Grace Institute: General Epistles & Revelation: 1 John: Introduction

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership

1 John

Survey of the New Testament: General Epistles & Revelation

Winter 2007

 

Introduction

Authorship

1 John was written by the apostle John. Although not specified internally, there is no reason to doubt neither the long standing tradition nor the stylistic similarities to his gospel. 1 John 1:1-4, John opens his first letter by affirming his apostolic authority, saying in essence, "I was an eyewitness to these things."

Audience

1 John is unique among the epistles in that it does not contain the salutations or concluding personal messages found in the other epistles. Therefore, it is impossible to state with certainty who is the intended audience for the book or exactly when the book was written. Because it lacks the normal epistolary structure, many scholars believe this book is a polemic sermon rather than an epistle.

Background

Internal evidence from the book, however, makes it clear that John was addressing people who had recently encountered false teachers who had caused them to doubt their salvation. John does not specifically mention who these false teachers were, merely calling them “antichrists” (2:18, 2:22, 4:3). There are several heresies which are put forward as potential targets of John's attack:

  • Docetics - The Docetics denied outright the humanity of Jesus stating that his human body was merely an illusion.
  • Gnostics - This philosophy was rampant in the first century and had made some very significant inroads into the church. Gnostics stated that Jesus either did not actually die, or that his resurrection was only a meta-physical resurrection. They denied His divinity. They introduced a spiritual hierarchy which included two gods, and a whole tiered structure of angelic beings. Finally, they saw the Christian life as not founded in the apostolic teaching of the church, but emphasized mystical experiences over the life changing power of the Spirit.
  • Cerinthians – Church tradition states that the apostle John was actively opposed a teacher named Ceninthus in the province of Asia during the late first century. Cerinthians separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ, stating that the divine Spirit merely resided in the body of Jesus, beginning at his baptism and leaving before his crucifixion.

While we will never know for certain who John was attacking in this book, we can surmise some the beliefs of these false teachers by looking at his arguments against them:

  • They denied that they had any sin (1:8).
  • They failed to keep Christ's command to love the brethren (2:4, 4:8).
  • They had broken off from the fellowship of believers (2:19).
  • They denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22).
  • The believed that there was additional knowledge beyond the apostle's teaching (2:27).
  • They did not practice righteousness (2:29, 3:7).
  • They did not believe that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2).
  • They did not believe that Jesus is from God (4:3).
  • They did not believe Jesus is the Son of God (4:15).
  • They cast doubts on whether these believers really had eternal life (2:25-26, 5:13).

Purpose

John states his purpose clearly twice in the book. He is writing to reassure his audience that they have eternal life.

This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. (1 John 2:25-26)

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

The recent division of the fellowship caused by the false teachers has caused many believers to doubt about their salvation. John wants to assure them of their salvation and of their eternal life in God.

Theme

The overriding theme of the book is fellowship (Greek word: koinonia ). Eternal life is found in having fellowship with the Father. Fellowship with the Father is found in having fellowship with Jesus. Fellowship with Jesus is found in having fellowship with the apostles, and more specifically, with John. Fellowship becomes the major theme

Structure

The book of 1 John is notoriously difficult to outline. At times John's arguments seem straight forward. At other times he seems repetitious and meandering. Nonetheless, scholarly attempts to outline the book tend to follow either a tripartite or a bipartite structure.

Tripartite Structure

Under the three-part structure, the book is seen to by cyclical. In each of the three parts, the book deals with the repeating themes of righteousness, love and belief:

First Cycle

Second Cycle

Third Cycle

Righteousness

Love

Belief

Righteousness

Love

Belief

1:5-2:6

2:7-17

2:18-28

2:29-3:10a

3:10b-24a

3:24a-4:6

4:7-5:21

The tripartite structure breaks down in the third cycle, as the books conclusion does not seem to fit into the pattern. Nonetheless, this structure does address the repetitive nature of John's argument.

Bipartite Structure

Under the two-part structure, the book is divided into sections which each begin with the phrase “this is the message” (1:5, 3:11). Each section revolves around a statement of God's character: God is light (1:5) and God is love (4:8). This is the structure we'll be following in this study.

Prologue

Fellowship with God of Light

Fellowship with the God of Love

Conclusion

Walking in the Light

Loving Your Brother

No Special Knowledge Required

Acting in Love

The World Will Hate You

Discerning Truth & Love

Knowing the True Testimony

1:1-4

1:5-2:2

2:3-17

2:18-3:10

3:11-12

3:13-24

4:1-21

5:1-13

5:14-21

[Next: Prologue]


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