October 13 2020
In 1 John, the Apostle John pointed out that authentic beliefs in Christianity bear their fruit in transformed lives – marked by holiness, love and obedience to God as well as love of others, especially the brethren. John also pointed out the need of accurate and humble boundaries that are necessary to preserve the faith from distortion, while allowing for the kind of fruitful and dynamic dialogue that is necessary to clarify the faith and its implications in every new setting and time. But there is no room to add to the Scripture or to minus from the Scripture; obedience to God’s authority revealed in Scripture and through His apostles is essential – there needs to be much caution in claiming new revelation from God which is not in line with what God has already revealed and taught. Love for God and for one another, maintaining the unity of the church, humility and openness to correction in essential doctrinal issues – all these are needful for healthy churchlife.
John warned the believers that antichrist is already to be resisted in the encounter with the “many antichrists” appearing on the horizon even before the day of the Lord.(1 John 2:18-19). Victory over the world is something to be safeguarded by remaining in the faith as passed down by the apostolic tradition (5:4-5) rather than being derailed by innovations and deviations, and by continuing to disentangle oneself from covetousness, lust and the pride that comes from possessions and negative influence of the world (2:15-16). Statements about the nature and work of Christ must take on flesh in the lives of the believers who make those statements; also statements about the Christian hope must lead to vital engagement in the present – future hope should not become a substitute for spiritual formation, investment in ministry and the life of the community.
However, it takes much wisdom to discern the difference between resisting basic perversions of the gospel and being so conservative that we miss what God is doing or teaching anew. There is the danger in applying ‘blindly’ John’s teachings in 1 John in any contemporary situation of dissension and split and condemn outright those who leave or who feel it no longer possible to remain, and thereby erecting higher walls between parts of the body of Christ.
Nonetheless, 1 John is also an occasion for mourning. It is a prototype of the breach of Christian love and unity so deeply valued by the apostles and contrary to the prayer for unity by the Lord Jesus in John 17. Are we guilty of breaking the new commandment to love the brethren, of breaking the bond of Christian love and unity? Even if a body of Chrisians has separated from our own, can we simply apply the rhetoric of 1 John to denounce them, or does it also denounce our failure to love and to work together for the harmony of the body?
On the one hand, there may be times when a church split really does entail matters that even Apostle John would agree are essential to defining Christian faith, and that such splits warrant the kind of rhetoric we find in 1 John. But most splits do not concern matters of such importance that threaten the core identity of Christian discipleship.
2 John and 3 John
The theme of hospitality connects and pervades the second and third letters of John. 2 John warns a sister church about the secessionist missionaries that have left John’s church and now seek to take their alternative understanding of Christ, salvation and Christian life to other congregations. The mandate is clear – do not allow such people to use the church to spread their aberrant teachings. (2 John 10-11).
In 3 John, John’s emissaries are refused hospitality and a venue at the house church governed in some sense by Diotrephes. The latter is acting out of a self-promoting arrogance, maintaining his preeminence in his local congregation by keeping out John and his emissaries. As stated before, Diotrephes may have acted this way to protect his house church from potentially wrong kind of teaching. There is a duty to refuse hospitality to those who misrepresent God and God’s message and the duty to offer hospitality to those who faithfully represent God and God’s message – fulfilling both require great discernment.
2 John is written to prevent the danger of being so open that the congregation is exposed to persuasive words that would harm their faith and progress in discipleship. 3 John however focuses on the danger of isolationism and maintaining the status quo or comfort zone. In trying to shut out error there is the danger of shutting out the nurturing voices of the Apostle John and other genuine brethren in the faith. In the face of diversity, innovation and dissension within a larger community of churches, cocooning one’s church may be an attractive means of avoiding being led astray. It is however an option rejected by Apostle John who calls for discernment and not isolationism. There is the call to speak up for the truth, to defend the truth even though there may be concerns of being misunderstood and the believers must be open to evaluate what they believe and why they believe – there ought to be fruitful dialogue and debate between sisters and brothers of good faith who are genuinely concerned for the truth and are open to the views from those who also have the same dessire. Of course, there are boundaries beyond which the faith expressed and the ethic taught are no longer Christian.
Before the destruction of the temple by Titus in AD 70, many believers, including the apostles, fled the city. It seems likely that John made Ephesus his new base and he continued in the church at Ephesus until the times of Trajan. The three letters were written from Ephesus.
In Acts 20, the apostle Paul warned the elders of the church at Ephesus:
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).
In 1 Timothy, Paul, in writing to Timothy, wrote:
“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy1: 3-4).
Despite the warnings by Paul to the elders, then through Timothy, the schism took place in the church of Ephesus which required apostle John to intervene.
What happened in this church should serve as a warning to the churches today that spiritual warfare is real and intense; the leaders must be careful to expound the truths of the gospel and to correct the members when they see deviations from the truths before they get out of proportion. There is a great need to keep close to the Lord God by ‘soaking’ in the Scripture, in prayers, in looking to the Spirit of God for guidance, discernment and application of the truths revealed by God in His Word and through the apostles.
The spirit of Antichrist is already at work before the final battle at Armageddon; let us not forget the exhortations of the apostle John – God is light and God is love and these two affirmations correspond to right believing and right behaviour, uniting for us, for all time, doctrine and experience, mind and heart, Word and Spirit, truth and love. We would do well to keep these close to our hearts.