James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

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.

Primary Doctrinal Issues of the First Three Decades (Winds of Doctrine #4)

False teachings had been making the rounds in the Christian churches in the early- to mid-60’s AD, but these were of a different sort from those in earlier decades.  When Paul wrote to the south Galatian churches (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe) around AD48, the primary heresy he had to address was the insistence of Jewish followers of Jesus that Gentiles turning to the Messiah had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law (Gal 6:12‑15).  Just weeks or months after dashing off this epistle to the Galatians, the Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Gentiles did not need to become Jewish to follow the Jewish Messiah (Acts 15).  Once the Council’s official letter began to be circulated, the door was now wide open to Gentile conversion.  [See my post on Galatians and Acts for a defence of this scenario.]

Only a year later, however, in AD49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome over disputes about the Messiah (evidently the gospel had arrived!), which eventually resulted in the next big doctrinal issue Paul had to address – the place of Israel.  Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish couple from Rome who chose to settle in Corinth, may have already been believers when they met Paul there on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-4).  When Paul left Corinth after eighteen months, around AD51, they went with him as far as Ephesus.  Although Paul continued on to Antioch, they chose to settle in the Jewish community in Ephesus, and were thus ready to teach Apollos when he arrived there soon afterwards (Acts 18:18‑28).  At the start of Paul’s third missionary journey he spent two years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19), and during this time, around AD54, he wrote to the church in Corinth, mentioning Aquila and Prisca’s house church to them (1Cor 16:19).  Resurrection was clearly a problem subject for several churches planted during the second missionary journey (e.g. Thessalonica – 1Thes 4:13–5:11; 2Thes 2:1‑15; Corinth ­– 1Cor 15), but this doesn’t seem to have been due to ‘winds of false teaching’ so much as localised misunderstandings.

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians from Macedonia about a year after his first letter (see 1Cor 16:8‑9; 2Cor 1:8‑11, 15‑23; 2:12‑14; 7:5‑7; 8:1‑6; 9:1‑5), but by this stage Priscilla and Aquila had probably already returned to Rome from Ephesus; Jews were now being allowed back, and when Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth just a few months after writing 2 Corinthians, his friends were already leading another house church there.  Naturally, Jewish believers returning to Rome would expect to pick up where they had left off, as qualified teachers of the Jewish scriptures in the believing congregations.  However, the Gentiles were now confident in their access to grace by faith without any need for the detailed cultural regulations of the Jewish Law, and looked down on Jewish believers for their ‘weak faith’ that prevented them eating meat from the markets.  When Paul arrived in Corinth as planned around AD57 (Acts 20:2‑3), he heard news of the Jewish / Gentile divisions in Rome, perhaps in a letter from Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3‑5).  Although he had often wanted to travel to Rome, he could not travel there himself quite yet, because he had a responsibility first to deliver the financial Collection from the Gentile churches to the church in Jerusalem (Rom 15:22‑32; Acts 20:4, 16).  Instead, he decided to write an extended letter to the Roman church, setting out clearly why neither Jew nor Gentile could claim moral superiority, even though the gospel was still ‘to the Jew first’ and Israel still had a crucial place in God’s future purposes [see my two posts on Romans 1-8 and 9-11].  Because of the five years of Jewish absence, Rome had been ahead of its time in having to deal with issues raised by being a ‘Gentile majority’ church, even though it had been less than ten years since Paul had addressed the ‘Jewish majority’ issues of the Galatian churches.

The 30’s had dealt with the question of ‘Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?’, the 40’s resolved the problem of ‘Do Gentiles need to become Jewish to be saved?’, the 50’s asked the question, ‘What value is there in being Jewish at all?’, but the 60’s would return to questions of Jesus’ identity and nature.  By this stage, the Jewish churches were less in touch with those who had known Jesus personally, who by now were taking the gospel to distant corners of the world, and Christian thinkers were beginning to engage more with the Jewish apocalyptic philosophy and revolutionary ideology prominent in the final decade before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, to which we turn in the next post.

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