The Apostle John’s First Letter: Part 1


This is Part 1 of 6 in a series on 1 John. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotes are from the Holy Bible (New International Version), Zondervon1984. Commentaries studied include The Epistles of John by James Montgomery Boice (Zondervan, 1979), The Tests of Life (A Study of The First Epistle of St. John by Rev. Robert Law (Baker Book House, Reprinted 1968 from the 1914 edition), and  The Letters of John (Revised Edition) by John R. W. Stott (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Intervarsity Press, 1988).

John’s Letter is Good News for Everyone Who Has Doubt

The Apostle John’s letter is a masterpiece of good news for Christians. His remarkable letter is a response to bad news of disruption in a congregation under his care. His letter was written to those people to reassure them in the midst of an attack on their beliefs. Confusion and turmoil had come from the attack. Some members left. Those who remained were in a state of uncertainty. 

The letter’s opening paragraph is different from most other New Testament letters in that it has no salutation or personal reference. Only Hebrews shares that distinction. Yet, it is abundantly clear the letter is a genuinely personal message written to people John is well-acquainted with. He says of those who left, “they went out from us, but they were not of us.” 

Why Confusion and Turmoil?

People claiming secret information about salvation, as well as special spiritual power began to teach doctrine denying the reality of the incarnation, They claimed flesh to be evil. Consequently, God, would never have taken a fleshly form. 

They claimed to have unique knowledge of the full truth about Christ and the way to salvation. Their arguments must have been powerful for people began to question the validity of what they had been taught from the apostles. Many wondered, could these people be right? Is it possible the apostolic message was incomplete and wrong about the incarnation? John writes to assure the congregation they know the truth. They already have unquestionable salvation through Jesus Christ, the God-Man. Any claim of a different way to salvation is false. His readers know John, and he knows them. John gives them three self-tests to use to add to their assurance.

Date of Writing

The date the letter was written is uncertain. Some scholars think it was as early as 60-65 A.D., others think it was as late as 95 A.D, and some dates in between. Whenever it was written, it was at a time of turmoil arising from false teaching in churches under John’s care. The false teaching needed to be carefully and thoroughly dealt with. That is what John did.

Overview of John’s Letter

John’s writes a message of assurance, assurance that what he has taught them is the truth, assurance that their salvation is real and secure, and no one can take it from them. The evidence John uses to justify this assurance has two branches. The first branch is objective evidence. The revelation of God in Christ was objective, and tangible. Its truth is supported by direct evidence from eyewitnesses. Christ came in the flesh. He came in history. He experienced real birth, baptism, and death. The Apostles testify from their first-hand experience. They saw, heard, and touched Christ (1:1-3, 4:14). The second branch is the subjective witness of the Holy Spirit that makes the truth of Christ alive in both the minds and the hearts of believers who prayerfully study God’s Word (1:1-2, 3:5, 3:8, 4:2, 4:9-14, 5:6, 5:10, 5:20). The Spirit’s internal witness corroborates the external witness of observed facts. By the Spirit we are taught and know (2:20, 2:27, 3:24, 4:13). 

John presents Jesus as the God-Man, Christ, through whom believers have eternal life. He provides three self-tests believers can use to assure themselves of the reality of their eternal life. The proper response to knowing they have eternal life is to live an ethical life, pleasing to God. John strongly desires his readers know with assurance that their faith is real. He countered Gnostic views by showing the truth of the gospel using verifiable historical facts. The gospel is not merely a set of ideas to be molded and manipulated, added to, or subtracted from. Jesus the man and Christ the Lord are one and the same person. He also showed the Gnostic view of behavior was wrong. Their argument that human bodily behavior doesn’t matter to God because body and spirit do not interact is wrong. Behavior is important and involves both body and spirit. 

Five Important Points John Makes

(1.) The “old” gospel is the only gospel. There is no “new” gospel.(2.) Christ is historical. John knew His family and was in fact related to Jesus. John saw Him in action, heard Him teach, saw Him die, saw the empty tomb where He had been, saw Him alive after His death, and saw Him taken up to heaven. John experienced first-hand the glory of Christ at the transfiguration and knew Him in his glorious resurrection body.John was totally convinced that Jesus is Christ the Lord. (3.) Christianity is true (a historical certainty). You can have assurance that you have eternal life (personal certainty). John provides three self-tests that each individual can use to enhance their personal assurance of salvation.(4.) Righteousness must characterize a believer’s life.(5.) Love must characterize a believers’ life. 

Who is This John

John and his older brother, James, were among Jesus’ earliest disciples. They were sons of Zebedee (Mark 1:19). From comparing Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40 and 16:1, it appears their mother’s name was Salome. Comparing Mark 15:40 with John 19:25, it seems Salome is Jesus’ mother’s sister. If this identification is correct, then John is Jesus’ first cousin on His mother’s side. 

John was the youngest of the apostles, perhaps about 20 at the time of the crucifixion. He wrote five books of the New Testament: The Gospel According to John. Three letters. Revelation. 

The Zebedee’s appear to have been relatively well to do. The father, a fisherman, had “hired servants” (Mark 1:20) and Salome was one of the women who provided for Jesus out of their means (Luke 8:3, Mark 15:40). John was dearly loved by Jesus and was with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. While dying on the cross, Jesus gave to John the earthly care for Jesus’ mother (John 19:26-27).

Structure and Synopsis of the Letter

At first reading John’s first letter seem to involve significant repetition. Robert Law’s commentary (The Tests of Life, Reprint, 1968, by Baker Book House of 3rd edition, 1914) makes the valuable point that the text is in the form of an upward spiral. The same topics do appear three times, but each cycle is at a higher level. The following outline is adapted with some changes from Law’s Synopsis on his pages  21 – 24

1 JohnSynopsis (Adapted from Law)Prologue (1:1-4)

The First Cycle (1:5-2:28)

The Christian Life, As Fellowship with God, Conditioned and Tested by Walking in the Light.

(1:5) “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

Paragraph A (1:6-2:6)

(1:6-7) General statement of the condition of fellowship with God, Who is Light.

(1:8-2:6) Walking in the Light tested by the attitude to Sin and Righteousness.

To Walk in the DarknessTo Walk in the Light
To deny sin as guilt (1:8)To confess sin as guilt (1:9)
To deny sin as fact (1:10)To confess sin as fact (2:1-2)
To say that we know God and not keep His commandments (2:4)To keep His commandments (2:3)
Not to walk as Christ walked (2:6)To walk as Christ walked (2:6)

Paragraph B (2:7-17)

Walking in the Light Tested by Love
By love of one’ brother (2:7-11)
Parenthetic address to the readers (2:12-14)
By not loving the World (2:15-17)

Paragraph C (2:18-28)

Walking in the Light Tested by Belief
Rise of the antichrists (2:18)
Their relation to the Church (2:19)
Their source and guarantee of the true belief (2:20-21)
The crucial test of Truth and Error (2:22-23)
Exhortation to steadfastness ( 2:24-25)
Reiterated statement of the source and guarantee of the true Belief (2:26-27)
Repeated exhortation to steadfastness (2:28)

The Second Cycle (2:29-4:6)

The Christian Life, As That of Divine Sonship, Approved by the Same 3 Tests

Paragraph A (2:29-3:10a)

Divine Sonship tested by Righteousness
This test is inevitable (3:10b-11)
Present status and future manifestation of the children of God: possession of this hope conditioned by assimilation to the purity of Christ (3:1-3)
The absolute contrariety of the life of Divine Sonship to all sin (3:4-10a)
The light of the moral authority of God (3:4)
In the light of Christ’s character and  the purpose of His mission ((2:5-7)
In the light of the origin of sin (3:8)
In the light of its own Divine source (3:9)
In the light of fundamental moral contrasts (3:10a)

Paragraph B (3.10b-24)

Divine Sonship tested by Love (3:10b-24)
This test is inevitable (3:10b-11)
Cain, the prototype of hate (3:12)
Cain’s spirit reproduced in the World (3:14)
Love, the sign of having passed from Death unto Life (3:14a)
The absence of Love, the sign of abiding in Death (3:14b-15)
Christ, the prototype of Love, the obligation thus laid upon us (3:16)
Genuine Love consists not in words but in deeds (3:17-18)
Confidence toward God resulting from such Love, especially prayer (3:19-22)
Recapitulation; Under the category of His “commandment,” combines Love and Belief on His Son Jesus Christ. Thus  a transition to Paragraph C (3:23-24b)

Paragraph C (3:24b-4:6)

Divine Sonship tested by Belief (3:24b-4:6)
This test is inevitable (3:24b)
Exhortation in view of the actual situation (4:1)
The true confession of faith (4:2-3)
The relation thereto of the Church and the World

The Third Cycle (4:7-5:21)

Closer Correlation of Righteousness, Love, and Belief

Section I (4:7-5:2a)LOVE

Paragraph A (4:7-19)

The Genesis of Love (4:7-12)
Love is indispensable because God is Love (4:7-8)
The mission of Christ is proof that God is Love (4:9)
The mission of Christ is the absolute revelation of what Love is (4:10)
The obligation of Love thus imposed on us (4:11)
The assurance given in it fulfilment (4:12)

Paragraph B (4:13-16)

The Synthesis of Belief and Love (4L13-16)
True Belief indispensable as a guarantee of Christian Life, because the Spirit of God is its author (4:13)
The content of the true Belief, “Jesus is the Son of God” (4:11,15)
In this is found the vital ground of Christian Love (4:16)

Paragraph C (4:17-5:3a)

The Effect, Motives, and Manifestations of Love (4:17-5:3a)
The effect, confidence toward God (4:17-18)
The motives to Love: (1) God’s love to us; (2) the only possible response to which is to love our brother; (3) Christ’s commandment; (4) the instincts of spiritual kinship (4:19-5:1)
The synthesis of Love and Righteousness (5:2-3a)

Section II (5:3b-21)BELIEF

Paragraph A (5:3b-12)

The Power, Contents, Basis, and Issue of Christian Belief (5:3b-21)
The synthesis of Belief and Righteousness. In Belief lies the power of obedience (5:3b-4)
The contents of Christian Belief (5:5-6)
The evidence upon which Belief rests (5:7-10)
The issues of Belief, the possession of Eternal Life (5:11-12)

Paragraph B (5:13-21)

The Certainties of Christian Belief (5:13-21)
Christian certainty of Eternal Life (5:13)
Certainty of prevailing in Prayer (5:14-15)
Sin that leads to death; Sin that does not lead to death (5:16-17)
Of Righteousness, as the essential characteristic of the Christian life (5:18)
The moral gulf between the Christian Life and the life of the world (5:19)
Of itself, the facts on which it rests, and the supernatural power which has given perception of these facts (5:20)
Final exhortation (5:21)

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