The Rejection of the Apostle John
The Modern Christian finds it almost impossible to believe that Christians of the latter half of the 1st century would renounce the apostle John’s position of authority within the Christian community, but they did! The evidence of this is found in John’s own writings as well as historical documents written by Christians who lived within a hundred or so years after John’s death. What is so uncanny about this denial are the facts that John:
These factors of rank, one would normally think, would grant to the apostle John a great deal of authority among Christians in the last three decades of the 1st century. But in spite of these powerful credentials, John’s authority and even his teachings were rejected by many Christians during the last 30 to 35 years of his life,
People today find it difficult to comprehend why such a state of affairs could have existed while John was alive. But it happened! This situation has a bearing on the development and acceptance of the New Testament canon. If John’s authority to direct the Christian community was being rebuffed at the very time the canon was being formed, it should not be surprising that John’s canon itself might be suspect. This is the reason why the New Testament, as put together and sanctioned by John, did not meet with universal approval at first. But John’s canon did prevail, at least for the first three centuries among orthodox Christians.
This was because of the great influence of people like Polycarp and Irenaeus in the middle and late 2nd century who maintained John’s authority in essential matters of faith. These men were from or influenced by people from Asia Minor, and were governed by the teachings and authority of John. If it would not have been for these men (and others who shared their views), the shift of authority within the Christian community of believers would have gravitated away from John.
As time went on, the authority did leave the region where the New Testament canon had its origin (in Jerusalem and Ephesus). Since Rome was the center of political activity, it soon became necessary (so many people thought) that Christian authority should also be moved to Rome. This became an accomplished fact in the 4th century when Constantine assumed the emperorship. Indeed, Constantine created two “Romes.” One was the original city in Italy (which finally came to govern Christian affairs in the western part of Europe) and the other was new Rome on the Bosporus (which governed most Christians in the eastern parts of Europe and Asia).
What region was left in the lurch when the Empire was married to the world Church? It was Palestine and western Asia Minor where John had established the center of canonization. Christians ceased to look towards Jerusalem and Asia Minor where John retained much influence and where the New Testament canon came into existence. The rejection began to happen very early in the history of Christianity.
We must now refer to some historical evidences which moderns find hard, if not impossible, to believe, but what they show actually happened! There remains a genuine letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, written to the Christian congregation at Corinth about 95 C.E., which contains excellent moral and ethical teachings reflecting the doctrinal standards of the New Testament, yet the letter fails to mention the apostle John even once, or that he had any authority to deal with matters then affecting the Corinthians in Corinth. The interesting point that moderns find baffling is the fact that, in all probability, the apostle John was still alive and about to canonize the Book of Revelation when Clement composed his letter to Corinth. This is an astonishing set of circumstances which has puzzled later Christians. Indeed, when one surveys the words within the 65 chapters that Clement wrote to the Corinthians, one would not believe that the apostle John was even alive or had ever existed.
Strange is it not that Christ’s first cousin and one of the founding apostles of the Christian believers was not consulted in matters concerning the congregation at Corinth (about 300 miles from Ephesus) while the Corinthians were receiving instructions from Rome (some 700 miles distant). Look at a hypothetical example of a similar situation using a modern illustration. Suppose the Catholic community of Lyons, France wrote to other Catholics at Florence, Italy (some 700 miles away) about straightening up their Christian lives and taking 65 chapters to do it, but not once mentioning the Pope at Rome (who lived only 300 miles away) as having any authority to decide in the matter. Such a situation would seem almost absurd today. But that is very similar to what we find in 95 C.E. when Clement of Rome wrote the congregation at Corinth. Clement did not consider John’s authority at all!
Even more intriguing is the fact that the problems affecting the Christians at Corinth about 95 C.E. were the same ones that John himself encountered around Ephesus and other areas of his influence within his 30 years’ experience of being an apostle after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Professor Marsh in Hasting’s Dictionary of the Apostolic Church summarizes the problems in Corinth.
“The Epistle of Clement itself supplies complete information as to the circumstances under which it was written. Dissension had arisen within the Christian community at Corinth, and the church was torn asunder. The original ground of contention is not mentioned, but the course of the strife is clearly indicated. A small party of malcontents (1:1; 47:6) had used their influence to secure the deposition of certain presbyters, men duly appointed according to apostolic regulations, who were, moreover, of blameless reputation and unfailing zeal in the performance of their duties (44:3). A fierce controversy was raging, and the Corinthian Church, hitherto renowned for its virtues, especially such as are the outcome of brotherly love (1:2–2), had become a stumbling-block instead of an example to the world (47:7). Once before, the Church at Corinth had shown the same spirit of faction [1 Corinthians 1:10, 12]. History was now repeating itself, but the latter case was much worse than the former. Then, the contending parties had at least claimed to be following the lead of apostolic men, but now the main body of the Church was following ‘one or two’ contumacious persons in rebellion against their lawful rulers (47).”
Marsh, “Corinth,” vol. I, p. 216 1
What a state of affairs! Clement and the Church at Rome thought they had to do something about this dissension. But one thing is conspicuous for its absence. There is no appeal to the apostle John to help the Corinthians in this matter — either to John’s writings or to his personal authority. The matter even goes deeper than that. The very things for which Clement was criticizing the Corinthians were the things the apostle John talked about the most in his epistles. Here was Clement complaining about “one or two” taking the preeminence in the congregation over the constituted authorities, and that very thing is what the apostle John emphasized was going on concerning his authority in the area where he lived. John said:
“I wrote something to the congregation but Diotrephes, who likes to have first place among them does not receive anything from us with respect. ... He goes on chattering about us with wicked words. Also, not being satisfied with these things, neither does he himself receive the brothers [a group of John’s representatives], and those who are wanting to receive them he tries to hinder and to throw out of the congregation.”
3 John 9–10
Why does Clement fail to mention anything of John’s experience in dealing with disrespectful people, when that was the very problem that Clement was facing? If a similar situation of rebellion developed in any modern Christian congregation which uses the Bible as its guide, the first section of scripture that a minister would refer to is the one just cited from Third John. After all, it gives in the plainest of language a biblical authority to put down such people who want the supremacy against official authorities in the Christian congregation. But Clement not only did not refer to this section of John, he avoided all the writings of John which impinged upon the very problems being encountered in Corinth. In Clement’s chapters 42 to 47 (inclusively) he rehearsed the rebellions recorded in the Old Testament and how God dealt with them. Clement also referred to the early schismatics in the Corinthian congregation whom Paul had to deal with. But not once does Clement mention John.
Then, beginning in the middle of chapter 47, Clement recorded a major section about the merits of brotherly love (which subject occupies Clement’s chapters 47 to 51 inclusively), yet there still is no reference to John or his writings. This is strange because the subject of brotherly love is that with which the apostle John is most famous in the biblical canon — there are a total of 42 references to “love” in his Gospel, and on 46 occasions John emphasizes “love” in his three short epistles.
Of course, it could be said that Clement may not have had John’s Gospel or his three epistles in his possession when he wrote First Clement. This may be, but it does not relieve the problem as far as John’s authority is concerned. Since John was no doubt still living when Clement wrote, 2 it is still surprising that Clement made no reference to John or his writings when some historical records suggest he may have been only 300 miles away from Corinth,
One thing Clement does underscore, however, is that the apostles Peter and Paul (who had been intimate with the congregations at Corinth and Rome) were the “good” apostles (5:3). But still, Clement gives no mention of John among the “good” apostles. This statement implies that John, and the others, were not as “good” (whatever Clement meant by the term) as were Peter and Paul. Clement also called Paul and Peter “distinguished apostles” (47:1–4), but he did not grace the apostle John with such distinction. Why does Clement avoid John?
The absence of John in Clement is conspicuous and it appears to be deliberate. Was Clement relegating John to a position outside any administrative authority within the Christian community of believers? Surely, Clement was not repudiating John’s apostleship (he easily could have done that had he desired). In the case of the Corinthian problems Clement simply felt it not necessary to convoke the authority of John or, that it did not apply in the case of the Corinthians. Note that Clement only called attention to the teachings of Peter and Paul. To the Corinthians he reckoned that both of them were the “good” and the “distinguished” apostles. Still, why did Clement avoid any mention of John when he was probably alive and within 300 miles of where John’s influence was supposedly strong?
The matter does not stop there. About 20 years later, Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, was taken as a prisoner to Rome where he was finally martyred in the capital city. He passed by the congregations of western Asia Minor and wrote seven letters from or to them. These are valuable documents to show what was happening in the Christian community of believers at the time. But note this. Again, there is not one reference to the apostle John. This silence is as noticeable as it was in Clement’s letter, but it is even more difficult to explain because Ignatius composed letters not only to the Christians at Ephesus (where John frequently visited and even resided on occasion for some 30 or 35 years of his final ministry), but Ignatius wrote to Polycarp whom we know to have been an intimate disciple of John. Yet there is not a single mention of John or his authority in any matter of discussion. And certainly, by the time of Ignatius’ trip to Rome (c. 115 C.E.) John’s writings were then published.
About 20 or so years later (between 140 and 160 C.E.) Justin Martyr also wrote some major works on the value of Christian teaching, yet he referred to John’s works only once (and even that may have been a common oral statement attributed to John that was circulating among Christians). 3 Though many scholars feel that Justin must have been aware of John’s Gospel, he does not seem to place any major authority upon it as a witness. This tendency to avoid John in some quarters presents the historian with some intriguing problems.
It should not be thought, however, that everyone avoided mentioning John. There was Polycarp who was his intimate friend. Polycarp wrote a short letter to the Philippians (about 115 C.E. since it shows Ignatius still alive 4). In it he quoted from John’s canonical letters. Polycarp stated: “For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is antichrist.” 5 This is a reference to 1 John 4:2–3 and 2 John 7. Polycarp even taught that Christians ought to “return to the word handed on to us from the beginning” 6 which was what the apostle John demanded in his epistles.
Polycarp also recalled the words of Christ in John’s Gospel and his epistles: “He that raised him from the dead will raise us also, if we do his will and walk in his commandments, and love the things which he loved” (cf. John 7:17; 14:15; 1 John 2:6, 17; 5:1–2). This witness of Polycarp is essential. He was Bishop of the congregation at Smyrna, located a short distance north of Ephesus, and was one who personally heard John speak. Indeed, Polycarp had been ordained, according to Irenaeus, by the apostles themselves. 7 Since Irenaeus as a youth had heard Polycarp speak about his conversations with the apostle John, 8 this is powerful evidence that Polycarp was one who had a deep respect for John and his authority.
With this in mind, we should remember an event in the history of Christianity which might give us some information on why the authority of John was not acknowledged by many within the Christian community. In the year 154 C.E., Polycarp made a journey to Rome in order to talk with Anicetus who was Bishop of that city. Though the meeting was friendly, there was one major doctrinal matter that needed to be solved (among a number of minor ones). It concerned the time for completing a short fast period before the celebration of the Eucharist.
Polycarp stated most emphatically that he, and the other Bishops of Asia Minor, had been taught by the apostle John to observe the time of the Eucharist on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month — on the day before the Passover of the Jews. This meant that the time for celebration could fall out to any day of the week.
The Romans, however, started about 140 C.E. to keep the Eucharist on a Sunday following the Passover week. Though John set the example of following Jewish calendar indications in this matter, Polycarp was unable to persuade the Bishop of Rome to abandon the new method of observance adopted by the Romans. This was a clear example of Roman authorities expressing a superiority over the opinions of the apostle John.
There was a reason for doing this, and the change seemed a logical one. Before the Jews in Palestine went to war with the Romans in 132 C.E. (which ended in the complete destruction of Jewish power in Judaea by 135 C.E.), it was common for the beginning of all Jewish years (and consequently their months and holydays) to be determined by the Sanhedrin that had been set up at Jabneh (Jamnia) in the coastal region west of Jerusalem. But when the Emperor Hadrian so disrupted Jewish influence in Judaea after 135 C.E., no more official announcements for determining the beginning of the calendar year were permitted the Jews. This put their calendar into confusion. Consequently, the times for the Jewish annual holydays began to slip out of their normal seasons for observance.
The Jewish year was a Lunar-Solar one. The normal Lunar Year is about 11 days shorter than the Solar and about every three years an extra (thirteenth) Lunar month had to be added to the calendar in order to keep it abreast with Solar time. In a period of 19 years, there were seven extra months added to the calendar in order to maintain the Jewish festivals in their proper seasons of the Solar Year. This was not done haphazardly. In fact, it required an official body of Jewish elders in Jerusalem (when the Sanhedrin was there) and then Jabneh (after 70 C.E.) in order to accomplish this task. The Jewish community throughout the world was then informed, usually a year or so in advance, when the proper years and months could begin.
However, after the disastrous war of 132 to 135 C.E., the Sanhedrin at Jabneh was prevented from functioning and Jews throughout the world were denied any official sanction for the beginnings of their years and months. Chaos resulted over the Jewish calendar. It meant that no Leap Months (the thirteenth months) were being utilized. Progressively, the Jewish festivals began to be celebrated eleven days earlier each year. Without the addition of the “Leap Months,” by 142 C.E. (a short seven years after the Jewish/Roman War) the Passover was beginning to be observed as early as January. 9 This was an intolerable situation and something had to be done about it. The problem was dealt with by the establishment of a new Sanhedrin in Usha of Galilee about 142 C.E. From then on the Jews were once again provided with official pronouncements concerning the times of the beginnings of their years and months.
This new calendar was, unlike the former ones, based primarily on calculations rather than on actual observations of the moon. This is because the emperor Hadrian forbade any Jew from approaching the city of Jerusalem, and his decree, for practical purposes (and especially for calendar matters) remained in force for another 200 years. This presented a problem to Christians because the new calendar had one feature about it which was offensive to many Christians.
In the 17th year of the Jewish calendar cycle the Passover came to be observed two days before the Vernal Equinox. This was contrary to all tradition of earlier times. In the past it had become a cardinal rule that Passover had to be celebrated after the start of spring. Anatolius, an early Christian scholar, called attention to the fact that all previous Jewish authorities vouched that in the time of Christ the Passover was always held after the Vernal Equinox. He said:
“This may be learned from what is said by Philo, Josephus, and Musaeus; and not only by them, but also by those yet more ancient, the two Agathobuli, surnamed ‘Masters,’ and the fatuous Aristobulus, who was chosen by among the seventy interpreters for the sacred and divine Hebrew Scriptures. These writers, explaining questions in regard to the Exodus, say that all alike should sacrifice the Passover offerings after the Vernal Equinox in the first month.”
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10
And, in the very year that Polycarp went to Rome to inform Anicetus that the Eucharist should be celebrated according to the calendar of the Jews, that year was the 17th of the Jewish Metonic cycle.
Anicetus would have none of it. As a matter of fact, when the Jewish calendar began to be in disarray at the end of the Jewish/Roman War (135 C.E.), many Christian authorities took it upon themselves to calculate their own full moon for the Eucharist ceremonies. And some, notably those at Rome, simply abandoned an association of the Eucharist with the full moon and decided to observe it on a Sunday (the day of Christ’s resurrection) after the full moon of spring had occurred. Polycarp, however, felt it better to remain with the Jewish calendar determinations on this matter.
Polycarp was not able to convince Anicetus that the Jews should have authority on this issue. He and Anicetus simply observed their own respective Eucharists and parted in a friendly manner. This shows that there were no other major doctrinal differences between the two Christian communities in 154 C.E. But it does indicate that the opinions which came from those who followed directly in the footsteps of the apostle John in Asia Minor and the eastern region of the empire had no influence upon the clerics at Rome.
The parting of Polycarp and Anicetus in a friendly way was not the end of the story. About the year 190 C.E. another controversy came up over this same matter. This time, Victor, the Bishop of Rome, was not at all pleased with the people in Asia Minor who continued to follow the disciples of John. Victor brazenly excommunicated those who looked to Ephesus and other areas of the east as the center of Christian authority. Irenaeus, who sided with the Roman way of calculating the time for the Eucharist, still rebuked the Bishop of Rome for such a unilateral decision. 11 Again it must be recognized that there is no hint that there were other major doctrinal differences between the two regions of Christianity.
For what it is worth, the Jewish convert to Christianity, Hegesippus, mentioned that on a trip from the east to Rome in the middle of the 2nd century, he consulted with a number of Bishops about their doctrinal positions and found them all in general agreement. 12 And, when one surveys the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin it seems that this opinion of Hegesippus’ was in the main correct for the orthodox communities. The congregations around Ephesus (and in Palestine, as we will see) would have been little different from those in Rome on the basic Christian doctrines — except in the matter of celebrating the Eucharist.
There was, however, a distinct desire for some Bishops to exercise administrative power over others. Irenaeus considered this wrong. This is why he felt compelled to admonish Victor of Rome not to be so rash in his dealings with the congregations of Asia Minor where John’s disciples remained. Nevertheless, Rome was slowly beginning to exercise a position of leadership among most Christian congregations.
It was Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage, about 250 C.E., who finally stated that Rome had inherited the Petrine authority of primacy (the “keys” being given by Christ to Peter), but even then Cyprian did not think this gave supreme authority to Rome in all doctrinal and administrative matters. 13 In fact, Cyprian even disputed with the Roman Bishop on numerous issues and quoted the statement of Christ (John 20:21ff) that “all the apostles” had been given a type of equal authority. 14 It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. that the Petrine theory of supremacy for the Roman Bishop was finally made “official” in the empire, and that is when Christ’s reference of the “keys” being given to Peter was introduced to prove that leadership. 15
The witness of Polycarp and others from Asia Minor make it clear that there were no major doctrinal differences between the Christian congregations which had been under John’s control and those in Greece and Italy. Also, in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians there were no major doctrinal differences between the congregation at Rome and that at Corinth. The dissensions occurring at Corinth did not involve doctrinal issues. Ignatius’ seven epistles show a doctrinal unanimity between the Christian congregations of Asia and Rome. In fact, Ignatius was warning the congregations about the same Gnostic beliefs that John himself was worried about (believing that Christ had not come in the flesh). Since the doctrinal positions were reasonably stable why then was there a non-recognition of John’s opinions by these men in the late 1st century and up to the last part of the 2nd century?
One might imagine that John may have wanted to heed Jewish ways more than those in Greece and Rome (because the controversy over the time for celebrating the Eucharist was whether Christians should observe it according to the calendar of the Jews or a new Christian one). True, John may have expressed more attachment to Jewish ways, but anyone who reads his Gospel is fully aware that John had no sympathy with the actual observance of the Jewish Sabbath or their holydays.
To John, the Mosaic holydays had become “the Jews’ holydays” and he made a plain statement that Christ had canceled the weekly Sabbath for Christians (John 5:18, see Greek). He even showed Christ’s lack of attention to the Mosaic Passover period of the Jews because he records that Christ was feeding the five thousand in Galilee (John 6:1–15) when the Law expressly taught that all able-bodied males should be in Jerusalem for the festival (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). Christ also failed to arrive at the Feast of Tabernacles on time though his presence was required by Mosaic law (John 7:1–17). The fact is, Christians believed Christ to be “the Prophet” of Deuteronomy 18:15–19, and this gave Him authority to do as He pleased.
And though John emphasized getting back to the Christianity that was given “from the beginning,” 16 John was not speaking of keeping the rituals of Judaism. He was making an appeal to return to the teaching which he was presenting in his Gospel. John gave a thoroughly spiritual interpretation to the teachings of Christ and they had nothing to do with the physical performance of keeping Sabbaths, Feast Days, or observing Temple ceremonies. John’s teaching was far from Judaism. John was referring to his Gospel when he told his readers that they ought to get back to the teachings of Christ which were given “from the beginning.” He did not mean that his readers ought to return to the teachings of Moses. Indeed, John accepted the writings of Paul (which he helped to canonize) and they also made it clear that observing the food and drink laws of the old Testament and the Mosaic holydays were not required in the Christian dispensation (Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16–17).
Actually, when one analyzes the teachings of John in his Gospel and epistles, it becomes evident that he could not have been teaching too much out of the mainstream of Christian doctrines which were then being taught in the world. This includes what was being instructed at Rome and Corinth. If one will look at the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians and the seven letters of Ignatius, there is hardly a syllable of doctrinal teaching that varies from that of Paul and Peter — and even that of John himself.
This is an extraordinary thing. Why is it that the main doctrinal positions seem to be the same (or the differences were of no major consequence) and yet the authorities of Greece and Italy (from the records we have available) pay no attention to the apostle John or his authority?
The answer may come from the writings of John himself. In his Third Epistle, John said that a certain Diotrephes was one who liked to have first place among those in the congregation (3 John 9). Diotrephes was not accepting John’s authority, and he was casting out of the congregation those who wanted to rely on the apostle John. It seems almost impossible for some of us moderns to believe that someone like Diotrephes could continue to call himself a Christian while rejecting the authority of the apostle John to his face. But John records that such a thing was happening. And note this. At no time does John accuse Diotrephes of teaching false doctrines. He may have been, but John says nothing about such a deviation. It seems that Diotrephes simply wanted to have the first place of rulership within the Christian community, and he had the power within the congregation to dispense with John’s authority (who was nothing less than an apostle of Christ). But why did Diotrephes turn against the authority of John? Why didn’t Clement and Ignatius mention John?
A key to this “power struggle” may be found in John’s account in his third epistle. Indeed, to explain this very matter may have been the central reason why Third John (as short in length as it is, and seemingly inconsequential in proving doctrinal truths) was placed in the New Testament canon. In that short letter is one main theme — in fact, the only theme! It concerns the rejection of a team of men, called by John “the brethren” (a select group of John’s representatives), who were touring among the congregations under John’s control (verses 5 & 6). John tells Gaius, the recipient of Third John, not only to receive “the brethren” as John’s personal representatives, but to provide them with the needed financial support so that they could complete their tour assignment (verse 6). But John had specifically given them orders to take no support from “the Gentiles” (verse 7). Diotrephes (the one rebelling against John’s authority) would not receive “the brethren” that John had sent on this tour. It could well have been over a matter involving the issue of not taking support from “the Gentiles.”
These Gentiles mentioned by John could hardly be a metaphor which referred to people outside the congregation because non-Christian Gentiles would not be supporting John’s representatives anyway. These Gentiles were in the Christian congregation. This indicates that a matter of race in the Christian congregation was somehow part of the issue leading to the dispute. Since John was highly conservative, he may have taken seriously the agreement that was reached between Paul and the “pillar” apostles (James, Peter and John) that Paul was to be responsible for teaching the Gentiles, while James, Peter and John were to concentrate their teaching with the Jews (Galatians 2:9). Though Peter had a history of being flexible in such matters of Jews in relation to Gentiles (Galatians 2:11–14), there is no record that John shared Peter’s flexibility.
It could well be (and the central message of Third John suggests it strongly) that John felt his apostolic mission was to be directed principally to the Jews while that of Paul and his helpers were commissioned to teach the Gentiles. This may account for the stricture of John that his representatives on their official tour should in no wise accept financial support from “the Gentiles” — and in this case John meant Gentiles in the Christian congregations (verse 7.). His command is so curt and matter-of-fact, that this gave Diotrephes and his supporters a strong negative reaction to this stance of John’s. John had the habit of not mincing words in his teaching. His demeanor was strict, to the point, and sometimes verging on harshness in his criticisms. Certainly, John was no mild-mannered person as he is sometimes wrongly characterized.
Let us recognize some points about the temperament of John. Of all the apostles, he is the one least understood by most modern interpreters. Most have considered him to have been a loving and mild-mannered person who primarily emphasized conciliation between peoples and especially a brotherly love among all Christians. True, he emphasized those things but his attitude was far from being weak, wishy-washy and non-resolute. Just the opposite was the case.
Christ gave John and his brother James (who were both his first cousins) the title “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Being given this title signified that they were to be the very spokesmen of God. It meant they would speak the words of God in the manner in which thunder would roar from the heavens. This typified the brashness of their temperaments. A good example of showing this was the incident of the Samaritans who rebuked Christ.
“And when the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?’”
Though Christ had to reprove the two brothers for their harsh attitude, this shows the outward boldness that they both displayed. With this in mind, it seems to be no accident that it was John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Its theme could well have suited John’s personality in the basic sense. It is a book of judgment, of “blood and guts,” of punishment for all wrong-doers. Indeed, there is no mercy extended within its pages for those deserving retribution. It describes God’s dealing with sin and sinful humans with a vengeance. Was the apostle John selected to record these final judgments against unrighteousness because his attitude blended in with their manner of delivery?
The two Sons of Thunder were also highly ambitious (along with their mother) in petitioning Christ for seats of authority on either side of Christ (Matthew 20:20). The other apostles became angry with these two brothers for their audacious attitudes in wanting to rule over everyone else.
There is another illustration which expresses John’s nature. He seemed to be one who would not “give and take” on matters that he considered important. Things had to go exactly the way he thought proper, and he was not considerate of those who would show a deviation from his opinions. Indeed, if anyone taught anything different from John or his assistants, John allowed no one leeway in dealing with such an individual. In his Second Epistle he taught that if any man would come to a person’s home and not bring the exact teachings that John was relating then no one was permitted to speak with him (2 John 10–11). While such a trait is admirable when matters of essential doctrinal truths are at stake, it may appear to be a very severe attitude if the opinions involve insignificant social customs or traditions. This may be one of the things that caused some Christians to have reservations about being in the company of John and his assistants. Scholars have long recognized this. Professor Riggs, in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, relates:
“It is commonly thought that John was of a gentle, contemplative nature, and almost effeminate in character. Contemplative he was, and the Gospel is but an expression of his profound meditation upon the character and work of his Master, but a moment’s reflection upon some of the scenes of the Gospels (see Matthew 20:20–24, Luke 9:49, 54), in correspondence with which are some of the legends regarding his later life, will show that this Apostle was, at least in earlier life, impetuous, intolerant, and ambitious. Doubtless he was effectively molded by the Spirit of Christ during his long discipleship, but he was always stern and uncompromising in his hatred of evil and in his defense of truth.”
vol. 1, p. 869 17
This temperamental trait of John may well be one reason why many Christians around the world (who wished a more conciliatory approach to Christian ethics and doctrines) found an uneasiness around John and his assistants. And since John no doubt took seriously his belief that he was essentially an apostle commissioned to go to the Jewish people, and not the Gentiles like Paul (Galatians 2:9), and that he reinforced his belief by commanding his representatives on tour to take no support from “the Gentiles” (3 John 7), this made it difficult for all sections of the Christian community (especially in Gentile areas such as Rome and Corinth) to get along amicably with the apostle John.
But there was more to it than John’s temperament. There was another factor in the life of the apostle John that made him to be held in suspicion more than any of the other apostles. Let us now look at a major reason why Christian people were questioning the authority of John in his later years. Many people had reasons not to respect John’s opinions.
The principal book that all the apostles were relying on to give them a sequential account of prophetic events from their time to the second advent of Christ was the Book of Revelation. That book was written by the apostle John but the information in it purportedly came from none other than Christ himself (Revelation 1:1–2). Almost every chronological indication in that book suggested that Christ would return to earth to perform all the judgments recorded in the Book of Revelation within the generation of the original apostles.
Indeed, so soon did the readers imagine the Second Advent would occur that “they also who pierced him” (at Christ’s crucifixion) were thought to be remaining alive to witness his glorious second advent (Revelation 1:7). This reference, among several others, suggests that the Book of Revelation (at least its original draft) was written in the early or middle part of John’s ministry. We have given reasons for dating its initial composition somewhere between 56 C.E. to 60 C.E. Professor J.A.T. Robinson felt that the Book of Revelation was certainly composed prior to 70 C.E., and he was no doubt correct. 18 But all the events of the book did not then occur. A great disappointment set in. From the autumn of 63 C.E. onward, the apostles were aware that the Second Advent would not happen in that generation. The visions of Revelation were to occur many centuries in the future.
The reputation of all the apostles, but especially that of John, went down considerably among Jewish Christians in the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This decline in interest in the prophetic teachings of Christianity was widespread in Judaea in particular. There began to be an abandonment of Christian teachings by these Jewish Christians. There was an especially radical reappraisal of the chronology associated with the end-times. Many of them simply gave up interpreting historical events of their time in a prophetical manner and Peter’s Second Epistle deals with this.
While prophetic teaching became highly suspect, the apostle Peter said there was a concomitant reversal in ethical and moral character among the Christian population. This is what Peter and Jude in their epistles were upset with the most. The decline in respect for established authorities (whether human or angelic) became a disaster to the Jewish Christian congregations in Judaea. In a word, all of the teachings of Peter in his Second Epistle reflected on the great rebellion then developing among Jewish Christians in Judaea (from 63 C.E. to 70 C.E.). The primitive teachings of Christianity were being substituted by nationalistic ideas.
There was widespread teaching that it was perfectly proper to speak against constituted authorities and to resist them in order to obtain a liberty from political oppression. The main teachings of Peter and Jude in their epistles were to counteract the revolutionary spirit that developed from 63 C.E. to 66 C.E. among the Jewish Christians in Judaea (and among the ordinary and non-Christian Jewish populations) after the great disappointment took place about the autumn of 63 C.E. when the Roman Empire did not begin to crumble as they thought it would. Coping with this disappointment was a major theme of the epistle of Second Peter.
After 63 C.E. (and up to the start of the war with Rome in 66 C.E.) vast numbers of Jewish Christians in Judaea and surrounding areas began to flex their political muscles. They joined forces with the nationalists who wanted to war with the Romans and establish a Jewish state of their own in Judaea. Both Peter in his Second Epistle and Jude in his letter were describing the chaos then developing among the Jews of Judaea. Great numbers of them were Christian Jews who had experienced the great disappointment of 63 C.E.
The Christian Jews were now well aware that the events associated with Christ’s Second Advent were not developing as they expected them to occur. When one reads Second Peter and Jude with this historical environment in mind, a great deal of illumination is cast on what was happening in Jerusalem and Judaea among ordinary Jews and the great numbers of Jewish Christians. Their disappointment in the “failure” (or what they considered to be the failure) of the end-time events of Daniel and Revelation to occur in their generation caused them to change their minds about the teachings of Christianity itself. They began to consider the apostles as bearing false tidings about prophetic events. They were most especially upset with the apostle John whose visionary experiences as reported in what we call the Book of Revelation seemed totally wrong for their time.
The apostle Peter reflected on the common complaint expressed by Jewish Christians in Judaea; and he was trying to stop its spread to other Jews outside Judaea.
“This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Savior: knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.”
2 Peter 3:1–4
Not only were the people to whom Peter was writing experiencing great disappointment, but many of the people were taking up hostile attitudes to the teachings of the earlier prophets and to the commandments of the apostles of Christ. They had expected the soon coming of the Kingdom of God on earth (which the visions given to John had taught would last for 1000 years, a period we call the Millennium), but now the majority of Jewish Christians in Judaea were giving up hope that the prophecies would be fulfilled at all. Both Peter and Jude were warning Jews in other areas of the Roman Empire not to follow them in their rebellious behavior.
The Old Testament reveals the duality principle of prophetic interpretation in several places and I have referred to it in a former section of this book. And in the Book of Revelation there is the teaching that prophetic events dealing with the time of the end were given to the apostle John in two phases of time. The exact length of time between the two phases is not revealed in the book itself, but it was made clear that the apostle John within his lifetime would experience two periods of time of prophetic revelation. This information is found in chapter ten of the Book of Revelation. Let us notice what it states.
About half way through John’s writing of Revelation, an interlude of time occurs in which the apostle John is informed by an angel that he would experience a second phase of understanding prophetic information at an undisclosed future time. In regard to this, he was told to take a small scroll from the hand of an angelic messenger and eat the scroll. It would be sweet to his mouth but bitter to his stomach. When this happened, the apostle John received further instructions about a future revelation dealing with the end-times that would be given to him. It would involve all nations. “And he said unto me, ‘You must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and many kings.’” (Revelation 10:11).
The fact is, John had already interpreted the teachings of the sixth trumpet up to the seventh seal of the scroll and there was yet the seventh trumpet still left for him to record as well as the seven last plagues. This future prophetic encounter (mentioned in chapter 10 of Revelation) could hardly have been written within the present scroll he was interpreting. It involved new information written on another scroll which he was required “to eat.” It was something different from the seven sealed scrolls that John was then interpreting up to and including chapter nine of our present Book of Revelation. This new prophetic message that John was to receive in the future could have been his final visionary experience when he was taken by the Spirit to the Isle of Patmos and where he put the final touches on the complete Book of Revelation.
By the time of chapter ten, John had already been given the teaching of the seven seals in the context of the present Book of Revelation through chapter nine (and then we have the pause of chapter ten concerning the future revelation to be given to him). It is noteworthy that John on the heels of this pause tells his readers that the seventh trumpet sounds (11:15). Then in our present Book of Revelation we find three out-of-context chapters (12, 13, 14) placed before the prophetic sequence of the seven seals recommences with chapter fifteen. It could well be that these insert chapters contained the revelation given at a later time (say in 96 C.E. on the Isle of Patmos) that John finally included in his updated version of the Book of Revelation. While this is possible, there is no way of knowing (with our present state of knowledge) to say this is definite.
It is interesting that the time when John, at the pause in chapter ten, was told he would be given another prophetic experience in the future, the angel mentioned that there would be “DELAY no longer.” 19 The angel was telling John about this future prophetic encounter he would have. It would help to explain the “delay” theme being mentioned by the angel. And, just as Christ stated in his Olivet Prophecy about the delay of his second advent, many people in Judaea in 63 C.E. began to say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:2). With the delay, a great disappointment set in among the people and many began to distrust the teachings of the apostles. The apostle Peter in his Second Epistle said that the Jewish Christians in particular were beginning to revile prophetic teachings, and this would have included the first draft of the Book of Revelation which contained the seven seals (without the insert of chapters 12, 13 and 14).
Because of the great disappointment from the autumn of 63 C.E. to 70 C.E., the Book of Revelation had to be brought back into prominence near the end of the 1st century (with up-to-date additions written by John) in order for the prophecy to be accepted as divine scripture.
The truth was, even the first draft of the Book of Revelation, which was given to the apostle John somewhere in the period from 56 C.E. to 60 C.E., was not speaking about prophetic events to take place in the middle of the 1st century. They were designed to have fulfillment in the final generation just prior to the Second Advent of Christ. While some people began to understand the truth of this matter, there were still many people who gave up altogether on prophetic interpretations just prior to the Jewish/ Roman War of 66 C.E. to 73 C.E. The great disappointment that happened just before that time provoked many Jewish Christians and ordinary Jewish people to go to war with the Romans. It did not stop there. There were even hard feelings toward prophetic teachings in general with those who survived that holocaust.
Even in the period from 70 C.E. to 96 C.E., to the time when the apostle John received the final edition of the Book of Revelation, there were survivors of the late war with the Romans who continued to distrust any prophetic teachings whatever and especially to put any faith in an apostle like John who failed to tell them (or at least he apparently failed to tell them) that the prophecies within his visionary experiences were designed to be fulfilled some 2000 years in the future. Indeed, even the apostles themselves (apparently to a man) expected as late as 61 C.E. the soon coming of Christ back to this earth. John was teaching nothing more than what the other apostles believed and taught.
Thankfully, however, when 63 C.E. came and went without the expected prophecies starting to be fulfilled, Peter and Paul (and no doubt John) began to teach the people that there were yet many centuries ahead for the world before the Second Advent would take place. This is when they began to understand the teaching that the seven days of creation week were analogous to a period of seven thousand years in which God would essentially deal with mankind in teaching his truth to the world. Since only some 4000 years, according to Hebrew chronology, had passed from the first Adam to the time of Christ, it was then realized that a further 2000 years or so were still to be in advance of the world before the second advent of Christ and those end-time prophecies could be fulfilled. Some early Christians of the 1st century began to understand this point.
Instead of the “Day of the Lord” beginning to take place in that generation back in the 1st century, Peter at the very time of the great disappointment began to inform the people not to be weary with the unexpected developments because
“One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness ... but the Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise.”
2 Peter 3:8–10
Since within the context of the third chapter of Peter’s Second Epistle there is Peter’s reference to the initial creation of God, this shows that he had in mind the first chapters of Genesis regarding the chronology of prophetic events. In Genesis there was the teaching that God created the earth (or at least planned it out) within a six day period. It became common in the 1st century for Christians to equate each of those days of creation with a prophetic day of 1000 years. This principle was already known 150 years before the birth of Christ.
“And he [Adam] lacked seventy years from one thousand years, for a thousand years are like one day in the testimony of the heavens.”
Jubilees 4:30 20
A document written about the time of Jesus called Pseudo-Philo also states that mankind is destined to dwell on earth for 7000 years.
“And behold a voice was saying, ‘These will be a foundation for men, and they will dwell in them for 7,000 years.’”
Pseudo-Philo 28.8 21
This type of prophetic interpretation became the norm in Christian circles after the great disappointment.
In the Epistle of Barnabas (a non-canonical work written just before the close of the 1st century) is stated the common belief that God had prepared 6000 years for man to rule in his own manner while there remains a further 1000 years (which later was called a Millennium) in which God’s kingdom would be on earth and God would then be ruling in power and glory over all the earth. Even later Jewish rabbis took up the theme and adopted it into their prophetic beliefs. 22 Note the teaching found in Barnabas.
“He [Moses] speaks of the Sabbath at the beginning of the creation. ‘And God made in six days the works of his hands and on the seventh day he made an end, and rested in it and sanctified it.’ Notice, children, what is the meaning of ‘he made an end in six days’? He means this: that the Lord will make an end of everything in six thousand years, for a day with him means a thousand years. And he himself is my witness when he says, To, the day of the Lord shall be as a thousand years.’ so then, children, in six days, that is in six thousand years, everything will be completed.”
Epistle of Barnabas XV:3–4 23
This passage appears to be an attempt by a very early Christian author to properly interpret what the apostle John meant in his first version of the Book of Revelation when he stated that Christ would rule for a thousand years after his return. This 1000 year period was equated with the weekly Sabbath day of creation. The author of the Book of Hebrews about 61 C.E. also mentioned that there would remain in the future a “keeping of a Sabbath” (Hebrews 4:9 Greek) for the people of God after the return of Christ. This was not intended to be understood as a single weekly Sabbath day, but the seventh 1000 year period which we now call the Millennium.
Look what this understanding provides for the prophetic interpreter. If each of the six working days of creation which were mentioned by Moses was also prophetically understood
to mean a thousand years in length (as the apostle Peter indicated in his Second Epistle), then from the time of the first Adam (when our first parent was created and put in the Garden of Eden) unto the start of the Millennium when God’s kingdom would be in evidence for a period of 1000 years, there would elapse 6000 years for mankind to “work” at his own form of government and human society.
Since it was evident that Christ and the apostles lived at a time just a little more than 4000 years from the creation of Adam as shown in the Hebrew chronology of the Old Testament, then it became obvious to 1st century prophetic interpreters that the great anticipation for the commencement of the Kingdom of God on earth in the 1st century was about 2000 years too soon. This meant that the information in the Book of Revelation (even though it was first composed in its initial draft somewhere near 56 C.E. to 60 C.E.) was really referring to a generation at the time of the end some 2000 years future to the apostles. We ourselves are approaching the conclusion of that 2000 years of time.
But many Christians of the late 1st century were still smarting over the “failure” (as they conceived it) of what they thought John’s prophetic writings had formerly declared. Besides a hostility toward John for this, there was also the brash and uncompromising attitude of John that made his appeal for unity and brotherliness to fall on some deaf ears, especially since many interpreted John’s “brotherliness” as getting on his bandwagon or else!
John’s instructions to his representatives to take no financial support from Gentile Christians (3 John 7) was also a sore point with many people (especially Gentiles, and particularly those in Rome and Corinth). Clement of Rome simply avoided John altogether in any conciliatory actions involving the problems at Corinth. From John’s point of view, however, he was only following the agreement made at Jerusalem between Paul and the “pillar” apostles that Paul was to have responsibility to teach the Gentiles while James, Peter, and himself were to concentrate on teaching the Jews (Galatians 2:9). But this stern and uncompromising attitude and temperament of John (and with him being a stickler for staying within the letter of the law in the agreements made between Paul and the “pillar” apostles) was a deterrent to the Gentiles in even accepting his apostolic authority over their lives. But with time (and especially after John’s death), his literary works became more acceptable, and finally of equal value with the other apostles.
We find that the teaching of the apostle John in the Book of Revelation (though much suspicion was cast on it and John at the time of the great disappointment), was finally redeemed and acknowledged by many early Christians as divine literature after all. This meant that the Book of Revelation as well as John’s Gospel and his three epistles belong within the biblical canon. Since there were 22 books that were divinely recognized in the Old Testament canon, there were also 22 books placed inside the New Testament canon by John, plus his own 5 books which brought the complete number of books in the final Holy Scriptures to 49 (7 times 7 in number). This represents the complete canon of the Holy Scriptures. In the next chapter we will consider the meaning of the final canonization of the New Testament scriptures.
1 F.S. Marsh, “Epistle of Clement of Rome,” in James Hasting, ed., Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. I (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, c1916–1918), p. 216.
2 Or John had just recently died, since Clement apparently said that the “pillar” apostles were then dead (5:2), but this may only have meant James and Peter.
3 Justin’s First Apology, ch. 61 referenced John 3:5.
4 Polycarp, To The Philippians 13:2.
5 Polycarp, To The Philippians 7:1.
6 Polycarp, To The Philippians 7:3.
7 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History IV.14.
8 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.20.
9 Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), pp. 236–239, 274.
10 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VII.32:14–19.
11 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24.
12 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.22.
13 Herbert Newell Bate, ed., Catholic and Apostolic: collected papers of Cuthbert Hamilton Turner (London: Mowbray, 1931), p. 228.
14 Cyprian, Unity of the Church, p. 4.
15 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from Its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English, American ed. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1979), pp. 340–341.
16 See 1 John 1:1; 2:7, 13f, 24; 11; 2 John 1:5–6.
17 James Riggs, “John the Apostle” in James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), p. 869.
18 J.A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London, SCM, 1976, pp. 221–253.
19 Revelation 10:6 see Greek; just as the same message regarding the delaying of the Second Advent mentioned in Matthew 24:48 that Christ said in his Olivet Prophecy would cause many to wonder about.
20 Quoted from “Jubilees, A new translation & introduction by O.S. Wintermute,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Psaudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), pp. 63–64.
21 Quoted from “Pseudo-Philo, A new translation and introduction by D.J. Harrington in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Psaudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 342.
22 See Tamid 7:4 and Sanhedrin 97a.
23 English translation by Kirslopp Lake in Apostolic Fathers (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1912).
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