Read the Passage: 1 John 1:1–2:17
Author and Date: The book of 1 John is technically anonymous, as no author is listed within the text. Yet, the content of the letter, as well as the unanimous testimony of the early church, reveals that the author is the apostle John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee (cf. Matt. 10:2–4), a “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17) and the apostle “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Observe that John is also the author of the Gospel of John, the books of 2 and 3 John, as well as the book of Revelation. While there are no historical references in this short book, it is likely that John wrote this epistle, as well as the letters of 2 & 3 John, from the strategic church in Ephesus around the year AD 90. Church history records that John had a lengthy, thriving ministry in and around Ephesus for several decades. Note that John was considerably older than most of his readers, as he refers to them as “little children” a number of times (cf. 1 John 2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:2). John, who was the last living apostle (cf. John 21:20–24), would have written this letter some 60 years after the resurrection of Jesus.
Theme and Purpose: The general theme of this epistle is sanctification (cf. 1 John 2:1; 5:13), as here John revisits the basics of Christianity, including ideas such as salvation, love, assurance, doctrine, and Christian living. More specifically, John wrote to address false teaching (cf. 1 John 2:18, 22–23; 3:7; 4:1–3), especially ideas related to the error later known as Gnosticism. Among other things, this heresy taught: (1) that special knowledge—or gnosis—is needed for salvation, and (2) that the material world is inherently evil, while the spiritual world is good. As you might expect, this false teaching led to several errors related to Jesus’ incarnation and Christian living. First, some held to what became known as Docetic Gnosticism, which asserted Jesus’ humanity was just an apparition, and that the moral life is a matter of licentiousness or antinomianism. Second, some held to what became known as Cerenthian Gnosticism, which asserted Jesus’ deity was temporary, and that the moral life is a matter of asceticism or legalism. John addresses both of these errors in this epistle—not with a technical theological discourse, but by pastorally calling the church back to the true worship of Jesus and to an authentic love for one another.
Structure and Outline: There is a notable spiral structure to this letter, as John tends to re-state his main teachings in a circular fashion, perhaps with the idea of going deeper into his subject matter each time he revisits similar issues. Below is a suggested thematic outline of John’s letter:
- Living in Christ (1:1–2:17)
- Resisting False Teaching (2:18–3:9)
- Outworking of Salvation (3:10–4:6)
- Loving One Another (4:7–21)
- Obeying God’s Commands (5:1–21)
Joy in Christ (1:1–4)
In commencing his letter with the phrase, “That which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1), John was establishing a parallel between Gen. 1:1 and John 1:1. Indeed, in opening his letter in this way, John was being clear that he was referring to Jesus Christ, the “Word of life” (1 John 1:1), the very Creator God. Furthermore, John explicitly writes that he was among those who had heard, seen, and touched Jesus. Thus, with one rhetorical flourish John refuted both forms of Gnosticism, for Jesus was fully God and fully man. Note, too, that in this passage John uses the phrase “we declare to you” two times (cf. 1 John 1:2–3); first, to communicate that eternal life had come to the apostles; and second, to teach that eternal life can come to his readers. Yet, conceiving of Jesus properly is not just a matter of personal salvation, but it ends in “your joy . . . be[ing] full” (1 John 1:4).
Forgiveness from Christ (1:5–2:2)
In 1 John 1:5–2:2 John wrote about sin and forgiveness. Here John addressed the false teaching that either minimizes or denies the reality of sin, as well as the importance of forgiveness. While John’s writing appears rigid in places (cf. 1 John 2:9–11; 3:10), he is clear in this passage that forgiveness is available to all who confess their sins and believe in God (cf. 1 John 1:9). Furthermore, John teaches that Jesus Christ is believers’ advocate and propitiation for their sins (cf. 1 John 2:1–2). The term “propitiation” refers to covering, appeasement, or satisfaction of God’s wrath against man on account of His sin (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 9:5; 1 John 4:10). The related word “expiation” means to take away guilt through the payment of a penalty or the offering of an atonement. So, in summary, Jesus’ death on the cross both took away our guilt (i.e., expiation) and reconciled us to God (i.e., propitiation).
Love for Christ (2:3–17)
In 1 John 2:3–11 John focuses on the need for believers to obey God’s commandments. While obedience to God’s moral laws is important, the particular law that John has in mind here is, “An old commandment, which you have had since the beginning” (1 John 2:7). Curiously, John leaves the commandment unstated; yet, in 2 John 5 he identifies this old commandment as, “Love one another.” Of course, this so-called old commandment was first articulated by Moses at way back at Lev. 19:18. It is interesting, however, that Jesus also refers to this law as a new commandment (cf. John 13:34–35) and He cites it on more than one occasion in the Gospels (cf. John 15:12, 17). Next, in 1 John 2:12–14 John uses the analogy of a family to encourage spiritual growth as he writes about little children, young men, and fathers. Finally, in 1 John 2:15–17 John warns his readers to refrain from loving the world and its attractions.
- What do you know about the book of 1 John? What doctrines, passages, or practical issues come to mind when you think of this epistle?
- In what ways is Jesus misunderstood by the modern culture? How can Christians prove the authenticity of Jesus’ claims?
- Why do some church attendees want to minimize the extent of mankind’s sin, as well as to deny the God’s wrath on account of man’s sin?
- If love of neighbor was first prescribed in Lev. 19:18, how can John call this law an old commandment, while Jesus refers to it as a new commandment?
- What aspects of the fallen world do you find most attractive and therefore most difficult to release or leave?