The First Epistle of John - Part 1
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
(Unless otherwise stated, all quotations of Scripture are from the NEW King James Version)
As with the Epistle to Hebrews, but unlike most other New Testament Epistles, the First Epistle of John is anonymous. However, the traditional view, and one that was unanimous in the early church, identifies the author as John the son of Zebedee, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Let us look first at the evidence of the Epistle itself, then some external sources.
There are many notable points of similarity between this Epistle and the Gospel of John. The language of both is simple, yet subtle, and the meaning is frequently profound. Many phrases and expressions are shared, e.g., ‘life’, ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘manifest’, ‘only-begotten’.1 There is clear evidence of an eyewitness, 1. 1-4, pointing to one who had been with the Lord Jesus from the outset of His earthly ministry.
The following features fit with the apostle John writing at an advanced age:
- Authoritative commands2 – the writer is clearly known to his readers as a spiritual guide and his authority is recognized.
- Passionate concern and loving pastoral care: he frequently uses the expressions ‘my little children’, ‘brethren’, and ‘beloved’.3
- Exposure of error: he is not prepared for ‘peace at any price’: on the contrary, dangerous error must be clearly pinpointed: 1. 6, 8; 2. 4, 22. His uncompromising approach recalls the Lord’s description of John as a ‘son of thunder’, Mark 3. 17. Yet, the same disciple was transformed in the school of Christ into the ‘apostle of love’, John 13. 23; 1 John 2. 5-6.
The Epistle is referred to by several prominent figures in the early church. Eusebius, the early church historian indicates that there was never any questioning of its genuineness. According to him, 1 John was used by Papias (c. 140), 4 and is quoted by Polycarp (c. 110-120) and very probably by Justin (c. 150-160). Irenaeus (c. 180) also accepted it as the work of John the apostle. It was also recognized by the Muratorian Canon (c. 200), the earliest attempt to catalogue books of the New Testament recognized by the church. Clement of Alexandria (c. 144-215) makes repeated use of it and in several places mentions it as the apostle John’s. 5
2. Date of writing
Several considerations point to a date late in the first century. The epistle builds on several of the themes of John’s Gospel, so if that Gospel is to be dated around 85 AD, the Epistle is likely to have followed shortly after. This would be consistent with references to it by early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus. It would also align with the view of John, the last survivor of the apostles, writing in his old age, having had no less than five decades to reflect on the great gospel events and their significance.
Whilst Paul lamented, just before his martyrdom, that ‘all that are in Asia turned away from me’, 2 Tim. 1. 15, there is impressive historical evidence that John spent the closing decades of his long life in the region of Ephesus in western Asia Minor. Clement of Alexandria indicated that John fulfilled a pastoral ministry in relation to churches throughout the province of Asia.6 If this is so, Ephesus was a most favoured church, having benefited from the ministry of Paul, Timothy, and John, not to mention the Lord’s direct message to the church, Rev. 2. 1-7. His indictment regarding the abandonment of their ‘first love’ is all the more serious in view of the high privileges of the church.
4. Occasion and purpose
The Epistles of John have suffered by being classified among the so-called ‘catholic’ or general epistles.7 Since no particular destination is mentioned, the Epistles were thought to have been addressed to the church at large. Yet 1 John arose out of a specific set of circumstances confronting the churches in Asia Minor. So what was it that caused John to write? The following section identifies key aspects of the opponents’ teaching and behaviour discernible in John’s first two Epistles.
|Their view of Christ||
‘Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?’ This is the antichrist, 2. 18, 22.
‘and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist’, 4. 3; ‘this is He who came by water and blood--Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood’, 5. 6; 5. 10; ‘For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh’, 2 John 7, 9.
|Attitude to sin||‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us’, 1. 6, 8, 10; ‘He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’, 2. 4; ‘Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous’, 3. 4, 7.|
|Attitude to fellow-believers||2. 9; 3. 10-12; ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’, 3. 15; ‘My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth’, 3. 17, 18; 4. 8.|
|Denial of apostolic authority||‘He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’, 4. 6.|
|Withdrawal from fellowship||‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us’, 2. 18-19; 4. 1; 2 John 7.|
|Deceivers||‘These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you’, 2. 26, 27; 2 John 9-11.|
In the light of the above, it is clear that John’s opponents had emerged from among the churches. They had developed serious errors in relation to the Person of Christ. In particular they denied the reality of His incarnation8 – finding it impossible to accept that the eternal ‘Christ’, the ‘Son of God’, became permanently9 revealed in holy humanity. It also seems that they played down the saving significance of His cross, hence John’s insistence on the blood, 5. 6. They rejected John’s apostolic authority, and, though they had withdrawn from Christian fellowship, they remained a threat, seeking to draw others away. John does not charge them with immorality, yet it seems clear that these people were at best amoral, that is, they were indifferent to moral issues such as sin, holiness, and purity. Perhaps they felt that under the Spirit’s guidance they had progressed to ‘higher ground’ and these basic matters did not apply to them. Their attitude to fellow Christians seems to have been harsh and unloving, possibly due to their supposed spiritual superiority.
Excursus Heresies, Gnosticism
It is likely that at least some of the errors encountered in the Epistle are the early forms of those that came to be associated with Gnosticism.10 The term ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’. Gnostics claimed to possess special knowledge beyond the simple faith of the church. What they claimed to ‘know’ consisted of a myth about the creation of the world as the result of a pre-cosmic disaster which accounted for the present misery of mankind, and about the way in which the elect few may be redeemed. Gnostics regarded the present material world as utterly alien to the supreme God and His goodness, and must be the creation of inferior powers. They therefore regarded the ‘spirit’ as good and matter as evil.
Several significant errors stem directly from this false distinction:
- The human body, being made of matter, is evil. This is to be contrasted with God, who is spirit and therefore good. This false view of the body could lead to either asceticism (severity towards the body), Col. 2. 21-23, or to the opposite extreme of licentiousness, 1 Cor. 6. 12-18. If the body is evil and has no future, then behaviour in the body is of no consequence. You could add that part of this heresy included the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. Hence, the idea of bodily resurrection was anathema to them, because it would mean the incarceration of the soul for all eternity.
- Salvation requires escape from the body, not through the redemptive work of Christ but by special knowledge.
- Christ’s humanity came to be denied in several ways. First Docetism (from Greek dokeo, meaning ‘to seem’) taught that the humanity of Christ was a mere phantom – He only seemed to have a body. Others taught that the divine Christ descended on the Man Jesus at His baptism but left Him before He died on the cross! This is known as Cerinthianism after its major proponent, Cerinthus.
In actual fact, the heyday of Gnosticism came later, from the second to the fifth centuries; however, it is highly likely that late first-century believers encountered early versions of its errors.
The departure of some of the most gifted members of a fellowship is always unsettling. All sorts of fears and doubts can arise in the minds of those remaining, to the point of bewilderment as to where the truth about Christ and morality is to be found. John was an eyewitness right from the beginning of the great gospel events – ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Now, as the ‘Elder’, he writes with tenderness and concern to allay the fears of his ‘little children’:11
- Eternal life is to be found only in the Son of God, 5. 11.
- For that life to be available to men, the Son must become man, 4. 9, 10.
- To deny the incarnation and to play down the significance of His sacrifice is to exclude oneself from sharing in the life of God.
John supplies a series of moral, social and doctrinal tests to highlight the differences between the faithful and those whose claims are false. As Plummer puts it, ‘The Gospel gives us the theology of the Christ; the Epistle, the ethics of the Christian’.12
For John, the safe path lies in keeping to apostolic Christianity, 2. 24. That faith is preserved in the New Testament documents, our only standard by which to judge faith and practice. From that perspective the message of the Epistle is as necessary for us today as it was for its first readers.
Excursus Contemporary relevance
1. Doctrine of Christ
The common element in many modern heresies is a denial of the incarnation. The incarnation is a fundamental crux of Christianity. ‘No system of teaching which denies either the eternal divine pre-existence of Jesus or the historical incarnation of the Christ can be accepted as Christian’, Stott.13
John emphasizes the following:
- Compelling eyewitness testimony of what actually happened, 1. 1-4, in contrast to mere speculation.
- Christ’s bodily presence was no myth or phantom, 21. 12, 13.
- The centrality of His mission to take away sin, and the historical fact and redemptive value of His blood, 1 John 5. 6; 1. 7.
- Only a divine Saviour can truly ‘bear away the sin of the world’, John 1. 29.
- Only one truly Man can fully take men’s place as their representative and substitute, 3. 14.
- Christ’s return is a transforming and purifying hope, 1 John 2. 28; 3. 2.
2. Absolutes in an age of relativism
The ‘postmodern’ age of the 21st century celebrates diversity, and pluralism, and accommodates contradiction. Because of this, it is deeply distrustful and fiercely intolerant of absolute truth claims. In the view of its exponents, ‘there are no absolutes’.14 This thinking, and its devastating consequences, pervade the academic world, the media, and society at large.
The German poet Goethe once said, ‘Tell me of your certainties: I have doubts enough of my own’. To move from the shifting values and thought patterns of the 21st century into the world of 1 John is to arrive in the sphere of absolute truth! John deals in certainties, and speaks of polar opposites, light and darkness, life and death, love and hatred. He knows no shades of grey, no ambiguity or double-speaking. His trumpet gives no uncertain sound!
3. Charismatic claims
As faith in science to solve the world’s problems wanes, there has been a marked growth of interest in the supernatural. Within Christendom there has been an upsurge of interest in charismatic gifts, partly as a protest against the barren liberalism of much 20th century theology. However, 1 John will supply a timely reminder to us that many spirits are abroad, not all of them honouring God, 4. 1-6. Controls are therefore needed and discernment is essential. Happily, the ordinary believer is equipped with the resources to discern between the true and the false, and need not be bowled over by the high-sounding claims of false teachers, 2. 18-23.
4. Spiritual balance: righteousness, love, belief
In the various cycles of the Epistle (see Outline below) John repeatedly applies a series of tests to Christian profession. These are:
- the practice of righteousness (moral test)
- love to one’s fellow believers (social test)
- correct beliefs about Christ (doctrinal test)
In situations involving pressure and controversy, we often find it difficult to hold these fundamental aspects in balance. Sometimes our doctrinal precision can be accompanied by a harshness towards those who do not share our particular views, and our social concerns may be more theoretical than practical, 3. 18. Or perhaps we champion doctrinal correctness, but prefer to draw a veil over our business dealings and other matters of personal morality? This Epistle supplies vital correction to counteract these errors.
In studying a New Testament Epistle it is very helpful to grasp its overall structure, the topics addressed, their proportions, and relationship one to another.15 In contrast to the Epistles of Paul, 1 John has a cyclic feature where topics are introduced, and then later revisited with development.16 A good analogy is that of ascending a spiral staircase where objects below can be revisited and appreciated from fresh angles. Robert Law, author of a celebrated commentary on the Epistle, observed, ‘It is like a winding staircase – always revolving around the same centre, always recurring to the same topics, but at a higher level. Or, to borrow a term from music, one might describe the method as contrapuntal. The Epistle works with a comparatively small number of themes, which are introduced many times, and are brought into every possible relation to one another. . . And the clue to the structure of the Epistle will be found by tracing the introduction and reappearances of these leading themes’.17
Whilst it is fairly clear that the topics of light, love, and eternal life are basic to John’s plan,18 it is maintained in this exposition that eternal life supplies the unifying theme. As far as structure is concerned, all commentators are agreed that the opening four verses form a unit, and most would agree that the final nine verses comprise a section. Thereafter opinions differ! Most, however, would see chapter 2 verses 28 and 29 as transitionary. The outline below represents most of the views of leading authorities on the structure of this Epistle.19
Eternal life is not simply a passport to heaven! It is the life of God for us to experience and enjoy here and now – above all, a life to be lived in all its richness!
|Characteristic of eternal life . . .||1 John||John’s Gospel|
|Is supremely manifest in Christ||1. 1-4||1. 4; 5. 26;|
|Has its source in God||4. 4||6. 33; 17. 3|
|Is initiated by new birth||2. 29||1. 13|
|Consists in knowledge of God||5. 20||17. 3|
|Consists in union with divine Persons||5. 20||6. 56; 14. 20; 17. 21-23|
|Is a gift||5. 11||6. 32; 10. 28|
|Its nature is light||1. 7; 2. 10||3. 21; 8. 12; 12. 46|
|Involves the Spirit’s anointing||2. 20, 27||7. 39|
|Faith in the Son of God||5. 5, 10, 13||1. 12, 20. 31|
|Obedience to His commandments||2. 3, 17||14. 15, 23; 15. 10|
|Its nature is to love||3. 14; 4. 19||13. 34-35; 21. 15-17|
|Expresses itself in prayer||3. 22; 5. 14-16||15. 7; 16. 24, 26|
|Evidences growth||2. 12-14||8. 31; 15. 8|
|Overcomes the world||2. 14; 5. 4, 5||16. 33|
|Is joyful||1. 4||15. 11; 16. 22|
|Its experience promotes assurance||5. 13||14. 20; 21. 24|
[Key to Tests: m = moral; s = social; d = doctrinal]
Prologue, 1. 1 - 4
The revelation of eternal Life in the incarnation of the Son of God.
Cycle 1 Revelation of the life eternal, 1. 5 – 2. 28
Fellowship in the light with the Father and the Son
- Walking in the light: Test – sin confessed m , 1. 5 – 2. 2
- Walking in the light: Test – obedience m , 2. 3-6
- Walking in the light: Test – love for the children of God s, 2. 7-11
- Progress in fellowship: Three groups addressed, 2. 12-14
- Walking in the light: Test – refusal to love the world s, 2. 15-17
- Walking in the light: Test – Person of Christ d, 2. 18-28
Warning: The arrival of antichrists, 2. 18-19
Resource: The anointing from the Holy One, 2. 20-21
Test d: the Person of Christ, 2. 22-23
Key to preservation and confidence, 2. 24-28
Cycle 2 Revelation of the children of God, 2. 29 - 4. 6
Their character revealed
- Children of God: Test – righteousness m 2. 29 – 3. 10a
- Children of God: Test – loves 3. 10b – 24
- Children of God: Test – the Person of Christd 4. 1-6
Warning: false prophets active in the world, 4. 1
Test: their doctrine of Christ, 4. 2-3
Resource: the divine Indwelling, 4. 4-6
Cycle 3 Revelation of the love of God, 4. 7 – 5. 12
The essential nature of love
- Love of God: its Source, 4. 7-13
- Love of God: Test d 4. 14-16
- Love of God: its perfecting in us, 4. 17-19
- Love of God: Test – love for the children of God s, 4. 20-21
- Victory: enabled by faith, love, and obedience, 5. 1-5
- Three Witnesses: the ground of assurance, 5. 6-12
Epilogue Certainties of Christian belief, 5. 13 -21
- Assurance of eternal life, 5. 13
- Confidence in prayer, 5. 14-17
- Three things that are known, 5. 18-20a
- Conclusion and warning, 5. 20b-21
In the following list, commentaries shown in bold are recommended as good introductory reading.
- Bruce, Frederick. F., The Epistles of John. London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 1970; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.
- Findlay, George G., Fellowship in the Life Eternal. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Epistles of John: an Expositional Commentary, Bob Jones University Press, 1992.
- Jackman, David, The Message of John’s Letters: living in the love of God, Leicester, IVP, 1991.
- Law, Robert, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1909. Reprinted Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1979.
- Marshall, I. Howard, The Epistles of John. New International Commentary on the New Testament series. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984.
- Morris, Leon, ‘1 John’ in New Bible Commentary (revised). Leicester: IVP, 1976.
- Plummer, Alfred, The Epistles of St. John. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: University Press, 1894.
- Smalley, Stephen S., 1, 2, 3 John. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1984.
- Stott, John R. W., The Letters of John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. 2nd edn, Leicester: IVP, 1988.
- Vine, William E., The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
- Metzger, Bruce, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Stuttgart, United Bible Societies, 1975.
- Bruce, Frederick. F., Men and Movements in the Primitive Church, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1979.
- Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church, London: Penguin Books, 1993.
- Eusebius, History of the Church, London: Penguin Books, 1981.
- Morris, Leon, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.
- Rienecker, Fritz, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980.
- International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Edited by James Orr. 1957 edn.
- Article Gnosticism, John Rutherford
- Article John, The Epistles of, Robert Law.
- A. Plummer lists the following: Abide, advocate, be of God, be of the truth, be of the world, believe on, children of God, darkness, do sin, do the truth, eternal life, evil one, joy be fulfilled, have sin, keep His commandments, keep His word, lay down one’s life, life, light, love, manifest, murderer, new commandment, Only-begotten, pass over out of death into life, true, truth, walk in darkness, witness, Word, world. The Epistles of St. John. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Cambridge University Press, 1894, pg. 49.
- See 2. 15, 24, 28; 4. 1; 5. 21
- ‘My little children’, 2. 1, 12, 28; 3. 7, 18; 4. 4; 5. 21; ‘Beloved’, 2. 7; 3. 2, 21; 4. 1, 7, 11. Their challenges, 2. 19; 4. 1, danger posed by false teachers, 2. 26; 3. 7, their spiritual development, 2. 12-14, 21, their victories, 4. 4, and perils, 5. 21. He alternates between the ‘you’ of direct address, 1. 3, 5; 2. 1, 7, 8, 12-14, and the ‘we’ expressing close fellowship with his readers, 1. 6, 10; 3. 1-2; 4. 7, 10, 11.
- Eusebius, History of the Church, London: Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 153.
- Plummer, Alfred. The Epistles of St. John. Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge University Press, 1894. pg. xl.
- To evaluate the evidence linking John to the region of Ephesus see the helpful discussion in: F. F. Bruce, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church, pgs. 120-152.
- The term ‘catholic’ in this context simply means ‘universal’: the three Epistles of John do not name any specific congregation.
- ‘Incarnation’ means the entry into human flesh and blood of the eternal Son of God, see John 1. 14; 1 Tim. 3. 16.
- Compare the differing tenses of 1 John 4. 2 and 2 John 7. The latter implies by the present participle that false teachers were denying the very possibility of the incarnation. The former by use of the perfect participle implies the abiding reality of His incarnation – His humanity remains.
- ‘The writer was in the best possible position to state the criteria of truth and life, and to help his readers see that they, and not the seceders, satisfied these criteria’, F. F. Bruce. ‘It is a specimen of apostolic preaching to believers, a masterpiece in the art of edification’, G. G. Findlay.
- Plummer, Alfred. The Epistles of St. John. Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge University Press, 1894. pg. 36.
- A brief overview of Gnosticism may be found in: Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. London: Penguin Books, 1993. pgs 35-41.
- Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. 2nd edn, IVP,1988. pgs. 58, 59.
- Although, in a delicious irony, that is an absolute claim! See Veith, G. E., Guide to Contemporary Culture, Crossway Books, Leicester, 1994.
- In the case of 1 John, those who have attempted to arrive at a succinct and fully satisfactory outline of this Epistle will appreciate how challenging this is, a fact reflected in the bewildering variety of analyses offered in commentaries and Bible dictionaries!
- ‘There is the peculiarity that subjects touched upon and left are frequently reappearing further on for development and fresh treatment. The spiral cycle, which is so conspicuous in the prologue to the Gospel and in Christ’s Farewell Discourses [John 13-16], is apparent in the Epistle also’, Plummer, Alfred. The Epistles of St. John. Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: University Press, 1894, pgs. liii, liv.
- Law, Robert. The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John. Reprinted Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1979. pg. 5.
- Vine, William E. The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978. pg. 7.
- The student will notice an obvious debt to the analyses of Law, and Stott in particular.