Monday, May 26, 2008

The Revelation to John

Note to readers: If you have been reading the New Testament and following along in this blog, thank you. We have arrived at the final book of the New Testament and of the Christian Bible. This blog for Revelation is a little late in coming. June will be a nice month to tackle this mysterious work.


The Revelation to John or The Book of Revelation is a fascinating, difficult, powerful and mysterious work. Many readers see it as a road map to the future, if understood correctly – and of course, such readers believe they understand it correctly. “Revelation is widely popular for the wrong reasons, for a great number of people read it as a guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given by Christ detailed knowledge of the future that he communicated in coded symbols” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament). The first book I ever read that interpreted Revelation (by the way, never add an “s” at the end of this – the book should not be called “Revelations” – I took a seminary course on Revelation and the professor threatened to fail anyone who called the text “Revelations”) was such a road-map book, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey not only knew what all the symbols in Revelation were about, he interpreted the book within the framework of premillennialist dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is the belief that all of human history has been divided by God into certain periods or dispensations in which God deals with human persons in different ways. Here is a note from The Scofield Reference Bible, a work which will be referred to shortly. “A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture.” Pre-millennialist dispensationalism includes the idea that the second coming of Jesus Christ will occur in two phases. First Christ will come to rapture faithful Christians, take them out of the world. This is followed by a seven-year period of tribulation in which untold suffering is visited upon humankind (those “left behind” – sound familiar?). Such suffering is foretold, in this interpretation, in The Book of Revelation. After the tribulation, Christ will come for a final battle – the battle of Armageddon – which he will win and afterward establish a one-thousand year reign on earth. Pre-millennialist dispensationalism, with the rapture at its core, as a theological framework for interpreting Revelation is a little over 150 years old. Its roots can be traced to John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher. It was popularized in the United States through the Schofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. “With sales in the millions, it became the version of the Bible through which Americans read their scriptures throughout much of the twentieth century” (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: the message of hope in the Book of Revelation, 23. Rossing is a Lutheran New Testament scholar whose book will be a helpful resource for our reading of Revelation). As is probably obvious by my comments, pre-millennialist dispensationalism will not be the framework for my reading of Revelation. I don’t find it faithful to the text of this work and would argue that some of the implications of this perspective do harm not only to the text, but also to our world. More conservative Christian advocacy for the nation of Israel is frequently rooted in pre-millennialist dispensationalism. Such persons believe the Jews must be in Israel for Christ to return and so support the nation of Israel almost blindly, often neglecting the legitimate claims of Palestinians, some of whom are fellow Christians. Some dispensationalists believe the Temple must be rebuilt. This is a problem as there currently exists on the ancient Temple site the Dome of the Rock mosque.

While some find The Book of Revelation a road map to the future, others find it a “sick text” (Will Self, Revelations, 381). Biblical scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza may have it right when she notes: The Book of Revelation remains for many Christians a book with “seven seals,” seldom read and often relegated to a curiosity in the Bible. For others it has become the book of the New Testament, full of predictions for the future and revelations about the present. (The Book of Revelation: justice and judgment, 1) While we may discover some things in this work that we find unlikable, and perhaps even in tension with the gospel we have come to know in Jesus as the Christ, I hope our reading of it will prove helpful for our lives. That’s the intent and hope of Scripture, to shape our lives, to bring us into a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ, to make us more whole, to encourage us to heal the world. I trust Revelation can be Scripture for us, even if it is difficult and can be interpreted in ways that are peculiarly unhelpful. We need to read it for its potential benefit as Scripture and we need to read it to counter the misinterpretations which lead not toward God’s dream for the world, but toward a more nightmare vision of a God of violent, destructive anger. John Dominic Crossan argues that the normalcy of violent conquest creeps into The Book of Revelation. My basic criticism of the Christian Bible’s final and climactic book is this: It is one thing to announce, as in Mark’s Little Apocalypse, that there will be a spasmic paroxysm of human violence before the returning Christ. It is another thing to announce, as in John’s Great Apocalypse, that there will be a spasmic paroxysm of divine violence by the returning Chirst…. We Christians still have to choose. (God and Empire, 218)

Frightened? Confused? Intimidated? Don’t be. We are just getting started, but in starting I think we do well to take some measure of the way this book has been used and argued about, and continues to be used and argued about. It can be Scripture for us. The Spirit can speak using these words, but the Spirit speaks most clearly, I think, when we take time to grapple with these issues. In the remainder of this introduction, I want to offer some words about the author, setting and context of this work; say a few words about the type of literature we find in Revelation; and then let a few other voices speak about the potential value of this book.

The author makes no claim to be an apostle or personal disciple of the historical Jesus; rather, he distinguishes himself from the “twelve apostles” (21:14), referring to himself simply as “John” and as a “brother” – that is, a fellow Christian, a servant/slave of Christ who writes prophecy. Vocabulary, style, and content indicate that he is a different person from the author of the Gospel of John. Instead the author was a Christian prophet. Nothing further is known about him except what can be inferred from Revelation itself. The Greek style suggests that he was a Palestinian Christian who emigrated to Asia. (New Interpreters Study Bible) This Palestinian Christian, John, was probably “a pastoral leader in the churches of Asia Minor who knew their situation well, an inspired traveling preacher who normally would have delivered his message in their worship services. He has been arrested and deported to the island of Patmos because of his preaching activities.” (People’s New Testament Commentary)

John, this traveling preacher, early Christian leader has been exiled to the island of Patmos and from there writes and sends out this work. It is a letter, and more will be said about this later. What is happening in the churches to which John writes? It seems that the churches to which John writes are experiencing distress, harassment and persecution of some kind. They are being treated as “a marginalized community of outsiders in Greco-Roman urban culture” (New Interpreters Study Bible). While there is little evidence of widespread official Roman persecution of the church in the first century (Nero, 54-68 CE vigorously persecuted Christians in Rome, but there was little persecution beyond this) the emperor Domitian (81-96) engaged in some actions hostile to those who did not follow the official religion. Domitian executed opponents, was monarchical and authoritarian in his rule, and referred to himself as Lord and God. The tone of his reign could certainly have encouraged local harassment and persecution, even executions of people of Christian faith. John himself has been a victim of such harassment/persecution.

Into this situation, John writes his letter. “Revelation has the framework of a pastoral letter filled with apocalyptic content” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Both these identities are important in trying to understand Revelation. Many of the images used refer to the current situation of those to whom the letter is addressed. One reason for coded language is that the work criticizes the empire, and that could lead to detrimental consequences. The realization that Revelation is a letter removes much of the mystery about how to approach it…. Revelation is to be read as a message to other people, in the first century, a letter they understood, but that requires some explanation before the modern reader can understand it. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The apocalyptic nature of the work is also important. The very title “Revelation” translates the Greek word “apokalypsis” from which we derive our words “apocalyptic” and “apocalypse.” Let me use again paragraphs about “eschatology” and “apocalyptic” that I used when we read apocalyptic literature in the gospels. I will then elaborate on apocalyptic literature further.

Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”

Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus.

Eschatology has to do with last things or endings. Apocalyptic refers to something hidden being revealed. In the New Testament, apocalyptic literature was also most often eschatological literature, that is, it is a literature that has to do with revealing something about the last things.

As a literary genre, apocalyptic designates the revelation of mysteries of the transcendent world, either cosmic information about how the universe works or information about the future destiny of the world. Such literature was common in many circles of First-century Judaism and Christianity. John adopts the style and imagery of apocalyptic literature and makes it a vehicle of his distinctive Christian message. The form and imagery, so strange to modern readers, were traditional and conventional to him and his reader…. Apocalyptic imagery did not seem grotesque or weird to the ancient reader. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

Here are some of the typical features of apocalyptic literature (from New Interpters Study Bible):
• “The transcendent world is represented in symbolic language.”
• “The perception of all reality in dualistic terms, in which good and evil, light and darkness, truth and falsehood, God and Satan, are all sharply contrasted.”
• “The expectation of the near end of history in which the kingdom of God will triumph.”

Reading The Book of Revelation is no simple matter. Will it be worth our effort? I share some testimonies from others of the meaning and value of this work for those seeking to live the Christian faith in any age.

The best way to begin to grasp what Revelation has to say to the contemporary church is to gather in a worship setting, join briefly in praise and prayer, then have a good reader (or several) read aloud the whole text without interruption or comment…. Discussions and books about Revelation will be of little help without an encounter with the content of the book as a whole, which presents the reader with a vision of the risen Christ that leads through a series of disasters to pictures of the final triumph of God’s kingdom. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

This same author, Eugene Boring, writes the commentary for The New Interpreters Study Bible and there he offers these words: One aspect of John’s intent pertains to the choice faced by Christians living in the cities of Asia Minor who must decide whether to orient their lives to the earthly rebellious city (Babylon) or to the eschatological city in which God rules (New Jerusalem). Similar choices face Christians in any age – where do our ultimate allegiances lie?

Dr. Boring thinks we grasp some part of Revelation best in the context of worship. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Revelation in The Message also considers worship an important aspect of understanding Revelation. The Bible ends with a bang: dreams, songs, doom and deliverance, terror and triumph. The color, the sounds, the image, the passion, leave us staggering. But if we keep reading, we begin to figure out the rhythms, we begin to see the whole picture, and we begin to realize that we are part of a very large picture full of color and texture and beauty. And the moment we begin to see – really see – we find ourselves doing worship. John of Patmos, a pastor of the late first century, has worship on his mind…. Worship is our response to a living God…. As the Revelation makes clear, worship must take place in the midst of hostility and hate…. John’s Revelation is not easy reading. Besides being a pastor, John is a poet, so his words become symbolic and difficult, but his passion to bring us into the presence of Jesus comes through loud and clear…. By the time we are done reading, our minds and our imaginations have been given new life, and we cannot help but worship God with passion and joy.

Kathleen Norris, herself a poet has a deep appreciation for this work (from her essay in Revelations). I love this unlovable book for many reasons. It’s a pretty good description of the writing process – crazed angels directing you to write, and not write, and to eat words that taste sweet in the mouth but soon turn to gall…. You write it out as best you can, letting the images and symbols fly, and then the fools interpret it literally, arguing over what everything “means.” I am attracted to Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song – if you can imagine – and light will be what remains…. This is a poet’s book, which is probably the best argument for reclaiming it from fundamentalists. It doesn’t tell, it shows, over and over again, its images unfolding, pushing hard against the lines of language and metaphor, engaging the listener in a tale that has the satisfying yet unsettling logic of a dream…. More than any other book of the Christian Bible, Revelation has suffered from bad interpretation; solipsistic, short-sighted, cruel. Cruelty is not a distinguishing feature of the book itself; rather, it describes in stark terms the world we have made and boldly asserts that our cruelties and injustices will not have the last word…. It is a healing vision, meant to give us hope. God’s wrath is stirred by what we have done to the world he made, and that’s the good news. God intends to take our mess and make it come out right…. The book embraces a great psychological truth, that the crises and apocalypses of our lives are not meant to beat us into submission so much as to give us room to change and grow. But we usually don’t rise to the challenge…. Revelation uncovers the world as it is and reveals to us our true condition. And John insists that, despite ourselves, God wills to restore this world to a beauty we can scarcely imagine. I encourage you to find and read Norris’ essay in its entirety.

One final word of introduction. The Book of Revelation is a crucial text for helping us see God’s life in our world. For that we must reclaim this text from fundamentalists. Revelation takes us on a journey… into the heart of God, a journey into the heart of our world…. It teaches us to challenge oppression and to look for signs of hope, even when evil seems overpowering. It gives us an urgent vision for our future in which God dwells with us, on earth. This is a vision that can guide us in a post-September 11 world. A river of life flows through the Bible and the book of Revelation, a river flowing from the throne of God to bring healing to our world. Revelation offers its wondrous water of life as a gift to all who are thirsty for God’s presence. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed)

Both Norris and Rossing take issue with “fundamentalists.” I think their issue is with premillennialist dispensationalism, which is often a part of a fundamentalist Christianity. Those who hold to a premillenialist dispensationalist interpretation of Revelation are brothers and sisters in Christ, and their interpretation no doubt quenches a spiritual thirst. But I would suggest that such an interpretation of Revelation offers only a trickle of living water to only a few, when its intention is to offer springs of living water to a parched world. Can this book really sing? Can living waters of the Spirit flow from it? Let’s find out.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Hey Jude… sorry, I couldn’t resist. The Letter of Jude is obviously one of the briefest documents in the New Testament. It appears to be a letter written to a specific community that is troubled by false teachers whose lifestyle the writer considers immoral and whose teachings he considers off the mark.

This brief letter exhorts its recipients to remain unwavering in faith and to lead virtuous lives, while rejecting the immoral lure of false teachers who are preying upon the community. The precise authorship, circumstances, date, origin, and location of its intended audience are impossible to determine with certainty. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

This little book is short, sharp, and salutary. Jude sets out to write an enthusiastic letter about the wonders of salvation but finds himself writing strong, stern words instead. He is motivated by love of God and love for his readers. Jude (said by tradition to be the brother of Jesus as well as his servant) burns with passion for the purity of the faith; he can’t bear to see it undermined. But that is exactly what is happening, and a warning must be issued. With anguish and energy Jude startles his readers into taking notice. At the beginning and end of the letter, Jude speaks of the mercy, peace, love, power and security that are available in Jesus Christ. In the middle of the letter, Jude gives graphic examples of the awful possibility of perverting what Jesus offers. Though the examples Jude gives certainly would have evoked powerful memories for his original readers, some of them may seem irrelevant to us in our culture and our time. We can’t escape the significance of this letter, however. God’s Spirit, who inspired Jude’s letter, asks us to consider what might pervert God’s grace in our day. What behavior, lifestyle, attitudes or destructive talk do we need to address?... May his passionate words kindle the fire of love in our hearts. Be warned. Take action. Keep yourself in the love of God. (The Spiritual Formation Bible)

At its best, Jude may help kindle a fire of love in our hearts. Others find the book less helpful. “Today, except for the memorable phrasing in Jude 3 to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, most people find this very brief work too negative, too dated, and too apocalyptic to be of much use” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament). It is a part of our Scripture and we will need to see how the Spirit might use these words to touch our lives.

Let’s discuss a few other issues before tackling the text more directly. It seems unlikely that Jude, the brother of Jesus is the author of the letter, though the author is well-versed in the texts and traditions of Judaism. It seems to come from a later time in the development of the Christian faith, though it was probably written before II Peter as that letter quotes verses 6-19 extensively. Sometime in the late first century seems plausible. A few more words about the problem facing the Jesus community receiving this letter might yet be helpful. The readers now face the dangers brought by certain intruders whose destructive influence is not so much doctrinal as it is behavioral. By denying the second coming and the judgment, they effectively remove the moral constraints that kept many from immorality. According to the author, the license promoted in the name of Christian freedom amounted to a denial of Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The letter opens in a warm and welcoming manner, but with an interesting twist in language. The letter is addressed to “those who are called, who are beloved in God.” This is a very nice phrase. It is joined by a word about being “kept safe.” In an emerging faith community, where long-term existence was a live issue, such language would have been deeply comforting. There are times in our lives when we, too, long to be “kept safe.” It is one image, but only one image for Christian faith. It needs to be counterbalanced by a sense of an adventurous faith. The recipients are wished “mercy, peace and love” in abundance – another beautiful phrase.

The writer had intended to pen one letter, one focusing on the shared faith and saving activity of God. Instead, circumstances prompt him to write a different letter, one in which he contends for the faith hoping to encourage the readers to do the same. Wandering teachers have slipped into the community and intruded on its life in unhealthy ways. The author has no use for these people, arguing that were “long ago” designated for condemnation. This is a difficult phrase, and might imply that God has designated some people for condemnation. To use this to make that argument is to misuse the passage, I think. It is to take a pastoral remark and make it abstract and doctrinal. The writer is seeking to assure the readers that in spite of the difficulty they are facing, God is not overwhelmed. These intruding teachers have perverted the grace of God into “licentiousness” and “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” The primary objection is moral and behavioral – though we are not here given the content of the objectionable behavior nor the content of the objectionable teaching.

Perhaps what the author meant in verse 4 about God condemning these troublesome teachers refers to what the tradition has indicated God has done with previous troublesome persons. These new troublemakers are similar to past troublemakers. The writer decides to share stories from Scripture and tradition about troublemakers meeting a bad end – the story of Israelites freed from Egypt who died in the wilderness, the story from Genesis about heavenly beings, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story about angels was expanded in a Jewish writing – I Enoch, which is a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Old Testament. The “sexual immorality” of Sodom and Gomorrah, their pursuing of “unnatural lust” (literally “pursued other flesh”) may have something to do with seeking some sort of union with the divine through sex. “Union with the divine through sex was a claim in many ancient fertility rites and continues in the promises of some cults today” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

The writer argues that these intrusive teachers have their heads in the clouds, misuse their bodies, reject appropriate authority, and speak slander against the angels that may have, in some way, fascinated them. He cites another story from the Jewish tradition, this one appearing in a work called “The Assumption of Moses.” The troublemakers “slander whatever they do not understand.” Further, “they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.” More than their teaching is in question. Their lifestyle was the more serious problem, it seems. Apparently they advocated desire run amok. The exact nature of their action remains vague. Sexuality is involved at some level, but just what the writer is concerned about is unknown. I recently heard Jude used to argue against homosexuality. I don’t believe the text warrants such use.

Other stories are told – Cain, Balaam, Korah. “Jewish rabbis had linked these three as examples of those who have no share in the life to come” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The author calls these people “blemishes – waterless clouds, trees without fruit, wild waves of the sea, and wandering stars,” none of which he means for good. They will be judged by God, the writer tells us, citing Enoch again. He characterizes them further – “grumblers and malcontents.” They “indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” It might have been interesting to know how these people described themselves.

The writer has cited Jewish writings, from what would become Scripture and what would remain outside. He now cites an apostolic teaching, though the source is unknown. At what these people scoffed is not known. Again, the writer continues to characterize them. They are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit… causing division.”

In contrast, the author encourages his readers to “build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” But you, dear friends, carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ. This is the unending life, the real life! (The Message) If one gets a little lost or put off by the verses just prior to these, these verses arrive like a breath of fresh air. A positive focus seems helpful. Yes, troubles abound, and need to be dealt with, but don’t lose focus on growing in faith. And an important part of living faith is showing mercy on those struggling with their faith, even, it seems, those most involved with the wandering teachers.

The final words are gracious and encouraging.

One of the difficulties in reading the New Testament letters is that we have one side of the conversation. All of the descriptions of those against whom the author writes are rather vague. We get little sense of the precise teachings and actions of those whom he opposes. As I have noted before, Christian faith is elastic, but not infinitely so. Certain teachings and behaviors take one outside Christian faith, but the precise boundaries are themselves topics for conversation and dialogue. Such conversation was less possible in the early days of the church as a fledgling community was forming. Boundaries needed to be established more firmly. Today we have more freedom to question, to converse. In such an environment, the positive side of this letter is more helpful and applicable. Seek to steep yourself in mercy, peace and love. Build yourself in faith, pray, keep centered in God’s love, be compassionate.

Eugene Peterson’s words about this letter are helpful. He describes Jude as “a doctor diagnosing what was wrong.” Then he elaborates. There is far more, of course, to living in Christian community than worrying about some undetected virus or sickness. Worrying too much is a sickness as well. Spiritual health, in Jude’s words, is “keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ.” Healthy living, in other words, is finding life in Jesus.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Unlike the First Letter of John, which probably was not a letter at all, or at least a very different kind of letter, this document has all the features of a genuine first century letter. Its contents would have fit on one page of standard size papyrus. It is from one called “the elder,” as is the Third Letter of John.

Scholars disagree about the identity of this person and his relation to the author of the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John. Some argue that while this author is part of the Johannine stream of Christian faith, he should not be identified with either the writer of the Gospel or with the author of the First Letter. Others argue that one person authored all three letters, and a few argue that the same person is responsible for all three letters and the Gospel. While this is interesting scholarly debate it is not of great help as we consider this writing for our own lives. It seems clear that there is a relationship between the Johannine writings so that they share some similarity in theological perspective on the emerging Christian faith. Most date this letter in the late first century to early second century.

The letter is addressed to “the elect lady and her children,” which is probably a metaphor for a Christian congregation. The Message in fact renders the beginning, “My dear congregation.” The issue which concerns the elder is one familiar from the First Letter of John – a concern that this Jesus community continue to love and that they continue to adhere to the truth about Jesus – that he was a human, historic person, however else he might also be understood.

II John is important theologically because of its view of proper doctrine, which suggests “orthodoxy” had emerged as a standard by which to measure the authenticity of all who claim to be Christian. This may be a response to the influence of an early form of Gnostic and docetic Christology, which held that Christ only seemed (or appeared) to be human. (New Interpreters Study Bible). One wonders if the situation in which a stronger stress on “right belief” – that is, a situation in which a small community is emerging and establishing its identity, and is threatened by conflict and schism, translates very well into the situation of a large and powerful institutional church. Given the relative strength of the Christian church today, can we be a little more generous in our discussion about the meaning of Christian faith? More about that in a moment.

The elder greets the congregation, a congregation that might have been some distance away – a satellite Johannine Jesus community if you will. They are greeted by the elder and told that all who know the truth love them. He assures them of “grace, mercy and peace” in “truth and love.” Truth and love are the chief concerns of the Johannine epistles.

The relation of truth and love in this letter, as in the first one is interesting. We are to walk in the truth, which entails walking in love. Reference is made to commandments, but the central commandment is to love. While the Christian life is concerned with truth in a more abstract sense, its deepest concern seems to be with a truth that is lived out by walking in love.

A threat to the community is on its way. This community will encounter “deceivers” and “antichrist” - - - “those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” We have seen this issue before in I John and discussed its significance there. It is more than abstract doctrine – it has to do with how we value history and life in this world. Christian faith expects that we will live faith in the world as it is, not simply wait for another world. Given the likelihood of deceptive teachers confronting this community, they are encouraged to be on guard. They are to hold on to the teaching of Christ – probably better translated “the teaching about Christ” referring to the teaching about Jesus being a true human being. Christian teaching may be elastic, but it cannot be stretched beyond certain limits.

So concerned is the elder with this deceptive teaching that he tells his readers that they are not to receive or welcome persons who bring such teaching to town. We see where a strict interpretation of that could lead when with Latin logic Tertullian maintained that heretics have no right to appeal to the Scriptures, and later Christians concluded that the safest way to be certain that heretical ideas were not disseminated was to execute the heretics. True, when positive harm is being done to others, even charity has limits; yet fierce exclusiveness in the name of truth usually backfires on its practitioners. C.H. Dodd once asked, “Does truth prevail the more if we are not on speaking terms with those whose view of truth differs from ours – however disastrous their error may be?” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament).

The letter ends with greetings from another congregation.

It has never been easy to be the church. There are always complex issues. How generous can we be in doctrinal discussion? Raymond Brown’s attitude seems wonderfully commendable, especially for a church that is millions strong.


The author of this letter is probably the same person as the author of Second John. Both are referred to as the elder. It was probably written in about the same time period. Unlike Second John, this letter is directed to an individual, Gaius. However, the letter addresses a concern in the Jesus community in which Gaius is involved, or one nearby

Gaius is wished well, body and soul, and commended for his faithfulness – walking in the truth. One indication that he walks in the truth is the hospitality he shows to traveling Christian teachers. As in the other Johannine letters, truth and love are closely linked. Gaius has been showing hospitality, and is encouraged to continue doing so – to send the teachers on “in a manner worthy of God.” In showing these teachers love and hospitality, Gaius shares in their work.

In contrast to Gaius is Diotrephes. He has some authority within a Jesus community, either Gaius’ or one nearby. The latter seems to make more sense given the letter. Diotrephes has status and authority, but in the elder’s opinion is misusing it badly. He prevents correspondence from the elder from reaching the community, and, in fact, spreads false rumors about the elder. He refuses to extend Christian hospitality to the teachers associated with the elder, and prevents others in his Jesus community from doing the same – even to the point of expelling them from the church. The problem with Diotrephes is not doctrinal, but behavioral. He misuses his position and power.

In what is one of the more obvious lessons drawn in the Bible, Gaius is encouraged not to imitate evil (probably spelled “Diotrephes”). Instead he should imitate what is good. “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” Again, truth and conduct, spirituality and life are interconnected. One Demetrius is held up as a positive example.

A wish for peace and warm, friendly greetings end the letter.

Oh that glorious New Testament Church – even within the pages of the New Testament we encounter misuse, even abuse of “spiritual” power and authority. Raymond Brown argues that Diotrephes is best seen not as one of the false teachers referred to in the first two letters of John, but as someone who defends the true faith. In the face of these antichrists Diotrephes would have decided that authoritative human teachers were needed, namely, those who had the background to know what was erroneous and the administrative authority to keep false teachers away. He took on that role for his local church, keeping all missionaries out, including those of the [elder]. (An Introduction to the New Testament, 404). For Johannine Christianity, getting it right doctrinally was not enough. One needed to get it right in love. There is a lesson here for all of us.
I John 4

I John 4:1-6: Believing that God was in Jesus as the Christ in a unique way and living in love are two sides of the same coin. The writer has written that we are to love not in word and speech, but in truth and action (3:18). There is, then, a deep connection between spiritual belief and a way of life. But there is a lot of spiritual talk about – there was in the Roman empire of the first century and there is in our day and time. Perhaps not everything that comes under the name of religion or spirituality leads to a healthy connection between belief and life, between thought and love.

The author knows this and encourages his readers to test the spirits, to test spiritual teachings, to see if they genuinely connect people to the God of Jesus Christ who seeks transformed lives. One way to test whether spiritual teachings are genuine is whether or not they teach that Jesus as the Christ was a human person. While the exact nature of the teaching of those who have separated themselves from the Johannine Jesus community is not clear, one thing that was problematic was a teaching that Jesus was some spiritual being and not really human. As noted before, what is at stake here is the idea that Christian faith means transformed living in this world, not an escape from this world. The writer again calls those who maintain such teachings “antichrist.”

The writer then goes on to assure the readers that they are on the right side, that they are from God. There has been a divide in the community, and those who remain have chosen the right side. Such language is better understood as words of assurance to a hurting community rather than words that would further divide people. Unfortunately, the history of the church is littered with the use of such language to exclude conversation partners within the Christian family. Again, in a point made consistently in this blog, there is a certain elasticity in Christian thinking and thus dialogue and conversation are imperative for Christian theology and life. Yet, Christian doctrine is not infinitely elastic. There are some teachings that take one beyond Christian faith, but great care needs to be taken in drawing lines. The writer’s language in these verses does not lend itself particularly well to such careful dialogue. He is convinced that some are from God and some are from the world, some have within the Spirit of God, and some the spirit of the world. In the context of the kind of pitched battle the writer finds himself, this language is understandable, but, again, its contemporary application needs to be thoughtful and careful. For many of us, our experience is that the dividing line between what is of God’s Spirit and what may be more “worldly” is found within our very hearts.

I John 4:7-21: The line of thinking shifts. The writer wants to focus on the way of life of those who have God’s Spirit. The primary focus of this writing is to delineate this way of life – and it is a life characterized by love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Love is central to a life lived in God’s Spirit because the very nature of God is love.

This God who is love shared this love and showed this love in Jesus as the Christ. God’s love is a love that God initiates. God sent God’s “only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” For Christians, a central affirmation is that we know this God of love because we know Jesus Christ as God’s son. The God of Jesus Christ desires life for us – new life. Our own actions have often gotten in the way of that life and God in Jesus as the Christ was able to cut through our sins. The writer uses the language of “atoning sacrifice,” a language that would have resonated with his readers. Other images, or additional understandings of that language may be more helpful to us. The point is that God is love. God’s love is an active love that reaches out to the loved ones and does what it needs to do to clear the way for a life-giving relationship. But that love is not just a theological construct – it is a model for our own love – reach out, clear the way for new life-giving relationships. The unseen God becomes seen when love is lived out.

These verses affirm without qualification that the very nature of God is disclosed in love – for God and for fellow human beings. The author flatly asserts, “God is love” (4:8). While the author may be thinking of love within the Christian community, these verses will come to be a touchstone for the centrality of Christian love for all persons, deriving from the experience of divine love displayed in the life and work of Jesus Christ. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

There is another shift here where the writer brings Spirit-language back into the flow of thought. When we love we are born of God and know God, the author asserts. Now he asserts that the Spirit’s presence in our lives is also an indication that our lives are in God – that God abides in us and we in God. We live life in God’s Spirit when we “confess that Jesus is the Son of God.” “Both Son and Jesus imply the physical quality of Christ, which the separatists deny” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The writer seems to feel the need to repeat himself in slightly different language in slightly different contexts. What makes the letter difficult in places is that we have only one side of the conversation. If we had a better idea of just what the separatists were teaching, some of this language would be clearer. Again and again, the basic point seems to be that God desires new life for human kind. This new life is life in God’s Spirit, but life in God’s Spirit is not an ethereal life which seeks to escape from the world. Rather, this new Spirit-life is meant to be world-transforming, because the one in whom we know this life was Jesus – who while Christ, and God’s Son, was also a physical human being. Believing this and teaching this are crucial given the teaching of those who have left the Johannine Jesus community. But along with this teaching, and even more important, is that this new life, this Spirit-life, is a life of love, because the God we know in Jesus Christ is love. The basic points are there to be grasped and grappled with, and sometimes they are stated with sheer beauty. At other times, the letter is frustrating in its repetition.

From Spirit back to love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (v. 16). Love gets perfected in us as we become Christ-like in the world – “because as he is, so are we in this world.” Having love mature in us, become perfected in us, also means we do not fear God’s judgment. Here the writer seems to be telling the readers to quit worrying about the last judgment – that it will take care of itself if we are growing and being perfected in love. This is a refreshing message given the history of the church wherein eternal punishment was often used as a threat to motivate people to live Christian values, forgetting that fear is not one of those values. The author seems to be saying, “forget about judgment and punishment, work on letting love do its work in your life.” Love is very practical, to love means you cannot hate your brother or sister. “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. (The Message) One might guess that there may be a polemic edge here. Those who have left the community are pictured as doing so for less than loving reasons.

I John 5

I John 5:1-5: The writer doubles back again – those who believe that Jesus is the Christ have been born of God. In 4:7, the writer has said that all who love have been born of God. For this author, both are necessary, beliefs about the importance of Jesus, a human person in whom we know God in a unique way, and a way of life characterized by love. At their best, these reinforce each other. We see God as love in Jesus, and so live lovingly. When we want to know what living God’s love is like, we look to Jesus. We love others when we love God and we love God when we love others. The first commandment is to love, but the writer hints that other commandments may be important as well. All should be seen as explications of love. The life of love is not burdensome. It is meant to be a way of life that conquers the world’s way of life.

I John 5:6-12: As if we have not heard it enough, the writer wants to again emphasize the importance of Jesus the Christ as a human being who lived and died (the blood). Life is to be found in following Jesus as the Christ, by living in love. “Whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This verse is part of the on-going message of the letter, assuring the community that they are the ones who have new life, Spirit-life in God, rather than those who have left and in leaving claimed to possess such life – maybe exclusively. The writer is arguing that they do not. This verse should not be interpreted as a final Christian word about other religions. That is not its context.

I John 5:13-21: The writer’s context is spelled out – he is writing to those who believe, who are part of the Jesus community and believe that the community formed around a person who lived and died, fully human. He writes to assure the readers that they have new life in God – “eternal life.” Such life includes a certain boldness in relationship to God, and a trust that in God’s Spirit-life, God will give us what we need so that love might be perfected within us.

The author has not written much about sin for awhile, so why not throw it in before closing the letter? This testifies to the rather strange and difficult construct of the letter. Anyway, the writer asks for prayer and forgiveness and new life for those who have sinned, unless the sin is such that it leads to death. We don’t know what kind of sin this is from the context, though certain branches of Christian faith have made quite a history of determining mortal sins. Some find almost a contradiction in I John’s insistence on love and the refusal to pray for those who commit a deadly sin…. It is not arrogance to recognize evil and those who do it; but Christians should be careful about deciding that such people are radically evil in themselves and cannot be prayed for (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 393).

Continuing on in discussing sin, the writer repeats an earlier assertion that those born of God do not sin. That is in tension with other things the writer has also written. Perhaps he means that sin does not characterize such lives, that Christians don’t continue to sin as a way of life. A rather sharp contrast is drawn between those who live as God’s children and those caught up in the way of the world. In Jesus Christ we know God and we know new life. We are not enamored with the world’s idols.

The letter ends abruptly. We are grateful for it many beautiful passages and relevant ideas. If we seek to love God and respond to God’s love, we need to love. The Christian life is a life wherein we seek to let God’s love be perfected in us. Focusing on Jesus as both the one in whom we know God and in whom we see full human life is important for Christians. For Christians Jesus is more than simply one among the number of great spiritual teachers. To be a Christian involves seeking God in Jesus as the Christ. While we are helped to consider such issues by this letter, the work itself is sometimes difficult to follow. It is not always clear what the writer’s flow of thought might be. Some of that has to do with the polemic context of the writing – the author is writing against others and we don’t know who these others are. The author is repetitive, and that can get in the way of his work.

One way to consider what is happening in this work is to think about jazz. Jazz musicians take a theme, a tune, an idea, and improvise around it. In some ways, that is what this author seems to be doing. He picks up a thread of thought, blows with it awhile, and then picks up another tune and blows with that. The works has a disjointed feel, but certain themes run through it, and sometimes they are beautifully and wonderfully expressed. On any given day, maybe only one riff or two connects with us and that is o.k.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I John 2

I John 2:1-6: The writer continues to reflect on the Christian life as a life in which we work against sin while acknowledging that we never quite get there. In the last chapter, forgiveness was emphasized, here the call to work against sin in one’s life. The author writes to encourage the readers to live the Jesus way, to avoid sin, to walk as Jesus walked. Yet when we fall short, there is forgiveness – the writer uses the image of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. That forgiveness is found in Jesus is a central Christian affirmation, but the image used here is but one possible image for describing that, one that may have been more relevant to that time than ours. God’s love working in human lives shapes those lives so that they walk the Jesus walk. Again, the author is portraying the Christian life as one of both forgiveness and striving to live a new way. Those words ring true for us today. We seek to live the Jesus way, yet fall short and need forgiveness. But forgiveness is not an end in itself – we move on, we let God’s love continue to form our lives, to shape us. Forgiveness that does not lead us on toward new life might be considered “cheap grace,” a term used by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I John 2:7-11: The essence of the Jesus way of life has not been specified to this point. The writer has only told the reader that we should walk as Jesus walked. Here he gets more specific. He is giving them an old, yet ever new commandment – love. It is old in that the command comes from Jesus and was apparently taught to this Jesus community already. It is new because it is part of the new creation God is bringing into being, part of the kingdom of light. If you really want to live in the light, love. The writer often uses plenty of words, and sometimes confusing turns of phrase, to make his point, but the point here is clear – the Jesus way, the way of light, is the way of love.

I John 2:12-17: These verses probably use metaphoric language to direct particular comments to distinct groups within the church. The writer may be referring to people in different places on the Christian spiritual journey. If so, it is a helpful reminder to all of us that we have different needs along the journey of faith, and at different times, different words are needed, or different modes of prayer. Many testify that their practices, their spiritual disciplines change over time, or that one method of prayer becomes more important at different times in life. For me, personally, silent prayer has become much more important in my life, though there are times when verbal prayer remains vital. In Buddhism, there is the concept of skillful means, which means something like teaching the spiritual tradition in a way the recipient of the teaching can understand, in a way helpful to her or him. Perhaps the author is here engaged in a Christian version of skillful means. Whatever different groups might need, there is a shared responsibility to resist the world – meaning not the planet but that which is contrary to the reign of God, contrary to God’s dream for the world. The world as God’s creation is… not evil. Evil arises in the inordinate desire for what one can acquire and possess, things visible not spiritual. From such acquisitions come the proud illusion that life has been attained. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, everything created is transitory, as is the appetite for it. It is entirely foolish, therefore, to make such an investment of one’s life. (People’s New Testament Commentary) It is important to note the phrase, “inordinate desire.” These verses are not a rejection of the world nor the legitimate needs for food, clothing, shelter, and the like. Desire is not the problem, it is desire uncontrolled, desire unwisely fed, that is the problem. Here is verse 17 from The Message: The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out – but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

I John 2:18-28: The theme shifts in these verses. Apparently there has been a split in the community of faith to which the author is writing, and the author attributes this to the work of “antichrists.” The writer connects the idea of the last hour with the congregational split and the presence of antichrists. The phrase “antichrist” is peculiar to I John, but it certainly has made an appearance in more modern Christian end time narratives. The linking of suffering, evil and the end times is familiar – it is a part of “apocalyptic literature,” a style of religious writing not uncommon to that time. Recall from our discussion of certain parts of the gospels that apocalyptic literature is often symbolic and has, as its basic conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a period of intense suffering. There are apocalyptic themes looming in these verses.

One can only imagine how painful this congregational split must have been for it to evoke apocalyptic themes – antichrists at work, the end being near. Those who left “did not belong to us” the writer asserts. The author assures the readers that they have been given the Holy Spirit, and should stay true to their faith. Then he introduces the issue that seems to be central in the community split – the nature of Jesus and of how God was working in him. Apparently, those who left (antichrists or persons influenced by antichrists) did not understand that Jesus is the Christ, or that the Christ is Jesus - - - that God was at work in a special way in the life, work, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. “What specifically is being denied is not clear at this point” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Later, the problem seems to be that some deny Jesus as the Christ was a human being (4:2). There were a number of contested ideas about Jesus and his relationship to God that emerged in the early centuries of Christianity – the technical theological term for the doctrine about Jesus as the Christ is “Christology.” As with all Christian doctrine, there was and remains a certain elasticity to Christology, that is, not everyone needs speak of who Jesus is and how he is God incarnate in the same way. Yet Christology is not infinitely elastic, that is, some views of Jesus seem to take one beyond Christian faith. The basic Christian affirmation is that in the human Jesus, God was present in a unique and special way. We speak of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. How we do that varies, but Christologies that leave behind one pole in this tension or the other are usually deemed unacceptable.

In the early centuries of the Christian faith Docetism was a Christology wherein the humanity of Christ was compromised beyond recognition. It was rooted in a Greek idea that bodily historical existence was somehow corrupt, so that divinity could not enter such existence. Jesus, as the Christ, would have been a divine being that only seemed to become human, sort of putting on a costume of sorts. While full-blown Docetism was a later development, some early form of this may have been the issue with the community to which this writer is writing. On the other side, Ebionitism was found in a community of early Christians who held firm to the Law of Moses. Their Christology emphasized the utter humanity of Jesus, again viewing the possibility that divinity could find a home in humanity as an impossibility.

At least a part of what is at stake here in holding together humanity and divinity in Jesus as the Christ is the value we place on historical existence. If somehow God touches the world, gets mixed up with the world, then the world matters profoundly. The point of Christian faith cannot simply be to escape the world, but needs to be living new life within the world. Even Christians have not held this tension very well over the years, but the writer of this letter is very concerned that all the ideas of Christian faith find expression in the life of the community – those who claim to live in the light should walk as Jesus walked.

Christians believe that God acted in the life of Jesus as the Christ in a special way, and so we live differently. This truth is what the author hopes will abide in each of those to whom he writes.

I John 2:29: The point of all this is brought home very practically in this verse. We are to live the righteousness of Jesus as the Christ. God’s new life is born in us as we do right, as we do justice. “All who practice righteousness are God’s true children” (The Message)

I John 3

I John 3:1-3: God’s life is born in us so that in God’s love we are considered the very children of God. In a society where one’s identity and status was tied up with one’s father, this is quite a statement. To call God “father,” was something usually limited to the emperor! The writer here says that we are God’s children. However, this is both something to rejoice in and something which can cause problems. “The world” does not know God and therefore does not understand what it means to live as God’s people. Such thinking sometimes seems strange to us, and we have seen its dangers – religious groups withdrawing from the world (Jim Jones and the People’s Temple; the Branch Davidians in Waco). The phrase can be misused, but it can also be illuminating. “The world” does not often understand sacrificing one’s immediate good for a greater good, often prefers revenge to forgiveness, can see compassion as foolish, often views power as zero-sum rather than something to be shared. Sometimes living rightly, struggling for justice, creating beauty, forgiving, living with compassion, loving, contradict the prevailing ethos of society. We are to live in that way anyway – live as God’s children. We live as God’s children NOW, the writer tells the readers, and us through them. We live that way now, trusting that in the future this will all make perfect sense. We live with a hope that purifies us.

I John 3:4-10: The writer returns to the theme of sin, here emphasizing the need to struggle against sin as children of God. This writer often sets up stark contrasts between light and dark, love and hate, truth and lie, God and world. Pushed too far, these contrasts can become unhelpful – but the writer’s point is to encourage living new life in this world. Perhaps those who have created such division in the community to which he writes make claims about some future state of sinlessness, neglecting to consider how one should live now. In frustration (?) the writer calls such people children of the devil. These verses are full of language that is open to a great deal of abuse, and great care needs to be taken with them. The bottom line is that God’s people do what is right and love their brothers and sisters in the community of faith (verse 10). “The one who won’t practice righteous ways isn’t from God, nor is the one who won’t love brother or sister. A simple test.” (The Message)

I John 3:11-24: The writer now expands on the theme of loving. From the very beginning, the message has included the message to love. We know we have new life within us when we love. Again, the writer sets up a stark contrast – living in love is life, and living with hate is death. The nature of love is found in Jesus who gave his life for love. Even more specifically, the writer says that love involves sharing with those who are in need of the world’s goods. If you see some brother or sister in need, and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. (The Message)

The author writes beautiful words – “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” When we love in truth and action, not only do we do good, but our hearts are filled with a sense that God is indeed working in our lives. But, the writer goes on to say that if our hearts lack such assurance, then we should remember that God is greater than our hearts. Don’t let discouragement overtake the heart. The writer encourages, instead, a boldness in one’s life with God, including a boldness in prayer. Verse 21 can be read to say that God will give us whatever we want when our lives are in tune with God’s. That is probably a misreading. The writer is probably working in a narrower context – we receive from God what we need to live in love.

The author now connects two streams of thought – thinking about Jesus and loving. The essence of Christian faith is believing in Jesus as the Christ and loving others. Being a Christian involves belief and behavior, and each reinforces the other. Why do we love? – because we believe loving connects us with the God of the universe as we see that God in Jesus the Christ. What does it mean to believe that God was in Christ, that Jesus as the Christ is the face of God turned toward us? – it means to seek to live in love. This is life in the Spirit – the Christian spiritual life.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Introductory Comments to the First Letter of John

The New Testament has an interesting structure to it. We begin with four tellings of the story of Jesus – three bearing some similarities and the fourth being dramatically different in significant ways. These accounts of the life of Jesus are followed by an account of the development of the early church, volume two of the Gospel of Luke. One of the central characters to emerge from that work is a man named Paul, whose dramatic conversion and subsequent ministry comprise a significant section of Acts. Letters from this Paul to churches he has founded or to leaders he has worked with follow. We have discovered that not all the letters that bear Paul’s name came from Paul’s hand, but most likely they were influenced by the Pauline understanding of the Christian faith. So significant a figure was Paul in the early church that even the general letter to “the Hebrews” gets attributed to him.

Following the letters attributed to Paul, we come to letters attributed to other important figures in the early church – James,Peter and John. Again, these letters were probably not written by the apostles Peter and John, or by James the brother of Jesus, but by others influenced by their ministry. In the case of John, the letters bearing this name seem to have some relationship with the gospel which also bears his name. In the early church, then, there was in addition to a Pauline stream, a Johanine stream. The name of John is also associated with the final book of the New Testament, The Revelation, but we will deal with that in due time. Because of differences as well as similarities not only between the Gospel and I John, but among the five writings associated with John, many find it more acceptable to speak of a Johanine circle of Christianity, out of which the writings came without having to argue single authorship (People’s New Testament Commentary).

So I John comes out of this Johanine circle, but what kind of document is it? It has few of the features we usually associate with ancient letters, or epistles. Some think it is a “general letter” intended for a number of congregations. Others think it is a homily (a sermon), and others suggest a religious tract. (New Interpreters Study Bible). If we are not sure of the nature of the work, we are equally uncertain as to the place of writing or the intended audience. If it is to a congregation, it is to a congregation that has experienced a division of some kind. The writer seeks to reassure the readers that they are on the right course, and that those who have left have misunderstood important features of the Christian faith and life. The disputes seem to be about the nature of Jesus, the nature of love, and the nature of sin. Those who had separated themselves seemed to deny that Jesus had actually been a human being. Furthermore, the writing suggests that these separatists had considered themselves sinless. It is not simply their misguided theology that is the problem. More significantly, the problem is a lack of love, or of the right kind of love.

This work seems to reflect some knowledge of the Gospel of John (there are a number of shared themes and images), and so must have been written later than that work, sometime between 95 and 110 CE. I will give the final introductory words to Eugene Peterson, from his introduction to the John letters in The Message. The two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God. More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas. The Bible says, and Christians believe, that the two subjects are connected. If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated. Let’s see how this writer brings these two significant life themes together.

I John 1

I John 1:1-4: The letter is attributed to John, but where is his name? It is nowhere to be found. The letter comes from an “apostolic we” – from a person who understands himself within the apostolic stream of Christian faith. The resemblance between the beginning of this work and the beginning of the Gospel of John are striking. In the Gospel, the beginning is the beginning of creation – here “the beginning” is the coming of the Christ – the Christ who has been heard and seen and touched. In the Christ came new life, and the intent of the author is that the readers may continue in fellowship in the Christ community, which is also fellowship with Jesus Christ and the God they all refer to as “Father.” In this community, there is joy.

The “we” of these declarations refers not merely to the original apostles, but to the whole community of Christian faith. About 180 CE Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in France, could still write, “We would not be able to know, unless we had seen our Master and hear his voice with our own ears.” Of course this was no claim to be a literal eyewitness, but this “ecclesial we” was the insistence that membership in the church means belonging to a community that has personal, visual, tangible experience of the presence of Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

I John 1:5-10: What should life be like in this community, this fellowship of joy? If our fellowship is with God, then our lives should have “god-like” qualities, or at least that is the hope toward which we strive. The author uses images of light and darkness, truth and lies, to describe what life should be like for those in the fellowship. According to the writer, talk is never enough. Faith shapes life, forms us in a way of living. Those who claim light but walk in darkness are living a lie. Walking in the light continues Christians in fellowship with each other. The community is one where forgiveness is experienced. “Since according to the ritual language of Judaism the life is in the blood, biblical writers would speak meaningfully of the blood without fear of charges of superstition or cannibalism” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In our day and time, such language does not always speak as meaningfully. The point is not the imagery, the point is forgiveness. There is a tension in these verses. People in the Jesus community were supposed to walk in the light, and yet by mentioning forgiveness, the writer concedes that even those who seek to live the Jesus way sometimes fall short and need forgiveness. To be a community of forgiveness is a part of walking in the light.

The author speaks in even stronger terms. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” On the other hand, “if we confess our sins, the one who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This brief chapter speaks powerfully to our own Christian experience. We seek to walk in the light, to live in new ways because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We don’t want simply to stumble around in the dark. Yet we know that we do stumble. We trip and fall. We fall short. We act unlovingly sometimes. We fail to do justice and make peace. That is part of our reality, and so the Jesus community, the Christ community, the Christian church is always a place where we are seeking to live more god-like lives admitting along the way that we are not there yet.