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John, The Book of 1 (First Epistle of)

RELATED: Apostle(s), Epistle, John (the Apostle); John, The Book of 2; John The Book of 3
AUTHOR: John (the Apostle)
READ: American Standard Version, King James Version, New American Standard Bible
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Easton's Bible Dictionary

The fourth of the catholic or "general" epistles. It was evidently written by John the evangelist (Note: "John the Evangelist" is often associated with Mark rather than "John the Apostle" -- BIBLEing.com), and probably also at Ephesus, and when the writer was in advanced age. The purpose of the apostle ( 1 John 1:1 - 4 ) is to declare the Word of Life to those to whom he writes, in order that they might be united in fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

He shows that the means of union with God are,

(1) on the part of Christ,
his atoning work ( 1 John 1:7 ; 2:2 ; 3:5 ; 4:10 , 4:14 ; 5:11 , 5:12 ) and
his advocacy ( 1 John 2:1 ); and

(2), on the part of man,
holiness ( 1 John 1:6 ),
obedience ( 1 John 2:3 ),
purity ( 1 John 3:3 ),
faith ( 1 John 3:23 ; 4:3 ; 5:5 ), and
love ( 1 John 2:7 , 2:8 ; 3:14 ; 4:7 ; 5:1 ).


Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names

(no entry)


Smith's Bible Dictionary

There can be no doubt that the apostle John was the author of this epistle. It was probably written from Ephesus, and most likely at the close of the first century. In the introduction, ch. ( 1 John 1:1 - 4 ) the apostle states the purpose of his epistle: it is to declare the word of life to those whom he is addressing, in order that he and they might be united in true communion with each other, and with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. His lesson throughout is that the means of union with God are, on the part of Christ, his atoning blood, ch. ( 1 John 1:7 ; 2:2 ; 3:5 ; 4:10 , 4:14 ; 5:6 ) and advocacy, ch. ( 1 John 2:1 ) on the part of man, holiness, ch. ( 1 John 1:6 ), obedience, ch. ( 1 John 2:3 ) purity, ch. ( 1 John 3:3 ) faith, ch. ( 1 John 3:23 ; 4:3 ; 5:5 ) and above all love. ch. ( 1 John 2:7 ; 3:14 ; 4:7 ; 5:1 )


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Among the 7 New Testament epistles which from ancient times have been called "catholic" (universal) there is a smaller group of three in which the style alike of thought and language points to a common authorship, and which are traditionally associated with the name of the apostle John. Of these, again, the first differs widely from the other two in respect not only of intrinsic importance, but of its early reception in the church and unquestioned canonicity.


I. General Character.

1. A True Letter:

Not only is the Epistle an anonymous writing; one of its unique features among the books of the New Testament is that it does not contain a single proper name (except our Lord's), or a single definite allusion, personal, historical, or geographical. It is a composition, however, which a person calling himself "I" sends to certain other persons whom he calls "you," and is, in form at least, a letter. The criticism which has denied that it is more than formally so is unwarranted. It does not fall under either of Deissmann's categories--the true letter, intended only for the perusal of the person or persons to whom it is addressed, and the epistle, written with literary art and with an eye to the public. But it does possess that character of the New Testament epistles in general which is well described by Sir William Ramsay (Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 24):

"They spring from the heart of the writer and speak direct to the heart of the readers. They were often called forth by some special crisis in the history of the persons addressed, so that they rise out of the actual situation in which the writer conceives the readers to be placed; they express the writer's keen and living sympathy with and participation in the fortunes of the whole class addressed, and are not affected by any thought of a wider public. .... On the other hand, the letters of this class express general principles of life and conduct, religion and ethics, applicable to a wider range of circumstances than those which called them forth; and they appeal as emphatically and intimately to all Christians in all time as they did to those addressed in the first instance." The 1st Epistle of John could not be more exactly characterized than by these words. Though its main features are didactic and controversial, the personal note is frequently struck, and with much tenderness and depth of feeling. Under special stress of emotion, the writer's paternal love, sympathy and solicitude break out in the affectionate appellation, "little children," or, yet more endearingly, "my little children." Elsewhere the prefatory "beloved" shows how deeply he is stirred by the sublimity of his theme and the sense of its supreme importance to his readers. He shows himself intimately acquainted with their religious environment (1 John 2:19 ; 4:1), dangers (1 John 2:26 ; 3:7 ; 5:21), attainments (1 John 2:12 - 14 , 21), achievements (1 John 4:4) and needs (1 John 3:19 ; 5:13). Further, the Epistle is addressed primarily to the circle of those among whom the author has habitually exercised his ministry as evangelist and teacher. He has been wont to announce to them the things concerning the Word of Life (1 John 1:1 , 2), that they might have fellowship with him (1 John 1:3), and now, that his (or their) joy may be full, he writes these things unto them (1 John 1:4). He writes as light shines. Love makes the task a necessity, but also a delight.

2. Subject-Matter:

There is no New Testament writing which is throughout more vigorously controversial: for the satisfactory interpretation of the Epistle as a whole, recognition of the polemical aim that pervades it is indispensable. But it is true also that there is no such writing in which the presentation of the truth more widely overflows the limits of the immediate occasion. The writer so constantly lifts up against the error he combats, the simple, sublime and satisfying facts and principles of the Christian revelation, so lifts up every question at issue into the light of eternal truth, that the Epistle pursues its course through the ages, bringing to the church of God the vision and the inspiration of the Divine. The influence of the immediate polemical purpose, however, is manifest, not only in the contents of the Epistle, but in its limitations as well. In a sense it may be said that the field of thought is a narrow one. God is seen exclusively as the Father of Spirits, the Light and Life of the universe of souls. His creatorship and government of the world, the providential aspects and agencies of salvation, the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears that spring from the terrestrial conditions and changes of human life, their disciplinary purpose and effect--to all this the Epistle contains no reference. The themes are exclusively theological and ethical. The writer's immediate interest is confined to that region in which the Divine and human vitally and directly meet--to that in God which is communicable to man, to that in man by which he is capax Dei. The Divine nature as life and light, and love and righteousness; the Incarnation of this Divine nature in Jesus, with its presuppositions and consequences, metaphysical and ethical; the imparting of this Divine nature to men by regeneration; the antithesis to it--sin--and its removal by propitiation; the work of the Holy Spirit; the Christian life, the mutual indwelling of God and man, as tested by its beliefs, its antagonism to sin, its inevitable debt of love--such are the fundamental themes to which every idea in the Epistle is directly related. The topics, if few, are supremely great; and the limitations of the field of vision are more than compensated by the profundity and intensity of spiritual perception.

3. Characteristics of the Writer:

The Epistle is in a sense impersonal to the last degree, offering a strange contrast to that frankness of self-revelation which gives such charm to Paul's letters; yet few writings so clearly reveal the deepest characteristics of the writer. We feel in it the high serenity of a mind that lives in constant fellowship with the greatest thoughts and is nourished at the eternal fountain-head; but also the fervent indignation and vehement recoil of such a mind in contact with what is false and evil. It has been truly called "the most passionate" book in the New Testament. Popular instinct has not erred in giving to its author the title, "Apostle of Love." Of the various themes which are so wonderfully intertwined in it, that to which it most of all owes its unfading charm and imperishable value is love. It rises to its sublimest height, to the apex of all revelation, in those passages in which its author is so divinely inspired to write of the eternal life, in God and man, as love.

But it is an inveterate misconception which regards him solely as the exponent of love. Equally he reveals himself as one whose mind is dominated by the sense of truth. There are no words more characteristic of him than "true" (alethinos, denoting that which both ideally and really corresponds to the name it bears) and "the truth" (aletheia, the reality of things sub specie aeternitatis). To him Christianity is not only a principle of ethics, or even a way of salvation; it is both of them, because it is primarily the truth, the one true disclosure of the realities of the spiritual and eternal world. Thus it is that his thought so constantly develops itself by antithesis. Each conception has its fundamental opposite: light, darkness; life, death; love, hate; truth, falsehood; the Father, the world; God, the devil. There is no shading, no gradation in the picture. No sentence is more characteristic of the writer than this: "Ye know that no lie is of the truth" (1 John 2:21 margin). But again, his sense of these radical antagonisms is essentially moral, rather than intellectual. It seems impossible that any writing could display a more impassioned sense, than this Epistle does, of the tremendous imperative of righteousness, a more rigorous intolerance of all sin (1 John 2:4 ; 3:4 , 8 , 9 , 10). The absolute antagonism and incompatibility between the Christian life and sin of whatsoever kind or degree is maintained with a vehemence of utterance that verges at times upon the paradoxical (1 John 3:9 ; 5:18). So long as the church lays up this Epistle in its heart, it can never lack a moral tonic of wholesome severity.

4. Style and Diction:

The style is closely, though perhaps unconsciously, molded upon the Hebrew model, and especially upon the parallelistic forms of the Wisdom literature. One has only to read the Epistle with an attentive ear to perceive that, though using another language, the writer had in his own car, all the time, the swing and cadences of Hebrew verse. The diction is inartificial and unadorned. Not a simile, not a metaphor (except the most fundamental, like "walking in the light") occurs. The limitations in the range of ideas are matched by those of vocabulary and by the unvarying simplicity of syntactical form. Yet limited and austere as the literary medium is, the writer handles its resources often with consummate skill. The crystalline simplicity of the style perfectly expresses the simple profundity of the thought. Great spiritual intuitions shine like stars in sentences of clear-cut gnomic terseness. Historical (1 John 1:1) and theological (1 John 1:2 ; 4:2) statements are made with exquisite precision. The frequent reiteration of nearly the same thoughts in nearly the same language, though always with variation and enrichment, gives a cumulative effect which is singularly impressive. Such passages as 1 John 2:14 - 17, with its calm challenge to the arrogant materialism of the world--"And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever"--or the closing verses of the Epistle, with their thrice-repeated triumphant "we know" and their last word of tender, urgent admonition, have a solemn magnificence of effect which nothing but such simplicity of language, carrying such weight of thought, could produce. If it has been true of any writer that "le style est l'homme," it is true of the author of this Epistle.

II. Polemical Aim.

The polemical intention of the Epistle has been universally recognized; but there has been diversity of opinion as to its actual object. By the older commentators, generally, this was found in the perilous state of the church or churches addressed, which had left their first love and lapsed into Laodicean lukewarmness. But the Epistle gives no sign of this, and it contains many passages that are inconsistent with it (1 John 2:13 , 14 , 20 ,21 , 27 ; 4:4 ; 5:18 - 20). The danger which immediately threatens the church is from without, not from within. There is a "spirit of error" (1 John 4:6) abroad in the world. From the church itself (1 John 2:18), many "false prophets" have gone forth (1 John 4:1), corrupters of the gospel, veritable antichrists (1 John 2:18). And it may be asserted as beyond question that the peril against which the Epistle was intended to arm the church was the spreading influence of some form of Gnosticism.

1. Gnosticism:

The pretensions of Gnosticism to a higher esoteric knowledge of Divine things seems to be clearly referred to in several passages. In 1 John 2:4 , 6 , 9 , e.g. one might suppose that they are almost verbally quoted ("He that saith"; "I know Him"; "I abide in Him"; "I am in the light"). When we observe, moreover, the prominence given throughout to the idea of knowledge and the special significance of some of these passages, the conviction grows that the writer's purpose is not only to refute the false, but to exhibit apostolic Christianity, believed and lived, as the true Gnosis--the Divine reality of which Gnosticism was but a fantastic caricature. The confidence he has concerning his readers is that they "know him who is from the beginning," that they "know the Father" (1 John 2:13). "Every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God" (1 John 4:7); and the final note upon which the Epistle closes is: "We know him that is true, and we are in him that is true" (1 John 5:20). The knowledge of the ultimate Reality, the Being who is the eternal life, is for Christian and Gnostic alike the goal of aspiration.

But it is against two closely related developments of Gnostic tendency, a docetic view of the incarnation, and an antinomian view of morals, that the Epistle is specifically directed. Both of these sprang naturally from the dualism which was the fundamental and formative principle of Gnosticism in all its many forms. According to the dualistic conception of existence, the moral schism of which we are conscious in experience is original, eternal, inherent in the nature of beings. There are two independent and antagonistic principles of being from which severally come all the good and all the evil that exist. The source and the seat of evil were found in the material element, in the body with its senses and appetites, and in its sensuous earthly environment; and it was held inconceivable that the Divine nature should have immediate contact with the material side of existence, or influence upon it.

2. Docetism:

To such a view of the universe Christianity could be adjusted only by a docetic interpretation of the Person of Christ. A real incarnation was unthinkable. The Divine could enter into no actual union with a corporeal organism. The human nature of Christ and the incidents of His earthly career were more or less an illusion. And it is with this docetic subversion of the truth of the incarnation that the "antichrists" are specially identified (1 John 2:22 , 23 ; 4:2 , 3), and against it that John directs with wholehearted fervor his central thesis--the complete, permanent, personal identification of the historical Jesus with the Divine Being who is the Word of Life (1 John 1:1), the Christ (1 John 4:2) and the Son of God (1 John 5:5): "Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh." In John 5:6 there is a still more definite reference to the special form which Gnostic Christology assumed in the teaching of Cerinthus and his school. According to Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., i.26, 1) this Cerinthus, who was John's prime antagonist in Ephesus, taught that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, and was distinguished from other men only by superiority in justice, prudence and wisdom; that at His baptism the heavenly Christ descended upon Him in the form of a dove; that on the eve of His Passion, the Christ again left Jesus, so that Jesus died and rose again, but the Christ, being spiritual, did not suffer. That is to say, that, in the language of the Epistle, the Christ "came by water," but not, as John strenuously affirms, "by water and blood .... not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood" (1 John 5:6). He who was baptized of John in Jordan, and He whose life-blood was shed on Calvary, is the same Jesus and the same Christ, the same Son of God eternally.

3. Antinomianism:

A further consequence of the dualistic interpretation of existence is that sin, in the Christian meaning of sin, disappears. It is no longer a moral opposition (anomia), in the human personality, to good; it is a physical principle inherent in all nonspiritual being. Not the soul, but the flesh is its organ; and redemption consists, not in the renewal of the moral nature, but in its emancipation from the flesh. Thus it is no mere general contingency, but a definite tendency that is contemplated in the repeated warning: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. .... If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 John 1:8 , 10).

With the nobler and more earnest spirits the practical corollary of this irreconcilable dualism in human nature was the ascetic life; but to others the same principle readily suggested an opposite method of achieving the soul's deliverance from the yoke of the material--an attitude of moral indifference toward the deeds of the body. Let the duality of nature be boldly reduced to practice. Let body and spirit be regarded as separate entities, each obeying its own laws and acting according to its own nature, without mutual interference; the spiritual nature could not be involved in, nor affected by, the deeds of the flesh. Vehement opposition to this deadly doctrine is prominent in the Epistle--in such utterances as "Sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4) and its converse "All unrighteousness is sin" (1 John 5:17), but especially in the stringent emphasis laid upon actual conduct, "doing" righteousness or "doing" sin. The false spiritualism which regards the contemplation of heavenly things as of far superior importance to the requirements of commonplace morality is sternly reprobated: "Little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (1 John 3:7); and the converse application of the same doctrine, that the mere "doing" of sin is of little or no moment to the "spiritual" man, is met with the trenchant declaration, "He that doeth sin is of the devil" (1 John 3:8). The whole passage (1 John 2:29 - 3:10) presupposes, as familiar to its readers, a doctrine of moral indifferentism according to which the status of the spiritual man is not to be tested by the commonplace facts of moral conduct. It is only as a passionate contradiction of this hateful tenet that the paradoxical language of 1 John 3:6 , 9 and 5:18 can be understood.

To the same polemical necessity is due the uniquely reiterated emphasis which the Epistle lays upon brotherly love, and the almost fierce tone in which the new commandment is promulgated. To the Gnostic, knowledge was the sum of attainment. "They give no heed to love," says Ignatius, "caring not for the widow, the orphan or the afflicted, neither for those who are in bonds nor for those who are released from bonds, neither for the hungry nor the thirsty." That a religion which banished or neglected love should call itself Christian or claim affinity with Christianity excites John's hottest indignation; against it he lifts up his supreme truth, God is love, with its immediate consequence that to be without love is to be without capacity for knowing God (1 John 4:7,8). The assumption of a lofty mystical piety apart from dutiful conduct in the ordinary relations of life is ruthlessly underlined as the vaunt of a self-deceiver (1 John 4:20); and the crucial test by which we may assure our self-accusing hearts that we are "of the truth" is love "not in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).

The question is raised whether the polemic of the Epistle is directed against the same persons throughout or whether in its two branches, the Christological and the ethical, it has different objects of attack. The latter view is maintained on the ground that no charge of libertine teaching or conduct is brought against the "antichrists," and there is no proof that docetism in Asia Minor lay open to such a charge. But the other view has greater probability. The Epistle suggests nothing else than that the same spirit of error which is assailing the faith of the church (1 John 4:6) is also a peril to the moral integrity of its life (1 John 3:7). And if there is no proof that docetism in Asia Minor was also antinomian, there is no proof that it was not. The probability is that it was. Docetism and the emancipation of the flesh were both natural fruits of the dualistic theory of life.

4. Cerinthus:

The name, which unvarying tradition associates with the Epistle, as John's chief antagonist in Ephesus, is that of Cerinthus. Unfortunately the accounts which have come down to us of Cerinthus and his teaching are fragmentary and confused, and those of his character, though unambiguous, come only from his opponents. But it is certain that he held a docetic view of the incarnation, and, according to the only accounts we possess, his character was that of a voluptuary. So far as they go, the historical data harmonize with the internal evidence of the Epistle itself in giving the impression that the different tendencies it combats are such as would be naturally evolved in the thought and practice of those who held, as Cerinthus did, that the material creation, and even the moral law, had its origin, not in the Supreme God, but in an inferior power.

III. Structure and Summary.

In the judgment of many critics, the Epistle possesses nothing that can be called an articulate structure of thought, its aphoristic method admitting of no logical development; and this estimate has a large measure of support in the fact that there is no New Testament writing regarding the plan of which there has been greater variety of opinion. The present writer believes, nevertheless, that it is erroneous, and that, in its own unique way, the Epistle is a finely articulated composition. The word that best describes the author's mode of thinking is "spiral." The course of thought does not move from point to point in a straight line. It is like a winding staircase--always revolving around the same center, always recurring to the same topics, but at a higher level.

Carefully following the topical order, one finds, e.g., a paragraph (1 John 2:3 - 6) insisting upon practical righteousness as a guaranty of the Christian life; then one finds this treated a second time in 1 John 2:29 - 3:10 a; and yet again in 1 John 5:3 and 5:18. Similarly, we find a paragraph on the necessity of love in 1 John 2:7 - 11, and again in 3:10b - 20, and yet again in 1 John 4:7 - 13, and also in 4:17 - 5:2. So also, a paragraph concerning the necessity of holding the true belief in the incarnate Son of God in 1 John 2:18 - 28, in 4:1 - 6, and the same subject recurring in 1 John 4:13 - 16 and 5:4 - 12. And we shall observe that everywhere these indispensable characteristics of the Christian life are applied as tests; that in effect the Epistle is an apparatus of tests, its definite object being to furnish its readers with the necessary criteria by which they may sift the false from the true, and satisfy themselves of their being "begotten of God." "These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). These fundamental tests of the Christian life--doing righteousness, loving one another, believing that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh--are the connecting themes that bind together the whole structure of the Epistle. Thus, if we divide the Epistle into 3 main sections, the first ending at 1 John 2:28, the second at 4:6, the result is that in the first and second of these sections we find precisely the same topics coming in precisely the same order; while in the third section (1 John 4:7 - 5:21), though the sequence is somewhat different, the thought-material is exactly the same. The leading themes, the tests of righteousness, love, and belief, are all present; and they alone are present. There is, therefore, a natural division of the Epistle into these three main sections, or, as they might be descriptively called, "cycles," in each of which the same fundamental themes appear. On this basis we shall now give a brief analysis of its structure and summary of its contents.

1. The Prologue, 1 John 1:1 - 4:

The writer announces the source of the Christian revelation--the historical manifestation of the eternal Divine life in Jesus Christ--and declares himself a personal witness of the facts in which this manifestation has been given. Here, at the outset, he hoists the flag under which he fights. The incarnation is not seeming or temporary, but real. That which was from the beginning--"the eternal life, which was with the Father"--is identical with "that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled."

2. First Cycle, 1 John 1:5 - 2:28:

The Christian life, as fellowship with God (walking in the Light) tested by righteousness, love and belief.--The basis of the whole section is the announcement: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). What God is at once determines the condition of fellowship with Him; and this, therefore, is set forth: first, negatively (1 John 1:6): "if we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness"; then, positively (1 John 1:7): "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light." What, then, is it to walk in the light, and what to walk in darkness? The answer is given in what follows.

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 1:8-2:6:
(Walking in the Light tested by righteousness): First, in confession of sin (1 John 1:8 - 2:2), then in actual obedience (1 John 2:3 - 6). The first fact upon which the light of God impinges in human life is sin; and the first test of walking in the light is the recognition and confession of this fact. Such confession is the first step into fellowship with God, because it brings us under the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, His Son (1 John 1:7), and makes His intercession available for us (1 John 2:1). But the light not only reveals sin; its greater function is to reveal duty; and to walk in the light is to keep God's commandments (1 John 2:3), His word (1 John 2:5), and to walk even as Christ walked (1 John 2:6).

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 2:7 - 17:
(Walking in the Light tested by love):

(i) Positively:
The old-new commandment (1 John 2:7 - 11). Love is the commandment which is "old," because familiar to the readers of the Epistle from their first acquaintance with the rudiments of Christianity (1 John 2:7); but also "new," because ever fresh and living to those who have fellowship with Christ in the true light which is now shining for them (1 John 2:8). On the contrary, "He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in the darkness" (1 John 2:9). The antithesis is then repeated with variation and enrichment of thought (1 John 2:10 , 11). (Then follows a parenthetical address to the readers (1 John 2:12 - 14). This being treated as a parenthesis, the unity of the paragraph at once becomes apparent.)

(ii) Negatively:
If walking in the light has its guaranty in loving one's "brother," it is tested no less by not loving "the world." One cannot at the same time participate in the life of God and in a moral life which is governed by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vain-glory of the world.

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 2:18 - 28:
(Walking in the Light tested by belief): The light of God not only reveals sin and duty, the children of God (our "brother") and "the world" in their true character; it also reveals Jesus in His true character, as the Christ, the incarnate Son of God. And all that calls itself Christianity is to be tested by its reception or rejection of that truth. In this paragraph light and darkness are not expressly referred to; but the continuity of thought with the preceding paragraphs is unmistakable. Throughout this first division of the Epistle the point of view is that of fellowship with God, through receiving and acting according to the light which His self-revelation sheds upon all things in the spiritual realm. Unreal Christianity in every form is comprehensively a "lie." It may be the antinomian "lie" of him who says he has no sin (1 John 1:8) yet is indifferent to keeping God's commandments (1 John 2:4), the lie of lovelessness (1 John 2:9), or the lie of Antichrist, who, claiming spiritual enlightenment, yet denies that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22).

3. Second Cycle, 1 John 2:29 - 4:6:

Divine Sonship Tested by Righteousness, Love and Belief. The first main division of the Epistle began with the assertion of what God is as self-revealing--light. He becomes to us the light in which we behold our sin, our duty, our brother, the world, Jesus the Christ; and only in acknowledging and loyally acting out the truth thus revealed can we have fellowship with God. This second division, on the other hand, begins with the assertion of what the Divine nature is in itself, and thence deduces the essential characteristics of those who are "begotten of God."

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 2:29 - 3:10a:
(Divine sonship tested by righteousness): This test is inevitable. "If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one also that doeth righteousness is begotten of him" (1 John 2:29). But this new idea, "Begotten of God," arrests for a time its orderly development. The writer is carried away by wonder and thanksgiving at the thought that sinful man should be brought into such a relation as this to God. "Behold what manner of love!" he exclaims. This leads him to contemplate, further, the present concealment of the glory of God's children, and the splendor of its future manifestation (1 John 3:1,2). Then the thought that the fulfillment of this hope is necessarily conditioned by present endeavor after moral likeness to Christ (1 John 3:3) leads back to the main theme, that the life of Divine sonship is by necessity of nature one of absolute antagonism to all sin. This necessity is exhibited (1) in the light of the moral authority of God--sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4); (2) in the light of Christ's character, in which there is no sin, and of the purpose of His mission, which is to take away sin (1 John 3:5 - 7); (3) in the light of the diabolic origin of sin (1 John 3:8); (4) in the light of the God-begotten quality of the Christian life (1 John 3:9). Finally, in this is declared to be the manifest distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:10).

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 3:10b - 24a:
(Divine sonship tested by love): This test is inevitable (1 John 3:10 ; 11). The thought is then developed pictorially instead of dialectically. Cain is the prototype of hate (1 John 3:12). Cain's spirit is reproduced in the world (1 John 3:13). Love is the sign of having passed from death into life (1 John 3:14 a); the absence of it, the sign of abiding in death (1 John 3:14 , 15). In glorious contrast to the sinister figure of Cain, who sacrifices his brother's life to his morbid self-love, is the figure of Christ, who sacrificed His own life in love to us His brethren (1 John 3:16 a); whence the inevitable inference that our life, if one with His, must obey the same law (1 John 3:16). Genuine love consists not in words, but in deeds (1 John 3:17 , 18); and from the evidence of such love alone can we rightly possess confidence toward God (1 John 3:19 , 20) in prayer (1 John 3:22). Then follows recapitulation (1 John 3:23 , 14 b), combining, under the category of "commandment," love and also belief on His Son Jesus Christ. Thus a transition is made to Paragraph C.

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 3:24b - 4:6:
(Divine sonship tested by belief): This test is inevitable (1 John 3:24). "We know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us"; and the Spirit "which he gave us" is the Spirit that "confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2). On the contrary, the Spirit that confesseth not Jesus is the spirit of Antichrist (1 John 4:3) Then follows a characterization of those who receive the true and of those who receive the false teaching (1 John 4:4 - 6).

4. Third Cycle, 1 John 4:7 - 5:21:

Closer Correlation of Righteousness, Love and Belief. In this closing part, the Epistle rises to its loftiest heights; but the logical analysis of it is more difficult. It may be divided into two main sections dealing respectively with love and belief.

(a) SECTION I, 1 John 4:7 - 5:3a.

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 4:7 - 12:
This paragraph grounds more deeply than before the test of love. Love is indispensable, because God is love (1 John 4:7,8). The proof that God is love is the mission of Christ (1 John 4:9); which is also the absolute revelation of what love, truly so called, is (1 John 4:10). But this love of God imposes upon us an unescapable obligation to love one another (1 John 4:11); and only from the fulfillment of this can we obtain the assurance that "God abideth in us" (1 John 4:12).

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 4:13 - 16:
This paragraph strives to show the inner relation between Christian belief and Christian love. The true belief is indispensable as a guaranty of Christian life, because the Spirit of God is its author (1 John 4:13). The true belief is that "Jesus is the Son of God" (1 John 4:14 ,15). In this is found the vital ground of Christian love (1 John 4:16).

(iii) Paragraph C, 1 John 4:17 - 5:3a:
Here the subject is the effect, motives and manifestations of brotherly love. The effect is confidence toward God (1 John 4:17 , 18); the motives:

(1) God's love to us (1 John 4:19);

(2) that the only possible response to this is to love our brother (1 John 4:20);

(3) that this is Christ's commandment (1 John 4:21);

(4) that it is the natural instinct of spiritual kinship (1 John 5:1). But true love is inseparable from righteousness. We truly love the children of God only when we love God, and we love God only when we keep His commandments (1 John 5:2 , 3 a).

(b) SECTION II, 1 John 5:3b - 21.

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 5:3b - 12:
Righteousness is possible only through belief. It is our faith that makes the commandments "not grievous" because it overcomes the world (1 John 5:3 b,4). Then follows a restatement of the contents of the true belief, specially directed against the Cerinthian heresy (1 John 5:5 , 6); then an exposition of the "witness" upon which this belief rests (1 John 5:7 - 10); then a reiterated declaration of its being the test and guaranty of possessing eternal life (1 John 5:11 , 12).

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 5:13 - 21:
This closing paragraph sets forth the great triumphant certainties of Christian belief: its certainty of eternal life (1 John 5:13), and of prevailing in prayer (1 John 5:14 , 15). Then the writer guards himself by citing an instance in which such certainty is unattainable--prayer for those that sin unto death--and reminds his readers that all unrighteousness, though not sin unto death, is sin (1 John 5:16 , 17). He then resumes the great certainties of Christian belief: the certainty that the Christian life stands always and everywhere for righteousness, absolute antagonism to all sin (1 John 5:18); the certainty of the moral gulf between it and the life of the world (1 John 5:19); its certainty of itself, of the facts on which it rests, and the supernatural power which has given perception of these facts (1 John 5:20). With an abrupt, affectionate call to those who know the true God to beware of yielding their trust and dependence to "idols," the Epistle ends.

IV. Canonicity and Authorship.

1. Traditional View:

As to the reception of the Epistle in the church, it is needless to cite any later witness than Eusebius (circa 325), who classes it among the books (homologoumena) whose canonical rank was undisputed. It is quoted by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (247-265), by the Muratorian Canon, Cyprian, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus. Papias (who is described by Irenaeus as a "hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp") is stated by Eusebius to have "used some testimonies from John's former epistle"; and Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians (circa 115) contains an almost verbal reproduction of 1 John 4:3. Reminiscences of it are traced in Athenagoras (circa 180), the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, more distinctly in Justin (Dial. 123) and in the Didache; but it is possible that the earliest of these indicate the currency of Johannine expressions in certain Christian circles rather than acquaintance with the Epistle itself. The evidence, however, is indisputable that this Epistle, one of the latest of the New Testament books, took immediately and permanently an unchallenged position as a writing of inspired authority. It is no material qualification of this statement to add that, in common with the other Johannine writings, it was rejected, for dogmatic reasons, by Marcion and the so-called Alogi; and that, like all the catholic epistles, it was unknown to the Canon of the ancient Syrian church, and is stated to have been "abrogated" by Theodore (Bishop of Mopsuestia, 393-428 AD).

2. Critical Views:

The verdict of tradition is equally unanimous that the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle are both the legacy of the apostle John in his old age to the church. All the Fathers already mentioned as quoting the Epistle (excepting Polycarp, but including Irenaeus) quote it as the work of John; and, until the end of the 16th century, this opinion was held as unquestionable. The first of modern scholars to challenge it was Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who rejected the entire trio of Johannine Epistles as unapostolic; and in later times a dual authorship of the Gospel and the First Epistle has been maintained by Baur, H.J. Holtzmann, Pfleiderer, von Soden, and others; although on this particular point other adherents of the critical school like Julicher, Wrede and Wernle, accept the traditional view.

3. Internal Evidence:

Thus two questions are raised: first, what light does the Epistle shed upon the personality of its own author? And second, whether or not, the Gospel and the Epistle are from the same hand. Now, while the Epistle furnishes no clue by which we can identify the writer, it enables us very distinctly to class him. His relation to his readers, as we have seen, is intimate. The absence of explicit reference to either writer or readers only shows how intimate it was. For the writer to declare his identity was superfluous. Thought, language, tone--all were too familiar to be mistaken. The Epistle bore its author's signature in every line. His position toward his readers was, moreover, authoritative. As has already been said, the natural interpretation of 1 John 1:2 , 3 is that the relation between them was that of teacher and taught. (By this fact we may account for the enigmatic brevity of such a passage as that on the "three witnesses." The writer intended only to recall fuller oral expositions formerly given of the same topics.) The writer is at any rate a person of so distinctive eminence and recognized authority that it is not necessary to remind the readers either who he is or by what circumstances he is compelled now to address them through the medium of writing; their knowledge of both facts is taken for granted. And all this agrees with the traditional account of John's relation to the churches of Asia Minor in the last decades of the 1st century.

Further, the writer claims to be one of the original witnesses of the facts of the incarnate life: "That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:1 - 3). To understand the "Word of life" here as the gospel (Westcott, Rothe, Haupt) seems to the present writer frankly impossible; and not less so theories by which the words "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes," etc., are regarded as utterances of the "faith-mysticism" or the "collective testimony" of the early church. It is difficult to imagine words more studiously adapted to convey the impression that the writer is one of the original, first-hand witnesses of Christ's life and resurrection ("that what we beheld, and our hands handled"; compare Luke 24:39). At furthest, the use of such language is otherwise compatible with veracity only on the supposition that the writer was recognized by the church as so closely identified with the original witnesses that he could speak of their testimony as virtually his own. But, apart from the presumption that he cannot have been one of the actual disciples of Jesus, there is really nothing to be said for this supposition. So far as the internal evidence is concerned, the ancient and unbroken tradition which assigns it to the apostle John must be regarded as holding the field, unless, indeed, the traditional authorship is disproved by arguments of the most convincing kind. Whether the arguments brought against the apostolic authorship of the Johannine writings as a whole possess this character is too large a question to be investigated here. Yet the kernel of it lies in small compass. It is whether room can be found within the 1st century for so advanced a stage of theological development as is reached in the Johannine writings, and whether this development can be conceivably attributed to one of Our Lord's original disciples. To neither of these questions, as it appears to the present writer, is a dogmatically negative answer warranted. If within a period comparatively so brief, Christian thought had already passed through the earlier and later Pauline developments, and through such a development as we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is no obvious reason why it may not have attained to the Johannine, within the lifetime of the last survivor of the apostles. Nor, when we consider the nature of the intellectual influences, within and without the church, by which the apostle John was surrounded, if, as tradition says, he lived on to a green old age in Ephesus, is there any obvious reason why he may not have been the chief instrument of that development.

V. Relationship to the Fourth Gospel.

1. Common Characteristics:

The further question remains as to the internal evidence the Epistle supplies regarding its relation to the Fourth Gospel. Prima facie, the case for identity of authorship is overwhelmingly strong. The two writings are equally saturated with that spiritual and theological atmosphere; they are equally characterized by that type of thought which we call Johannine and which presents an interpretation of Christianity not less original and distinctive than Paulinism. Both exhibit the same mental and moral habit of viewing every subject with an eye that stedfastly beholds radical antagonisms and is blind to approximations. There is in both the same strongly Hebrew style of composition; the same development of ideas by parallelism or antithesis; the same repetition of keywords like "begotten of God," "abiding," "keeping his commandments"; the same monotonous simplicity in the construction of sentences, with avoidance of relative clauses and singular parsimony in the use of connecting particles; the same apparently tautological habit of resuming consideration of a subject from a slightly different point of view; the same restricted range of vocabulary, which, moreover, is identical to an extent unparalleled in two independent writings.

2. Coincidences of Vocabulary:

The evidence for these statements cannot be presented here in full; but the following are some of the words and phrases characteristic of both and not found elsewhere in the New Testament--the Word, joy fulfilled, to see (or behold) and bear witness, to do the truth, to have sin, Paraclete, to keep the word (of God or Christ), to abide (in God or in Christ), the true light, new commandment, little children (teknia), children (paidia), to abide for ever, begotten of God, to purify one's self, to do sin, to take away sins, works of the devil, to pass from death into life, murderer, to lay down one's life, to be of the truth, to give commandment, to hear (= to hear approvingly), no man hath beheld God at any time, knowing and believing, Saviour of the world, water and blood, to overcome the world, to receive witness, to give eternal life, to have eternal life (in present sense), to believe in the name. The following are some of the terms common to both, which are found very rarely elsewhere in the New Testament: Beginning (= past eternity), to be manifested (9 times in each), to bear witness (6 times in the Epistle, 33 times in the Gospel, once only in Matthew, once in Luke, not at all in Mark), light (metaphorical), walk (metaphorical), to lead astray, to know (God, Christ, or Spirit, 8 times in the Epistle, 10 times in the Gospel), true (alethinos), to confess Jesus (elsewhere only in Romans 10:9), children of God, to destroy (lauein, elsewhere only in 2 Peter), the spirit of truth, to send (apostellein, of mission of Christ), only begotten son, to have the witness (elsewhere only in Apocrypha), to hear (= to answer prayer).

3. Divergences of Vocabulary:

On the other hand, the divergences of vocabulary are not more numerous than might be expected in two writings by the same author but of different literary form. The rather notable difference in the choice and use of particles is accounted for by the fact that dialogue and narrative, of which the Gospel is largely composed, are foreign to the Epistle. The discrepancy, when closely examined, sometimes turns out to be a point of real similarity. Thus the particle oun occurs nearly 200 times in the Gospel, not at all in the Epistle. But in the Gospel it is used only in narrative, no occurrence of it being found, e.g. in John 14 - 16.

Of the words and phrases contained in the Epistle, but not in the Gospel, the great majority are accounted for by the fact that they are used in connection with topics which are not dealt with in the Gospel. Apart from these, the following may be noted, the most important being italicized: Word of life, fellowship, to confess sins (nowhere else in the New Testament), to cleanse from sin, propitiation (hilasmos, nowhere else in the New Testament), perfected or perfect love, last hour, Antichrist, anointing, to give of the spirit, to have (Father, Son) boldness (Godward), Parousia, lawlessness, seed (of God), come in the flesh, God is love, Day, of Judgment, belief (pistis), to make God a liar, understanding. As regards style and diction, therefore, it seems impossible to conceive of two independent literary productions having a more intimate affinity. The relation between them in this respect is far closer than that between the Ac of the Apostles and the Third Gospel, or even any two of Paul's Epistles, except those to the Ephesians and the Colossians.

4. Arguments against Unity of Authorship:

Arguments for a dual authorship are based chiefly on certain theological emphasis and developments in the Epistle, which are absent from the Gospel; and invariably these arguments have been pressed with complete disregard of the fact that the one writing purports, at least, to be a Gospel, the other, an utterance of the writer in propria persona. If, for example, it is urged that the words "He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins" have a more Pauline ring than any utterance of the Fourth Gospel, or that the conceptions in the Epistle of propitiation, intercession, and cleansing, are presented in a more explicit and technical form than in the Gospel, it is a fair reply to ask, Why not? Is it to be accepted as a canon of criticism that the writer of that Gospel must necessarily have put all his own theological expressions into the mouth of Him whose teaching he proposed to report? Much is made of the assertion that in the matter of the last things the Epistle recedes from the idealism of the Gospel, placing itself more nearly in line with the traditional apocalyptic eschatology. Whereas the Gospel speaks of Christ's bodily departure as the necessary condition of His coming again in the Spirit to make His permanent abode with His disciples (John 16:7), the writer of the Epistle thinks of a visible Parousia as nigh at hand (1 John 2:28); and whereas the Gospel conceives of judgment as a present spiritual fact (John 3:18 , 19), the Epistle clings to the "popular" idea of a Judgment Day. But it ought to be noted that in the Epistle, as compared with the Gospel, the eschatological perspective is foreshortened. The author writes under the conviction that "the world is passing away" and that the "last hour" of its day has come (1John 2:17 , 18). And it is an unwarrantable assumption that he must, if he wrote the Gospel, have been guilty of the manifest anachronism of importing this conviction into it also. Apart from this the fundamental similarities between the eschatology of the Epistle and that of the Gospel are far more striking than the differences. In both, eternal life is conceived of as a present and not merely a future possession. In both, Christ's presence is an abiding reality--"Our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). If the Gospel speaks of the revelation of Christ as bringing present and inevitable "judgment" into the world, the Epistle is saturated with the same thought. If, on the other hand, the Epistle speaks of a visible future Parousia, this is plainly implied in John 5:28 , 29. If the Epistle makes a single reference to the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17), the Gospel has 6 passages which speak of the "last day," and in these the "last day" is explicitly the day of resurrection (John 11:24) and of judgment (John 12:48). In the two writings different features of the eschatological picture may be made more or less conspicuous; but there is no such diversity as to warrant the hypothesis of a separate authorship. Again, it is urged that in the Epistle the conception of the Logos is modified in the direction of conformity to traditional doctrine. The conception of the personal, preexistent Logos, who "in the beginning was," and "was with God," and "was God" (John 1:1) was new, it is said, and, because of its Gnostic tinge, suspect; and was therefore avoided and becomes in the Epistle the depersonalized "Word of life" (1 John 1:1). But why should the "Word of life" necessarily signify anything less personal than the phraseology of the Gospel? The phraseology in both cases is exactly adapted to its purpose. In the Gospel, "in the beginning was the Word .... and the Word became flesh" is right, because it sums up the contents of the Gospel, announces its subject, the history of the Incarnate Logos. In the Epistle, the "Word of life" is right, because theme is to be the life, not as to its historical manifestation in Jesus, but as to its essential characteristics, whether in God or in man.

5. Conclusion:

Other arguments of a similar kind which have been put forward need not be considered. On the whole, it seems clear that, while there are between the Gospel and the Epistle differences of emphasis, perspective and point of view, these cannot be held as at all counterbalancing, on the question of authorship, the unique similarity of the two writings in style and vocabulary and in the whole matter and manner of thought, together with the testimony of a tradition which is ancient, unanimous and unbroken.

6. Question of Priority:

Regarding the question of priority as between the two writings, the only certainty is that the Epistle presupposes its readers' acquaintance with the substance of the Gospel (otherwise such expressions as "Word of life," "new commandment" would have been unintelligible); but that does not imply its subsequentness to the composition of the Gospel in literary form. By Lightfoot and others it is supposed to have been written simultaneously with the Gospel, and dispatched along with it as a covering letter to its original readers. In view, however, of the independence and first-rate importance of the Epistle, it is difficult to think of it as having originated in this way; and by the majority of scholars it is regarded as later than the Gospel and separated from it by an appreciable interval. That it was written with a "mediating" purpose (Pfleiderer), to "popularize" the ideas of the Gospel (Weizsacker), or to correct and tone down what in it was obnoxious to the feeling of the church, and at the same time to add certain links of connection (such as propitiation, Paraclete, Parousia) with the traditional type of doctrine, or to emphasize these where they existed (Holtzmann), is a theory which rests on an extremely slender basis; theory that it was written as a protest against Gnostic appropriation of the Fourth Gospel itself (Julicher) has no tangible basis at all.

That there was an appreciable interval between the two writings is probable enough. Gnostic tendencies have meanwhile hardened into more definite form. Many, false prophets have gone out into the world. The "antichrists" have declared themselves. The time has come for the evangelist to focus the rays of his Gospel upon the malignant growth which is acutely endangering the life of the church.

Commentaries are numerous and excellent. The most important are those by Calvin, Lucke, Ebrard, Haupt (of fine insight but grievous verbosity), Huther (specially valuable for its conspectus of all earlier exegesis), Westcott (a magazine of materials for the student of the Epistle), Alexander (in the Speaker's Commentary), Rothe (original, beautiful, profound), B. Weiss, H.J. Holtzmann, Plummer (in Cambridge Greek New Testament--scholarly and very serviceable); Brooke (in International Critical Commentary, excellent). Among the numerous expositions of the Epistle are those by Neander, Candlish, Maurice, Alexander (Expositor's Bible), Watson, J.M. Gibbon (Eternal Life), Findlay (Fellowship in the Life Eternal), Law (The Tests of Life--combined exposition and commentary); among books on Introduction, those by Weiss, Bleek, Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Julicher, Zahn, Salmon, Gloag, Peake; and, among books of other kinds, the relevant sections in Beyschlag, New Testament Theology; Pfleiderer, Urchristenthum; Harhack, Geschichte clef altchristl. Litteratur; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity; McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age; Stevens, Johannine Theology and Theology of the New Testament; articles by Salmond in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); by Schmiedel in Encyclopedia Biblica, and by Haring in Theologische Abhandlungen, Carl von Weizsacker .... gewidmet. In German, the fullest investigation of the relationship of the Epistle to the Fourth Gospel will be found in a series of articles by H.J. Holtzmann in the Jahrbucher fur protestantische Theologie (1882-83); in English, in Brooke's commentary in Law, Tests of Life, 339-63. See also Drummond, Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel, chapter iii.



bible commentary, bible history, bible reference, bible study, book of 1 john, catholic epistle, define, general epistle, first epistle of john, new testament, union with God, word of life



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