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- 1 John
by William Barclay
INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST LETTER OF JOHN
A Personal Letter And Its Background
First John is entitled a letter but it has no opening address nor closing greetings such as the letters of Paul have. And yet no one can read it without feeling its intensely personal character. Beyond all doubt the man who wrote it had in his mind's eye a definite situation and a definite group of people. Both the form and the personal character of First John will be explained if we think of it as what someone has called "a loving and anxious sermon" written by a pastor who loved his people and sent out to the various churches over which he had charge.
Any such letter is produced by an actual situation apart from which it cannot be fully understood. If, then, we wish to understand First John we have first of all to try to reconstruct the situation which produced it, remembering that it was written in Ephesus a little after A.D. 100.
The Falling Away
By A.D. 100 certain things had almost inevitably happened within the Church, especially in a place like Ephesus.
(i) Many were now second or even third generation Christians. The thrill of the first days had, to some extent at least, passed away. Wordsworth said of one of the great moments of modern history:
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."
In the first days of Christianity there was a glory and a splendour, but now Christianity had become a thing of habit, "traditional, half-hearted, nominal." Men had grown used to it and something of the wonder was lost. Jesus knew men and he had said: "Most men's love will grow cold" ( Matthew 24:12). John was writing at a time when, for some at least, the first thrill was gone and the flame of devotion had died to a flicker.
(ii) One result was that there were members of the Church who found the standards which Christianity demanded a burden and a weariness. They did not want to be saints in the New Testament sense of the term. The New Testament word for saint is hagios ( G40) , which is also commonly translated holy. Its basic meaning is different. The Temple was hagios ( G39) because it was different from other buildings; the Sabbath was hagios ( G40) because it was different from other days; the Jewish nation was hagios ( G40) because it was different from other peoples; and the Christian was called to be hagios ( G40) because he was called to be different from other men. There was always a distinct cleavage between the Christian and the world. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" ( John 15:19). "I have given them thy word," said Jesus in his prayer to God, "and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" ( John 17:14).
All this involved an ethical demand. It demanded a new standard of moral purity, a new kindness, a new service, a new forgiveness--and it was difficult. And once the first thrill and enthusiasm were gone it became harder and harder to stand out against the world and to refuse to conform to the generally accepted standards and practices of the age.
(iii) It is to be noted that First John shows no signs that the Church to which it was written was being persecuted. The peril, as it has been put, was not persecution but seduction; it came from within. That, too, Jesus had foreseen. "Many false prophets," he said, "will arise, and lead many astray" ( Matthew 24:11). This was a danger of which Paul had warned the leaders of this very Church of Ephesus when he made his farewell address to them. "I know," he said, "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 perverse things to draw away the disciples after them" ( Acts 20:29-30).
The trouble which First John seeks to combat did not come from men out to destroy the Christian faith but from men who thought they were improving it. It came from men whose aim was to make Christianity intellectually respectable. They knew the intellectual tendencies and currents of the day and felt that the time had come for Christianity to come to terms with secular philosophy and contemporary thought.
The Contemporary Philosophy
What, then, was this contemporary thought and philosophy with which the false prophets and mistaken teachers wished to align the Christian faith? Throughout the Greek world there was a tendency of thought to which the general name of Gnosticism is given. The basic belief of all Gnostic thought was that only spirit was good and matter was essentially evil. The Gnostic, therefore, inevitably despised the world since it was matter. In particular he despised the body which, being matter, was necessarily evil. Imprisoned within this body was the spirit of man. That spirit was a seed of God, who was altogether good. So, then, the aim of life must be to release this heavenly seed imprisoned in the evil of the body. That could be done only by a secret knowledge and elaborate ritual which only the true Gnostic could supply. Here was a tendency of thought which was written deep into Greek thinking--and which has not even vet ceased to exist. Its basis is the conviction that all matter is evil and spirit alone is good, and that the one real aim in life is to liberate man's spirit from the vile prison-house of the body.
The False Teachers
With that in our minds let us turn to First John and gather the evidence as to who these false teachers were and what they taught. They had been within the Church but they had seceded from it. "They went out from us, but they were not of us" ( 1 John 2:19). They were men of influence for they claimed to be prophets. "Many false prophets have gone out into the world" ( 1 John 4:1). Although they had left the Church, they still tried to disseminate their teaching within it and to seduce its members from the true faith ( 1 John 2:26).
The Denial Of Jesus' Messiahship
At least some of these false teachers denied that Jesus was the Messiah. "Who is a liar," demands John, "but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?" ( 1 John 2:22). It is most likely that these false teachers were not Gnostics proper, but Jews. Things had always been difficult for Jewish Christians, but the events of history made them doubly so. It was very difficult for a Jew to come to believe in a crucified Messiah. But suppose he had begun so to believe, his difficulties were by no means finished. The Christians believed that Jesus would return quickly to vindicate his people. Clearly that would be a hope that would be specially dear to the heart of the Jews. Then in A.D. 70 Jerusalem was captured by the Romans, who were so infuriated with the long intransigence and the suicidal resistance of the Jews that they tore the Holy City stone from stone and drew a plough across the midst of it. In view of that, how could any Jew easily accept the hope that Jesus would come and save his people? The Holy City was desolate; the Jews were dispersed throughout the world. In face of that how could it be true that the Messiah had come?
The Denial Of The Incarnation
There was something even more serious than that. There was false teaching which came directly from an attempt from within the Church to bring Christianity into line with Gnosticism. We must remember the Gnostic point of view that spirit alone was good and matter utterly evil. Given that point of view any real incarnation is impossible. That is exactly what centuries later Augustine was to point out. Before he became a Christian, he was skilled in the philosophies of the various schools. In the Confessions (1Jn 6:9) he tells us that somewhere in the heathen writers he had read in one form or another nearly all the things which Christianity says; but there was one great Christian saying which he had never found in any pagan author and which no one would ever find, and that saying was: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" ( John 1:14). Since the heathen thinkers believed in the essential evil of matter and therefore the essential evil of the body, that was one thing they could never say.
It is clear that the false teachers against whom John was writing in this First Letter denied the reality of the incarnation and of Jesus' physical body. "Every spirit," writes John, "which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God" ( 1 John 4:2-3).
In the early Church this refusal to admit the reality of the incarnation took, broadly speaking, two forms.
(i) In its most radical and wholesale form it was called Docetism, which Goodspeed suggests might be translated Seemism. The Greek verb dokein ( G1380) means to seem; and the Docetists taught that Jesus only seemed to have a body. They insisted that he was a purely spiritual being who had nothing but the appearance of having a body. One of the apocryphal books written from this point of view is the Acts of John, which dates from about A.D. 160. In it John is made to say that sometimes when he touched Jesus he seemed to meet with a material body but at other times "the substance was immaterial, as if it did not exist at all," and also that when Jesus walked he never left any footprint upon the ground. The simplest form of Docetism is the complete denial that Jesus ever had a physical body.
(ii) There was a more subtle, and perhaps more dangerous, variant of this theory connected with the name of Cerinthus. In tradition John and Cerinthus were sworn enemies. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 4: 14.6) hands down a story which tells how John went to the public bathhouse in Ephesus to bathe. He saw Cerinthus inside and refused even to enter the building. "Let us flee," he said, "lest even the bathhouse fall, because Cerinthus the enemy of truth is within." Cerinthus drew a definite distinction between the human Jesus and the divine Christ. He said that Jesus was a man, born in a perfectly natural way. He lived in special obedience to God, and after his baptism the Christ in the shape of a dove descended upon him, from that power which is above all powers, and then he brought to men news of the Father who had been as yet unknown. Cerinthus did not stop there. He said that at the end of Jesus' life, the Christ again withdrew from him so that the Christ never suffered at all. It was the human Jesus who suffered, died and rose again.
This again comes out in the stories of the apocryphal gospels written under the influence of this point of view. In the Gospel of Peter, written about A.D. 130, it is said that Jesus showed no pain upon the Cross and that his cry was: "My power! My power! Why hast thou forsaken me?" It was at that moment that the divine Christ left the human Jesus. The Acts of John go further. They tell how, when the human Jesus was being crucified on Calvary, John was actually talking to the divine Christ in a cave in the hillside and that the Christ said to him, "John, to the multitude down below in Jerusalem I am being crucified, and pierced with lances and with reeds, and gall and vinegar are given me to drink. But I am speaking to you, and listen to what I say.... Nothing, therefore, of the things they will say of me have I suffered" (Acts of John 97).
We may see how widespread this way of thinking was from the Letters of Ignatius. He was writing to a group of Churches in Asia Minor which must have been much the same as that to which First John was written. When Ignatius wrote he was a prisoner and was being conveyed to Rome to be martyred by being flung to the beasts in the arena. He wrote to the Trallians: "Be deaf, therefore. when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David and Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died . . . who also was truly raised from the dead.... But if, as some affirm, who are without God that is, who are unbelievers--his suffering was only a semblance ... why am I a prisoner?" (Ignatius: To the Trallians 9 and 10). To the Christians at Smyrna he wrote: "For he suffered all these things for us that we might attain salvation, and he truly suffered even as he also truly raised himself, not as some unbelievers say that his passion was merely in semblance" (To the Smyrnaeans 2). Polycarp writing to the Philippians used John's very words: "For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an anti-Christ" (To the Philippians chapter 7: 1).
This teaching of Cerinthus is also rebuked in First John. John writes of Jesus: "This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and the blood" ( 1 John 5:6). The point of that verse is that the Gnostic teachers would have agreed that the divine Christ came by water, that is, at the baptism of Jesus; but they would have denied that he came by blood, that is, by the Cross, for they insisted that the divine Christ left the human Jesus before his crucifixion.
The great danger of this heresy is that it comes from what can only be called a mistaken reverence. It is afraid to ascribe to Jesus full humanity. It regards it as irreverent to think that he had a truly physical body. It is a heresy which is by no means dead but is held to this day, usually quite unconsciously, by not a few devout Christians. But it must be remembered, as John so clearly saw, that man's salvation was dependent on the full identification of Jesus Christ with him. As one of the great early fathers unforgettably put it: "He became what we are to make us what he is."
(iii) This Gnostic belief had certain practical consequences in the lives of those who held it.
(a) The Gnostic attitude to matter and to all created things produced a certain attitude to the body and the things of the body. That attitude might take any one of three different forms.
(1) It might take the form of asceticism, with fasting and celibacy and rigid control, even deliberate ill-treatment, of the body. The view that celibacy is better than marriage and that sex is sin go back to Gnostic influence and belief--and this is a view which still lingers on in certain quarters. There is no trace of that view in this letter.
(2) It might take the form of a contention that the body did not matter and that, therefore, its appetites might be gratified without limit. Since the body was in any event evil, it made no difference what a man did with it. There are echoes of this in this letter. John condemns as a liar the man who says that he knows God and vet does not keep God's commandments; the man who says that he abides in Christ ought to walk as Christ walked ( 1 John 1:6; 1 John 2:4-6). There were clearly Gnostics in these communities who claimed special knowledge of God but whose conduct was far removed from the demand of the Christian ethic.
In certain quarters this Gnostic belief went even further. The Gnostic was the man who had gnosis ( G1108) , knowledge. Some held that the real Gnostic must, therefore, know the best as well as the worst and must enter into every experience of life at its highest or at its deepest level, as the case may be. It might almost be said that such men held that it was an obligation to sin. There is a reference to this kind of belief in the letter to Thyatira in the Revelation, where the Risen Christ refers to those who have known "the deep things of Satan" ( Revelation 2:24). And it may well be that John is referring to these people when he insists that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" ( 1 John 1:5). These particular Gnostics would have held that there was in God not only blazing light but deep darkness and that a man must penetrate both. It is easy to see the disastrous consequences of such a belief.
(3) There was a third kind of Gnostic belief. The true Gnostic regarded himself as an altogether spiritual man, as having shed all the material things of life and released his spirit from the bondage of matter. Such Gnostics held that they were so spiritual that they were above and beyond sin and had reached spiritual perfection. It is to them that John refers when he speaks of those who deceive themselves by saying that they have no sin ( 1 John 1:8-10).
Whichever of these three ways Gnostic belief took, its ethical consequences were perilous in the extreme; and it is clear that its last two were to be found in the society to which John wrote.
(b) Further, this Gnosticism issued in an attitude to men which was the necessary destruction of Christian fellowship. We have seen that the Gnostic aimed at the release of the spirit from the prison house of the evil body by means of an elaborate and esoteric knowledge. Clearly such a knowledge was not for every man. Ordinary people were too involved in the everyday life and work of the world ever to have time for the study and discipline necessary; and, even if they had had such time, many were intellectually incapable of grasping the involved speculations of Gnostic theosophy and philosophy so-called.
This produced an inevitable result. It divided men into two classes those who were capable of a really spiritual life and those who were not. The Gnostics had names for these two classes of men. The ancients commonly divided the being of man into three parts. There was the soma ( G4983) , the body, the physical part of man. There was the psuche ( G5590) , which we generally translate soul, but we must have a care for it does not mean what we mean by soul. To the Greeks the psuche ( G5590) was the principle of physical life. Everything which had physical life had psuche ( G5590) . Psuche was that life principle which a man shared with all living creatures. There was the pneuma ( G4151) , the spirit; and it was the spirit which was possessed only by man and made him kin to God.
The aim of Gnosticism was the release of the pneuma ( G4151) from the soma ( G4983) ; but that release could be won only by long and arduous study which only the leisured intellectual could ever undertake. The Gnostics, therefore, divided men into two classes the psuchikoi ( G5591) , who could never advance beyond the principle of physical life and never attain to anything else than what was to all intents and purposes animal living; and the pneumatikoi ( G4152) , who were truly spiritual and truly akin to God.
The result was clear. The Gnostics produced a spiritual aristocracy who looked with contempt and even hatred on lesser men. The pneumatikoi ( G4152) regarded the psuchikoi ( G5591) as contemptible, earthbound creatures who could never know what real religion was. The consequence was obviously the annihilation of Christian fellowship. That is why John insists all over his letter that the true test of Christianity is love for the brethren. If we really are walking in the light we have fellowship with one another ( 1 John 1:7). He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in fact in darkness ( 1 John 2:9-11). The proof that we have passed from dark to light is that we love the brethren ( 1 John 3:14-17). The marks of Christianity are belief in Christ and love for the brethren ( 1 John 3:23). God is love and he who does not love does not know God at all ( 1 John 4:7-8). Because God loved us, we ought to love each other; it is when we love each other that God dwells in us ( 1 John 4:10-12). The commandment is that he who loves God must love his brother also, and he who says he loves God and at the same time hates his brother is branded as a liar ( 1 John 4:20-21). The Gnostic, to put it bluntly, would have said that the mark of true religion is contempt for ordinary men; John insists in every chapter that the mark of true religion is love for every man.
Here, then, is a picture of these Gnostic heretics. They talked of being born of God, of walking in the light, of having no sin, of dwelling in God, of knowing God. These were their catch phrases. They had no idea of destroying the Church and the faith; by their way of it they were going to cleanse the Church of dead wood and make Christianity an intellectually respectable philosophy, fit to stand beside the great systems of the day. But the effect of their teaching was to deny the incarnation, to eliminate the Christian ethic and to make fellowship within the Church impossible. It is little wonder that John seeks, with such fervent pastoral devotion, to defend the churches he loved from such an insidious attack from within. This was a threat far more perilous than any heathen persecution; the very existence of the Christian faith was at stake.
The Message Of John
First John is a short letter and we cannot look within it for a systematic exposition of the Christian faith. None the less it will be of the greatest interest to examine the basic underlying beliefs with which John confronts those threatening to be the wreckers of the Christian faith.
The Object Of Writing
John's object in writing is two-fold yet one. He writes that the joy of his people may be complete ( 1 John 1:4), and that they may not sin ( 1 John 2:1). He sees clearly that, however attractive the wrong way may be, it is not in its nature to bring happiness. To bring them joy and to preserve them from sin is one and the same thing.
The Idea Of God
John has two great things to say about God. God is light and in him there is no darkness at all ( 1 John 1:5). God is love and that made him love us before we loved him and made him send his son as a remedy for our sins ( 1 John 4:7-10; 1 John 4:16). John's conviction is that God is self-revealing and self-giving. He is light, and not darkness; he is love, and not hate.
The Idea Of Jesus
Because the main attack of the false teachers was on the person of Christ, this letter, which is concerned to answer them, is specially rich and helpful in what it has to say about him.
(i) Jesus is he who was from the beginning ( 1 John 1:1; 1 John 2:14). When a man is confronted with Jesus, he is confronted with the eternal.
(ii) Another way of putting this is to say that Jesus is the Son of God and for John it is essential to be convinced of that ( 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:5). The relationship of Jesus to God is unique and in him is seen God's ever-seeking and ever-forgiving heart.
(iii) Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah ( 1 John 2:22; 1 John 5:1). That again for him is an essential article of belief. It may seem that here we come into a region of ideas which is much narrower and, in fact, specifically Jewish. But there is something essential here. To say that Jesus is from the beginning and that he is the Son of God is to conserve his connection with eternity; to say that he is the Messiah, is to conserve his connection with history. It is to see his coming as the event towards which God's plan, working itself out in his chosen people, was moving.
(iv) Jesus was most truly and fully man. To deny that Jesus came in the flesh is to be moved by the spirit of Antichrist ( 1 John 4:2-3). It is John's witness that Jesus was so truly man that he himself had known and touched and handled him ( 1 John 1:1; 1 John 1:3). No writer in the New Testament holds with greater intensity the full reality of the incarnation. Not only did he become man, he also suffered for men. It was by water and blood that he came ( 1 John 5:6); and he laid down his life for men ( 1 John 3:16).
(v) The coming of Jesus, his incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascension all combine to deal with the sin of man. Jesus was without sin ( 1 John 3:5); and man is essentially a sinner, even though in his arrogance he may claim to be without sin ( 1 John 1:8-10); and yet the sinless one came to take away the sin of sinning men ( 1 John 3:5). In regard to man's sin Jesus is two things.
(a) He is our advocate with the Father ( 1 John 2:1). The word is parakletos ( G3875) . A parakletos is someone who is called in to help. The word could be used of a doctor; it was often used of a witness called in to give evidence in favour of someone on trial or of a defending lawyer called in to defend someone under accusation. Jesus pleads our case with God; he, the sinless one, is the defender of sinning men.
(b) But Jesus is more than that. Twice John calls him the expiation for our sins ( 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). When a man sins, the relationship which should exist between him and God is broken. An expiatory sacrifice is one which restores that relationship or, rather, a sacrifice in virtue of which that relationship is restored. It is an atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice which once again makes man and God at one. So, then, through what Jesus was and did the relationship between God and man, broken by sin, is restored. Jesus does not only plead the case of the sinner; he sets him at one, with God. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin ( 1 John 1:7).
(vi) In consequence of all this, through Jesus Christ men who believe have life ( 1 John 4:9; 1 John 5:11-12). This is true in a double sense. They have life in the sense that they are saved from death; and they have life in the sense that living has ceased to be mere existence and has become life indeed.
(vii) All this may be summed up by saying that Jesus is the Saviour of the world ( 1 John 4:14). Here we have something which has to be set out in full. "The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world" ( 1 John 4:14). We have already talked of Jesus as pleading men's case before God. If we were to leave that without addition, it might be argued that God wished to condemn men and was deflected from his dire purpose by the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But that is not so because for John, as for every writer in the New Testament, the whole initiative was with God. It was he who sent his son to be the Saviour of men.
Within the short compass of this letter the wonder and the glory and the grace of Christ are most fully set out.
In this letter John has less to say about the Spirit; for his highest teaching about him we must turn back to the Fourth Gospel. It may be said that in First John the function of the Spirit is in some sense to be the liaison between God and man. It is he who makes us conscious that there is within us the abiding presence of God through Jesus Christ ( 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:13). We may say that it is the Spirit who enables us to grasp the precious fellowship with God which is being offered to us.
The world within which the Christian lives is hostile; it is a world without God. It does not know the Christian, because it did not know Christ ( 1 John 3:1). It hates the Christian, just as it hated Christ ( 1 John 3:13). The false teachers are of the world and not of God, and it is because they speak its language that the world is ready to hear them and accept them ( 1 John 4:4-5). The whole world, says John sweepingly, is in the power of the evil one ( 1 John 5:19). It is for that reason that the Christian has to overcome it, and his weapon in his struggle with the world is faith ( 1 John 5:4).
Hostile as the world is, it is doomed. The world and all its desires are passing away ( 1 John 2:17). That, indeed, is why it is folly to give one's heart to the world; it is on the way to dissolution. Although the Christian lives in a hostile world which is passing away, there is no need for despair and fear. The darkness is past, the true light now shines ( 1 John 2:8). God in Christ has broken into time; the new age has come. It is not yet fully realized but the consummation is sure.
The Christian lives in an evil and a hostile world, but he possesses that by which he can overcome it and, when the destined end of the world comes, he is safe, because he already possesses that which makes him a member of the new community in the new age.
The Fellowship Of The Church
John does more than move in the high realms of theology; he has certain most practical things to say about the Christian Church and the Christian life. No New Testament writer stresses more consistently or more strenuously the necessity of Christian fellowship. Christians, John was convinced, are not only bound to God, they are also bound to each other. When we walk in the light, we have fellowship with each other ( 1 John 1:7). The man who claims to walk in the light but hates his brother, is in reality walking in darkness; it is the man who loves his brother who is in the light ( 1 John 2:9-11). The proof that a man has passed from darkness to light is the fact that he loves his brother. To hate one's brother man is in essence to be a murderer, as Cain was. If any man is able out of his fullness to help his brother's poverty and does not do so, it is ridiculous for him to claim that the love of God dwells in him. The essence of religion is to believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and to love one another ( 1 John 3:11-17; 1 John 3:23). God is love; and, therefore, the man who loves is kin to God. God has loved us, and that is the best reason for loving each other ( 1 John 4:7-12). If a man says that he loves God and at the same time hates his brother, he is a liar. The command is that he who loves God must love his brother also ( 1 John 4:20-21).
It was John's conviction that the only way in which a man can prove that he loves God is by loving his fellow-men; and that that love must be not only a sentimental emotion but a dynamic towards practical help.
The Righteousness Of The Christian
No New Testament writer makes a stronger ethical demand than John, or more strongly condemns a so-called religion which fails to issue in ethical action. God is righteous and the life of every one who knows him must reflect his righteousness ( 1 John 2:29). Whoever abides in Christ and is born of God, does not sin; whoever does not do right is not of God ( 1 John 3:3-10); and the characteristic of this righteousness is that it issues in love for the brethren ( 1 John 3:10-11). We show our love to God and to men by keeping God's commandments ( 1 John 5:2). Whoever is born of God does not sin ( 1 John 5:18).
For John, knowledge of God and obedience to him must ever go hand in hand. It is by keeping his commandments that we prove that we really do know God. The man who says that he knows him and who does not keep his commandments is a liar ( 1 John 2:3-5).
It is, in fact, this obedience which is the basis of effective prayer. We receive what we ask of God because we keep his commandments and do what is pleasing in his sight ( 1 John 3:22).
The two marks which characterize genuine Christianity are love of the brethren and obedience to the revealed commandments of God.
The Destination Of The Letter
There are certain baffling problems in regard to the letter's destination. The letter itself gives us no clue as to where it was sent. Tradition strongly connects it with Asia Minor, and especially with Ephesus, where, according to tradition, John lived for many years. But there are certain other odd facts which somehow have to be explained.
Cassiodorus says that the First Letter of John was written Ad Parthos, To the Parthians (compare G3934) ; and Augustine has a series of ten tractates written on The Epistle of John ad Parthos. One Geneva manuscript still further complicates the matter by entitling the letter Ad Sparthos. There is no such word as Sparthos. There are two possible explanations of this impossible title: (i) Just possibly it is meant for Ad Sparsos, which would mean To the Christians scattered abroad; (ii) In Greek Ad Parthos would be Pros Parthous. Now in the early manuscripts there was no space between the words and they were all written in capital letters so that the title would run PROSPARTHOUS. A scribe writing to dictation could quite easily put that down as PROSSPARTHOUS, especially if he did not know what the title meant. Ad Sparthos can be eliminated as a mere mistake.
But where did To the Parthians come from? There is one possible explanation. Second John does tell us of its destination; it is written to The elect lady,, and her children ( 2 John 1:1). Let us turn to the end of First Peter. The King James Version has: "The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you" ( 1 Peter 5:13). The phrase: "the church that is" is printed in the King James Version in italics which of course, means that it has no equivalent in the Greek which has, in fact, no actual mention of a church at all. This the Revised Standard Version accurately indicates: "She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen (elect), sends you greetings." As far as the Greek goes it would be perfectly possible, and indeed natural, to take that as referring not to a Church but to a lad . That is precisely what certain of the scholars in the very early Church did. Now we get the elect lady again in Second John. It was easy to identify the two elect ladies and to assume that Second John was also written to Babylon. The natural title for the inhabitants of Babylon was Parthians and hence we have the explanation of the title.
The process went even further. The Greek for the elect lady is he ( G3588) elekte ( G1588) . We have already seen that the early manuscripts were written all in capital letters; and it would be just possible to take Elekte ( G1588) not as an adjective meaning elect but as a proper name, Elekta. This is, in fact, what Clement of Alexandria may have done, for we have information that he said that the Johannine letters were written to a certain Babylonian lady, Elekta by name, and to her children.
It may well be then, that the title Ad Parthos arose from a series of misunderstandings. The elect one in First Peter is quite certainly the church, as the King James Version rightly saw. Moffatt translates: "Your sister church in Babylon, elect like yourselves, salutes you." Further, it is almost certain that in any event Babylon there stands for Rome which the early writers identified with Babylon, the great harlot, drunk with the blood of the saints (compare Revelation 17:5). The title Ad Parthos has a most interesting history but clearly it arose from an ingenious misunderstanding.
There is one further complication. Clement of Alexandria referred to John's letters as "written to virgins." On the face of it that is improbable, for it would not be a specially relevant title for them. How, then, could it come about? The Greek would be Pros Parthenous (compare G3933) which closely resembles Pros Parthous ( G3934) ; and, it so happens, John was regularly called Ho Parthenos ( G3933) , the Virgin, because he never married and because of the purity of his life. This further title must have come from a confusion between Ad Parthos ( G3934) and Ho Parthenos ( G3933) .
This is a case where we may take it that tradition is right and all the ingenious theories mistaken. We may take it that these letters were written in Ephesus and to the surrounding Churches in Asia Minor. When John wrote, it would certainly be to the district where his writ ran, and that was Ephesus and the surrounding territory. He is never mentioned in connection with Babylon.
In Defence Of The Faith
John wrote his great letter to meet a threatening situation and in defence of the faith. The heresies which he attacked are by no means altogether echoes of "old unhappy far off things and battles long ago." They are still beneath the surface and sometimes they even still raise their heads. To study his letter will confirm us in the true faith and enable us to have a defence against that which would seduce us from it.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20