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New Testament Overview 5 - John and the Later New Testament

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

1: Life and Ministry of Jesus 2: Birth of the church
3: Paul's Missionary Journeys 4: Paul's Imprisonment
5: John and the Later New Testament

The Jewish War and Fall of Jerusalem (AD 66-70)

The Jewish Revolt

The period after AD 30 was a period of great instability in Judea, with continual struggles between the Jews and their Roman rulers. In AD 40, the emperor Caligula decided to erect a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem. This would have been horrifying idolatry to the Jews and would have caused a violent uprising against Roman rule. Fortunately Caligula died before the statue was erected.

This simmering state of affairs finally broke out into a full rebellion by the Jews against the Romans in AD 66. The Romans responded by sending in the army to restore their rule over Israel. Gradually they reconquered the nation, and by AD 68 they began to mount a siege around Jerusalem, to starve the city into submission. The siege happened to begin during the Passover festival, when the city was crowded with visitors. The suffering during the siege is unimaginable, many thousands starved, many were crucified by the Romans or killed in the fighting. Some starving people resorted to cannibalism.

Within the city there were three rival groups of Jewish zealots. Two were inside the temple complex, another was in the main part of the city. When they were not fighting the Romans, they fought and killed each other. These zealot groups had no respect for the temple, and dreadful things took place there. This climaxed when one group appointed a clown as high priest, and had a farcical ceremony to install him. The official priests were horrified at this desecration of the temple.

Finally in AD 70, after dreadful suffering in the city, the Romans breached the wall and started to occupy the city. After more fighting they took the whole city. Because they were so shocked at how the Jews had treated their own holy city, Titus, the Roman army commander ordered the city and temple to be destroyed.

Predictions in Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21

During his last week, Jesus was coming out of the temple, when the disciples commented on the huge stones and wonderful buildings of the temple. Jesus replied by saying that one day these stones will all be knocked down. In response the disciples asked when this would happen, and what sign would occur just before. Jesus's reply is known as the 'Olivet Discourse', when he predicted a period of terrible suffering, and the destruction of the temple, after it was desecrated and the city surrounded by armies. He predicted the destruction of the city and temple as a judgment on the Jews of that generation for rejecting the Messiah.

"As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God" (Luke 19:41-44)

Year of four emperors (AD 69)

Following the death of Nero, by him committing suicide, Rome degenerated into civil war. Different military commanders gathered armies and took over Rome, and were declared emperor. Each only lasted a few months before another army commander came and killed him, and took over as emperor. It was a dreadful time of devastation and fighting in Rome, and has become known as 'The Year of the four Emperors', because there were four emperors within twelve months. Finally Vespasian took over, brought the city under control, and established a new dynasty of Emperors. This civil war in the heart of the Empire was merely one of the many wars and rumours through the first century that Jesus predicted.

The Challenge of Emperor Worship (c AD 85-95)

Worship of the Emperor

The Romans had conquered a vast empire covering the whole area around the Mediterranean Sea, which consisted of many different races and peoples, who each had their own form of religion. In an attempt to unite this great mix of peoples, the Romans introduced a new deity, the goddess Roma, the goddess of the Roman empire. The current emperor was believed to be a manifestation of this god.

The emperor Domitian, who ruled from AD 81-96, took his deity very seriously. Worship of the emperor was enforced for a brief period of time, particularly in the province of Asia. However in later years, over the following two centuries, worship of the emperor became compulsory throughout the whole empire. Each citizen of the empire had to worship the emperor once a year, by visiting the temple to Roma, burning incense to the statue of the emperor, and saying 'Caesar is Lord'. On doing this they were given a certificate, called a Libellus, to prove their loyalty to Rome.

Ownership of a certificate enabled the citizen to participate fully in normal life. Anyone without a certificate would suffer various consequences. The minimum would be that they would be not be able to trade, because they would be excluded from belonging to the trade guilds, and would therefore suffer economically. If reported to the Roman authorities, the person would be given a second opportunity to worship the emperor, and if they still refused, they would be executed, either by burning, or by being thrown to the lions. In the middle of the second century, Polycarp, the 86 year old bishop of Symrna was burnt alive because he refused to worship the emperor. This obviously caused great hardship for the Christians, who could never worship Caesar as Lord, when they believed that only Jesus was the true Lord. It was into this historical situation that the book of Revelation was written.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ

Towards the end of the first century, the apostle John became the leader of the church in Ephesus. This was the major church in the region, which meant that John had pastoral oversight over all the churches in the province of Asia (including the 7 churches of Revelation). Because of his witness to Jesus, John was exile to the island of Patmos.

It was on Patmos that the risen Jesus appeared to him, and showed him a series of vivid visions, through which he was given insight into the spiritual forces behind this persecution, and their eventual defeat and eternal torment. In the visions, the emperor was shown to be a manifestation of the beast, which demands worship, and persecutes the church, and which is inspired by the dragon, Satan.

Probably the most important theme of the Book of Revelation is worship. It contains many songs of praise to God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb (Jesus). Through the book, the choice is given between worshipping the beast and worshipping Jesus. He therefore intended it to be an encouragement to his readers, exhorting them to maintain their faithful witness to Jesus. Even though there was currently persecution, or tribulation, and his readers may be martyred, there is great hope because, on the cross, Jesus won the victory over Satan and his evil powers, and the believers can look forward to a glorious future with him.Throughout the history of the church there will be persecution, and the believers will appear to be defeated, but in Jesus they share his victory and can look forward to a glorious eternity with him, where they will see God face to face (Rev 22:4).

The Growing Threat of Gnosticism and the Writings of John (AD 80-100)

What is Gnosticism?

The fundamental belief of Gnosticism was that everything spiritual was good, and everything physical was evil. Therefore God was perfect spirit and could have no contact with anything physical. The gnostics believed in a complicated hierarchy of spiritual beings which acted as mediators between man and the very distant and uninvolved God.

For the gnostic, salvation was understood as deliverance from the evil physical body, and this salvation was attained by receiving special, exclusive revelation of knowledge, often through mystical experiences or through secret initiation rites. They believed that only a selected few were the spiritual people who could become gnostics, the others had no hope.

In their lifestyle, gnostics tended to be proud and showed a great lack of love. Their belief that the physical body was evil resulted in two contradictory views, some were ascetics who beat the body into submission, others believed that they could do any immoral act they wanted, because the spirit was like a pearl that could not be stained by the mud.

Gnosticism tended to absorb elements from different religions, including pagan mysticism, Judaism and Christianity. Obviously, they had great problems with the incarnation of Jesus. If Jesus was spiritual and good, how could he take on a physical body, when anything physical was evil? To explain the incarnation, they taught that Jesus must have been like a ghost. He seemed to be there, but you could have put your hand through him, and he did not leave a shadow. This teaching was called Docetism. Gnosticism was only in its early stages of development in first century and grew to its fullest extent in the second century.

1 John

John's first letter is more like a tract, as it is not written in the normal structure of first century letters. It is very strongly addressed against the gnostic teachers who were teaching Docetism. Even in his introduction he contradicts them: "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands ..." (1 John 1:1). John soundly condemns these gnostic teachers, who had left the fellowship of the church, calling them antichrists because they do not teach that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2-3). He urges his readers to show love to each other, in contrast to the behaviour of the gnostic teachers, who were known for their lack of love. And continually using one of their favourite words, he shows his readers that they can know that they abide in him, and know that they have eternal life.

2 John

In his very short second letter, John writes to someone called the elect lady and her children, who is either a person, or a description of the church. In this he condemns the gnostic teachers, calling them antichrists for teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh (v7), and urging the readers not to offer hospitality to anyone who brings this teaching.

3 John

3 John is also a very short letter, which John addresses to Gaius, who he commends for his hospitality for visiting Christians. He also condemns someone called Diotrephes who likes to put himself first, and does not welcome the friends of John into the church.

John's Gospel

The apostle John was the only one of the twelve disciples who died a natural death, the others, except for Judas, were all martyred. He lived to his very old age, and probably died around the year 100 at the age of 100. He was the last person to die who had actually known Jesus personally, so when he died, the last memories of Jesus would die with him. So people around him urged to write down these memories before they were forgotten forever. The result was John's gospel. By this time, the other three gospels had been written, so referring to himself as the 'disciple that Jesus loved', John recalled events and teaching that were mostly not recorded in the other gospels.

His great theme was that Jesus was the divine Son of God, and that by believing in him, people may receive eternal life. So his purpose is evangelistic, to bring people to faith. He demonstrates the divinity of Jesus by describing seven great miracles. For John, a miracle had the purpose of showing who Jesus was, he called them signs. Several of the signs were followed with a section of teaching, often summarised with one of the 'I am' statements, which were a claim to deity, as 'I am' was the name of God in the Old Testament. For example, Jesus fed the 5000, and then said 'I am the bread of life'. He healed the blind man, then said, 'I am the light of the world'. He raised Lazarus from the dead, then said, 'I am the resurrection and the life.'

John probably also had a purpose to counter gnostic teaching, which was beginning to become prominent, particularly the teaching of Docetism, that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body. Apart from demonstrating the deity of Jesus, he also continually emphasised his humanity. For example, he arrived in Samaria, tired, sent his disciples to buy food, and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink (Jn 4:6-8). On the cross the soldier pierced Jesus with a spear and out flowed blood and water (Jn 19:34). Doubting Thomas insisted that he would not believe unless he touched the wounded hands and side of Jesus (Jn 20:25), and after the resurrection Jesus joined the disciples for breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:13).

The spread of the Gospel by the end of the first century

By the end of the first century, the Gospel had spread to most of the largest cities around the Roman Empire. Apart from the places described in Acts, churches had been established in Egypt, Spain, North Africa, and probably in England. Outside the Roman Empire, the Gospel had been taken eastward, to central Asia, including Persia and the Parthian Empire. There is a strong tradition that the apostle Thomas was the founder of the church in India. So within only a few decades, the Gospel had been taken to a large portion of the known world. This exciting story has continued through the history of the church, although there have been many set-backs and long periods when the church seemed to lose the vision to preach the Gospel. Today the Great Commission is not yet completed, and the church still has the same calling to: "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (Mk 16:15), until the glorious day when Jesus will return to take his church to be with him forever.

Also available:

1: Life and Ministry of Jesus 2: Birth of the church
3: Paul's Missionary Journeys 4: Paul's Imprisonment
5: John and the Later New Testament