Description : Robert Yarbrough’s commentary on the Epistles of John is tremendously helpful in providing a clear explanation of the Greek text of John’s letters. The introduction is concise consisting of twenty-seven pages, which indicates that the purpose is not to cover the introductory items in full detail. Yarbrough is clear that he views the apostle John as the author of the epistles that bear his name. He does interact with the critical views on authorship and demonstrates why he does not find these views compelling. He views the apostle John to be the author while admitting that this is not the dominant view among scholarship today. He understands that the letters were written in the 80’s to the geographical area of Ephesus.
The commentary’s focus is historical and linguistic. In light of this he provides key insights from the OT and also from John’s gospel that impact John’s letters. He supports word meanings from the Septuagint as well as extra-biblical literature of the day (e.g. ὁπαράκλητος in 2:1 and ἱλασμός in 2:2). His interaction with the Greek text is very valuable in that he points out the significant syntactical uses of various parts of speech. This is extremely helpful in aiding one’s phrase/block diagramming of the text and noting the relationships between phrases and clauses. He often cites Wallace as support and on occasion will disagree with Wallace. For example, in 1:9 where Wallace declares a theological conundrum with the ἵναclause, Yarbrough sees the ἵνα in 1:9 as a result clause with the idea that God is faithful and just and as a result forgives sin.
Yarbrough notes that there is no agreement among commentators on the structure of John’s letters. He organizes 1 John according to the structure of the NA27 (1:1-2:6; 2:7-17; 2:18-3:8; 3:9-4:6; 4:7-14; 4:1-5:15; 5:16-21). He then understands 1 John 1:5 to provide the thesis of the first letter. He recognizes four purposes for 1 John (1:3; 1:4; 2:1; and 5:13). He views these four as secondary purposes. Instead, he views the indicative “God is light” as that main purpose. He provides others who agree with him. Along with this focus on “God is light,” he also recognizes the three dimensional view of the aspects of faith that John develops throughout the letters of doctrinal, ethical, and relational (1 John 2:1; 3 John 6). He does discuss the key textual variants but keeps the discussion to the endnotes.
Yarbrough does not avoid the difficult passages. In 1 John 2:2 he deals with the issue of the meaning of ἱλασμός. He presents the expiation view and provides support for the meaning of Christ’s “cancellation” or “dismissal” of one’s sins. He then turns to the evidence for ἱλασμόςmeaning the “turning away of one’s wrath.” As typical of his style, he presents evidence from the Old Testament and from John’s gospel that supports each position. He concludes by noting that Christ’s death did wipe away sin’s penalty (expiation) but that one cannot avoid that it also appeased God’s wrath.
He also deals with the extent of the atonement from 2:2. He likens the universal dimension of Christ’s atonement found in 2:2 to the universal nature of God’s promise to Abraham that all would be blessed through Abraham. Also, the sacrifices were offered for “all Israel” but this did not mean every Israelite received personal saving grace. He is clear that 2:2 does not support universalism. He notes that Christ’s death is the basis for God to extend mercy and how God can temporarily overlook human sin and exercise longsuffering to all mankind. He also concludes on the extent of the atonement that there is a sense that God died both for the whole world and also only for the elect. He prefers to ask, “Is the full eschatological benefit of the cross applied to all equally or only to those who in God’s design (election) receive the gift of grace by faith?” Yarbrough concludes that for John the answer is the latter and this is consistent with John’s gospel (17:9).
In 1 John 3:4 he deals with the distinction between sin and lawlessness and demonstrates how this impacts 3:6 in understanding the tension in the phrase “keeps on sinning.” He resolves this tension by appealing to the meaning of ἀνομία that he developed in 3:4 (transgression so weighty that the perpetrator is outside the pale of Christ’s followers). He develops this in light of the context of the letter as a whole. He refers to the three areas the letter develops where one may potentially err: doctrine (faith), ethics (work), and relations (love). Therefore, “keeps on sinning” refers to sins that mark those who do not “abide” in Christ.
In 2 John he provides a cogent argument that the “elect lady” and her children is a reference to the church and its members. He develops the chiastic structure of verse five and six and understands the term “commandments” to refer to more than simply the love command. He interprets this term to refer to the doctrinal, ethical, and devotional integrity before God. He then develops the warning not to receive those teaching another doctrine. He makes the application to today in not accepting Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or other heretical views in the sense of endorsing their teaching.
In 3 John he notes the error of individuals such as Oral Roberts in interpreting verse two as a promise of material prosperity for all believers. He develops the triad of the doctrinal, ethical, and relational aspects of faith in relation to Gaius’ love toward strangers. These strangers are worthy of such treatment because they took nothing from unbelievers. He again delves into the syntax to interpret Diotrephes’ error as “status loving.”
In all, this commentary is extremely helpful on multiple levels as demonstrated in this evaluation. However, I am not convinced of his view that “God is light” is the thesis for 1 John. Since the structure of John is not overtly clear, this leads to a conclusion that disagreement will exist regarding the main focus of the letter. It seems, in my opinion, that 5:13 provides the main thesis as 20:31 does for John’s gospel. In his gospel John wrote for the purpose that one would believe that Jesus is the Messiah and as a result he would have life. Now, in John’s letters he maintains the emphasis on Jesus as Messiah. The light theme does support this focus in contrast to the darkness of the false teachers. However, now in the letters, John writes that they may know they have eternal life despite the teaching of the false teachers. In support of 5:13, John employs various forms of “knowing” God throughout 1 John (2:3, 4, 5, 13, 14; 3:24; 4:2, 6, 7, 13, 16; 5:20).
While appreciating his interaction with the Greek, I found his treatment of the Greek to be more on the micro level (words, phrases, and clauses) rather than on the macro level. As Yarbrough admitted there are many views on the structure of 1 John. Discourse Analysis, which works more on the macro level, aids in understanding the overall structure of a discourse. Longacre published an essay of a discourse analysis of 1 John suggesting it provides a natural outline for the book. While Yarbrough demonstrates more of a thematic unity to the book (doctrine, ethics, and relational), it is interesting to note a major similarity between Yarbrough and Longacre. Both note the importance of 4:7-21. Longacre concludes this passage to be the ethical peak of the body of the letter. Yarbrough concludes that 4:7-14 promotes the assurance of God’s love while 4:15-5:15 appeals for the reader to respond to this love. So, even though the linguistic focus of Yarbrough is not on the overall structure, I found the points of similarity with Longacre to be helpful on a macro level.