Walking in the Light: Discipleship in John’s Letters

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By Karen H. Jobes
from Following Jesus Christ: The New Testament Message of Discipleship for Today
Edited by John K. Goodrich and Mark L. Strauss

John relates abiding in God to keeping God’s commands (1 John 3:24), but he defines God’s command not as, for instance, the Ten Commandments, but as believing in Jesus. “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). As the Fourth Gospel shows, not every sort of belief about Jesus is authentic faith that brings us into right relationship with God. First John was written to people who had an authentic Christian faith in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:13), but who had been exposed to heretical teaching about Christ that could mislead them back into darkness. John writes to reassure them that the faith they already hold is the true faith, and exhorts them to let that belief remain in their hearts so that they may remain (abide) in the Son and the Father (1 John 2:24). Apparently the false teachers who had left the Johannine churches had not continued in the teaching of Christ and had effectively left the faith (2 John 9). And so the message about discipleship in 1 John is the same as in John’s Gospel: Abide in the teachings from and about Jesus concerning who he is, the Son of God.

Although we don’t know the details of the false teaching that disrupted the Johannine churches, three passages in 1 John indicate it was a Christological error and give us some hints. First, 1 John 2:18–29 raises the issue of those who had left the church(es), people who self-identified as Christian but who did not remain in the apostolic teaching about Christ and therefore, appropriately, did not remain in the congregations. They apparently denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22), denying his identity as the eternal Son of God (2:23). This point was at the very heart of John’s gospel—that people believe Jesus is the Son of God and have eternal life in his name (John 20:30–31). Therefore, to deny Jesus’s identity as the Son of God by believing he was merely a religious teacher or wonder-worker or anti-Roman zealot was to destroy the life-giving gospel.

The second point of false teaching is raised in 1 John 4:1–6, where false teachers apparently denied that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This was likely a teaching that denied the necessity of the Incarnation of the Son in Jesus and overemphasized the spiritual existence of the Christ. One entailment of denying the Incarnation is that the human life of Jesus becomes largely irrelevant, whereas in the apostolic Gospels it is the human life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that earns redemption for all. Without the incarnation of the eternal Son of God there is no atonement, no forgiveness of sin, and no eternal life for us.

Thirdly, in 1 John 5:6–12 there is the mysterious statement that Jesus Christ came not by water only, but by water and blood. Here John appears to remind his readers of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross as a necessary part of God’s testimony about his Son (1 John 2:2). In other words, the water of Jesus’s baptism when God announced, “This is my Son” (Matt. 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22), is a necessary but insufficient event as far as the gospel is concerned. Without the crucifixion and resurrection, belief in the identity of Jesus as a “Son of God” in the sense of a true and anointed teacher of religion is insufficient.

Attempts to integrate Greek philosophies or ancient worldviews into Christian teaching—such as what later was labeled Docetism, Gnosticism, and the Montanist movement—may have caused the antichrist Christology that disrupted the Johannine churches. We don’t know the details. But John does say that belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate, eternal Son of God is at the heart of the apostolic gospel, and that eliminates many false ideas about who Jesus is that are still with us today.

This post is adapted from Following Jesus Christ edited by John K. Goodrich and Mark L. Strauss. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“John Goodrich and Mark Strauss have assembled an impressive roster of scholars who have addressed a vital but often neglected topic in both the church and in the academy. Rich with insight, Following Jesus Christ represents a major advance in this essential area of study.”
Craig A. Evans, Distinguished Professor of Christian Beginnings, Houston Baptist University

“A careful reading of this book would do much to reestablish a vision of what it is to be a disciple of Jesus, learning from him how to live life in his Father’s kingdom by the Spirit.”
Steven L. Porter, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Biola University


About Author

Karen H. Jobes (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor Emerita of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College and Graduate School. She is the author of several books and commentaries including Discovering the Septuagint and the award-winning 1, 2, and 3 John in Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series.

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