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Exegetical Commentary on 1 John 2:28-3:10

    Structure

As we mentioned in the introduction to the previous section, there is a problem with where this section begins: with 2:28, 2:29, or 3:1. Beginning the present section at 2:28 allows the three addresses to the readers as “Children” (2:12, 2:18, 2:28) to stand in parallel, so this is the most logical solution.

There is also a problem with where the section ends, with interpreters frequently proposing 3:3, 3:10, and 3:12. The best choice among these is 3:10, because the last two verses of the section, 3:9-10, form an inclusion with the first two, 2:28-29, with many of the same themes repeated: remaining or abiding, being fathered by God, doing righteousness (2:29) versus not doing righteousness (3:10), and the manifestation of the Son of God (2:28) compared to the manifestation of the children of God (3:10).

Within the section, all of 3:1-3 is a parenthesis in which the author reflects on what it means to be fathered by God, a subject he has already mentioned at the end of 2:29. The flow of the argument is then resumed by 3:4, which is in opposition to 2:29.

    2:28 And now, little children, remain in him, so that whenever he appears we may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame when he comes back.

    Summary

In the previous verse (2:27) the author had written to reassure his readers. Now, with the reference to Jesus’ second coming (when he comes back), the author switches from reassurance to exhortation. John wants his readers (addressed as little children) to remain in the apostles’ teaching about Jesus (him) so that when Jesus returns (when he comes back) they may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame. While at first glance the mention of Christ’s return (the parousia or second advent) may seem to run counter to the realized eschatology so prevalent in the Fourth Gospel, a reason for this can be seen in the conflict with the secessionist opponents in 1 John, as the author puts in a reminder of future accountability for moral behavior in the present.

    Exegetical Details

The force of kaiV nu'n (kai nun, “and now”) at the beginning of 2:28. The phrase kaiV nu'n (kai nun) here serves to make the transition between this section and the preceding one. The same phrase was used in a similar way in 1 John 2:18. The use here has something of a resumptive force, and like the previous use in 2:18 picks up the reference to the “last hour” at the beginning of 2:18. The eschatological note of imminence should not be overlooked either: since Christians are living already in the “last days” (to borrow the terminology of other New Testament writers),321 it follows that the consummation of history is at hand, and believers should live as if Jesus Christ might reappear at any moment. That the phrase kaiV nu'n (kai nun) does indeed suggest a connection to 2:18 with its eschatological overtones is confirmed by the reference to the parousia (second advent) later in the present verse.

The mood of menete (menete, “remain”) in 2:28. Again, as at the end of 1 John 2:27, the verb menete (menete) may be read as either indicative mood (“And now, little children, you remain in him”) or imperative mood (“And now, little children, remain in him”). In 2:27 we opted for an indicative because the author had been attempting to reassure his readers that they did indeed possess eternal life, and also because an indicative at the end of 2:27 balances the indicative reference to the “anointing” residing in the readers at the beginning of the verse. With the return in 2:28 to the eschatological note introduced in 2:18, however, the author has now switched from reassurance to exhortation. At the time he is writing them, the readers do still “remain” since they have not yet adopted the heretical teaching of the opponents. But now the author wants to forestall the possibility that they might abandon the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus and adopt the opponents’ teaching at some point, and so he begins this section with an exhortation to the readers to “remain” in Christ. This suggests that we should read menete (menete) in the present verse as imperative rather than indicative, a view made even more probable by the following Jina-clause which states the purpose for the exhortation: in order that at the parousia when Jesus Christ is revealed, the readers may have confidence and not shrink back from him in shame when he appears. Malatesta points out that of all the exhortations in 1 John, this is the only one that “encourages an attitude directed immediately to Christ,” although Smalley notes that the appeal to “walk just as Jesus walked” in 2:6 is quite similar.322

Once again in the antithetical framework of Johannine thought,323 there are only two alternatives, just as there are only two alternatives in John 3:18-21, a key section for the understanding of the present passage in 1 John. Anyone who does not ‘remain’ demonstrates that whatever profession he has made is false and he is not truly a believer.324

The referent of ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) in 2:28. Although a few interpreters have understood all three of the third person pronouns in this verse to refer to God, most take them to refer to Jesus Christ.325 This is far more probable because of the reference to the parousia at the end of the verse and the connection back to 2:18. Additional support comes from the usage of the verb fanerovw (fanerow, “I appear/reveal/manifest”), discussed further below.

The meaning of ejavn (ean, “whenever”) in 2:28. In this context ejavn does not indicate uncertainty about whether or not Christ will return, but rather uncertainty about the exact time the event will take place. In the Koiné period ejavn (ean) could mean “when” or “whenever” and was virtually the equivalent of o{tan (Jotan).326 It has this meaning in John 12:32 and 14:3. Thus the phrase here should be translated, “so that whenever he should appear….”

The use of fanerovw (fanerow, “I appear/reveal/manifest”) and Johannine theology. The verb fanerovw (fanerow) is used in the Johannine corpus 17 times. Seven uses (including the present one) are found in 1 John (1:2; 2:19, 28; 3:2, 5, 8; 4:9). A majority of the 17 uses in the Fourth Gospel, Epistles of John and Revelation appear to refer to Jesus Christ. In context, none of the uses clearly refers to God. While exegesis is not a matter of statistics, the numbers in this case suggest a stylistic tendency within the Johannine corpus to avoid the use of this particular verb with God as the referent. This avoidance is consistent with Johannine theology, in which God has never been seen by human beings except as he is revealed in the person of his Son Jesus Christ (cf. John 1:18).

The significance of the word play in 2:28 between parrhsivan (parrhsian, “confidence”) and parousiva/ (parousia, “coming”; translated by the NET Bible as “when he comes back”). The term parousiva/ (parousia) occurs in the New Testament in a non-technical sense to refer to someone’s arrival in general (1 Cor 16:17). More frequently it is used to designate the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the age (Matt 24:3; 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 4:15; 2 Thess 2:1; James 5:7-8; 2 Pet 3:4).327 This is the only occurrence of the word parousiva/ (parousia) in the Johannine writings, but its use here is probably explained by the wordplay between parrhsivan (parrhsian) and parousiva/ (parousia). This appears to be a deliberate wordplay suggesting how believers will be able to respond at the return of Jesus Christ: they will not shrink back away from him in shame, but will have confidence to stand before him. The word parrhsiva (parrhsia) is used 4 times in 1 John, and it always refers to the confidence the believer has before God or God’s Son: at the judgment (here and in 4:17), in making requests (5:14), or both the preceding ideas (3:21).328 The opposite behavior is illustrated in both John 3:17-21 (especially v. 19) and Rev 6:15-17 where those who are not believers shrink away in shame and attempt to hide when Jesus returns. That this does not refer to mere feelings of embarrassment can be seen by comparing the two passages just mentioned, where real judgment by Christ is in view.329 Brown suggests that the secessionist opponents, who minimized the need for right behavior, were appealing to the Fourth Gospel with its realized eschatology and emphasis on present rather than future judgment (cf. John 3:18-21) to justify their views.330 If so, the author’s mention of Christ’s return here would serve as a reminder that a future accountability for one’s moral behavior still remains for Christians and non-Christians alike.331

    2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who practices righteousness is fathered by him.

    Summary

The initial if-clause deals not with whether Jesus is righteous or not, but with whether the readers of the letter have realized this fact. The statement he is righteous refers to Jesus (compare 2:1). The expectation reflected here is that all those people who are truly God’s children (fathered by him) will practice righteousness. For the author of 1 John, ultimately conduct is the clue to paternity: how one behaves provides a reliable indicator of who one’s father is. When this test is applied to the secessionist opponents, it will be seen that their failure to practice righteousness indicates they are not fathered by him, regardless of what they may claim.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the conditional construction with ejavn (ean, “if”) + subjunctive in 2:29. The verb governed by ejavn (ean) is eijdh'te (eidhte), a subjunctive mood verb, not ejstin (estin), an indicative mood verb. Therefore the third-class conditional phrase does not refer to whether Jesus332 is righteous or not, but rather whether the readers have realized that Jesus is righteous. The uncertainty does not concern the fact of Jesus’ righteousness, but the readers’ knowledge of that fact.

The meaning of divkaio (dikaios, “righteous”) in 2:29 and in Johannine theology generally. This word occurs 3 times in the Gospel of John (5:30, 7:24, and 17:25) and 6 times in 1 John (1:9, 2:1, 2:29, 3:7 [2x], and 3:12). Of the uses in the Gospel of John, one refers to Jesus himself (5:30), one to men (7:24), and one to God the Father (17:25). In 1 John, one of the uses refers to God (1:9), three refer to Jesus Christ (2:1, here in 2:29, and the second use in 3:7), one refers to people (the first use in 3:7), and one refers to deeds (the righteous deeds of Abel in 3:12). When used in reference to people or their deeds, the word indicates righteous or just behavior, particularly as demonstrated by obedience to God.333 The word is used this way in 1 John 3:7 and 3:12. When used of God or Jesus Christ, the concept of righteousness or justice involves opposition to sin, but this is not without forgiveness and mercy, and can even involve the removal of sin. It is God who forgives the believer who sins in 1:9, and Jesus Christ who intercedes on behalf of believers who sin in 2:1. Here in 2:29 Jesus Christ334 is described as righteous, and believers also ought to behave righteously as he did. Again the author is stressing ethical behavior as important for the Christian, in contrast to the teaching of the opponents, who appear to have been moral indifferentists who argued that a person’ moral or ethical behavior was unimportant as a Christian.

The mood of ginwvskete (ginwskete, “you know”) in 2:29b. By its form, the mood of ginwvskete (ginwskete) here may be understood as either indicative or imperative. It is preferable to understand the verb here as indicative. Brown states, “in I John knowledge is described as an already existing fact flowing from the reader’s being a Christian (2:3, 5, 20, 21; 3:16, 19, 24; 4:2, 13; 5:2).”335 Thus in 1 John knowledge is something one possesses as a believer, not something one has to be exhorted about. The change in verbs from oi\da (oida) in 2:29a to ginwvskw (ginwskw) in 2:29b, both of which mean “know,” is one more example of Johannine stylistic variation: the author interchanges words that are synonyms for stylistic reasons with no apparent difference in meaning.

The force of the kaiv (kai, translated by the NET Bible as “also”) in 2:29. Kaiv (kai), although often translated as “and,” is best understood as adjunctive here, meaning “also”, “likewise”, or “as well.”336 This agrees with the understanding of ginwvskete (ginwskete) as indicative and results in the meaning: “If you know that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who practices righteousness is fathered by him.”

The referent of the (understood) subject of ejstin (estin, “he is”) in 2:29a. Again we encounter the problem of whether the author intends a reference to God the Father or Jesus Christ here. There were three uses of the pronoun aujtov (autos) in 2:28, all of which referred to Jesus Christ.337 There is an additional use of aujtov (autos) in the second half of this verse, also ambiguous.338 There is then a clear reference to God the Father in 3:1, so the present instance could refer back to Jesus in 2:28 or ahead to God the Father in 3:1. In his comment on this verse R. Brown notes parenthetically: “An occasional use of a proper name by the author would have been very helpful! One wonders whether the author reflects a Jewish reluctance to employ divine names.”339 Brown’s suggestion represents one possible explanation for the ambiguity surrounding many of the pronominal references in 1 John. Another is that our author sees such a close relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father that he is not always interested in clearly distinguishing between the two, nor does he feel it necessary to do so.

However, it seems best to understand the referent of the understood subject of ejstin (estin) here as Jesus Christ. In 1 John 2:1 there was a clear reference to Jesus Christ as “righteous” (divkaio), and with “righteous” being predicated here, a reference to Christ is likely. In the previous verse, 2:28, the three uses of aujtov (autos) all appear to refer to Christ, since his parousia (second advent) is mentioned. The point of the comparision in 2:29 is that believers behave like the one who himself acted righteously, which can only refer to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, as emphasized repeatedly by the author throughout 1 John, especially in contrast to the behavior of the secessionist opponents. Finally, 2:29 is very similar to 3:7, where the pronoun is ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”) and must refer to Jesus Christ (cf. 2:6), as it consistently does throughout 1 John.

The referent of aujtou' (autou, “of him”) in 2:29b. Once more it is not clear whether aujtou' (autou) refers to God the Father or Jesus Christ. From the previous discussion, one might assume that Jesus Christ is the most likely referent, since the subject of ejstin (estin, “he is”) in 2:29a is best understood as Jesus.340 But in the following verse, 3:1, there is a clear reference to God the Father, identified as oJ pathvr (Jo pathr, “the father”). Added to this, we should note from Johannine theology that the expression ejx aujtou' gegevnnhtai (ex autou gegennhtai, “fathered [traditionally, “begotten”] by him”) in the Johannine literature customarily refers to God (John 1:13, 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 5:4, 5:18) and never refers unambiguously to Jesus. This strongly suggests a reference to God the Father here, although admittedly it does make for a very abrupt transition from the reference to Jesus in the first half of the verse.341 Perhaps this is due to a degree of interchangeability here between the Father and the Son, and this is certainly possible within Johannine christology.342

The meaning of gegevnnhtai (gegennhtai, “fathered”) in 2:29. For translators the verb gennavw (gennaw, the lexical form of the verb) presents a problem: should the passive be translated “to be begotten” (the action of the male parent)343 or “to be born” (as from a female parent)?344 A number of modern translations (rsv, nrsv, nasb, niv) have opted for the latter, but the imagery expressed in 3:9 clearly refers to the action of the male parent in begetting, and so “begotten” is the better choice here. This term, however, strikes most modern readers as somewhat archaic, and could even lead to confusion about some sort of “begetting” at the metaphysical level. In contemporary American English the verb “to father [a child]” conveys the meaning adequately. If the imagery seems boldly anthropomorphical, it is carried even farther by the author in 1 John 3:9 (see below). It is also important to note that similar imagery lies behind John 1:13, and so should come as no surprise to the readers of 1 John here.

    3:1 (See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children – and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us: because it did not know him.

    Summary

This verse begins a parenthetical comment that extends through the end of 3:3. The author refers to believers as God’s children. The Greek word translated children also occurs in 1 John 3:2, 3;10, and 5:2. A related Greek word, little children, occurs in 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:28, 3:7, 4:4, and 5:21. John 1:12 is an important verse for understanding the meaning of the phrase here. John never uses the word “son” to refer to the believer like Paul does. For John, the word “son” is reserved for Jesus alone, because “Son of God” is a unique description of Jesus. John calls believers “children of God.”

The verse asserts that the world’s treatment of believers is a reflection and outgrowth of its treatment of Jesus himself (because it did not know him). As the Master was treated by the world, so will the servants be treated too.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the i{na (Jina, “that”) in 3:1. The {ina-clause is best understood as epexegetical or explanatory, clarifying the love (ajgavphn, agaphn) that the Father has given to believers.345 Although it is possible to regard the Jina as indicating result, the use of potaphvn (potaphn, “what sort of”) to modify ajgavphn (agaphn) suggests that the idea of “love” will be qualified further in the following context. This qualification is provided by the epexegetical Jina-clause. This is the kind of love God has given to believers: to designate them as his children. A similar idea is expressed in John 1:12.

The meaning of tevkna (tekna, “children”) in 3:1. This is the first of 4 uses of the word in 1 John (also in 3:2, 3:10, and 5:2).346 This term is used to refer to “God’s children” in John 1:12 and 11:52 (both of which are significant for the usage here in 1 John) and in all four of the uses in 1 John.

The use of tevkna (tekna, “children”) and uiJov (Juios, “son”) in Johannine theology. Paul uses the term tevkna (tekna) to refer to believers as children of God in Rom 8:16, 17, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15, but he also uses the term to refer to his converts as “my children” (1 Cor 4:14, 17; Gal 4:19; Phlm 10). Paul uses uiJov (Juios) of Christians as God’s children (Rom 8:14, 19; 9:26; Gal 3:26), though always in the plural. John, on the other hand, never uses uiJov (Juios) of Christians but reserves it uniquely for Jesus as the Son (uiJov, Juios) of God. Tevkna (tekna) thus becomes the technical Johannine term for the divine sonship of the believer. It is sometimes used virtually interchangeably with paidivon (paidion), as in 1 John 2:12, 14. The diminutive form teknivon (teknion) also occurs frequently in Johannine literature.347 The concept that the author uses here to describe God’s relationship to believers, as a father to children, points on the one hand to God’s personal, relational, loving nature. On the other hand it defines the status of Christians: they are members of his household.348

The significance of the indicative mood in the final clause of 3:1a, kaiV ejsmevn (kai esmen, “and [indeed] we are”). The use of the indicative mood indicates that the verb ejsmevn (esmen) at the end of 3:1a is not governed by the i{na (Jina) and does not belong with the Jina-clause, since this would have required a subjunctive. If the verb ejsmevn (esmen) were subjunctive, the force of the clause would be: “that we should be called children of God, and should be (children of God)….” With ejsmevn (esmen) as indicative, the clause reads: “that we should be called children of God, and [indeed] we are [children of God]….”

The force of diaV tou'to (dia touto, “for this reason”) which begins 3:1b and the Johannine use of diaV tou'to (dia touto). Lexically it is clear that this phrase indicates reason, but what is not clear is whether tou'to (touto) refers to what follows, what precedes, or both (the same problem that occurs with the ejn tou'to (en touto) phrases throughout 1 John). The phrase diaV tou'to (dia touto) is used three times in the Johannine letters (here, 1 John 4:5, and 3 John 10) and 15 times in the Gospel of John (John 1:31; 5:16, 18; 6:65, 7:21-22, 8:47, 9:23, 10:17, 12:18, 27, 39; 13:11, 15:19, 16:15, 19:11). These uses exhibit a consistent pattern: when an epexegetical Joti-clause follows, the phrase diaV tou'to (dia touto) refers to it. This is the case six times in the Gospel of John (5:16, 5:18, 8:47, 10:17, 12:18, 12:39). The remaining nine times in the Gospel of John there is no following Joti-clause and the diaV tou'to (dia touto) refers to preceding material (1:31, 6:65, 7:21-22, 9:23, 12:27, 13:11, 15:19, 16:15, 19:11).

Of the three uses of the phrase diaV tou'to (dia touto) in the Johannine letters, in two of these (1 John 4:5, 3 John 10) there is no Joti-clause following, and so according to the pattern observed in the Fourth Gospel the diaV tou'to (dia touto) should refer to preceding material. Here in 3:1 there is an epexegetical Joti-clause following, so the diaV tou'to (dia touto) should refer to what follows, that is, to the Joti-clause itself.349 Thus it explains the reason (Joti = “because”) why Christians are not recognized by the world.350

The referent of aujtovn (auton, “him”) in 3:1. Again the referent of the third person pronoun is a problem. It could refer either to God the Father or to Jesus Christ, but since the Father is clearly mentioned in 3:1a and God is mentioned in 3:2a, it seems preferable to understand aujtovn in 3:1b as a reference to God the Father. However, it is important to remember that Johannine christology associates Jesus with God, and there may have been little difference here as far as the author was concerned.351

    3:2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.

    Summary

According to 1 John 2:19 the opponents have been revealed as antichrists now. What believers, who are God’s children now, will be in the future is to be revealed at some later point: what we will be has not yet been revealed. In light of the reference to Jesus’ parousia (second advent) in 2:28, that is probably the time when the true character of believers will be revealed – the time when they will be like him.

    Exegetical Details

The subject of the passive verb ejfanerwvqh (efanerwqh, “been revealed”) in 3:2. The subject of the third person singular passive verb ejfanerwvqh (efanerwqe) in 3:2 is the following clause tiv ejsovmeqa (ti esomeqa): “Beloved, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” The opponents have been revealed as antichrists now (2:19). What believers will be is to be revealed later. In light of the mention of the parousia (second advent) in 2:28, it seems likely that the author is referring to an eschatological revelation of the true character of believers which is still future to the time of writing.

The relationship of 3:2b to 3:2a. It seems best to regard this as a case of anacoluthon,352 although the Byzantine text, along with the Syriac Peshitta, the Bohairic Coptic, and some manuscripts of the Sahidic Coptic, supply the conjunction dev (de) before o{ti (Joti) in 1 John 3:2b. Given the weight of the manuscript evidence which favors the omission plus the fact that omission of the conjunction is the more difficult reading, inclusion of dev (de) here is not likely to represent an original reading. Perhaps it does reflect a tendency among the scribes who copied the text to see a contrastive relationship between 3:2a and 3:2b. This produces an accurate understanding of the relationship between the clauses from a logical standpoint: “and what we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that whenever he should be revealed, we shall be like him.”

The meaning of ejavn (ean, frequently “if”; translated by the NET Bible as “whenever”) in 3:2b. As in 1 John 2:28, ejavn (ean) does not indicate uncertainty about whether or not this will be revealed, but rather uncertainty about the exact time the event will take place. Thus the phrase here should be translated, “we know that whenever it should be revealed, we will be like him.”

The force of the first o{ti (Joti) in 3:2b. The first o{ti (Joti) in 3:2 follows oi[damen (oidamen, “we know”), a verb of perception, and introduces an indirect discourse clause which specifies the content of what believers know: “that whenever it should be revealed, we will be like him.”

The force of the second o{ti (Joti) in 3:2b. The second o{ti (Joti) in 3:2 follows ejsovmeqa (esomeqa, “we will be”) and is best understood as causal, giving the reason why believers will be like God: “we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.” This has been explained two ways: (a) believers shall really become more like God than they now are, and will do this through seeing God as he really is; or (b) believers will realize that they are already like God, but did not realize it until they see him as he is. The interpreter who sees a strong emphasis on realized eschatology in the Gospel of John and the Johannine letters might well opt for the second view, since it downplays the difference between what believers already are in the present age and what they will become in the next. It seems more likely to me, though, in light of the statement in 3:2a that “what we will be has not yet been revealed” and because of the reference to Christ’s parousia (second advent) in 2:28, that the author intends to distinguish (to some degree) between the present state of believers and what they will be like in the future.353 Thus the first view is somewhat more likely: that believers really will become more like God than they are now, as a result of seeing him as he really is.

The (understood) subject of fanerwqh'/ (fanerwqh, “been revealed”) in 3:2. Many take the understood subject (“he” or “it”) of fanerwqh'/ (fanerwqh) as a reference to Jesus Christ, because the same verb was used in 1 John 2:28 in reference to the parousia (second advent). In the immediate context, however, a better analogy is found in ejfanerwvqh tiv ejsovmeqa (efanerwqh ti esomeqa) in 3:2a. There the clause tiv ejsovmeqa (ti esomeqa) is the subject of the passive verb: “what we will be has not yet been revealed.”354 From a grammatical standpoint it makes better sense to see the understood subject of fanerwqh'/ (fanerwqh) as “it” rather than “he” and as referring back to the clause tiv ejsovmeqa (ti esomeqa) in 3:2a. In the context this makes good sense: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.”355 This emphasizes the contrast in the verse between the present state (“not yet been revealed”) and the future state (“will be revealed”) of believers, and this will of course take place at the parousia (second advent). It may well be that the use of the same passive verb here (fanerovw, fanerow) is intended to suggest to the reader the parousia mentioned in 2:28.

The referents of aujtw// (autw, “him”) and aujtovn (auton, “him”) in 3:2b. Again, the referents of these pronouns are very difficult to identify. A case could be made for seeing them as references either to God the Father or to Jesus Christ. There may indeed be some blurring of the two as a result of the Johannine christology.356 However, it is more likely that both third person pronouns in 1 John 3:2b refer to God the Father for two reasons: (a) In the following verse (3:3) where a clear reference to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ is mentioned, the pronoun used to refer to Jesus is ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”) rather than aujtov (autos). (b) As explained in the previous section, the understood subject of fanerwqh'/ (fanerwqh) is better understood as “it” rather than “he,” referring back to the clause tiv ejsovmeqa (ti esomeqa, “what we will be”) in 3:2a. Thus the theme of 3:2 is “what believers will be like,” and since 3:2a asserts that believers are God’s children now, it follows that believers will be like God their Father in the future. This is further supported by the reference to “the Father” in 3:1.

The idea that believers will see God is present in several Old Testament texts like Ps 11:7; 17:15; 42:1-5, so the primary background for this concept is probably Jewish, although the idea of “seeing God” has also been found in gnostic mysticism according to C. H. Dodd.357 However, John 17:24 in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse provides an even more immediate background for the idea that believers will see God: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”358 Finally, there is the relationship between “seeing and believing” highlighted in John 20:29 by the statement of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas, immediately following the confession of Thomas, “my Lord and my God,” in 20:28. This in turn is related to the assertion at the end of John’s Prologue (1:18) that “no one has ever seen God,” although God is fully revealed in the Word made flesh, Jesus.

    3:3 And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure).

    Summary

All believers, because they have this hope focused on him, are expected to purify themselves just as Jesus is pure, that is, to separate themselves from sin and live lives of moral purity just as Jesus did. The assurance of the previous verse, that believers will “see him just as he is,” has moral and ethical behavioral implications for their lives in the present. As Bultmann correctly noted, the hortatory overtones of this verse are obvious, even though it is couched in “indicative” language.359

    Exegetical Details

The referent of aujtw'/ (autw, “him”) in 3:3. Once again there is the familar problem of deciding whether the third person pronoun refers to God the Father or to Jesus Christ. Modern commentators are about equally divided here, but a reference to God the Father (continuing the references from 3:1-2) is somewhat more likely. (a) In 3:3b the pronoun used is ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”), and since purity of life is mentioned, this almost certainly refers to Jesus in his earthly life and ministry.360 (b) The switch from aujtov (autos) to ejkei'no (ekeinos) suggests that the former refers to someone other than Jesus, i.e., God the Father. (c) In the previous context (3:1-2) the pronoun aujtov (autos) refers to God.361

The referent of thVn ejlpivda tauvthn (thn elpida tauthn, “this hope”) in 3:3. The “hope” could refer back to the love which the Father has for believers and has given to believers in 1 John 3:1.362 But the idea of “hope” implies something future that has not yet happened, while the “love of God” in 3:1 results in believers already being God’s children in the present. More likely the expression thVn ejlpivda tauvthn (thn elpida tauthn, “this hope”) refers to the combined idea at the end of 3:2b of being like God and seeing him just as he is. This is something that has not yet been revealed; it will not be revealed until the parousia. Thus believers must look forward to this in hope and expectation.

The noun ejlpiv (elpis, “hope”) occurs only here in the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and Revelation, although it is common in Paul’s writings and the Petrine corpus. One reason for this is that in the Fourth Gospel the focus is largely on “realized” eschatology, with the emphasis on the relationship believers have with God in the present (expressed frequently as “eternal life”). It is also possible that the secessionist opponents in 1 John have exaggerated that focus even further, claiming that how one behaves in the present has no bearing whatsoever on one’s future relationship with God.363 In that case, the author’s introduction of a note about the believer’s relationship with God in the future in the previous verse and a reminder about the need for moral and ethical behavior in the present here in v. 3 would serve as a challenge to the opponents’ claims. Taking the referent of the hope expressed here to be the idea of being like God and seeing him just as he is (3:2b), a hope which is to be fulfilled in the future at the parousia, the polemical nature of the statement against the opponents becomes even more sharply focused. How one behaves now (“purifies himself”) really does have an impact on one’s ability to relate to God in the future (“be like him…see him just as he is”).

The meaning of aJgnivzei (Jagnizei, “purifies”) in 3:3. The verb aJgnivzw (Jagnizw) is somewhat unusual here, since it is not common in the New Testament and occurs only once in the Gospel of John, in 11:55. One might wonder why the author did not use the more common verb aJgiavzw (Jagiazw), as in John 17:19, where Jesus prays, “I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart.” It is possible that there is some overlap between the two verbs and we have here another example of Johannine stylistic variation, but the verb aJgnivzw (Jagnizw) is used in the context of John 11:55, which describes ritual purification for the Passover, a usage similar to that found in the LXX (Exod 19:10-11, Num 8:21). In this context the use of aJgnivzw (Jagnizw) would remind the readers that, if they have the future hope of entering the Father’s presence (“seeing him as he is” in 3:2), they need to prepare themselves by living a purified lifestyle now, just as Jesus lived a purified lifestyle during his earthly life and ministry.364 This serves to rebut the opponents’ claims to moral indifferentism (i.e., that what the Christian does in the present life is of no consequence).

The referent of ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”; translated by the NET Bible as “Jesus”) in 3:3. As mentioned above in the first section on 1 John 3:3, the switch in pronouns from aujtov (autos) to ejkeivno (ekeinos) parallels 2:6. The pronoun ejkeivno (ekeinos) in 1 John always refers to Jesus throughout. Since purity of life is mentioned in the context, this almost certainly refers to Jesus in his earthly life and ministry, as the example of a pure life that believers should imitate (a major theme of the author throughout 1 John).365

    3:4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness.

    Summary

The author of 1 John is not referring to lawlessness as violation of the Mosaic law (as Paul does in Rom. 4:7). For John the “law” is the law of love, the new commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34). Everyone who practices sin is contrasted with Everyone who resides in him in 3:6, and the two are in absolute and sharp contrast. The author is thus referring to the secessionist opponents here, who in 1 John 1:8 and 10 were denying that they were guilty of sin or had committed sin. The only specific sin in all of 1 John that the author charges the opponents with is failure to show love for fellow believers (3:17).

    Exegetical Details

The referent of the pa' oJ (pas Jo) + participle construction in 3:4. The construction with pas Jo (“everyone who”) is characteristic of this part of 1 John (cf. 2:29; 3:10; also 3:3, 6, 9). In contrast to the pas Jo + participle construction in 1 John 3:3, pa' oJ e[cwn (pas Jo ecwn, “everyone who has”), which referred to believers, the use of the same construction here, pa' oJ poiw'n thVn aJmartivan (pas Jo poiwn thn Jamartian, “everyone who practices sin”), appears to refer to the author’s opponents.366 A similar use, referring to the opponents’ denial of the Son, is found in 2:23. Here it is probable that the author’s opponents were moral indifferentists who held that even if they practiced sin, it was inconsequential and had no bearing on their relationship with God. It is even possible that such a claim by the opponents was based on John’s own teaching (like 1 John 2:1) that forgiveness for sin is readily available.367 However, this tendency to moral indifferentism (or even antinomianism) on the part of the opponents could not be allowed to go unchallenged.

The meaning of ajnomiva (anomia, “lawlessness”) both times it is used in 3:4. The Greek word is often translated “iniquity” or “lawlessness” and in the LXX it refers particularly to transgression of the law of Moses. In Jewish thought the ideas of sin (aJmartiva) and lawlessness or iniquity (ajnomiva, anomia) were often equated because sin involved a violation of the mosaic law and hence lawlessness. For example, Ps. 51:5 LXX sets the two terms in parallel, and Paul in Rom 4:7 (quoting Ps 32:1) does the same.

For the author, however, it is not violation of the Mosaic law that results in “lawlessness,” since he is writing to Christians. The ‘law’ for the author of 1 John is the law of love, as given by Jesus in the new commandment of John 13:34-35. This is the command to love one’s brother, a major theme of 1 John and the one specific sin in the entire letter which the opponents are explicitly charged with (3:17).

Since the author has already labelled the opponents “antichrists” in 2:18, it may well be that he sees in their iniquitous behavior of withdrawing from the community and refusing to love the brethren a foreshadowing of the apocalyptic iniquity of the end times (cf. 2 Thess 2:3-8).368 In Matt 24:11-12 Jesus foretold that false prophets would arise in the end times (cf. 1 John 4:1), that lawlessness (ajnomiva, anomia) would increase, and that “the love of many will grow cold.” This is certainly a description which would fit the author’s portrait of the opponents in 1 John. Smalley observes, “For the writer, then, sin (as practiced, no doubt, by the heretically inclined members of John’s church) is the ultimate rebellion against God; and the sinner is one who takes sides with the archenemy of God, and of his Son Jesus.”369

    3:5 And you know that Jesus was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

    Summary

The author now reminds the readers of what they know: that Jesus came to take away sins (compare 1 John 2:2). The phrase in him there is no sin is an important affirmation of Jesus’ sinlessness. The author appeals here to knowledge he anticipates his readers will certainly share, a technique he employs frequently in the Johannine letters (cf. 1 John 2:20-21; 3:2; 4:2; 5:15, 18-20; 3 John 12). The particular knowledge involved here, that Jesus came to take away sins, is so basic a part of the apostolic preaching that the readers must have been very familiar with it.

    Exegetical Details

The referent of ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”; translated by the NET Bible as “Jesus”) in 3:5. The context makes it clear that this is a reference to Jesus Christ, because the Greek text of the verse literally states “that one was revealed in order that he might take away sins.” In Johannine thought it is Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). This provides additional confirmation that the previous use of ejkei'no (ekeinos) in 3:3b should also be understood as a reference to Jesus, just as 2:6 was.

The force of the i{na (Jina, “to”) in 3:5. The Jina-clause gives the purpose of Jesus’ self-revelation as he revealed himself to the disciples and to the world during his earthly life and ministry: it was in order that he might take away sins.

The referent of aujtw'/ (autw, “in him”) in 3:5. Clearly the referent of aujtw'/ (autw) in 3:5b is the same as the referent of ejkei'no (ekeinos) in 3:5a. This is therefore another reference to Jesus Christ.370 The theme of Jesus’ sinlessness appears in John 8:46, where Jesus asked his opponents, “Which of you is able to convict me of sin?”, a question to which his opponents gave no answer. The same theme of the sinlessness of Jesus is directly affirmed by the author’s statement here. It has been suggested that Isa 53 (especially vv. 4, 5, 9, 11, 12 in the LXX) has influenced the choice of wording of the affirmation of Jesus’ sinlessness here.371 On the other hand, Malatesta observed a parallel between 3:5b and T. Judah 24:1-3, the first verse of which includes the statement “no sin shall be found in him.”372

The time of the action described by ejfanerwvqh (efanerwqh, “was revealed”). While it would not be inaccurate in Johannine terms to say that the self-revelation of Jesus came at the time of his incarnation,373 such a thought would be precariously close to what the author’s opponents were apparently teaching. It seems much more likely that, in keeping with the author’s emphasis throughout 1 John, that the self-revelation of Jesus the author has in mind came primarily during (i.e., throughout) his earthly life and ministry as he revealed himself to his disciples and to the world. In the Fourth Gospel, 1:18 could be viewed in this way – it would speak of Jesus’ revelation of God throughout his earthly life and ministry rather than tied to a particular point in time connected with the incarnation.

    3:6 Everyone who resides in him does not sin; everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him.

    Summary

This verse (along with v. 9) presents many interpretive difficulties, because the author of 1 John seems to say here that genuine Christians (everyone who resides in him) do not sin. Even aside from experience (which strongly suggests that genuine Christians do sin, at least occasionally) there is the author’s own clear statement in 1 John 2:1 that if anyone sins Jesus is an advocate with the Father on their behalf. 1 John 3:6 and 9, which contain the most problematic statements, have been understood in a multitude of ways, the most significant of which are discussed below. See also the discussion on v. 9.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of mevnwn (menwn, “resides”) in 3:6. Here the verb mevnw (menw) refers to the permanence of relationship between Jesus and the believer, as in 1 John 2:27 and 2:28.374 It is clear that Jesus is the referent of the pronoun translated “him” in the phrase ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) because he is the subject of the previous discussion in v. 5.375

The significance of the present tense of the verb aJmartavnei (Jamartanei, “[does not] sin”) in 3:6. The interpretive problem raised by the use of the present tense aJmartavnei (Jamartanei) in this verse (and the present tense poiei' [poiei, “practice”] in 3:9 as well) is that (a) it appears to teach a sinless state of perfection for the true Christian, and (b) it appears to contradict the author’s own statements in 1 John 2:1-2 where he acknowledged that Christians do indeed sin, but have Jesus as an advocate with the Father when they do.376

One widely-used method of reconciling the acknowledgment in 2:1-2 that Christians do sin with the statements in 3:6 and 3:9 that they do not is expressed by M. Zerwick. He understands the aorist tense to mean “commit sin in the concrete, commit some sin or other” while the present tense means “be a sinner, as a characteristic «state».”377 N. Turner argues essentially the same as Zerwick, stating that the present tense aJmartavnei (Jamartanei) is stative (be a sinner) while the aorist tense is ingressive (begin to be a sinner, as the initial step of committing this or that sin).378 Similar interpretations may be found in a number of grammars and commentaries.

Others, however, have questioned the view that the distinction in Greek tenses alone can convey a ‘habitual’ meaning without further contextual clarification, including C. H. Dodd and Z. C. Hodges.379 However, B. Fanning has concluded that the habitual meaning for the present tense cannot be ruled out, because there are clear instances of habitual presents in the New Testament where other clarifying words are not present and the habitual sense is derived from the context alone.380 This means that from a grammatical standpoint alone, the habitual present cannot be excluded as a possibility in 1 John 3:6 and 3:9. It is still true, though, that it would have been much clearer if the author had reinforced the habitual sense with clarifying words or phrases in 1 John 3:6, 9 if that is what he had intended. Dodd’s point, that reliance on the distinction in tenses alone is quite a subtle way of communicating such a vital point in the author’s argument, is still valid. It should also be noted that the author of 1 John has demonstrated a propensity for alternating between present and aorist tenses for purely stylistic reasons, and it is hard to be sure that such stylistic issues do not play a role in these verses.381

At this point, therefore, it seems best to view the distinction between “everyone who practices sin” in 3:4 and “everyone who resides in him” in 3:6 as absolute and sharply in contrast.382 As R. Law noted, the author’s absolute declarations about the sinlessness of the believer is “the language not of calm and measured statement, but of vehement polemic.”383 The author is here making a clear distinction between the opponents, who as moral indifferentists downplay the significance of sin in the life of the Christian, and the readers, who as true Christians recognize the significance of sin because Jesus came to take it away (3:5) and to destroy it as a work of the devil (3:8). This argument is developed more fully by S. Kubo, who takes the opponents as gnostics who define sin as ignorance.384 I do not think the opponents were adherents of fully-developed gnosticism, but I agree with Kubo that the distinction between their position and that of the true Christian is intentionally portrayed by the author here as a sharp antithesis.

This explanation still has to deal with the contradiction between 2:1-2 and 3:6-9, but this does not present an insuperable difficulty. The author of 1 John has repeatedly demonstrated a tendency to present his ideas antithetically, in “either/or” terms, in order to bring out for the readers the drastic contrast between themselves as true believers and the opponents as false. In 2:1-2 the author can acknowledge the possibility that a genuine Christian might on occasion sin, because in this context he wishes to reassure his readers that the statements he has made about the opponents in the preceding context do not apply to them. But in 3:4-10, his concern is to bring out the absolute difference between the opponents and his readers, so he speaks in theoretical rather than practical terms which do not discuss the possible occasional exception, because to do so would weaken his argument. There will be more to say at 3:9, however, about the description and nature of the sin involved here. At this point it looks as if the author’s remarks apply to any sin at all that a Christian might commit, but I will argue below at 3:9 that there are in fact limitations on the referent of “sin” in the context.

The referent(s) of the first and second aujtovn (auton, “[seen] him…[known] him”) in 3:6b. Since we have understood the phrase ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) at the beginning of 3:6 as a reference to Jesus Christ based on the connection with 3:5 (see above), it seems most likely that the referent of both uses of the pronoun aujtovn (auton) in 3:6 is Jesus. However, in 3 John 11 an almost identical expression clearly refers to God the Father: “the one who does evil has not seen God.” It appears that with reference to ‘seeing’ God himself or God as revealed in Jesus there is some interchangeability in Johannine theology, an interchangeability made possible by Jesus’ statement in John 14:9, “the person who has seen me has seen the Father.” If we understand the phrase here in 3:6 to refer to Jesus, we must understand the verb eJwvraken (Jewraken, “seen him”) to mean “seen him for who he truly is,” because of course even the secessionist opponents could have ‘seen’ Jesus literally.385

The significance of the pa' oJ (pas Jo) + participle construction (used twice) in 3:6. This construction also occurs in 1 John 3:3 and 3:4, as well as elsewhere in 1 John.386 Here its use serves to emphasize the contrast between the true Christian (“everyone who resides in him”) and the opponents (“everyone who sins”), a point which further supports our understanding of the force of the present tense of aJmartavnei (Jamartanei) in 3:6 as discussed above.

    3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you: the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous.

    Summary

The ones attempting to deceive John’s readers are clearly the secessionist opponents. The person who lives righteously is righteous, just as Jesus is. Once again, for the author, conduct is the clue to paternity; as Smalley says, “the close connection between theology and ethics is a constant feature of 1 John.”387 The implication is that the opponents, who are trying to deceive the intended recipients of 1 John with their false teaching, do not practice righteousness.388 While righteousness could be defined very broadly, it is likely that the author has a very specific failure in mind, since the only sin he ever charges the opponents with explicitly is failure to show love for fellow believers (1 John 3:17).

    Exegetical Details

The significance of the oJ poiw'n (Jo poiwn, “the one who practices”) + noun construction occurring in 3:7 and again in 3:8a. Once again these parallel phrases, the first positive and the second negative, serve to emphasize the contrast between the true Christian (“the one who practices righteousness,” 3:7) and the opponents (“the one who practices sin,” 3:8a). Again, this further supports our understanding of the force of the present tense aJmartavnei (Jamartanei) in 3:6.389 The truly “righteous” person is the one who “practices righteousness,” a concept which has its roots in the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic gospels (Matt 7:16, “you will recognize them by their fruit”; cf. also Luke 6:44). A person’s ethical behavior is an outward indication of one’s inner character and nature. Put more simply, conduct is the clue to paternity (how one behaves is an indication of who one’s father is).

The referent of ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”; translated by the NET Bible as “Jesus”) in 3:7. As with the previous uses of ejkei'no (ekeinos) by the author of 1 John (2:6, 3:3, 3:5), this one refers to Jesus Christ, as the reference to “the Son of God” in the following verse (3:8) makes clear.390 Concerning Jesus’ righteousness see also 1 John 2:1, 29, where this has been mentioned before.

    3:8 The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil.

    Summary

The strong contrasts and polemical tone which have characterized the present section come to a head in this verse and v. 10. The one who practices sin refers to the secessionist opponents. They claim to be in relationship with God, yet refuse to live righteously as Jesus did (previous verse; compare 1 John 2:4, 6). Such people do not belong to God but to the devil. Jesus the Son of God, however, came to destroy the works of the devil. The antithetical style of the author in this part of 1 John is readily apparent when this verse is compared with v. 7 as well as when the first part of this verse is compared to v. 9a. Malatesta pointed out the presence of a “covenant” motif in vv. 7-9, which describes the signs of authentic sonship on the one hand (vv. 7b, 9) and the lack of it on the other (v. 8a).391

    Exegetical Details

The significance of the ejkejstivn (ekestin, “is of”) phrase in 3:8a. At first glance 1 John 3:10 and John 8:44 might be cited as parallels to the present verse, because these speak of opponents as the devil’s “children.” However, it is significant that the author of 1 John never goes so far as to speak of the opponents as “fathered by the devil” in the same sense as Christians are “fathered by God” (3:9).392 A concept of evildoers as ‘fathered’ by the devil in the same sense as Christians are fathered by God would imply a much more fully developed Gnosticism with its dualistic approach to humanity. The author of 1 John carefully avoids saying that the opponents are “fathered by the devil,” because in Johannine theology not to be fathered by God is to be fathered only by the flesh (cf. John 1:13). This is significant evidence that 1 John predates the more fully developed Gnosticism of the second century A.D.

What the author does say is that the opponents (referred to in the phrase “the one who practices sin”) are from the devil, in the sense that they belong to him and have given him their allegiance.

The referent of ajp= ajrch' (aparchs, “from the beginning”) in 3:8. In this context the phrase does not refer to Jesus Christ but to the devil, who is said to “sin from the beginning.” In John 8:44 the devil is identified as “a murderer from the beginning,” and Westcott takes the reference to “the beginning” as prior to the fall of Adam.393 However, the only explicit Old Testament reference in 1 John, in 3:12, refers to Cain, who was “from the evil one” and killed his brother Abel. This suggests that the author is not using the phrase ajp= ajrch' (aparchs, “from the beginning”) in 3:8 to refer to the pre-creation beginning of Satan’s career, but to his involvement in the first murder in human history, which occurred “at the beginning.” In a similar sense Philo in On Rewards and Punishments 12 (68) states: “Now there was at the very beginning of the world when the race of men had not as yet multiplied, a fratricide.” Given that the murder of Abel in Genesis 4 followed from the evil which came into the world in Genesis 3, the author of 1 John probably has a general notion of the events of Genesis 1-4 in mind as the ‘beginning’ of human history.394 From the appearance on the scene of the serpent in the Garden of Eden “in the beginning,” Satan has been active in human history to divide brother from brother even to the point of fratricide. For the author, the devil is active even as he is writing to cause further division and hatred in the community which has already split as a result of the false teaching of the opponents (1 John 2:18-19).

The force and referent of eij tou'to (eis touto, “for this purpose”) in 3:8b. In this instance the prepositional phrase eij tou'to (eis touto) indicates the purpose: “for this purpose….” However, the phrase offers the same difficulty as all the ejn touvtw/ (en toutw) phrases in 1 John: does it refer to what precedes or to what follows?

By analogy with the ejn touvtw/ (en toutw) construction it seems probable that the phrase eij tou'to (eis touto) here refers to what follows: there is a Jina-clause following which appears to be related to the eij tou'to (eis touto), and in fact is resumptive (that is, it restates the idea of “purpose” already expressed by the eij tou'to (eis touto). Thus the meaning is: “For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: in order that he might destroy the works of the devil.” Thus it parallels category (1) of the uses of ejn touvtw/ (en toutw).395

The meaning of the title “Son of God” in 3:8. Prior to this verse the references to Jesus in relation to the Father in 1 John (1:3, 7; 2:22, 23, 24) have either been absolute (“the Son”) or have occurred with the genitive (“his Son”). In light of the controversy with the secessionist opponents the author makes clear that Jesus was both divine (1:1-3) and human (1:7). The three references to the Son in 2:22, 23, 24 are more ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so). However, with this verse a turning point in the letter takes place: here in 3:8 and hereafter in 4:15; 5:5, 10, 12, 13, 20 the title “Son of God” is used. The added dimension that this qualification of the title brings is the unique relationship of Jesus to the Father (2:22-23) and his role as mediator between God and humanity (4:15; 5:11).396

The time of the action described by ejfanerwvqh (efanerwqh, “was revealed”) in 3:8b. It appears most likely that, as in 3:5, the self-revelation of Jesus the author has in mind came primarily during his earthly life and ministry as he revealed himself to his disciples and to the world.397

The meaning of luvsh/ (lush, “destroy”) in 3:8. In the Gospel of John this word is used both literally and figuratively. In John 1:27 it refers to a literal loosing of one’s sandal-thong, and in John 2:19 to a destruction of Jesus’ physical body which was understood by the hearers to refer to physical destruction of the Jerusalem temple. In John 5:18 it refers to the breaking of the Sabbath, in John 7:23 to the breaking of the law of Moses, and in John 10:35 to the breaking of the scriptures. The verb is again used literally in John 11:44 at the resurrection of Lazarus when Jesus commands that he be released (i.e., untied) from the graveclothes with which he was bound.

Here in 1 John 3:8 with reference to “the works of the devil” the verb means “to do away with, destroy, bring to an end, abolish.”398

The works of the devil which the Son of God was manifested in order to destroy. The exact phrase “the works of the devil” does not occur elsewhere in the Johannine literature. The closest parallel is in John 8:41, where Jesus tells those who were seeking to kill him, “You people are doing the deeds of your father,” and again in 8:44, “You people are from your father the devil.” Repeatedly emphasized in the Gospel of John is the principle that a son cannot do anything except what he sees his father doing, and this principle applies both to Jesus, whose Father is God (John 5:19) and to Jesus’ opponents, whose father is the devil.399

The phrase here in 1 John 3:8 is explained by the parallel Jina-clause in 3:5, “he [= Jesus] was revealed to take away sins.”400 This is confirmed by the first clause in 3:8, which states: “the one who practices sin is of the devil,” a reflection of the same concept of paternity (i.e., who one’s father is) controlling one’s behavior found in John 8:41, 44. The “works of the devil” refer to sins that are committed by those who are ‘children’ of the devil (in the sense that they belong to him).401

    3:9 Everyone who is fathered by God does not practice sin, because God’s seed resides in him, and thus he is not able to sin, because he has been fathered by God.

    Summary

This verse, along with 3:6, appears to say that the genuine Christian (everyone who is fathered by God) does not practice sin. The reason for this, the author of 1 John says, is that the Holy Spirit (God’s seed) resides in the Christian, preventing him or her from sinning. These difficult verses have been understood in a number of different ways, but the major categories of interpretation can be summarized as follows:

(1) Some have taught that Christians are able to attain a state of sinless perfection, and that is what the author refers to here. But John says all Christians (that is, everyone who is fathered by God) do not sin. The same rebuttal would apply to those who say that John is distinguishing between ordinary Christians, who occasionally sin and need forgiveness, and superior Christians, who do not sin at all.

(2) Some have connected the sin mentioned in 3:6, 9 to the sin of apostasy committed by the opponents, that is, denying the apostolic eyewitness testimony about who Jesus is. The author would then be saying that genuine Christians are not capable of committing apostasy (departing from orthodoxy apostolic christology like the opponents did, cf. 2:19). The problem with this interpretation is that this sin is not connected with the departure of the opponents in the immediate context. Given the major role the opponents’ departure plays in the author’s thinking throughout the letter, if their departure from the apostolic teaching about Jesus and their withdrawal from the community to which the author now writes is connected with the “sin” here in 3:9, we would expect some indications of that connection in the context here.

(3) A popular interpretation of these verses distinguishes between occasional sin (which every Christian commits) and a continuing lifestyle of sin, which a genuine believer cannot pursue. Appeal is usually made to the present tense verbs to support this view. The Greek present tense describes ongoing action (action in progress). The problem with this view is that the author of 1 John does not appear to distinguish anywhere else between a lifestyle of sin and occasional isolated acts of sin. Also, to make such a significant interpretive point on the basis of the Greek tense alone is extremely subtle. One can only wonder whether John’s readers would have gotten the point.402

(4) In the immediate context (vv. 8, 10) the contrast is between the children of God and the children of the devil. This contrast is strongly either/or. The concept of loving one’s fellow Christian is introduced at the end of v. 10 and expanded in vv. 11-18. It is clear that the children of God love their brothers and sisters in Christ, while the children of the devil do not (instead, they are like Cain who hated his brother). Since John has already introduced and emphasized the new commandment (to love one another) in 1 John 2:7-11, and since loving one’s brothers and sisters in Christ is the theme of 1 John 3:11-18, the most probable meaning of 1 John 3:6 and 9 is that genuine Christians do not sin by failing to love fellow believers. Thus the sin John has in mind here is disobedience to the new commandment to love one another, which in the Fourth Gospel is the mark of true discipleship (John 13:34-35). In fact, this is the one specific sin that the author charges his opponent with committing in the entire letter (see 1 John 3:17).

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of the verb gennavw (gennaw, “I beget, I father”) in 3:9. The imagery expressed here (spevrma aujtou', sperma autou [literally “his seed”]) clearly refers to the action of the male parent in fathering children, and so “fathered” is the best choice for translation.403

The significance of the present tense of poiei' (poiei, “practice”) in 3:9 with respect to sin. The problem of the present tense of poiei' here is exactly that of the present tense of aJmartavnei (Jamartanei, “sin”) in 3:6. See the section “The significance of the present tense of the verb aJmartavnei (Jamartanei, “[does not] sin”) in 3:6” above for an extended discussion of the aspectual significance of the present tense in these verses in relation to the context. It is just as unlikely here in verse 9 as it is above in verse 6 that the author is basing such a significant point in his argument on something as subtle as the nuance of a Greek verb tense.

Here in 3:9 the distinction is sharply drawn between “the one who practices sin” in 3:8, who is of the devil, and “everyone who is fathered by God” in 3:9, who “does not practice sin.” Again, as in 3:6, the author is making a clear distinction between the opponents, who as moral indifferentists downplay the significance of sin in the life of the Christian, and the readers, who as true Christians recognize the significance of sin because Jesus came to take away sin (3:5) and to destroy it as a work of the devil (3:8).404

Again, this explanation still has to deal with the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements in 1 John 2:1-2 and those here in 3:9, but this can be explained in terms of the author’s tendency to present issues in “either/or” terms to bring out the drastic contrast between his readers, whom he regards as true believers, and the opponents, whom he regards as false.405 In 2:1-2 the author can acknowledge the possibility that a true Christian might on occasion sin, because in this context he wishes to reassure his readers that the statements he has made about the opponents in the preceding context do not apply to them. But in 3:4-10, his concern is to bring out the absolute difference between the opponents and his readers, so he speaks in theoretical terms which do not discuss the possible occasional exception, because to do so would weaken his argument.

All of this is true enough if the “sin” referred to is some general moral or ethical fault. But it becomes much more significant to the major theme of the letter (love) if the particular “sin” the genuine Christian cannot commit is the failure to obey the new commandment to “love one another,” a fault the author will specifically charge his opponents with in 1 John 3:17 (in fact it is the only specific sin the opponents are charged with in the entire letter). This seems to me to be the most likely solution to the problems this verse presents with regard to genuine Christians not practicing sin, and indeed not being able to sin. So fundamental is Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34-35) to the author’s thought in 1 John, that failure to love one’s fellow member of the community indicates that one is in fact not a genuine Christian at all. This may seem like a harsh judgment, but according to 1 John 3:16, the love expected among members of the Johannine community is a sacrificial love like the love Jesus showed for his own in the Gospel of John (John 10:11; 13:1). It is a fierce and costly love, not mere words expressing sentiment (1 John 3:18; 4:7, 8, 11).

The force of the two o{ti (Joti, translated here as “because”) conjunctions in 3:9. Both o{ti (Joti) conjunctions in 3:9 are causal. The first gives the reason why the person who is fathered by God does not practice sin: “because his [i.e., God’s] seed resides in him.” The second gives the reason why the person who is fathered by God is not able to sin: “because he has been fathered by God.”

The referent of spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou, “his seed”) in 3:9. The most probable meaning for spevrma (sperma, “seed”) in this context is “male generating seed,” although this is a figurative rather than a literal sense.406 This imagery is bold and has seemed overly anthropomorphic to some interpreters, but it poses no more difficulty than the image of God as a male parent fathering Christians which appears in John 1:13, and is behind the use of the verb gennavw (gennaw, “I beget, I father”) with reference to Christians numerous times in 1 John (2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18).

There is still the question, however, as to the referent of spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) in 3:9. It is possible to see a collective sense to the expression here, so that the phrase spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) refers to God’s “offspring.” This is reflected in the rsv margin as “the offspring of God abide in him, and they cannot sin….” This interpretation picks up the idea of God “fathering” believers from the first part of the verse, and also makes the believer the subject of the verb mevnei (menei, “resides”) according to the usual pattern in the Johannine corpus. There are also occurrences of spevrma (sperma) in the LXX which mean “offspring” (e.g., Isa 53:10), as well as in the Fourth Gospel (the spevrma jAbraavm [sperma Abraam] in John 8:33, 37). Against this view Dodd noted that the phrase spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) lacks the Greek article, which he felt would be required for the meaning “the offspring of God,” and the phrase if understood as a synonym for “everyone fathered by God” produces a tautology.407

Another approach sees the author using an agricultural metaphor here, speaking of some sort of “divine life principle” which indwells the believer, a sort of “seed” planted in the individual’s heart which produces new life. Marshall follows this line of interpretation and compares the expression here to the “seed” in the parable of the sower in Mark 4:3-20 and parallels.408 The major weakness of this view, however, is that sandwiched in between the concept of spiritual rebirth which begins and ends the verse, the agricultural metaphor ignores the important relational aspect linked to this concept in the Johannine corpus by the very use of the verb gennavw (gennaw, “I beget, I father”), used with reference to Christians repeatedly in 1 John (2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18).409

This leaves the two most likely possibilities as (a) the proclaimed word of God or (b) the Holy Spirit.410

(a) One frequent suggestion is that the referent of spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) in 3:9 is the word of God.411 In John 15:7 the words (taV rJhvmatav, ta rJhmata) of Christ are said to “reside/remain” (meivnh/, meinh) in the believer, and in John 15:3 it is the word (toVn lovgon, ton logon) of Christ that cleanses the disciples. In 1 John 2:14 the readers are assured that “the word of God resides in you” (oJ lovgo tou' qeou' ejn uJmi'n mevnei, Jo logos tou qeou en Jumin menei). The problem with this view, however, is that there is no other connection in the Gospel of John, the Epistles, or Revelation between the word of God and the fathering of Christians.412

(b) Another possibility is that the referent of spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) in 3:9 is the Holy Spirit.413 This view finds strong support in John 3:5, where the concept of divine begetting is associated with the work of the Holy Spirit when Jesus told Nicodemus, “unless a person is born (gennhqh'/, gennhqh, literally “begotten, fathered”) of water and spirit (pneuvmato, pneumatos, literally “wind/breath/spirit”), he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Although many interpreters understand pneuvmato (pneumatos) in John 3:5 to refer directly to the Holy Spirit, it is more likely that in John 3:5 both phrases (‘water’ and ‘wind’) refer to natural forces which in the Old Testament were associated with the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly in his work of regeneration (Isa 44:3-5, Ezek 37:9-10). Thus it would be through the work of the Holy Spirit that Christians are fathered by God in John 3:5. Either interpretation, however, implies that the Holy Spirit is active in the work of the divine begetting of Christians, and this link between the Spirit and the divine begetting of Christians strongly supports the understanding of spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou, “his seed”) here in 3:9 as a reference to the Holy Spirit. In 1 John 3:24 and 4:13 the believer’s “residing” in God is associated with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and we also understood the “anointing” in 1 John 2:20 and 27 to refer to the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer. In summary, it seems best to understand the bold metaphor of God’s ‘seed’ residing in the believer in 3:9 as a reference to the indwelling Holy Spirit.414

The meaning of the final statement in 3:9 that the one who is fathered by God cannot sin. There is of course a basic problem with regard to the author’s statements in 1 John 3:9 that the one who is fathered by God (the believer) does not sin and furthermore cannot sin; it may reasonably be asked in what sense this is true, since experientially almost everyone recognizes that Christians do sin, at least on occasion. Beyond this, however, is the problem of the author’s own internal consistency: in 1 John 1:8 he rejected the statement (which we have understood as originating with the opponents) “we do not have sin” (aJmartivan oujk e[comen, Jamartian ouk ecomen), and in 1:10 he condemned the opponents’ claim, “we have not sinned” (oujk hJmarthvkamen, ouk Jhmarthkamen). Furthermore, in 1:9 the author assured the readers, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins”; and in 2:1 the author again states, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father.” Finally, in 5:16 the author will urge his readers to pray for a brother who is sinning a sin “not resulting in death.” There have been numerous proposals by interpreters seeking in one way or another to reconcile these statements with the claim the author himself makes in 3:9 that the one who is fathered by God is not able to sin.

(a) Of all the proposals put forward by modern interpreters, perhaps the easiest to dismiss is the supposition that two different writers worked on what is now 1 John, or a writer and a (somewhat inept) redactor. Those who hold this view basically admit the irreconcilability of the opposing statements in 1:9, 2:1 on the one hand and 3:6, 9 on the other, and concede that these statements irreconcilably contradict one another. This approach be ruled out because we have already concluded that the entire letter was written by a single author. While the author may at times make ambiguous statements, there is no precedent for a blatant contradiction of this magnitude.

(b) It has been suggested that two different groups of opponents are involved. One group is being addressed in 1 John 1:8-2:2, a group which thinks they are so perfect that they never sin. Another group is addressed in 3:1-10, who are indifferentists who think their sins have no effect on their relationship with God. The author appears to contradict himself only because in reality he is rejecting the claims of both groups.415 This view is possible, but we concluded in our examination of the claims of the adversaries that only one group of opponents was in view in the entire letter, and that such a theory was capable of explaining all the evidence in the simplest fashion. An explanation of the (apparent) contradiction in the two statements in question here that does not require positing multiple groups of opponents would therefore be preferable.

(c) A distinction between individual acts of sin (which a Christian may occasionally commit) and habitual sin as a lifestyle (which the author rules out here) has been proposed on grammatical grounds by a number of interpreters. They argue for a distinction between the aorist tense in 1 John 2:1, referring to individual acts of sin, and the present tense in 3:6 and 3:9, which would refer to habitual sin as a lifestyle. It is open to question whether the author of 1 John would rest a distinction so crucial for his argument on a variation in tenses, particularly in light of his fondness for alternating tenses for purely stylistic reasons. This view was discussed at length (and rejected) in the section “The significance of the present tense of the verb aJmartavnei…in 3:6”, and mentioned again in the section “The significance of the present tense of poiei'…in 3:9 with respect to sin” on the present verse.

(d) Another proposal is that the author is distinguishing between ‘ordinary’ Christians in 1 John 1:8-2:2, who can and do occasionally sin and need forgiveness, and ‘superior’ Christians in 3:6 and 3:9, who really do live up to their position in Christ and do not sin. This assumes that 3:6 and 9 do not really describe the ‘average’ believer. However, in the ‘dualistic’ or polarized thought of the author there is no middle ground between the opponents, all of whom sin and have neither seen God nor known him, and the readers, all of whom ‘reside in him’ and do not sin. The author’s use of the construction pa' oJ (pas Jo) + participle in 3:3, 4, 6, 9, and 10 to refer to “everyone” in the respective groups (opponents and readers) confirms this.

(e) Still others have suggested that the author is speaking in two different literary contexts in 1 John 1:8-2:2 and 3:1-10. In the former he is speaking in a context of exhortation or proclamation, reminding the readers of what they had already heard. In 3:1-10 he is speaking in an apocalyptic context, where it is “the last hour” (2:18) and the final struggle with Antichrist has already begun (2:22). The author actually believes that in the final struggle with evil Christians will be without sin (a view that has some support from the intertestamental Jewish literature). In light of the signs of the end which he has already pointed out (2:18, 22, 26, 28), the author has concluded that the time is at hand and sinlessness is an attainable reality for the believers to whom he is writing.416 This view ultimately revolves around the author’s (mistaken) belief that the end is at hand and so believers are going to be divinely protected from sinning. Our own understanding of the concept of “the last hour” in which the author is writing is not as narrow as this and does not demand that the author be mistaken about the immediacy of the end.417

(f) A similar idea is that the author is speaking with different practical emphases in different contexts in 1 John 1:8-2:2 and 3:1-10. When he acknowledges that Christians do indeed sin and that forgiveness is available if they do (1:8-2:2), the author is speaking on a pastoral level, because in that context he is trying to reassure his readers that they have heard and believed the apostolic teaching, and need not worry about the claims of the opponents. When the author later states in 3:1-10 that Christians do not sin and cannot sin (3:6, 9), he is speaking on a polemic level, in an absolute sense, against the opponents who, as moral indifferentists, are saying that sin is unimportant for the Christian and does not interfere with one’s relationship to God. In this context the author will say in rebuttal that in an absolute sense, “conduct indicates paternity,” so that those who sin belong to the devil and are shown to be his children (3:8, 10) while those who are fathered by God do not sin.

(g) It has also been proposed that the author’s general statements on Christians who sin are found in 1 John 1:8-2:2, and the statements here in 3:9 that Christians cannot sin refer only to specific types of sin (e.g., sins against love, or a refusal to believe that Jesus is the Christ). The difficulty of this view lies in trying to identify the specific sins the author has in mind in 3:9 – it is far from clear to many interpreters that the reference in 3:9 applies only to some specific sins, and even less certain what those sins might be. However, it seems to me that there is one sin which might indeed be serious enough to warrant the author’s strong statements in 3:9, in light of the repeated emphasis on love throughout 1 John that so many interpreters have noted. In this case the specific sin the author is referring in 1 John 3:6, 9 is the sin of the opponents in failing to love the brethren (cf. 1 John 3:17, 18, 19). Failure to love the brethren is the only specific sin the opponents are ever charged with in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:4; 3:10b, 11-12, 14-15, 17-18; 4:20-21). The section immediately following this one (3:11-18) deals with loving one’s brother as opposed to hating him; the ‘model’ for the person who hates his brother is Cain (3:12), who murdered his brother because his deeds were evil (ponhrav [ponhra]).418 The statement in 3:9 that the person who is fathered by God (i.e., the genuine Christian) cannot sin is thus “framed” in 3:7 by the phrase oJ poiw'n thVn dikaiosuvnhn (Jo poiwn thn dikaiosunhn, “the one who practices righteousness”) and the opposite phrase pa' oJ mhV poiw'n dikaiosuvnhn (pas Jo mh poiwn dikaisnunhn, “everyone who does not practice righteousness”) in 3:10.

The passage in the Gospel of John which serves as the backdrop for this discussion is John 8:31-47, where Jesus is in dialogue with some of the Jewish leaders who have professed to believe in him.419 One of the major issues in John 8 is continuing in Jesus’ word and being truly his disciples (8:31b). This is also expressed as to “know the truth (ajlhvqeia, alhqeia)” (8:32). Jesus indicates that “everyone who practices sin (pa' oJ poiw'n aJmartivan, pas Jo poiwn Jamartian) is a slave of sin” (8:34). Jesus tells his opponents that his teaching “makes no progress among you” (8:37).420 He also tells them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham” (taV e[rga tou' =AbraaVm [ta erga tou Abraam], 8:39). Instead, Jesus says, “You people are doing the deeds of your father” (8:41), and “You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires” (8:44). Jesus adds, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him” (8:44b). Jesus also calls the devil a liar and the father of lies (8:44c), and asks who convicts him of sin (8:46, compare 1 John 3:5b). Finally, Jesus concludes, “Therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (8:47, compare 1 John 4:6, “whoever knows God hears us”). It appears that our author has seen in the discussions Jesus had with these Jewish leaders a “pattern” which has repeated itself in the behavior of the secessionist opponents in 1 John. They have already been branded liars and antichrists, who are attempting to deceive the believers to whom 1 John is written (2:22, 26). In the section immediately following they will be compared to Cain who was a murderer (3:12, 14).

If, as I think, this is the proper way to read 1 John 3:4-10, then 3:6 is to be understood as “Everyone who resides in him (i.e., God/Jesus) does not sin” (i.e., refuse to love the brethren), and it follows in 3:9 that those who are fathered by God (i.e., geniune believers) cannot sin in this way (i.e., cannot refuse to love the brethren). The rhetorical question raised in 3:17 applies this concept explicitly to the opponents: “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?” The answer to the rhetorical question is that God’s love cannot reside in such a person.

This approach appears to me to provide the best explanation for the seeming discrepancy in the author’s statements throughout the letter, which amount to an admittedly significant difference in emphasis in the different contexts. The unifying theme running through all of 1 John, though, is the absolute necessity to observe the “new” commandment to love one’s fellow member of the community. The genuine Christian cannot and will not fail to do this; a failure to do this demonstrates that one is not a genuine Christian. This is precisely what the author of 1 John wants to say about the secessionist opponents who have denied the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus. By their departure from the community the author is writing to, and their ensuing failure to demonstrate love for those brethren from whom they departed, they have shown that they are not themselves genuine Christians.

    3:10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed: everyone who does not practice righteousness – the one who does not love his fellow Christian – is not of God.

    Summary

One’s paternity (whether one is a child of God or a child of the devil) is revealed by whether or not one practices righteousness. For the author, every person who does not practice righteousness – the one who does not love his fellow Christian, is not of God. For the author with his antithetical thought patterns, however, not to be a child of God is to be a child of the devil. Here it is clear that for the author “practicing righteousness” is to be equated with “loving one’s fellow Christian.” In my opinion this provides strong contextual support for the interpretation of “sin” in the preceding context (1 John 3:6, 9) as failure to show love to fellow members of the Christian community.

    Structure

This verse serves as a transition from the preceding material (3:4-9) to what follows (3:11-24). In a thematic sense it is roughly parallel to 2:3-11, where the author described obedience as a necessary condition for living (literally, “walking”) in the light. However, it also anticipates the later section 4:7-5:4, where the author explains obedience in terms of its outward expression, love.

A number of commentators attach this verse to the following material rather than, as we have done here, to what precedes, because it seems to them to begin a new section parallel to 2:28-29, with many of the same themes repeated: remaining or abiding, being fathered by God, doing righteousness (2:29) versus not doing righteousness (3:10), and the manifestation of the Son of God (2:28) compared to the manifestation of the children of God (3:10).421 However, these very similarities cause us to see 3:10 as related to the preceding section, forming an inclusion (Latin inclusio) with 2:28-29 at the beginning of the section. Nevertheless, it also provides at the same time a transition to the theme of loving one’s fellow Christian, a major element in the following section (3:11-24), so its function in the argument flow is really twofold. Connection with the preceding also affects the interpretation of the “sin” in the previous context (3:6, 9), which we understand as a failure to show love to fellow members of the Christian community.

    Exegetical Details

The general concept of dividing people up into righteous and ungodly is a common one, but many concrete examples can be found in the intertestamental literature: “the sons of the covenant which the Lord made for Abraham” in Jub. 15:26 are contrasted with the “sons of Beliar” in 15:33. Likewise in T. Dan 4:7 either God or Beliar can rule over people’s souls.422 It is clear that in this context the author has in mind the secessionist opponents as those who do not “practice righteousness” (who do not show love for fellow believers), who in Smalley’s words “were emphasizing (false) belief at the expense of (right) conduct.”423 These individuals the author of 1 John describes as “children of the devil,” a phrase unique in the New Testament, although Westcott noted that there were similarities to phrases found in Eph 2:3, 2 Pet 2:14, Matt 13:38, 23:15, and Acts 13:10.424

The referent of ejn touvtw/ (en toutw, “by this”) in 3:10. Once again there is the problem (by now familiar to the interpreter of 1 John) of determining whether the phrase ejn touvtw/ (en toutw) in 3:10 refers to what precedes or what follows. This usage fits category (2) of the uses of ejn touvtw/ (en toutw), since no explanatory clause that can be related to the phrase ejn touvtw/ (en toutw) follows.425 Thus it may refer either to what precedes or to what follows. If it refers to what precedes, it serves to conclude the unit which began with 2:28. The remainder of 3:10 would then form a transition to the following material (another “hinge” passage). On the other hand, if the phrase ejn touvtw/ (en toutw) refers to what follows, then the entirety of 3:10 is a summary statement at the end of 2:28-3:10 which recapitulates the section’s major theme (“conduct is the clue to paternity”), and provides at the same time a transition to the theme of loving one’s fellow Christian which will dominate the following section (3:11-24). Although R. Brown prefers to see the phrase as referring almost exclusively to the preceding material,426 it seems to me to make slightly better sense to refer it to the remainder of 3:10 that follows, and see the entirety of 3:10 as both a summary of the theme of the preceding section 2:28-3:10 and a transition to the following section 3:11-24.

The theme of loving ones fellow Christian in the final clause of 3:10. As discussed in the preceding section, the theme of loving one’s fellow Christian appears in the final clause of 3:10 because it provides the transition to the second major section of 1 John, 3:11-5:12, and specifically to the following section 3:11-24. The theme of love will dominate the second major section of the letter (cf. 1 John 4:8). This theme must have been familiar to the readers of 1 John through the teaching of Jesus reflected in the Fourth Gospel (for example, John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17). The “new commandment” already mentioned in 1 John is a direct allusion to John 13:34.


321 See the discussion at 2:18.

322 Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 226; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 129.

323 That is, the author’s tendency to think in terms of polar opposites. Some interpreters refer to this as dualistic, but that term implies that both sides (e.g., “good” and “evil” or “light” and “darkness”) are equal, while the Johannine literature of the NT leaves no doubt which side will ultimately be victorious (cf. John 1:5).

324 Just as the opponents demonstrated this by their departure from the community in 1 John 2:19.

325 Bultmann understood the referent of ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) to be the cri'sma (crisma) in 2:20 (taking the phrase ejn aujtw'/ [en autw] to mean “in it” rather than “in him”), but this seems unlikely in view of the amount of intervening material (The Johannine Epistles, 41, n. 31).

326 BDAG 268 s.v. ejavn 2. Cf. Haas, et al., “When serves to introduce an event that is expected to happen. It is used to show that Christ’s second coming is not viewed as a hypothetical possibility, but as something that will certainly happen, only the time and circumstances being unknown” (A Translator’s Handbook, 77).

327 On the Old Testament and Jewish background to the term see A. Oepke, TDNT 5:866; also G. Braumann, NIDNTT 2:899-900.

328 On the meaning of parrhsiva (parrhsia) see also H. Schlier, TDNT 5:879-82; H.-C. Hahn, NIDNTT 2:736-37.

329 Cf. Marshall’s comment about “judgment by Christ, rather than…psychological feelings in his presence” (The Epistles of John, 166, n. 9).

330 Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, 135-36.

331 Cf. also Schnackenburg, who sees in the verb aijscunqw'men (aiscunqwmen, “shrink away…in shame”) a legal term which refers to objective conviction and condemnation rather than a psychological attitude of embarassment of someone who is summoned before a judge (The Johannine Epistles, 153).

332 See below for discussion of the antecedant of the pronoun translated “he” in v. 29: “The referent of the (understood) subject of ejstin (estin, “he is”) in 2:29a.”

333 See BDAG 246 s.v. divkaio 1.a.

334 See below for identification of Jesus Christ as the antecedant of the pronoun translated “he” in v. 29: “The referent of the (understood) subject of ejstin (estin, “he is”) in 2:29a.”

335 Brown, The Epistles of John, 383.

336 See BDAG 495 s.v. kaiv 2.

337 See the previous section “The referent of ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) in 2:28.”

338 See the next section, “The referent of aujtou' in 2:29b.”

339 Brown, The Epistles of John, 382.

340 See the discussion in the previous section.

341 Bultmann saw this as evidence of two disparate Joti (“that”) clauses taken from an original source and joined together clumsily by an editor (The Johannine Epistles, 45). Similarly, Schnackenburg saw the awkwardness in the verse as a result of the author’s decision to make use of already existing doctrinal formulations about Christ and God (The Johannine Epistles, 154-55). Against these types of explanations Marshall argues that the concept of spiritual regeneration as the work of God would have been so familiar to the author and his readers that it was possible to move easily from Jesus as the antecedent in 2:28-29a to God in 2:29b (The Epistles of John, 168, n. 13).

342 Cf. John 20:28, for example, where Thomas, no longer doubting, refers to the resurrected Jesus using titles (“Lord” and “God”) applied in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) to God the Father.

343 So BDAG 193 s.v. gennavw 1.a.

344 So BDAG 194 s.v. gennavw 2.

345 Smalley calls this use of the {ina-clause in 3:1 epexegetic, noting that “it explains the force of the preceding sentence” (1, 2, 3 John, 141). Brown uses the term “expexegetical” (The Epistles of John, 388). Wallace says the epexegetical use of {ina occurs “after a noun or adjective to explain or clarify that noun or adjective” (Exegetical Syntax, 476 [italics his]). In this case “love” is the noun that is further qualified.

346 The similar word used in 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, and 5:21 is teknivon, the diminutive form (“little children”).

347 Uses in 1 John are listed in the previous footnote. For further discussion of the phrase tevkna qeou' (tekna qeou, “children of God”) in 1 John see Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 122-24, and Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 68-69. Alan Culpepper argued that this phrase was in fact a self-designation of the Johannine community (“The Pivot of John’s Prologue,” NTS 27 [1980/81]: 1-31; esp. 25-26).

348 See further G. Fohrer, TDNT 8:344-45.

349 Unless, of course, this is the sole exception to the pattern in all 18 uses in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

350 So Stott (The Epistles of John, 118), Brown (The Epistles of John, 392), Smalley (1, 2, 3 John, 142), and Painter (1, 2, and 3 John, 218). In spite of the structural pattern discussed above which seems to me determinative, some interpreters still take the phrase diaV tou'to (dia touto) to refer to the first part of the verse: “for this reason (i.e., that we are God’s children) the world does not know us,” with the Joti-clause functioning as an additional explanation, “for it did not know him.” Among those holding this view are Haas, et al., (A Translator’s Handbook, 77), Houlden (A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 90), and Marshall (The Epistles of John, 171, n. 25).

351 Cf. Westcott, who saw the referent here as “God in Christ” (The Epistles of St. John, 97).

352 The grammatical term “anacoluthon” refers to a broken-off construction.

353 Brown, on the other hand, seems unable to decide here: “Perhaps all we can be certain of is that the author made two future clames without being clear on the relationship between them” (The Epistles of John, 396).

354 See the discussion of this phrase above.

355 So Haas, et al., A Translator’s Handbook, 78-79.

356 See the section “The referent of the (understood) subject of ejstin (estin, “he is”) in 2:29a.” above.

357 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 71.

358 Schnackenburg considered that in the Johannine writings there was a polemic against any direct “seeing” of God on earth, citing texts like John 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 14:8-9; 1 John 4:12 (The Johannine Epistles, 160). However, it is important to remember that the thrust of most of these passages is that for John, to see Jesus is to see God.

359 Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 49.

360 Cf. the parallel use of ejkei'no (ekeinos) to refer to Jesus in 2:6.

361 See the relevant sections at 3:1 and 3:2 above.

362 Brown states the hope here “probably refers back to the affirmation in 3:1…our hope for the future is based on what He has done in the past” (The Epistles of John, 397).

363 See Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, 135-37.

364 Cf. 1 John 2:6 again.

365 See also the section “The referent of ejkei'no in 2:6.”

366 Smalley comments that this statement is “deliberately aimed at the heretics in and around the Johannine community” (1, 2, 3 John, 153).

367 Cf. Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 49-50; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 176.

368 Some interpreters, of course, have argued that the author of 1 John mistakenly thought that the apocalyptic iniquity of the end times had already begun. This is a possible, but not a necessary, inference from his remarks.

369 Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 155. Brown also states, “the author is again appropriating the apocalyptic expectations of the final time to describe his opponents” (The Epistles of John, 400).

370 Smalley mentions the possibility that the phrase ejn aujtw'/ (en autw, “in him”) might refer to the Christian rather than to Christ himself – it is the person who is “in” Christ who can overcome sin. The idea that belonging to God through Christ frees the believer from sin is the theme of the entire section, and in fact the sinlessness of the Christian becomes the focus of the very next verse (3:6). However, Smalley concludes it is more likely that the phrase “in him there is no sin” is to be understood in its most obvious and natural sense as referring to Jesus himself (1, 2, 3 John, 157-58).

371 A. W. Argyle, “1 John iii. 4f,” ExpTim 65 (1953/54): 62-63.

372 Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 244.

373 That is, Jesus’ revelation of himself came at the point in time at which he became incarnate (cf. John 1:14). It is possible that the secessionist opponents were identifying this as the time when Jesus was baptized by John and the Spirit descended like a dove and remained on him (John 1:32-33). It is significant that the Fourth Gospel contains no infancy narrative like Matthew and Luke, and if the secessionist opponents were primarily dependent on the Fourth Gospel or its underlying traditions for information about the “Word become flesh,” they may well have connected this statement of the incarnation in John 1:14 with Jesus’ baptism by John.

374 For a comprehensive survey of the uses of the verb mevnw in 1 John and its implications for Johannine theology, see the discussion at 2:6.

375 See the sections “The referent of ejkei'no in 3:5.” and “The referent of aujtw'/ in 3:5” above.

376 In what amounts to a massive understatement, Brown comments, “It is difficult to anticipate the author’s mind. After ‘Everyone who abides in him does not commit sin’ one might have expected a perfect chiastic antithesis: ‘Everyone who does commit sin does not abide in him,’ reflecting a world where there is no middle ground. However, the author is harsher: the sinner not only does not abide in Christ; he has not even seen Christ!” (The Epistles of John, 403).

377 Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 82, §251.

378 Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the Greek New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1965) 151.

379 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 79; Zane C. Hodges, “1 John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament Edition (Wheaton: Victor, 1983) 894.

380 Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

381 See, for example, the section “The significance of the switch in tenses with the verb gravfw from the present to the aorist” at 2:12.

382 A different approach to the one we are suggesting here was advanced by H. C. Swadling, who argued that in 1 John 3:6, 9, and 5:18 the author is quoting and then commenting on the sayings of his opponents for polemical purposes (“Sin and Sinlessness in 1 John,” SJT 35 [1982]: 205-211). Thus the statements about sinlessness in these verses do not represent the author’s view at all, but that of his opponents, and the author’s teaching on sin in the Christian’s life is found in 1 John 1:8-2:2. While such a solution is ingenious, it is far from obvious in the context that the author is quoting the views of the opponents; the context does not appear to me to give sufficient clues to support such a reading.

383 Law, The Tests of Life, 226. C. H. Dodd also held that the content of these verses was to be understood in light of the controversy with the opponents in which the author found himself (The Johannine Epistles, 78-81). However, Dodd saw two different groups among the opponents, one which was complacent because they thought they had already attained sinless perfection (addressed in 1:8-2:2), and another group (addressed in 3:4-10) who believed that as long as they were “enlightened,” moral virtue was of no consequence. It seems preferable, though, to see only one group of opponents (the secessionists mentioned in 2:18-19) if a satisfactory explanation of all the evidence can be given under such a scenario.

384 Sakae Kubo, “I John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?” Andrews University Seminary Studies 7 (1969): 47-56.

385 Although it is not at all clear that any of the author’s opponents in 1 John had seen Jesus during his earthly ministry, or indeed were claiming to have done so.

386 In addition to 3:3, 4, 6, the construction occurs in 1 John 2:23, 29; 3:9, 10, 15.

387 Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 166.

388 See the section “The referent of tw'n planwvntwn (twn planwntwn, “those who are trying to deceive you”) in 2:26” for further discussion.

389 See the sections “The significance of the present tense of the verb aJmartavnei (Jamartanei, “[does not] sin”) in 3:6” and “The significance of the pa' oJ (pas Jo) + participle construction (used twice) in 3:6” above.

390 See also the section “The referent of ejkei'no in 2:6.”

391 Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 242.

392 Although Smalley states, “The person who in this sense ‘commits sin’ has the devil (rather than God) as a father (cf. John 8:44).” Smalley does go on to admit, however, that the phrase “is of the devil” may simply mean the individual “belongs” to the devil and his sinful activities “originate from the Satan” (1, 2, 3 John, 168).

393 Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 106.

394 So Brown, who states, “Since in Jewish thought the evil in Gen 4 was the continuation and cursed result of the evil in Gen 2–3, and since the epistolary author must have shared such an idea in order to associate Cain with the Evil One, it is most likely that by using ‘from the beginning’ the author is thinking of sin inspired by the devil in the whole compolex of Gen 1–4” (The Epistles of John, 406).

395 See the section “The referent of ejn touvtw/ (en toutw, “by this”) in 2:3” above.

396 On “Son of God” see further O. Michel and I. H. Marshall, NIDNTT 3:645-47; I. Howard Marshall, “The Divine Sonship of Jesus,” Int 21 (1967): 87-103; more generally, Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (trans. J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).

397 See the section “The time of the action described by ejfanerwvqh (efanerwqh, “was revealed”)” above and compare John 1:31.

398 See BDAG 607 s.v. luvw 4 and F. Büchsel, TDNT 4:336.

399 Dodd notes, “It is all very plain black-and-white. It had to be made so, if the readers were to be sufficiently warned against the dangers of sophistication. Sophistry can as easily prove that evil is an aspect of good as that error is an aspect of truth. But truth and falsehood, good and evil, right and wrong, God and the devil, are irreconcilable opposites. True religion means belonging to God, and therefore it means standing on the side of truth and goodness, to the exclusion of their opposites” (The Johannine Epistles, 73).

400 Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 170.

401 See the section “The significance of the ejkejstivn (ekestin, “is of”) phrase in 3:8a” above.

402 See the section “The significance of the present tense of the verb aJmartavnei (Jamartanei, “[does not] sin”) in 3:6” above.

403 See the section “The meaning of gegevnnhtai (gegennhtai, “fathered”) in 2:29” above.

404 See Sakae Kubo, “I John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?” Andrews University Seminary Studies 7 (1969): 47-56, for a fuller discussion of the author’s argument as based on a sharp antithesis between the readers (true Christians) and the opponents (heretics).

405 Cf. 1 John 2:19, “they did not really belong to us.”

406 Cf. BDAG 937 s.v. spevrma 1.b, which gives the meaning as “male seed or semen,” though BDAG classifies this use in 1 John 3:9 under the following category 3, “genetic character, nature, disposition, character” but giving a variety of referents by different interpreters.

407 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 75. In response it could be said that Dodd’s objections are not very serious ones, although most commentators have agreed with him in rejecting the view.

408 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 186.

409 Marshall himself admitted that if the agricultural metaphor is pressed, the believer “becomes merely the soil in which the plant of eternal life grows” (The Epistles of John, 186, n. 37).

410 No less than six possibilities are listed by J. du Preez (“‘Sperma autou’ in 1 John 3:9,” Neot 9 [1975]: 105-12). In the end, du Preez himself argues that the phrase refers to the believer’s new life in Christ, a fairly general interpretation.

411 So Dodd, who saw the phrase referring to the word of God, or “the gospel” (The Johannine Epistles, 77-78), and Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 248.

412 But as Brown notes, there are other places in the NT where such a connection is possible; he lists James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23 among the closer connections (The Epistles of John, 410).

413 Smalley combined this with the previous view, seeing the expression spevrma aujtou' (sperma autou) against both a Jewish and a Christian background, in which the phrase refers to the word of God received in faith by the Christian and leading through the inward activity of the Spirit to rebirth and spiritual growth toward holiness (1, 2, 3 John, 173-74).

414 Brown states “Yet overall I think the evidence favors identifying God’s seed with the Spirit rather than with His word. But in the long run the exact identification is not so important, so long as we recognize that the author is talking about a divine agency for begetting God’s children, which not only brings us into being but also remains and keeps us His children” (The Epistles of John, 411). Cf. also Schnackenburg, “‘God’s seed’ can hardly mean anything other than the Holy Spirit” (The Johannine Epistles, 175).

415 Dodd holds a variation of this view which sees the same heterodox teaching by the opponents producing different types of behavior among the secessionists: “The heretical teaching might have different effects upon its adherents. Some of them were led to assume that, being ‘enlightened,’ they were already perfect in virtue. Others thought it did not matter whether they were virtuous or not, provided they were ‘enlightened.’ The complacency of the former was castigated in i. 8-10. The moral indifference of the latter is in view in our present passage” (The Johannine Epistles, 80).

416 Brown himself appears close to holding this view: “a partial explanation is that here the author is speaking in the eschatological context of the last hour when in Jewish apocalyptic it was believed that God would prepare a sinless generation in the great struggle with evil…Thus both sides of the Johannine schism would have been contending that Christians do not commit sin” (The Epistles of John, 430).

417 See the section “The meaning of the reference to “the last hour” (ejscavth w{ra, escath Jwra) in 2:18” above.

418 Compare the term ponhrou' [ponhrou] in 1 John 3:12a used to describe Satan, referred to earlier as oJ diavbolo [Jo diabolos, “the devil”] in 3:7, 8, and 10.

419 Presumably, in context, this means they believed him to be the Messiah – but Messiah as they conceived him, possibly an agent of political upheaval or reform. Thus the issue is not the genuineness or non-genuineness of their faith, but the specific content assigned to their faith.

420 Literally, “my word finds no place in you (plural).”

421 See, for example, Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 178.

422 See further Schnackenburg, who lists more examples from intertestamental literature and from Qumran (The Johannine Epistles, 176-77). T. Dan = Testament of Dan, one of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, examples of Jewish intertestamental literature. Another example is the book of Jubilees, a free retelling of the Genesis narrative with special emphasis on chronology.

423 Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 180.

424 Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 108-9.

425 See the section “The referent of ejn touvtw/ (en toutw, “by this”) in 2:3” above.

426 Brown, The Epistles of John, 416.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life