When Paul left Ephesus in the late 50s he warned the elders in Ephesus to beware wolves in sheep’s clothing who would infiltrate their congregations (Acts 20:25-31). In his final speech to the Ephesian leaders in Acts 20 Paul says some elders will “distort the truth to draw away disciples for themselves” (v. 30). This situation grew worse, so that Paul needed to warn Timothy to appoint good people to lead the churches (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and to watch for disruptive teachers (4:15).
By the 90s the church at Ephesus continued to struggle with some defection from the gospel. In the letter to the church in Revelation 2:1-7, the Lord praises them for testing false teachers and not tolerating people who claim to be apostles but are not (2:2). But they are also described as having “forsaken their first love” (Rev 2:4).
John writes his first letter in response to a recent schism in the Ephesian church, possibly caused by the publication of the Gospel of John. These opponents continued to influence the apostolic congregations, causing them to doubt the apostolic authority of the author of the letter and making the congregation doubt they are believing he right things about Jesus. What can we know about these opponents?
What is the relationship between John’s community and the opponents who left? “The Christology of the antichrists in the Johannine epistles also can no longer be described with certainty or precision. But it is one example of that pseudo-Christian tendency which manifested itself in Gnosticism and was such a threat to the church” (Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 23). John Painter suggests that the author’s community was originally made up of two distinct groups: “those who had been through the struggle with the synagogue and those who had entered the community after the breach with Judaism.” (Painter, “The ‘Opponents’ in 1 John,” NTS 32 (1986): 48–49). Stephen Smalley suggested three groups, one loyal to John, one that was with John during his struggle with the synagogue, and a third group that joined after that struggle. The second group developed into the Ebonites, the third was more Hellenistic and developed into Docetism (Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John; WBC 51, xxiii-xxv).
Several observations are not controversial.
First, the opponents taught something about Jesus the author considers to be both wrong and dangerous (2:18-22; 4:1-6). He describes their teaching as the teaching of the apocalyptic antichrist and sign the “last hour” is near.
Second, they seem to have claimed to no longer sin, or at least what they did no longer counted as sin (1:8). It is impossible to know exactly how this was expressed since we do not have a letter from the opponents. I will suggest later in this series of posts on 1 John the opponents may have claimed some form of Imperial worship could be permissible, possibly accounting for the unusual final line of the book encouraging the reader to keep themselves from idols.
Third, they do not show appropriate love to their fellow Christian brothers and sisters (4:7-8). For John, someone who claims to be a Christian and does not love their brothers and sisters is a liar and the truth is not in them.
Fourth, they claim to be empowered by the Spirit, perhaps asserting this was superior to the author’s eyewitness testimony about Jesus. This is implied by the opening paragraph which emphasizes the author’s status as an eyewitness of Jesus as well as John’s command to “test the spirits” (4:1).
As Colin Kruse states, “the author’s primary aim in writing 1 John was to reassure his readers, whose confidence had been shaken by the activities of the secessionists” (The Letters of John, 33).
Following Karen Jobes’s recent commentary, First John was a sermon in John’s home church, dealing with the recent schism. This sermon was transcribed and edited, and then circulated to other house churches in Ephesus and the surrounding region. This is similar to the book of Revelation, seven mini-letters are appended to the book to churches in the Lycus Valley beginning with Ephesus.
Second John may have been a cover letter to churches where 1 John would be read. A representative from John’s house church would visit another house church, read the letter from the elder John, and help them understand how to deal with those who left the apostle’s churches.Third John is addressed to Gaius, a house church leader a supporter of John, to warn him about another church leader who is not a supporter of John.
Since these letters are so brief, any suggested background ought to be considered tentative.