Reconstructing the Johannine Church
Part 3: The Three Epistles
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We have, over the course of two lectures, identified quite clearly that there is something quite "different" about the writings of John compared to the other New Testament writers. And to most commentators the apostle remains an enigma.
There are, it may be said, three sets or corpi of New Testament writings: (1) The Pauline Epistles, which tend to be the most distinctive because they are the most numerous; (2) The Johannine Writings (comprising his Gospel, three Epistles, and Apocalypse); and (3) The Remainder (Matthew, Mark, Luke...the Synoptists, James, and Peter). The Johannine writings so baffled the post-apostolic fathers that they were nearly excluded from the Carthaginian canon which we use today. And had they been excluded, a vital clue to the meaning of the firstborn gospel might have been irretrievably lost, with the Apostle's writings probably being lumped together with the various Gnostic and semi-Gnostic epigrapha. Yet the Spirit of God prevailed, even at that dark Catholic time, and the Johannine scriptures have been handed down to us, awaiting an age in which they might be properly interpreted and understood.
Were we to sum up the Johannine writings, we might perhaps be justified in using two descriptive words which convey something of their essence: mystery and concealment, to the extent that the Apostle almost rubs it in, taunting the unspiritual and hinting to those who desire to go deeper, in which well they may plunge their buckets to find the refreshing waters of the firstborn. Today I want to principally delve into the Johannine Epistles which are probably the youngest of the New Testament writings, being the last to be penned, probably at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. As such they leave us the last authentic record of what the New Testament Church was like before the apostles were all removed and a new generation of leaders succeeded to the Apostolic See. Thus were we to arrange the Bible chronologically then without a doubt the Third Epistle would conclude the volume.
What is remarkable about the Third Epistle is that is contains no theology at all. It is entirely personal and circumstantial. It is raw history. And though one might be tempted to think that it will yield itself, therefore, to easy interpretation because of its lack of complex Johannine theology, we shall, I'm afraid, be disappointed. This brief, oblique and enigmatic epistle, one of the shortest writings in the Bible, nevertheless holds some vital clues as to the nature of the Johannine School of Thought that we are so anxious to discover more about, and which lies at the heart of this New Covenant work we are engaged in. In this regard the Third Epistle will most certainly not disappoint us.
One unusual feature of John is that from time to time he addresses us directly, departing momentarily from his third-person narrative style: "And this is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true" (Jn.21:24) And if, as we are suggesting, his writings are also directed towards the believers of the end-time, then this may very well have been his intention, for the Apostle was, unlike the other apostles, also a Prophet, Seer and Revelator. He most certainly keeps his name and identity in the background, referring to himself only as the "beloved disciple" (Jn.21:20) - indeed, sometimes he appears to be a mere symbolic figure, perhaps even a collective one, representing more than just an apostle.
By the time we come to John's First Epistle it is clear that the Assembly of Yahweh (Church of God) is in schism (1 Jn.2:19ff) and that the cause of this schism is doctrinal (1 Jn.2:23; 4:2). Worse, there are now two firmly established but competing Christian Churches with much controversy existing between them (1 Jn.2:26; 3:7), and it seems clear that in some way the Johannine Church has excommunicated the other one. The split is irreparable. And if we make our way to the Book of Revelation, and to the controversy at Ephesus, it is clear that at least one possible cause of the split is apostolic authority. False apostles had entered the Church whom the Johannine Christians exposed, and for which they are commended by the Lord (Rev.2:2). They, and their followers, had departed the Church physically though, as John tells us, they were never really a part of it spiritually. That the Johannine (Ephesian) Church, which was the pre-eminent Church (as we saw in Part II), had a formal and inflexible organisational structure by the end of the first century is strongly suggested. The lines of authority seem to be clearly demarcated, and yet in his Third Epistle the opposite seems to be true - Diotrephes, a renegade pastor of an unnamed congregation, is not recognising apostolic authority and is continuing to lead with impunity; moreover, he is excommunicating the Johannine followers from his own congregation (3 Jn.1:9ff). And the fact that Diotrephes is able to do this suggests that the true followers are now in the minority. Could this be why the Apostle wrote: "Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you?" (1 Jn.3:13, NASB) Does he feel isolated by the larger apostate group? Whatever transpired, there seems little doubt that by the year AD 100 there was already a formal and permanent separation of Christians. Maybe no more than half a century after the resurrection of Christ the true Church finds itself in a minority.
This is no minor squabble over doctrine. The teaching of the apostates is so bad that John describes them as "antichrists" and marks their doctrine as idolatrous (1 Jn.2:18; 5:21). We have reached the point where the true doctrine of the faith is clearly delineated and can no longer tolerate diversity, because the aberrant teachings are threatening the foundation of the Gospel's truth. The kinds of efforts made by the apostle Paul to keep dissidents in the fellowship are now no longer possible because the dissidents aren't true Christians any more ... assuming they ever were (1 Jn.2:19). The difference is not, moreover, merely a doctrinal one, but arguably something much more important: "But you have an anointing [unction - Amplified Version] from the Holy One, and you all know" (1 Jn.2:20; NASB). What anointing? And what do the Johannine Christians "know" which nobody else seems to?
Here is the key to the mystery of the Johannine Church. The followers of John had received an "anointing" or an "unction" - an anointing with oil in a sacred ceremony, a tradition (somewhat modified) still practised by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This passage literally translates, "you have an anointing" - it is not just something that has been given or received in the past but which continues into the present. Or as Messianic Jewish scholar David H. Stern points out, this passage could, from the context, be translated as "you have been Messiah-ed" or "christ-ed". Finally, the "Holy One" is the Father, Yahweh Himself. Thus this "christing" or chrism as New Covenant Christians call it, is an anointing directly from Yahweh-God Himself. And it is this chrism which confers upon the Johannine Christians the ability to know the truth. Without it there is no proper discernment of the truth. Without it, false apostles can arise and believe they are teaching the truth, but not know that they are not. In short, this anointing separated out the symbolic, counterfeit Christians from those who are truly the sons and daughters of Yahweh by blood.
This, brethren and sisters, is the crux of all we stand for, in a way, because we are actually observing in the first century the way in which Christ separated the wheat from the tares. The responsibility of the Johannine Church was to make this separation. This is the responsibility of the Firstborn Church, of which John is head. It is this anointing which enables the saints to finally overcome and to "eat of the Tree of Life which is in the Paradise of God" (Rev.2:7), a promise made only to the Ephesian Christians - the Johannine Christians. It is therefore the means by which the saints acquire a blood connection directly to God the Father and the means by which they are finally and completely redeemed.
It is at this point that we must return to the Book of Revelation and understand why there are seven different Churches. You will have noticed that each of the seven churches of Asia Minor have different "overcomings" to work through and that each is given a different reward. The Johannine Christians are given, as we have seen, the privilege of eating from the Tree of Life in Paradise, by which they are made possessors of eternal life. Not so the other churches.
The Smyrneans are another congregation altogether, but they - like all the seven churches - are more than local Asian churches - they represent different classes or categories of Christian who have different tests and different blessings. You will have observed that Yahweh-Elohim, the Holy one of Israel, has seven Spirits (Rev.3:1), and that each "Spirit" has the authority to confer different blessings to the overcomers of the seven groups.
The Smyrnean Christians must undergo terrible trials and persecution even to martyrdom. What is their overcoming blessing? They will not be hurt by the second death (Rev.2:8-11). The overcoming Pergamites, beset with sexual and other problems, are given some of the hidden manna and a white stone with a new name on it (Rev.2:13-17). The overcoming Thyratirans, beset with problems like feminism, are promised government of the nations in the millennium (Rev.2:18-29). The overcoming Sardisians, who keep pure, will be clothed in white garments and have their name recorded in the Book of Life (Rev.3:1-6). The overcoming Philadelphians will become pillars in the temple of Yahweh, and will have His Name, the Name of the Holy City, and a new name, written upon them (Rev.3:7-13). And finally, the overcoming lukewarm Laodicians will sit down with Christ on His throne (Rev.3:14-22).
All these seven congregations are in fellowship with one another, all being under the government of the Ephesian Church which is the Mother Colony of them all. In fact the seven churches represent the seven overcomings that all true Christians must face. They all have problems - in some cases, major problems - but all overcome through faith in Christ. We may therefore say that all true Christians must pass through a sevenfold overcoming and inherit a sevenfold blessing. These seven blessings may be represented by the seven arms of the Hebrew Menorah or Candelabra, the central arm being the blessing of the Ephesian (Johannine) Church, which is the right to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Eternal Life which is obtained by the saints who have received the special anointing or chrism that gives them the power of discernment between the truth and error.
Now we could spend considerable time examining these matters which we do not have today. Suffice to say that the heart of our understanding of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor and of the special place of John as presiding Patriarch of the Church of God in New Testament times lies in this chrism, shown by the fact that he is a visiting Elder at the church in his Second Epistle, a community in which he does not personally live but for whom he has an especial responsibility. Alternatively, this is not a congregation at all, the "chosen lady" being either the virgin Mary or perhaps Mary Magdalene and her children and maybe grandchildren, as discussed in Part II. If this is the correct interpretation, then "your chosen sister" in v.13 might well be either Mary or Martha the sisters of Lazarus - otherwise, it is another Johannine congregation. Apostasy is again rife, there being many deceivers, this time specifically the Gnostics who denied that Yah'shua (Jesus) had come in the flesh (2 Jn.1:7).
You should note that the apostle Paul, who was beheaded in AD 68, has been dead for 20 to 40 years at the time of the writing of the Johannine Epistles. The controversies of his day, such as we find in the Corinthian church, are past. His Apostolic See has passed to one or more other apostles. We learn from Clement of Rome (ca. AD 98) that the Corinthian colony went through a golden age - possibly immediately after Paul's death - to then descend into chaos following a coup d' état by younger members of the community, possibly during the latter Johannine period. If, as scholars believe, John wrote the Book of Revelation about AD 95, then the Corinthian Church was in apostasy like every other Christian community except the seven struggling colonies in Asia Minor. Yes, the evidence would indeed suggest that the true Church was in a small minority at about this time. What the fate of the Johannine Churches was after the Apostle's death is hard to say - certainly the tradition of Chrism passed into Eastern Orthodoxy and to some extent into Catholicism though without the miraculous side-effects, suggesting that its authority and power disappeared sometime shortly after John's death.
Let us search the Epistles for more clues, for there are many. We have mentioned that John was called "the elder" in 2 John 1:1 (NASB) which renders the Greek presbuteroi from which we get the word "presbyter" or "elder". Curiously, though, John does not refer to the Church leadership in 1 John 2 as "elders" but "fathers" or patriarchs. He speaks only of "fathers" (patriarchs), "young men" and "children". The "fathers" (patriarchs) know God personally; the "young men" are strong because the Word of God abides in them and they have overcome the evil one (v.14). These "young men" are mature Christians - overcomers - their "youth" is only in comparison to the "fathers" or Patriarchs and are most likely Elders. It is the "children" who are having the problems - they are sinning, but because they are repenting and struggling to overcome, "your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake" (v.12, NASB). We cannot be certain to which congregation John is writing in any of his Epistles but it seems likely to either be to Ephesus while he is on his travels or one of Ephesus' daughter colonies, perhaps one of the other six in Asia Minor.
Now the second Epistle stresses eternal life very much (v.25), which is the theme of the blessing of the Ephesian saints (Rev.2:7). He speaks of the "anointing" again which confers a very special gift on those who have received it: "And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him" (v.27, NASB). The prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when Yahweh's people would not need teachers any more for all would know the Word of God (Jer.31:34). It was this passage which led to the Third Rebellion in our own Church when a group of members presumed that they no longer had need of teachers because they were "born again". But that is the whole point - this anointing is not the "new birth" but the ordinance of Chrism, about which I have yet to speak. The rebels soon discovered how divided they were amongst themselves and that they were sorely in need of teachers to correct them, but their stubborn pride forbade them to confess their error. They are not alone - thousands of Christians today are claiming to have received this "anointing" and yet their works glaringly betray an almost complete absence of it.
Let us be clear, then, that the "fathers" (Patriarchs) and "young men" (Elders) in the Johannine Church had received an anointing which enabled them to always clearly know the difference between truth and error. They were by no means deceived by the impostors and false apostles. The Word of God abided in them, they were strong, and they had overcome Satan. That means, to put it another way, that they were no longer yielding themselves to habitual sin. They were overcomers. Yet there were apostates amongst them, in all likelihood Gnostics of some sort, who were claiming the perfection these Patriarchs had acquired but who hated the latter. John painstakingly points out that those who abide in Christ do not hate their brothers, and if they do, then it is testimony that they are not in Christ. The Gnostics (which means "they who "know", from the Gk, gnosis, meaning "knowledge") were saying, "I have come to know Him (God)" as the Patriarchs truly had, when they had not (1 Jn.2:4) for they had not received the anointing or had otherwise lost it through prostituting the Gospel. And the evidence that they did not have the anointing - or had lost it - was the fact that they had stopped loving.
Now you will remember that this was the rebuke that the Lord gave the Ephesian Church in Revelation 2. The Ephesians as a community, He said, had everything except one thing - "you have left your first love" (Rev.2:4, NASB). The knowledge this anointing had given them had gone to their heads and they, like Satan before them, were unseated by pride, and it was not long before they were exalting this knowledge above humility and love. In short, they fell, just as Lucifer and one third of the heavenly host fell in the beginning. They had incredible knowledge and power but they became boastful - they too "left their first love". And that led to open rebellion.
The Lord says to the rebels: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lamp stand out of its place - unless you repent" (v.5).
Can you now see the clear parallel between the fruit of this anointing and the condition of the angels before the Great Rebellion? The Johannine saints who had partaken of this anointing were now partaking of the Seven Spirits of Yahweh as the angels do! But some of them had fallen because of pride and had ceased loving. They exalted their superior knowledge and in the process became fools because they lost the key of life itself, which separates God's people from the devil's -- and that key is LOVE.
So the command went out to repent and to do the deeds they had done at first - in other words, manifesting true Christ-like love through service. From this we learn that Chrism does not confer any sort of immortality - it is not magical elixir - but does bless the recipient in a special way provided he remains in sacrificial agapé love. It does not make anyone immune from pride, does not prevent someone from falling - it does not confer a "once saved, always saved" state! Their lamp stand - which is their place in heaven - will be removed.
You see, a group of saints believed, as the devil and his angles did, that no longer being in need of teaching meant that they were somehow no longer in need of God - "once saved, always saved" that error which afflicts a huge segment of the evangelical Christian movement today - and they became proud. Some of the proudest and most unteachable Christians I know of are those who claim to be "once saved, always saved". And though they may not necessarily be Gnostics in a denominational sense, they are invariably possessed by the same spirit.
John and the faithful Patriarchs and Elders knew this. And so John wrote: "And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming. If you know that He (Christ) is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of him" (1 Jn.3:28-29, NASB).
John is, as I have said before, a teacher of the synthesis of the whole Gospel. To be truly born of Christ is to practice righteousness - it is not passive belief, but faith manifest in works. John brings Paul and James together, showing the true relationship between faith and works. We are not immune from falling - there is no eternal security if we fail to secure it by responding to the gift in active righteousness. So how can we know if someone is truly born again? As John himself says, you will see it in their works of righteousness. And how will you know if they have received the anointing of which John speaks? They will know Yahweh personally, be strong, the Word of God will abide in them, and they will have overcome the evil one, no longer habitually sinning (1 Jn.2:14).
We see at this stage that John teaches at least a two-stage salvational process marked by two visible events. First, there is the new birth which is marked by water baptism; and Last, there is a completion ordinance marked by a special anointing or Chrism which indicates that the believer has overcome. "For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith" (1 Jn.5:4). A person who is truly born again and is not just saying he is (a symbolic Christian) but is overcoming the word and its lusts by increments that are described in the Book of Revelation as encompassing seven areas with seven special gifts. An overcoming Christian is one "who (actively) believes that Yah'shua (Jesus) is the Son of God" (1 Jn.5:5) by "faith" (v.4).
How is this done? In the same way that Yah'shua (Jesus) did "by water and blood" (v.6). And note: "not with water only, but with the water and with the blood" (v.6, NASB). Do you see the two elements here? With water - the sign of baptism indicating the New Birth or the Alpha of salvation, and with blood - the mysterious "anointing" which indicates the completion or the Omega of salvation. And there is a third witnessing agent - the Spirit - for "it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth" (v.7). It is the Spirit which seals a soul as a born-again son or daughter through baptism, and it is the Spirit which seals a born-again soul through the anointing or unction of the blood of Christ. Together the three are one: "For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement" (v.8). Those who receive these witness that "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in the Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (vv.11-12).
Now let us be perfectly clear: "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life" (v.13). Who are these people? These are they who have been born again through faith in Christ and who have received the anointing/unction/Chrism - they know they have eternal life provided they do not forget their first love by exalting themselves in pride and falling away, as the apostates did in John's Epistles. Lucifer and the demons also possessed this eternal life but they forfeited it by rebellion - and look at them today!
So we must be careful. "We know [absolutely] that anyone born of God does not [deliberately and knowingly] practice committing sin, but the One Who was begotten of God carefully watches over and protects him - Christ's divine presence within him preserves him against the evil - and the wicked one does not lay hold (get a grip) on him or touch [him]" (1 Jn.5:18, Amplified V.).
There is a war on in Christendom today with a lot of false doctrine being spouted. Some are saying they don't sin at all (misreading the passage above), other say that they cannot ever fall and that they're guaranteed a place in heaven no matter what they subsequently do because of the first saving act in their lives. Others say that you only have to believe and you are a fully sanctified, overcoming Christian. All these are pernicious heresies. One who is fully saved still sins inadvertanly but never habitually and wilfully; everyone can fall, and many do; and passive belief is not enough - true belief always leads to good works - works of righteousness, even as Christ is righteous. Then there are other heretics who make the Gospel so hard that nobody can ever be saved. For them, the fruits of salvation are the saving works themselves - thus a person must perfect himself in deeds before being finally "saved". This also is false. The Valentinian Gnostics believed in this, who were the descendants of the Gnostics John was rebuking in his Epistles.
A footnote to these passages for those of you who use the King James Version (KJV). The Received Text reads: "For there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth." (1 Jn.5:7-8a, KJV). This text concerning the heavenly witnesses is not contained in any Greek manuscript which was written earlier than the 15th century. It is not cited by any of the Greek ecclesiastical writers, nor by any of the early Latin fathers, even when the subjects upon which they treat would naturally have led them to appeal to its authority. It is therefore evidently spurious and was first cited (though not as it now reads) by Vigilius Tapsensis, a Latin writer of no credit, in the latter end of the 5th century. It is obvious that these verses were forged in order to bolster the emergent Trinity doctrine and are therefore rightly ommitted from all modern versions. The interpolation is completely disjunctive with John's theme and has the effect of deflecting the reader away from understanding the import of the Johannine anointing.
We have now clearly established a link between the "anointing" and the Blood of Christ, but what is that link?
Click here to read Part IV
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Last updated on 24 January 2001
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