This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2010 vol. 167 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
1–3 JohnBaker Academic, Grand Rapids November 1, 2008
Yarbrough is chair of the New Testament department and associate professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He discusses the original text accurately, clearly, and meaningfully for contemporary readers.
Several distinctive features mark this work. First, it relates John’s statements in these epistles with the life and work of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels more than many other commentaries have done. Second, it makes linguistic connections between John’s epistles and the Septuagint, through the use of computer aids, more than has been true in most earlier commentaries. Third, the author has commented on every textual variant in John’s epistles found in the twenty-seventh edition of the Nestle-Aland text. Fourth, the author has interacted with most of the exegetical commentaries on the Johannine Epistles that have been published in the last two decades, a time that has seen the emergence of many major works on this section of the New Testament. Fifth, he has drawn on the insights of older commentators as well, some of which are now more readily available through the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, edited by Gerald Bray. Sixth, the writer’s ministry in Muslim Africa and Eastern Europe has given him interesting insights into the Johannine letters.
As to the structure of the commentary, it first offers preliminary information that includes a map of Asia Minor with major New Testament sites in that region. The introduction to John’s letters contains discussions of their text (no major points of interpretation or doctrine are in doubt), author (John, the son of Zebedee), genre (a basically Hellenistic letter with some distinctively Christian adaptations), setting and date (Asia Minor in the closing decades of the first century), John’s epistles and the seven churches of Asia (roughly the same setting and date), the literary structure of 1 John and a detailed outline of the book (based on the divisions by scribal copyists as reflected in the Nestle-Aland text), and the significance of John’s letters (a pastoral appeal for unity based in the character of God as light). The next and longest part of the book offers an exegesis and exposition of 1 John. In it the publisher has provided a helpful reminder of the epistle’s outline at the top of the page in which each subdivision appears. Most major divisions of the expositions begin with a review of John’s argument and a summary of the section to be explained. Each section concludes with additional notes, most of which are discussions of textual variants. The same basic approach characterizes the discussions of 2 and 3 John. The commentary as a whole concludes with several indexes: works cited (with bibliographic data), subjects, authors, Greek words, Scriptures, and other ancient writings.
The writer has concluded that 1 John was written “to a believing community that is dealing with fallout from the departure (2:19) of persons with beliefs and practices the author cannot endorse” (p. 29). Thus John’s purpose was both doctrinal and practical. The doctrinal emphasis is on orthodox Christology primarily, though not with a view to correcting a particular Christological heresy such as Cerinthianism. “John writes not as a distant authority figure but as a mentor with a personal regard for his addressees” (p. 220). The writer believes that John’s central burden was that God is light (1:5), and all that the apostle wrote flows from this perspective. Yarbrough views the recipients as genuine believers who needed to deal with the departure of certain deviants (from apostolic Christian belief and conduct) from their midst. He believes Christians continue to sin and need to confess their sins (1:9). His discussion of expiation/propitiation (2:2) is particularly good; he favors the translation “propitiation.” He also believes that Christ died for all, including the nonelect (2:2). “Being ‘in the light’ means being in fellowship with both God and other believers as the result of the cleansing effected by Christ’s death (1:7)” (p. 103).
Yarbrough views the Greek words translated “little children” and “children” as describing all John’s readers, whom the apostle then subdivided into “fathers” and “young men” (2:12–14), terms descriptive of the more mature and less mature Christians in his readership, respectively. The anointing that Christians have received (2:20) is the truth or more specifically “the effect of the apostolic message they have received” (p. 149). Abiding in the truth means remaining faithful to it in belief and practice. “What John does in 3:6 is affirm the freedom from sinning enjoyed by the one who abides in Christ” (p. 182). “The present tense cannot bear the weight that the translation ‘keeps on sinning’ places on it in 3:6, 9” (p. 183). “To ‘test the spirits’ [4:1] is to make a choice from among competing claims” (p. 192). “Human assurance [of salvation, 4:17] does not depend on human attainment but on completed divine action and promise” (p. 260). The statement “There is no fear in love” (4:18) refers to fear of eschatological judgment (pp. 260–62). The “water and blood” in 5:6 refer to Jesus’ baptism in water by John the Baptist and to Jesus’ atoning death (p. 282). The death in view in 5:16–17 is spiritual death. The sin unto death is “violation of the fundamental terms of relationship with God that Jesus Christ mediates” (p. 310).
Yarbrough believes 2 and 3 John came from the same apostle at about the same time as 1 John. The addressee “chosen lady” (2 John 1) refers to a sister congregation. The greeting in 3 John 2 is not a promise of physical, financial, and spiritual prosperity for all believers. In other disputed interpretations in these two epistles Yarbrough also holds other traditional, conservative views.
Yarbrough’s fairly long section on the authorship of these three letters reveals his awareness of common rejection of the traditional view and an ability to combat this error effectively. His thesis that all of 1 John flows out of the apostle’s conviction that God is light is thought-provoking. He nuances his explanations carefully, which is especially important in 1 John, in which the “son of thunder” frequently resorted to “hyperbolic dualisms” (p. 196). Yarbrough’s explanations are reasonable, balanced, and articulate, and he has not made the error of interpreting 1 John 5:13 as the overall purpose of the epistle. Yarbrough correctly notes that there are four purpose statements in the book (1:3, 4; 2:1; 5:13), plus ten imperatives, any one of which could possibly provide John’s purpose for writing, and that 5:13 needs to be interpreted contextually.
This is a fine exegetical commentary that most students, preachers, and teachers of the Johannine Epistles will appreciate as a beneficial addition to their library of resources.
—Thomas L. Constable