Read Part 1.
An Exegesis of 1 John 2:2
To adequately handle any passage we must work through some important exegetical steps. We need to (1) verify the text and translation, (2) identify background and context, (3) identify structural keys, (4) identify grammatical and syntactical keys, (5) identify lexical keys, (6) address Biblical context, and (7) consider theological context. Then we would verify our work, put it into practice in our own lives as appropriate, and communicate it with others as God gives us opportunity.1
(1) Text and Translation
καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασµός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁµαρτιῶν ἡµῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡµετέρων δὲ µόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσµου.2 A literal translation would read, “And He a propitiation He is for the sins of us, not for those of us only, but also for those of the whole world.” The NASB translates the concluding phrase as “but also for those of the whole world.” The ESV renders it, “but also for the sins of the whole world.” The NASB italicizes the phrase for those of, in acknowledgment that the phrase is not actually in the Greek, but the genitive tou kosmou implies the phrase, so it is a sound rendering. The implication of the translation is that the propitiation is for the sins of the whole world, rather than being for the whole world itself.
There are a couple of minor textual variants that do not affect the meaning of the words individually or the passage as a whole. A few manuscripts read huper ton, rather than peri ton. A few spell monon with the omega rather than the omicron (the omega indicates the genitive plural, the omicron indicates the adverb or adjective). We can be confident that the English translations above are good representations of the Greek text.
(2) Background and Context
John’s first epistle functions as a sequel to his Gospel. It is closely related in terminology and in thought. John addresses his letter to those he calls his little children (2:1), beloved (2:7), fathers (2:13), young men (2:13), and brethren (3:13). John writes his Gospel so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31). In his first follow-up letter, John has several purposes in mind. He proclaims “what was” so that believers might have horizontal and vertical fellowship (1:3), he writes so that his joy might be complete (1 Jn 1:4), so that his little children might not sin (1 Jn 2:1), and so that those who believe can know that they have eternal life (1 Jn 5:13). His last stated purpose builds on the purpose of John’s Gospel, written so that people might believe, whereas his letter was written so that those who believe might know. In the letter, John concentrates on the vertical relationship with God, through Christ, in chapters one through three, specifically focusing on the fruit of salvation: love (2:9-10). In chapters four and five he discusses the horizontal relationship of believers to each other and underscores success in those relationships as further practical evidence of the positional reality of salvation.
(3) Structural Keys
As John’s is a very personal letter, it is not structured as identifiably as is his Gospel. The thought transitions are often represented by personal address (such as in 2:1, 7, 12, 4:7, 5:13). Other times we recognize the theme shifts by transitional terms, such as for (hoti, 3:11), and thematic chiasm (as in 1:6-7, 2:9-10). John also uses imperatives to move from one theme to the next (as in 2:15, 24, 3:1, 4:1). Sometimes the topic changes are thematically self-explanatory. In any case, considering these structural keys, the letter can be outlined as follows:
1-3 Vertical Fellowship
1:1-4 The Basis: The Word of Life
4-5 Horizontal Fellowship
4:1-6 The Discernment
(4) Grammatical and Syntactical Keys
The subject is He (autos), the verb is is (estin), the object is propitiation (hilasmos). The third person singular pronoun (autos) along with the third person singular verb (estin) emphasize that it is Christ Himself who is the propitiation. The remainder of the verse modifies or qualifies the term hilasmos. It is for our sins (ton hamartion, in the genitive), but not the sins of us (ton hemeteron) only, but those of the whole world. Of the whole world (holou tou kosmou) is genitive, thus the three terms are linked: whole modifies the world. The differences in interpretation are not due to grammar and syntax, but rather to how two key words or phrases are defined.
(5) Lexical Keys
There are two key concepts in 1 John 2:2 that help us understand the author’s intended meaning, and which are disputed: propitiation (hilasmos), and the whole world (holou tou kosmou). The Greek hilasmos is employed in its masculine form also in 1 John 4:10, and in neuter form (hilasterion) in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. The term is translated by the KJV, NASB, and the ESV as propitiation, which could be understood as the place or means by which the price of sin is satisfied. The disagreement is not on the lexical definition of the word, but on the timing of when the propitiation is applied to the individual.
Romans 3:25 identifies Jesus as publicly portrayed as a propitiation. Hebrews 9:5 refers to the mercy seat, the place where the price was paid and the forgiveness was rendered.3 1 John 4:10 reiterates that Jesus was sent to be a propitiation for our sins. It is important to note that the mercy seat itself did not guarantee the forgiveness of sins—the blood had to be applied properly, according to the laws pertaining to the sacrifices.
The need for proper application is foreshadowed in Exodus 12:7, 13 at the first Passover. The shedding of blood paid the price for redemption, but the application of the blood was a separate event, even if separated by only a little time. That separate event resulted in the completion of the redemption process. In the same way, Jesus could serve as a propitiation paying completely for sin, but unless His sacrifice is applied as required (through belief in Him), that price paid is not applied, and therefore sin is not forgiven. This understanding differs from the Reformed view, which does not distinguish as separate events the price paid and the application to the elect.
The second key lexical component is the phrase the whole world (holou tou kosmou). The question is whether or not whole is qualified or unqualified. For example, Sproul suggests—correctly, I believe—that 2 Peter 3:8-9 qualifies all (pantes) as all of a specific group. He observes, “The immediate antecedent of the word any in this passage is the word us, and I think it’s perfectly clear that Peter is saying that God is not willing that any of us should perish, but that all of us should come to salvation. He’s not speaking of all mankind indiscriminately; the us is a reference to the believing people to whom Peter is speaking.”4 Similarly, Matthew 2:2 uses the word all (pas) to say that all Jerusalem was troubled along with Herod. Does the all include the houses themselves in Jerusalem? The word would not require that, but seems to be making a clear reference to the people of Jerusalem—those who could be troubled. Likewise, Matthew 11:13 describes all (pantes) the prophets as prophesying until John, yet there were clearly prophets that came after John (see Acts 21:10). The all is referring to a specific group.
Thus it is not uncommon to see a contextual qualification of universal terms. But while examples of such qualification can readily be identified, it is important to recognize that qualification should only be inferred when the context directly calls for it. There is no textual argument—grammatical or lexical—to be made that whole does not mean whole. The only arguments offered by those holding the qualified view are theological. There is nothing in 1 John 2:2 that suggests that whole is qualified, nor any other passage that would demand that we understand the whole of 1 John 2:2 as qualified.
(Coming soon: Biblical and Theological Context, Conclusions and Implications.)
1 More detail is offered on these steps, and two additional steps for Bible study (secondary verification, and exposition) in Christopher Cone, Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning (Fort Worth, TX: Exegetica Publications, 2015).
2 Barbara Aland et al., The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. (Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993), 1 Jn 2:2.
3 The LXX translates the Hebrew kapporeth in Ex 25:17 as the Greek, neuter, hilasterion.
4 Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Limited Atonement.”
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.