51. 1 John - Introduction

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: 1 John - Introduction

The Book of 1 John, like the Book of Hebrews, is anonymous. It does not have an authorship title associated with it, so that when we look at the books of the New Testament we have Hebrews and 1 John as letters that are not indicated as having a particular author, just as we have in the four gospels. Testimony as to its having been written by John (and here, the John we’re referring to is the Apostle John, the brother of James, one of the sons of Zebedee), we find allusions to this possibly in 1 Clement from AD 96, in the Didache (no later than AD 125), and the Epistle of Barnabas sometime between AD 125-150. It is expressly stated as such beginning at the middle of the second century by Papias, and at the end of the second century by Irenaeus. There’s a great similarity to the Gospel of John, which is also anonymous, but associated with the beloved disciple, an eyewitness.

1 John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. In the opening verses, he says (1:1-3),

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

In 4:14, we have another allusion, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” So the author does claim to be an eyewitness involved in the ministry of the life of Jesus. There are lots of similarities between 1 John and John. The easiest way to check that out is to just read quickly through the gospel of John, and then read 1 John, and you’ll see terminology coming up, vocabulary, expressions, theological emphases, etc. Carson, Moo and Morris, on p. 477 in their Introduction to the New Testament deal with that and you can look up some of them. They’re very easy to find.

There are some people who have argued that 1 John and the gospel of John were not written by the same author, but that the letter was written by the followers or “schools” established by the writer of the gospel. So there would be John, who writes the gospel of John, and John’s school of followers, who write 1 John. I personally think that it would be very difficult to distinguish between the author John and his followers, who are steeped in his theology, and write a book trying to use his vocabulary and style. It may be true, but you’d never be able to distinguish between them. I don’t think our ability of cutting and doing surgery with manuscripts is good enough to say that one was written by the school of John, and another written by John himself. I think that the very fact that it was written by the Johannine School indicates that they’re so much alike that they can’t be separated in some way. And if they can’t be separated, I don’t know how one could distinguish between John and his school.

There is a similarity in the purpose of each book. John 20:31 says, “… these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” We have very similar purposes and vocabulary here. Dating this book involves what you would think of when considering the dating of the gospel of John. Tradition says that these were written late, in the AD 90’s, when John is an old man, probably written from Ephesus, where tradition associates him. I see no reason to deny this. The denial of John having written 1 John is not as fraught with presuppositions as the denial that he wrote the gospel, because the gospel of John [supposedly] could not have been written by an eyewitness, because it has so little content with history, supposedly, etc. So the denial of Johannine authorship of the gospel is due to the high Christology there, and the critics say that a real eyewitness couldn’t have written those kinds of things. So you have presuppositions involved with regard to one’s understanding of it. 1 John, then, has its dating and authorship issues raised because it is associated with John, and the questions with regard to Johannine authorship of John carry over to 1 John.

The normal form of biblical letters has an “A to B” salutation, followed by a greeting. There is no such normal introduction either in Hebrews or in 1 John. And some have suggested that therefore, they’re not letters written so much to individual churches, but are rather more like epistles, written broadly to the entire Christian church. There does seem to be, however, in 1 John 2:18-19, a kind of relationship existing between John and his readers that make it, not just a broad general epistle to the world out there, but more like a letter written to individuals that he knows, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they are not of us.” That looks like it’s not a broad, general kind of epistle, but much more of a letter expressing things that happened with regard to the church. People have left the church, and that only indicates that they were never really part of the church. And this brings to mind the theology of the church, where there is the visible and the invisible church. They were once part of the visible church, but they went out from us to indicate that they were really not part of the true church, or the invisible church.

The letter, as I’ve just pointed out, is written because of problems. There are people out there, and he calls them “antichrists” (plural – not THE Antichrist, but antichrists, plural). And in 4:1, ff. he again talks about this, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. [These people who are false prophets, but he goes further than that]. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” There is an Antichrist that you’ve heard about who is coming; but already, little antichrists are around who carry out that ministry. They are not THE Antichrist, but they are antichrists as such because they are carrying out the ministry of the Antichrist. These particular antichrists are almost certainly Gnostic or proto-Gnostic individuals.

The tradition associates them with a man by the name of Cerinthus, who was an early Gnostic in the second century. And the teachings that they have seem to affect Christological as well as ethical areas. The Christological areas involve a denial of Jesus as the Christ, and as the Son of God. In 1 John 2:22-23, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Then in 4:2-3, which we read before, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus [as having come in the flesh] is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming.” We’ve talked enough about Gnosticism that we can understand its dualism in regard to its understanding of reality. Spirit is good; matter is bad. It picks up on a lot of the philosophy of Plato. This being so, the Son of God would never have become truly incarnate. And, this spirit of antichrist in proto-Gnosticism here, denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It denies the incarnation, for that would have corrupted him. And usually, they associated the coming of the Son of God upon Jesus at his baptism in some way, and then parting before his death on the cross. There are other religions that also hold that belief (In Islam, they don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross – this is a very old kind of approach that way). Therefore, since there was no true incarnation, it only seemed or looked like the Word had become flesh. And Docetism is this particular heresy, which denies the incarnation, (the word becoming flesh). And it comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem”. It only seems like that, but it really wasn’t. And so you have the early church, working out its creedal formula with regard to both Jesus and the being of God, dealing with this docetic heresy (which says that it only looks like he was truly human). In its original sense, it involved this heresy of proto-Gnosticism, which has a dualism which argues that the word of God would have become contaminated if he had become flesh.

We use that word “Docetism” today as well, but in a more loose understanding. For instance, I know of people who so emphasize the deity of Christ, that his humanity is minimized. And they are essentially committing a docetic heresy. They’re denying the true humanity of Jesus, and they so overwhelm him with his divine attributes that he’s no longer the real human Jesus who said “Of that day and hour no one knows”, who said to the request of James and John to sit at his right hand, that “is not mine to give,” it’s only the Father who can do that. There are limitations that are present in the humanity of Jesus, and if you begin to minimize them, you start having a kind of a docetic heresy, which denies his true humanity. But here, it was based on a moral dualism that said that just having a physical form would have corrupted Jesus. When we use it today, we’re not following it in that particular area.

There’s also an ethical error that was associated with that dualism, and we see it in the opening verses, (1:6-10), where there is apparently an immorality associated with this particular group,

“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

So there’s apparently some kind of an attitude which is very common with Gnosticism, where you can take one of two extremes, one in which you are so concerned about the flesh you don’t want it to contaminate your true being, your spirit, and so you subdue the flesh to all sorts of strict disciplines. Or the other is the mindset that the spirit really can’t be contaminated by the flesh, so why struggle with the flesh? Just concentrate on keeping your thoughts and mind clean and pure. And therefore, immorality results, and you don’t worry about it one way or the other. And this seems to be a problem that John is dealing with. He is concerned with Christians who claim to be Christian but are living in sin, and we’ll look at that in just a minute.

As to trying to outline John, there’s very little consensus. If you look at various commentaries on 1 John, you’ll find that their outlines don’t look very much like each other at all. It’s very different than when you look in commentaries on Romans, where people have very specifically and consistently laid out the verses which deal with the universality of sin, God’s remedy for sin, ethical areas, etc. Stephen Smalley in his Word Biblical Commentary divides it into four areas, but I. Howard Marshall divides it (when you look at all the small sections in Howard) in a much different way, so it doesn’t lend itself to easy organization.