It has been said you learn something new or intriguing every day you read the Bible, no matter how many times you read a particular passage. I would like to share one contemplation that I found in reading the gospel of John, chapter 16. To set the scene, Christ is giving a long theological discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper. By this time, Judas already left to go and betray Christ, and Christ is giving his final thoughts to His faithful disciples before He prays His famous prayer in the next chapter and then gets arrested from there.
Now, one has to imagine this is the gospel of John, a much different gospel than the other gospels. Many atheist scholars have spread doubt on the gospel to hint at fiction, and this would hurt the Christian if the Christian saw the Bible as a bunch of words dictated into the ears of the writers, rather than inspired and digested by the writers. Therefore, I do not think this is an issue for the ancient Christian fathers. It seems the fathers knew why this gospel was written, and it was to reveal that Christ is more than just a man. There was probably something that bothered St. John, whether it be Cerinthus or similar groups (like the Ebionites) who showed a certain reverence to Jesus as one of the prophets or saints, but no more. It has been said that Cerinthius and the Ebionites had the gospel of St. Matthew, but removed the first two chapters. (I suppose a good exercise is to take the gospel of Matthew and figure out how to prove the divinity of Christ through it.)
St. John probably gave embellished accounts to make it clear that he and the other disciples do not think Jesus was a mere man, and used a lot of figurative language to illustrate this purpose. St. John is very apocalyptic in his gospel, and this is important. An intelligent Christian will not have a problem knowing there are embellishments. We continue to make embellishments in our liturgies (and icons) to illustrate the spiritual beauty of a scene for our edification. So one can also consider this a liturgical gospel, and a liturgy is also apocalyptic in nature. These embellishments are not “fiction”, but “truth”, and clarify for us what Christ did say. It is most probably not verbatim of Christ, but it is the essential message of Christ’s teachings to the disciples.
Then other people have questioned if John is really the author, or some “second generation Christian”. Well, I will not get into that, but I will get into one of the ways to connect various writings in the Bible together as from the same author, and the way you can find this out is writing style. One famous line I remember when reading from an epistle of St. John is “I do not say”. In 1 John 5, he talks about sin not leading to death, and that one should pray for the person’s repentance. Then he talks about sin leading to death, and this causes a lot of pause for people. Here is the quote in context:
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.
Now 1 John 5 is an excellent example of St. John’s writing style. You see that he has an emphasis on loving Christ to mean the love of the Father, and that you should believe He came from the Father. He is also a “witness” in heaven, which is stressed early in the gospel against the Pharisees. St. John even uses the term “little children” at the end of this chapter, which is also what is used in the gospel, the 13th chapter specifically, possibly to emphasize not only the biologically young, but the spiritually young as well.
But one thing that helped me, I think, is his use of “I do not say”. And it is famously etched in our minds from 1 John 5 because we always thought, “so are you saying I can pray for that person or is it not worth it?” In a way, perhaps we may have known what this meant, but were frightened of its connotations, and so we continue to second guess ourselves to stay away from such frightening thoughts.
In the gospel of John, as I have mentioned earlier, Christ had used a lot of figurative language, and perhaps St. John is alluding to the fact that the earlier gospels circulating are filled with these figurative languages to conceal to blind people a reality that Jesus is not a mere man, but those who go back now and read these gospels can make sense of Christ’s “divinity”. Even Jesus’ signs and miracles are all a figurative lesson of His divine power.
But now, at the end of Jesus’ Last Supper “homily”, Christ is going to speak plainly, not figuratively. And the plain reality is this, that He came directly from the Father, and the time has come that He shall go back to the Father:
25 “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father. 26 In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; 27 for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God. 28 I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father.”
St. John is saying the same phrase here. One can imagine in the saint’s life, perhaps this is a phrase he continually uses in his teachings to the people. And I think it is clarified a bit how he uses the phrase “I do not say”.
In the gospel, he uses this phrase positively. Christ is saying “I do not need to pray the Father for you; you already love Him because you love Me!” In a way, Christ is giving His Christly authority to them, and they in turn are acting as “Christs” in the world. That does not mean Christ is NOT praying to the Father for them. In fact, if that simply meant, “I will no longer pray to the Father for you,” then there would have not been a John chapter 17. St. John is illustrating here the level of love to which the disciples have reached, that now, the love that Christ received from the Father “before the world was” is being transferred to the disciples, who in turn will transfer this love to the world, to those who wish not to be “of this world”, but to be born “of God the Father”.
In the epistle however, St. John is using this same phrase negatively. If a brother in Christ, a child of God, who “should not sin”, sinned a sin that does not lead to death, pray or “ask” that the Lord may give life, a life of repentance. The “life” alludes to the fact that the sin is still bad, it destroys the life in man, and therefore “all sin is unrighteousness”. However, there is another type of sin, a sin that leads to death in a brother, where the life is destroyed beyond repair. “I do not say that you should pray about that.” This is a very frightening phrase. Many people have wondered “what is this sin that leads to death?” Some theologians have devised a list of “mortal sins”, as opposed to “venial sins”, which can be “purged”. Some have thought about the intensity of every sin. Some have devised a list of seven or eight “deadly” sins. Some have thought that it is the man’s free will, that maybe he does not want to be “purged” or that he is continually rejecting the life of repentance.
One side note I do want to point out a very likely possibility that St. John might also be talking about Cerinthus, and those who deceptively fall into his doctrines. There was a famous account by St. Irenaeus (who is considered by ancient Christians a reliable source of Johannine thought), where he says St. Polycarp was with St. John who went to a bathhouse, and then subsequently ran out of the bathhouse, saying “Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!” Given the intensity of his alleged hatred of anything Cerinthus is standing for, perhaps, he is appealing emotionally to a hyperbole of warning people of falling into the doctrines of Cerinthus, which is “sin leading to death”. Perhaps, this is the “sin” St. John is alluding to, and particularly at the end when he uses the phrase “little children” to teach that there are some who are still not mature in the doctrines and should stick with the Church and do not go after idols, perhaps like that of Cerinthus.
I will not contemplate in any more detail on what this sin may be, since my purpose is to concentrate on that phrase, “I do not say that you should pray about that.” What is frightening is that if we are to connect the meaning of this phrase to the gospel’s use of it, it is saying that it might not make a difference, the person is already “dead” (or if free will is involved, the person does not want life). It may be too late to resuscitate him. That is a very difficult pill to swallow.
NEVERTHELESS, in the spirit of the gospel’s chapter 17, it is NEVER vain to pray, even for a brother whose sin is a sin that leads to death. And the context of that phrase therefore is frightening, but can still give a tiny glimpse of hope. In a way, I would say a proper prayer would go like this:
“Lord, I know my brother sinned a very serious sin, but I know you also are the Lord of all things, that nothing is impossible for you. Therefore, I will not cease from praying for this brother. May my prayers, which are never vain, be heard, and may Your will be done.”
Is it too late for some people? St. John seems to say “Yes”, but it is never too late to pray, even if you feel it may not be worth it.
Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of all ages! Amen!