A sister in the congregation asked: “Pastor, a beloved sister tells me that she cannot talk to me any longer because I’m not spiritual enough as she is.” This actual question was posed to me during a Sabbath School class on the 1st Epistle of John.
This epistle reflects similar confrontations between not only two antagonistic groups, but also between structures of power inside the church. They were in conflict for the supremacy of doctrinal and understanding of issues of faith - in particular over the acceptance of the historical and spiritual nature of Jesus as one person.
In the epistle, there is a clear distinction between those referred with categories of “them” and “us” (2:19). The statements continue demonizing and separating the “children of God and children of the devil” (3:10); those who are “from the world… and from God” (4:5-6). There is a contrast between “the whole world [that] lies with the evil one” (5:20) to “those who have conquered the world.“ This dispute is not among believers and unbelievers, but it is a family conflict. Antagonists, separatists, and opponents are labels given to those who “have gone from us, but they did not belong to us” (2:19). However, a close reading shows a problem of self-identity when the author(s) address not only to those which he labels as “us” but also to the “rest” of the congregation. Statements such as “If we say that…,” (1:6,8,10); “We may be sure” (2:3,5, 29); “we may have confidence” (2:28); “let no one deceive you” (3:7); “we will know that we are from the truth” (3:19); “by this we know…” (4:13; “if we know that he hears us…” (5:15) reflects the ambivalent spiritual state of confidence of the congregation. These terms may even mirror issues of mockery and desperation from the author(s), who is/ are not sure if the state of the church is safe.
Again in chapter 5, the author repeats the main thesis of the letter: those who belong to “us” must believe that Jesus is the Christos (5:1). Unfortunately, modern translations minimize the use of Christ from the original meaning – The Messiah – Anointed One. The whole issue resides in the acceptance of Jesus as the prophetic Messiah according to the Jewish Scriptures as “born of God” (5:1) or the “son of God” (5:4). This issue complicates itself when making a possible historical reconstruction of the groups in questions for the dispute.
Early Christian tenets of a historical Jesus as the Messiah were not difficult to accept. The NT describes expectation of the Messiah's coming as common, with the existence of several leaders-figures identified as "the Messiah" (cf. Theudas, Judas, the Egyptian, etc). However, for the majority of the Jewish membership of the early church, any abrupt disturbance of allegiance to someone-else, rather than to God the Father, presented serious issues of beliefs. Indeed the isolated last verses of the letter, “keep yourselves from idols” (5:20-21) may be read in opposition to the particular context of idolatry – “Jesus the Messiah is the true God and eternal life.”
On the other hand, there are the Christian Gnostics who played a definite role in the schism of the congregations. Their system of belief clashed with Judaism in categories such as: their dichotomies of the divine spark in us; in surpassing the cosmic incremental levels who were mediated by Heroes, Semi-gods, sons of gods, and gods; in bringing salvation through knowledge as opposed to the acceptance of a sinful nature in need of repentance; in receiving special revelations and light; and most importantly accepting a god who cannot die. All of these premises made it difficult to accept a suffering Son of God who dies, as one who also imparts eternal life and has a true divine testimony.
The three proofs of this testimony presented by the author are still problematic and difficult to explain: Jesus is the one who came by “water and blood” (5:6). There is no direct scriptural quotation for this phrase. The closest allusion is Jesus’ description at the cross (blood and water – Jn 19:34). It seems that original recipients of the letter must have understood the meaning of this difficult ‘proof’. The history of interpretation shows that in addition to adding an explanatory line to the text, it has made several symbolic allegorical possibilities: baptism, Lord’s Supper and vicarious death. None of them have proven satisfactory results, but at least they stress and echo the idea of divine salvific participation and intervention.
The author returns to more important venues of testimonies: the Spirit and God himself are the truth. Any signal of unbelief has made God himself a liar. The Greek perfect tense stresses the concept of a single action in the past with consequences still valid in the present, meaning the divine intervention at baptism and the cross made the testimony of God superior in itself. The testimonial proof concludes with echoes of the action in the past (aorist) “God gave us eternal life”, but at the same time this interpretation of double testimony in the baptism and the cross creates issues of soteriology (salvation) through the baptism. Perhaps this is an allusion to the victory in the first and second death. Whatever the outcome may be, the case is clear: If they want to be part of “us”, they will have to believe (have faith) in the real historical and spiritual Jesus as the same person, “born” at the same time the “Son of God”.
Let us return to the initial statement of the afflicted member of the church because another member does not want to associate with her/others who are viewed as spiritually inferior. I think that author concludes that any issues concerning superiority of faith must deal with the acceptance and appropriating the eternal life in Jesus, the divine. However, this also must remind us that discussion and opposition, different views and opinions were always part of the church. Anyone who feels spiritually superior to the Other must remember that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (4:7) and that “we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus the Anointed/Messiah and love one another” (3:23).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1814