Have you read those letters from John? He seems to repeat himself over and over again, love, truth, love, truth. Is it because he is old and can’t remember what he just said or wrote? Or maybe, there is something deeper here that I don’t get. It would be nice if someone could help me get into the meaning, help me understand the context so that I can apply it in my own life.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Letters of John” by Gary Burge. 280 pages, published by Zondervan Academic in October 2011. This is a volume from the NIV Application Commentary series.
I love this series. The unique format just stands out from other commentary series. It takes a Bible book — or in today’s commentary, it takes all three of John’s letters — and breaks down the text into chunks of verses expounded in chapters. So far, nothing new, that’s what every commentary does.
The difference is every chapter starts with the Scripture passage followed by three sections:
- Original Meaning,
- Bridging Context and
- Contemporary Significance.
Original Meaning looks at the text and asks, “What would this text mean to the original audience?” Let’s get into the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, the grammar, the historical, geographical, social, cultural background.
Bridging Context makes explicit the transition from the people there and then, to us here and now. In those days, John was warning Christians of Gnostic teachers and their Gnostic ways. Okay, how do we bridge that to today when Gnostic people don’t exist. Or do they?
The final section, Contemporary Significance takes what we learn from the Original Meaning and Bridging Context sections to bring the passage home. What does this mean for our family, work and church.
This is what I tell people, “Read any commentary from this series because it makes you a better Bible reader.”
There are many ‘good’ preachers out there, great with the feels, ticks all the boxes in the Tiktok crowd. That’s an awesome(?) sermon but that’s not what the text says. And people don’t like it when you tell them that the sermon which they enjoyed so much is problematic, it’s like you are putting down their children or they just ignore your comment, they shrug and say, hey, to each his own.
But I am not commenting on the subjective experience which can be impressive, I am saying beneath all the boom-boom-boom, testimonies, dreams and visions is a faulty interpretation of the passage. If the passage was even expounded. Sometimes passages are just used in the beginning as a jumping point, somehow as a prop to legitimise it is a sermon. So we get feel-good emotions but we may not be getting the Truth of the passage.
And knowing what is the Truth is important. Just ask John. The Apostle of Love was not a hippie singing “love, love, love”, he was driven by the deep deep conviction of Who he witnessed and Who he followed, the God-Man Christ Jesus.
And Gary M. Burge is here to tell us all about it.
Burge is the Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. Before that, he was a professor at Wheaton College for 25 years. He wrote his dissertation under I. Howard Marshall on the title, “The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition”. Since then he has written a lot on John including the 965-page NIV Application series commentary on the Gospel of John.
And it’s a good thing that Logos did not make that the free book for August, otherwise you wouldn’t be getting a review from me. Instead today we get a review on the NIV Application Commentary on the “Letters of John” by Gary M. Burge.
The three epistles or letters, are named 1, 2 and 3 John, even though the writer did not sign off on his letters. Burge acknowledges that the identity of the author is contested but insists we should take the writer to be the Apostle John, who wrote both the gospels and the letters, unless we have evidence that says otherwise.
John is known as the Apostle of Love, yet, the Apostle of Love was not slow to condemn false teachers. In his letters, you can see how he warned Christians in the strongest terms of false teachers. This was how he showed love. But what was the dispute about?
John says that his opponents hold the following beliefs: * they deny the Son (1 John 2:23) * they deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2; 2 John 7) * they deny that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22) These statements may be compared with affirmations in the letters that buttress John’s own Christology. It is likely that these verses are also connected to the opponent’s Christological error. * Jesus is the Christ (5:1) * Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2) * Jesus is the Son (2:23; 3:23; 5:11) or the Son of God (1:3, 7; 3:8, 23; 4: 9, 10, 15, etc.) * Jesus Christ came “by water and blood” (5:6) From these statements a composite image of John’s opponents begins to emerge. They are no doubt Christians who have begun to deviate from the traditionally received understanding of Jesus Christ. They affirm the idea of Christ, but doubt whether Christ became flesh and whether the man Jesus was indeed the incarnation of God.
You might be thinking, “Oh, nothing for me to read here. I don’t believe any of those false teachings and I don’t know anybody who does.”
But just because the false teachers of John’s time have died nearly 2000 years ago, it does not mean their teachings have died. The warnings are still valid. We just need someone to build us a bridge.
Burge does that for us in 12 chapters for 1 John, and a chapter each for 2 and 3 John. 2 and 3 John are really short, they are the equivalent of tweets today.
You can read 1 John in one sitting, it’s only 5 chapters long, and upon finishing 1 John (and perhaps 2 and 3 John), you can congratulate yourself for finishing 3 out of the 66 books of the Bible, that’s 4.5%.
If you are like me, you will be slightly perplexed with 1 John. It’s not that I don’t understand what he is saying, it’s just that it’s so repetitious and sometimes there is these imageries that he assumes the readers know? You get a sense that this is an important heartfelt letter, the stakes are high but you need some help to understand it.
Burge divides the letter into two parts: “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He makes a compelling connection with the Gospel of John which also has a two part structure, which is the first half is on the light that shined in the darkness and the second half is on Jesus caring and nurturing those who believe in him.
Now that we know how everything is laid out, I will attempt to bring out the essence of the book by taking one chapter as an example. I want a chapter that is self-contained so that we can understand it without referring to previous or next chapters. It should prove to you the usefulness of the three sections: Original Meaning, Bridging Context and Contemporary Significance, for this is the Unique Selling Point of the book. Other than these literary considerations, I want to offer you a biblical insight, a divine truth that you can take away from today’s episode to pray, meditate, worship and delight in.
I’ve taken the chapter on 1 John 4:1-6. The chapter begins with the verses printed in full.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Today we have the same problem. We have false teachers on the pulpit. People claiming to be prophets and apostles, entering our homes, teaching our children, writing books and signing autographs. What should we do, how do we test the spirit? Read the Bible. That’s the answer. Know Jesus. Pray more. Get myself into a proper Christian community.
Wait… wait… wait… we have gone ahead of ourselves. Do you see what I did? As soon as I read the passage, I immediately thought of my situation today. And I can go on and on about the todays problems and how we should solve them.
But isn’t that the way we should read the Bible? Make it relevant in our lives? Yes, but not so soon. Consider how Burge does it. In the Original Meaning section, he explains the problem of those who call themselves prophets, but were frauds.
It is important to pause and gain some appreciation for this problem in the early church. House churches were isolated in cities throughout the Roman empire. In the early years there were few formal creeds (such as the later Creed of Nicea) to give doctrinal guidance, nor were the Scriptures available as we have them today. No one owned a “New Testament,” and at best the early Christians only had random collections of letters from the apostles and collections of stories about Jesus. Therefore oral communication was essential. Churches relied on emissaries from their leaders, who relayed information from other communities and taught. Paul sent out Timothy and Silas in this capacity, and John sent out elders as his spokespersons (3 John 5).
But problems came when prophets or teachers arrived claiming an authority that was not rightfully theirs. Paul had to address the problem of unauthorized teachers in Galatia and Thessalonica. Because some churches received false letters (see 2 Thess. 2:2), he even decided to sign his correspondence with recognizable markings (Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17). This phenomenon meant that churches could fall prey to unscrupulous itinerant prophets and teachers, and John’s churches were no exception (cf. 2 John 7). Consequently, Christians had to be ready to assess the message they heard and the spirit that inspired it.
So it’s not about you (yet), it’s about them. You need to travel back in time, and see the problems they faced. They didn’t have Google. Not even a Bible. No seminary trained pastors with 2000 years of scholarship to back them up. In that situation, how can anyone know what is true? Without the Bible, with these prophets claiming divine inspiration, how can the early Christians test?
John tells us how. Read the passage. There are two tests. The first test is what do they say about Jesus. The second test is how does the church receive their teaching. Burge summarises:
If the incarnate Christ has been theologically removed, if Christology is not at the center of what someone says, we are right to be suspicious. In addition, if the community we have always trusted, if the church as the historic custodian of truth, refuses this prophesy, we should be warned. Moreover, if it finds a ready reception in the world, we should flee because it may be a message that has originated with the evil spirit that dominates that world.
“Okay. Now that I know what it means, tell me how to apply it in my life.”
“Not so fast!”
Before we leave the past and rush to the present, there is an intermediate state, called “Bridging Context”.
In John’s time, we have truth and falsehood. In our time, we have your truth, my truth, as many truths as we need and nothing is false.
In John’s time, the false teachers taught that Jesus was not truly human. In our time, false teachers can affirm what John said but they also say that Jesus was not the only man who can be divine.
In John’s time, he appealed to people who pursued truth. In our time, let me read what Burge writes:
Among the students I teach I find that most of them are eager to tell how they feel about a particular question, but few of them are capable of giving a coherent, objective, carefully reasoned argument for or against it.
The Bridging Context gives us space to consider what the text says and does not say. The last thing we want is to wrongly apply the lesson, and do something or believe something that is contrary to whatever John is saying. A spectacular example that Burge points out later in the book is how Oral Roberts healing ministry began from a misreading of 3 John 2.
So it is only after we know the original meaning and the bridging context, that we can move to the contemporary significance. For this “test the spirits” passage, Burge outlines four application points:
- The church is called to the be custodian of the truth. He asks, “How do I cultivate a discerning spirit without becoming cynical?”
- The centrality of Christology. He wonders if John’s concern is alive in our church today?
- How do we unmask false teachers? He writes:
He has at least two concerns: (a) False teachers should not have access to the church as a platform for their teachings, and (b) people should not be deceived by what they hear in the church. This means at least that the church should be a spiritual refuge where experimental teachings or controversial points of view are checked. Practically speaking, when I send my daughters to Sunday school, I deserve the assurance that the teacher in the class is not there simply because she is the only one who volunteered. The church must guarantee that those who teach are theologically and spiritually qualified to do so.
- Where or who are these spirits today? Burge describes two types of spirits. One is spirits as in territorial spirits, demons, bondage and exorcism. He refers to Peter Wagner’s book “Territorial Spirit: Insights on Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare from Nineteen Christian Leaders”. The other is spirits as in spirit of the age, a world that has no use for truth, God becoming human is not simply rejected but now it is incomprehensible. He quotes David Well’s “No Place for Truth”.
Remember, there are as many application points from a verse as there are Christians in a church. Each could and should apply the verse in their own ways so what Burge does here are just helpful samples.
Alright. So that is one chapter and I hope that gives you a good idea of how this commentary series can train you to separate interpretation from application and how this book in particular can you train you to separate truth from falsehoods.
Burge vs Wagner
Let me share some reflections. When I finished the book, I realised that my take on this book was surprisingly influenced by the previous book I read. In the last episode, I read Peter Wagner’s commentary on the book of Acts. I did not expect Burge to mention him and mention him in a positive light.
I don’t know what is Burge’s take on the controversial figure of Peter Wagner and his legacy but when I read the two books, they are so different.
Speaking only of Wagner’s commentary on Acts, Wagner exults in creative interpretation which leads to questionable application, which comes at the reader with the force of a biblical rule. If you can’t distinguish between interpretation and application, the reader could take as Gospel truth what is merely a speculation, or on the other extreme, because of all the guess-work the reader cannot extract the missions and power ministry insights Wagner offers.
You could overcome these problems if you can get to the original meaning, bridging context and contemporary significance of the passage. In contrast to Wagner, Burge is more careful, and I appreciate his prudence because it is a check on me that I don’t make the text say what I want it to say or don’t say.
One last difference between Wagner and Burge and this is on the content rather than the approach.
The main thesis of Wagner’s book is that the best and perhaps the only way to evangelise is to through the indigenous community. According to Wagner when the Hellenistic Jews complained to the Hebrew Jews, there was an amicable church split. This insistence on a culture ministering to its own dominates his interpretation of events in Acts.
Then I read this passage from Burge. He did not write this in response to Wagner. He was merely commenting on 3 John, but I thought it was funny how it was a strong counter point to Wagner. Burge writes:
The names given in 3 John (Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius) are all Greek; this fact suggests a cultural context far removed from Judea and Galilee. Thus when a traditional source of authority steps forward -— an apostolic elder -— some chafed at the thought of submission. “Our religion is working for us! It feels right! Why should we conform to a foreigner, someone who represents traditions and people we don’t even know?”
First, normally I would not have noticed the Greek names. They are all Greek to me.
Second, I would not have thought much of Burge’s point here of how truth trumps culture.
These are just two of the many points of, I wouldn’t say difference but, engagement after reading first Wagner than Burge’s commentary.
In conclusion, the NIV Application Commentary series is a standout series. One volume from this series that I recommend is the commentary on Acts by Ajith Fernando. If you have to get a commentary on Acts get this Fernando’s, not Wagner’s.
Every student of the Bible should learn how to separate interpretation from application. Don’t rush to application. Put more effort in understanding what the text says. Because Truth matters. God is light. God is love. How Great is Our God.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Letters of John” by Gary Burge. 280 pages, published by Zondervan Academic in October 2011. This is a volume from the NIV Application Commentary series.
The commentary was available for free in August but if you miss out on that deal, don’t miss out on September’s free book. I am reading “The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel” by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. I hope to give you my review soon. Thanks for listening. Bye bye.