John surveyed the scene and saw many concerning trends: Christians were despairing of confidence in their salvation; antichrists went about professing a different Christ, denying the reality of sin, and making faithful Christians seem deficient. He would write to provide encouragement; the result is 1 John.
The first letter of John is the twenty-third book in modern editions of the New Testament; it is often categorized as one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. The author never explicitly identified himself but grounded his exhortation in his personal experience of the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 1:1-4); literary connections remain strong among the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and Revelation, pointing to the same author, John the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, one of the three closest Apostles to Jesus (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 17:1-13). The letter is written to Christians known to John, whom he calls his “little children” frequently (1 John 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21); the letter’s substance betrays no hint of when or where it was written. It is generally believed to have been written in Ephesus, John’s center of ministry (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1). Some date the letter to the mid-60s; while this remains possible, the docetism and perhaps proto-Gnosticism against which John wrote is better dated somewhat afterward, ca. 85-95. John wrote his first letter to all Christians over whom he had some influence to encourage them in their faith and to resist those in their midst who denied the actual humanity of Jesus and the existence and challenge of sin.
John began his letter with a profound prologue setting forth his purpose: he has experienced much concerning the Word of life, his association is with God in Christ, and he wrote so that those who read would be in association with him as well (1 John 1:1-4). The message John has to give is God is light and in Him is no darkness: those who walk in the light have fellowship with God and each other, but those who are in darkness have no association with God; thus, those who say they have no sin, past or present, deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them, but those who recognize and confess their sins to God are cleansed in Christ (1 John 1:5-10). John would have Christians not sin, but when they sin, Jesus is their Advocate, the propitiation for sin; we know we are in Christ if we do what He commands and walk as He walked (1 John 2:1-6). John emphasized the “new old” command: to love, but love as Jesus loved; all who hate their brethren are not in Christ, but those who truly love are in God (1 John 2:7-11). John provided specific encouragement for Christians at different points of life and stages of growth (1 John 2:13-15).
John exhorted Christians against loving the world and its lusts, for they stand against the purposes of God (1 John 2:15-17). He warned Christians about the antichrists: those who professed Jesus and still remained in their midst but who did not confess Jesus as having come in the flesh; they denied the Lord and promoted lies; they may have been among Christians, but their condemnation was made evident in their departure; Christians must remain in the truth they heard from the beginning to obtain eternal life (1 John 2:18-27). Christians ought to abide in Jesus and no longer persist in sin: Christians have the blessing of being called children of God, having the promise they will be as Christ is, and thus seek to be pure; those who persist in sin persist in lawlessness and are not in Christ, for Christ died to cleanse from sin, not persist in it (1 John 2:29-3:6). Faithful Christians persist in righteousness, turn from sin, and are born of God; anyone who would deny sin or who persist in sin are not in Christ and are of the Devil (1 John 3:7-10).
Christians have heard the message to love one another in Christ: they must not hate their brother, like Cain did, and should not be surprised when the world hates them (1 John 3:11-13). Christians may know they have life if they love the brethren; those who hate their brethren are murderers who have no life in them; Christians know love through Jesus’ sacrifice, and ought to be willing to sacrifice themselves for one another; how can a Christian have material wealth, see a fellow Christian in need, and not help him, but abide in love? Christians must love in truth and practice, not mere word (1 John 3:14-17). The Christian’s heart may condemn him or her, but God is greater than the heart, and if they keep His commandment, they are in Him and He gives as they ask (1 John 3:18-24). Christians must test the spirits to see if they are of God: those of God confess Jesus in the flesh; the world hears those who deny Jesus in the flesh, for it satisfies them; God is greater than the one in the world (1 John 4:1-6). God is love, and those who love one another are in God; how can one love God whom he has not seen if he does not love his fellow man that he has seen? Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:7-21).
Those who believe Jesus is the Christ are begotten of God; Christians know they love God’s children if they love God and keep His commandments, and thus can overcome the world (1 John 5:1-5). God bore witness in Christ, in the blood, and in the Spirit; God’s witness is faithful, and those who believe in Jesus have the witness in them of eternal life in the Son (1 John 5:6-12). John concluded by reiterating his purpose for writing: for Christians to know they have eternal life, have boldness to ask of God according to His will and receive it (and should pray for one another if they sin a sin not to death, but not if one sins unto death), know those who are in Christ do not persist in sin, but those who persist in sin are in the world controlled by the Evil One, and confess that Jesus has come and given the true knowledge which leads to salvation and life; Christians must guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:13-21).
John’s message of encouragement for the Christians of his day remains powerful today. We do well to confess Jesus: He came in the flesh, truly lived, died, and was raised again in power, and those who trust Him will turn away from sin, do His commandments, and obtain eternal life. May we stand firm in Jesus, confident of His victory, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry