This issue of Create a Learning Site marks one year of blog post and training letter writing. The first post and letter, which wrestled with the cryptic second half of Zechariah, appeared on 5 May 2014. I have certainly enjoyed the study projects and the opportunity to learn and share what I am learning with you. So thank you for your company on the way!
I wonder what your highlight has been among the various issues and how this training letter has been a help to you – and how it could become an even greater help in the future. For this reason, I have set up a brief questionnaire on Google. It would be a real help if you take a few minutes and provide me with some feedback. This link will take you there.
For the coming year it certainly continues to be my intention to take you along on my own learning journey in biblical studies. In fact, it’s what I do in this issue, by sharing my recent learning experience with 1 John.
Disentangling the Knot of 1 John
1 John is one of the strangest books in the New Testament. For one, it is called an epistle in most Bible versions, but nothing about the book suggests that it is indeed a letter. Simply compare the beginning and end of 1 John with one of Paul’s letters. You will notice that it does not contain a single one of the structural elements that we know from other documents considered letters in the New Testament, such as author, recipients, and benediction. If anything, it is more like a word of instruction or exhortation, not unlike Hebrews. Apart from the concluding verses Hebrews also lacks all structural indicators that we expect to find in an ancient letter.
In addition, 1 John appears to lack any progression of thought and shows very little structure. Instead, John circles around a limited number of topics, adding statement upon statement seemingly without any particular order. It is a bit like a handful of dry sand: no obvious coherence or shape. (If John would have handed this in as a paper for one of my classes, I am not sure it would have earned him a passing grade. Yes, I realize the limitation is on my side, but it illustrates the point.)
In my experience, this book makes for frustrating reading. I would much prefer an orderly and logical presentation that moves from A through B to Z. This is one reason I have not often taught the epistles of John. Even though the language used in 1 John is delightfully simple, once you start to think about what it says, the text turns out to be a hard nut to crack. The paradox of 1 John is that it is almost simplistic and enigmatic at the same time. At least that is how I have experienced the book. It contains wonderful statements, but they don’t seem to build an argument – the way a handful of dry sand does not possess coherence or shape.
Over the past one and a half years I have been given a second chance with 1 John through the opportunity to teach the book in two different schools. This forced me to wrestle once again with John’s way of thinking. As a result, I am – finally! – beginning to understand it better.
In what follows, I will first discuss some of the historical background, because it helps us to see where John is coming from, or rather what he is coming against. After this I will share what I have come to understand about how this book works. I have to formulate this cautiously, since it is a work in process; I am certainly not close to being done with 1 John!
It is not hard to see in 1 John that the author is coming against a group of people who do not care about sin (they may even think they are without sin) and who do not care about love. They also do not believe certain things about Jesus, and this is probably the root cause for their deficient behaviour. The following three verses present the clearest picture of their beliefs:
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22; cf. 1 John 5:1)
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2f)
This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:6)
From church history and from the church fathers we know a bit more about the circumstances in the area where John was active. There were two new belief systems that arose around that time. One is called Docetism and the other is linked with the name of Cerinthus [sometimes called ‘Cerinthianism,’ which at times is considered a subtype of Docetism].
Docetism derives from the Greek word dokein, to seem or to appear. The divine could not possibly defile or pollute itself by taking on human flesh and becoming part of the material world. Neither could the divine suffer or die. Jesus therefore merely appeared to be human, but in reality was not or only in a special and restricted sense human.
Cerinthus claimed that Jesus had been a normal human being. The heavenly Christ had descended on him in baptism in the form of a dove. In other words, he separated Jesus from Christ. Just before the crucifixion, Christ had departed from Jesus, because the divine Redeemer could not possibly taste death, leaving the human Jesus to die on the cross.
The error inherent in this kind of position is serious indeed. Jesus Christ cannot redeem what he did not become. Besides, it marks the material world as inferior or worse, contrary to the biblical view of creation as good.
Scholars disagree whether John is reacting to one or the other of these two heresies, or whether he is perhaps dealing with both at the same time. It certainly seems that 1 John 4:2f as quoted above fits Docetism and 1 John 2:22 fits the views of Cerinthus.
1 John 5:6 could go with either: the Docetists believed Jesus had been baptized (the water), but did not die (the blood), whereas Cerinthus taught Christ left Jesus before he died, so he also affirmed water but not blood.
So far the historical background; so what have I discovered through my renewed engagement with 1 John? My approach to study the book has been to categorize the statements and see if I can rearrange the ideas in the book in such a way that a larger message or plot emerges. So what did I come up with?
I noticed that many statements take one of three forms:
- A statement beginning with “if” (approximately 9)
- A statement including “who”: he who, everyone who, no one who, whoever (approximately 25)
- A statement including “we know” (approximately 13)
- A statement beginning with “by this” (approximately 9)
This makes for a formidable number of statements that enable the reader to determine whether something or someone is one or the other. In other words, a significant part of this book consists of tests. It has long been recognized that these tests predominantly deal with three areas:
- Truth: right belief or doctrine
- Love: of God and of the brethren
- Morality: right behaviour
Two Carrying Pillars
It has also stood out to many readers that the book contains two direct statements about God that are short and simple, but tremendously profound. In English each statement counts only three one-syllable words:
- God is light (1 John 1:5)
- God is love (1 John 4:8, 16)
Virtually everything else in the book flows from these two foundational statements. Think about it: are we able to come up with a more profound statement about God than these?
The two even make for some sort of a structural divide in the book. “God is light” dominates the first part of the book; “God is love” fulfils a similar role in the second half of the book. This does not provide for a clear structure, first, because the two themes overlap in chapter 3, and second, because the topical cluster of truth, deceivers, discernment, which fits more readily with “God is light”, continues to pop up in the second half of the book.
A Structure of Ideas, Not of Blocks of Material
The structure of the book therefore is circular, not linear. John jumps back and forth between his main centres of interest, circling and spiralling around them, until he has covered them from more or less every side.
This kind of structure cannot be captured in the sort of diagram or horizontal chart that is so helpful with many other books in the Bible. Instead, the structure of the book is a structure of ideas, not of blocks of material. We therefore need a structural diagram of the main ideas in the book. The twofold “God is …” statement gives us a place to start. Let’s combine this with the three types of tests that John includes:
This diagram sums up the core of the book. It also shows how the main themes relate to each other. Not only do they flow from the two foundational statements about God, they also flow from each other. In the end, the three tests are closely linked, inseparably so: you cannot have or fulfil one without the others. Let’s look at this little more in detail.
Right behaviour means to keep his commandments. This flows from knowing God and being in the light, as well as from loving God: if we know God, if we are in the light as he is light, if we love him, then we will keep his commandments (see for instance 1 John 5:1-3). This is the consequence of right belief and right love.
At the same time, to keep his commandments means to believe in his son and to practice love:
And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23)
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:21)
Right belief and right love include and are expressed by keeping his commandments; his commandments are to believe and to walk in love. This is profoundly circular!
I still struggle with the logic of John; I don’t find it easy to wrap my brain around it. But in the process I have developed a deep appreciation for this statement of what it means to walk with God. Or in John’s terms, to know and to walk in the truth.
Any thoughts about 1 John you’d like to share with others? Leave a comment.
Next month: Finally! My eBook with “Internet Resources for Studying and Teaching Books of the Bible” as a free download!
References and Attribution
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
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