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

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The Book of Revelation

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

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

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spirit” and “Life”

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

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

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This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

  • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
  • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
  • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.

Special Article on the Letters of John

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Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series, touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

  • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
  • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
  • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

  • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
  • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
  • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
  • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

  • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
  • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
  • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
  • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

  • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
  • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
  • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
  • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
  • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.

Note of the Day – July 10 (1 John 5:20)

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1 John 5:20

This is the last note in this series dealing with First John. It treats what may be regarded as the final word of the letter (verse 21 functioning as a coda), though the declaration in 5:20 is actually part of a sequence of three statements, each beginning with the expression oi&damen o%ti (“we have seen that…”), and each dealing with the idea of being born of God:

  • V. 18: “We have seen [oi&damen] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God…”
  • V. 19: “We have seen [oi&damen] that we are out of God…”
  • V. 20: “And we have seen [oi&damen] that the Son of God reached (us)…”

The verb ei&dw means both “see” and “know” (i.e. perceive, recognize), and is interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”); especially in the Johannine writings there is a close (theological) relationship between “seeing” and “knowing”. The way the verb is used here in vv. 18-20, it has two levels of meaning:

  1. What believers have known and recognized from the beginning (1:1ff), ever since they first heard the Gospel message of Jesus, and experienced his presence through the Spirit.
  2. What the author has established for his audience throughout the letter.

The rhetorical thrust (“we have seen…”) essentially includes the readers into the author’s own sphere—the implication being that they will certainly agree with him and confirm, in their own hearts and minds, the truth of what he has said to them in the letter.

I have discussed verse 18 extensively in the three previous notes (July 5, 8, and 9). It uses the expression genna/w (“come to be [born]”) + e)k [tou=] qeou= (“out of [i.e. from] God”)—an expression which was used repeatedly in both the Johannine Gospel and First Letter (Jn 1:13 [also 3:3-8]; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). The verb genna/w, used in this symbolic sense of a (spiritual) “birth” from God, always applies to believers; it is thus worth revisiting briefly the text-critical question surrounding the second occurrence of the verb in v. 18. The phrase involved is:

a)ll’ o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It is also possible to read the last word as au(to/n or e(auto/n (as in some MSS), in which case the subject of the phrase is definitely the believer:

“but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

In other manuscripts, the reading is not a verbal participle (gennhqei/$), but the related noun ge/nnhsi$ (“[a] coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”), which would mean that it is the spiritual “birth” from God itself which protects the believer. This reading, while making good sense, is almost certainly not original, but was likely introduced as a way of explaining the text. In my view, contrary to a number of commentators, the expression o( gennhqei/$ most probably refers to Jesus. The Johannine fondness for wordplay and dual-meaning makes this all the more likely. It may also relate to the idea expressed in 3:9, which is otherwise very close in form and thought to 5:18, where it is stated that “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains/abides in him [i.e. the believer]”. The “seed” (spe/rma) is best understood as the living and abiding presence of Jesus (God’s Son), through the Spirit. This would seem to be confirmed again by what follows here in verse 20. A thematic outline may help establish the connection:

  • Verse 18—The relation of the believer (the one born of God) to Jesus (the one born of God); this relationship (and identity) protects and preserves the believer from sin.
  • Verse 19—The contrast between this identity of the believer (born of God) and “the world” which is dominated by sin and evil—i.e., what we are, and what we are not.
  • Verse 20—The nature of this identity of the believer, and our relationship to Jesus (as the Son of God).

Let us examine verse 20 more closely:

“And we have seen that the Son of God reached (us) and has given to us a thorough mind [dia/noia], (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (indeed) we are in the (One who is) true—in His Son, Yeshua (the) Anointed. This is the true God and (the) Life of the Age.”

The principal statement is bracketed by references to Jesus as God’s Son; this is vital to an understanding of the verse, as it governs the structure of the statement, which I outline here as a chiasm:

This outline may be summarized:

This is very nearly a perfect epitome of Johannine theology, conforming to everything we find in both the Gospel and the First Letter. Somewhat more difficult is the concluding statement of the verse:

ou!to/$ e)stin o( a)lhqino\$ qeo\$ kai\ zwh\ ai)w/nio$
“This is the True God and (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal Life].”

Particularly problematic is the relation of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this”) to the previous sentence, as well as the predicate statement which follows. There are several possibilities:

  • The pronoun identifies the substantive o( a)lhqino/$ (“the true [one], the [one who is] true”) as God the Father—i.e., “this (one) is the true God“—who is also “the Life of the Age”.
  • It identifies “the One who is True” as God the Father (the True God), and His Son (Jesus) as “the Life of the Age”.
  • It identifies Jesus as both “the True God” and “the Life of the Age”.
  • It summarizes the entire Gospel message about both God the Father and Jesus (the Son)—i.e., “this is (the message of) the True God and Eternal Life”.

Sound arguments can be made for each of these four interpretations, and I find it almost impossible to make a conclusive choice. Most likely, based on Johannine usage, the expression “the Life of the Age” should be understood in relation to Jesus; he is identified as “(the) Life”, and the immediate source of Life for believers, in numerous places (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2; 5:11-12, etc). Yet it is also entirely appropriate to refer to the Gospel message as “Life” in a similar way (cf. Jn 6:63; 12:50; 17:3; 20:31). The opening words of 1 John (1:1-2) seem to play on both of these meanings of “the Life”, and it is likely that a similar dual-meaning is present in the closing words of the letter as well.

Many commentators question whether Jesus would have been identified directly as “the true God”. While there is no doubt that, in both the Gospel and First Letter, the essential deity of Jesus (including his pre-existence and union with the Father) is clearly expressed, his identification as o( qeo/$ (“the [one true] God”) is less certain. Note, for example, the careful wording in John 1:1c (qeo/$ without the definite article). I have discussed the famous textual question in Jn 1:18 on a number of occasions (cf. the most recent treatment). As the textual evidence between qeo/$ (“God”) and ui(o/$ (“Son”) is rather evenly divided, one cannot simply read qeo/$ without futher ado. Even so, most manuscripts also read qeo/$ without the definite article in verse 18, for whatever that might signify (and it remains much disputed).

Syntactically, in 5:20, it is worth noting that the most proximate reference for ou!to$ would be Jesus, as the phrase “…His Son Yeshua the Anointed” immediately precedes the demonstrative pronoun. However, this is by no means a certain indicator of the pronominal relationship; consider the example of 2 John 7:

“…the ones not giving common account of [i.e. confessing] Yeshua (as hav)ing come in the flesh. This [ou!to/$] is the (one speaking) false(ly) and the (one who is) against the Anointed [i.e. ‘antichrist’]!”

Clearly, in this case, ou!to$ refers back to “the ones not confessing Jesus…” rather than to “Jesus”. Based on this syntax, ou!to$ in 1 Jn 5:20 would more likely refer back to “the One who is True” (i.e. God the Father), rather than to Jesus. At the same time, the syntax in 2 Jn 7 would suggest that both the pronoun and the two expressions (“the True God” and “the Life of the Age”) refer to a single subject, in which case, Jesus is the more probable subject.

Despite the many difficulties in deciding between the options listed above, I am inclined to favoring the second and fourth, or, perhaps, some combination of the two:

  • The two expressions “the True God” and “the Life of the Age” relate back to the two subjects—God the Father (“the One who is True”) and Jesus Christ (His Son), respectively.
  • As the concluding declaration of the letter, the pronoun ou!to$ also effectively summarizes the entire content of the letter; parallel with the opening words (1:1-2), it refers to the Gospel message, of what (the true) God has done for us through his Son Jesus, which leads to eternal Life for those who believe.

Note of the Day – July 9 (1 John 5:16-18, concluded)

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1 John 5:16-18 (concluded)

In the last two daily notes, we have pursued a detailed study of 1 Jn 5:16-18 and the various difficulties surrounding this passage. Before offering a conclusion, it will be good to examine certain other details in these verses, to gain a bit more clarity as to what the author is actually saying.

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. | There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death. | We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

We may divide this passage into three sections, or statements, marked by vertical bars above:

Statement 1. “If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death.”

This was discussed in detail in the previous note; however, it is worth considering the structure of this sentence:

  • A brother (i.e. believer) sinning sin not toward death
    —ask (of God) and (God) will give him life
  • those not sinning toward death

The chiasm gives double emphasis to the idea that only those not sinning “toward death” will be given life; indeed, it is only for these (i.e. true believers) that the request/prayer should be made to God on their behalf. As I discussed yesterday, the best way of understanding the “sin toward death” is as violation of the two-fold commandment (3:23-24) which defines the believer’s identity in Christ. True believers are not able to violate this command; only “false” believers who effectively speak and act “against Christ” (i.e. anti-christ) sin in this way. Since they are false believers, and not among the elect/chosen ones, they do not possess Life—indeed, they cannot.

Statement 2. “There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

This is actually comprised of separate statements, which are related to each other, and which have the same conceptual structure as Statement #1 above:

  • There is sin “toward death”
    that sin
    ——one should not make any request regarding it, but only for
    —all (other) sin
  • There is sin “not toward death”

Here the author more precisely makes the distinction between the sin “toward death” (i.e., violation of the two-fold command) and that which is not (i.e., all other sin a believer might commit). All sin is wrong (lit. “without justice, without right-ness”), but only the sin which violates the central (two-fold) commandment is “toward death”. Bear in mind that the author is addressing those whom he considers true believers and urges them to live and act according to that identity. This is perhaps the reason why the author does not address traditional ethical and religious concerns, except only very loosely and in passing (2:15-17). He would have taken for granted that true believers in Christ would live upright lives, conducting themselves honorably, in spite of occasional lapses of sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2). The main issue in the letter relates to those who separated from the mainstream congregations and now belong to “the world” (2:19; 4:1ff; 5:19; 2 Jn 7). According to the viewpoint of the author, these “false” believers violate both aspects of the two-fold command that defines the Christian:

  • By separating from (and opposing) the Johannine congregations they do not show proper love for their “brothers”; on the contrary, they actually demonstrate the opposite, hate (2:9, 19; 3:11-15)
  • They do not have proper trust in Jesus, in that they hold (and proclaim) a false view of Jesus (2:22-23; 4:1-6; 5:6-12; 2 Jn 7ff)

Especially difficult for many Christians to appreciate today is the directive that one should not make any prayer/request to God on behalf of those “sinning” in this way. This seems rather harsh, especially in light of the Christian ideal of showing love for sinners. However, early Christians held rather a different view when it came to supposed (i.e. “false”) believers who were thought to be opposing the truth. This applied both to theological and Christological opinions, but also to behavior which violated or disrupted Christian unity. The approach advocated regarding such persons, and the way they are described in the Writings, is consistently strident and harsh—Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 11; 2 Cor 11:12-15; Gal 5:7-12; 6:12-13; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Peter 2; Jude vv. 3-4ff, etc. There is, indeed, a clear parallel in the Second Letter (vv. 10-11), where the author urges those whom he is addressing not to take the “false” believers into their houses, nor even to offer them a polite greeting.

Regarding the above points, many sad (and tragic) episodes in Church History have demonstrated vividly that such instruction in the New Testament must be interpreted and applied most carefully. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming note dealing with the background and setting of the Johannine letters.

There is, however, perhaps a deeper significance to the advice given here in v. 16. It has to do with the nature of the Christian Community—that is, of believers united together in Christ through faith and love. The sort of concern shown over the person sinning, and indicated by the request made to God, relates to the preservation of the bond of unity between believers. Sin disrupts and defiles this covenant bond and must be cleansed. In other words, verse 16 reflects the love that believers have for each other; it does not apply to non-believers (much less to false believers). Whatever concern or love one might show to the world, it is not the same as the bond of love that unites believers in Christ. With regard to prayer, there may be an echo of this idea in John 17:6-9:

“I have made your name shine forth to the ones [lit. men] whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept watch (over) your word. … I make (my) request about them; I do not make (any) request about the world, but about (those) whom you have given to me, (in) that [i.e. because] they are yours…”

Jesus’ prayer is not for “the world” (and those who belong to it), but those (believers) given to him by the Father (i.e., the elect/chosen ones). This does not mean that Jesus has no concern or “love” over others in the world (cf. Jn 3:16, etc); rather, it reflects a distinctive understanding (and expression) of love.

Statement 3. “We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

Most of this statement has been discussed in detail in the previous notes; I wish to draw attention to the closing words: “…and the evil does not attach (itself) [a%ptetai] to him”. Many commentators read the substantive adjective with the article (o( ponhro/$) as “the Evil (One)”, and this probably reflects the author’s understanding. This protection from evil is important in several respects:

  • It is central to the idea of both: (a) the believer being born out of God, and (b) that God keeps watch over the believer (primarily through the Spirit).
  • It relates to the idea that the believer does not (and cannot) sin. While the believer may commit occasional sins (moral lapses, etc), sin and evil does not “attach (itself)” to him/her. The verb a%ptw/a%ptomai is often translated as “touch”, but that is not quite strong enough. Sin remains foreign to the believer and does not become part of his/her identity or destiny. A somewhat similar idea is expressed beautifully in Wisdom 3:1.
  • The reference to “the evil (one)” here must be understood in light of the statement which follows in verse 19:
    “We have seen that we are out of [i.e. from/of] God, and (that) the whole world is stretched (out) in th(is) Evil.”
    The contrast between believers (born of God) and the world (lying in evil) could not be made more clear.
Conclusion

I wish to conclude this discussion on 1 Jn 5:16-18 with a series of summarizing points, which, I hope, will help to elucidate this difficult passage:

Sin and the Believer

  • Statements indicating that the believer does not (or cannot) sin are to be understood in terms of the believer’s fundamental identity in Christ. At this essential level, we participate in the sinlessness of Jesus.
  • This union with Jesus (and God the Father), by which we participate in the divine purity (sinlessness), is presently realized for believers through the Spirit. However, it will not be fully realized and experienced until the end-time.
  • For this reason, believers do (and are able) to commit sin (moral lapses, etc) during this earthly life. Through admission/confession of sin, we are cleansed and forgiven.
  • It is the power and work of Jesus—both his sacrificial death and (priestly) work of intercession before God the Father—which cleanses us from sin. This is part of God’s saving work and life-giving power.
  • We as believers are exhorted to live and act—developing patterns of thought and behavior—in a manner which reflects our true identity (pure/sinless) in Christ.
  • While we may sin, as believers we possess (“hold”) Life, and have been transferred out of “the world”—i.e., out of the domain of sin and darkness. We are thus no longer on the path leading “toward death”.
  • The life-giving presence of Jesus (the Spirit) protects us from evil. Though we may sin, evil and sin cannot touch us or “attach itself” to us. It is incidental, like the dust which gathers while we walk (cf. John 13:5-11); it is not part of our nature or identity as believers.

The Sin “toward Death”

  • Sin is understood primarily as the lack of “right-ness” or “just-ness” (i.e., righteousness, justice). In traditional religious terms, this is expressed as transgressions or violations of (religious and moral) Law.
  • However, for believers in Christ, there are now only two “commandments”—a two-fold command, or duty—which we must follow: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for one another (i.e. for our fellow believers), according to Jesus’ own example. All other aspects of religious and ethical behavior stem from this.
  • Since these two commands reflect our fundamental identity as believers in Christ, true believers will not (and cannot) violate them. The presence of the Spirit works in us, teaching and guiding us to observe this command, protecting us from sin.
  • It follows that only those who are not true believers (“false” believers) sin in this way by failing to observe the two-fold command.
  • Such false believers are actually “in the world” (i.e., belonging to the world); they do not hold Life, but remain on the path leading toward death.
  • They are thus sinning the “sin toward death”.
  • This sin is observable and demonstrable in that such “false” believers:
    (1) do not show genuine love toward other believers (according to Jesus’ example), and/or
    (2) do not have a proper (or correct) trust/faith in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God sent by the Father.
  • Since they do not possess the true Spirit of God (and Christ), but speak and act from a different spirit, it is possible (and necessary) to “test” such “spirits”. The author of 1 John makes this test specific: (a) lack of love (i.e. “hatred”) which leads to disruption of unity, separation and hostility, and (b) an aberrant view of the person of Christ, specifically one which denies the reality of his human life and sacrificial death.
  • Such persons are not to be regarded or treated as fellow believers; in particular, we ought not to pray for them in the same way we would for a fellow believer who sins.

Note of the Day – July 8 (1 John 5:16-18, continued)

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1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

In the previous daily note, I discussed the opening declaration in verse 18, along with the various (and seemingly contradictory) statements in the letter to the effect that Christians both do commit sin and do not (indeed, cannot) commit sin. There is no simple answer or solution to this difficulty, but I have sought to analyze it carefully, based on the overall language and ideas expressed throughout the letter. However, before proceeding to a more precise interpretation, it is necessary to examine the distinction in vv. 16-18 regarding sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) and sin which is not so. Here again are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

Sin which is “toward death”

The simplest explanation of the expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) is something which leads toward death or results in it (cf. John 11:4). The underlying idea is presumably legal, particularly as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). Certain violations of law—i.e. serious crimes against society or religious transgressions—specifically result in death for the offender (Exod 21:12ff; Num 18:22, et al). Some commentators understand the idea of the transgressor being “cut off”, at least in certain passages, as referring to a punishment by God of death. Naturally, in such legal and religious-cultural settings, certain sins result in death (or a sentence of death) while others do not. How might this apply to the situation in 1 John? A number of interpretations have been offered by commentators over the years; these include:

  • The distinction involves especially serious or egregious sins—religious and/or ethical violations—in the basic sense indicated above.
  • It reflects something akin to the thought in James 1:14-15, of sinful behavior which is cultivated and allowed to grow, leading to “death”; this would perhaps relate to the interpretation that the present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6, 9; 5:18, etc, refers to continual, habitual sinning, rather than occasional failings by the believer.
  • The distinction involves ‘ordinary’ sinning (i.e. moral lapses, etc) vs. more serious sins (i.e. “blasphemy”) against God’s own person, perhaps in a specific theological/Christological sense.
  • It relates to the “unforgivable sin” (i.e. against the Holy Spirit) of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8:38 par.

The first option certainly fits the fundamental religious/ethical background which presumably underlies the expression. Indeed, early Christians preserved the basic idea of especially serious (and blatant) sins which no true believer ever should, or would, commit. There are a number of examples of such “vice lists” in the New Testament, which are generally in accord with both Jewish and Greco-Roman standards of decency and morality—e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:22-23. In Rom 1:32, Paul specifically declares that those who commit such gross transgressions are “deserving of death“. This draws upon traditional Israelite and Jewish religious thought, as expressed in the Torah (cf. above). He similarly states (again using traditional language) that those engaged in such behavior will certainly not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21).

The problem with this view is that such traditional ethical instruction is really not to be found in the letter. Only in 2:15-17 do we see anything of the sort, and, even there, the emphasis is more generally on the character of “the world” rather than on specific types of sin. The closing statement of the letter (5:21) appears, at first glance, to be a traditional warning against (pagan, Greco-Roman) idolatry; yet, based on the overall orientation of the letter, it is likely that the warning should be understood as a coded statement, referring to the false views of those described in 2:18-25 and 4:1-6, etc, symbolically as idol-worship. So, this leaves us with two options: (1) in 5:16-18 the author is referring to something (types of serious immorality, etc) not otherwise emphasized in the letter, or (2) the sin that is “toward death” relates to something other than violation of traditional religious and moral behavior. In my view, the latter is more likely and fitting with the rhetorical thrust of the letter. If so, then it would also eliminate the second interpretation cited above. As I argued in the previous note, the use of the present tense of a(marta/nw does not necessarily indicate continual/habitual sinning, but more properly the simple distinction between past and present sins.

I would suggest that the third and fourth views listed above are rather closer to the mark, though the dynamic must be understood in terms of Johannine thought (i.e. that of the Letters and Gospel). Jesus’ specific saying regarding the “unforgivable sin” (against the Holy Spirit) is foreign to 1 John, though it may provide a loose parallel in the way that early Christians may have understood certain “sins” as directed specifically against the person of Christ and/or the Spirit.

It is useful at this point to consider the statement made by the author in verse 17:

“All sin is injustice [a)diki/a], and (yet) there is sin which is not toward death.”

The noun a)diki/a literally refers to something which is “without justice, without right(eous)ness”; we might say that it is “lacking right-ness”. This blanket statement refers to “all sin” (pa=sa a(marti/a). At the same time, it would seem that the author agrees with the general assessment in James 1:14-15 that all sin eventually leads to death (on this point, cf. below). What, then, is the sin which is, or leads, “toward death”? Let us look at the key references to “death” (qa/nato$) in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter, specifically with those which relate to the believer (rather than the sacrificial death of Jesus):

  • Jn 5:24—the person hearing Jesus’ word, and trusting in him (and the One who sent him), holds the “Life of the Age” (eternal life) and “has stepped across out of death (and) into Life”. Humankind in the world is dominated by sin and darkness, and is on a path which leads to (ultimate) death in the end-time Judgment. Only those who trust in Jesus have Life, and are transferred out of this realm (and path) leading to death.
  • Jn 8:51-52—here we find a slightly different formulation of the same idea: that the person (believer) who keeps/guards Jesus’ word will never “see/taste death”. The motifs of “hearing” and “keeping” Jesus’ word are two aspects of the principal idea of trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father).
  • 1 Jn 3:14 reflects both of these declarations by Jesus, defining them specifically in terms of love for one’s fellow believer:
    “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across out of death (and) into Life, (in) that [i.e. because] we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.”

We have discussed previously how, in Johannine thought, the entirely of the Christian life is summarized by just two “commandments” (e)ntolai/); actually, it is better understood as a single, two-fold duty: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). This may be deduced from evidence all throughout the Gospel and Letters, and is stated precisely in 3:23-24. Every true believer observes (keeps) this two-fold command; by contrast, the one who violates it is not a true believer. This background provides what I consider the best avenue for interpreting 5:16-18, which I would summarize as follows:

  • Believers may sin at various times, but they do not (and cannot) sin in the sense of violating the two-fold command which is fundamental to one’s Christian identity.
  • “False” believers, such as the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations, may claim to be true Christians, but they are not, since they violate the two-fold command—i.e., they do not have proper trust in Jesus, and/or do not demonstrate true love. As non-believers (belonging to “the world”), who thus act in a manner “against the Anointed” (i.e. ‘anti-christ’), they do not possess Life, and remain on the path leading toward death.
  • It is thus these false/non-believers who sin “toward death”; true believers cannot sin in this way.

From what we read in the letter (and also in 2 John 7-11), it is clear that those who separated from the Johannine congregations, holding (and proclaiming) a false view of Jesus, were exerting some measure of influence in the various churches. This setting informs the warnings in 1 Jn 4:1ff and 2 Jn 8ff—i.e., the need for believers to be on guard and to “test” the “spirits” of those speaking about Jesus.

Life and Death in 1 Jn 5:16

Another difficulty in the interpretation of vv. 16-18 is the way “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) relate in this passage. The syntax of verse 16 is actually rather ambiguous; I translate it here without any explanatory gloss:

“If any one should see his brother sinning sin not toward death, he will ask and he will give him life…”

We must first determine the point of reference for the subject/object of the phrase in italics—who gives and who receives life? There are three options:

  • The person (believer) making the request is the one who gives life to the believer who is sinning
  • God gives life to the sinning believer
  • God gives life to the one making the request

I would say, with most commentators, that the second option is to be preferred, though it is possible that the phrase expresses the idea that the believer’s request effectively results in (God) giving life to the one sinning. How should we understand “life” here? Throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, the word zwh/ virtually always refers to the (eternal) Life possessed by God, and which God, through Jesus (and the Spirit), gives to believers. Yet, if believers already possess this Life, and are not sinning “toward death” (cf. above), in what sense is the believer given “life” here? I note several possibilities:

  • Here, in fact, the reference is to the danger of physical death as a result of sin
  • The language simply reflects the basic distinction of sin and evil as the opposite of life (i.e. death), in a general sense
  • Sin puts the believer (temporarily) out of union with God and Christ (i.e. “death”); only after confession/admission of sin and forgiveness/cleansing is this union (“life”) restored
  • The forgiveness provided to the sinning believer is part of the same life-giving power of God which Christ possesses; this is inherent both in the saving work of his sacrificial death (“blood”), and through the (priestly) intercession he performs on our behalf (1:7-9; 2:1-2). Since Jesus himself is Life (Jn 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2, and cf. the upcoming note on 5:20), he gives life in all that he says and does.

The last option is the one best in keeping with Johannine thought, and, I should say, is to be preferred. In the next daily note, I will be reviewing aspects of this overall study (on 5:16-18, etc), and will attempt to bring the strands together into a more concise and definite interpretation.

Note of the Day – July 5 (1 John 5:16-18)

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1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

  1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
  2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

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

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

  • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
  • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
  • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

  • “the one having come to be born of God…”
  • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

  • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer] —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer] —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
  • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

  • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
    —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
  • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
    —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
  • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
    —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
  • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
    —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
  • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
    —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

  • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
  • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
  • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

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

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

  • “the one having come to be born out of God”
    —”he does not sin”
    ——”His seed remains in him”
    —”he is not able to sin”
  • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in a recent Saturday Series post. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

  • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
    “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
  • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
    “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
  • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
    “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – July 4 (1 John 5:11-13)

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1 John 5:11-13

Verses 9-12 represents the final section in the body of the letter, with vv. 11-12 as the concluding statement. This section builds upon what was stated in vv. 6-8 (cf. the previous daily notes), particularly the idea that the Spirit gives witness (“the one giving witness”, vb. marture/w) regarding Jesus Christ and the true/correct understanding of him. This witness (marturi/a) by the Spirit is closely related to the humanity of Jesus, both his birth/life as a real human being, and the reality (and importance) of his physical death. As we have discussed, this point of Christology appears to have been emphasized especially by the author, against a “docetic” view of Jesus, such as was apparently held by the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations.

In verse 9, this witness by the Spirit is identified as God’s own witness—

“(and it is) that this is the witness [marturi/a] that God has given (as a) witness about His Son” (v. 9b)

a witness which is greater than any human witness we might receive (9a). This contrast may be intended to distinguish the mainstream Johannine congregations (who accept the witness of God’s Spirit and hold a correct view of Jesus) from the separatists who give testimony (about Jesus) which is not from God. Verse 10 sets the witness of God (his Spirit) specifically in the context of trust in Jesus—this is the point of separation, the dualistic contrast between those who trust/believe (correctly) and those who do not:

“The (one) trusting in the Son of God holds [e&xei] th(is) witness in himself, (but) the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) a false (speak)er, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the witness which God has given (as a) witness about His Son.”

The witness which a (true) believer has, or holds, in him/herself is best understood as the Spirit, according to the prior statements in vv. 6-8. As I discussed in the previous note, the three-fold witness reflects two aspects of Jesus’ human life (“water” and “blood”), given sacrificially on our behalf, communicated to us (believers) through the presence of the Spirit. Believers possess (“hold”) this life through the Spirit. This identification is made more clear by the statement which follows in verse 11:

“And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Age, and (that) th(is) Life is in His Son.”

As I have discussed at length in earlier notes, the expression “Life of the Age” (zwh/ ai)w/nio$) originally had an eschatological connotation (i.e. the divine/heavenly life which the righteous would enter/inherit in the Age to Come), but was applied by Christians—especially in the Johannine writings—to the divine/eternal/spiritual Life which believers hold even now (in the present) in Christ. This re-interpretation is indicated even here in this verse, by the way that the expression “Life of the Age” is so easily treated as equivalent to “Life” (in Christ, “in His Son”). The dualistic contrast in verse 10 is repeated in the concluding v. 12:

“The (one) holding the Son holds Life, (but) the (one) not holding the Son does not hold Life.”

The highly expressive (and symbolic) thought expressed in the Johannine writings is indicated in these verses, by the different objects which believers are said to “hold” (vb. e&xw):

  • the witness of God (v. 10) = the witness of the Spirit (vv. 6-8)
  • the Son (of God) (v. 12a)
  • (divine/eternal) Life (v. 12b)

These are all more or less interchangeable in Johannine thought, and are best represented by the Spirit, which is the presence of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son) in the believer. This life-giving power and presence is realized spiritually, through the Spirit.

Verse 13

In terms of the structure of the letter, it is best to treat vv. 13-21 as the conclusion. That this sections begins with verse 13 is confirmed by the close parallel with John 20:31, the conclusion of the Gospel proper. It is worth comparing the two statements (note the portions in italics):

And these (thing)s I have written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)

These (thing)s I wrote to you, to the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God, (so) that you would have seen [i.e. known] that you hold (the) Life of the Age.” (1 Jn 5:13)

The wording and thought is so similar that the two statements were either the work of the same person, or one was written after the pattern of the other (or after a common pattern). It effectively repeats the theme and points made in the previous verses, and makes it clear that they relate to the main purpose of the letter. This purpose is indicated by the perfect subjunctive form of the verb ei&dw (“see, perceive, know”)—ei)dh=te, “you would/might have seen”. Here the perfect tense, or aspect, is best understood as an intensive, reflecting either a particular result, or a current state/condition (i.e., of those the author is addressing)—i.e., “would/might surely come to see/know”. The same verb form is used by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 2:10 par):

“(so) that you might (surely) come to see [i.e. know] that the Son of Man holds [e&xei] authority to release [i.e. forgive] sins upon earth…”

Interestingly, there is a formal similarity in the object of knowledge in both passages:

  • “that you hold Life…”
  • “that the Son of man holds authority to release sin…”

As we shall see (in the next daily note), the motifs of sin, forgiveness, and life, all appear in the subsequent verses 14-17. How do the remaining verses of the conclusion relate to this statement in verse 13? I would divide the section as follows:

  • Opening statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 13)
  • Instruction: Prayer for the forgiveness of sin (vv. 14-17)
    —On the effectiveness of prayer/request to God (vv. 14-15)
    —The purpose/result of prayer: Life and Death in relation to sin (vv. 16-17)
  • Exhortation: Protection from sin for the true believer (vv. 18-19)
  • Closing statement—assurance to believers of the Life they have in Christ (v. 20)
  • Concluding warning [coded statement?] (v. 21)

Most of the New Testament letters contain a teaching/exhortation section toward the end of the letter; sometimes this is built into the epistolary conclusion, as is the case in 1 John. This will be discussed briefly in the next note.

Note of the Day – July 3 (1 John 5:6-8, concluded)

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1 John 5:6-8 (concluded)

This discussion continues that of the last several daily notes (June 28, July 1 & 2), focusing specifically on the relation of the Spirit to the “water” and “blood” in verses 6-8. It is possible to treat all three verses as a single sentence, and this is probably the best way to render them:

“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and in blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (of this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth, (so) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood—and the three are (together) into one.”

The statement as a whole can be divided into two parts:

  • The one coming—Yeshua the Anointed—in water and blood
  • The one giving witness—the Spirit—(together with) water and blood

In the previous note, I explored the initial statement(s) regarding the Spirit in verse 6b. I also pointed out three aspects which needed to be examined:

  • The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus in the Johannine Gospel and Letters
  • The connection between the Spirit and water, especially as a symbol of birth and life for those who trust in Jesus
  • The connection between the Spirit and the death (i.e. blood) of Jesus

We will touch briefly on each of these in turn.

1. The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus

In the Gospel of John, this can be summarized as follows (for more detail on these passages, see the earlier notes in this series):

(An asterisk marks passages which clearly draw upon early Tradition shared by the Synoptics)

  • 1:32-33*—The Spirit comes down (lit. “steps down”) upon Jesus and remains on/in him (cf. Mark 1:10 par)
  • 1:33b (also v. 26)*—It is said that Jesus will dunk (i.e. baptize) people “in the holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8 par)
  • 3:5-8—Those who trust in Jesus “come to be (born) out of the Spirit” (cf. below)
  • 3:34—It is said that Jesus “gives the Spirit” (i.e. to believers); he does not give it “out of (a) measure”, rather, in a new, complete way, different from how the Spirit was given previously to prophets and chosen ones. Verse 35 indicates that the Spirit is given to Jesus (the Son) by the Father.
  • 4:23-24—The context (verses 7-15ff) suggests that the “living water” Jesus gives is associated with the Spirit
  • 6:63—Jesus states that the Spirit gives life (“makes [a]live”), and, again, that he gives the Spirit to his disciples, etc. The Spirit is identified specifically with the words (“utterances”) Jesus speaks (i.e. his life-giving power as the Living Word).
  • 7:39—The Gospel writer explicitly identifies the Spirit with the “living water” of which Jesus is the source for believers (vv. 37-38). It is stated that the Spirit did not come unto the disciples until after Jesus was given honor (‘glorified’), i.e. by the Father, through his death and resurrection.
  • 14:16-17, 25-26—God the Father will send the Spirit (“Spirit of Truth”) to believers, at Jesus’ request and in his name
  • 15:26-27; 16:7ff—Jesus will send the Spirit (“Holy Spirit”, “Spirit of Truth”) to believers from the Father
  • The Spirit continues Jesus’ work with believers, teaching them, speaking Jesus’ own words and giving witness about him (14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15)
  • 19:30—The description of Jesus’ death likely carries a double-meaning in the context of the Gospel, alluding to his giving the Spirit (“…he gave along the pneu=ma [breath/spirit/Spirit]”)
  • 20:22—After his resurrection, Jesus specifically blows/breathes in(to) the disciples; it is clear that he is giving them the Spirit (“Receive the holy Spirit”)

This Johannine portrait thus entails three primary aspects: (a) Jesus receives the Spirit from the Father (indicated specifically [1] at the Baptism and [2] following the Resurrection); (b) Jesus gives the Spirit to believers (described variously); and (c) the Spirit represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. This is generally confirmed by the references in 1 John, though the emphasis is on the Spirit as a witness, testifying and declaring the truth about Jesus to (and through) believers (3:24; 4:1-6, 13; and here in 5:6-8).

2. The connection between the Spirit and Water

For a summary of the Gospel passages, cf. the previous note. The primary emphasis is on the symbol of water as a source of life, with life-giving properties and power. This is expressed by two basic motifs:

  • Drinking—i.e. the quenching of thirst and the preservation/restoration of life to the human body and soul. Especially important is the traditional expression “living water” (* below), which, in the ancient semitic idiom, originally referred to the flowing water of a natural spring or stream (note the play on this idea in 4:6-12), but is used by Jesus in a symbolic sense. Here are the relevant references (those which explicitly mention the Spirit are marked in bold):
    • 2:6-9—the drinking of water/wine (note the possible allusions to 6:51-58 and 19:34)
    • 4:7-15ff—water which Jesus gives that results in (eternal) life (vv. 10-11*, reference to the Spirit in vv. 21-24)
    • 6:53-56—drinking Jesus’ “blood” which he gives (eucharistic allusion, reference to the Spirit in v. 63)
    • 7:37-39—the “living water” (v. 38*) which Jesus gives is identified with the Spirit by the Gospel writer (v. 39)
  • Birth—water is naturally associated with the birth process, and this image is utilized by Jesus in the discourse-dialogue with Nicodemus in chapter 3 (vv. 3-8). Here it is applied specifically to the “birth” of believers, a motif which appears elsewhere in the Gospel (1:13) and frequently in the First Letter (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). In these references the expression is “come to be (born) out of God [e)k {tou=} qeou=]”, while in Jn 3:3-8 we find “…out of the Spirit” and “…from above”; for the most part, these expressions are synonymous. The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used in this spiritual/symbolic sense, is always related to believers, with the lone exception, it would seem, of the second occurrence in 1 Jn 5:18, where many commentators feel it refers to Jesus (the Son).
    • If we are to recognize the secondary motif of Baptism, it probably should be understood in terms of this same birth-symbolism, at least in the context of the Gospel and letters of John. Birth imagery is embedded in the early Gospel tradition of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par; Jn 1:34 MT), i.e. Jesus as God’s “Son”, and is marked by the presence of the Spirit (1:32-33). Also, insofar as Jesus “baptizes” believers in the Spirit (1:33 par), the author(s) of the Gospel and Letters would likely associate this with the idea of being “born of God” or “born of the Spirit”, though it is not clear the extent to which there is an allusion to Baptism in Jn 3:3-8.
3. The connection between the Spirit and the Death (“Blood”) of Jesus

In the Gospel Tradition, there is little, if any, clear relationship between the Spirit and Jesus’ death. The closest we come is the basic idea, expressed both in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, that the Spirit would come to believers only after Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” to the Father. There is then an implicit (though indirect) association between Jesus’ death and the coming/sending of the Spirit. The Gospel of John, in particular, blends together the two aspects of death and exaltation, joining them into at least three different images: (1) descent/ascent, (2) “lifting up/high”, and (3) “giving/granting honor” (i.e. “glorify”). All three of these Johannine motifs can refer variously (or at the same time) to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension/return to the Father.

It is also possible that there is a more direct association between the Spirit and Jesus’ death in the Gospel of John. I note three verses:

  • 7:39—The Gospel writer states: “For the Spirit was not yet [i.e. had not yet come], (in) that [i.e. because] Yeshua was not yet glorified”. The verb doca/zw, “regard with honor, give/grant honor”, “glorify” is usually understood in reference to Jesus resurrection (and ascension to the Father), but, in the Gospel of John, it applies equally to Jesus’ death. In other words, the statement could be taken to mean, essentially, that it is Jesus’ sacrificial death which makes it possible for the Spirit to come.
  • 19:30—The description of Jesus’ death generally follows the Gospel tradition in Mark 15:37b; Matt 27:50b; Luke 23:46. However, in light of the important Johannine theme of Jesus giving the Spirit, it is possible (even likely) that there is a dual meaning to the words pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma:
    —”…he gave along the [i.e. his] spirit/breath”
    —”…he gave along the Spirit”
    I might note in passing, that there is a fascinating similarity of wording between Luke 23:46 and John 20:22; though coming via different Gospels, this is another interesting (possible) connection between Jesus’ death and the giving of the Spirit.
  • 19:34—Many commentators have interpreted the “blood and water” which come out of Jesus’ side (and the importance the Gospel writer gives to this detail) as containing at least an allusion to the Spirit. The close connection between water and the Spirit, and of Jesus as the direct source of this “living water”, increases the likelihood that such an allusion may be intended. If so, then it is likely that there is an association between the Spirit and Jesus’ blood as well.

It will help to consider the other references to “blood” (ai!ma) in the Gospel and Letters of John:

  • John 1:13—Here blood is set parallel with flesh (specifically “the will of the flesh”), in the context of human birth. Both “blood” and “flesh” signify (ordinary) human life and birth, which is contrasted with being “born out of God” (= “born out of the Spirit“). For a similar parallel between “flesh” and “blood”, cf. 1 Jn 4:2-3 and here in 5:6-8.
  • John 6:51-58 (vv. 53-56)—Here, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse, Jesus, in eucharistic language and imagery that is similar to Mark 14:23-24 par, speaks of drinking his “blood”. The (believer) who “eats” his body and “drinks” his blood holds “the Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life); this body/blood is the “bread” which Jesus gives, sacrificially, for the life of the world. While there may be a sacramental allusion (to the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) in these verses, the overall emphasis of the Bread of Life discourse is spiritual. This is confirmed by what follows (esp. verse 63).
  • 1 John 1:7—The author declares “…the blood of Yeshua cleanses us from all sin”. This echoes the sacrificial character (and power) of Jesus’ death—and, specifically, the blood he shed (Jn 19:34)—expressed in the Gospel tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:24 par). In the context of the letter, it is uniquely tied to the Johannine theme of sin/righteousness in terms of obedience to the two-fold command of trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believer (3:23-24, etc). There is no direct reference to the Spirit here, but there is a definite allusion in verse 8, “the Truth…in us”.
Conclusion

If the “water” and “blood” in 5:6ff represent two aspects of Jesus’ human life—his birth/life and death, respectively—then, in light of the examination above, in what sense does this water and blood “give witness” along with the Spirit?

Water—Based on the principal themes and associations outline above, it is possible to identify:

  • Drinking—Elsewhere in the New Testament, believers are said to “drink” of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13), just Jesus describes in Jn 4:10-14; 7:37-38. This is experienced symbolically, through the sacraments of baptism and the eucharistic cup (cf. the context of 1 Cor 10-12), but not only in this limited way. Rather, through the Spirit, we experience the very presence of Jesus, including his human life which he sacrificed for us. It is a spiritual presence, which Paul likewise associates with the motif of drinking in 1 Cor 10:4.
  • Birth—As a result of trust in Jesus, believers experience a new birth (Jn 3:3-8ff). We come to be born “out of [i.e. from] God” (“from above” vv. 3, 7); this birth is spiritual, taking place through the power and presence of the Spirit, as indicated by the parallel expression “out of the Spirit” (vv. 5-6, 8). Just as ordinary human birth takes place “out of water” or “in/through water”, so this new birth for believers occurs through the “living water” of the Spirit. Certain Baptismal language and imagery preserves this same “new birth” motif.

Blood—This symbolic aspect of Jesus’ death has three important associations:

  • The coming/giving of the Spirit takes place through, and as a result of, Jesus’ sacrificial death (cf. Jn 7:39; 19:30, 34, and the discussion above)
  • Believers “drink” Jesus’ blood in a symbolic and spiritual sense (his life-giving presence), expressed in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
  • According to the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death, his “blood” cleanses believers of sin (1 Jn 1:7). Similarly, the Spirit (as “water”) cleanses us, as indicating by the baptism and washing imagery in John 1:26ff and 13:5-11. There is also a cleansing aspect associated with the Spirit as the Living Word of God and Christ (cf. 15:3).

If I may summarize. The life-giving power and presence of Jesus is communicated to believers through the presence of the Spirit. This divine and eternal (spiritual) Life which Jesus gives includes his human life which he sacrificed on our behalf, transformed through his resurrection and exaltation (glorification). It is specifically the real human life of Jesus (his birth, life, and death) which the author of 1 John is emphasizing, against the apparent “docetic” view of Jesus held by the separatists (“antichrists”). The Spirit bears witness to us of the human life Jesus sacrificed in order to give us Life, and along with this, the very essence (“water” and “blood”) of this life testifies to us. Through the Spirit, we experience this testimony, not only through symbolic rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but at all times, and in all aspects of our life in Christ.