Episode 69: Introduction to The Letters of John
Dan and Laurence step into the New Testament for an introduction to the three letters of John. After exploring the stark contrasts and Torah references in the first letter they then see how the second and third letters apply the theory from the first letter to two opposite situations. And finally, little children, keep yourselves from idols…uh?
Laurence and Dan begin by placing the letters of John deep into the apostolic era and note that the exact historical background is hard to be certain about. It is considered to be written by John the apostle, or another like him, late in the first century. One reason that the author wrote the first and second letters was to warn people about “many deceivers” (2 John 7) and that “many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). This refers to people within the Christian community who ended up leaving the church fellowship, (1 John 2:19-20), and who are spreading very different ideas from the original gospel message.
Laurence does a great David Suchet impression
Beginning with the first letter, Laurence points out that the letter is structured in a very unique way, with both an abrupt beginning (1 John 1:1-2) and ending (1 John 5:21). After sharing a beautiful reading of John’s opening paragraph, Laurence brings to attention how this letter isn’t structured in conventional ways, but is a series of repeating themes woven together around some basic tenets.
God is light and God is love feature heavily within the book and provide the fundamental truths from which the themes emanate.
Keeping commandments in 1 John
Laurence and Dan look at one example theme, which is the repetition of “keeping the commandments” (1 John 2:3-4, 1 John 2:7-8, 1 John 3:22-24). This is linked heavily with being in the light and not walking in darkness and echoes the Torah, (the first five books of the Bible), particularly Deuteronomy and its message about keeping the commandments and the introduction of sin in the world as protrayed by the early chapters in Genesis. The difference in 1 John is that Jesus has come (1 John 2:1) and is now able to expound and explain the law. This letter is therefore an interpretation of the law in the light of Jesus our advocate, who is able to help us and develop us into people who can keep the commandments.
The culmination of this theme is the New Commandment, “to love one another”, which is not actually new at all and instead is a restating of the Torah’s commands but freshly seen in the way that Jesus loves us.
Further Old Testament background in 1 John
Continuing within this first letter, Laurence and Dan notice more Old Testament background within these books, including echoes of Genesis in creation and the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1-6. The point of drawing attention to the evil one (1 John 3:12) is to show how the same force that overtook Cain, defined as “sin crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:6), can affect us. If we refuse to love our brother then we are in effect re-enacting the murder of Abel by Cain. A sobering thought indeed.
More Letters of John
Moving on, Laurence and Dan turn attention to the smaller letters of John to see how they connect to the themes already discussed. They discuss how the two letters have much more of a typical letter format and that they are about similar situations involving traveling preachers and teachers turning up at a house church. In the second letter of John, the author gives advice about what to do when someone turns up who did not believe that Jesus had “come in the flesh” (2 John 7), whereas 3 John is about the necessity of welcoming and supporting genuine preachers.
Dan suggests that the heresy at that particular moment in history was probably Docetism, which stated that Jesus only had the appearance of being a man, and wasn’t really in “flesh” at all. As Craig Keener writes, “it might be a Docetic denial that Jesus was actually human and actually died.” (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament).
Do the Letters of John teach the Trinity?
At this point they also go off on a brief tangent discussing how that many Christians tend to say that you cannot be a real Christian if you deny that Jesus is God, and yet these letters are saying the very opposite – you cannot be considered a Christian if you deny that Jesus was truly human, “in the flesh”. This debate raises its head in the infamous addition to 1 John 5:7 which is preserved in the KJV; “the Father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one”. All scholars recognise that this addition is not genuine and was added to the Greek New Testament by Erasmus under duress. They conclude that the letters of John do not teach that the Trinity is essential, noting that the debate would need to happen based on other scriptures (see further suggested resources below).
Further connections and resources
Noticing that these two letters of John concern practical examples of how to apply the lofty thoughts and themes of First John, Laurence and Dan also draw a parallel with the Didache as another example (outside of the canon). The writers of this second century document include guidance on how to deal with wandering preachers, including how to know whether they are genuine or not. Closing out the session, they make reference to other related episodes of the podcast.
- Follow up the thread on the Trinity via several episodes and blogs.
- More about Textual Criticism and investigating the Greek manuscripts behind the text of the Bible.
- For an overview of what life may have been like in a first century church (with reference to the Didache), check out this episode.