Saturday Series: John 8:21-30

John 8:21-40ff

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

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

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

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

John 8:21-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All four of these theological elements occur in verse 23:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit in the Qumran Texts: 1QH 5:30-40

1QH 5, continued

(Unless otherwise noted, the translations of 1QH are my own.)

In lines 24-30 of the Column V hymn, discussed in the previous note, the author describes the role that the principal spirits of holiness, wisdom, etc, played in the Creation, having themselves been established by God before anything else in the universe had been created (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31). These spirits, reflecting the fundamental attributes of God, thus have knowledge of the deepest plans and “mysteries” of God. This is to be compared with the situation of human beings, who are unable to possess true wisdom or understanding unless God Himself, through His spirits, enables the person. Without this ‘special revelation’, human beings simply cannot obtain to the Divine wisdom. The author expresses this, quite clearly, with his rhetorical question in lines 30-31:

“[But how i]s a spirit of flesh (able) to gain understanding of all these (thing)s, and to have discernment of[…] great […]?”

As in 4:37 and 5:15 (possibly also in line 14), the distinctive expression “spirit of flesh” (rc*b* j^Wr) is used, in reference to the nature of a human being. It refers to the created/limited character of this nature, but also to the corruption of it, so that a person is, by nature, influenced and dominated by sin and by evil/harmful spirits. Here, the principal point of reference is to the human being as a created being, with the weaknesses and limitations that this implies:

“And what (is one) born of a woman among all your [gre]at (and) fearsome (work)s?” (line 31b)

The expression “born of a woman” is clearly parallel with “spirit of flesh”. Yet, as the following lines indicate, this created nature is also corrupt, having been perverted and dominated by sin:

“Indeed, he (is but) built of dust and kneaded (with) water. G[uilt and s]in (are) his foundation, (the) nakedness of shame and a so[urce of im]purity; and a spirit of crookedness rules over him.” (ll. 31-33)

The existence of a human being is established (lit. founded, vb ds^y`) on guilt (hm*v=a*) and sin (ha*F*j^), implying that a person is trapped in an existence dominated and influenced by sin from birth. The expression “nakedness of shame/disgrace” probably alludes to the tradition in Gen 2:25; 3:7, 10-11. This natural inclination to sin is further described as a “source of impurity”.

Beyond this, the author/protagonist recognizes that there is also a “spirit” that rules (vb lv^m*) over the human being. This is described specifically as “a spirit of crookedness” (hw@u&n~ j^Wr). The noun hw@u&n~ is verbal, being a participle from the root hwu (I), “bend, twist”; thus hw@u&n~ indicates the action of this spirit—twisting, bending, i.e., perverting, in a negative ethical-religious sense. As discussed in a prior note, lines 12-20 of the Column IV hymn refer to the harmful actions of various “spirits” on human beings. Humans are largely helpless against this influence, unless it is counteracted by other good spirits specifically given by to the individual by God (lines 29ff). Much the same idea is expressed here: the perverting spirit is counteracted by the holy/righteous spirit that God gives to His chosen ones (such as the hymnist/protagonist):

“Only by your goodness can a man be righteous, and by (the) abundance of [your] compas[sion…].
And I, your servant, have knowledge by (the) spirit that you gave [i.e. placed] in me […] and all of your works are righteous” (lines 33b-34a, 35b-36)

The emphasis on the action/effect of this God-given spirit is knowledge (i.e. wisdom and understanding). The protagonist is able to understand the nature of these spirits, and their dynamic (interaction with human beings, etc) in the context of the eternal plans and mysteries of God (see the fragmentary lines 37-40). He says nothing here directly about the cleansing/purifying effect of the spirit, though this is implied in lines 33-34ff. However, in column VI, there is at least one reference to the “spirit of (God’s) holiness” —the principal spirit given to the chosen ones. Indeed, there are parallel references in column VI to the “spirit of holiness” (line 24) and the “spirit of knowledge” (line 36), indicating the important relationship between righteousness/purity and wisdom. This will be discussed further in the next note.

Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

Saturday Series: John 1:29

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

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

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

John 1:29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 10: 1 John 5:16-19 (5)

1 John 5:18

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin…” (v. 18a)

This statement in v. 18a is virtually identical with the earlier declaration in 3:9a:

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

In 5:18, the verb a(marta/nw (“err, [commit] sin”) is used, while 3:9 has the idiom “do [vb poie/w] sin [a(marti/a]”; otherwise, the statements are identical. However, the verb a(marta/nw is also used in 3:9, to form a similar (but even bolder) statement to what we find in 5:18: “…and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God” (3:9b).

To begin with, the use of the verb of becoming (genna/w), in the specific sense of coming to be born, along with the preposition e)k (lit. “out of,” i.e., “from”), is part of a distinctive Johannine manner of (theological) expression. It is an idiom for defining the nature and character of the true believer in Christ—as one who is born of God, being thus the offspring (te/kna) of God. In a number of such instances in 1 John, where the verb genna/w + e)k occurs, the idiom entails use of a verbal noun (participle) in the perfect tense. The believer is thus “(one) having come to be (born) [gegennhme/no$] out of [e)k] God”, as in 3:9; 5:1, 4, 18; cf. also 2:29; 4:7. For similar language in the Gospel, cf. 1:13; 3:3-8, and also 8:41; in 18:37, it is used of Jesus, in reference to his birth as a human being.

Thus, the phrase “every one having come to be born out of God” essentially means “every true believer”. The message here in 5:18a, as in 3:9a (cf. above), is that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. This would seem to be in blatant contradiction with the author’s teaching in 1:7-2:2, and also here in 5:16f, where he makes clear that believers, do, in fact, occasionally commit sin; cf. the discussion in the previous note.

The apparent contradiction between 1:7-2:2 and 3:9ff has garnered the most attention; however, the contradiction is perhaps even more blatant here in 5:16-18, where, in the space of just three verses, the author seems to state that believers both do and do not sin. I discuss this longstanding interpretive difficulty in a separate article. Here, I will proceed from the basis of my proposed solution, whereby it is recognized that the author understands the concept of sin—and, correspondingly, uses the noun a(marti/a and verb a(marta/nw—in two different ways, with two different levels of meaning.

This line of interpretation is, in my view, confirmed by the very passage under examination here (5:16-19), as the author clearly does recognize two different kinds of sin—one that is “toward death” and “not toward death”, respectively. The believer can be forgiven of the latter, but the implication seems to be that the former cannot be forgiven. The sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/nato$) results in eternal death (from God in the Judgment), and thus cannot be (and is not) forgiven.

What is this great sin? Based on the central sin-section in 1 John—and, indeed, the central section of the entire work—2:28-3:24, it can only be a violation of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of every believer. This duty is stated clearly at the climax of the section (3:23): trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus Christ (as the Son of God) and love (a)ga/ph) for one’s fellow believers (according to Jesus’ own example). In 2:28-3:24, sin is defined primarily in terms of violating the love-component—i.e., a failure to show love to other believers (3:10-18). Much the same is found in the second section emphasizing the love-component (4:7-5:4, esp. 4:7-12, 20-21). Interwoven around these two love-sections are three sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) which emphasize the trust-component, where the implication that sin is defined by a failure to trust in Jesus.

In the final Paraclete-saying in the Last Discourse (Jn 16:7b-11ff), the true nature of sin is quite clearly defined in terms of trust/faith in Jesus (cf. also 8:24; 15:22-24. It is said that the Spirit will show the world to be wrong [vb e)le/gxw] about sin (vv. 8-9):

“…about sin, (in) that they do not trust in me” (v. 9)

In other words, unbelief, the failure (and/or unwillingness) to trust in Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God, 11:27; 20:31), is the great sin—and it leads to the eternal death of unbelievers (and false believers) in the Judgment. The death and exaltation of Jesus brought about the Judgment of the world (Jn 3:19; 12:31); in this sense, the world has already been judged (16:11), and the judgment is based upon whether or not a person has genuine trust in Jesus Christ (5:24 [cp. 1 Jn 3:14]; 12:47).

On this basis, the distinction between the two kinds of sin here in vv. 16-17 can be explained as follows:

    • “sin (that is) not toward death” —any specific instance of sin, understood in the general sense as a)diki/a (“lack of what is right, what is not right”), such as even believers may occasionally commit; such sin can be forgiven (1:7, 9; 2:1-2), whereby the eternal life that is possessed by the believer is preserved and/or restored (“and He will give him life”).
    • “sin (that is) toward death” —this is the great sin that no true believer can commit, namely violation of the dual e)ntolh/ (3:23): genuine trust in Jesus Christ and Christ-like love shown to one’s fellow believers. Any Christian who sins in this way (by not trusting and/or loving) is a false believer, and the sin, which can/will not be forgiven, leads to eternal death (in the Judgment), the same fate of all unbelievers and wicked persons.

With this line of interpretation in view, let us continue with our exegesis of verse 18, in the next daily note.

Sin and the Believer: The Apparent Contradictions in 1 John

A longstanding difficulty of interpretation within 1 John centers around the author’s seemingly contradictory statements, in which he says that believers both do (and can) and do not (and cannot) sin. This refers primarily to the bold declarations in 3:9 and 5:18:

    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin…and is not able to sin” (3:9)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin” (5:18)

The phrase “every one having come to be born out of God” essentially means “every true believer”. Thus, the message in these verses is that the true believer does not (and cannot) sin. This would seem to be in blatant contradiction with the author’s teaching in 1:7-2:2, and also in 5:16f, where he makes clear that believers, do, in fact, occasionally commit sin.

The apparent contradiction between 1:7-2:2 and 3:9ff has garnered the most attention; however, the contradiction is perhaps even more blatant in 5:16-18, where, in the space of just three verses, the author seems to state that believers both do and do not sin.

One popular way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to contrast occasional sins with a regular/habitual pattern of sinful behavior. The explanation, in large part, hinges on the author’s use of the perfect tense (“have sinned”) in 1:10, and the present tense (“does sin”) in 3:9. Some English versions (such as the ESV) actually build this line of interpretation into their translation. However, on closer examination, this explanation is quite unconvincing. For example, it ignores the fact that the present tense is used in 1:8 (“has/holds sin”), as well as here in 5:16 (present participle, “sinning”). In any case, the question of habitual sinning does not seem relevant to the context of 5:16-19, where the emphasis is clearly on two different kinds (or categories) of sin (cf. below).

More common among modern-day commentators is the thought that the author’s seemingly absolute statements in 3:9 and 5:18—i.e., “the one born of God does not sin” —actually reflect the ideal for believers in Christ, and are intended as a mode of exhortation. In other words, the declaration that the believer does not sin really means that he/she should not sin. A more nuanced explanation, along these same lines, is that, for the author, believers possess the capability of avoiding all sin, with the possibility of actually doing so. The author’s eschatological outlook may also play a part in his view of sin—envisioning a time, soon to be (2:18), when the ideal of sinlessness for believers will be realized.

While these may seem like sensible ways of harmonizing the statements in 1 John, for the most part they do not reflect the actual thought-patterns of the author. I have proposed a pair of alternative solutions which, in my view, are more in keeping with the Johannine thought-world, mode of expression, and theological idiom. I will discuss briefly each of them below.

1. The me/nw solution

This first proposed solution, mentioned in a prior note, involves the specific idea of the believer abiding in God (and God in the believer), utilizing the verb me/nw (“remain”) in its distinctive Johannine theological sense; the verb occurs 24 times in 1 John, in 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 19, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16. As long as the believer “remains” in God, he/she is unable to sin; only when, through neglect, one falls out of a state of abiding (“remaining”) in God, does one become prone to committing sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”). Through confession and forgiveness, the condition of abiding in God (and God in the believer) is restored, and the believer once again “remains” in God.

The author’s use of the verb me/nw provides some confirmation for this line of interpretation. His exhortation to his readers (whom he otherwise seems to treat as true believers) to remain in God indicates that it is possible for believers not to remain. Consider the author’s instruction in 2:24ff and 28:

“That which you (have) heard from (the) beginning must remain [mene/tw] in you; if that which you heard from (the) beginning should remain [mei/nh|] in you, (then) you also shall remain [menei=te] in the Son and in the Father.” (v. 24)
“…as His anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not false, and even as it (has) taught you, (so) you remain [me/nete] in Him” (v. 27)
“And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain [me/nete] in him…” (v. 28)

The use of the imperative (the form in v. 27 could be read either as indicative or imperative), along with the aorist subjunctive, reflects the author’s sense of the necessity (and urgency) for believers to “remain” in God (and in the truth). There would be no need for such an exhortation if it were not possible for a believer to cease (even temporarily) from “remaining” in God. Note also the conditional language in 2:6, 17; 3:24, etc. Most clear is the author’s statement in 3:6

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

with its clear implication that not sinning depends on remaining in God. The formal similarity (and syntagmatic parallel) between 3:6a and 3:9a suggests that there is a definite relationship between the two statements. This could be interpreted as complementary, indicating two distinct aspects that must exist, in tandem, in order to assure sinlessness for the believer; these may be combined as follows:

“Every one who has been born of God and who remains in Him does not sin.”

A serious objection to this interpretive approach comes via the Vine-illustration by Jesus in the Johannine Last Discourse (15:1-11), in which the verb me/nw occurs 10 times. There is an urgent sense of exhortation (and warning) in the illustration, similar to what we find with the use of me/nw in the aforementioned passages of 1 John (cf. above). However, the implication in verse 6, in particular, is that any “branch” (i.e., individual disciple/believer) who ceases to remain in the Vine, will perish (with eternal death in the Judgment being implied). Does the author of 1 John share this view, as he applies the me/nw-idiom in his own exhortation? What happens to the Christian who fails or ceases, even temporarily, to “remain” in God?

According to my proposed solution, the bond of union with God the Father (through the Son, and by the presence of the Spirit) can be restored. Upon confession and forgiveness (1:7ff), eternal life is fully restored to the believer (5:16, “and He will give life to him”), and he/she once again abides (“remains”) in God. However, as noted above, the use of me/nw in the Vine-illustration tends to argue against this line of interpretation.

2. A Dual-Significance of “Sin” (a(marti/a / a(marta/nw)

My second (alternate) proposed solution builds upon the clear context of the author’s sin-references—especially in the central section (2:28-3:24), but also in the final passage (5:13-20) that deals specifically with the distinction between two kinds of sin. This proposal is rooted in the premise that the author of 1 John, in relation to the Johannine understanding of sin as attested in the Gospel, assumes a dual-significance for the sin-concept expressed by both the noun a(marti/a and verb a(marta/nw. There are two distinct senses or levels of meaning involved:

    • Sin in the general sense, defined as a)diki/a (“without rightness,” i.e., that which is not right); all sin qualifies as a)diki/a (1:9; 5:17), and believers can (and do) occasionally commit particular sins (1:9)
    • Sin in the specific sense of the great sin that violates the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) required of every believer (3:23); true believers cannot (and will not) commit this sin.

In favor of this line of interpretation, I would note the clear context of the central section (2:28-3:24), in which sin is defined primarily in terms of violating the love-component of the dual command. The statement in 3:9, regarding the sinlessness (“not able to sin”) of the believer, must be understood in this light.

Also in favor of my proposal is the context of the sin-references in 5:16-19, where the statement regarding the believer’s sinlessness (v. 18) must be understood in relation to vv. 16-17 and the distinction between the sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and the sin that is “not toward death”. In v. 16, it is quite clear that believers can commit a sin that is “not toward death”, and that it can be forgiven, with the result that God will “give” (preserve and/or restore) life for the believer.

But what of the sin that is “toward death”? I have discussed this issue at length in the recent notes on 5:16-19. However, it is worth addressing it again briefly here.

On the sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton)

The author’s distinction between two kinds (or categories) of sin has long puzzled and provoked commentators. Generally, it has been accepted that the author does have in mind two different kinds of sin; for other ways of understanding the matter, cf. the discussion in Brown, pp. 613-18.

But what is the difference between these two kinds, and how are they to be defined? Perhaps the most common explanation draws upon the later distinction (in Catholic tradition) between a mortal and a venial sin. Usually this is defined in terms of traditional religious-ethical instruction; that is to say, some sins are so serious, and such blatant violations of religious and moral norms, that they cannot be forgiven and result in eternal death to the sinner.

From an early Christian (and New Testament) standpoint, the Pauline vice lists provide us with examples of such serious and gross sins. Included with the lists in 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 is the notice that people who do such things “shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. The implication is that no true believer would ever commit such sins.

I am quite confident that the author of 1 John (and his readers) would have shared (with Paul) the same basic assumption; a certain level of upright conduct was simply expected and assumed for believers in Christ (cf. 2:6, 15-16; 5:21). However, I do not think that such conventional religious-ethical instruction is the author’s focus in 5:16-19.

Closer to the mark, I would say, is the famous tradition of Jesus’ saying regarding the ‘blasphemy’ (lit. insult) against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28-29; par Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10). Jesus distinguishes this sin from all others—only the sin of giving insult to God’s holy Spirit can never be forgiven. The Synoptic context of this saying (cf. my earlier study on the tradition) relates to hostile opponents of Jesus, who attributed his miracle-working power to the influence of lesser/evil daimon-spirits rather than the Spirit of God (cf. Mk 3:22, 30). By so doing, they effectively blasphemed God and insulted His Spirit. In some ways, the opponents in 1 John were guilty of doing the same thing—i.e., speaking falsely about Jesus and misrepresenting the Spirit; for this reason the author refers to them as “antichrist” (2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7).

As I have discussed previously, the main body of 1 John is divided into sections which alternate thematically between the two components of the great dual-command, the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) required of all believers (3:23): trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus Christ (as the Son of God), and love (a)ga/ph) for one’s fellow believers (according to Jesus’ own example). In my view, the great (and unforgivable) sin, according to the author of 1 John, is the violation of this dual-command. The opponents violate both components, and thus are shown to be false believers. In the trust-sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12), sin is defined primarily in terms of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus (just as it is in Jn 16:9); in the love-sections (2:28-3:24; 4:7-5:4), sin is correspondingly defined in terms of failing (or being unwilling) to show love.

The sin that is “toward death” is best understood according to this line of interpretation, which reflects both the Johannine theology and the distinctive approach of the author of 1 John (in combating his opponents). His entire rhetorical strategy and purpose in writing is, in my view, governed by the conflict (within the Johannine congregations) centered around the “antichrist” opponents. The sin that violates the great command—true faith in Jesus Christ, and love for other believers—is the only sin that cannot be forgiven and which leads to eternal death. No true believer can or will ever commit this sin.

What of a Christian who commits the “sin (that is) toward death”? Most likely, the author would claim that such a person never was a true believer, never belonged to the Community of believers; it is just as he says of the opponents—their departure out of the Community proves that “they were not of [i.e. belonging to] us” (2:19). They belong to the evil of the world, while we, the true believers, belong to God (5:19, etc). This approach by the author is fully in keeping with his primary theme—viz., the contrast between the true and false believer in Christ.

*    *    *    *    *

It may be possible to give a more nuanced appraisal of the author’s understanding of sin, by his specific use of the noun a(marti/a and verb a(marta/nw. Based on earlier analysis of the sin-passages in 1 John, compared with the word-usage in the Johannine Gospel, I have proposed a possible delineation of  four levels of meaning to a(marti/a and the concept of sin:

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

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

July 8: 1 John 5:16-19 (4)

1 John 5:16-17, continued

In our examination of verses 16-17 (cf. the previous note), there are two areas that remain to be discussed. The first involves the author’s apparent instruction to his readers that they need not pray for a Christian who commits the sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton). The second focuses on the formulation in v. 17, repeating the author’s distinction between the two kinds of sin—i.e., that which is “toward death” and “not toward death,” respectively.

On the first point, the author phrases his instruction as follows:

“There is a sin (that is) toward death, (and) not about that do I say that you should make a request (to God).” (v. 16b)

In other words, his teaching regarding prayer to God on behalf of sinning believers does not relate to the sin that is “toward death”; he is not talking about that (“not about that,” ou) peri\ e)kei/nh$). The implication is that his readers are not to pray for those committing the “sin that is toward death”. Why should this be? There are two main explanations.

One explanation is that, since the sin leads to death (i.e., eternal death), it cannot be forgiven. Thus, there is no point in believers praying for its forgiveness. In this respect, it would be very much like the situation described in the tradition of Jesus’ famous saying regarding the ‘blasphemy’ (lit. insult) against the Holy Spirit. There are at least two versions of this tradition; I quote here the Synoptic/Markan version:

“…all (thing)s shall be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men, the sins and the insults, by which ever they might give insult, but whoever should give insult to the holy Spirit, he does not hold release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal sin].” (Mark 3:28-29)

A second possibility is that the person who commits the sin “toward death” is shown not to be a true believer, but, rather, is a false believer; thus, one is not expected to pray for such a person as a “brother” (i.e., a fellow believer).

Both of these explanations would seem to be valid, but the second is more in keeping with the thought and thematic emphasis of the author. A central theme running throughout 1 John is the contrast between the true and false believer. The author, as a vital part of his rhetorical strategy, treats his readers as if they are, indeed, true believers. He includes himself, along with them, as belonging to the Community of true believers. The opponents, against whose Christological position the author is staunchly opposed (cf. the recent notes and studies on 2:18-27, 4:1-6, and 5:5-12), are false believers, taught and led by the evil “antichrist” spirit of the world, rather than the holy Spirit of God.

It would thus be fully in keeping with the author’s message if the person (an apparent believer) committing the “sin toward death” were understood to be a false believer, perhaps even to be identified with the “antichrist” opponents themselves. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

The sin-distinction the author makes in v. 16b (cf. above) is repeated, in the form of a more general principle, in v. 17:

“Every a)diki/a is sin, and (yet) there is a sin (that is) not toward death.”

Sin, generally, is characterized as a)diki/a, a feminine noun from a&diko$, meaning that which is “without (a)) rightness (dikh/)”, or “without justice”, i.e., something improper or unjust; the noun is typically translated as “injustice”. Thus sin, in its general sense, is defined as “everything that is not right”. The idea of a violation of law, or of a legal, social or ethical-religious standard, is usually implied.

The noun a)diki/a occurs 25 times in the New Testament, but only twice elsewhere in the Johannine writings. It is used in the Sukkot-Discourse complex (chaps. 7-8), by Jesus in the opening discourse-section (7:15-24), where the context involves the idea that Jesus’ teaching comes from God the Father, and is not his own (human) teaching. In this section, Jesus defines the truth of his teaching in traditional religious terms, relating it to the fulfillment of the Torah regulations:

“The (one) speaking from himself seeks his own honor; but the (one) seeking the honor of the (one hav)ing sent him, that (person) is true, and there is no lack of what is right [a)diki/a] in him. Did not Moshe give you the law? And (yet) not one of you does the law…” (7:18-19)

The noun a)diki/a, denoting a lack of what is right (dikh/), is understood as a lack of truth as well as a failure to fulfill the terms of God’s covenant with His people (i.e., the “law”). In this regard, a)diki/a is closely related (conceptually) to a)nomi/a (“lack of law, lawlessness”).

The other occurrence of a)diki/a in 1 John comes in the opening section (following the prologue), 1:5-2:2, the first of the three sections dealing with the subject of sin. It is thus immediately relevant to our passage here. In 1:8, we find the first of a pair of statements in which the author refutes (forcefully) the idea that believers are completely without sin:

    • “If we would say that we do not hold (any) sin, we lead ourselves astray and the truth is not in us.” (1:8)
    • “If we would say that we have not sinned, we make Him [i.e. God] to be false and His word is not in us.” (1:10)

There is a similar parallel in 1:9 and 2:1-2, explaining how, through the sacrificial death of Jesus (1:7), realized through Christ as our intermediary, and communicated through the Spirit, we (as believers) can be forgiven of our sin. The formulation in 1:9 is as clear as it is classic:

“If we would give account as one [i.e. give acknowledgement] (of) our sins, He is trustworthy and right(eous) [di/kaio$], (so) that He should release [i.e. forgive] for us the sins and cleanse us from all lack of what is right [a)dikia].”

I have translated a)diki/a above in an extreme literal fashion; most translations render it as “injustice” or “unrighteousness”. However, preserving the sense of the privative a)– prefix is significant; it helps to understand the concept of sin, not simply as an act of violation or transgression, but qualitatively, as a lack of what is right.

In any case, it is clear from 1:8-9, that: (a) believers do, at times, sin, and (b) that they/we can be forgiven of all such sin—where sin, generally speaking, is defined as a)diki/a, a lack of what is right. This the author’s same message in here in 5:16-17. Again, sin (in its general sense) is defined by the term a)diki/a (v. 17), and such sin committed by a believer can be forgiven (v. 16). That is, as long as the sin involved is not the “sin that is toward death” —the implication being that the “sin that is toward death” cannot be forgiven.

In the next daily note, we will give further consideration to this sin-distinction, as we look at verse 18, and its apparent contradiction, regarding the relation of the believer to sin, with verse 16.

July 7: 1 John 5:16-19 (3)

1 John 5:16-17, continued

The author’s instruction in vv. 16-17 (cf. the previous note) would make more sense if “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) referred to ordinary physical life and death, respectively. The implication then would be that the sinning believer might well come to be chastised by God, possibly punished with illness—but not so far as to result in death. The context of the expression “not toward death” would then be comparable to Jesus’ statement (at least on the surface) regarding Lazarus’ illness, in Jn 11:4 (“this weakness [i.e. sickness] is not toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]”); cf. also James 5:14-16 for the idea of a sinning Christian being delivered from sickness through the prayer of other believers.

However, in the Johannine writings, the noun zwh/ (“life”) virtually always refers to the Divine/eternal life, possessed by God, which is given to believers in Christ. In a number of passages (cf. Jn 5:24; 8:51-52; 1 Jn 3:14), qa/nato$ (“death”) has a comparable meaning—viz., the eternal death that comes to the wicked (unbelievers) in the Judgment. As I mentioned previously, the immediate context of vv. 11-13, referring to eternal life, strongly suggests that “life” and “death”, respectively, in vv. 16-17 should be understood in a similar light.

But, if so, what does it mean for God to “give life” to the sinning believer (“and He will give life to him”)? Do not believers already possess eternal life, through the Spirit, in union with the Son (Jesus) and God the Father? There are several ways that the phrase can be explained.

The first option is to understanding giving eternal life here in terms of preserving it. Through forgiveness of sin, and the communication of the cleansing (and life-giving) power of Jesus’ death (“blood,” cf. 1:7ff; Jn 6:51-58), the believer is protected from the loss of life that would otherwise result from sin. The idea expressed by the author in v. 18 (to be discussed) tends to confirm this line of interpretation.

A second explanation is that God restores life to the sinning believer. According to this interpretation, there is a genuine (but temporary) loss of life when a believer sins. However, the sin does not lead to ultimate (eternal) death (“not toward death”); rather, through forgiveness and the cleansing power of Jesus’ “blood” (1:7), communicated by the Spirit, the believer is restored to the fullness of life. For more on this line of interpretation, cf. the discussion at the end of this note.

A third option, which may be viewed as a variation of the first option (above), holds that forgiveness of sin is a component of the (eternal) life that God gives to the believer. That is, the regular process of confession and forgiveness is part of the dynamic of God giving life to the believer. In other words, the gift of life is not a one-time event, occurring only at the point when the believer comes to trust in Jesus; rather, it represents an ongoing process, just as biological life is given continually to a human being.

There is merit to each of these lines of interpretation, with sound arguments to be made on behalf of each. Let us see if, through a continuation of our study on vv. 16-19, it is possible to narrow the choice.

There are two main aspects of vv. 16-17 which still need to be discussed; this will be done in the next daily note.

*     *     *     *     *

The apparent contradiction in the author’s statements (here, in vv. 16a and 18), to the effect that believers both do and do not sin, have confounded commentators for centuries. One alternative solution that I have proposed involves the specific idea of the believer abiding in God (and God in the believer), utilizing the verb me/nw (“remain”) in its distinctive Johannine theological sense; the verb occurs 24 times in 1 John, in 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 19, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16.

The proposed solution is as follows: As long as the believer “remains” in God, he/she is unable to sin; only when, through neglect, one falls out of a state of abiding (“remaining”) in God, does one become prone to committing sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”). Through confession and forgiveness, the condition of abiding in God (and God in the believer) is restored, and the believer once again “remains” in God.

I find this to be an attractive solution, and one that is fully rooted in the Johannine theological idiom. However, it is not without several serious problems; these will be discussed in the upcoming notes, as we consider the best way to resolve the apparent contradiction in the author’s statements regarding sin and the believer.

July 6: 1 John 5:16-19 (2)

1 John 5:16-17

Having examined 5:16-19 in its immediate and broader context within 1 John (cf. the previous note), I will now turn to discuss verses 16-17 in detail.

“If any(one) should see his brother sinning (the) sin (that is) not toward death, he shall ask and (then God) will give life to him, to (the one)s sinning not toward death. There is a sin (that is) toward death, (and) I do not say that you should make a request about that.” (v. 16)

Three times in this verse (and again in v. 17), the author uses the expression “sin (that is) toward death [pro\$ qa/naton].” He apparently distinguishes between such sin and all other sin. He specifically instructs his readers that they should not pray to God on behalf of someone who is sinning the sin that is “toward death”. The author clearly has something quite distinctive in mind by this expression, but its meaning is largely lost for readers today. This has led to considerable discussion and speculation among commentators and theologians.

It is best to begin with the immediate context (vv. 14-15), which relates to the idea of believers praying to God, making requests (vbs ai)te/w and e)rwta/w in v. 16) on behalf of other believers, other members of the Community. The situation involves a believer doing something that can be seen (i.e., observed) and recognized (as sin) by another believer. This does not include ‘hidden’ sins of the heart—impure thoughts and desires—but only actions which can be observed (including things that are heard, with speech understood as an act). Members of the Community thus should pray for such believers, asking that God will lead them to repentance and forgive their sin (cf. 1:7-2:2, 12).

But what of the specific expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton)? I believe that this is best explained as traditional language that has been adapted to a Christian (and Johannine) context. It is probably derived, primarily, from the ancient Torah regulations, within which we find the principle distinguishing between unintentional and deliberate sin—see esp. the instruction in Leviticus 4  and Numbers 15:22-31. The guilt and impurity from unintentional sins can be removed through the sacrificial ritual; however, in the case of willful and deliberate sins, the ritual does not apply, and the sinner shall be “cut off” from his people (Num 15:30-31, etc).

The use of the verb tr^K* (“cut [off]”) in these regulations has been variously explained, either as either banishment or death (whether by the hand of the Community or Divine intervention). Cf. the discussion by J. Milgrom in Excursus 36 (pp. 405-8) of his JPS Torah Commentary (on Numbers). The Community of the Qumran texts applied this same principle: those guilty of deliberate sin were banished from the Community (cf. 1QS 8:21-9:2). In Jubilees 21:22 the specific expression “sin unto death” is used, in reference to an Israelite who followed the sinful (and idolatrous) ways of the surrounding peoples, with the ultimate result that the sinner’s “name and seed” would perish from the earth. Cf. Brown, p. 617.

It is unlikely, however, that physical death is primarily in view here. Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, the noun qa/nato$ (“death”) tends to connote the eternal death that comes to a person in the Judgment, to be contrasted with the eternal life (zwh/) that comes to the believer in Christ (who passes safely through the Judgment)—Jn 5:24; 8:51-52; 1 Jn 3:14; this is the implication even in Jn 5:24 and 11:4ff, where physical death is the primary point of reference. Indeed, the specific reference to eternal life in the preceding vv. 11-13, suggests strongly that, similarly, eternal death (in the Judgment) is intended here in vv. 16ff. This is most important for an understanding of what the author means by the expression “sin (that is) toward death” —it is sin that leads toward (and results in) eternal death from God’s (final) Judgment.

In this regard, the use of the word zwh/, here in the context of v. 16, is significant. The particular statement is (literally): “he shall ask, and he will give life to him”. The ambiguity of pronoun and verbal subject is rather typical of Johannine style, but it can make interpretation of the author’s statements difficult at times. The best explanation is that three different persons are involved:

he [i.e. the one praying] shall ask, and He [i.e. God] will give life to him [i.e. the one sinning]”

But what does it mean for God to give life to the sinning believer, when the noun “life” (zwh/) virtually always means Divine/eternal life in the Johannine writings? Does not the true believer already possess eternal life (vv. 11-12, 13)? This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 (1982).
Those marked “Milgrom” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).