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’.

August 15, 2009

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Filed under: Exegesis,Theology — alabastertheology @ 12:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The question of suffering is often one of the biggest problems people have with the idea of an all-powerful and all-loving God.  The testimony of Scripture is that when we look at Jesus we see the face of God.  There are few places better for revealing how Jesus regards suffering than the story of Jesus’ love for Lazarus:

An exposition of John 11:1-45

11:1-3        Lazarus was one of Jesus’ close friends – “he whom You love”.  This was not simply a ‘test case’ to make a theological point; it was a person Jesus truly loved.

11:4-6       Jesus knew beforehand what would happen – foreknowledge.
Jesus also decided not to intervene to prevent Lazarus suffering and dying, even though He loved him.  He chose instead to stay two days longer where He was – Jesus intended for Lazarus to suffer and die, even though He did not cause the suffering.  God is sovereign and completely in control, even in our suffering.

11:7-10      Jesus took a personal risk in returning to address this problem of suffering and involve Himself in the pain, but He knew that acting according to the light of God’s revelation would keep Him from stumbling.  Jesus risked everything to sort out suffering.

11:11-16     Jesus viewed death as “sleep” from which He Himself was able to “awaken” someone – a reversible reality.
Jesus chose not to be there when Lazarus died for the sake of His disciples, in order that they “may believe”.  The absence of the healing presence of Jesus in suffering and death provides an opportunity for faith, which requires the absence of sight.

11:17-20    In pain and grief, much as we appreciate the consolation of friends and colleagues, it is appropriate to go out of our way to seek Jesus.

11:21-22    Martha acknowledged that Jesus would have been able to heal her brother, but even though she did not believe he would be raised from death at that time, she was still able to testify that she knew Jesus to be no less able to heal.

11:23-27    Martha declared her belief that all believers will receive new resurrection bodies on the ‘last day’, the Day of Judgement.
Jesus then reminded her that ‘resurrection’ is not just an event, but a life-giving power that belongs uniquely to Himself – Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life, life that is accessed through trust in Him.
‘Living’ refers to eternal resurrection Life, and Jesus assured Martha that (1) death is not the end, but is followed by Life; and (2) for believers, that Life will never end again, even on the ‘last day’.  The resurrection life that Jesus offers us is both certain to follow death, and also everlasting in duration.
Jesus challenged Martha to go beyond believing in Jesus’ ability to minister God’s healing, and beyond believing that there would be a resurrection of the righteous at the end of this age, and to believe that Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life.  She responded with a statement of acknowledgement that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, and the One who has come into the world from God.  It is important to clarify that the Jesus who is resurrection and life is the same one who is the object of orthodox Christianity.

11:28-31    Jesus ministers and calls to each one who grieves.  He doesn’t leave any out.
Jesus had intended to minister to Mary without the involvement of the comforters.  It is important that the mourner has the opportunity to interact with Jesus on a personal level without the constant presence of comforters.  Even so, it is important to accompany those who are grieving, perhaps especially in situations where the reality of the loss will be more in view.

11:32-33    Jesus is deeply moved in spirit and troubled to witness our personal mourning, but also specifically the grieving of friends and acquaintances.  Jesus never treats grief as unimportant, however near or far the griever may be from the situation.

11:34-36    Jesus invites us to return to the memory of the suffering and loss we have experienced, although His question to the mourners did not require them to do any more than give an address for the cemetery.
When the mourners invited Jesus to accompany them as they confronted the reality of the loss, this response moved Jesus Himself to tears.
Jesus also personally shares our suffering and pain and grief, because He loves us.  The ultimate expression of this is when Jesus chose to enter into our pain-filled world and accompany us in our suffering, even to the point of death.  He is not distant.

11:37-38    Even if we see that Jesus truly loves us in our suffering, it does not necessarily remove our question of why it had to happen in the first place, or the doubt about Jesus’ ability to prevent death.
The issue of a loving and powerful God allowing suffering is one that is asked even by those who are not personally involved in the suffering or followers of Jesus, and Jesus makes no attempt to defend Himself in response to this questioning.  We may not get an answer, but will that stop us from inviting Jesus to come with us into the pain?

11:39-41    The only command Jesus gives to mourners is one that provides an opportunity for faith to manifest itself.  By telling them to remove the stone, Jesus was inviting them to open up their wounds again, for Him.  They had to confront the reality of Lazarus’s suffering and death, and their ongoing pain, by opening his grave to see again his body lying there and the smell made by decomposition.  When Martha protested, the reason Jesus gave was that without faith they would not see the glory of God in this situation.

11:41-42    Jesus had already prayed and received the assurance from His Father that Lazarus would be raised to life.  He needed to do nothing else at that time, and His prayer in front of the tomb was just to reinforce to those watching that God was responding to the request of Jesus.  In the same way, when our pain and suffering is opened up to Jesus, there is nothing then that needs to be done except receive the life that Jesus has already been granted by His Father.  He doesn’t need to be persuaded.

11:43-45        Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of Lazarus was accomplished with just a word, and He not only restored the sisters’ joy, but received glory and faith from the crowds who witnessed it.  After this, all that remained was to free what had been tightly bound.  The suffering and death was not made to be as if it hadn’t happened and put back to the way it had been, but rather those involved were changed on the inside by the greater power of joy and life.  God’s plans were not just to deal with death, but to be glorified as our joy is made complete.  When it is, let us not hold on to the grave-cloths of pain and bitterness, but unwrap them to give glory to our Lord of Life.

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