Chapter 16:<B> </B>The Letters of John

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 16:<B> </B>The Letters of John

About the beginning of the second century a disagreement arose among the Christians of Asia. It was about the reality of the life and death of Jesus. How could the Messiah, the Son of God, possessed of a divine nature so utterly removed from matter, have lived a life of human limitation and suffered a shameful and agonizing death?

It was a favorite idea in ancient thought that the material universe was intrinsically evil, or at least opposed to goodness, and that God, being wholly good, could not come into any direct contact with it, for such contact, it was thought, would infect God with the evil inherent in all matter. This idea was held by some Christians who at the same time accepted Jesus as the divine Messiah. From this contradiction they escaped in part by claiming that Jesus’ divine nature or messiahship descended on him at his baptism and left him just before his death on the cross. They inferred that his sufferings were only seeming and not real, and from this idea they were known as Docetists, that is, "seemists."

The Docetists were probably better educated to begin with than most Christians, and their profession of these semi-philosophical views of Christ’s life and death still further separated them from ordinary people. This separation was increased by the claim they made of higher enlightenment, closer mystic fellowship with God, dearer knowledge of truth, and freedom from sin. Expressions like "I have fellowship with God," "I know him," "I have no sin," "I am in the light," were often on their lips. Both their spiritual pretensions and their fantastic view of Christ made them an unwholesome influence in the Asian churches and roused more than one Christian writer to dispute their claims.

There lived at that time in Asia a Christian leader of such influence and reputation that he could in his correspondence style himself simply "the Elder." Wide as his influence must have been, there were some who withstood his authority and refused to further his enterprises. With his approval missionaries had gone out through Asia to extend the gospel among the Greek population. Some Christians had welcomed them hospitably and helped them on their way, but others who were hostile to the Elder had refused to receive them and had threatened any who did so with exclusion from the church.

In this situation the Elder writes two letters. One, known to us as Third John, is to a certain Gaius, to acknowledge his support and encourage him to continue it, and to warn him against the party of Diotrephes. Gaius is probably the most influential of the Elder’s friends and supporters in his own community, while Diotrephes is the leader of the party hostile to the Elder. The letter is probably delivered by Demetrius, one of the missionaries in question. At the same time the Elder writes another short letter, our Second John, to the church to which Gaius belongs, urging its members to love one another and to live harmoniously together, and warning them against the deceivers who teach that Christ has not come in the flesh. The advocates of this teaching they are to let severely alone, refusing them even the ordinary salutations and the hospitality usual among Christians. The two letters are brief, for the Elder is coming to them very soon in person; but short as they are they bring us into the very heart of a controversy that was already dividing individual churches and threatening the peace of a whole district.

As missionaries like Demetrius went about the province of Asia, under the Elder’s direction, they took with them a longer letter from his pen in which the same pressing matters were more fully presented. We have seen that the short letters are without his name, and the long letter bears not even his title. It hardly required it if it was to be carried by his messengers and read by them as from him in the assembled churches they visited. This longer letter, known to us as First John, deals with the same question as Second John, takes the same view of the matter, and puts it with the same confident authority. But the situation has developed somewhat, for the Docetists, or some of them, have now left the church.

The Elder begins with the most confident emphasis. His own experience guarantees the truth of his message, which he is sending in order that his readers may share the fellowship with God and Christ which he enjoys. The heart of that message is that God was historically manifested in the life of Christ, and that the Christian experience is fully sufficient for anyone’s spiritual needs. To claim fellowship with God and live an evil life will not do; the claim is false. The Docetic pretension to sinlessness is mere deceit. The Christian way is to own one’s sins and seek forgiveness.

The claim of knowing Christ is meaningless apart from obedience to his commands. Living as he lived is the only evidence of union with him. Those who claim peculiar illumination and yet treat their brethren with exclusiveness and contempt show that they have never risen to a really Christian attitude. The Elder’s reason for writing to his friends is that they have laid the foundation of a real Christian experience, and he would warn them against sinking again into a life of worldliness and sin.

The breach with the Docetic thinkers, with their claims of freedom from sin, is complete. It is well that they have left the church, for they have no right to be in it. Those who deny that Jesus is the Christ are not Christians but antichrists. In opposition to their teachings, true Christians should continue to cultivate that spiritual experience upon which they have entered. They must abide in Christ and following the guidance of the Spirit seek, as children of a righteous heavenly father, to be righteous like him. Righteousness and love are the marks of the Christian life. Jesus in laying down his life for us has shown what love may be.

Some who urge the Docetic teaching claim that the Holy Spirit in their hearts has endorsed it. But the Spirit of God authorizes no such teaching. Only spirits that confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh are of God. Spirits that deny this are of the world. The Elder declares that he is of God and that all who really know God will obey his solemn warning against these spirits of antichrist.

Love is the perfect bond in all this great spiritual fellowship. Love is of God and God is love. He has shown it by sending his Son into the world to give us life. We love because he first loved us. If he so loved us, we also ought to love one another. Belief in Jesus as the Christ is the sign of sonship to God and the way to the life of love, since it is the manifestation in Jesus of God’s love that kindles love in us. The messiahship of Jesus is evidenced not only by the voice of the Spirit, but by his human life and death. There are three who bear witness, the Spirit, the water, and the blood. The witness is this, that God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son. To have the life we must see in Jesus the Christ, the indispensable revelation of God.

The Elder writes to confirm his readers in their assurance of eternal life. Sonship to God means the renunciation of sin. The Christian has an inward assurance that he belongs to God, whom Jesus has revealed Here is the true God and eternal life.

Except for a few touches which mark it very definitely as a letter (2: 12-14), this little work might pass for a sermon or homily. It is clearly a circular letter written to save the churches of Asia from the Docetic views which threatened them. The great words of the letter, life, light, love, figure importantly in the Fourth Gospel also, and in its meditative and yet epigrammatic style the letter resembles the Gospel. It has been said that while the Gospel argues that Jesus is the Christ, the letter contends that the Christ is Jesus, that is, the Messiah is identical with the historical Jesus.

Who was this Asian Elder who could so confidently instruct and command the churches of his countryside? Early Christian writers mention an Elder John of Ephesus, who was a follower of Jesus but was not the apostle of that name, and they sometimes refer to him simply as "the Elder", just as the writer of these letters calls himself. There is no need to identify him with the prophet John of the Revelation. But to John the letters have always been ascribed, and we may think of the Elder John as sending them out from Ephesus, one to Gaius, one to the church to which he belonged, and one to that and other churches, in full assurance that the Christian experience and belief in Jesus as the Christ would save them from the mistakes of Docetism.