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New Testament Sunday School Lesson 44 (JF): 1-3 John

Posted by Jim F. on November 6, 2011

1-3 John seem to be letters written to different churches in the region of Ephesus mostly in response to a group of apostates whom we call Gnostics. Most scholars believe that John wrote these letters before he wrote the Gospel of John, though that is not a unanimous opinion. There are, for example, some who believe that at least 1 John was written after the Gospel of John, and some such as Stephen Smalley (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 51) argue that the John’s gospel was written before any of the letters.

There is also dispute as to whether all four documents (Gospel of John and 1-3 John) were written by the same person. Though few doubt that 2 and 3 John have the same author, there is more disagreement about the authorship of the other two. For these study materials, however, I will not worry about that concern. I will refer to John as the author of all three of these letters as well as the Gospel of John.

We don’t know a great deal about the particular group of Gnostics with whom John is concerned (there were a variety of kinds of Gnosticism), but based on the content of the epistles, this group seems to have denied that Jesus’ life in the flesh was essential to his role as Christ, and they seem to have believed that moral behavior is irrelevant to salvation (which does not necessarily mean they condoned immoral behavior, though they may have). Paul confronts a similar though even more serious false belief several places in Romans, e.g., 3:8, 3:31, and 6:1. They also seem to have thought themselves better than others because they are Christians, and they may have even thought themselves better than other Christians (which would explain John’s constant reiteration that they should love their brethren).

At the same time, there appear to have been Christians, probably those converted from Judaism, who had difficulty with the idea that Jesus was divine. John’s overall intent in the letters seems to be combating these two potential heresies by explaining Christ.

It is important to remember that these letters were written when apostasy was a very real threat, something happening before their eyes. Like Paul, Peter, and Jude, John could see the difficulty of keeping the new church on course. In these letters we see him giving what counsel he can.

Given the context in which these letters were written, how might they be particularly applicable to us today? How does their original context give them added meaning for us?

My notes will concentrate on 1 John 4:7-5:4.

In the previous chapters John has emphasized two signs of a good relation with God: faith in Christ and love of the members of the Church. Here he shows how those two signs are related to each other.

A note on agapē: George Stecker and Harold Attridge (The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John, pages 143-46) say that the Greek word here translated “love,” namely agapē, doesn’t get its Christian meaning from its meaning on the Greek of the time. Instead, it is the word chosen to translate the Hebrew word ’hb and gets its Christian meaning from the meaning of that Hebrew word: “[I]n the LXX agapan is universally applied to the actions of God and human beings and . . . no field of divine or human affection is excluded. Thus sexual love is described by the word agapan (Hos 3:1*; 4:18*; Jer 2:25*; Ezek 16:37*), but so is the love of friends in a nonsexual sense.” The 2nd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the word to describe the entire gamut of kinds of love, and the New Testament uses it in the same way.

Verses 7-8: John says that all who love are born of God and know him (verse 7). (In this context, “know” means “to know about, to make acquaintance”—Bauer, Danker, Arndt, & Gingrich, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.) What does John mean? How is he using the word “born”?

How can what John says be true? In what sense is someone outside the Church who loves (e.g., Mother Teresa) born of God? In what sense does a person like that have an intimate acquaintance with him?

John has described those reading the letter as “little children” (e.g., 1 John 2:1), as the offspring of God. What does this verse say about those who do not love?

What does it mean to say “God is love”? How does this understanding of God differ from the understanding of the Old Testament, where he was the One who had chosen Israel, the One in covenant with Israel? (See, for example, Deuteronomy 7:8.) How is it the same or different from the idea of God as Israel’s spouse, as in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah?

Perhaps it is even more relevant to ask: what does it mean to say “He that loveth not, knoweth not God”? Why would it be true that if we don’t love, then we aren’t acquainted with God, not in relation with him? Does this ever describe us? When? How?

Verses 9-10: To what does “this” refer in the first part of verse 9?

When John tells how God’s love was manifest toward us so that we might live through his Son, do those first person plural pronouns refer to humanity in general or to those who have come to Christ? How do you know?

What is the point of verse 10? Can you explain verse 10 in your own words?

Verse 11: Given the topic that John is addressing, is it significant that he begins this verse with “beloved,” a word used six times in 1 John?

What we find in this verse is also a common theme in Paul’s letters (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 8:12), and we saw it in 2 Peter 1: God’s love for us obligates us to love one another. Some have argued that this means that when we don’t love another, we deny the atonement (since we implicitly say that Christ made a mistake in dying for that person). What do you think of that argument? Is it too extreme? Is it wrong? Is it right? In what sense or senses?

Verse 12: The JST amends the first sentence of this verse. (See the footnote in the LDS edition.) Even with the emendation, however, it is odd. Since Jesus is God, John cannot mean what this verse says literally. In fact, in verse 14 he testifies that he has seen God in Jesus. So what do you make of what John says here?

Why is this claim part of John’s discussion of love? Is it possible to see God and not be loving? Why or why not? If we are loving do we necessarily see God? Where or in what do we see God? What does seeing God have to do with our obligation to love one another?

What does it mean to have God’s love dwelling in us? What does it mean to have his love perfected (or “completed”) in us?

Verse 13: What is the connection between having the Holy Ghost and loving one another? Does this verse explain why John said, “No man has seen God at any time, except them that believe”?

Verses 14-16: Why does John insert his personal testimony here? What has it to do with his discussion of our obligation to love? What does it mean to confess that Jesus is the Son of God (verse 15)? What does it mean to dwell in love (verse 16)? What does it mean for God to dwell in a person (verses 15 and 16)? What does it mean for a person to dwell in God?

Verses 17-19: Does the word “herein” (i.e., “in this”) refer to what came before verse 17 or to what follows in it?

Remember the connection between perfection and completion or wholeness as we read this verse. (In the scriptures “perfection” rarely means “without flaw.” Instead, it means something like “ripe” or “whole.”) In what is our love made perfect? How does the perfection of our love make us bold (confident)?

What does John mean when he says “as he is, so are we in this world”?

Why does perfect love cast out fear (verse 18)? This seems to imply that when we fear we do not love. If that is true, then when we lack confidence (when we fear we cannot do something or we fear to make a mistake), it is because we do not love sufficiently. Does that make sense? Is it true? (Compare Doctrine and Covenants 121:45.)

John says that fear carries with it punishment (verse 18; see the footnote to “torment” in the LDS edition). What does that mean?

Verse 19 is probably intended as a contrast to the last sentence of verse 18: “One who is afraid has not yet been perfected in love. But we love him because he first loved us.” What is the connection here? What is John’s point?

Verses 20-21: Why does John think this warning against self-deception is necessary? It is doubtful that someone would make the kind of blatant statement that we see in these verses. John is exaggerating so we will clearly see his point. How, then, do we say that we love God while, at the same time, we hate our brother? When and in what ways does that happen?

Textual Note: Verses 8-9 of I John 5 contain what is called the “Johannine comma.” (Besides referring to the punctuation mark, the word “comma” refers to a short phrase or word group.) The Johannine comma appears to be an insertion from a much later time. (The earliest manuscript containing the comma is from about 700 A.D.) Thus, most scholars believe that the verses should read as follows, omitting the part that is struck out:

7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

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