The first Letter of John - Introduction
Though it lacks the formal features of an ancient letter—such as the opening greeting, designation of recipients and sender, reference to local persons, sender's plans, and concluding greeting (see 2 and 3 John)—1 John presents itself as an authoritative, written communication between the sender and its audience ( 1.4; 2.1,7–8,12–14,21,26 ). The opening ( 1.1–4 ) echoes the prologue of the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1.1–18 ), including the testimony of a communal “we” to its belief in Jesus Christ ( 1.1; Jn 1.14 ). Where the Gospel emphasized the presence of the eternal Word of God in Jesus, the epistle focuses on the physical reality of the word of life.
The “we” of a group of authorized teachers provides a formal backdrop for the individual who writes these instructions to the community. In the rest of the letter, the author uses “we” to indicate the common faith that he shares with the readers (for example, 3.23–24 ). First John is the work of a single teacher, writing in the Johannine tradition. The opening “we” suggests that he belongs to a school of such teachers.
By the end of the second century, the author of 1 John had been identified with John, the evangelist (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica iii.39.17; Muratorian Canon, lines 26–31; Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.16.5). Eventually, the Elder, author of 2 and 3 John, was also identified with John, the evangelist. Both theology and language, however, suggest that the Johannine letters were written ca. 100 CE by one or more teachers who are heirs to the evangelist's teaching, rather than by the evangelist himself.
First John often echoes phrases that remind readers of the Fourth Gospel. Yet such expressions also differ from the evangelist. Where the Gospel consistently speaks of Jesus as the light of the world (for example, Jn 1.4–5,7; 9.5; 12.46 ), in 1 John, “light” refers to God ( 1.5 ). “Walking in light” refers to belief in Jesus as revelation of God in the Gospel (Jn 8.12; 12.46 ) but to ethical conduct of life in 1 John 1.5–7 . This ethical meaning for the image occurs in Jewish and other early Christian texts; 1 John often seems closer to those materials than to the Gospel's perspective that Jesus is the unique revelation of God. In the Gospel, belief in Jesus' relationship to the Father determines an individual's salvation (for example, Jn 3.35–36 ). The hostile confrontation with Jews over the Christian claims for Jesus, which dominates the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel (for example, Jn 8.13–59 ), never appears in 1 John. Interpreters who conclude that 1 John reflects an earlier form of the Johannine tradition therefore have to explain why 1 John does not address Jewish opposition. In fact, only unbelieving pagans (1 Jn 5.21 ) and dissident Christians who have broken communion with the Johannine churches ( 2.18–21 ) threaten the faith of 1 John's readers.
The writer accuses the dissidents of denying that Jesus is the messiah, that is, denying the Father and Son ( 2.22–23 ). Early Christian sayings warn that those who deny Jesus will be rejected in the judgment (for example, Mt 10.32–33 and its parallel at Lk 12.8–9 ). In the Gospel, denying the divinity of the Son is equivalent to denying the Father (for example, Jn 5.20–23 ). Since the author of 1 John writes to ensure that its readers will not be deceived by the doctrine of opposing teachers ( 2.26–27 ), it would hardly have been the case that the secessionists denied the Christian belief that Jesus is the messiah or the Johannine insight that Jesus is identical with the Father. The link between christological belief and salvation is central to the Johannine tradition ( 5.1; Jn 1.12 ). The false teaching must have been one that introduced a subtle change into the tradition. First John 4.1–3 provides a clue: The opponents do not confess that Jesus has come “in the flesh.” Combined with the opening stress on testimony to the physical reality of the word of life ( 1.1–4 ), this phrase suggests that their dispute concerned the humanity of Jesus.
Since 1 John does not argue against opposing views directly, interpreters often turn to other reports about dissident teachers in early Christianity. A close similarity to the views rejected in 1 John appears in references to the Gnostic heretic, Cerinthus (ca. 100 CE). He argued that the divine Christ descended upon the righteous man, Jesus, at his baptism. This gift of the Spirit enabled Jesus to work miracles and reveal the unknown Father‐God, who is above the Jewish creator. Since the divine cannot suffer, the Christ separated from Jesus prior to his death on the cross (see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.26.1). First John hints that the dissidents taught that Jesus Christ came in water only, not in water and blood ( 5.6 ). They apparently denied any saving significance to the death of Jesus on the cross. Though the clues in 1 John suggest that the opponents held some views in common with Cerinthus, the evidence is not decisive. There are no traces of the typical Gnostic teaching about a Father‐God beyond the creator or hostility to the God of Genesis in 1 John. Perhaps the secessionists derived their views of Jesus and the Spirit from the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
Since the Gospel highlights the unity of believers with Jesus and through him with God (for example, Jn 15.1–10; 17.6–19 ), schism threatened the promise of salvation at the heart of Johannine Christianity. First John charges the dissidents with breaking the commandment of love by which Jesus and the Father dwell with the community ( 2.9–11,20–21; 4.7–12; cf. Jn 14.15,21; 15.9–10 ). The appearance of such schismatics fulfills the prediction that false prophets and messiahs will attempt to deceive God's faithful ( 2.22; 4.1; cf. Mk 13.22 ). Because 1 John is so indirect in speaking about dissident teachers, one cannot determine whether all of the exhortation concerns them. Certainly questions concerning sin, judgment, mutual love among Christians, and confidence in prayer and in the redemptive death of Christ arose in other early Christian churches. Much of 1 John may reflect the ordinary style of preaching in Johannine communities (for instance, 5.13–21 ). First John remains confident that the Spirit's presence in the community will enable readers to recognize this work as an expression of the truth revealed in Jesus ( 2.27; 4.6,13 ).