29 October 2008

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 12-14

‘You are strong and the word of God abides in you’ (I John 2: 14) ... The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

Patrick Comerford

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 is giving to the recipients of this letter 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 (for example, the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version and the Living Bible) miss the poetic presentation of these three verses by presenting 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.

14ἔγραψα 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.

‘I am writing’ and ‘I write’

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. Some interpreters understand this change refers to two different writings, so that the present tense refers what is currently being written in I John, while the aorist refers to something written previously. Some interpreters believe this previous work is the Fourth Gospel. Others suggest II John, which means II John was written before I John. Others still suggest a “lost letter,” and some commentators have suggested the “source” that was supposed to underlie I John.

The content of the three aorist clauses is virtually a repetition of the three present clauses. If the author literally means that he wrote virtually the same things before to the same audience, why does he write them again and then repeat what he had written earlier as well?

Perhaps the author does not intend the change in tenses to refer to a previous work, but in fact refers to the same work he is now writing, I John itself. Perhaps the variation between the present tenses of the first part of the poem and the aorist tenses of the second part are intentional, stylistic, poetic variations on the part of the author, emphasising what he is saying through poetic repetition.

Three titles or categories

The opponents of the Johannine community have been described in the subsection we discussed last week as being “in the darkness,” “walking in the darkness” and having their eyes “blinded” by the darkness (I John 2: 11). The recipients of the letter, however, are loyal to the community and the teaching of the author, and they abide or remain in the light (2: 10). Their sins are forgiven through Christ, the revelation of the eternal life of the Father, who has conquered Satan. But, how many groups of people are addressed in 2: 12-14?

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.

We could take these references literally, referring to different age groups. But we could also see the first group as new converts, the second as those who are spiritually mature, and the third as those who are moving towards maturity. But the order in which they are listed argues against this because there is no progression in the groups – either ascending from youngest to oldest, or descending from oldest to youngest.

On the other hand, we might also think that only one group is addressed in 2: 12-14, using three different titles. All believers are τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), because we are born again and our sins 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 with 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 readership. 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. But another difficulty in verses 12-14 arises because this word, translated as “because,” may also mean “[so] that.” This would give a different connotation to what is being said, leaving the author rebuking rather than reassuring his readers.

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.

2: 12, αὐτοῦ (autou, “his”):

This pronoun almost certainly refers to Christ. The last third person reference (2: 8) was understood as a reference to Christ, and this in turn goes back to the use of ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos, literally “that one”) in 2: 6, which is clearly a reference to Christ.

2: 13, τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who has been from the beginning”):

It could be argued that the expression “him who is from the beginning” refers either to God or to Jesus Christ, and that the use of the masculine singular article τὸν (ton) as a personal pronoun could refer either to God, who has existed “from the beginning of time,” or to Christ.

But since God the Father is clearly referred to in the next verse, a reference here to Christ is more likely. The entire phrase is so similar to Ὃ ἦν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ho en ap’ arches, “what was from the beginning”) in 1: 1, that it is most likely that we have a reference here to Christ. When the same phrase is used in I John 2: 14b, it follows an explicit reference to the Father in 2: 14a, resulting in a pointless repetition if the Father is being referred to.

The phrase ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ap’ arches, “from the beginning”) occurs twice before (in I John 1: 1 and 2: 7), and twice before it refers to the beginning of Christ’s earthly career and ministry, consistent with the stress the author places on the significance of Christ’s earthly career in contrast to his opponents. And so, ἀπ' ἀρχῆς here should be understood as a reference to the beginning of Christ’s self-revelation to his disciples in his earthly ministry.

2: 13, τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”):

Those who are addressed as fathers have remained faithful to the apostolic testimony about who Christ is. When the author turns to those he addresses as young people, the emphasis is on their victory over the evil one (i.e., Satan, a theme which will reappear later, in I John 5: 4-5, where it is apparent that all true Christians are “overcomers”).

In contrast to τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who is from the beginning”) in 2: 13a, which refers to Christ, we encounter τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”) for the first time here in 2: 13b. The phrase is used in the Fourth Gospel (John 17: 15) to refer to Satan, and that is its meaning here and in each of the four remaining occurrences in this letter (I John 2: 14, 3: 12; 5: 18; and 5: 19).

2: 14, poetic repetition:

In this verse, the author repeats himself for the sake of poetic emphasis.

In the second part of the verse, in a two-line stanza, the author introduces a new thought introduced concerning the word of God which abides in believers. Compare this with the words of Christ in John 5: 38: “nor do you have his [God’s] word abiding in you, because you do not believe the one [Jesus] whom he [God] sent”).

The meaning of and the reference to ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ (ho logos tou Theou, “the word of God”) in verse 14 is worth noting too. The last previous occurrence of this term was in I John 1: 10, in the phrase ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ (ho logos autou, “his word”). There, the phrase refers not to the personal Logos in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, but to the phrase at the end of I John 1: 1, which describes the message about eternal life revealed by Christ to his disciples from the beginning of his self-revelation during his earthly ministry. To be consistent with that, the phrase here should be interpreted in the same way.

Next week: I John 2: 15-27.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 29 October 2008.

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