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Chapter 4: The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

Structurally speaking, only one New Testament writer employed the target cluster as an SPN construction. John used it six times (John 8:39; 20:31; 1 John 2:22; 4:15; 5:1, 5). All six times it is in the present tense, five times as ST3 and once as ST2. I believe that all six of these are clear examples of the normal word order pattern. The passages from the epistle are examined first. The goal is to show that the first nominative in these is the subject, meaning that the second nominative is lesser known than the first. Showing this to be the case will confirm that John followed the grammatical tendency of others who also used this type of target cluster in an SPN construction.

Unfortunately, John’s uses pose an extra challenge. Each is introduced by a ὅτιconjunction. The subordinate clauses function as the direct objects of three main verbs—believe, deny, and confess. This pushes the examination into the inner world of the characters of the gospel narrative and of the recipients of his first letter.

1 John 2:22

John describes the content of previous, present, and future proclamations and states their purpose, fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (vv. 1-3). He then states the purpose of the letter in v. 4, ἵνα ἡ χαρὰ ἡμῶν ᾖ πεπληρωμένη. The joy to which he refers stems from a commitment to truth and godly living. Jesus embodies both. It is clear that the historical Jesus is the known entity both to John and to his audience. It is also manifest that the title Christ has begun to function as a proper name. John probably means it this way in v. 3, yet he separates the two in 1 John 2:22. His flow of thought sheds some light on how these two nominatives function in relation to one another. In v. 19, John describes those who have left the fellowship. He sets them up as a contrast to his audience in v. 20. In v. 21, he reminds his readers of who they are not. Finally, in v. 22 he elaborates on the identity of those who do not possess truth, on the question of who is “the liar?” Is it the one who denies that the Christ is Jesus or is it the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? The immediate context answers this. John has already introduced the idea of “Christ-opponents” in v. 18. Then in v. 22b he says that the liar is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. John is not warning against the anti-Jesus but against the opponent of Christ. The immediate context strongly suggests that in v. 22, Jesus, also known as Jesus Christ, is the known entity. What is not known is that refusal to predicate the title of Christ upon him makes someone a liar, and worst of all, excludes them from fellowship.1 This SPN construction functions with a normal word order pattern.

1 John 4:15

In contrast to the previous example, the immediate context of this verse does not provide as many clues. So what is the author talking about? John is talking about reasons why God sent His Son into the world. John must list these off because they are not known, or at least, not remembered. God sent the Son so that his children could live (v. 9). He sent the Son to be a propitiation for sins (v. 10). He sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (v. 14). Presumably, the audience knows Jesus Christ as a historical person. And they embrace Him as “the Christ” in contradistinction to the antichrists, those who oppose God’s Holy King. But now John adds more to their understanding of who Jesus is. He is also the sent Son of God. To confess Jesus as the Son of God is to agree that the Father did send him to give life, to propitiate for sins, and to be the Savior of the World. “Son of God” and all it entails is the lesser known in this example. It functions with a default word order pattern.

1 John 5:1

This passage is more difficult because the immediate context sheds little light on the flow of thought. Observations from the broader context can help. For example, in the epistle John has yet to use the title Χριστός as the subject of any sentence. The eight times it occurs, it is in conjunction with ᾿Ιησοῦς.2 Looking back for either “Jesus” or “Christ” reveals that the last to be used is “Jesus,” in 1 John 4:15. Looking forward shows that “Jesus” appears again in 1 John 5:5. The readers know who the historical person is throughout the letter. What they do not know is how all of the titles and teachings regarding his identity fit together and apply practically to their lives. It makes more sense to expect readers to keep Jesus in focus and to treat all other elements surrounding his name as elaborations.3 Review of all passages that involve “Father,” “God’s Son,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” confirmed that the historical person, Jesus, remains central throughout. This functions with a default word order pattern.

1 John 5:5

The last passage introduces a shift in focus and it does so through predication. The new idea is overcoming the world which is metonymy for eternal life. John predicates on Jesus the eternal Son-ship which serves to connect his readers to eternal life. The following verses make it clear that John has stayed upon the implications of Jesus being Son of God. If Son of God had been the subject prior to v. 5 then there would have been no need for the convertible proposition. The readers need to hear this assertion because John is about to discuss this aspect of Jesus’ identity.

In summary, John introduces Jesus as God’s Son and as Christ early in the letter. He states that the purpose of proclaiming the gospel is so that hearers may have fellowship with him and others, a fellowship that they indeed enjoy “with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”4 Because his readers are believers, they know exactly who he is talking about. What they do not know is the implications of the various titles and relationships accorded to the historical Jesus. John unpacks these but keeps the One whom his eyes have seen and his hands have touched constantly before his readers.

The Gospel of John

The gospel contains two examples of the target cluster, John 8:39 and 20:31. The first has already been discussed in chapter three of this thesis. Due to recent attention on John 20:31, it will receive a more detailed review. The exegetical examination focuses on the ὅτι-clause which contains the target cluster. The exegesis of the entire verse can be found in appendix six below.

Chapter 20 contains an account of the resurrection (vv. 1-10) and of the appearances of the resurrected Christ (vv. 11-29) which purposes to persuade the original audience that Jesus, the eternal Word, the only Life, and the Light of the world, is God Incarnate. John’s gospel amasses the evidence for this proposition, places it before his audience, and beckons them to believe and to keep believing (vv. 30-31). The preceding pericope (vv. 24-29) uses Thomas as an object lesson to show that life giving faith is the goal. It took physical proof for Thomas to believe the whole truth about Jesus, that He is Lord and God. Immediately following Thomas’ confession, surely having his readers in mind, John recounts Jesus saying that, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Exegesis of ὅτι Ιησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ

John provides the content of what his audience is to believe by using a subordinating ὅτι-clause. It is the proposition therein which has been the subject of recent debate. The various parts of the ὅτι-clause will be examined separately before addressing various views on the meaning of the whole clause.

The small text critical (TC) question regarding the order of ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱός may have led some to suggest the translation, “that Jesus the Messiah is the Son of God.”5 However, Carson agrees with C. K. Barrett that the two substantial witnesses to a different word order, D and W, do not agree.6 This TC question contributes little to the debate about purpose.

Few scholars comment on the proper name, Ιησοῦς.7 John’s audience is presumed to know Him as a real historical person. As for ὁ Χριστός, it first appears in the gospel without the article in John 1:17. It follows the proper name Ιησοῦς. It cannot be determined if it had become equivalent to a proper name by the time John wrote the gospel.8 However, John the Baptist’s rejection of this label in John 1:19-34 suggests that it had not lost its function as a very significant title within the Jewish religious elite and within Jewish community at large.9 The term is used as an adjective outside of Christian literature but always as a noun within it, either as an appellative or as a proper noun.10

The expression ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ first appears, though textually suspect, in John 1:34.11 The internal evidence definitely favors ὁ ἐκλεκτός and “the Chosen One of God” is a better rendering.12 However, supposing that the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels accurately portray what John the Baptist experienced right after baptizing Jesus (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), then this point in the Jesus narrative offers some insight.

The scene occurs immediately after John the Baptist denies being the Christ and points to Jesus, who baptizes with the Spirit, as the Lamb of God. This means that the idea of Jesus’ unique connection to the Father and to the Spirit occurred early, at the beginning of his ministry. It means that a historical event first called attention to him having more than a royal relationship to God. In his gospel, John introduces this scandalous idea of Jesus being intimately related to God in the prologue when he declares καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦδόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός .13

The first undisputed occurrence of ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ is in John 1:49. Here, the emphasis is on the confession itself, rather than on the content. The passage highlights how easily and simply Nathaniel believed upon Jesus and confessed him both Son and King (allusion to ὁ Χριστός).14 In John’s mind, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ and ὁ Χριστός are hardly inseparable in terms of reference, since both apply to Jesus. But in terms of sense, he seems to pronounce them subtly distinct by stating through Nathaniel’s exclamation the major implication of Jesus being the Messiah, that He is the king of Israel.

The final question regarding the meaning of the ὅτι-clause has to do with how its components are to be ordered. Proposals for the functional relationship of the nominatives to each other and to the verb vary. Carson argues that there is “firm syntactical evidence” in favor of rendering the clause as “that Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus.”15 However, this is an overstatement.

Only six examples exhibit a marked word order and the semantic situation for them is very similar. Carson bases his statements on works that examined analogous structures.16 These did not look at the exact structural equivalent of our target cluster. As has been shown, data for the exact target cluster reflects a tendency in authors to place the subject first in this type of SPN structure.17 This passage also functions with a normal word order pattern.

None of the passages from 1 John match the semantic situation of the marked order passages discussed in chapter three. Similarly, there is very little, if any, thematic front-loading in the immediate context of John 20:31 which highlights “the Christ, the Son of God” over “Jesus.” John 8:39 does build up the topic of spiritual lineage. I would describe it as thematically front-loaded. But the author chose to maintain the normal word order and placed the most salient of the two nominatives first. In sum, every target cluster from the Johannine literature functions with a normal word order.


1 McGaughy sees in this verse, and the other four, evidence of an early christological confession which can be traced back to Peter’s confession in Matt 16:16-17 (Lane C. McGaughy, Toward a Descriptive Analysis of Einai as a Linking Verb in New Testament Greek [Nashville: Society of Biblical Literature for the Linguistics Seminar, 1972], 51-52).

2 As a matter of fact, in all three epistles he only uses it as a proper name once, in 2 John 9.

3 1 John 1:3, 7; 2:1, 22; 3:23; 4:2, 3, 15; 5:1, 5, 6, 20.

4 1 John 1:3.

5 Xavier Léon-Dufour, The Gospels and the Jesus of History, trans. John McHugh (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 81.

6 D. A. Carson, “The Purpose of the Fourth Gospel: John 20:31 Reconsidered,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106 (1987): 641.

7 Commentators like Bernard, Brown, Carson, Keener, Moloney, and Morris do not address it at all (J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, ed. A.H. McNeile, International Critical Commentary, ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C. A. Briggs, 2 vols. [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928], 2:686; Raymond Edward Brown, The Gospel according to John (xiii-xxi), 1st ed., Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, vol. 29A [Garden City: Doubleday, 1966], 1056, 1059-61; D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 661-63; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. [Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 2:1215-16; Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4 [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998], 544; Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 755-56).

8 Bernard comments very little on John 1:17, if not only to point out Pauline origin. He also fails to address it in John 1:20 and in 20:31 (Bernard, John, 1:29-30, 36-37; 2:685-86). Brown follows Bernard and others by suggesting that John 1:17 was added later as an editorial explanation of John 1:16c (Raymond Edward Brown, The Gospel according to John (i-xii), 1st ed., Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, vol. 29 [Garden City: Doubleday, 1966], 16, 35-36). In discussing John 1:20, Brown seems to understand the title as a reference to an anointed Davidic king (Brown, John (i-xii), 43, 46-47). He says nothing about it while commenting on John 20:31. He simply translates it as “Messiah” (Brown, John (xiii-xxi), 1059). Carson’s commentary on John 20:31 refers back to comments on John 1:41 where he points out that the Greek word for the transliteration of the Hebrew or Aramaic “Messiah” also means anointed one (Carson, John, 661). It derives from the Greek verbχρίω, which means to anoint. He adds that Jesus is the anointed one par excellence – Prophet, Priest and King (Carson, John, 156). Keener’s discussions on John 1:17, 20 imply that he sees in the title a simple reference to the Jewish concept of Messiah (Keener, John, 1:421-22, 433-34). In John 20:31, he refrains from commenting on it, presumably because it is well understood by John’s audience by this point in the narrative (Keener, John, 2:1215-16). Moloney also does not comment extensively on what the title means, either in John 1:17, 20 or in John 20:31 (Moloney, John, 40-41, 46, 52, 58, 544). Morris’ comments on John 1:17 provide the best and most succinct review of ὁ Χριστός (and of ∆Ιησοῦς). He essentially assigns the appellative a messianic reference (Morris, John, 99). In John 20:31, he sees the title as a reference to the typical Jewish view of Messiah, anointed Davidic king, a reference deliberately placed next to an ascription not typically found in Jewish religious understanding of Messiah, that of Son-ship (Morris, John, 756).

9 Cf. John 1:20, 25, and 41.

10 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. by Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1091.

11 Bernard sees in this expression a title of Messiah. He implies that, when observed within the contexts of John’s uses, the phrase seems to move the emphasis from theocratic king to Yahweh’s Son. Commenting on John 20:31, he notes that it carries a deeper significance than when Martha confessed it as a title for Messiah in John 11:27. It points to the identity previously described (Bernard, John, 1:52; 2:685-86). Carson’s commentary on John 20:31 refers the readers back to John 1:49. He comments that the expression “son of …” can have a wide range of meanings but that in the gospel, the “Son of God” expression is both messianic and metaphysical. It may be an allusion to Jesus as true Israel (cf. Exod 4:22-23; Deut 1:31; 32:6; Jer 31:9, 20; Hos 11:1). It definitely designates Messiah by linking son-ship to royalty (cf. 1 Sam 26:17, 21, 25; 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7). He adds, John’s audience “will quickly learn that the categories ‘Son of God’ are used to depict the unique oneness and intimacy between Jesus and His Father” (Carson, John, 161-62, 661). In his article, he observes that scholars who believe the gospel was written to unbelieving Jews tend to see it as synonymous with Messiah and that those who think it was written to unbelieving Gentiles or to a church see in it a deeper meaning. He concludes that one’s view on the meaning of ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ does not necessarily affect the question of purpose of the gospel (Carson, “Purpose,” 641-42). Keener believes that John 1:34 captures the message of the heavenly voice recounted in the Synoptic Gospels, that it calls attention to Christ’s post resurrection enthronement. He does not see a very strong connection to intimacy from familial relationship (Keener, John, 1:463-65). He does not address it in the commentary section on John 20:31 (Keener, John, 2:1215-16). Moloney also does not comment on the expression in John 20:31. But in John 1:34, he notes John uses the expression to introduce the idea that Jesus “has his origins in God and brings the Holy Spirit into the human story” (Moloney, John, 53). For Moloney, this element of Jesus’ identity shatters existing Jewish messianic expectations.

12 The most common translation, “Son of God,” reflects the decision of Bruce Metzger and Committee regarding the TC problem in this verse. They preferred the reading ὁ υἱός on the basis of external evidence, age and the diversity of witnesses, and due to strong congruence with the biblical theology of John’s gospel (Bruce Manning Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 172). However, the discussion of this TC problem in the NET bible is quite persuasive to the contrary (Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible: New English Translation, First Beta ed. [Spokane: Biblical Studies Press, 2001], 1937-38 fn. 25tc). In short, they present recent papyri discoveries to show that ὁ ἐκλεκτός has early attestation and effectively argue that the variant best explains the text. The weight of their argument is in the internal evidence. Given the immediate preceding context (cf. Synoptic Gospels) and the tendency for John to use ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, it is more likely that scribes moved in the direction of ὁ ἐκλεκτός to ὁ υἱός, rather than vice versa. The former better explains the latter.

13 John 1:14, cf. John 1:18.

14 John 1:43-51.

15 Carson, John, 90, 662.; Carson, “Purpose,” 642-44.

16 See discussion of past research in chapter two.

17 I believe that the arguments surrounding the question of the purpose of John’s gospel must come from arenas other than syntax. The section following the commentary in appendix six interacts with a few of those arguments.

Related Topics: Grammar