Book Review – REBC 1-3 John (Tom Thatcher)

This commentary is another in the new Revised Expositors Bible Commentary, from the same volume as Hebrews by R T France, which I reviewed in a previous post.

One of the strengths of this series is a really well laid out format, including the NIV text of the Bible, and Greek and Hebrew is always both transliterated and translated. It is aimed at the biblical expositor, so it is not application heavy, but it is not overly academic either.

This particular commentary starts with an introduction that covers all three letters. Thatcher talks about the “Johannine community”, a distinct branch of the early church, and likes to highlight John’s unique emphases when compared say to Paul or Matthew. Although interesting, I do feel that expositors would be served with some suggested resolutions to these apparently divergent approaches. These things are of great interest to academics, but congregations will benefit more from a coherent big picture of what the whole Bible says.

Another aspect of the Johannine epistles that Thatcher stresses is John’s “dualism”. By this he means that John isn’t into shades of grey – you’re either right or wrong, in our out, true or false, Christian or antichrist. He mentions this throughout the commentary, and by the end it really has sunk in. No “generous” orthodoxy for John! Thatcher has a concern to let John speak for himself, rather than rushing in to soften the blow when strong sentiments are expressed.

He shows how in John’s mind, the theological and ethical aspects of the Christian life are inextricably linked. Christological heretics always fail to love, and true believers never do. This commentary is very light on application, and we are often left to ponder the ramifications of these challenging statements without much guidance from the author.

I have heard some people claim that while Paul was into “truth”, John was into “love”, as though John was a really kindly person and Paul was a bit stern. Reading this commentary has perhaps opened my eyes to a somewhat harsher (even ‘intollerant’) John! That we are called to a lifestyle of love as well as to a belief in orthodox doctrine is something we need reminding of, especially in our age where Christians want to emphasise one at the expense of the other. John was equally “full on” in both categories. Thatcher goes as far as to say that “if John’s tests of doctrine and love were rigorously applied, one might have to conclude that most Christians today are antichrists”.

Overall I would say I benefitted in my understanding of these epistles from reading this commentary, although I would still recommend people check out David Jackman’s BST if they want more pastoral application, and reflection on how what John teaches ties in with the rest of the New Testament. I have said that there is not a great deal of “application” here, but he does throw in some interesting insights and reflections as he works through the epistles – I found him particularly helpful on the atonement (1 Jn 2:2), on prayer (1 Jn 3:22), and the “health and wealth” gospel (1 Jn 5:14). I didn’t find his commentary on 2 and 3 John as useful as that on 1 John, although he enumerated the various options for interpretation clearly.

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.

Book Review – The Message of John’s Letters (David Jackman)

John’s letters, says Jackman, contain simple vocabulary but profound theology. In his introduction he makes a case for the apostle John as the author of these letters along with the gospel of John. The first letter intends to deal with the problem of the Gnostic false teachers who were vaunting their ‘anointing’ and ‘knowledge’. 1 John stands as a warning against knowing without doing. “Belief and behaviour” and “truth and love” are the major themes.

The commentary is broken into 20 short chapters, each dealing with a few verses. The last two chapters deal with 2 and 3 John respectively and are therefore slightly longer. The NIV text is included at the start of each chapter which is a useful feature that I wish more commentaries had (it’s very impractical to have a Bible and a commentary when reading in the bath). Jackman is willing to discuss issues of translation and Greek on occasions but it is never overly technical. He is also an appreciator of hymns, quoting them on regular occasions throughout the book. He has a good way with words, and at no point did I feel the book got bogged down with too many comments on one individual verse. As with all the New Testament BST volumes, there is a study guide at the end, which has a couple of (thankfully not patronising) questions on each chapter.

As he moves through the first letter, Jackman slowly deals with some of the heresies of the false teachers: their denial of the incarnation, their heretical views about Christ, their claims to perfectionism, their elite holier-than-thou attitude because of their special knowledge and their claiming to speak on behalf of God. Jackman shows how John counters these with affirmations of truth about Jesus and teaching about fighting sin. While the author hints that he can think of a few groups in the contemporary church that tend towards the same errors, he diplomatically avoids direct comparisons.

Love is a major theme of the book and the sections on how much God loves us as well as some practical teaching on how we love others are most valuable. The challenge to love one another is clearly spelled out, as it constitutes the irrefutable evidence of the new birth. Particularly excellent is the discussion of how love and obedience work together, and the way he shows that, for John, love is not merely a duty but a characteristic of real Christianity. The theme of truth is also clearly close to Jackman’s heart as he regularly stresses the importance of sound doctrine.

The chapters on 2 and 3 John both begin with a short discussion of authorship, both arguing for John again on stylistic grounds. In his comments on 2 John, Jackman talks about John’s concern for truth, particularly now that almost all the first apostles had died. He describes the competing trends in the church to either go for ‘new ideas’ or ‘old traditions’, neither of which is intrinsically right or wrong, but argues that the desire for ‘biblical truth’ should be paramount.

The chapter on 3 John is not surprisingly structured around the three men mentioned in the letter: Gaius who was welcoming and supportive, Diotrophes with his self-centred ambition and Demetrius the good example. The lessons they each teach the modern church are as important now as ever.