Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Joyous Doctrine: 1 John 1

In Summary:

Now we move forward into the Johannine Epistles. These are the three letters labeled 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John in the Bible. Tradition, including the manuscript evidence available with labels, ascribes the authorship of these letters to John, son of Zebedee and brother of James, one of the Twelve Disciples. There are also some connections in vocabulary and methodology between the Gospel of John and 1 John, especially, that suggest these have the same author. For a fuller look at the issues, take a read here The Writings of John by C. Marvin Pate. For simplicity’s sake, I will simply proceed on the assumption that these are written by John the Apostle. I see no harm to the interpretation of the text that way.

1 John does not read like one of Paul’s Epistles. We are not faced with the standard opening greetings, personal remarks, or even authorial declaration! John begins his letter where he also begins his Gospel: at the very “beginning.” (See John 1:1) Rather than identify himself by his calling, his ministry, or even his name, John highlights that he writes of what he has seen, studied, and touched. He establishes that his work is based on personal interaction with Jesus, here called the Word of Life. He goes on to make clear in this chapter that God has no darkness in Him, but that we all have a need for God because of our sin.

In Focus:

Where we could focus for a moment is on 1 John 1:4. Why here? John gives his reason for writing: so that his “joy may be made complete.” First off, let’s address the “we write….our joy….” concept here. In the modern way of speaking, we are accustomed to using a singular first-person pronoun because using the plural requires either multiple people or it’s a sign of self-importance like the “royal we” that is used by kings and queens. So, if we read that backward onto the text, our opinion of John will be skewed. Or we will search for the identity of those with him.

But you cannot do that with a text written in another culture, another language, and another millennium. You have to dig into how they wrote back then. There are two additional aspects of using “we/our” in place of “I/mine.” The first is actually that it was possible that an author was speaking on behalf of a larger group even if none is specified. For example, John writes as part of the “we” that is the church, to another part of the church. The other possibility comes back to fellowship: John is writing so that the joy of he and his audience will be complete. That is the view I would take here, that John is addressing the idea of fellowship and interaction between the church-at-large, and how he is writing to ensure his audience remains in fellowship with the Body of Christ at large.

This connects to his explanation of doctrinal issues in this first chapter: the eternal nature of Jesus and the untainted goodness of God. If the recipients of the letter undo the character of God or lose the divinity of Christ, they are moving so far from the faith that they will not be in fellowship any longer, they will not be able to count themselves in the Body of Christ any longer.

In Practice:

What does this mean for us?

First, note that there is joy to be found in getting doctrine right and together. We tend to think of doctrine as dry, dull, unhappy matters to attend to quickly so that we can do the fun stuff. But knowing the truth about God is joyful. It should bring us joy to think of the Eternal God and His untainted character. Especially if you look around and see some tainted characters in this world.

Second, note that we are part of a community of faith that needs us, and we need them. We are too quick to isolate ourselves, sometimes simply within our own churches, and miss the larger picture. In the same way, our churches tend to do that as well. Come up for air and look around: there are good things to celebrate in other places, and things to take warning of from other places.

Third, note that John is writing. He is communicating, with all effort to be clear, about what the church needs. We need to do the same thing: be clear about the Truth of Jesus, first of all, and about truth overall. We cannot work in hints and suggestions, or with unwritten, unclear ideas. Spread the truth plainly, that the joy of understanding may be known.

In Nerdiness: 

Nerd note 1: According to some of my sources (academic sources, not news-type sources, I just don’t want to list all the differing commentaries, Study Bibles, etc…), 1 John should be considered the first of John’s writings, and his Gospel comes later. Other sources flip-flop that and put the Gospel first. I’m inclined to agree that the Epistle came first. Some of the thoughts in the Epistle seem to be more fully developed in the Gospel, and knowing preachers, I figure if John had already written his Gospel, he would have just sent it instead of writing a new letter.

Nerd note 2: in 1:1, “Word of Life” is “Logos of Life” in Greek, using the same terminology that John uses in his Gospel about “In the beginning was the Word…” good parallel to take note of.

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