16 November 2011

The Johannine Letters (6): I John 5: 1-21

A carved relief of Nike, the goddess of victory, on a paved street in Ephesus … but the author of I John writes to the Church in Ephesus about more important signs of victory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Part 1, I John 5: 1-12

1 Πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν γεννήσαντα ἀγαπᾷ [καὶ] τὸν γεγεννημένον ἐξ αὐτοῦ. 2 ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἀγαπῶμεν τὰ τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅταν τὸν θεὸν ἀγαπῶμεν καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ ποιῶμεν. 3 αὕτη γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν: καὶ αἱ ἐντολαὶ αὐτοῦ βαρεῖαι οὐκ εἰσίν, 4 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ νικᾷ τὸν κόσμον: καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ νίκη ἡ νικήσασα τὸν κόσμον, ἡ πίστις ἡμῶν. 5 τίς [δέ] ἐστιν ὁ νικῶν τὸν κόσμον εἰ μὴ ὁ πιστεύων ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ;

6 Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἐλθὼν δι' ὕδατος καὶ αἵματος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός: οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον ἀλλ' ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ ἐν τῷ αἵματι: καὶ τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν, ὅτι τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν ἡ ἀλήθεια. 7 ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες, 8 τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν. 9 εἰ τὴν μαρτυρίαν τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαμβάνομεν, ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ θεοῦ μείζων ἐστίν, ὅτι αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι μεμαρτύρηκεν περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ. 10 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἔχει τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἐν ἑαυτῷ: ὁ μὴ πιστεύων τῷ θεῷ ψεύστην πεποίηκεν αὐτόν, ὅτι οὐ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἣν μεμαρτύρηκεν ὁ θεὸς περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ. 11 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία, ὅτι ζωὴν αἰώνιον ἔδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεός, καὶ αὕτη ἡ ζωὴ ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν. 12 ὁ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει τὴν ζωήν: ὁ μὴ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν ζωὴν οὐκ ἔχει.

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. 7 There are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. 9 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

A victory sign for little children

One of the best-known symbols of globalisation is the Nike Swoosh logo. You find it tracksuits, on sweatshirts, on trainers, on sneakers, on T-shirts, all over the world. There must be very few people who do not recognise the Nike logo, which has been sported by the likes of Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Venus and Serena Williams.

The company takes its name from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and the “Swoosh” was designed in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State University. She met Phil Knight while he was teaching accounting classes and she started doing some freelance work for his company, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS). BRS needed a new brand for a new line of athletic footwear it was preparing to introduce in 1972. Knight approached Davidson for some design ideas, and she agreed to provide them – at $2 an hour.

Carolyn Davidson quickly presented Knight and others at BRS with a number of designs, and they finally selected the mark now known globally as the Nike Swoosh – an abstract outline of an angel’s wing that some people think looks more like a checkmark or the tick used on some essays to indicate a positive mark.

The company first used the logo as its brand in 1971, when the word “Nike” was printed in orange over. The logo has been used on sports shoes since then, and is now so well-recognised all over the world, even by little children, that the company name itself is, perhaps, superfluous.

Carolyn Davidson’s bill for her work came to $35. Mind you, 12 years later, in 1983, Knight gave Davidson a gold Swoosh ring and an envelope filled with Nike stock to express his gratitude. It is surprising to realise, therefore, that Carolyn Davidson’s design was not registered as a trademark until 1995.

A logo representing victory is an appropriate and meaningful symbol for a company that manufactures and sells running shoes. The logo is used in tandem with the slogan, “Just do it” and the branding campaign was so successful in communicating to their target market that the meaning for the logo evolved into a battle cry and the way of life for an entire generation. A small symbol has brought victorious success to a once-small company.

What is said to be one of the earliest inspirations for the Nike tick sign that I know is a carved relief of Nike, the goddess of victory, on a paved street in Ephesus.

But when Saint John was writing to the Church in Ephesus, he expressed very different ideas about victory to his company of “little children” as he discussed love and told them to “just do it.”

Verses 1-5:

As we come to the concluding passages of I John, we are introduced in this section (I John 5: 1-12) to the connection between faith and love, the two great themes of this epistle, and to victorious faith leading to eternal life. I John talks about a very different type of victory than the victories associated with commercial branding, globalisation and the financial glory associated with brand names and over-commercialised sport. Instead, the writer emphasises the victories associated with faith and love ... faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the love of God and of one another that should be the victorious tick sign of Christians.

We are reminded that everyone who believes in Jesus as Christ and the Son of God is a child of God too. And so, if we believe in God and in Christ as his Son, we should love God and love his children, and this is the imperative for Christians to love one another.

But how do we know that we are doing this and showing that love? We know that know that we truly love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. Gestures of charity are simply not good enough – there must be a direct connection between loving others and living a life of holiness and sanctity.

But unlike the traditional observation and codification of the commandments, with their heavy-laden and burdensome listings and enumerations, the author tells us the love of God and love of others is not a great burden for the Christian. On the other hand, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, there is no cheap grace, there is a cost to discipleship. Nobody said it was going to be easy being a Christian. But, because we are children of God, we know that our faith is a victory (Nίκη) that conquers the world. Christ has overcome the world, and our faith in him enables us to conquer the world.

Verses 6-8:

The author of I John then refers to the baptism (water) and the death (blood) of Christ, or, perhaps, primarily to the death of Christ on the cross, when water mingled with his blood as they flowed from Christ’s side.

But water is also the symbol of the Spirit in the Johannine writings: think of the wedding at Cana or the conversations Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the Well and Nicodemus.

Raymond Browne suggests that the breakaway group in the Church in Ephesus may have emphasised the baptism of Jesus, where water and the Spirit are so closely linked, as the saving moment in the life of Christ. But here John shifts the emphasis to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Here I John is returning to the idea that the Spirit, present in us as Christians through our baptism, is the supreme witness to Christ, present in us as Christians, through our baptism.

The ‘Johannine comma’ (verses 7-8):

A longer reading of verse 7-8 reads:

“There are three that testify [in heaven: Father, Word, and Holy Spirit; and these three are one; and there are three that testify on earth:] the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree” [or, are of one accord].

The words in [square brackets] are known as the Johannine comma. The word comma in this instance means not a punctuation mark but a part of a sentence. These words are missing from the texts of I John accepted by the Greek Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions. However, they are quoted by Latin writers in North Africa and in Spain as early as the 3rd century as a dogmatic reflection on and an expansion of the “three that testify.”

Those writers understand the Spirit as the Father, the blood as the Son, and water as the Spirit. But this sequence of extra words is generally absent from the early Greek manuscripts and is quoted by none of the Greek Fathers. Indeed, it could be argued, had the Greek Fathers known these words they would most certainly have used them in the Trinitarian controversies with the Sabellians and the Arians.

The missing phrase makes its first appearance in Greek in a Greek version of the (Latin) Acts of the Lateran Council in 1215. The words were eventually incorporated into the text of most of the later Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and when the passage appears in a small number of Greek manuscripts, it appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate, or as a variant reading written in the margin as a later addition to the manuscript.

It is often said that Erasmus promised to insert the Comma Johanneum in his editions of the New Testament if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length such a copy was found. Or was it made to order? It is often said that Erasmus later suspected that MS. 61 was written expressly to force him to do so. However, one Dutch specialist in Erasmian studies, Professor HJ de Jonge, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Rijksuniversiteit in Leiden, says there is no explicit evidence to supports this assertion, and that “it is highly improbable that he included the difficult passage because he considered himself bound by any such promise.”

Through the work and influence of Erasmus, these words also appear in later versions of the Latin Vulgate and in the King James Version of the Bible.

Verses 9-12:

The principal witness to Christ, who is the truth, is the Holy Spirit, who has been sent by the Father to give testimony about his Son. The Spirit is the most convincing witness possible through the indwelling of the Spirit. To reject the Spirit is to reject life itself and to reject God.


In this section of I John, we are being told that love of God involves obedience to his will and love for God and for one another, and it brings Christians the promise of victory and everlasting life.

Love, for us as Christians, is the most important sign of victory in faith. As they say in the Nike advertising campaign: “Just do it.”

Part 2: I John 5: 13-21, The Epilogue

The cross on a relief carving in Saint John’s Basilica in Ephesus ... in I John, the secessionists are compared with idolaters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

13 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἵνα εἰδῆτε ὅτι ζωὴν ἔχετε αἰώνιον, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.

14 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ παρρησία ἣν ἔχομεν πρὸς αὐτόν, ὅτι ἐάν τι αἰτώμεθα κατὰ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ἀκούει ἡμῶν. 15 καὶ ἐὰν οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀκούει ἡμῶν ὃ ἐὰν αἰτώμεθα, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἔχομεν τὰ αἰτήματα ἃ ᾐτήκαμεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ. 16 Ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, αἰτήσει, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν, τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσιν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον. ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον: οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ. 17 πᾶσα ἀδικία ἁμαρτία ἐστίν, καὶ ἔστιν ἁμαρτία οὐ πρὸς θάνατον.

18 Οἴδαμεν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει, ἀλλ' ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς οὐχ ἅπτεται αὐτοῦ. 19 οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν, καὶ ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται. 20 οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει, καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν: καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος.

21 Τεκνία, φυλάξατε ἑαυτὰ ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων.

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one – to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.

18 We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. 19 We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.


In 1960s and 1970s television thriller dramas, we were often treated to “The Epilogue,” in which we were told what happened afterwards to the villain or the hero. In this Epilogue in I John, the readers are told what faces them and the secessionists if they follow or fail to follow what the writer has asked of them.

We could summarise the whole purpose of the author of I John as giving his children, the faithful members of the Church in Ephesus, the assurance that they share in the divine life of Christ. Of course, the Gospel according to Saint John shares the same purpose – and this is stated in the conclusion of both the Gospel and this Epistle.

Verses 13-17:

In this Epilogue, the writer returns to the theme of asking for things according to God’s will. The Early Church soon discovered that private requests in prayer were not always granted.

The author of I John is cautious as he tells his readers that while prayers will be heard in regard to most sins and most sinners, there is one sin so serious that he does not encourage people to pray for the offender.

Why does I John not tell us what this sin is? Have you ever wondered what it is?

Probably I John here is referring to the secessionists in the Church in Ephesus, and their apostasy, with the hint that this sin would be judged harshly throughout the Church. Saint John Chrysostom and many other Early Fathers of the Church taught that schism was worse than heresy, because schismatics tore apart the Church, the Body of Christ apart, while heretics could be admonished and corrected with careful teaching.

It is not that schism is unforgivable; it is that we should leave it and those who breach the fellowship of the Church in God’s hands.

On the other hand, the idea that every other sin is open to forgiveness through prayer could lead to a very lax and libertine attitude within the Church.

In verse 16, there is a reference to mortal sin. What do you think of the distinctions some people make between mortal sin and venial sin?

Verses 18-20:

The author returns once more to contrasting sin with being a child of God. The words in verse 18 translated in the RSV as “is protected” are rendered in some manuscripts as “protects himself.” Jesus, the Son of God, protects Christians from the devil, and so the children of God stand divided from Satan’s world.

Then in verses 18-20, we find a series of three “We know” (οἴδαμεν) statements:

● We know that those who are born of God do not sin
● We know that we are God’s children
● We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding

Indeed, there is a poetic structure to these three verses, lost in their presentation as narrative prose in many English-language translations. Look at them this way:

Οἴδαμεν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει,
ἀλλ' ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ αὐτόν,
καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς οὐχ ἅπτεται αὐτοῦ.
οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν,
καὶ ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται.
οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει,
καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν:
καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ.
οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος.

These three statements are defiant proclamations against the secessionists. We know what they don’t know; while they claim secret knowledge and wisdom, in reality they know nothing of importance at all.

The last of these three “we know” statements in verse 20 – “and we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” – triumphantly confesses the coming of the Son of God, the acceptance of his revelation, and the consequent union with the Father through the Son.

Does the final sentence – the phrase “He is the true God and eternal life” – refer to the Father or to the Son? If it refers to the Son, then I John ends, as Saint John’s Gospel ends, with a dramatic statement of the divinity of Christ.

If we compare the prologue and the epilogue, we will notice too the theme of life in the prologue is repeated again in the epilogue.

Verse 21:

The last words could be a warning against the readers falling back into the cult of Artemis and the other idolatrous cults in Ephesus. But it is more likely that are a warning to them not to join the secessionists, for they are professing a false Christology, and in their false teachings they may as well have gone over to the worship of idols.

Concluding comment:

We should note too that this Letter concludes not only with an admonition or warning, but also with the affectionate language we find throughout the Johannine writings, addressing the readers once again as “Little Children.”

Next week (25 November 2011): II John

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 with MTh students on Wednesday 16 November 2011.

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