Authorship

Though the author of this letter does not give his name, the early church attributes the writing of 1 John to the apostle John,1Irenaus (approximately AD 140-203) calls John the author, and the Muratorian Canon (approximately AD 170) attributes the letter to John as well.  Ancient tradition almost unanimously attributes it to John, though Marcion rejected John as the author.  Some attribute its writing (along with the Gospel of John and Revelation) to an Elder John, due to a statement of Eusebius that misinterprets a statement of Papias, Ecclesiastical History, III:39 (see Becker’s Revelation, pp 8-10; also Hiebert, Introduction to the Non-Pauline Epistles, pp 203-207).  Eusebius was anti-millennialistic and therefore perhaps wanted to divorce the apostle John from Revelation because some, like Papias, were interpreting Revelation 20 in a crassly millennialistic way. the brother of fellow disciple James and the son of Zebedee and Salome.  The style of this letter is very similar to the Gospel that bears his name (for example, see John 1:1-14 and 1 John 1:1-4), as well as the book of Revelation, where John does state that he is the author (Rev 1:9).

John was a fisherman along with his father and brother and is believed to have been the youngest of Jesus’ 12 disciples.  John refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” throughout his Gospel (for example, John 13:23), showing the close relationship he seemed to have developed with Jesus to the point that Jesus entrusted John with the care of his mother, Mary, following his crucifixion (John 19:25-27).2Church tradition says that John provided for her until she died in AD 48.  Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 219.  John was one of three disciples (along with his brother James and also Peter) who were chosen by Jesus to be witnesses of certain special events in Jesus’ ministry (for example, Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 5:35-43; 14:32-42).  The book of Acts shows that John had become one of the leaders of the disciples after Jesus’ ministry (Acts 3-4; 8:14-17,25).

Place and Date of Writing

The apostle John moved to Ephesus in Asia Minor at some point following the apostle Paul’s time there (see Paul’s Third Missionary Journey) and probably sometime before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  There he served in his role as apostle to the church until he was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation (Rev 1:9-11).  He later returned to Ephesus and died there around AD 100.3“Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (France), was a student of Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John. Irenaeus wrote that in his later years John was the bishop of Ephesus, supervising that large congregation as well as others farther inland, that his exile occurred in A.D. 95, that he was able to return from exile in 97, and that he died around the turn of the century.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 203.  John most likely wrote his Gospel (John) and his three letters (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) within a few years before his death.  This would make all five books attributed to him in the New Testament the last five books added to the canon of Scripture.

Recipients

The recipients of the letter of 1 John are not specifically identified.  However, it’s clear from the letter itself that they were not new Christians (1 John 2:13,14,20,21) and that John had a close relationship with them (1 John 2:1,12,14,18,28; 3:7,18; 4:4).  If John was indeed an elder in the church at Ephesus, it is possible that the letter was initially sent to the churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, which were in towns that somewhat circled Ephesus.  This would have included the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (see the region of Asia in the map of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey).

Purpose and Content

The style of 1 John is quite unique when compared to the other writings of the New Testament, and especially to the writings of the apostle Paul.  While the apostle Paul generally uses linear thought, with arguments building off of previous ones, the apostle John uses a more cyclical style of writing where he touches upon a few subjects and circles back to each of them as the thought continues to progress.  In 1 John, the spiral of thought circles around from righteousness to love to right belief and then back around again while covering different characteristics of God and a Christian’s relationship with him (see the outline below).

John appears to write this letter as a response to a false teaching that was gaining popularity at that time.  He continually uses forms of the verb “know” (1 John 2:3-6,11,13,14,18,20,21,29; 3:1-6,10,14,15,16,19,20-24; 4:6-8,13-16; 5:2) assuring the recipients of the letter that they truly know God and the truth.  It is highly likely that John is combatting the early heresy called Gnosticism, which claimed to provide a higher spiritual “knowledge” of God and the spiritual world.4“Already in the first century, false teachings arose, put forth by respected and intelligent men like Cerinthus, which undermined the teachings of the apostles. Cerinthus was an Egyptian Jew who cobbled together teachings from the Old Testament, fragments of Christianity, and pagan philosophy. This early movement promised that there was much more spiritual knowledge, secret knowledge, that the Bible did not have. The Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, gave the name gnosticism to this movement.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 204.,5“Just like the new agers of today, gnostic teachers asserted the following: 1) There was no incarnation or virgin birth, no atoning death or bodily resurrection; 2) The heavenly Christ and earthly Jesus were two separate things; 3) All matter was evil and only mind and spirit were pure; thus since human bodies are basically evil anyway and just temporary tents for the soul, it didn’t matter how you live; 4) The “spiritually advanced” gnostic leaders were no longer sinful; 5) The Bible was an insufficient source of information; 6) The apostles had no special authority for telling people how to think and live.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 205.  By setting forth the real truth, John helps his readers understand the simple beauty of the true gospel message of Jesus’ work as Savior and what it means for the lives of believers.  In this way Christians can have confidence in the love of their God and in the goodness and love that flow from true knowledge of him (1 John 5:15-21).

Notable Passages

  • 1 John 1:1-4
  • 1 John 1:8-10
  • 1 John 2:1-2
  • 1 John 2:15-17
  • 1 John 3:1
  • 1 John 3:4-5
  • 1 John 3:8
  • 1 John 3:23
  • 1 John 4:10-11
  • 1 John 4:13-14
  • 1 John 4:16,19
  • 1 John 5:1-5,11-12
  • 1 John 5:14-15

Outline

Developing an outline for the book of 1 John can be difficult because of its cyclical style.  One attempt to capture the circular pattern of the subjects of righteousness, love, and right belief is given below.

Theme: Authentic Christianity – Three Tests of Faith

  1. Prologue (1 John 1:1-4)
  2. First Application of the Tests: “God is light.”
    1. Test of Righteousness (1 John 1:5-2:6)
    2. Test of Love (1 John 2:7-17)
    3. Test of Right Belief (1 John 2:18-27)
  3. Second Application of the Tests: “We are the children of God.”
    1. Test of Righteousness (1 John 2:28-3:10)
    2. Test of Love (1 John 3:11-24)
    3. Test of Right Belief (1 John 4:1-6)
  4. Third Application of the Tests: “God is love.”
    1. Test of Love (1 John 4:7-12)
    2. Combination Test: Right Belief and Love (1 John 4:13-21)
    3. Combination Test: Right Belief, Love, and Righteousness (1 John 5:1-5)
    4. Test of Right Belief (1 John 5:6-12)
  5. Conclusion
    1. Two Assurances: Eternal Life and Answered Prayer (1 John 5:13-17)
    2. Three Certainties: Victory over sin and Satan, Fellowship with God, Assurance that to know Jesus is to know the true God and to have eternal life (1 John 5:18-20)
    3. Final exhortation (1 John 5:21)

References   [ + ]

1. Irenaus (approximately AD 140-203) calls John the author, and the Muratorian Canon (approximately AD 170) attributes the letter to John as well.  Ancient tradition almost unanimously attributes it to John, though Marcion rejected John as the author.  Some attribute its writing (along with the Gospel of John and Revelation) to an Elder John, due to a statement of Eusebius that misinterprets a statement of Papias, Ecclesiastical History, III:39 (see Becker’s Revelation, pp 8-10; also Hiebert, Introduction to the Non-Pauline Epistles, pp 203-207).  Eusebius was anti-millennialistic and therefore perhaps wanted to divorce the apostle John from Revelation because some, like Papias, were interpreting Revelation 20 in a crassly millennialistic way.
2. Church tradition says that John provided for her until she died in AD 48.  Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 219.
3. “Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (France), was a student of Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John. Irenaeus wrote that in his later years John was the bishop of Ephesus, supervising that large congregation as well as others farther inland, that his exile occurred in A.D. 95, that he was able to return from exile in 97, and that he died around the turn of the century.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 203.
4. “Already in the first century, false teachings arose, put forth by respected and intelligent men like Cerinthus, which undermined the teachings of the apostles. Cerinthus was an Egyptian Jew who cobbled together teachings from the Old Testament, fragments of Christianity, and pagan philosophy. This early movement promised that there was much more spiritual knowledge, secret knowledge, that the Bible did not have. The Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, gave the name gnosticism to this movement.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 204.
5. “Just like the new agers of today, gnostic teachers asserted the following: 1) There was no incarnation or virgin birth, no atoning death or bodily resurrection; 2) The heavenly Christ and earthly Jesus were two separate things; 3) All matter was evil and only mind and spirit were pure; thus since human bodies are basically evil anyway and just temporary tents for the soul, it didn’t matter how you live; 4) The “spiritually advanced” gnostic leaders were no longer sinful; 5) The Bible was an insufficient source of information; 6) The apostles had no special authority for telling people how to think and live.” Jeske, Mark A. James, Peter, John, Jude. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 2002. 205.