1, 2, 3 John: Believers Church Bible Commentary
J. E. McDermond
A Mennonite farmer was approached by a zealous evangelist. The man asked the farmer, “Are you saved?” The farmer inquired into what that meant. “Is Jesus your Lord and Saviour?” asked the evangelist. The farmer took a pencil and piece of paper, began writing, then gave it to the evangelist. The puzzled man asked how the list of names on the paper answered his question. The people were his neighbours, the farmer told the evangelist. They would have a better idea about the farmer’s salvation than he did: they were able to observe how he lived his life. J. E. McDermond uses this story told by theologian Stanley Hauerwas to summarize an important theme in his commentary 1, 2, 3 John – the inseparable reality of theology and ethics.
1, 2, 3, John, by J. E. McDermond, is the latest edition of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series. McDermond’s concern for the spiritual life of the church shines through clearly in this challenging, yet very readable commentary. Professor of Christian ministry and spirituality at Messiah College, Grantham, Pa., he helpfully walks the reader through the more difficult exegetical and interpretive problems of these letters, drawing from the best of Johannine scholarship. For me, the book’s strength is McDermond’s ability to draw out meaningful contemporary applicability from a persuasive reading of the letters in their historical context.
Crucial to understanding the commentary’s approach is McDermond’s contention that the letters’ author is speaking to a specific church (often referred to as “the Johannine community”) that experienced division and schism over serious doctrinal and ethical issues. According to McDermond, what was at stake in this early church was christology – whether Jesus is the incarnate Son of God – and the ethics of love which, deriving from the incarnation, fosters true fellowship among the community. He argues that the church was seriously strained on this point, struggling after many had left the church with “proto-gnostic” inclinations. Consequently, this bruised community urgently needed a strong pastoral letter of encouragement and assurance.
However, McDermond’s view of this community is kept under restraint and does not, to my mind, drift into unprovable speculation. From this historical and sociological perspective, we can better understand why strong language was necessary to re-situate the church whose existence and identity was severely challenged.
Obviously, a short review cannot address all the details of the commentary, but for those familiar with the letters of John, McDermond provides helpful interpretations of some of the more difficult aspects of the book. How do we understand the dualistic language of the text? What does John mean when he speaks about “hating the world?” How do we understand the language of “antichrist”? What did John mean when he spoke of an “anointing”? What does it mean to “test the spirits”? McDermond’s exegetical and analytical skill proves useful for anyone concerned with these questions.
What I found particular helpful was his ability to unlock the logic of the Johannine epistles. How do we understand John’s reasoning when he asks why Cain murdered his brother? It is “because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12). This is an example of a profound conviction for the author of 1 John: what one does reveals who one really is, there is no middle ground.
The author of John “begins with their ethical behaviour, reads the thought process backward, and so offers words of reassurance. In other words, their love [for] one another is indicative of their righteousness or acceptance of Jesus Christ and his teachings.” Conversely, even if one claims to know God, but their character does not express itself in loving action, this reveals that they never belonged to “the Light.”
From the interpretive lens of the Johannine community and a solid reasoned exegesis of the text, McDermond is able to address contemporary theological and ethical issues today in a genuine and persuasive way. What is the relation between our theology and ethics? How do we live faithful to the gospel in the world? How do we respond to schism that threatens the community? What are we to do when church members call into question key historical Christian affirmations? How should we think about sin in the Christian life?
There is also the recognition in the Johannine letters of an appeal to a greater “tradition.” For the author of John, this stems from the Johannine tradition deriving from the Gospel of John. This raises larger questions with respect to the appeal to tradition today. What tradition? Whose tradition? What is the authoritative “rule of faith?”
McDermond shows how these letters might function as a guide for today’s church. While remaining true to the commentary series in situating the biblical text in the Anabaptist tradition – or vice versa, situating the tradition in the biblical text? – McDermond appropriately relates 1, 2, and 3 John’s message with the church throughout its greater history to the present.
Why should we use this commentary? While there are certainly many other great commentaries on the Johannine letters, as McDermond’s “Selected Resources” bibliography shows, what this commentary does so well is demonstrate how the biblical text speaks and addresses the life of the church today. In a church culture that often stresses pragmatism over orthodoxy, McDermond’s interpretation of these letters reminds us that theology – and specifically christology – really matters for our ethics and mission. The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is the content, source, and power of our fellowship in sacrificial love.
However, for those who may be preoccupied with orthodoxy at the expense of ethics, the commentary call us back to the pastoral heart of the letters: our theology means nothing if we do not love one another, showing this love in practical ways. What we do and how we live, in the flux of everyday life in all its relational complexity, reveals who we really are. I recommend this commentary to anyone interested in the Johannine letters, and especially to pastors and teachers.