Introduction to the First Epistle of John
Martin Luther once said, “It is not Christ walking on the sea, but his ordinary walk, that we are called here to imitate.” Clearly in this book we see the Christian life as it was meant to be lived out. Just as children resemble their parents, God’s children will have his likeness. True faith in Christ will always be marked by a radical change in behavior.
To profess knowledge of God without a holy life, without a clean break with sin and a deep love for other Christians, is as much a delusion as to deny the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Belief and behavior are inseparable. Mind and heart belong together. True light leads to real love (David Jackman in The Message of John's Letters: Living in the Love of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988, p. 16).
Throughout this book we see the intense passion that the pastor has as he builds up the children of God in faith to “walk, even as he walked” (2:1).
Several early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian and Origen, have agreed that John wrote not only the Gospel, but also the three epistles that bear his name.
There is considerable evidence that John wrote this epistle. Firstly, the author knew the man Christ Jesus extremely well, having “…heard, … seen with [my] eyes, … looked upon, and [my] hands have handled, of the Word of life” (v. 1) This person spent considerable time daily with the Messiah; and as a result, was probably one of the disciples. The literary style of this epistle is very similar to the Gospel of John. Thus, the author is one and the same.
See the Gospel of John for a biography of the author.
Date and Place
This epistle was probably written toward the latter end of the century (circa 95 A.D.), when John was elderly. He refers to the believers as “little children”, since he is an elderly man.
Since there are no references to geography, it is very difficult to figure out where he wrote this epistle. Many people feel that this was an apostolic letter; that is, a letter that was written from an apostle to the church at large. As a result, this letter could have been written from anywhere.
One of the ways that John explains concepts in this epistle is through contrasts. Some of these contrasts are: light and darkness, truth and error, life and death, love and hate, righteousness and lawlessness, children of God and children of the Devil, Christ and antichrist. It is through contrasts that John is able to clarify difficult concepts.
Repetition of Key Points
Throughout this epistle, John is repeating key themes from different points of view. For example:
Love for one another (2:9-11; 3:11-18; 4:7-21);
Obedience (2:1-6; 3:4-10; 5:1-5);
Fellowship with God (1:1-10; 2:6, 17, 24-29; 3:1-3, 24; 4:7-17; 5:1);
Discernment (2:18-29; 3:7-10; 4:1-6; 5:20);
Eternal life (2:17; 2:25; 5:13);
Truth (2:8-11, 21-29; 4:6; 5:6);
Victory (2:12-14; 4:4; 5:4-5, 18)
Holy Spirit (2:20, 27; 3:24; 4:2, 4 13; 5:6-8);
Assurance (2:25, 28; 3:3, 19-24; 4:17, 21-22; 5:2-4; 13-15, 18).
John describes both the children of God and the children of the Devil by their habitual behavior. The child of God not only acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but he also loves God (4:19) and other believers (4:7), obeys His commandments (2:3) and does not continue living in sin (2:9) because he is regenerated. The non believer, however, will continue to live in sin (3:8), be disobedient to God (2:4) and hate others (2:9). The Litmus test of a Christian is whether or not his life is characterized by righteousness (3:7) or lawlessness (3:4).
Throughout this epistle John warns believers about false teachers and their doctrine which had crept into the church. The particular heresy that the believers faced was Gnosticism. Gnosticism is the belief that knowledge is the way to salvation. Although they claimed to be Christians, they claimed to have a knowledge superior to and in addition to Scripture. Their believed that while spirit is truth, matter is evil. Following this logic, the man Jesus of Nazareth was not born as Messiah—because he lived and walked in the flesh. They reasoned that Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thus it was the man Jesus who died on Calvary, not Christ—making his sacrifice inefficacious since a mere man is unable to rise from the dead. In effect, they were denying the backbone of Christianity—the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
John not only warns followers of Christ about the perils of Gnosticism, but he also warns us not to “believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1 NIV). Would to God that every believer embrace the truth given in this epistle.
John is writing as a pastor who is building up the people of God in faith. Since this letter was written around the end of the first century, there were numerous second and third generation Christians; and as a result, the passion and the fervor of their faith had worn off. They were like the believers that Christ had rebuked in Ephesus because they had left their first love (Rev 2:4). John wrote believers so that they not only could live victorious lives, but that they might also have lives filled with joy because they are Christ-centered.
The Certainty of Salvation and Eternal Life
One important theme that John wrote about was the certainty that we have with respect to not only our salvation in Christ, but also our hope of eternal life. Because each saint believes in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, they have the knowledge, or certainty, that they will have eternal life (5:13). Notice that the apostle used the term eternal, not everlasting. Life eternal not only represents life after death, but also describes the quality of everlasting life that we now enjoy on this earth. Each Christian has the choice of living a joyous and fulfilled life because of the knowledge of having their sins forgiven as well as the hope of Heaven. Every believer can enjoy this fellowship with God.
Structure of the Epistle
Unlike the Pauline epistles, this letter is not organized in a formal matter; but rather, the apostle’s intensity and intimacy is shown through the repetition of themes. Even though there is no formal introduction, John begins his epistle by explaining how to have fellowship with God. The result of this fellowship produces:
1. Prologue (1:1-1:4)
2. The Gospel (1:5-2:2)
3. Obedience to God (2:3-17)
4. Discernment (2:18-3:10)
5. Love Toward the Brethren (3:11-24)
6. Testing the Spirits (4:1-6)
7. The Love of God (4:7-5:3)
8. The Assurance of Salvation (5:4-5:21)
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