FIRST JOHN 2
1 My children, I am writing this to prevent you from sinning; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the upright.
2 He is the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world.
3 In this way we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.
4 Whoever says, ‘I know him’ without keeping his commandments, is a liar, and truth has no place in him.
5 But anyone who does keep his word, in such a one God’s love truly reaches its perfection. This is the proof that we are in God.
6 Whoever claims to dwell in him must act as he acted.
7 My dear friends, this is not a new commandment I am writing for you, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the message you have heard.
8 Yet in another way, I am writing a new commandment for you — and this is true for you, just as much as for him — for darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
9 Whoever claims to be in light but hates his brother is still in darkness.
10 Anyone who loves his brother dwells in light and there is in him nothing to make him fall away.
11 But whoever hates his brother is in darkness and is walking about in darkness not knowing where he is going, because darkness has blinded him.
12 I am writing to you, children, because your sins have been forgiven through his name.
13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you have come to know the One who has existed since the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have overcome the Evil One.
14 I have written to you, children, because you have come to know the Father. I have written to you, parents, because you have come to know the One who has existed since the beginning. I have written to you, young people, because you are strong, and God’s word remains in you, and you have overcome the Evil One.
15 Do not love the world or what is in the world. If anyone does love the world, the love of the Father finds no place in him,
16 because everything there is in the world — desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, pride of possession — is not from the Father but is from the world.
17 And the world, with its desires, is passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains for ever.
In the opening section of this letter, representingthe faith of a community which follows Jesus according to the teaching attributed to John, the authors speak of life shared with each other and with God the father and his son Jesus Christ, a life which is eternal, that they want the recipients of the letter to share also. It seems from the evidence within this letter that the community is in crisis due a disagreement about the nature of this life, and that the letter is intended to rally groups of believers to the authors’ convictions.
One of the most surprising assertions of the opening section is that the members of the holy community must declare themselves to be sinners. Only then can they share the forgiveness which God offers in Jesus. Now the authors hasten to add that they are not being soft on sin! The aim of the letter is to help them avoid sin but those who do sin will find forgiveness through Jesus who is described as their “advocate with the father”, that is, the one who put pleads their cause with God; and as the “sacrifice” on account of which God forgives all sins. These are slightly different descriptions and perhaps contradictory, since if God is in Jesus’ sacrificial death, why does Jesus need to plead with him on behalf of sinners? And if God is not in Jesus sacrifice, but rather demands it to satisfy his own unforgiving justice, then we are left with a psychopathic God. The possible contradiction is not worked out in this letter but the authors may have held the view expressed in Hebrews 9,10, that Jesus makes to God the perfect offering of his own life and death (his blood) and continues to offer himself in heaven. God’s acceptance of this offering means that he identifies with it and owns it. Isaac Watts the English hymn writer sums it up:
His powerful blood did once atone
and now it pleads before the throne.
The authors use a number of phrases common to the community to describe those who truly share its life: “knowing God/Jesus” and “dwelling in God/Jesus are two of these. Knowing God/ Jesus entails obedience to their commandments; knowledge means a genuine intimacy such as between sexual partners (as in its use in the Hebrew Bible) and not some mere intellectual or spiritual acquaintance. That is why it can be said that God’s love comes to perfection in the person who keeps his word; it is the expression of shared intimacy. This intimacy can also be described as “being in” or “dwelling in” God. This means to make God one’s home and obviously involves keeping the house rules, which are made clear by God’s own behaviour in Jesus.
The commandment that is both old and new is the great Torah injunction to love God and your neighbour. It is old because it comes from the Jewish tradition and from Jesus; it is new because the community lives in new times when God’s light is conquering the darkness, that is, when goodness is overtaking evil. The authors assert this change as real.
Love of the “brother” is the mark of true faith. Possibly the authors see those who are arguing with their theology as denying this fraternity, and therefore wrong. We may be suspicious of this judgement, but we should note that the authors are putting fraternal unity in a higher place than doctrinal perfection. The love which arises from the shared life is the paramount value of this community.
Given that the old commandment prescribes love of neighbour and that Jesus radicalised its meaning in his parable of the Good Samaritan, we can ask about the meaning of the word “brother” in this letter. Firstly we can note the absence of any reference to sisters. This is common to the letters of the Christian testament, although not of the practice of Jesus. But I suspect that brother has come to mean those who belong to the same group of believers. If I am right in this suspicion, I would argue that it diminishes the truth of this writing and its theology.
The eloquent address to children, fathers and young people is meant to encourage the whole community to bring its traditional virtues into the shared life of the community, but again we notice the absence of any address to women. Over all I find that this letter expresses a profound communal theology which is vitiated by a sectarian spirit that rejects people who think differently, and by a patriarchal spirit that refuses to recognise the women who are part of its shared life.
I think it’s important for people like me who love the scriptures to be frank about their shortcomings as well as their wisdom.
The theology of the John community uses the word kosmos in a negative sense, meaning what Paul calls “worldly powers”, that is, the universe as ruled by evil. Human evil misuses created things, turning them into idols, the object of human desire to possess rather than to share. Even if our theology thinks better of the world than this letter, we should not dismiss its criticism of the kind of worldliness our culture takes for granted.