The Epistles of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love. By Zane C. Hodges. Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999. 312 pp. Cloth, $17.95.
Those familiar with the writings of Zane Hodges have come to expect excellent scholarship combined with unusual insight and practical relevance. Readers of this commentary on the letters of John will find these expectations fully met and more. In this his most recent work, Hodges demonstrates seasoned skill in exegesis and a pastoral heart to apply it. Despite the handling of the technical literature and Greek syntactical/grammatical refinements, the work is reader-friendly for the average Christian. Scripture and subject indexes complement the book. Selective footnotes separate the technical material from the commentary per se, as is the pattern in the GES commentary series. The author has also penned the commentary on James (paper, 128 pp.) in the same series, but the added length of The Epistles of John has allowed for a more comprehensive treatment.
The interpretation of the Johannine epistles reflects the author’s previous work on the same books in the Bible Knowledge Commentary. While only one or two interpretive changes have been made, the present commentary is much enlarged, allowing the author to interact more with alternative interpretations and especially with issues regarding grace, assurance, and erroneous evangelical perspectives of sanctification.
No one will be surprised that the Hodges/Farstad Greek text (The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, Thomas Nelson) is followed for exegesis. Since the author has worked extensively on the theories of textual criticism, interaction with these issues appears at pertinent places. Adhering to the majority text theory, Hodges argues for genealogical reconstruction where possible, a point misunderstood by many that oppose a majority text theory. Where genealogical reconstruction is not possible, any reading supported by numerous manuscripts is to be favored over a minority reading. In light of these principles, the originality of 1 John 5:7b–8a (unless otherwise noted, references concern First John) in the Textus Receptus is rejected, even though the New King James Version (the text of choice for the GES series) is used throughout for exposition. If the careful student of this commentary will read the footnotes thoroughly, significant wisdom on textual criticism theory can be gained.
Unlike some scholars, Hodges works with the supposition that First John has a clearly defined literary scheme. An orderly arrangement of an epistle, which was intended from its origin to be read in public, is in line with what is currently known of Greek rhetorical style. Hodges applies this knowledge in analyzing the structure of First John. The epistle opens with a short preface (1:1-4) in which the apostle declares his theme of fellowship with God (1:3). A two-fold introduction follows, describing the fundamental principles of experiencing this fellowship (1:5–2:2) and the primary result—intimacy with (or abiding in) Christ (2:3-11). The 2:12-27 unit reveals the author’s specific concerns in writing: the readers need to appreciate their spiritual advancements (2:12-14) while being fully aware of the dangers of the world and the teachings of the antichrists (2:15-27) or Revisionists (Hodges’s label for these false teachers). The main body of the epistle runs from 2:28–4:19 and is marked out by an inclusio (the use of the same word[s] at the beginning and end of a unit). The Greek word for “boldness” (parrēsian, 2:28 and 4:17) becomes the key mark of the inclusio. At the beginning of the body (2:28), John gives a thematic statement for the book: the “abiding” relationship alone is capable of preparing the believer to stand in full confidence (“boldness”) and without shame before the Judgment Seat of Christ. In the conclusion of the epistle (4:20–5:17) and its epilogue (5:18-20), the writer offers practical advice regarding an obedient life.
What did the Revisionists teach? Effort is made by some commentators to uncover heretical assertions behind John’s instructions in 1:5–2:11. But as Hodges astutely observes, the Revisionists are not directly introduced until 2:18. Indeed, John has not even revealed the occasion for his writing until 2:12ff. Christians who are out of harmony with God can make all of the false statements that occur in 1:5–2:11. (One should not conclude from this that no hints of the antichrists’ teachings are to be found in 1:5–2:11). The false teaching, while not a developed form of Gnosticism, could have incorporated Proto-Gnostic beliefs. The clearest heresy of the Revisionists was their denial that Jesus was the Christ who had come in the flesh. Cerinthus, who according to early Christian literature was an heretical leader from Asia Minor and arch-enemy of the apostle John, held that the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at His baptism, and left just prior to his crucifixion. In Hodges’s view, such an historical background nicely fits the mysterious reference in 5:6 to Jesus coming both by water (baptism) and blood (death).
The audience is not only Christian, but is commended for their high spiritual maturity as is substantiated by 2:12-14. Hodges defends the interpretation that all three designations there (“little children,” “fathers,” “young men”) describe the entire audience rather than a two-fold or three-fold division of his readership. This conviction is supported by the fact that the two different words translated “little children” in 2:12 (teknia) and in 2:13 (paidia) are both used unequivocally in the rest of the epistle for all John’s readers. Hodges concludes that the readers may well have been the spiritual leaders (i.e., the elders) at the church(es) to which the letter was originally sent.
Expositors and commentators often handle the Johannine letters as if they unfold a series of tests designed to help one ascertain his/her eternal relationship with Christ, i.e., gain assurance of or discover the lack of salvation. In Hodges’s opinion, this defective perspective can be traced back to the 1914 publication of Robert Law’s study of the epistles. But in stark contrast to the “tests of life” view, the letters are to be understood as tests that determine our intimacy with Christ, i.e. tests of fellowship and abiding in Christ. These epistles, especially First and Second John, must be interpreted in light of the principles Jesus laid down in the Upper Room Discourse (John 13–17) written earlier by the same apostle in his Gospel (dated by Hodges, ca. A.D. 48–52).
Under the premise proposed by Law and others, numerous verses have been misread. Hodges counteracts these views time and again, showing that a straightforward reading of the text contradicts any form of assurance by works or sanctification. The well-known section of 2:3-6 has repeatedly been twisted to portray such an idea. First, Hodges justifiably criticizes the theological construct that one can believe in Christ without really knowing that he or she has true faith until fruit is produced. Second, he argues that the concept of knowing God or Christ is quite flexible, being used both of saving knowledge and of experiential knowledge. Finally, drawing from John’s own Upper Room Discourse, Hodges shows that Jesus spoke of all the disciples apart from Judas as being born again (John 13:10-11) yet failing to “know” Him (John 14:7-9). This establishes John’s intention to present in First John a test to establish our intimacy with Christ by our obedience to His commandments rather than a test to evaluate our salvation.
Traditional treatments of 2:9 (“He who…hates his brother is in darkness”) argue that John wished to expose the false Christians in his audience. But this viewpoint evidences a similar error. Hodges comments, “The word his is completely unnecessary, and even misleading, if a non-Christian is hating a Christian.” Later he reasons, “Once we have looked closely at verses [2:]12-14, it will seem absurd that John could be thought to regard his readers as possible ‘false professors’ of the Christian faith.” At each and every verse where “tests of life” presumably exist, Hodges offers a far superior alternative.
First John 2:19 has been consistently summoned as a proof text for the teaching that defection from the faith (“they went out from us”) renders faith illegitimate (“but they were not of us”). The commentary vitiates this argument. The repeated warnings of the epistle confirm that the Revisionists had definitely not departed from the church to which John was writing. Furthermore, the pronouns in First John invariably contrast the antichrists (“they”) over against the apostles (“we/us”) and the Christian readers (“you”). Verse 19 teaches that the Revisionists had left the apostles and the “mother church” at Jerusalem (“they [the antichrists] went out from us [the apostles]”), proving their false doctrines were not derived from the foundational and orthodox apostolic circle (“but they were not of us [apostles]”).
Another case in point is 3:6 and 9 where the present tense is frequently misconstrued as teaching that no true Christian can habitually sin. Hodges insists that this perspective is indefensible. Grammatically, the present tense can have a progressive nuance, but by itself cannot be manipulated to suggest habitual activity. Contextually, verses 6 and 9 are clearly absolute in light of such statements as in verse 5, “in Him [Christ] there is no sin.” In keeping with the epistle’s strong polarity between darkness and light, sin and righteousness, verses 6 and 9 detail the absolute inner sinlessness of the person born from God. While all Christians do continue to sin (even according to statements found elsewhere in the epistle; cf. 1:8). The innermost self of every regenerate person cannot and does not sin. The principle is simple: “like begets like.” Sin in any and all forms must find its source in something other than the new, divinely regenerate self.
Hodges sometimes breaks with other popular evangelical interpretations. Like most others who have been influenced by the commentary tradition, I must admit that I generally resist his interpretations at first. But his intractable logic and clear, precise handling of the text eventually convince me that his understanding is correct. His view of the antichrist serves as an illustration. Since the antichrists (2:18) are obviously embodied in the many false prophets (4:1-3), the antichrist himself is best understood as the False Prophet of Revelation (13:9-14), rather than the beast of Revelation 13:1-8, i.e., the “man of sin” (2 Thess 2:3-4).
One area of interpretation I am still processing. In 2:23, John says, “whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either” (i.e., “does not have the Father or the Son,” italics added). Hodges takes the reference to apply equally well to a saved or an unsaved person. In his understanding, the concept of “not having the Son [or Father]” here and in 2 John 9 means the absence of divine involvement or cooperation, but not necessarily the absence of eternal life. On the other hand, he takes the similar phrase in 5:12,”he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (italics added), to compose a formula that equals the absence of eternal life. Hodges may be perfectly right when he argues that the verb “have” is flexible. While some questions still remain for me, I am convinced that Hodges’s explanation is the best option among other alternatives.
The blend of the erudite with the down-to-earth makes this work enjoyable for all levels of readers. For the scholar, there are discussions (in footnotes) on technical matters (e.g., the role of anapohora and cataphora in First John). On the other hand, one can find penetrating wisdom into human nature: “It is a natural response, when people feel their guilt, to attempt to soften the extent of their failure by defining the responsibility away” (p. 212). Sensitivity to the struggling Christian is apparent as well: “Whatever we try to do in love, a sensitive conscience often condemns us for having done too little, or for not making up for past failures, or for any number of things. Our instincts, in our sinful flesh, are so selfish that we may even in the midst of acting in Christian love suspect ourselves of impure or unworthy motives” (p. 164).
It would be a flagrant disservice to merely recommend this commentary. No finer exposition on the Epistles of John can be found in print. If one aspires to a masterful understanding of these challenging NT letters, a choice regale awaits the reader of this volume.
John F. Hart
Professor of Bible
Moody Bible Institute