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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
1 John

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Book Overview - 1 John

by Philip Schaff

INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. JOHN.

THE First Epistle of St. John may be said generally to belong to that sphere of revelation in which we have ‘pressed on unto perfection’ (Hebrews 6:1). It takes us into the ‘most holy place’ of the Divine mysteries; and, as has been before observed, the reader must seek admission with the words in his ears: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ We find ourselves, indeed, in the same inmost sanctuary into which St. John’s Gospel has led us; but, while in the Gospel we see the highest glory of the High Priest who came from heaven and re-entered it for us, in the Epistle we are taught what the Christian life is upon earth that most fully represents and honours the Saviour’s work in heaven, and makes us partakers of His glory. Its matter is the highest and deepest mystery of Christian doctrine reduced to practice; its tone is that of the assured and tranquil confidence of Christian experience; its style is that of childlike simplicity, combined with the most matured contemplative grandeur. St. John here leaves us his final legacy; and his final legacy—confirming all that has gone before—supplements and consummates the entire revelation of God, and may be said to be the final voice of the inspiring Spirit. It may be expected, therefore, that he who would understand it must connect its teaching with all that has gone before, must carefully collate it with the Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament, and above all must yield himself up to the supreme guidance of the Spirit whose unction ‘teaching all things’ is so specially honoured in the heart of the Epistle.

The questions which meet us at the outset, and belong to the Introduction, are few and simple. We have to consider the testimony, external and internal, to its apostolic authorship; its relation to the other writings of St. John; the readers for whom it was designed; its pre-eminence in the doctrine of the New Testament generally, as its close and consummation; the integrity of the text; and, finally, the order of thought traceable in it. These topics will be briefly considered: briefly, because many of them have been more fully discussed in the Introductions to the other Johannine writings, and, moreover, because the exposition itself will render much diffuse preliminary matter needless.

I. The Epistle, like the Gospel, does not bear the name of its author. But the early Church, with all but perfect unanimity, ascribed both to the Apostle John. The evidence of this, in relation to the Epistle with which we now have to do, is without a flaw, since the few slight exceptions that may be found do, when fairly looked at, really support the argument. Every generation in the first three centuries, and almost every decade, furnishes some distinct evidence of the common sentiment Polycarp, one of the sub-apostolic Fathers, and a disciple of St. John, quotes the very words of 1 John 4:2-3. We have the testimony of Eusebius that Papias, in the first half of the second century, expressly quoted it. Justin Martyr, or the anonymous author of the Epistle to Diognetus, again and again refers to it. So do Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Irenaeus; some of these giving the words of the Epistle—and those among its most distinctive words—mentioning, too, the author by name. A list of New Testament writings, drawn up towards the close of the second century, and known as the Muratorian Canon, cites the first words as St. John’s, speaks of his using his own Gospel, and refers to the two smaller Epistles as St. John’s, and as ‘general’ or ‘catholic.’ About the same time the Peshito, or old Syriac Version, bears the same testimony. Eusebius placed our Epistle among the Homologoumena, or ‘writings universally accepted.’ Subsequent witnesses continue the uninterrupted tradition; and, in fact, East and West, Europe and Asia and Africa, agree for many ages in ascribing the three Epistles, or at least the First, to the Evangelist and Apostle St. John. It has been remarked already that the exceptions only strengthen the chain of evidence. The Alogi, who, as enemies of the Logos doctrine, were said by Epiphanius to have rejected the Gospel and the Revelation, rejected the Epistle also. Marcion did not include it in his list; for some few expressions in it were deemed contradictory to his views of the Old Testament. On the whole, therefore, it may be said that no document of the New Testament is better attested in antiquity. Jerome sums up its general consent: ‘Ab universis ecclesiasticis viris probatur’ (De vir. ill. c. 9). Modern criticism has had nothing to plead against this catena, but has founded its objections on internal evidence alone. This leads us to our next section.

II. The relation of the Epistle to the other writings of St. John, or to the Johannine literature generally, is a very interesting one. Omitting at present the Apocalypse, it needs only a casual glance to show that there is a certain style, whether literary or theological, common to the Epistles and the Gospel: a style that is so marked and characteristic as to separate these writings from all others in the New Testament. This absolute unity of conception pervades both the documents, and moulds them throughout. It extends from the highest objects of thought, God and Christ, life and death, down to the slightest peculiarities of phrase and construction. The similarity, or rather the identity, is so obvious that we may dispense with the lists of doctrinal and verbal coincidence usually given, and leave the reader to mark them for himself, especially as we shall have to dwell on some of these leading ideas for another purpose. Now in ancient times, as we have seen, there was never any doubt that St. John wrote both. But the exigencies of hypothesis in modern times have required the abandonment of this notion, which is regarded by a certain class as unworthy of scientific criticism. The Apostle St. John is supposed by many to have himself written nothing, but only to have furnished an honourable name on which to hang the results (of pious fraud. Others think that the Apostle wrote the Gospel, but that the Epistles were written by a certain ‘John the Presbyter,’ whom tradition, according to Eusebius, mentions as having lived at Ephesus at the same time with the apostle. There are some, again, who think that the First Epistle is simply a spurious document, feebly imitating the Gospel, and using the name of ‘the presbyter’ even as the Gospel tacitly assumed the name of the apostle.

A close examination of these writings will further show that they were written, by the same author indeed, but on very different occasions and for very different purposes. It has become almost habitual to regard the Epistle as a companion document or appendage to the Gospel: a view for which there is no justification. There is not a single sentence which, fairly interpreted, points that way. On the contrary, there is much which indicates another class of readers, a new order of circumstances, and a considerably later date. The Epistle speaks in the style of a more advanced development concerning the ‘manifestation’ or ‘coming’ of Christ as the ‘day of judgment’ and ‘the last time.’ It is another class of readers which rendered appropriate the reference to the ‘many antichrists;’ and, generally, the Gnostic errors obviously combated throughout the Epistle are more distinctly viewed, if not actually much nearer, than they appear in the Gospel. There is no hint in the latter that Docetism, or the heresy that made the Son of God a phantom combination of human nature with an emanation descending upon the man Jesus for a season, was directly combated. The Gospel rises sublimely above all transient heresy. But this particular error is directly confronted in the Epistle: more directly than any other error which the New Testament mentions. All this points to a later date, but by no means to a different author. There is not a word about the incarnation, the material judgment or coming of Christ, the antichrist, the person of Satan, or any other leading doctrine in the Epistle, the germ of which is not found somewhere in the Gospel Contrariety between them there is absolutely none. But different and new aspects of the Logos, the Comforter, the propitiation, the nature and penalty of sin, there doubtless are. The Logos or Word is the Word of life; and surely this is not a lower conception of the Son of God, nor one that essentially diverges from that of the Fourth Gospel. The Paraclete is certainly in the Epistle Jesus Himself; but there is no opposition between this and the Gospel doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete: the heavenly Paraclete of the Epistle and the internal Paraclete of the Gospel answer to each other, as they do in Romans 8. The same may be said of the alleged absence of the Spirit’s personality in the doctrine of the Epistle as compared with that of the Gospel. In both He is the Spirit of Christ: in both, ‘the anointing from the Holy One;’ and in both, the agent and element of regenerate life. The later document—as we believe it to have been—introduces two new terms, Sperma and Chrisma, which certainly no one can prove that St. John might not have used, especially if we regard him as vindicating those terms from Gnostic perversion. And it is not an unfair argument to plead that whatever is said of the Holy Ghost is said to those who are supposed to have the Lord’s last discourses in their hands: no one can doubt that the writer of the Epistle writes with those last discourses before him, and uses their language very often. The doctrine of the atonement is different, but does not differ from the earlier statements. It makes Christ as the High Priest Himself ‘the Propitiation,’ and that in a unique expression; but this is only a strict development of the high-priestly prayer, and certainly in harmony with all apostolic doctrine. There is nothing in the later doctrine of sin which contradicts that of the Gospel Its relation to Satan, its universality in human nature, its removal by the atonement, are the very same; and if St. John introduces the ‘sin unto death,’ all we can say is that he has given us a new aspect of the same revelation given us in the Synoptics and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The symbolism of the ‘water and the blood,’ rightly interpreted in both documents, has in both the same meaning. Failing in their objections, the objectors are reduced to such generalities as the inferiority of tone in the Epistle. But here they render defence needless by differing among themselves. One class follow Baur, calling it a ‘weak imitation’ of the Gospel; another, following Hilgenfeld, call it a ‘splendid reproduction’ of the Gospel. For ourselves, we feel in reading the Epistle after the Gospel that we are listening to the same writer, but rather as ‘John the theologian’ than ‘John the evangelist;’ that he is no longer writing, so to speak, under the overpowering influence of his Master present in the flesh and chaining him to the simple record of what he saw and heard, but, still in the presence of the same Master exalted to heaven, is calmly reviewing the wonderful past, and giving his own and his brethren’s experience of its present effect, and exhorting all to the perfection which the work of Christ has rendered possible. The current allusions to the monotony, repetition, and illogical dogmatism of the paragraphs deserve no comment: the soul that is formed by the Gospel will feel that the Epistle wants no commendation or defence of man. But what we would say has been better said by Ewald, in an oft-quoted sentence of his work on St. John’s writings: ‘Here, as in the Gospel, the author retires to the background, unwilling to speak of himself, and still less to base anything on his own name and reputation: notwithstanding that he meets his reader, not as the calm narrator, but as writing a letter, in which he exhorts and teaches as an apostle, and moreover the only surviving apostle. The same delicacy and diffidence, the same lofty calmness and composure, the same truly Christian humility, cause him to recede as an apostle, and to say so little about himself: his only aim is to counsel and warn, reminding his readers simply of the sublime truths they have already received. The higher he stands, the less disposed is he to depress his “brethren” by the weight of his authority and commands. But he knew himself and who he was: every word reveals plainly that none but himself could thus speak and counsel and warn. The unique consciousness which an apostle growing old must have, and which the “beloved” apostle must have had in a pre-eminent degree; the tranquil superiority, clearness, and decidedness of all his views of Christian truth; the rich experience of a long life, steeled in victorious struggle with every unchristian element; the glowing language, concealed under and bursting through this calmness, the force of which we instinctively feel when it commends love to us as the highest attainment of Christianity,—all these are found so wonderfully united in this Epistle that every reader of that age would, without needing any further intimation, discern at once who the writer was. But, when the circumstances required it, the author plainly indicates that he once stood in the nearest possible relation to Jesus (chap. 1 John 1:1-3, 1 John 5:3-6, 1 John 4:16), precisely as he is wont to give the same indication in the Gospel. And all this is so artless and simple—so entirely without the faintest trace of imitation in either case—that all must of necessity perceive the self-same apostle to be the writer of both documents.’

Another quotation may be added: ‘Let it be noted how admirably the character of the Epistle accords with what we otherwise know of the character of the apostle. On the one side, there is a keen severity in the severance of light from darkness, and of the world from God’s kingdom, which betrays the son of thunder; indeed, we find such an ethical sharpness of definition as makes every sin an evidence of the Satanic nature (comp. chap. 1 John 3:4-11), such indeed as occurs nowhere else throughout the compass of Scripture. But, on the other side, and concurrently with this, we feel a breath of most pathetic and most inward affection, from a spirit overflowing with love, and strong in peaceful rest, such as corresponds with those traditions concerning his old age which appeal so forcibly to our hearts. . . . That the aged disciple, who through a long life had by faith and love attained so close a relation to his Lord, was so thoroughly pervaded by the riches of the grace that came to him through Christ that all the hatred of the world and raging of antichrist failed to disturb his deep repose, that he could not indeed well understand how their influence could be felt at all, is perfectly imaginable in his case. Simon Peter before this, in his Second Epistle, when the times were disturbed and the lie had raised its head aloft, felt himself impelled with all the energy of his love to transpose himself back into the days when he had his Master’s society, and also with all the energy of his hope to propel himself forward to the time of the perfected kingdom of God. So also our apostle, following his character out, and in harmony with his deep interior nature, must needs, in his old age especially, have still more abundantly felt himself impelled, while enemies raged around him, and the more they raged, to fasten his deep thought upon the glory of Him whom he had seen as He was, and whom he hoped to see as He is. Thus, in conclusion, it may be said that it is perfectly clear how St. John, with such a personality as his, was precisely so affected as the Epistle reveals him, so full of peace in a time of fiercest conflict, so much more occupied with positive construction than with defensive polemic against enemies’ (Haupt, The First Epistle of St. John, p. 366, Clark’s Translation).

A long list of parallel phrases might be exhibited, such as could not be drawn up from any other two books even of the same writer. More than thirty such passages are literally common to the two; more than half of them linking the Epistle with the Farewell Discourses, John 12-17. As Mr. Sinclair says: ‘There the tender, loving, receptive, truthful, retentive mind of the bosom-friend had been particularly necessary; at that great crisis it had been, through the Spirit of God, particularly strong; and the more faithfully St. John had listened to His master, and reproduced Him, the deeper the impression was which the words made on his own mind, and the more likely he was to dwell on them in another work instead of on his own thoughts and words. The style may be his own both in Gospels and Epistles, modified by that of our Lord; the thoughts are also the thoughts of Jesus’ (Introd. to this Epistle in Bishop Ellicott’s Comm.). In the Introduction to St. John’s Gospel in the present work it has been said, on the general question of the relation of St. John’s style and our Lord’s: ‘Nor, further, is the supposition with which we are now dealing needed to explain the fact that the tone of much of our Lord’s teaching in this Gospel bears a striking resemblance to that of the First Epistle of John. Why should not the Gospel explain the Epistle rather than the Epistle the Gospel? Why should not John have been formed upon the model of Jesus rather than the Jesus of this Gospel be the reflected image of himself? Surely it may be left to all candid minds to say whether, to adopt only the lowest supposition, the creative intellect of Jesus was not far more likely to mould His disciple to a conformity with itself, than the receptive spirit of the disciple to give birth by its own efforts to that conception of a Redeemer which so infinitely surpasses the loftiest image of man’s own creation.’ This opens up a subject of deep interest, which may be profitably pursued in that Introduction. We have another purpose here. The quotations are not simply quotations, even if they may bear that name at all. In no case are they such as an imitator or forger would have employed. They are the writings of the same man; but not of one who has his own earlier document before him. Here we may refer to Canon Westcott’s Introduction to the Gospel (Speaker’s Commentary), who says: ‘The relation of the Gospel of St. John to his Epistles is that of a history to its accompanying comment or application. The First Epistle presupposes the Gospel either as a writing or as an oral instruction. But while there are numerous and striking resemblances both in form and thought between the Epistle and the Evangelist’s record of the Lord’s discourses and his own narrative, there are still characteristic differences between them. In the Epistle the doctrine of the Lord’s true and perfect humanity (sarx) is predominant; in the Gospel, that of His Divine glory (doxa). The burden of the Epistle is “the Christ is Jesus;” the writer presses his argument from the Divine to the human, from the spiritual and ideal to the historical. The burden of the Gospel is “Jesus is the Christ;” the writer presses his argument from the human to the Divine, from the historical to the spiritual and ideal. The former is the natural position of the preacher, and the latter of the historian. ‘Then, after mentioning some of the differences we have dwelt upon, Dr. Westcott goes on: ‘Generally, too, it will be found on a comparison of the closest parallels, that the apostle’s own words are more formal in expression than the words of the Lord which he records. The Lord’s words have been moulded by the disciple into aphorisms in the Epistles: their historic connection has been broken. At the same time, the language of the Epistle is, in the main, direct, abstract, and unfigurative. The apostle’s teaching, so to speak, is “plain,” while that of the Lord was “in proverbs” (John 16:25). . . . Generally it will be felt that there is a decisive difference (so to speak) in the atmosphere of the two books. In the Epistle St. John deals freely in the truths of the Gospel in direct conflict with the characteristic perils of his own time; in the Gospel he lives again in the presence of Christ and of the immediate enemies of Christ, while he brings out the universal significance of events and teaching not fully understood at the time.’ Besides being illustrative of what has been laid down, such extracts as these are the best material for an Introduction to our Epistle.

III. But when we come more specifically to the relation between the apostle and his readers, we are left very much to conjecture. Ancient tradition tells us that St. John, after the death of St. Paul, 64 A.D., laboured, or rather exercised an apostolical pastorate, in Ephesus for many years. It has been thought not improbable that during his banishment to Patmos, and for some reason not known, he wrote this encyclical or catholic Epistle to the churches from which he had been separated. Had that been the case, however, there would almost certainly have been some reference to his banishment; we must therefore assume that he wrote it from Ephesus either before or after that exile. In the Apocalypse the seven leading churches of his apostolical district are mentioned, but mentioned as addressed by the Lord through the Spirit; hence it might almost seem as if the apostle reverently abstained from mentioning by name the churches to which he wrote in person. There can be no question, however, that the communication has the character of an Epistle, though without the form impressed upon the majority of other similar writings of the New Testament. In this respect it is only a little more free than the Epistle to the Hebrews and that of St. James. The absence of the epistolary form is observable only at the outset and at the close: throughout the course of the communication we have more addresses and more epistolary hints than in any other book of the New Testament. In fact, it was an encyclical Epistle, the inscription of which was different for every church to which it was sent, and has not been preserved. It may be sufficient merely to mention the strange tradition which originated with Augustine, or to which he gave permanence, that it was addressed ad Parthos, ‘to the Parthians.’ As the Greek Church has no trace of this inscription, and it was unknown to the West before the time of Augustine, the only concern we have with it is to account for its origin. That, however, is not easy. It has been conjectured that the term Parthos is a corruption of the Greek parthenous, or virgins; and that the inscription given by the allegorizing Clement of Alexandria to the Second Epistle, ‘to the virgins,’ was by degrees attached to all the Epistles. But the matter is little more than a curiosity of early literature: suffice that all indications point not to Parthia but to Asia Minor for the circle of readers whom St. John addressed.

There is no indication in the Epistle itself that may be relied on for the determination of its date and circle of readers. The ‘last time’ has no significance here; the absence of reference to Jerusalem only suggests that the catastrophe had long taken place; persecutions are not referred to as present or impending; Jewish opposition is a thing of the past, and the only distinction is between the Church and the world; and finally the writer, addressing no particular church, writes as one far advanced in age, who had pastoral relations to his readers of long standing. All these point to a time coinciding with the banishment to Patmos. A few sentences from Haupt’s able General Review, at the close of his work on the Epistle, may incline the reader to study his whole discussion. ‘The churches of Asia Minor, and especially the Ephesian, to which we are directed by early tradition, had been introduced into Christendom through the long and assiduous activity of the apostle of the Gentiles, with advantages beyond most others. We at once understand, therefore, why our Epistle has no organizing character, but rather that of nurturing and establishing. Further, that the distinction between Judaism and heathenism as two defined hostile camps is so entirely absurd, is natural enough at the end of the first century, and so long after the destruction of Jerusalem; for, after that event, the power of the Jews in persecuting the Christians lay simply in their hiding themselves behind the Gentiles as the “world.. . . The enemy of these days was, in a peculiar sense, the spirit of false prophecy. We know, indeed, that even in the lifetime of the apostle heresy had been in Ephesus matured by Cerinthus; and not only so, but the very omissions of the Epistle may be perfectly understood when it is referred to the Corinthian Gnosis. All this proves that the Epistle must have been written later than the other New Testament Scriptures, and that it might well have been written by St. John. ... If, on the ground of the tradition that the apostle was a long time in Patmos, we assume that he wrote his letter from that island, the hypothesis will lighten up the whole. ... In it there is neither any greeting from any church, nor any greeting to one. The absence of the latter may be accounted for by the encyclical character. But how shall the absence of the former be accounted for? It was natural that the apostle should omit that, if he happened at the time to be located in no church whatever. ... He lived in relative seclusion, separated at least from all the excited movements of the outer world. For, on this small island, he could only to a slight extent exercise any influence, or carry on any work of an external character. To him at his age it would be matter of doubt whether he could win back that larger influence, whether the time of active work was not for ever gone. Then, the great concern was to wait upon the blessed manifestation of the Lord. The more he was shut in from exterior life, the more did he retire into the depths of his own being, and draw upon that which his faith gave him for his own good, and what he, with the whole Church, was called to attain through that faith. Thus the internal and ethical characteristics of the Epistle are no less explained than the apocalyptical tendency of its strain.’

These remarks may not carry conviction as to the Patmos theory, but they corroborate what appears to be the only conclusion from a general review, that the Epistle was written after the Gospel and independently of it; that it was, although the writer might not fully know in how complete a sense, an encyclical or catholic Epistle for the Ephesian Churches and the whole Christian world; and that it was a pendant not so much to the Fourth Gospel as to all the Gospels and the whole literature of the New Testament.

IV. To whose who fully accept the overruling providence of the Holy Spirit in the construction and arrangement of the New Testament, it will appear a matter of no small importance that St. John’s First Epistle is the last doctrinal treatise of Divine revelation. This being so, we may expect to find in it certain characteristics appropriate to a position of such dignity. These characteristics we certainly find. The historical disclosure of truth, continued so long in a series of wonderful dispensations, reaches its close. The faith delivered to the saints is now delivered in its consummate form: development of doctrine comes to an end in the Bible, that development of dogma may have its beginning. Following this hint, we may glance by way of introduction at some of the dogmatic features of this final document of the Bible.

It may be said, generally, that here we have the complete theological system of St. John himself before us: condensed into a few chapters. What is sometimes called the Pauline Christianity—the Christian doctrine which St. Paul was inspired to unfold—is diffused through a great number of writings, issued at intervals during a generation, and for the most part in the midst of manifold labours. The Johannine Christianity—the Christian doctrine which St. John was inspired to unfold—was given in a few chapters and once for all. In the Gospel and in the Revelation he does not speak in his own person as a teacher; though in them, and especially in the Gospel, the essentials of his peculiar view of Christianity are to be found. The Prologue of the Gospel alone contains the writer’s own theology: in all the rest he is silent and the Lord speaks. But in the Epistle we have himself as a teacher throughout; and in no part of the New Testament does the voice of personal authority sound so clearly and emphatically. There is no portion of the New Testament in which are more of the ‘signs of an apostle.’ The beloved disciple, and the elect apostle, has so to speak his supremacy here. He gives his own system of truth in all its completeness. Though there is a remarkable recurrence of one or two themes—so much so that the Epistle has often been charged with monotony and repetition—we perceive, if we examine it carefully, that it contains an entire compendium of the Gospel as it was poured into the mould of the last apostle’s spirit. God, the Triune God, Evil in the universe and in man, the person of Christ the Redeemer, the atonement as a propitiation of God and the destroyer of sin, righteousness and sonship and sanctification, perfected and perfecting love, antichrists and the coming of the Christ for their destruction, the eternal death of the reprobate and the high privileges of the saints, are topics that run through the whole round of cardinal fundamentals, and they are all presented in their final and perfected form under the hand of the apostle. He does not say that he is giving the sum of Christian verities; still less that he is supplementing and perfecting those given by others; but he is really doing this without saying so, and the result is a body of Christian truth more complete on the whole than any other one document of the Christian faith presents. Probably any of the doctrines, taken alone, may be found more fully developed elsewhere; but nowhere else are they all combined as in this Epistle. The Beginning and the End are linked in a most emphatic manner: in a manner almost peculiar to St. John. And between them is every prominent truth of evangelical revelation in brief but distinct outline.

And it is the voice of a teacher of doctrine as the foundation of morals. It is customary to speak of St. John as ‘the apostle of love,’ who shows us the supreme importance of practical in opposition to theoretic religion. But this is not the right view of the matter. This Epistle enforces no ethics which are not based upon revealed doctrine. The reader will observe everywhere that the exhibition of duty has not far of, generally hard by, the foundation of revealed truth, a fact on which it rests. This Epistle is the most perfect example in the New Testament of the indissoluble connection between doctrine and duty: the doctrine always underlying the duty; doctrine and duty being exhibited together; and duty being ever the end and consummation of doctrine. Other parts of the New Testament, however, contain all this. But St. John’s Epistle is pre-eminent as making Love the bond of perfection between doctrine and ethics. Love is perfected here in every sense: it has its perfection in God, for in this Epistle alone does revelation say that ‘God is love;’ and it has its perfection in man, for ‘perfected in us’ occurs again and again. There is no grander sentence in the Bible than this, when connected with those just quoted: ‘Hereby know we love, because He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’ The doctrine of the atonement is the foundation of the ethics of perfect self-sacrifice. The entire Epistle—with the two smaller Epistles as its appendages—perfectly illustrates St. Paul’s saying that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law.’ The perfection possible to the disciples of Christ is exhibited as the supreme triumph of the love of God in us. First, ‘Whose keepeth His word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected:’ the Epistle makes all obedience a manifestation of love, and in all obedience only is the love of God perfected. Again, ‘If we love one another, God abideth in us, and His love is perfected in us:’ the innumerable obligations of charity are not dwelt upon, but they are all summed up as the outgoings of God’s own love, or God Himself, from the heart into the life. Finally, we read: ‘He that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in Him. Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.’ Nothing less than the entire consecration of the soul in fellowship with the indwelling Trinity is here; and such a consecration as opens to human desire and hope the most enlarged prospect of the triumph of perfect love. Let these three passages be studied in their harmony, and it will be seen that the view they give is one that is not so distinct in any other part of Scripture, and one that gives a character of its own to this final document.

V. The text of the Epistle has come down to us in good preservation. Only a few questions of textual criticism have occupied much attention. These are referred to in the commentary; but three of them may be briefly noticed here. One is the passage, chap. 1 John 2:23, which has commonly been italicised in our translation as of doubtful genuineness. Its right to a place in the text has been abundantly vindicated. The second is the reading which changes ‘confesseth not’ in chap. 1 John 4:3 for ‘annulleth:’ seeming to mean, as quoted by Latin Fathers, solvit, as if the error were the dissolution of the two natures in our Lord’s person. It seems hard to resist the evidence in favour of this highly theological reading. But the latest revision has put it only in the margin. The third is of course the well-known passage of ‘the three witnesses,’ hitherto John 5:7. This passage will be found still within brackets, and it is not dismissed without notice in the exposition. But it is now all but universally admitted that it is spurious.

The case, in fact, is very strong indeed against the passage. It is found in no Greek codex earlier than the eleventh century; and had it been extant in the East in any form, it would certainly have been used in the Arian controversy. Its first insertion into the Greek Testament was simultaneous with the beginning of the printed text; it was honoured with a place in the great edition printed at Complutum A.D. 1522. During the sixteenth century it crept into a few Greek codices. One of them was a copy of the Complutensian Polyglot; the others seem by internal evidence to have been translated from the Vulgate. Among these is the Codex Britannicus (preserved in Dublin), which may be said to have indirectly procured the verse its place in our modern editions. Erasmus was induced by it to give the passage a place in his edition; and his example was followed by other editors and the Textus Receptus. The Old Versions down to A.D. 600 do not contain it; the Vulgate itself in its earliest and best editions being without it. The most recent editions of the Greek Testament altogether exclude the passage.

Its origin is a problem that will probably never be solved. Possibly some Greek gloss in the margin kept its place until it was in some copies attracted into the text. There is a remarkable passage in Cyprian (de Unit. Eccles.), which may shed some light on it: ‘Dicit Dominus, Ego et Pater unum sumus (John 10:30), et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est, et tres unum sunt, et quisquam credit, hanc unitatem de Divina firmitate venientem, sacramentis coelestibus cohaerentem, scindi in ecclesia posse.’ In these words Cyprian might have been giving a Trinitarian explanation of ‘the Spirit and the water and the blood;’ but he might also have been quoting from an old Latin Version. In any case, this only gives a hint as to the way in which the reference to the Trinity might have been placed in the margin as an interpretation of the subsequent allegorical verse, and thence have crept into the text. For the rest, we may say with Ebrard: ‘Granted it not to be impossible that Greek codices may be yet discovered which shall contain the clause, we must direct our critical judgment by the evidence of the documents which we have; not of those which we have not, and of the existence of which we as yet know nothing.’ It is usual to lay much stress on the internal evidence which condemns the passage. But that is a precarious argument; and one that is hard to maintain against a large number of divines and commentators who have, not only in the Roman communion but among Protestants, maintained the obligation of retaining them. Here we may quote Ebrard again: ‘On the internal arguments against the authenticity we do not lay any great stress. That St. John, who wrote those passages in the Gospel, chap. John 1:1, John 10:30, John 16:15, could not have given expression to the thought that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one, is no more than the unwarranted assertion of subjective hypercriticism. Again, that he who elsewhere opposes God to Word, and Father to Son, should here insert Word between Father and Spirit, involves no direct impossibility. It is indeed strange, as also is the adjective Holy, omitted from chap. 1 John 4:1 downwards. There is nothing in the interpolation directly conflicting with the order of thought, especially if we adopt the arrangement confirmed by the oldest citations in Vigilius, Fulgentius, Cassius, and Etherius, which inverts the order of the verses. According to the right exposition of the witness which refers it, not to the demonstration that Jesus and no other is the promised Messiah, but to the testimony as to whose might it is through which the world is overcome, St. John would first mention the three factors of God’s power on earth. . . . After these, he would introduce the Three-One in heaven, Who from heaven sustains the testimony of His church.’ We will close with the words of Haupt (the First Epistle of St. John, Clark’s Translation, p. 312): ‘In spite of my private conviction of the genuineness of the reading annulleth Jesus, chap. 1 John 4:3, I could not decide to put it into the text; for our editions must keep close to the substance of the manuscripts. But to preserve chap. 1 John 5:7 cannot be justified by any means. The most acute argument that has to this hour been adduced in its favour is represented by the venerable Bengel, who asserts that here the analysis of the Epistle is summed up in one point, the Trinity being the governing principle of its arrangement ... As to the dogmatic shortsightedness which bewails in its loss the removal of a prop for the doctrine of the Absolute Trinity, this might be expected in lay circles, but ought not to be found among theologians. A doctrine which should depend on one such utterance, and in its absence lose its main support, would certainly be liable to suspicion. Omitting the verse, we have in this very section the doctrine of the Trinity in the form in which Scripture generally presents it: the Father, who witnesses, 1 John 5:9; the Son, who is attested, 1 John 5:6 seq.; the Holy Spirit, through whom the Son is witnessed by the Father, 1 John 5:6 : the passage being thus very similar to the narrative of our Lord’s baptism.’

VI. Perhaps no book of the New Testament has suffered more than this Epistle from arbitrary attempts to force upon it an order of thought and subject it to analytical arrangement. In this, however, there have been two extremes. The ancient expositors, and the earlier ones of modern times, thought too lightly of St. John’s order: Augustine led the way by speaking of the Epistle as speaking many things mainly about love. To them the writer was a contemplative mystic, who followed the sacred impulse whithersoever it led him; and wrote down his meditations, partly about sound doctrine and partly about pure charity in aphoristic sentences. The commentators who have annotated the Epistle during the last bundled and fifty years have been disposed to go to the other extreme, and to find too exact and minute a distribution. Certainly the apostle has a train of thought in his mind, and writes according to a plan; but it is equally obvious as we read that he turns aside here and there from his main current, and also that he revolves round occasionally to the same ideas and words. Too much stress has been laid upon the specification at the beginning,’ These things we write that your joy may be fulfilled:’ it is not necessary to regard this as indicating a plan in St. John’s mind. So with the purpose mentioned at the close, ‘that ye may know that ye have eternal life:’ the apostle does not mean to say that it has been his one leading design to lead them to this experimental knowledge.

It is plain enough that there is an exordium; and equally plain that the concluding verses of the Epistle are a peroration, gathering up the whole into a few final sentences. Between these two the idea of the fellowship of Christians with God seems to rule the whole: first, as a fellowship in light and holiness, viewed under a variety of aspects down to the close of the second chapter. Then the fellowship is rather that of the life in and with God which the Christian sonship imparts: this governing the Epistle in the third chapter. Then follows the fellowship in faith down to the concluding paragraph. But the vindication of this order must be left to the exposition itself.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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