This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? (John 6; Pentecost 9B—13B)

John’s Gospel, it is often said, is the place to go in the New Testament if you want to find “proof texts” in support of antisemitism. In this Gospel, “the Jews” are labelled as children of the devil, accused of rejecting the belief that Jesus is God, tarred with the claim that they plotted against Jesus, and blamed with bringing about his death.

However, the passage that is providing the basis for the lectionary Gospel at this time of the year (John 6, Pentecost 9B—13B) does not feed into this negative perspective about “the Jews”. As we read it carefully, we see a different relationship unfolding between the Jew Jesus, his Jewish followers, and the crowd of Jews that interact with him throughout the chapter.

(And let me be clear—I am neither advocating antisemitism nor tarring John’s Gospel as being unredeemingly antisemitic.)

Whilst the terrible claim that “the Jews killed God” was not uttered until some centuries later—from the lips of John “the golden-mouthed”, Bishop of Antioch, in one of his Homilies Against the Jews—there is enough within the way that the author of the book of signs tells the story to apparently vindicate the claim that “the Jews killed Jesus”—at least in the eyes of many interpreters throughout Christian history.

1 Jewish opposition to Jesus

Jewish opposition to the message and activities of Jesus is evident from early in the book of signs. Jesus has identified himself with “the Jews” in his conversation with the woman by the well in Samaria (4:19–22).

However, he becomes caught in a dispute with “the Jews” while he was in Jerusalem, before travelling to the Sea of Galilee (6:1) and then to Capernaum (6:17). This dispute arose because these Jews in Jerusalem interpreted Jesus’ healing of the lame man on a Sabbath as being a breach of Torah (5:10). They seek to kill him, accusing him of making a blasphemous claim (5:18).

A footnote for verse 10 in my electronic copy of the NRSV helpfully clarifies that “the Greek word Ioudaioi refers specifically here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, who opposed Jesus in that time; also verses 15, 16, 18”. We will return to that notion later.

Jesus disputes the interpretation of the crowd, claiming that by healing on the Sabbath he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This is language which recurs in the conversation that takes place in chapter 6, where a crowd of Jews in Capernaum enquire of Jesus, “what must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:29).

Dissension continues to haunt Jesus, however; once he is back in Jerusalem, the crowd accuses him of having a demon (7:20; 10:20). This is later repeated by “the Jews” in Jerusalem at 8:48–52, and again at 10:20, with the added insult that he is a Samaritan (8:48). A third criticism levelled against Jesus is the inference that he was born illegitimate (8:41).

The words of “the Jews” represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, Jesus later predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20). The tensions within Judaism are clearly reflected in references to followers of Jesus being excluded from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42: 16:2–3).

It is true that “the Jews” of Jerusalem prepared to stone Jesus twice (first at 8:59, again at 10:31). This seems to validate the claim made earlier by Jesus, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); as well as the prediction in the Prologue pointing to the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).

2 The role of Jewish leadership

It is not, however, “the Jews” as a whole who plot to arrest Jesus. It was the chief priests who first made plans to put Lazarus to death (12:10), just six days after those same priests had conspired with the Pharisees, making plans to arrest Jesus so they could put him to death (11:47–53). The text makes it clear that this was done despite the fact that “many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what he did [in raising Lazarus] believed in him” (11:45).

It was clearly the leadership of the Jews involved in the plotting against Jesus. Was it not likely, then, that the same group had been conspiring throughout the whole story, planning his demise? That is clearly what is intended in the earlier account we attribute to Mark, which notes early in the Gospel that, immediately after a healing by Jesus, “the Pharisees went out and … held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).

We read that “a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” come to seize Jesus in the garden (18:3). When Jesus appears before Pilate, the governor notes, “your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me” (18:35). When Jesus is sent out of the governor’s praetorium, it is “the chief priests and the officers” who cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (19:6a).

This leads to Pilate saying to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him” (19:6b). This is one of the key texts that shifts the blame for the death of Jesus from Roman to Jewish leadership—a factor that is included in all four canonical Gospels (Mark 15:6–14; Matt 27:11–26; Luke 23:4, 13–14, 18–25; John 19:12–16).

The Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel continues to press the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus directly onto the chief priests. When Pilate asks, “shall I crucify your King?”, the chief priests answer, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). When Pilate orders an inscription to be prepared for Jesus, the chief priests say to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’” (19:21).

Both of these incidents appear to be quite implausible historically, given what we know of Jewish nationalism under Roman rule. Likewise, the scene where the Jewish crowd bays for the blood of Jesus rather than Barabbas could not have occurred—there is no evidence for the release of a prisoner at Passover, as the Gospels suggest.

These factors underline the strong likelihood that the author of the book of signs—along with the other authors of the Synoptic Gospels—has placed more of the blame for the death of Jesus onto the shoulders of the Jewish authorities, rather than the Romans. The charge of antisemitism in these Gospels needs to be considered and dealt with.

3 “The Jews” in John 6

Nevertheless, a more careful reading of the book of signs as a whole points to a more nuanced understanding, one that makes space for sympathetic readings of the role of “the Jews” in this document. We have already noted the important distinction between “the Jews” as a whole, and specific Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.

The passage that provides the basis for the lectionary Gospel at this time of the year (John 6) pushes us in this more nuanced interpretive direction. In this story, Jesus and the disciples—who, let us remember, were all Jews—are engaged with a large crowd—who also were Jews, as the scene is clearly set in Jewish territory near Capernaum (6:24).

The interaction between Jesus and the crowd begins “when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus” (6:24). In the scene that plays out over the ensuing fifteen verses, the crowd of “the Jews” behave, in my view, quite responsibly and respectfully towards Jesus. They are seeking him—looking to engage further with him, be with him, learn from him.

The first interaction comes “when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’” (6:25). This is a genuine enquiry, which evokes an explanation from Jesus. It’s a straightforward conversation, with no hidden agendas at play.

The crowd then said to Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:29). This, too, is simply an enquiry soliciting information. “Doing the works of God” references a standard biblical phrase. It usually describes the work that God did in bringing the whole creation into being (Heb 4:4; see Job 37:14; 40:19; Ps 73:28), although in Psalm 78, “not forgetting the works of God” (78:7) is set into the context of teaching the law and keeping the commandments (78:5–8).

Could the Jewish crowd in Capernaum be asking Jesus about how they might join with him in living as co—creators with God, in harmony with the created order, in obedience to the covenant promises they have made, through keeping the commandments of the Law?

In true Johannine style, however, Jesus in this story reduces the whole covenant relationship to one simple factor: “this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6:29), to which they reply, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31).

The interaction taking place here is not antagonistic or accusatory. The crowd is pressing Jesus on what they have seen, and exploring what he meant to do when he fed the crowd, as reported earlier in the chapter. The crowd refers to scripture to interpret their experience; this was a normal part of Jewish discipleship. They know very well the story about Moses leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, and the provision of manna from heaven for them to eat (Exod 16:27–36; Num 11:4–9).

The response from Jesus provides an explanation to the crowd in terms of the scripture story to which they have referred—the manna given to Israel in the wilderness (6:32–33). That was a gift, not from Moses, but from God.

The crowd responds to the teaching of Jesus in a way that is enquiring and appreciative. They do not respond in anger, or in disagreement, or with a mocking tone. They simply say to Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The crowd remains open to what Jesus is teaching, keen to learn more of what he speaks, engaged with the lesson that Jesus is providing. This crowd of Jews is not at all like the groups who “seek all the more to kill him” (5:18), who press Jesus antagonistically (7:20; 8:48–52; 10:20).

Of course, we as the readers can see how the author of this Gospel is, typically, running a narrative at two levels—the surface level of discussion about bread, and the deeper level of discussion pointing to “the living bread which came down from heaven”. But this is typical Johannine style. There is nothing negative to be said about the crowd to this point. The explanation from Jesus, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35), then draws together both the levels at which the narrative has been running.

Rustic bread

4 Questioning Jesus about “bread from heaven”

From this point on, the interaction becomes more complex. First, we read that “the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (6:41). The reference to the Jews “grumbling” also evokes the wilderness stories from Jewish tradition. The people of Israel grumbled against Moses (Exod 15:24; 17:3) or against Moses and Aaron (Exod 16:2; Num 14:2, 29; 16:41), resenting their leadership when things became tough for them as they continued their way through the wilderness. They had no water, no food, no comfort, in their wilderness wanderings.

The grumbling of the people in this scene, however, does not relate to lack of provisions—after all, the crowd had earlier been fed with abundance (John 6:5–13). The crowd focuses on the identity of Jesus. The crowd said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (6:42). Jesus is described as “son of Joseph” only in the book of signs (1:45, and here). Luke introduces him as “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (Luke 3:23), whilst Mark identifies him as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), and Matthew has the crowd in Nazareth asking, “is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt 13:55).

Whatever was thought about the parentage of Jesus, the question of the crowd here has to do with the contrast between his earthly and heavenly origins. Jesus was known to his contemporaries, quite understandably, through his family of origin; claims about his heavenly origin sit uncomfortably with this understanding.

Yet for the author of the Gospel, the heavenly origins of Jesus are indisputable: “you are from below, I am from above”, he later tells the crowd (8:23; see also 3:31). The people in the story act as we might reasonably expect; the people outside the story, hearing it from the perspective of the narrator, know of the deeper level of meaning that is so typical of the Johannine narrative.

The answer provided by Jesus reinforces his central claim, “I am the bread of life” (6:48), “I am the living bread” (6:51), and extends it by noting “this is the bread that comes down from heaven” (6:50). Belief in this leads to eternal life—a claim that is a regular refrain in this Gospel (6:47; see also 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 54, 60; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2–3). And, more shockingly, Jesus ends this section with the word that will provoke, at long last, a dispute amongst “the Jews” listening to him.

The Greek word translated as “dispute” is schisma, from which we get schism and schismatic. The same dynamic of division is reported amongst the Pharisees when confronted with the healing of the man born blind (9:16) and again amongst the crowd in Jerusalem as they hear Jesus teaching that he is “the good shepherd” who has authority from the Father (10:19). The response is a typical pattern amongst those who listen intently to the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus concludes with another short burst of teaching which presses the final point of the last section into an even harder claim. The bread Jesus gives is his flesh. He sharpens the point, however, by referring directly to the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood—actions utterly anathema to faithful Jews. It is as if the author is deliberately placing Jesus in dangle of total rejection by the crowd.

Jesus concludes by reasserting his earlier polemic, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (6:58). He will not step back from the dissension he has produced.

5 The response of the disciples

The last section of the chapter provides a most intriguing resolution to the narrative. The immediate response of “many of his disciples” is sharp: “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6:60). It is not the crowd that responds in this way; it is a group within the disciples that react.

It is interesting that, at this point, the narrator observes that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (6:66). If anyone is to be seen as the opposition in this chapter, the ones turning their back on Jesus, it is surely this group of “many of his disciples”. We rarely hear about the failures of Jesus. This chapter reports a clear instance. Not every disciple of Jesus stuck with him all the way.

In fact, Jesus reassess the point, saying to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (6:67). Apart from the description of Thomas as “one of the twelve” (20:24), this is the only place in this Gospel where the inner group of twelve disciples is explicitly identified (6:70, 71). Jesus takes the key issue right to the heart of his followers.

The answer of Simon Peter is noteworthy. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (6:68-69).

This is a climactic moment, a high point of confession of the true identity of Jesus. It evokes the Caesarea Philippi confession of Peter in the Synoptics (Mark 8:29; Matt 16:16; Luke 9:20)—although in the book of origins, it is actually Martha, not one of the male disciples, who mirrors this confession as she makes the ultimate confession, “you are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27).

Jesus presses the point with his disciples, seeking to make sure that they are, indeed, committed to continue following him. “Did I not choose you, the twelve?” he asks, continuing, “yet one of you is a devil” (6:70). Another “hard saying” from Jesus, for his followers to hear.

The narrator then explains, “he spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (6:71). At precisely the moment when the remaining disciples seem to be firmly committed to their following of Jesus, he punctures their assurance, demonising one of their number with these incisive words. Even this group of faithful followers will be fractured.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/02/claims-about-the-christ-affirming-the-centrality-of-jesus-john-6-pentecost-9b-13b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/20/misunderstanding-jesus-they-came-to-make-him-a-king-john-6-pentecost-9b/

Claims about the Christ: affirming the centrality of Jesus (John 6; Pentecost 9B—13B)

“I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), says Jesus, in the passage set as the Gospel selection in this coming Sunday’s lectionary offerings. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35), he had said, in the final verse of the section offered as last Sunday’s lectionary Gospel.

This claim about Jesus is a major element in the way that he is presented in the book of signs. This work not only contains a sequence of seven signs, or miracles, that give the name to the whole Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples … these [signs] are written so that you may believe” (John 20:30–31).

It is also the Gospel in which significant statements about Jesus are offered, particularly in the series of seven I AM statements that it contains. “I am the bread of life” (6:48) is the first such instance in this series. The others are “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9), “the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (16:1).

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51), Jesus declares, in the opening verse of the reading for Sunday week. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died; but the one who eats this bread will live forever” (6:58), he says again in the passage for the Sunday after that.

Get the picture? Week after week, following the various sections of this long chapter within the book of signs, the lectionary presents us with insistent reminders of this central Johannine teaching of Jesus. Jesus is “the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51, 58).

The context in which Jesus makes these claims is instructive. The scene at the beginning of the chapter introduces this motif, when the narrator writes: “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (6:5).

The motif of bread is thus established through this rhetorical question. The narrator explains, in 6:6–7, that this was said to test Philip; it opens the door for Andrew to report, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” (6:9). So begins the account of the feeding of the multitude (6:10-14).

And so, this incident is used by the narrator to form the basis for some significant teaching by Jesus–a technique familiar in other chapters. Think of the encounter with Nicodemus (3:1–14), leading into a teaching about salvation and judgement (3:15–21), and the encounter with the unnamed woman in Samaria (4:5–26), the basis for another section focussing on salvation (4:27–42). These two scenes make use of a literary technique which is employed to good advantage by the author of the book of signs in subsequent chapters.

We might also think of the healing of the invalid man in Jerusalem (5:1–9) which leads into teaching about the work of the Son (5:10–47), and the multi-scene drama later in Jerusalem (9:41), in which the healing of the man born blind (9:1–7) leads to a dramatic playing out of the teaching provided earlier (8:12; repeated at 9:5), that Jesus is “the light of the world”.

A further example of the literary skills of the author of the book of signs is found in the series of scenes in and near Bethany (11:1–44), in which the narrative of raising of Lazarus from the dead contains teachings on the claim that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life ” (11:25).

Indeed, each of these scenes contain a climactic moment in which a significant Christological affirmation is uttered. Jesus is “God’s only Son”, given to the world in love (3:16). He is “the Saviour of the world” (4:42), confessed in a Samaritan township. He is the Son of Man with “authority to execute judgment” (5:27), the Holy One of God (6:69), a prophet (9:17) who is, by inference, the Messiah (9:22). And Martha makes the ultimate confession of faith in Jesus: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27).

For the author of the book of signs, affirming the identity of Jesus shapes the whole narrative of this Gospel. Each sign points to the significance of Jesus: manifesting his glory (2:12), fostering belief (4:48), identifying him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14), the Son of Man (9:35), the Son of God and Messiah (11:27). And each interpersonal encounter illuminates his signal identity, as we have noted.

Then, each I AM claim undergirds the central role of Jesus in the plan being worked out in this Gospel. A number of these statements draw on scriptural terms and imagery in presenting Jesus in this way.

When Jesus describes himself as “the true vine” (John 15:1–11), he is drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

When Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), he evokes the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he makes it clear that he is referring to the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

The claim that Jesus is “the way” (14:6) may also owe its origins to scriptural usage. The term describes God’s activity in many Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. In Isa 40:3-5 (cited at Luke 3:4-6), the return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17–18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This most likely reflects competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. Jesus, in the book of signs, is clearly honoured as the Teacher supreme for the community of Jesus followers for whom this work was compiled.

And although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the description of the Spirit as “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

Of course, the very phrase I AM resonates directly with the name that the Lord God revealed in Exodus. When Moses asks, “What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exod 3:13-14).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis. The role that Jesus plays is in fulfilment of scriptural ideas.

This is a key factor in the way that the author of the book of signs has shaped his distinctive narrative. And it is highlighted in the middle of the extended narrative that occurs in John 6, when Jesus declares: “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). This is the role that Jesus fulfils in the book of signs; he has been sent by the Father, a gift of living bread, for those who hunger.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/06/i-am-the-way-john-14-from-elitist-exclusivism-to-gracious-friendship/

Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

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The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

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The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.

Father, Son, and Disciples (II): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

In a previous blog, I began an analysis of the content of a section of the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 17:6–19). This is part of what is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus ;17:1–26).

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/10/father-son-and-disciples-i-the-real-trinity-in-johns-gospel-john-17-easter-7b/

This prayer is reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him. The prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity! Parts I and II were set forth in that earlier blog.

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

References to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. When Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15), it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus. The Advocate replaces Jesus, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead.

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

There are ten ways in which this relationship is described. The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father: “we are one” (17:22), “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23). Second, the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25); “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father (17:23, 24, 26). Fourth, the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts: “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). Seventh, the Father has sanctified the Son; while he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13), and tenth, it is clear that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

*****

III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

So the next step in my argument is to propose that the third element in this Johannine trinity is, not the Spirit, but rather—the Disciples. The Disciples relate to the Son as the Son relates to the Father. Seven of the ten ways by which the Father and the Son relate to one another are mirrored in the way that the Son relates to the Disciples.

The first way is that the Son and the Disciples are unified as one: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22–23). This unity is expressed also in that the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son (17:21). This intimate interrelationship leads Jesus to pray “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one” (17:23). The unity of Father and Son is exactly paralleled in the perfect unity of Son and Disciples.

The language of “abide” has earlier been used by Jesus to refer to his relationship with his disciples as he expanded the imagery of the vine and the branches (15:6, 7, 10). “I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you”, he has also declared (14:20)—a striking expression of trinitarian interrelationship!

The second connection is that the Disciples know who the Son is (17:21, 23, 25). “If you know me”, Jesus has earlier taught the Disciples, “you will know my Father also” (14:7). The way by which the Disciples then demonstrate what they know about the Son is through their deeds: “if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).

Third, the unity of Son and Disciples results in knowledge about the Son spreading amongst others: “I in me and you in me … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you love me” (17:23). This, then, mirrors what we identified as the sixth way of connecting, as the Son makes known the Father; now, Jesus affirms, the Disciples make known the Son.

The fourth way that there is connection is that the Son loves the Disciples and thus the Disciples can love the Son (17:23). The love of the Son for the Disciples is articulated in a very strong statement that introduces the second half of the gospel (chs. 13–21), namely, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1).

Jesus references his love for the Disciples as well as their love for him again at 13:34; 14:21; 15:9–10. He also affirms that “those who love me will be loved by my Father” (14:21) and “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me” (16:27). The three-way interconnectedness of mutual love strengthens the notion of a trinity of relationship involving Father, Son, and Disciples.

The fifth manner of relationship is that the Son gives gifts to the Disciples. These gifts are identified as words (17:8, 14), glory (17:22), and love (17:26). Earlier narratives in this Gospel have likewise noted that the Son gives the Disciples “power to become children of God” (1:12), “the food of eternal life” (6:12), eternal life (10:28), peace (14:27), and “another Advocate” (as already noted, 14:16). This mirrors the fourth element in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The sixth way is that the Son sends the disciples into the world (17:18), in the same way that the Father has sent the Son into the world (see the many references cited above). The parallelism is also evident in the word that “whoever receives anyone I send, receives me” (13:20), and in the command of the risen Jesus, “as the Father sent me, so I send you” (20:21). As with the Father sending the Son (the fifth way of connecting), so the Son sends the Disciples.

The seventh way of relating is that the Son is glorified in the Disciples (17:10). This, too, parallels one of the ways by which the Father relates to the Son (listed above as the eighth way). “The glory that you have given me, I have given them”, says Jesus (17:22). And more than this, in the story of the vine and the branches, Jesus affirms that “in this, my Father is glorified; that you bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples” (15:8). Once again, the three elements of the Johannine trinity are drawn into intimate relationship.

The final, eighth, line of connection is that the Son sanctifies the Disciples. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (17:17-19). This mirrors what we identified as the eight way of connection between Father and Son.

These eight lines of connection between the Son and the Disciples directly parallel the way that the Father relates to the Son. Only the final two means of connection between Father and Son are absent from the way the Son relates to the Disciples; and there are clear reasons for this, since they relate to the post-ascension state of Jesus, who has returned to the Father and is now with the Father.

*****

So, in this wonderful prayer, the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, we have the foundational elements set out for this somewhat distinctive trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Disciples, bound together in intimate unity, inter-relating, distinct and yet overlapping.

The prayer draws together many elements in the way that the relationship between the Father and the Son is expressed in this Gospel. The prayer also incorporates many of the ways by which the Son is connected with the Disciples. In fact, the interconnected nature of this threeway relationships actually appears to be highly developed, well thought through, and clearly articulated in this Gospel.

As Father and Son are one, so Son and Disciples are one. As the Father is glorified in the Son, so the Disciples are glorified in the Son. As the Father sanctifies the Son, so the Son sanctifies the Disciples. As the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends the Disciples. As the Son makes the Father known, so the Disciples make known the Son. As the Father abides in the Son, and the Son in the Father, so the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son.

Father, Son, and Disciples. This is what I call, the real Johannine Trinity.

Now, let the accusations of heresy begin ………

For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

Father, Son, and Disciples (I): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

The reading from the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 17:6–19), is part of what is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus ;17:1–26). It is a prayer reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him.

This prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

Let me explain. My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity!

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

First, let us note that references to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. The Spirit is noted in John’s testimony about the baptism of Jesus (1:32–34) and then is referred to in passing in later statements by Jesus (3:34; 6:63; 7:39; 20:22), but no more expansive exposition of the role or significance of the Spirit is offered in this Gospel.

In three brief discussions during his farewell discourse with the disciples, Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15). In each instance, it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus.

The role of the Advocate is a replacement role, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead. Other than these brief references, there is no indication of the Spirit as a personal entity in relationship with God or Jesus in this Gospel.

(For more on this figure in this Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/)

So the third person in the trinity in John’s Gospel: who is it?

*****

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

To get to that point, first, we need to observe the way that this Gospel sets out the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. There are ten ways by which this relationship is described in this prayer; and indications of these ten ways of connecting can be found scatted throughout the long narrative about Jesus constructed by the author.

The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father. “The Father and I are one”, Jesus has dramatically, and provocatively declared (10:30). (These words provoked “the Jews” to pick up stones to stone Jesus, 10:31.)

This affirmation is reiterated as Jesus prays to God: “we are one” (17:22). It is also expressed in the language of intimate and mutual interrelationship: “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23).

The intimate relationship of the Father and the Son has been noted already in the chapter where Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches, when he declares that “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). The language of abiding recurs in the first letter attributed to John—although most likely from a different author (see 1 John 2:24, 28; 3:6, 24; 4:13–16).

The second way in which the Father and the Son are related is that the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25). This mutual knowledge of one another has been affirmed earlier in controversies in Jerusalem (7:29; 8:55). Jesus is perfectly clear: “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father. This is expressed three times in this prayer (17:23, 24, 26). This again is a motif that has been expressed earlier, when Jesus affirms that “the Son loves the Father” (14:31) and that “the Son loves the Father” (15:9).

Fourth, there is a persistent theme running through the prayer, that the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts. These gifts include “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). The prayer also twice references “your name that you have given me” (17:11, 12). God’s gifts in the earlier chapters have included, most famously, “his only Son” (3:16), as well as “living water” (4:10), “bread in the wilderness” (6:31), the “true bread from heaven” (6:32), another Helper” (14:16), and “whatever you ask from God” (11:22; 15:16; 16:23)—although these are all directed towards believing humanity, rather than directly to the Son.

Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world. This is another strong thread running through this prayer (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). The motif of sending is equally strong in this Gospel; “him who sent me” is a description of the Father that frequently recurs (1:33; 4:34; 5:23, 30, 36–38; 6:38, 44; 7:16, 28–29; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5). The famous verse about God sending the Son (3:16–17) is later alluded to in one of the final words of the risen Jesus: “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). This function of revealing, or making known, is integral to the role that Jesus has throughout the book of signs. This function is introduced in the majestic opening prologue: “the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).

This theme continues in affirmations that Jesus healed the man born blond “so that the works of God might be manifest in him” (9:3); to those who love the Son “I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14:21); and in the affirmation that those formerly called servants are now called friends, “for a servant does not know what the master is doing” (15:15).

The root word underlying the verb “to make known” (gnōridzō) is the noun gnōsis, which in itself does not appear in the book of signs; however, many interpreters regard this book as being heavily influenced by the emerging movement we label as Gnosticism. In this movement, salvation is attainable not by trusting in a sacrificial action, but rather by gaining knowledge (gnosis). The insight and knowledge that is conveyed by Jesus as he teaches (6:59; 7:28, 35; 8:2, 20, 34; 18:20) is the key for those who follow him.

Seventh, the Father indicates to the Son that he has sanctified the Son him by sending him “into the world” (10:36). Whilst he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving to the Word (1:1-3) the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). This has been declared earlier by Jesus, that “my Father is glorified by this” (15:8), and prayed for when Jesus cries out “Father, glorify your name”, to which a voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify him at once” (12:28).

Still earlier in the Gospel, Jesus notes that “it is my Father who glorifies me” (8:54). This motif has also been signalled very early on, in the poetic prologue, in which the author claims that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son” (1:14). The signs that Jesus performed “revealed his glory” (2:11; 11:4, 40).

The moment in which the full realisation of the glory of Jesus actually manifests in its fullness in the cluster of events that take place in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (12:23–24; see also 13:31–32).

Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13). Jesus had foretold this quite directly to his followers (14:18–19, 28). This leads to the tenth, final, line of connection and relationship between the Father and the Son: that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22), bringing fulfilment to the words uttered earlier by Jesus (14:10–11, 20).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

*****

III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

I will offer my considerations of this third part in a subsequent blog …

Father, Son, and Disciples (II): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

“The one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5; Easter 6B)

The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).

This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.

Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate the believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

A striking feature of this sermon-letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).

Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the sermon-letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the sermon-letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this later work. Other points of differentiation are noted below.

There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the sermon-letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).

Another important motif in the prologue to the sermon-letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense of testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).

Beyond the sermon-letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).

The author of 1 John asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).

Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the sermon-letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).

We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the sermon-letter’s prologue (1 John 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in ensuing chapters (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).

Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized within 1 John; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26).

However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 John 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 John 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that God is love (1 John 4:8).

Knowledge is a key concern of this sermon-letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the sermon-letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).

The emphasis on knowledge in this sermon-letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We can see a similar debate taking place in Corinth (1 Cor 2:6–3:4). The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 John 2:20, 27).

The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the sermon-letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 John 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this work (1 John 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).

The Spirit is given by the Father (1 John 3:24; 4:13) and is described as the spirit of truth (1 John 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 John 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).

The negative attitude towards the world in this sermon-letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).

The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the sermon-letter; the world hates believers (1 John 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:20). The role of the devil in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 John 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).

The sermon-letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.

Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled realised eschatology; it is a clear point of difference between sermon-letter and Gospel.

However, the connections between sermon-letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.

There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross-referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.

Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.

Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.

This sermon-letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtfully contextual, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.

This blog draws on material in IN THE NAME OF … an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

The command to love and the ethics of Jesus (John 15; Easter 6B)

The Gospel passage set for the coming Sunday offers us a short and succinct summation of the ethics of Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12–13).

Nevertheless, we should note that there is little more I n the way of explicit ethical instruction in John’s Gospel. In keeping with the emphasis on the presentation of Jesus as the authoritative teacher, revealing God to those who have already been chosen, the basic position with regard to ethics is that those who know Jesus, will do as God wills; they will love, as he has loved. As for those who do not know him, they are condemned to the darkness.

As a result, there is no urgency about instructing believers how to behave; for they will know what to do. Rather than providing believers with guidelines and resources for living faithfully in the world, the Johannine Jesus assures his followers, “I have chosen you out of the world” (16:19). Following Jesus is not a pathway to faithful living in the world, but rather a journey towards the cosmic Christ, who leads believers into mystical unity with God.

Nevertheless there are some pointers, in this Gospel, to what is required of believers. The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform various actions, including those which subsequently became sacramental (communion, Luke 22:19; baptism, Matt 28:19).

In John’s Gospel, at his last meal, Jesus commands his disciples to wash one another’s feet, following his own example (John 13:14–15). The ethics of the Johannine Jesus are summed up in similar fashion: “just as I have loved you, so you should love one another” (13:34b).

This commandment is repeated in this Sunday’s passage (15:12). This “new commandment” sits at the centre of this Gospel (13:34–35; 15:12–17) and will inspire subsequent literature in the Johannine tradition (1 Jn 2:7–11; 3:11, 23; 4:7–11, 16–21; 5:3; 2 Jn 5–6).

Yet in contrast to the scriptural commands to love God and neighbour, cited by the Synoptic Jesus (Mark 12:28–31) and Paul (Rom 13:8–10), the command of the Johannine Jesus focuses on love of God and love of “one another”. It is limited to those within the faith community, and does not include “neighbours” (let alone love of “enemies”, as in Luke 6:27).

Another Synoptic instruction which is echoed in this Gospel is the command to serve, but once again with a narrower scope. Jesus instructs his disciples to follow his example and serve one another (Mark 10:42–45; Luke 22:24–27), but the Johannine Jesus exhorts them simply to serve him (John 12:26). Later, he informs them that they are no longer to be called servants, but friends, for they know all that God intends them to know (15:15). Even this ethical category is now obsolete.

In John’s Gospel, there appears to be little need for specific instruction about particular ethical situations, such as we find in the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and the teachings of the Synoptic Jesus (Matt 5–7; Luke 6; and so on). Rather, belief in Jesus brings with it an inherent sense of what must be done for the good.

This is expounded, not through ethical instructions, but by means of images which offer glimpses into how the central quality of love is made possible. In the image of the vine and the branches (15:1–11), Jesus portrays the foundations of ethical awareness (as we saw in last week’s Gospel passage).

Because believers abide in the Son, he is then able to bear fruit in their lives and “become my disciples” (15:8). So, love is made possible for those who believe, because they abide in the love of Jesus (15:10).

Employing another image, Jesus declares that he comes as “the light of the world” (9:5), inviting those who believe in him to follow the light (8:12), walk in the light (11:9–10), and thus become “children of light” (12:36).

A third image with potential for much ethical exposition is the statement by Jesus that “I am the way” (14:5). This image has been developed in other New Testament books, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in this direction. However, the Johannine Jesus appears to see “the way” simply as the way to intimacy with God (14:6–7).

For more on “the way” in John’s Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/06/i-am-the-way-john-14-from-elitist-exclusivism-to-gracious-friendship/

Each of these images provides a sense of certainty for the believer—who abides in Jesus, who walks in his light, who follows his way—without having to spell out particular attitudes or behaviours which must be followed. In the end, the Jesus of this Gospel invites his followers to walk into unity with him, and thus unity with the Father. Right behaviour, it is assumed, will simply follow on.

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

“In this is love: that God sent his son” (1 John 4; Easter 5B)

The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).

This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.

Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The concluding words of the book, asserting that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20), suggest high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this letter, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

The work is attributed to the apostle John, and that invites comparisons with the Gospel which also, by tradition, carries the name of John as its author. The sectarian tendencies, already seen in John’s Gospel, appear to have intensified in the situation addressed in this letter. Yet, in the end, “the world” is only temporary (2:17); victory over the world is assured, for it has already come (4:4; 5:3–5). Indeed, God’s intention is to save the whole world (2:1–2; 4:9, 14).

Who are the opponents? A dispute regarding the nature of Jesus is hinted at; this may point towards a doctrinal basis for the conflict. A central assertion, for the author of this sermon-letter, is that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2).

This claim appears to have been made in opposition to another view (that Jesus only appeared to be “in the flesh”, it is often assumed). Likewise, it is twice asserted that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2; 4:10; this is the NRSV translation of the complex Greek word used, hilasmos). We encounter this technical word in the affirmation of 4:10, in the Epistle passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.

These credal claims have led some interpreters to claim that the “opponents” reflected in this sermon-letter were Docetists, who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be of human flesh. (The term “Docetist” comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning to appear or to seem.)

Various claims made concerning Jesus reflect the developing Christology that we can see in other New Testament documents: Jesus is “Son of God” (4:15; 5:5, 10), “Messiah” (2:22; 3:23; 5:1), the one who is “righteous” (2:2, 29). The author of this sermon-letter thus takes his place alongside other “apostolic” authors who together will provide the data for the developing “apostolic faith” of the second century onwards.

There is a particular emphasis in this sermon-letter on the claim that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). This appears to argue against a view that Jesus came “by water” only—that is to say, a view that minimises or rejects the saving significance of the death of Jesus. For the author, a central assertion is that “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).

The conflict between the author and his opponents had become tense and even malicious, as we might deduce from the references to “deceivers” (2:26; 5:7), “false prophets” (4:1), “liars” and their “lies” (2:4, 22, 27; 4:20; 5:10), and the “spirit of error” (4:6). These condemnatory terms climax in the reference to, not one, but many “antichrists” (2:18–25; 4:2– 6).

The connection of such derogatory labels with the credal assertions of the author (especially at 2:22 and 5:10) suggests that sectarianism has fuelled this conflict. A further piece of evidence in support of this is the use of the term “anointing” (2:20, 27) to describe the status of the recipients. This word, in Greek, is related to “Christ”, the title reserved for Jesus. Those anointed by God claim a special status as Christ’s people—a claim that fits well within the polemical context of increasing sectarianism.

*****

A striking feature of the letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).

Table A: Purpose Statements in John and 1 John
John 20:31
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
1 John 5:13
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter. Other points of differentiation are noted below.

There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).

Another important motif in the prologue to the letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense lof testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).

Beyond the letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).

The letter writer asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).

Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).

We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the letter’s prologue (1 Jn 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in the letter (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).

Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized by the letter writer; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26). However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 Jn 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 Jn 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

Knowledge is a key concern of this letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).

The emphasis on knowledge in this letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We have seen a similar debate in 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:4. The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 Jn 2:20, 27).

The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 Jn 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this letter (1 Jn 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).

The Spirit is given by the Father (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) and is described as “the spirit of truth” (1 Jn 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 Jn 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).

The negative attitude towards the world in this letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).

The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the letter; the world hates believers (1 Jn 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:20). The role of “the devil” in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 Jn 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).

The letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.

Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled “realised eschatology”; it is a clear point of difference between letter and Gospel.

However, the connections between letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.

There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross- referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.

Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. (The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.)

Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.

This letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtful, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.

This blog is based on draws on material in IN THE NAME OF: an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

“See what love the Father has given us”: the nature of 1 John (1 John 3; Easter 3B)

The lectionary is currently offering a series of passages from the book we know as 1 John. They run from Easter 2 (last week) to Easter 7 (in mid May).

1 John is a book that’s about love: “I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning … we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action … this is his commandment, that we should love one another, just as he has commanded us … let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Although, it’s about more than love, too—as we shall see.

Although it is usually described as a letter, the work is actually more in the form of a sermon. It does not begin with the kind of opening address expected in a letter, nor is there any form of expected epistolary conclusion at its end.

The opening verses of this sermon-letter, instead of providing information about the context in which the document came into being, launch straight into an urgent rhetorical statement (1:1–4) about the important generic message which will follow. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5). It is an unusual way to begin a “letter”.

The sermon-letter ends quite abruptly, with a stark admonition: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). There is no context given for this instruction; and no discussion of travel plans or the sending of an emissary, no greetings, no final blessing. It is a strange way to end a “letter”.

Is it a letter, a book, a sermon–or what?

The book clearly has the ethos of a letter, as found in the first person plural of the opening verses (“we declare…we declare…we are writing…”, 1:1–4), the direct address to “little children” (2:1; 3:18; 5:21) and “beloved” (2:7; 4:1, 7), and the repeated assertion that “I write these things” (2:1, 7, 12–14, 26; 5:13).

Moral exhortation and doctrinal teaching, elements regarded as being classic component parts of early Christian letters, are interwoven throughout the book without clear distinction.

Yet there appears to be no marshalling of a case and no logical development of thought, such as is found in the carefully-shaped rhetoric of the letters of Paul. At first reading, the letter’s structure is somewhat circular and repetitive, more an extended meditation on “love” (the term appears around fifty times) than a tightly-argued instruction. The tone is often reflective—although there are moments of contention and dispute. More like a sermon, perhaps?

The author of the sermon-letter is never named, but the opening verse (that we heard in the lectionary reading last week) makes the claim that the letter comes from one who has “heard…seen…looked at and touched” for himself, the very “word of life” (1:1).

The inference is that the author has had personal contact with Jesus himself; in the third century, Irenaeus made the definitive claim that the letter was written by “John, the disciple of the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.16.5). And that tradition has stuck ever since.

This claim goes beyond any direct assertion within the sermon-letter itself; although such a claim might be reinforced by the author’s reiteration of his privileged status as eyewitness (and earwitness): “we have seen it” (1:2), “what we have seen and heard” (1:3), “the message we have heard from him” (1:5), as well as a later reminder: “just as he has commanded us” (3:23).

The frequent use of “from the beginning” (1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:11) might also be taken as a reference back to the teachings of Jesus, mediated through the writing of this author.

Likewise, from the text of this sermon-letter itself, its recipients cannot be specifically identified in any meaningful way. There are references to “little children … fathers … young people” (2:12–14) which are formulaic and generalised. They already know the message about Jesus, for they “know him who is from the beginning” (2:13, 14) and have already heard his commandment to “love one another” (2:7; 3:11).

Their situation involves a controversy about how to live in obedience to Jesus; the contrast between darkness and light, love and hate is marked throughout the work (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21). A key idea in this regard is the way that love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in the lives of believers. This is what the recipients of the letter are to set as their aim.

Set in stark contrast to the believers is “the world”, which is both personified and portrayed as a negative character. The world is full of desire (2:16); those in it do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The sermon-letter ends with the strong assertion that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20). This suggests high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this document, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

What can we know about this opposition that is reflected in this sermon-letter? And what kind of theology emerges from this conflict? That’s the focus of my next blog on 1 John.

This blog draws on material in IN THE NAME OF … an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)