What was the Situation Behind the Letters of John?

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 John Painter suggests that the author’s community was originally made up of two distinct groups: “those who had been through the struggle with the synagogue and those who had entered the community after the breach with Judaism.”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.


7 thoughts on “What was the Situation Behind the Letters of John?

  1. You are preparing a monograph on Ephesians, yes? All these apostolic connections to this early Christian center in the Roman Province of Asia are fascinating. Best wishes on your project.

  2. It is clear from the letters that there were several issues in the church or churches, John was writing to. Personally, in reading 3 John a lot can be seen regarding personal issues the early church faced. Not only does John give names, but he specifies what the offender (Diotrephes) was doing. John clearly respected Gaius, whom the letter is addressed directly, but feared he may fall into the same trap as Diotrephes.
    Jobes suggests that 3 John, which was addressed to Gaius, contained a collection of letters with 2 John and 1 John (Jobes 440). Jobes has the opinion that 2 John was a cover letter or an introduction to 1 John (Jobes 440). Although I agree, I think there is more to the story.
    As we see a disrespectful church leader in 3 John, there are several key points that 2 John shares with 3 and 1 John. 2 John makes a point that there were “many deceivers” in the church he wrote to, although not expressing names, Diotrephes is making a deception of John and likely many of the key teachings of Christ because of it. Also, both letters end on the fact that he did not want to write, but rather talk face to face. These are several reasons who the letters may be connected to the same church. 2 John, in an examination, is focusing on correction. John hits his readers hard with a focus on truth in the first two verses of the letter and makes this the main theme through the duration of his letter. This letter also does not have a proper ending, similar to other Jewish Christian literature, showing that it was likely leading into something else, being 1 John. There are also several references to John’s readers being “children” in 1 John and 2 John, specifically in the context of knowing and understanding truth (1 John 3:7; 2 John 4).
    Overall, John is very clear as to the struggles of the church he writes to – they are failing to maintain the truth of the Gospel in the church. This failure leads to harsh correction by John that led to his letters being widely circulated and respected by the 2nd and 3rd generation church as guidance of how to not fall into such sins or falsehoods.

  3. It is my belief that 1 John addresses Gnosticism more directly than any other heresy. The teaching of Gnosticism believes that Jesus didn’t actually come in the flesh since the flesh is inherently evil, and Jesus is without sin he couldn’t have then come in the flesh. Gnosticism comes from the greek word gnosis which means knowledge and this sect believed they had the secret knowledge about Jesus. In the first chapter, John argues strongly that Jesus did in fact come in the flesh and live a human life on the earth and that John heard him, saw him, and even touched him ( 1 John 1:1-4). While docetism is a close second that also believes Jesus didn’t come in the flesh but only seemed to (comes from the greek word meaning to seem/think) or only appeared to, but that it wasn’t real. Yet Gnosticism was a much more popular heresy during these times and was more widespread. Therefore I believe that John was addressing this more than docetism, yet by addressing one, he also has addressed the other.

  4. John wrote this epistle to Christian living in a godless and sexually perverse world. John primary concern in this letter is authentic Christianity. He reminds us of the three aspects of our faith that make the Christian life vital and effective: truth, righteousness and love. These three aspects are what he focuses on in 1 John 2:18-4:21.

    False spiritual teachers were a big problem in the early church. Because there were not a compere New Testament that believers could refer to, many churches fell prey to pretenders who taught their own ideas and advanced themselves as leaders. John wrote this letter to set the record straight on some important issues, particularly concerning the identity of Jesus Christ.

    John did not write this letter to refute those who were bent on stamping out Christianity. He was warning against a more subtle twisted and distorted Jesus’s teaching so that their image of Jesus fit their gnostic beliefs.

    The first epistle indicates that the readers were confronted with the error of Gnosticism, which became a more serious problem in the second century. Because John’s letter was about the basics of faith in Christ, it helped his readers reflect honestly on their faith. John told them that they could tell by looking their actions. If they loved one another, that was evidence of God’s presence in their lives. But if they fought all the time or were selfish and did not look out for one another, they were betraying that they, in fact, did not know God.

    We do have also to worry idols today. We also easily give our devotion to things that are lower than God. Idolatry means loving anything more than God. The danger of idolatry is no less real for us today than it was for Christian in the first century. We need to apply the truth to our lives and live as if Jesus were standing right next to us every second of the day. If we put this truth into practice, Christ will add holiness to our lives, making us more and more like him.

  5. How does the church combat these “wolves in sheep’s clothing”? This threat was not an external entity rather a hidden one emerging form within the church. What can we do if the enemy is Among Us? The best way to sus out these imposters is to learn to recognize them for what they are. The imposter is selfish, they do not love the other believers and participate in self-indulgent sins. The imposter claims to have spiritual authority but the spirit they claim to have is not of God. Just as Christians ought to be a light to the world, they must also shine among one another in order to recognize the darkness in their midst.

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