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Who Gets to Speak for God? John, Truth, & the Spirit—An Excerpt from "1, 2, 3 John" by Karen Jobes
These are good questions, ones Karen Jobes herself asks in her new commentary on 1, 2, 3, John (ZECNT). They get at the heart of an issue that has needled the church from Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome to Martin Luther and Pope Leo X to 21 century evangelicals: The issue of authority in relationship to truth.
They are questions the apostle John perhaps asked himself as he penned what Jobes says is the heart of John's message to his churches in 1 John 2:18-28. In it we find the pressing reason for his letter and his plea that they remain in Christ by continuing to follow and obey the apostolic teachings about Jesus Christ—that they follow apostolic authority on truth.
We often post snippets from the "Explanation of the Text" section in our excerpts. Today, however, we offer you Jobes' full section from "Theology in Application," content we hope will benefit you and your ministry.
In it she reminds us pastors, teachers, and students that "Not unlike the ancient world in which John wrote, our world today is also full of voices claiming spiritual truth as a way to know God. And the prevailing winds of our time blow in the direction of tolerance of any and all religious beliefs."
-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)
Who gets to speak for God? What is the role of the Spirit in guiding the understanding of the church? What is the relationship of spiritual truth to the first-century life of Jesus? Not unlike the ancient world in which John wrote, our world today is also full of voices claiming spiritual truth as a way to know God. And the prevailing winds of our time blow in the direction of tolerance of any and all religious beliefs.
The Nature of Spiritual Truth
Perhaps John’s major point in this passage addresses the nature of spiritual truth. Not every claim to truth about God is just another form of monotheism. Just because God is invisible does not mean that anything one might imagine about him has a legitimate claim to be the truth. One source of confusion today is that truth is determined by what most people believe, as if by vote. Such a view puts the foundations of truth on shifting sands, as the culture and demographics of a population change over time. This idea of truth by majority opinion leads to the idea that all personal opinions about God are of equal value. This idea has led to a reader-response approach to the Bible, expressed in statements such as, “Well, that might be what it means to you, but to me it means...” If each person is an equal arbiter of truth, especially of religious or moral truth, then majority rule would be the best that human society could achieve.
In the context of a monotheistic culture, differing viewpoints about God and how to know him are put forth as simply different aspects of the truth, even when they are at root incompatible. The idea that there are many paths that lead to the same God may be well intended to keep the peace, but it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of monotheism. Certainly there are in fact many facets of truth when speaking of a complex subject such as God and his relationship to the world. Christian theologians can speak of Christology, soteriology, pneumatology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and theology proper. But not every idea about God in our world today is simply a matter of looking at him from a different perspective; there is a difference between truth and falsehood. And this is perhaps the most difficult claim of John’s message, and of the entire NT, to uphold today. Even many professing Christians are more open to accepting spiritual “truth” from other religions without critiquing it against the orthodox apostolic teaching handed down through the ages.
Truth and the Spirit
Related to the question of discerning truth from heresy is the question of the role of the Spirit in guiding the understanding of the church. This arises in at least two contemporary topics, the charismatic movement and the task of theological exegesis. While debate may go on about whether the charismatic gifts continue to operate today as they did, for instance, when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 12 – 14), orthodox Christian theology recognizes the essential and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in believers through every generation. Without his work, no one could genuinely come to know God. As Jesus said, there is truth that the Spirit will reveal because it could not be stated and understood until after Jesus’ death and resurrection:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. (John 16:12 – 14)
The apostles commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, primarily those present in the upper room when Jesus spoke these words, provided this Spirit-inspired interpretation of the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus when they wrote, or were responsible for the writing of, the books of the NT. Apostolic testimony was completed with the closing of the canon. But orthodox Christian doctrine continued to develop over the first four centuries of the church, and even today issues arise that demand theological inquiry. Furthermore, the task of theological exegesis of Scripture is to infer meaning from the biblical texts that goes beyond their specific historical context to address issues and concerns that the church has not before faced. What is the role of the Spirit today in revealing truth, especially since our only encounter with the living God is through the Holy Spirit?
Jesus himself delimits such claims of Spirit-revealed truth: they must “glorify” Jesus Christ. Any teaching that claims the Spirit’s authority must involve the incarnate Son of God who atoned for sin on the cross. The issue at the time John wrote — who is Jesus?— remains the central issue today. The only authorized source that answers that question is the divinely inspired, apostolic teaching preserved in the pages of Scripture. Therefore, the question of the canon of Scripture that has been raised by bringing writings such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas to the public’s attention is relevant to John’s exhortation to “remain in him.” Neither Jesus nor John denies the need for the ongoing exposition of Scripture in the church, but John affirms that we already have all the knowledge we need about who Jesus Christ is. John’s point is that the truth of apostolic teaching, now preserved in the canon of Scripture, is the full truth; it lacks nothing that the secessionists of his day or the recently discovered so-called gospels have to offer.
John’s claim that eternal life is found only by remaining in Jesus Christ and continuing to embrace the apostolic teaching about him is not a popular message in the religiously pluralistic times in which we live. The shift in religious demographics in the United States during the last fifty years puts the church increasingly in the position of having to defend the particularity of Christianity.
It is Jesus himself who claimed that he is the truth and that there is no way to God the Father except through him (John 14:6). Will the church find the boldness to preach that message in these times? What consequences will result for those who preach this message in a society in which Christians find themselves a minority? That is perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge of our time.
The Diversity within the Unity of Truth
There is also an important corollary to John’s teaching about the nature of the truth. Even within orthodox, apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ, there is still much room for discussion and debate. The gospel writers themselves show amazing variety in how they present four different perspectives on Jesus’ life. James’s emphasis that true faith must be lived out through deeds (Jas 2:17) stands alongside of Paul’s insistence that deeds cannot earn anyone salvation (e.g., Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16). It would be an egregious error to label other Christians as antichrists because they disagree with our interpretation of Scripture on issues such as the mode of baptism, the ordination of women, or the cessation of the spiritual gifts. Certainly leaving one local church to attend another, as one’s season of life or situation requires, does not bring one under John’s condemnation as those who “went out.” There is, however, no reason to look to other religions or trendy theological ideas for new and better truth about how to know God. (Pgs. 133-136)
1, 2, 3 John (ZECNT)
By Karen H. Jobes
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