What is so hard about 1 John? Why is there so much discussion on it? It’s only 5 chapters, it’s near the end of the Bible, so it should be a piece of cake, right? Yet “[f]or such a small book in the New Testament, 1 John is an enigma. Much has been written about the relationship (if any) between the First Epistle of John and the Gospel of John.”
- What is the genre of 1 John?
- Is there a flow of thought?
- Who are those left?
- Who are those who left?
- Are we in the last hour?
- If those who abide in Him don’t sin, why do I still sin?
- What is a sin leading to death?
- Can I commit it?
- How can I commit it if I don’t even know it?
- Does this have any relation to the Gospel of John?
- If so, how much?
In his book, Malcolm Coombes orders the strict of 1 John according to the rhetorical features and repetitions that he has found in his study and that are found in this book. He finds ordered patterns, themes, and allusions to the Gospel of John.
Coombes starts us off with some of the puzzles of 1 John (see above), differences in 1 John and the Gospel (terms applied to Christ now applied to God, differences of eschatology, the place of the death of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit). Using two charts of statistics (to determine clusters of terms), Coombes shows a high parallel between 1 John and the Prologue (John 1:1-18), Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn. 3), Jesus and the Samaritans (Jn. 4), Jesus in dialogue with the Jews (Jn. 5), Jesus with the Pharisees (Jn. 8), and Jesus’ teaching before the Passover (Jn. 12).
Stats shows where many of the similarities are found, but they can only show so much.
So what is a “relecture”?
A relecture is when an author (John) “takes motifs and themes from one text [Gospel of John], and interprets them in new ways to serve a new theme…the ideas are taken up, developed, incorporated and even reoriented into the reception text” (p. 13).
What is important to Coombes is “[h]ow the author uses this material in a new situation” (p. 16). He seeks a new approach to studying 1 John, but he admits this isn’t the only way.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Methodology
Chapter 3: Structural Outline of 1 John
Chapter 4: Structural Unites Drives the Pattern of Allusions in 1 John
Chapter 5: Passage-by-Passage Analysis
Chapter 6: Concluding Word on Structure
Chapter 7: Overall Conclusions
Chapter 2: Coombes shows the Methodology of his work, how the “this” statements shows structure in 1 John, and how 1 Jn. 2:12-14 is a template for the flow of thought.
Chapter 3: Coombes divides and structures 1 John into 14 separate section based on different “this” statements (“we write these things,” “in this we know,” “this is the promise,” “this is the message,” etc). He explains the differences in the kinds of “this” statements, and almost every unit starts with a “this statement.” Coombes takes each verse in 1 Jn. 2:12-14 and shows how they each point backward or forward to the surrounding text. Following 2:12-14, we see a set of themes from 1:5-2:27, and the themes show up again in the same order from 2:28-5:5.
Why does this matter?
If this is true, it shows there is a recurrence of themes in the 2 main sections of 1 John. The themes introduced are to strengthen the remaining “community” (or the church John had been at, as I see it) in the authoritative truth of Jesus’ words in the Gospel.
Chapter 4: There is a chart showing each of the 14 sections of 1 John and which main passages of the Gospel of John they allude to.
Chapter 6: There is a “Proposed Structure for 1 John” here, which looks at 1 John in 4 Main parts: Prologue, Section 1 (1:5/6-2:27), Section 2 (2:28-5:5), and Conclusion. Section 1, 2, and the Conclusion all have sub-units which are also shown. It’s good to see a (possible) ordering of John’s epistle in a way that’s actually understandable. Trust me, I’ve seen quite a few outlines in studying for 1 John, and most if not all of them made little sense. Paralleled with the themes of 2:12-14, and this makes for a very good outline.
The Chocolate Milk
In Chapter 5 (Passage-by-Passage Analysis) we finally see how each subunit (all 14) of 1 John looks at the Gospel of John. We see how John relates “those who went out from us” (2:19) are related to Judas leaving Jesus and the disciples in John 13:30. Judas is seen as the model of many antichrists, the one who “saw” and “knew” Jesus, but who “went out from” Him.
Many parallels like this are shown the the conclusion that 1 John does use the Gospel to make certain points. From what I can gather, Coombes says the meaning of the Gospel isn’t being changed, and the “community” isn’t meant to look at it through Epistle-colored glasses. But the author (who I take to be the apostle John on both accounts) wants the church to see what he’s teaching in light of the Gospel of John’s message. Who are those who went out from us? Antichrists who are related to Judas and the sons-of-the-devil-Pharisees who want nothing to do with the real light and truth, Jesus Christ.
There were charts that were very helpful (“Proposed Structure of 1 John [6.6]”, “‘This’ Statements Referring to the Gospel [4.5]”, “Pattern of Allusions to the Gospel [4.1]”, and the “‘This’ Statement Summary [3.2]”, to name a few). Not every chart in the book was helpful, but some gave 1 John more clarity.
The Spoiled Milk
Sometimes the tables are in awkward places that shift the placement of the remaining paragraphs. It makes me unsure if the following paragraphs belong to the previous page or to the new table. The very helpful outline chart in chapter 6 is a good example of this. Coombes in in the middle of a conversation about another scholar (Coatzee) when all of a sudden I see “Table 6.6: A Proposed Structure for 1 John” followed by the conversation on Coatzee. After the finishing paragraph there’s another chart, but how am I supposed to know if this isn’t another interrupting chart? At least this one actually talks about Coatzee.
My issue is that often times the charts appear, for no reason and without warning, in the middle of a paragraph. Some are short enough for one page, but instead of being switched with a paragraph (Table 6.6), the end of the table is pushed to the next page.
Honestly, aside form chapters 1, 5, and 7, I didn’t understand why all the other chapters were there. I found it ironic that this book is quite probably the best map of 1 John (with the Gospel of John) I’ve ever seen, yet I was often lost in that same map.
Chapter 5 (Passage-by-Passage Analysis) shows how the allusions from the Epistle to the gospel work, but it would seem chapter 7 (Overall Conclusions) should be next chapter. Though Chapter 6 is a “Concluding Structure of 1 John,” it doesn’t seem to be any different than earlier chapters (Chapter 3 – “Structural Outline of 1 John”). It seems more could have been condensed, or the flow could have been explained better.
The Cottage Cheese (In Between)
There is a LOT of Greek in this book. This book is readable without any knowledge of Greek (I did it), but it is surely intended for those who know Greek. There are large chunks of charts/tables in the books, often times filled with Greek to show what words correspond to each other. If you don’t know Greek, you can hardly use them. What I had to do was skip over those charts and read what I could. I still got a lot out of it, but it didn’t make the book shorter because there was less that I could use.
So depending on your Greek education, you will either get a good bit out of this book, or you will get a lot out of this book. All the Greek isn’t bad, I just can’t use it.
If you know Greek, then I would say this is a good book to get on 1 John. There are plenty of references back and forth you can make between the Epistle and the Gospel. If you want to teach 1 John as a class, then I would think this would be a good book to get as it will fill up some more space on what John meant on confusing terms (“sin leading to death” being one) with how the passages relate to the Gospel.
If you’re an average Joe Schmoe who wants to read a book/commentary on 1 John, this will not be the book for you. I was surprised when I opened the book myself. It did not look like how I thought it would look. I was expecting more of a commentary, and this is not it. Not disappointing, just a lot different.
- Paperback: 238 pages
- Publisher: Wipf & Stock Pub (August 1, 2013)
- Reading Level: Seminary/Teacher/Scholar/Greek
[P.S. Thanks to Margaret at Alban Books for allowing me a free copy to read and review! I was not required to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]