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Exegetical Commentary on 1 John 2:12-17

    Structure

This section contains two subsections, 2:12-14 and 2:15-17. In 1 John 2:12-17 John addresses his readers with words of reassurance.216 In 1 John 2:18-27 there are strong warnings concerning the secessionist opponents. Each of these subsections in turn has a structure built on patterns of three. Having begun a direct exhortation to his readers in 2:1 with the address tekniva mou (teknia mou, “my little children”), the author now continues that exhortation. The opponents were described last, in 2:11, as being “in the darkness” and “walking in the darkness” and having their eyes “blinded” by the darkness. The recipients of the letter, however, because they are loyal to the community and the teaching of the author, can be said to “reside/remain in the light” (2:10). Now the author addresses them directly as those who belong to the light and reside (or remain) in the light.

    2:12 I am writing to you, little children, that your sins have been forgiven because of his name.

    Summary

Here the author of 1 John addresses his readers directly as little children. He writes to assure them that their sins have been forgiven. Elsewhere in 1 John the term little children refers to the entire readership rather than a select group within it (2:1, 2:28, 3:7, 3;18, 4;4, 5:21). Thus in 2:12-14 there are not three distinct groups addressed, as often superficially assumed, but rather the whole group (little children) followed by two subgroups (fathers and young people). Whether these two subgroups are distinguished by age or spiritual maturity, however, is not clear.

    Exegetical Details

The significance of the switch in tenses with the verb gravfw (grafw, “I am writing”) from the present to the aorist. The present tense of gravfw (grafw) is used three times in vv. 12-13, while the aorist tense (e[graya, egraya) is used three times in v. 14. Some interpreters have understood this change to refer to two different writings, so that the present tense referred to what was currently being written in 1 John, while the aorist referred to something written previously. Not surprisingly, some interpreters have taken the supposed “previous” work to be the Gospel of John. Others have suggested 2 John (which in this case would have to have been written before 1 John). Still others have posited a lost letter, and in at least one case the “source” which was supposed to underlie 1 John was suggested.217

Reference to a previous writing (whatever it may have been) appears to many to be the most natural explanation of the switch in the verb from present to aorist tense. In 3 John 9 the aorist e[graya (egraya) almost certainly refers to a previous written communication. But there are significant problems with this view as well: (1) It seems strange that the author would refer to a previous work after referring to the present work. The normal and expected order would be to refer to the previous work first. (2) This is particularly true in light of the content of the six clauses in 1 John 2:12-14. The content of the three aorist clauses is virtually a repetition of the three present tense clauses. If the author literally means that he wrote virtually the same things before to the same audience, why does he write them again and then repeat what he had written earlier as well? Repetition is of course a good teaching strategy, but one wonders just how much repetition is needed here. (3) Each of the proposals for identifying the previous work are open to objection – there are no compelling similarities with either the Gospel of John or 2 John in these verses, and the “lost letter” as well as the “source” behind 1 John are both hypothetical and thus not subject to comparison.

This leaves the suggestion that the author does not intend the change in tenses to refer to a previous work, but in fact refers to the same work he is now writing, 1 John itself. There is precedent for this, because the author uses the aorist e[graya (egraya) elsewhere (1 John 2:21, 26; 5:13) to refer to what he has been writing in 1 John. It seems most likely that this is what he is doing here as well.218

There are two further variations in this view: (a) The present tenses in 1 John 2:12-13 refer to what the author is now writing, while the aorist tenses in v. 14 refer to the part of 1 John already written. But while some of what is said in 2:14 can certainly be found in the previous material in 1:1-2:11, it is clear that most of it cannot. This suggests the second variation: (b) The aorist tenses in 2:14 refer to all of 1 John as an entirety, just as the present tenses in 2:12-13 refer to the entirety of the work. In this case, the variation between the present tenses of 2:12-13 and the aorist tenses of 2:14 is merely a stylistic variation on the part of the author, intended to emphasize what he is saying by repetition. The use of the aorist verbs in the repeated statements may add slightly to the emphasis that they already have by nature of the repetition itself, although this is not absolutely certain.

Further evidence that we are dealing here with a stylistic variation can be found in the author’s use of the same verb gravfw (grafw) elsewhere in 1 John. Prior to this section, the author has always used this verb in the present tense (1:4, 2:1, 2:7, 2:8). After this section he will always use it in the aorist tense (2:21, 2:26, 5:13), and there is no discernable difference in the meaning in any of these contexts.219

The number of groups of people being addressed in 2:12-14. At first glance the number of groups addressed by the author in 1 John 2:12-14 appears obvious; there are three: tekniva (teknia, “little children,” addressed the second time [2:14] as paidiva, [paidia, “children”]), patevre (pateres, “fathers”), and neanivskoi (neaniskoi, “young people”). Some have taken these references literally, to refer to different groups of people of differing ages.220 It has been suggested that the first refers to those who were new converts to the faith, the second to those who were spiritually mature, and the last (in the order listed in the text) to those who were making progress toward maturity.221 It is the reversed order which in fact argues against this interpretation, because there is no progression (either ascending, from youngest to oldest, or descending, from oldest to youngest) in the order of the titles used to address the groups, and it is hard to understand why the middle group, those progressing toward maturity, should be mentioned last.

Thus, another view is that only one group is addressed in 2:12-14 using three different titles. All believers are tekniva (teknia, “little children”) because they are born again and their sins forgiven, all are patevre (pateres, “fathers”) because they believe in him who was from the beginning, and all are neanivskoi (neaniskoi, “young people”) because they are resisting the devil. In this case we are dealing with another stylistic variation. I. de la Potterie argued for this interpretation by citing two texts which he felt validated his point: Jer. 31:34, “They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest,” and Acts 2:17, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.”222

However, it appears that these two texts, rather than supporting the argument for no distinction in the three groups, actually support a third view: that there are two groups of people in view in 1 John 2:12-14, addressed first collectively as a whole (tekniva [teknia, “little children”; paidiva [paidia, “children”]) and then as individual groups (patevre [pateres, “fathers”] and neanivskoi [neaniskoi, “young people”]). This is confirmed by the author’s use of tekniva (teknia) elsewhere in 1 John to refer to the entire readership, rather than a select group within it (2:1, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, and 5:21). The same is true of paidiva (paidia, used of everyone in 2:18), which probably is a stylistic variation with tekniva (teknia) in light of the fact that the author uses both terms to address his readership at large. One the other hand, the remaining terms patevre (pateres) and neanivskoi (neaniskoi) do not refer to the Church at large or to the entire community of Christians anywhere else in the New Testament.

Thus we conclude that the first clause in each group of three, introduced by tekniva (teknia) in 2:12 and paidiva (paidia) in 2:14, addresses the entire audience, while the two subsequent terms address groups within the audience at large. Whether these subgroups are distinguished by actual age or by spiritual maturity is not entirely clear; either could be the case and the evidence from the text is inconclusive on this point.223 Presumably the recipients themselves would have known this, so the author of 1 John felt no need to be more specific.

The force of the o{ti (Joti) which follows all six occurrences of the verb gravfw (grafw) in 2:12-14. The o{ti (Joti) that follows all six occurrences of the present and aorist forms of the verb gravfw (grafw) in 2:12-14 may be understood as either (1) causal or (2) substantival of content.224 Many interpreters and translators have preferred a causal rendering, so that in each of the six cases what follows the o{ti (Joti) gives the reason why the author is writing to them.225 Usage in similar constructions is not decisive, because the verb gravfw (grafw) is followed by o{ti (Joti) elsewhere in 1 John only once (2:21), and that context is just as ambiguous as this one. On other occasions gravfw (grafw) does tend to be followed by a noun or pronoun functioning as direct object. This might argue for a substantival o{ti (Joti) of content here, but it could also be argued that the direct object in the six instances in these verses is understood, namely, the content of the entire letter itself.226 Thus the following Joti-clause could still be causal.

Grammatical considerations aside, I am inclined to understand the uses of o{ti (Joti) as content here rather than the typical causal rendering, because such a meaning better fits the immediate context.227 If the uses of Joti are understood as causal, it is difficult to see why the author immediately turns to give a warning in the section which follows about loving the world. The confidence he has expressed in his readers (if the Joti-clauses are understood as causal) would appear to be ill-founded if he is so concerned about their relationship to the world as 2:15-17 seems to indicate. On the other hand, understanding the Joti-clauses as content clauses fits the theme of reassurance which runs throughout the letter very well. The author appears to have been concerned that some of his readers, at least, might be tempted to accept the claims of the opponents as voiced in 1:6, 8, and 10. The counter-claims the author has made in 1:7, 9, and 2:1 seem intended to encourage the readers and reassure them (among other things) that their sins are forgiven. Further assurances of their position here would be in keeping with such a theme, and indeed, the topic of reassurance runs throughout the entire letter.228 Given the attractiveness of the opponents’ position and their claims to divinely-inspired authority for their teachings, it is not difficult to see how the author would consistently need to reassure his readers throughout the letter that choosing to remain faithful to the apostolic testimony was the proper course to follow. Finally, in such a context the warning which immediately follows in 2:15-17 would not be out of place, because the author is dealing with a community discouraged by the controversy which has arisen within it – a community in need of exhortation as well as encouragement.

The referent of aujtou' (autou, “his”) in 2:12. This pronoun almost certainly refers to Jesus Christ: (1) The last third person reference (2:8) was understood as a reference to Christ, and this in turn goes back to the use of ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”) in 2:6 which is clearly a reference to Christ. (2) Blass-Debrunner’s standard reference grammar points out that this is an example of constructio ad sensum, a fixed phrase easily understood from common Christian usage.229 It is obvious here what is meant.

    2:13 I am writing to you, fathers, that you have known him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, that you have conquered the evil one.

    Summary

The expression him who has been from the beginning could refer either to God or to Jesus Christ. Since God the Father is clearly referred to in the next verse, a reference to Jesus Christ is more likely here. Those who are addressed as fathers have remained faithful to the apostolic testimony about who Jesus is. When the author turns to those he addresses as young people, the emphasis is on their victory over the evil one (i.e., Satan, a theme which will reappear later, in 1 John 5:4-5, where it is apparent that all true Christians are “overcomers”).

    Exegetical Details

The referent of toVn ajp= ajrch' (ton aparchs, “him who has been from the beginning”) in 2:13. The masculine singular article toVn (ton) here, used as a personal pronoun, could refer either to God (who has existed “from the beginning of time”) or to Jesus Christ.230 The entire phrase (article + prepositional phrase) is so similar to o} h\n ajp= ajrch' (Jo hn aparchs, “what was from the beginning”) in 1:1 that a reference to Jesus Christ is most likely here, for the following additional reasons: (1) As a word of reassurance to the readers following the departure of the opponents, a reference to God the Father makes little sense here, because none of John’s readers (or even the opponents, for that matter) would have doubted the eternality of the Father. (2) When the same phrase is used in 2:14b, it follows an explicit reference to the Father in 2:14a, resulting in a pointless repetition if the Father is the referent. (3) In 1:1 (as we pointed out there) the neuter relative pronoun suggested the emphasis was not on the person of Jesus Christ alone, but included a reference to his earthly career as the subject of the apostolic eyewitness testimony which was the theme of the prologue. Here the earthly career of Jesus Christ also appears in the context, in the mention of “sins forgiven on account of his name” in the previous verse. This, along with the similarity of this phrase to the phrase in 1:1, makes it extremely likely that a reference to Jesus Christ is intended here.

The meaning of the prepositional phrase ajp= ajrch' (aparchs) in 2:13. I. H. Marshall takes this as a reference to “the beginning of time and not to the beginning of the Christian era or the readers’ Christian experience.”231 The phrase has occurred twice before, however (1 John 1:1 and 2:7), and twice before we have understood it to refer to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly career and ministry, consistent with the stress placed on the significance of Jesus’ earthly career by the author in contrast to his opponents. It seems very likely (in spite of Marshall’s assertion) that ajp= ajrch' (aparchs, “from the beginning”) here should be understood the same way as in the two previous references – as referring to the beginning of Jesus’ self-revelation to his disciples in his earthly ministry.232

The referent of toVn ponhrovn (ton ponhron, “the evil one”) in 2:13. In contrast to toVn ajp= ajrch' (ton aparchs, “him who has been from the beginning”) in 2:13a, which refers to Jesus Christ, we encounter toVn ponhrovn (ton ponhron, “the evil one”) for the first time in 2:13b. The phrase is used in John 17:15 as a reference to Satan, and that is also its meaning here and in each of the four remaining occurrences in 1 John (2:14, 3:12, 5:18 and 19).

    2:14 I have written to you, children, that you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, that you have known him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young people, that you are strong, and the word of God resides in you, and you have conquered the evil one.

    Summary

The author now repeats himself for the sake of emphasis. A new thought introduced here concerns the word of God which resides in believers (compare Jesus’ words to the Jewish authorities in John 5:38: “nor do you have his [= God’s] word residing in you, because you do not believe the one [= Jesus] whom he [= God] sent”).

    Exegetical Details

The meaning and referent of oJ lovgo tou' qeou' (Jo logos tou qeou, “the word of God”) in 2:14. The last previous occurrence of this term was in the phrase oJ lovgo aujtou' (Jo logos autou, “his word”) in 1:10. There, we understood the phrase to refer not to the personal Lovgo (Logos) of the prologue to the Gospel of John, but to the phrase at the end of 1 John 1:1 which described the message about eternal life revealed by Jesus Christ to his disciples from the beginning of his self-revelation during his earthly ministry. Consistent with that, the phrase here should be interpreted in the same way. Brown suggests the referent is even more specific, relating the expression to the commandment to love one’s brother already mentioned in the previous section, 1 John 2:5-11.233

    2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him;

    Summary

Here the author presents only two alternatives: either a person loves the world or a person loves the Father. Once again the polarized (antithetical) thinking of the author is evident. Apparently the opponents do love the world, since they are later described as “from the world” (4:5a), they “have gone out into the world” (4:1), they “speak from the world” (4:5b), and “the world listens to them” (4:5c). Verses 15-17 form a second subsection within the larger unit 2:12-17.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) in 2:15. For examples of both positive and negative statements about the kovsmo (kosmos) in both the Gospel of John and 1 John, see the discussion on this term at its first occurrence in the letter in 2:2. Here it seems clear from the context that the negative aspect of the term is in view, since the readers are being warned not to “love the world.” This is in contrast to the author’s opponents, who apparently do “love the world,” since they “are of the world” (4:5a), they “have gone out into the world” (4:1), they “speak from the world’s perspective” (4:5b), and “the world listens to them” (4:5c). It is likely the author’s use here is colored by the statements of Jesus about the “world” in John 15:18-19: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you.” The hostility of the “world” for Jesus’ disciples is reflected in the present situation of the secessionist opponents with their false christology – they may be described as “hating” those believers in the congregation(s) John is writing to, and in fact this failure to show love is one of the chief complaints the author of the letter has against the secessionists (1 John 3:17).234

The use of the genitive tou' patroV (tou patros, “of the Father”) in 2:15. This expression is unique in the New Testament. The genitive could be either subjective (“the love which the Father has is not in him”) or objective (“love for the Father is not in him”). Marshall argues for the objective sense, pointing out that love for the world and for the Father cannot coexist in a person.235 The preceding parallel phrases “Do not love the world” and “if anyone loves the world,” where in both cases kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) is the object of this person’s love, also suggest that the phrase tou' patroV (tou patros, “of the Father”) here should be understood as an objective genitive, where “the Father” is the object of an individual’s love. But perhaps both nuances are involved, and we should understand this as an example of M. Zerwick’s so-called «general» genitive (called by Wallace a “plenary” genitive).236 Smalley observes, “both ideas are probably present (cf. v 5): love for the world inhibits a love for God which both answers his and derives from it (cf. 4:19; also John 17:26).”237

Once again the author of 1 John has set behavior (love for the world) as a “test” or indication of belief: the individual who “loves” the “world” shows by this allegience that he has no love for God and that God’s love has not come to dwell in him.

    2:16 because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world.

    Summary

Here the author gives the reason love for the Father is not “in” the person who loves the world. Everything in the world, everything a person could desire at a purely human level, does not originate with the Father but with the world.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the o{ti (Joti, translated by the NET Bible as “because”) at the beginning of 2:16. The o{ti (Joti) that introduces v. 16 is almost certainly causal. It gives the reason why the love of the Father is not in the person who loves the world: it is because everything in the world does not come from the Father but from the world. The construction used in both these phrases is the preposition ejk (ek) related to the finite verb ejstin (estin). Brown notes, “The main theological usage of einai ek is in the Johannine dualistic worldview to indicate origin from and/or adherence to one side or the other.”238 In the Greek text of 1 John 2:16 the arrangement of phrases is chiastic: “oujk e[stin ejk tou' patroV ajll j ejk tou' kovsmou ejstivn (ouk estin ek tou patros all ek tou kosmou estin). This puts even more emphasis on the notion of origin here by juxtaposing the phrases “from the Father” and “from the world” next to one another.

The use of the genitive th' sarkoV (ths sarkos, “of the flesh”) in 2:16. The genitive th' sarkoV (ths sarkos) here is probably not objective (with the “flesh” as the object of desire) because in the parallel phrase hJ ejpiqumiva tw'n ojfqalmw'n (Jh epiqumia twn ofqalmwn, “the desire of the eyes”) which follows it, is not the “eyes” that are the objects of desire (!). The genitive could be attributive ( = “fleshly desire”), but it is more likely subjective, where it is “the flesh” which does the desiring (see the next paragraph for the meaning of “flesh” and of the entire phrase).

The meaning of savrx (sarx, “flesh”) in 2:16. This is a very complicated lexical problem. In some of its oldest extant usage the term savrx (sarx, “flesh”) referred to the flesh of the human body, and then to animal flesh used for sacrifice (Homer, Odyssey 9.293). By the time of Aeschylus in the fifth century b.c. the term had come to mean the whole physical body, which could be young or old (Agamemnon 72). Also around this time Euripides used the term not just for the whole person, but a human being without understanding, and thus not complete (Electra 387). Once savrx (sarx, “flesh”) came to refer the whole physical body, it also came to include emotions (Euripides, Phoenissae 1285). Around the beginning of the third century b.c. Epicurus held that the savrx (sarx, “flesh”) was the seat of desire (Fragmentum 409) and also of sorrow (Fragmentum 40). The Epicureans became known for unbridled desire and licentious behavior, especially gluttony.

In contrast to this, the Hebrew concept also started with literal references to flesh and then to the whole body (including a corpse, 1 Sam 17:44; 2 Kgs 9:36). It then comes to refer to all human life (Ps 16:9; to inner attitudes and longings (Pss 63:1; 84:2), and most importantly human frailty and weakness, especially in contrast to God (Gen 6:3; Isa 31:3; Ps 78:39). In the translation from Hebrew to Greek, the LXX did not link savrx (sarx, “flesh”) with sexuality. But the LXX did pave the way for the division of the world into two spheres, that of spirits (above) and of flesh (below). In Num 16:22 and 27:16 the “Lord of the spirits of all flesh” (Hebrew) becomes in the LXX the “Lord of spirits and of all flesh.” Such an emphasis on the spiritual world above and the physical world below has carried over into the Johannine literature of the NT (e.g., John 3:3, 6, 7, 12).

This appears to provide the transition to the Pauline concept of savrx in the New Testament. For Paul, the “flesh” is a force or aspect of man that struggles with the Spirit of God (Rom 7:5); in becoming a believer one is spiritually circumcised “by the removal of the fleshy body” (Col 2:11). Before conversion, believers “formerly lived out…[their] lives in the cravings of…[their] flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind” (Eph 2:3). Other references in Paul suggest a more neutral sense, like “go on living in the body [Grk flesh]” (Phil 1:22), “destroyed…the hostility in his [Jesus’] flesh” (Eph 2:14), and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50).

We must be careful, however, not to interpret the Johannine usage by the Pauline. For John, there is always John 1:14, “the Word became flesh,” where it must refer not just to physicality, but means something more like “man” or “human” (more like the Hebrew emphasis on the whole man in his frailty and weakness).

In light of this it seems likely that the expression hJ ejpiqumiva th' sarkoV (Jh epiqumia ths sarkos, “the desire of the flesh”) in 1 John 2:16 does not refer simply to carnal or sensual desire or behavior (lustfulness or promiscuity).239 Dodd’s suggestion that the background of the phrase is the sensual (pagan) environment typical of Asia Minor in the first century a.d. is probably too restrictive.240 More likely the term is more closely related to the Jewish context that looks at the nature of man as a whole.241 It refers to everything that is the desire of human beings as human beings: all that meets their wants and needs. Some of these desires would be sensual, carnal, and vulgar, but others would be neutral, and some (from a purely human point of view) could even be considered noble. The characteristic that links them all together, however, is that they are purely human desires, desires characterized only by that which is ‘flesh’ and nothing more. In R. Brown’s words, this describes “human nature incapable of attaining to God unless it is re-created by His Spirit.”242

The use of the genitive tw'n ojfqalmw'n (twn ofqalmwn, “of the eyes”) in 2:16. It is probable that this should be viewed as a subjective genitive (the “eyes” do the desiring) since the other possibilities [attributive genitive (“visual desire”?) and objective genitive (the eyes are the objects desired)] make little sense in the context.

The meaning of the phrase hJ ejpiqumiva tw'n ojfqalmw'n (Jh epiqumia twn ofqalmwn, “the desire of the eyes”) in 2:16. The entire phrase “the desire of the eyes” focuses attention on desires that are not merely human desires as such (see the preceding discussion on the phrase “the desire of the flesh”) but that are related to one’s awareness of one’s surroundings, that is, the conscious part of human nature. C. Kruse says this refers to “those sinful cravings which are activated by what people see, and lead to covetousness.”243 There might be a possible allusion to the temptation account in Genesis, because Gen 3:6 mentioned that the forbidden tree was “pleasing to the eyes and desirable….” The problem with the eyes here is that they tend to see only that which is of the earth (the ‘flesh’) without seeing the spiritual significance. Dodd has expressed this concept well: it is “the tendency to be captivated by the outward show of things without enquiring into their real values.”244 This is confirmed by an examination of John 9, where the real significance of the sign-miracle245 lies not in Jesus restoring the man’s physical sight, but in leading him to spiritual sight as well, while the Pharisees continue plunging headlong into blindness (although their physical sight remains unaltered).

The use of the genitive tou' bivou (tou biou, literally “of life”; translated by the NET Bible as “[produced by] material possessions”) in 2:16 and the meaning of the phrase hJ ajlazoneiva tou' bivou (Jh alazoneia tou biou, literally “the pride of life”; translated by the NET Bible as “the arrogance produced by material possessions”). The genitive again presents interpretive difficulties here. Many understand it as an objective genitive, so that bivo (bios, “material life”) becomes the object of one’s ajlazoneiva (alazoneia, “pride” or “boastfulness”).246 Various interpretations along these lines refer to boasting about one’s wealth, showing off one’s possessions, or boasting of one’s social status or life-style. It is also possible, with Brooke, Malatesta, and Brown, to understand the genitive as subjective, in which case the bivo (bios, “material possessions”) itself produces the ajlazoneiva (alazoneia, “pride” or “boastfulness”).247 In this case, the material security of one’s life and possessions produces a boastful overconfidence. The person who thinks he has enough wealth and property to protect himself and ensure his security has no need for God (or anything else outside himself). This understanding better fits the context: we are dealing with people who operate purely on a human level and have no spiritual dimension to their existence. This is the person who loves the world, whose affections are all centered on the world, who has no love for God or spiritual things (“the love of the Father is not in him,” 2:15). It should be added that for the author, all of vv. 15-16 constitute a good description of the opponents (see discussion at 2:15). The author again hints at the extent of their material possessions in 1 John 3:17.

    2:17 And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever.

    Summary

The author reminds his readers that everything in the world is transitory. The person who does the will of God is the genuine Christian, in contrast to the secessionist opponents who have loved the world and have gone out into the world. Compare John 8:35, where the “son” remains in the household forever.

    Exegetical Details

The use and referent of the genitive aujtou' (autou, “its”) in 2:17. The syntax of the genitive is also problematic here, although the referent of aujtou' (autou) is clear: it is the kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) at the beginning of 2:17 and also in 2:15-16.

The genitive could be objective, in which case “the world” is the object of desire (the thing desired) in 2:17a. In light of our understanding of sarkov (sarkos, “flesh”), ojfqalmw'n (ofqalmwn, “eyes”), and bivou (biou, “material possessions”) in 2:16 as subjective genitives, however, it seems more consistent to see aujtou' (autou) as a subjective genitive here.248 This is also consistent with the use of kovsmo (kosmos, “world”), the word to which the pronoun refers, as the subject of the verb in the first clause of 2:17. The meaning is therefore “the world is passing away, with all its desires….”

The transient nature of the world is clearly part of the meaning of this verse. There is a sense in which, at the end, both the world and worldy desires will have passed away. But there is another sense, for John, in which the process has already begun in the present. The author stated in 2:8 that “the darkness is passing away” using the same verb (paravgetai, paragetai) as here. John’s eschatology at this point is (characteristically) realized; in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” the author consistently puts his emphasis on the “already.” Salvation and judgment, rather than being limited to the end times, are already operative in the present (cf. John 3:18-21). While it is true that the world and worldly desires will pass away in the future, for John they have already begun to disappear in the present.249 Such an understanding is even more probable in light of the introduction of themes like “the last hour” and “antichrist” in the following verse.

The meaning of the phrase does the will of God in 2:17. There are clearly important Old Testament and Jewish backgrounds to the idea of “doing God’s will.”250 In the Gospel of John it is Jesus who repeatedly states that he has come to do the will of the Father who sent him (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38). This involved Jesus’ obedience to God’s will for him, even up to the point of death. In 1 John it is clear that the author stresses obedience to the will of God by the believer, and this in effect amounts to imitating the obedience of Jesus Christ by walking (conducting one’s life) just as Jesus walked (see 1 John 2:6). This includes, but is not limited to, obedience to the new/old commandment to “love one another” (cf. 1 John 2:7-8), expressed in the context of 1 John in terms of love for fellow members of the Christian community. Why the dual stress on Jesus’ earthly ‘walk’ and on his obedience to the Father? From a practical standpoint, in contrast to the opponents, the author wants his readers to continue in the apostolic testimony concerning the significance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and that involves obedience. By this obedience to God which acknowledges the necessity of a spiritual dimension to one’s life, contrasted to the purely human perspective of the adversaries, a person may demonstrate his true allegience (to God and not to the world) and thus strengthen his assurance that in fact he possesses eternal life (see the following discussion). Thus, “the one who does the will of God” is the believer, and it is in the doing of God’s will (obedience, especially to the new/old commandment to “love one another” within the Christian community) that the believer demonstrates to himself and to those around him that he is indeed a genuine Christian. This amounts, for the author, to one means of personal assurance.

The meaning of the phrase mevnei eij toVn aijw'na (menei eis ton aiwna, “remains forever”) in 2:17. The characteristic Johannine use of the verb mevnw (menw) occurs again here (see the extended discussion on the term at 2:6). While the world (and those who have given their total allegience to it, particularly in this context the author’s opponents) are passing away, the person who “does the will of God” (who does what Jesus did and lives as Jesus lived, obeying the new/old commandment to “love one another” – see preceding discussion) resides/remains forever. Using similar terminology, John 8:35 affirms that the “son” remains in the household forever, and 12:34 states that the Messiah will remain forever. The person who does the will of God lives in imitation of Jesus (demonstrating by this that he is a believer) and (thus) remains forever. A parallel may be found in John 8:51, “I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death.” The person who lives this way possesses eternal life, and by his obedience he may be assured that he has eternal life (cf. 1 John 5:13). While some of these references emphasize the place where one remains (John 8:35, “in the household”; 1 John 3:24, “in him”), the usage here is absolute, emphasizing the fact of remaining.


216 Cf. Schnackenburg’s comment, “The author now turns directly to his readers, having refuted the errors of his opponents. He seeks to assure his readers of their salvation (vv. 12-14), and he urges them to reject all evil love of the world (vv. 15-17)” (The Johannine Epistles, 115).

217 This would refer to a no longer extant “source” document used by the author of 1 John (who in this case would not have been the Apostle John or an eyewitness to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry) in the composition of the present letter.

218 This usage is frequently labeled an “epistolary” aorist. Cf. Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 118.

219 Brown calls this evidence “a persuasive argument” that the interchange of tenses is a stylistic variation (The Epistles of John, 297). English translations have differed in how they represent the switch in tenses in this section from present (three times in vv. 12-13) to aorist (three times in v. 14). The rsv was among the first of the modern translations to attempt to represent an epistolary aorist, translating the present tense forms as “I am writing” but the aorist ones as “I write.” The niv, on the other hand, translated all six forms of the verb gravfw (grafw) in vv. 12-14 as “I write,” obscuring any distinction at all between the forms. Because there is no current consensus of opinion over why the author switched from presents to aorists in vv. 12-14, and because contemporary English is capable of using a past tense in a letter to refer to what is currently being written (e.g., “in this letter I have included the relevant data” as opposed to “in this letter I am including the relevant data”), it is probably preferable to maintain some distinction between the present and aorist forms in the translation, as the nlt and the NET Bible have done.

220 Hans Windisch, Die katholischen Briefe (HNT 15; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1951), 115-16.

221 Proposed by Stott, The Epistles of John, 96.

222 I. de la Potterie, “La connaissance de Dieu dans le dualisme eschatologique d’après I Jn, ii, 12-14,” in Au Service de la Parole de Dieu (Gembloux: Duculot, 1969) 77-99, esp. p. 89.

223 J. L. Houlden’s view, that the two subgroups refer to leaders in the church addressed (i.e., “fathers” = elders and “young men” = deacons (A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 70-71), is unlikely and is not indicated by usage of these terms elsewhere in the Johannine literature.

224 If content, the Joti-clause could be labeled more specifically as a direct object clause or as indirect discourse.

225 Among those holding this view are Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 58; Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 43-44; Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 31.

226 Direct objects were frequently omitted in Hellenistic Koiné when clear from the context.

227 Among those holding this view, although sometimes expressed in different terms, are Malatesta, who argues that the verb gravfw (grafw, “write”) always takes a direct object in both the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (Interiority and Covenant, 166), and Brown, who favors a declarative meaning (= content) based on the context, but is not willing to exclude the causal meaning completely: “For that reason, I have chosen not to translate the Joti but to use a colon, which orients the reader toward a declarative meaning, but does not exclude a causal undertone” (The Epistles of John, 301). See also B. Noack, “On 1 John II. 12-14,” NTS 6 (1959/60): 236-41. A few other interpreters, like Smalley (1, 2, 3 John, 71), have felt the Joti-clauses carry the force of both causality and content at the same time. Cf. also the translation of the six Joti-clauses in the NET Bible.

228 Note, e.g., the purpose statement for the entire letter in 1 John 5:13.

229 BDF §282(3). The Latin phrase constructio ad sensum means “construction according to sense.”

230 For the former view (i.e., referring to God) are Dodd (The Johannine Epistles, 38), Stott (The Epistles of John, 97), and Bruce (The Epistles of John, 58). Supporting a reference to Jesus Christ are Westcott (The Epistles of St. John, 60), Brooke (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 45), Bultmann (The Johannine Epistles, 32), Brown (The Epistles of John, 303), and Smalley (1, 2, 3 John, 73).

231 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 139.

232 So Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 72, and Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 168. See also de la Potterie, “La connaissance de Dieu,” 94-96.

233 Brown, The Epistles of John, 306.

234 On the meaning of kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) here see further J. Guhrt, NIDNTT 1:525-26; for discussion of the evangelist’s attitude toward the world in the Gospel of John see Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 63-65; 143-44.

235 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 143-44.

236 Zerwick, Biblical Greek, §§36-39, and Wallace, Exegetical Syntax, 119-21.

237 Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 83.

238 Brown, The Epistles of John, 313.

239 The view of Noël Lazure, that all three phrases in v. 16 describe some sort of sexual sin, is unlikely (“La convoitise de la chair en I Jean, II,16,” RB 76 [1969]: 161-205, esp. pp. 203-205). The final phrase, “the arrogance produced by material possessions” (lit. “the pride of life”) much more likely refers to pride that comes from material possessions. However, Lazure provides a good description of the Jewish background of John’s thought as opposed to Greek background (177-90).

240 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 41-42.

241 See Anthony C. Thiselton, NIDNTT 1:671-82.

242 Brown, The Epistles of John, 326.

243 Kruse, The Letters of John, 95.

244 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 41.

245 The healing of the man born blind in John 9 is one of the seven so-called “sign-miracles” in John’s Gospel.

246 Cf. niv “the boasting of what he has and does”; nlt “pride in our possessions”; nrsv “the pride in riches.”

247 Brooke understands bivo (bios) to refer to “life in its external aspect (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 48); Malatesta notes that this is the third subjective genitive in this triad (Interiority and Covenant, 184). Brown sees the phrase as referring to an overconfidence that stems from one’s material possessions (The Epistles of John, 312).

248 Smalley notes that while the genitive aujtou' (autou) “is certainly subjective (the sinful desire which belongs to the world)…an objective sense (the desire which is directed toward worldly things) cannot be excluded completely” (1, 2, 3 John, 87).

249 Note the present tense of the verb paravgetai (paragetai) in this verse.

250 E.g., Ps 40:8 in the Old Testament and 1QS 5:9-10 from the Qumran community during the intertestamental period. See also Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 187.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life