John’s Real Enemies

or Preterism is not a Dirty Word


One thing that has struck me since becoming a preterist is how much evangelicals play down the badness of the baddies in the New Testament, i.e. the unbelieving Jews and Christian Judaisers.

Evangelicals would never believe that Jesus and the apostles were mistaken in their warnings of an imminent judgment (and let’s face it, this imminence is a facet of the New Testament that is inescapable). So the only other option they see as viable is a position that defies logic: an event that was near, at the doors, yet could happen at any time over next few millennia.

Of course, there is another position: preterism. The event of which Christ and His delegates warned came to pass. If you are willing to entertain this wild idea (temporarily) as you read the New Testament, all of a sudden a great many problem verses fall into place. And so does a secondary great truckload of verses which seemed somehow slightly disconnected from the reality of our experience. You suddenly GET WHERE THE APOSTLES ARE COMING FROM. It’s like you’ve been driving on outback dirt roads all your life and finally run across some bitumen. The New Covenant scriptures cease to jar.

Thus, evangelicals refuse to interpret the New Testament in context. They think they are interpreting it, but they are, in fact, only applying it. Like the rest of the Bible, the New Testament was written for us, but it wasn’t written to us.

Once you have the film actually aligned with its historical sprockets, the texts become a lot easier to interpret. The modern church’s failure to understand the significance of AD70 in redemptive history means that one has to cover a lot more ground to answer the tough questions.

One example, as Peter Leithart mentions in The Promise of His Appearing, is the problems caused by reading Reformation-era debates back into the epistles of Paul. Paul wasn’t actually dealing with Roman Catholics, regardless of how helpful his words might be in debating them. His epistles must interpreted correctly before they can be correctly applied.

Another example I came across today, beginning Peter Leithart’s recent commentary on the epistles of John, is the identity of the false teachers in 1 John. Understanding that the final letters are warnings to Jews concerning the impending end of Judaism allows us to find answers to many nagging questions much closer to textual home.

“…This background helps clarify some of John’s major concerns. John, for example, mentions “antichrist” several times. In 2:18, he writes, “It is the last hour, and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Where did they hear that antichrist was coming? They perhaps heard it from John, or from another apostle or preacher. But where did the apostles learn about antichrist? If John had already received the visions recorded in Revelation, that might be one source. Ultimately, though, Jesus’ own teaching is the source, especially the sermon recorded in Matthew 24 and its parallels. Early on in the discourse on the Mount of Olives, Jesus warns that “many will come in my name saying ‘I am the Christ’ and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:5). Again in 24:24 he adds, “false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” Similarly, John warns about antichrists and “false prophets” (2:18-19;4″1). John is saying that antichrist has come, just as Jesus predicted. As Jesus warned, the appearance of antichrist is a sign of the approaching end of the age.

Can we be more specific? Can we identify the specific kind of false teachers, false Christs, and false prophets threatening John’s churches?

Many commentators on 1 John believe he is opposing an early form of Gnosticism and Docetism…

In his first epistle, however, John doesn’t give a great deal of emphasis to the fleshliness of Jesus. He mentions it in 4:2, and it is implicit in the opening verses of the letter, but John does not indicate that it is particularly characteristic of the false teachers’ theology…

Does John appear to be responding to gnostic Christology? John’s positive teaching about Jesus is that he is “the Christ” (5:10), that he came in the flesh (1:1-4; 4:2), that he is the Son (repeatedly), and that he came “by water and blood” (5:6). That is a thoroughly anti-gnostic Christology, and the church was right to cite 1 John in later debates with Gnostics. Identifying the heretics of 1-3 John as Gnostics gets us close to the truth, but in my judgment John’s focus is elsewhere.

What then? What false teaching are the false teachers teaching? We can begin by how John defines “antichrist.” In 2:22-23, the antichrist is the one who “denies that Jesus is Messiah,” and this denial of the Son is also a denial of the Father. Though this might describe gnostic Christology, it is just as accurate as a description of anti-Christian Judaism. Many Jews, obviously enough, denied that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One from Yahweh. In fact, John’s description of the views of antichrists applies more precisely to Jews than to anyone else. What sense does it make for a Greek to deny that Jesus is “Messiah”? Did they expect a Messiah in the first place? Wouldn’t they simply be indifferent, as Pilate was, to the internal Jewish debates about messiahship?…

John’s opponents, I submit, are primarily Jews or Judaising Christians. If this is the case, what do we make of the gnostic echoes that so many commentators have heard in the letter?

Here is a hypothesis: Gnosticism is, in (perhaps large) part, a product of Judaism and, more specifically, of Judaising. On the face of it, this is a bizarre thesis. Gnosticism is a radically dualistic system, while Judaism affirms the goodness of the creation from the very first pages of its Bible. Counterintuitive as it may seem, several lines of evidence link Judaism with Gnosticism…” [1]

It makes me cringe when smart Christians insist that we are in the last days, the same last days that the first century writers of the New Testament insisted were a reason for the Jewish Christians throughout the Roman empire to remain faithful and not slide back into a corrupted, rebellious, Satanic distortion of the faith delivered to their fathers.

Yes, we should also live holy lives today, with all the fear and reverance due to our God, and no fear of men. But that is not interpretation. It is application, and selling it as interpretation makes a great deal of the New Testament mysterious to modern Christians.

[1] See also How to Read the New Testament.
[2] Peter J. Leithart, The Epistles of John Through New Eyes: From Behind the Veil, pp. 10-13.

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4 Responses to “John’s Real Enemies”

  • Robert Murphy Says:

    I try to be a thoughtful amillennialist, taking the best of preterism and futurism together. Most of the time when “last days” are mentioned in the NT, I think you’re on the right track about what is meant. However, Hebrews 1 is not talking about pre-A.D.-70. This whole era between Christ’s two advents is the “last” era because it is the final act of history. It looks like it will be the longest and maybe even the majority of all of history, but it is the terminal epoch before the eschaton. _That_ “last days” I can get behind.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    I agree that we are in the final, long act (see Bible Matrix), but the NT refers to this age as “the age to come.” So I would still categorise this mention of “last days” with the others.
    Of course, there was an overlap. It was the anointing of David that heralded the demise of the house of Saul. So it was in the first century.

  • Drew Says:

    //Here is a hypothesis: Gnosticism is, in (perhaps large) part, a product of Judaism and, more specifically, of Judaising.//

    This is definitely true. And for this reason, John had to give the readers assurance of salvation, assure them that they had already overcome the wicked one, had been born of God, etc.

    The reason it is true is because denial of salvation by faith alone necessarily results in the setup of some legal system for salvation, and this legal system invariably errs from the perfect system established by Moses, and thus it is pagan and “gnostic.”

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Dr Leithart’s explanation has to do with their rejection of Christ. He united heaven and earth, so the unbelieving Jews were forced, in their thinking, to split them apart. Don’t take my word for it — check out his book!