Oct 13 2020
The epistles of John provide vivid windows into the lives of the communities addressed by the gospel of John. We can see the similarity between the gospel and 1 and 2 John – the shared vocabulary (word, beginning, light, life, truth, abiding, water, blood, joy, victory and so forth) and the shared emphasis on the commandment to “love one another” as the heart of Christian ethics and obedience.
The gospel of John stresses both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The epistles, however, address an inner-church debate in which some believers, nurtured on the traditions of the gospel of John, push affirmation of the divinity of Christ too far, forgetting the importance of the deeds and death of the human Jesus. These believers could not remain united with their brethren and they split off to form their own congregation (1 John 2:18-19). John was of the opinion that they broke the bond of love and unity by leaving the community, initiating the schism and the divisive competition now for followers.
1 John addresses the closest audience of John, seeking to insulate them against the secessionists’ position and consolidate their allegiance in the wake of the schism. 2 John addresses a more distant church or a set of churches to warn them about secessionist missionaries, shaping the Christians’ perceptions of those missionaries in advance of their coming to assure the rejection of them and their teachings. 3 John seeks to secure hospitality for John’s missionaries in a locale where one church leader has blocked John’s envoys from receiving hospitality ( perhaps as an attempt to keep his church free from any contamination from the disruptive schisms).
Looking at 1 John, those who split off to form their own congregation have centred on their claim to a special ‘anointing’ of the Holy Spirit by which they had been given true knowledge of God (2:20,27). This knowledge (gnosis) became the centre of their distinctive beliefs and lifestyle and later probably became related to the movement entitled gnosticism. John countered this claim of knowledge by them by emphasizing and defining what is a true knowledge of God. “We know” is one of John’s favourite recurring assertions (2:3,5; 16,19,24; 4:13; 5:2 etc.).
Among the many strands of gnostic belief, two major ones were prominent. The first is the exaltation of the mind over faith and behaviour. The second is the conviction that matter is essentially evil because the physical world is the product of an evil power. These beliefs resulted in them denying the incarnation of Christ (2:22; 4:2-3), a deduction from their understanding that matter is evil. To them, how could the supreme deity condescend to be united with an impure physical body, as a man? A related teaching, docetism, asserted that Christ did not truly become man; He only seemed to have a human form, and there were those who claimed that Christ’s body throughout His earthly life was a phantom. Others were prepared to admit the reality of the body of Jesus, but separated Jesus from the Christ.
John describes them as liars (2:4,22; 4:20). He urges his readers to apply to every teaching the fundamental truths which have as its foundation the real incarnation of Christ, His true humanity (5:5-6) and that the blood of Jesus, the eternal Son, ‘purifies us from every sin’ (1:7). His body given for us, His blood shed for us were the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (2:2;3:16) and the supreme demonstration and guarantee of the love of God for mankind (4:10).
The false teachers also seemed to have claimed moral perfection through their superior enlightenment – they concluded they no longer sinned. This led to arrogant superiority which despised ordinary Christians who remained ignorant in the darkness, so they claimed. Such an attitude led them to separate themselves from the churches, as a new moral and spiritual elite. John’s concern is to examine the nature of true light and darkness, and to link real spirituality with love for all other Christians in an unbreakable chain (4:20-21). His own affection for his readers is illustrated by his frequent reference to them as ‘little children’ (2:12,28;3:7,18;14:4 and 5:21). For John, the problem was not a little skirmish but the very foundation principles of faith and conduct were being eroded and the churches were thrown into confusion.
Knowing the special personal relationship he had had with the real, historical Jesus in His incarnation, John proceeds to state and reaffirm the great central truths of God’s revelation in Christ, to give assurance to those who believe in the incarnate Son that they really do have eternal life. The signs of reality and the marks of assurance are not mystical and philosophical but are down-to-earth and observable. To claim knowledge of God without a holy life, without a clean break with sin and a deep love for other believers is a delusion. Belief and behaviour are inseparable. True light leads to real love.
Notice how John began 1 John – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:1-2).
John not only proclaimed that he was a witness and a close companion of the God-Man (Jesus Christ), he also testified that Jesus came not just as God but as a man, One whom he had seen, looked upon, touched with his hands, One who was from the beginning (Refer John gospel chapter 1), the Word (with God and was God) and One in whom is the Word of life and eternal life, and One who is God manifest in the flesh (the Word became flesh). In these two verses, John ‘demolished’ the so-called ‘higher knowledge’ of those who left them and demonstrated beyond all doubt that Jesus is fully God and fully man. John also assured those who believe in Jesus and are in union with Him that they do have eternal life in Christ.
With regard to the issue of sin and the claim of sinlessness of the ‘false brethren’, John is adamant that sin has no place in the life of the genuine disciple of Christ. Everyone who remains in Him does not continue to sin (1 John 3:5,6). Everyone who keeps on sinning has neither seen nor known Him (3:6). The person committing sin is from the devil (3:18). All who have been born of God do not practice sin, because God’s seed remains in them, and they are not able to continue to sin because they have been born of God (3:9).
On the other hand, John also takes for granted not only that believers “have sinned,”, for to say otherwise is to speak against the truth of God (1:8,10), but also that they will commit sins, though he would hope otherwise (2:1). Moreover, God clearly expects that this will happen, having provided Jesus Christ as our ongoing Advocate, whose death is effective not only for past but also future sins (2:2). Hence, no believer can claim to be sinless and that he no longer sins. Also, no believer can continue to practice sin with his ‘new nature’ and sin can no longer be ‘natural’ for the believer. because it is a violation of his or her new nature, and if sinning comes naturally it is perhaps a sign that the person does not truly have this new nature and God’s seed. When a believer does sin because of ignorance or weakness, he has access to forgiveness in Christ if he repents and confesses his sin before God.
The ‘false brethren’ may have regarded their belief in Christ as the complete cure for the problem of sin, to the exclusion of the mastery of the passions of the flesh. Notice also John’s exhortation not to love the world. The world, (its values and systems), is destined to fade away with the pursuits, lusts, pride of life and ambitions that belong to it. Loving the world is not just associated with immoral and loose living, urged on by the world’s influence, it is also related closely with the pride of life – this was particularly seen in those who claimed a ‘higher knowledge” and looked down on the Christians who appeared foolish in their sight. Their arrogant claim of ‘superior enlightenment’, their ‘boast’ of attaining moral perfection, their ‘separation’ from those ‘ordinary’ believers – all these are manifestations of ‘love of the world’ although in their case, gross pagan immorality was not a major characteristic as in other heretical groups. Nonetheless, false teaching always leads to false living. John was concerned that ‘adding to God’s Word in Scripture’ or ‘subtracting from the Bible’ are equally problematic; what Scripture said, it still says, and what Scripture says, God says. We need to take seriously what John teaches about those who claim to have received new revelation from God which can give a new vitality to a Christian’s life and experience that the apostolic teaching never provided. We need to take note that those who left ignored even the teaching and exhortation of John, one of the living apostles at that time – what more can we expect when no living apostle (among the twelve) is present in our current context!
Take note also of John’s emphasis on ‘light’ and ‘love’. Light has to do with purity of life, truth of God and it has no association with darkness. Compromise in moral values, distortion of God’s truth – these have their root in the evil one who specialises in distortion of God’s truth and casting doubt on it, and also in his urging us to be ‘independent’ of God and to live our ‘freedom’, leading to rebellious, proud and immoral loose living.
Love manifests in loving God, obeying Him and issues in a practical love for others, in particular the brethren. The one who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness (2:9) – see the relationship between light and love. John was not so much describing active animosity but rather an indifference to the needs of others, which is expressed by a failure to respond to them in love. God’s kind of love is giving, compassionate, practical. It responds to the needs of others with a compassion that moves a person to reach out a helping hand. The person who literally ‘closes his heart’ to his brother in need lacks the love of God. The presence of a caring and loving spirit is evidence of the reality of God’s presence within. When we are like Jesus in this world, living His lifestyle (2:6), living in fellowship with the Lord God and loving one another, we have a confidence that will carry through to the day of judgement itself. Most prominently, the ‘love’ of the God who ‘is love’ (1John 4:8) is demonstrated precisely in the self-giving act of Jesus on the cross. Hence, we love because He first loves us. And Jesus died on the cross, taking our place, as the God-man, enduring all the pain and agony on behalf of us, for our sins, taking our judgement of God’s wrath, voluntarily because of love, so that He who had no sin became sin for us so that we may become the righteousness of God. While we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us in HIs love; how then can we excuse ourselves from loving our brethren if we claim to be followers and disciples of Christ, who claim to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him?
The Lord willing, we will elaborate further on 1 John and also share on 2 John and 3 John which are all related in some ways to the schism mentioned in 1 John.