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Exegetical Commentary on 1 John 1:5-2:2

    Structure

The key to understanding the first major section of 1 John, 1:5-3:10, can be found in the summary statement in v. 5: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” The idea of “proclamation” – the apostolic proclamation117 of eyewitness testimony which was introduced in the prologue (1:2-3) – is picked up in 1:5 by the use of the noun ajggeliva (angelia, “[gospel] message”) and the verb ajnaggevllomen (anangellomen, “announce”), cognate to the verb in 1:3.118 The content of this proclamation is given by the Joti-clause in 1:5 as the assertion that God is light, so we should understand this statement as the author’s restatement (in somewhat different terms) of the apostolic eyewitness testimony introduced in the prologue.119

Following this basic statement in 1:5 are a series of claims and counterclaims between the author and his opponents. These claims and counterclaims make up the first major unit of 1 John (1:5-2:2).

    1:5 Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.

    Summary

The word Now at the beginning of v. 5 connects the gospel message with what has preceded in vv. 1-4 (the prologue). The message refers to the eyewitness testimony about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the author of 1 John, and the rest of the apostolic witnesses. This message relates to the salvation of the hearers/readers, since its purpose is to bring them into fellowship with God and with the apostolic witnesses (cf. 1:3). The content of the message, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all, is a description of a quality or attribute of God. As the following context and the introduction of the light/darkness imagery make clear, this involves the moral realm and thus is a description of God’s character as pure and completely sinless.

    Exegetical Details

The conjunction kaiv (kai, translated by the NET Bible as “now”) at the beginning of 1:5. This conjunction forms the link between the prologue (1:1-4) and the present section, 1:5-2:2. Some have attempted to treat it as inferential (i.e., “thus” or “therefore”), indicating a further conclusion that follows from the statement in 1:3 expressing the author’s purpose, namely, that the readers might have fellowship (koinwnivan, koinwnian) with the author and those who speak the same thing along with him (i.e., the other bearers of the apostolic testimony).

Another possibility is that the kaiv (kai) at the beginning of 1:5 is continuative rather than inferential and thus should be translated “and.” It expresses the transition from the prologue (1:1-4) to the first major section of the work, indicating that there is a link between the prologue and the following material, where themes introduced in the prologue will be repeated and expanded. Confirmation of this may be found in John 1:19, where the first verse after the prologue to the Gospel also begins with kaiv (kai).

Still another (and probably the best) possibility is that the kaiv (kai) at the beginning of 1:5 is resumptive, picking up the theme of proclamation or announcement (of the apostolic eyewitness testimony) from the prologue, as indicated by the phrases “heard from him and announce to you” in 1:5, which echo similar statements found in 1:3. In this case kaiv (kai) should be translated as “now.”

The meaning of ajggeliva (angelia, “[gospel] message”) in 1:5. This word occurs only twice in the New Testament, here and in 1 John 3:11. It is a cognate of ejpaggeliva (epangelia) which occurs much more frequently (some 52 times in the New Testament) including 1 John 2:25. The third edition of Bauer’s lexicon offers the meaning “message” which suggests some overlap with the semantic range of lovgo (logos), although in the specific context of 1:5 Bauer’s lexicon suggests a reference to the gospel.120 (The precise content of this “good news” is spelled out by the Joti-clause which follows in 1:5b.)

Such a connection of ajggeliva (angelia) with “the gospel” is not as strange as it may at first appear, since the Greek word usually associated in the New Testament with “the gospel,” eujaggevlion (euangelion, from which English words like “evangelism” and “evangelist” are derived), occurs only once in the entire Johannine corpus121 of the New Testament, in Rev. 14:6, where it is far from certain that it is a technical term. The word ajggeliva (angelia) in the context in which it occurs here appears to be virtually equivalent to eujaggevlion (euangelion): (1) it refers to the proclamation of the eyewitness testimony about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the author and the rest of the apostolic witnesses (see the prologue, especially 1:3-4), and (2) it relates to the salvation of the hearers or readers, since the purpose of this proclamation is to bring them into fellowship with God and with the apostolic witnesses (1:3).

The referent of aujtou' (autou, “[from] him”) in 1:5. The author says that he and the other apostolic witnesses have heard this ‘gospel message’ which they proclaim to the readers from “him.” To whom does this pronoun refer?

The last third person pronoun reference prior to this one is found at the end of 1:3, metaV tou' uiJou' aujtou' =Ihsou' Cristou' (meta tou Juiou autou Ihsou Cristou, “and with his Son Jesus Christ”). This pronoun, followed by a mention of Jesus Christ as “his Son,” must refer to God. However, this leaves the reference to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, at the end of 1:3 as the logical antecedent of the third person pronoun aujtou' (autou, “[from] him”) in 1:5. This would also be consistent with the eyewitness nature of the apostolic testimony introduced in the prologue, especially the reference to “the beginning” in 1:1, which we have already understood to refer to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, that is, the beginning of his self-revelation to his disciples.122 It was Jesus, through his revelation of himself to the disciples, who revealed what God himself is like (John 1:18). This fits perfectly with the content of the ‘gospel’ given in the following Joti-clause, namely, that God is light, when we recall that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12). I do not think it is necessary to say, as Z. C. Hodges does, that the author deliberately chose the third person pronoun in order to be ambiguous.123 It is true that the ‘gospel’ which the apostolic witnesses had heard came from God, but it came by way of Jesus Christ and his self-revelation: he it was who perfectly revealed what God is like.

The meaning of oJ qeoV fw' ejstin (Jo qeos fws estin, “God is light”) in 1:5. This statement occurs in the Joti-clause in 1:5b. Blass-Debrunner’s standard reference grammar considers the phrase e[stin au{th hJ ajggeliva (estin Jauth Jh angelia, “this is the gospel message”) as equivalent to a verb of saying, and thus labels the following Joti-clause (“that God is light…”) as indirect discourse.124 The predicate nominative fw' (fws, “light”) is anarthrous, as it also is in 1 John 4:8. This probably indicates a qualitative force, since the context in no way demands definiteness. Thus this is not a statement of identity (“God” = “light”), but a description of a quality or attribute of God. As the following context and the introduction of the light/darkness motif make clear, this involves the moral realm and thus constitutes a description of God’s character as pure and completely sinless. The author goes on to explain the ethical implications of this description in the following verses, both for the claims of the opponents and for the author’s readers.

    1:6 If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth.

    Summary

Verse 6 begins a series of six if-clauses which end in 2:1. These divide into three pairs, each pair consisting of If we say… followed by a negative statement (representing the claims of the secessionist opponents and their results, vv. 6, 8, 10) and But if… followed by a positive statement (representing the counterclaims of the author of 1 John, in vv. 7, 9, and 2:1).

The statements beginning with If we say… and representing the claims of the opponents should be read with hypothetical force: “If we were to say….” However, these statements reflect the real concern of the author that some of the Christians to whom he is writing are being (or soon will be) influenced by the christological teaching of the opponents.

According to v. 6, if a person says we have fellowship with him (God) and yet goes on walking in the darkness, that person is lying about having fellowship with God and not practicing the truth. The phrase practicing the truth means living out the truth in a lifestyle obedient to God. The most important parallel is John 3:20-21, where we are told “Everyone who does [= practices] evil hates the light and does not come to the light…but the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.” The problem with the opponents lies not with their boast that they have fellowship with God, but with their contradictory behavior – they continue walking in the darkness.125

    Structure

Verse 6 begins with the first of a series of six ejavn (ean, “if”) clauses which end in 2:1. These may be divided into three pairs, each pair consisting of (a) ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen, “if we say,” representing the claims of the adversaries) followed by a negative statement in the apodosis and (b) ejavn (ean, “if,” reflecting the counter-claims of the author) with a positive statement in the apodosis.

    Exegetical Details

The significance of the negative and positive apodoses in the six ejavn (ean) clauses in 1:6-2:1. All three of the negative apodoses are introduced by a protasis with ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen, “if we say,” 1:6, 8, 10), while the positive apodoses are introduced with protases containing ejavn (ean) alone (1:7, 9, 2:1). The statements with ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen) have hypothetical force (“If we should say…”) but they reflect the real concern of the author that some of the Christians to whom he is writing are being (or will be) influenced by the teaching of the opponents; they may even represent favorite sayings of the opponents themselves.126 The three negative apodoses following ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen) are intended to bring out the implications of following the opponents’ teaching, while the three positive apodoses (preceded by ejavn [ean] only) reflect the implication of following the orthodox (apostolic) teaching of the author.

The force of the first kaiv (kai, “and”) in 1:6. The clause in 1:6 introduced by the first kaiv (kai) is structurally parallel to the first part of the protasis, ejavn ei[pwmen…(ean eipwmen…), but logically it is subordinate, expressing a condition circumstantial to the first part of the protasis. Blass-Debrunner’s standard reference grammar considers this an adversative use of kaiv where actual contrast is involved, suggesting the translation “and yet.”127 Thus the force of the first kaiv (kai) is, “If we say that we have fellowship with God and yet continue walking in the darkness, then…” (the apodosis follows).

The referent of aujtou' (autou, “[with] him”) in 1:6. Since the last third person pronoun in 1:5, aujtw'/ (autw, “[in] him”), clearly referred to God, it seems almost certain that this pronoun in 1:6 should refer to God as well.

The significance of the present tense of peripatw'men (peripatwmen, “keep on walking”) in 1:6. The context of this statement in 1:6 indicates clearly that the progressive (sometimes called continuative, or durative) use of the present tense, one of its most common uses, must be in view here. The relationship of peripatw'men (peripatwmen) to ei[pwmen (eipwmen) is of particular importance for understanding the problem expressed in 1:6. We have already noted above that the first kaiv (kai, “and yet”) in 1:6 has adversative force. If someone should say (ei[pwmen, eipwmen) that he has fellowship with God, and yet continues walking (peripatw'men, peripatwmen) in the darkness, then it follows (as expressed in the apodosis of the conditional sentence) that such a person is lying and not practicing the truth. The author almost certainly has the claims of the opponents in view here.

The background of the light/darkness motif introduced in 1:6. The author’s problem with the claim of the opponents lies not with the boast that they have fellowship with God, but with their contradictory behavior: they continue walking “in the darkness” at the same time they are making the claim to have fellowship with God. To the author this proves conclusively that they are lying, as the author points out in the apodosis (1:6b). The contrast with light occurs because the opponents claim to have fellowship with God, who has been characterized as “light” in 1:5.

The light/darkness motif in Johannine theology. In the Old Testament God is compared with light on several occasions (e.g., Ps 27:1; 36:9).128 The constrast between light and darkness is also a major theme in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 1:9-10). The light/darkness motif occurs in a number of places in the New Testament (cf., for example, Eph 5:6-8), but it is especially evident in the Johannine literature. It is an important theme of the prologue to the Gospel of John, especially 1:5. One of the most important sections of the Gospel, containing the key to a number of themes within it, is 3:16-21. In 3:19 we are told that people “loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.” The author goes on to state in 3:20 that “everyone who practices evil hates the light” and refuses to come to it, because of fear that his evil deeds will be exposed for what they are. Finally in 3:21 the one who “practices the truth” (same phrase as 1 John 1:6) comes to the light. The picture painted by John 3:16-21 is one where one’s affinity for ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ serves to reveal one’s inner nature. One is forced to a decision to ally oneself with one side or the other. A response is evoked; one cannot just remain neutral. Either one comes to the light, and it becomes evident that one belongs there, or one hates the light and shrinks back into the darkness to hide from it. The imagery of response used in John 3:16-21 applies to an individual’s response to Jesus himself, who is identified as “the true Light” in John 1:4 and who identifies himself as “the Light of the world” in John 8:12.

The significance of the light/darkness motif in 1 John 1:6. Because of the central role this theme plays in the Gospel of John, it is almost certainly behind the introduction of the motif in 1 John 1:6. The opponents, who profess that they have “come to the light” (using the language of John 3) have not in reality done so, and for the author of 1 John their deeds prove it, because they are continuing to “walk in darkness.” Rather, their way of life (“walking”) demonstrates that they are lying in their claim to have fellowship with God who is light.

The meaning of poiei'n ajlhvqeian (poiein alhqeian, “practicing [lit., “doing”] the truth”) in 1:6. R. Brown and S. Smalley both consider this phrase Semitic.129 It is clear that the construction poiei'n (poiein) + noun is frequently used by the author of 1 John; it occurs in 2:17, 2:29, 3:4 (2x), 3:7, 3:8-9, 3:10, and 3:22. The phrase occurs twice in the Old Testament, in Neh 9:33 and 2 Chr 31:20.

In this context it essentially means “to practice the truth” by living it out in a lifestyle obedient to God. By far the most important parallel is found in John 3:21, the one time the phrase occurs in the Gospel of John. We have discussed the context of John 3:16-21 in the preceding section of the commentary. The section in John 3 concludes by summarizing in 3:20-21, “For everyone who does (pravsswn, prasswn) evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light…but the one who practices (poiwvn, poiwn) the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.” Note that the light/darkness motif is present just as in 1:6.130 In the language and imagery of both the Gospel of John and 1 John, to “practice the truth” involves coming to the light, with the resultant confirmation of one’s affiliation to the light by one’s deeds (i.e., lifestyle). But that is precisely the shortcoming of the opponents here in 1 John: while they profess to have come to the light (saying “we have fellowship with God”) they are continuing to walk in darkness, and this shows them to be (a) lying and (b) proving it by their disobedient lifestyle. Precisely what this disobedient lifestyle of the opponents consists of is not explained here, but in light of the author’s reference to cleansing from sin in the following verse, it is highly probably that he views the opponents’ continuing to “walk in darkness” and “not practice the truth” as involving sin.

    1:7 But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

    Summary

In contrast to v. 6, which reflects a claim of the opponents, the present verse introduces the counter-claim of the author of 1 John. However, does the author’s statement the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin refer to initial justification or to ongoing sanctification for the Christian?131 Since this cleansing from sin is something that follows when we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, it must refer in this context primarily to ongoing sanctification. This means that fellowship with one another is also something shared between believers and is a result of a righteous lifestyle (“walking in the light”). The author is not worried about the initial justification (salvation) of the people to whom he is writing. Rather he is reassuring them about forgiveness of sins committed after having become Christians.132

    Structure

Verse 7 introduces the first protasis with ejavn (ean, “if”), a “counter-claim” of the author, followed by a positive apodosis which reflects the implications of the author’s (apostolic) teaching in contrast to the teaching of the opponents.

    Exegetical Details

Do the phrases walking in the light and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin refer to initial justification or to sanctification, or both? If we understand these statements to refer to initial justification, the force of the conditional construction in the apodosis (“if we walk in the light”) would make one’s justification contingent upon one’s deeds or behavior, and this comes perilously close to making one’s salvation depend (at least in part) upon one’s good works. This would, of course, contradict the Pauline emphasis (Rom 5:1, Gal 2:16, Eph 2:8-10, etc.) on justification by faith alone, apart from works.

Some have suggested, however, that the author of 1 John has both initial justification and subsequent sanctification in view here. One version of this is to make “walk in the light” here in 1:7 the equivalent of “come to the light” in John 3:20-21, that is, justification, while the following statement “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” refers to the process of sanctification after one has come to the light. This is possible, of course, but it is open to question whether the phrase “walk in the light” can really refer to initial justification in this context; based on the usage in John 3:20-21 the expected Johannine phrase for initial justification would be “come to the light.”

It seems almost certain that “walk in the light” refers here to what one does after one has “come to the light,” that is, to the process of sanctification. As for the readers to whom 1 John is being addressed, the author is not worried about their initial justification. What he wants to do here is reassure them about their forgiveness of sins committed after having become Christians. This is in stark contrast to the condition of the opponents, who (in 1:6) profess to have fellowship with God (i.e., to be justified), but deny their profession by their lifestyle (i.e., by continuing to “walk in darkness”).

The meaning of aJmartiva (Jamartia, “sin”) in 1:7. This word occurs 17 times in 1 John, of which 11 are singular and 6 plural. Sometimes a distinction in meaning between the singular and the plural has been suggested. Some would see the singular pavsh aJmartiva (pashs Jamartias, “all sin”) of 1:7 as a reference to sinfulness before conversion and the plural taV aJmartiva (tas Jamartias, “sins”) of 1:9 as a reference to sins committed after one became a Christian. This amounts to making 1:7 refer to initial justification and 1:9 to sanctification, a position we have discussed and rejected in the previous section (see above). In addition to points made there, it may also be added that pavsh aJmartiva (pashs Jamartias) in 1:7 is so comprehensive that it can hardly be limited to pre-conversion sins, and the emphasis in 1:7 on “walking,” a common New Testament idiom for the conduct of one’s life, strongly suggests that the Christian life is in view.

The third edition of Bauer’s lexicon defines aJmartiva (Jamartia) as “a departure fr. either human and divine standards of uprightness” (cf. 1 John 5:17 where aJmartiva and ajdikiva are related).133 In 1 John 1:8 sin appears as a condition or characteristic quality, which in 1:10 is regarded as universal. Apart from forgiveness in Christ it results in alienation from God (2:15) and spiritual death (3:14). But according to 1 John 1:7, cleansing from sin is possible by the blood of Jesus. In this context where forgiveness of sin (and sacrificial atonement, cf. 1 John 2:2) is in view, the “blood” suggests not merely “death,” but sacrificial death which makes atonement possible.134

    1:8 If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.

    Summary

Once again v. 8 refers to a claim of the opponents. The phrase translated bear the guilt of sin as used in the Gospel of John (9:41, 15:22, 15:24, 19:11) refers to situations where a wrong action has been committed or a wrong attitude already existed, resulting in a state of sin (i.e., guilt). This is the situation of the secessionist opponents. Such people are deceiving themselves. “Deceit” characterizes these opponents: in 1 John 2:26 they are trying to deceive others (the readers); in 3:7 the author again warns his readers against attempted deceit. The attempt of the opponents to deceive others begins with their self-deceit about being guilty of sins committed.

    Structure

Verse 8 introduces the second of the three clauses beginning with ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen, “if we say”) and representing the claims of the opponents. Once again, ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen) is followed by a negative statement in the apodosis giving the author’s evaluation of the opponents’ claims.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of the phrase aJmartivan oujk e[comen (Jamartian ouk ecomen, “we do not bear the guilt of sin”; literally, “sin we do not have”) in 1:8. The use of e[cw (ecw) + aJmartiva (Jamartia) is an expression peculiar to the Gospel of John and 1 John in the New Testament. On the analogy with other constructions in 1 John where e[cw (ecw) governs an abstract noun (e.g., 1 John 1:3, 1:6, 1:7, 2:28, 3:3, 3:15, 3:21, 4:16, 4:17, 5:12-13) it would appear that a state is involved, which in the case of aJmartiva (Jamartia) would refer to a state of sin. The four times the expression e[cw (ecw) + aJmartiva (Jamartia) occurs in the Gospel of John (9:41, 15:22, 15:24, 19:11) all refer to situations where a wrong action has been committed or a wrong attitude has already existed, resulting in a state of sin, and then something else happens which further emphasizes the evil of that action or attitude.

Here in 1 John 1:8 the sense appears to be the same. The author is addressing people who have sinned (resulting in a state of sin), warning them that they cannot claim to be free from the guilt of that sin. I do not think the context of 1 John implies libertinism135 on the part of the opponents, since the author makes no explicit charges of immoral behavior against his opponents. The worst the author explicitly says concerning them is that they have failed to love the brethren (3:17). It seems more likely that the opponents were saying that things a believer did were not significant enough to be ‘sins’ that could challenge one’s intimate relationship with God (a relationship the author denies that the opponents possess to begin with).136

The meaning of eJautouV planw'men (Jeautous planwmen, “we are deceiving ourselves”) in 1:8. According to the third edition of Bauer’s lexicon the verb planavw (planaw) means “to mislead, deceive,” in this context specifically, “deceive oneself.”137 An examination of the other uses of the same verb in 1 John (2:26, 3:7) implies that more than mere self-deception resulting from misunderstanding or confusion is in view here.138 The reference in 2:26 in particular (“these things I have written to you about those who are trying to deceive you…”) suggests that the opponents with their false teaching are in view. They are described as “antichrists” just prior to this in 2:18, and 1 John 4:6 (just after another mention of “antichrist” in 4:3) uses the cognate noun plavnh (planhs) to refer to the “Spirit of Deceit” which is at work in the world. Deceit in 1 John is consistently associated with Antichrist and with the opponents, and thus it appears that here the author is dealing with the potential acceptance of the adversaries’ claims by some of the readers. If they were to accept the false teaching and claim to be free from the guilt of sin, they would be deceiving themselves (as indeed the opponents already are self-deceived), but in this case it would be the result of accepting the claims of the opponents.

    1:9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.

    Summary

Does the author of 1 John refer here to an initial confession of sins at conversion (when a person becomes a believer), or to ongoing confession of sins in the life of the believer, or possibly to both at the same time? It seems unlikely that the author is worried about the initial justification of the people to whom he is writing: he regards the members of the community who have “remained” and not “gone out” (1 John 2:19) as genuine believers. Thus the author points out that if Christians confess the sins they are aware of, they may be sure that God will forgive their sins and cleanse them not only from those sins they confess but from all unrighteousness.

    Structure

Verse 9 contains the second counter-claim of the author, beginning with ejavn (ean, “if”) and containing a positive statement in the apodosis. The statement in the apodosis reflects the implications of the author’s (apostolic) teaching in contrast to that of the adversaries: “he (God) is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.”

    Exegetical Details

To what does the protasis in 1:9 refer, an initial confession of faith or the ongoing confession of sin by the believer? As a third-class condition this could be considered either “future more probable” or “present general.” M. Zerwick states that in this example it is impossible to distinguish between the two nuances.139

The main verb in the protasis, oJmologevw (Jomologew, “confess”), occurs 4 times in the Gospel of John (1:20 [2x]; 9:22; 12:42), 5 times in 1 John (1:9; 2:23; 4:2, 3, 15), 1 time in 2 John (7), and 1 time in Revelation (3:5). Everywhere else in Johannine usage except here, however, the object is always Christ; this example is the only one where confession of sin is involved.

As we have pointed out in the discussion on v. 7 above where the same issue of initial justification versus ongoing sanctification was in view, the author of 1 John is not worried about the initial justification of the people to whom he is writing: he regards the members of the community who have “remained” and not “gone out” with the secessionist opponents as genuine believers. Here he is stating a counter-claim to the opponents’ claim in 1:8 that they are not guilty of sin. The author points out that if as Christians we confess our sins, we may be sure that God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us not only from those sins we confess but from all unrighteousness (pavsh ajdikiva, pashs adikias, “all unrighteousness”). That God the Father is the (understood) subject of the ejstin (estin, “is”) in 1:9 seems clear, since the last third person references in vv. 6 and 7 refer to God.

This is the opposite of the position taken by the opponents, who appear to be moral indifferentists140 saying that one’s behavior is of no consequence and sin, in any event, is not capable of interfering with a Christian’s relationship to God. The author’s position, in contrast, is that a Christian who denies the guilt attached to sin is self-deceived. Sins need to be confessed to God, and when this is done, the believer may be sure that God, because he is both faithful and righteous, will forgive the sins confessed as well as cleansing the believer from all unrighteousness.

The emphasis on God’s faithfulness in forgiving sin may actually have its roots in the Old Testament. Judith Lieu has argued that behind this text is Exod 34:6, which also links God’s forgiveness with his faithfulness; she traces this linkage through Num 14:18-19; Neh 9:17; Pss 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Dan 9:9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3, and a number of texts in the Jewish intertestamental literature.141

The precise manner in which the author envisions this confession of sin by believers to take place is not specified. There are at least three possibilities: (1) a private confession of sin by the believer in prayer to God; (2) a private confession of sin by the believer to another believer; or (3) a public confession of sin by the believer to the Christian community, possibly in the context of a worship service. According to Brown the first option, a private confession by the individual to God, was held by Augustine, Oecumenius, Bede, and Theophylact.142 The current practice in some denominations (e.g., Roman Catholic) of a private confession of sin by the individual believer to an ordained priest is an outgrowth of the second option. Westcott argued for the third option, a public confession before other believers, “openly in the face of men,” based on the use of the verb oJmologevw (Jomologew) to refer to open witness elsewhere in the Johannine corpus (1 John 2:23; 4:2, 3, 15; John 1:20 [2x]; 9:22; 12:42), but this is not conclusive.143 Schnackenburg saw in this text an echo of the Jewish practice of confession on the Day of Atonement.144 Some have also suggested a public confession of sins in the context of a baptismal service, but this seems less likely in light of the probability that the confession the author envisions in 1 John 1:9 appears to be on the part of people who are already regarded as believers, rather than baptismal candidates who would presumably be new converts. In the final analysis, however, it is probably fair to say that the fact of confession of sin by the believer is what was important to the author, since he does not clearly specify the exact circumstances under which it is to take place.

    1:10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

    Summary

Verse 10 contains the last of the three If we say… clauses. Many see this as an exact repetition of the claim in v. 8. Others point to a difference in tense (present tense in v. 8, perfect tense here). But what is unique about v. 8 is the expression bear the guilt of sin, which was explained as referring to guilt resulting from sin. Here in v. 10 it is not the guilt resulting from sin that is being denied, but a denial of actual acts of sin. The opponents had apparently developed a version of perfectionism by which they were able to deny that, after professing to be Christians, they could be convicted of sin. The author of 1 John counters this by pointing out that the one who claims this makes God a liar, and God’s word is not “in” such a person.

    Structure

Verse 10 contains the last of the three clauses beginning with ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen, “if we say”) and representing the claims of the opponents. Once again, ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen) is followed by a negative statement in the apodosis giving the author’s evaluation of the opponents’ claims.

    Exegetical Details

How does the claim ejavn ei[pwmen o{ti oujc hJmarthvkamen (ean eipwmen Joti ouc Jhmarthkamen, “if we say we have not sinned”) relate to the similar claim in 1:8? Many interpreters see this as an exact repetition of the previous claim in 1:8. Others see significance in the switch from the present tense in the apodosis of v. 8 to the perfect tense in the apodosis here.145 But the uniqueness of the statement in 1:8 did not lie in the use of the present tense, but in the idiom used (e[cw [ecw] + noun), which we discussed under v. 8 above. There we concluded that the stress of the idiom, as indicated by other usage, was on the guilt attached to sin, and that the opponents were claiming to be free of this guilt. Here it seems highly probable, as R. Brown points out, that “a denial of sins or bad actions is involved.”146 Since there is repeated stress in the Gospel of John on the sin of those who reject Jesus and refuse to believe (John 8:24, etc.) and that Jesus as the Lamb of God came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29), the claim of the opponents could not be that in the past, before their professed conversion, they had never sinned. It must rather refer to sins committed after a person has professed to be a Christian, that is, post-conversion sins. The author’s adversaries had apparently developed a version of Christian perfectionism whereby they were able to deny that, after professing to be Christians, they could be convicted of sin.

The author counters this by pointing out that the one who claims this makes God a liar (a serious charge in itself), and furthermore, God’s word is not in such a person. This last phrase parallels 1:8b, where the “truth” is not in such an individual.147 Once again, the author makes it plain that the situation of the opponents who are claiming this is serious: they do not really have God’s word (the message about eternal life revealed by Jesus Christ, cf. 1:1) residing in them, although they claim that they do. This essentially brands the opponents as unbelievers in spite of their claims to know the truth, be in the light, and be in fellowship with other (genuine) Christians.

    2:1 (My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.) But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One;

    Summary

The seriousness of the last claim we have not sinned in v. 10 causes the author to break the pattern of if-clauses with a parenthetical note that he wants his readers (My little children) not to sin. But in the final if-clause in 2:1 (But if anyone does sin…) the author reassures his readers that even if they do sin, they may look to Jesus Christ as their advocate with the Father to intercede for them.

    Structure

The direct address by the author to his readers at the beginning of 2:1 marks a break in the pattern of the opponents’ claims (indicated by ejavn ei[pwmen [ean eipwmen, “if we say”] followed by a negative statement in the apodosis) and the author’s counter-claims (represented by ejavn [ean, “if”] with a positive statement in the apodosis) made so far in 1:6ff. The seriousness of this last claim (in 1:10) causes the author to interrupt himself with a parenthetical remark, to address the readers as his faithful children and to explain to them that while he wants them not to sin, they may be assured that if they do, they can look to Jesus Christ to intercede for them, as their advocate with the Father. After this, the last of the author’s three counter-claims in 1:5-2:2 is found in the ean-clause in 2:1b.

The term used by the author to address the readers, tekniva mou, teknia mou, is to some extent a term of endearment or affection, showing the regard the author has for them.148 However, it also shows that the author regards himself in something of a superior position to the readers – not morally or ethically superior, but in a position of spiritual responsibility over them and for them.

    Exegetical Details

The significance of the first person singular gravfw (grafw, “I am writing”) in 2:1. The singular verb here must be compared to the plural of the same verb in 1:4. There we pointed out that the plural suggested the author was not speaking only for himself (although only he was actually doing the writing) but also for his fellow-eyewitnesses within the circle of apostles and disciples who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry, all of whom would agree concerning the testimony about the significance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Here the singular strikes a more personal note, and this is confirmed by the author’s address to the readers as his “children” (tekniva mou, teknia mou) at the beginning of 2:1.

In 1:4 we suggested the tau'ta (tauta) which serves as the object of the verb referred forward, to the entirety of 1 John, and formed an envelope with the purpose statement in 5:13. Here the tau'ta (tauta) is more narrowly specified by the following Jina-clause, in which the author says he is writing these things to his readers “in order that they might not sin.” Brown sees this purpose as too narrow to apply to the entirety of 1 John, and thus understands the tau'ta (tauta) here to refer to the preceding material in 1:8-10, where the claims of the opponents and the counter-claims of the author concerning sin in the life of the Christian are in view.149 It is this material that the author has written to guard his readers from falling into sin, a certainty if the readers accept the claims of the opponents.

The significance of the aorist aJmavrthte (Jamarthte, “you may [not] sin”) in 2:1. There is some dispute over the significance of the aorist tense of aJmavrthte (Jararthte). F. Stagg held that the aorist here is nondescriptive, saying nothing about the nature of the action itself, but only that the action has happened.150 Today some grammarians think Stagg went too far: according to D. B. Wallace, “some have said too little by assuming that nothing more than the unaffected meaning can ever be seen when the aorist is used.”151 There is some disagreement over whether with this particular verb there are more specific nuances of meaning. M. Zerwick and N. Turner agree that the present tense of aJmavrtanw (Jamartanw) means “to be in a state of sin” (i.e., a sinner) while the aorist refers to specific acts of sin.152

Without attempting to sort out this particular dispute, it should be noted that certain verbs do have different nuances of meaning in different tenses, nuances which do not derive solely from the aspectual value of the tense per se, but from a combination of semantic factors which vary from word to word. Whatever else may be said about aJmavrthte (Jamarthte) here, it is clear the author is not simply exhorting the readers not to be habitual or repetitive sinners, as if to imply that occasional acts of sin would be acceptable. The purpose of the author here is that the readers not sin at all, as Jesus told the man he healed in John 5:14. The same phrase is echoed in the textually disputed passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11): “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”153

The meaning of paravklhton (paraklhton, “advocate”) in 2:1. The description of the Holy Spirit as “Paraclete” is unique to the Gospel of John (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7). Here, in the only other use of the word in the New Testament, it is Jesus, not the Spirit, who is described as paravklhto (paraklhtos). This change of referent for the same term within the Johannine corpus is striking and has been seen by some interpreters as evidence that the same author did not write the Gospel of John and 1 John.

We should have been prepared for this interchangeability of terminology, however, by John 14:16 ff., where Jesus told the disciples that he would ask the Father to send them ‘another’ paraclete (a[llo [allos], understood by many to imply “another of the same kind”). This implies that Jesus himself had been a paraclete in his earthly ministry to the disciples.

This does not answer all the questions about the meaning of the word here, though, since it is not Jesus’ role as a paraclete during his earthly ministry which is in view, but his role as a paraclete in heaven before the Father. The context suggests intercession in the sense of legal advocacy, as stress is placed upon the righteousness of Jesus (=Ihsou'n CristoVn divkaion, Ihsoun Criston dikaion). The concept of Jesus’ intercession on behalf of believers does occur elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in Rom. 8:34 and Heb. 7:25. Something similar is taking place here, and seems to be the best explanation of 1 John 2:1.154 This seems to be confirmed by one of the most recent studies on the meaning of the Greek term paravklhto (paraklhtos) by K. Grayston, who after surveying usage of the term from the fourth century b.c. to the third century a.d., concluded that paraklhtos was more of a general term than a legal technical term. However, when the term was used in legal contexts, it referred to a supporter or sponsor who came alongside the accused to intercede or propitiate.155 This is probably best conveyed to the contemporary English reader by a translation like “advocate” or “intercessor.”

    2:2 and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.

    Summary

John goes futher with his words of assurance to his readers. The Greek word translated atoning sacrifice involves the idea of turning away the divine wrath. (Some modern English translations use words like “expiation” or “atonement” here while others, including older ones, may use the term “propitiation.”) Jesus by his sacrifical death on the cross made possible the forgiveness of sins for the whole world, but this assumes that the “world” will appropriate this forgiveness.

The final verse in the section makes a further statement about the role of Jesus Christ in relation to the sins of believers and, indeed, the entire world. It is on the basis of what is described here that Jesus can act as advocate for believers before the Father in heaven and plead their case when they do sin. On the basis of what he has done, his finished work on the cross, their sins are forgiven.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of iJlasmov (Jilasmos, “atoning sacrifice”) in 2:2. A suitable English translation for this word is a difficult and even controversial problem. L. Morris, in a study that has become central to discussions of this topic, saw as an integral part of the meaning of the word (as in the other words in the iJlavskomai [Jilaskomai] group) the idea of turning away the divine wrath, and suggested that “propitiation” is the closest English equivalent.156 It is certainly possible to see an averting of divine wrath in this context, where the sins of believers are in view and Jesus is said to be acting as advocate on behalf of believers. R. Brown’s point, that it is essentially cleansing from sin which is in view here and in the other use of the word in 4:10,157 is well taken, but the two connotations are not mutually exclusive and it does not seem to me that the propitiatory aspect of Jesus’ work can be ruled out entirely in the usage in 2:2. This is essentially similar to what G. Strecker has argued, because “it accords with the preceding argumentation,” especially the reference to the blood of Jesus in 1 John 1:7 and to purification (1:9).158

In terms of translation, the traditional rendering, “propitiation” (kjv, nkjv, nasb),159 although supported by Morris, is unfamiliar to most modern readers, and the theological nuance of averting, appeasing, or turning aside divine wrath is lost on those who are not biblical scholars or theologians. Some modern translations have therefore attempted to render the term in ways more accessible to modern readers. Sometimes this is done because of theological convictions about whether or not the notion of divine wrath is actually implied by the Greek term iJlasmov (Jilasmos). In other instances the translators would agree with Morris about the implication of appeasing divine wrath inherent in the term, but have still sought a rendering more understandable to modern readers than “propitiation.” The rsv (New Testament, 1947) translated the term by “expiation,” an English word which Webster’s New International Dictionary defines as “atonement” or “means of atonement.”160 The neb (New Testament, 1961), influenced by the view of C. H. Dodd that the wrath of God (in the Old Testament) was replaced by love (in the New Testament), translated iJlasmov (Jilasmos) in 1 John 2:2 as “the remedy for the defilement [of our sins].” The niv (New Testament, 1973), taking a more conservative approach to the wrath of God directed at sinners, translated the Greek term “atoning sacrifice,” but gives in a note the alternative translation for the verse, “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins….” The nrsv (1989) also has “atoning sacrifice,” but without any note. The nlt (1996) simply has “sacrifice.” The NET Bible (New Testament, 1998) also has “atoning sacrifice,” partly on the basis of the fact that Webster’s New International Dictionary gives “atoning sacrifice” as a definition for the term “propitiation.” “Satisfaction” is also noted as a possibility, although some confusion could arise because in Roman Catholic theology, “satisfaction” is a technical term for the performance of the penance imposed by the priest on a penitant.

The meaning of kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) in 2:2. Another problem is the scope of the kovsmo (kosmos) for which Jesus became a propitiatory sacrifice in 2:2. If we turn to the Gospel of John and examine its usage there, we find both positive and negative statements about the kovsmo (kosmos). On the one hand it is the object of God’s love (John 3:16) and of Jesus’ saving mission (3:17, 12:46-47). Jesus is declared to be “Savior of the world” (oJ swthVr tou' kovsmou, Jo swthr tou kosmou) by Samaritans (4:42). These statements are echoed in 1 John 4:14, “the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.” There are negative statements towards the kovsmo (kosmos) in the Gospel of John as well, as being hostile to Jesus and his mission (John 7:7, 15:18-19, 17:14-16), as failing to recognize who Jesus was (1:10, 17:25), as being overcome by Jesus (16:33), and as being under judgment (9:39, 12:31). These negative statements too have echoes in 1 John: “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19); “Do not love the world…” (1 John 2:15); “Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world…” (1 John 5:4-5); and “they [the opponents] are of the world…” (1 John 4:5).

It seems clear that in the context of 1 John 2:2 the reference to “the world” falls into line with statements in the Gospel of John like 3:16-17 and 12:46-47. There is some sense in which the propitiatory work of Jesus on the cross (the substitutionary atonement) extends not just to believers but to the entire kovsmo (kosmos). This is not to say (and the author of the Gospel of John and the Johannine letters would never have said) that the benefit of Jesus’ propitiatory work will accrue to the kovsmo (kosmos) unless the kovsmo (kosmos) turns to him and accepts the free gift of life which he offers. But it is offered to the entire world and not to believers only.

On this note the section 1:5-2:2 ends. The author has introduced three sets of claims made by the opponents and offered three sets of counter-claims based on the apostolic eyewitness testimony concerning the significance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ.


117 Sometimes known as the apostolic kerygma (from the Greek term used in Matt 12:41; Mark 16:8; Luke 11:32; Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 1:21; 2:4; 15:14; 2 Tim 4:17; Titus 1:3), although the term kerygma is never used in the Johannine corpus of the NT.

118 The cognate relationship between the verb and the noun can be seen in English by translating ajggeliva (angelia) as “announcement” (compare to ajnaggevllomen [anangellomen], “announce”).

119 This corresponds to the apostolic preaching elsewhere referred to as khvrugma (khrugma), although the term the Apostle John uses here is ajggeliva (angelia).

120 BDAG 8 s.v. ajggeliva 1.

121 The corpus of Johannine writings in the NT is generally understood to include John, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation (although many NT scholars believe Revelation was written by a different individual named John).

122 See notes on 1:1.

123 Zane C. Hodges, “Fellowship and Confession in I John 1:5-10,” BSac 129 (1972): 48-60.

124 BDF §397(3). In any case the phrase e[stin au{th (estin Jauth, “this is”) here refers to what follows in the following Joti-clause (“that God is light…”). R. Brown comments, “Ambiguity as to whether the primary direction of the ‘this’ is to what precedes or to what follows is one of the more annoying grammatical peculiarities of the Epistles. The present instance, at least, is relatively clear” (The Epistles of John, 192).

125 As Schnackenburg stated, “The fellowship with God that the heretical teachers claim (“we have”) must be demonstrated to be illusory in character. This is achieved by the metaphor of light. They walk in darkness, with which God has no contact whatever since he is pure light. The author has in mind their moral attitude and their consequent behavior, which is antagonistic to God, a point that comes out more clearly in the following verses (1:8, 10; 2:4, 9)” (The Johannine Epistles, 76-77).

126 Some interpreters take the statements introduced with ejavn ei[pwmen (ean eipwmen, “if we say”) in 1:6, 8, 10 to be slogans used by the heretical opponents themselves (e.g., Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 77). Although this would surely have been obvious to the recipients of the letter, it is difficult to prove conclusively today.

127 BDF §442(1).

128 As noted by Strecker in an excursus on the light/darkness imagery (The Johannine Letters, 26-28).

129 Brown, The Epistles of John, 199; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 22.

130 See the section above where this motif is discussed.

131 However, even to frame the question in these terms is to run the risk of misunderstanding the inherent linkage in Johannine theology between initial belief (using terms like “believing” or “coming to Jesus”) and ongoing belief (using figures like “eating [Jesus’] flesh and drinking his blood” or “residing [abiding] in Jesus”). Much of this terminology comes together in the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, particularly 6:39-58. Compare, e.g., John 6:40, which speaks of “beholding the Son and believing in him,” with 6:54, which speaks of “eating [his] flesh and drinking [his] blood.” The metaphors speak both of internalization and of the need for repeated spiritual sustenance.

132 Schnackenburg highlighted the author’s dilemma in these verses as he sought to refute the teaching of the opponents: “On the one hand, he insists that fellowship with God means walking in the light, in a pure moral life according to the rule of the supreme and all-holy God. On the other hand, no Christian can claim to be without sin. The solution to the dilemma lies, for the author, in the fact that the Christian is not immune from sin, but that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin” (The Johannine Epistles, 79).

133 BDAG 50 s.v. aJmartiva 1.

134 See also LN 23.107.

135 “Libertinism” may be defined as a belief system in which sins are flaunted as a way of demonstrating one’s “liberty.”

136 See the implications of the first of the opponents’ claims in 1:6.

137 BDAG 821 s.v. planavw 1.b.

138 Cf. Brown, “all the other usages of the verb and nouns in the Johannine Epistles refer to the secession that is affecting the Johannine Community” (The Epistles of John, 206).

139 Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963) 111, §377.

140 See paragraphs 12, 13, and 15 of the section “The Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John” above.

141 Judith M. Lieu, “What Was from the Beginning: Scripture and Tradition in the Johannine Epistles,” NTS 39 (1993): 458-77.

142 Brown, The Epistles of John, 208.

143 Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 23. He acknowledges the exact phrase is not found elsewhere in the New Testament.

144 Schnackenburg stated, “The author does not ask his readers to confess their sinfulness in general terms but to confess each specific sin…. Personal confession of sin, which was also a part of the Baptist’s preaching by the Jordan (Mark 1:5 = Matt 3:6), is an inheritance from the practice of Judaism” (The Johannine Epistles, 81).

145 Cf. Kruse, who states: “The only difference between this expression of their claim and the earlier statement of it in 1:8 is that here the author presents what is claimed, not as an ongoing achievement of not sinning as before, but as a condition of not having sinned (indicated by his use of the Greek perfect tense)” (The Letters of John, 70).

146 Brown, The Epistles of John, 211.

147 Compare the relationship between “word” and “truth” in John 17:17.

148 Brown mentions that the author of 1 John uses the plural of teknion (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) or paidion (2:14, 18) when addressing his readers directly as members of his own Christian community, while he uses the plural of a different Greek term, teknon (3:1, 2, 10; 5:2), when speaking about the children of God (The Epistles of John, 214). This may be merely a stylistic variation, as Kruse notes (The Letters of John, 71, n. 31). Schnackenburg also considers the term “need not imply any particular tenderness” (The Johannine Epistles, 85, n. 61).

149 Brown, The Epistles of John, 215, citing Bultmann, Plummer, Schnackenburg, and others as in agreement that the tau'ta (tauta) here refers to 1:8-10.

150 Frank Stagg, “Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy in the Johannine Epistles,” Review and Expositor 67 (1970): 423-32, in particular p. 428.

151 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 557.

152 Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 82, §251; J. H. Moulton, Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 3: Syntax, by Nigel Turner (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) 72.

153 The story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel (7:53-8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae) is almost certainly not an original part of the Fourth Gospel; for more detailed discussion see the NET Bible note on John 7:53.

154 For a different view, however, see Schnackenburg, who stated, “Jesus is the advocate with the Father for Christians when they sin, for he is close by him (“with the Father”). It does not say that it is his task to defend them against the accusations of Satan (cf. Rev. 12:10). The forensic meaning of “paraclete” is here overshadowed by Christ’s high-priestly role. This is made plain not only by the high-priestly prayer (John 17) but also by the cultic terminology that is used in the following verse” (The Johannine Epistles, 86-87).

155 Kenneth Grayston, “The Meaning of Paraklhtos,” JSNT 13 (1981): 67-82.

156 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) 140; see also David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 37-38; T. C. G. Thornton, “Propitiation or Expiation? JIlasthvrion and JIlasmov in Romans and 1 John,” ExpTim 80 (1968/69): 53-55.

157 Brown, The Epistles of John, 220-21.

158 Strecker, The Johannine Letters, 39, n. 17.

159 nasb (both original edition and 1995 update) suggests in a note the alternative rendering “satisfaction.”

160 The cognate English verb “expiate” is defined by Webster’s as “to atone for and wipe out the guilt of sin or wrongdoing.”

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Sanctification