New books: 1, 2, and 3 John

by Stephen Harris

The author of these three short letters is undoubtedly the same as the writer of the fourth gospel.  We read such similar language and come across identical themes.  Perhaps the most obvious thread throughout all of these epistles is the command that we should “love one another” (1 John 3.11).  While the author never declares himself openly, church tradition tells us that it’s John the apostle, an eyewitness to Jesus (1:1-3).  But whereas the gospel of John was written to explain the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and to encourage the reader to believe in Him, here the message is really how to live that message out in the church community, which is now struggling against false teaching and divisive characters.

Most likely John is writing from Ephesus, so the recipients of the letter are presumed to be in the area of Asia Minor.  In the Gospel John had written the purpose of his writing was “that you may believe” John 20.30-31) here we find that he is writing with a different aim in view: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5.13).

One of the issues that he touches on in 1 John is something theologians call “Gnosticism”, an idea that salvation comes by pure knowledge (Greek: gnosis) and that the physical is unimportant, in fact, the body is treated more like a prison to be escaped from.  John recognises this teaching as a threat to his church community and teaches against it.

Firstly, the issue of secret knowledge.  John points out the source of our salvation: not a secret knowledge, but Jesus Christ, clearly revealed for all to see.    Secondly, John points out that Jesus is very truly man.  This teaching is a subtle attack on the incarnation of Jesus, which underpins our very salvation (2 John 1.7).  God clearly doesn’t see our physical bodies as “evil” to be escaped from, otherwise he would never have taken on our humanity.  There’s a suggestion of what would later be called docetism, an idea that suggested that Jesus only seemed to live in the flesh (Greek: dokein to seem).  Obviously if he only seemed to live in the flesh, then did he only seem to die and save us?  The issue here is that our physical body is quite integral to us being human, after all, the promise that God lays out before us is that our earthly bodies will one day be gloriously resurrected!

Another danger of Gnosticism is that it presents a purely “thought” religion, completely detached from how our lives are actually physically lived out which can easily minimise sin.  John tackles sin head on: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth” (1 John 1.6) but equally emphasises the amazing power of God to deal with it all: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9)

2 John is addressed “to the chosen lady” whom most scholars would interpret as referring to a local church.  The Greek word for “lady” (kyria) referred to a social sub-unit in the Greek city-state.  Here the apostle is rejoicing over people “walking in the truth” (2 John 1.4) and reiterates the commandment to “love one another” (2 John 1.5).  The safeguard against false teaching is to “abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 1.9).

3 John is extremely short and deals with a schism occurring in the heart of the community, stemming from a certain Diotrephes who “loves to be first” (3 John 1.9) and is leading a leadership coup.  He is contrasted to the faithful Demetrius, who is presented to us as an example to follow, one who “has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself.” (3 John 1.12)