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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 1 John

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1 John

( 1:1–4 ) The Prologue

The ‘we’ (v. 1 ) who have heard, seen, and touched are never further identified, and elsewhere the author writes as an individual ( 2:1, 12–14; 5:13 ). Seeing, hearing, and witnessing is the foundation of his argument, but the epistle and the debate about authorship do not suggest that he was an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus or even associated with others who were; all believers can make a similar claim ( 4:14–16 ), and the ‘we’ which here contrasts with ‘you’, the readers, elsewhere includes them.

The object of this perception was not the word incarnate as in John (Jn 1:14 ), but the neuter ‘what was from the beginning’; in 2:7, 24; 3:11 ‘from the beginning’ appeals to the earliest preaching these readers heard, and this, rather than an absolute beginning (contrast Jn 1:1 ), may be the force here. Although it is ‘concerning the word of life’, word is defined objectively by what can be proclaimed, while ‘life’ brings together the past—it ‘was revealed’—and the present experience of true believers which is the final purpose of the letter ( 5:11–13 ). In contrast to the gospel's prologue, the focus is on the shared experience of believers, in which the certainty of what ‘was revealed’ in the past, and the sense of a communion which encompasses the divine as well as the human are integral parts (v. 3 ).

A common tradition of language and ideas best explains the ‘similar but different’ relationship with Jn 1:1–18 ; there are also OT roots, particularly in Deutero-Isaiah (e.g. Isa 43:8–10 ).

( 1:5–2:11 ) Walking in the Light

Although disputes about right belief concerning Jesus apparently prompted the letter ( 2:18–22; 4:1–3 ), the starting-point is the understanding of God ( 1:5 ). The argument quickly moves to an internal debate over true and false religious claims and behaviour.

The identification of God with light has Hellenistic parallels, but these do not exclude a Jewish background (Ps 27:1 ). The complete incompatibility of light and darkness reflects a dualist perspective which developed within Judaism in the intertestamental period and was not unique to the original (‘from the beginning’) Christian message. In 2:8, 11 ‘darkness’ is virtually an independent but negative, opposing force; although 2:11 echoes Isa 6:10 , blindness is induced not by God or through preaching but by darkness (contrast Jn 12:40 ). In 1 John the interest is not the doctrine of God, but the moral consequence that authentic fellowship with God demands a life equally belonging to ‘light’.

The debating style, ‘if we say…’, ‘whoever says…’, and ‘whoever…’, is not aimed against actual groups who took the positions which are criticized; the negatives ( 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 9, 11 ) are foils to reinforce the positive affirmations ( 1:7, 9; 2:5, 6, 10 ), which establish an essential pattern of belief and life. This is combined with, and illustrates, the ‘testing’ style: ‘by this we know…’ followed by the ‘proof’. A similar structure reappears in 3:4–10 and 4:8, 20 .

In 1:6–7 walking or remaining in the light/darkness is a metaphor for right behaviour; in 2:9–11 it indicates a sphere of living in relation to God and, as a claim implying participation in salvation, requires verification. The terminology is ‘Johannine’, but unlike Jn 12:35; 8:12 there is no Christological emphasis. In 2:6 ‘walk’ is a biblical term for ‘live/behave’ (Gen 17:1; Ps 1 , etc.); the choice between two ways also has Jewish and Jewish–Christian parallels (Mt 7:13–14 ; Did. 1. 1–2; 4.14–5.1). In this paragraph, ‘knowing’ God, ‘being in him’, and ‘abiding in him’ are distinctive Johannine expressions of religious experience (cf. Jn 17:3, 21–6; 6:56; 15:5–6 ); there are partial OT (Jer 31:33–4 ) parallels, and closer ones in intertestamental literature (1QH 11:9 ). Later parallels in gnostic literature are part of the same religious trend and do not make 1 John ‘gnostic’. ‘To know’ in Johannine, as in Jewish, thought points more to a relationship than to intellectual apprehension. Although these terms are apparently individualistic, 1 John always sets them in a corporate context (cf. 2:9–11 ), and, as here, binds them to obedience.

The dualist pattern of light v. darkness, which reappears in 3:4–10 , raises the problem of sin (v. 6 ); does the incompatibility of light with sin mean that those who sin have no possibility of a share in the light, or that those who belong to the light can claim not to sin? Here the solution is the assurance of forgiveness for those who confess their sins. Different images are used to explain forgiveness: that of the blood of Jesus in 1:7 implies a general sacrificial metaphor; in 2:1 Jesus, present with God, is an ‘advocate’ or intercessor, the word used in Jn 15:26 etc. of the Spirit (paraklētos); in 2:2 he is, again present, a hilasmos (cf. 4:10 ), probably not an ‘atoning sacrifice’ as in the NRSV, but less technically ‘a means of forgiveness’ or reconciliation. ‘Of the whole world’ is an exception to the attitude to the world elsewhere, see 1 JN 2:15–17 . In 1:9 God forgives because ‘he is faithful and just’, an echo of Ex 34:6; Neh 9:17 , etc.

‘His commandments’ ( 2:3 ), identical with ‘his word’ (v. 5 ) and with ‘the old/new commandment’ (vv. 7–8 ), or with ‘the message’ ( 3:11 ), is the command to love one another ( 3:11; 4:21 ). ‘New’ echoes Jesus' institution of this command in Jn 13:34–5 but here is defined eschatologically by the inbreaking of the ‘new age’; ‘old’ refers not to the roots of the command in the OT (Lev 19:18 ) but to ‘the beginning’ (cf. 1:1; 2:24 ), probably not in Jesus' ministry but in their reception of the message (cf. 2 Jn 5 ). ‘One another’ or ‘a brother’ includes only fellow members of the community (NRSV adds an inclusive ‘or sister’, and in 2:11 interprets ‘brother’ by ‘believer’). At 2:4 the dualism of light v. darkness ( 1 JN 1:5–7 ) is repeated in truth v. lying (as at 1:6, 10 —not ‘truthfulness’ but an absolute) and love v. hating ( 2:9–11 ); this is not just an ethical dualism of opposing moral possibilities but is rooted in the nature of God (see 3:10–15; 4:7–8 ): in 2:5 ‘love of God’ may be ‘for God’ (objective) or ‘from God’ (subjective). The dualism is also eschatological: darkness belongs to that which is coming to an end, light to the future, which in 1 John's realized eschatology is already dawning. The dualism is developed in 3:4–15; 4:2–6 where it is used to define those who belong to the community against those who do not.

Jesus is important in this section as a means of forgiveness ( ` JN 2:2 ) and as a model of ‘walking’ ( 2:6 ); 1 John's use of ‘he, him’ is ambiguous: Jesus or God may be the object of knowledge ( 2:3–4 ), locus of abiding ( 2:5–6 ), and source of the commandment or word ( 2:3, 5 ).

( 2:12–17 ) Separation from the World

This section forms an interlude of affirmation and reinforcement of the readers' separation from ‘the world’. The variation between ‘I am writing’ and ‘I write’ (= I have written) is stylistic. It is not clear whether ‘children’, ‘fathers’, ‘young people’ refers to three different groups, two groups who together can be addressed as ‘little children’ (cf. 2:28; 5:21 ), or the whole community viewed in a conventional threefold division from different perspectives. The latter is most probable as in 1 John the descriptions (‘because…’) are true of all believers. There is no hierarchical structure of the church here. ‘Sins are forgiven’, cf. 1:7–9 . ‘Know him who is from the beginning’, cf. 2:3; 4:7; 5:20 , either God (= the Father, 2:14 ) or Jesus: the beginning may be ‘of time’ or as defined by the preaching, cf. 1:1 . ‘Have conquered/overcome [the same word in Greek] the evil one’, cf. 5:4–5 : this is a realized eschatology which affirms for the present what properly belongs to God's final triumph over evil. ‘Word of God abides’, cf. 2:24, 27 .

‘The world’ (vv. 15–17 ) represents all that is opposed to God and to those who belong to God, cf. 3:1, 13; 4:4–5; 5:4–5, 19 . This is not a gnostic or ascetic anti-materialism but part of the dualistic structure of Johannine thought: the dualism is not absolute since the world is also eschatologically delimited (cf. 2:8 ); there are hints of a more optimistic view of the world in 2:2; 4:14 , although these may be largely conventional formulae. The gospel shares the same predominantly negative view with more marked exceptions ( 7:7; 15:18–19; 17:9, 14–18, 25; 3:16; 4:42; 8:12 ). The Johannine community's experience of hostility both from the Jewish community (see Gospel of John) and more generally, together with an initial dualist mindset, has generated this attitude.

The conventionally tripartite ‘desire…desire…pride’ (v. 16 ) cannot be precisely defined. An echo of the Gen 3 story is possible, but ‘desire’ can have more general negative connotations (Num 11:4; Ps 106:14; Gal 5:16; Eph 2:3 ); ‘flesh’, ‘eyes’, and ‘riches’ (lit. ‘life’, translated ‘goods’ in 3:17 ) are not inherently negative in 1 John ( 1:1; 4:2 ). 1 John may be using a traditional formula to reinforce the desired separation between the readers and ‘the world’.

( 2:18–27 ) Reassurance despite Schism

This section introduces what has often been seen as the primary purpose of the letter, the recent experience of schism within the community. However, the emphasis is not on those ‘who went out’ but on maintaining the confidence of the readers, particularly necessary if those who left were in the majority or more obviously successful ( 4:5 ). In contrast to the preceding sections the main emphasis is on right belief, and is picked up in 4:1–6 .

The schism is interpreted through a conventional eschatological scheme familiar to the readers. ‘Antichrist’, ‘opponent of’ or ‘an alternative’ Christ (v. 18 ), is a Johannine coinage (cf. 2 Jn 7 ) but the idea of a figure personifying the final opposition to God has Jewish roots and is found in other Christian writings (2 Thess 2:3–4 ). By applying this eschatological scheme to the schism 1 John excludes the possibility of debate with those who left, justifies the trauma it may have caused, and makes the decision to remain within the community inescapable and certain of imminent vindication (cf. 2:17 ). In keeping with the whole letter and its dualism, the passage articulates a strong sense of the ‘election’ (a word not used) of the community: because, contrary to appearance, the schismatics had never ‘belonged to us’, this confidence need not be undermined. Different images express this ‘election’: (1) They ‘know’ (cf. also 1 JN 2:3 ): in 2:21 the object is ‘truth’, not just about the present disagreement but absolutely (cf. 2:4 ). In 2:20 there are textual variants: either ‘you all know’ (χ B; NRSV) or ‘you know all things’ (A; C; RV); the absence of an object would be unusual but is well-attested and would have invited alteration. Like the gospel, 1 John only uses the verb, and not the noun ‘knowledge’, gnōsis (contrast NRSV). (2) ‘The anointing’, a noun in vv. 20 (contrast NRSV) and 27, probably refers to what has been used or received rather than to the process, and is metaphorical rather than a literal rite (baptism or unction). The reference need not be to baptism, not mentioned in 1 John, nor to the Spirit: in v. 20 ‘the Holy One’ may be God or Jesus (cf. Jn 6:69 ); it is the source of teaching (v. 27 ) and parallel to ‘what you heard’ (v. 24 ). The emphasis is more on received tradition or teaching than on spiritual gifts or on a mystical or ritual ‘illumination’, and the resemblance to ‘gnostic’ ideas is only superficial. The term may be a Johannine coinage ( chrisma cf. antichristos ) in the context of a debate about ‘the Christ ’ (v. 22 ). (3) ‘What you have heard from the beginning’ (v. 24 ): cf. 2:7 . Faithfulness to the past proclamation which was probably part of the foundation of the community is more than loyalty to tradition or conservatism. The same language of mutual abiding or indwelling is used of it as of the relationship with ‘the Son and the Father’ so that it and an intimate relationship with God (and Jesus) are interdependent. Thus the last line of v. 27 is ambiguous: either ‘it’ (the anointing) or ‘he’ taught, and the command—probably, although it could be ‘you do abide’—is to abide in ‘it’ or in ‘him’ (cf. v. 28 ).

The schism was over the status of Jesus but the issue is obscure, although cf. 4:2 . The denial that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ (v. 22 ) could be a denial of his messiahship: the formula is used of early preaching of Jesus as Messiah (Acts 18:5, 28 ). This view is less likely, not, as often argued, because 1 John does not imply a Jewish setting, but because the dispute was between those who had been members of the community, not outsiders or apostates. The alternative formulation, ‘denying the Son’ or ‘the Father and the Son’, is not the schismatics' but the author's interpretation and acts as a definition of ‘Christ’. There is no link with the earlier debate over moral issues, although there may be an implicit association in ‘liar’ (v. 22 cf. 1:10; 2:4 ) and ‘those who would [or ‘do’] deceive’ (v. 26 cf. 1:8 ).

( 2:28–3:3 ) Present Confidence and Future Hope

The combination of affirmation and exhortation is repeated in terms of present and future eschatology. There is no connection with the reinterpretation of eschatology in 2:18 , and here it takes a distinctive Johannine shape. Conformity now is the guarantee and the condition of future conformity, but whether with God or Jesus is not clear.

The continuity from 2:27 and 3:1 , ‘the world … did not know him’, suggests that ‘he’ in this section is mostly Jesus whose coming (parousia, 2:28 ), as elsewhere in early Christian tradition, is expected; if so, v. 29a anticipates 3:7 where Jesus (‘that one’) is again said to be righteous. However, in 2:29 ‘born of him’ must be ‘born of God’ (cf. 3:9; 4:7; 5:1 ; see below) suggesting that at the beginning of the verse ‘he is righteous’ also refers to God (so 1:9 ); in this case, since no change is indicated, God may also be the one who is to be revealed and come in v. 28 . In 3:2 the translation ‘he is revealed’ (NRSV) in context also refers to God: being children of God is the precondition of the greater conformity which will come from ‘seeing God’ (cf. Mt 5:8 ). This difficulty in determining whether ‘he’ refers to God or to Jesus is characteristic of 1 John's thought. In 3:3 ‘he is pure’ more clearly refers to Jesus: the emphatic ‘he’ (ekeinos) occurs in brief sayings appealing to the example of Jesus ( 2:6; 3:3 *, 5*, 7*, 16; 4:17 *); those marked with an asterisk use the present ‘is’—Jesus has present significance, either with God (cf. 2:1–2 ) or within the teaching of the community. ‘Confidence’ or boldness ( 2:28 ) is the assured status of believers in 3:19–22 (‘before God’), 4:17–18 (‘on the day of judgement’) and 5:14 ; in these passages themes traditionally associated with future judgement serve the present needs of believers in exhortation and assurance.

( 3:4–10 ) Sin and Righteousness

In one of the most dualist passages in the letter, sin is contrasted with righteousness, love with its failure (or later, hate, 3:13 ), and the children of God with the children of the devil. The main purpose of these absolute alternatives is to define the community and encourage faithfulness.

Four contrasting couplets built around the pattern ‘Everyone who…’ may be one of the sources of this section (as first isolated by von Dobschütz 1907 ): 2:29b + 3:4a ; 3:6; 3:7b + 8a ; 3:9a + 10b . If so, the dualism of the source has been intensified both by the development of origin from God or the devil in 10a, and by the perfectionism of 9b (see below), and has been modified by the insertion of 8c: there is no longer a timeless opposition between sin and righteousness because of the victory won when ‘the Son of God was revealed’.

Sin is viewed differently from 1:6–2:2 ; here it belongs to the negative side and is impossible for anyone ‘who abides in him’ (v. 6 ) or who is among those who ‘have been born of God’ (v. 9 ). In 5:16–18 the same apparent contradiction is found, first suggesting that believers may sin and that forgiveness for some sins is possible, then repeating the affirmation that ‘those who are born of God do not sin’ ( 1 JN 5:18 ). The contrast is not simply between fact and ideal, between believers as sinners before God but sinless ‘in Christ’, or between individual sins they may commit ( 1:9 ) and their removal from the realm of sin. When 1 John is considering the pastoral needs of the community the need to deal with all that mars that life is paramount; when seeking to affirm and preserve their separation from other values and systems the certainty of the radical change they have experienced becomes overwhelming (Lieu 1991: 58–65). Freedom from sin belongs in Jewish and Christian thought to the age to come when the realm of God finally excludes all that opposes it, as too does victory over evil ( 2:13–14 ) and over death ( 3:14 ); in 1 John these are so real that they are part of the present and sharing in them equally excludes any part in that opposition. In v. 4 ‘lawlessness’ is not disobedience to the law but the opposition to God in the final age (cf. 2 Thess 2:3 , ‘the man of lawlessness’). Other early Christian writers also had to struggle with the tension between the certainty of God's victory over sin in Jesus and the continuing reality of sin in Christians' lives (cf. Heb 6:4–8 ).

Jesus (‘he’), as the righteous one without sin, is not just a model (but note ‘he’ in vv. 5, 7 , ekeinos, cf. 1 JN 3:3 ), but also belongs to the realm of God's victory. He was ‘revealed’ in the past (cf. 1:2 of the ‘life’), but the verb is used equally of when ‘he’ will be ‘revealed’ ( 2:28 , see above); ‘to destroy the works of the devil’, presumably through his ministry or death although how is not stated, is an eschatological event, traditionally part of God's final victory, but now already effected. ‘The devil’ (v. 8 ), mentioned here for the first time, is presumably identical with ‘the evil one’ in 2:13, 14 . In Jn 8:44 the Jews have the devil as their father; 1 John shares the same tradition of imagery but with a sharper dualism, ‘the children of God’ v. ‘the children of the devil’, which is used not in polemical rhetoric as in John but to distinguish two exclusive groups. It is likely that the tradition of Cain in contemporary Jewish thought as the child of the devil lies behind both Jn 8:44 where the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and the more general words of 1 Jn 3:8 that he ‘has been sinning from the beginning’; Cain is explicitly one who murdered in 3:12 .

Believers as ‘children of God’ ( 3:1, 10; 5:2 ) and as ‘born of God’ ( 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18 ) is characteristic of the second half of the letter (Lieu 1991: 33–8); there is a dualist contrast only in 3:10 with ‘children of the devil’ (never ‘born of the devil’). There is no specific moment of birth (e.g. conversion, baptism): the stress is on the inalienable relationship with God but is more precise than the broader ‘of God’ (also ‘of the devil, world’ etc.). The origins of the idea are not clear; it is found briefly in John ( 1:12–13 [ 11:52 ]; contrast ‘birth from above/anew’ in Jn 3 ). OT parallels are weak (Ex 4:22; Deut 32:5–6 ); Hellenistic ideas of divine begetting or rebirth are later and not dualist; in 1QS 3:19–4:26 ‘children’ imagery in a dualist setting is found, but not divine begetting.

In 3:9 ‘God's seed’ may be God's offspring who remain ‘in him’, i.e. God (cf. NRSV fn.), but it is more likely that God's seed remains in ‘him’, i.e. ‘the one who has been born of God’: in turning the phrase into the plural, ‘those who…in them’, the NRSV obscures the ambiguity. It has been suggested that ‘seed’, perhaps like ‘anointing’ in 2:20, 27 (cf. 1 JN 2:20, 27 ), reflects a gnostic understanding of divine enlightenment and/or was a term used by ‘those who went out’ ( 2:19 ). Nothing explicitly supports this, and while ‘seed’ could be a reference to God's word (cf. the parable of the sower)—a reference to the spirit seems unlikely—it may continue the allusion to the Genesis story (cf. Gen 3:17; 4:25 ): God's choice continues not in Cain and those of his ilk but in those who truly carry God's seed which makes them God's children. ‘Of God’, vv. 9–10 (cf. ‘of the truth’, 3:19 ) also points to divine origin; the negative is ‘of the devil’ or ‘of the world’ ( 4:6 ). The gospel has a wider range of ‘origins’ formulae (Jn 8:23; 3:31 , etc.).

3:10b forms a climax to the section, expanding the introductory v. 4a in the language used in the intervening verses, and adding a further definition which makes it directly applicable to the situation and concerns of the letter. 1 John has no other explicit definition of sin than the failure to ‘love one's brother’ or fellow believer: the NRSV's ‘brothers and sisters’ is justifiably inclusive but obscures 1 John's use of the singular ‘brother’ ( 2:10–11; 3:15, 17; 4:20–1 ; the only exception is 3:14 ). This definition gives some support to the argument that it was the schism, clear evidence of a failure in love, that shaped 1 John's thought even about sin.

( 3:11–17 ) Community within Love

The previous passage is now given a more practical exposition in the attitudes believers experience from others and hold towards each other. Again the primary thrust is to explain and reinforce the community's separation from outsiders and their internal cohesion. In v. 11 , love of brother is now replaced with love of one another, as also in 3:23; 4:7, 11, 12 , in each case in exhortation or with reference to the command; this is the distinctive formula of the Johannine tradition (Jn 13:34; 15:12, 17 ). For 1 John it is the epitome of the proclamation heard from the beginning (cf. 1:5; 2:7; 1 JN 2:3 ). The appeal to Cain as the model of a failure in reciprocal love is the only explicit OT reference in the letter, but the range of OT allusions (cf. 2:11 ) and concepts refute denials of any Jewish background. Here the story of Cain probably lies in the background since 3:8 (cf. 1 JN 3:8 ) and continues until 3:15 , since Cain was the archetypal murderer (cf. Jn 8:44 ), or even 3:20 (cf. Gen 4:9–10 ). Cain is not just one of a number of possible negative examples, neither is the failure to love an unfortunate weakness or lapse: both are expressions of the absolute contrast between God and the devil and between life and death. Cain was of ‘the evil one’ and so were his deeds evil: the same formula is used in Jn 3:19 , suggesting common patterns of exegesis and language lie behind both the gospel and letter. Gen 4 gives no clear explanation of God's preference for Abel's sacrifice and only implies it led to Cain's murderous act; 1 John is like other later readers, Jewish and Christian, who sought to remedy this difficulty (cf. Jos. Ant. 1.2.1; Heb 11:4 ).

The analogy set within its dualist scheme explains the hostility the community has been experiencing; what form this ‘hate’ takes is not described and there is no explicit mention of persecution (contrast Jn 15:18–20 ). The world is that which opposes God (cf. 2:15; 1 JN 2:15 ); in 4:3–5 it is the realm of the antichrist and it responds to those who have left the community. The explanation would be reassuring if the community was in a minority and those who had split from it appeared rather more successful. However, the main use of the analogy is to reinforce the demand for love within the community. Such love proves and is the condition for their not belonging to the Cain/murderer/evil-one side of the division. In the light of 3:10 (cf. 1 JN 3:10 b) it might seem that the best expression of love was not to join the schism, but the ‘Johannine’ appeal to the example of Jesus' (‘he’ = ekeinos) self-sacrifice (cf. Jn 15:13 ), makes it broader. Yet literal self-sacrifice may not be meant, for the only application is the readiness to share one's ‘goods’ or life (cf. 1 JN 2:16 ) with a fellow believer in need. This is the only hint that differences of class or wealth may have contributed to the schism.

The passage has concentrated on love among believers; in 3:17 ‘God's love’ may be the love which comes from God and is the source of believers' love, but it might equally mean ‘love for God’ (cf. 2:5 ): the only certain evidence of love for God is the more visible love for a fellow believer.

( 3:18–24 ) Condemnation and Confidence in God

The NRSV paragraphing takes v. 18 with the following verses. Thus practical love is the guarantee of being ‘from [= of] the truth’ and a source of reassurance before God, even in the face of self-doubt; God's knowledge, superior to such doubt, is a further source of hope. The contrast offered by v. 21 is then only a subjective one: boldness comes from a lack of sense of self-condemnation and not from any real difference in relation to God. An alternative possibility is that God's greater knowledge can only reinforce and add to the condemnation dimly anticipated; this demands not that we ‘will reassure our hearts’ but ‘sternly exhort our hearts’ (cf. NEB fn.). The sequence from v. 19a becomes clumsy but v. 21 then provides a clear contrast of the happier state of no self-condemnation where boldness is justified and answered. However, v. 18 may be the conclusion to the previous section, so v. 19 starts a new but related issue of the confidence before God (cf. RSV). The introductory ‘by this’ then anticipates what follows, a pattern found in 2:3, 5 (?); 3:10, 24; 4:13, 17 (?): that ‘God is greater…’ is the source of ‘our’ knowledge and self-reassurance. The negative alternative would not be possible. As elsewhere ( 1 JN 2:28 ) condemnation and boldness before God, which properly belong to the future judgement or vindication, are already experienced in the present. Response to prayer, a common theme in NT and Johannine literature (cf. Mt 7:7; Jn 14:13; 15:16; 16:23, 26 ), is picked up in 5:14–15 as a mark of ‘boldness’.

The commandments are God's; the alternation between the plural and the singular in vv. 22–4 is characteristic (cf. 2:3–4, 7 ) but here mutual love (for the formula cf. 1 JN 3:11 ) is combined with belief, recalling 2:18–23 and anticipating the move to 4:1–3 where such belief has to be properly articulated. Abiding (v. 24 ) is in and by God, as most commonly in 1 John (contrast Jn 6:56; 15:1–7 , but NB 1 Jn 2:24 ), and is inseparable from obedience (cf. 1 JN 1:6–7 ). The spirit is mentioned for the first time (cf. 1 JN 2:20, 27; 3:9 ); despite the NRSV's capital S, 1 John has a much simpler idea of the spirit than John; in 4:13 it is God's spirit but is not further related to the divine life. These two references bracket the exhortation to ‘test the spirits’ in 4:1 where the NRSV uses ‘s’.

( 4:1–6 ) True and False Confession

This passage links with 2:18–19 (cf. ‘antichrist’) and has often been seen as the key to the letter: former members of the community rejected right confession of Jesus and left, perhaps achieving missionary success (v. 5 ) and provoking a threat to the confidence and stability of the community. Their identity has been much debated. The schism is interpreted in the light of eschatological tradition as in 2:18 ; ‘false prophets’ also reflects this (cf. Mt 24:11, 24 ) and does not mean they were ‘charismatics’. ‘Testing the spirits’ belongs to eschatological decision and is not discernment of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:10; 14 ): the more general ‘spirits’ in the introduction to the passage is reduced by its end to the alternatives, spirit of truth or of error. A conflict between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, both as cosmic forces and as forces within people, is also found at Qumran (1QS 3:13–4:26 ) without any ‘charismatic’ setting; John's non-dualistic ‘spirit of truth’ is different (Jn 14:7; 15:26; 16:13 ). The contrast belongs to 1 John's dualism and emphasis on ‘truth’, but ‘error’ is also an eschatological theme (Mk 13:22 ). The conflict is also between the community and ‘the world’, between God and ‘the world’ (cf. 1 JN 2:15 ), from whom each has its origin (‘from’, cf. 1 JN 3:9 ), and also between those who respond to either side: there is no neutral third party. 1 John's thought is deterministic: response does not merely result in being ‘of God’ or ‘of the world’ but is generated by it as a pre-existing state. This determinism is complementary to the realized eschatology: their victory is already complete. The greater one who is in them is God, the one in the world might either be the antichrist as in v. 3 or an allusion to the devil.

Confession of Jesus is the hallmark of the spirits. Those/the spirit who fail/s to confess Jesus (v. 3 ) cannot be unbelievers since these were never within the community (contrast 2:19 ), but erstwhile members. The alternative reading, ‘does away with’ or ‘deprives of power/significance’ (Vulgate and some patristic evidence including Irenaeus) may have originated as an attempt to clarify their error; if original its ambiguity led to the simpler alternative. The positive confession is not ‘that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’ (so NRSV, emphasis added), which would require a different grammatical construction; this makes improbable earlier interpretations which saw the schism as a denial of Jesus' true humanity (docetism, cf. IDB i. 860), or as a theory that the union between the divine Christ and human Jesus was temporary and did not include his death (often associated with Cerinthus, the traditional opponent of John, cf. ABD i. 885). It is a confession of ‘Jesus Christ (as) the one who has come in the flesh’ (my tr.), although the nuance intended by this is not clear. ‘Flesh’ is not a major concern in this letter (cf. only 2:16 ); in the Johannine tradition it can be both ambivalent (Jn 3:6; 8:15 ) and central (Jn 1:14; 6:51–6 ). 1 John's broader interest in Jesus does not help interpretation; he is model, victor over the devil, a means of dealing with sin in past and present, son of, and inseparable from, the Father; 1 Jn 5:6 adds further precision but is even more obscure ( 1 JN 5:6 ). Jesus Christ's having come in flesh is partly an antithesis to the false prophets having come out into the world; it is no less real but of directly opposing significance. The schismatics did not invest Jesus with the significance the author does, but the latter's love of contrast and concern to avoid real debate with alternative ideas exclude any certain recovery of their views.

( 4:7–21 ) Abiding in Love

The thought returns to the life of the community, interlacing assurance with exhortation, centred on the theme of love which moves inseparably both between God and believers and amongst believers themselves. However, the need for right belief is part of this web: the past sending of the Son is both the evidence of God's love and the continuing norm of right belief and union. Love for one another (cf. 1 JN 3:11 ) is rooted only at the end of the passage (v. 21 ) in ‘the command’, here closer to the ‘synoptic’ combination of love of God and love of fellow (Lk 10:27 ). The focus is on the primacy of God's love (i.e. ‘love of God’, 4:9, 12 ); although grammatically this could mean love for God or love from God (cf. 2:5 ), the primary emphasis is on love from God which even if expressed in the past act was for us. Yet ‘his love’ in v. 12 may by extension be the love which originates from God but is expressed by believers towards others; it is unlikely that ‘love from God’ would be dependent for its full reception on believers' reciprocal love. However, believers may also have love for God, although not as the primary expression of love (v. 10 ), nor as a claim to be made independently of love for ‘a brother or sister’ (vv. 20–1 ).

That God ‘sent his Son’ (vv. 9, 10, 14 ) is the traditional terminology of the Johannine tradition, as also is the epithet ‘only’ (Jn 3:16; 1:14, 18 ); while it may imply pre-existence, ‘sending’ can merely stress authority and representation, an important distinction for the gospel but not the main issue for 1 John with its lack of theological reflection. ‘Saviour of the world’ is also a Johannine epithet (Jn 4:42 ), and does little to soften the largely negative attitude to the world in the letter (cf. 1 JN 2:15–17 ). The world is only the arena of the sending and not the recipient of God's love and the offer of life (v. 9 , contrast Jn 3:16 ); it is ‘for our sins’ that he was a means of dealing with sin (better than ‘atoning sacrifice’), perhaps also a traditional formula (cf. 1 Jn 2:2 ).

‘We have seen…do testify…have known and believe’ (vv. 14–16 ) is also characteristically Johannine (Jn 1:14; 3:11; 6:69; 20:29 ) and includes all believers even though not original eyewitnesses (cf. 1 JN 1:1–3 ). The apparent objectivity is balanced by the more ‘subjective’ reciprocal abiding by/in God which is made evident by the gift of his spirit (cf. 1 JN 3:24 ). Both are bounded by the conditions of love for one another (v. 12 ) and of right confession (v. 15 ). ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ is the right confession for the first time here (cf. 5:5 ), but has been anticipated by ‘confessing/denying the son’ in 2:22–3 ; there is no difference from ‘Jesus is the Christ’ ( 2:22; 5:1; cf. 4:2 ). ‘Son of God’ is not a messianic title for 1 John but indicates the inseparable relationship between Father and Son; although God is the focus of much of 1 John's thought, God has been and is known only through his action in the Son: although God cannot be seen, that as Father he sent the Son can be (vv. 12, 14 ).

That ‘God is love’ (vv. 9, 16 ) is not a statement about the ‘divinity’ of love or an abstract definition of God: it is God as experienced. Equally, ‘abiding in love’ is not a mystical experience but combines faithfulness to the manifestation of God's love in the Son and showing love to a fellow believer. v. 7 does not mean that anyone who loves is born of God (cf. 1 JN 3:9 ) but that love is their necessary characteristic. ‘The day of judgement’ (v. 17 ) recalls a more traditional eschatology (cf. Mt 10:15; 11:22, 24 ) where ‘boldness’ (cf. 1 JN 2:28; 3:21 ) and fear belong; here it is only the ultimate context of believers' conformity to Jesus (= he, cf. 1 JN 3:3 ) in the present and the purpose or full expression—the relation between ‘in this’ and ‘that’ is obscure—of the present total flowering of love.

( 5:1–5 ) Victory through Faith

This section acts as a bridge between the preceding focus on love and the emphasis on the total certainty centred on right belief in 5:6–13 . Right belief in Jesus as the Christ (cf. 1 JN 2:22 ), like love, is the mark of the one born of God ( 5:1 ǁ 4:7 , cf. 1 JN 3:9 ). Here this just defines the one to be loved as only the one who holds the right faith: love of the begetter (God) entails love of the one begotten: NRSV ‘parent/child’ obscures the symmetry. This does imply that love of God has some primacy; contrary to 4:19–21, v. 2 suggests that the proof of love for fellow believers is love and obedience to God, which in practice are identical. The commandments (pl.) means nothing more than the commandment (sing.) ( 4:21 , cf. 1 JN 2:3 ); love of God is love for God (‘objective genitive’; contrast 4:9 cf. 2:5, 4:21 ).

The neuter ‘whatever’ (v. 4 ) rather than ‘whoever’ is odd but has Johannine parallels (Jn 6:37, 39; 17:24 (not NRSV)) and looks at them as a totality. Victory over the world is an eschatological reality already present in the realized imagery of birth from God (cf. 4:4 ). This could suggest a passive determinism, and to avoid this 4b defines the source of victory as ‘faith’; only here in 1 John, ‘faith’ must mean not the subjective emotion but right faith as immediately defined. v. 5 defines that faith in terms of the individual who professes the faith that Jesus is the Son of God (cf. 1 JN 4:15 ); the verse forms an inclusio with the parallel confession in v. 1 but also leads into the following section.

( 5:6–12 ) The Witnesses to the Son

The confession of Jesus as Son of God is now further elaborated and given a secure foundation with God as guarantor, and therefore is the sine qua non of any true relationship with God. Although the passage is often treated as polemical alongside 2:18–23 and 4:1–6 , here there is no reference to opponents, to the antichrist, or to right and wrong confession or denial. ‘Believing’ and ‘witness’ in 1 John are always used of the community and its identity. Thus the passage should not be used to identify the schismatics. Belief in Jesus as Son of God is that he ‘came’ both by water and the blood: the stress is on both, but chiefly on ‘blood’, and does not mean that some believed that he came by ‘the water only’. It is unlikely that the change from ‘by’ to ‘with’ is significant, and both prepositions are ambiguous with the verb ‘to come’. The meaning of the assertion has been widely debated with no final consensus; there are various possibilities: (1) According to ancient ideas the combination may refer to real human conception; it is not certain that this would have been self-evident and the double stress would be unusual. (2) Most commonly ‘water’ has been seen as a reference to baptism; that Jesus' divine sonship effectively started with his baptism was held by some early Christians but seems unlikely within the Johannine tradition. ‘Blood’ as a parallel event would then have to be the crucifixion, certainly an essential moment in his mission. However, ‘came by’ and ‘blood’ would be obscure ways of expressing this. (3) Because water and blood become witnesses in the present and not just the past in vv. 7–8 , some have seen a reference to baptism and eucharist, founded in the events of Jesus' ministry and continuing vehicles of his presence. A eucharistic reference seems unlikely in blood on its own (cf. Jn 6:53–6 ), and is out of character with the letter's lack of sacramental or liturgical references. (4) In 1:7 ‘blood’ indicates the sacrificial nature of Jesus' death in dealing with sins in the present; although not otherwise used in the letter, water is also a symbol of cleansing, and is an important image in the Gospel of spiritual renewal. This would fit the letter's concern for Jesus' present efficacy, particularly in relation to sin. ‘Came’ need not denote a specific moment but views his sending as a completed whole. (5) Some cross-reference to Jn 19:34 is possible, although the order is reversed, but the obscurity of that passage does not clarify this. The formula may have been more familiar to Johannine Christians.

The spirit both has some priority over the other two terms as the witness, and is joined with them as equal terms in a single witness. It would be wrong to limit the witness of the spirit to a single moment in the life of Jesus or of the church defined by ‘water’ or ‘blood’. Elsewhere in 1 John the spirit is part of individual or corporate experience ( 3:23; 4:1, 13 ), but there is not a single ‘doctrine’ of the spirit. The three witnesses who are a unity led to a trinitarian reference (‘the Johannine comma’) being inserted in the text, which was accepted by the translators of the AV (cf. NRSV fn.); it is not part of the original text of 1 John. ‘Human testimony’ is not identified with that of spirit, water, and blood, or with any specific witness (such as John the Baptist, cf. Jn 5:32–5 ), but is only mentioned to emphasize the contrast with the testimony of God. God's testimony does not refer to a particular event or moment but reasserts the absolute certainty that God has acted in Jesus and thus established Jesus as son. It might be expected that eternal life would be the consequence of the testimony or of accepting it; 1 John's thought is so tightly intermeshed that life instead becomes the content of the testimony; equally, believing or not believing, i.e. accepting or rejecting the testimony, is the condition of experiencing life.

Thus life, which was a key to the opening of the letter ( 1:2 ), is also the key as it reaches a preliminary climax. Life is by definition ‘eternal’ life, not a quantitative longevity but a quality. ‘Objectively’ manifested as the inspiration of the letter, its assured possession is also the letter's purpose. Yet this is not missionary but pastoral, for those who believe.

( 5:13–21 ) Exhortation to Sinlessness

Although 5:13 could be read as a conclusion, it is not. 5:14–21 have often been seen as an appendix, perhaps added later, by a different author, possibly after the model of the appendix to John, ch. 21 , with which, however, it shares little in common. There is no convincing linguistic or textual evidence for this view, and these verses should be seen as the true conclusion of the letter. v. 13 acts as a transition, closing the earlier passage, and forming a basis for what follows.

‘Boldness’ (cf. 2:28; 3:21; 4:17 ) here has present and not eschatological reference (see 1 JN 2:28 ); as in 3:21 it is expressed in confidence in prayer, which is sure both of being heard and of being answered. The issue is given specific reference in intercessory prayer. Intercession (v. 16 ) is not general but specifically for a fellow believer who is found sinning. 1 John has treated sin both as a present reality ( 1:7–2:2 ) and as an impossibility ( 3:4–10 ) for believers (cf. 1 JN 3:6, 9, 14 ). This passage introduces a contrast between sins whose end is death and those not so defined, although this contrast cannot necessarily be used to explain the earlier contradiction. Intercession for ‘non-terminal’ sin is proper and will be answered. The NRSV's ‘God will give life’ is supplying a subject to the ambiguous ‘s/he will give life’; equally possible is that the one praying, by winning forgiveness, gives life to the erstwhile sinner.

The identity of the sin whose end is death has been much debated. Not relevant is the OT's distinction between witting and unwitting sins (Num 15.22–31 ), nor probably Mark's sin against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:29 ). Other early Christian writers have difficulty in understanding sin among believers, particularly where a strongly realized eschatology makes the blessings of the kingdom, which must include sinlessness, present realities (cf. 1 JN 3:4–10 ). 1 John's solution reflects this dilemma and probably means that ‘terminal sin’ is the wilful self-exclusion from those blessings, i.e. separation from the community and rejection of the faith that leads to life ( 5:12 ).

The dilemma is underlined (v. 18 ) by the immediate repetition of the perfectionism of ch. 3 , that sin, unqualified, is not possible for the one born of God. This time the source of assurance is the protection of the one who was born of God; this is Jesus, only here so described, and not a reference to the believer who protects him/herself: the tense of the verb ‘was born’ is different (contrast ‘are born’). Thus the dualism is maintained of the evil one v. Jesus.

This dualist framework is repeated, setting the world and the evil one on one side, God and ‘we’ as God's children on the other. The transforming agent of this dualism is the Son of God (cf. 3:8–10 ); here the focus of his activity is not the evil one/devil but the revelation of the true one.

vv. 18–20 are carefully constructed with three affirmations ‘we know that’; the first two are dualist, the third expands beyond the ‘objective’ assertion to a personal affirmation, ‘and we are…’ In all this God is only mentioned derivatively (‘of God’) or indirectly (‘the true one’). The final assertion ‘This one is…’, better than NRSV's unemphatic ‘He’, forms a climax on its own, but its antecedent is unclear. (1) ‘[God] = the true one…is the true God' has a loose parallel in Jn 17:3 , but is tautologous and a poor climax. (2) ‘his Son Jesus Christ…is the true God’ is grammatically more natural, but Jesus is nowhere else in 1 John identified with or as God, although cf. Jn 20:28 (but NB ‘my’) and 1:18 . 1 Jn 1:2 does make a close connection between Jesus and eternal life as manifested and experienced: as a climax to 1 John's argument this would be dramatic but would it be too startling? In practice the final climax is v. 21 , but there is little agreement what it means or why it is the last word. Some have attempted to interpret ‘idols’ metaphorically of false beliefs, of those who held such ideas, of deceptive conceptions of God or Jesus, or of sin. Although there are some parallels to this in Qumran, most ancient usage indicates that unless context or modification suggests otherwise, ‘idols’ are meant literally. The term was a Jewish one for the pagan gods, both for their representations and for the gods themselves without clear distinction. Nothing in the letter supports the idea that the Johannine Christians were under pressure to acknowledge pagan gods during persecution. Turning from idols was a popular way of describing conversion to both Judaism and Christianity (1 Thess 1:9 ), a conceptual context which would fit other aspects of 1 John. This may be a final reminder of a conversion call, which the author hopes the readers will reinterpret in their new setting.

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