One thing we know about the letters of John with a fair degree of certainty is that someone named John wrote them. Yes, this sounds obvious and even a bit contrived. It is called 1st, 2nd and 3rd John after all.
But bear with me for a moment, because this is not necessarily the case when it comes to a number of the New Testament writings. Names can be ambiguous, at times applied post-script, and often arrive with varying degrees of attachment and detachment from the proposed author in question (could be a product of one’s followers, for example).
The absence of certainty in authorship can make it somewhat harder to place the writing in its proper context. Thus, there is some significance to saying that good evidence seems to suggest that the letter of John was written by a person named John, and that what we have are the straightforward, uncomplicated words of a single individual. The authorship makes it easier to find and unearth that context.
This confidence in authorship can also help us see these letters as the product of a Church leader (“elder statesman”) who was part of a movement away from Jerusalem (before it’s destruction) towards ministry somewhere around Ephesus, which can easily (then) connect us with the teachings of Paul and the book of Revelation that connect to this area.
Finally, understanding the context for the letters of John can help us in unpacking its central themes- schism (division within the Church), fellowship (with fellow believers), love (as the great forming and liberating force), and knowledge (which connects us to encroaching “gnosticism” as the source of the schism). For John, these four things come together as a way of speaking to the “confidence” we can have in Christs’ work on the cross to move us from darkness to light, death to life.
Knowledge, Gnosticism, and John’s Connection to Paul
One of the things you will notice about the letter of 1 John (and the subsequent 2 letters) is the prominence of this word, knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge is “gnosis”, out of which we get the word “gnosticism”, and is the mostly likely word John would have had in mind when writing his letters. Before diving into the letter itself, I thought what might be helpful is touching briefly on Fleming Rutledge’s (since I just finished reading her book, The Crucifixion: Making Sense of the Death of Jesus) description of gnosticism, and gnostic teaching, as the great division that touched the New Testament world as it fleshed out its understanding of Christ and the Cross. This can help us as readers to make sense of the division John is speaking to in more specific ways as he admonishes us towards greater “fellowship” within the Church.
Fleming writes, “Gnosticism in its numerous and various forms has always been far and away the most pervasive and popular rival to Christianity- particularly in connection to the theologia crucis (theology of the Cross). This was so in the New Testament times, and remains so today.” (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding Jesus’ Death, p45)
She goes on to say, “All the various forms of gnosticism are grounded in the belief that privileged spiritual knowledge is the way of salvation.” They are “mystery-mongers”. They “claim to know things that other people don’t know.”
Now here is what it interesting for the purposes of engaging the Letters of 1st, 2nd and 3rd John. Rutledge, who spends a good deal of time with Paul in her book (the Pauline writings reflects our earliest access to the ministry of Jesus) quotes from his letter to the Corinthians in underscoring the problem of gnosticism in the New Testament world. Paul “hopes to win them (the fellowship of believers) back to his message of God’s subversive plan to make foolish the wisdom of the world“, writing that “Knowledge (gnosis) puffs up, but love builds up.” and “If one loves God, one is known by him” (1 Cor. 8:1-13), which she recognizes “flips our focus from our knowledge of God to God’s knowledge of us.”
If one keeps this in mind when reading the letters of John, it would be impossible then not to see a deep and unifying connection between the teachings of Paul, who was equally concerned with knowledge (gnosticism) and the admonitions of John. Knowledge, fellowship, and love take precedence here in John’s first letter, with a deep desire to reframe “knowledge” as a given confidence rather than an earned confidence.
Light and Dark, Death and Life
As John opens his letter we encounter very early on some of the dominant language that will encompass his focus on knowledge, love, fellowship and schism- these competing forces of light and dark, death and life (1:5). If you notice the letter’s opening (That which was from the beginning…), you will begin to understand why scholarship has tended to associate these letters with the assumed Gospel writer of the same name. The language of light and dark and death and life as competing forces is a shared distinctive, with the Gospel of John leading us back to the beginning of “creation” and the letter of John leading us back to “Christ” as the beginning (a word that connects 1John 1:1 with 3:11, a powerful exposition of the Cain and Able story that then connects light and dark to death and life (3:11-15), allowing him to locate Sin within this narrative idea as the competing Powers that lead us towards schism or fellowship).
Further underscoring the picture of these competing forces, in Chapter one John sets out a working argument that is going to carry us through all three of his letters- the lie and the truth, with the idea being that if we have fellowship with one another we then have fellowship with Christ. This is why the Darkness is so interested in separating us from one another, because without Christ all we have is Death. This is also why 1:6 then declares that “God is light”, the competing Power to the darkness. And the schism begins with understanding the relationship between the lie and the truth that, by their very nature sets us under either darkness or light (life or death).
The lie is this- if we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie… (1:6).
The truth is this- if we walk in the light, as he is the light, we have FELLOWSHIP with one another and (thus) the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1:7)
So here we have these dueling pictures- walking in the light or walking in the dark, with fellowship (and thus schism) the means or the maker through which we can know whether we are standing in the light or in the dark.
Sounds simple and clear enough.
Except John doesn’t stop there. In 1:8-10 we find a curious flip from the lie in 1:6, with John now connecting the schism to Sin, further expounding on the notion of the Power of the lie by suggesting that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1:9) Further yet, “if we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us (the word being Christ).”
Thus begins this tension filled ride through Johns letter. If we walk in the darkness (Sin) and say we are in the light (Christ), we lie. And yet, if we also say we have no sin (Darkness), we lie and the light (Christ) is not in us. THANKS A LOT JOHN!!
I mentioned that connective piece between 1:1 and 3:11 earlier in this post (“from the beginning”). It is worthwhile revisiting the lead up to that bookmark (if you will) between passage, as it underscores this tension that John creates (intentionally so, I believe).
1 John 3:6-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Working our way backwards through this verse, we find that once again that fellowship is the means by which righteousness (which shares a root meaning and source word with “justification”, which is the idea of “making right what is wrong”) is achieved, and thus becomes that which distinguishes between the lie and the truth. The passage then (working backwards) positions us within the larger and necessary narrative to which Sin belongs- the works of the devil. This is why Christ came and died, setting up the declaration “from the beginning” as a proclamation.
The Proclamation of Our Confidence in Christ
This phrase, “from the beginning” is what opens us up in 3:11 to John’s proclamation of what is, as he wants to show what our CONFIDENCE is. On the Cross Christ defeated the Power of Sin and Death, the defining marks of the Darkness. In this sense, John’s declaration, and the way he gives us into the tension he creates (intentionally) is not by works but through faith. Sin is more accurately understood here as a state of being rather than a moral action.
Another way to say this would be to ask, what do we have if we live without fellowship- death and darkness. That is what remains. What do we have if we live in fellowship? Light and life. Because that is what Christ has given to us in defeating the Devil (the Powers of Sin and Death). This is the confidence that we can have over and against the tension that John creates. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (3:16) This is similar to what John is saying in 1:9 “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This confession comes with the confidence of God’s faithfulness to make things right both within us and in the world.
But the tension carries another notable force, because our confession also reminds us that God’s faithfulness rests on the idea that we, all of us, are under the Power of Sin and Death. This is why the Cross carries power to heal the divide that exists between Light and Dark, Life and Death. In 1 John 2:1-2, John says that God, in Christ, is for all. The whole world. This effectively erases the line between the godly and ungodly from which the above tension forms, thus affording us the confidence that comes in Christ. “By this we may know that we are in him, whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way he walked.” (2:6).
Here we come back to that idea of Sin as a state of being rather than an action. The truth that Christ has defeated the Power of Sin and Death precedes us, it is not contingent on whether we are walking in the light or the dark. The crux of John’s argument in the first three chapters (and the whole of the book) is to expose this truth as parallel to the confidence we have and the confidence we gain through “fellowship”. We have confidence through fellowship because Christ has brought light and life to the whole world. “The Darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining”, even if we can’t yet see it clearly. (2:9) This is the grand proclamation. We are no longer under the Power of Sin and Death (2:13), and for this reason we can have fellowship with one another. It is for this reason we can have confidence, and thus know (leading to a series of confidence sayings in 2:12-14 that connect around the phrase “you know”) that we have hope. Our hope comes because although the world passes away, Jesus is forever (2:15), therefore to love the world is to stand in Darkness without hope.
A Different Kind of Knowledge
In 2:18, John talks about the schism that gnosticism has created (which most notably is a schism it sees in Christ Himself), bringing it back to the competing lie-truth paradigm of chapter 1. He brings to our awareness these competing forms of knowledge for the purpose of proclaiming our confidence (hope) in his (Christs) righteousness (making right again, or in 3:3, the truth that what is not yet will be). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called Children of God.” (3:1) And so we are a child of God. We have been adopted into God’s family and made to be foreigners in this world. This is what light and life does in the grand narrative that we see expressed in 3:1-10 (of the Powers of Death and Life).
At the same time John continues to bring this distinctive of being the children of God back into the idea of fellowship as that which marks us as in the dark or in the light. Righteousness=fellowship (3:10), with righteousness being fellowship that is expressed in love (3:11-24). Our confidence in Christ’s love (his fellowship with us, and thus his giving of life and light) emerges from our love for one another. This is the picture of freedom that John desires us to embrace. This is where the great tension that John has laid out really comes to fruition. “By this we shall know that w are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him. For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved…” (19-20)
Everything hinges on this statement. To arrive at 3:21, which gives us a picture of a heart standing uncondemned (in confidence) “by” our walking in the light, “by” believing in what Christ has done (3:23), we must go through verses 19,20.
And yet what John offers is a different kind of knowledge (confidence) than that of the gnostics. His is not a knowledge gained, it is a knowledge given. It is not knowledge that uplifts us, it is knowledge that uplifts others. It is not knowledge that sets one over the other, it is a knowledge that lowers us down for the sake of the other.
The Tension and the Resolution: The Fellowship of Love
Here is one of the challenges in reading John. We like things to be defined. We like hard and fast descriptions of what we must do to see ourselves in the light and to know that we are not in the darkness. This is what it is to be human. Johns working tension doesn’t allow us to do this. In fact, by trying to do this we are essentially setting ourselves under the darkness. The reason for Christ’s propitiation (2:2; 4:10), an important word to understand in its usage since it often gets confused with “expiation” (One means to take from, to expirate, or “take” our sins, the other means to give to, to propriate, to give “for” or “to” us), is to give us life and light. And 1 John’s final chapter (5), which states that in Christ we have overcome the world (of Darkness and Death) as “children of God” so that we “may know” the truth of light and life, this becomes the key focus of the repeated word “commandment”, a word deeply tied to our notions of law, law keeping and works. Keep his commandments “for” (the given statement of propitiation) “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” (5:4). The temptation here is to dial back on using this to help us solve that original tension. How do we know we are in the light or in the dark? By following His commandments. John stops us in our tracks by saying (but) “this is the victory that has overcome the world- our faith” (5:4), the belief that “Jesus is the Son of God”, not our following of the commandment. The following of commandments acts as signpost to help us see this truth.
Love of others (fellowship)=Love of God (fellowship)=confidence (knowledge) becomes the reigning paradigm in 1 John 4 (4:7-21). Love is perfected in us (4:17) why? So that we can have confidence in love to reveal to us the light and life that holds us in its hands (no fear in love 4:18). This is the truth that the 3 witnesses of 5:6-12, Spirit, water, and blood, testify to and agree on (in fellowship). The truth is that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (5:19), and for this reason we must find fellowship with one another in the witness of life and light through LOVE. Once again John is speaking of a repositioning rather than an action. Fellowship repositions us so that we can likewise bear witness to this knowledge, and this knowledge comes for the sake of reconciling the truth that the whole world, us included, stands in darkness.
From Tension to Tension: The Sin that Leads to Death
How fitting then that John both ends and begins his first letter by presenting us with a great source of tension. In one of the most difficult verses in the letter, following John’s exposition on love and fellowship in chapters 4 and 5, we encounter this verse. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will give him life- to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”
Wait, what did you just say John? I thought we had deal with this!?
And maybe the main point here is that it is human nature to always be contention with this tension. That is what Jesus is doing in the Cross, is working out this tension in our lives.
So after all this talk about our confidence, we get this weird and seemingly convoluted statement that once again seems to suggest our “actions” as the determining factor for being either in the darkness or the light, of incurring death or life. It’s a verse that has had both scholars and laypeople, Christians and non-Christians puzzled for centuries. Everyone wants to know (surprise, surprise), what is this sin that leads to death!?
I think seeing Johns letter in context though can help make some sense out of this phrase, especially if we set it within the same tension that John raises earlier. First, the most important thing to recognize is John’s use of the word “Sin”, which evokes the Greek sense (same as Paul) of Powers (of Sin and Death) rather than moral action. In this sense, death is a reality. It is a state. Without Christ it is what we are left with.
Second, the point of this verse is directly interested in John’s discussion of schism, fellowship, knowledge (confidence) and love which precedes it. If we see this verse through this lens we can also then see it in the light of the “fellowship of believers” to whom John is speaking to. Here he is again distinguishing in an affirmative and life giving way the difference between the truth and the lie. This is why he (I think) accompanies this verse with the idea of praying for (sins that don’t lead to death) and not praying for (sins that do lead to death). The emphasis here is on the sin of fellowship (or schism) that has followed John’s letter throughout. Therefore, it only stands to bear that “all wrongdoing” is capital letter Sin (The Powers of Sin and Death) which John has already established we all, the whole world, are under, but that there is a functioning community (children of God) who are still “with sin” (the lack of fellowship) that do operate within (or an awareness of) the Light and life (the Power of the Christ).
The point of the verse then becomes this. If the proclamation that Christ has defeated the Powers of Sin and Death is not true, as the schism continues to bear witness to, prayer has no power because all we then have is death and darkness. If it is true, then prayer has power to move us from sin (lack of fellowship) to fellowship (love).
This is why John comes immediately back to this statement as a way of underlining this verse. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (But) The son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.” (5:19-10) Christ is for all, all are under the Power of Sin and Death (and thus located as sinners), and the reason for our fellowship (with one another, and therefore Christ) is to bear witness of His work (the defeating of the Powers of Darkness) to the world.
A powerful admonition indeed.