Sunday, June 20, 2010

Commentary on Scripture: 1 John

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with out eyes... we proclaim to you so that you too may have fellowship with us.

1 John 1:1 ~~ This letter begins on a combative note, stating the humanity of Christ from the beginning and arguing against the Gnostic heresy. Where the Gospel of John begins with a largely abstract discourse on the Word, in an effort to persuade people to belief in Christ, the First Epistle of John begins with the apostles' concrete experiences of the Word, in an effort to exhort believers to growth.

1 John 1:1 ~~ Note the verbs in this verse: "heard," "seen," "looked at" (indicating a more intense gaze, akin to a double-take), "touched." All of them are strongly physical verbs, emphasizing even in vocabulary the humanity of Christ.

1 John 1:2 ~~ Father and Son are seen as coequal and co-eternal ("the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us").

1 John 1:3 ~~ The emphasis in this verse is not on the verb "proclaim," but on the truth and profundity of the Word.

1 John 1:8 ~~ to deny our sin nature is self-deceit; that is, a denial of our rational nature.

1 John 1:9 ~~ This is a famous verse, but it's worth noting the specific words. "He is faithful and *just* to forgive us our sins." Usually justice is set in opposition (or at least in apposition) to mercy and God's providential grace; this verse seems to equate the two.

1 John 2:1 ~~ John points to the present redemption (forgiveness of our sin) and the future restoration (glorification of our nature).

1 John 2:2 ~~ Christ's atonement was in propitiation for the sins of Christians *and* those of the whole world (certainly including the sins of unbelievers, and presumably also including any 'structural sins' that pertain to institutions but not individuals).

1 John 2:3-4 ~~ Obedience to God's commands is the sign of faith and of the 'knowledge of God.'

1 John 2:7-8 ~~ This passage equates the "old commandments" with the commands made new by the Atonement.

1 John 2:9,11 ~~ Love is the living evidence of eternal life (cf. 2:25, in which eternal life appears as the promise; thus, love is also the evidence of hope).

1 John 2:10 ~~ To love is to abide in Light, and to avoid causing others and oneself to stumble.

1 John 2:12-14 ~~ This is a fascinating section. These verses state the purpose of the letter in writing first to "little children," then to "fathers," and finally to "young men." The first set of sentences address all three groups in the present tense; the second set writes in the past tense ("I am writing... I have written"). While some interpretations place "fathers" after "young men," it appears based on the order that "young men" is intended to go last, as that category seems to represent the most mature traits.

1 John 2:16 ~~ This verse was foundational for St. Augustine, and is analyzed at length in his Confessions. According to Augustine, the "lusts of the flesh" correspond to the desires and passions of the body; the "lust of the eyes" correspond to the intellectual pride and false glory of the spirit; and the "boastful pride of life" correspond to the self-centeredness and self-will of the idolatrous soul. In my own hermeneutic, following C.S. Lewis's tripartite division of human nature into rational, spirited, and appetitive elements, I would place the "lusts of the flesh" in the appetitive, the "lust of the eyes" with the rational, and the "boastful pride of life" with the spirited elements of the human soul.

1 John 2:20-21 ~~ "Anointing from the Holy One" gives spiritual discernment.

1 John 2:24 ~~ Obedience is to abide in what "you heard from the beginning." This includes both faith and doctrine; thus, to abide in orthodoxy, even in church traditions, is to abide in the Father and in Christ.

1 John 2:25 ~~ Eternal life (our future glorification, and personified by Jesus Christ) is the foundation for our hope.

1 John 2:26 ~~ Here is a clear statement of purpose for the letter: John seeks to correct error and establish the truth of the Gospel.

1 John 2:27 ~~ Truth is received through the anointing received from Christ. This is both the basis for salvation and sufficient for knowledge, such that there is no further need for teaching.

1 John 3:1 ~~ Children of God have received a great blessing from God, but is alienated from the world.

1 John 3:2-3 ~~ We have hope of glorification, though we do not yet know the details, except that "we will be like Him" and "see Him just as He is." This hope leads us to purify ourselves in anticipation of His judgment.

1 John 3:4-6 ~~ Sin is lawlessness; thus, Christ abolished sin by fulfilling and perfecting the Law.

1 John 3:6 ~~ "No one who abides in Him sins" seems to be a paradox, or at least an ambiguous statement. Perhaps the verse indicates that "sin" is not oriented in deeds but in attitudes. Or perhaps the verse indicates that, due to Christ's atoning sacrifice, sins are no longer held against Christians who abide in Him (Galatians contains a good deal of material on this subject, and the doctrine of Christian liberty).

1 John 3:8 ~~ "Son of God appeared... to destroy the works of the devil" (cf. 3:5).

1 John 3:10 ~~ The practice of righteousness, and the love for the brethren define our souls and act as the signs for our redemption.

1 John 3:11 ~~ This verse seems slightly ironic, pointing to John 13:34-35.

1 John 3:12-13 ~~ Cain hated Abel for his righteousness (for the degree to which Abel's offering pleased God). In the same way the world despised Christ and his followers.

1 John 3:14-15 ~~ Love is the sign and necessary result of a life in Christ. To hold hatred in one's heart for a brother is to deny that life, and deny the imago dei that dwells in our own nature.

1 John 3:16 ~~ All Christians are commands to lay down their lives for our fellow believer (cf. Ephesians 5:21-25).

1 John 3:17 ~~ Charity is a basic duty for anyone and everyone in the Christian walk.

1 John 3:19-21 ~~ "God is greater than our heart." We judge ourselves (perhaps from the Law, or our consciences, or even our psychological insecurities) far more harshly than God does. If we in the Church, in full view of our imperfection, are not troubled by our conscience, this verse seems to indicate that we may have confidence in our salvation.

1 John 4:1 ~~ Christians are to be discerning in accepting the authority of prophets and teachers.

1 John 4:2-3 ~~ John provides a test for authority: a true spirit, sent from God, will confess the Incarnation, and proclaim the mystery of a fully human yet fully divine Son of God. In other words, we are to judge spirits based on the content of their teaching concerning Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:5-6 ~~ John provides a second test for authority: a true spirit, sent from God, will attract an audience of believers. Thus, we are to judge spirits based on their audience's knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:7-8, 11-12 ~~ Christians are called to love one another. Why? (1) Love is from God; God is the source of perfect Love. (2) Love is intrinsic to our Christian faith. (3) We know God through Love; God makes Himself known by Love. (4) God is Love, and we must recognize the unity of His nature. (5) God loved us first, and Love is the only proper response to His gift. (6) God will abide in us, as we obey Him and express ourselves in Love. (7) We are perfected in His Love.

1 John 4:16 ~~ This is a summary and recap of previous items (see also vv. 4:13a, 4:15, 4:19).

1 John 4:17-18 ~~ God's love, perfected in us, is a source of confidence (cf. 1 John 3:21) and drives out fear (including our internal insecurities). Fear (of punishment) is incompatible with the spirit of grace.

1 John 4:20-21 ~~ John presents a two-part proof that that hating one's brother while remaining a Christian is not only logically impossible (can we hate what is seen but love what is unseen and further removed from us?) but also incompatible with obedience (as contrary to the commands of God).

1 John 5:2-3 ~~ Christians are called to love one another. How? (1) Love God. (2) Love obedience ("observe His commandments"). Love is demonstrated through obedience, and obedience to God is not burdensome.

1 John 5:6 ~~ John vociferously opposed the Docetist heresy that distinguished the human Jesus from the divine Christ. Jesus Christ came by water (baptism) and by blood (crucifixion); this demonstrates that Jesus Christ remained fully God and fully human throughout His life.

1 John 5:7-9 ~~ John appeals to human standard of proof: multiple witnesses (in accordance with Jewish law, three). "Spirit" may refer to either the Annunciation, the seed of God at Christ's birth, or to the dove at Christ's baptism. "Water" likely refers to His baptism, though it may refer to the water at Christ's birth. "Blood" likely refers to His crucifixion, though it may refer to the blood at Christ's birth. Some manuscripts also add another set of three witnesses in heaven, as the previous three are on earth: Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. These manuscripts provide one of the earliest unequivocal references to the Trinity, and to the Unity of Christ ("and these three are one").

1 John 5:14 ~~ We can have confidence in God's answer to prayer, provided that (1) we keep His commandments and seek His joy -- as stated in 3:21-22 -- and (2) we pray according to His will -- as stated in 5:14.

1 John 5:16-17 ~~ We pray for those who commit sin, and God will give them life. This passage makes an interesting (and paradoxical) distinction between "sin not leading to death" and "a sin leading to death." My Bible's commentary interprets this as Gnostic amorality, but it is unclear what those phrases mean and how they are construed here. John isn't certain whether we ought to pray for those who commit the "sin leading to death" -- it may be outside prayer, and thus possibly outside grace (recall the irrevocable judgment placed against those who "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit"). John states "all unrighteousness is sin" (implying that all sin is under the judgment of God), "and" (perhaps this conjunction should be "but"?) "there is a sin not leading to death" (implying that this sin, or category of sin, might not be under the judgment of God). This entire verse is thoroughly confusing.

1 John 5:18-19 ~~ For a follower of Christ there is no sin (cf. Gal. 5:1), and is kept by God. While "the whole world is in the power of the evil one," he cannot touch those of us who believe.

1 John 5:20 ~~ Christ came and gave us knowledge of Himself as God and as Life.

1 John 5:21 ~~ This is a highly abrupt end to a letter. Perhaps John meant this statement ("guard yourselves from idols") as a summary statement of the epistle.

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