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God's Commandments

Commentary on 1 John 3:23-24

In verses 23-24 John tells us more about what he means by these commandments. At the time of the advent of Christianity, there were discussions about how many were the commandments of God. We can hear echoes of such discussions in the question posed to Jesus about which is the greatest of all the commandments (Mt 22:34-39; Mk 12:28-31).

Now First John, after speaking of the “commandments”—in the plural—speaks of “his commandment,” as a single one. The plural form will reappear in verse 24. But the combination of singular and plural conveys the impression that there is a single, central commandment that is John’s main concern, and that he reads the others in the light of this one. And even then, the apparently single commandment is double: “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

This seems confusing, for one element of the commandment has to do primarily with matters of belief, and the other with matters of attitude and behavior. But this is precisely John’s point: belief and behavior must go together. John has repeatedly said this in various ways. Anyone who claims to believe in God but does not love others is a liar. Now he links belief in Jesus Christ with love. As Christians, we are called to believe in Jesus and to love others. One without the other does not suffice, and turns out to be false. Then verse 24 repeats the statement, returning to the theme of abiding, which at this point has taken center stage in the Epistle.

Finally, John tells his readers that this abiding is confirmed “by the Spirit that he has given us.” This is the first time that the Epistle refers to the Spirit. This is often understood in terms of “the testimony of the Spirit”—meaning that Christians know that they are saved because the Spirit attests to that within their own selves. There may be other passages to support this view; but this is far from the thrust of what John is saying here. First of all, he is not speaking of some inward knowledge an individual has. In this context, the issue is belief in Jesus and love of others. Thus, it is not so much that the Spirit tells us something in secret as it is that the gift of the Spirit allows us both to believe and to love.

Furthermore, it is not absolutely certain that what the NRSV translates as “the Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Ancient Greek manuscripts were generally written entirely in capital letters, and therefore there is no way to know what is a proper noun and what is not. This means that the phrase can also be translated as “the spirit that he has given us.” Later (4:6), John will speak of “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” It may well be that here he is referring to the first of these two. There is no doubt that such a spirit would still be a gift of the Spirit; but in this case the testimony we receive is not an inner assurance, but rather finding ourselves obeying the commandment—that is, believing and loving.

 
 

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