12 October 2011

The Johannine Letters (2): I John 2: 1-11

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

I John 2: 1-11

1 Τεκνία μου, ταῦτα γράφω ὑμῖν ἵνα μὴ ἁμάρτητε. καὶ ἐάν τις ἁμάρτῃ, παράκλητον ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν δίκαιον: 2 καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου.

3 Καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐγνώκαμεν αὐτόν, ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν. 4 ὁ λέγων ὅτι Ἔγνωκα αὐτόν, καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ μὴ τηρῶν, ψεύστης ἐστίν, καὶ ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀλήθεια οὐκ ἔστιν: 5 ὃς δ' ἂν τηρῇ αὐτοῦ τὸν λόγον, ἀληθῶς ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ τετελείωται. ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐσμεν: 6 ὁ λέγων ἐν αὐτῷ μένειν ὀφείλει καθὼς ἐκεῖνος περιεπάτησεν καὶ αὐτὸς [οὕτως] περιπατεῖν.

7 Ἀγαπητοί, οὐκ ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐντολὴν παλαιὰν ἣν εἴχετε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς: ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ παλαιά ἐστιν ὁ λόγος ὃν ἠκούσατε. 8 πάλιν ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ὅ ἐστιν ἀληθὲς ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία παράγεται καὶ τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινὸν ἤδη φαίνει. 9 ὁ λέγων ἐν τῷ φωτὶ εἶναι καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῶν ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν ἕως ἄρτι. 10 ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φωτὶ μένει, καὶ σκάνδαλον ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν: 11 ὁ δὲ μισῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν καὶ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ περιπατεῖ, καὶ οὐκ οἶδεν ποῦ ὑπάγει, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία ἐτύφλωσεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ.

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; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

A shift of focus

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.

Verse 1:

“That you may not sin … this is the ultimate goal of Christian living (see Romans 6: 11).

“Advocate” (paraclete) ... one who pleads the cause of another. But compare the application of paraclete or Advocate here to Christ and its use in the Fourth Gospel for the Holy Spirit.

Verses 3-5:

These verses 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 verse 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.

There is some problem determining whether the pronouns in verse 3 – αὐτόν, αὐτοῦ (afton, aftou), 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, ekeinos) in verse 6. This is translated in some versions as Jesus, but this is not to be found 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 he is referring to 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 Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 12 October 2011.

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