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1 John 2:12-14 (NA28):

γράφω ὑμῖν, τεκνία, ὅτι ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι διὰ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.
γράφω ὑμῖν, πατέρες, ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς.
γράφω ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι, ὅτι νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.
ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, παιδία, ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν πατέρα.
ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, πατέρες, ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς.
ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι, ὅτι ἰσχυροί ἐστε καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν μένει καὶ νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

ESV (abridged here for brevity):

I am writing to you, little children...
I am writing to you, fathers...
I am writing to you, young men...
I write to you, children...
I write to you, fathers...
I write to you, young men...

The first three of these statements begin with a present tense verb, whereas the latter three begin with an aorist.* I’m trying to determine if this is significant. A few ideas I’ve read/considered about possible implications:

  • He is referring to a different letter (i.e. γράφω refers to the present letter; ἔγραψα refers to a prior writing (the gospel? 2 John? a lost letter?)).
  • He is referring to different parts of this same letter (i.e. γράφω is what he’s about to write; ἔγραψα is that which he’s already written).
  • The two verbal forms partition the section according to two different intended audiences. Note the parallel:
    • τεκνία...πατέρες….νεανίσκοι
    • παιδία...πατέρες….νεανίσκοι
  • Both refer to the same body of writing (1 John), but there is a difference in emphasis (meaning….?).

The ESV, NIV, and RSV all make a distinction in English of unclear (to me) semantic value:

I am writing (x 3)….I write (x 3)....

I’m guessing they have something in mind, but I’m not sure what it is.

Are there clues to help us determine why the author shifted from present to aorist midway through this series?


*We have two [closed] questions that still linger with helpful answers for those not familiar with the aorist (1, 2). The conclusion seems to be: don’t make too much of it. I don’t think that the authors would argue that this implies there is no distinction between the present and aorist in a passage such as this, but correct me if I’m wrong!

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Excellent question, Susan.

There are different perspectives on this. Some take it that John's own thinking about the epistle changed at this point in his writing, and he began to think of it as a work that would be completed (e.g. Longacre). Others take it that the first set of statements is in regard to what he is presently writing, while the second set is in regards to what he wrote previously. This group is split over the question of whether this previous writing was the Gospel of John, an unknown letter, 2 John, or the first part of 1 John.

There is yet another view that this is simply a stylistic device for amplification (through repetition, for emphasis). Many hold this view, including myself, and if memory serves, Kruse (who wrote the Pillar New Testament Commentary for 1 John).

My reasoning for taking it as a stylistic device is that (A) as you noted, he is essentially repeating the same content in different words; both παιδια and τεκνια are used throughout the letter in addressing the entire group, (B) the structure of this paragraph is otherwise very poetic, which lends credence to a stylistic explanation, (C) 1 John fits the bill so well that there does not seem to be a good reason (other than the aorist) to think that he is not referring to what he is presently writing; remember, the aorist has a grammatical range that extends beyond simply "past time" -- in fact, time is secondary to aspect in Greek anyway, (D) he maintains the aorist for the remainder of the letter, including 5:13, which seems to me to be very clearly referring to the present writing, and (E) 1 John is full of amplification techniques, so this would be right at home in the rhetorical form of the epistle (technically, epideictic rhetoric).

I suppose it's up for discussion, but the evidence seems to me to weigh heavily in favor of it being stylistic, with no past-time significance.

1

John appears to correlate what he has seen / heard (and what his readers had seen / heard) to what he was doing (and to what they were doing). For example, in 1 Jn 1:1-3, the Apostle John relates to his readers what he has seen / heard and now proclaims to his readers concerning "the Word of Life" manifest in the flesh. The idea here is that what is heard / seen is apparent (and manifested) in visible outcomes. One passage from the Gospel of John illustrates:

John 8:38 (NASB)

38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

In the context of this passage, Jesus indicated THAT the Pharisees were not children of Abraham BECAUSE they were trying to kill him (Jesus), and thus were doing the works of their father the devil. Jesus on the other hand, indicated THAT he was the son of his Father, BECAUSE he did the what he saw from his Father. In other words, what is heard / seen correlates to, and is manifested in, the visible outcomes of behavior. If we carry this same idea into the epistle of First John, then the literal translation of the Greek subordinating conjunction ὅτι would occur as follows:

1 John 2:12-14 (NASB)

12 I am writing to you, little children, BECAUSE your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, BECAUSE you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, BECAUSE you have overcome the evil one.

I have written to you, children, THAT you know the Father. 14 I have written to you, fathers, THAT you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, THAT you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

The idea is that what they had seen / heard from John concerning them (his first iteration of writing to them sometime before) is now manifest and visible in their behavior in the present time, which is the occasion of the iteration of the current epistle. In his previous letter (Gospel of John?) he had written THAT believers were saved by and through the Word manifest in flesh; in the present time, however, John now writes to them BECAUSE there are visible manifest behaviors corresponding to what they have seen / heard from John. Again, in contradistinction, the Pharisees in the Gospel of John indicated THAT they were Abraham's descendants (Jn 8:33), but were not the children of Abraham BECAUSE they did not do the deeds of Abraham (Jn 8:39). In other words, ontological identity on the inside will have its invariable manifestation on the outside through visible manifest behavior.

Thus John closes the paragraph with the discussion of the love of the world (the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life). He indicates that the world is not from the Father, and the one who does the will of God (that is, his readers who are confirmed in their faith by visible manifest behavior) will therefore not love the world, which "lies in the power of the Evil One" (1 Jn 5:19), who is the devil, or "ruler of this world" (Jn 12:31 and Jn 14:30).

  • Thanks, Joseph. I had considered asking another question about the causal vs content nuance of the ὅτι clauses, but it hadn't occurred to me that it might be directly related to this question. Do you know of any translations that agree with this transition midway through from "because" to "that"? – Susan Oct 9 '14 at 20:56
  • By the way, I think ὅτι is a (subordinating) conjunction, not a preposition. – Susan Oct 9 '14 at 20:57
  • @Susan - I made the correction regarding the conjunction (thanks for pointing out). Also, 1 Jn 2:21 is a good example where the Apostle John switches between both meanings of the conjunction in the same verse with the same verb (and in the same chapter). Please click here. – Joseph Oct 9 '14 at 23:32
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The ESV translation is such that a single document from the writer would fulfill both sets of phrases:

I am writing to you, fathers… (2:13)
I write to you, fathers… (2:14)

As noted in the answers of Jas 3.1 and Joseph, this has the effect of focusing on repetition making style an emphasis and drawing attention to the reason stated “because…”

Many translations render the second set as “I have written…” [1 John 2:14] This makes a clearer statement the Epistle is intended to be considered in conjunction with a second (earlier) document.

David Smith has written:

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Epistle and the Gospel are from the same pen. “The identity of authorship in the two books,” says Lightfoot, “Though not undisputed, is accepted with such a degree of unanimity that it may be placed in the category of acknowledged facts.” And they have a very intimate connection. This is abundantly apparent from the internal evidence. The Epistle opens with a reference to the Gospel-narrative, and there is an unmistakable relation between 1 John v. 13 and John xx. 31 (see commentary). Indeed the Epistle throughout has the Gospel as its background and is hardly intelligible without it. 1

This poetic or stylistic element is placed in the opening of the Epistle, before identifying the situation which caused the Epistle to be written (the false teaching and split). One effect of this element is to make clear the Epistle is intended for the entire church. When taken literally, the Epistle is written to the family unit, even the youngest members. However, reading the Epistle in conjunction with the Gospel means this passage should also be considered in that light:

John's Epistle: I am writing to you…
John's Gospel: I have written to you…2

The connections between Epistle and Gospel are not limited to language, construct, and concepts: there is an experiential connection between the two. For example, the Epistle begins:

This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life— (1:1) 3

"Word" draws on the language of the Gospel of John and "word of life" draws on the experiences of the disciples recorded in the Gospel of John:

After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:66-68)

The Epistle opens with the writer paraphrasing Peter’s response to Jesus asking a question of the twelve. 4 The experiential context of the question is that it is asked after an exodus of disciples over Jesus teaching them they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. The Gospel event, some disciples abandoning Jesus over the issue of His flesh and His blood, is the same situation the Epistle addresses: a split in the Church over the issue of whether Jesus came in the flesh.

When the Epistle is read in the light of the Gospel, the Gospel describes the disciples in situations similar to those reading the Epitle. The division is nothing new; disciples walked away from Jesus over this same issue when He was alive and with them. The Epistle is not new instruction: it is drawn fro Gospel events and it is the Gospel which provides the guidance to a right response: continue to abide in the Word to know the truth and the source of what Jesus taught:

Then Jesus said to those Judeans who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth...” (John 8:31-32)

If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know about my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from my own authority. (John 7:17)

The Epistle summarizes the Gospel with a focus relevant to the current issue.

The opening of the Epistle (1:1-4) states there are others in the church whom the Epistle is written to that were with the writer. So there is more than one original disciple in the church. If that is true, then the others can validate the message in the Epistle and they were witnesses to the events recorded in the Gospel. So they, like the writer, were the original believers. They have know Jesus from the beginning, and before the Gospel was written:

I am writing to you, fathers, that you have known him who has been from the beginning… (2:13)
I have written to you, fathers, that you have known him who has been from the beginning… (2:14)

“Fathers” is used symbolically for that group. As original disciples, their condition is not only the same as the writer's, it has remained constant throughout. They are "fathers" since their witness has added family members to the Body of Christ:

For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (1 Corinthians 4:15)

“Young people” (or young men) makes use of the analogy to the family unit; it is used to represent individuals who became believers as a result of the witness of the original disciples (the “fathers”):

I am writing to you, young people, that you have conquered the evil one. (2:13)
…I have written to you, young people, that you are strong, and the word of God resides in you, and you have conquered the evil one. (2:14)

This is also a connection found in the Epistle's introduction and the Gospel:

What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4)

“I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. (John 17:20-21)

The unity Jesus prays for (Gospel) is the same unity the writer seeks (Epistle). In both cases the unity is based on the witness of the original disciples. In effect the writer opens by saying, "I and the others who were with Jesus the night He died want you to have the fellowship He prayed for."

Finally, there are two types of “little children.”

I am writing to you, little children (τεκνία), that your sins have been forgiven because of his name. (2:12)
I have written to you, children (παιδία), that you have known the Father… (2:14)

The Epistle uses τεκνία and παιδία as they are used in the Gospel of John:

τεκνία: Children, I am still with you for a little while. You will look for me, and just as I said to the Jewish religious leaders, ‘Where I am going you cannot come,’ now I tell you the same. (13:33)
παιδία: So Jesus said to them, “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?”… (21:5)

During His final meal and before all of the disciples deserted Him, Jesus addressed His disciples as τεκνία. After the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus prepares breakfast and calls His disciples παιδία.

The writer of the Epistle and the Gospel also draws on the other Gospels:

But Jesus called for the children, saying, “Let the little children (παιδία) come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child (παιδία) will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)

and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)

When understood with the other wirtten records of the life of Jesus, the point of the question (in the Gospel of John) takes on added significance: “Children (παιδία), you don’t have any fish, do you?” Jesus finds the disciples trying to catch fish (their previous occupation) not at work to make new disciples (their current assignment).

Therefore the term τεκνία may be understood as a disciple who is less mature than a παιδία and/or is not making new disciples.

There are many other aspects that can be taken from this section. For instance, the fathers, young poeple, and little children indicate diversity, both physical age and spiritual maturity within the church. Repetition also reinforces the concept of continuity within the group; despite the division fathers, young people, and both types of little children are present.

While the stylistic element may be present, given the serious nature of the issue, it is unlikely the writer of the Epistle would place style over content in what is essentially part of the introduction. Rather, the message of the Epistle is simply: "What I have written about Jesus in the Gospel is true and the Holy Spirit promised in the Gospel affirms the truth in both the Gospel and this letter."


1. David Smith, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, volume 5 p 154 Expositor's Greek Testament

2. The structure of this section is therefore purposeful to affirm the existence of fourth Gospel and in doing so also affirms the existence of the Synoptics. That is, this section of the Epistle affirms the historicity of all four Gospel narratives.

3. All Scripture from the New English Translation except as noted.

4. Using Peter's words is another way to reinforce the point they were an original disciple.

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