Friday, October 5
1 John 3:1-9: John takes up again the teaching of chapter two, elaborating it from a different perspective. For instance, John had earlier declared, “I write to you, so that you may not sin” (2:1), and now he explains, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (verse 9).
John knows that he is writing to children of God, and he knows, as well, that this is the reason why the world treats them with enmity (verse 1). The world, as we have seen (2:15-16), has nothing in common with the Father of these children so it is to be expected will hate the children also (John 14:22-24; 17:25).
Although believers are already the children of God, the full meaning of their filiation has not yet been revealed (verse 2). Even with respect to their present ontological state there is more to be revealed (cf. Romans 8:19), and this revelation will come when “we shall see Him as He is.” Because the believer is sustained by this hope, he strives continually to be holy and pure (verse 3).
Striving thus for holiness and purity, the believer flees from sin, which is rebellion, anomia (verse4). Since God’s Son came to take away sin (verse 5; John 1:29), the man who continues to commit sin (ho poion, present participle for sustained action) can have no communion with God (verses 4,8). Continuance in sin (ho hamartanon, again the present participle) means that the sinner does not really know God.
John does not mean, of course, that the Christian never sins. Indeed, if “we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). Rather, John indicates the incompatibility between being a child of God and willfully continuing to sin. These two things are as incompatible as God and the world. Consequently, the man that willfully continues in sin is lying to himself about knowing God (cf. 2:4), and those that say otherwise are deceivers (verse 7). The deception of such a man is that of the Devil (verse 8), who holds the world in bondage. The man who has been reborn in God is not capable of continuing in sin; willful rebellion is incompatible with being a child of God.
The Christian life, in short, is not just a state of mind. It involves also righteousness of conduct (cf. 2:5,6,29), and to some degree that conduct (including thought) is open to observation. If we want to know if we are in God, says John, the best indicator is our moral conduct. Mere profession of the faith is an inadequate indicator or our rebirth (verse 9).
Saturday, October 6
1 John 3:10-15: John continues his practical approach to Christian salvation, especially addressing the believer’s duties toward his “brother.” These duties are summarized in the verb “love.”
Our brotherhood in Christ is contrasted with history’s first brotherhood, that of Cain and Abel (verse 12). In that ancient case Cain violated the most elementary duty of brotherhood by murdering Abel, and he murdered him, John gives us to believe, because he hated him. From this, John concludes that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (verse 15). This is the reason why, from the beginning, Christians have been instructed to love one another (verse 11; cf. 2:7-8).
The negative example of Cain, a man lacking in both faith (Hebrews 11:4) and love (verse 12), was taken over in Christian moral instruction (Jude 11; First Clement 14), and John clearly expects his readers to be familiar with both the biblical text and the theme.
Augustine of Hippo pursued this motif in a particularly Johannine way by comparing the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the classical account of Romulus and Remus. The two murderers, Cain and Romulus, both fratricides, were also founders of cities. These two cities, Rome and Enoch (cf. Genesis 4:17), symbolize what St. John called “the world,” understood as humanity’s attempt to live its own life in defiance of God. John’s world corresponds to what Augustine calls “the city of man,” which he contrasts with the City of God (cf. The City of God 15:5-8).
Cain’s story, because it is a tale of hatred, exemplifies the world’s murderous attitude toward Christians (verses 13-15; John 15:18). In this respect John provides a further elaboration of the incompatibility between God and the world. To be a child of God is to be the beneficiary of an immense love, a love radically incompatible with hatred toward anyone. A person certainly cannot be a child of God and still hate other children of God. Nowhere does the spirit of the world more seriously endanger Christians than by tempting them to hate one another.
Sunday, October 7
1 John 3:16-24: God’s love for us was proved by the life that was laid down on the
Cross on our behalf, giving us the supreme example of how we ourselves are to love one another (verse 16). Fidelity to that example requires, at the very least, that we share with our needy brothers and sisters the means to preserve their lives (verse 17). This is the practical test to determine whether or not we love one another (verse 18). Most of us are never called on to die for someone else, so in some sense this is not normally a realistic test. Taking care of one another’s needs, however, is something we can actually observe and measure.
John’s exhortation that we should “not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” merits a closer grammatical inspection. In the combination “word and tongue” we recognize what grammarians call a hendiadys, which means that a single idea is expressed by two words. That is to say, in John’s expression there is no real difference between word and tongue; they are both metaphors for speech. John means simply, “Let not our love be just a lot of talk.”
This much is clear enough, but our parsing should be carried over to John’s second pair of words, “deed and truth.” It is important to see that this second combination is also a hendiadys. In context, both words, deed and truth, mean the same thing; for John there is no real distinction between them. True love for one another is not just a lot of talk. It is composed, rather, of what we do. This is how “we shall know that we are of the truth” (verse 19).
In the verses that follow, John seems to have in mind those Christians of sensitive conscience, whose hearts may be smitten by a strong sense of their sins. No matter how hard they struggle, they find that their hearts condemn them, and they become subject to misgivings regarding their spiritual state (verse 20),
John strengthens such Christians by directing their attention to two elementary facts. First, they are to consult their actual behavior, especially active charity toward others, as a more reliable indicator of their true spiritual state. Second, they are to recall that thee all-knowing Father reads their consciences more accurately than they do, and in His benevolent gaze they are to place their trust, putting their hearts at rest (pesomen ten kardian). In the context, John especially has in mind the efficacious prayer whereby “whatever we ask we receive from Him” (cf. also John 14:12-13; 16:23).
Such reflections on our spiritual state are not to be exercises of an isolated conscience. They are to take place under the eyes of God, “before Him” (emprosthen Avtou—verse 19), “in His sight” (enopion Avtou—verse 22). Proper Christian conscience is not simply the heart reflecting on itself; it is exercise, rather, in the conscious awareness of thee Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:4,6,8,18).
God’s double commandment is both doctrinal and moral, orthodox faith in Christ and the love of one another (verse 23). These two things manifest that we are of the truth and that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us (verse 24).
Monday, October 8
Luke 10:25-37: There are a million things to be said about this story of the Samaritan. Let us limit ourselves to three things.
First, there is the story of the Fall, concerning which we are told, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” This man started in Jerusalem, we observe. He began his history in the garden place of God’s presence. But he did not stay there. He made a deliberate decision to go on a journey. No one told him to go. He made the decision on his own, as an assertion of his independence from God.
Though the man did not know it at first, this was more than just a journey. It was a Fall; it was a descent. He went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers. This is a story, then, of man’s Fall. “Man in honor, did not abide,” says the Psalmist; “He became like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49 :12).
These robbers did not kill him completely. They left him, says the Sacred Text, half dead. This fallen man did not suffer total depravity, as it were. There was still some hope for him, though he had no way of saving himself from his terrible predicament. By this man’s disobedience, sin entered the world, and by sin death. Indeed, death reigned already in his mortal flesh. How shall we describe this poor man’s plight except that he was "alien from the commonwealth of Israel and a stranger from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”? (Ephesians 2:12). He had been left half dead, Holy Scripture says, and there was no help for him in this world.
Along came a priest and then a Levite, men representing the Mosaic Law, but they had to pass by the fallen wayfarer, because by the works of the Law is no man justified. The priest and the Levite were hastening, you see, to the Temple, in order to offer repeatedly the same sacrifices that could never take away sins. Indeed, matters were made even worse, because “in those sacrifices there is a remembrance made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”
Second, a Samaritan, the Bible tells us, “as he journeyed, came to where the man was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” In the fullness of time, that is to say, God sent His Son to be a good neighbor to him who fell among the thieves. This Son, being in the form of God, did not think equality with God a thing to be seized, but He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant. Indeed, this Son became an utter outcast—in short, a Samaritan, a person without respect or social standing. Although He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty we might become rich.
What was the first thing this Samaritan did for the man that fell among the thieves? He saw him, says the Bible. He looked upon the man in his misery. When Nathaniel was still under the fig tree, our Samaritan saw him. A certain paralytic lay beside the pool of Bethesda with an infirmity thirty-eight years, and our Samaritan saw him lying there. Showing Himself to be a good neighbor, this Samaritan, passing by, saw the man who was blind from birth. Blessed is he that falls under the gaze of our Samaritan. Such a one may say, “Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also have been known.”
What did the Samaritan do for the man that fell among thieves? He washed him in the waters of Baptism, cleansing his wounds, and into those wounds he poured His grace in the form of anointing oil, the holy Chrism, and the Eucharistic wine to prevent infection.
Our Samaritan did not leave beside the road this half-dead victim of the fall among thieves. On the contrary, “He set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” And then he went away. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. This Samaritan is also the great high priest that entered once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. But even as He went away, He said to the inn keeper, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” And this promise brings us to our third point.
Three, our Samaritan says to the inn keeper, “when I come again.” He does not say,if I come again, but when I come again. There is no “if” about the return of this Samaritan. This same Samaritan, which is taken up from us into heaven, shall so come in like manner as we have seen him go into heaven. We solemnly confess, then, that He will come again in glory to judge the living the dead, and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time, apart from sin unto salvation.
All of history is given significance by the two visits of the Samaritan. Only those who abide in the inn, waiting the return of the Samaritan, really know the meaning of history. The inn is the house of history, the Church where inn keeper cares for the Samaritan’s friends.
This parable does not describe that return of the Samaritan. It says simply “when I return.” The parable leaves that return in the future. The story ends in the inn itself. It goes no further. The parable terminates in the place where the Samaritan would have us stay—at the inn. It is imperative for our souls’ health that we remain within this inn, to which our Samaritan has sworn to return. In this inn, which has received the solemn promise of the Samaritan, let us pass all our days, as in eagerness we await His sworn return. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
Tuesday, October 9
1 John 4:12-21: 1 John 4:10-16: John continues to explore the connection between faith in Jesus Christ and love for one another. This is a very important consideration for our own times as well, because in the modern world it is taken as almost axiomatic that the two things are readily separable. That is to say, it is not obvious why human beings need faith in Jesus Christ in order to love one another. Many men profess a desire for universal love in the human race, but they see no reason why such love must have anything to do with the identity and claims of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Christian answer to this question is that modern secular men are not talking about the same thing. When they speak of loving one another, they mean something very different from what the word agape signifies to Christians. Agape is just as particular and singular, just as specific, as Jesus Himself. Christians profess that faith in Jesus is essential to such love, because the true God alone is the source of that love, and Jesus is mankind’s only access to God.
From the consideration that God first loved us before we could love Him, and inasmuch as He gave His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, John concludes that we must (opheilomen) love one another. That is to say, love begets love. If God loves all of us, we must love one another. We must not exclude from our own love anyone who is included in God’s love (verses 10-11).
It is not a matter of simply modeling our love on God’s love. It is not as though God sets a standard that we, by using great moral effort, must emulate. God’s love in our lives is more than an ethical norm. Our love does not simply copy God’s love; it participates in God’s love.
This, says John, is how we come to know God—by loving as God loves, by becoming God-like in our love (verse 12). The unknown God, the unseen God, is truly known in the love with which we love one another. All other knowledge of God is illusory. To refuse to love is to cut oneself off from the knowledge of the true God.
If we are able to love in this way, says John, it is proof that the Holy Spirit abides in us. Love of this nature—agape—is beyond human. Its presence in any human heart is a demonstration of the Holy Spirit in that heart (verse 13).
And this, says John, is how we recognize God’s gift to us in His Son. Only in the Holy Spirit do “we see and testify” to the identity of Jesus Christ as God’s Son and the Savior of the world (verse 14). The Apostle Paul expressed this same truth when he testified that only in the Holy Spirit do we know that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3) and God is Father (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15).
Our mutual indwelling in God, which is the basis of our love for one another, comes from this Spirit-given recognition of the Son and His Father. This recognition, says John, is expressed in a confession, which he designates by the verb homologein, the New Testament’s normal expression for the Church’s creedal confession (verse 15)
Because God is love, those who love in this way abide in God and God in them (verse 16). The statement that God is love is one that is most appealing to modern men, for the simple reason that they misunderstand it. They take it to signify that God is a bland, pleasant, non-judgmental, and even chummy sort of being, chiefly concerned with affirming whatever it is that human beings want to do to amuse themselves.
Agape, however, refers to something very explicit and strictly defined. The statement that God is love refers to the gift of God’s Son to be our Redeemer and the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Hence, the confession of Jesus as God’s Son, sacrificed on the Cross, is the only context in which to understand the affirmation that “God is love.” Therefore, the establishment of a community of love in this world is inseparable from the Church’s Christological confession and answer to the questions, “Who do you say that I am? And “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?”
Two points are chiefly made in verses 17-21.
First, God’s love in us gives us confidence in the day of judgment. It is in this sense that perfect love casts out fear.
It is important to observe that the fear cast out by perfect love is fear of the day of judgment. Many commentators over the centuries have remarked that perfect does not cast out all fear, Perfect love does not cast out, for instance, the fear that is intrinsic to love itself, such as the fear of offending the One we love. In this sense, “The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring forever” (Psalms 19 :9).
Perfect love does cast out, however, fear that the One we love will reject us. This is essentially the argument that Paul makes in Romans *:31-39.
This Johannine text should not disappoint those who find themselves fearful of the day of judgment. John does not say that fear of the day of judgment is incompatible with being a Christian. He says, rather, that perfect love casts out this fear. If one is still fearful of the day of judgment, this does not mean that he is not yet a Christian. It simply means that he has not yet attained to perfect love. There is no disgrace in that. God is not dishonored by such a fear. The presence of such fear means only that one is not yet perfected in love.
This will be disappointing news, to be sure, to those who believe that everything in the Christian life is to be instant. Still, it is true that perfection in love is not the work of a day. Contrary to modern popular belief in instant salvation (and instant everything!), growth in love is the work of years. In this respect, the love of God resembles marriage itself, in which it is normal to spend one’s entire adult life striving for mature love.
Second, hardly anything is more open to illusion or more easily imitated by an imposture than love for God. If we inquire of a person, “Do you love God?” he may consult his state of mind or even the state of his emotions and answer with a ready “yes.” Yet, it may be the case that such a person is lying, or more correctly, that he is deceiving himself. It may be the case that there is not a scintilla of love for God in this person’s heart.
John says that there is only one way to begin addressing this question, and it is by asking another question: “Do you love the brother whom you see?”
John does not concern himself with love for humanity, because there is a sense in which humanity is just as invisible as God. No, it is the brother whom we see that serves as the only reliable gauge of our love for God.
How much, then, do I love God? I love God as much as I love the least of those brothers whom I see, not one whit more. Have I seen anyone lately whom I do not love? That is how much I love God. Any other gauge is an illusion.
When we say, then, that perfect love casts out fear, most of us know that we are far from perfect love. Indeed, when we start to consider how little love we have for one another, we have every reason to be afraid. In the pursuit of the love of God, we must begin by applying ourselves very rigorously to loving the brother whom we see.
Wednesday, Ocober 10
1 John 5:1-13: As we have seen all through the epistle, John is interested in evidence and proof. Arguably more than any other New Testament author, John wants to know how we know certain things. He fears nothing more than self-deception and walking in the dark: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). And again, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). Furthermore, “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is still in darkness” (2:9). Moreover, “But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (2:11). In addition, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (4:20).
If we are to avoid darkness, mendacity, and self-deception, then, just how do we know? Or, by what means do we know? John answers this question repeatedly: “Now by this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (2:3). Again, “But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we are in Him” (2:5). And again, “even now many antichrists have come, by which we know [hothen ginoskomen] that it is the last hour” (2:18). Furthermore, “by this we know [en touto gnosometha] that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him” (3:19). Moreover, “And by this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (3:24). Further yet, “By this you know [en touto ginoskete] the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (4:2). Indeed, “He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know [ek toutou ginoskomen] the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6). Furthermore, “By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13).
This preoccupation continues into the present text: “By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments” (verse 2). True agape, says John, is impossible without the full Christian faith and life, including the observance of the commandments.
We say that we love one another, says John, but how do we really know that we do? This question would not even occur to a modern person, who would answer the question simply with reference to his impressions. To this kind of person, I love someone if I feel a certain way about that person. John knows nothing of reasoning like this, because John is not the sort of person who would take subjective feelings so seriously, much less base his whole life on them.
How can I be sure that I truly God’s children? John asks. Well, he answers with another question, Are we observing God’s commandments?
The modern man can hardly follow such a line of thought. What, after all, do the commandments of God have in common with loving someone? The modern person sees no relationship between them, certainly nothing that would permit us to prove the one by reference to the other. For John, however, no part of the Christian life can be separated from its other components. We can divorce agape from faith no more than we can put faith asunder from agape. Likewise, neither is the love of God’s children separable from the observation of the commandments.
This kind of argument makes no sense to those who imagine that the Christian life is some sort of cafeteria, in which I can decide what I will have and what I will not have. John’s presumption is that everything is coherent. Every component of the life in Christ presupposes and reaffirms every other part.
Thus, for John, the validating sign of agape is faithfulness to the commandments: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (verse 3). This teaching is consonant with that in John’s Gospel: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). And “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (14:21).
These commandments of God are not difficult, John insists, because by faith in Christ we have overcome the world (verses 4-5).
We receive the testimony of men (verse 9) if it is supported by multiple witnesses, as the Torah requires (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). How much more should we receive the testimony that God gives of His Son? The three “witnesses” in this case are the elements that flowed forth from the body of Jesus as He hung in sacrifice on the Cross: “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” (verse 8). This triadic list corresponds to John’s description of the death of Jesus.
First, there was the Spirit. In his description of the Lord’s death, John’s very suggestive wording is unique among the Four Evangelists: paredoken to pnevma (John 19:30). Generally, alas, that uniqueness is obscured in the standard English translations. They usually run something like this: "And bowing his head, he gave up his spirit" (NKJV).
Leaving aside the tender detail about the bowing of the Lord’s head in death, nonetheless, such a translation is seriously inadequate. Paredoken to pnevma, wrote John. To translate this as "he gave up His spirit" deprives the sentence of more than half of its meaning. Taken literally (which is surely the proper way to take him), John affirms that Jesus "handed over the Spirit."
That is to say, the very breath, pnevma, with which the Lord expired on the Cross becomes for John the symbol and transmission of the Holy Spirit that the Lord confers on His Church gathered beneath. Support for this interpretation is found in the risen Lord’s action and words to the apostles in the upper room in John 20:22, "He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit (labete pnevma hagion).’"
Consequently, John’s description of the death of Jesus—"He handed over the Spirit"—portrays the Holy Spirit as being transmitted from the body of the Lord hanging in sacrifice on the altar of the Cross. It is John’s way of affirming that the mission of the Holy Spirit is intimately and inseparably connected with the event the Cross.
This interpretation, besides being faithful to the verb’s literal sense, is consonant with John’s theology as a whole. It was the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord-what John calls His glorification-that permitted the Holy Spirit to be poured out on the Church. John told us earlier that "the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (7:39).
Second, John records another detail of the scene not mentioned by the other Evangelists: "But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out" (19:34 NKJV).
Taken together, then, John records three things as issuing forth from the immolated body of Jesus: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. These have to do with the gathering of the Church at the foot of the Cross, because this is the place where the Lord’s identity is known: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM" (8:28 my translation).
These components appear here in 1 John as the "three witnesses" of the Christian mystery: "And there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are one" (verse 8 my translation). These three are also symbols of the initiatory rites by which believers are joined to Jesus in the Church: the water (Baptism), the Spirit (the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit), and the blood (the Holy Communion). These three rites have been, from the earliest times, the standard way of making new Christians, “those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4).
To receive this threefold “witness” in faith is to have God’s testimony in ourselves (verse 10). And it is eternal life in Christ (verses 11-12), an eternal life that is not merely a promise of something in the future, but a sharing in a present reality. (We observe the present tense of the verbs all through this reading.)
1 John 5:13-21: John now ends this epistle in much the same way he ended his gospel — namely, but returning to themes with which he began. For example, John began this epistle by speaking of eternal life as connected with God’s Son: “the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1:2). And now, here at the end John writes, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (verse 20).
Similarly in his gospel John had begun by asserting, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” and “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:4,18). And then, at the end of that gospel John wrote, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). This idea is identical to what we find here at the end of the epistle: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
John had earlier written of our confidence in God: “when[ He appears, we may have confidence [schomen parresian] and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (2:28), and “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness [parresian echomen] in the day of judgment” (4:17). John thinks of this boldness, or confidence once again in the context of eternal life: “that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. Now this is the confidence that we have in Him [parresia hen echomen]” (verses 13-14).
Thursday, October 11
1 John 5:14-21: In the context of this epistle, our confidence especially pertains to prayer: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (verse 14). This theme, too, he had touched on earlier: “we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him” (3:21-22).
John says, however, that this prayer must be in accord with God’s will. Prayer must not be just another exercise in selfishness.
An example of prayer “according to God’s will” is a petition made on behalf of an erring brother: “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life” (verse 16).
John exempts from such prayer, however, a sin which is “unto death” (verse 17). By “sin unto death” John apparently means the sort of sin betokening such obduracy of heart that forgiveness is not expected. The problem here is not an unwillingness on God’s part to forgive sins, something that God loves to do and longs to do. The problem is on the part of the sinner, who has deliberately put himself into darkness beyond the light. One recalls, in this connection, the silence with which Jesus met the thief that blasphemed Him on the Cross. Perhaps John intends here the sins of the antichrists (2:18-19).
John’s teaching on the “irretrievability” of certain sins pertains to moral exhortation, not dogmatic refinement. It is of a piece with other New Testament texts, such as Mark 3:29 and Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31.
We behold Christians sinning everyday, but this vision must not obscure to our minds the truth that sin has no proper place in the Christian life. It is something essentially incompatible with rebirth in Christ. Committing sin is not part of the “mix” of being a Christian. It has no legitimate place, so the man begotten of God keeps himself from sin: “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him” (verse 18).
Three times in these closing verses John says, “We know”: “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin . . . We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one. And we know that the Son of God has come” (verses 18-20). John thus gives voice to Christian dogma, which essentially pronounces on the relationship of God and His Son. It is only in this relationship that we can be said to know. And in this knowledge there is eternal life (John17:3).
Friday, October 12
The Second Epistle of John: This and the next short book of the New Testament are one-page letters. Each would each fit on a piece of papyrus measuring about 9 by 5 inches, which was the average size of papyrus sheets in antiquity.
It is a common feature on letters, whenever written, that they normally contain the names of the writer and the recipient. This is as true our own correspondence today as it was of the epistles of St. Paul. In this present work, however, the author identifies neither himself nor his readers. We should say something about both of these points.
The writer self-identification here is simply “the old man” (ho presbyteros. Apparently the Apostles were sometimes referred to by the generic “elder,” or in Greek presbyteros. This would explain why the Apostle Peter calls himself by this term (1 Peter 5:1). In the case of the present epistle, however, something more seems to be intended. The author does not call himself an elder, but the elder, or perhaps even “the Elder,” indicating that this is what he was called; it was the normal way in which folks referred to him, knowing exactly who was meant.
Abundant anecdotal evidence testifies that there have been many Christian pastors, over the centuries, who have been similarly referenced, such as the Pastor. The present writer knows of a cathedral where the expression the Dean referred to a clergyman who had been dead for years. None of his less impressive successors, all of them deans, were ever so called!
Anyway, Papias of Hieraopolis, an early second century Christian writing in Asia Minor, refers to someone called ho presbyeros Ioannes, “John the Elder.” Although Eusebius of Caesarea, who records this witness, doubts that the reference is to St. John the Apostle (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.5-6), the present writer does not trust him on the point. Since the earliest collectors of the writings contained in the New Testament were guided by the canon of “apostolicity,” it is difficult to understand how they would have included the present epistle, unless they had been persuaded that John the Apostle wrote it.
Moreover, this small work has definite affinities with the First Epistle of John, the Johannine authorship of which Eusebius had no doubts (3.24.17). The present comments, therefore, presume that the author of this epistle is St. John the Apostle.
The "elect lady" that John addresses is evidently a local church, over which he has some supervision. This supervision he exercises from his own church, presumably Ephesus, which he calls the “elect sister” (verse 13). John writes to this other church, not only in his own name, but on behalf of “all those who have known the truth” (verse1). This is the truth of the Gospel that unites all Christians to one another.
In John’s greeting, the “grace, mercy, and peace” are wished to be “with us” (notwithstanding the Vulgate, the KJV, and other translations). These three nouns are common terms of greeting in the epistles of the New Testament, as benefits that all believers would wish for one another. Indeed, since the word “mercy” (eleos) is found only here in the Johannine writings, we may surmise that its appearance in this text comes from its being such a commonplace in Christian greetings (cf. Galatians 6:16; Jude 2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians Prol.).
When John remarks that “some of your children” (ek ton teknon) are “walking in truth,” we are perhaps justified in suspecting that he intends a subtlety. It could be that he means, “not all of them are doing so (verse 4). John is writing to this church, after all, in order to warn them about deceivers (verse 7), urge them to circumspection (verse 8), and put them on their guard with respect to bad teaching (verse 10). John certainly sees some potential problem on the horizon of this congregation, and it is clear that this is why he is writing to them at all.
By way of exhortation the Elder sends his readers back to the basics of what they have received “from the beginning,” an expression that he uses twice here (verses 5-6). This exhortation to the commandments and love for one another reminds us of several in 1 John: “I plead with you . . . not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it.”
For all his subtleties and gentleness, John is also stern. False teachers are not to be greeted nor received into one’s home (verses 10-11). From this exhortation, it is clear that he is not directly blaming anyone in the congregation itself; it is outsiders that he has in mind, though it is difficult to explain why he wrote this epistle unless he had in mind some specific dangers to his readers.
These false teachers are easy to detect, because they have wrong answers for the questions, “What do you say of the Christ? Whose Son is He? Who do you say that I am?” That is to say, they deny that Jesus is God’s eternal Son become incarnate (verse 9). This thesis is the “doctrine” (i>didache—verses 9,10) that sustains the Christian life and communion. It is the foundation of everything else. Those who deny it, therefore, merit the name “antichrists” (a term that appears only here and in 1 John). We don’t “all worship the same God.” The only God we worship is the Father of Jesus Christ, His Son, who is our only access to the Father. There are no short cuts to God, bypassing Jesus. In particular, there are no ecumenical short cuts.