Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Gospel and First Epistle of St. John

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There is something interesting and special in the fact that God intended the most contemplative of the Apostles to live the longest life on earth. There are two points generally agreed upon concerning St. John which will be the basis for this essay: that he wrote his Gospel and Epistle toward the end of his long life; and that his writings are the fullest and most sublime expression of Christianity.

Indeed, his particular views could best be formed by the disciple who lived the greatest number of years after the Lords Ascension to contemplate and experience the words he had heard from the Lords own lips. All the important facts about the Lords life had already been stated, in a direct and simple way, by no less than three evangelists many years before St. John began to write. All the important doctrines of the FaithRedemption, Justification, Sacrifice, the Fruit of the Spirithad already been stated, fully and brilliantly, by St. Paul. All the essential exhortations to faith, perseverance, purity, and rejection of falsehood, had been previously expressed by the Lords elder disciple St. Peter. It was left to the beloved Apostlewho was the final apostolic voice of the Truth, and was gifted with the loftiest mind and warmest heartto bring together the teachings of all the previous evangelists and apostles and to concentrate them into one unique gem that has astonished all subsequent ages as the greatest Theology of Love.

There are many things to be said about this precious Epistle; but the aim of the present essay is not to analyze its contents, nor its style or historical context. These may be saved for future essays. The one point of emphasis here is the intimate connection between his Gospel and his Epistle, and how this connection could only be the result of many years of contemplation of a mind which personally experienced the words and life of Christ.

"And this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). God is Light: this is indeed one of the greatest utterances of the Epistle, as it is a comment not about Gods attributes or works, but about His very nature. Thus was St. Johns unique gift: the ability to plumb the depths of Gods Being. But what was the origin of this grand statement? Was St. John merely using a favorite symbol of Jewish theology, the Sun, to describe something immense and powerful? Was he quoting an Old Testament scripture verse he had learned as a boy, or some other ancient text on the divinity? And what of the stark parallelism of the statement, (first positive) stating God is light, then (negative) insisting on the absence of any trace of darkness in Him at all.

The phrase was not his invention, but he had heard it many years before as a youth, "I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (John 8:12). In the yet unillumined mind of the young John, this statement might have come across as somewhat of an enigma. What exactly does the Master mean, when He evidently has no riches, no earthly power, no influence with the Pharisees, but just a meager following of some fisherman, to call Himself the worlds Light? He surely was the best teacher he had ever heard and a light to the disciplesbut He was yet so little known outside of Palestine. It needed a noble man more in the position of a Caesar to be such a Light to the world!

It took all the tumultuous events of the coming decades to let St. John come to the full realization of Christs words. It was the dark and awful scene of the Cross, which he witnessed personally, and the glorious Resurrection afterward; it was the Pentecostal illumination; it was the moral war between Christianity and the dark works of Paganism, and the daily struggle of all the churches in Asia Minor which he was given to overseeall these helped open his eyes to Christs full light. In short, the whole of life in the Apostles mind was ultimately reduced to the war between Light and Darkness. And as St. John sat in his closing years in contemplation upon the world he had labored so hard in, he recognized that every moral battle, every sorrow and hurt, every yearning for joy in life, had its real solution in one word: Christ.

"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18). These words must have struck the young ears of John as he heard them during that sorrowful last week of our Lords life before the Death and Resurrection. Words of such moment tend to strike the minds of youth, still unacquainted with the ways of the world, with particular force. But why would the world "hate" Christ and His disciples? Of course, he was familiar with the historical hostility which most nations who had come into contact with the Jews felt toward them; but could this be all the Lord meant? But it would take him the rest of his life to learn this piercing truth about which the Lord had repeatedly forewarned them.

It all began during Holy Week. In only a few bewildering nights, the Lord of Love had been betrayed, bound, mocked, scourged, and finally delivered up to be crucified. The same bitter lesson was extended throughout his life from the inception of the first church until the time he could call himself "The Elder" as overseer of the Church at large. He was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten by Annas and the Sadducees; his own brother was the first apostle to be martyred; his mind throbbed under the rising heresies of Simon Magus, Cerinthus, and the Gnostic disease; he experienced the heart-ache of a pastor whose flock was ravaged by Roman persecution; and he was banished to a forsaken island in old age where it was hoped he would die. "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18). How many times the saying must have recurred in his mind! He could say, along with the Patriarch Jacob, that his life was long and filled with woe.

After all these occurrences, St. John came no more to wonder at the worlds aggression towards all that is holy and all that is Christian. And so, as he sits during his last years to write his Epistle to the churches, he comes toward the middle to write about loving ones brother. And as he writes about love, and its opposite hate, and the devil as the author of hate and unrighteousness, he pauses to sigh, then writes. "Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you" (I John 3:13). It is said not as a link in a logical argument, but as a momentary thought, like a delayed reflection, an idea suddenly remembered by the pressing of all the past events of the Apostles life into his heart and mind at that instant.

And now we come to the great commandment. It is here that we realize that the Johannine theology is not really Johns theology at all, but that of Christ Himself. "This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down ones life for his friends" (John 14:12,13). "Love" was not the only virtue the Lord spoke of, nor did He specifically mark it as the greatest; but it was the teaching that reverberated most in Johns heart. St. Paulgrace; St. Peterfaith; St. Jamesrighteousness; St. Johnlove. Every apostle had a portion (a generous portion) of each fruit of the Spirit; but each one emphasized in his own way the fruit with which he identified most strongly in the Person of Christ.

The young John, who felt so deeply the love of the Savior, knew that Christ loved him to the uttermost. But it surely was a deep mystery in Johns mind when Christ told them after the Last Supper that the ultimate expression of love is the sacrifice of ones life. But if Christ loved them ultimately, did that mean He would have to sacrifice His life to show it? But how would He do it? Would they one day find themselves in some peril of storm or war, and He risk His life to save them? Or would one of them someday be found guilty of a grave offense, and He pay the penalty for it? All such conjectures were, if any such came to Johns innocent mind, were short-lived; for he found the meaning of Christs words the next day as he stood gazing at the foot of the Cross. It was that picture which left an indelible imprint in the Apostles mind of the sacrificial love of Christ. We cannot but think that in all of St. Johns writings about love, he has the image of Christ on the Cross before him. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down ones life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Every act of kindness and longsuffering in his subsequent life was motivated by nothing less than the sacrificial love he had witnessed in Christ. His Gospel is inspired throughout by its touch. And so, as he sits and writes the same Epistle, in which are all the profound lessons he had gleaned from Christs words and work, he comes again somewhere near the middle of the letter, and he pauses to think of the ultimate proof and motive for Love; and as the Sacrifice of the Cross inevitably comes once more to mind, he proceeds: "By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (I John 3:16).

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