05 November 2008

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 15-27

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, with the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

15 Μὴ ἀγαπᾶτε τὸν κόσμον μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ: 16 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου, οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐστίν. 17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

18 Παιδία, ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν, καὶ καθὼς ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἀντίχριστος ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἀντίχριστοι πολλοὶ γεγόνασιν: ὅθεν γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν. 19 ἐξ ἡμῶν ἐξῆλθαν, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἦσαν ἐξ ἡμῶν: εἰ γὰρ ἐξ ἡμῶν ἦσαν, μεμενήκεισαν ἂν μεθ' ἡμῶν: ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῶσιν ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν πάντες ἐξ ἡμῶν. 20 καὶ ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου, καὶ οἴδατε πάντες. 21 οὐκ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἀλήθειαν, ἀλλ' ὅτι οἴδατε αὐτήν, καὶ ὅτι πᾶν ψεῦδος ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἔστιν. 22 Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ψεύστης εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀρνούμενος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ Χριστός; οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀντίχριστος, ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν υἱόν. 23 πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει: ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει. 24 ὑμεῖς ὃ ἠκούσατε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἐν ὑμῖν μενέτω: ἐὰν ἐν ὑμῖν μείνῃ ὃ ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἠκούσατε, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε. 25 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο ἡμῖν, τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον.

26 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν περὶ τῶν πλανώντων ὑμᾶς. 27 καὶ ὑμεῖς τὸ χρῖσμα ὃ ἐλάβετε ἀπ' αὐτοῦ μένει ἐν ὑμῖν, καὶ οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ἵνα τις διδάσκῃ ὑμᾶς: ἀλλ' ὡς τὸ αὐτοῦ χρῖσμα διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων, καὶ ἀληθές ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος, καὶ καθὼς ἐδίδαξεν ὑμᾶς, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ.


For the past two or three weeks in chapel, we have been working our way each day through the Lectionary readings from the Revelation to John. As we work through the Johannine Letters in our tutorial group, we have been reminded that there are three different genres in the Johannine literature in the New Testament – the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters, and the Revelation – with at least three completely different styles of writing.

Raymond Brown would add a fourth category, describing I John not as a letter or an epistle but as an exhortation interpreting the main themes of the Fourth Gospel.

The style in I John is so different it is often difficult to follow the thoughts. However, it helps in studying I John to notice how thoughts are grouped into threes throughout the epistle. Some of the groups of three are very obvious – such as the grouping of the children of God into three categories (little children, young men, and fathers) in the poem we studied last week (I John 2: 12-14).

Other groups of three can be found through careful reading. These include the repetition of the phrase, “If we say” in chapter 1. In these cases, the writer repeats an expression or thought three times. He often divides sentences or phrases into three clauses – and in this morning’s section we find another example of this in verse 16, with “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches,” or as other translations describe them, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”

The world, the flesh and devil, indeed!

Verses 15-27:

Last week, we looked at the poem in I John 2: 12-14, where the little children, young men, and fathers, whose sins have been forgiven, who know the Father, who know Christ, and who are strong, are told that the word of God remains in them and that they have conquered the evil one.

In these verses we move on to the consequences of that faith and that strength in faith. The thought of the evil one who has been conquered in the last section leads to this section and to the writer’s thoughts on the domain of that evil one in the world.

In his last discourse in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus said that he was not of this world, and that his followers should not be of this world. Any love of the world runs contrary to being a follower of Christ. By the abiding word of God, those who are young in the faith may well overcome the wicked one’s attempts to divert by false teaching. But what about his attempts to divert them by using the influences of the world? This is a particular snare John anticipates and his remedy is to thoroughly define this snare in order to expose what it is in its true character.

Verses 15-17:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.”

The three characteristics of the world outlined in I John are well-known as concupiscence, envy and pride. I am always tempted by lust, money and power, and know it. This is not, by any manes, an exhaustive list of the snares awaiting us in the world. But they were certainly high on the list of the temptations facing the new Christians in the Johannine community in Ephesus, the largest port in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time, and the centre of the cult of Artemis.

John’s κόσμος:

John’s exile was spent on Patmos, south of Samos, the birthplace and home of the philosopher, Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) of Samos. John would have been familiar with Samos, and a journey from Patmos to Ephesus involved stopping off at Samos. For Pythagoras, it was number or mathematical principle that which gives order, harmony, rhythm, and beauty to the world. This harmony keeps a balance both in the cosmos and in the soul.

Pythagoras ascribed a certain musical energy to everything to be found in the world, and he was the first to call the heavens κόσμος (kosmos, cosmos), a term implying a universe with orderly movements and events, because they are adorned with life and were created by a kind of harmony. For the Pythagoreans, harmony and balance was the principle that determines the order of the cosmos. For example, they divided all numbers into a pair of odd and even numbers. This Pythagorean perspective on duality was extended to paired elements in the world – such as left and right; finite and infinite; one and many; light and darkness – and this is reflected throughout the Johannine writings.

The κόσμος of Pythagoras is the κόσμος in John 3: 16, the verse Martin Luther called “the Gospel in miniature”: For God so loved the world (κόσμος, kosmos) that he gave (sent) his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον).

The word κόσμος is also used in the Greek of the time to describe the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (I Peter 3: 3); the circle of the earth, the earth itself; the inhabitants of the earth, the human family. The word κόσμος is also used for the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (see Romans 11: 12) or for all saved by Christ (see John 1: 29; 3: 17; 6: 33; 12: 47; I Corinthians 4: 9; II Corinthians 5: 19). And The word κόσμος is also used to describe the ungodly multitude, the whole mass of humanity alienated from God and hostile to Christ; world affairs and all things earthly; the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages and pleasures which are hollow, frail and fleeting, yet stir our desire, tempt us away from God and are obstacles between us and Christ.

It is in the last sense, rather than its use in John 3: 16, that the word κόσμος is now used in this passage in I John: “for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world” (NRSV).

All that is in the world is summed up by three moral principles originating in the human heart: the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. I want what I see, I get what I want, and me, me, me. The characteristic snares of idolatry in the Old Testament were these three temptations. The worship of Baal and Astarte, and later of Artemis in the Ephesus of the Johannine community, gave religious licence to sexual promiscuity with the supposed promise of increased material prosperity and power – the triple temptations of pleasure, possessions and power.

Of course, the issue is not whether we have pleasure, power or possessions, but whether we love them and whether we are governed by the means of getting them. If so, the love of the Father is not in us. We may well have been the recipients of God’s love, but it is not in us in a practical and experiential way that is enjoyed in communion with God.

Verse 18:

“[Little] Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour” (NRSV).

Little Children

The word for children here is Παιδία (paidía, “little children”), from the word παιδίον (paidíon), meaning a young child, a little boy or girl, an infant, one who is recently born. Here we find an emphasis on the readers as little ones who are in need of care, nurture, direction and responsible instruction and discipline. The gifts of the Holy Spirit and the provisions of grace do not remove the need for personal exercise and faithfulness.

last hour

Having considered the transitory nature of the world, the writer now starts to consider its end. The “last day” is referred to seven times in the Fourth Gospel. In the New Testament, the phrase “last days” refers to the last days of the age. Peter and Jude use similar expressions denoting the same time. In I Peter 1: 5 we have “the last time” (καιρός ἔσχατος, kairos eschatos), and in Jude 18, “in the last time” (Ἐπ' ἐσχάτου [τοῦ] χρόνου, ep’ eschatou [tou] chronou).

The apostles expected his coming at any moment – as can be recognised by the use of expressions such as, “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4: 15) or when Christ spoke of the possibility of John remaining until he come (John 21: 22-23).

But here, in the last hour or last time, we have a working-out of John’s partially realised eschatology. The present is the last hour, since the apocalyptic struggle between Satan and Christ is already being fought out between the false propagandists and the true Christians.

Many antichrists:

I John presents the false teachers of the time in a reinterpretation of the traditional, one, monstrous personification of evil.

The word “antichrists” is used exclusively in the Johannine letters. The prefix “anti-” can mean both “instead of” and “against.” People who do not necessarily falsely claim to be Christ can be characteristically antichrists – not necessarily instead of him, for example by claiming to be the Messiah, but against him by their false teaching and practice.

Verse 19:

“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

In this passage, those who are against Christ, the antichrists, are former nominal Christians who have openly left the Johannine community and the Church. They have joined forces with the great liar, Satan, by denying that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh (see I John 4: 3). If one denies the Son, then one denies the Father, because the Son is our chief means of knowing the Father.

out from us, belong to us, remianed with us

Here again we meet the writers grouping of concepts in threes. Those members of the Johannine community who had been part of the Church for a while, but have now left it, have broken away and have spoilt the unity of the Church. Their separation from the Church and the truth shows had never really been with the community in truth; their teachings and practices make it apparent that they were never truly part of the Church.

Verses 20, 21:

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.”

Here again, we have a Johannine grouping of three. With anointing by the Holy One, we have knowledge [of all things], you know the truth, and no lie comes from the truth.


The word chrisma literally refers to the oil used for anointing Old Testament priests, kings, prophets and those cleansed from leprosy. In the New Testament, Christ (Acts 10: 38) and individual Christians (II Corinthians 1: 21-22) are anointed with the Holy Spirit.

The words “unction” (chrisma), “Christ” and “Christian” have the same root. “Christ” means “anointed.”

The Holy One

If, as Raymond Brown suggests, John has hardly any need to tell his readers, his children, that they have been anointed by the Holy One, there are still questions about who “the Holy One” agioV refers to. Is this God, God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Or all three? Or the holy one, the saint, who is the leader or founder of the Johannine community, who has baptised or anointed them?

However we read it, by being anointed from the Holy One, the little children are inwardly marked out as belonging to the Church, the Body of Christ. By staying “with us” they were outwardly marked out as belonging to the Church.

We have all heard someone say, “I don’t need to go to Church because I have the Holy Spirit within me and he teaches me everything I need”? This is certainly not the intent of what John says. He speaks to young believers who were amongst the “us” he was “with” and not to individual Christians.

Knowledge or know all things

The words at the end of verse 20 translated as “all of you have knowledge” are rendered in some manuscripts as “and you know all things.” However, the KJV and ASV are translations that are based on this alternative reading.

John goes on to say that it is because of this full knowledge that he is writing to them (verse 20) and from this they know that no lie comes from the truth.

Christ promised his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, that Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth …” (John 16: 13). Because they possessed the Spirit, they had the capacity for knowledge, to know all things, for wisdom.

There are two different words for “know”. The word used here is the one for intuitive knowledge, as opposed to knowledge acquired by learning. The Holy Spirit gives the inward capacity for judging whether what is taught is true or false. The false teachers do not have this ability because they do not have the Holy Spirit. But the youngest believers have both.

Verse 21

The anointing with the Spirit enables individual Christians to adhere to the truth of the teaching they have received and this maintains them in eternal life, the intimate knowledge of the Father and the Son.

the truth

The truth is referred to in a variety of ways throughout I John:

1:6 refers to practising the truth

1:8 and 2:4 refer to the truth being in us

2:21 refers firstly to knowing the truth and secondly to a lie being not of the truth

3:18 refers to loving in truth

3:19 refers to us being of the truth

4:6 refers to the spirit of truth

and in 5:6 the Spirit is the truth

The truth enables anything to be seen in its right proportions, while falsehood puts things out of proportion, inflates me out of proportion and minimises God out of proportion. If I have a false conception of God, how can I know the truth? This is the case with the apostate teacher. Truth defines relationships and enables anything to be seen in its right proportions.

We talk about the Spirit as the truth and of Christ as the truth, enabling us to see and comprehend everything in its right place relative to God. The specific context here is in reference to any teaching about Christ.

Verses 22, 23:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. (verses 22, 23).

In these verses we have another Johannine listing of threes, this time three distinct denials:

1, denying that Jesus is the Christ.
2, denying the Father and the Son;
3, denying the Son.

In the first case, the one who is denying is a liar. In the second case, the one who is denying is antichrist. In the third case, the one who is denying does not have the Father either.

The first case is specific – “denies that…”. The other two are general – “denies…” – without saying exactly what is denied concerning the Father and the Son. In the third case a clause is added to show that confession is the opposite side of denial. Concerning the Son one must confess. It is not satisfactory merely to refrain from denying.

Those John is writing to are filled with the gift of the Spirit’s knowledge, and this is the Spirit of truth who guides into all the truth (John 14: 17; 15: 26; 16: 13). So there is no place here for Satan’s lie to take hold. The lies of the antichrist struck at the very foundation of their faith.

In John’s day, the Gnostic teaching, perhaps of Cerinthus, was leading people astray. He taught that Jesus only became the Christ after his anointing by the Spirit at his baptism, and that it left him at Calvary. So, he was the Christ, the anointed one of God, only during his earthly ministry, and apart from this he was just a man.

Outwardly these heretics may not have denied the Father, but when they denied the Son, they automatically denied the Father, as John makes clear in his Gospel. For the Lord Jesus manifested the Father completely, so much so that He could say: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14: 9; and note verse 7, also 8: 19). Our only approach to the Father is by the Son (John 14: 6), and they are so united that to deny the Son is to deny the Father at the same time.

Verses 24, 25:

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (verses 24, 25).

what you have heard

I John uses emphatic pronouns in a beautiful way here, contrasting the young believers with the antichrists.

From the beginning

Compared to the phrase “from the beginning” in I John 1: 1, there is a difference in the use of this phrase here. In the opening verse, it was the beginning of the manifestation of eternal life in this world in the Person of Christ. Here it relates to the beginning of the spiritual history of each individual. But then, my spiritual history starts with the incarnate Christ in the world. Here, the concept of the Spirit teaching the individual is linked too with the authoritative guide of tradition: “… what you have heard from the beginning.”


The writer goes on to remind his readers that belief in the truth of God is of little good to them unless they live by it. What lays at the basis of our spiritual history is the same thing that will sustain us throughout our Christian lives. John’s focus is the substance of Christianity – not merely that we once believed (past tense) but that we believe (present tense). Not merely that we started with a right apprehension of Christ, having trusted him as Saviour as presented in the Gospel, but allowing that word to remain in us as sustaining power. If … then. If that word abides in us, then we abide in the Son and in the Father.

life eternal

The wondrous promises of God, which are found in all their fullness in Christ, will be enjoyed and never have an end, for resurrection life means eternal life. The writer reminds his readers that this is one of God’s great promises to the believer, and we have here the only occurrence of ἐπαγγελία (epangelia, promise) in the Johannine writings.

The writer does not just say that he has promised eternal life to us – but the preceding thoughts define what eternal life means in this setting. It is not the future possession of eternal life, nor is it the present possession of eternal life, but it is the practical possession of eternal life. It is only practically enjoyed when his word abides in us and when we abide in the Son and in the Father. This is eternal life.

How reminiscent this is of Christ’s prayer in John 17: 3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Not just knowing about them, not just saying I know them because I believed and I am been saved, but enjoying that practical knowledge, that intimacy, that abiding. And this is Christianity at its highest and its best, this is the proper portion of the little children, the youngest believers in Christ!

Verses 26-27:

“I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him” (verses 26, 27).

As a guardian of those under his care, John warns them against the false gnostic teaching that would lead them into error. At the same time he reminds them of the teaching of the great revealer of truth, the Holy Spirit, which if held tenaciously, would prevent this, and so they could “abide” or “remain” in Christ.

It is worth noting that throughout this passage, while the Spirit may be implied in different verses, the author of I John avoids using the Johannine term for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. The Spirit is implied throughout, but Is the author avoiding this because of the Spirit-based language and terminology used by his opponents, the secessionists?

And yet these last two verses summarise what John has said to the little children – calling to mind and drawing together what he has already said so far. He may be repeating himself and may appear to be repetitious, but then good teaching often needs to be repeated and at times even to be repetitious.

Next week: I John 2: 28 – 3: 10

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday, 5 November 2008.

No comments: