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’.

Background of 2 Timothy (Winds of Doctrine #8)

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By the time of writing his second letter to Timothy, it might have appeared that Paul’s authority over the church in Ephesus had been weakened through church leaders in the province abandoning him to his fate, even if they had not also abandoned his gospel (2Tim 1:15).  Their fear of suffering was probably quite justified, as Nero had started an intense persecution against Christians in AD64 and before his own death in AD68 had executed both Peter and Paul in Rome along with many other believers.  Paul’s denunciation of the heresy of Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander had apparently added to his suffering at the hands of the authorities (2Tim 2:8‑9, 17‑18; 4:14‑15), yet he stood firm in his fearless proclamation to strengthen those whose faith had been shaken by both heresy and persecution (2Tim 2:10, 18; 4:17).  Unlike other leaders, Timothy had been unashamed to be known as Paul’s co-worker, and having survived opposition in Ephesus, Paul was now urging him to go one step further and share in his suffering by joining him in Rome (2Tim 1:8, 12, 15‑16).  Had heresy still been a threat to the church, Paul would not have risked calling for Timothy, but clearly the foundation Paul had laid in the Ephesian church had managed to weather the storm of false teaching (2Tim 2:19).  This church itself was the precious treasure Paul had entrusted to Jesus to preserve blameless until His coming (2Tim 1:12; cf. 1Thes 2:19‑20; 3:13; 1Cor 1:7‑9; Php 1:6), and also entrusted to Timothy (2Tim 1:14), and his trust had not been disappointed (2Tim 2:19).

Even so, the clean-up operation was not over.  The false teachers had been routed, but remaining disputes within the church over words and speculations had to be corrected by Timothy without resorting to the quarrelling approach of the false teachers (2Tim 2:14, 16, 23‑24).  They were still in the area (cf. 1John 2:19; 4:5-6; 2John 1:10-11), and permitting ‘worldly, empty chatter’ might encourage their teaching to spread like gangrene, requiring further amputation (2Tim 2:17).  Just as in his first letter (1Tim 5:20, 24‑25), Paul views immoral living as evidence of doctrinal error, which is why leaders with such problems had to be removed from authority.  Church members, though, who remained in the congregation despite moral failure and doctrinal issues, were instead called upon to repent and so be cleansed and restored like polluted but precious vessels (2Tim 2:19‑22), which was ultimately Paul’s intention in excommunication also (1Tim 1:20; 1Cor 5:5; 2Cor 2:5‑11).  Timothy was told that loving admonition would hopefully bring church members who still opposed him to repentance and thence to knowledge of the truth (2Tim 2:25‑26).

At this point, Paul turns from the situation addressed in 1 Timothy, which was now on the mend, and warns Timothy that this would not be the last battle he or the church would have to face.  Paul was soon to ‘depart’, having ‘fought the good fight’, but corruption and apostasy would again be seen in the Church before Jesus’ return.  No specific heresy is identified prophetically, beyond ‘evil men and imposters… deceiving and being deceived’.  Instead, Paul focuses on the moral destitution and powerlessness that would clearly reveal the unbelief and folly of those deceiving the immature with clever words and apparent learning (2Tim 3:1‑7).  This is a well-established method of uncovering heresy, going all the way back to Moses who had in this way shamed the Egyptian magicians who opposed him (2Tim 3:7‑9).  There is no point seeking out heresy, however.  Churchgoers will often turn away from sound doctrine, preferring myths and finding teachers who will ‘tickle their ears’ (2Tim 3:13; 4:3‑4).  The only thing that can adequately equip the church leader for his task is what Paul ‘solemnly charges’ Timothy to do – knowing, obeying and preaching the inspired Scripture (2Tim 3:10‑12; 3:14–4:2; cf. 1:13; 2:1‑3).

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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