James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Ephesus According to 1 John (Winds of Doctrine #10)

As explained in two posts above, Ephesus had gone through a very turbulent time in the mid-60’s AD, with Paul and Timothy expelling elders from the church who were teaching heresy or living immorally or both, followed by a period of intense persecution when Paul himself was taken from them and executed.  Paul’s primary instruction to the church in his second letter to Timothy had been to cleanse themselves from wickedness and become sanctified for good works (2Tim 2:19‑21); a repentance that was even more of a priority than doctrinal correction, which could only follow repentance (2Tim 2:24‑26).  Partly from fear of a repeat situation, therefore (1John 4:17‑18), the Ephesian church had become very strict against sin, to the point of equating it with heresy (1John 3:10; 5:16‑17), and making it a justification for excluding immature Christian brethren from fellowship (1John 2:19; 3:23; 4:20–5:1) or denying them the benefit of material support from the church (1John 3:16‑18).  It is likely that the primary issue of sin in the church was the issue of ongoing participation in the idolatrous secular culture of Ephesus by recent converts (1John 5:21), whether just in terms of appreciating the aesthetics and achievements of that culture (1John 2:15‑17), or perhaps the issue of dining in idol temples with colleagues at official work functions (cf. 1Cor 8:10; 10:19‑22; contrast 10:25).  It is quite possible that the false teachers had been teaching that ‘righteousness’ is just a matter of the heart, and not a matter of outward actions (1John 3:7‑10).

John has a difficult job on his hands, therefore.  He has to be very clear in his instruction to the ‘little children’, the immature believers who were still engaging in sin, that they must not continue to sin.  But on the other hand, he has to appeal to the ‘young men’ who had stood firm under persecution and held to the truth (1John 2:13-14), and help them to see that they too could not claim to be without sin, and in fact by failing to love their weak brethren they too were committing a sin, as wicked as the sin of Cain (3:10‑18).  The ‘fathers’ of the church would certainly remember the ‘old commandment which you have had from the beginning’ (1:7; 2:13-14, 24; 3:11).   John has to affirm their rejection of the heretical teaching of those who had left the church (2:18‑26), while also urging them to continue to receive teachers from outside, like himself, who did speak truth (4:1‑6, 14‑15; 5:5‑13, 20).  As a result, his letter, which is more of an extended essay than a letter as such, moves back and forth between appeals to the little children to keep themselves from sin and idolatry, and appeals to the more mature members of the church to love and pray for their immature brethren like Jesus did (2:5‑6) rather than ‘hating’ them by excluding them (5:14‑17).

As for the specific form of doctrinal heresy that John and the Ephesian church were facing, it is clear from the first paragraph of 1 John that it has to do with the identity of Jesus as both having been with the Father from the beginning and yet also having been a real tangible man (1John 1:1‑3).  The false teachers who had left the Ephesian church were those who denied that Jesus was the Messiah (2:22; 5:1), that Jesus is ‘Messiah come in the flesh’ (4:2), and that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ (4:15; 5:5).  When John defines the ‘false-Messiah’ [i.e. ‘anti-christ’] teaching as the denial that Jesus is the Messiah, he is probably not referring to Jews outside the church who did not believe Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah (though that would also apply).  Rather, he is focusing on heresy within the church that redefines what sort of ‘Messiah’ Jesus actually is, which is just as much an ‘anti-christ’ teaching.  John clarifies further in 1 John 2:22‑23 that what he means by those who deny Jesus’ Messiah-ship is the denial of Jesus as Son and therefore of God as Father, something that the writer to the Hebrews emphasises also in his first two chapters about Jesus being superior to the angels.  The theme of Jesus’ divine sonship appears throughout 1 John (1:3, 7; 2:22‑24; 3:8, 23; 4:10, 14‑15; 5:1, 4‑5, 9‑13, 18, 20), but John deliberately mixes this with a concentration on Jesus’ very real humanity, whether that is His tangibility (1:1‑3) or His flesh (4:2), or His very real blood (1:7; 5:6‑8).  The ‘water’ refers to Jesus’ baptism at which God testified that Jesus is His Son (5:6, 9‑11), but this does not contradict the testimony of the ‘blood’ of Jesus poured out at death showing that Jesus is also human (5:6, 8), nor are either of these contradicted by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (4:13‑15; 5:6, 10), as the false teachers had evidently been claiming (2:20‑27; 3:24‑4:6).  The Spirit of Truth confirms to us both Jesus’ divine sonship shown at His baptism, and Jesus’ real humanity shown at His death.  The claims of the false teachers, that Jesus was one of the powerful angelic mediators spoken about in popular Jewish religious literature of the day, were inadequate both in their denial of Jesus’ superior divine sonship and unique mediatorial role (cf. 2:1) and in their denial of Jesus’ genuine humanity, and were thus presenting a ‘false Messiah’, an ‘anti-christ’.

Context of 1-3 John (Winds of Doctrine #9)

Tradition records that Paul was executed in Rome by Nero, just as he anticipated in his second letter to Timothy, and we can assume that Timothy did travel to Rome to see Paul, leaving Tychicus with Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus to teach the church.  Timothy would have raised up new elders to replace those who had left, ‘faithful men able to teach others’ (1Tim 3:1‑7; 2Tim 2:2).  A church that had been through such an upheaval, though, might be expected to be particularly alert to both false teaching and immorality, being experienced in enduring persecution and persevering with a siege-like mentality (Rev 2:1‑7).  In 1 Timothy 2:7, Paul seems to be contrasting his own true call as a herald and apostle with the ‘lying’ of others who called themselves apostles.  After his death, then, the Ephesian church would have been very wary of receiving anyone else who called himself an ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and would therefore have found it almost impossible to accept genuine apostolic oversight from anyone apart from a co-worker of Paul.  We do not know whether Tychicus stayed for long in Ephesus, or whether Timothy or Titus were able to return to support Prisca and Aquila.

It is into just this situation that the three epistles of John seem to have been written.  According to tradition, John son of Zebedee ended up in Ephesus at some point after Paul’s death and Timothy’s departure, apparently working hard to re-establish this church in their ‘first love’ that they had lost through the experience of apostasy in the mid-60’s AD (cf. Rev 2:4).  Who better than the ‘beloved disciple’ to teach this large and influential church about love and unity?  The book of Revelation begins with letters to the seven churches, which in one sense function as John’s divine ‘letter of commendation’ to the churches in Asia Minor.  The false teachers addressed in these letters are also Jewish (Rev 2:9; 3:9), known as the ‘Nicolaitans’ (Rev 2:6, 15), and the book anticipates a time of renewed persecution coming on the whole world (Rev 1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9‑11; 7:14; 12:11).  The description of the nation of Israel being taken into exile in ‘the wilderness’ (Rev 12:1‑2, 5‑6, 13‑16) probably describes the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, although the description of the nations trampling the temple in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half years (Rev 11:2‑3, 8 ) may suggest that the book was written very shortly after that destruction.  There is still the very clear understanding that the gospel must be preached to every nation before Jesus’ return (Rev 1:7; 7:9‑10; 10:7; 14:6), but this is seen as imminent (cf. John 21:20‑23).

If Revelation was written in the early 70’s AD, shortly after John was released from imprisonment on Patmos (Rev 1:9), this would explain why the letters to the seven Asian churches do not give the impression that John was very familiar to them.  2 John, which is put after 1 John presumably because of its brevity, makes most sense if it was actually the first letter he sent to the church in Ephesus after writing Revelation.  He writes as ‘the elder’, which makes sense in light of the Ephesians’ wariness of the title ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and is writing from another congregation known to those in Ephesus (2John 1:1, 13), though he doesn’t appear to have a personal connection with his recipients.  He has evidently heard of the faithfulness of some in the congregation who have resisted false teaching (1:4), and he mentions the love that both he and all the churches have for them (1:1), and urges them to remain on their guard against false teachers (1:7‑11).  However, his main reason for writing is to urge them to love each other (1:5‑6), which was the primary accusation against them in Revelation 2:4‑5, and is the only specific detail that John seems to know about the Ephesians apart from their survival through heresy (1:4; cf. Rev 2:2-3, 6).  It is understandable why John would feel it important to try to establish a personal connection with this bruised church after Jesus’ stern warning to them, and so rather than writing a long letter, he tells the church that he has many things to write to them but he would rather come soon and speak with them face to face (2John 1:12).  Unlike the book of Revelation, which he wrote out himself and which therefore is fairly poor Hebraic Greek, he would have used the help of an amanuensis, or professional scribe, to help him craft a letter in good (but simple) Greek for the educated church of Ephesus.

John’s brief introduction letter to the Ephesian church would have been delivered by one of his co-workers to Ephesus, but on his co-worker’s return he would have been made aware of the many problems in the church in much more detail.  It seems that some in Ephesus who had heard John’s brief letter were questioning what right John had to be writing to them, not even knowing them.  As a result, he composed a much more thorough elaboration of his original message to them (e.g. 1John 2:7‑8), which was also a defence of his own authority to give them instruction (1John 1:1‑4), and an explanation of why he was writing to them (1John 2:12‑14, 21, 26‑27; 5:13).  By the time he wrote his third letter perhaps a couple of years later, this time to the elder Gaius (presumably one of the elders of the Ephesian church), he was personally known to many in the church (3John 1:15), and could refer to them as ‘my children’ (3John 1:4).  Presumably he had therefore managed to travel to Ephesus himself in order to meet the church and reinforce the message of love he was writing about (2John 1:12), before returning to his ‘home’ congregation.  Unlike earlier letters, however, 3 John was not written to the whole church of Ephesus but rather to one of its elders, Gaius.  The reason for this is apparently that when John had written another letter to the church (one that has not been preserved), those who returned from delivering it reported to him that although Gaius had received them warmly, the lead elder of Ephesus, Diotrephes, had refused to allow John’s letter to be read out to the gathered church.  As a result, John sent a short letter to Gaius, delivered by Demetrius, in which he is basically warning Diotrephes that he will be returning shortly and will sort him out.  Apparently this did indeed happen, because tradition records that John ended up moving to Ephesus permanently, and lived there to the end of his life around the turn of the second century.

Winds of Doctrine in the Early Church (#1 of 12)

A friend recently mentioned to me his uncertainty about the significance of “fall away from the faith” in 1 Timothy 4:1 for the Christian doctrine of salvation, particularly in light of verses such as Ephesians 2:8 – “by grace you have been saved through faith”.  Is it possible to walk away from one’s salvation?

In response to this, I decided not to jump straight in with the standard verses used to defend the sovereignty of God in salvation, but rather first to consider the meanings of ‘faith’ in 1 and 2 Timothy, and then also what the particular expression of ‘falling away’ was that is mentioned in 1 Timothy.  To do so, I began to explore the evidence for when 1 Timothy was written, what other books were written around the same time, and what ‘winds of doctrine’ were blowing across the church in that particular period.  The study has expanded beyond what I had initially expected, so I have converted it into several blog posts to help others understand what I came to see about Early Church history and theology.

The second post (the first being this introduction) is therefore an analysis of Paul’s conception of ‘faith’ in 1 and 2 Timothy, to better understand how one might be considered to have ‘fallen away’ from it.  The third post looks at the date of 1 Timothy, and gives a brief explanation of the situation in the church in Ephesus into which Paul wrote.  [It will be clear, therefore, that I am assuming Pauline authorship of all the letters attributed to him, though not necessarily of the epistle to the Hebrews.  Only if the picture drawn from such an assumption lacks cohesion or persuasiveness would we possibly be justified in doubting the explicit claims of the texts.  Even then, though, the Christian insistence on truthful communication, and the evident belief of the Early Church that pseudonymous letters were deceptive (1Thes 2:1-3), make it extremely implausible that these letters would have been accepted by the Church if it was known they had not been written by Paul.]

After this I broaden out my scope in the fourth post to consider the primary doctrinal issues in each of the first three decades of the Early Church.  This is followed by the fifth post in which I assemble the various bits of evidence about ‘winds of doctrine’ in the decade of the 60’s AD.  In the sixth post I focus in again on Paul’s opponents in 1 Timothy, in light of the common doctrinal issues witnessed by other books.  This assessment is confirmed by a brief look at the letter to Titus which was written around the same time as 1 Timothy.  The seventh post is a reconstruction of Paul’s fourth missionary journey, after being released from his first imprisonment in Rome.  The eighth post then looks at the background of 2 Timothy, which was written just after the battle against false teaching had been won in Ephesus.  In the ninth post I move on to look at the context of John’s first epistle, which I interpret as having been written to the church in Ephesus shortly after 2 Timothy.  The tenth post then focuses in on the situation in Ephesus as revealed in 1 John.  Having thus finished looking at the historical background behind the ‘falling away’ mentioned in 1 Timothy, I return in the eleventh post to the question of apostasy, focusing especially on the centrality of faith and grace to the Christian message.  Then in the final, twelfth post, I consider the question of permanent apostasy, and whether it is possible to ‘lose one’s salvation’.

I would encourage people to read all the way through the historical background posts (three through ten), because they not only explain the background of 1 Timothy, but also set in context many other books including Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, 1-3 John and Revelation.  Please feel free to make comments – my thought about Early Church history and theology is a work in progress.

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