Summary: What is and who are the true church of Jesus?
The Senses Make Sense
As this is the Easter season, we take time to reflect on the core of our Christian faith. We might ask the question: “What makes one a Christian? Is a Christian someone who admires the teaching of Jesus, and thinks if we would apply some of these teachings, the world would be a better place. Is it a means of gaining inner peace or some spiritual benefit. Is it merely the glue that holds Western civilization together? The questions one might ask about Christianity are not new at all. Even in the days following Jesus, people were asking questions about Jesus. This is true for the church or churches John addresses in the First Epistle of St. John.
We really don’t know much about the churches John addresses outside the contents of the epistle itself. His other writings such as the Gospel of John, the two other short epistles, and Revelation add a few more clues. Tradition says that this epistle was written to a church or churches in the area of Ephesus, and there really isn’t much evidence to the contrary. The content of the epistle shows a lot of overlapping themes with the Gospel of John, in particular with Jesus’ farewell discourse in chapters 14-16. It seems to me that these two works were written in close proximity to each other.
From what we read in 1 John, there seems to have been a split in the church. Some of the membership had left and formed an alternate church. These believers who left seemed to have thought themselves more spiritual than the others. Some think they were early Gnostics, a group which thought salvation came from having a secret knowledge. There was a spiritual or allegorical meaning to everything which was only known by a special group of people. These people despised anything sensual, which here means more than its common sexual overtones. The world and all material things were evil and created by a lesser evil god. The Gnostics, such as Marcion who came a couple of generations after John, thought this evil god was the creator in the Old Testament. By following these teachings, the followers could escape the flesh at death and become truly spiritual beings.
I don’t know if these believers were “Gnostics” in the formal sense, but a lot of these ideas were already present in Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato. Gnosticism just adapted some of the teaching of Jesus with these Greek ideas. But it does seem that this group which left had trouble with a human Jesus. The very idea that God could become a human being was scandalous. Why would God condescend to put on evil human flesh. They could see Jesus as a man who was filled with the Spirit of God, to show the way. They could see Jesus as an ordinary human being who was adopted and filled with the Spirit of God at baptism. This Spirit left Jesus to die on a cross. They could see a divine Christ who only appeared as human but was not really human. They would even consider themselves to be “Christian.”
It would seem that these people had little tolerance for those who were not initiated to the secret knowledge. These elitists saw them as stupid and irredeemable. They looked down with disdain at people who were too earthly. They would think these people as not being Christian at all. So they abandoned these “inferior” people and went out to form their own society. Those who left had no time for them. Indeed, wasting there time with them was probably seen as hindering their won advancement spiritually. They saw the race to perfection as being an individual attainment. If others could help them for a while, good. They would listen. But when they had attained all they could from them, they would go off from them. Apparently, some had gotten all they could from the teachings of Jesus and now could bypass Him and go to God directly. If they rejected Jesus, surely they had no room for John either.
The believers who were left behind were confused and hurt. Were they indeed inferior Christians or Christians at all? Some who had left might have been teachers in the church. What should they do? Somehow word got to John, and he responded with this epistle. He needed to assure them that they were the true “Christians” and that all who left were not.
This, I think, is the best way to understand why the Apostle John wrote this epistle. He comes right out to the facts of Jesus. The introduction to the epistle is elaborate like the introduction to Luke is. Luke wanted to make Theophilus sure of the facts concerning Jesus, what was true, as some accounts apparently contained inaccuracies. John begins by telling them that what he is saying goes back to the ministry of Jesus. We must remember that an apostle had to be an eyewitness to the facts about Jesus from the baptism by John the Baptist. We know from the Gospel of John that the apostle was originally a disciple of John the Baptist and followed Jesus after the Baptist had identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin f the world.”