John: Christ’s message is self-evidently true
I have already written about the Gospel of John (John’s Gospel: Answering questions for the Church), so today I will turn to the evangelist’s letters. Still to come is the final and most formidable of Biblical books, the Revelation to John (The Apocalypse), but the letters are brief and apparently simple. In fact their very simplicity can be a stumbling block.
John’s letters—one substantive and two very brief—are thought to have been written during the last fifteen years of the first century, almost two generations after the death and Resurrection of Christ. You will remember that John was very young when he was called by the Lord, and he lived into his early nineties. The letters capture John’s reflections on the Faith as an old man, not removed from the conflicts of the day (he died in exile on the island of Patmos), but having meditated for decades on the meaning of Christ and His Church. Awareness of this lifetime of spiritual development is essential to a fruitful understanding of the letters.
I say this because the longer first letter seems almost circular in its arguments, to the point that, were it not for the sublimity of the message, the impatient reader might wonder whether the evangelist’s mind were still clear.
The second and third letters are simpler, very brief and concerned mostly with practical matters. In them John calls himself the “elder”, probably meaning the chief bishop in that region. In the third, addressed to one Gaius, John commends him and urges him always to be generous with those who wish to preach the gospel, “for they have set out for his sake and have accepted nothing from the heathen. So we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers in the truth” (3 Jn 7-8). He also criticizes one Diotrephes “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge my authority”. If John has the opportunity to come to them, he says, “I will bring up what he is doing, accusing me falsely with evil words”, refusing to welcome the brethren, and stopping others from doing so, even to the point at which he “puts them out of the Church” (vv. 9-10). In contrast, he praises and recommends one Demetrius. Ah, the practical problems of ecclesiastical administration!
But in the midst of these affairs, John also provides one of his fundamental teachings, which gives a hint of the strangeness of his argumentation mentioned above, for he writes: “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. He who does good is of God; he who does evil has not seen God” (v. 11). Notice this stark dichotomy, which he simply declares.
The second letter follows a similar pattern but gives us just a little more. First, he writes that the new commandment, which we have had from the beginning, is “that we love one another”. John expresses this in one of his classically circular statements: “And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment…that you follow love” (2 Jn 6). Second, he emphasizes that “many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (v. 7). He warns his readers not to lose what they have worked for, since “any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son” (v. 9).
Again, notice the stark declarative dichotomies. John further cautions that if anyone comes to them without professing this doctrine, they are not to receive him or give him any greeting, for “he who greets him shares his wicked work” (vv. 10-11).
Of course, the early challenge of Gnosticism to the first Christian communities was an advocacy of a sort of secret knowledge of the mysteries of God which was available to the elite. And nearly every Christian heresy throughout history involves some denial of Christ’s real human-and-divine presence among us, either in His incarnation or in the Eucharist. But the point—perhaps a point of difficulty for us in John’s letters—is that after decades of meditation on the mystery of Christ, John sees all the connections as obvious and self-evident precisely because he sees the whole Christ.
On to something?
It is no surprise, therefore, that John begins his first, longest and most substantive letter with these words:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life that was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. [1 Jn 1:1-4]
Now, perhaps, we begin to understand. For John, who personally knew and lived with Jesus Christ, the Lord’s divinity, His humanity, and his redemptive doctrine of sacrificial love are all blindingly obvious to a truthful witness. Moreover, he teaches repeatedly in ways that strongly suggest they will become equally obvious, equally self-evident to all those who truly accept this coming of the Son of God, this “coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
In the early chapters of the first letter, then, John sets forth what we now recognize as his classic dichotomies:
- God is light. Those who do not walk in the light are in darkness.
- If our deeds are of darkness, and we claim not to sin, we make God a liar.
- But it is those who know His commandments and fail to observe them who are liars.
- Whoever hates his brother is in darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light.
- “If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” The world passes away, “but he who does the will of God abides forever” (2:15-17).
If we abide in Christ the light, John affirms that “the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him” (2:26-27).
This is something far different, and in reality far beyond, what we might call Apologetics 101.
Abiding in Christ makes these things self-evident
So much of John’s writing sounds to us like mere assertions, but I think his point is simply that once we put our faith and trust in Christ, and abide in him, we understand these realities, we walk in the light. In a certain sense, this is a reflection of one who has plumbed the spiritual depths of the life of faith, perhaps even in a mystical relationship with Christ, or at least a relationship which is constant and very complete. One recalls St. Thomas Aquinas who, after a vision, exclaimed that compared with what he had seen, everything he had written was so much straw. For such persons, the need for arguments and disputation falls away, leaving a far greater certainty at the core of being, a clear apprehension of what IS.
I believe this is the key to making sense of John. Take for example the famous but mysteriously circular passage in which John explains why he is writing:
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. [2:12-14]
We will strive in vain to make discursive, argumentative sense out of these repetitions unless we recognize that these are all ways, perhaps suitable to different stages of life, of saying that he is writing this letter to these people because they know Jesus Christ in the flesh, and so have both the Son and the Father. Consequently, the teaching he imparts will be recognized as deeply true right within their hearts or, perhaps better, their souls.
In the third chapter, John continues with his “self-evident” assurances of the opposition between what is and is not of God. He contrasts the love of God’s children with the sinfulness of those who do not know God, for sin and lawlessness are works of the devil. Thus Christians are not to be surprised that the world hates them. The commandment of God is exceedingly simple, John writes. We “should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (3:23-24).
In the fourth chapter, John offers instruction on the testing of spirits, laying down his maxim that “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist… (4:2-3). He then returns to his theme that God is love, and that we must love one another as he has loved us. Again, we know that “we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit” (4:13). This confidence is rooted in John’s own testimony: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (4:14).
In the fifth chapter, John summarizes his theme that whoever has faith in Christ and keeps His commandments is born of God and overcomes the world: “[T]his is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (5:4-5).
He then famously describes the three-fold testimony to the Son of God—the water, the blood and the Spirit. This passage refers mysteriously to the essence of Christ’s sacrifice and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he uses it to confirm his essential doctrine, which I have described as a kind of spiritual maturity in Christ—not so much an argument as a fundamental state of being. It is echoed by St. Paul who said “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Or, as John puts it:
He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who does not believe God has made him a liar…. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. [5:10-12]
John completes this letter by explaining that he has written this “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13). He concludes that “we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (5:20). It is not so surprising, then, that he closes the letter in what sounds at first like a non-sequitur, but simply isn’t: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
In other words, we must not separate ourselves from Christ.
Let me conclude by repeating what I see as the key to reading John’s letters fruitfully, namely, an understanding that as we mature spiritually in Christ we no longer depend on arguments, for in the light of Christ we simply see. We recognize truth and light in Him, and we recognize anything that is separated from Christ as darkness. This is John’s message. I suspect it can be fully grasped only by shutting out the world in prayer.
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