Book Review – The Letters of John (Colin Kruse)

As I have studied through 1 John recently, I have noticed that while the author manages to make his main points abundantly clear (e.g. the importance of loving one another), he uses lots of sentences along the way that are somewhat cryptic. In his Pillar commentary, Colin Kruse has managed to shed considerable light on the meaning of these difficult phrases without losing the overall message of the book. With each statement he provides brief but compelling arguments for how each phrase or word is to be understood, without always being entirely dogmatic. The meaning of a word or phrase in the gospel of John is often decisive in deciding between alternatives.

There is a generous helping of helpful excursuses (called “notes”) that deal with some of the more difficult issues at greater length, allowing the commentary to simply refer to the excursus wherever the issue crops up. For example there are excursuses on the antichrist, on sinless perfectionism, and on the bases of assurance, as well as many on the meanings of various words. These notes typically review all the Johannine (or biblical) usage of a particular term, before coming to a brief conclusion about what is meant.

Another useful feature of this commentary is that the Scriptural text commented on is highlighted in bold, so that you can easily follow where he is up to in his comments. Like the rest of the Pillar series, it comments on the NIV text, but is quite willing to completely disagree with the translation in places.

The introduction deals with all three letters and argues for common authorship, who probably is also the author of the fourth gospel (which he considers to be the apostle John). There is also considerable discussion of the “secessionists”, a splinter group whose teaching the first letter is designed to combat. Kruse shows how John’s argument is directed in many places throughout the letter at these people, and sees this group as the likely background to the second and third Johannine epistles as well.

The apparent contradiction between 1:8-9 and 3:6-9, concerning whether Christians do or do not continue to sin is not resolved in the traditional fashion (occasional vs habitual sin), but appeals to Kruse’s analysis of the meaning of anomia, which is in his view not to be interpreted etymologically (i.e. lawlessness), but simply as the type of sinful rebellion that typified the secessionists (also the “sin that leads to death”).

The poem of 2:12-14 is not thought to refer to three distinct groups (children, young men, adults), but to two, with the ‘children’ referring to everyone, while the latter two refer to younger and older Christians respectively (in human age). The “water and blood” of chapter 5:6-8 are interpreted as Jesus’ ministries of baptism and atonement.

In 2 John the secessionists are still very much in view, and the “chosen lady” is understood to be the church, who is urged not to receive these false teachers. By contrast, 3 John encourages Gaius to welcome itinerant teachers who were not secessionists but were loyal to the truth.

The commentary closes with an appendix of biblical and extra-biblical material that refers to Cain. This seems a little out of place, as Cain only gets one brief mention in 1 John.

This commentary will prove very useful to those wanting to grapple with the meaning of individual sentences in the Johannine epistles, perhaps in preparation for sermons or group study. It does not focus so much on contemporary application, although the author will often briefly indicate the pastoral significance. Those simply wanting a devotional aid as they read through these letters would be better off choosing a more homiletical commentary such as the Bible Speaks Today commentary on John’s Letters by David Jackman. Having said that, Colin Kruse’s volume is a worthy addition to the excellent Pillar series which combines careful exegesis with a devout evangelical commitment to the authority of Scripture as God’s word.

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