> COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.


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Recall to fundamentals

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Chapter 1.

It was there from the beginning (1). This is not how one would expect any letter, ancient or modern, to begin; nor is there any greeting at the end to make up for the lack of one at the beginning (as there is in Hebrews, the only other New Testament "letter" which begins so abruptly). Clearly, the document is not a letter in the ordinary sense. Nor, apparently, is it a "letter" in the literary sense (that was so common in the ancient world) of a piece of religious or philosophical writing dressed up in the form of a letter: for such "letters" always had at least the conventional greetings at the beginning and end. This writer starts straight in on his subject, and at first sight he appears to be writing a treatise or a sermon. Yet a few lines further down he begins a new paragraph with the words, My children, in writing thus to you (2.1). There is nothing conventional or literary about this: we are reading a real message written to a real congregation. A pastor is appealing to his flock; and for some reason he does not make his appeal in person, but writes it down and sends it to them. It is as if we are overhearing a conversation which has already been going on for some time. The writer takes a great deal for granted in his readers, and uses a characteristic idiom of his own which was doubtless familiar to them, but would have sounded strange and esoteric to the outside world. This is an essentially private piece of writing; today we have to find our way about in it as best we can.

The main thing which this writer seems to have taken for granted in his readers is a knowledge of the gospel according to John. The opening of the letter contains unmistakable allusions to the opening of the gospel, and the whole argument centres round words like "light", "life", and "love", which only yield their full Christian meaning to someone who has studied them in John's gospel. On every page the style and the idiom are constantly reminiscent of the larger work; and it is not surprising that ever since the end of the second century A.D. the church has assumed (in the absence of any indication in the document itself) that this "letter" is from the pen of the author of the gospel.

Yet the tradition is by no means certainly correct. It is impossible to regard the letter as simply a kind of extension of the gospel. Certain small points of style and thought are different; the idiom has a very much less Jewish flavour than the gospel (there is virtually no reference to the Old Testament); and the situation envisaged is not at all the same as that to which the gospel was addressed. The gospel was written explicitly 'that you may hold the faith' (20.31); its purpose was to help men to believe in Jesus Christ. But, in the letter, that faith is assumed.' It is addressed to those who give their allegiance to the Son of God' (5.13). The issue now is the danger of schism and heresy within the church; the purpose is no longer a proclamation of something new, but (as the NEB puts it) a Recall to fundamentals. This is reflected even in the writer's way of addressing his people. Sometimes he writes in his own person: the writer is "I", the whole church to which he is writing is "you". But sometimes he is so conscious of a division in the church between those who are faithful and those who hold false beliefs, that he deliberately identifies himself with one party against the other. "We" then becomes the true church, "you" the dissidents; and the purpose of the letter is that you and we together may share in a common life (1.3). It is not impossible to imagine the author of the fourth gospel addressing himself to such a situation, say at the very end of his life; but it is perhaps more likely that the letter was written, not by the evangelist himself, but by the leader of a church in which the fourth gospel had already been known and studied for some time.

Our theme is the word of life (1). In the Greek, this paragraph consists of a string of short phrases, loosely connected together in a way that can be represented in English only by a liberal use of dashes and brackets. To bring out the sense, the NEB has broken it up into short sentences, and has isolated this one phrase in order to provide a kind of centre of gravity for the whole complex of ideas. In itself, the word of life is a vague expression. It seems to promise, if anything, a philosophical discourse. But a reader familiar with John's gospel would at once give it a more specific meaning. Jesus himself was "life", he was also "the Word"; and moreover the transmission of that "life" to new members of the church involved an exposition of who and what Jesus was, an exposition which could also be called the word of life. Such a reader, that is to say, would expect to hear about Jesus. But there was more than one way of hearing about Jesus. The task of a gospel was to portray the person of Jesus during his earthly life—and this, for the readers of this letter, had already been done by the gospel according to John. This writer had nothing to add to that. But the Jesus who was known from that gospel was continuous with the Christ who still enlivened the faith of Christian believers: in an important sense, Jesus was still present among Christians in the church (and in part this letter seems to have been written as an answer to those who questioned this continuity, and who did not see much importance in the historical Jesus for the reality of their religious faith). It is from this point of view that the writer now proposes to speak about Jesus. The word of life is no longer concentrated entirely in the story of one person, but is dillused, so to speak, in the experience of Christians. This experience, though rooted in the historical Jesus, is something still developing. It can therefore no longer be defined (as in the gospel) in purely personal terms, as a certain "he" who made the whole experience possible; it is now a more complex phenomenon, involving a certain amount of abstraction: it is an "it".

This new point of view imposes a different time-scale. In the gospel, the person of Jesus was there 'when all things began'. A similar phrase is used here: It was there from the beginning; but the subject of the sentence is no longer just the person of Jesus, but the total experience of the church of which Jesus was the origin. The "beginning" of that experience was the moment when Jesus first began to be fully believed in—perhaps the resurrection, perhaps the first preaching by the apostles. If any heretics were claiming that they had a new experience more important than that which was shared by all members of the church, it was sufficient to answer that what the church believed in was no second-hand discovery made by the present generation, but was there from the beginning.

Let us assume that the letter was written around the end of the first century A.D. Few, if any, Christians survived who had actually seen Jesus. In the fourth gospel, the testimony of eye-witnesses is of great importance. But a in the letter, the perspective has changed. We have seen it and bear our testimony (2) is not a claim to have actually seen Jesus; it is still about "it", that is, about that life ... made visible which began with the appearance of Jesus on earth but which is still continuing in the form of a prolongation of his presence on earth in the experience of the church. Each generation of Christians receives its inheritance from the previous generation: every Christian has a tremendous solidarity with all those Christians who have gone before. In this sense, every Christian feels himself one with those individuals who originally "saw", "heard" and "touched" Jesus. But since then, Jesus has been experienced in the church in ways almost as tangible; and it is to this experience, which began as a personal apprehension of the earthly Jesus, and continues as an awareness of Jesus' continuing presence among them, that the Christians of this writer's generation bear their testimony.

Here is the message (5). Again, the form of this "message"—God is light—sounds abstract and philosophical, and devoid of that particularity which usually goes with statements of Christian belief. It is true that the reader is doubtless expected to have in mind those great statements in the fourth gospel to the effect that Jesus is the light of the world. But this writer goes on to show that he understands this proposition in a quite particular way. He is not attempting to offer a definition of the nature of God, but is drawing out an implication of what was in fact quite a common religious idiom. On a physical level, human existence is conditioned by alternating periods of darkness and light. By night, a man has to grope and guess. By day, he can see and explore to the full the possibilities of life. In religion, the same contrast suggests itself. Without God, a man is groping in darkness. With God, he can see where he is going. And so: God is light. But the same contrast also suggests itself in ethics: immoral behaviour is walking in darkness, moral behaviour is walking in light. If the two metaphors are now brought together, an important point is made against anyone who thinks that religious knowledge can be had without moral reform: if we claim to be sharing in his life while we walk in the dark, our words and our lives are a lie (6). Not that one can "walk in the light" just by intending to: Christians are not people who claim they can be good just by turning over a new leaf. On the contrary: we are being cleansed from every sin by the blood of Jesus (7). Neither pretending to be without sin, nor pretending that sin does not matter, is compatible with the particular message which this writer has for his congregation, that God is light.

Chapter 2.

My purpose is that you should not commit sin (1). The danger does not seem to have consisted in the ordinary temptations of the flesh—though a few fairly conventional warnings about these occur later on—but in the insidious view that sin does not matter. We can guess who it was who held this view. The man who says, 'I know him' (4) is a familiar character in the history of the early church. "Knowing God" (gnosis) was the professed ideal of a very popular kind of religious philosophy, which took many different forms and adopted many different speculative systems, but which always tended to represent the true aim of life as an attempt to free oneself from the evil environment of the visible world by means of "knowledge" of the real and the good. In this kind of religion—which is often called by the general term Gnosticism—to "know God" was to be saved; and since this salvation was held to consist in rising above the realm of earthly things to a knowledge of purer things above, it was not unusual for these "gnostics" to regard the body and its passions as quite unimportant, and to pay no attention to morality. It was certainly true of some of them that, on their principles, sin did not matter. These were evidently the kind of people who were menacing the unity of the church to which this letter was written. It was to check the spread of their influence that the author found it necessary to say, my purpose is that you should not commit sin.

But should anyone commit a sin. It was one thing to discourage a religious doctrine which might lead to immorality. It was quite another thing to pretend that Christians, any more than anyone else, were immune from the danger of committing sin. The church was not a community of people who never sinned (which would be impossible) but of people who had reason to believe that their sins were no longer a permanent source of estrangement from God. The conviction that, in Christ, something had happened which fundamentally affected man's relationship with God, was characteristic of ('.hristians right from the beginning. It was not easy to put into words, and a number of different metaphors were used. One which was well accepted in the church (though it is not actually used in John's gospel) was drawn from the Jewish Nticriliiitil system, mid this author alludes to it twice: We are being cleansed from every sin by the blood of Jesus (1.7)... He is himself the remedy for the defilement of our sins (2.2). Another was the image of the Last Judgement, where one to plead our cause (an "advocate") will appear on behalf of Christians. This advocacy, in John's gospel, is one of the roles of the Spirit. But here (following another line of thought which is also hinted at in the gospel, 14.16) the "advocate" is Jesus himself.

Do we keep his commands? (3) Granted that religion and morals were not separable (as the heretics were claiming), the mark of true religion was obedience to God. In the Jewish religious tradition this was taken for granted. The revelation of God to men took the form of a Law which they must obey, and it was axiomatic that anyone who professed to stand in any relationship with God must keep his commands. At first the church unquestioningly adopted the same attitude. All Christians were bound at least by the moral standards of the Law of Moses: this obligation was presupposed in the teaching of Jesus as recorded in all the gospels, including that of John. But here we seem to have moved a long way from the Jewish tradition. The readers of this letter seem to have been more used to philosophical preachers than Jewish Rabbis; and here, for almost the first time in Christian literature, the ultimate moral standard appealed to is, not the Law of Moses, but the example of Christ: whoever claims to be dwelling in him, binds himself to live as Christ himself lived (6).

The essence of this example is love. When Jesus gave his disciples the command to love one another, it was, in a sense, something new (John 13.34). To this writer, surveying the growth of Christianity from its origins, it was already old: it was the message which you heard at the beginning (7). It was the kind of conduct that had always been demanded of Christians. To use again the metaphor of light and darkness, it was this that constituted "dwelling in light". Yet there was more to it than metaphor. Loving one's brother was a part of that whole new experience of living which was indeed so new that it could be described as the beginning of that "new age" to which so many religious thinkers had looked forward. In the language of that traditional expectation, it could be said that the darkness is passing and the real light already shines (8). The present was a new age; and a command which had so much to do with the inauguration of that new age must itself be, in some sense, new.

I write to you, my children (12). Thus the writer frequently addresses his readers. But, to our surprise, he now singles out two groups within the congregation, fathers and young men (13), to speak a special word to each; and then he repeats the whole pattern again (13-14), with only very slight changes in what he has to say. Why he does this we do not know; the message for each group is not obviously appropriate only to them (though it may be that the young men, having stronger passions, could be said to have scorcd a greater victory over the devil—the evil one—by mastering them). Nor does the section play any clear part in the argument: it comes after a point that is complete in itself (15-17), and before a piece of perfectly conventional philosophical wisdom (though he who does God's will stands for evermore (17)) is drawn from the store of Jewish or Christian apophthegms). The readers are, and have always been, Christians. The distinctive things they live by are the forgiveness of sins, the knowledge of the Father and the Son, and a will and capacity to resist evil. Here, these propositions are simply woven into a balanced refrain.

You were told that Antichrist was to come (18). The church inherited a characteristic way of looking at history. The present age was nearing its end, and God would shortly bring into existence a new age fraught with blessings for his elect people. But before that could come to pass, there would be a period of intensified tribulation. The forces of evil would make a last desperate stand, the elect would be subjected to unprecedented trials, and the violence of this final struggle would be such as to leave those who survived with no more opportunity to compromise: events would show which side they were on, and by the time the hour struck for the Last Judgement the sheep would have already been effectively divided from the goats. In this picture, the forces of evil tended to be personified in the form of some monstrous being, who was destined to have a brief spell of power and freedom before his final overthrow; and when, in a period of particular distress, Jewish visionaries represented the events of their own time as signs of the imminent end, they were not slow to identify the nation or ruler particularly responsible for their sufferings with that dreadful Being in whom, in the last days, the power of evil was to be concentrated.

The church (doubtless following the example of Jesus himself) made use of the same mythology and adapted it to specifically Christian beliefs. It seldom regarded its own vicissitudes as mere strokes of ill-fortune that might soon give place to better times. Instead, it interpreted them as necessary features of that climactic stage of history in which Christians were now living. Jesus Christ had inaugurated the kingdom of God; its full realization could not be far distant, the promised new age was dawning. Inevitably, therefore, the present age would see those grievous portents of the end which had been expected for so long. Each new adversity could be understood as a fulfilment of ancient visions.

For Christians, therefore, as much as for Jews, it was natural to regard any particularly virulent adversary of the church as a manifestation of those intensified forces of evil which were expected to make their appearance in the last days. 1 lore, a slightly different line is followed, in that it is the heretics within the church who are Antichrist. The term was a new one, but it clearly represented the traditional monster of Jewish mythology, the personification ol the evil lories ranged against the true ( hrisl. This figure, the writer was saying, must now be understood in a new way, not as a single king or emperor, but as a type: now many antichrists have appeared. The heresy of these men was one of the characteristics of the age. Their function was to mislead (26) (so that the faith of the elect should be fully tested before the end), and their presence within the church was the means by which it was to be made clear, even before the Last Judgement, who belonged, and who did not, to the fellowship of those who were to be saved. The church, in any case, firmly believed that this was the last hour. This belief enabled them to identify the enemies in their midst as necessary actors in the drama. Having identified them, they were confirmed in their belief: this proves to us that this is indeed the last hour (18).

To this writer, then, it seems that those who held heretical views were not people who had merely gone slightly wrong in their beliefs and needed to be corrected: they were "antichrists", personifications of evil whose task was the predicted one of making clear, in the last days of the present age, that not all in our company truly belong to it (19). Strong language: what had these people done to deserve it? It has already appeared that, with their indifference to questions of conduct, they constituted a threat to the morals of the church. We are now told where their doctrine was wrong: they denied that Jesus is the Christ (22). It is difficult, at first, to imagine how people who denied this could ever have been Christians; but from hints later in the letter we can piece together the kind of beliefs they held. They were Christians in the sense that they believed the Christ had come; but for them,'' the Christ'' was only a mythological symbol for a spiritual reality. The man Jesus was no essential part of their faith; at most he was an example of a general truth, a lay figure in a drama that must be played out ultimately in terms of philosophical abstractions. What their way of looking at things hardly allowed for was a proposition as starkly concrete as that which the church proclaimed, that 'Jesus Christ has come in the flesh' (4.2). They denied that Jesus is the Christ in the sense that they denied that the great abstract concepts they associated with the Christ could be identified with a person as particular and human as Jesus.

The apostle Paul would have attacked this error with argument, and shown why the heretics were wrong. This writer also had his arguments: the heretics did not care about morality, and no doctrine which gave rise to immoral conduct could possibly be correct; moreover, as was clear from John's gospel, to deny the Son is to be without the Father (23)—as Jesus himself said, 'No one comes to the Father except by me' (John 14.6). But his main line of attack is one more characteristic of some of the later writings of the New Testament: no argument is necessary; the truth is in the keeping of the church; those who are in the church can be sure that what they are taught is the truth; those who separate themselves from the church separate themselves also from the source of truth. Here, this is expressed in unusual language. You, no less than they, are among the initiated (20). The word here for "initiation" means literally "an anointing" or "chrism" (see the footnote in NEB). A possible explanation of this surprising expression is that Christians were already beginning to refer to their baptism as (metaphorically) the "anointing" by which they were brought into solidarity with Christ, the Anointed One (see 2 Corinthians 1.21); moreover it was through baptism that they received the Spirit, which (as John's gospel puts it, 14.26) would 'teach them everything', so that (as this writer puts it) they would need no other teacher (27). But the heretics had (presumably) also been baptized: why could they not also claim the same guarantee of the truth of their doctrines? The answer must be that this writer intends, by "anointing", not just the moment of baptism, but that subsequent experience of the Spirit's guidance and of solidarity with the Son which, though it certainly followed baptism, also depended on the Christian remaining within the company of the church. Why does he call this experience by a name, "anointing", which suggests a once-for-all act of initiation? The answer may be that the heretics themselves, like certain gnostic sects in later years, practised a special rite of "anointing" which they believed guaranteed them access to the knowledge which they sought. If so, this writer is saying in effect that Christians have just as good an "anointing": as a consequence of their baptism and continuing fellowship in the church, they can learn all they need to know (27).

Chapter 3.

Let us assume that the heretics were saying that the important thing is to "know" God: what the body does—what people call "sin"—does not matter. Our author has not yet finished with this dangerous error. It was a familiar turn of speech to call a man metaphorically someone's "child" if his character and conduct were like those of his "father". For example, anyone who called himself a "child of Abraham", as the Jews did, ought to behave as Abraham did (John 8.39). In the same way, since most religions allowed that men are in some sense " God's sons", it followed that, since God is righteous, his "sons" must be righteous too. If one wished to define what. this sonship meant, one could say, quite generally, that every man who does right is his child (2.29). Conversely, the man who sins is a child of the devil (3.8) (and here, as in John 8.44, there is a hint of another possible way of understanding what Christ has done: man sins because an external force of evil, the devil, makes him sin; Christ, by overthrowing the devil and undoing the devil's work, has rescued man from sin).

So much followed from common speech, and was already a serious argument against the heretics. If they said that sin did not matter, how could they claim (as they presumably wished to claim) to be "children of God"? But in the Christian vocabulary (which the heretics presumably shared) the term, God's children (9), meant a great deal more. Not only John's gospel, but the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, made much of this. Being a "child of God" meant having a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It was a new status, a new kind of living, which was not man's by right, but which had been given to Christians through the sheer grace of God: How great is the love that the Father has shown to us! (1) One way of describing what this meant for a Christian was offered by the traditional picture of the last things: at the Last Judgement (which, for Christians, involved the definitive appearance of Christ) Christians, by virtue of their faith in Christ, would be confident and unashamed (2.28). But this writer has a much bolder definition of Christian "sonship" to offer than this. God's children (3.1) is not something we are called automatically, or will be called only at the last day. ← Grammatically, the Greek allows of more than one interpretation. See the footnote in NEB. It is something we are—here and now. This must not be imagined as a crudely obvious change in a man's appearance or character: even Jesus himself was not recognized by the godless world (a clear allusion to the argument of John's gospel). Rather it is a new intimacy with God: Christians (just as much as the heretics) claim to "know" God, and this, on the familiar philosophical principle that "like knows like", means that already in the present life, and much more hereafter, ← This seems to be the drift of verse 2. But the Greek is not clear, and indeed a slight change of punctuation makes it yield the somewhat different sense given in the second foot-note to this verse in the NEB. Christians are like him (2), they have something new in common with God. Sometimes this "something" is called the Spirit, sometimes it is described in terms of union with Christ, or of a just status before God. Here, a term is borrowed from popular philosophy: it is the divine seed (9).

This was more than mere words. Describe it how they would, Christians knew that something had happened to them, and that what had happened brought them closer to God. But being closer to God necessarily involved being further from that which is abhorrent to God, namely sin. There could be no dispute about what this meant. "Sin", admittedly, was a religious term; but its consequences were indistinguishable from ordinary wrong-doing: Sin, in fact, is lawlessness (4). This was the final answer to those who were saying that moral conduct does not matter. That new closeness, or likeness, to God which went with being a Christian was totally incompatible with an immoral life. To put the matter in its simplest form: A child of God does not commit sin (9).

All this was logical enough, and was a powerful argument against the heretics. But as a full description of the Christian life it needs considerable qualification. It may be true that the new kinship with God which comes from being a Christian is incompatible with sin; but the fact is that of course Christians go on sinning—indeed it has already been said with great emphasis that ' if we claim to be sinless, we are self-deceived and strangers to the truth' (1.8). Any analysis of the Christian life has to do justice to two apparently contradictory facts. One is that the Christian is no longer subject to the power of sin; the other is that Christians, like everyone else, continue to sin. The tension between these two facts is resolved only by the conviction that, when a Christian sins, his sin, though just as serious as anyone else's, is nevertheless something which can be cancelled out because of Jesus Christ. The writer does not enlarge on the nature of this cancellation here; but he makes two allusions to it: everyone ... purifies himself, as Christ is pure (3)—where the metaphor is drawn from cultic sacrifices believed to "purify" the worshipper; and, Christ appeared ... to do away with sins (4).

The contrast in this section has been between doing right and committing sin. But the Christian commandment is not just that we should do right, but that we should love one another (11); and the opposite of this is not just sin, but active hatred. The Bible likes to paint things in black and white. Just as Jesus rated anger on a level with murder, so this writer makes the choice as sharp as possible: love or hate. And, everyone who hates his brother is a murderer (15).

Is the choice really so brutal? Is the alternative to love nothing less than murder? Two examples seem to support this extreme use of language. The first example comes from the Old Testament. It is written there (Genesis 4) that God accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's, after which Cain murdered his brother Abel. But no explanation is given for the beginning of the feud; nothing is said to show why God preferred Abel's offering. Subsequent Jewish tradition, not content with this silence, filled in the reason: Abel was just, Cain was unjust. As this writer puts it, Cain's actions were wrong (12), and his brother's were right. Abel then began to figure in lists of Jewish saints (as in Hebrews 11.4), Cain in lists of villains. From such a list (since he does not elsewhere refer to the Old Testament at all) this writer may have drawn his example. It suited his purpose admirably. Cain was a sinner; in the phrase used earlier (3.8), a child of the evil one. His was a perfect example of wrongdoing leading to murder: he murdered his brother.

The second example is only hinted at. Do not be surprised if the world hates you (13). By the time this letter was written, there was a sharp division between the church and the world. The church was persecuted and some of its members had been killed. The antithesis of love and murder may not have been overdrawn. Inside the church was mutual love; outside was a hatred for Christians which had been known to lead to martyrdom.

In John's gospel the new life experienced by Christians was shown to be as different from the old as life is from death. This writer uses the same dramatic imagery: we for our part have crossed over from death to life (14). In this sense the new life is eternal life. It was possible, of course, to misunderstand the "love" which made such life possible, since this was a word to which Christianity had given a new meaning. Some might be tempted lo think of it as a mere emotion, a superficial matter of words or talk (18). But: it is by this that we know what love is: that Christ laid down his life for us (16). Nothing less was demanded of Christians—though (the writer adds, with an eye to the more prosaic routine of daily life) it need not always take such a sensational form: it comes into action just as much when there is simply a brother in need (17).

The reality of a Christian's love, then, is the test of his religion, the ultimate appeal of his conscience, the ground of that relationship with God which, in the fourth gospel, is marked by free access to him in prayer (16.23-4), a sense of unity with him (17.21), and the objective experience of the Spirit (20.23). Here, all this is compressed into a few verses (18-24), with the result that the Greek is in places exceedingly obscure (see the footnotes in NEB).

Chapter 4.

Test the spirits (1). In the early church, as we can see it in the pages of the New Testament, Christians were distinctly aware of having received a new power, or a new quality of living, which they called the Spirit. The name came from the Old Testament, where it described the phenomenon of a man acting or speaking in a way which showed that the initiative was not his own, but God's. The classical manifestation of this Spirit was prophecy: a man was inspired to proclaim his insight into present or future events, and his words, though they were still the personal utterances of an individual prophet, were recognized to have the authority of an oracle proceeding from God. Similarly in the church: the fact that the Spirit was once more active was proved most spectacularly by Christians speaking words which were evidently supernaturally inspired (although, as Paul argued, there were many other ways in which the Spirit might be experienced—see above on 1 Corinthians 12). The reality and objectivity of this experience was denied by no one; and yet, like everything in the Christian life, it was ambiguous. Just as, in the Old Testament, warning had to be given against prophets whose words seemed to be supported by every sign of supernatural inspiration, yet whose message must be rejected because it was pernicious (Deuteronomy 13.1-4), so, in the church, there was a danger of prophets falsely inspired, and warnings against them appear in many early Christian writings. This, again, could be understood as one of the tribulations to which the church would necessarily find itself exposed in the "last days". A spirit of error (6) was one of the things which would seek to shake the faith of the elect, and would separate the sheep from the goats in readiness for the Last Judgement. Only those whose faith was sound and sure would remain safely within the fold. This spirit of error would take the form of a spurious manifestation of the real Spirit, it would ape the Spirit of truth which inspired authentic prophecy among Christians. Indeed, this was one of the ways in which the ultimate personification of evil would manifest itself: This is what is meant by 'Antichrist' (3). Behind it all was the devil, and normally men were very much in the devil's power. But Christ had overcome the devil, therefore Christians need not fear the devil's agents: you have the mastery over these false prophets (4).

How were these false prophets to be identified? They gave themselves away only if what they said was contrary to the Christian faith. That faith, the writer has argued, depended on the proposition that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (2). A version of Christianity which did not do justice to the full humanity of Jesus, and to the identity of that Jesus with the Christ, could not possibly be proclaimed by a true prophet; and that, it seems, was precisely the doctrine which was being preached by the heretics, who denied 'that Jesus is the Christ' (2.22). Once their doctrine could be shown to be false, it made no difference if they supported it by means of apparently supernatural prophetic utterances: on the contrary, the very power of their prophesying showed them up in their true role as agents of a personified spirit of error, as manifestations of Antichrist. The fact that they were widely listened to was nothing for Christians to be alarmed by. It was merely another instance of the mysterious truth that the world did not accept Jesus, and still does not accept his followers.

Dear friends, let us love one another (7). This is more than a general remonstrance. Christianity disclosed a new concept of "loving", and seems almost to have coined a new word for it {agape). It meant something very demanding: following the example of Christ, if need be to the point of laying down one's life for another. It is one of the themes of this letter; but so far, in chapter 3, it has been introduced in a rather negative way: a Christian must love, because not to love is to sin, and a sinner cannot know God. But now this love is commended more positively. Love is from God; therefore loving is in effect the medium by which we come to know God. This could easily be misunderstood. There was a widely accepted philosophical sense in which men could be said to "love God". Men have an urge to know more about God, to seek him and to find ultimate satisfaction in the sense of having drawn near to him. This could be called "loving God"; and in this sense, the statement that God is love was something with which the heretics, with 9 their passion to " know God ", might very well have agreed. But the Christian answer to this was that the love of God is shown, not in man's response to God, but in what God has done, historically, for man (just as, in the Old Testament, God's attributes are always defined by reference to concrete interventions of God in the lives of men). If one is to be sufficiently like God to know something of God, one must have something of that love in oneself which God had towards men when he sent his son as the remedy for the defilement of our sins (10). God cannot be directly known by the evidence of the senses: God has never been seen by any man (12). Nevertheless, there is an empirical experience which brings a man close to God: God ... dwells in us if we love one another. Doubtless much more is necessary besides if God is to dwell in us. But this insight into the nature of God was a powerful argument against the moral indifference of the heretics: the unloving know nothing of God (8).

Here is the proof (13). The doctrine that God is love, and that we come into a close relationship with him by loving him and loving each other, is one that might conceivably have been put forward on philosophical grounds alone, and thus have been exposed to correction or refutation by philosophical arguments. But Christians did not merely believe in it as something inherently probable: they had two proofs which were rooted in objective experience. One proof was their own experience of the Spirit: something objective must have happened to bring this new force into their lives. The other was the original encounter of Christians with that Jesus who was the saviour of the world (14), an encounter so vividly remembered and so faithfully handed down to subsequent generations that this writer could say (much as he said at the outset) we have seen for ourselves, and we attest. It was on the basis of these objective facts, and not as a result of abstract speculation, that Christians had come to know and believe the love which God has for us (16).

Consider the traditional picture of the Last Judgement. Man appears before God, who is totally other, utterly just and good. Immediately, he is made bitterly aware of his own sin and inadequacy; he knows that his whole life (apart perhaps from a few gracious moments which may speak in his favour) has disqualified him to receive anything but a stern verdict; and so, in those moments of life when he takes stock of all this beforehand, man is necessarily afraid. But suppose now that God is after all not perfectly other; suppose that there is something in common between the love with which God loved us first (19) and the love towards God and our brother with which we respond to God's love. It will follow that, by virtue of this love, even in this world we are as he is (17). At the Last Judgement, we shall not come before One who is totally other, terrible and transcendent, but One with whom we already share something essential. Our past life, instead of being mercilessly held up to the objective standard of God's justice, will be seen to have embodied already something of God's own love. And so we shall have confidence. Meanwhile, we need no longer live our present life with a fear of ultimate consequences, the fear which brings with it the pains of judgement (18); to the extent that we love, and that God already dwells in us, the verdict on us at the Last Judgement is settled in advance. Apprehension gives place to confidence: perfect love banishes fear.

He who loves God must also love his brother (21). From the emphasis placed on this command, it seems likely that the heretics were denying it. With their indifference to moral conduct, they were prepared to talk about "loving God" without recognizing that this involved a corresponding attitude of love towards their fellow-Christians (which is what the word brother usually means in early Christian writings). Our author seems to have three arguments to bring against this attitude (though he deploys them so briefly, and with so little care for logical order, that the passage is obscure):

(i) a straight argument from psychology: If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen (20);

(ii) an appeal to the teaching of Christ: this command comes to us from Christ himself (21);

Chapter 5.

(iii) an argument by analogy: to love the parent means to love his child (1). This is an observation (perhaps an optimistic one, but with at least a measure of justification) about ordinary human life. But Christians are God's children: to claim to love God therefore involves loving his children, our fellow-Christians.

To love God is to keep his commands (3). A writer more conscious of Jewish traditions would have agreed, but would have meant something different. God's commands were given in the Law, and keeping the Law was the way in which man expresses his love towards God. But this Law was made burdensome by the fact that the devil—or perhaps (less personally) the godless world—continually placed obstacles in the path of the man who tried to keep it. This writer's thinking is the same, except for one important point. The commands are no longer those of the Law of Moses, but of Jesus Christ; and they are no longer burdensome because every child of God is victor over the godless world. It was a standard article of Christian belief that Christ, on the cross, had overcome the devil, or (in the language of John's gospel) had 'conquered the world' (16.33). And those who believed in him shared in his victory.

This is he who came with water and blood (6). This is clearly symbolic language, unintelligible to outsiders, full of meaning to those within the church, for whom water and blood had come to stand for profound realities: water meant baptism, the rite by which they had become Christians and received the Spirit; blood was the sacrificial death of Christ, which Christians made their own in the wine of the eucharist. In the life of the church, these were continuing realities: they were a part of the Christians' objective experience which, along with the general witness of the Spirit, assured them of the truth and saving efficacy of their faith. But they were not merely spiritual experiences: they were rooted in two decisive historical events, the baptism and the crucifixion of Christ. The heretics, it seems, disbelieved in the full humanity of Christ; and one form which such disbelief certainly took in early centuries was the view that the man Jesus became united with the divine Christ at his baptism, but that the crucifixion involved only Jesus, the divine Christ (who could not suffer) having left him before it took place. If this was the kind of heresy which the author of this letter had to contend with, we can understand his insistence that Jesus Christ came, not by water alone, but by water and blood, But this is guesswork: all we can say for certain is that he must have had some reason for insisting so much. In any case he quickly returns to his main point. Water, blood and Spirit are objective realities in the church. As such, they are witnesses to the historical facts on which the Christian faith is based. In a Jewish court of law, witnesses were subjected to two tests. First, did they agree with each other? Secondly, were they the kind of people whose word qould be trusted? The witnesses to the Christian faith pass both these tests: the three are in agreement (8); and as for their reliability, this threefold testimony is indeed that of God himself (9). ← In verse 7, after the words 'For there are three witnesses' the Authorised Version of the English Bible has the following insertion: "that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there arc three that bear witness on earth." This insertion occurs in no early Greek manuscript, but appears occasionally, from the fourth century onwards, in manuscripts of Latin translations of the Bible. It is now universally agreed to be a relatively late interpolation into the Latin text.

In English, the word "witness" is ambiguous: it can mean the person testifying, or the testimony he gives. The NEB has made this paragraph slightly more confusing by using it in both senses. God's own witness (10) does not mean a person giving evidence, but the testimony which is given. The content of this testimony (or witness) is given at the end: that God has given us eternal life (11)—this is the fundamental theme of the whole letter. It was proclaimed right at the beginning (1.1); and a final reference to it here rounds off the argument. But the original subject of this paragraph is, not the content of the testimony, but the way it is given. How does God " give his testimony" to the facts of the Christian religion? We have seen: through those objective signs of his presence—his "witnesses"—which are experienced by Christians in the form of baptism, eucharist and the Spirit. It follows that to accept this testimony is to let it become part of one—the Christian has this testimony in his own heart (10); to reject it is to make God out to be a liar.

This letter ... is addressed to those who give their allegiance to the Son of God (13). It has used language of the utmost severity about those who have deviated from the true faith; it has even called them personifications of evil, 'Antichrist'. It would have made for a clear and simple picture if a line could have been drawn between these heretics and those who had remained faithfully within the church. But the reality was more complicated: the line of division was blurred. There were Christians who were neither fully in the church nor definitely out of it. In this situation Christians had a clear duty to pray for their wavering brothers—for the efficacy of Christian prayer, given certain conditions, is taken for granted in this letter (3.22), as in John's gospel and indeed in many traditions of Jesus' teaching (Mark 11.24). If the sin was not a deadly sin (16)—that is to say, if the brother had not yet definitively separated himself from the church, which was the community of those who have life—then there was hope for the sinner. On the other hand, there is such a thing as deadly sin: a man might have gone so far in the way of heretics that his sin was no longer just a case of wrongdoing (17) such as could be remedied through forgiveness and cleansing (1.7; 2.2), but placed him irrevocably outside God's family, in the realm of "death". It was no part of a Christian's duty to pray for a return of those who were in such open opposition to the church that they could be called 'Antichrist'.

(This is an interpretation which knits the passage into the context of the letter as a whole; but the writer may have had something quite specific in mind to which we no longer have the key. Jesus' saying about the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3.28-9) shows that some sort of grading of sins into forgivable and unforgivable sins was known to early Christianity; and the problem of Christians who committed the grave sin of apostasy was a serious one for, for instance, the writer of the letter to Hebrews. However, the systematic classification of sins into "venial" and "mortal" is a much later development, and is hardly anticipated in this passage.)

Nevertheless, apart from these borderline cases for whom the Christian could pray, the line between the church—the children of God, God's family—and the whole godless world (19) was sharply drawn. Outside, men were by definition sinners; they lay in the power of the evil one (for it did not come naturally to think of a life without God as neutral: it exposed a man to all the forces of evil that are rampant in the world, and from which there is only protection for the Christian in so far as it is the Son of God who keeps him safe (18)). Inside was the community of those who were not sinners (in the sense explained earlier) and who had all the knowledge, the experience of reality, which the heretics had been claiming as their own.

We know ... We know ... We know ... (18-20) These sentences serve to sum up the main points made in the letter. But there could hardly be a more unexpected ending than the words, My children, be on the watch against false gods (21). It is the kind of thing which was said again and again by strict Jewish writers: the worship of false gods was what the Jews found most horrifying in their heathen neighbours, and they insistently tried to protect themselves (and all who sympathized with Judaism) from the dreaded contagion of it. In the early years of Christianity the same warning had to be sounded: the images of pagan gods which adorned every Greco-Roman city were a source of danger as much to the pure religion of the Christian as to that of the Jew. But it was essentially a warning for the simple: more sophisticated spirits, whether of Greek or of Jewish background, did not attach much importance to images and statues. God, they knew, was known by the mind and the heart, not by the senses. And so the old cry of Jewish propaganda—be on the watch against false gods—was reinterpreted, by more cultured writers, as a warning against the "false gods" of things such as money or ambition. At the same time, the word used for these false godseidola, idols—was a technical term of popular Platonic philosophy: it meant the transient appearance of things as opposed to eternal realities. The letter has been speaking the language of cultured people more at home, probably, in the jargon of philosophy than in the catchphrases of Jewish religion. To them,all the pretensions, all the seductive "knowledge", of the heretics could be caricatured, in a parting shot, as mere appearance, false gods.