Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE EPISTLES OF
JOHN. The Epistles of St. John. BY THE VEN. W. M. SINCLAIR, M.A., D.D.,
The Epistles of St. John.
THE VEN. W. M. SINCLAIR, M.A., D.D.,
Archdeacon of London.
INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EPISTLE GENERAL OF JOHN.
THE FIRST EPISTLE GENERAL OF JOHN.
I.WHO WAS THE WRITER?
II.WHO WERE THE READERS?
III.WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CHURCHES?
IV.IS THE WRITING AN EPISTLE?
V.WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN?
VI.WHERE WAS IT WRITTEN?
VII.WHAT IS ITS SCOPE?
VIII.NOTES ON DIFFICULT PASSAGES.
I. Who was the Writer?—Three Epistles come before us in the New Testament bearing a very strong family likeness to each other and to the Fourth Gospel. They carry no superscription in their text, but “the elder,” or “the old man.” Whose are they? The manuscripts from which they are derived have always said “John’s,” and in some is added “the Apostle.”
We will here consider the First. The Second and Third will be treated separately. The evidence for the First is as strong as anything could be. It was accepted as the Apostle’s by the whole Church. Eusebius, the historian (born about A.D. 270), places it among the writings “universally admitted (homologoumena)”; and Jerome states that it received the sanction of all members of the Church. The only exceptions were such sects of heretics as would be likely to repudiate it as not harmonising with their theological errors: the Alogi, or “Unreasonables,” an obscure and rather doubtful sect in the second century, who rejected St. John’s Gospel and the Revelation, and therefore, probably, these three Epistles; and Marcion, in the same century, who chose such parts of the New Testament as suited him best, and altered them at pleasure.
The evidence of quotation and reference begins early. Polycarp, the disciple of St. John, became a Christian A.D. 83. In the epistle which he wrote to the Philippians, occur these words: “For every one that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist.” The likeness to 1John 4:2-3, is marked; and it is far more probable that a loosely written letter, such as his, should embody a well-known saying of so sententious and closely worded a treatise as the First Epistle of John than the other way.
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, flourished in the first half of the second century. Irenæus, who was born about the end of the first century, says that he was a hearer of St. John. This is contradicted by Eusebius on the evidence of Papias’ own writings (H.E. III. 39, 1, 2); but he wrote a work called, An Explanation of the Oracles of the Lord, in which he bore witness to the authenticity of Christian doctrine. The account of his work is derived from Eusebius, the historian, who says that “he used testimonies from the First Epistle of John.” By balancing the name of St. John in this sentence with that of St. Peter, Eusebius evidently understood the Apostle.
About A.D. 100 was born Justin Martyr. In his time was written the anonymous epistle to Diognetus. Six of its chapters contain indisputable reminiscences of the First Epistle. The epistle of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons was written in A.D. 177. It quotes 1John 3:16. Carpocrates, the Gnostic, lived at Alexandria at the beginning of the second century. He tried to pervert 1John 5:19, “The whole world lieth in the evil one.” Irenæus cites three passages from the First Epistle, mentioning its author; and Eusebius mentions this piece of evidence in, exactly the same manner as that from Papias. Clement of Alexandria was born about A.D. 150. Like Irenæus, he quotes passages from the First Epistle, naming the author. So Tertullian, born about the same time, Origen, and the succeeding Fathers. About A.D. 170, a Canon of the New Testament was drawn up by some teacher for the use of catechumens. This is now known by the name of Muratori, who discovered and printed it A.D. 1740. (See Tregelles’ Canon Muratorianus, pages 1, 81-89: Oxford, 1867.) “What wonder,” it says, “that St. John makes so many references to the Fourth Gospel in his Epistles, saying of himself, ‘that which we have seen with our eyes, and have heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written’? for thus he professes himself not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer and the writer of all the wonders of the Lord in order.” And, after cataloguing St. Paul’s Epistles, it continues: “The Epistle of Jude, and the two which bear the name of John as a title, are considered General.” The writer evidently means the Second and Third Epistles, which might not have been considered general from their shortness and slightness. The Peschito, or Syrian version, of about the same date, gives the same evidence as the Muratorian Canon. We have thus a consentient voice from the churches of East and West, of Syria, of Alexandria, of Africa, and of Gaul.
So strong, so clear, is the external proof. On the internal, nothing can be better than the words of Ewald. “As in the Gospel, we see here the author retire to the background, unwilling to speak of himself, and still less to support anything by the weight of his name and reputation, although the reader here meets him, not as the calm narrator, but as an epistolary writer, as exhorter and teacher, as an Apostle, and, moreover, as the only surviving Apostle. It is the same delicacy and diffidence, the same lofty calmness and composure, and especially the same truly Christian modesty, that cause him to retire to the background as an Apostle, and to say altogether so little of himself. He only desires to counsel and warn, and to remind his readers of the sublime truth they have once acquired; and the higher he stands the less he is disposed to humble ‘the brethren’ by his great authority and directions. But he knew who he was, and every word tells plainly that he only could thus speak, counsel, and warn. The unique consciousness which an Apostle as he grew older could carry within himself, and which he, once the favourite disciple, had in a peculiar measure; the calm superiority, clearness, and decision in thinking on Christian subjects; the rich experience of a long life, steeled in the victorious struggle with every unchristian element; and a glowing language lying concealed under this calmness, which makes us feel intuitively that it does not in vain commend to us love as the highest attainment of Christianity—all this coincides so remarkably in this Epistle, that every reader of that period, probably without any further intimation, might readily determine who he was. But where the connection required it the author intimates with manifest plainness that he stood in the nearest possible relations to Jesus (1John 1:1-3; 1John 4:16; 1John 5:3-6), precisely as he is wont to express himself in similar circumstances in the Gospel; and all this is so artless and simple, so entirely without the faintest trace of imitation in either case, that nobody can fail to perceive that the self-same author and Apostle must have composed both writings” (Ewald, Die Johann. Schriften, i. 431).
No less than thirty-five passages of the Fourth Gospel are common to the First Epistle. These expressions occur in twenty-three different places, and are used in a way of which only the author of the same two treatises could be capable. Considerably more than half of the parallel places in the Gospel belong to the farewell discourses of John 12-17. There the tender, loving, receptive, truthful, retentive mind of the bosom-friend had been particularly necessary; at that great crisis it had been, through the Spirit of God, particularly strong; and the more faithfully St. John had listened to his Master and reproduced Him, the deeper the impression was which the words made on his own mind, and the more likely he was to dwell on them in another work instead of on his own thoughts and words. The style may be his own both in Gospels and Epistles, modified by that of our Lord; the thoughts are the thoughts of Jesus. (See Vol. I., pp. 557 and 558.) An examination of the following parallels will illustrate this:
First Epistle of John.
Gospel of John.
1John ii 23.
The proof that the Fourth Gospel was the work of St. John is given in the Introduction to that Gospel, in the first volume. On internal grounds alone, without the strong external evidence already sketched, an unbiassed mind would find it very difficult to believe that the First Epistle (and the Second and Third also) are not by the same author. Even the style and construction have an identity which could not easily be spurious or accidental. This is seen in the habit of thinking in periods the limbs of which are parallel and co-ordinate instead of progressive: the juncture of these by “and” instead of by particles, expressing consequence or movement: the peculiar use of four special particles: the general Aramaic framework of the diction: and the constant reappearance of special words and phrases. The identity of ideas in both writings is of the same character; they bear no sign of imitation, but are the free production of the same spirit. Light, life, darkness, truth, the lie, propitiation, doing righteousness, doing sin, doing lawlessness, life and death, loving and hating, love of the Father and love of the world, children of God and children of the devil, the spirit of truth and the spirit of error: all these notions underlie the thought of both Gospel and Epistle. The writer of each, too, has the same characteristics: love of the background for himself; absorbing devotion to his Lord; faithful receptiveness and faculty for sympathetic reproduction of His thoughts and spirit; pure unruffled, unfaltering movement among the very inmost facts of life and being; intense unhesitating indignation (like thunder from a clear sky) for wilful depravers of spiritual truth; and the absolute tranquility of that certainty which comes from long conviction and demonstrable experience. So, again, the particular dogmatic notes of each are the same: the Spirit already marking off the true from false believers, and so preparing the way for the final judgment; the manifestation of the sons of God already by the presence of the Father and the Son in the Spirit; the actual present beginning of everlasting life, and the safety from future judgment; the present existence of the last hour; Christ the actual Paraclete, the Divine Spirit being another. It would, indeed, be difficult to find a more structural and penetrating identity between the works of any author whatever than there is between the Gospel and the First Epistle.
It was Scaliger (1484-1558) who first announced “the three Epistles of John are not by the Apostle of that name.” The tradition mentioned by Eusebius that there was living at Ephesus at the same time as St. John a presbyter of the same name, to whom great weight was attributed because he was a hearer of our Lord, seems to have given rise to the notion that “the elder” of the three Epistles was this traditional person. Those who take this view are guilty of the fallacy that if this man existed he must have had all the characteristics of the Apostle because he had his name and was contemporary. It is far more probable that the beginning of the three Epistles gave rise among the ignorant to the tradition.
In modern times, S. G. Lange was the first who questioned the Epistle on internal grounds. His argument rests on the assumption that it is destitute of all characteristic individuality and personality; that the affinity of the Epistle to the Gospel is an imitation; that the Epistle exhibits marks of senile decay; and that if it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem mention must have been made of it in 1John 2:18. Few sound critics will think these assumptions worth refutation. The next opponent, Bretschneider, lived to recant his doubts. The unreasonableness of Claudius, Horst, and Paulus is even more arbitrary, imaginative, and groundless than that of Lange.
The Tübingen school have a preconception of their own to support. As, according to them, there can be no miracle, so there can be no direct revelation; the beginning of Christianity must have been the natural consciousness of an individual, such as Jesus of Nazareth, developing gradually through a much longer period than the accepted Christian history; they hold that Christ only slightly modified Judaism; that in the hands of St. Peter and of St. John in the Apocalypse, His teaching took an Ebionite form, in the hands of St. Paul was adapted to the Gentile world at large; thence arose contentions, in reconciliation of which the greater part of the writings of the New Testament were composed, as party-writings without strict historical value. The Epistle is therefore treated by different members of the school as it will best suit their special theory. Köstlin and Georgii think the author of the Gospel the same as of the Epistle; Zeller supposes it possible that they may be by different hands. Baur pronounces the Epistle a weak imitation of the Gospel; Hilgenfeld a splendid product of it. Thus they contradict each other. The main arguments of Baur are five, and may be given as a specimen:—(1) Studious anxiety of the writer of the Epistle in his preface to be considered the same as the author of the Gospel; (2) vain attempt at drawing a distinction between divine and human testimony; (3) the eschatology of the Epistle more material than that of the Gospel; (4) the ideas of propitiation and Christ the interceding Paraclete more like the Epistle to the Hebrews than the Gospel; (5) the teaching wholly Montanistic, because it describes Christians as holy and sinless, mentions the anointing, and draws a distinction between venial and mortal sins. Of these it may be shortly said (1) that an imitation would have been more skilful, and that the intense consciousness of the eye-witness would necessarily produce the same line of thought when St. John was prefacing his moral treatise as when he was writing his history; (2) that the distinction runs throughout the Gospel; (3) to a candid reader the difference is impossible to discover; (4) no expression could be more sacrificial than “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world;” (5) St. John is describing the ideal, not a class: the anointing is most certainly not that in baptism, mentioned for the first time by Tertullian, but that of “pouring out the Spirit:” and there is no reference whatever to the six or seven deadly sins of Tertullian, while there is a very distinct similarity between the idea of the sin unto death and the sin against the Holy Ghost of the Gospels. Baur, in fact, as Düsterdieck says, has taken the Gnostic and Montanistic caricatures of the Apostolical teaching as if they were its type and origin.
The Epistle, then, has abundant historical evidence; the internal evidence that it is by the same hand as the Fourth Gospel is particularly strong; and the attacks of hostile critics are peculiarly arbitrary and unfounded.
II. Who were the Headers?—There is in St. Augustine’s works—and he often quotes this Epistle—a solitary citation of it as written to the Parthians. Whether this was his own opinion, a mere current traditional title, or a clerical error, the designation seems to have arisen from the fact mentioned by Clement of Alexandria that the Second Epistle was sometimes called “that to the virgins” (the word in the Greek for “virgin” being parthenos). This title evidently became misunderstood, and may have been applied to the First Epistle in error. One critic has discovered in “that which ye heard from the beginning” a proof that the readers were the inhabitants of Judæa; another, identifying St. John’s correspondent Caius with St. Paul’s host at Corinth (it was one of the commonest of all classical names), fancies that they must have been Corinthians; but it was evidently written to no church in particular: probably to a circle of churches in immediate connection with St. John, such as the seven addressed in the Revelation. The warning against idolatry may not unreasonably suggest Gentile Christians, and the contrast of the knowledge of the true God in Jesus Christ, implying eternal life, with the dazzling speculations of innovating teachers, harmonises with the historical notice that St. John resided at Ephesus.
III. What were the Circumstances of the Churches?—(1) There is no allusion to persecutions. The hatred of the world, the victory over the wicked one, the victory over the world, suggest spiritual conflict rather than hostile attacks.
(2) The internal indications point rather to disunion, want of brotherly love, want of steadfastness in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, the seductions of worldliness, the snares of false brethren, the evils of a time of peace, when persecution no longer braces the sinews of faith, and warning is needed rather than consolation; or when perversion has lost the moral shock of novelty and Christian loyalty the fire of its indignation; a time full of evidence of continued spiritual vitality in old and young, but also when a recognised leader of a church can be so ambitious as to reject the authority of the last of the Apostles, and when heathen speculation rather than Jewish prejudice is beginning to corrupt Christian faith.
(3) The particular heretics combated had a Docetic tendency, not yet fully developed. Their theory was that the Son of God was a phantom, united for a time with the man Jesus. St. John’s contemporary, Cerinthus, already noticed in the Introduction to his Gospel, held that Jesus was the son of Joseph, to whom the Logos was united from His baptism to His crucifixion. The stress laid on the true knowledge as growth in understanding what had been revealed from the beginning, points also to the beginning of Gnosticism, the system which exalted speculation into religion, buried Christianity under a heterogeneous philosophy, and (4) substituted intellectual athletics for faith working by love.
(4) The only division of Christians recognised is that into mature and young. All alike receive the unction of the Holy Ghost. John himself joins in the confession of sin. He lays on all the duty of trying the spirits. He makes all alike responsible directly to the Lord.
IV. Is the Writing an Epistle?—As an Encyclical Letter, it would have no special dedication nor salutations; the Epistle to the Hebrews is similarly without the one, that of St. James without the other. “I write” occurs seven times, “I have written” six, “you” thirty-six, “little children” ten, “beloved” six, “fathers” and “young men” twice each, “brethren” once. The introduction is an amplification of the ordinary epistolary address, founded on a reminiscence of the more abstract introduction to the Gospel. Bacon says: “An Epistle has more natural feeling than a treatise; more ripe development than momentary conversation.” Düsterdieck says: “The whole writing rests as thoroughly on a living personal relation between the author and his readers, the application of the written exhortation is so absolutely personal, that this ground is enough to make us consider the writing as a genuine Epistle. This epistolary character belongs, moreover, to the whole keeping and character of the short writing. With all logical order there reigns in it that easy naturalness and unconstraint of statement which suits the immediate interest and hortatory tendency of an Epistle; while the strict, progressive, dialectical development, peculiar to a treatise or a homily, is held back.” It may be described, then, as a circular letter of St. John to the churches connected with his ministry, embodying a succinct statement of his principal views of Christian doctrine. There is no good reason for calling it either with one critic, the “polemical,” or, with another, the “practical” part of the Gospel; or “a homiletical essay, the readers being present;” or “a summary,” or “a companion letter of the Gospel.”
V. When was it written?—(1) As it contains no reference to persecutions, it is less likely to have been written in the time of Trajan (A.D. 98-117); probably before the end of the reign of Domitian, A.D. 96; after the reign of Nero and the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70. Thus we get the period between A.D. 70 and 96. A date near 70 is less likely, because the breaking up of the Jewish world would have made some reference of the kind probable. “The last hour” is a note of spiritual, not material time.
(2) Jewish opposition no longer troubles the apostolic horizon.
(3) The life of individual churches apart from Jerusalem seems by this time the natural order of the Christian world.
(4) The heresies are the seeds of Docetism and Gnosticism: this points to the end of the first century.
(5) St. John is not mentioned in the Acts after the Jerusalem Council of A.D. 51. But he does not seem to have been at Ephesus when St. Paul took leave of the elders in A.D. 60. (See Vol. I., Introduction to the Gospel, p. 371.) If St. Paul died in A.D. 64, St. John can hardly have begun working at Ephesus till then. The tone of the Epistle implies a long and ripe pastoral intimacy. St. John was banished to Patmos before the end of the reign of Domitian, A.D. 96. He died after A.D. 100.
(6) It must always be a matter of opinion whether the Gospel or Epistle was written first. It may be that a comparison of John 20:31, “These things are written that ye might believe,” with 1John 5:13, “These things have I written unto you that believe,” indicates an earlier and more elementary object for the Gospel; but it cannot be pressed. It is certainly likely that the doctrinal chords struck in the Narrative should afterwards receive their fuller variations in the Exhortation. It may even be that some of the churches or their members, aroused by these solemn notes, asked St. John for a doctrinal writing.
(7) On the whole, there is no improbability in putting the date about A.D. 90.
VI. Where was it written?—On such a point as this we are left to groundless conjecture, which is useless. An old tradition mentions Ephesus.
VII. What is its Scope?—That the joy which Christians already had might not be dimmed by the world or by error, but might be crowned with completeness even in this life (1John 1:4), and that they might realise the assurance of the actual beginning of eternal life within them.
For this purpose God is held up as Light and Love, both through Jesus Christ. By that exercise of their will, which would make them remain in Christ as they knew Him, both by hearing and by their consciences, they would enjoy the serene dignity of companionship with the Almighty Father and His Son, and so secure these two grand objects.
Christians, looked at in the ideal, cannot be wilful sinners; but when betrayed into sin, they may recover through confession and reconciliation. The proof of the Christian life must be sought in obedience to the will of God, showing itself specially in true brotherly love. The chief dangers are the world and the depravation of Christian doctrine.
The light of God is shown in the absolute distinctness from Him of everything that is evil.
The love of God is shown in that sonship of Christians which is manifested by personal righteousness. Its correlative in us is love to God, shown in pure love for one another. The purity of love is measured by the purity of faith. And that faith is irrefragably grounded in the witness of the Old Testament through the Father, culminating in the inauguration of baptism; in the witness of the New Testament through the Son, culminating in the blood of Calvary; and in the witness of the Spirit speaking through our own consciences.
Christians cannot be reminded too often that their religious life is a matter of positive, demonstrable, realised facts, to be completed by earnest continual progress. They are already in the Father and in the Son; they have eternal life begun within them; they have passed from death unto life; they have the witness of the Spirit. If they are in doubt, they can prove the truth of their life by obedience to God and love to the human family. For those in sin or error they can pray. The sight of the world and the knowledge of the Redeemer make it finally most important that they should hold to the faith in the utmost simplicity, and avoid all substitution of shadow for substance.
St. Paul writes now in a storm of argument, then in a humble strain of self-forgetful, self-abasing expostulation and entreaty; now eloquently on high abstract truths, now in exquisite descriptions, then about the homeliest and simplest duties. St. John moves in a calm sphere of certainty among the very highest, grandest, and largest of Christian truths, raising the general outlines of human life into the same atmosphere till they are illuminated and penetrated by the clear rays of Light and Love. All is simple, broad, clear, calm, sure. He writes at once with the most commanding authority, and the most loving tenderness; the profoundest wisdom, and the most touching simplicity; the most searching knowledge of the human heart and its difficulties and failures, and the most elevating and bracing courage and confidence; the gentlest affection, and the most pitiless and sternest condemnation of wilful departure from truth in practice or opinion.
It is noticeable that in a treatise on the very innermost secrets of religious life, to all Christian souls are attributed the same duties and privileges, and no mention is made of ministerial authority or responsibility; and that, though fellowship with the Father and the Son and the witness of the water and the blood are both brought into prominence, no allusion is made to sacraments.
VIII. Notes on Difficult Passages.
“He is the propitiation for our sins” (1John 2:2).
“Sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1John 4:10).
In classical Greek the verbal form means “to make a person favourable.”
From these facts it is clear that Christ is regarded as making God favourable to us. The word “reconciliation” introduces another idea, and should be kept for another Greek word, which occurs in 2Corinthians 5:18-19; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20. Although God is kind to the unthankful and the evil, yet for the sake of eternal Order and Righteousness He is represented to us as unable to pass over rebellion without punishment, as a warning and a security as well as a discipline. In this sense He could not look favourably on the world until His Son had bought it back by becoming sin for us. Thus He is the sacrifice on behalf of the sins of the whole world, which enables the Father, whose name is Love, to show the full scope of His favour. Divine love then can have its perfect operation in reconciling man, or bringing him back. Expiation appeases that wrath, without which God would not be just; Reconciliation breaks down the enmity of man in his state of sin.
(2) Brotherly love.
The unflinching truthfulness and courage of St. John are nowhere more remarkable than in the pertinacity with which, amongst the perversions of human affection which are the blot of all societies, and were especially flagrant in the ancient world, he urges his friends to brotherly love. Love is the fulfilling of the law, the proof of union with God, the sign of having passed from death unto life, the great commandment of Christ, the outcome of birth from God, the witness of God’s presence, the perfection and crown of our love to Him: the absence of it is the mark of spiritual death. It is that desire for the good of others, temporal and eternal, without which self-denial and self-sacrifice are but barren pride. Like St. Paul, it knows no man after the flesh—that is, for mere fancy, pleasure, or advantage—but is the instant recognition of merit and of God’s good gifts wherever they may present themselves. Founded on faith and measured by it, it is absolutely pure and unselfish; it would lay down life itself for the good of others. And because it is that attitude of the human mind towards its fellows which is the reflex. of God’s mind towards us. it embraces and implies all human virtues.
(3) The last hour (1John 2:18).
This phraseology occurs first in Genesis 49:1, “That I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days”; where it means “the sequel of days,” “far-off times.” So Numbers 24:14, “What this people shall do to thy people in the latter days;” Deuteronomy 4:30, “When all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days;” and Deuteronomy 31:29, “Evil will befall you in the latter days.”
In Isaiah 2:2, it has begun to mean the new age of the world; a vague indefinite time, during which, or before which, Messiah’s kingdom would be established. “It shall come to pass that in the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established.” So Micah 4:1.
In Matthew 12:32, our Lord distinguishes between this world (or rather, age) and the world to come. So “this time” is contrasted with “the world to come” in Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30. In our Lord’s usage, then, the beginning of the kingdom of Messiah belonged to the present age, and the coming age would not be till the completion of that kingdom. So the day of resurrection and final judgment, the beginning, that is, of the coming age, is “the last day” of the present (John 6:39-40; John 6:44; John 6:54; John 11:24; John 12:48).
St. Paul also speaks of the present age and the coming, the sufferings of the present time and the glory that shall be, and of things present and things to come (Romans 8:38). In Titus 2:12-13, those who live “in this present world” are “looking for the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour.” He says that “in the last days” before that final period there “shall come perilous times” (2Timothy 3:1); and that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (1Timothy 4:1). Although actually in this present age, yet, according to St. Paul, Christians have more or less entered on the coming age proportionally to their degrees of progress. So the present age is regarded as tainted with sin and alienated from God (Romans 12:2; 1Corinthians 2:6; 1Corinthians 2:8; 1Corinthians 3:18; 2Corinthians 4:4; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:2 : 2Timothy 4:10). Since the first advent of Christ, he regarded the present age as beginning to draw to its close; “our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1Corinthians 10:11).
St. Peter identified his age with the “last days” of the prophets (Acts 2:17), and considers the date of the first advent as “in these last times” (1Peter 1:20). But as a few verses before (1Peter 1:5), he speaks of “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”; and again (2Peter 3:3), “There shall come in the last days scoffers” (comp. Jude 1:18), he evidently looked to a still more definite close of the already closing age.
St. James, too, looked forward to such a period: “Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days” (James 5:3). The Epistle to the Hebrews, like the first usage in St. Peter, treats the existing times as “these last days” (Hebrews 1:1-2); “now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). As well as this, it looks forward to the future age of which Christians already, in varying degrees, partake: “Have tasted the powers of the world to come” (Hebrews 6:5); “Christ being come an high priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11). This tasting is only a beginning, not an actuality, till the second coming (Hebrews 13:14).
St. John, then, having, like the other Apostles, the notion that the first age was drawing to its close, and that the latter days were already upon the earth, and believing—or, at the very least, firmly hoping—that the second advent was not far off, did not hesitate, especially in view of Matthew 24:22; Matthew 24:24, to speak of the time of his old age as “the last hour.” Of the date of the second coming even the Son was to be ignorant; but at any rate, since the death of the last of the Apostles, and the closing of the Canon, there has been no change in the Christian dispensation, it has been a constant repetition of repentance, forgiveness, watching.
“As ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists” (1John 2:18).
“He is the antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1John 2:22).
“Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come: and even now already is it in the world” (1John 4:3).
“For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2John 1:7).
Our Lord foretold false Christs and false prophets, who “shall show great signs and wonders: insomuch that if it were possible they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:11; Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22-23).
St. Paul spoke of the growth of the antichristian “lie,” especially in the cities of Asia Minor. “After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30; and 2Timothy 3:1-9). These would be but anticipations of that concentrated force of opposition for which St. Paul looked immediately before the second coming. “For that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped: so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God . . . Then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved”(2Thessalonians 2:3-10).
St. John meant by the antichrists what St. Paul meant by the grievous wolves; the individual manifestations of “the spirit of antichrist,” which St. Paul describes as “he whose coming is in them that perish.” There is a difference, however, in the application of the idea, for the opposer in St. Paul’s view is rather from without, St. John’s principle of evil rather from within. Just as St. John noticed the same tendencies showing themselves in the same way in different individuals, and called them spirits, so in looking forward to a more formidable and final apostasy, he calls it “the spirit of antichrist,” which has already declared itself in so many personal antichrists. St. Paul’s “man of sin” must be of the same spiritual character, for no human being could ever be powerful and dangerous enough to answer the description.
(5) The three witnesses (1John 5:7-8).
The authority for the words, “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one; and there are three who bear witness in the earth,” is a copy made in the sixteenth century, of Codex 173, which dates from the eleventh.
The words are wanting in all the Greek Codices, including the Codex Sinaiticus, and in all the ancient versions, including the Latin, as late as the eighth century. Since then they are found in three variations. Had they been known, they must have been quoted in the controversies about the Trinity; but they are not cited by any Greek or any of the older Latin Fathers. A quotation from Tertullian (adv. Prax. 25) and a parallel quotation from Cyprian (Ep. ad Jub.), where each is establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, refer to John 10:20; John 16:5; and another from Cyprian (de Unit. Eccl. p. 79) refers to 1John 5:8, where the spirit, the water, and the blood, were interpreted patristically as direct symbols of the Trinity.
The words probably crept into the text gradually from Greek notes on the passage, and from the expression of Cyprian, which would be placed alongside to show how he interpreted St. John’s meaning. The second place in Cyprian runs thus: “The Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’; and again, concerning the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is written: ‘And these three are one.’“
Their first appearance is in a work ascribed to Vigilius, of Thapsus, at the close of the fifth century. They afterwards occur in Latin translations. They first appeared in print in the earliest Greek edition, the Complutensian, published A.D. 1522. (See Vol. I., p. xviii., and Dr. Scrivener’s Introduction to the Critical Study of the New Testament, on this passage.)
Erasmus at first refused them, but at last yielded to pressure, when he heard that they were in the Codex Britannicus. But that manuscript is only of the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Stephanus, Beza, and the Textus Receptus followed his lead. Luther never translated them; in his first commentary he pronounced them spurious, in his second he commented on them. We owe them solely to the reluctant deference paid by Erasmus to unlearned current opinion. There is hardly a passage in all literature more demonstrably spurious.
On the internal evidence, after such adverse criticism, it is hardly necessary to speak, but it may be well to quote Sir Isaac Newton. After writing of the fulness and strength of the argument as it stands, without the inserted words, he says: “If you insert the testimony of the three in heaven, you spoil it, for the whole design of the Apostle being here to prove to men by witness the truth of Christ’s coming, I would ask how the testimony of the ‘three in heaven’ makes to this purpose? If their testimony be not given to men, how does it prove to them the truth of Christ’s coming? If it be, how is the testimony in heaven distinguished from that on earth? It is the same Spirit which witnesses both in heaven and in earth. If in both cases it witnesses to us men, wherein lies the difference between its witnessing in heaven and its witnessing in earth? If in the first case it does not witness to them, to whom does it witness? And to what purpose? And how does its witnessing make to the design of St. John’s discourse? Let them make good sense of it who are able; for my part, I can make none.” (Paraphrastic exposition.)
IX. Literature.—I am indebted chiefly to Dr. Karl Braune, The Epistles General of John, in Dr. J. P. Lange’s series (an English Translation is published by T. and T.Clark, Edinburgh); to Dr. H. A. Ebrard’s Die Briefe Johannes, Königsberg, 1859 (an English translation was published by T. and T. Clark in 1860); and to Dr. Friedrich Lücke’s Commentar über die Briefe des Evangelisten Johannis, Bonn, 1836 (an English translation was published by T. and T. Clark in 1837). Perhaps the best authority of all is Erich Haupt, Der Erste Brief des Johannes, Colberg, 1870; London, Williams and Norgate. There are also Dr. J. E. Huther’s Handbuch über die Drei Briefe des Apostel Johannes, 3rd Edition, Göttingen, 1868, in Meyer; De Wette in his Commentary on the New Testament; and Düsterdieck’s Die Drei Johanneischen Briefe, Göttingen, 1852-54.
Of the Greek commentaries, those of Diodorus of Tarsus and Chrysostom have been lost; a few fragments remain from Clement of Alexandria, a few more from Didymus of Alexandria. Catenœ have been preserved from Oecumenius, Theophylact, and two Scholiasts.
Among Latins, an Expositio remains by Augustine, and one by Bede. The epistle was also commented on by Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Zwingli, and Bullinger. Calovius, Grotius, and Bengel are often quoted in modern editions.
Besides the commentaries of Wordsworth and Alford should be mentioned A. Neander’s, The First Epistle of John practically explained, Berlin, 1851 (translated by Mrs. Conant, New York, 1853), and F. D. Maurice’s, The Epistles of John: Lectures on Christian Ethics, Macmillan, 1867; also the able but posthumous edition of W. E. Jelf.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;[1.The Exordium (1John 1:1-4).
(1)OBJECT AND PURPOSE OF THE APOSTOLIC PREACHING: The setting forth of the historical Christ for the spread of human fellowship with the Father and the Son (1John 1:1-3).
(2)DESIGN OF THE EPISTLE: Fulness of joy for those who should read it (1John 1:4).]
(1) That which was from the beginning.—The profound emotion, the hearty sympathy, the tender anxiety which St. John feels as he begins his counsels to his friends, mark off this introduction very distinctly from the parallel passage in the Gospel. There it was calm contemplation of the height and depth of Christ’s existence; here he vehemently insists on the personal relation between the Word and those to whom He had been revealed.
As in the Gospel, he starts with the grandeur of an indefiniteness beyond which no eye can pierce: At the beginning of all that concerns us, be it world or universe or all creation, there was——that which we are announcing. “That which,” not “Him who,” because it is not merely the Person of Christ which he is going to declare, but also His Being, all that relates to Him, His gospel, the treasures of wisdom that lay in Him, His truth, all that could be known about Him by human ken.
The vibrating eloquence of the passage makes the construction at first sight obscure. But take “that declare we unto you” (1John 1:3) as the principal verb, set aside 1John 1:2 as a parenthesis, notice the rising climax of 1John 1:1 (heard, seen, looked upon, handled), pause at the end of 1John 1:1 to sum up the results of this climax in the words “of (or, that which concerns) the Word of life,” and at the beginning of 1John 1:3 resume the thoughts interrupted by the parenthesis, and all is at once clear.
Which we have heard.—All those gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, enough to fill countless books could they have been noted down. St. John has given us more of these than any other of the Evangelists; and their effect upon him was such that it is almost the same as if he had written down nothing at all of his own; for the thought and style of Him who had loved him more intimately than others, had moulded his own thought and style into a strikingly close resemblance. “We” includes ail the eye-witnesses. (Comp. Luke 1:2.)
Which we have seen.—All that is meant by the Word of God in its fullest sense had been seen in the human Person of Jesus of Nazareth during His earthly sojourn, and especially during the three years’ ministry. In a similar sense Jesus Himself said, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,” John 14:9. (Comp. 1John 4:14; Isaiah 40:5; 2Peter 1:16.)
With our eyes.—This gives the same force as “the Word was made flesh;” it was an actual personal visible revelation, as opposed to the evolving of a religious system out of the inner consciousness or reflection.
Which we have looked upon.—A more deliberate and closer contemplation; for which John had special opportunities, as one of the inner three, and again as he who lay on Jesus’ bosom. There is a change of tense implying emphasis on the historic fact, “which in those days we gazed upon.”
And our hands have handled.—Comp. Matthew 26:49; Luke 24:39; John 20:27. This and the foregoing expressions might be directed against Cerinthus and the Doketists—those that held that Christ was only a phantom.
Of the Word of life.—All that concerns the Word of the true Life, the Reason, or Son, or Express Image of God, in whom was inherent all life, material as well as moral or religious. (Comp. John 1:4; John 5:26; John 11:25; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:3.)
(2) For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us.—The parenthesis reiterates with redoubled force that the whole essence of the relation of God to man lies in the audible, visible, tangible, historical appearance of God in Jesus. After the manner of St. John, the word “life” at the end of the last sentence suggests the form of the phrasing in the new sentence: Jesus was that Eternal Life which was at the side of the Father, in communion with Him, in equal intercourse with Him; that Life on which all other existence, physical and spiritual, depend (1) for its license to exist, (2) for its fulfilment of the end for which it was created. (See Note on John 1:4.)
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.[2.First Half. God is Light (1John 1:5 to 1John 2:28).
(1)STATEMENT OF THE LEADING THOUGHT (1John 1:5).
(2)FIRST INFERENCE: The true fellowship (1John 1:6-7); the Christian must not sin.
(3)SECOND INFERENCE: Confession of sins (1John 1:8-10); the Christian must not conceal his sin.
(4)THIRD INFERENCE: Remedy for sins (1John 2:1-2).
(5)OBEDIENCE THE SIGN OF WALKING IN LIGHT (1John 2:3-8).
(6)ESPECIALLY BROTHERLY LOVE (1John 2:9-10).
(7)THE THINGS THEY MUST NOT LOVE IF THEY WALKED IN THE LIGHT (1John 2:12-17).
(8)THE MANIFESTATIONS OF DARKNESS (1John 2:18-28).
(a)Signs whereby they should know the forerunners of the last time (1John 2:18-23).
(b)Exhortation to continue in the light (1John 2:24-28).]
(1) (5) This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you.—What the Son had received from the Father, this the Apostles were to report to the world. The attention is aroused, as by the silence before the thunderstorm, to expect a central and fundamental notion of the utmost importance.
That God is light.—Here is the essence of Christian theology, the truth about the Deity as opposed to all the imperfect conceptions of Him which had embittered the minds of the wise. To the heathen, Deity had meant angry, malevolent beings, worshipped best by the secrecy of outrageous vice; to the Greeks and Romans, forces of nature transformed into superhuman men and women, powerful and impure; to the philosophers, an abstraction either moral or physical; to the Gnostics it was a remote idea, equal and contending forces of good and evil, recognisable only through less and less perfect deputies. All this John, summing up what the Old Testament and our Lord had said about the Almighty Father, sweeps away in one simple declaration of truth. Light was God’s garment in Psalm 104:2; to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:2), the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord was brightness; to Habakkuk (1John 3:3), His brightness was as the light; Christ had called the sons of God children of the light (John 12:36), and announced Himself as the Light of the World (John 8:12); in the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3), Christ was the refracted ray of the Father’s glory, “the express image of His person;” to James, the Almighty was the Father of all lights (James 1:17); to Paul, He dwells “in the light that no man can approach unto” (1Timothy 6:16); to St. Peter, the Christian state is an admission “into His marvellous light” (1Peter 2:9). These ideas John comprehends: God is Light. Light physical, because (1) it was He who called everything first out of darkness, and (2) from whom proceeds all health and perfection; light intellectual, because (1) He is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, and (2) in His mind exist the ideals after which all things strive; light moral, because (1) His perfection shows that the difference between good and evil is not merely a question of degree, but fundamental and final, and (2) the life of Christ had exhibited that contrast sharply: once for all. Thus, on this declaration depends the whole doctrine of sin: sin is not merely imperfection; it is enmity to God. There can be no shades of progression, uniting good and evil: in Him is no darkness at all. Good and evil may be mixed in an individual: in themselves they are contrary.
(2) (6) If we say.—A favourite form with John, expressing sympathetic delicacy.
That we have fellowship with him. . . .—Some of the Gnostics (like the Anabaptists) said that on account of their spiritual knowledge they were free to act as they liked, without committing sin. For walking as a description of the spiritual state, compare 1John 2:6; 2John 1:6; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:4; Ephesians 4:17; Philippians 3:20.
Darkness would include any conscious habit which was opposed to God’s example of perfection.
We lie.—We are a self-contradiction, and we know it.
And do not the truth.—The truth with St. John is as much a matter of action as of thought and word; that sphere of conduct which is in harmony with God, whose nature is Light.
(7) As he is in the light.—The effulgence of the atmosphere of the perfectly good, the sinlessly loving, the gloriously pure, which, created by God and proceeding from Him, is specially “His throne.” At the same time, wherever such characteristics of Divine Light are found, there He is particularly present.
We have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.—The antithesis to “lying and doing not the truth,” presented under the twofold aspect of (1) the brotherly result of walking with God, (2) its purifying influence. Each human being that comes near us becomes the object of our friendly sympathy; and the sacrifice of Christ has both put away the sin of the world and prevents sin from reigning in our mortal bodies; it obtains forgiveness for us, and by reminding us that it was sin that brought Jesus to the cross, has a continually purifying power over us, through the Spirit of Christ and of the Father. (See 1Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 1:19-20; Hebrews 9:14; 1Peter 1:19-23.)
(3) (8) If we say that we have no sin.—The preceding words had reminded St. John that even mature Christians, though certainly not “walking in darkness,” yet have sinful tendencies in themselves: sensuous impulses, non-spiritual inclinations, lack of self-knowledge, a lowered standard, principles and views borrowed partly from the world, wavering of will, and hence even graver faults. Not to admit this would be to mislead ourselves, and in us the power and energy of light, searching the very corners of the heart, would not be working. (See Romans 7:18-23; Galatians 5:17.)
(9) If we confess our sins.—An advance in the thought from the general “having sin.” Confession to God must recognise and measure each particular fault. (Psalm 32:5; Psalm 51:3; Proverbs 28:13; Luke 15:21.)
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.—He, from the context, cannot possibly be any other than God. Here another grand progression of thought meets us: not merely “we are in the truth,” but the actual and glorious result on God’s side; faithful and just on account of Christ’s sacrifice and our repentance. For the double notion of forgiving and cleansing, see Note on 1John 1:7. The Romish interpreters, in their arbitrary way, limit the cleansing here to purgatory.
(10) If we say that we have not sinned.—The argument of the passage equally excludes the interpretation “freedom from guilt since conversion” as “innocence during the whole life.” St. John is here repeating, in a more emphatic form, the thought of 1John 1:8.
We make him a liar, and his word is not in us.—Stronger far than “we lie,” or “the truth is not in us.” Our foolish presumption is regarded in its worst aspect: an impiety against God, whose word, revelation, appeal to our conscience, and witness by the Spirit, are thus blasphemously contradicted. Parallel to “we do not the truth” and “the truth is not in us,” the practical result here is that we cannot be regarded as having in any sense received God’s revelation into our hearts.