If we move through John Wycliffe’s version of Inductive Bible Study one of our next questions will have to be ‘to whom’ was this said. With some of the epistles this is an easy question to answer as the epistles frequently start with the name of the sender and the name of the intended recipient. It is not quite so obvious with 1 John but there are sufficient clues to give us a working hypothesis.
Us and Them
We have an unusual verse in the second chapter.
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. 1 John 2:19 NKJV.
This verses, in this English version has 12 pronouns. Seven times we read of ‘they’ and 5 times we read of ‘us’. Biblical Greek works somewhat differently from English but this translation is justified. The verse is making a stark distinction between two groups of people. It will help in our understanding of 1 John if we can identify the two groups.
The ‘Us’ group is the group that John the writer clearly identifies himself with. These are what we might call the orthodox believers. John himself is happy to be identified with them but he strongly separates himself from the other group that he calls ‘they’. This is not narrow sectarianism of the kind we may have experienced in more modern times. The ‘Us’ are God’s people; born of God. The ‘they’ people are very definitely not God’s people. He makes some strong points:
- they went out from us
- they were never part members of ‘Us’
- this distinction was proved by the fact that they went out
- none of them ever really belonged to God’s people
If we really want to know how strongly John feels about these people we only have to read the earlier verse.
Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 1 John 2:18 NKJV.
The plural pronoun that is built into the Greek pronoun in verse 19 is referring to a group of people that John describes as ‘antichrists’! That title has acquired a strong flavour in many circles. It is often a surprise to many Bible readers to discover that the book of the Revelation never uses the word ‘antichrist’ but that its only use is in 1 John and in 2 John.
Docetism and Gnosticism
Who are these people that John has in mind as he writes his letter? There are two main suspects, Gnosticism and Docetism. Both of these errors really reached full strength in the following centuries but an older commentary states,
The germs of Gnosticism in various stages of development were in the very air in which Christianity was born.
The Gnostics claimed to have special ‘knowledge’ – gnosis which gave them insights that others lacked.
Gnosticism had in the main two ground principles which run through all the bewildering varieties of Gnostic systems.
- The supremacy of the intellect and the superiority of enlightenment to faith and conduct. This is the Greek element in Gnosticism.
- B. The absolutely evil character of matter and everything material. This is the Oriental element.
Let’s keep it as simple as we can. Both Docetic and Gnostic mind-sets manipulated what we might call ‘reality’. They converged in their rejection of the possibility of God becoming man. The material world was essentially either evil or not existent. It is very possible that John had these ‘air born germs’ in mind when he penned his gospel. And set his face against them both when he wrote,
the Word became flesh and lived among us.
If mankind is illusory then so is sin and there is no need for a redeemer. For the gnostic the gnosis was what was relevant not the apparent physical consequences. Some modern doctrines have produced the same effect; the idea that is we have the right ‘confession’ the outward appearance is of no consequence. “Ignore your symptoms, just believe”. Familiar language? There is nothing new under the sun. When this crossbreeds with Christian doctrine it produces the idea that all you have to do is get your ‘believing right’ and nothing else really matters. John will have nothing to do with this ‘believism’.
An introduction to John’s First Letter
How can we set the context for this letter? There are three authors who can prepare the ground. Paul, Peter and Jude. John wrote his gospel, epistles and revelation in the period 85-95 AD (CE). The letters that precede John’s writings are 2 Timothy, 2 Peter and Jude. They were written some 20-30 years earlier. Although written by different authors and to different recipients they share one theme in common; they all predict a time of great danger to the Christian witness. So we have a 20-30 gap in which the times of declension developed through the early churches. By the time John wrote the Revelation the seven local churches of Asia Minor were in a sorry state. 5 out of the 7 were in the grip of powerfully destructive forces. The other two were in the midst of persecution.
The times predicted by Paul, Peter and Jude had arrived. We will let Paul act as spokesman for all three faithful witnesses,
2Tim. 3:5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
There it is. The progression was maintained but the reality of its live was effectively denied. They were talking the talk but no longer walking the walk. And worse, there were groups who were saying it didn’t even matter. As long as we have the words, the ideas, the insight, the gnosis that is all that matters the rest is irrelevant. We will soon see John’s answer to this mockery of true Christianity.