Even at a superficial reading, it is evident that the first epistle of John contains many wonderful and encouraging themes. For example:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God…Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:1-2).

But other parts of the epistle appear rather confronting. For example:

“Whosoever sinneth hath not seen him [God] neither known him” (1 John 3:6).

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John 3:9).

Do these quotes really mean what they appear to say? If we sin, have we never known God at all? When we take a deeper look at this little epistle, difficulties such as these are resolved, and we can also gain further insight into its many positive and encouraging themes.

Background

It is often tempting to skip a consideration of the background of books of the Bible and just dive straight into what the text says. However, a knowledge of the background to 1 John is vitally important for an understanding of the content of the epistle.

Although there is no statement in the epistle that John is the writer, there are so many similarities with the gospel of John that it seems beyond reasonable doubt that they have the same author. Also, Irenaeus, who wrote in the 2nd Century, states that the epistle was written “by the Lord’s disciple John.”1

Gospel Epistle
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God … 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard … the Word of life;
16:24 that your joy may be full 1:4 that your joy may be full
14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments 2:3 hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments
13:34 a new commandment I give 2:8 a new commandment I write
13:33 little children 2:1,12,28 little children
5:38 ye have not His word abiding in you 2:14 the word of God abideth in you
1:18 No man hath seen God at any time 4:12 No man hath seen God at any time

It appears that John had left Judea before Jerusalem was destroyed in AD70, and according to Irenaeus2 he spent the latter years of his life at Ephesus: “Ephesus…where John remained until the time of Trajan.”

The epistle was written when John was an older man, perhaps around AD90. For example, he addresses his readers as “little children” nine times.

There is no direct statement as to the audience for the epistle. However, since John is in Ephesus, it is thought that he is writing to those ecclesias in the area, perhaps the same Asiatic ecclesias addressed in the Apocalypse.

The reason that John wrote the epistle is because errorists are abounding—“many antichrists” (2:18), “many false prophets” (4:1). The emergence of errorists in Ephesus had been prophesied by Paul in Acts 20:30 when speaking to the elders of the Ephesian ecclesia: “of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things.” In about AD66 Paul told Timothy to deal with error in Ephesus: “charge some that they teach no other doctrine…”(1 Tim 1:3).

By the time of 1 John there was an ecclesial split, and the errorists had left: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out” (2:19). But the errorists that had left were still trying to influence the ecclesia: “These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you” (2:26).

While none of us like ecclesial trouble, when there is an attack on fundamental doctrine, we, like John, need to be ready to oppose the error and stand for Truth. During such a time of trouble, we can become consumed with negativity through constantly dealing with doctrinal conflict. In such a situation love can wither away, which is what happened at Ephesus. In the Apocalypse, Christ commends the Ephesians for taking action against errorists, but rebukes them for having lost their first love (Rev 2:2-4). Hence, in 1 John there is emphasis on showing love to brethren.

The Gnostics

So, what is the cause of the trouble? It appears to be the teaching of the Gnostics. The term Gnostic is derived from the Greek gnosis meaning to know, but it carries the connotation of “knowing by experience.”3 Paul warned Timothy of the development of this false teaching (1 Tim 6:20-21):

“O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding…oppositions of science (Gk gnosis) falsely so called: which some professing have erred concerning the faith.”

What did the Gnostics teach? Information on Gnostic doctrine can be gleaned from the writings of the so called “Christian Fathers” of the first three centuries, as some of them wrote in opposition to Gnostic teachings. More information about Gnostic teaching has come from the Gnostic texts in the ancient Nag Hammadi codices4 found in Egypt in 1945.

Key features of Gnostic teaching5 are:

  • They claimed to have a superior relationship (fellowship) with God because of their superior experiential knowledge (gnosis) of God and superior enlightenment (light). The Gnostics therefore considered themselves superior to other brethren and sisters and treated them as inferior.6
  • They considered that their superior knowledge was more important for salvation than having faith or maintaining good conduct.7
  • Baptism into Christ was important but being inducted into the Gnostic sect by anointing with oil, symbolising the anointing with gnosis (or superior knowledge),8 was more important.
  • Immorality was claimed to be acceptable, because as long as the mind is steeped in light it is unaffected by what the body does. Irenaeus quotes the Gnostic view:9 “as gold deposited in mud does not lose its beauty, so they themselves whatever may be their outward immorality, cannot be injured by it, nor lose their spiritual substance”.
  • Jesus and Christ are separate. The Christ spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism but left him before he died.10

Brother Thomas gives some insightful comments concerning the Gnostics:11

“These came to be called Gnostics because of their professing what they called Gnosis, or knowledge…whose principles are subversive to the truth. Gnostics were a sort of immersed philosophers…having still a hankering after their old foolishness, and not relishing the mockery and persecution their new profession…they conceived the idea of so co-mingling the…fables of heathenism with the doctrine of the apostles to make the compound palatable to the respectability of the age.”

As Brother Thomas has written, the Gnostic heresy was really a mixture of pagan philosophy with the teaching of the Scriptures to make a religion that was palatable to the flesh. It is the same problem we have with Church teaching—the mixing of the Truth with pagan doctrines such as the immortality of the soul, the Trinity and the Devil.

What is the purpose of the epistle?

John is writing to encourage the faithful who have maintained the Truth and not departed with the Gnostics. John focusses on upholding Truth against error and encouraging those that remained in the ecclesia. He confirms that they have been right in standing for the Truth. He also shows his readers the importance of manifesting love to one another.

John as an older apostle

It is interesting to see how the Apostle John has changed from when he was a younger man. As a younger man he was ambitious. He and his brother James asked to sit at the right and left hand of Christ in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-37). He did not seem to care that such a request would be to the detriment of the other disciples. In the epistles, however, we see an older man who has absorbed the spirit of Christ and that ambitiousness is gone. He now radiates his love of his brothers and sisters in the way he writes (1 John 4:10-11):

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”

As a younger man he spoke out against things that were wrong and was quite harsh in his judgment against those in the wrong. When the Samaritans refused to receive Christ, because he was on his way to Jerusalem, John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume them (Luke 9:54). In the aged John we can see the effect that a lifetime of absorbing the Word of God has had upon him. He is more balanced. He is not so harsh, but still speaks out against what is wrong (1 John 2:4):

“He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

A different style of writing and reasoning

John has a different style of writing and reasoning than other New Testament writers and particularly different from that of Paul. Paul puts forward propositions and then proves them by quoting Scripture. For example, the proposition in Romans 4 that man is justified by faith, is proved by quoting Scriptures, including Genesis 15:6 where Abraham’s faith is counted for righteousness.

In contrast, John’s reasoning is based on deductive thinking on Bible principles that are known to his readers and he rarely gives direct quotes of Scripture for proof. For example:

“love [agape] is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God” (1 John 4:7)

The statement that “love is of God” is proved by deduction to be true. Love (agape love: self-sacrificing love) is not natural in man. Man is naturally selfish and not self-sacrificing. Hence agape love is not from man, so there is only one source it can come from—it has to come from God. So, it follows that anyone who shows agape love must have gained this from God.

Structure of the epistle

This first epistle of John can appear to be a somewhat unstructured set of deep but lovely thoughts. However, 1 John is actually very structured, and the power of what John is writing is more fully appreciated when the structure is understood. The structure of the epistle is a matrix structure (see the table on page 196).

Setting aside the prologue (1:1-4), the aside on prayer (5:14-15) and the epilogue (5:20-21), there are three major sections (the columns in the table). Each of these is an attribute of God (and each also relates to a stage in the believer’s development as shown in bottom row).

There are three main themes (each of which is a contrast) that flow across all the major sections. The themes all deal with the errors of the Gnostics. For example, John shows that Sin and Righteousness are opposites and mutually exclusive. This counters the Gnostic view that sin didn’t affect their righteousness (viewed as a mental state of enlightenment). In the first two major sections, the themes are in the same order, but in the last section the order is changed to finish with Sin and Righteousness. Hence the book starts and finishes with the same theme.

The occurrences of key words in the epistle are evidence for this structure. For example, the words “sin” and “sins” occur almost exclusively in the verses of the Righteousness and Sin theme. The words “love” and “loveth” occur exclusively in the verses of the Love and Hate theme. Where the Love and Hate theme intersects with the God is Love section, the occurrences of “love” and “loveth” are even more frequent (30 times in 17 verses).

    3 Major Sections – Divine Attributes
God is Light (1:5) Born of God (2:29)
(God is Life)
God is Love (4:8)
3 Themes Righteousness and Sin 1:5–2:2 2:29–3:10 5:16-17
Love and Hate 2:3-17 3:10-24 4:7–5:3
Truth and Error 2:18-28 4:1-6 5:4-13
Knowledge Baptism Living the Truth

Representing the structure in a more conventional way (see the table opposite), it shows that the emphasis of the contrasts in the themes varies. For example, in the theme Love and Hate, sometimes the emphasis is more on the Hate than on the Love, and vice versa.

Sections Themes Verses
Prologue 1:1-4
God is Light Sin and Righteousness 1:5–2:2
Hate and Love 2:3-17
vv3–11 – Hate not the Brethren
vv12–17 – Love not the World
Error and Truth 2:18-28
vv18–23 – Avoid Error
vv24–28 – Abide in Truth
Born of God Righteousness and Sin 2:29–3:9
Hate and Love 3:10-24
vv12–15 Cain – Born of Flesh – Hate
vv16–18 Christ – Born of God – Love
vv19-24 – Conscience discerns
Error and Truth 4:1-6
God is Love Love and Hate 4:7–5:3
Truth and Error 5:4-13
(Aside on Prayer) 5:14-15
Sin and Righteousness 5:16-17
Epilogue 5:18-21

 

Our circumstances are similar

Although John wrote many years ago, it is remarkable how the issues of discipleship that he addresses are similar to those in our days. In his day, false teaching was rampant and needed to be opposed. In our days there is within Christianity every imaginable false teaching, and sadly, some of it is in the brotherhood too. In John’s day, agape love was wilting and John directs his readers to the need to “love one another” despite the ecclesial problems they faced. We have a similar challenge. Our world is a ‘me’ world. ‘Me’ is the most important person. In our times, agape love of the brethren can easily wilt and we do well to be reminded to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Having dealt briefly with the background, the way is now paved to delve into the text of the epistle and examine the many powerful thoughts that John has written to help us, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

References:

  1. Irenaeus (180 AD) Against Heresies 1.16.3
  2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4
  3. Vines definition “to know by experience” – from comment on kataginosko
  4. These 52 mostly Gnostic codices are available at http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhlalpha.html
  5. See Kurt Rudolph “Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism” See also www.gnosis.org
  6. Iranaeus Against Heresies- Book 1, Chap 13, 6 “They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable”.  See also https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-gnosticism-700683
  7. Iranaeus Against Heresies- Book 1, Chap 6, 2 “they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature”
  8. See Theophilus of Antioch (2nd century), “To Autolycus”, 1.12. Also Origen, “Commentary on Romans”, 5.8.3
  9. Irenaeus Against Heresies – Book 1,Chap 6, v2
  10. Ibid – Book 1, Chap 24, v2 “that the Saviour was without birth, without body, and without figure, but was, by supposition, a visible man”.
  11. Eureka Vol. 1, p198