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

Jan 24, 2009

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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One Response to A review of 1-3 John. By Robert Yarbrough.

  • Speaking from experience, as a new Christian I was very much aware of what I had been saved from and brought into. A bit like the vivid experience I had as a teenager of going from Britain to France for the first time. However, over the decades, the intensity of that that first experience is lost and I believe that it is not simply as a result of the sort of thing one would expect with the passing of time. I believe that it is a consequence of a false security, in the once saved always saved teaching, that somehow dims the picture of all that Christ’s death achieved, once and for all.

    One would think that as one becomes more mature in the faith, more and more of what we had been saved from and more and more of what we had been brought into – our inheritance, our hope in Jesus Christ, the down payment even – would become even more real. But it hasn’t. Some would immediately say that what I needed was a fresh touch of the Holy Spirit, or even that I had never been filled in the first place; all that may be true.

    However, It is only at those times, when through an unguarded moment of madness and wilful disobedience, when fellowship between myself and God and my fellow man are temporarily lost, that I am made dimly aware of all that I am risking. Do I value my forgiveness, acceptance, significance, security, new clothes and hope so light lightly, that, like Esau and his birthright, I am prepared to sacrifice it all for a dish of pottage?

    OK, God is faithful and up till now has always restored me and “put my feet on a level place,” but what if one day I don’t come round, wake up, and am no longer capable of repentance, of appreciating my riches in Christ or lose a hunger for righteousness and my final goal – Jesus Christ? What I am trying to say that it is only when I am made aware of all that I might have lost, that I am briefly put in the shoes of my unsaved friends and neighbours; and it is truly horrible. It is this that ought to motivate me to bring the good news to them, like all those who, being healed by our Lord, ran off to tell others.

    It needs to be brought home to us, each day, the danger in which our fellow travellers are in. Our new found peace, security, joy and hope etc should not be seen as some kind of supplement to our lives, like added vitamins to an already contented and OK existence, but the consequence of something far deeper, the fruit of being made pure, holy and righteous. 1 john 3:3 says “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

    The feasts and sacrifices described in Leviticus are scorned by Obama, but surely they were put there as a reminder of where we had come from, where we are now and where we are headed. How can we appreciate the cure found in the New Testament if we have never fully understood the depth of our depravity as described in the Old?

    David Skinner, UK

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