit, will bring great joy to the author and his circle:

“And we write these (thing)s (to you), (so) that our joy might be made full.” (v. 4)
Some MSS read u(mw=n (“your”) instead of h(mw=n (“our”), but the first person plural is more likely to be original, and is certainly more appropriate to the context.

The author may have in mind something of the theology of the Gospel Prayer-Discourse (chap. 17), with the idea that unity—the full community of believers—will only be realized once the full number of the elect/chosen ones come to trust in Jesus through the (apostolic) mission of believers (cf. vv. 20-26). However, as will be discussed in the upcoming notes and articles on 1 John (in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”), the author’s mission also has the specific focus of achieving (and/or restoring) a certain kind of orthodox unity among the Johannine churches.

Along these lines, in the next daily note, I will be looking at the other occurrences of koinwni/a, in verses 6-7.