Thomas Andrew Bennett, 1-3 John (THNTC)

Bennett, Thomas Andrew. 1-3 John. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 225 pp. Pb; $29.00.   Link to Eerdmans

Bennett is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he completed his PhD in Theology with a Minor in New Testament (2015). He previously published Labor of God: A Theology of Atonement (Baylor, 2017, reviewed here by Lindsay Kennedy).

Bennett 1-3 JohnIn the brief introduction, Bennett states we can know nothing about the authorship, date, or historical circumstances for 1-3 John. All we have are “intimations and whispers” about what might have been the circumstances in which 1-3 John were written. He therefore does not engage in any reconstruction of a Johannine Community or complicated theories of how these letters are related to the Gospel of John (or Revelation). Anything said of the historical circumstances lurking behind the text is aimed at “clearing the way for a theological engagement that nourishes Christians” (3). These brief letters still speak to us because we belong to the same church.

Nevertheless, Bennett thinks it is likely the author of these letters knew and followed Jesus, he assumes all three letters were written by the author of the Gospel of John (and maybe Revelation), although that does not matter for the theological reading found in this commentary. Not does Bennett find any specific heresy in the first letter beyond the simple denial of the son (1 John 2:22 5:12-13), nor do the letters address a clear, concrete, discernable group of Christians. “Once we have done away with the notion of a ‘Johannine Community’ we have radically democratized. The audience of the Johannine writings…casting a wider net so that these letters are written for all Christians” (8).

Following Richard Bauckham, Bennett suggests the Gospel of John was a trustworthy biography of an important person, written by an eyewitness, and at least partially written to those who do not believe. First John shares that audience, people who are “community-less, joyless and eternal life-less” (10). So perhaps we are reading letters written from the area of Ephesus in the years 80-90 CE (when and where John the Apostle traditionally lived), but does that really matter for doing a theological reading of the letters of John? Sometimes it does, as demonstrated by Bennett’s discussion of John’s ethics. In a section drawing a contrast between his view and Robert Yarborough’s recent commentary, Bennett suggests the difference is “interpretive fallout of rejecting historical speculation about circumstances… of an identifiable Johannine community” (202, note 80).

The body of the commentary follows typical units for the letters of John with no separate introductions for the second and third letter (although some introduction-like material appears in the commentary on the first verses of each letter). Bennett provides his own translation of the text, followed by an exposition of the text. Sometimes his translations are striking. For 1 John 2:16, he renders ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς as “the things the body craves: rather than the traditional “lust of the flesh” and ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν as “the things eyes long to see” rather than the traditional “lust of the eyes” and ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου as “overconfidence in what we have” rather than the traditional “pride of life.” He relates these phrases to Wisdom literature, going beyond the implication of sexual sins. “Overconfidence in what we have is not just a sin, it is a slippery slope that ends in heresy (47)

Greek appears along with transliteration, although Bennett’s comments are not overly concerned with syntactical issues and there are no notes on textual issues in the commentary (except for a note on 1 John 5:7-8). The translation shows that Bennett has worked over the difficult Greek syntactical issues. Frequently, he explains why he has translated a particular Greek construction as he has even if he does not reference exegetical grammars to support his decisions. Occasional footnotes point to secondary literature and contemporary commentaries when necessary. Bennett also refers to ancient voices, although less often than expected in a commentary doing theological interpretation. The result is a clear exposition of the text in readable prose with a theological edge. Sections do not conclude with a paragraph of theological insights; Bennett works his insights into his exposition throughout the commentary.

The Two Horizons Commentary series usually divides the content into two sections: exposition and theological horizons. In this commentary, the commentary on 1-3 John runs about 114 pages, the theological section 82 pages. Bennett divides his theological comments into eight broad categories. The first four deal with the Godhead (The Trinity; Christology; God and Creation; God’s Character). Bennett argues “unqualified monotheism of the Jewish and Muslim varieties cannot say ‘God is love’ truly; Johannine Christianity can and does” (135). He believes the incipient Trinitarianism of the letters of John make clear self-love is not the right kind of love, since love must go outside of itself: The Father demonstrates his love by sending his son.

For Bennett, a reader cannot rightly understand the Johannine Literature without a strong theological reckoning of Christ and the church as eschatological fulfillments of Temple Worship (135-36). This takes into account a hot topic in Johannine studies, the idea of Temple as Jesus’s body (for example Paul, Hoskins, Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Temple in the Gospel of John, W&S, 2007). Since sins are forgiven in Jesus’s name (1 John 2:1-2), 1 John and Hebrews are not far apart.

With respect to Election and Eschatology, John has a relentless emphasis on transformation (171). “We will be like him” in 1 John 3:2-3, and everyone who has this hope in him “purifies himself because he is pure.” but what does that mean? Bennett thinks this opens the door for a Protestant theology of purgatory. Believers are going to be conformed to Christ. For some, this process might be easy, for others (most) it will be difficult (painful, shameful). This is the “inner core” of purgatory, although the mechanics of this purgatorial transformation are not clear (in 1 John or elsewhere). Bennett turns to a philosophy of time to explain that believers will experience an instantaneous (from God’s perspective) purging of sin, although this purging might have a long-lasting subjective experience (from the believer’s perspective). This view has immediate theological implications for 1 John 3:4-10, a passage which seems in tension with Hebrews 6:4-6. John seems to say believers cannot sin-unto-death, while Hebrews say believers can sin and fall away, never to be restored. “If Protestantism develops a robust view of purgatory the perhaps this tension can be laid to rest” (178).

Perhaps that is true, but there are other ways to understand 1 John 3:3 which do not point towards a postmortem purification. The purification in 1 John 3:3 is in this life. The one who is in him “purifies themselves” (not, will be purified by God in the future). Purification (ἁγνίζω) refers to a ritual which makes someone “acceptable for cultic use” (BDAG 1). The background is more likely something like John 11:55, the Judeans purified themselves before Passover. The next paragraph concerns practicing sin in this life, not a purging of sin after death. This purification is part of John’s intensely practical ethics.

Regarding the church, the letters of John think of the church as a Spirit-filled Temple, different from Paul’s Body of Christ yet compatible, “arguably more Trinitarian” (192). Like Paul, John sees the church as a family. “John relentlessly uses family language” but without the apparent misogyny of Paul’s letters (197). This leads to an exegetical discussion of the addressee of the second letter, “the elect lady and her children.” Commentaries on 2 John usually interpret “the elect lady” as a metaphor for a local church (ἐκκλησία is a feminine noun) and her children are the members of that community. Bennett argues the elect lady is the patroness of a local church and would have been well known to the readers, like the Elder or the Beloved disciple (109). When John addresses the church, he does not usually use a metaphor, and he does not seem to be in the habit of addressing the church in feminine language. Bennett observes the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 do not use feminine metaphors.

John’s ethics are simple: if you are in him, walk like him. There are no household codes (like Paul and Peter) nor does John re-apply the Torah (like the Sermon on the Mount). Nor are there any extended sin lists found in the Pauline letters. The only specific ethical issue in the letters of John is tis extending hospitality to traveling teachers (and the dangers of refusing hospitality) in 3 John.

Conclusion. Bennett’s commentary on 1-3 John is a theologically challenging commentary with a clear pastoral heart. He is interested in shedding light on these deceptively simple letters and drawing the out implications for being “in him” in modern church life. Although some readers will miss the extended speculations about John’s community, Bennett’s exposition of these letters is an exemplary model of theological interpretation of Scripture and will benefit more readers to understand John’s message as they teach and preach these letters.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Reviews of other commentaries in this series:

 

Published on May 22, 2021 on Reading Acts.

Main Themes of Third John

Third John is the shortest letter in the New Testament, at only thirteen verses and a little over three hundred words. By way of comparison, the letter to Thyatira in Revelation 2:18-28 is 297 words. This letter is also the last of the documents included in the New Testament canon.

Since the letter discusses how to treat traveling evangelists, it is difficult to find any real theology in the letter. It does not deal with the same theological problems and the first two Letters of John. Although Diotrephes may be one of “those who have gone out from us,” that is not the reason the Elder condemns him in verses 9-11. It appears Diotrephes refused to give hospitality to one of the elder’s traveling teachers (probably Demetrius) and has slandered the Elder. The elder therefore warns Gaius to not “be like Diotrephes” and continue to welcome the traveling teachers, starting with Demetrius (who may be carrying this letter).

In fact, this letter follows the style of a Hellenistic letter of recommendation (systatikai epistolai; Parsenios, First, Second and third John, 148). For example, Saul obtained letters of recommendation from the high priest to the synagogue leaders in Damascus (Acts 9:1-2) and Apollos carried a letter from Christians in Ephesus to the churches in Achaia (Acts 18:27).

It is not hard to imagine Demetrius arriving at Gaius’s home and presenting him this short note which praises him for his reputation for hospitality and encourages him avoid being like that rascal Diotrephes and accept Demetrius into his home, supply his needs and send him on his way with supplies for the road.

That is the “plot” of the letter. Although there is no great theological contribution to be found here, 2 John does give us an insight into the way early house churches functioned.

First, the letter of 3 John praises Gaius because he has offered hospitality to strangers (3 John 2-8).  Similar to Second John, the Elder opens the letter as most Greco-Roman letters open, with a prayer and a wish for good health (2-4). The elder prays for Gaius and reports that some brothers have given testimony both Gaius and his house church are “walking in the truth.”

In verse 8 Gaius is called a “co-worker in the truth.” This is an important hint that Gaius is in agreement with the theological perspective of 1-2 John, that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, and was truly God in the flesh.  Although 3 John has little theology, it assumes the same truth as the first two letters and the Gospel of John.

Gaius should send the travelling teachers on their way in a manner that honors God (6b-7). To “send them on their way” refers to providing a traveler “with food, money, by arranging for companions, means of travel, etc.” (BDAG). In Acts 15:1-3 the church at Antioch “sent Barnabas and Saul on their way.” This means the church gave them the supplies they needed to travel to Cyprus (food, money for passage on a ship, perhaps letters of introduction to the synagogues there, etc.)

Second, 3 John concerns showing hospitality honors traveling teachers (3 John 8). The verb translated “support” (ὑπολαμβάνω) refers to receiving someone as a guest, to care and feed them, or even protect them (BrillDAG). We tend to think of support as sending money off to an agency to support a missionary or ministry; in this case Gaius is providing what the traveling teachers need in order to do the ministry for which they have been appointed.

This kind of hospitality was expensive. The average free person in a larger city struggled to have enough food for themselves and their own family, so to share food with a stranger (even if they are a Christian brother) was difficult. Yet these traveling teachers are worthy of the honor Gaius has shown them. Just as Paul encouraged the churches in Ephesus to take care of full time minsters.

Gaius is a good example of a patron of a local house church caring for the needs of traveling teachers and missionaries sent out by the Elder’s community. The reason the Elder praises Gaius is because not all house church leaders are hospitable toward the missionaries the Elder has sent. By describing this negative example of “what not to do,” the Elder is encouraging Gaius to accept Demetrius, the bearer of this short letter.

Third, the letter condemns Diotrephes because he refused to help the Elder’s representatives (3 John 9-12).  Can we know anything about Ditrephes? Not really, other than the negative things the Elder says about him. Like Gaius, the name is a common Roman name and he too may be a wealthy patron of a local church. “The author of 3 John, however, never charged Diotrephes with heresy. The conflict was over authority in the church instead of theology.

  • He loves to be first. This word (φιλοπρωτεύω) only appears here in the New Testament. It is not necessary a vice since it means “to aspire to excellence, be ambitious” (BrillDAG). But this is the opposite of Jesus’s own example when he demonstrated his humility by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13). John 13:16 where Jesus says no servant is greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him.
  • He does not acknowledge the authority of the Elder. The verb (ἐπιδέχομαι) simply means “receive, welcome” (BDAG) and does not necessarily mean he refused the authority of the Elder. There is significant variation in the English translations for this word in verse 9.
  • He was spreading malicious nonsense about the Elder. Talking nonsense (φλυαρέω) is a word only found here in the New Testament, “to utter foolishness, joke, gossip, to play the fool” (BrillDAG). Although the word can have the sense of “pulling someone’s leg” on rare occasions, it has the connotation of spreading lies and rumors in order to damage someone’s reputation.
  • Refuses the traveling teachers sent by the Elder and wants to put them out of the church. This is the main problem, although the Elder does not tell us why he refuses them. It may be the teachers are proclaiming John’s theology of Jesus as the messiah, son of God having come in the flesh and Diotrephes disagrees theologically and therefore refused to let the teach in the church he hosts. On the other hand, it might be the case Diotrephes just dislikes the elder and refuses to recognize his authority and therefore will not welcome the Elder’s representative.

Finally, the letter recommends Demetrius, a teacher with a good reputation (12). What is the point of 3 John? Do not imitate what is evil (like Diotrephes) and receive my representative Demetrius.  The Elder vouches for Demetrius as having a good reputation and will speak the truth. Here is potentially another hint that there is a doctrinal rift between the Elder and Diotrephes, he is saying “my representative will teach your congregation the truth, as opposed to anyone going out from Diotrephes.

Who are the Elder and the Chosen Lady in 2 John?

The book was written by “The Elder” and addressed to the Elect Lady and her Children. Who is “the Elder”? The traditional answer understands the elder as the same person who wrote 1 John, the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. This traditional answer is often challenged based on the date of the letter. If it was written in the early 90s then John the son of Zebedee would be very old.

Eusebius reports a tradition from Papias that someone named John the Elder was active in Ephesus at the end of the first century and many scholars think the tradition John the Apostle settled in Ephesus has been confused with the activity of this John the Elder. By way of analogy, the Philip who was martyred in Hierapolis is called the apostle, but he also had four daughters who were prophets. This is a confusion of Philip the Apostle and Philip the Deacon.

The Chosen LadyThe word translated elder (πρεσβύτερος) refers to a man in his early to mid-50s, as opposed to an old or elderly man (γέρων). But the word was used for a position of authority in the early church. The leaders of a Jewish synagogue and the Sanhedrin were called elders (BDAG), as were the leaders of towns (BDAG, citing LXX Ruth 4:2 for example). In Revelation 4:4 there are twenty-four elders forming a “heavenly council” around the throne of God. There are a few examples in Acts of the word referring to early Christian leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6; 16:4), although with the exception of 14:23 these all Jewish congregations so they may have taken over the leadership structure of the synagogue; this may also be true for Paul’s congregations.

While it is always possible this Elder is not the elderly Apostle John, there is little in 1-3 John to suggest the Apostle is not the authority behind the letters. Eusebius cites Clement of Alexandria, John was based on Ephesus but traveled throughout the region appointing bishops and dealing with church issues. Assuming the writer is the same as 1 John 1:1-4, the claim to be an eyewitness of Jesus is more or less a claim to apostolic status.

Is the “chosen lady” an actual person? The word John uses in verse one (κυρία) refers to a woman of special status. Some suggest this is a woman named Eklete (Greek word for chosen) who led the church to which John is writing. The “mistress of the house” would refer to the woman in charge of assigning work to all the household slaves and managing household affairs but in the LXX the mistress (κυρία) is not a slave (BDAG). The woman may be like Lydia or Phoebe, a wealthy woman who hosted the church in her home and was the patroness of a local congregation. In support of this view, see this post by Marg Mowczko arguing the Lady is the leader of a house church.  Here are Paul Anderson’s comments on the Lady as a real church leader.

However, the consensus answer is the Chosen Lady is a metaphor for a house church rather than a literal woman who led a church. The Greek word translated church, gathering, or congregation (ἐκκλησία) is feminine. Using a metonym for the church like this is unusual in the New Testament, but in the ancient world cities were often described in female terms (Jerusalem as a woman in Isaiah), Paul used a similar metaphor in Ephesians 5:25 and 2 Corinthians 11:2. The children (and her sister’s children in v. 13) would then refer to the members of two separate congregations.

Although I agree with Marg that Phoebe was deacon or minister of her church (Rom. 16:1–2) and that Junia (Rom 16:7) and Nympha (Col 4:15) are examples of women in leadership in local churches, I find it simpler to understand this particular chosen Lady as a reference to the church.

It is not clear why John used these metaphors to hide his identity and that of the congregation. 1 Peter 5:13 uses Babylon as a metonym for Rome (both were arrogant world empires which had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple). It may be the case the writer was masking his identity and the location of the congregation to avoid drawing attention of the authorities.

Main Themes of Second John

Maybe an alternative title for this post could be “Second John: Why Bother?” The problem with 2 John is that it is nearly the same as 1 John, the same opponents have gone out from the church and the readers are encourage to recall what John has already taught them (love one another) and to not have anything to do with the false teachers. There is really nothing new in this letter aside from the standard features of Hellenistic letters, the salutation (1-3) and concluding farewell (12-13). Although we now have an author and recipient, they are veiled to hide their true identity. Nor do we know who the opponents are, other than they are the same antichrists mentioned in 1 John. What is even more frustrating, we cannot know if this letter was written before or after 1 John, to the same congregations as 1 John, or whether this short note was sent as a cover letter for 1 John (or the Gospel of John).

Second John is an excellent example of a Hellenistic “advice” letter. (The technical term is paraenetic letter (Parsenios, First, Second and Third John, 132-32; see page 137 for a reprint of a standard paraentic letter from the third or fourth century AD). These types of letters were short notes exhorting the reader to keep on doing what they have already been told to do (this is not a new command, love one another) and to avoid some negative action or behavior (stay away from the false teachers). Even the greetings and conclusion are the way letters were framed in the ancient world.

If the content is identical to 1 John, why was it included in the canon of Scripture? Although the letter is quoted occasionally, it is sometimes cited as if it were part of 1 John, supporting the suggestion it was originally a cover letter for 1 John. To complicate matters, sometimes 3 John is referred to as the second letter, implying 1-2 John circulated as a unit.

First, 2 John is a Reminder of the Commandment Heard from the Beginning (2 John 4-6). The Elder rejoices that some members of the church are walking in truth (4). At the beginning of an advice letter, the writer often would praise the readers in order to create good will. Does “some of your children” imply that some are not walking in the truth? It may be the case John has only heard of some of the children walking in the truth, or this soul be a subtle hint that there is some problem in the church.

This is not a new commandment: Love one another (5-6). This may refer back to 1 John 2:7-8 (the Gospel of John), but also the content of the Elder’s teaching and preaching (they have heard it from the beginning).

There is a subtle difference here, in 1 John 2:7-8 he wrote the “command you have had,” in 2 John 5 it is the command “we have had” from the beginning. John is including himself in this command; it is not as though the Father holds the apostle to a different standard than his readers. John is including himself because the deceptive teachers are claiming John has no authority, he is saying “we are in this together” even if the false teachers claim otherwise.

Second, the letter warns about the Deceivers (2 John 7-11). Like 1 John, these deceivers are those who deny Jesus came in the flesh (7-9). The one who denies Jesus came in the flesh is the deceiver and the antichrist (7, 1 John 2:18-23, 3:7, 4:3). The noun translated deceiver (πλάνος) refers to something which is misleading or intentionally deceitful. In classical Greek the word could be used for someone who cheats or is a trickster (BrillDAG).

Third, the Elder tells his readers to not even let the false teacher into your house (10-11). It is possible the Elder thinks the Lady’s church has been too living toward the false teachers by providing hospitality to their teachers. But his may be more than giving them a meal and a place to sleep as they passed through their town. If the church allowed the deceptive teachers to teach the congregation, then the “little children” would be at risk of falling under the influence of the deceivers and antichrists.

If someone welcomes one of the deceptive teachers, they are “sharing in the wicked work.” The verb (κοινωνέω) is the same semantic range as the noun John used in 1 John 1:3, holding to the things John has proclaimed means the reader has fellowship with him. “How to treat a false teacher” is the theme of 3 John (come back next week). The difference is in this letter the Elder tells his readers to refuse hospitality to anyone who does not confess Jesus properly, in 3 John one of the Elder’s representatives was refused hospitality by another house church.

Is the application of this command, do not engage Mormons or JWs when they knock on our door? Possibly, but a closer analogy would be allowing a Mormon who was visiting our church for a few weeks to teach a Sunday School class or preach a sermon. This is one of the functions of elders in 1 Timothy and Titus, guarding the deposit of the Faith against those who teach and behave in ways which are not consistent with biblical teaching. That Paul wrote to Ephesus with similar advice to John is significant, as is the letter to Ephesus in Revelation 2.

John draws a clear line between what his community believed and the other deceptive teachers because it was very easy for the false teachers to come to a small congregation, share table fellowship and appear to be a sheep, when in fact they are wolves seeking to devour the members of the congregation.

1 John 5:21 – Keep Yourselves from Idols

Many have observed this is a strange ending for the letter, there is nothing about idolatry in the entire book so it seems odd for John to drop this line as a conclusion to the letter. Was there another paragraph which explained this line? Did the usual ending of an epistle get lost before the letter was added to the canon?

Artemis

Artemis of Ephesus

That this is the seventh time John has called his readers children is significant. This is a planned statement not a last minute addition to fill out a page of papyri. In fact, Jobes says the original readers would have read this like a punchline, the rhetorical conclusion to the letter, answering the question the whole letter has been asking, if all this is true and we know what is real, can we really worship idols? (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 242).

For many interpreters, this is a command to avoid literal idolatry. Rejection of the Roman imperial cult led to some kind of persecution of John’s community. “Those who deny that Jesus is the Christ in this letter (2:22–23; 4:3; cf. 2 John 7) are people who yield to these pagan demands so as to avoid martyrdom” (Kruse, Epistles of John, 200).

For others, this command is a metaphor. Taking the word idol as “phantom,” Sugit argued this is a warning away from Docetism (J. N. Sugit, “I John 5:21,” JTS 36 (1985): 386–90). Raymond Brown took idolatry as a reference to the successionists, stay away from the liars and deceivers who John has called the antichrists (Epistles of John, 627–28).

“By idols he means not only images of the gods, but all false or counterfeit notions of God such as lead to the perversions of religion against which he has written” (Dodd, Johannine Epistles, 141)

“Most modern interpreters identify ‘idols’ with the idolatry of the secessionists who left the worship of the true God to follow after a false Christology” (C. Marvin Pate, The Writings of John, 316)

But idolatry is a strange metaphor for some kind of Christological error. The people who read this letter originally lived a world full of idolatry, it was impossible to avoid gods living in first century Ephesus!

Although this is necessarily speculative, I suggest the people who left John’s churches and claim not to sin offered worship to Rome or Artemis in order to avoid persecution. Several times in the letter John has implied that the opponents think that they do not sin. There’s no reason to think that sin would not include idolatry, so that worship of the Roman Empire in order to appear to be a good and loyal citizen would be perfectly acceptable to them. As I suggested in a previous post, few modern Christians consider pledging allegiance to the American flag to be idolatry. But for a person living in first century Ephesus, to “pledge loyalty” to the Roman Empire meant some kind of participation in the Imperial Cult.

Once again we find ourselves in the same territory as the seven letters of the Book of Revelation. There are several references there to people who participate in some form of idol worship, and certainly the rest of the book of revelation is about the worship of the beast, if the beast is Rome then the Roman imperial cult is not far from the surface.