Chapter 8: The Letter Of John

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 8: The Letter Of John

The Gospel of Right Belief and True Love

Although I John is called a letter it neither begins nor ends as such. And yet no work was ever more clearly addressed to a definite community by an author who knew intimately and loved passionately those to whom he wrote. I John is in fact rather a homily than a letter, and it was written by one in whose heart the pastoral instinct was dominant above all other things. "The writer", says A. E. Brooke, "may or may not have been a theologian. Undoubtedly he was the pastor of his flock. His chief interest is the care of souls." It is, says Westcott, "instinct from first to last with personal feeling. The writer is not dealing with abstractions but with life and living men."

He was writing at a time when the enemy was within the gates and when the Church was threatened from within. The danger did not come from persecution or from any threat from outside the Church. It came from mistaken teachers who had been within the Church, although now they have seceded from the Church (2:19). John has much to say about the world. The Christian is not to love the world or the things in the world; if he does the Father is not in him (2:15-17). The world does not recognize the Christian because it did not recognize Christ and does not know God (3:1). It is only to be expected that the world should hate the Church (3:13). The false teachers are of the world and naturally the world listens to them, but we are of God (4:4, 5). The danger is not the danger of persecution; it is the danger of assimilation to the world. The world has become too attractive; philosophy and speculation and adjustment of Christian belief to contemporary thought have become too fascinating; the clean-cut distinction between the Christian and the world has become irksome and burdensome. The curious thing about I John is that it comes from an age when the first instinct of the pastor is no longer to go out and to win the world, but rather to withdraw from the world, lest the infection of the world should so taint the Church that Christianity should become simply another syncretistic faith and not the unique and only word of God. For that reason I John has three great characteristics.

1. It is consistently polemical. Robert Law says: "There is no NT writing which is more vigorously polemical in its whole tone and aim. The truth, which in the same writer's Gospel, shines as the dayspring from on high, becomes here a search-light, flashed into a background of darkness." John is waging a holy war on a falsehood which could wreck the faith.

2. It is none the less written equally for edification. It is never simply invective. If it wishes to destroy the enemies of the faith, it equally wishes to build up the children of the faith. A. E. Brooke writes: "Although John never loses sight of his opponents, the aim is not primarily polemical; it is edification . . . The aim is not so much the defeat of the opponents as the building up of a correct attitude in the children to Christian faith and life." Poison has to be eradicated but true food has to be supplied.

3. The ever-recurring note of the letter is recall to that which is already known. The constant plea of John to his people is: "Be what you really are." They know him who is from the beginning (2:13, 14). They have been anointed by the Holy One and they already know (2:20). He writes, not because they do not know the truth, but because they already know it (2:21). They do not really need anyone to teach them (2:27). They know that Jesus Christ has appeared to take away sins (3:5). They know and believe the love that God has for them (4:16). They know that they are of God and that God has given them understanding (5:19, 20). The whole point of the letter is not to instruct the ignorant, but to recall people to that which they already know, and to urge them to be what they in fact are.

In view of all this we must begin our study of John's letter by seeing the nature of the teaching which constituted so grave a threat to the Christian faith and Church. That teaching belonged to that general type of thought that is called Gnosticism. What then were the characteristic Gnostic beliefs?

1.Epiphanius says that Basilides, one of the greatest of the Gnostic thinkers, began with the question: "Whence comes evil?" (pothen to kakon). Gnosticism found its explanation of evil in a thorough-going dualism. It held that spirit, which is God, and matter are both eternal; that spirit is altogether good; that matter has from the beginning a flaw in it; and that out of that flawed matter the world has been made. As Robert Law puts it: "Gnosticism traces into the eternal the schism of which we are conscious in the world of experience, and posits two independent arid antagonistic principles of existence from which, severally, come all the good and all the evil that exist."

2. Since matter is essentially evil the God who is pure spirit cannot touch it. This god therefore puts out a series of aeons or emanations, each a little more removed and distant from himself. As the emanations grow more distant from the true God they grow more ignorant of the true God. As they grow still more distant, they become not only ignorant but hostile to the true God. At the end of the series there comes a power distant from, ignorant of, hostile to, the true God and that power is the creator of the world. As Robert Law put it: "Gnostic evolution is from divinity downwards." Thus the world is created out of flawed material and by a power who is the ignorant enemy of the true God. hence come the sin and suffering of the world and all its imperfections.

3. This doctrine has certain ethical results.

(a) It completely does away with any Christian doctrine of sin, for sin is no longer the result of a moral choice made in rebellion against God by the mind and the heart of man; sin is simply a physical principle in matter and in all that is composed of matter. Any physical creature or thing is bound to sin because of its physical composition. It is quite impossible to change or renew its nature; the only thing which can stop sin is the total destruction of all physical and material things, until only spirit, which is good, is left.

(b) In practice this issues in one of two attitudes to life.

First, it may issue in a rigid asceticism. If the body and all physical things are essentially evil, then the body must be subdued and its every need and desire must be refused.

Second, it may issue in a kind of licence to sin on either of two grounds. If the body is evil, then it does not matter anyway what we do with it for nothing can make it good. Therefore, let the body have its way. If in nature there is this split, then let spirit and body each go its own way. Let each act according to its own nature. Let spirit reach out to goodness, and let the body sin to its heart's content, then each will be fulfilling its own nature. And, in any event, a really spiritual man will not be in the least affected by what his body does. In fact the more spiritual a man is, the less it makes any difference if his body sins.

4. The way of escape is knowledge. The spirit of man is imprisoned in the evil flesh of the body, and only a special kind of knowledge can enable the spirit to escape from the body. The long way to God has to be climbed, past all the aeons and the emanations; there are necessary secret instructions, secret pass-words, secret knowledge. At the heart of Gnosticism there is this necessity for special and esoteric knowledge. The Gnostics divided men into two classes, the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, for whom such knowledge is a possibility and to whom such knowledge is open, and the psuchikoi, those who, as it were, have no more than an animal soul, and for whom such knowledge is impossible and to whom such knowledge is a closed book. Gnosticism inevitably and deliberately issued in a situation in which there were an intellectual aristocracy and an ignorant and unteachable majority.

The consequence is quite clear; Gnosticism was the death of fellowship. In its arid intellectualism it killed love. Robert Law says of it: "The system was loveless to the core." Ignatius (The Letter to Smyrna 6:2) says of the Gnostics of his day: "They give no heed to love, caring not for the widow, the orphan, the afflicted, neither for those who are in bonds, neither for the hungry nor the thirsty." There can be no fellowship where there is an intellectual elite, and a great majority of simple folk who are despised, and where a man’s aim is to know rather than to love.

5. It is quite clear that this kind of belief was bound to have the most serious consequences for Christology. No Gnostic could possibly believe in a real incarnation; he could not believe that the Son of the true God could ever take upon himself a body which is essentially evil. So the Gnostics were Docetists, which literally means Seemists. Sometimes they held that Jesus only seemed to have a body, and that in fact he was no more than a spiritual phantom. In the Acts of John, for instance, it is said that when Jesus walked he left no footprints on the ground. No Gnostic could possibly have said that the Word became flesh. Sometimes they held that, since the true God can never suffer, the spiritual Christ descended upon the man Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism; Jesus then perfected his virtues and announced the Father; but before his sufferings and death the Christ withdrew again from the man Jesus, and it was only the man Jesus who suffered and died and rose again. No Gnostic could believe in a flesh and blood Christ, and no Gnostic could believe in a divine being who knew suffering and death.

Let us now go to the Letter itself and let us see if we can discover from it what the erroneous views of the false teachers were.

1. Their teaching about Jesus was false and dangerous.

(a) They denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22), and, conversely, every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God (5:1) This is not to be taken as a denial that Jesus was the Messiah. It means that, as we have seen that many Gnostics did say, that the heavenly Christ only came into the man Jesus for a limited time, that the Christ came upon the man Jesus at the baptism and left him before the suffering and death of the Cross. In the Gospel of Peter the cry on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" becomes: "My Power, my Power, why have you forsaken me?" and is taken to be the lament of the man Jesus that the heavenly Christ has left him.

It is this same belief which explains the strange saying in 5:6: "This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with water only, but with the water and the blood." The point is that the heretics were quite prepared to say that the Christ came into Jesus at the Baptism, that is, with water; but they were not prepared to say that the Christ was in Jesus at his death on the Cross, that is, with the blood. In a word, the heretics so sought to protect the glory of God that they found it impossible to associate God and suffering, and they thereby despoiled God of his supreme glory, which is his suffering love.

(b) The heretics denied the fulness of the incarnation; they refused to believe that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2, 3). It was the incarnation that any Gnostic was bound to deny. They could not believe that God could take manhood upon him, and so they presented men with a Jesus who was no more than a phantom in human shape. They thereby destroyed the work of Christ for, as Irenaeus said, "He became what we are to make us what he is." Docetism in a kind of mistaken reverence took the meaning out of the life of Jesus Christ.

2. Their ethical teaching was wrong and dangerous. They claimed to have fellowship with God and yet they walked in darkness (1:5). That is to say, they claimed to be walking with God and yet went on sinning. They in fact denied that they sinned at all (1:8-10). They would have said that a truly spiritual man may allow his body to do as it likes, for his body thereby simply fulfils its nature, and that cannot be called sin. John insists that no one who abides in God sins, that the righteous man is he who does righteousness. No one born of God commits sin, for sin is of the Devil (3:6-10). To love God is to keep God's commandments (5:3). He who is born of God does not sin (5:18). This is directed against the Gnostics who claimed that they were in the most intimate possible fellowship with God, fellowship not even possible for the ordinary man, and who yet wallowed in sin, either on the principle that the body is evil and therefore it does not matter what is done with it or in it, or on the principle that in sin the body does no more than fulfil its own nature, and that in either case the spirit is left quite untouched. To the Gnostics an unethical religion was perfectly natural; to John it was a blasphemous contradiction in terms.

3. Their personal relationships were quite unchristian, for the whole principle of their lives was, not love, but contempt and hatred for their fellow-men. The original message of Christianity is that we should love one another (3:11). Belief in Christ and love of man must go hand in hand (3:23). Anyone who does not love is spiritually dead, and he who hates his brother is in effect a murderer (3:14, 15). The man who hates his brother, whatever claims he may make, is still in the darkness (2:9-11). The man who claims to love God and who at the same time hates his brother is a liar (4:20). To the Gnostics contempt for and hatred of the common man were part and parcel of religion; to John they were the complete negation of Christianity.

Let us now go on to see what John regards as true religion. Robert Law's valuable exposition of I John is entitled The Tests of Life, and one of the features of John's Letter is the fact that it does provide a series of tests in a series of sayings al~ beginning with some such phrase as, "By this we know." Let us look at these tests, of which there are five.

1. There is the ethical test. "By this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments . . . By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked" (2:3-6). "If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right is born of him" (2:29). "By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil; whoever does not do right is not of God" (3:10). "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments" (5:2). The unique characteristic of John is what can only be called an ethical mysticism. Abiding in God and obeying God are one and the same thing. After all, the only real test of love is obedience. And John never forgot that Jesus Christ came "to make bad men good".

2. There is the theological test. ‘By this you know the spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist" (4:2, 3). "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God" (4:15). Only when the centre of the circle is right can the circumference be right. At the centre of man's life there must be a true appreciation of Jesus Christ; and it is significant that for John the supreme danger lies in losing sight of the manhood of Jesus. Of all the NT writers he clings most tenaciously to the historical Jesus, that which "we have heard, we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands" (1:1, 2). John quite certainly would have regarded with horror any line of thought which evaporated the historical, flesh and blood man Jesus out of Christianity.

3. There is the spiritual test. "By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit who he has given us" (3:24). "By this we know that we abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit" (4:13). To get the full greatness of this we would have to turn back to the Fourth Gospel and see again the greatness of the promise of the Spirit in the fourteenth and the sixteenth chapters. For John the life of the Christian is characterized by a power that is more than human. It should be possible for the man of the world to look at the man of Christ and to be compelled to say: "Here is life such as I have never known and life which I want to know."

4. There is the test of receptiveness. "Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (4:6). The word of God, when it is preached to men, is not only a promise and an offer, it is also a judgment. A man reveals himself in his response to the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ.

5. Above and beyond all else, there is the test of love. "By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil; whoever does not do right is not of God; nor he who does not love his brother" (3:9). "We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren" (3:14). Unquestionably the key-note of John's letter is love, and to end our study of it we must look at this love.

(a) Love is the original message of the Christian faith (3:11). It is the very foundation stone of the Christian life.

(b) To love is to abide in the light (2:10); and, conversely, to fail to love is to be alienated from God, to be in spiritual death, and to make one's profession a lie (3:10; 3:14; 4:20).

(c) There is a false love, the love of the world (2:15), but such a love can only separate a man from God.

(d) This love must be practically shown. To see a brother in need and not to help him out of our own fulness makes any profession of love a lie (3.17, 18). Fine words and emotions can never replace fine deeds.

(e) The only test of true love is obedience (5:2, 3). To love God is to keep his commandments, and his great commandment is to love one another.

(f) Belief and love go hand in hand. We must believe in Jesus Christ and love one another (3:23). He who loves God must love his brother also (4:21). The only way in which any man can prove that he loves God is by loving his fellow-men.

(g) True love is seen in God and in God's sacrifice for us in his Son (3:16; 4:9). It is because God is love that we must love, and in loving we become kin to God (4:7, 8, 16, 19). It is God's love for us that lays on us the compulsion to love one another (4:19). He who is loved is under obligation to love. And John has a very great thought. No man has ever seen God; but in love God can be seen; human love, imperfect as it always must be, is a glimpse into the heart of God (4:12).

The Letter of John is as contemporary today as on the day on which it was first written. It forbids at one and the same time a selfish mysticism and on arid intellectualism. It sees in Christianity a union between right belief and true love, a union in which there is a meeting of the seeking mind and the loving heart in Christ.