Saturday, December 17, 2011

Context of the First Epistle of John

            One of the cornerstones of sound hermeneutics is to understand the context of a passage of Scripture.  To better understand the passage this monograph focuses on, it will be helpful to understand the historical-cultural context of 1 John.  It will also be beneficial to have a clear view of who John was, who is audience was, and what the world in which they lived was like.  The following sections will briefly cover each of these areas.
Historical-Cultural Context of the Book of 1 John
          1 John was likely written A.D. 85-95 in Ephesus where John had relocated near the time of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D 70.[1]  Ephesus was a wealthy shipping port capital city of the Roman province of Asia, modern day Turkey, with a population estimated to be in excess of three hundred thousand people.[2]  During the Apostolic age, Ephesus was known for the temple of Artemis (Diana) and proudly bore the title of “temple keeper of the great Artemis” (Acts 19:35).  This spectacular temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 
          From a Christian perspective, Ephesus is known for great idolatry.  Christianity posed a threat to temple and the business of making idols which nearly cost the Apostle Paul his live during one of his visits there (Acts 19:24, 30-31).[3]  Ephesus was once a city where Christianity thrived and many came to faith in Christ though this clearly changed as this was one of the cities God later takes issue with (Rev. 2:4).   
          It is against this backdrop that John writes his first epistle.  The Letter is in response to the rise of religious mysticism which took on Christian motifs in an attempt to mislead Christians from the Gospel they had received.[4]   This early form of Gnosticism was cause for great concern for John and this epistle, likely meant as a companion to the Gospel that bears his name, showed great love and yet sternness towards a younger generation of believers.[5]  The church or churches that John wrote to were under attack by this false teaching (cf. 2:18-28; 4:1-6; 5:6-7).  Among the heresies the false teachers propagated were insisting that righteousness is not a duty of the Christian life and that Christ is not God incarnate.[6] Other teachers denied the humanity of Jesus while some denied His deity.  Falsehood abounded and John sought to reassure his audience.
The Biblical Author: John the Apostle
          As with many other books of the Bible, authorship is also a topic of discussion and 1 John is no different.  The author of 1 John clearly claims to be an eye witness to the events which he describes (v. 1:1-3) though he does not explicitly identify himself in a normal salutation characteristic of Hellenistic letters.  The author writes with what can easily be described as apostolic authority and makes no fewer than 51 parallel references to the Gospel of John.[7]  Most scholars have concluded that the fourth Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters attributed to John all have a common author.  There is no compelling reason based on the internal evidence to deny Johannine authorship any of these books in general and specifically the book being discussed here.
          Turning to the external evidence, it is an uncontested historical fact that the early church identified the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, brother of James, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 21:20, 24) as the author of the Fourth Gospel and 1 John.[8]  Clement of Rome (A.D. 90) makes allusions to 1 John while Polycarp of Smyrna (A.D. 110-140) actually quotes 1 John.[9]  Justin Martyr’s Dialogue 123:9 (A.D. 150-160) also quotes 1 John while others such as Ignatius of Antioch (early A.D 100’s) and Papias of Hierapolis, who was born A.D. 50-60 personally knew John, make allusions to 1 John in their writings.  Others who attribute 1 John to the Apostle include Irenaeus, Origen, Dionysius, and Jerome.[10] 
          Here is an author who claims to be an eye witness of the things he describes and the external evidence affirms the authorship of the book ascribing it to the Apostle John.  It can confidently be stated that the extant epistle known today as 1 John was indeed written by the Apostle and what has been transmitted to posterity is the letter he wrote.  As such, it is a trustworthy source of both historical information and theological instruction both for the original audience as well as contemporary Christians.
          Given the other information available about John, it is evident that the letter was written late in his life and he wrote as an elder statesman of the church to a church or group of churches about which he cared very deeply.  John seeks to encourage the recipients of the letter to live godly lives (v. 1:7; 2:1), remind them of the importance of loving one another, assure them of their salvation in Jesus Christ (v. 5:13), and refute the errors being taught by those who split from their church.  John’s letter is modest in language yet deep in theology.

[1] Plummer, A. The Epistles of S. John, With Notes, Introduction, and Appendices, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896), 10.
[2] Walls, David, and Max Anders. Volume 11, I & II Peter, I, II, & III John, Jude, Holman New Testament Commentary, Holman Reference. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 153.
[3] Elwell, Walter A., and Phillip Wesley Comfort. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 437.
[4] Ibid, 16.
[5] Ibid, 33-34.
[6] Paschall, Franklin H., and Herschel H. Hobbs. The Teacher's Bible Commentary: A Concise, Thorough Interpretation of the Entire Bible Designed Especially for Sunday School Teachers. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1972), 796.
[7] Akin, Daniel L. The New American Commentary, Volume 38 1, 2, 3 John, electronic ed, Logos Library System. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 24.
[8] Ibid, 25.
[9] Utley, Dr. Robert James. The Beloved Disciple's Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John, Study Guide Commentary Series Volume 4. (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 1999), 189.
[10] Ibid.


Anonymous said...

Nicely written!

Gordon Wilson said...

I'm starting a Bible Study on 1 Jn. I needed a concise historical description. Thanks for the work

Chris Sanchez said...

My pleasure Gordon!