[Texts: 1 John 3 & 4; John’s Gospel & Epistles generally]
Euphemism isn’t a word we toss around very often in our everyday speech, though we actually use euphemisms every day. “My great aunt passed away.” “Where’s the restroom?” “He’s a few crayons shy of a full box.” “So, when are you two going to tie the knot?”…etc. See how it works? It’s a way of communicating something without saying it directly – often because we’re avoiding the social taboo of naming an off-limits idea, but sometimes also because we’re being funny or clever.
Something to notice in John’s little letters is his propensity for euphemisms about Christian faith. Since these letters are mostly about faith – how to detect it (or its absence) in others, or in oneself – the euphemisms add color and variety to John’s message. They also offer the reader memorable phrases that highlight encouraging aspects or implications of faith in Jesus Christ.
Here’s a sampling of the euphemisms for faith that occur in the third chapter of John’s first epistle:*
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. Here John evokes the tenderness of the Father-child relationship, applying this to God and his people. This status as God’s children can only come about through faith in the Son of God; it isn’t inherent to being human, as some would have it. So being “called children of God” is indicative of faith.
…everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. To “hope in” God is an aspect of believing: it means that we are taking God at his word, trusting that the things he has promised are true, even if they haven’t arrived yet. So “hoping in” God represents a stance of faith.
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning… “Abiding” is a frequent verb in John’s writings. As per Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of John, if we abide in Jesus the Son, then the Father will abide in us. But the only way anybody can “abide” in Jesus is to belong to him in the first place; in other words, “abiding” is the same as believing. So John’s statement here means that those who belong to Jesus by faith will not continue in their sin. (Note that this is presented as a promise, not as a command!)
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him… John is making the same point here (and again, this is a promise!), now indicating faith with the phrase “born of God.” (Notice an echo of the prologue to John’s Gospel here with this particular metaphor?)
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him… This is another reference to belonging to God through Jesus. Not only do we belong to his Family, but we also belong to the truth. It’s just another way of saying that we are believers.
Acknowledging John’s use of euphemisms may seem an interesting but relatively unimportant exercise, but as a matter of fact it’s an observation that can save us some grief as we try to understand his densely packed epistles. If instead we approach each of these phrases as the introduction of an entirely new idea, we’ll get tangled up trying to decide whether we qualify. Are we, in fact, God’s children? Do we truly hope in him, and abide in him? Have we been born of God, and do we belong on the side of the truth?
If we don’t feel that we do some of these things well, if we’re not certain that our identity is really being described here, we might become anxious rather than assured as we read John’s words. But realizing that John is just saying “believers” over and over in different ways lets us breathe easy. He really is talking about us!
One last lesson from John’s many names for faith comes in 1 John 4, where missing the euphemism used in v.18 can (and often does) result in a worrisome theological conclusion:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
If you read this sentence without realizing John’s range of terms for Christian belief, you may well conclude that it isn’t talking about you, since you do, in fact, experience the emotion of fear from time to time. Should you conclude from your experience that you haven’t encountered “perfect love” yet (or maybe that you aren’t loving God “perfectly”)?
Not according to John. Just a few verses earlier he closely ties abiding in God (and God in us) – which we’ve already seen is a euphemism for faith – with perfect love:
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. These three things – our loving one another, God abiding in us, and God’s love perfected in us – are all speaking to the same condition, namely salvation by faith in Jesus. In fact, the “fear” referenced in v.18 above is identified as the fear of God’s wrath,* not the everyday sort of fear that comes from living in a fallen world and growing up gradually in our trust of God. If we were paying attention back at v.12, we’d know that the “perfect love” that “casts out fear” is the love that is ours simply because we have already believed God’s words about his grace to us in Jesus.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that John’s many euphemisms enrich our understanding of faith – and that recognizing his many euphemisms for faith enriches our understanding of John.
*Quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
*V.18 ends with the words “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Notice the euphemism for unbelief at the end, there – “not being perfected in love” is the condition of someone who does not have faith, and who therefore has every reason to fear the Judgment Day.
Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!