Come Follow Me: 1-3 John

1 John opens reminiscent of both the Gospel of John (thematically) and Luke/Acts (in contrast). That is, the vocabulary and ideas resemble John (the Word of life made visible, eternal life, light/darkness, etc). But the point-of-view contrasts Luke. Whereas Luke says he had to investigate and talk to witness, because he wasn’t a firsthand eyewitness himself, 1Jo 1:1 and 1Jo 1:3 strongly imply the opposite for the author (authors?) of 1 John. Note the plural “we” there, present from the first verses onwards. Is this a rhetorical “we” or a real “we”?

These three short letters have two seemingly-contrasting themes. First is that of doctrinal conflict and issues of authority and apostasy; Second is that of love, the focus of the Gospel Doctrine manual. These two themes are unified in preaching about Jesus and his example.

The churches John addresses have encountered people who oppose several doctrines taught by John. Moreover, these people are not outsiders, but (former?) insiders, according to 1Jo 2:19. These heretical Christians deny Jesus’ divinity, among other things. John terms them antichrists, liars, and deceivers (2Jo 1:7, 1Jo 2:22, 1Jo 4:3, 2Jo 1:7). John seems to sense a sliding away, a loss, that this doctrinal threat is overtaking the doctrine of Christ that has been preached. He asks the letter recipients not to allow these people into the church (2Jo 1:10, where “house” is probably where the Christians meet), and reports that one congregational leader no longer allows John in or recognizes his authority (3Jo 1:9-10).

This Diotrephes, to be clear,

“asserted authority over all in his local church, rejected the authority of the elder who wrote 3 John, attacked the elder in public, forbade anyone to receive the elder’s emissaries, and excluded all who did…. According to one view, Diotrephes was a monarchical bishop. On the other hand, he could have been an elder or a deacon who abused his authority. Or he may have exercised authority over the entire church by the dominance of his personality without holding any office.”- “Diotrephes (Person),” Anchor Bible Dictionary.

John does not indicate the basis for Diotrephes’ actions, so he may or may not be one of these antichrists. (I tend to think that if he were one, John would say so.) In any case, things are not going well. So badly going are they, in fact, that John thinks it’s virtually the end of these churches (or alternately, the end of the world) according to 1Jo 2:18.

What’s the history here?

Today it is commonplace to speak of the Johannine school, or community, or circle, from which the teachings of John about Jesus were preserved and penned (the Gospel of John) and where John’s correspondence was preserved (1 Jn, 2 Jn, 3 Jn)….

There is considerable debate concerning the sequence of these four documents, but a consensus has emerged showing that they stem from the same community and, for many, they share the same author. Moreover, it is widely accepted that the problems addressed in the letters are reflected in the Fourth Gospel itself. A  common compositional history argues that an early edition of the Fourth Gospel was followed by a theological crisis in the community. This crisis prompted a revision of the Gospel and the writing of 1 John. This explains, for instance, the parallels between the Gospel’s prologue and that of 1 John, as well as parallels between 1 John and John 14–17, John’s Farewell Discourse. Finally, 2 John and 3 John were penned to address a subsequent local problem….

the Gospel of John was an empowering Gospel that shaped this Christian community so that it would expect dynamic spiritual experiences. Jesus and the Father were dwelling inside these spiritually reborn believers (Jn 14:23)! No other Gospel speaks like this. The Holy Spirit promised to provide them with incredible powers: power to recall Jesus’ very words (Jn 14:26), power to work miracles greater than those of Jesus (Jn 14:12), power to have prayer answered (Jn 14:13–14) and power to confront a hostile world (Jn 16:7). They even had the power to forgive sin (Jn 20:23). Above all the Spirit gave them the power of prophecy, to continue speaking with Jesus’ voice, revealing new things not recorded in Scripture (Jn 16:13)….

we can only speculate that something serious happened at a later stage of the church’s life. The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself. For John it must have been a crisis beyond belief. In 1 John 2:18 he even says that it is “the last hour” for the community.

Lengthy scholarly debate has centered on the identity of these dissenters. They were likely a select group of Johannine Christians who knew the Fourth Gospel well, claimed to be inspired by the Spirit and challenged John’s understanding of Jesus Christ’s personhood and work. And they were succeeding. The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Fourth Gospel for those in “the world” now was being aimed at fellow Christians….

the Johannine church was not to survive the conflict. 2 John and 3 John give a glimpse of the sort of crises that must have gripped one congregation. The larger Johannine community divided, with strong leaders taking the fellowship into Gnosticism and Docetism while John’s own disciples remained in communion with the other NT churches of Paul and the apostles. The earliest commentaries on John (e.g., Heracleon) were written by Gnostics, a fact that shows how the Fourth Gospel was embraced in these heretical circles. The Odes of Solomon (if they are gnostic) likewise bear marks of Johannine influence. Even the Nag Hammadi texts seem to describe a dualism that would fit the secessionists of John’s church quite well. Concepts such as light and darkness, sinlessness, divine birth, the Spirit of Truth and God’s seed all appear in Nag Hammed.”-  “John, Letters of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments.

There’s some unfamiliar vocabulary and text names there. Early Christianity had a lot of variation to it, and many forms were eventually deemed heretical. We would probably agree with that designation in most cases. The Gnostics were a (heretical) Christian group that embraced dualism, teaching that the spiritual world was good, and the physical material world was evil. In some Gnostic views, Jesus only appeared or seemed to be human, since God would never actually sully himself with matter. This is the heresy known as Docetism, from the Greek dokeo, “to seem, appear.” Note, in contrast, the emphasis in John and his letters about Jesus being God in the flesh (Gr. sarx) e.g. John 1:14, 1Jo 4:3,  2jo 5:7.

One later Gnostic was Marcion, the son of a Bishop in Turkey in the early 2nd century, who taught that the earth was created by an evil god (again, physical existence was evil), that the Old Testament and Law was the work of this evil God, but the New Testament God was working through Jesus to free us from evil materiality. Marcion is historically important because of the nature of the canon. He was one of the first to lay out a list of “inspired” books, a canon, which excluded the Old Testament, and only included Luke and some of Paul’s letters. (See this article.) Marcion’s list probably prompted the emergence of competing, broader lists, eventually resulting in the Protestant Canon which Mormonism largely accepts. Kind of. Mostly.

This is what John is struggling against (and apparently losing to) in these letters.

It’s interesting that we have a lot of quasi-Marcionites today in Christianity and the LDS Church, who draw overly stark and simplistic distinctions between the supposed warm fuzzy “New Testament God” and the evil vindictive “Old Testament God,” and would happily jettison the Old Testament. This is not to suggest that the Old Testament is without its problems, of course. But the book of Revelation also sanctifies (divine) violence against non-believers, Jesus, Peter, and Paul have no apparent problem with slavery,  and Deuteronomy is one of the most caring and socially aware books of scripture we have. So it’s a bit more complicated.


1Jo 1:5 John teaches that “God is light,” that “God is love” in 1Jo 4:8 and 1Jo 4:16. How should these descriptions affect our reading of John 4:24, “God is spirit”?

1Jo 3:1-2. I’ve always found this passage both puzzling and full of promise.”Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he/it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” It reminds me a bit of Paul’s statement in 1Co 2:9 (alluding to and interpreting Isa 64:4) that eye has not seen nor the heart imagined the reality that shall be.

I have wondered if the force of “for” (Gr. hoti) means we should read it more as “we shall be like him, because we will see him as he is.” In other words, because we are like him, we can see him as he is: glorified, divine, powerful. I don’t know.

I have also wondered about the relation of this passage to the apparent quotation several hundred years later on a different continent, in the famous Moroni 7 charity passage.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen. (Moi 7:48 BOM)

That something odd is going on (Joseph Smith interpolation/expansive translation? God revealing the text of John to Moroni, possible but unlikely in my view) is strongly suggested by the words in the next verse, 1Jo 3:3, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” Moroni follows the same purify-pure pattern, quoted above.

1Jo 5:7-8 This is an infamous passage, known as The Johannine Comma, with a story. First, though, compare the texts below.

7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
7 There are three that testify:
8 the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

In spite of the difference between the KJV and NRSV, “these three agree (in one),” the Greek is the same for both, literally “and the three are into one.” Most translations read this odd as agreement of some kind.

More important is the italicized text, omitted by virtually every translation after the KJV. Why? As I’ve written before, the Greek underlying the KJV was not very old. As the story goes, Erasmus, who compiled the manuscript(s) underlying the KJV, originally left out the italicized text. It was in the Latin translation, but not in any Greek mss. he had. People were scandalized that he left out of the New Testament the sole and explicit passage that all three members of the Godhead were one. Erasmus countered, “show me a Greek manuscript that has one, and I’ll include it.” And lo, a Greek manuscript was “found” that had the text.

What probably happened is that in the old Latin translation, a scribe made some notes in the margin. After all, having three in one? Blood, spirit, and water? Makes a great homily to have those be about Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, right? Well, as Bart Ehrman has shown (available in his very popular book Misquoting Jesus), there was a tendency when copying manuscripts to incorporate marginal notes and glosses into the scriptural text itself. And thus, the KJV includes this verse, which has virtually zero chance of being original. An LDS author, Marc Schindler (RIP Marc), wrote an article here about it. Bottom line, it probably shouldn’t be cited or quoted. Someone probably should have told The Ensign when anonymous author cited it here.

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