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’.

Paul’s Opponents in 1 Timothy and Titus (Winds of Doctrine #6)

In light of this wider context of ‘winds of doctrine’ in the 60’s AD, we can turn to 1 Timothy and consider the particular problems that were facing the church in Ephesus, just three or four years after Paul had written the letter of Ephesians to them.  As mentioned above, the church had problems with disrespect of authority (1Tim 1:9; 2:1‑15; 4:12; 6:1‑2; cf. 2Pet 2:10‑11; Jude 1:8‑10), perhaps particularly against the emperor (1:17; 2:2; 4:10; 6:13‑16), and also with having too many widows to support (5:3‑16).  However, their primary problem was that some of their elders and teachers had to be removed from office for false teaching and ungodly living, explaining why Timothy had to appoint new elders and deacons in Paul’s absence (3:1‑15; 5:17‑22).  Paul actually says a lot about the particular problems with these leaders:

To start with, it appears that they were Jewish (cf. ‘Alexander’ in 1:20 with Acts 19:33‑34) – they were particularly interested in ‘myths and endless genealogies’ and ‘worldly fables’, wanting to be teachers of the Mosaic Law, forbidding marriage (probably between Jews and non-Jews) and abstaining from certain foods (1:3‑7; 4:3, 7).  Their way of establishing doctrine was through ‘speculation’, ‘fruitless discussion’, ‘worldly empty chatter’, ‘the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”’, ‘controversial questions and disputes about words’ (1:4, 6; 6:4, 20), all of which were characteristic of Jewish religious education.  Evidently they based their teaching on the Law, but in a way Paul described as ‘unlawful’ (1:7‑10), that is, failing to recognise its primary purpose to convict Israel of sin.  Judaism of the first century AD had a wide variety of popular religious writings, generally referred to as ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘pseudepigrapha’, for which ‘myths’, ‘fables’, ‘speculation’ and ‘endless genealogies’ would all be appropriate designations.  One of the most popular was the book of 1 Enoch, which Jude quotes in 1:14‑15 to convict his opponents who valued it, much as Paul quoted the Stoic poet Aratus and the Cretan poet Epimenides to the Athenians (Acts 17:28; also Tit 1:12).

The false teachers in Ephesus are also accused of maintaining their controversy-based teaching methods out of conceit (at being teachers?), and treating religion, or godliness, as a way of making money (1Tim 6:3‑5; cf. 1Pet 5:2).  This may connect with the greed of those condemned by Peter and Jude as ‘rushing headlong into the error of Balaam’ (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11), apparently referring to those who like Balaam were prepared to speculate and teach on any popular subject of the day in order to accumulate wealth.  This was perhaps the first century equivalent of the ‘prosperity gospel’ in our day.  The letter of James to the Jewish believers throughout the Roman empire has a similar message about greed.  He calls on believers to endure the present persecution (Jas 1:2‑4, 12‑13; 5:7‑11), picked up and expanded upon in Peter’s first epistle (cf. 1Pet 1:6‑8; 4:2, 7‑8; 5:8‑9), but has to rebuke his hearers for worldly wisdom (Jas 1:19‑26; 3:1–4:1) which is evidently associated with riches and bringing disunity into the church (1:9‑11; 1:27–2:17; 4:1–5:6).  Some of the false teachers Paul attacks in Ephesus had also already fallen into the immorality of lifestyle condemned by Peter and Jude (1Tim 1:9‑10, 19; 4:2; 5:19‑20), although Paul reminded Timothy that the false doctrine of others would sooner or later manifest itself in sinful deeds (5:24‑25).

However, the primary problem, for which Hymenaeus and Alexander had been excluded from fellowship, was deliberate ‘blasphemy’ (1:20).  Blasphemy is slander or disrespectful speech about God, and in this case it is most likely that this refers to their teachings about Jesus, because Paul himself admits he too was formerly a blasphemer (1:13).  It is worth considering what Paul says about Jesus, therefore, to see whether we can discern behind his statements what the false teachers were saying.  In 2:5, Paul clearly states the central doctrine of Judaism – “there is one God” (cf. Deut 6:4; John 10:30‑33) – but then with the same breath states the equivalent about Jesus – “one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.  Judaism of the first century AD gave a prominent mediatory role to angels (cf. Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:1‑4), but in this verse Paul not only reaffirms Jesus’ full humanity, but his exaltation comparable to God Himself, such that denial of Jesus’ unique status as mediator is equally blasphemy.  Paul later quotes a well-known early Christian creed about both the humanity and the exaltation of Jesus (3:16), just as he had done in the letter to the Philippians a few years earlier (Php 2:6‑11).  The false doctrine being taught was contrary to the sound words about [or ‘of’] the Lord Jesus Christ, and it would also lead its hearers away from godliness (6:3).  We will find below that John’s first epistle to the Ephesians, probably just a few years after Paul was arrested and taken back to Rome, would have to deal with the consequences of both the doctrinal and moral failure of false teachers on those who remained in the church after their departure.

The Situation in Crete (Titus)

The letter Paul wrote to Titus also appears to have been written around the same time as his first letter to Timothy, because here also he has not yet been arrested for the second time.  The ‘wind of doctrine’ Titus has to address in his teaching is almost exactly the same as Timothy is encountering in Ephesus.  Here it is explicit that the false teachers are mostly Jewish (1:10), characteristically rebellious (1:10; 2:5, 9, 15; 3:1‑3) and greedy for money (1:11), particularly interested in Jewish myths and commandments of the Law (1:14), and advocating doctrine that defiles the mind and leads to a defiled moral conscience as well (1:15‑16; 2:12‑14; 3:3, 8).  Their methods of education involve ‘empty talk’, ‘foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law’, and controversy-based teaching methods (1:10; 3:9, 10‑11).  The ‘testimony’ of God that was manifested ‘at the proper times’ in both Jesus’ first coming and His sure return in glory (1Tim 2:6; 6:14‑15; cf. 1:1), is once again central to Paul’s letter to Titus (1:2‑3; 2:11‑13; 3:4‑7), probably consciously in opposition to the ‘mocking’ teaching of those times that Peter and Jude speak against (2Pet 3:1‑13; Jude 1:14‑18, 21).

Winds of Doctrine in the 60’s AD (Winds of Doctrine #5)

We find evidence of these particular false teachings in Paul’s ‘prison epistles’, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians (all evidently written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around AD62), as well as in the epistle to the Hebrews (probably written to believers in Israel in the mid-60’s), the epistle of Jude and second epistle of Peter (written in the mid-60’s also), and here in 1 Timothy.  Philippi is the farthest of these churches from Israel, and unlike Ephesus, had very little Jewish influence (there was no synagogue building when Paul first arrived – Acts 16:13).  However Paul specifically warned the Philippians against Jewish false teachers, quite possibly claiming to be believers, who continued to boast in their Jewishness and obedience to the Law (Php 1:27-30; 3:2‑9) [though there is no evidence that they were still trying to argue that Gentiles needed to be circumcised, as in Galatia 15 years earlier].  Colossians also seems to reveal a pressure against the church from a Jewish direction, because Paul specifically highlights that he only has three fellow workers in his Gentile mission who have a Jewish background (Col 4:10-11), and also rebukes the church in Colossae for accepting Jewish teachings about festivals and Sabbaths, visions of angels, and commandments about abstaining (Col 2:16‑23).  The Colossian church was in danger of being ‘taken captive’ through philosophy and human traditions (2:8), being told they were ‘incomplete’, ‘indebted’ to obey the decrees of the Mosaic Law, and ‘inferior’ to the angelic authorities (2:9‑10; 2:13‑14; 1:16‑17 & 2:15, 18; 3:1‑4).  It seems similar issues are being addressed in Ephesians also (1:20‑23; 2:6, 14‑16; 3:10).

Similarly in 2 Peter, false teachers are introducing destructive heresies by unSpiritual interpretations of Scripture (2Pet 1:20–2:1).  They appear to be people from within the church who have adopted these winds of doctrine (2Pet 2:20‑22; Jude 1:4, 12, 22‑23; cf. Eph 4:14), and are unhealthily fixated on angelic beings (2Pet 2:4, 10‑12; Jude 1:6, 8‑10).  Unlike in Colossae, where the Law of Moses was being used to try to restrain fleshly indulgence (Col 2:23), in the epistles of Peter and Jude it seems that the apostasising believers were actually advocating immoral licentiousness in the name of ‘grace’, hence the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (2Pet 1:4, 9; 2:2, 6‑10, 13‑14, 18‑19; 3:3; Jude 1:4, 7, 18).

There is evidently also a specific claim made by these false teachers that there will be no coming judgement on the Jewish nation, despite Jesus’ clear warnings about this (e.g. Luke 21:12‑24).  The common misunderstanding of the Early Church that Jesus’ coming would coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation (e.g. Matt 24:2‑3; see my post on Luke’s clarification of Matthew) would explain why Peter and Jude both emphasise imminent judgement as well as the soon return of Jesus (2Pet 2:4, 5, 6, 9; 3:2‑13; Jude 1:5, 6, 7, 14‑15, 21).  In the last decade of the Jewish nation before its destruction in AD70, nationalistic fervour was on the rise among Jews everywhere, believing that this was the time when they would throw off Roman oppression and regain their territory and independence.  Hebrews was written specifically to Jewish believers who seem to have forgotten their initial willingness to surrender their own lands trusting in an inheritance after Jesus’ return (Heb 3:7–4:11; 10:32–11:16; see my post on Hebrews).  The call to all Jews across the Roman empire, and particularly in Israel, was [as it is in our generation also] that if all Jews return to the Law of Moses and temple worship, Messiah will come and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  The pressure was clearly on Jewish believers in Jesus also, to return to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system, and the writer to the Hebrews warns them not to turn away from the greater reality of Messiah’s priesthood and sacrifice (Heb 2:17–3:1; 4:14–5:10; 6:20–10:22; 13:10‑16), nor to ignore the coming ‘shaking’ (Heb 10:26‑27; 12:16‑29).  In Gentile areas, this fervour about an imminent coming age of peace and prosperity would probably have led certain groups of Jewish Christians, who knew the prophets’ words about all nations coming to worship the God of Israel, to twist the message of grace into a license for continued indulgence (Jude 1:4), because Gentiles had no need to obey the Jewish Law – what better way to ‘convert’ the Gentiles to follow the Jewish Messiah (2Pet 2:18‑20; Php 3:18‑20).  The prophets also spoke of Israel receiving the wealth of the nations, which may be reflected in the greedy motivation of Jewish Christian false teachers apparently teaching whatever people wanted to hear in order to be paid more (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11; cf. 2Tim 4:3‑4).

Perhaps the biggest doctrinal problem of this decade, though, involved the identity and nature of Jesus.  Hebrews 1 and 2 give clear evidence that many Jewish believers had come to view Jesus not as simply a holy man, nor as the unique Son of God, but as a sort of hybrid or intermediate angelic being – most likely as the ‘Angel of the Lord’ who acts and speaks as God Himself in many passage of the Old Testament (see Jude 1:5 with the best reading ‘Jesus’, compared with Exod 13:18, 21; 14:19‑20, 24‑30; 23:20‑23; 24:9‑11; 32:34–33:3; Num 14:14‑15, 20‑23, 35).  Although it is probably correct that the ‘Angel of the Lord’ was indeed Jesus in His pre-incarnate form (cf. Acts 7:35‑40), the writer to the Hebrews has to address misconceptions that follow from this, particularly equating Jesus with other angelic powers, and failing to recognise that this ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’ is in fact the divine Son of God Himself.  Paul similarly had to emphasise the exaltation of Jesus over all angelic powers in his letters written around the same time (e.g. Eph 1:20‑22; 3:9‑12; 4:10; Col 1:15‑20; 2:2‑4, 9‑10, 15; Php 2:6‑11; 3:20‑21).  Peter emphasised Jesus’ divine humanity (2Pet 1:16‑19; 2:1), and Jude similarly accuses the Jewish Christian false teachers of ‘denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 1:4‑6).  He chooses to quote from the book of 1 Enoch, a favourite (non-canonical) text of these false teachers, in order to turn it against them by making them the ‘ungodly’ who will be judged by Jesus Himself, ‘the Lord’ who is returning with His holy ten thousands.  [This explains why Jude would quote from 1 Enoch – he is not affirming its authority, but using it rhetorically against those who do.]

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