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The Conflict between the Elder and Diotrephes

One of the ironies of the Johannine epistles is that the advice about not extending hospitality to false teachers in 2 John 1:10-11 is used as a weapon against the emissaries of the “elder” in 3 John 1:5-8. There seems to be too little in 3 John to get a sense of what exact roles the elder and Diotrephes had among this network of communities and what was the nature of their dispute. Further, there are still questions about what order the epistles were written in, so did Diotrephes’s actions occur after or before the schism in 1 and 2 John over what the author regarded as foundational claims (e.g. Jesus is the Christ and came in the flesh) and does 1 or 2 John represent the earlier or later stages of this conflict. Here are a few issues:

  • Was the anonymous author of the Johannine letters and Diotrephes both “presbyters” among the same network of household congregations (in Asia Minor or elsewhere)? Was Diotrephes a leader of a domestic congregation while the “elder” carried an informal authority based on his venerable age, connection with the first-generation of the Jesus movement, or charismatic teaching? Or was Diotrephes trying to usurp an authoritarian leadership, perhaps as one of the group’s wealthy patrons?
  • Did the conflict between the “elder” and Diotrephes revolve around theological or Christological issues, around ecclesiastical hierarchies (e.g., leadership structure versus charismatic communal decision-making since they all had an “anointing”), or around a personality clash?
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Ethics in the Johannine Literature

To follow up on an earlier post on “love” in 1 John, a potential critique is that “love” is directed towards the members of the group(s). That is, they are to love one another to the extent of laying down their lives for their brothers and sisters, whereas the successionists who abandoned them “hate” their brothers and sisters, but missing seems to be Jesus’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount and Plains to love one’s enemies. Indeed, much of the ethical teachings in this section do not seem to appear in the Gospel of John and commentators have noted that the primary concern of John is rather on confessing Jesus’s status as Revealer (e.g., Rudolf Bultmann). However, I wanted to call attention to a recent book edited by Christopher W. Skinner and Sherri Brown entitled Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John that gives a positive presentation of the ethical system in this corpus of literature and corrects the previous lack of attention to this area. It sounds like a helpful volume for all those interested in New Testament ethics.

The “Presbyteros” of 2 and 3 John

The Greek term πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) could be translated as “elder” or “presbyter” in 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1. If one adopts the second meaning, it raises the further question of whether the author was part of a collective presbyterate in the geographical area where the epistles originally circulated. Whatever the case, I do not think the anonymous presbyteros in the Johannine epistles can be confidently identified with the presbyteros John known to Papias of Hierapolis (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3) on the basis of this single term. For my argument against this view, see my book The Beloved Apostle? or my article for the website Bible and Interpretation.

Love in 1 John

Much of this series on 1 John has concentrated on the polemic in the epistle against false teaching, sin, and antinomianism. It seems fitting to turn to the theme of love in the epistle. The strongest statement is 1 John 4:8 and 16 that “God is love.” In Greek, it is clear that God is the subject and love is the predicate, so God’s nature and activity is characterized by love yet 1 John would not have endorsed the reverse statement that “Love is God.” The implications for the community are spelled out in chapter 4.

  • God initiated the loving relationship with the newly begotten children and provided a concrete example in sending the Son as a sacrifice for sins. Note there is a clear Johannine distinction between Jesus as the divine Son (huios) and the community as children (tekniapaidia).
  • Christ followers are thus obligated to love one another, obeying the love commandment (cf. John 13:34-35; cf. Leviticus 19:18).
  • God’s love is perfected or completed, reaching its intended goal in the community that loves each other, thus incarnating the love of God in the midst of the world.
  • On the other side of the coin, it is a contradiction to claim to love God who is invisible while hating one’s brother or sister who is visible. This may be either a general statement or a polemic against the opponents who revealed their “hate” by splitting from the community.
  • This divine love gives the Christ-follower assurance on the day of judgement, for love cancels out the fear which has to do with judgement.

The Warning against Idols in 1 John 5:21

The letter of 1 John seems to close on an odd note. The final exhortation to be guard against idols does not seem to fit any of the major themes within the body of the epistle, unlike an epistle like 1 Corinthians that has an extended discussion about whether it is acceptable for Christ-followers to eat sacrificial meat that had been offered to other deities. Some scholars have even viewed this verse as suggesting that something has gone missing from the conclusion of the letter that might have clarified this imperative, while the study by Terry Griffith entitled Keep Yourselves from Idols: A New Look at 1 John (JSNTSupp 233; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) views the verse as central to the meaning of the epistle as a whole. Griffith offers an outline of his study in this article for the Tyndale Bulletin. For another recent survey, see Benjamin L. Merkle, “What is the Meaning of ‘Idols’ in 1 John 5:21” Bibliotheca Sacra 169 (2012): 329-340. The charge of idolatry was a standard accusation that Jews leveled against non-Jewish religious practices and some Christian polemicists painted Jewish practices with the same brush (e.g., capitalizing on the biblical tradition of Israel’s worship of the golden calf or arguing that the temple cult became an idol). It seems to me most likely that idolatry is a charge against the opponents of the letter, for their false understanding and image of Jesus constitutes an idol.

The Sin Leading to Death in 1 John 5:16-17

Continuing on the theme of sin in 1 John, 5:16-17 speaks about a sin leading to death. There are different interpretative options about what this could refer to:

  • A particular action that causes literal, physical death.
  • A distinction between mortal and venial sins.
  • A distinction between unintentional and intentional transgressions of the law.
  • The unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 3:28-30 and parallels).
  • The sin of apostasy (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6).
  • The unrepentant sin of those outside the community in the world.

The Johannine Community: Sinners or Sinless?

One of the most confusing aspects of reading through 1 John is its seemingly conflicting statements about sin. 1:8-10 reminds the audience that claiming to be sinless is to engage in an act of self-deception and to accuse God of being a liar. 2:1-2 goes on to encourage the reader to not sin, but to reassure him or her that Jesus is the heavenly advocate whose death removes sins. Yet 3:4-10 insists that Jesus came to remove sin and the one who abides in Him or has been born of His does not sin. Then, 5:16 encourages the believer to pray for a brother or sister who commits a non-mortal sin, but then returns to the theme that the one born of God does not sin in verse 18. Further, there are a number of statements about the incompatibility of living in the light and in the darkness or about how obedience to the commandments marks the one who abides in God. It is difficult to resolve these tensions, whether 1 John insists that a Christ follower may commit individual sinful acts but should not be characterized by ongoing habitual sin or whether some points he is countering opponents claims to have perfect fellowship with God or to be sinless while other instances trying to instill a high ethical standard in the audience. I would be interested in checking out Rikard Roitto, “Identity in 1 John: Sinless Sinners who Remain in Him” in T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament (ed. J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker; London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

The Johannine Comma

In the last post, we looked at the meaning of water and blood in 1 John 5:6. The author then enlists a third witness, the Spirit, to establish the testimony about Jesus on the basis of three witnesses (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). If you are reading a King James Bible, you will find a passage about how there are three witnesses in heaven too, namely the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. However, this was a much later interpolation into the text and the late, eminent text-critic Bruce M. Metzger’s review of the data is reproduced here. Although some believers in the Trinity may be disappointed to lose a useful proof-text, the reality that it took centuries for Christians to develop the language and categories to precisely articulate this doctrine has no bearing on its theological truth for the confessional community. Theologians may speak of “progressive revelation” as Christians gradually came to a better understanding of the Father who sent the Son and the Spirit who came to indwell within them.

Blood and Water

Why does 1 John 5:6 emphasize that Jesus came by water and blood? And is this a polemical statement against the letter’s opposition or a positive statement of the central beliefs on the community? Here are some interpretations of this enigmatic passage:

  • It was written in response to docetists who denied that Jesus chose to become incarnate in the womb of his mother and had a natural birth (e.g., the claim of Valentinus that Jesus passed “through the Virgin Mary as water through a pipe” without inheriting anything from her).
  • It was written against a separationist Christology that emphasized the baptism as the moment when the divine Christ united with Jesus, but that union was severed when the Christ departed from Jesus before his crucifixion.
  • It was written against pneumatic Christians who emphasized baptism as the moment when one receives the Spirit, or alternatively viewed water as a metaphor for the indwelling Spirit, but rejected the significance of Jesus’s sacrificial blood.
  • Both the “water” and the “blood” are in reference to the “blood and water” that poured out of Jesus’s side on the cross, a polemic against those who denied the saving significance of Jesus’s death.
  • This is a non-polemical statement that emphasizes the positive identity-markers of the community, either their sacraments (e.g., baptism and the Lord’s Supper) or their beliefs (water representing the anointing Spirit and blood Jesus’s atoning death).

Reconstructing the Opponents of 1 John

There are two texts that I will highlight that give some clues about what the opponents of the letter writer were teaching. In 1 John 2:22, the mark of a “liar” and “anti-Christ” is the denial that Jesus is the Christ, which is to both deny the Son and the Father who sent him. In 1 John 4:2-3, “false prophets” who partake in the spirit of the anti-Christ do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Who were the opponents of the letter-writer?

  • Docetists, from the Greek dokein (“to seem/appear”), who denied that the Saviour had a corporeal body or experienced genuine physical suffering (Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrn. 2.1; Trall. 10.1; Eusebius, EcclHist. 6.12.6).
  • The followers of Cerinthus, a teacher who allegedly taught that the cosmos was created by an ignorant “power” and the “Christ” was a divine aeon that possessed the human Jesus at his baptism and departed from him before the crucifixion and resurrection (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26.1). Yet the other major image of Cerinthus is as a this-worldly chiliast (cf. Eusebius, EcclHist. 3.28.2, 4-5; 7.25.3).
  • Pneumatic Christians who underplayed Jesus’s full humanity in favour of the image of him as a revealer and dispenser of the Spirit and viewed his death as a “lifting up” or exaltation rather than an atoning sacrifice expiating sins.
  • Apostates who denied the foretold messianic deliverer had come in the person of Jesus and returned to the synagogue (cf. John 9:22; 12:42).
  • A rhetorical construct as the author warns that “you” could become “them” outside the community and in the “world” if you deny basic Christian confessions.