22 October 2008

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 3-11

The entrance to the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus: local tradition says Saint John the Divine lived on this site after his exile on Patmos ended, and wrote his Gospel and Epistles here (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008).

Patrick Comerford

This section contains three claims to intimate knowledge of God, expressed by the three Greek participles ho legon (ὁ λέγων , “the one who says”) at the beginning of verse 4, 6, and 9. As with the three conditional clauses beginning with ean eipomen (ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, “if we say”) in the previous section (1: 6, 1: 8, 1: 10), these participles indirectly reflect the claims of the opponents. They are followed by the author’s evaluation of these claims and their implications.

While the subject matter generally continues from the preceding section, the focus shifts from awareness and acknowledgment of sin to obedience to God’s commandments. It is through obedience that we may have assurance of the genuineness of our relationship with God. In this section, the writer is talking about discipline.

In the section, I John specifically emphasises the theme of keeping the commandments in order to know God. In this we need to remember that knowledge implies intimacy.

We can see here a virtual repetition of the first part of the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel.

The concept of “light” (contrasted with “darkness”) introduced in 1: 5 appears again (for the last time in 1 John) in 2: 8-11. The concept of “fellowship,” introduced in the prologue (1: 4) and discussed in 1: 8 to 2: 2, no longer appears in this section, but is replaced by an emphasis on “knowing” and “loving” God along with loving fellow believers (2:3, 4, 5, 10).

There are three claims to intimate knowledge of God. These are found in verses 4, 6 and 9. Each claim begins with the phrase “the one who says…” or “whoever says” and each of these claims reflect the position of the secessionist opponents.

Love of God, which is a two-way relationship involving the love of God for us and the love of God that we have, is perfected by keeping the commandments.

Verses 3-5 talk about obedience to God’s commandments. This obedience tests whether we know God, and measures the perfection of completeness of our love of God (see John 14: 15, 21, 23; John 15: 10).

Verse 3: The significance of the word kai (Καὶ, “and” or “now”) at the beginning of 2: 3 is important for understanding the argument, because a similar use of the conjunction kai occurs at the beginning of 1: 5. Here it is looking back to the previous use in 1: 5. The author, after discussing three claims of the opponents in 1: 6, 8, and 10 and putting forward three counter-claims of his own in 1: 7, 1: 9, and 2: 1, is now returning to the theme of God as light, which he introduced in 1: 5. The author will now discuss how a Christian may have assurance that he or she has come to know the God who is light, against the opponents who make the same profession of knowing God, but who lack the reality of such knowledge, as their behaviour makes clear.

Verse 3: There is some problem determining whether the pronouns in verse 3 – αὐτόν, αὐτοῦ, which are translated as “him” and “his” in the NRSV but as God in other translations – refer to God the Father or to Jesus Christ. It is more likely the author of I John is referring to God the Father here. When John wants to specify a reference to Jesus, he uses the expression “that one” (ἐκεῖνος, verse 6; translated in some versions as Jesus but not in the original Greek text). The author’s point in this verse is that obedience to God’s commandments gives us assurance that we have come to know God.

The author does not explicitly state what the “commandments” are which believers are supposed to obey. One might immediately assume that the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments.

However, there is no indication anywhere else in I John (except, perhaps, in 5: 21, with its prohibition of idolatry) that the author is concerned about the Mosaic law. God’s commands are spelled out later in the letter, in 3: 23: “Now this is his commandment: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he gave us the commandment.” The phrase “love one another” is found as the “new commandment” of John 13: 34, and is a major Johannine theme.

Verse 6: Jesus is the pattern of obedience.

In this verse, there is no distinction between God (the Father – “abide in him”) and Christ (“as he walked/lived”). This ambiguity may be explained, perhaps, by the conviction that Jesus and the Father are one.

Verses 7-11: This section emphasises love for one another.

Verse 7: The thoughts of love and of commandments introduce the great commandment of the Last Supper (see John 13: 34).

Verse 8: The commandment to love, though old, is never obsolete or out-of-date. Instead, it is always new, being the law of the new age and overcoming the darkness of evil (see I John 1: 5; John 13: 34; John 15: 12). The reference to the “true light” reminds us of the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel.

Verses 9-11: Hatred of a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, is incompatible with Christ’s light (see John 8: 12; John 11: 9-10; John 12: 35-36). The failure to keep the great commandment of love removes one from the sphere of the light of Jesus.

Next week: John 2: 12-14.

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 22 October 2008.

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