1 John represents one of the most sublime and yet profound books of the New Testament. It is not very long– only five chapters– but is full of encouraging thoughts and provides much to ponder.
The letter, as written, provides very little biographical information regarding either its author or its intended recipients. The author never identifies himself, yet the many parallels in thought and language between the author of 1 John and the author of the Gospel of John (as we will see) indicate that John the Apostle is the most likely author. Second century traditions agree with this identification. We recognize that Christians are the intended audience (1 John 1:3), and John’s tender appeals to his “little children” seems to indicate that the audience is well-known to John (cf. 1 John 2:1; 5:23). Based upon all available evidence, the audience is most likely the various Christians who lived near Ephesus in Asia Minor; the letter may have been written to one particular church or as an encyclical, with different copies going to many local churches.
Ephesus is the assumed place of authorship since the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the Revelation of John all seem to be written from the same hand. Both the Revelation and second century traditions place John in Ephesus toward the end of his life. Since 1 John itself betrays no geographical information or clues, we must content ourselves with this assumption.
The date of 1 John represents a contentious matter. The two timeframes most commonly advanced are between 61-67 or 85-95 CE. The early date tends to be favored by those who believe the whole of the New Testament canon was completed by 70 CE, and that John’s writings all precede (and anticipate) the destruction of Jerusalem. The later date tends to be favored by those who see John writing more to Christians in Asia Minor after the events of 70. 1 John itself provides few clues that can provide positive identification of the time period. Nevertheless, the complete lack of mention of Paul or Timothy is suspicious if John is writing in Ephesus in the 60s; likewise, very few of John’s concerns precisely parallel Paul’s concerns as laid out in 1 and 2 Timothy, which is also suspicious if the works are nearly contemporaneous. Furthermore, John’s great concerns with docetic and gnostic teachings (docetic– the belief that Jesus was not really in the flesh, but was God seeming to be flesh; gnostic– various beliefs that emphasized secret knowledge and presented an alternative view of reality more in line with Hellenistic philosophy; cf. 1 John 2:18-22; 4:1-3). While it is true that Paul seems to deal with the beginnings of such beliefs in Ephesus in the mid-60s (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 Timothy 2:16-19), the problem is much greater in John’s day, which is consistent with all historical evidence. The lack of interaction between John with Paul and Timothy and the more developed forms of docetism and gnosticism present in the area of Ephesus provide more credence to the later date.
Why does John feel compelled to write the letter? John says that he writes to “make our joy complete” (1 John 1:4). To do so, he encourages the brethren to live faithfully according to the standard of Christ’s commandments (cf. 1 John 2:1-6), and to stand firm against the false doctrines (most likely forms of docetism and/or gnosticism) that are growing in prevalence in his day (1 John 2:18-22; 4:1-3). We see that John wrote a letter to Christians in Asia Minor sometime between 85-95 CE to make his joy complete, encouraging them in their faith, exhorting them to stand firm in God’s truth and to put God’s truth to work in their lives.