Review of Yarbrough’s 1-3 John

1–3 John. BECNT. By Robert W. Yarbrough. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. xx +434pp. $39.99. Published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14.3 (2010), 98–99.

Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein are the editors of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, and they have now each contributed stellar volumes to the series. This series has established itself as a top tier set of commentaries on the New Testament, and Yarbrough’s volume on 1–3 John is a credit to the others. This brief review will focus on the treatment of 1 John, but Yarbrough’s treatment of the two shorter epistles is as strong as his treatment of the longer.

In his preface, Yarbrough identifies six emphases that distinguish his work on these letters of John. I condense them as follows: (1) reliance on the gospels as true and influencing the Johannine letters, especially the gospel of John; (2) use of computer aids to explore linguistic ties with the LXX; (3) attention given to each textual variant noted in NA27; (4) use of recent scholarship; (5) use of historic Christian scholarship from the fathers to the reformers; and (6) an attempt to bear in mind international contexts, whether Muslim, post-Marxist, Asian, or persecuted.

The introduction to the commentary offers a thoroughgoing defense of the idea that John the son of Zebedee was the author of both the Fourth Gospel and 1–3 John, convincingly demonstrating the implausibility of Bauckham’s reliance on Eusebius’ dubious introduction of a second John in addition to the son of Zebedee. Yarbrough maintains that 1 John is a letter on the basis of ancient testimony and certain epistolary features it bears, and he surveys the evidence for the setting of Ephesus and Asia Minor in the last few decades of the first century. Yarbrough then traces intriguing connections between the letters of John and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. In view of the lack of consensus regarding 1 John’s organization, he relies on divisions that became standard among scribal copyists, which are reflected in the inner marginal numbers of NA27. These are the basis for his detailed exegetical outline of 1 John. Yarbrough’s discussion of the theology of John concludes that the center of John’s thought is the same as the center of Paul’s, as argued by Schreiner: “the grandeur and centrality of God” (27).

Here I can only survey some conclusions espoused in the commentary, but the evidence adduced for them is of the highest quality. Readers will want to avail themselves of these arguments. As the commentary unfolds, Yarbrough helpfully identifies John’s focus on believing, doing, and loving. On 1 John 2:2, he explains that “Jesus did not suffer for every individual indiscriminately but particularly for those whom God knew he would save,” agreeing with Calvin on the point that “‘the whole world’ refers to believers scattered everywhere and in all times” (80). This does not keep him from adding in the next sentence: “And yet none of this rules out certain positive benefits—God’s common grace to humans generally . . .—that are spin-offs of the central redeeming benefit proper of the cross” (81). He also affirms that the gospel can be offered to all in good faith. On 2:12–13, Yarbrough takes “little children” to refer to the whole audience, which is then divided into older and younger with the address to fathers and young men. The lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life in 2:16 are aptly explained as “what the body hankers for and the eyes itch to see and what people toil to acquire” (134). The coming antichrist in 2:18 seems to be an individual, while the antichrists are ringleaders of doctrinal aberration or ethical laxity. The sense in which Christians do not sin (e.g., 3:6) is that they do not strike “an advanced or confirmed posture of noncompliance with John’s message” (185). The water and blood by which Jesus came in 5:6 refer to his baptism and death (282). The sin unto death in 5:16 “is simply violation of the fundamental terms of relationship with God that Jesus Christ mediates” (310), and this is “to have a heart unchanged by God’s love in Christ and so persist in convictions and acts and commitments” that betray unbelief (311).

Robert Yarbrough has given us what is, in my opinion, the best commentary on the Johannine epistles available. Slightly more detailed that Akin’s excellent volume, this will be the first one I turn to and the first I recommend.

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1 Comment

  1. My biggest problem with his commentary was that he never addressed the translation of 1 John 5:20 in any depth but simply referred to Dan Wallace’s textbook on Greek.

    He spent a whole lot of space doing word-studies and Greek syntax in the rest of the commentary but spent only a sentence on whether Jesus is called ‘God’, and that sentence wasn’t an argument but simply a reference. Argh!

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