Posts Tagged With: letter

BONUS: An Introduction to John’s Letters

Though never identified in the letters, the author of the Johannine letters is almost certainly the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, and author of the Gospel of John.  Based on writing style, there is good reason to think the writer of Revelation is a different John.  The John who wrote 1, 2, and 3 John was one of the inner circle of apostles and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).  Though he started his adult life a fisherman, he ends it as one of the pillars of the new, growing Christian church, a highly respected leader in the Ephesus area in particular.

“The Apostle John” by Rembrandt

The Johannine letters are likely some of the latest parts of the New Testament.  Some date John’s letters to the late 80s.  If this is correct, the first generation of those who had actually seen Jesus were dying and John was pure royalty.  Given that no specific recipients are mentioned in 1 John, the first epistle was likely a circular letter distributed among a diverse group of Christians, especially in Asia Minor around Ephesus.  Given the general nature of the teachings of the letter, that makes perfect sense.  Second and Third John are equally as general and universal.

Most scholars situate the Johannine letters in the context of Gnosticism.  This false version of Christianity really blossomed in the second century AD but it was likely an early version John was addressing.  Gnosticism taught that the physical was evil and the spiritual was good.  The fleshly body was wasting away and either an impediment to holiness or a temporary object of no consequence to be used and abused because only the soul really mattered.  Gnosticism derives its name from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge,” because the truly spiritually enlightened ones have a special knowledge that sets them apart from their more earthbound peers.  With these beliefs, a good Gnostic could not believe Jesus was fully human and flesh.  One version of Gnosticism called “doceticism” taught that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and another version called “Cerinthianism” taught that the man named Jesus gained his spiritual nature at baptism and lost it before he died.  We will hear John attacking this sort of thinking in his letters, 1 John especially.  As the flesh was evil, one was supposed to either deny his fleshly desires through asceticism (seen earlier in Colossians) or indulge the flesh in licentiousness.  This latter version seems to be the one John addresses.

John wrote 1 John to expose false teaching and counter any wrong thinking about Jesus that had cropped up.  As one of the last eyewitnesses of Jesus, John could testify that Jesus was indeed flesh.  John also believed that the libertine worldliness of pre-Gnostic Christianity was eroding the true Christian witness.  In 2 and 3 John, John encourages faithful Christians to extend hospitality to evangelists he would have sent out even if powerful, possibly-Gnostic leaders in his church opposed him.

Categories: 1 John, 2 John, 3 John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

BONUS: An Introduction to the Pastoral Epistles

We come now to three books that are typically called the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — because they are addressed to two men who were leading churches Paul had started and because of the attention given in these letters to ministry issues.

Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles toward the end of his life.  As we read through the letters we will likely get the sense that these are the letters of a man who is about to hand his life’s work over to his protégés.  He is reflective and slightly anxious.  He pours every ounce of cautionary wisdom into his words.  Paul wants to push westward past Rome and on to Spain, however Paul seems to know with prescience that he may not even get that far.  Either way, it is time to entrust his work in Ephesus to Timothy and his work on the island of Crete to Titus.  By the time 2 Timothy, Paul’s last preserved letter, is being written Paul is, in fact, imprisonment in Rome in a cold dungeon (2 Tim. 4:13) unable to be visited by friends.  Tradition says Paul is killed by the Romans within a year.

The Pastoral Epistles are highly instructive.  So much of these letters rotation around instructions about what makes a good leader, the threat of false teaching, the corruption that can easily come to church leaders when money is involved, and how to live as Christians in a decadent and immoral culture (idolatry in Ephesus, and sexual immorality and raucousness in Crete).

This Timothy was the same young Jewish man mentioned in Acts 16 who became Paul’s traveling companion and “son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2).  Six of Paul’s letters were co-authored by Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon).  Titus is never mentioned in Acts, yet he does show up in various other places in the Letters as a loyal companion to Paul.  He evidently was an uncircumcised Gentile who Paul proudly took with him to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to support his stand against attaching law observance to faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:1-3).  Titus was especially important to Paul in Crete and he is left there to ensure the churches stayed strong.

Categories: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BONUS: An Introduction to Colossians

If one thinks that Paul wrote the other Prison Epistles, most agree that Colossians was authored by the Apostle Paul while in prison likely in Rome sometime before AD 61 when Colossae and the Colossian church were ravaged by an earthquake.  Interestingly, Paul had never been to Colossae when he wrote this letter.  Epaphras, who likely started the church in Colossae, had just come to Paul in Rome and reported on the progress of the church and its challenges (1:8).  Paul writes this letter in response as a form of encouragement.

Much of the background of Colossians revolves around a false teaching in the church or some to come their way that is often called the Colossian Heresy.  The Colossian Christians are or will be tempted to leave the simple gospel of grace through Christ alone for a set of teachings that emphasize asceticism (2:16, 21), everyday wisdom (2:8, 23), veneration of angels (2:18), and the insufficiency of Christ to fulfill the fundamental needs of life (1:15-20; 2:9).  Over 45 different theories have been given for who exactly these false teachers were in Colossae.  These theories usually include bits of Judaism, Gnosticism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and pagan religions from that area mixed together with Christianity.

This is the first time we have come this year to Gnosticism so an explanation is in order, especially as many who study Colossians believe the heresy was an early version of Gnosticism mixed with Judaism.  We know that by the second century AD there was a Christian philosophy in place in many churches that accepted a dualistic worldview.  A Gnostic thought the world was composed of two parts: the evil and degrading physical layer of life, and the pure and edifying spiritual aspects of life.  A human, for instance, was a good spiritual being trapped in an evil prison of flesh.  Sin comes as we follow our physical desires, and redemption can be found by listening and developing our spiritual self.  (You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “Hey, I know Christians who believe that today!”  Yes, there is a dualistic Christian worldview that still exists today, but I would question whether it is biblical.  Is God not the Creator and Redeemer of all we are?)  Consider how Gnosticism would affect beliefs and ethics.  They did not believe that Jesus was physical.  Jesus did not die a physical death on a cross, it only seemed that way.  Our greatest mission is to escape this physical world, not redeem it.  There were also two opposing views on how to deal with this physical body we live in: 1) deny your flesh and beat it into submission to your superior spiritual willpower, and 2) indulge your flesh and satisfy your physical desires wantonly showing that you have the spiritual strength within your pure soul to wallow in the mire of life and not be affected adversely by your physical behaviors. If an early form of Gnosticism was present in Colossae, the details of the letter suggest it was of the ascetic variety.

Personally, I don’t think we can downplay the fact that the main threat to the early Christians in Asia Minor at this time were Christian and non-Christian versions of Judaism.  Note that circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, holy days, and food laws — all hallmarks of Judaism — are mentioned often in Colossians.  In my opinion, the likeliest explanation for the Colossian Heresy is that the young Gentile Christians of Colossae were being be swayed away from the gospel of grace alone in Christ by a legalistic version of Jewish Gnosticism that emphasized law observance, physical asceticism, and the belief that the work of Jesus was not enough to save people.

In this letter, we will see Paul warn the Colossian Christians that there is nothing fulfilling or lasting in this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) because true fullness, power, wisdom and life are found in Christ (2:3, 9-10; 3:4).  His desire is that “you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12).

Categories: Colossians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Romans 16: Phoebe the Deacon?

Let me introduce you to our sister Phoebe.  She is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.  I want you to welcome her in the Lord, as is proper for one of God’s people.  Please give her whatever practical assistance she may need from you.  She has been a benefactor to many people, myself included. (16:1-2)

Phoebe was a deacon?

Yep.

Maybe that just means “servant,” like the KJV, the original NIV, the ASV says.

However, it seems there is something about the Greek word and the sentence structure that suggests the more formal words “deacon” or “deaconess” work better, as we find in the newest version of the NIV, the NLT, the CEV, and Wright’s KNT.  Also, her role as described in this passage above indicates this was more than just a great servant-hearted woman who worked behind the scenes to make the ministry of the church in Cenchreae work smoothly.  She was the “benefactor” of the Cenchrean church, likely meaning the church there met in her house.  She likely also provided a room for the many traveling missionaries; Paul indicates he had been privy to her hospitality.  All indications are that Phoebe was a well-to-do lady, maybe a business woman like Lydia the seller of purple cloth.  It was possibly this business that took her to Rome — no little expense — and Paul was taking advantage of that agenda.  Phoebe would have been carrying the letter to the Romans to the church there (depicted in the picture above even).  As was custom, she would have read the letter aloud to the church in Rome and been available to answer clarifying questions given that she had just been with the author.  Altogether, Phoebe was an esteemed leader in the early church known for her servant heart and at least this active effort to advance God’s kingdom.

This may be a realization that does not fit with what we have been taught in the past.  That is another perk to a comprehensive reading plan.  But this is an especially fitting way to end a letter that has focused on unmerited grace to all based on God’s love and calling, not one’s identity or status.

As we finish Romans today, what one major theme has really struck you this year as we read through this wonderful book?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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