Courses

The Book of 1 John

I. Title

       The title comes from the name of the author; 1 John is the first of three letters ascribed to the apostle.

II. Author and Setting

       The author never identifies himself in the letter. Traditions that were uncontested from about the third century until the eighteenth century identified the apostle John as the author of 1 John, identified Asia as the site of its publication, and identified Cerinthianism as the heresy that the author was combating.
       Cerinthus, according to Irenaeus:

...represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. (Irenaeus, Contra Hereses 3.4)

       Glenn W. Barker presents an interesting alternative theory:

       At this point Dodd's theory provides some help. He sees the root of the problem in the confrontation of Christianity with the "evangelistic and pietistic religious movement" developing within the "higher paganism" characteristic of the Hellenistic world but especially present in Asia. When the missionaries of the Christian faith first came into contact with the representatives of these movements, they undoubtedly received, at least initially, a warm welcome. The eclectic character of these advocates of "higher paganism" would make sure that they would be prepared "to adopt Christianity as they had already tried to adopt Judaism" (pp. xvi-xvii).
       As Dodd shows, the Johannine community already reflected some of the language style of this world. He believes therefore that one could expect the Johannine community to be unusually successful in its missionary effort among such persons. Converts from this particular milieu would inevitably bring philosophical and religious verbiage with them into the community that would require an extensive theological response by the teachers. The Gospel of John may in itself represent not only a missionary document for these persons but some response to the questions raised by the converts. Inevitably, however, a significant number of the faithful would prove vulnerable to pagan reinterpretation that borrowed from Christian categories.
       In his First Epistle John seems to recognize this pull and seeks to help those trying not to fall back into non-Christian speculation. On the other hand, as Dodd points out, the community would inevitably contain some "enthusiastic but ill-informed converts to Christianity," would be eager to reinterpret their new found faith "in terms of modern thought" (ibid., p. xvii). The false teachers who previously had been in the community and had then departed, proving that they had not really belonged to the community, may well have been representatives of such a movement. They would be presenting themselves as preserving the best of both traditions.
       Furthermore, the false teachers' motive, at least in the beginning, may have been prompted by the desire to translate the gospel into the terms of another culture. Their enthusiasm would likely blind them to the fact that their reinterpretation would ultimately lead to the dissolution of what was central to the Christian faith: Jesus as the Son of God through whose death the bonds of sin had finally been destroyed. If this reconstruction is valid, it would help explain why these new "false teachers" had such a strong position in the community. Originally they had belonged to those who had been most involved in the missionary activity of the community. That they no longer were true to the faith and were to be classed as antichrists would certainly be hard for some of the community to accept. (Glenn W. Barker. "1 John" The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, pp. 296-296).

       Dating 1 John is difficult, though a date between AD 85 and 90 seems probable.

III. An Outline of 1 John

I. Introduction 1:1-4
II. God is light 1:5-2:27
III. God is righteous 2:28-4:6
IV. God is love 4:7-5:12
V. Conclusion 5:13-21

IV. Questions on 1 John

1. What does John have to say about forgiveness?
2. What is the relationship between love for people and love for God?
3. What does John have to say about love?
4. What does John have to say about antichrists?
5. How do we test the spirits?