Lecture 16: Epistles of John
Lecture: Epistles of John
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Our final collection of New Testament Epistles is the three letters attributed to the Apostle John. As we have been doing in all of these audio files in this taped series, we have not been attempting to cover it comprehensively, either the matters of introduction or those of the commentary. We haven’t attempted anything like a comprehensive coverage even in our accompanying textbook, but we have gone into more detail on a number of items that we’ve mentioned briefly or skipped over altogether. With respect to the letters of John, the same questions of authorship that bedevil the study to the introduction to the Gospel of John reappear here. There are a number of early Christian traditions that attribute the Gospel to the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, son of James, one of the inner three core of Jesus’ closest followers and in John’s case, associated with the otherwise beloved disciple of the Gospel of John and the one who reclined on Jesus’ breast, using the old fashion English expression at the Lord’s Super, also described in the Gospel of John.
There is one early church tradition that refers to John the Elder and depending on how the context of that tradition is read, that John may be understood as a separate individual from John the Apostle and in fact a disciple of him, but the grammar is unclear. When we come to the Epistles of John, there are simply fewer early church traditions. We had to come to grips as well with the fact that in 2nd and 3rd John, the author refers to himself as, simply the Elder. So that if Papriyus’ testimony that John the Elder wrote the New Testament document bearing his name does in fact refer to a separate individual than John the son of Zebedee, one could argue that Papriyus was most likely to be correct for 2nd and 3rd John; if indeed he was not correct for all of Johannian literature. On the other hand, the links between the Gospel and direct apostolic eye witness testimony are strong. Of a number of sources see my own introduction in my book, the Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. The stylistic links between the Gospel of John and the three epistles are strong though not unimpeachable; this could then suggest that the apostle is responsible for all of the documents and much like other Christian leaders, like James in the Book of Acts, taking over key leadership roles in the early church; we could easily imagine John referring to himself as an elder of the Ephesian community and not least because the traditions sign John’s writings of all the documents scribed to him at the end of the 1st century when he would have been a quite elderly man.
II. Emphases in John's Writings
Be that as it may, what is perhaps more theologically interesting is the comparison of the emphasis between John’s Gospel and the first epistle, the only one that is lengthy enough to have a long list of chief emphasis and intriguingly the only one that matches the Gospel of John in the sense that there is no description of authorship in the text of the epistle itself nor is there even any title, like the elder that comes at the beginning to the letter or anywhere else. Indeed the similarities of form extend further between the Gospels and first epistle with a lofty theological prologue focusing on Jesus as the Word beginning both documents though not nearly as lengthy epistle as in the Gospel. What is dramatically different as we reflected in the PowerPoint slide is the emphasis in John’s writings in particular to what seems to be an opposite emphasis on four key doctrines. This is not to say that each of these two writings do not contain the doctrine that is emphasized in the other. We are not speaking here of alleged contradictions but rather shifts in emphasis. So that even in John’s Gospel clearly acknowledges both Jesus’ humanity and his deity, it’s certainly most strikingly known for its emphasis on the deity of Christ. This is true whether we compare John with the other three Gospels, the so-called synoptic Gospels or whether we compare John with his epistles. Indeed in all New Testament theology, there are those who would argue that John’s Christology is highest of all. The Word was God; the Word was God and there was nothing made, that was not made through him (John 1:1). Verse 3, as the prologue continues. All of the great ‘I am sayings’ commentating in ‘I am who I am’, a reference to Exodus 3:14 is the very divine self-revelation of God to Moses in the burning bush and Thomas’ dramatic confession in 20:28 and following, that Jesus is my Lord and my God, etc.
Of course, John’s Gospel knows as well in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwell among us, but that is more to the fore in the first epistle. That is what must be confessed in order to distinguish true teachers from false teachers. Note the opening verses of 1st John 4 in particular. That is what is stressed in the prologue in 1st John, that is what we have heard; what we have seen with our eyes which we have looked at, emphasizing the very human reality. Of course the verse opens with that which was from the beginning, alluding, at least implicitly back to his deity or his pre-existence. But the focus, the emphasis has shifted from John’s prologue. The same is true if we contrast the many references to the Paraclete, to the Holy Spirit empowering believers to keep God’s commands and those commands as they are now filtered through the Christ event. Look particularly at the farewell discourse in John 13-17 whereas 1st John 1:6, 8 & 10 creates a trio, a barrage of assertions that if anyone claims to be keeping the commands so well that he or she is no longer sinless, they lie and the truth in not in them.
Thirdly, as one compares John, particularly with the synoptic Gospels, and to a certain degree with all other New Testament writers as well, his emphasis on the future is in the present, on the new age as begun in what theologians call realized eschatology; that eternal life and death start now in the present age. The one who believes on the Son has passed from death into life and the one who doesn’t believe is already now condemned. The language from John 3 and 5 and elsewhere in his Gospel gives way in terms of emphasis to a greater emphasis, a greater insistence on what still remains eschatologically, speaking in the first Gospel. We do not see him for when we shall see him and know him as he really is.
And then finally the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not so much to keep commands as to understand spiritual trues, to recall all that Jesus has taught the disciples, to lead them into further truth. Again, language particular common in chapter’s 14 to 16, the heart of the farewell discourse. Whereas, in a way, almost non-existent, although there are allusions to the coming persecutions in the Gospel of John; there are not the predictions of false teachers as explicitly appear on the scene that John has to combat in the first epistles and therefore again with chapter 4 warns people not to believe every spirit, even those that come in the name of Christ, but to test them and test them particularly in light of their convictions about the humanity of Jesus. If early church tradition is correct that these two documents, the Gospel and the Epistle are written by the same person to the same Christian communities in and around Ephesus, what accounts for this shift? And the answer may be, as we hinted a ways back when we discussed 1st & 2nd Thessalonians. A similar phenomenon may have accounted for the shifts in eschatology from the first of those two letters, namely an overreaction by some that needs to be counter balanced, particularly in light of what now we may speak of as very close to, if not fully emergent Gnosticism, reasonably full blown. Not just proto-Gnosticism or incipient Gnosticism as we have used for possible influences behind some of Paul’s letters back in the 50’s and 60’s, most notably 1st Corinthians.
III. Gnostic Doctrines vs. John's Tests of Life
Note that Gnosticism was known for three particular doctrines relevant to these emphases in the Epistles of John and 1st John in particular. It was known for perfectionism, the belief that because sin was defined entirely in terms of inward attitudes rather than external behavior and because no one could ever access another person’s inward thoughts and attitudes; claims of sinless and moral perfectionism could be made. Clearly 1:6, 8 and 10 could be seen as a direct counter thrust in 1st John to such claims, along with the more general emphasis in his letters to keep the commandments, unnecessary of course if he believed that his charges were already doing so, even reasonable well. A second key Gnostic doctrine was anti-nominalism; lawlessness, which follows directly from the first, various external behaviors that were condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures did not count as sins because Christians were radically free from the law. Free from the Law in a way, going far beyond anything even Paul and the New Covenant age articulated. As long as one’s inward thoughts were pure. Hence again the stress in 1st John to keep the commandments as well as the importance shared with the Gospel of John on loving one another and not hating those and also those who claimed to know God but who hate their brother, being liars and not being a part of God’s people at all. Notice particular the verses in 1st John 3.
And then, finally, Gnostics were known for believing that Christ only seemed to be human or more correctly called Docetism, from the Greek verb, ‘to seem’, dokeo and hence the emphasis in 1st John on the belief in Christ for humanity. Scholars correctly point out that Gnosticism was not the only Hellenistic thought form in the ancient world. That proposed perfectionism or anti-nominalism or Docetism, though we don’t know of any other major movement that combined all three of these together. There is an early church tradition in the writings of Irenaeus that speak of an early false teacher who has often been associated with Gnosticism though Irenaeus doesn’t make that association per say by the name of Cerinthus who taught along the lines reflected here that would have necessitated the kind of response that John’s makes. Colin Cruse therefore in his wonderful medium sized commentary on the Epistles of John, makes a very balanced and more modest claim that we should acknowledge that 1st John is combating some combination of Gnosticism, Docetism, which was indeed much more wide spread than just Gnosticism and lastly, Cerinthianism, which may or may not have been part of formal Gnosticism. But nevertheless, these three heresies were present and John had to counter them.
IV. The Tests of Life (1 John)
His countering leaves us naturally to a consideration, briefly, of what for the past century or so has been called the tests of life in the Epistles of John. Almost to the same degree as James, perhaps even slightly more so in some circles the outline of the 1st John has been, not only contested, but for some is non-existent, for others, it is very general, for still others, it’s a collection of definable ideas between them and as we mentioned with James and more briefly elsewhere, nothing required an ancient 1st century and particularly Jewish writer of the 1st century to have a modern western linear style outline, though many Greek and Roman writers did. Nevertheless, and again as with James, three key themes certainly do come to the fore that many commentators have identified corresponding to the right hand column to the previous chart involving keeping God’s commandments, loving one another and believing in Jesus as the God-man with the emphasis on his humanity. And going back to a little commentary by Robert Law, a century or so ago, and then modified by John Stott in his well-known and now widely circulated and used Tyndale New Testament Commentary on the Epistles which has gone through two additions. It is, at least, arguable that one can see three main cycles or passes through the epistle dealing with each of these three topics in turn though again as in James, not always in the same order, in this case with the third cycle creating somewhat different order than the first two. And then a prologue instead of an epistolary beginning or prescript and a fairly abrupt conclusion which could be limited only to verse 21, though that leaves verses 16-20 for the third cycle. It is difficult to see if the original writer was intending for verse 21 to stand alone or not. It is on either rendering, a very abrupt ending however, ‘dear children, keep your selves from idols.’ As we point out in the textbook, arguably, a theological central summary of what faithful Christian living is about and made more emphatic by its abruptness.
So we present the outline with attentiveness, stressing that it is not so much the exact identifying of discrete ideas or details but the recognition of these three central repeated themes that gives this structure its merit. And intriguingly, towards the end of chapter 3, we get a glimpse as to why perhaps, not every one of these nine segments clearly discuss just one of the three themes because John sees them as very intertwined. We read in 3:23-24, ‘and this is his command to believe in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who keep his commands live in him and he will live in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us; we know it by the Spirit he gave us.’ The command in verse 23 is defined in terms of belief and love, the other two tests. And believing and loving are in fact what he commanded. Although it’s possible that the clause, that he commanded us at the end of 23 modifies only, and to love one another and clearly he will teach elsewhere that it is only in God where true love is found and hence belief in him, now exhibited uniquely through belief in the Son. Note in 2:23, ‘no one who denies the Son has the Father and whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.’ Thus it would be entirely fair to say that John also believed that love can be defined in terms of keeping the commandments and believing. But then, finally, if one comes to define what it means to believe because the one who says he believes but does not love his brother is a liar. Look at 3:11-18 and the one who claims to believe but does not keep the commandments is likewise not born of God. We can see that in the illustration of material processions. Likewise in 3:17 and verse 4 where sin is defined as lawlessness and therefore breaking the commandments and no one who lives that way in that kind of sin has neither seen him or known him.
The third equation that emerges is that belief can be defined in terms of love and keeping the commandments. This is not double speak or triple speak but is a way of saying that each of these tests entails the other two and gives substance or definition to them, such that if a person has difficulty applying one of the tests to themselves by asking, ‘Do I really believe, I know I have some doubts and I know that faith makes room for doubts in the New Testament.’ The man whose son was healed from an evil spirit in Mark 9 said he believed and pleaded for Jesus to help his unbelief. ‘But do I even believe that much?’ And a very helpful way for a personal decision making or in helping others is to have them focus on whether or not they can see evidence of Christ transforming their life in any way. Are they more loving; are they more obedient to the commands? Another person may argue that they don’t know if they are obeying the commands well enough? And one has a conversation to make sure they understand that no level of obedience ever merited salvation, and they recognize that some aspect of a changed life does come from those who have truly repented and been touched by the Spirit. They don’t know if this is really happening, then asks about their faith. Which, itself, is a command to be obeyed and about their love which others can more objectively assess. And the same is true, if they don’t feel loving enough but can see ways in which without the final verdict on that more abstract quality of love, they are in fact obeying God’s command and believing in Jesus in ways not true in earlier stages of their lives; a very practical application.
V. Additional Notes on John's Letters
We will not go to additional exegetical notes on John’s letters as throughout this lecture series has been highly selective. 1st John 1:9 has generated a debate in some circles as to whether John is talking about salvation or merely fellowship with God in Christ when he writes, ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Clearly the first time a person does that in turning to Christ, he or she receives salvation. But here, John is writing to believers and particularly to those who claim to be so mature in Christ, even if mislead by this Gnostic dualism; this bifurcation between material and immaterial worlds. Nevertheless, they believe that they have attained a state of being without sin. Clearly, John is denying this and therefore turning to the repeated need for believers to confess their sins is talking to those who have been Christians, perhaps for some time. So what kind of forgiveness do they receive and purification from all unrighteousness? Is this a radical form of Armenianism, that Armenian himself never promoted, namely that sins remove us from a forgiven state until we confess them and forgiven again? Any answer would seem in light of all Scripture teaching to be a clear no. We have seen before that only a full-fledged consistent knowledgeable unrepentant blasphemous utter renunciation of Christ and following him, this is known as apostasy, which leads to God declaring a person upon their death not to be part of his family and that is some which both Calvinist and Armenians historically have agreed on, disagreeing only about what that proved about that person’s prior apparent Christian existence.
So, on the one hand with the more Calvinist wing, it is important to say that all sins are forgiven by the Cross and God wipes all past, present and future sins from our slate when we turn to him for the first time in genuine repentance in our lives. Nevertheless, for us our fellowship is impeded and at times, virtually cut off altogether by our choice to sin and not immediately to repent and hold him at arm’s length, if not even at a greater distance. On the other hand, the Armenians would surely be correct in stressing that in light of all of the statements of the Gospel as John speaks about it here in his letters, about those who consistently sin, who consistently do not show love but show hate even for apparently brothers in Christ and sisters in the Lord; they do not know him, suggesting that there may be those who discover retrospectively that it is not the first time they think they’ve repented of sin. But is it at some later point in their lives when they truly are doing serious business with the Lord and thus the forgiveness they receive in applying 1st John 1:9 is their initial moment of salvation.
In chapter 3:2, what should we do with the verse that reads, ‘dear friends now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known but when Christ appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.’ Does this mean with latter day saints and a handful of other Christians throughout church history that there is a physical nature to the image of God, to God the Father? Probably not, as the context here is one of moral likeness; note that in 2:28 which talks about preparing to be confident and unashamed before him. That continuing in him that is commanded there, based on the fact that we know that he is righteous, clearly a moral attribute beginning in verse 29 leads to everyone who is born of him doing what is right, moral likeness to God. 3:1 goes on to talk about the great love the Father has lavished on us. Again one of the moral attributes, not one of the ontological or essential attributes that separate divinity from humanity. When verse 2 goes on to speak of being like him, it seems that, very likely that it is this moral perfection that we can look forward to which is being considered here. This hope purifies believers, verse 3, which suggests moral perfection, just as he is pure, as opposed to the sinning and law breaking that verse 4 goes on to describe which is taken away, initially, gradually and ultimately one day, perfectly, verse 5 and 6. There is overwhelming evidence that the context is moral and not physical or any other essential similarities.
Now for verse 4:4; a text that is very crucial in the whole area of spiritual warfare, prayer, of understanding the victory that we can have to a considerable degree though never perfectly. We refer back to Roman 6. We read, ‘you dear children are from God and have overcome them.’ Them refers to the spirits that are like anti-Christ, ‘because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world;’ the devil, the spirit of falsehood. Verse 6: this does not mean that Satan cannot attack, cannot even oppress believers to have deliberately courted him and left themselves open to insidious devices. It’s difficult however to read a text like this and believe that Christians could ever be fully processed by the devil, especially as indicated and illustrated by the demon processing people as described on the pages of the Gospels and Acts. And for those who are seeking Godly guidance and his covering power to have a close relationship with him, not least in prayer. There should be the confidence that the temptations and attacks that come from the devil will be even be considerable less than whatever boundary line separates oppression from procession.
Or what could arguably be the flip side of this in 4:18, ‘there is no fear in love.’ Not some amorphous almost definition-less understanding of love, but the love that has already been defined in the previous three and half chapters as faith in Christ and keeping his commands. Love casts out all fear; fear in the sense of terror not fear in the sense of reverence or worship and certainly, a few things more than the devil and his unseen hordes can inspire fear in individuals.
Chapter 5, verses 6 and 7 present the initiated reader who pays attention to footnotes or perhaps follows older Bible translations, like the King James, tends not to have footnotes to textual variance, even in modern printings of the King James, since many of those discoveries have not occurs when that translation was created in 1611. Chapter 5:6-7 in most all modern versions speaks of Jesus, ‘this is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only but by water and blood. And there is the spirit who testifies because of the spirit’s truth.’ And then verse 7, ‘for there are three that testify: the spirit, the water and the blood, and the three are in agreement.’ But footnotes regularly explain such as in the New International Version, the late manuscripts of the vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible read in (an addition to) verse 8, ‘there are three that testify in heaven as well, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit and these three are one and there are three that testify on earth;’ then the text as read before continues, ‘the spirit, the water and the blood.’ In this particular English addition, the footnote continues that this rendering found in some later Latin manuscripts was not found in any Greek manuscripts prior to the 14th century. All of which is overwhelming textual support for saying that there is almost no chance at all that John could have written the longer version of this text. These are clearly late additions and undoubtedly added because of the ambiguities of what John wrote and for the desire in what could look like a Trinitarian context (references to Jesus coming from God as the Son of God in the previous verse at the end of 5:1-5), and then being testified to by the Spirit. Verse 9 again, speaks of God’s testimony. Surely John intended to make a Trinitarian confession of faith here and it is simply spelled out using the characteristic Johannian termed Logos that had come to be central in countless treaties of Greek and Roman philosophical speculations in the later centuries. We now have not Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but Father, the Word and Holy Spirit in equally clear Trinitarian interpretation of John’s original writings.
Unfortunately, there are those today, particularly among the King James Only Movement that do not understand adequately the history and contemporary practices of the science of textual criticism that lambast all modern translations because they claim that those translations leave out and relegate to footnotes of the precious and clear Trinitarian texts of the New Testament. No, all they do is remove or relegate to a footnote that which almost certainly was never in the New Testament, but was added later for the same well-intentioned desire as the modern folks have to strengthen the Scriptures’ commitment to the Trinity but there are plenty of other texts that are textually unimpeachable; so our belief in the trinity hardly hinges on this and indeed, it is our high view of Scripture and respect for its inspired and inerrant and authoritative nature in the originals that lead us to want to reconstruct those originals as accurately as possible and not treat any later addition however theologically orthodox it might be, as though it was part of that inspired text. All of the debate around these added words has come to be known as the Johannine comma from a Latin use of the equivalent Latin for comma (Komma in Greek) which often meant an entire phrase or additional segment of a text.
Then, still following our bulleted PowerPoint slide, we pass on to 5:13, where John declares he’s writing these things, ‘to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ A presage verse of Christian assurance, though sometimes applied in context beyond in what it was originally designed to do. It’s as if John had written, I write these things to you, any of you who at any point in your life, no matter how far back and no matter how little interest you have shown in spiritual things sense and no matter how horrific your lifestyle has been, made some superficial profession of faith in the Son of God. You too, may know that you have eternal life. This exaggerates things for the sake of making a point. This is a present tense declaration and it comes in a purpose clause using the subjunctive mood because it is a purpose clause. Purpose clauses by their very nature suggest things that in many cases may or may not happen and thus there is the use of a non-indicative mood form such that present tenses outside of the indicative mood regularly refer more to kind rather than time of action; all of which for those of you who have had no Greek, the long winded way of saying that the focus here is not merely on present tense belief but on continual belief; though obviously continual belief passes through the present time. There is no promise here to the person who in long times pass made some profession of faith but does not pass currently and continually and consistently the tests of life and John has defined them.
The next to the last item comes from 1st John 5:16 which read quickly could suggest that John is saying there are certain prayers that should simply be avoided. And in this context, most notably praying for someone who has committed a mortal sin, a sin that leads to death, a sin that is unforgiveable and therefore, there is no point in praying for it. A closer reading, however shows that this is not where the nots appear. If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. This is straight forward and simply said. I refer to those who sin that do not lead to death; the Roman Catholics have come to call this ‘venial sins’. But then, by way of contrast, at the end of the verse, he says, ‘there is a sin that leads to death; I’m not saying you should pray about that.’ What the misinterpretation we have just outlined, would have required the text to read, for it to be true would be: ‘there is a sin that leads to death and I am saying that you should not pray about that.’ That’s not what John wrote. He said, ‘I’m not saying that you should pray about people in those situations.’ One could just as easily have inferred that he is not saying that you shouldn’t pray about those situations. He simply is not discussing the situation. If one begins to reason philosophically and go beyond what John is discussing or any other text discusses; it is logically consistent to say if certain people in certain situations pass a threshold of rebellion against God beyond which our hearts are so hardened that they will never again ask for forgiveness or repent and therefore they never will be forgiven, a doctrine that seems to flow from such text as Romans 1:24, 26 and 28. Then, it is logically consistent to say that there really is no point in praying for such people. But the missing piece is that our finite fallen minds, however redeemed, however progressively sanctified, will never unerringly identify in this life whoever may have passed such a threshold. Only God knows that and if we were to identify some of the people who would seem at times to be among those most entrenched in their wickedness, most extractable in their sin and seemingly the best candidates for having crossed such threshold; well, there are characters in the Bible; David, the Apostle Paull; Others? And certainly some that we know from church history and from our own experience that we would have consigned to hell and stopped praying for them, who have indeed been saved. And so it would be wrong for any Christian to ever stop praying for anybody in any situation, even if with 20/20 hindsight we will recognize someday that perhaps a few had crossed such a threshold which explains why no change happened to them, despite our prayers.
Then lastly, the 3rd letter of John, verse 2, ‘dear friend, (he’s speaking to Gaius) I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.’ A favorite proof text for the so-called prosperity Gospel; God wants you to be physical healthy and as well off financially and materially as he cares about your soul. Well again, perhaps quickly reading with our minds on some other topic might bring that thought to the fore, but let’s try looking at it again, more carefully seeing what it is actually saying. Yes, he prays for good health and that all may go well, perhaps in broader physical and material circumstances. But it is to the degree just as, even as, to the extent that; all legitimate translations of the Greek here. Your soul is getting along well; is your soul prospering; is it very close to full sanctification? It’s hard to have read everything that we did in 1st John and come away with that. In which case, this may only be a prayer for basic help. This is one individual who presumably is doing better. Okay, then it’s a prayer for good health, for a good standard of living, but not for wealth, not for prosperity, not for a glamor body. But then if you are going to distinguish this from everyone else to push the argument that far, then be consistent and realize that it we apply this prayer to anybody else but Gaius, we may not be praying for very much prosperity at all. All of this is which to say that the real focus of this text as an opening, thanksgiving and brief prayer, is the implicit praise for Gaius’ spiritual well-being to such a degree that it would be a good thing to pray, that his physical health be as good as his spiritual health; nothing less and nothing more.
VI. Gems from John (or are they??)
Well, we skipped a lot of good things in 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, you might be saying. For one last time, we want to see how you would respond to snippets of exegesis or preaching that we have personally encountered on more than one occasion. But this time instead of telling you in advance that this is what we think may be right and what we think is wrong or telling you in advance as we have done a few times through the rhetorical or non-rhetorical questions, whether or not you chose to answer it. If you chose to answer it, then consider what’s wrong with these interpretations if we believe there is something wrong. We have a slide which is a condensed version of a series of brief exegesis’s entitled, ‘Gems from John’ or are they?
So evaluate each of these exegetical interpretative remarks, based on the passages identified and discuss these, especially if you are working in any kind of study group:
1. From 1st John 3:6-9, it’s possible for a Christian to attain a state or moral perfection in this life for at least a short period of time. And for a few for even a considerable period of time. Indeed if a person does not do so, they’ve not become a Christian.
2. From 1st John 2:3-6, salvation comes through obedience to Christ’s commands; salvation is not by faith alone as the reformer stated. In fact no Biblical passage ever puts the word ‘alone’ after faith, at least not in the original Greek. Passages like this one make it clear that salvation is by faith plus works.
3. From 1st John 2:16, here we see the three major kinds of temptation in the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. These are the three ways that Jesus was tempted; to turn stones into bread, to receive all the kingdoms of the world and have his life rescued from the stop of the temple. These were the three ways that Adam and Eve were tempted and failed. The fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom (Genesis 3:6).
4. From 1st John 2:19, this verse tips the scales in favor of Calvinism when it comes to the doctrine of eternal security. There are those who seem to be Christians, giving everything up for Christ, but this verse proves that they never were truly Christians or they would have persevered.
5. From 1st John 2:20-23, if Jews could be saved under the Old Covenant before Christ, the Cross of Christ surely didn’t exclude them from the Kingdom. Jews, therefore can be saved today also in the New Testament age by being faithful to the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law. Gentiles, however, since they were not given the covenant with the Jews, must acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah.
6. From 1st John 2:27, you don’t need seminary or formal Bible study of any kind, not even this study; just be in tune with the spirit and you will be given all the instructions and guidance you will need. This verse states it plainly.
7. From 1st John 3:17-18, good works don’t save but saving faith indelibly produces good works. John would agree with James on this point and also on the fact, the use of one’s material possessions forms exhibit A, sort of a prime example of those good works.
8. From 1st John 3:19-24, our consciences are not always trustworthy, sometimes we are not so bothered about things while at other times we are. One of the ways we can reassure ourselves, ‘when our hearts condemn us,’ unnecessarily, is by pointing to the good works that we do when it flows from our faith. If our faith seems frustratingly faltering, good deeds that we wouldn’t have done as a non-Christian can reassure us that we really have been transformed by God’s spirit.
9. From 1st John 4:1-4, the key to determine a person’s view of John is orthodox and able to save is determined on whether they believe in the full deity of Christ.
10. From 1st John 4:7-12, wherever there is true love, there is God.
11. From 1st John 5:16-17, there are moral sins and there are venial sins, more specifically, there is one sin that cannot be forgiven, and in an extreme situation, a Christian can lose their salvation.
12. From 2nd John, verses 10-11, if JW’s or any other sectarian or historical unorthodox religious movement member comes to your door, don’t let him or her get beyond your door step. If you let them in your house to talk, you are in clear violation of these two verses.
Think about these, discuss them with others and listen to the following answers. All of them attempt to represent without exact quotation approaches that I’ve heard, usually from well-meaning Christians.
1. We talked some about 1st John 3-9 and we doubt that such a person would contradict him or herself in such a text. We also spoke in context with 5:13 about the continual nature of the present tense, particularly in moods outside the indicative, of which some appear in these verses. Along with this, is the information in the textbook, all of this points to the most common resolution to this problem among commentators; is see that what verses 6 and 9 and others like them, in part in the NIV, ‘no one who lives in him keeps on sinning,’ this needs to be explained in that it does not have sin as a characteristic lifestyle. The same would be true of the second clause, ‘no one who continues to sin’ or verse 9a, ‘those who are born of God will not continue to sin.’ Even though a literal interlinear translation of these texts in the Greek, would read more shockingly, something like, ‘those who are born of God will not sin.’
2. In 1st John 2:3-6, we didn’t look at this text par say, but we did broach the topic in conjunction with the three tests of life more generally. One has to read the whole letter and see that it’s not just commands, not just faith, not just love; it is all three but that doesn’t mean that salvation is by all three. These are retrospective diagnostic tools for seeing if one’s faith has been genuine because if it is, the Spirit comes into a believer to empower them. Just that love and good works and a measure of obedience to God’s commands, not previously present, will take place. Just as we highlighted in our diagram comparing Paul and Galatians with the Judaizers; the works, the obedience to the commands flow from saving faith; thereby demonstrating its genuineness, they don’t contribute to it. They don’t combine with faith to produce initial salvation. Though, an observation in the Greek, the word ‘alone’ never does come with faith, though some English translations have added it. Indeed, the only place that the word ‘faith’ and ‘alone’ in the Greek are juxtaposed in the New Testament, paradoxically comes in James 2 in that infamous text where many see James as contradicting Paul, verse 24, ‘not by faith alone.’ But we discussed in regards to who was defining terms in what way. James, John and Paul, I am convinced, fundamentally all three agree that faith that does not produce love and good works was never saving faith from the outset and true saving faith will by necessity produce love and good works but not in any way that will be quantified, measured or determined to be adequate or inadequate by some objective standard that all people are measured. Because every individual’s circumstances needs time, activity, understanding and growth, but God will know and he will judge rightly.
3. In 1st John 2:16. I believe it’s basically true. It doesn’t mean that John consciously had the ‘Garden of Eden’ story or Jesus’ temptations in mind though he could have. But as long as one sees these as three broad representative areas, the improper satisfying of bodily appetites, the improper acquisitions of things that appear attractive to us and the general misplaced trust in this world rather than the world to come; it is hard to see temptation that could not readily fall into one of those categories.
4. 1st John 2:19 of course is more controversial depending whether one is a Calvinist or Armenian. The Armenians do not generalize to the same degree as the Calvinists and say yes, the logic is true for the teachers who are so far gone and the heresies that John is combating here, but not generalizable to every situation of apostasy. On the other hand, there was an extensive study assigned to this lecture in Houston Seminary years ago by an Armenian professor no less. Of the text, we are required to annualize, both from a Calvinist and Armenian perspective. This was the text that convinced me the Calvinist scheme better synthesized the fullness of the Biblical text on this doctrine than the Armenian one. But the reader must decide for him or herself.
5. For 1st John 2:20-23, I believe this point is completely false, because this is the text that refers to those not having the Son, not having the Father as well. If it was true that all Jews were saved before the coming of Christ, then there would be a problem; some would have been excluded when Christ died and resurrected by their rejection of him, but presumably the situation is made consistent by recognizing that a majority of the Jews in Jesus’ lifetime who encountered him, rejected him. And that the Old Testament regularly referred to the remnant alone that was truly right with God. So that it is very reasonable to believe those who rejected Christ and his Gospel after his coming; thereby demonstrated by that rejection that they had not been previously right with him or they would have had the spiritual insight and eyes to recognize their Messiah. And those words are not intended in any way to be anti-Semitic words. By definition, anti-Semitism means some negative or charge against Jews as a people whereas this view praises and commends all those Jews who did initially accept Jesus. Let’s not forget also that initially the Christian movement was entirely Jewish.
6. 1st John 2:27 is one of the more readily refutable ones. If it were true, then it would have been no point for John to be writing this either, because he is certainly teaching in the letter. It rather reflects the elitist and sectarian claims of the false teachers. John is saying, ‘don’t be led astray by those who would say that your understanding of Christian doctrine is inadequate and needs to be supplemented by these distinctive claims. You don’t need anyone to teach you in that way, the spirit’s anointing has already taught you about all things necessary for salvation, indeed for Christian maturity.
7. In 1st John 3:17-18. If what we said earlier about 2:3-6 is correct, then there should be no problem with the first part. Good works don’t save, but saving faith inevitably produces good works. Are our material processions ‘exhibit A’ of those good works; maybe not for every person in every situation? A lot depends on how you define ‘exhibit A’ or a prime example. If exhibit A defines it as the prime example or perhaps not if the point is the more modest one, how one uses their own money and material possessions is a key diagnostic, then it would seem to be quite true in keeping what we have seen in many previous New Testament texts.
8. What about (1st John 3:19-24) helping our consciences? This would seem simply to be a rephrasing of what we tried to suggest when we unpacked the intertwining of 3:23-24, though we phrased it differently enough, that, hopefully, it wasn’t so obviously a repeat of what we had already said.
9. For 1st John 4:1-4, the answer is yes but not if the key means the only test. We have already said that one needs to believe in Jesus as the God-Man and that it was the Gospel of John that emphasized his deity and it was 1st John that emphasizes his humanity.
10. In 1st John 4:7-12. Where there is true love, there is God. No, although love comes from God as seen in the middle of verse 7. Everyone who loves has been born of God; well…but isn’t God omnipresent? So yes, in that sense, God is everywhere. God is present where there is hatred. If that’s all that you interpreted the statement to mean, fair enough. But that’s not the exact point I wanted to show (perhaps this was a faulty question!). The point actually was to see, particularly if you have already read the textbook. If you picked up on the irreversible nature of the grammar of 4:8b; ‘God is love’ does not mean that ‘love is God’. Here, I will give reference to the movie, ‘the Life of Ray Charles’ or rather simply called ‘Ray’; an African American blind singer who came and went from the top of the charts for several decades with an unusually enduring popularity of generations of American and International Audiences. And, when I was a child, we used to have a little saying, ‘God is love, love is blind, Ray Charles is blind, and therefore Ray Charles is God.’ And sense this is not a class on philosophy; I’ll just leave that for you to debunk. But a key portion of it is the irreversibility of premises in an argument. The converse of a true statement is not necessarily true. ‘All cows eat grass’, may be true but ‘all creatures who eat grass are cows,’ is not true because other animals eat grass as well. So, just because ‘God is Love’, doesn’t mean that ‘Love is God’ and therefore in some amorphous nice feeling and touchy feel good, wherever there is vibrations of love, God is somehow uniquely present beyond his general omnipresence. It may be devil masquerading so as to trick people into something that quickly turn into an evil and hate filled process or it may something of merely human manufacture.
11. Moral sins and venial sins from 1st John 5:16-17? Yes, we have talked enough about this already so that you recognize the terminology, not necessarily in every single way that Catholics define them. For those of you who may have that background; we can’t prove it from the Bible alone, not from this text in 1st John. Is there a sin that cannot be forgiven? It appears to be; not only from Jesus’ teaching in Mark 3 but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But the experience of Judas and the teaching of apostasy in Hebrews 6 and that Calvinists and Armenians alike can agree on. But does that mean a Christian has lost their salvation? Well, that depends on which stand you take in regards to being a Calvinist or an Armenian.
12. And what about a secular cult member coming to your door? Well, again, hopefully you have understood from the readings but if not you will and hopefully you will remember it. 2nd John is written to a house church and therefore this refers to the false teachers, the heretics returning and coming into the worship service but not only coming in but bringing a teaching and being welcomed in the sense of being given a platform to share and promote that false teaching. In the context of simply welcoming the silent visitor who reflects some other world view into one’s church, this can be a very good thing, a chance for them to hear the Gospel, truly proclaimed and promoted. The same is true for a private home, so they might in both cases see also the welcome of one who does have the love of the true God in them.
VII. The Johannine Community
I hope you have found this helpful and different from our more common format. We close with a new slide labeled the ‘Johannian Community’, which will also set up our final lecture on the Book of Revelation, the last of the Johannian documents and the last book of the New Testament and the Bible as well. If we are right as we have suggested in our earlier textbook and accompanying lecture series of the Gospels and Acts that the Gospel of John was itself initially written against those who were attempted to cause division in the community, including though not limited to some from the emerging Gnostic mindset. Then it is quite plausible to apply the insights of our first PowerPoint slide in this presentation of seeing the problem having actually worsened, at least, among some who took with those, an area where John tried to establish common ground with Gnostic thought and exaggerated them all out of proportion to John’s intention and without balancing doctrines such that in his first epistle, he has to balance out his teaching on those doctrines. And where he is not successful in doing so, he sees people walking out the door as it were and indeed we know from text like 1st John 2:19 that he knows that some have already left. Some of the people causing schisms, the schematics have begun to leave the church.
If we are right in our understanding of 2nd John, particularly verses 9-10 and 11, then some of these have now returned and are attacking from the outside, trying to come back in and influence the church to join them in their Gnostic like communities of faith. In the 3rd Epistle, because Diotrephes loves to be first but puts out the orthodox believers and refuses to let those who is coming in from the outside, at least in this single house church and maybe on a more wider scale in the community. In and around Ephesus, Orthodoxy has become an embattled minority.
To anticipate where we are going with the Book of Revelation, its letter addresses the church in Ephesus, the first of the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3, we can see that ultimately the believers in Ephesus stem the tide, an orthodox church remained, thriving enough and significant enough that John would address one of his seven letters to them. It is by no means in the worst of conditions of the seven letters that John pens, but the famous phrase, if nothing else is remembered from Revelation chapter 2:1-7 is in verse 4, ‘yet I hold this against you, you have forsaken the love you’ve had at first.’ And there may be an emotional dimension to this, they’ve grown weary from testing the spirits and they have not tolerated wicked people (verse 2). They’ve tested those who claimed to be apostles but are not and found them to be false and thus there may be a sense which, emotionally, their love has run somewhat cold. It is interesting to see the identical intertwining of love and good deeds and faith that we have seen in the previous Johannian literature as the remedy in verse 5 of Revelation 2 is to repent, to do the things you did first. Behave in the ways he did before. Treat each other well; whatever your feelings may be, this is primarily about love expressing itself in deed and in action.
Our printed notes add another invisible circle to this diagram, if you like, and that is the state of the Ephesian church near the end of the 2nd century, less than a hundred years after the New Testament writings, in which, as best as we can tell, the church died out or nearly died out altogether in Ephesus; in part, because the city was becoming less significant and people were moving as the harbor was silting over. That is at least one common reason from historical evidence, though it has been disputed. But also perhaps because of some of these recurring battles with heterodoxy and with the tests of life. And yet, such a dramatic paradox, Ephesus the church, even just within the first century alone had more apostolic witness than any other church. Paul spent his longest period of time there. Tradition suggests that Peter had a stay there in route to points further west. Apollos spent time there along with John in perhaps two or three decades of his life, depending on how we read church tradition. No other church came close to having so many apostles for so many decades with so much time in ministry and yet it did not last. It goes back to our principles in 2nd Timothy; the church in any location is always one generation away from extinction, if the current generation does not prepare the next one. But there is another back handed word of encouragement that is crucial for people in ministry, however broadly defined. And that is, many times we can give it our best effort and through no fought of our own or certainly no significant fought of our own, we have tried hard for a prolonged period of time and things just don’t work the way it seems they ought to or the way we know it ought to. And there are many such times in the ministry of faithful Christian’s lives and one of the most important things to remind ourselves and others in those situations are: God is sovereign and gives protective guidance that guarantees the kind of success for which we so often look. As Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, loved to say for many decades, ‘God never called us to be successful, certainly not by worldly standards, sometimes not even by standards that he deemed successful in one particular location, but not in another.’ Bright went on to say, ‘he never called us to be successful, but he called us to be faithful.’ Or another saying, who knows if these were originally with Bill or he got them from elsewhere. ‘Evangelism, the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel, is the sharing of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.’ Or in more Biblical language of 1st Corinthians 3, ‘Apollos watered, but only God gives the increase.’ May that comfort as well as challenge us in our ministries today and in the future in Jesus name. Amen.