1 John

Through the use of the technologies of telephone, telegraph, computer and satellite, news travels fast. Not so long ago, Southern California was jolted by a rather strong earthquake. Less than fifteen minutes later we heard details about it on a national news program broadcast from Wash ington, D.C. Meanwhile, in spite of the warnings and pleas of various authorities and officials in the Los Angeles area, telephone lines were jammed as people tried to reach friends and family. In times of crisis and emergency, we instinctively desire to be able to speak to friends and loved ones, especially when we fear that they may have been harmed. We cherish quick and easy communication with others, and we depend upon it to conduct the business of modern life.

During the early years of the spread of the Christian faith, communi cation between fellow believers and communities of Christians was equally cherished and important. The apostle Paul was able to shepherd his congregations by corresponding with them. But communication was by no means quick and easy. Letters were generally carried by private courier, who traveled on foot, or sometimes by boat or other means. These journeys were often long and perilous, without the comforts of motels, restaurants, air-conditioned vehicles and paved highways that many of us take for granted when we travel today. And yet for Christians determined to maintain contact with each other, or for church leaders forced to pastor their flocks from afar, the tedious journeys were under taken despite their risks.

The Character of the Letter

We come, then, to a document traditionally known as the First Epistle of John. In its pages we read the words of a pastor concerned about congregations of believers for which he has responsibility, but which lie at some geographical distance from him. Absent from them, yet anxious about them, he pens this short epistle out of his urgent pastoral concern and deep love. He is like the missionary on study leave I met recently, who expressed anxiety and concern for "the family" of believers left behind him.

We assume that 1 John is a letter, even though in many ways it looks more like a treatise, tract or sermon. It lacks the stereotypical forms characteristic of a first-century letter, forms comparable to our salutations ("Dear Friends") and closings ("Warm regards"). By contrast, 2 and 3 John begin as ancient letters should begin, with the identification of the writer (2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1) and the recipients (2 Jn 2; 3 Jn 1), a greeting (2 Jn 3) and a thanksgiving (2 Jn 4; 3 Jn 2-4). First John, however, does not present itself as a typical letter.

And yet 1 John has the character of a letter insofar as it is directed toward a specific congregation or group of congregations and deals with a particular problem that has arisen. The author assumes familiarity with his readers. He speaks simply in the first person, sometimes in the plural ("we"), sometimes in the singular ("I"; 2:1, 7-8, 12-14, 21, 26; 5:13, 16). He expects his readers to know to whom this "we" or "I" refers, and he writes this epistle expecting his readers to heed it and respond.

The Author as Witness

John's authority rests in part on his role as witness. The word translated "testify" and "to bear witness" has its roots in the sphere of legal terminology. As in a court of law, witnesses are responsible for the integrity and truthfulness of their testimony (Trites 1978:1049-50). Thus witnesses not only vouch for their personal expe rience of something, but for the truthfulness of what is stated. The Jo hannine community cherished those who were "witnesses" to Jesus.

In fact, Jesus himself was viewed as one who bore witness to what he had seen and heard with the Father (Jn 1:18; 5:19, 36; 15:15; compare Rev 1:2, 5; 12:17; 22:20). In turn, the disciples are commissioned as witnesses of Jesus (Jn 15:27). In the epistles we see the continuing role of those who bear witness to Jesus. They do so not only by giving reliable testimony to an event, but also by carrying out the commission to inter pret to others the reality of what they had experienced. Witnesses not only tell others what they experienced; they must tell them what it means.

The "witness" in the Johannine churches seems to have had a specific function and role. In many ways, it takes the place of "minister" or "apostle," neither of which is used in a technical sense in the Gospel or epistles of John to refer to preachers of the gospel. But who are these "witnesses"? Are they "eyewitnesses"? In the Gospel and epistles of John the concepts of "seeing" and "sight" can be metaphorical, referring to "insight" and understanding, rather than to literal seeing (compare Jn 1:14; 1 Jn 4:14). For these and other reasons scholars suggest that the "Elder" may not have been an eyewitness, but a follower of one who was an eyewitness. But if he is not an eyewitness, then he is closely tied to one who is, and he is zealous for the preservation of that person's witness. Yet his own testimony is no less important or valid.

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