2. A little background for 1 John
In about 66 AD the apostle John left Palestine and settled in Ephesus, where he stayed about 30 years. (Paul had established a strong church in Ephesus, with the help of a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila, during his second missionary journey, around the year 50 AD.) At some time during those years, John was sent away by the Emperor Domitian into exile to the island of Patmos, for preaching the gospel. It is likely that he wrote his letters late in his life, when he returned from Patmos. These writings do not have the standard form of letters as they are not personal letters; they would have been intended to be read when the churches gathered for worship, and to be passed from one church to another so that all might read them.
In Ephesus, as was standard in the early years of Christianity, the church was made up of several small house churches; 2 John is addressed to a woman in whose house one of these churches met. The occasion for John’s epistles was some false teaching that had begun to cause confusion among these churches. There were people that John referred to as “false prophets”, who had been a part of the church in Ephesus, but who, after they had left the church, had spread false teachings about the gospel. John’s concern is that these false teachings had begun to influence the churches themselves and to distort the truth of the gospel they had received from Paul.
There seem to have been three main areas of false teaching. First, these false prophets were denying the Incarnation. They affirmed that Jesus was God, but they denied that he was truly man. Instead, they taught that he had only taken on the appearance of a man. This heresy is called “docetism” from the Greek word that means “to seem”. In other words, they taught that Jesus only seemed to be human; in fact, he was only divine.
Second, these false teachers were making some kind of false claims about sin. John is at pains to assert that no man is without sin, and that the presence of sin in our lives can be seen in our attitudes to one another. It was not possible, John wrote, to love God if we do not love our fellow Christians.
Third, the heresy of gnosticism was beginning to gain in popularity at the end of the first century. The gnostics (from the Greek for “knowledge”) claimed to have a deeper spiritual insight, some secret knowledge, that run-of-the-mill Christians did not have. John assures his brothers and sisters that all baptized believers in Christ share the same spirit, and that God reveals himself to all of his children, not to the select few.
Many, probably most, of the epistles in the New Testament were written to combat heresy and to promote the good understanding of the gospel among all of the churches. But Paul and John, the two primary authors of the New Testament, have very different approaches in their writing. Paul constructed logical, well-organized arguments to refute heretical teachings. John’s letters, on the other hand, have no real logical outline or structure. One commentator describes the structure of 1 John as “spiral” – John returned again and again to the same ideas, with variations, somewhat like the structure of a fugue in music. His method was less to argue against specific heresies than to affirm with vigor the central truths of the gospel, which had been revealed right from the beginning of all creation. If Paul might be said to construct the branches of New Testament doctrine (especially in his longer letters to Rome and Corinth), John might be said to hold fast to the roots.
Some of the themes that we will find in 1 John are these:
Because God is light, walk in the light.
Because the light is already shining, obey God’s commandments.
Because you belong to God, avoid the false values of the world.
Because you know the truth, renounce those who teach lies.
Because God is your Father, live like God’s children.
Because Jesus has shown what love is, love one another.
Because you listen to the Spirit of God, beware of false prophets who would deceive you.
Because God is love, love one another.
St. Jerome, writing late in the fourth century, tells a story about the apostle John in extreme old age in Ephesus. He used to be carried into the congregation in the arms of his disciples and was unable to say anything except “Little children, love one another.” At last, wearied that he always spoke the same words, they asked: “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because,” he replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if only this is done, it is enough.”
John’s themes sort of read like a second set of beatitudes. I remember the story of John’s inability to say anything other than “Little children, love one another” from your sermon – see I do listen!