I JOHN is unusual among New Testament epistles for having neither the usual salutations, identifying both the author and the audience, nor the usual closing benediction. And yet the seemingly abrupt ending, “keep yourself from idols,” effectively sums up the letter. The beginning lines are like the opening theme of a musical work, laying out the basis of the letter’s argument: “That which we heard, …seen…..gazed upon…. touched.” Why the physical senses are important will come clear in a moment. For I John is basically evidence from a crime scene. Or just when you thought you were adrift on a sea of beautiful generalizations and inspiring platitudes, evidence emerges of a shipwreck. Make that a church wreck. All the profound and comforting things said in I John are not only theology, they amount to pastoral care for people who have been spiritually and emotionally abused by “those who left us,” but who “were not of us.” What they taught and did must have included moral lawlessness, denial that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, and hatred for all who differed or questioned them. That points to an incipient version of Gnosticism. That is confirmed by all the times that John uses the world “knowledge” (gnosis in Greek), although he inverts the term in such a way as to use it against the Gnostics: “And so we know and rely upon the love of God for us.”. Key features of Gnosticism were a strict dualism between matter and spirit, such that matter was inherently inferior, indifferent or evil compared to spirit (and therefore you can do whatever you like with your bodies), and a reliance upon secretive knowledge of arcane and sometimes magical formulas and names, for the select, worthy few, as the key to salvation. Elaine Pagels, Dan Brown and all the other writers who are popularizing ancient Gnosticism and presenting it as the sweet, eco-friendly, peaceable alternative that Christians should have taken over the allegedly brutal, imperial and abusive biblical and creedal formulations of Christianity would do well to re-read I John as the pastoral follow-up it is to the work of Gnosticism.
The results of the church wreck include anxiety and insecurity about their salvation (4:19), fear (4:19), self-condemnation (3:20). John’s antidote to their trauma is not unlike the care and treatment of other trauma victims: keep the faith, love one another and reclaim the concrete basis of your hope, in the flesh-and blood Son of God who shared our vulnerable estate. See how much sense and detail emerges as you read I John as pastoral care for survivors at the scene of a crime, or a church wreck.
II and III JOHN give us glimpses of life in the later Apostolic age, when the issues facing the early church expanded beyond evangelism and the initial stages of leadership formation to sifting through varieties of false and deceptive teachings (2 Jn:7) and the use or abuse of authority (3 Jn:9). The “elect lady” of 2 John could either be a church leader (and her “children” her disciples?) or she could be the church to whom John is writing, if he is using the Pauline language of the church as “the Bride of Christ.” Such letters among the apostles and the churches also served the purpose of encouraging and firming up the churches and their leadership, even while the apostles and church planters gave their churches and their appointed leaders time and space to stand on their own. They also helped set up plans for travel and visits, even while they gave seals of approval, or disapproval, to certain traveling teachers.
JUDE, whose author is the brother of James (the brother of Jesus?), also reflects the later apostolic era conflict with false teachings. Some of Jude’s language and imagery parallels that of II Peter and II Timothy, indicating that similar false teachings were circulating and drawing similar condemnations, sometimes with imagery and stories coming from Jewish Apocrypha (Jude 9 and 14), as well as from the Old Testament. Note especially the parallel between Jude 18 and II Timothy 3: 1. Evidently we are in “the last days” and have been since the Apostolic era. “The Last Days” is more a matter of the church’s task (mission to all the nations) and the church’s trials (persecution and distraction through false teaching) than of events. Common to the extant forms of false teachings were a disconnect between faith and ethics, and the abuse of authority for licentiousness. The seriousness of Jude’s language reflects the seriousness of the offenses to God, faith and the believers.
PSALM 144 has elements of both a royal psalm (2b) and a lament. That Israel, Jesus and the church can pray such a psalm tells us that the treasures and status of Davidic kingship are open and available to all God’s saints, even in times of lament and distress. Of special note are the names of God given in verse 2, and the images of shalom in verses 12-15.
PSALM 145 is a hymn of praise that lists and celebrates the attributes and actions of God, in his kingdom and all his creation, all of them well worth meditating upon.
PSALM 146 is also a hymn of praise, listing and celebrating the attributes and actions of God, to the individual as well as in the world and creation. Like the preceding psalm, it also gives a nod to the justice, impartiality and severity of God with evil. With Psalms 144 and 145 we are entering the closing stages of the Psalter, wrapping up Israel’s prayers of lament, wisdom, pilgrimage and for the nation with praise, adoration and reverence, which is the beginning of all wisdom. There is then a Psalm-like structure to the entire collection of Psalms.
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