The church as well as the individual believer needs to be reminded of the riches of the gospel of truth and its influence for good. All too often, we take for granted the beauty of true fellowship in the love of God in Jesus Christ. This need is fulfilled as the Holy Spirit moved the apostle John to write his first epistle.
This epistle is not addressed in the usual manner of writing a letter during New Testament times. We do not read of the author declaring his identity and specifically stating to whom he is writing. Instead, we have a general reference: “This which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you that ye also may have fellowship with us” (I John 1:1-3). This is explained that John had previously written his gospel and now he is reinforcing the message to the same readers.
It is also suggested that since John is writing in the capacity of pastor-teacher he is well acquainted with his readers and they with him. Hence the formal identification is lacking. It is accepted by almost all biblical scholars that John is the author of this brief but significant letter. Since we have presented the details of his life in our study of the Gospel of John, we will not repeat this here. We note in summary that his father was Zebedee and his mother Salome, a sister of the Virgin Mary (Matt. 27:56 and John 19:25). He and his brother James were known as the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17). Jesus predicted that he would become an old man (John 21:21-23). After the death and resurrection of Jesus, John took care of the Virgin Mary as Jesus had instructed him (John 19:26). He remained a leader in the Jerusalem church until the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D. He then labored in Ephesus, which was the center of his ministry to Asia Minor. For a time he was banished to the Isle of Patmos, but returned to Ephesus until his death.
OCCASION AND DATE Preciseness in determining the date of writing is impossible. We can only surmise, from the general reference in the opening verses, that this epistle was written soon after he had written his gospel. This was towards the end of John’s life, sometime between A.D. 90 and 100. Having written the Gospel, the Holy Spirit moved John to write the letters as an application of the Gospel to a specific need. The desire to maintain Christian fellowship in the love of God demanded that the saints deal with opposition in a proper way. This meant that the early church had to appreciate the truth and fight for it, as well as acknowledge that the false teachings that were being advanced were a denial of that truth and if accepted would result in the forfeiture of the fellowship which was so precious to them.
The apostle John is combating a serious error that was influencing the church. In Ephesus, a heretic by the name of Cerinthus was presenting a mixture of pagan philosophy and historic Jewish teachings. We quote from Hendriksen’s Bible Survey to summarize this error.
A strange heresy was threatening their purity and spiritual progress. It is very difficult to determine its exact nature, but from a close study of the Epistles of John and some of the early fathers we arrive at the conclusion that it was probably a kind of incipient gnosticism. It was probably characterized by most, if not all, of the following features:
(1) spirit-matter dualism: matter is the source of evil; spirit of the good.
(2) docetism: whereas the material body (the flesh) is the source and seat of evil, a real coming-into-the-flesh (or incarnation) is impossible. God is too pure to become united with the human body.
(3) Cerinthianism: whereas a real incarnation is unthinkable, we must distinguish between a heavenly Christ and an earthly Jesus. The former never fully united with the latter but merely descended upon him at his baptism and left him again on the eve of his Passion. Accordingly, the heavenly Christ did not suffer.
(4) Antinomianism (a life that is contrary to God’s holy law): whereas soul and body have nothing to do with each other, the soul cannot be held responsible for the deeds of the body; hence, let the body do whatever it pleases. “Sin” is an inherent quality of bodily existence. “I” do not commit sin.
(5) Knowledge, not love, is the highest virtue.
If we keep these points in mind, Hendriksen suggests, it will be very helpful in understanding key passages in this epistle. A few examples will suffice.
(1) In I John 4:2 we read, “Hereby know ye that Spirit of God, every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” This is stated to counter points (1) and (2) above.
(2) In I John 5:5, 6 we read, “And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood.” This contradicts point (3) above.
(3) Again in I John 1:8, 10 we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us . . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” Also, in I John 3:4, 5, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law . . . . whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.” This is taught as the direct opposite of (4) above.
(4) Finally, in I John 3:13-18 we read, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we Zoue the brethren . . . . But whosoever hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” The point he makes here is that the highest virtue is not knowledge per se as (5) above, but love, and that before God and ourselves.
Little wonder that John calls the promoters of this heresy “antichrists” (I John 2:18, 19, 22). Its spiritual roots are in the devil (I John 3: 10). Keeping this in mind helps us understand the strong statements that John makes when he deals with the evil that he is exposing. The love of the truth excites John to expose error sharply and pointedly. Here we see a remarkable balance in Christian apologetics. He shows us what is wrong with the heresy, but also what is so right about the truth.
The positive side is emphasized throughout. Already in the beginning of the letter he writes, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you that your joy may be full” (I John 1:3, 4). Consider this: “I write unto you little children because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. I write unto you fathers because ye have known Him that is from the beginning; I wrote unto you young men because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you little children because ye have known the Father. I have written unto you fathers because ye have known Him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you young men because ye are strong and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one” (I John 2:12-14). “I have not written unto you because you know not the truth, but because ye know it and that no lie is of the truth” (I John 2:21). Finally, he adds; “I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God that ye may know that ye have eternal life and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (I John 5:13). In one word, we summarize the grand theme of this letter as follows: true fellowship with God and one another is in the love wherewith God has loved us and by which we are able to love one another.
John did not designate specifically for whom he wrote this letter. This has led to some speculation, but most students of the Bible agree that, in the light of the historical setting, John intended this letter to be read by the Christian churches of Asia Minor, the members being both Jew and Gentile. It was in this locality that the heretic Cerinthus was living and having his greatest influence. It was in this area that John labored after his flight from Jerusalem. This letter was to be read in the churches of this area and wherever the Holy Spirit directed it.
Since heresy is not new essentially, but only appears in different forms, we do well to receive this letter as addressed to us. The antichrists of our day have done much to deny the historical Jesus (the true incarnation of the Son of God in our flesh). Accompanying this denial is a host of attempts to justify sinful living in the name of such false Christs. Indeed, this is an epistle for our times as well.
The apostle John wrote with a distinctive style that is easy to discern from other writers. In contrast to Paul, John used simple vocabulary and generally simple sentence structure. This makes for interesting reading not only, but often provokes thought. John comes right to the point and states bluntly what he wants to say. It is very important to read each sentence carefully and place it in its immediate context. Otherwise we might have difficulty with such seeming contradictory statements as, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8) and, “He that committeth sin is of the devil . . . . whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (I John 3:9, 10). Many of his teachings ring with challenge: “Love not the world neither the things that are in the world. If any man loveth the world the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15). Or consider, “He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (I John 3:14). The Holy Spirit literally shakes us from our complacency in order that these words may have a shock effect and bring us to understand that great blessing of having true fellowship in the love of God.