Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:24

1 John 2:28-3:24

In the previous study, as in the two prior, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of both 1 and 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. The section covering 2:28-3:24 represents the central division of First John, in which the author presents, most clearly and directly, the principal theme of his work: namely, the contrast between the true and false believer. This is done through an exposition and application of a number of key Johannine principles. The primary principle expounded by the author is the idea of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of every believer.

This key noun was used earlier, in 2:3-8, both in the plural and singular, presented as something which Jesus has given to believers, a duty placed on them, which they are obligated to fulfill. In the Gospel of John, the noun entol¢¡ is used by Jesus in two different ways. First, it refers to the duty (and mission) which God the Father gave him (the Son) to complete, when He sent him to earth—10:18; 12:49-50; 15:10b. Second, it refers to the duty (and mission) that the Son, in turn, gives to his disciples (believers)—13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10a, 12. The two uses are clearly related, and the seeds of the dual-entol¢¡ may be glimpsed from a consideration of the duty/mission given by the Father to the Son. Two aspects of this mission may be ascertained:

    1. A directive, from the Father, regarding what the Son should say (and do), and which may be summarized as representing the word of the Father (12:49-50)
    2. The culmination of his mission is that the Son would lay down his own life, as a self-sacrifice, demonstrating the love and care he has for those (i.e., his disciples/believers) whom he holds dear (10:18; cf. 15:10)

These same two aspects are applied to the entol¢¡ that the Son (Jesus) gives to his disciples (and to all believers). This may be summarized based the teaching of Jesus in 15:4-10, and his use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”). Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in his word(s), and to have his word(s) remain in them (15:7; cf. 8:31); similarly, they are to remain in his love, and to have his love remain in them (15:9-10, 12; cf. 14:21). These two aspects define and explain what it means for the believer to remain in Jesus, as can be illustrated by the following simple diagram (which I have used on prior occasions):

The two-fold duty (entol¢¡) for the believer thus may be defined as:

    1. Remain rooted and faithful to Jesus’ words (i.e., teachings), which, in the Gospel relates primarily to the message regarding who Jesus is—viz., the Son sent from heaven by God the Father, and the mission he was sent to fulfill.
    2. Stay faithful to the example of Jesus in showing love (to fellow believers), being willing to lay down one’s own life for the sake of others.

In First John, this same two-fold entol¢¡ applies, as defined in 3:23:

“And this is His entol¢¡—that:

        • that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed,
          and
        • (that) we should love each other, just as he gave (the) entol¢¡ to us.”

In some ways, the duty to show love takes priority, as is indicated by its position in the Last Discourse (13:34-35; see vv. 1, 23), and its prominence in 15:9-17 (see also the closing words of 17:26). Similarly, the aspect of love seems to have priority, both in 1 John (2:5ff, see below) and 2 John (vv. 5-6).

The duty to remain in Jesus’ words is now defined in terms of trusting in Jesus as the Son of God—that is, trusting in the message (word) of who he is, a message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching (see this emphasis at the beginning of 1 John, 1:1-4). In 2 John, this trust-aspect of the entol¢¡ is defined by the Johannine keyword “truth” (al¢¡theia), vv. 3-4ff—that is, the truth of who Jesus is, and what he did (and said).

The Johannine principle of the dual entol¢¡, of trust (or truth) and love, was applied in 2 John to the conflict with the “antichrist” opponents (vv. 7-11), as we discussed in the earlier study. The same is true of the situation in 1 John. Indeed, the dual entol¢¡ is utilized even more comprehensively, as a structuring principle for the entire work. Note the way that the two aspects alternate as guiding thematic emphases, according to the following outline:

The “trust” sections each deal rather directly with the opponents, and their view/teaching regarding Jesus Christ. The “love” sections, at first glance, do not seem as relevant to the conflict, and yet, I would maintain that the author still has the opponents in view throughout. The contrast between the true and false believer is meant, primarily, to address the conflict surrounding the opponents. The important point to observe is that, in the author’s view, the opponents have shown themselves to be false believers, in that they violate both aspects of the great entol¢¡they do not hold a genuine trust in Jesus, nor do they show proper love to those who are believers.

Key to the author’s rhetorical strategy is the way that he utilizes language and wording, theological principles and points of emphases, that likely would have been familiar to many, if not most, of his readers. It is quite possible that even the opponents, as Johannine Christians, would have affirmed many of the author’s statements, even if they were to interpret them in a very different way.

With this framework in place, next week we will undertake a detailed survey of the section (2:28-3:24), with an eye toward examining how the author applies the Johannine language and precepts to the conflict that is at the heart of his work.

 

June 15: 1 John 3:1

1 John 3:1

“See what sort of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring [te/kna] of God—and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that it did not know Him.” (3:1)

The important Johannine theme of the ‘birth’ of believers as the “offspring” (te/kna) of God, introduced in 2:28-29 (see the previous note), continues here. This identity as God’s children (“offspring”) reflects the love God has for us. He is willing to call us His offspring, and, in fact we are His offspring. This juxtaposition between the verb kale/w (“call”) and the verb of being (ei)mi) has important theological implications, which can easily be lost in translation. The identity of believers, as the sons/children of God, is not merely symbolic or figurative, but real. This differs markedly from the use of the sonship motif in the Old Testament Scriptures, applied to the people of Israel as a whole (or limited to the righteous), or to the king, where the usage is figurative. YHWH might call Israel His “son(s)”, from an ethical-religious standpoint, and reflecting the covenant relationship His has with them; but the people are not His offspring in nature and essence.

In the Johannine writings, there is a special theological significance to the verb of being, which tends to be applied to a Divine subject. This is certainly the case for the many instances of essential predication that occur in the Gospel and Letters. These simple predicative statements, which provide essential information regarding the subject, follow a basic pattern: (i) [Divine] subject, (ii) verb of being, (iii) predicate noun (or phrase). The “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) statements by Jesus in the Gospel are the most famous examples of Johannine essential predication.

Usually these predicative statements have the Son (Jesus) or God the Father as the subject; but, occasionally, the formula can be applied to believers, as it is, to some extent, here. The phrase “that we should be called (the) offspring of God” is followed by the short statement “and we are”, which functions as an example of essential predication. The statement consists of the verb of being, with the subject implied on the basis of context and the form of the verb—e)sme/n (“we are”). The predicate noun/phrase is also implied, referring back to “(the) offspring of God”; thus the predicative statement here can be filled out as: “we [i.e. believers] are the offspring of God”. Because believers are the children of God, it is possible for them/us to be treated as the Divine subject of the essential predication, much as the Son of God (Jesus) is elsewhere in the Johannine writings.

The noun ui(o/$ (“son”) is reserved for Jesus (the Son), but believers are still genuinely the offspring of God. The birth as His offspring is not merely symbolic, but real (as noted above). Believers come to be born (vb genna/w) out of (e)k, “from”) God Himself. The birth is real, though it is spiritual, not physical (see Jn 3:3-8). As believers, we are born from God’s Spirit, and are His offspring through the Spirit.

Another important Johannine theme is introduced at 3:1b—that of the contrast between believers and the world (o( ko/smo$). This lays the groundwork for the development of the principal theme of 1 John, here in the central division (2:28-3:24) of the author’s work, which is: the contrast between the true and false believer. This theme is part of the broader contrast between believers and the world (with false believers belonging to the world). Throughout the Johannine writings, the noun ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”), tends to be used in a categorically negative sense, as part of a dualistic mode of thinking and expression. The “world” represents the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God, being located and manifested principally on earth (‘below’), among human beings. This use of ko/smo$ occurs throughout the Gospel, but is most prominent in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33, where the noun occurs 20 times), and the subsequent Discourse-Prayer of chap. 17 (where it is even more frequent: 18 times, in vv. 5-6, 9, 11, 13-16, 18, 21, 23-25). Jesus prepares his disciples—and, by extension, all believers—for the hostility and opposition that they will face from the world during the course of their mission.

The contrast between God and the world was established in 2:15-17, just prior to the first section dealing directly with the ‘antichrist’ opponents (2:18-27). The contrast is then restated, in relation to the opponents, in the second ‘antichrist’ section (4:1-6), making it clear that, from the author’s standpoint, the opponents are false believers who belong to the world, not to God.

The same contrast is developed here in chapter 3, but from the more positive standpoint of what it means to be a true believer—since what is true can be distinguished from what is false, just as what is right (dikaiosu/nh, see the previous note on 2:29) can be seen in contrast to what is sin.

Because believers are the offspring of God, the world does not (and cannot) know them. There is a double meaning to the use of the verb ginw/skw (“know”) here. On the one hand, from the world’s standpoint, the world does not recognize the true believer as belonging to it, as one of its own. At the same time, from the standpoint of the truth, the statement in 3:1b means that the world cannot recognize that believers belong to God. It is precisely because (dia\ tou=to) believers are God’s own offspring that the world does not know them. Since the world does not know God Himself, they cannot know His offspring either.

Textual Note on 3:1

It should be pointed out that the short phrase “and (so) we are” (kai\ e)sme/n) is absent from a number of Greek manuscripts (K L), including most minuscules (which tend to be of later date), and the reading without the words was followed by the ‘Textus Receptus’, thus leading to the absence of the words from the King James Version (and other older English versions). However, the words are almost certainly original, being attested in an extremely wide range of manuscripts and other witnesses (Ë74 vid a A B C 33 81 614 1739 ith, 65 vg al). Possibly the words were omitted by accident, since, in the uncial writing, they would have resembled the previous word (klhqw=men); note the similarity—klhqwmen | kaiesmen. Cf. the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition (1994), p. 642.

June 13: 1 John 2:28

1 John 2:28-3:10

When we examine the Johannine birth/sonship theme as it appears in First John, we notice that there are two main sections where the theme is most prominent—2:28-3:10 and 4:20-5:4a. As we have seen, in the Johannine writings, there are two principal idioms for expressing the idea of believers being ‘born’ as the children of God: (1) the use of the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna, “offspring”), and (2) the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), often used together with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”). Both of these Johannine idioms occur in 2:28-3:10—the noun te/knon, in the expression te/kna [tou=] qeou= (“offspring of God”), is used four times (3:1-2, 10 [twice]); and the verb genna/w (+ e)k) occurs three times (2:29; 3:9 [twice]). Clearly, the theme of believers as the offspring/children of God is fundamental to the message of this section.

The section 2:28-3:10 represents the first portion of the central division (2:28-3:24) of 1 John. In this division, the author most clearly and directly expounds the central theme of his work—namely, the contrast between true and false believers. The true believer is a child born of God, while the false believer is not; indeed, the false believer has a very different parentage (cf. the prior note on John 8:39-47).

Verse 28

“And now, (my) dear offspring [tekni/a, i.e. little children], you must remain [me/nete] in him, (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth, we may hold outspokenness, and not be shamed (away) from him in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a].” (v. 28)

Throughout the work, the author repeatedly addresses his audience as “little children”, using either the plural noun paidi/a (2:13, 18) or tekni/a (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). It is a term of endearment, by which the author also presents himself a parental ‘father-figure’ to the Johannine Christians whom he is addressing. This reflects a certain apostolic mind-set of the author, rather similar, it would seem, to that of Paul, who viewed himself as parent to the congregations he helped to found (1 Cor 4:15; Gal 4:19; 1 Thess 2:7, 11; cf. 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1). The noun tekni/on is a diminutive of te/knon, meaning “little offspring” (i.e., “little child”); Jesus uses it, in a manner similar to the author of 1 John, in addressing his disciples at the beginning of the Last Discourse (13:33).

Given the theological significance of te/knon in the Johannine writings, it is fair to assume that there is an echo of this in the use of tekni/on as well. The author is addressing his readers/hearers, not simply with a term of endearment (“[my] little children”), but as true believers in Christ (tekni/a = te/kna). This is part of the author’s rhetorical strategy. By treating them as true believers, this establishes the expectation that they will behave as true believers, and will reject the false teaching and example of the ‘antichrist’ opponents (cf. the flanking sections 2:18-27 and 4:1-6).

At the beginning of the section (see the translation of verse 28 above), the author addresses his audience as tekni/a, implying that they are (and should be) true believers. However, even if they are, currently, believers in Christ, they must remain in him. The verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is one of the great Johannine keywords, carrying fundamental theological significance. It has already been used numerous times earlier in 1 John (2:6, 10, 14, 17), but particularly in the prior section (2:18-27) that deals directly with the “antichrist” opponents (vv. 19, 24 [3 times], 27 [twice]). The use here in v. 28 picks up from the climactic occurrence at the end of v. 27:

“…as his anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not false, and just as it (has) taught you, (so) you remain in him.”

The Spirit remains in the believer, through which the believer is in union with Jesus the Son (and God the Father), and teaches the believer the truth. Yet it is necessary for the believer to remain in this union, which can only happen if he/she remains in the truth. This is the thrust of the author’s exhortation here in verse 28, repeating the exhortation (and warning) at the end of the prior section.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study on the birth/offspring theme in 2:28-3:10, looking at verse 29 and the eschatological context of the author’s message.

 

 

 

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

1 John 2:18-27

In the previous two studies, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. In particular the key Johannine theme, of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) required of every true believer—trust and love—is expounded and applied in relation to the conflict surrounding the “antichrist” opponents (v. 7). A genuine trust in Jesus Christ is defined in terms of the opponents’ Christology (and their false trust, vv. 7-9ff), while love for one’s fellow believers involves protecting them from the opponents’ influence (see vv. 10-11).

The same conflict is present in 1 John. This is clear from the similarity in wording between 2 John 7 and 1 John 4:3. The author of 1 John (if he is not the same person who penned 2 John) provides a more extensive and developed treatment of the conflict involving the opponents, whom he also calls antíchristos (antichrist). The central section, or division, of 1 John is 2:28-3:24. In this section, the author offers a presentation of what it means to be a true believer. By contrast, in the flanking sections (2:18-27 & 4:1-6), the focus is on the false believer. The principal theme of the treatise is the contrast between the true and false believer; the opponents are identified as false believers, while, in the author’s rhetorical strategy, his audience is essentially treated as true believers. This approach serves the purpose of both exhorting and warning Johannine Christians to remain faithful to the truth, in the face of the danger posed by the ‘antichrist’ opponents.

At various points throughout 1 John, we can see how this conflict has shaped the Johannine discourse. Various teachings and traditions, the language and manner of expression, have been adapted or interpreted so as to address the conflict involving the opponents. The first ‘antichrist’ section, 2:18-27, provides a number of examples for consideration. We begin with verse 18:

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

The chiastic parallelism of this statement demonstrates how the author can use certain literary and grammatical-syntactical means in order to apply Johannine tradition to the situation involving the opponents. Note the structure:

    • “Little children, it is the last hour
      • you have heard that antichrist comes
      • even now many antichrists have come to be
    • (thus) we know that it is the last hour.”

The framing statements regarding “the last hour” relate to the eschatological expectation of Johannine Christians. The author, and doubtless many (if not all) of his addressees, held an imminent eschatology, with a strong belief that he/they were living in the time just before the end of the current Age. Part of this expectation, apparently, was that someone (or something) called “against the Anointed” (antíchristos) would come, just before the end, during the end-time period of distress (see Dan 12:1; Mark 13:19, 24 par; Rev 1:9; 7:14, etc). The author uses the term antíchristos (a)nti/xristo$) without explanation, nor does he offer any additional information regarding this expectation, which suggests that we are dealing with a tradition that was familiar to his audience. It is not at all clear whether the term here refers to an individual human being, a spirit-being, or an impersonal (spiritual) force. Possibly all three are involved; cf. the expectation elucidated by Paul in 2 Thess 2:1-12. For more on this subject, see my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition” (the Johannine references are discussed in Part 3).

In any case, the author clearly interprets this eschatological expectation in terms of the opponents. They are manifestations of this antíchristos—indeed, through the presence and activity of the opponents, many ‘antichrists’ have come to be. These antíchristoi are human beings, and yet the author also recognizes that a distinct spirit of ‘antichrist’ is at work.

The author does not immediately explain how (or in what way) the opponents are “against the Anointed”. This is because the main point(s) at issue are only expounded progressively, throughout the three sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:4b-12) that deal most directly with the opponents’ views. What the author initially tells us about these ‘antichrists’ is that they have departed from the Johannine Community—or, at least, what the author regards as the Community of true believers:

“They went out of [ek] us, (in) that they were not of [ek] us; for, if they were of us, they would have remained [vb ménœ] with us—but (this was so) that it would be made to shine forth [i.e., be made apparent] that they are not of us.” (v. 19)

This is an example of how the distinctive Johannine theological language is applied to the situation involving the opponents. Two bits of Johannine vocabulary and style are employed. First, there is the preposition ek (“out of”), used two different ways, with a dual meaning: (a) “out of, [away] from”, in the sense of departing/leaving the group, and (b) “(part) of”, i.e., belonging to, the Community. Even more distinctive is the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), an important Johannine keyword that is used (with special theological meaning) many times throughout the Gospel and First Letter. The true believer remains—both in Christ and in the bond of Community—while false believers (such as the opponents) do not remain. The opponents, like Judas in the Gospel narrative, depart from the Community of true believers, going out into the darkness of the world (Jn 13:30; 1 Jn 4:1ff). This could simply refer to their departure from the truth (specifically with regard to their view of Jesus), or it may mean that a more tangible separation/division within the Johannine churches has taken place.

In verses 20-21, and again in verse 27, two additional Johannine features are related to the conflict. First, there is the allusion to the Spirit in verse 20:

“And (yet) you hold an anointing from the Holy (One), and have seen [i.e. know] all (thing)s.”

Though the point has been disputed by some commentators, it is best to understand the noun chrísma (“anointing”) here as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Related to this emphasis on the role of the Spirit, is the use of the noun al¢¡theia (“truth”) in verse 21:

“I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen [i.e. do not know] the truth, but (in) that you have seen [i.e. do know] it, and that every(thing) false is not of [ek] the truth.”

This would seem to reflect a fundamental spiritual (and spiritualistic) principle within the Johannine Community (see the recent article in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”). The indwelling presence of the Spirit means that every true believer is able to know and recognize the truth, through the internal witness of the Spirit. However, the presence and activity of the opponents has created a challenge to this principle, since there are certain Johannine Christians (the opponents) who, according to the author, are spreading false teachings. Such false teachings can not come from the same Spirit of God. This is a point that the author develops more clearly in 4:1-6.

A key rhetorical strategy of the author, as noted above, is to address his audience as though they are all true believers. Being true believers, who are taught (internally) by the Spirit (who is the truth, 5:6), they will be able to recognize teaching that is false. The implication is that the readers/hearers should be able to recognize the falseness of the opponents’ teachings.

And it is the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ that is most at issue. The author provides his first summary of the matter here in vv. 22-26. The main principle is that the ‘antichrist’, one who is “against the Anointed”, denies that Jesus is the Anointed (Christ/Messiah). This is another way of saying that the opponents deny Jesus as the Anointed. However, the precise meaning of the author in this regard is not entirely clear, and has been much discussed and debated by commentators. For a relatively in-depth treatment of the issue, see my earlier three-part article “1 Jn 2:22 and the Opponents in 1 John”. I will touch on the matter again in an upcoming study within this series.

What is most important is that, for the author, the opponents’ Christology (their view of Jesus) means that they are not true believers. By effectively denying Jesus, they show that they do not possess the bond of union with either the Son of God (Jesus) or God the Father (vv. 22-23). The presence of the Spirit (i.e., the “anointing”), and its internal witness, is the ultimate source of authority for believers (see again the aforementioned article), to the extent that there is no need to be taught (externally) by another human being (v. 27). But how, then, can individual believers be certain that their understanding is true, guided by the Spirit of God, and has not been led astray by false teachings (coming from other spirits)? The author gives an initial answer to this question in verse 24:

“(As for) you, that which you (have) heard from the beginning must remain in you. If it should remain in you, that which you heard from the beginning, (then) you also shall remain in the Son and in the Father.”

The only way for the believer not to be led astray, is to remain in the true teaching (regarding Jesus Christ). The author uses the key expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s) to summarize the true teaching. It echoes his words in the prologue (1:1-4), which, in turn, seem to be inspired by the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The implication is that the internal witness/teaching of the Spirit will conform to the established Gospel tradition, regarding the person and work of Jesus. Any teaching which deviates from the truth of the Gospel cannot come from the Spirit of God, but from a different (false/deceiving) spirit. By remaining in the truth of the Gospel tradition, one is sure to remain united (through the Spirit) with the Father and the Son.

It is the Gospel account, rooted in historical tradition, of who Jesus is, and what he said/did during his earthly ministry, that is principally in view. The opponents, in their view of Jesus, have departed from the Gospel tradition. This, at least, is how the author of 1 John understands the matter. Their teaching denies the truth of who Jesus is, and so they are “against the Anointed”. Their teaching is a malevolent reflection of the end-time spirit of Antichrist, capable of leading many believers astray.

Next week, we will continue this study, examining how the author of 1 John further adapts the Johannine tradition and theology to address this vital conflict. We shall turn our attention to the central section of the work (2:28-3:24), isolating a number of key elements that are particularly emphasized and employed by the author.

Saturday Series: 2 John 4-11 (continued)

2 John 4-11, continued

As mentioned in last week’s study, the author of 2 John (“the Elder”) frames his message in terms of the dual-theme of truth (al¢¡theia) and love (agáp¢). These are primary themes in the Johannine writings, occurring throughout the Gospel and First Letter . They are established here in the opening of 2 John (vv. 1-3), and then are subsequently developed/expounded in the body of the letter.

Of particular importance is the positioning of the truth-love thematic pair in relation to the keyword entol¢¡, another important Johannine term that is used throughout the Gospel and First letter. The noun entol¢¡ denotes a duty that is placed on a person, which he/she is then obligated to complete. It is often translated flatly as “command(ment)”, but this can be somewhat misleading, especially in the Johannine theological context. The term is introduced at the start of the body of the letter (v. 4), with particular reference being made to the entol¢¡ of believers loving one another. For more on how the author establishes this in vv. 4-5, see the discussion in the previous study.

In actuality, the author divides his message (vv. 4-11) in two parts, focusing first on the thematic component of love (vv. 4-6), and then on truth (vv. 7-9ff). The author of First John (if he is not the same person), does much the same thing, alternating between the themes of trust (pístis) and love in the body of his work:

In First John, it is clear that trust and love represent the two components of a single entol¢¡the great duty that all believers are required to fulfill. Indeed, the author states this quite plainly at the end of the central section (3:23f). The author of 2 John would seem to hold a similar outlook, only he utilizes the Johannine keyword al¢¡theia (“truth”) in place of pístis (“trust”). However, the meaning and focus is essentially the same. The Gospel (esp. the Last Discourse of Jesus, 13:31-16:33) likewise affirms a single (two-fold) entol¢¡, defined in terms of remaining in Jesus’ word (lógos/rh¢¡ma) and in his love (agáp¢).

 

As mentioned above, verses 4-6 focus on the entol¢¡ of love. However, in verse 6, the author begins transitioning to the theme of truth/trust. This is done rather cleverly, using an elliptical and illusive style that is typical of the Johannine writings. Keeping in mind that the noun entol¢¡, in this context, refers, not to customary ethical-religious ‘commands’ (such as the Ten Commandments), but specifically to the duty of believers to love each other, the author seems to be using circular language in verse 6:

    • “And this is the love—
      • that we should walk about according to his entolaí;
    • this is the entol¢¡
      • that we should walk about in it [i.e. the love]”

If believers love, then they will live/act (“walk about”) fulfilling the duty required of them; but the duty is that they love. Actually, as mentioned above, love is only one aspect of the two-fold entol¢¡; the second aspect is trust, referenced here in 2 John under the label “truth” (al¢¡theia).

The final phrase of verse 6 (“that we should walk about in it”) is ambiguous, since the feminine pronoun aut¢¡ could refer to any one of three prior nouns, all of which are feminine, also being closely interrelated in Johannine thought: agáp¢ (“love”), al¢¡theia (“truth”), and entol¢¡ (the duty believers are required to fulfill). All three are valid as a referent for the pronoun, and this ambiguity has led to considerable disagreement among commentators as to which is intended. The immediate context of verse 6 suggests that “it” refers to love; however, the overall arc of vv. 4-6, and the transition here to vv. 7-9, argues in favor of a reference to truth. Von Wahlde (p. 223f) effectively illustrates the chiastic framework of vv. 4-6, whereby the initial phrase “walking about in (the) truth” in v. 4 has a natural parallel in the final phrase of v. 6 (“we should walk about in it”).

From a Johannine theological standpoint, the term “truth” covers both components of the great duty—(i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ example. One cannot fulfill this duty without fulfilling both components; moreover, violation of either aspect means violation of the entire command. When the author speaks of the need for believers to love one another, this also entails the affirmation (and confirmation) of genuine trust in Jesus among believers.

The conflict within the Johannine Commmunity involving the “antichrist” opponents forced apostolic leaders and missionaries (such as the “Elder”) to define the great entol¢¡ (trust and love) in relation to this conflict. For the first time in recorded Church history, we find Christians in disagreement over what trust in Jesus specifically entails. In other words, this is the first known Christological controversy. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God? Where is the dividing line between a true confession of faith and one that is false?

For the author(s) of 1 and 2 John, as well as (we may assume) many others in the Johannine churches, the view(s) expressed by the opponents were false, demonstrating that the opponents were actually false believers. By promoting a false view of Christ, they could be considered “against Christ” (antichrist). It is likely that the opponents held the author and his circle in similarly low regard.

While First John gives us an extensive treatment of the conflict, it is presented in a more seminal way here in Second John. This probably means that 2 John was written prior to 1 John, but this is far from certain; indeed, some commentators would argue just the opposite. In any case, the author states the matter quite simply and directly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many plánoi (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not giving common account of Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this [i.e. such a person] is (the) plános and the antíchristos!”

The author refers to the opponents by two labels. The first (used twice) is plános, which means someone who leads people astray. The second is antíchristos, literally “against (the) Anointed”, where the prefix anti– can connote both opposition and the idea of a (false) replacement. The term antíchristos was used of the opponents in 1 John (2:18, 22; 4:3). While the other term (plános) was not used in 1 John, the basic idea (going astray and leading people astray) is certainly present, through the related noun plán¢ (4:6) and verb planᜠ(1:8; 2:26; 3:7).

The great error of these people, according to the author, is that they do not confess Jesus Christ as “coming in the flesh”. The precise nature of their view of Christ has been the subject of longstanding debate among commentators and historians of doctrine. I have discussed the matter at length in a number of recent articles and series of notes (links to which you will find below). For the purposes of this study I wish to focus, not so much on the nature of the opponents’ Christology, but on the author’s response to it, and how this shapes the message of 2 John.

An important detail of the statement in verse 7 is the notice that a number of these opponents have “gone out into the world”. Given the distinctiveness of the noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) as a Johannine keyword, this phrase can be understood two different ways. First, it can mean that the opponents have left the Community of true believers, and, like Judas (Jn 13:30), have gone out into the darkness of the world (in opposition to God and Christ); cf. 1 Jn 2:19. Second, it can be understood in the neutral sense of traveling about, acting as missionaries, spreading their beliefs into other areas and among other congregations. Both of these aspects of meaning are doubtless intended by the author. Compare the same wording in 1 Jn 4:1.

What follows in vv. 8-11 makes clear that some of the opponents (i.e., people holding their views) are traveling about as missionaries and representatives, and that congregations (such as those of the “Lady”) are likely to encounter them. As false teachers (1 John calls them false prophets, 4:1ff) who would lead people astray, the author perceives a serious threat posed by the opponents traveling among the various Johannine congregations (house-churches), where, as Christian travelers and missionaries, some might be inclined to give them hospitality (and a hearing).

The author’s warning is given in verse 8, and then he proceeds (in verse 9) effectively to declare that the opponents—and all those who follow their view of Jesus—are not true believers in Christ. The author does this with a typically Johannine formulation:

“Every one leading forward and not remaining in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not have/hold God…” (v. 9a)

The use of a substantive participle (with definite article) preceded by the adjective pás (“all/every”) is typical of Johannine style, and occurs frequently in 1 John. It is a way of describing the essential nature/character of a person or group, i.e., “everyone doing/being {such}”. The verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) is another important Johannine keyword, occurring many times in the Gospel, and with even greater relative frequency in 1 John. The person who remains in Christ (that is, as a true believer) will remain in both his word and his love; conversely, anyone who does not remain in his word or love, does not remain in him (and thus, is not a true believer).

The author expounds this Johannine idea of remaining in Jesus’ word in terms of holding to a true view of Christ (i.e., true faith), one that is firmly rooted in the Gospel Tradition (viz., the Discourses and Jesus’ own witness regarding his identity as the Son). By not remaining in the truth, the opponents have left it, leading the way forward (vb proágœ), in a negative sense. Only the person who remains in the true teaching, and who thus possesses true faith/trust in Jesus, is a true believer, holding union with the Son (Jesus) and God the Father (v. 9b). All of this is expressed in traditional Johannine language, applied to the specific context of the conflict involving the opponents.

The body of the letter concludes (vv. 10-11) with instruction on what should be done when encountering the opponents (as travelers/missionaries). Here the themes of love (vv. 4-6) and truth (vv. 7-9) merge together again. The response to the opponents demonstrates fidelity to the truth (i.e., trust in Jesus) but also love for fellow believers, by protecting them from the opponents’ false teaching. The author’s advice is straightforward:

“If any(one) comes to you and does not carry this [i.e. the true] teaching, do not receive him into (the) house, even a ‘glad tidings’ you must not say to him” (v. 10)

In other words, give no hospitality to such people, and do not even offer any good wishes to them. The use of the noun oikía (“house”) could refer to a private home, but probably the congregation (house-church, meeting in a home) is primarily in view. In any case, the purpose of the instruction is clearly to prevent the opponents from further spreading their views throughout the churches. This is the purpose of First John as well, but here we see the instruction (and warning) being addressed to a specific congregation (and/or church leader).

The author concludes by emphasizing again that the opponents must be avoided, as thoroughly as possible. Even to offer such a person words of greeting or well-wishes, in the author’s view, means that you are “…making common bond with his evil deeds” (v. 11).

It is interesting that in 3 John, the same author condemns this practice of refusing hospitality to traveling Christians (v. 10, cf. vv. 5-8). The author’s view of the matter was thoroughly dualistic in this regard: all true believers are to be welcomed, while all false believers are not to be welcomed. In the Johannine writings, love (agáp¢) refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the love between believers (i.e., true believers). As note above, by shunning false believers, other (true) believers are protected, and the unity of the Church (that is, the Community of true believers) as a whole is maintained. In this regard, the shunning of false believers is actually an act of love. This, I am sure, is how the author of 2 John would view the matter.

In our next study, we shall look at this same conflict (involving the “antichrist” opponents) as it is dealt with in First John, and how the author’s response to the conflict shapes the distinctive theological expression of that work.

For discussion on the Christology of the opponents, see my earlier studies on 1 Jn 2:22 (parts 1, 2, 3) and 4:2-3 (parts 1, 2, 3), as well as the article in the series “Spritualism in the New Testament”.

References above marked “von Wahlde” are to Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, Volume 3: Commentary on the Three Johannine Letters, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (2010).

 

Saturday Series: 2 John 4-11

Beginning in May, and continuing through the Summer, the Saturday Series will focus on the role that cultural-religious conflict has played in shaping early Christian belief and practice, as expressed in the New Testament Scriptures. This involves historical criticism—examining the historical background of the texts—but also various aspects of literary criticism, including rhetorical criticism—analyzing the author’s purpose in writing, the central proposition(s), the arguments and literary-rhetorical devices used in support, and so forth.

We will begin with the conflict that is at the heart of the Letters of John (esp. 1-2 John). These writings attest to the existence and activity of a group of opponents, whom the author considers antíchristoi, people who are “against the Anointed”, i.e., “antichrists”. In recent notes and articles—including the Saturday Series studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine Writings—the views of these opponents have been discussed. It is my contention that the conflict involving these “antichrist” opponents is central to First John, and represents the principal reason and purpose for the author writing as he does.

The same is true of Second John, though, in some ways, the brevity and relative simplicity of the letter allows us to obtain a clearer glimpse of the situation. Second John also provides an excellent test case for a study on the influence of religious conflict on early Christian thought and practice. For this reason, our studies will begin with 2 John.

It is quite possible that the same author who penned 2 and 3 John (“the Elder”) also wrote 1 John. However, even if he did not, 1 and 2 John clearly derive from the same religious and theological setting—Christians with a shared culture, language, and belief system. It is generally assumed that this involved a number of congregations throughout a particular geographical region (usually identified with Asia Minor, and the area centered around Ephesus), and which is typically referred to by scholars as the Johannine Community—the Community within which the Johannine Writings (Gospel, Letters, and [probably] the book of Revelation) were first produced and distributed.

More than this, the authors of 1 and 2 John, if they are not the same person, also share a distinctive language, style, and manner of expression, utilizing a common vocabulary, syntax, and so forth. The two letters also clearly are addressing issues related to a common group of opponents. That is to say, the same basic historical, cultural, and religious conflict is at the heart of both writings.

The Conflict in 2 John

Because of how short 2 John is, it is very easy to outline its structure:

    • Epistolary Prescript (Introduction/Greeting), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-11
    • Epistolary Postscript (Conclusion), vv. 12-13

Two aspects of the Introduction are important to note, as they relate to the body of the letter and the author’s purpose (causa) in writing. The first of these is the addressee of the letter: “the chosen Lady and her offspring”. The adjective eklektós (lit. “gathered out”) identifies this “Lady” as a believer (or group of believers). The denotation (of being “selected out, elect, chosen”) reflects early Christian usage and the distinctive religious identity of believers in Christ—see Rom 16:13; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:4ff; Rev 17:14; cf. also Mark 13:20, 27 par.

It seems clear that the author is writing to a Christian congregation, though there remains uncertainty as to whether the “Lady” refers to a specific individual, or is figurative for the congregation itself. In the former instance, she would to be regarded as a prominent figure in congregation, perhaps the host of a house-church. Similarly, her “offspring” could refer to the actual children of a particular woman, but, more likely, the term “offspring” is a way of designating the members of the congregation/community. The same term (tékna, “offspring, children”) is used in such a figurative sense by the author of 1 John (3:1-2, 10; 5:2; cf. also 3 John 4).

The congregation of the “Lady” would seem to be some distance removed from the author and his circle, but still closely aligned with it in thought and practice. The idea of a “sister-church” may be appropriate. In any case, it suggests a network of relations between Johannine congregations, across a particular geographic area. In this regard, the “Elder” is functioning in the manner of an apostolic missionary, similar to Paul, for example. Like Paul, he seems to be concerned with establishing and maintaining a sense of unity among the congregations. First John likely reflects a similar purpose—that is, uniting the Johannine churches, exhorting them in their identity as believers in Christ, and warning them against the opponents.

Such a network of churches would have to be maintained through a combination of letters and personal visits (see v. 12). The letters themselves would be delivered by traveling missionaries (or other trusted believers). Paul’s letters reflect this dynamic in vivid detail, and we can see it clearly in 2 and 3 John as well. The opponents also would have written and traveled to many of the churches as well, something which the author regarded as representing a dangerous (and nefarious) influence on the Johannine churches. His own efforts are meant to counteract the opponents’ influence.

The second important feature in the Introduction is the author’s use of the words love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) and truth (al¢¡theia). These are key Johannine terms, which occur extensively throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Though common terms, they take on a special theological (and Christological) significance within the Johannine writings. This vocabulary is fundamental for defining what it means to be true believer in Christ. The author’s use of the terminology in the Introduction effectively positions the “Lady” congregation, along with himself (and his own circle/congregation), as true believers:

“…to the gathered out [i.e. chosen/elect] Lady and her offspring, whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all th(ose) having known the truth—through the truth th(at) remains in us, and (which) shall be with us into the Age” (vv. 1-2)

He concludes with a blessing (v. 3) that ends, emphatically, with the expression “…in truth and love”.

This terminology is especially important since, in the author’s view, the opponents do not manifest either truth or love—indeed, they fundamentally violate the duty of the believer, that duty which defines a person as a genuine believer: viz., to remain in the truth (i.e., true faith) and in love.

The Johannine language used by the author existed prior to the conflict with the opponents, and is used to address that conflict; but, in the process, the theological meaning and significance of the language would develop and be further clarified. In the body of 2 John, we are able to see something of this interaction between the Johannine theology and the conflict that surrounded the Johannine opponents.

2 John 4-11

The author’s rhetoric is carefully crafted, built up through several short discourse-units, each of which reflect the Johannine language and style, especially as one sees it expressed in 1 John. He begins by praising the members of the “Lady” congregation, effectively identifying them as true believers:

“I was very glad that I have found your offspring walking about in (the) truth [peripatoúntas en al¢theía], just as we received the (charge) laid on (us) to fulfill, (from) alongside the Father.” (v. 4)

The phrase “offspring walking about in the truth” is Johannine language that clearly identifies people as true believers. The very expression “in the truth” (en al¢theía) serves this purpose—i.e., referring to believers as those who are, and who remain, “in the truth”. At the same time, the use of the verb peripatéœ (“walk about”) reflects a traditional ethical-religious idiom for the regular/habitual behavior of people. The one who “walks about” in the truth, fulfills the Christian identity throughout his/her daily life (see 1 John 1:6-7; 2:6, 11). The substantive use of a participle, to express the essential identity and character of a person—here, for example, one “walking about in the truth” —is typical of Johannine style.

The author of 1 John similarly treats his audience as if they are, effectively, true believers—as opposed to false believers, such as the opponents. This is an important aspect of the author’s rhetoric, both in 1 and 2 John.

Another important Johannine keyword is the noun entol¢¡, which is often translated flatly as “command(ment)”, but which properly refers to a duty placed on (en-) someone which they are obligated to complete (the component –tol¢¡ is related to the noun télos and the verb téllomai, “complete, fulfill”). The true believer fulfills the duty that God has placed on us. The characteristic conduct of “walking in the truth” is defined specifically in terms of fulfilling this duty (entol¢¡) that we have received from God.

In verse 5, the author’s tone shifts from praise to exhortation:

“And now, I would ask (of) you, (dear) Lady, not as a new entol¢¡ being written to you, but (as one) which we hold from (the) beginning: that we would love (each) other.”

The duty required of the (true) believer is to love one another. In the Johannine tradition, this duty (entol¢¡) goes back to the words of Jesus himself (Jn 13:34-35; 15:9-13, 17) and is emphasized extensively throughout 1 John. There are actually two components to the great duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) required of every believer: (i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, following the example of Jesus. The author of 1 John expresses this quite clearly in 3:23-24, and the alternation of themes trust-love-trust-love-trust is an organizing principle for the main body of his treatise (2:18-5:12). Much the same is true, though on a smaller scale, for the author of 2 John. He divides the body of his letter between the themes of love (vv. 4-6) and trust (vv. 7-9ff). The theme of truth covers both components of the entol¢¡, but applies more directly, in 2 John, to the aspect of trust in Jesus.

Next week, as we continue this study, we shall see how the author of 2 John positions the conflict with the opponents in this love-truth / love-trust matrix. This will also allow us to glimpse ways in which such conflicts worked to shape and develop the early Christian theology.

Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-17

Last week, I presented two alternative approaches to solving the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. The term ‘sin problem’, as has been discussed, refers to the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and 3:4-9. In the former passage, it is clear that believer can, and do (at times), commit sin; whereas, in the latter passages, the author boldly states that the true believer does not—and, indeed, can not (“is not able to”)—sin.

I have proposed a pair of solutions—one of which is based on the author’s use of the Johannine key verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), and the other which is based on a dual-layered Johannine understanding of sin (hamartía). As a way of evaluating these proposals, and to give further consideration to the ‘sin problem’, we must turn to the final sin-reference in 1 John.

The final section of the letter is 5:13-20, in which the author sums up his arguments and presents the summary in the context of his causa—that is, his purpose and reason for writing. Verse 13 states this purpose rather clearly:

“I have written these (thing)s to you (so) that you might have seen [i.e. know] that you hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], to (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.”

This differs from the stated purpose of the Gospel (20:31), which was that the readers/hearers would come to trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and thus would have (eternal) life. In 1 John, the author is writing to believers, and so the purpose is that his readers might see/know that they hold this life. The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The author addresses his audience as true believers, in contrast with the “antichrist” opponents whose views he combats throughout (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). And yet, there is the very real possibility that these believers might be “led astray” by the false teaching of the “antichrists”. If the Johannine Christians remain firm in their trust, in accordance with what the author has outlined in his letter, then they can know that they are, indeed, true believers who possess eternal life.

We saw from the context of 3:4-9 that a person’s relationship with sin is a key factor in defining what it means to be a true believer. The author, in this passage, does not use the idiom “true believer”; rather, the true believer (as opposed to the false) is defined by certain substantive verbal nouns (participles):

    • “every (one) remaining in him” (vb ménœ), v. 6
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (vb gennᜠ+ ek), v. 9
      these then relate to:
    • “the (one) doing the right (thing)”, in contrast to “the (one) doing the sin” (vv. 4, 7)

The true believer, thus, is the person who has come to be born of God (as His offspring), and then remains in Him. One remains in God the Father by remaining in the Son; and one remains in the Son by remaining in his word, and in his love.

My two approaches to the ‘sin problem’ can be summarized as follows:

    • Approach 1:
      If the believer remains in the Son (his word and love), then he/she will not (and cannot) sin; only by falling out of the abiding relationship can one commit sin (in the general sense).
    • Approach 2:
      Sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) is understood here in the fundamental (theological) sense of unbelief—particularly, by violating the great two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers (3:23). One may occasionally sin, in the general sense (of ethical-religious failings or wrongdoing), but a true believer cannot sin in this fundamental sense.

As we turn to the final sin-reference in 5:16-18, we see the author does, in fact, distinguish between two kinds of sin: one that is “toward death” (prós thánaton)—that is, which leads to death—and one which does not. The implication is that the believer can, on occasion, commit the kind of sin which does not lead “to death”:

“If any(one) should see his brother sinning a sin not toward death, he shall make request (about it to God), and He will give him life—(that is,) to the (one)s sinning (the sin) not toward death.”

The author continues:

“There is a sin toward death; (but it is) not about that (sin) which I say (that) you should make a request (of God).”

If a fellow believer (“brother”) commits sin, and one becomes aware of it, then one should pray to God on the sinning believer’s behalf; and God will hear this prayer, and will restore the sinning believer to life (“will give him life”). This applies to any sin except the sin that leads “to death”. The point is clarified in verse 17:

“All th(at is) not right [adikía] is sin; and (yet) there is sin (that is) not toward death.”

Sin is here defined as that which is “without right(ness)” (adikía), i.e., “not right”, wrongdoing, etc. Back in 3:4, sin was similarly defined as that which is “without law” (anomía, adj. ánomos), i.e., “lawless, against (God’s) law”. In other words, all wrongdoing and improper conduct is sin, yet there is a kind of sin which leads “to death” that is fundamentally distinct. This sin “to death” is different enough that the author suggests one should not even pray to God about it. This would seem to be best explained on the premise that the person committing the “sin toward death” is not a true believer at all.

Such an explanation would be fully in keeping with the central theme of 1 John—namely, the contrast between the true and false believer. The true believer will not violate the great entol¢¡—of trust and love (3:23)—while the false believer violates both aspects; indeed, the false believer has neither genuine trust in Christ nor possesses the love of Christ.

The false believers which the author has in mind, primarily, throughout his work, are the “antichrist” opponents. These persons, whom the author regards as false prophets of the end-time, espouse a false view of Jesus, and thus do not possess true belief in him as the Son of God. Further, they also violate the second half of the dual-command: the duty to show love to one’s fellow believers. Apparently they demonstrate their lack of love simply by the way that they have separated from the Community (of true believers), 2:19. Possibly, the author’s words regarding the demonstration of love in 3:16-17 are also an indication of ways that (according to him) the opponents violate the command.

In my view, the author’s framing of the matter in 5:16-17, in light of the overarching theme of his letter, means that the “sin toward death” is the sin of the “antichrists”, by which they violate both components of the great command—true faith in Christ and genuine love for others (following Christ’s example). The true believer, on the other hand, will not violate this great command.

If the author’s handling of the ‘sin problem’ here in 5:16-17 provides support for my second proposal, what of the first proposal? Does the author’s teaching here relate to the key idea of the believer remaining in the Son? Verses 16-17 may not be directly on point for this question, but verse 18 that follows does seem to relate:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be born of God keeps watch (over) him, and (so) the Evil (one) does not touch him.”

This verse is clearly parallel with 3:9, and helps to explain it. I will be discussing this further next week, as we begin to bring this series of studies to a close.

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

1 John 3:4-9, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 4-6

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

Statement 1 (verse 4):

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

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

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

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

Statement 2 (verse 5):

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

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

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

Statement 3 (verse 6):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9

1 John 3:4-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Word Became Flesh…”: Supplemental note on Jn 1:14 and 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6

On John 1:14 and 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6

This note is supplemental to Part 3 of the current study article on John 1:14, looking, in particular, at the use of the verb gi/nomai in the statement “the Word became [e)ge/neto] flesh”, within the overall context of the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters). Two references will specifically be examined here: the saying by the Baptist in John 1:15, and the Christological confession in 1 John 4:2 par.

Beginning with the Baptist’s declaration in Jn 1:15 (par 30), it is clear that the verb e&rxomai (“come”) refers to the earthly career and ministry of the incarnate Logos; in English idiom, we might say, “when he came upon the scene”. The phrase is “the (one) coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] in back of me [o)pi/sw mou]”.

Only in terms of his public ministry, can Jesus (as the Logos) be said to come “in back of” (i.e. after, following) John the Baptist. At the time of his first appearance (the baptism), Jesus was virtually unknown, while the Baptist had already been on the scene for some time and had developed a reputation. Conceivably, Jesus may have been (for a time) a disciple of the Baptist; commentators are far from being in agreement on this point, but, if it were historically accurate, then it would provide a clearer meaning for the expression “in back of me” (cp. the use of o)pi/sw in Mk 1:17, 20 par, etc). John 1:15/30 likely represents a Johannine version of an historical tradition, otherwise preserved in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 1:7 par). On the background and Messianic significance of this saying, cf. my earlier note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

But, if e&rxomai in 1:15 refers to Jesus’ public ministry, what of the verb gi/nomai? There would seem to be two possibilities: (a) it refers to the human life of Jesus generally, or (b) it refers specifically to his birth. If we build out the statement in v. 15, it reads:

“the (one) coming in back of me, has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me [e&mprosqe/n mou]”

In what sense has Jesus come to be “in front of” the Baptist? In light of verse 14, the answer can only be: it is because he is the Logos who became a human being. The connection with verse 14 (and the prior vv. 12-13) provides, in my view, conclusive evidence that gi/nomai here refers to primarily (if not exclusively) to Jesus’ birth—that is, the birth of the Logos as a human being.

This brings us to the confessional statement in 1 John 4:2. The author essentially asserts that every true believer will acknowledge and affirm that Jesus Christ has come “in (the) flesh” (e)n sarki/). The actual wording is “Yeshua (the) Anointed having come [e)lhluqo/ta] in (the) flesh”, utilizing the verb e&rxomai (“come”). There is a formal similarity with Jn 1:14, involving the conjunction of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) and sa/rc (“flesh”).

In the Baptist’s declaration of Jn 1:15 (cf. above), the verbs e&rxomai and gi/nomai are connected. As I have interpreted this verse, e&rxomai refers to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (i.e., his “coming” on the scene), while gi/nomai, in light of the prior v. 14 (and vv. 12-13), refers to Jesus’ birth (i.e., the birth of the Logos as a human being). But how does 1 Jn 4:2 (par 2 Jn 7) understand the verb e&rxomai? Elsewhere in 1 John (2:18; 4:3), the verb, used of the figure/spirit of “antichrist”, has the basic meaning of “coming on the scene” here on earth, i.e., being present and active among human beings. This generally parallels the references in Jn 1:7, 11, 27, 29-31, referring to the public appearance (and ministry) of John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively.

On the other hand, Jn 1:9 has the wider revelatory context of the Divine Logos (the Word/Wisdom of God) being manifest in Creation (and on earth). In certain respects, this would parallel the usage in 1 John of “antichrist” as an evil spirit, that is opposed to God (and His Spirit), and gives a false/deceiving revelation. In this regard, the use of the verb e&rxomai is closer in meaning to how gi/nomai is used in the Prologue, since the incarnation of the Logos represents the climactic manifestation of it within Creation. Other references in the Gospel support this cosmic orientation, utilizing e&rxomai to refer to the Son coming to earth from heaven, and then, having completed his mission, going back to his heavenly origin (i.e., coming [back] to the Father)—cf. 3:19, 31; 5:43; 7:28; 8:14, 21f, 42, etc.

We may thus isolate three Christological uses of the verb e&rxomai:

    • A person appearing, coming on the scene, to begin his public ministry/career
    • The coming to earth (from heaven) of a Divine/heavenly being
      to which a third, intermediate usage may be added:
    • The (eschatological) appearance of the Messiah (cf. 1:27; 4:25; 7:31, 41-42, and also my earlier note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

These differing emphases in the Johannine use of e&rxomai are of significance for determining the opponents’ view of Christ, in light of the confessional statements in 1 Jn 4:2 par and 5:6. The two statements are clearly related:

    • “…having come [e)lhluqo/ta] in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/]” (4:2)
    • “…(hav)ing come [e)lqw/n] in the water and the blood” (5:6)

In the latter statement, there are two forms of the phrase in bold: (a) “through [dia/] water and blood”, (b) “in [e)n] the water and in [e)n] the blood”. I have essentially combined these in the quotation above, in order to bring out more clearly the parallel. Given this parallel, almost certainly the phrase “in the water and (in) the blood” is an elucidation of what is meant by “in (the) flesh”. To say that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh” means (according to the author) that he came “in the water” and “in the blood”.

If “in the flesh” refers to Jesus’ life and existence as a human being, then the expressions “in the water” and “in the blood” must relate to this. Most commentators understand “in/through the water” as a reference to the baptism of Jesus, while “in/through the blood” certainly refers to his death. By this interpretation, the two expressions would designate, respectively, the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is also possible that “in the water” refers to the birth of Jesus, given the use of the water-motif in John 3:3-8, in relation to the idea of believers coming to be born as offspring of God (an idea very prevalent in 1 John). The pair of expressions, then, would designate the beginning and end of Jesus’ human life—that is, the boundaries and the span of it.

The author’s argument in 5:6, as it is worded, suggests that the opponents accepted that Jesus came “in/through the water”, but not “in/through the blood”. This would mean that they accepted the reality and/or significance of either—his human birth, or his baptism. If it is the latter, then this would strengthen the hypothesis that the opponents held an early “separationist” view of Jesus, akin to that which is attributed to Cerinthus (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.1). In a “separationist” Christology, it is held that the Divine Christ (= Son) came upon the man Jesus during the baptism, the two joining, only to separate again at the moment of Jesus’ death. A simpler version, drawn from the Johannine Gospel narrative, would affirm that the Spirit descended upon Jesus at the baptism, and then departed from him at his death (19:30). The opponents would have affirmed the importance of the baptism, since that was when Jesus received the Spirit, but not his death (since that is when the Spirit departed).

If “in/through the water” refers to the birth of Jesus, then the opponents would have affirmed the reality of Jesus human life, and its importance. What they denied was the death of the Son (Jesus). If their main objection was to the idea that the incarnate Son/Logos could die, then they would have something in common with those who held an early docetic view of Christ (such as that of the opponents combated by Ignatius of Antioch in his letters). Alternately, they may have denied the importance or significance of Jesus’ death.

Commentators remain divided on the precise nature of the opponents’ Christology; I have discussed the matter in more historical and exegetical detail in earlier notes and studies.