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1 John: Introduction to the Letter

Introduction to the First Epistle of John

The apostle John penned this document some time after the Gospel of John in the 80-90s while he resided in Asia Minor, presumably Ephesus.

The Genre of 1 John

Some believe that it is an epistle or circular letter (Francis, Dodd), that is, it was intended for a general audience and circulated among churches in Asia Minor. However, there is no greeting or salutation, and there is no epistolary closing. It does not begin or end like a letter.

Others believe it is a tract or homily.(Houlden, Marshall). But these categories can have a wide rang of meaning so that one can claim that this is so ambiguous that everything fits it that is not an epistle. Also, there are no homiletic signals like those that appear, for example, in Hebrews.

Others believe it is a handbook or Encheiridion (Grayston, Hills). Grayston (p. 4): "neither epistle nor treatise but an enchiridion, an instruction booklet for applying the tradition in disturbing circumstances." There are ancient models for this genre, such as Epictetus' Encheiridion which summarizes the ethical teaching of his Diatribes (Edwards). Hills argues that it fits a kind of "church order manual" which includes the following elements: (1) credentials; (2) affectionate address; (3) communal discipline; (4) warning of heresy; (5) ethical exhortation; (6) eschatology; (7) responsibilities; (8) qualifications for testing ministries; (9) instructions about liturgy/sacraments; and (10) testamentary features. While 1 John does not have all these features and some are not fully developed, nevertheless it has the same function of keeping a community on the "right course in their journey of faith" (Edwards, p. 45). This is probably the best way to think of this document…a kind of published book that was intended to be read by John’s community of faith throughout Asia Minor. However, purposes of ease, I refer to 1 John as an “epistle.”

The "Opponents" in 1 John

John’s epistle reflects a situation where some believers had left the community. They are secessionists (cf. 2:19; 4:1). Apparently the secessionists deny the Son (2:23), deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:7; cf. 2 John 7), and deny that Jesus is the Christ (2:22). John responds that the community believes that Jesus is the Christ (5:1), Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2), that Jesus is the Son of God (1:3,7; 2:23; 3:8, 23; 4:9, 10, 15; 5:11), and that Jesus came “by water and blood” (5:6).

However, the problem is not simply "doctrinal," but it is also ethical. The secessionists boast that they are “without sin” (1:8, 10), they “have fellowship” with God but walk in the darkness (1:6), they know God but nevertheless are disobedient (2:4), they "love God" but hate their brothers and sisters (4:20), and they are "in the light" but hate their fellow Christians (2:9) But the community believes that to abide in God is to obey him--it is to walk as Jesus walked (2:6), to sin willfully shows that one has not know God (3:3-6; 5:18), whoever acts sinfully belongs to the devil (3:7-10), we should love one another (3:11-12, 17,18), refusing to love one's brother or sister means that one has not inherited eternal life (3:14-15), and God is love--and to know him is to love (4:8-10)

What creates this doctrinal and ethical difference within the community so that some leave the community? Some (O’Neill) believe that it refers to non-messianic Jews who leave the community because of its Christological teaching. Some does deny that Jesus is the Messiah, but it is unlikely that practicing Jews would have ever become full members of a Christian community. The dispute seems to be more about the proper interpretation of Christology rather than a denial of Messianic meaning.

Others (Westcott, Stott, Bultmann) believe the document reflects the teaching of the Cerinthians, the followers of Cerinthus who lived in the lived in the late first and early second century and explicitly denied that the human Jesus was the divine Christ (Son of God). He distinguished between the Jesus who was born in the flesh and the Christ who descended upon him at baptism. But there is an absence of argument concerning other heretical notions of Cerinthus, that is, that Jesus was the son of an inferior God (Demiurge). While we might say that 1 John contravenes a Cerinthian idea, it is too much to say that it is a letter written against Cerinthianism.

Others (Schnelle) believe it is written against Docetism. Docetism (from dokein, to seem or appear) was probably current or developing in Asia Minor in the late first century. It is present by the time of Ignatius (ca. 112-114). 1 John does oppose docetic ideas and affirms the fleshly reality of the Jesus the Christ. However, if this letter intended to refute docetism, it did not argue the case at any length (unlike the early second century writer Ignatius) and generally assumes that the community shares a common understanding.

Others (Dodd, Bogart) believe it was written against a Gnostic sect. 1 John offers antithetical contrasts, e.g., between 'light' and 'darkness,' and vocabulary that are utilized by Gnostics in the second century. But there is no fully developed Christian Gnosticism in the first century, other Gnostic ideas are missing from 1 John, and the contrasts and vocabulary may reflect Hellenistic, even Qumran, Judaism more than Gnosticism.

Perhaps it is not important to identify with specificity the exact character of the opponents. What is important is what the community believed. Indeed, the document is written to the community. It does not refute the secessionists but recognizes that they have left. Rather, it encourages the community to remain together and hold to their Christological and ethical beliefs that make them a community. This is what distinguishes them from the darkness (whether heretical or pagan).

The epistle assumes a shared community. It is a proclamation they have heard. They share terminology that is not explained (antichrist, anointing, seed). They have a shared understanding (“you know,” “we know”) and a shared history (“from the beginning”). Along with others (Lieu, Edwards, Neufeld, Perkins), it is probably best to read 1 John in a non-polemical way. There are several problems with a polemical reading—a reading that assumes that John is arguing a case against the secessionists. For example, there is no argumentation or refutation of opposing views. The polemical reading tends to overread the antitheses that are in the epistle.

It is best to see this as an exhortation to the community from within the community. "The words of the text do not simply describe the author's or community's theological position, but enact belief" (Neufeld, p. 135), or "....form the center of the spiral--and so of the theology of 1 John--the eternal life that is known, and how it may be known; the letter is marked not by argument but by certainty and exhortation, by what is the case and how it might be proved to be the case" (Lieu, p. 23). The letter seeks to stablize community in perilous times and deepen its communal ties of faith and love. The text calls the community to enact Christological faith, ethics and community.

Structure of the Letter

The letter begins with a prologue/introduction (1:1-4) and ends with an epilogue/conclusion (5:13-21). The body of the letter (1:5-5:12) consists of two major parts: God is love (1 John 1:5-3:10) and God is love (3:11-5:11). Brown, Smalley and Burge all follow this kind of structure for the epistle.

Indeed, the epistle may reflect the same pattern as the Gospel of John (Burge, p. 44; derived from Brown).

The Gospel of JohnThe First Letter of JOhn
A. Prologue 1:1-18
The entry in the beginning of the word of life into the world.
A. Prologue 1:1-4
The revelation of the life in Jesus Christ who appeared "in the beginning."
B. The Book of Signs 1:19-12:50
The light shined in the darkness of Judaism and was rejected.
B. Part One 1:5-3:10
God is light and like Jesus we must walk in his light.
C. The Book of Glory 13:1-10:29
Jesus cares for and nurtures "his own," those who believe in him.
C. Part Two 3:11-5:10
God is love and those who know him must love one another.
D. Epilogue 21
Final Resurrection stories about Jesus and explanation of purpose.
D. Epilogue 5:13-21
The author explains his purpose.

Burge (p. 45) outlines the 1 Epistle of John in this fashion:

A. Prologue: 1:1-4

The word of life which we have witnessed among us.

B. Part 1: 1:5-3:10:

God is Light--and we should walk accordingly.
"This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you."

    1:5-7 Thesis: walking in the light and walking in the darkness
    1:8-2:2 First Exhortation: Resist Sinfulness
    2:3-11 Second Exhortation: Obey God's Commands
    2:12-17 Third Exhortation: Defy the world and its allure
    2:18-27 Fourth Exhortation: Renounce those who distort the truth
    2:28-3:10 Fifth Exhortation: Live Like God's children

C. Part 2: 3:11-5:12

God is Love--and we should walk accordingly. "This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another."

    3:11-24 Love one another in practical ways
    4:1-6 Beware of false prophets who would deceive you
    4:7-21 Love one another as God loves us in Christ
    5:1-4 Obey God and thereby conquer the world
    5:5-12 Never compromise your testimony

D. Conclusion: 5:13-21

The boldness and confidence of those who walk in God's light and love.

Theme of the Letter

We have a shared community with the Father and each other through Jesus Christ and this community is eternal life itself which reflects the righteous love of God in Jesus Christ.

The prologue, body and epilogue unite several ideas: eternal life (1:2; 2:25; 3:11; 5:11; 5:13, 20); “I write that” (1:4; 2:1; 5:13), and fellowship/having God (1:3; 1:7, 8; 2:23; 5:12; 5:18). John writes so that we might know that we have eternal life through fellowship with God. This is an epistle about assurance and living in community in such way that assurance is the natural air we breath.

The theological center of the letter is that God had revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is what the community has proclaimed (1 John 1:2,3,5; 3:11) as eternal life (1:2; 2:25; 3:11; 5:11,13,20). Jesus is the unique one, the Word of Life, the Eternal Life himself (1 John 1:1-4; 5:18-20). Consequently, everything else is idolatry (1 John 5:21). Jesus reveals the God who is light and love.

John proclaims that eternal life has come in Jesus Christ, and this revelation announces the message that God is light and that God is love by which God invites us, through Jesus, to share his own eternal community. The community knows they have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, through loving each other in Jesus Christ, and by the testimony of the Spirit in the life of the believer.


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