Robert W. Yarbrough, 1-3 John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. $39.99. xx + 434 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-2687-4.
In this age of unprecedented proliferation of biblical commentary series, it is an outstanding accomplishment for the Baker Exegetical series consistently to have produced what with only rare exceptions have become the best available commentaries on the Greek text of the New Testament book or books treated. This new volume on the Epistles of John, by Robert Yarbrough, New Testament professor and department chair at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, certainly falls into this category.
Some of the key distinctives of this volume include sustained interaction with older, classic commentaries as well as the expected flurry of recent works, stress on linguistic parallels with the teaching of Jesus, especially in John's Gospel, and with the Septuagint, concern for Majority World application and a fuller than normal treatment of textual variants, not least to demonstrate (contra Ehrman) how comparatively insignificant the vast majority are. In addition, Yarbrough has clearly labored at writing well, with frequent turns of phrase that are truly literary in quality. Charts and tables of the kind not found in other volumes in this series also help clarify complex issues.
Yarbrough robustly defends apostolic authorship for these letters, dates them to the last decades of the first century, apparently preferring the 80s, attempts a linear outline of 1 John while agreeing with the majority concerning the three main theological strands that intertwine and identify Christians as those who believe in Jesus-Christ as the God-man, love one another and obey God's commands. He also highlights John's pastoral tone and approach and the centrality and grandeur of God expressed throughout the letters.
Barely touched on, however, are other subordinate themes, the specifics of the circumstances of writing, provenance, nature of the opposition or theories of the relationships among and sequence of the epistles. Presumably, in lieu of being able to come to definitive conclusions, Yarbrough prefers not even to rehearse the scholarly debates.
1 John 1:1-4 must be taken seriously, Yarbrough avers, as eye- (ear- and hand-) witness testimony. 1:5 marks out the main burden of the letter: the character of God as light (but is this really an all-embracing category here?). The numerous absolutes of the letter, especially about unbelievers sinning and believers not sinning must all be interpreted in light of 1:6-10 that provide the framework for appropriately nuancing these claims. But they do highlight what must appear as consistent or characterizing tendencies. "Uses of 1 John 1:9 in the Christian community as a sort of palliative for chronic premeditated sin are misguided. . . . Christ's cleansing tends toward eradication of sin, not dismissal of it in the sense that the sinner is exonerated in the very thing he or she claims to be acknowledging as wrong but at heart refuses to forsake" (p. 64).
1 John 2:2 perennially raises the debate over limited atonement and Yarbrough wants to affirm viewpoints from both sides: "the full eschatological benefit of the cross" is applied only to believers, but John's use of "all" and "the world" cannot be limited to all ethnic groups. Every human being may accept the gospel. The sharp language of labeling John's opponents as liars (v. 4) fits the damning nature of the heresy and is to be reserved for similarly extreme situations today.
God's love, like his commandment to love, highlighted first in 2:7-11, is as old as creation but is new in Jesus in the nature of the fellowship with God and with Jesus' disciples revealed, based on Christ's uniquely efficacious sacrifice. Especially given what John's community has endured, John is "underscoring the necessity of Christ's followers first practicing among themselves what they preach that God offers to the world through the gospel" (p. 108).
2:12-14 may be viewed as a substitute for the personal greetings typically found at the beginning of an epistle. 2:16 is best interpreted by translating its central triad as "what the body hankers for and the eyes itch to see and what people toil to acquire" (p. 113). 2:19 is a key to understanding apostasy when it happens but is not a glib promise of eternal security to all who ever profess Christ in any fashion. Only by seeing who remains in apostolic truth, love and obedience do we determine who God's people truly are. 2:27 must be thus slightly ironic, and also because the letter itself provides teaching.
John's emphasis on love in 3:10 mitigates some of his seemingly harsher statements immediately preceding. "Readers with postmodern sensitivities need to ponder carefully before concluding that John's pungent remarks are as intolerant as a cursory reading might indicate. Perhaps he knows of a quality and strength of love made possible by God's light that are foreign to the shadowlands of vogue Western relativism" (p. 197). John also has more of a social conscience than he is often credited with; 3:17-18 proves particularly crucial in our global village.
John again shows pastoral astuteness is juxtaposing warnings against doctrinal error and commands to love in 4:1-6 and 7-10. 4:18 discloses that love to be "so comprehensive and effectual" that it "forcibly expels or throws out (. . .ballei) the dread of judgment on the last day. 5:1-5 and 6-12 balance the experience of faith and the content of faith. The water and blood in verse 8 refer to the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus, not to Christian baptism and the Lord's Supper. The third witness, that of the Spirit, is required, if spiritual truth is to be discerned and acknowledged.
The promises of 5:13-15 are akin to Psalm 37:4. The sin not unto death of verses 16-17 is any sin a person truly repents of. The sin unto death "is to have a heart unchanged by God's love in Christ and so to persist in convictions and acts and commitments like those John and his readers know to exist among ostensibly Christian people of their acquaintance, some of whom have now left those whom John addresses" (p. 311). John is not telling his churches not to pray for such sins (after all, it is again only with 20-20 hindsight we can ever recognize them for sure) but that he is in this context not talking about that issue but about praying for sins not unto death. The "touch" the devil cannot place on believers is the intimate touch akin to the parallel use of haptomai in 1 Corinthians 7:1. The abrupt final verse (v. 21) mirrors Letter of Jeremiah 6:73 with its closing call to avoid idolatry, apt summaries of key thrusts of both epistles.
John's pastoral approach continues with his self-identification as merely "elder" in 2 and 3 John (cf. Peter in 1 Peter 5:1). 2 John is written to a house church (recall the feminine imagery for God's people and Christ's bride and note the regular plurals throughout). 2 John 7-8 constitute the heart and occasion for the little letter in which they appear. The "going beyond" of verse 9 is what the heretics have done, not more minor deviations. Verse 10 precludes official endorsement of and support for teaching so non-apostolic that it damns, not hospitality to cult members we might wish to love and win for Christ.
3 John 2 was never interpreted as promising physical health until Oral Roberts took it that way in 1947 and should not be so taken. The kind of hospitality that did endorse a person's ideological views and offer them financial support for their ministry is what is in view in verses 5-8. Whatever else we might deduce about Diotrephes, he it least is in the wrong for being "status-loving" (p. 378). Demetrius is probably John's letter carrier.
I am not as convinced as Yarbrough is that "sin" is more generic and "lawlessness" more heinous in 1 John 3:4, especially because the articular nature of both nouns in a copulative sentence could easily suggest equivalence. Nor am I as skeptical of the grammatical solution to 3:6 and 9 that focuses on the verbal aspect of the present tenses as indicating continuous behavior. I doubt that 5:1-3 allows us clearly to conclude that regeneration precedes faith rather than being simply the flip side of the same coin. Other quibbles are scarcely worth mentioning. In sum, this is an astonishingly erudite, thorough, convincing and timely commentary that should be on every Bible preacher's or teacher's shelves and well used.
Overall the book is pleasantly free of typographical errors, though I did notice "quandrant" (p. 73), "connative" (p. 162), "illusion" (for "allusion"; p. 378), and "Zonderan" and "biblios" (both on p. 391).
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament