1 John Introduction
This writing is usually called an ‘epistle’ or letter, but it has neither address nor signature. Indeed, it lacks so many characteristics of a letter that some scholars take ‘epistle’ as no more than a courtesy title; they see it as a written sermon rather than a letter. Against this, however, now and then there appear passages which justify us in seeing it as a real letter (e.g. 2:1, 26), although a letter with some unusual features. Perhaps the explanation is that it was originally meant for more than one community.
The traditional view is that the author was John the apostle and the marked tone of authority throughout the letter agrees with this. No other author was suggested in antiquity and perhaps only an apostolic figure could have sent out such a letter without putting his name to it. The writer was evidently an eyewitness of at least some of the things Jesus did (1:1–3; the views that ‘we’ means ‘all Christians’, or that it is simply a literary device seem untenable). The style and thought-forms resemble those of the fourth gospel, and all agree that there must be some connection. It has usually been thought that the one author wrote both, in which case everything hinges on the authorship of that gospel. Some critics, however, hold that the author of one of these writings was a disciple of the author of the other; it is not uncommon for people to think of a ‘school’ of Christians of a Johannine type, one of whom wrote this letter. Such critics hold that there are differences of style (e.g. fewer compound words in the letter) and of theology (e.g. a different view of the significance of the death of Jesus). While such differences should not be minimized, they do not seem great enough to demand diversity of authorship. They may be accounted for by the different purposes of the two writings and their different forms. ‘The similarity between Gospel and letter is considerably greater than that between the third Gospel and the Acts, which are known to have come from the same pen’ (J. R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, TNTC [IVP 1988], p. 28). Raymond E. Brown, who thinks it probable that there were different authors, agrees that the evidence is such that the gospel and the letters may have been written at different times by the same man (The Epistles of John [Doubleday, 1982], pp. 14–30). No conclusive argument for different authors seems to have been produced.
Some critics see ‘John the elder’ (cf. 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1) as the author of the gospel or of the letter (or 2 and 3 John, or Revelation), some of both. This rather shadowy figure, however, is not a likely candidate. It cannot be demonstrated that a John the elder, as distinct from John the apostle, ever existed. And if he did, the reasons for connecting him with this writing are not convincing, not nearly as convincing as the ancient tradition which ascribes it to the apostle.
While, then, the letter makes no claim about its authorship, and while the case cannot be proved beyond doubt, the most reasonable hypothesis is that it came from the pen of the apostle John.
It is clear from the letter that its readers were being confronted with a form of false teaching which denied the incarnation. This error was evidently held by people who had been in the church but who had now seceded, for John speaks of them as ‘going out’ (2:19; 4:1). In the second century there appeared systems of thought now called Gnosticism, systems which took over both Christian and pagan ideas. They emphasized knowledge (Gk. gnoµsi), and taught a way of salvation known only to the initiates. This included release from the material prison of the body, and an upward rise to God. There is dispute about how early Gnosticism appeared. It is very probable that it was much later than the time when this letter was written, but it did not spring out of empty air. Many of the teachings later included in the fully developed Gnostic systems were in circulation in the first century.
John was opposing some such system, a system that included the idea that matter is inherently evil. God, being good, can have nothing to do with evil matter it was claimed. Therefore, he could not have been incarnate in Jesus Christ. Some held that Christ only seemed to live in the flesh (they were called ‘Docetists’ from the Gk. dokein, ‘to seem’). But it is probably too much to affirm that John is confronting Docetists, for there is nothing in this letter about a phantom body or the like. What he opposed seems to have been an early stage of the heresy that was to develop into Docetism. People were denying the incarnation and John took this as very serious. Its effect was to take the heart out of Christianity, for if Christ did not really become a man and did not really die for us, then no atonement has been made for our sins. So John emphasized the reality of the incarnation. He also stressed the importance of upright living, and it appears that in their emphasis on knowledge some of the heretics held that conduct did not matter much. John made it clear that conduct is very important.
It would be wrong, however, to think that this letter is no more than a refutation of heresy. There is a very positive aim, as John tells us himself. He writes ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us … to make our joy complete’ (1:3–4). He makes this more specific when he says, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13). We may contrast this with the aim of the gospel: ‘these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (Jn. 20:31). Whereas the gospel has an evangelistic aim, the letter is thus directed rather at bringing believers assurance and a true knowledge of what the faith implies. ‘The Gospel contains “signs” to evoke faith (20:30–31), and the letter tests by which to judge it’ (J. R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, TNTC [IVP, 1988], p. 26). John wrote to take away his readers’ anxieties as they came to realize what it meant to be a Christian. ‘In the first Epistle, John sets forth three marks of a true knowledge of God and of fellowship with God … These marks are, first, righteousness of life, second, brotherly love, and third, faith in Jesus as God incarnate’ (Search the Scriptures, 1967, p. 289). These three themes recur constantly.
The letter is dominated by two great thoughts: God is light (1:5), and God is love (4:8, 16). God is the source of light to the minds and of warmth to the hearts of his children. These children should accordingly live up to the highest standard; there is constant emphasis on this (e.g. 2:1–6; 3:3, 6, 9; 5:1–3). But the letter contains no harsh admonition. Rather, the writer addressed his readers with fatherly care and tender concern: ‘little children’; ‘beloved’; ‘little children, let no one deceive you’; ‘little children, keep yourselves from idols’.
There is very little by which to date the writing. The relation to the gospel is not definitive, for scholars differ as to whether it was written before or after the gospel. In any case the date of the gospel is uncertain. Many date 1 John towards the end of the first century, but J. A. T. Robinson argues for ad 60–65 (Redating the New Testament [SCM, 1976]). This may be right, but we cannot be sure.
See also the article Reading the letters.
D. Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters, BST (IVP, 1988).
M. M. Thompson, 1–3 John, IVPNTC (IVP, 1992).
J. R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1988).
I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1978).
R. Law, The Tests of Life (Baker Book House, 1968).
S. S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, WBC (Word, 1984).
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
IVPNTC IVP New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Jn 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Intervarsity Press.