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’.

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.]

Blog at WordPress.com.