Friday, February 9, 2018

Bible in a Year: 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude

Book of Kells representation of John
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We come to the three short letters of John and the letter of Jude. 1 John has no introduction or conclusion, and so we don’t know its audience. Tradition has always attributed it to the Apostle John—and it does echo the Gospel, with its light-darkness contrasts, emphasis on love, the eternal nature of Christ, the joy of Christ, the need to abide in Christ, and other aspects.

In the passage 1:5-2:6, which I long ago yellow-highlighted in my old Bible, the author explains righteousness, asserting that we all sin but Christ forgives and cleanses us, and so we can count on Christ and keep his commandments.

In 2:7-17, John reminds his readers that they should not love worldly things, but to focus on Christ and Christ’s love—for a person who hates another person lives in darkness. But to abide in Christ, who run less risk of being deceived—important because this is the last hour,. The end is coming soon (2:18-29).

In a seeming contrast to what he wrote earlier, John says that no one born of God commits sin, for sin is of the devil, and no one who abides in Christ sins (3:1-10). He seems to be contrasting a life of habitual lawlessness with a life in which Christ is continually trusted to remove our sin, to help us and forgive us.

Anyone who loves God must love one another in Christ-like love, for no one who hates a brother or sister can say s/he loves God (3:11-18).

But when we are of the truth, we have assurance if our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts and gives to us freely. It's another reason to abide in Christ (3:19-24)! John continues to urge readers to love and to have faith: as there is no hatred for others if one loves God (4:19-20), there is no fear, for God helps us with fear and casts it out through the divine love (4:18). Anyone who has faith in God through Christ has overcome the world and has God’s life within (5:1-12).

The letter concludes with similar injunctions (5:13-21). John may be redundant, but they are lovely teachings about which to be redundant.

2 and 3 John and Jude are one-chapter letters. John calls himself not by name but by the title “elder” and writes to “the elect lady and her children.” Is this a particular mother, or a congregation? The author writes about the importance of love, and the importance of right doctrine about Christ and God. One should not even show hospitality to a teacher of wrong doctrine: this is serious!  The author promises to talk in person soon.

3 John is also by the “elder,” written to Gaius. The author courages Gaius in showing service, hospitality, and love, and commends Demetrius. But look out for Diotrephese, who puts himself first and doesn’t acknowledge the elder’s authority. (How many churches have at least one Diotrephes, who insists on his/her own way against the minister!) The author promises to talk in person soon.

Jude identifies himself as a servant of Christ and a brother of James, so he may be a brother of Jesus, too, or another Jude. The audience is very general (verse 1). The letter is harsh toward false teachers, connecting back to Korah’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16), and even to Cain himself. False teachers are often depicted as having really bad morals, and such is the case here.

Much of Jude is also found in 2 Peter, which may make it a second-century work.

Interestingly, Jude quotes a noncanonical book, 1 Enoch, in order to condemn these false teachers. 1 Enoch, from about the first century BCE, can be found in collections of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha but is not canonical for Jews and Christians, except for the Ethiopic Orthodox Church. In Jude’s time, its canonical status was still debated.

Like some of the other epistles, Jude warns that the time is short, and one must keep the faith in these end times. More on that in the final New Testament writing!

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