The Apostle John’s writing style presents a number of difficulties for the modern reader. The primary audience knew what he sought to convey due to immediate conflict they had with false teachers in their midst and the cultural setting. These false teachers plagued the church in Ephesus for decades since the Apostle Paul warned the elders prior boarding a ship to leave them for the last time (Acts 20:17-38). Paul informed these elders,
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (20:29-30).
These false teachers had a very different message, one that rejected the righteousness of God and depended on self-reliance. They twisted the knowledge and nature of God and sought to stir up dissension with members of the Christian fellowship in Ephesus.
With this history in before them, the audience of 1 John recollected both Paul and John’s teachings on righteous living, brotherly love, and caring oversight both exhibited during their times in Ephesus. When John recalls these teachings in his letter, they connected them to the time he dwelled with them. John appealed to his interaction with them while with them. He wanted to remind them that they knew the truth (1 John 2:13-14, 18, 21), and the Holy Spirit imprinted that knowledge in them (2:20). Although John’s writing style appears meandering to us, it did not appear that way to his original audience because they knew John’s teachings.
However, a closer look of the flow of John’s writing reveals more than a meandering style. An analogy can assist in our understanding of the flow of his message in 1 John 3 as well as with the entire letter. The strong waves seen on the surface of the ocean represent his message. The water through these waves appears powerful and overwhelming as we see each wave strongly reaching their peaks and then gushing robustly toward the shore. However, beneath that surface exists a number of unseen undercurrents that drive the waves. Some undercurrents flow strongly and appear periodically on the surface of the waters, acting as large cresting waves. Other undercurrents flow more subtly. One may not see their strength when viewing the surface from a distance. However, to one in the water, they brush strongly against the body and act like unseen undertows attempting to sweep the person to the bottom. John’s writing style resemble this ocean. His dominant message appears like the strong waves on the surface of the sweeping ocean. The corresponding themes show up like undercurrents, sometimes subtly and sometimes forcefully, as they support the primary message.
In the case of 1 John 3, John stresses righteous living as his primary message. Living righteously is the message of power much like the ocean waves. Several corresponding themes appear like undercurrents in support of this message. They consist of the following:
He connects these themes into a single forceful message through a series of comparisons and contrasts. He also uses them as counterarguments against the false teachers who disturbed these believers. For example, when John writes of the two appearances of Christ (His birth and second coming), John counters the false teaching that Jesus was simply an illusion and not real. John replies with a NO! That is, Jesus did appear physically, and He will appear once again at His second coming. The theme of the appearance of Christ represents John’s counterattack toward the false teachers.
As a thematic undercurrent for his message, John bring up appearance three times, once referring to believers and twice to Jesus. His first use speaks of His second coming (2:28; 3:2-3). With his second use, he refers to the historical event of His first coming or the incarnation (3:5). These two events act as two anchors for hope, faith, the new birth, and loving God and others. The third time John uses the word “appear” he speaks of the believer’s new unknown state when Jesus comes again (2:28). Although the future of our state of being when Jesus returns is unknown, we do know that we will be like Him (3:2).
In his typical style, he reverses the historical order for emphasizing that the motivation for the life of righteousness has its grounds in the hope of Christ’s second coming. For this reason, his writing style appears somewhat meandering. The connections of these themes are subtle in support of his message. Notice how he connects the two. He first states,
“…what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (3:2-3).
The false teachers (the early stages of Gnosticism) could not comprehend this physical appearance, because their philosophy of matter as evil and impure caused them to reject the incarnation and the second coming of Christ. The appearance of Jesus, to them, was an illusion. Jesus could not inhabit evil flesh. John emphatically counters their false beliefs about Jesus. Their idea of purity/impurity rested on materialism and not on God’s declaration. God created everything and pronounced them good. Evil entered the picture with humanity’s willful rebellion against and rejection of God.
The false teachers failed to distinguish between the good God created and the act of human rebellion. Rather than seeing the individuals created in the image of God as good, they saw this material creature as evil. Furthermore, rather than recognizing rebellion against God as evil, they rejected such rebellion and consequent sin. Purification according to John is not about the false teaching of separation between the body and spirit but the distinction between living righteously (purity) and living lawlessly (3:3-6), which is the true biblical category. The life of righteousness solidifies hope (3:3). This hope is the anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6:19).
John uses the undercurrent themes to reinforce living between the two comings of Christ – the incarnation as the first coming and Christ’s return to claim all who believe in Him as the second coming. Righteous living occurs between the two appearances of Christ as shown in the following illustration. The events that occur after Christ’s first coming find their source in the work of the Holy Spirit. John earlier wrote,
“But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie— just as it has taught you, abide in him” (2:27).
He affirms this truth later when speaking directly of the Holy Spirit,
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13)
As the Holy Spirit directs our lives through the process of living for God, we exhibit confidence and assurance (2:28; 3:21; 4:17) so that we will not show shame when Jesus returns the second time to claim all believers. The events between the first and second appearance of Christ lead to righteous living. Righteous living is the primary message John conveys in John 3 and that he threads throughout the letter. It is the mighty and majestic display of the God who gave us birth to His dear children. The events John discusses to support this message are the undercurrents that support and strengthen righteous living. They demonstrate to the world the difference between the children of darkness and the children of God.
Future articles will explore the undercurrents shown in the illustration: