Why does 1 John read like Molasses? The Role of Articular Substantival Participles in 1 John 2-3

My Advent sermon series this year is in 1 John. Having just finished the Gospel of Luke, completed in two years, I did not want to return to the infancy narratives of the Gospels. So on to John’s longest letter for the hopes of offering the church some of John’s reflections on what we celebrate at Christmas. I think 1 John is one of the final New Testament books to be written. The aged apostle writes to set out Christianity as it is—and always will be.

What kind of grammatical forms might an author use to connote the structural stability of their subject matter? In 1 John 2-3, John writes twenty-six substantival participles, all articular. John writes a total of fifty-eight participles in 1 John, forty-nine of them substantival (Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer, 326 n. 13). Participles are supplementary and at times ambiguous forms of communication (Buth, 289). But when an author substanizes a participle, it becomes a concretizes an idea, emphasizing the structural stability of its referent. Stanley E. Porter writes, “The (substantival) participle adds the semantic features of its respective verb tense-form, which must be considered in appreciating the full force of the phrase or clause” (Porter, 183). In other words, a normal participle is like a compact sedan, supplementing family travel by carrying one, two, three people comfortably on errands. The articular substantival participle is like a Chevy Suburban, people and gear for a specific trip.

Below, the twenty-six articular substantival participles in 1 John 2-3 are marked with bold font. The English phrases in the NASB (1995) that translate these participles are also marked with bold font.

1John 2:4 λέγωνὅτι ἔγνωκα αὐτὸν καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ μὴ τηρῶν ψεύστης ἐστίν, καὶ ἐν τούτῳἡ ἀλήθεια οὐκ ἔστιν·1John2:4 The one who says, “aI havecome to bknowHim,” and does not keep Hiscommandments, is a cliar, and dthe truth is not in him;

1John 2:6 λέγων ἐν αὐτῷ μένειν ὀφείλει, καθὼς ἐκεῖνος περιεπάτησεν, καὶ αὐτὸς οὕτως περιπατεῖν.

1John 2:6 the one who says he aabides in Him bought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

1John 2:9 λέγων ἐν τῷ φωτὶ εἶναι καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῶν ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν ἕως ἄρτι. 10 ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φωτὶ μένει, καὶ σκάνδαλον ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν· 11 ὁ δὲ μισῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν καὶ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ περιπατεῖ καὶ οὐκ οἶδεν ποῦ ὑπάγει, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία ἐτύφλωσεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ.

1John 2:9 The one who says he is in the Light and yet ahates his bbrother is in the darkness until now. 10 aThe one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who ahates his brother is in the darkness and bwalks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has cblinded his eyes.

1John 2:17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

 1John 2:17 aThe world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who bdoes the will of God lives forever.

1John 2:22     Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ψεύστης εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀρνούμενος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ Χριστός; οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀντίχριστος, ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν υἱόν. 23 πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει, ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει.

1John 2:22 Who is the liar but athe one who denies that Jesus is the 1Christ? This is bthe antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. 23 aWhoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.

1John 2:26     Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν περὶ τῶν πλανώντων ὑμᾶς.

1John 2:26   These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to adeceive you.

1John 2:29 ἐὰν εἰδῆτε ὅτι δίκαιός ἐστιν, γινώσκετε ὅτι καὶ πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεγέννηται.

1John 2:29 If you know that aHe is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness bis 1born of Him.

1John 3:3 καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἔχων τὴν ἐλπίδα ταύτην ἐπ᾿ αὐτῷ ἁγνίζει ἑαυτόν, καθὼς ἐκεῖνος ἁγνός ἐστιν.

1John 3:3 And everyone who has this ahope fixed on Him bpurifies himself, just as He is pure.

1John 3:4       Πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν καὶ τὴν ἀνομίαν ποιεῖ, καὶ ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία.

1John 3:4   Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and asin is lawlessness.

1John 3:6 πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει· πᾶς ὁ ἁμαρτάνων οὐχ ἑώρακεν αὐτὸν οὐδὲ ἔγνωκεν αὐτόν.

1John 3:7       Παιδία, μηδεὶς πλανάτω ὑμᾶς· ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην δίκαιός ἐστιν, καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν· 8 ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐκ τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστίν, ὅτι ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει. εἰς τοῦτο ἐφανερώθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα λύσῃ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ διαβόλου. 9 Πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ, ὅτι σπέρμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ μένει, καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται. 10 ἐν τούτῳ φανερά ἐστιν τὰ τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὰ τέκνα τοῦ διαβόλου· πᾶς ὁ μὴ ποιῶν δικαιοσύνην οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ.

1John 3:6 No one who abides in Him asins; no one who sins has seen Him or 1bknows Him. 7 aLittle children, make sure no one bdeceives you; cthe one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is aof the devil; for the devil 1has sinned from the beginning. bThe Son of God cappeared for this purpose, dto destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is 1aborn of God bpractices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is 1born of God. 10 By this the achildren of God and the bchildren of the devil are obvious: 1anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who cdoes not love his dbrother.

1John 3:14 ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν ὅτι μεταβεβήκαμεν ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν ζωήν, ὅτι ἀγαπῶμεν τοὺς ἀδελφούς· ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν μένει ἐν τῷ θανάτῳ. 15 πᾶς ὁ μισῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἀνθρωποκτόνος ἐστίν, καὶ οἴδατε ὅτι πᾶς ἀνθρωποκτόνος οὐκ ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον ἐν αὐτῷ μένουσαν.

1John 3:14 We know that we have apassed out of death into life, bbecause we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who ahates his brother is a murderer; and you know that bno murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

1John 3:24 καὶ ὁ τηρῶν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ μένει καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν αὐτῷ· καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι μένει ἐν ἡμῖν, ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος οὗ ἡμῖν ἔδωκεν.

1John 3:24 The one who akeeps His commandments babides in Him, and He in him. cWe know by this that dHe abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

As you can see, in 1 John 2-3 John substantizes verbs of speech and action. Verbs like ἀρνέομαι (2:22[2], 23), λέγω (2:4, 6, 9), and ὁμολογέω (2:23) note the importance of the Christian confession and speaking forth a committement to walk in the steps of Christ. With these verbs, John coordinates substantival participles connoting actions. Words like ἀγαπάω (2:10: 3:10, 14), ἁμαρτάνω (3:6), μένω (3:6 ), μισέω (2:9, 11; 3:15), ποιέω (2:17, 29; 3:4, 7, 8, 10), and τηρέω (2:4; 3:24) are substanized with the article to emphasize the concrete, structural nature of the verbal idea.

That is why 1 John reads like molasses. It is slow, dense. John writes so that his readers have lots of time to think as they hear or listen to his letter. He wants no member of his audience to be confused about the nature of the Christian message. Despite those who have gone out (2:18-19), the Christian message and the lifestyle of its adherants will never change.

On a broader discourse level, John’s substantizing of these verbs serves to fill in the ideational framework he establishes in 1 John 1. The series of “if/then” conditional statements in 1 John 1:6-10 initiates categories of thought regarding the Christian confession and the need for Christian behavior. By means of articular substantival participles, in 1 John 2-3, John elaborates on these categories, reinforcing the need for Christian integrity in his audience.


Köstenberger, Andreas J., Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer. Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.

Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994.

Runge, Steven E. and Christopher J. Fresch, eds. The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.