Examining the First Letter of John

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I have recently been going through the first letter of John in my preaching at the Woodland Drive-In Church in Grand Rapids. I have been surprised myself how looking at the Greek is shaping the messages that I have been developing.

I have found 1 John to be one of the most difficult to figure out thematically. It is certainly not linear like Romans, or problem-oriented like 1 Corinthians, or rhetorically focused like Galatians. I have come to the conclusion that it is best to view the letter as a sphere, and John is taking snapshots of this ball. Each section of the letter focuses the camera on a different part (though the edges of other snapshots occasionally enter a new snapshot), and we can determine the focal point of each picture by looking at the Greek words.

Take, for example, the word πνεῦμα. This word first occurs in the last verse of 1 John 3, which leads into 4:1–6, where it occurs seven times (English translations have both upper and lower case “S/spirit”). It seems obvious that this word is the central focus of this snapshot—the relationship between the Spirit of God and our testing of the spirits around us. There is a residual reference to πνεῦμα in 5:6, 8.

While “Spirit” does occur in 1 John 5:6, 8, the focal point of 5:7–12 is the Greek words μαρτυρέω / μαρτυρία. Yes, that verb does occur earlier in 1:2 and 4:13 (translated “testify” in the NIV), but in 5:7–12 this word group suddenly occurs ten times. In this snapshot John explores the testimony of God, who testifies to the truth about Jesus Christ as being the Son of God come in the flesh.

The first five verses of 1 John 5 seem to me to have as the central focus of the camera the Greek words νικάω and νίκη (“overcome” and “victory”; you would not know from the English that these two words are related). Yes, there is a brief mention of overcoming the evil one in 2:13, 15 and 4:4, but in 5:1–5 the word group occurs five times and instructs us how to be overcomers by believing in Jesus and so being born of God.

Finally, the ἀγαπή word group. While there are many references to the word group of “love” in this letter (52, according to my count), it is in the bull’s-eye view of John’s camera especially in 1 John 4:7–21, where more than half of the occurrences of the ἀγαπή word group take place in fifteen verses. I am sure most of you reading this are well aware of John’s message in this section to his “dear friends” (ἀγαπητοι, 4:7, 11) about experiencing the love of God, which he manifested in the sending of his Son as an atoning sacrifice, and how that experience should lead us to love one another.

There are a variety of ways to do such word searches in the Greek New Testament. Until recently, of course, the only way was to use a Greek-English concordance, such as The NIV Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament by John Kohlenberger III. This is still my preferred method. But nowadays, with electronic searches available through Logos or other software programs, such searches are at the click of the mouse. What tips can you give on doing word searches? 

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