1, 2, and 3 John: Letters for Our Polytheistic, Pluralist, Polyvocal World
Sometimes it seems too easy to create a sense of distance between our time and that of the Bible, which often leads to dismissing teachings that arise out of that time. Sure we've got cars and iPods, microwaves and Pepto-bismol, but in end are we all that different from generations past, even the apostolic one? Particularly from a sociopolitical standpoint?
The 21st century has as many gods and philosophies to worship as the 1st; we are polytheist. The spectrum of Truth is as vast and varied, each pixel along that spectrum is held to be equally valid; pluralism rules as much now as then. And we've got as many voices clamoring for the right to define and speak truth as people did during the time of the apostles; polyvocalism is perennial.
These many different, and often conflicting, views of God and truth existed during the time of the apostles, too. It was into this context that the apostle John spoke when he wrote his three letters. And Karen H. Jobes has written a lucid, engaging commentary—1, 2, 3 John in the ZECNT series— that will help preachers, teachers, and practitioners explicate these important letters for our day.
Jobes notes several facets of our own culture that make these letters exceedingly relevant:
We live in spiritually confusing times, especially as every culture becomes religiously diverse. Many believe that it doesn't matter what you believe about a higher power as long as you believe it sincerely. But can any and all religions be true—everything from Eastern ideas about reincarnation to 'new age' spirituality to beliefs taught in the sacred synagogues, mosques, and temples across North America and around the world? (22)
Our day is like John's day. The issues he addressed to his ancient world matter for our ministry to our postmodern, post-Christian one: orthodoxy matters, as does authority. And Jobes' commentary elucidates them so that you and I can ameliorate the same problems plaguing the modern Church.
1 John: Polytheism, Pluralism, and Orthodoxy
Jobes follows up her tour of John's cultural landscape with an observation about his letters: "John wrote these three brief letters in a spiritually confusing time when there were conflicting theologies about Jesus Christ in order to assure his readers of their eternal life after death because they knew God in Christ." (22)
John's first letter was specifically written to address the kind of confusion that came from the Church's embedment in a polytheistic, pluralistic world.
1 John is concerned with responding to heresies, but less directly and polemically. More importantly, John is writing to a group of people to increase their "adherence to values it already holds;" he is keen to convince them "to continue in their faith in Jesus Christ despite the disruption and confusion caused by members of the community who have left the church." (37)
John appeals to his people to hold on to orthodoxy despite the polytheism and pluralism that presses in against them.
2 and 3 John: Polyvocalism and Authority
In her introduction to John's second and third letters Jobes outlines a set of intriguing background questions that could very well form the backdrop to our own world:
Who has the right to assert authority and claim to have the truth in today's pluralistic ethos? What are the demands of Christian love in such situations? Are all who call themselves Christians to be received? If all religious teachers are equally privileged, then how does one discern the truth among the cacophony of voices? (247)
This last question gets to the heart of 2 and 3 John's issues: polyvocalism and authority. An even deeper issue relates this polyvocality to that of hospitality. For as Jobes explains, "Second John warns against sharing in the work of heretical teachers by extending hospitality and thereby enabling the spread of false teaching." In his third letter, John extends his remarks by warning, "that this must not become an excuse for failing to welcome faithful and true preachers of the gospel." (247)
Jobes gets it right when she exhales, "what a confusing situation for those churches involved!" She continues with another set of important questions:
For doesn't the command to love fellow believers imply that hospitality should be offered to any who profess to be Christian? So when should one extend hospitality? And when should one refuse it, lest one share in the evil works of the deceiver? (247)
"The crux of the matter, then and now," Jobes continues, "rests on the issues of authority and truth that are complicated by the command to love all who are fellow Christians." (247)
Yes it does, which makes these letters exceedingly relevant for our own day of confusion, where multiple voices would seek to deviate from orthodoxy, inflated by a sense of authority in the void left by a magisterium-less evangelicalism.
In summary, Jobes contends John's letters address the twin issues of heresy and a crisis of leadership. "[T]here was no more critical issue than where the truth about Jesus Christ was to be found...Innovation in Christian belief and practice had to be bounded by apostolic orthodoxy." (30)
And then there is this clarion call for all us preachers, teachers, and practitioners: "This is relevant in every generation of the church until the Lord returns." (30)
God, using "the disciple whom Jesus loved," is speaking to us and our people about orthodoxy and authority as much as he was John's. And Jobes' fine work will help those who have ears to hear well.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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