The letters of the Apostle Saint John

Today is the feast day of the Apostle Saint John, of the inner council within the Twelve Apostles, which consisted of Peter, James and the same John. James and John were the sons of Zabdai (Zebedee in most of our books) and so impetuous in their defence of Christ and the Church that Christ called them the boanerges, the ‘sons of thunder.’ They were closely related to Christ, and we may remember how they got their mother (Christ’s aunt on His Mother’s side, so the Holy Aunty) to ask for places on His right and left, in His glory:

“Thereupon the mother of the sons of Zebedee brought them to Him, falling on her knees to make a request of Him. And when He asked her, ‘What is thy will?’ she said to Him, ‘Here are my two sons; grant that in Thy kingdom one may take his place on Thy right and the other on Thy left.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what it is you ask. Have you strength to drink of the cup I am to drink of?’ They said, ‘We have.’ And He told them, ‘You shall indeed drink of My cup; but a place on My right hand or My left is not Mine to give; it is for those for whom My Father has destined it.”

Gospel of S. Matthew, 20: 20-23

And they certainly would share in His humiliation, His suffering and His death, although James was the first of the Apostles to die and John the very last. I am myself rather fond of Saint John, the only one of the Apostles who hung about during the Passion and death of our Lord. He is often portrayed in crucifixion scenes, at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Virgin. There he was given the care of her, and took her into his household until her death and Assumption. I thought that today would be a good day to have a short summary of the three letters he has left us at the end of the New Testament in our Bibles. The first letter is not very long at all, and has many features from the Gospel of Saint John, such as the theology of light and dark, good and evil and attachment to Christ. It is marvellously black and white, the constant theme being that if you love God, you keep His commandments (also a feature of his Gospel), and that if you don’t keep those commandments and claim to love God, you’re a bit of a liar. The whole letter is a warning against idolatry and apostasy, big problems at the time of its writing, because of the increasing vehemence of the persecuting Roman authorities as they attacked the early Christians in various places for ‘impiety’ – that is, the abandonment of the state religion and particularly the worship of Caesar. Appropriately, John ends with the stern warning:

“Beware, little children, of false gods.”

I John 5: 7

The works of Saint John are a very good introduction to an overall reading of the whole Bible. The second letter has one message: cling to the true faith, there will be false prophets and you will know them when they deny that Christ came in human flesh, this is the spirit of anti-Christ, stay clear of it or lose your heavenly reward. And there it is. Saint John identifies himself as an elder (or ‘presbyter’; read ‘priest’) of a church that is not specified here, and he is addressing another church, possibly as the last surviving Apostle. All the others had been martyred by then. He addresses this second church as a lady:

“I, the presbyter, send greeting to that sovereign lady whom God has chosen; and to those children of hers who are my friends in the truth, loved, not by me only, but by all those who have recognized the truth.”

II John 1

The warning about the anti-Christ is as simple as my summary above. Many Christians think that there is a single figure called anti-Christ who will arrive at a particular moment and cause significant damage to the Church. But it seems to me that John is speaking of a spirit of anti-Christ, a rival religious or political movement that specifically denies that the second person of the most blessed Trinity was incarnated as a human being, in order to bring about our salvation:

“Many false teachers have appeared in the world, who will not acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in human flesh; here is the deceiver you were warned against, here is Antichrist. Be on your guard, or you will lose all you have earned, instead of receiving your wages in full. The man who goes back, who is not true to Christ’s teaching, loses hold of God; the man who is true to that teaching, keeps hold both of the Father and of the Son.”

II John 7-9

Whereas John repeats the teaching that has made his Gospel famous – that we must love Christ by keeping his commandments – his last solemn warning is that we not even entertain the preachers and teachers who bring with them the above anti-Christian idea. We know of historical persons who have presented this idea, and we may know people today who still do. John would call them anti-Christ, and that is terrible. We could compare his warning to those made by Saint Paul to his churches to remain in the traditions he had given them and not attempt to go beyond them, such as this one:

“Stand firm, then, brethren, and hold by the traditions you have learned, in word or in writing, from us.”

II Thessalonians 2: 14

The third letter of Saint John is again rather small, this time from Saint John to a new Christian called Gaius, and it’s interesting to discover that, like Saint Paul, John calls his converts his children. It would seem to have been an early tradition for the Apostles and their successors, the bishops and the priests, to have a parent-children relationship with the young churches. This tradition has continued today, when we call our bishops and priests Father.

“I have no greater cause for thankfulness, than when I hear that my children are following the way of truth.”

III John 4

The first part of the letter is an eulogy to Gaius, who has been very charitable to the church he was at that time serving and other correspondents seem to have informed John about it. The rest of the letter seems to be parish politics: John is sending the letter privately to avoid an obnoxious member of the church called Diotrephes, who seems to have the power to exclude both John and Gaius. I wonder who he was: bishop or priest? Anyway, we get a flash of the black-and-white theology of the first letter of Saint John before the end: choose good and God is with you, choose evil and you’re taking your character from the devil:

“Beloved, choose the right pattern, not the wrong, to imitate. He who does right is a child of God; the wrong-doer has caught no glimpse of Him.”

III John 11
back to the letters of S. Peter | Letters of S. John | on to the letter of S. Jude