Friday, 23 September 2011

New beginnings in … the Johannine Letters

Saint John the Divine on his deathbed ... from a window in Chartres Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Reading: 1 John 4: 7-16


Like Saint John’s Gospel, the Johannine letters begin at the beginning too.

The first of these letters begins: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life …” (I John 1: 1).

This prologue to I John resembles a primitive sketch of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. It is a new beginning. And then, the Johannine epistles are punctuated with the advice, nay, the command, “Little children love one another,” or similar words.

There are seven such words of advice in 1 John:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous … (1 John 2: 1).

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name (1 John 2: 12).

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming (1 John 2: 28).

Little children … let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous (1 John 3: 7).

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3: 18).

Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4: 4).

Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5: 21).

Love is so central to opening and understanding Johannine theology and spirituality that the three Johannine letters, which are among the shortest books in the Bible, contain the word “love” in advice no less than 32 times.

Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians 6 (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.

The evangelist was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.” One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.” That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

Saint John’s, John Street, Lichfield

I often share the story of my first adult experience of God pouring out his light and love into my life when I was at the age of 19. It happened for me when I walked into the church attached to Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield. It was an experience of being filled with the Light and the Love of God, and so the Johannine writings have had a special meaning for me ever since: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all … if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another” (I John 1: 5, 7).

In recent years I have been privileged too to visit Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, to pay a number of visits to Ephesus, which appears to have been the centre of the Johannine Community addressed in the Johannine Letters, where John is said to have moved after his exile on Patmos ended, and where he is said to be buried, and to have visited many of the places associated with the Seven Churches of Revelation.

These are short Epistles, but it is surprising how familiar they are to so many. Within the traditions of the Church of Ireland, I think of how familiar they are with those words from I John 1: 8-9 used as sentences to introduce Morning Prayer I and Evening Prayer I:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 84).

Or these words from I John 2: 1, 2 after the absolution in Holy Communion 1:

“Hear also what Saint John saith, If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation of our sins” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 186).

The site of Saint John’s tomb in in Selçuk near Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

But I’d like us to turn for a few moments to I John 2: 12-14. This poetic section in I John deals with our true relationship with God in Christ. The two main assurances the writer gives the readers are found in verses 12 and 14, and concern the principle difficulties with the false propagandists. These two assurances are: the forgiveness of sins, and true knowledge of the Father.

John is reassuring rather than rebuking his readers, and he does this by using a poetic structure that is built on patterns of three and that is presented in two parts, so that verse 14 is a poetic restating of verses 12-13, then followed by a contrasting pair of concluding lines.

Sadly, many English translations of the New Testament (including the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version and the Living Bible) miss the poetic presentation of these three verses by editing them as three prose verses rather than as three stanzas, the first two in three paired lines each, and the third in two single paired lines:

12 Γράφω ὑμῖν, τεκνία,
ὅτι ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι διὰ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.

13 Γράφω ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

Γράφω ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

14 ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, παιδία,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν πατέρα.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι ἰσχυροί ἐστε

καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν μένει
καὶ νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.

I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young people,
because you are strong

and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.


The poetic structure of these verses is emphasised in the significant switch in tenses in the verb Γράφω (grapho, “I am writing”) from the present to the aorist.

The present tense of Γράφω (grapho) is used three times in verses 12-13, while the aorist tense ἔγραψα (egrapsa, I write) is used three times in verse 14. The content of the three aorist clauses is virtually a repetition of the three present clauses.

At first, it appears the author is addressing three groups or categories of believers in these poetic verses. Firstly, we have τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), who are also addressed in the second part as παιδία (paidia, “children”). Secondly, we have πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”); and finally we have νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”). They are dealt with in two sequences: in verses 12-13 and then again in verse 14.

All believers are τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), because we are born again and our sins are forgiven. All of us are πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”), because we believe in him who was from the beginning. And all are νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”), because we are resisting the devil. This fits in with the poetic construction of these three verses.

Another interpretation suggests that two groups of people are being considered in I John 2: 12-14. They are first addressed as a whole – little children and children. Then they are addressed as two separate groups, fathers and young people. The author uses of τεκνία (teknia) elsewhere in I John to refer to the entire readership, rather than a select group within it (see 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3: 18, 4: 4, and 5: 21). The same is true of παιδία (paidia), which is used of everyone in 2: 18, and which probably is a stylistic variation with τεκνία (teknia).

On the other hand, the use of πατέρες (pateres) and νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi) to refer to groups within the Christian community is appropriate, because nowhere in the New Testament does either term refer to the Church at large or to the entire community of Christians.

We could conclude that the first clause in each group of three, introduced by τεκνία (teknia) in 2: 12 and παιδία (paidia) in 2: 14, addresses the entire group of readers, while the next two terms address groups within the community. Whether these subgroups are distinguished by actual age or by spiritual maturity is not entirely clear; either could be the case and the evidence from the text is inconclusive.

The children or little children

The first group are the children or little children. These may be taken as general terms of address for the whole Christian group, which includes both the fathers and the young men (see I John 2: 1, 18, 28).

Having begun a direct exhortation to his readers in 2: 1 with the address τεκνία μου (teknia mou, “my little children”), the author now continues that exhortation.

In 2: 12, the author says: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” He addresses his readers directly as little children, and assures them that their sins are forgiven. Elsewhere in I John, the term “little children” refers to the entire group of readers rather than a select group (I John 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3; 18, 4; 4, 5: 21). Thus in 2: 12-14, it is not three distinct groups that are addressed, but the whole group, who are little children, followed by two sub-groups, addressed as fathers and young people. It is not clear whether these two sub-groups are distinguished by age or spiritual maturity.

The fathers

Those addressed as fathers are more likely to have been Christians for a lengthier period of time, rather than aged or elderly members of the community. They are appropriately connected with knowledge of the One who is from the beginning.

The young people

Those addressed as young people, are more likely to be recent Christians, than being youthful in years. They are appropriately connected with temptation and strength in overcoming Satan.

‘Because’ or ‘so that’

A poetic and dramatic impact is provided by the use of the word ὅτι (oti, because), which follows all six occurrences of the verb Γράφω (grapho) in 2: 12-14. By using the word ὅτι (oti) after each of the six occurrences of the present and aorist forms of the verb Γράφω (grapho), the author gives his reason for writing to his readers, underlining his assurance to them that runs throughout the letter. He is concerned that some of his readers could accept the claims of the opponents (see I John 1: 6, 8, and 10). The author’s counter-claims in 1: 7, 9, and 2: 1 are intended to strengthen the readers and to reassure them that their sins are forgiven.

The author is dealing with a community discouraged by the controversy that has arisen within it, a community in need of exhortation.

As you begin a new academic year, there are times during this coming academic year when you are going to feel discouraged. There are times in the coming year when, like all communities, you will wonder whether the problems you face are so grave that they are in danger of creating divisions.

But at all times in the coming year, it is important that all who are fathers (and mothers) in the faith, and those who are new to the call of ordained ministry – if, in Johannine terms, I may refer to the students among you as their children – that you love one another.

To paraphrase Jerome’s account of John’s abiding sermon, “Little children, love one another. Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living together as Christians, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This address the second of three addresses at “I Make all Things New,” a quiet day for the beginning of the academic year, in Edgehill Theological College, Belfast, on 23 September 2011.

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