WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

INTRODUCTION (Lesson I) 10/05/20

It is a historical fact that theologians traditionally held that the Apostle John composed these three epistles at Ephesus, as part of his ministry as Bishop, following his exile on the Isle of Patmos. The content, language, and writing style are very similar to the Gospel of John. In fact, by the 1800s, Bible scholar Ernest DeWitt Burton (1856-1925) wrote that there could be “no reasonable doubt” that the same author wrote John’s first Epistle and his Gospel.[1] And theology professor Amos Wilder (1895-1903) said that “Early Christian tradition and the great majority of modern scholars have agreed on the common authorship of these writings, even when not identifying the Apostle John as the author.” This majority view is typified by the Swiss Reformer Johannes Œcolampadius (1482-1531), who, in summarizing the career of the beloved Apostle, refers to his first Epistle as “the purest Gospel.”[2]

However, other modern scholars have challenged this position. But they are not the first. Isho‘dad of Merv, Bishop of Haditha (c. 850 AD), complains that many erred by supposing the Apostle John wrote it. Had they investigated the matter, they would see that the thought, shape, and authority of this letter are significantly inferior to the sound words of the Evangelist. Although John’s authorship of the three epistles is still almost universally accepted, Bible scholars such as Heinrich Julius Holtzmann and Charles H. Dodd have maintained that different authors wrote the Epistles and the Gospel. There are at least two principal arguments for this view. First, the Epistle often uses a demonstrative pronoun at the beginning of a sentence,[3] then a particle or conjunction, followed by an explanation or definition of the pronoun at the end of the sentence. John does not use such stylistic techniques in his Gospel. The second is that the author of the Epistle “uses the conditional sentence” in a variety of hypothetical rhetorical figures which are unknown to the Gospel.

However, I find too many similarities in the way the author of John’s Gospel and the Epistles express faith and belief in the Word being none other than Yeshua of Nazareth, the Messiah. Therefore, it is hard to imagine anyone being able to duplicate that so frequently. None of the early Apostles or the disciples of John, such as Polycarp, knew about this. If they knew, they failed to mention it. Perhaps John, like Paul, used a stenographer to write what he dictated. But the sense and feeling of what they wrote are that of the Evangelist John.

Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De Wette (1780-1849) notes that the author of this composition does not call himself the Apostle John, nor does the author of the fourth Gospel, merely an eyewitness of the history of Jesus. However, in the Second and Third Epistles, he calls himself an “elder.” It may not be a title, but it probably distinguishes him from a younger writer by the same name. We can be sure that both the Epistle and Gospel flow from the same quill. That is because both bear the distinct stamp of personal relationships. Not only that, but the text also has the same style of writing and development of thought. Both the Epistles and Gospel cast similar congenial spells of human feeling over the reader. Leberecht goes on to note that this Epistle is attested to by unanimous voices of antiquity. Papias, Polycarp, and Irenaeus, Polycarp’s disciple.[4]

In 1889, at a theological conference at Giessen, Germany, on the 20th of June, Protestant theologian Emil Schürer stated that the two parties, those who maintain and those who deny the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel were now approaching reconciliation.[5] This agreement and confidence in the Apostle John being the writer should bleed over into his Epistles. Unfortunately, the “deny” party seems to have grown. As to the period in which John wrote this manuscript, there is consistent evidence that after visiting or starting congregations in Asia Minor,[6] he relocated to Ephesus during the Jewish War of 66-70 AD.

There is some hint that Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD), who lived at the same time as the Apostle John, may have been familiar with Apocalypse writings in the Book of Revelation.[7] For instance, “For there broke out an extraordinary storm during the night, with the utmost violence, and powerful winds, with the most massive showers of rain, with frequent lightning, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a visible indication that some type of destruction was coming upon humanity when the world system brought disorder, and anyone could guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities on their way.”[8]

When John speaks about the dividing of Jerusalem into three parts,[9] we see that Josephus used similar language. He told that the uprising at Jerusalem started up again and parted into three factions. These factions began fighting one another. This partitioning of evil forces, says Josephus, may be said to be a good thing and the effect of divine justice. Furthermore, John mentions about an incredible hailstorm with large hailstones weighing one talent. Josephus said that the hailstones covered two furlongs[10] and farther. The pounding they brought was unmanageable, not only by those that stood in the way but by those that were beyond them for a great distance. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the hail, for it was white, and could, therefore, was not only perceived by the loud noise it made but seen by its brightness.

Furthermore, if you have read any of my other commentaries, you noticed that I seldom use the title “Christ” because I prefer the term “the Anointed One.” Here is an excellent article laying out the reasons for that decision and will help give more depth to an understanding of how the original meaning of what Christ means got lost in the translations. Here is an explanation:

One of the interpretive debates about 1 John among scholars today is how to construe the Greek word the Anointed One referencing Jesus. The Greek adjective derives from the cognate verb chriō, which means to anoint. In the First Covenant, the word Messiah similarly derives from the Hebrew verb “to anoint.” So, in the ancient Greek translation of the First Covenant (the Septuagint (LXX)), references to the Messiah were translated with the Greek word the Anointed One.  

In the Final Covenant, the sense of the word develops as the true nature of Jesus is progressively revealed. In the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles the Anointed One was often used to identify Jesus as the Messiah, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah [Christou] the son of David, the son of Abraham;”[11] or in Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah [the Anointed One].”[12]

After His resurrection and further spiritual illumination, the appellation, the Anointed One, came to have a significance that went beyond any expectations for the Messiah of Israel. It shifted from designating the title of God’s anointed leader of Israel to a proper name that reflected the divine nature of the Son of God incarnate as Jesus the Anointed One.[13]  

There is a debate about when, or even whether, this shift occurred. German historian of religion, Martin Hengel, thinks that even in Paul’s writings, the Anointed One is used almost entirely as a proper name with only “a glimmer of its use as a title.” Representing another side of the debate, English New Testament scholar Nicholas T. Wright argues that “Jesus’ Messiahship remained central and vital for Paul” and, in fact, persisted throughout early Christianity.

However, the idea of the Messiah has been transformed in at least four ways, according to Wright, when applied to Jesus: (1) it lost its ethnic specificity and became relevant to all nations; (2) the messianic battle was not against worldly powers but against evil itself; (3) the rebuilt temple would be the followers of Jesus; and (4) the justice, peace, and salvation that Messiah would bring to the world would not be a geopolitical program but the cosmic renewal of all creation. It is to this transformed sense of the Messiah as the Son of God himself that the appellation the Anointed One refers to the time John writes his Gospel and letters.  

More to the point for John’s first Epistle, which does John mean when he writes, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Anointed One? This one is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.[14] Is the liar the person who denies that Jesus is the Messiah? Or is it those who deny the divine nature of Jesus designated by the compound name Jesus the Anointed One? The answer to that question has far-reaching implications for understanding the historical setting and interpreting First John.  

If John is insisting that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah against those who are waiting for another, then John’s original message goes against a Jewish audience, some of whom had become Christians but then changed their minds about Jesus. But if the Anointed One had come to designate the divine nature of Jesus that went beyond all Jewish expectation for the Messiah, then he writes against any who deny that divine nature.[15] So as we can see, the inner meaning of the Anointed One is the essence of His being “the Anointed One.” When forgotten, then the Anointed One becomes a title or surname, and His designation as the Anointed One becomes lost in translation.  

By the early 1700s in English speaking countries, the term “Christ” became a surname. Even if they would have inserted “the” it would have changed the connotation to Jesus the Christ. Nevertheless, we must never forget that each time we say the word “Christ” we are actually saying, “the Anointed One.” – the Messiah.

[1] Burton, Ernest De Witt: The Records and Letters of the Apostolic Age, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1895 (1881 Version), p. 206

[2] Œcolampadius, Johannes: Sermons on the First Epistle of John: (A handbook for the Christian Life), Trans. Timothy Matthew Slemmons, 2017

[3] A demonstrative pronoun is used to point to something specific within a sentence.

[4] Leberecht De Wette, Wilhelm Martin: An Historico-Critical Introduction to the Canonical Books of the New Testament, translated by Frederick Frothingham, Crosby, Nichols, and Company, Boston, 1858, pp. 354, 356

[5] Gloag, Patton James: Introduction to the Johannine Writings, James Nisbet & Co., London, 1891, p. viii

[6] These may be some of the churches he wrote to during his exile on the Isle of Patmos. See Revelation, Chapters 2-3

[7] Revelation 16:18

[8] Josephus, Flavius: Wars of the Jews, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, Sections. 286-287, pp. 1590-1591

[9] Revelation 16:19

[10] Approximately 660 feet

[11] See Matthew 1:1

[12] Mark 8:29

[13] Colossians 1:22

[14] 1 John 2:22

[15] Jobes, Karen H., 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament Series Book 18) (p. 53). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.  Jobes, Karen H. 1, 2, and 3 John, op. cit., pp. 54-56

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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