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Introduction to First John

A.             Authorship: Who wrote it?

First John joins Hebrews in being the only two books in the NT with no introductory announcement as to their author. It is an extremely personal letter but nowhere do we find explicit reference to its author (the author of the 2nd and 3rd epistles calls himself "the Elder"). There are, however, several clues which indicate that the author was John the Apostle who also penned the fourth Gospel, the Revelation, and the two subsequent epistles.

1.              External Evidence

The early tradition of the church testifies to both the canonical status of the letter and its Johannine authorship. The earliest reference to the epistle is found in Polycarp (d. 155 a.d.), although he does not attribute the book to John (nor, for that matter, to anyone else!). The first to speak of a "Johannine epistle" was Papias of Hierapolis in the middle of the 2nd century. In Irenaeus (130-200 a.d.) the First and Second Epistles are clearly attributed to John, apostle of Christ and author of the fourth gospel. Further confirmation of Johannine authorship is found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Eusebius (see Kruse for the text of these and other citations). Guthrie concludes:

"This evidence is sufficient to show that from very early times the Epistle was not only treated as Scripture but was assumed to be Johannine, in spite of the fact that no specific claim to this effect is made by the writer himself" (NT Introduction, 865).

Q: "If it were demonstrated beyond doubt that John did not, in fact, write these epistles, what effect, if any, would it have on our interpretation of the books or on their canonical status?"

2.              Common authorship of the Gospel and the First Epistle

Assuming Johannine authorship for the fourth gospel (which is by no means universally accepted), sufficient affinities with the first epistle will greatly aid in establishing common authorship. That there are numerous similarities in style, phraseology, vocabulary, and grammatical construction is beyond dispute (see Brooke, ICC, pp. i-xix). The thematic and doctrinal affinities are numerous and quite helpful. Stott provides an excellent summary (see the Addendum).

However, it would be wrong to mention such similarities without pointing out that there are several differences of emphasis between the gospel and the epistle. On the other hand, they are not of sufficient substance or weight as to warrant a theory of different authorship. The differences can be adequately accounted for by remembering the following:

*          the gospel was written for unbelievers to arouse their faith (20:30-31) whereas the epistle was written for believers to deepen their assurance (5:13);

*          his purpose for readers of the gospel was that through faith they might receive life; for readers of the epistle he writes that they might know that they already have it;

*          the gospel contains "signs" to evoke faith (20:30-31); the epistles contain "tests" by which to judge it;

*          the enemies of the truth in the gospel are unbelieving Jews who doubt, not the historicity of Jesus (whom they could see and hear!), but whether he is the Christ, the Son of God; the enemies of the truth in the epistle are professing Christians (although the "tests" show that they are lying) whose theology of Jesus is distinctly docetic and gnostic in nature.

3.              The author as an Eyewitness

Although the author's name is not mentioned in the introduction, the first four verses surely tell us something of his identity. The stress on the historical, audible, visible and tangible experience of the author with respect to the "word of life" indicates that whoever the author may be, he wishes his readers to know that he writes "no cunningly devised fable" (2 Pt. 1:16) but time/space revelation, verified by his own senses: he was an eyewitness to the person and work of Jesus (cf. 1:1-4; 4:14). John the apostle surely meets the requirements.

4.              The author's Self-conscious Authority

The unmistakable, almost intentional, attitude of authority and theological jurisdiction, if you will, which permeates the epistle points to its having come from an Apostle of Christ. Some have objected to this by appealing to the fact that in the 2nd and 3rd epistles the author calls himself not an "apostle" but "the Elder." Sufficient answers are provided by Stott (pp. 35-41) and need not detain us here. It is not presumptuous, then, to conclude

"that although we can only guess how and why the writer came to be called 'the elder' in this anonymous and absolute way, the use of the title tends to confirm the unique position of the person who held it. Such an exceptional position, together with the author's authoritative tone and claim to have been an eyewitness, are fully consistent with the early tradition of the Church that these three Epistles were in fact written by the apostle John" (Stott, 41).

B.             Purpose and Message: Why was it written and What does it say?

The purpose of 1 John is to expose professors (non-believers) and to confirm possessors (believers) by means of the application of certain "tests of life." Such is done with a view to granting assurance of eternal life to true Christians (5:13). As a result of this, John accomplishes his secondary purpose of promoting fellowship between himself and his readers (1:3) and of completing his joy (1:4).

What circumstances existed that demanded John "expose" and "confirm" as he does?

1.              The existence, activity, and errors of the false teachers

The presence of false teachers in the churches of Asia Minor accounts for the polemical and pastoral tone of this book. The polemical purpose of 1 John is to expose the mere professors, i.e., those who claimed or professed to have Christian life but in reality were children of the devil (note the recurring phrases, "the one who says," "he who says," "all who say," etc.). Their activity had disrupted the church and deceived many. Consequently, the pastoral purpose of 1 John is evident: it is to confirm true believers in their faith and give them assurance of eternal life. Says Stott:

"John's argument is double-edged. If he seeks to bring believers to the knowledge that they have eternal life, he is equally at pains to show that unbelievers have not. His purpose is to destroy the false assurance of the counterfeit as well as to confirm the right assurance of the genuine" (52).

a)             The existence of the false teachers - 1 John 2:18,19,22,26; 3:7; 4:1-6.

b)             The activity of the false teachers - These individuals had at one time passed themselves off as genuine members of the Christian community, but had by their false doctrine and practice exposed their faith as spurious and themselves as unbelievers (2:19). It would appear from 2:19 that the majority of these individuals had already seceded from the Johannine community but were continuing to influence those who had remained. 'Some of the secessionists appear to have undertaken an itinerant ministry among the churches (2:18-19,26). The effect of their teaching upon the members of these churches was to undermine confidence in the message of the gospel as originally received, so that the author found it necessary to bolster their assurance (5:13) (Kruse, 15-16). Some of them may still have been active in the church when John wrote (2:26; 3:7).

c)             The error of the false teachers - The substance of their heresy was essentially two-fold: theological and ethical.

*          Their theological error consisted in denying that Jesus was "the Christ"(2:22; 5:1), denying that he was "the Son of God" (2:23; 4:15), and denying that he had "come in the flesh" (4:2). The focus of their attack was on the doctrine of the Incarnation.

*          Their ethical error had two ingredients: first, a lack of obedience to the commands of Christ that bordered on outright licentiousness; and second, an absence of brotherly love and compassion. The unrighteous lifestyle is exposed in 2:4 ("the one who says 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him") and the unloving attitude is seen in 2:9 ("the one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in darkness until now"). John is clearly concerned with the correspondence (or lack of it) between claim and conduct, between profession and practice. Without the latter, the former is useless.

As for the identity of these teachers, or the possible "groups" to which they may have belonged, a complete discussion is found in Brooke, pp. xxxviii-lii. Most scholars believe that an incipient form of Gnosticism, perhaps associated with the heretic Cerinthus, is responsible. Stott summarizes:

"We may conclude, then, that against the Christological heresy, the moral indifferentism and the arrogant lovelessness of Cerinthian Gnosticism, John lays his emphasis on three marks of authentic Christianity, namely belief in Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh [the doctrinal test], obedience to the commandments of God [the moral test] and brotherly love [the social test]" (49-50).

"Irenaeus carefully outlines Cerinthus's theology. He was one of the first to distinguish carefully Jesus and Christ. He argued that Jesus was the earthly man of Nazareth, well known for his piety and wisdom. Christ was a heavenly deity, who descended on Jesus at his baptism and departed before the crucifixion. Thus, the man Jesus died on the cross, not the Son of God" (Burge, 30).

2.              The tests of life: Doctrinal, Moral, Social

If the above reconstruction is accurate, we are justified in saying that John's primary emphasis is on the differences between the genuine Christian and the spurious and how to discern between the two. He does the latter by making application of three tests: one doctrinal (elicited by the heretical Christology of the false teachers), one moral (evoked by the licentious and unrighteous lifestyle of the false teachers), and one social (stirred by the arrogant lack of love and compassion for the Christian brethren). These tests accomplish two ends: they expose the false teachers as false, insofar as they "fail" the tests, and they confirm the genuine believers as genuine, insofar as they "pass" the tests.

A close reading of 1 John reveals that these tests are set forth in one of three ways.

*          First, the 10 "by this" statements - 2:3; 2:5-6; 3:10; 3:16; 3:19; 3:24; 4:2-3; 4:6; 4:13; 5:2.

*          Second, the "if" clauses - 1:6,7,8,9,10; 2:3,15,19,24,29; 3:17; 4:12,20.

*          Third, explicit statements which are intended to distinguish genuine believers from mere professors - 2:9,10; 3:6,14; 4:6; 5:1,18.

These "tests of life" will expose spurious "believers" and confirm genuine ones. Note also that the verbs translated "to know" are found some 40x in the letter (oida 25x; ginosko 15x), pointing to his emphasis on certainty and assurance for those truly saved.

Those who "fail" the tests are described as children of the devil (3:10), not from God (4:3), of the spirit of error (4:6), not having the truth in them (1:8), not having His word in them (1:10), not having the love of the Father in them (2:15), not really of us (2:19), not having the love of God abiding in them (3:17), not able to love God whom they have not seen (4:20), in darkness until now (2:9), not having seen or known Him (3:6), abiding in death (3:14), and not from God (4:6). Although some of these phrases could conceivably describe a backslidden Christian, all of them accurately describe an unbeliever. On the other hand, those whose lives agree with the positive conditions of the tests are described by terms which assure them of being genuine believers (2:3,5; 3:19,24; 4:2,7; 5:1).

C.             Destination: To whom was it written?

The recipients of this letter are never identified. There is, in fact, only one proper name in the letter aside from that of Jesus: Cain! John was certainly well acquainted with them as seen from the recurring phrase "my little children" or "little children" (2:1,12,18,28; 3:7,18; etc.), which may indicate they were saved through his ministry. It is generally accepted that 1 John was a circular letter, the destination of which was Asia Minor in general, Ephesus in particular.

Were these believers predominantly Jewish or Gentile? Most believe they were Jewish believers (see J. A. T. Robinson, "The Destination and Purpose of the Johannine Epistles," in New Testament Studies VII, 1961, 56-65; and Harold S. Songer, "The Life Situation of the Johannine Epistles," in Review and Expositor LXVII, Fall 1970, 399-409).

D.            Date: When was it written?

The date of the epistles is hard to determine. If the fourth gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., most would place the epistles of John toward the end of his life in the decade of the 90's.

E.             An Outline of 1 John

[Colin Kruse has recently argued that we should resist any attempt to find a logical structure or formal arugment in 1 John. We should read 1 John, he says, 'not trying to discern the flow of the argument as we would in a Pauline letter, but rather recognising that it is, in its structure and rhetorical form, a piece of epideictic rhetoric. It does not seek to prove anything; on the contrary, it seeks to increase the readers' adherence to traditional truths of the Christian community in the face of the threat posed by the secessionists' doctrine and ethics (31). Kruse also points out that the repetitive form of 1 John is typical of this kind of rhetorical literature. Although Kruse may be correct, I still think it is possible to discern a logical structure in John's letter.]

I.               Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4

A.             The substance of the apostolic message - 1:1-2

B.             The purpose of the proclamation of the apostolic message - 1:3-4

1. to promote fellowship between the apostles and readers - 1:3

2. to complete the joy of the apostles - 1:4

II.             The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27

A.             The Moral Test (1) - 1:5-10

1. the basis of the moral test - 1:5

2. the nature of the moral test: lifestyle - 1:6-7

a. exposure of the unbeliever - 1:6

b. confirmation of the believer - 1:7

3. the nature of the moral test: hamartiological - 1:8-10

a. exposure of the unbeliever - 1:8

b. confirmation of the believer - 1:9

c. exposure of the unbeliever - 1:10

B.             A Digression: God's provision and assurance of salvation - 2:1-2

C.             The Moral Test (2) - 2:3-6

D.            The Social Test (1) - 2:7-11

E.             A Digression: assurance about John's readers - 2:12-14

F.             A Digression: warning not to love the world - 2:15-17

G.            The Doctrinal Test (1) - 2:18-27

III.           The Second Series of Tests - 2:28-4:6

A.             The Moral Test (3) - 2:28-3:10a

B.             The Social Test (2) - 3:10b-18

1. loving the brethren - 3:10b-15

2. compassion for the brethren - 3:16-18

C.             A Digression: assurance and confidence in prayer - 3:19-24

D.            The Doctrinal Test (2) - 4:1-6

IV.          The Third Series of Tests - 4:7-5:17

A.             The Social Test (3) - 4:7-12

B.             The Doctrinal Test (3) and the Social Test (4) combined - 4:13-21

C.             The Doctrinal Test (4), the Social Test (5), and the Moral Test (4) combined - 5:1-5

D.            A Digression: Christ, three witnesses, and a verdict - 5:6-12

E.             A Digression: assurance of eternal life and confidence in prayer - 5:13-17

V.            Conclusion - 5:18-21

A.             Three Affirmations: perseverance, protection, perception - 5:18-20

B.             A warning about Idols - 5:21

 

Addendum:

A Response to Zane Hodges' View

of the Purpose of 1 John

According to former Dallas Seminary professor Zane Hodges, First John was written to describe and promote temporal fellowship between the believer and God. Support for this view is usually thought to be found in 1 John 1:3. Concerning the word "fellowship" in vv. 3,6, and in defense of this view, Hodges writes:

"The Greek word for 'fellowship' used here (v. 6), signified most simply some form of mutual sharing or participation by two or more parties. It is clear that, in this context, it is by no means a mere synonym for salvation because already John has stated, in verse 3, that the aim of the apostolic declaration to the readers is that 'ye also may have fellowship with us.' But John is perfectly clear in this Epistle that his readership consists of people already converted . . . yet the goal of the truth he sets before them is 'fellowship' --- first with the apostles, and, as a result of this, with the Father and the Son. 'And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ' (v. 3). It follows therefore that, for John, 'fellowship' must be something more than what his readers have automatically acquired as a result of their new birth. It is, in fact, something that is predicated on apostolic instruction --- the things the apostles have seen and heard concerning the Word of life (v. 1) and are 'sharing' now with their fellow believers (v. 3)" ("Fellowship and Confession in 1 John 1:5-10," BibSac, Jan-March 1972, 51-52).

Hodges illustrates the nature of this "fellowship" as follows:

"A son may have in him the life of an earthly father because his father begat him, yet if he makes his home at a distance from his father they will not be able to have shared experiences. In the same way, a Christian who lives at a moral distance from his heavenly Father loses the privilege of shared experience with God. Walking in the light brings Father and spiritual child into the same moral realm and that realm itself becomes the foundational experience which they have in common. All other mutual experiences must be built upon this" (53).

"Fellowship" is thus defined as something more than salvation. It is descriptive of the relation between God and the Christian which is characterized by progressive growth in the faith and no unconfessed sin. Consequently, it is designated as "temporal" fellowship as opposed to "eternal" fellowship insofar as it can be broken by sin and restored by confession (1:9). Eternal fellowship is descriptive of the unbreakable bond or relation between God and believer, the status of being "in Christ," i.e., "eternal" fellowship is synonymous with salvation.

The point at issue is whether or not the Bible (specifically 1 John) uses the word "fellowship" (koinonia) to describe a temporal relationship between God and the Christian, a relationship both breakable (by sin) and restorable (by confession); a relationship based upon but distinct from and more than salvation.

The issue is not whether the concept proposed by Hodges is biblical. That a believer can and does sin is a biblical fact (1 John 2:1). That a believer can and does hide and repress his sin is also substantiated by Scripture. That such a refusal to acknowledge one's sin can and does disrupt one's daily walk and spiritual relationship with the Lord is also both a fact of Scripture and experience (1 Cor. 11:29-32; 3:1-4; John 13:10; Heb. 12:5-8; Psalm 32; etc.). The debate is over the terms used to describe this concept. That is to say, does the NT word for fellowship specify "temporal" fellowship or "eternal" fellowship? I believe the latter is true. This has profound implications for the interpretation of 1 John. If by "fellowship" the biblical authors (including John) meant "eternal" salvation, then John's first epistle was not written to describe and promote "temporal" fellowship between God and believer.

What evidence is there for concluding that John did not write this epistle with the notion of "temporal" fellowship in view?

First, consider the usage of the word koinonia in the NT. Excluding the four times it is used in 1 John, the word "fellowship" is found 14x in the NT, 12 of which are in Paul's writings. The word means "association with and/or participation in" someone and/or something. Beyond that the context must decide its nuance. Six times it is used in an abstract sense of the believer's common association with other believers in a specified activity or sphere (1 Cor. 10:16,17; 2 Cor. 8:4; Phil. 1:5; 3:10; Philemon 6). Two times it is used of the brotherly unity within the Christian community (Acts 2:42; Gal. 2:9; the two uses in 1 John [1:3a,7] which speak of Christian/Christian relationship would probably fit here), and three times in the developed sense of a gift or contribution (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; Heb. 13:16). The other three usages are of the believer's relationship to the Godhead (1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1). Fellowship in 1 Cor. 1:9 clearly speaks of the believer's eternal association with Christ through God's gracious and effectual call. 2 Cor. 13:14 and Phil. 2:1 speak of the believer and his/her "fellowship" of/with the Holy Spirit.

What, then, of the word "fellowship" as it describes the relationship between God and believer in 1 John 1:3b and 6a? I believe that in light of 1 Cor. 1:9 and what we will discover upon studying 1 John as a whole that "fellowship" in this latter epistle is synonymous with "salvation". Stott writes:

"The purpose of the proclamation of the gospel is, therefore, not salvation but fellowship. Yet, properly understood, this is the meaning of salvation in its widest embrace, including reconciliation to God in Christ . . . , holiness of life . . . , and incorporation in the Church . . . . This fellowship is the meaning of eternal life . . . . As the Son, who is that eternal life, was (eternally) with the Father, so He purposes that we should have fellowship with them and with each other. . . . 'Fellowship' is a specifically Christian word and denotes that common participation in the grace of God, the salvation of Christ and the indwelling Spirit which is the spiritual birthright of all Christian believers" (63).

What we will see from our study of 1:6-10 is that the contrast is not between two types of believers, those "in" as opposed to those "out" of fellowship, but between Christians who are "in", or rather "have", fellowship with God and non-Christians who are not and do not.

Second, contrary to what Hodges suggests, 1:3 does not say that the letter was written in order that these believers might have fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ. Note carefully:

The purpose of announcing the message of eternal life was so that the readers might have fellowship with John. Brotherly fellowship could be entered into after salvation and subsequently broken and restored (cf. Gal. 2:9). The influence of the false teachers had fractured John's relationship with the church(es) to which he writes and he pens this letter to restore it. Having said this, John then adds that the apostles' fellowship is with God. He does not say, as Hodges supposes, that the readers have fellowship first with the apostles and, as a result, with the Father and Son. The Greek construction (kai de) means "but also" or "what is more," making the clause an additional disjunctive thought rather than a subordinate idea of result. John's emphasis appears to be that the apostles' fellowship, in emphatic contrast to the false teachers' fellowship (note the "our"), is with the Father and Son. In other words, John is not writing with a two-fold purpose in mind (namely, to promote fellowship with the apostles and with the Father and Son, as if a believer might not possess the latter). John's stated purpose in 1:3 is simply that the readers might have fellowship with him. The purpose is extended somewhat in v. 4 to include the fulfilling of the apostle's joy.

Third, to understand the God/Christian fellowship of 1:3-10 as a temporal, breakable relationship demands that we understand the contrasts in the rest of the book to be about Christians who are "in" and Christians who are "out" of fellowship with God. However, closer study will reveal that the contrasts are in fact between Christians and non-Christians.