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Johannine Theology

Note of the Day – July 31 (Revelation 1:4-6)

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Revelation 1:4-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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 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.

Note of the Day – July 2 (1 John 5:6-8, continued)

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1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

In the previous note, I argued that the expression “in/through water and blood” in 1 Jn 5:6 refers to two aspects of Jesus’ humanity (that is, his real humanity, against a “docetic” view of Christ): (1) his human birth and life, and (2) his sacrificial death (involving the shedding of blood). Both of these appear together at the time of his death (“blood and water”, Jn 19:34), and may be prefigured (i.e. water and wine [= blood]) in the episode at Cana at the beginning of his earthly ministry (2:1-11). It is Jesus’ very life (water and blood) which is poured out on behalf of humankind. If this interpretation is correct, then we must ask exactly how the Spirit relates to these two aspects, since, in vv. 6b-8, the Spirit is joined to “water” and “blood” to form a triad.

Let us first consider how this is introduced by the author:

“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.” (v. 6)

There are two phrases involved. The first is:

“the Spirit is the (one) giving witness”
to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin to\ marturou=n

The basic meaning of this is clear enough: the Spirit gives witness (to believers) of Jesus’ coming “in/through water and blood”—i.e. of his real human life and sacrificial death. It may seem a bit strange for us today that there would be Christians who might deny or object to Jesus Christ as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In modern times, the opposite is more often the case—many people accept Jesus’ humanity and death on the cross, but object to the idea that he was divine or the “Son of God” in any real sense. The context of 1 John suggests a Christian setting which espoused a “high” Christology—i.e., Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God—but which was a distance removed from any memory of Jesus’ actual earthly life and ministry. Thus Johannine Christians could easily confess Jesus as the “Son of God” but have genuine doubts or questions about whether, or to what extent, he was actually a human being like us. The author of the letter goes out of his way, at several points, to emphasize this point. We see it already in the opening verses (1:1ff), where he speaks of Jesus as the “word of Life” which “we” (i.e. the apostles or an earlier generation of believers) have heard, seen with eyes, felt with hands, etc—Jesus was a real human being who walked and lived among us. Most scholars regard the Johannine Letters as addressed to a later (second or third) generation of Christians, dated c. 90-100 A.D., and this is likely to be close to the mark.

An important point in the Last Discourse is that the Spirit/Paraclete will teach and instruct believers, giving witness of things both to them and through them (14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15); in particular, 15:26f states:

“…that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will give witness about me, and you also will give witness…”

Thus the first statement about the Spirit in 1 Jn 5:6 is fully in accord with the view of the Spirit presented in the Gospel, and is confirmed again in 2:26-27, with the idea that the Spirit (“the anointing”) instructs believers in all things. In the view of the author, true believers will hold a correct view of Jesus because they hold the Spirit who gives true witness about Jesus. This leads to the second statement:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth”
o%ti to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia

In the Gospel, this is expressed by the title “Spirit of Truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13) and also in 1 Jn 4:6. The Spirit is also associated closely with Truth in Jn 4:23-24, and also with the indwelling word/presence of God in 1 Jn 1:8; 2:4, etc. That Jesus and God the Father also also identified as Truth (Jn 1:14, 17; 14:6; 18:37, etc) simply confirms the basic Johannine idea that the Spirit is both the Spirit of God the Father and of Jesus (the Son). Interestingly, this statement in 1 Jn 5:6b seems to provide a belated answer to the question by Pilate in Jn 18:38:

  • Question: “What is (the) truth?”
  • Answer: “The Spirit is (the) Truth”

In the immediate context of the letter, however, the emphasis is on the truthfulness of the Spirit’s witness. Since the Spirit is Truth itself, it/he can only speak the truth, as indicated by Jesus in Jn 16:33: “…he will lead the way for you in all truth”.

While it might seem that the Spirit is sufficient to give witness for believers, in verses 7-8 the author of the letter turns to the ancient legal principle that testimony in a court of law must be confirmed by at least two witnesses (i.e. two or three witnesses). This is expressed a number of times in the Old Testament Law (cf. Deut 19:15, etc), and appears in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (5:30-46; 8:16-19). In Jn 5:30ff, Jesus cites four different sources of testimony that give witness about his identity (as the Son sent by the Father). Here the author of the letter cites three:

“(so) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood—and the three are (together) into one.” (vv. 7-8)

This thematic formula of three-in-one certainly helps explain the trinitarian addition, found in some Latin (Vulgate) manuscripts, which, inappropriately, made its way into the 16th/17th century “Textus Receptus” editions of the New Testament (see spec. the KJV of vv. 7-8). It is, however, clearly a secondary addition (interpolation), as virtually all today commentators agree. We must avoid reading later theological concepts (from Nicene orthodoxy, etc) into the passage, and focus instead on the thought-world of the author and the (Johannine) congregations whom he is addressing. The main question is: how exactly does the Spirit relate to the “water” and “blood” which, as I have argued, symbolize the human life (and sacrificial death) of Jesus. There are are several avenues to explore:

  • 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

This will be done in the next daily note which will conclude our extended discussion on 1 John 5:6-8.

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

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1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

In the previous daily note I examined the context of 1 John 5:6 and began exploring the statements made in the verse itself. I noted the parallel with 4:2-3, especially the two expressions “in the flesh” and “in/through water and blood” which I regard as being closely related in thought. If the expression “come in the flesh [e)n sarki/]” refers to Jesus being born and appearing on earth as a true human being, then it stands to reason that “in/through water and blood” in 5:6 follows this same basic meaning. There appears to be little apparent difference here in the use of the prepositions dia/ (“through water and blood”) and e)n (“in water and…blood”), though it is possible that distinct aspects of Jesus birth/life as a human being are implied. We see the same interchangeability of the prepositions in Hebrews 9:12, 25 and Rom 6:4 / Col 2:12 (Brown, p. 574).

Before proceeding, I should point out that many Greek manuscripts and versions have a different reading of the first phrase in verse 6 (“the one coming through water and blood”), variously adding “and (the) Spirit” (or “and the holy Spirit”), to form a triad. That this reading is secondary, and not original, is strongly indicated by the fact that the reference to the Spirit appears at different points in the phrase; the most widespread of these variant readings is: “through water and blood and (the) Spirit” (a A 104 424c 614 1739c, etc). It may simply reflect the influence of what follows in vv. 6b-8. However, if early Christians understood the verse as referring to Jesus’ birth (cf. below), then the addition of “and (the) Spirit” in 6a could have theological significance (i.e. to safeguard the idea of the virginal conception, and the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ conception); on this, cf. Ehrman, pp. 60-1.

What exactly does the author mean when stating that Jesus came “through (or in) water and blood”? There would seem to be three main possibilities recognized by commentators:

  1. It refers to the birth and death of Jesus, respectively—fundamentally, to his (incarnate) human life on earth
  2. Similar to #1, it refers to the baptism and death of Jesus—to his mission on earth
  3. It refers specifically to Jesus’ death, following Jn 19:34
  4. In relation to #2, the reference is primarily sacramental—to baptism (water) and the eucharist (esp. the cup [blood])

In my view, the last of these can be eliminated. There is little indication anywhere else in the letter that either sacrament (Baptism or the Lord’s Supper) is in view. While it is possible that “water” and “blood” could be shorthand keywords for Baptism and the Eucharist, it seems quite out of place here in the letter, where the emphasis is clearly on the person and identity of Jesus. Otherwise, I can find no other definite Johannine references to (Christian) baptism, despite the emphasis on baptism in the early Gospel traditions recorded in Jn 1:19-34 and 3:22-23ff; there are eucharistic allusions in chapter 6 of the Gospel (esp. vv. 51-58), but the Lord’s Supper (i.e. as a ritual or sacrament introduced by Jesus) is completely absent from the Last Supper scene in John.

The choice, then, is between interpretations #1-3 above. There can be little doubt that “blood” refers to the sacrificial death of Jesus. The statement in 1:7 (“the blood of Yeshua…cleanses us from all sin”) reflects the idea of Jesus’ death (the shedding/pouring of blood) as a sacrificial offering, already found in the Gospel tradition of Mark 14:24 par (recording Jesus’ own words); there are, indeed, two aspects to this sacrificial motif:

  • The blood shed and poured on the altar (and upon the people) at the establishment of God’s covenant with Israel (cf. Exod 24:3-8)
  • The blood of the sin offering poured/sprinkled on the altar (Lev 4:1-5:13, etc)

While the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper (and the symbolic drinking of Jesus’ “blood”), the language in 6:51-58 is quite similar (esp. vv. 51b, 53). It is only in the Fourth Gospel that the shedding of Jesus’ blood is actually narrated and described (19:34, cf. below).

More difficult is determining exactly what is signified by “water”. There are seven other significant Johannine passages, in the Gospel and Letters, involving water (all from the Gospel):

  • The traditions related to John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus (1:26-34, cf. also 3:22ff)
  • The miracle of turning water into wine (2:6-9ff)
  • The discourse/dialogue with Nicodemus (3:5-8)
  • The “living water” dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:7-15)
  • The “living water” declaration by Jesus (7:37-38f)
  • The washing of the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper scene (13:5ff)
  • The “blood and water” which came out of Jesus’ side after his death (19:34)

Commentators have sought to associate these passages variously with Baptism (cf. above), but the only instance where such an association can plausibly be made is in 3:3-8, and yet I am not at all convinced that (Christian) baptism is being referred to by Jesus in that passage (except, possibly, in a secondary sense). As far as water being related to the baptism of Jesus, it is noteworthy that the Gospel of John appears to downplay this episode; it is not even narrated directly, but only indirectly, through the testimony of the Baptist. The traditional detail from the Baptism scene which the author emphasizes is two-fold:

  • The presence of the Spirit (1:32-33), and
  • The identification of Jesus as the Son and Chosen (i.e. Anointed) One of God (1:34)

It thus seems unlikely to me that the author of the letter is specifically referring to Jesus’ baptism in 5:6-8. This leaves options #1 and 3 above. In analyzing each of these, it is important to consider the significance of water in the Gospel. I find three distinct themes or aspects:

  • A figure and symbol of the Spirit
  • Symbolic of the new/eternal Life which Jesus gives
  • Association with the sacrificial death of Jesus

The evidence cited above appears to be divided rather equally between these, with the first two being particularly emphasized. I would divide the passages into two primary themes:

  1. Life through the Spirit—1:26 (cf. 32-33); 3:3-8 (birth motif); 4:7-15ff; 7:37-39
  2. Association with Jesus’ death (i.e. blood)—2:6-9ff (cp. 6:51-58); 13:5ff; 19:34

Now, in Johannine thought, Life and the Spirit are closely associated with the idea of birth—especially the motif of believers coming to be born (i.e. a new, spiritual birth). This is expressed most clearly in John 3:3-8, where water and the Spirit are tied together in a manner similar to water and blood in 1 Jn 5:6-8; note the parallelism of logic:

  • born out of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5)—i.e. not out of water alone, but also of the Spirit (cp. the same contrast in 1:26)
  • come in/through water and blood—not only water, but also blood (1 Jn 5:6)

It is important to understand the contrast Jesus establishes in Jn 3:5ff; as verse 6 makes clear, there is a parallel between water and flesh, indicating that the idea of human birth is in view:

  • water = “flesh”—ordinary, physical human birth and life
  • water and Spirit—the new spiritual life (“from above”) given to a human being through trust in Jesus

Based on this thematic logic, I believe that the birth (and human life) of Jesus is primarily in view in 1 John 5:6:

  • coming through/in water = Jesus’ birth and (incarnate) life
  • coming through/in blood = Jesus’ sacrificial death

These reflect the beginning and end points of Jesus’ earthly life and mission, and, significantly, “water and blood” are featured in the two episodes which open and close Jesus’ ministry on earth:

  • The miracle at Cana (2:1-11)—water and wine (= “blood”)
  • The death of Jesus (19:34)—blood and water

Both elements (water and blood) reflect Jesus’ human life which he sacrificed (poured out) for us. The issue for the author of 1 John is that there were would-be believers (“antichrists”, who have separated from the Johannine congregations) who did not correctly believe (and confess) that Jesus “came in the flesh”—that he was born and lived on earth as a true human being (i.e., an early “docetic” view of Christ). Now, if Jesus did not exist as a true flesh-and-blood human being, then neither did he shed real (human) blood on behalf of humankind. For later Christian authors and theologians in the second and third centuries, this was the most serious consequence of a docetic Christology—if Jesus was not a real human being like us, then he could not have truly suffered and died on our behalf, and this effectively nullifies the salvific meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. In combating the docetic views of “Gnostics” and others at the time, proto-orthodox theologians such as Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian were absolutely clear on this point. The same point, it would seem, was recognized already by the author of First John. Consider the logic:

  • Jesus came “in the flesh“—i.e. incarnation, existence as a real human being
    • = came “in/through water“—a real earthly life on earth, including the period of his ministry (the beginning of which is marked by water-motifs in 1:26-34; 2:1-11)
    • not only a real earthly life (in/through water), but Jesus also
      • came “in/through blood“—a real (human) death and shedding of blood, which has saving power for humankind

Johannine theology is unique in the way that these essential Christological motifs are tied so closely to the presence of the Spirit. The association between the Spirit and water is clear enough from the passages we have studied (and are cited above); however, the precise relationship between the Spirit and blood is not as readily apparent. And yet, the statements in vv. 6b-8 bring all three elements, or aspects, together into a triad. This is the subject which we will be discussing in the next daily note.

References above marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982). Those marked “Ehrman” are to B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Note of the Day – June 28 (1 John 5:6-8)

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1 John 5:6-8

The two central themes of 1 John—trust in Jesus and love of believer for one another—are brought together again at the start of chapter 5. Just as they represented the two aspects of the two-fold command, or duty, for the believer in Christ, so here they define one’s Christian identity—as a son/child of God, one who has come to be born of God. This is stated clearly in verse 1:

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

The articular perfect participle o( gegennhme/no$ (“the [one] having coming to be [born]”) serves as a title for believers in the Johannine letters. Apart, it would seem, from the second occurrence in 5:18, the verb genna/w in 1 John always is used of believers, referring to our spiritual birth “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=)—cf. 2:29; 3:9 (twice); 4:7; 5:4, 18; also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8. It is always used in the passive, i.e. the so-called “divine passive”, where God (and the Spirit of God) is the implied subject; only in the second occurrence here in verse 1 is God indicated as the active subject.

Love is the aspect emphasized in vv. 2-3, while faith/trust in Jesus is given emphasis in vv. 4ff. Indeed, in verses 4-5 it is stated that our trust in Jesus is that which gives us victory over the world:

“(For it is) that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God is victorious [nika=|] (over) the world; and this is the victory [nikh/] th(at) gives victory [nikh/sasa] (over) the world—our trust. [And] who is the (one com)ing to be victorious (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God.”

In the Johannine writings the word ko/smo$ refers, according to the fundamental meaning of the word, to the current world order—i.e. the arrangement of things as they have come to be for created (spec. human) beings, governed and dominated by sin and darkness. In John 16:33, the closing words of the Last Discourse proper, Jesus declares “I have been victorous [neni/khka] (over) the world!” Presumably it is the completion of Jesus’ mission on earth—the e)ntolh/ given to him by the Father—culminating in his sacrificial death (cf. 19:30) which is in view. This same duty or “command” (e)ntolh/) is expressed for the believer in terms of trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers, as we have seen. The word e)ntolh/ appears again here in verse 3, connected specifically with the duty to love, but it would apply just as well to the trust that is emphasized in vv. 4ff. Just as Jesus was victorious over the world, so, too, are we through our trust in him.

This “trust” (pi/sti$) is not left unqualified. For the author of the letter, true trust or “faith” in Jesus means something definite—a specific recognition (and confession) of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah) and Son of God. Of particular interest for the author is the Christological belief that Jesus was the Anointed One and Son of God who came to earth in the flesh (e)n sarki/). This is the test given in 4:2-3, and any message which denies, or is unwilling to admit, this about Jesus, is “against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristo$, i.e. “antichrist”). From the context, we may fairly assume that such a Christological view characterized those who separated from the Johannine congregations. It may also explain why the author begins the letter as he does (in 1:1), emphasizing the (concrete) hearing, seeing and touching of Jesus. Such a view (denying Jesus’ coming “in the flesh”) would seem to reflect some early kind of “docetic” Christology—i.e., that Jesus was not a true flesh-and-blood human being (in the ordinary sense), but only seemed to be so. It must be admitted, as many commentators have noted, that it would not be difficult for such a Christological outlook to develop from the Gospel of John itself with its “high” Christology. By comparison with the Synoptic Gospels, and other early strands of Gospel tradition, the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel gives relatively less emphasis on certain aspects of Jesus’ human nature—i.e. his experience as a true human being.

It is particularly in regard to Jesus’ experience of human suffering that the Gospel of John differs considerably from the Synoptics. Consider that:

  • There is no institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Last Supper scene; as a result, the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood is not emphasized (or even mentioned) in chapters 13-17. By contrast, earlier references to Jesus’ upcoming death stress his (divine) authority in laying down his life, and taking it up again (cf. 10:17-18, etc).
  • In the Garden scene (18:1-11f), there is no account of any suffering by Jesus such as we see in Mk 14:34-39 par; [Lk 22:43-44] (but note Jn 12:27). By contrast, Jesus is depicted as being fully in control of events, speaking with such authority to his captors that they fall to the ground (v. 5-8).
  • Similarly, Jesus speaks with divine authority to Pilate (18:33-38; 19:9-11), while in the Synoptics he says virtually nothing.
  • There is no “cry of dereliction” by Jesus on the cross, nor any loud cry at the moment of his death; nor is there any account of people standing by mocking him. By contrast, Jesus is surrounded by his mother and close disciples, and appears to speak calmly, depicted as being in control of events, even at the very moment of his death (19:25-30).

Clearly, the Gospel writer has a very different side of the story he is telling, one which, while drawing upon many of the same fundamental historical traditions as the Synoptics, is presented in different manner, with themes and points of emphasis unique to the Johannine Tradition. One especially important tradition—that of the blood and water emerging out of Jesus side (19:31-37, vv. 34, 37)—would seem to relate in some way to 1 John 5:6-8. Here is how this passage begins:

“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in the water only, but in the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (to this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth.” (v. 6)

The initial (emphatic) pronoun (“this”, ou!to$) picks up from the end of verse 5, and refers to Jesus, the Son of God (“…that Yeshua is the Son of God”); the same identification is specified parethetically in v. 6, thus combining the two titles marking Jesus’ identity:

  • “Yeshua…the Son of God
  • “Yeshua the Anointed (One)

As in the case of the declaration in 4:2-3, it is not enough to trust/proclaim Jesus by these titles, but also to recognize (and confess) that Jesus came “through water and blood”. This phrase, and the statement in v. 6a, has long perplexed commentators—how exactly should this phrase be understood, and what, indeed, does it mean? The first clue lies in the obvious parallel with 4:2-3; note the specific belief regarding Jesus which was the point of contention between the author and the “antichrists”:

  • Jesus…has come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] (4:2)
  • Jesus…is the one (hav)ing come through water and blood [di’ u%dato$ kai\ ai%mato$] (5:6)

While the preposition dia/ (“through”) is different, that it may be understood as synonymous with e)n (“in”) is clear from the phrasing which follows: “in water and blood” (e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ tw=| ai%mati). Thus the parallel is even more precise:

  • in the flesh
  • in water and blood

In other words, to say that Jesus came “in water and blood” is generally the same as saying that he came “in the flesh”. At the same time, the phrase in 5:6 also appears to build on that in 4:2, indicating a development of thought. If “in the flesh” indicates that Jesus was born as a real flesh-and-blood human being, taking on the human condition, then the expression “water and blood” must relate to this in some way. This will be the focus of the discussion in the next daily note.