A review of 1-3 John. By Robert Yarbrough.

Baker, 2008. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

The Letters of John may be brief (they total just 132 verses in English), but they are an important part of the New Testament canon nonetheless. Recent evangelical/conservative commentaries on these letters have been nicely supplemented by this substantial volume (434 pages).

Earlier treatments include those by Stott (TNTC, 1964); Marshall (NICNT, 1978); Smalley (WBC, 1984); Jackman (BST, 1988); Thompson (IVPNTC, 1992); Johnson (NIBC, 1993); Burge (NIVAC, 1996); Kruse (PNTC, 2000); Akin (NAC, 2001); and Witherington (2006). So there has been a steady stream of helpful works, but none as recent, comprehensive and detailed as this commentary.

This volume is part of the growing collection of commentaries in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series. The series – which has twelve volumes available thus far – also includes quite helpful commentaries by Bock on Luke, Schreiner on Romans, and Osborne on Revelation.

This volume, like the others in the series, is user-friendly. Technical issues (eg., variant readings and textual concerns) are relegated to footnotes and/or additional notes. Thus both specialists and non-specialists, academics and non-academics, can benefit from these commentaries.

Yarbrough is well placed to pen this commentary. He is chair of the New Testament Department and associate professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. He is also co-editor of the BECNT series.

Concerning authorship and dating, Yarbrough examines the relatively recent (since the Enlightenment) arguments rejecting the traditional understanding of the issues, concluding that the standard position – that John the apostle is the author, and the epistles were written in the 80s or 90s – is the preferred option.

Yarbrough, following Gerard Bray, offers five reasons why these letters are so significant: they offer a non-Pauline look at early Christian belief; they document aberrational beliefs and practices affecting the early church; they highlight the importance of right doctrine and right practice in Christian experience; they remind us of the implications for pastoral ministry; and they showcase the grandeur and centrality of God.

Of course these letters are not free from difficult exegetical and hermeneutical issues. On some of the more theologically controversial passages, Yarbrough offers fair discussions of the various options, while presenting his own preferences. For example, 1 John 2:2 raises the contentious issue of whether the New Testament teaches a doctrine of limited or unlimited atonement. That is, did Christ die only for the elect, or for all people?

As an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, Yarbrough notes “an undeniable particularity” running throughout the NT. Yet he acknowledges “the real tension between two important Johannine insistences: there is both universality and particularity in Christ’s atoning work”. Indeed, this particular passage “indicates that there is a sense in which he did both”.

Even a strong passage on assurance of salvation such as I John 5:13 is given careful treatment. Yarbrough reminds us that “the present aspect of the participle gives a dynamic sense to John’s counsel. His readers may well be under continual pressure. The proper response is continual vigilance. . . . John does not want to give false assurance.”

Nonetheless, the concept of the assurance of salvation is clearly John’s aim here: “John agrees that God’s commandments are obligatory for believers. But he commends obedience as the result and not the means of arriving at saving faith (cf. 1 John 5:2-3). John can commend a full assurance of eternal life to his readers because the full requirements of salvation were met by Christ.”

Or consider 3 John 2, which since the time of Oral Roberts has been interpreted – or misinterpreted – by the health and wealth gospellers to mean that believers can expect to always succeed financially. The Greek word translated “prosper” literally means ‘good way’ or to travel well. “The word connotes succeeding or attaining a given aim and does not necessarily refer to material or financial gain.”

As Yarbrough and other commentators have noted, one cannot build a prosperity doctrine out of this verse: “if Jesus came proclaiming a gospel of material prosperity, it is otherwise absent from the Johannine corpus”. Of course this is “not to deny that it is within God’s ability, and frequently his will, to bless his people materially in all kinds of ways”.

Other contentious passages are also judiciously and carefully examined. The reader is presented with the breadth of options and the array of views, but the author’s preferred rendering is fairly and cogently argued for.

Yarbrough has produced a very thorough, helpful and well-written commentary on these three letters. For those looking to better understand the letters and their importance, this volume could well be the first port of call. Many of the earlier commentaries are certainly of great value, but for the most up-to-date and complete examination of these letters, this volume must top the list.

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