1-3 John

By Marianne M. Thompson
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1992). 136 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 238-241

This is a lucid work in the relatively new InterVarsity NT Commentary Series, based on the NIV. The series includes exposition and explanatory notes combined with applicational relevance. In overall helpfulness this particular work seems to rate about fourth among similar works, behind Stott, Kistemaker, and Ryrie. Several heavier works explain more to those in preaching/teaching ministries (e.g., Brown, Burdick, Smalley, and Marshall). This writer, Associate Professor of NT at Fuller Theological Seminary, earned her PhD from Duke.

The book is readable for popular, general use and perceptively helpful at times. It is frustratingly incomplete at other points, bypassing differing viewpoints or solid supports or not commenting sufficiently on a subject before going on.

A mist of vagueness descends in some cases. The writer is not clear on why she doubts that those who have seceded from the Christians (1 John 2:19) are Gnostic. She lists about a half dozen similarities between Gnostic belief and the secessionists of 1 John, and feels that Johannine elements are not as fully developed or entirely congruent with later Gnostic writers. Yet she does not nail down what she means (17-18).

She is not sure who wrote the epistles, whether the apostle John or another John. She could have built a better case for the apostle. Seven themes mark the epistles: God's character, the centrality of Jesus Christ, Christian discipleship, love/unity/fellowship, preserving sound teaching, discernment, and assurance/confidence (21-25). Yet she does not point to an overall theme or statement to unify the seven.

The writer sees a contrast between a characteristic pattern of life of genuine believers and of those lacking genuineness, the secessionists. Those who are genuine walk in the light, abide, acknowledge their sin, show love, and follow the truth; the others do not. References to those not loving, believing, and keeping commands are to the secessionists (26). Yet exhortations to love and obey are relevant to the saved, for each of them, though walking imperfectly, needs to "bring all of . . . life under the scrutiny of God's light, and to live in conformity with God's character and will" in an increasing way (26). False claims of 1:6, 8, 10 are by the secessionists (44). A contrast in 3:4-10 is between those with eternal life (children of God) and those without this life (children of the devil).

Many times the commentator's generalizing leaves the impression that the saved one must live an ideally perfect walk in the light (cf. 43). Yet at many other points she is clear that Christians do sin (45): "Those in the light do indeed sin`but they recognize the need to be purified from sin" and "We are not perfect light as God is." "The shape of the Christian life as a whole" -not perfect obedience- fulfills the Christian response to God's Word (53). She needs to explain more of how a Christian can be in fellowship with God -walking in the light, reflecting God's character, doing the truth, living as God desires (46- 47)- when, before confession and cleansing, he has fallen into sin and is impure. Is he always in fellowship, or in and out at different times, with the dominant pattern being one of victory? The commentary does have a healthy clarity that true grace, distinguished from cheap grace (cf. 51), leads Christians to confess and seek forgiveness and obedience to God's will (51). The writer recognizes obedience as a basis for assurance, as mentioned in 1 John 2:3 (51), but does not integrate this with other grounds for assurance.

Some ideas are catchy but misleading, as "we are not given directions, but direction" (54). Within God's overall direction are many directions or specific ways to live by grace according to His character. Obeying specifics such as following a check-list, as God enables, need not amount to legalism. She very helpfully clarifies that keeping God's commands (aren't these specifics?) as in 1:7 "is not the condition, but rather the characteristic of the knowledge of God" (54).

The commentary is ambiguous in explaining the named agegroups in 2:12-14. The discussion vacillates and creates uncertainty as to what is meant. It does not settle upon a view solidly. She links Christ's second coming with final judgment as in amillennial reasoning (72), yet the brevity leaves one unsure.

The work sees the shame of unbelievers at the future judgment in 2:28, contrasting this with the confidence believers (those who abide) will have. Comments bring in the very close connection in v. 29 with the one who is born again and whose pattern of life is to do what is right. "Righteous conduct does not make us God's children. Rather, such conduct is the consequence or expression of a relationship that already exists." The practice comes from the reborn nature (87), as God "created us and re-created us in his own image" (90), giving us the family likeness as His children (cf. 3:1-10).

Problem verses often get only a cursory discussion, without other viewpoints or much, if any, evidence. In regard to not sinning in 3:6, 9, she sees the present tense as denoting the identifying characteristic of a person genuinely born of God (95). The authoress skirts the issue of "God's seed remains" (3:9), leaving it without explanation. Without supporting it, she mentions possible identification as the Holy Spirit or the Word of God, but settles for the generalization that the seed is "that which makes them his children" (97). What, then, is it? And in 2 John 8, she takes the warning not to "lose what you have worked for" as reflecting on what happens to professing but not really saved people. They lose eternal life, which they worked for in the sense of what is actually the work of God in John 6:29 -that people believe in the one whom God has sent. She fails to explain how past belief, if it had a beginning and now can be continued, was not real while it was there, or how one can lose eternal life when this implies that he once had that life. She does not mention Stott's view that the reference is to the truly saved losing special reward.

Satisfaction with half explanations here and frequently elsewhere makes the work bothersome. This is unfortunate since in many places the commentary has benefit for those readers seeking help from a lighter commentary.