Piecing Jigsaws

If you are like me you have puzzled over Johannine literature.  I John is like, and I think all men could relate to this, a wife, we love them, there are some wonderful things going on there, but we don’t always understand them; so it is with john.[1]  If we aren’t careful, we may want throw up our hands in frustration trying to follow his writing [2], as he dashes this way and that, and once you think you have him cornered, zoom, and he’s off again.  What exactly does John mean when he says, “I am not writing a new commandment,” and then “I am writing a new commandment”? How can he say, “whoever says he does not have sin is a liar,” but only later, seemingly contradict himself with, “everyone who remains in him cannot sin…does not sin…is not able to sin”? What’s that all about?

Right when you start to lose focus and tune out John’s voice you get a slight nudge [3], as if to say, pay attention to this or you’ll miss something important.  I am a long ways away from having John all figured out, but I do have some interesting pieces that I think fit in John’s puzzle.  Like the whos in whoville who were trying to make enough sound to burst out of their world in order to be heard in another, I hope to help penetrate John into your minds and worldviews, and to this illustration we will return later and I hope you can be patient as I muse these thoughts forward.


A few years ago, when I was a “younger lad” at Freed,  thinking quizzically about 1 John,  I began wondering if there was a realized eschaton [4] in John, a picture of new creation breaking into the world and the passing away of old creation.  Two of John thoughts lead me this direction.  First,

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:7-8)

Later, John will say we should love—this  is what we heard from the beginning, and not as Cain who killed his brother (1 John 3:10-15).  What puzzled me was John interplay of “old, new, beginning.”  Is old referring to Genesis; later he calls love something from the “beginning” or is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 13:34)? And then a light bulb went off, aha! Maybe the answer is yes and yes.  John is emphatically contrasting two creations—the creation in Genesis and the new creation in Jesus. [5] For John, the command to love which is new and was heard at the beginning, and at the same time is not like Cain’s “love” is a contrast between new creation and old.  It’s as if John is viewing both creations side by side and overlapping, he is trying to get the sound from his world, from the new creation, to burst through into the old.  I believe that John is using both Cain’s hate to say love is from the beginning (God condemned the hatred), and Jesus’ command to love, to contrast and bring together two different beginnings.  Don’t throw your hands up yet, just as your ears begin to tune out, John gives you and nudge; his sounds breaks through shouting, “it is here! It is here!” and draws a new picture.

The next picture pulls from two obvious themes found in Genesis—darkness and light. If we happen to be living in flat-land and don’t have eyes to see, John spells it out plainly, “The darkness is passing away” John says, and, “the true light is shining.” In the beginning it was was dark and void (1:1), and out of that darkness sprang forth light and the beginning of God’s good creation.  So it is happening again! We don’t have to wait for the end of time for new creation; we are already in “the last hour” in the present! (1 John 2:18). [6] “The world with its lusts are passing away but the one who does God’s will remains forever” (1 John 2:17).  There we have it. The old order is passing away and the new remains—a duality—old and new existing simultaneously.

Eschatalogical Hermeneutic

Without this duality in mind, this now-but-not-yet eschatology, John will remain a puzzle.  A normal hermeneutic won’t do; we must approach John with a hermeneutic of realized eschatology. [7] I’ll use one of John’s most puzzling saying:

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. (1 John 3:8-10)

You may at once resort to the Greek, noting that “sin” is in the present active indicative and means “to habitually sin.” Perhaps.  Or maybe you’ll taken the Calvinistic route, “we simply cannot sin; we may sin against the flesh but not against the spirit. Or God keeps us from ever committing a sin again!” Well, you may be right.  That’s it John, we have you cornered! The first is more probable to me but it’s still problematic.  What will you do with this, “if anyone sees his brother committing sin (present active indicative) that does not bring death, he should ask and God will give life for those who commit sin (present active indicative).  This poses problems with both views.  John juxtaposes “brother” with one who “sins” clearly then John does not mean to imply a brother never ever commit sins again.  That also contradicts (1 John 1:10).  It also conveys something other than a progressive present “keep on sinning.”[8]

Daniel Wallace does such a good job explaining this text that I’ll just punt to him:

How should we then take the present tenses here?  The immediate context seems to be speaking in terms of a projected eschatological reality.  The larger section of this letter address the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in the last days, their hope of Christ’s imminent return should produce godly living (2:28-3:10).  The author first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3).  Then, without marking that his discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification (3:4-10)—that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs. unbelievers, implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving that direction (3:6, 9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers are moving away from truth (3:10; cf. 2:19). Thus, the author states in an absolute manner truths that are not yet true because he is speaking within the context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgment (2:18-19). [9]

A dash this way—a dash that way and zip, there he goes.  As I began, I don’t claim to have it all figured out.  The now-but-not-yet eschaton is hard to dismiss—it has a historical rootedness and theological soundness that is impressive.  As you read through John (and I believe this is largely true of most NT writers), see the themes new creation over against old.  Relish in the joy of living in the last days, and celebrate a hermeneutic that is focalized through love and through the resurrection.


[1] This is not a bad thing.  We should celebrate with our wives their God given complexity and uniqueness.

[2] The wife illustration ended with the last line for me, and I hope so for you!

[3] Picking back up the wife illustration again 🙂

[4] eschaton is the Greek word that means last or end.  Realized eschatology would mean the end is realized in the present—this isn’t to be confused with radical preterism that says, there is no resurrection and final working of God.

[5] This is really seen in the gospel of John.  He echoes Genesis 1:1-3 in the very beginning of his gospel (John 1:1-4).  There are notably seven signs in John, the seventh being the resurrection of Lazarus and I would include Jesus’ resurrection within that type.  Remember in his discussion with Martha, “I know he will resurrect in the last day…I ‘am’ the resurrection and the life”. What’s true of the end is true now Jesus retorts.  John evocation in his prologue does not make it too farfetched to see his seven signs symbolically representing the seven days of creation.  In John 5:17, Jesus teases, “my father works and I work”—God is working in Jesus in new creation as God worked in old creation.  The Messiah enters his rest on the cross, where he triumphantly declares, “it is finished” (John 19:30) echoing “so the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed” (Genesis 2:1).  At long last, Jesus says, creation is done and he enters into rest.

[6] See end note five and Jesus and Martha’s discussion.

[7] This does not mean that nothing has to do with the now. On the contrary, some is now, and some is  not-yet and some is yet read proletpic.

[8] Daniel Wallace understands it to be a gnomic present.  An example of gnomic would be “the wind blows”—that’s true all the time.

[9] Wallace, Daniel: “Beyond the Basics” pp. 524-525

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                New Creation