Biblical Studies (NT)/The Epistles of John: God Is Love
THE EPISTLES OF JOHN
God Is Love
The first epistle of John does not name its author, but the apostle John has been given credit for it since the earliest days of the church. The similarity in style with the Gospel of John is easily recognizable, even in translation. The early church writers Polycarp, Papias, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius all testify to the epistle’s authorship and authenticity.
The second and third epistles of John were written by one who introduced himself only as “the Elder,” but these epistles have traditionally been attributed to the apostle John also. There are unmistakable similarities in style with the first epistle and the Gospel of John. Some modern scholars have suggested that 2 John and 3 John may have been written by different authors, but there is, as yet, no conclusive evidence of this.
With regard to the date of authorship, John’s works are the latest of the New Testament writings. They were probably written in the latter part of the first century, after 80 AD. By this time, John would have been an old man and probably the only one of the original apostles still alive.
According to the early church historian Irenaeus, John lived in Ephesus in the latter part of the first century, where he presided over the Ephesian church and the churches of the neighboring areas. Although 1 John does not say to whom it was addressed, it was probably a circular letter to the churches under John’s leadership. These included the seven churches of “Asia” (a region in what is now western Turkey) listed in Revelation, i.e. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
John opens his second epistle with this greeting: “The Elder, to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all those who have known the truth” (2 Jn 1). There are several possible interpretations of this greeting. Some believe the "elect lady and her children" to represent a particular church and its members. Others feel that the elect lady is not the church itself, but a woman in a leadership position within the church. Finally, she may simply be a private individual and her family. The personal tone of the letter suggests that the elect lady is a particular individual. For example, John writes, “And now I plead with you, lady” (2 Jn 5) which, it must be admitted, would be a unusual way to address a church. The woman's identity remains a mystery, however. While the term “elect” can, in a theological sense, be applied to any Christian, it seems that in this case, John is using it as a term of respect, perhaps even giving her a compliment. The impression is that she is a person of high standing in the church whom is both loved and respected.
John’s third epistle is addressed to an individual named Gaius. Gaius was a common name and there are several mentioned in the New Testament, but there is no evidence to connect this Gaius with any of the others. Other than the very limited information which this letter supplies, we do not know anything about him. He clearly was a Christian who exhibited his faith in his treatment of others, for John writes, “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church” (3 Jn 5-6).
John clearly had great affection for Gaius, for in his greeting, he says, “To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth” (3 Jn 1). Then, in the course of this short letter, he addresses him several times as “beloved.” John also says, in reference to Gaius, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in the truth” (3 Jn 4). This is often interpreted to mean that Gaius was a convert of John’s, though it is conceivable that John would refer to all of the Christians under his leadership as his children, especially given John’s great age at the time of writing. It is said that Gaius was appointed by John to lead the church at Pergamos, although there are no surviving written references to it earlier than the fourth century.
An Eyewitness of Christ
John opens his first letter by setting the stage for his main theme, that of teachers within the church who were promoting doctrines contrary to the Gospel. These people denied the deity of Jesus and the need to follow biblical teachings. John, like Peter, was able to speak as one who had been a witness of the ministry of Christ. He had not seen Jesus as an onlooker from a distance, but was among his closest disciples, one of his inner circle. With the knowledge and authority afforded him by these circumstances, he reassured the believers concerning Christ and the scriptures. In his opening statement, he says, “That which we have seen and heard, we declare to you” (1 Jn 1:1,3).
The Rise of Gnosticism
From the time of the epistles of Peter and Jude, more than twenty years would pass before the epistles of John would be written. Nero was long dead, his insanity having eventually led him to take his own life in 68 AD. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about this period in the church’s history. It is clear from 1 John, however, that the challenge to church doctrine which Peter and Jude had struggled with earlier were still a problem, perhaps even more so. This challenge, in John’s time, came from a rising sect known as the Gnostics – a term derived from the Greek word for knowledge, because they claimed to have a special understanding of truth.
The chief proponent of Gnosticism at the end of the first century was Cerinthus, a teacher who, like John, lived in Ephesus. According to the early church writer Polycarp (c. 69-155 AD), John once left a bathhouse in disgust when he found out that Cerinthus was also bathing there. Nevertheless, Gnostic teachings gained a foothold and continued to have adherents throughout the second century.
It is hard to give a precise definition of Gnosticism, for there were various forms of it. Fundamental to Gnosticism, however, is a belief in a form of dualism. Gnostics taught that spirit is inherently good and matter is inherently evil, and the two can have nothing to do with each other. This led to doctrines regarding God, Jesus, and human spirituality which were very different from those of the Bible. Gnostics taught that the universe was not made by God, but by a lesser being acting independently of God, for God can have nothing to do with matter because of its base nature. For the same reason, God could not be incarnated in a physical body. The Son of God, therefore, did not really have a human form, but his appearance as a man was like a phantom or a vision and had no physical substance. Another strain of Gnosticism allowed for a physical body, but separated the physical Jesus from the spiritual Christ. They said that Christ entered the body of Jesus at the time of his baptism, but departed again before he was crucified.
On a more personal level, many Gnostics taught that the separation between matter and spirit meant that whatever was done in the body had no effect on the spirit. Any kind of indulgence, however excessive or immoral, is spiritually harmless. John’s response to this was clear and direct: “He who says, ‘I know him,’ and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4).
The Spirit of Antichrist
At the beginning of his first epistle, John speaks of his own qualifications as an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. At the end, he speaks of the infallible witness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He says that these are one, and their testimony is “that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 Jn 5:11).
John says that if somebody denies the deity of Jesus, then that person has in effect called God a liar, because he or she has not believed the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. This denial of the Son of God is a mark of the spirit of antichrist: “He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (1 Jn 2:22). He says that even at that time, many antichrists were in the world, seeking to lead the believers astray.
Like Peter and Jude before him, John urges believers to hold fast to the Gospel and reject those who would undermine its teachings. He tells the believers, “Let that abide in you which you have heard from the beginning. If what you have heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he has promised us - eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you” (1 Jn 2:24-26).
John wanted the believers to learn to discern between genuine teachers and hypocrites, or others who had been led astray or whose understanding was weak. He echoes the advice of Paul, who says in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “Test all things, hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21). In a similar spirit, John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). Some years earlier, Peter had urged believers to evaluate teachers in the light of the scriptures, for no scriptural prophecy “is of any private interpretation; for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20-21).
God is Love
In Chapter 4 of his first epistle, in words of tremendous power and beauty, John speaks of love. He says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Furthermore, "He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn 4:20). This love is not a romantic love, but a spiritual love which reveals itself in devotion to God and caring for our fellow creatures.
In his second epistle, John speaks of this love again and defines it in practical terms, saying, “This is love: that we walk according to his commandments” (2 Jn 5-6). True love is to do the will of God, and his will is that we love one another and obey his commandments.
Diotrephes and Demetrius
John’s second and third epistles are good examples of the type of communication which likely had been ongoing between leaders and members of the church in the first century. There are words of endearment, warnings against false teachers, and exhortations to walk in the truth. In the case of these two brief letters, John’s main purpose seems to have been to let the recipients know of his intention to visit them in the near future.
Apparently, John had made himself unpopular in certain circles, for in his third epistle, addressed to Gaius, he refers to a certain individual in the church called Diotrephes. He says, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (3 Jn 9-10). Diotrephes seems to have been a leader in the local Christian community where he and Gaius lived, for he had the authority to expel people from the church. He is described as a self-seeking, inhospitable gossip. Unfortunately, we do not know if John actually visited the church in question or what the outcome was.
John continues with a contrasting description of a loved and respected disciple named Demetrius. He says, “Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true” (3 Jn 12). Some have suggested that Demetrius might have been the carrier of this letter to Gaius. Unfortunately, outside of what the letter tells us, nothing is known of him. John’s statement that he has a good testimony “from the truth itself” suggests that there may have been a prophetic utterance concerning him.
With these men as examples, John exhorts the believers, saying, “Beloved, do not follow what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (3 Jn 11).
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