I don’t remember when, but sometime around the 3rd grade I walked the aisle at the end of a worship service at my church to tell people I prayed to ask Jesus to come into my heart. The summer after my 7th grade year, I again walked the aisle at the end of the worship service on the last night of camp because I believed I needed to be saved and I asked Jesus into my heart. During my freshman year of high school, I walked a similar aisle at a youth retreat and asked Jesus into my heart. At camp after my sophomore year, I walked another aisle at the end of a similar worship service and again asked Jesus into my heart. During yet another worship service at a retreat my senior year, I once again asked Jesus to come into my heart, only this time I did not walk the aisle. I am not sure how many aisles I walked or how many prayers I prayed asking Jesus into my heart as a teenager, but my best guess would be a couple of dozen.
My experience is not an uncommon experience. As I have ministered to teenagers over the past twenty years, I have had conversations with dozens of teens just like me. I see them walking toward me at the end of a worship service at a camp or retreat and I know we are going to have “that conversation” again. Some of these teens are just like me when I was a teen. They get convicted of their sin, but have no real desire to repent of their sin. And so they walk aisle after aisle hoping the guilt will go away without relying on Jesus Christ to cleanse their heart and set them on a different path.
But some are not like me. Some have, by all accounts, genuinely repented of their sin and are seeking to follow Jesus Christ with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet they struggle with knowing whether they are truly saved. They struggle with assurance. It can be difficult to determine which category the teen walking toward me at the end of the worship service falls into, but as we walk to a counseling room or sit on a bench outside the worship center, we open up our Bibles to The First Letter of John, because John writes “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life (5:13).”
As we read sections of 1 John together, we look at what John says is true of believers and compare those statements to our own lives. We look at what is true of non-believers and compare those statements to our own lives as well, because as the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” 1 John provides the study guide for this exam. John wants his readers and us to know if we are saved. And if we are not, he calls us to repentance. And if we are, then he calls us to joyful assurance (1:4).
Throughout the summer, I will be teaching through The First Letter of John to an inter-generational class at my church. I am excited for the prospect of teaching teens and adults side-by-side. I’m also excited to be teaching this book in particular. I’m not sure if pastors are supposed to have favorites, but 1 John is one of my top five favorite books of the Bible.
Each time I teach through a book of the Bible, I like to begin by taking a big picture view of the book. Over the last couple of years, I have begun blogging these overviews for two reasons. First, writing helps me think, process, and organize my thoughts. Second, I hope these overviews will help those I am teaching and those who read this blog to have a greater understanding of the Word of God. As I overview this book, I will use five questions – who, what, when, where, and why – as my outline.
If you asked the average church goer who wrote The First Letter of John you would probably get a quizzical look followed by the name John in a way that implies you just asked a dumb question. If you followed up by asking, “how do you know?”, you might hear, “well, its in the title.” While our Bibles indicate John wrote this letter, the letter does not explicitly indicate who wrote it. So, how do we know John wrote this letter?
Church history unanimously asserts John as the author. As early as AD 130, Papias (who personally knew John) speaks of a letter written by John which is assumed to be the letter of 1 John. Later authors speak of multiple letters of John. While church history is not inerrant, it does provide much true and useful information about the practices and beliefs of the early church.
Furthermore, the similarities between 1 John and the Gospel of John are staggering. Both works use similar vocabulary and grammatical style. Both works use similar polarities: life/death, truth/lie, light/darkness/, love/hate, children of God/children of the devil. For two pieces of literature to be written in two different genres and yet maintain such similarities would either be a remarkable coincidence or would indicate common authorship. So, if John is the author of the gospel bearing his name, then he must also be the author of this epistle bearing his name too.
The letter itself claims to be written by an eyewitness of Jesus Christ (1:1). Certainly, John – one of the twelve apostles – fits as an eyewitness to Jesus. Therefore, since there is such unanimous attestation of Johannine authorship and no good biblical reason to reject Johannine authorship, I conclude the apostle John wrote this letter.
Like the previous question, the what question seems equally simple: it is a letter. However, 1 John does not bear any of the characteristic marks of a first century letter. Neither the author nor the recipients are listed. There is no greeting or closing. It actually reads more like a sermon than a letter. That being said, there is an epistolatory aspect to 1 John. There are several personal references, the book is written in a conversational style, and the historical referent in 2:19 all combine to lead us to the conclusion this book was written as a letter.
Since we are dealing with a letter, there are a few additional questions we must ask. First, who is the audience of this letter? Because there is no addressee listed, we are left to determine the audience from context clues within the letter. The letter seems to be written to a church or a group of churches whom John has a close relationship.
Second, what led John to write this letter? It appears this church or group of churches has had what we might today call a church split. A significant number of people have left the church (and the faith) to follow after a false gospel. This has led the church(es) in a state of uneasiness and questioning related to their faith. John writes to assure them and encourage them to persevere.
Third, what is the false teaching that led so many astray? In order to answer this question, we must analyze John’s arguments. John’s arguments can be summarized into two categories: theological and moral. John’s theological argument is that Jesus did, in fact, come in the flesh. It appears the false teaching was an early form of Docetism, a heresy that denied the full humanity of Jesus Christ. This belief resulted in a moral heresy that claimed sinlessness for the believer. John counters this moral claim by stating, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1:8).” These two heresies form the strands that would eventually coalesce into Gnosticism. Gnosticism refers to a secret knowledge about the way things work and is founded on the principle that all physical matter is bad. While Gnosticism did not fully form until the mid to late 2nd century, it was built on beliefs that began in the late 1st century. It is this early form of proto-Gnosticism John is writing to counter.
The letter provides us only a few clues as to the time of the letter. If John is countering a form of proto-Gnosticism, then the letter would have to have been written toward the end of the 1st century. Furthermore, many believe these false proto-Gnostic beliefs began as a result of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of John’s gospel. If this is the case, we must allow time for these false understandings to take root and spread. Therefore, it seems likely that John wrote this letter sometime between AD 80-100, though probably between AD 85-90.
The letter itself gives no clues as to where John wrote this letter. Church history tells us John spent much of the last years of his life in Ephesus. While we cannot be certain, Ephesus seems the best guess as to his location.
I have already alluded to some of the reasons why John would write this letter; however, John specifically lists four reasons why he wrote. (1) In 1:4, John writes so that our “joy may be complete.” (2) In 2:1, John writes so that we might not sin. (3) In 2:26, John writes to inform them about the false teachers and the false brothers who seek to lead them astray. (4) And in 5:13, John writes so that “you may know that you have eternal life.” This last reason provides the overarching purpose for John’s letter. As I mentioned at the beginning, John writes so that believers may have assurance they have been truly saved by Jesus Christ.
And so, whether you struggle with your assurance of salvation or are confident in your salvation, 1 John speaks a word to each of us. It is an exam for the confident to “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).” It is an encouragement to the struggling in their faith to “know that you have eternal life (1 Jn 5:13).” And it is a challenge for the lost to repent so that “we should be called the children of God (1 Jn 3:1).”
All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).