Although we refer to 1 Jn as a ‘letter’ or ‘epistle’, it contains few of the features that we normally associate with such writings. There is, for example, no clear statement of who it is written by or to. However, there are some indications that it was composed with a particular group of people in mind (1 Jn 2:1,26).
Perhaps it is best to think of it as an occasional piece of writing (quite possibly dictated) that expresses some of the thoughts and concerns of a Christian leader about his flock.
It appears from the contents of the letter that the author was
- an apostle, and a witness to the things that Jesus said and did (1 Jn 1:1-3)
- a Christian leader
As noted above, the letter, strictly speaking, is anonymous. Tradition associates it with the name of John the Apostle. This association is more plausible than the suggestion that the letter was written by some otherwise unknown Christian leader, whose name might also have been ‘John’.
In 2 Jn 1 and 3 Jn 1 the author refers to himself as ‘John the elder’. But the evidence for such a figure, as distinct from John the apostle, is tenuous.
There is good evidence that the Fourth Gospel and 1 John share common authorship. Although there are some differences in terms of language and content, these can be explained by the different purposes of the two writings. After all, as Stott remarks, ‘the similarity between Gospel and letter is considerably greater than that between the third Gospel and the Acts, which are known to have come from the same pen.’
It is clear that the letter is written against a background of a heresy that denied the incarnation. Those who taught this heresy had left the church (1 Jn 2:19; 4:1).
The heresy may well have included elements that, in the 2nd century AD, developed into full-blown Gnosticism. Such elements included:-
- ‘gnosis’ – a special, esoteric, knowledge
- a secret way of salvation, available only to initiates
- dualism – the view that matter was evil, and the spirit good
This dualism led to the view that the body itself was evil. Therefore, the ’embodiment’ (incarnation) of Jesus was therefore denied.
John took this denial of the incarnation very seriously. ‘If Christ did not really become a man and did not really die for us, then no atonement has been made for our sins’ (Morris, NBC).
Another implication of gnostic dualism is that a good God could have nothing to do with evil matter. This led to the belief that our standard of conduct in this life is of no great importance, and we can live as we please. John, in combating this error, stresses pure and upright living.
While part of the letter’s aim is to combat heresy, other purposes are also apparent. John wants to
- build fellowship promote joy (1 Jn 1:3f)
- assure his readers of their salvation (1 Jn 5:13; cf. Jn 20:31, where the aim of the Gospel is declared to be salvation itself, rather than assurance of salvation)
- present tests by which to judge the validity of a Christian profession (Stott: ‘the Gospel contains “signs” to evoke faith (Jn 20:30–31), and the letter tests by which to judge it’). Three tests in particular are presented: uprightness of life, love for the brethren, and faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.
‘Taken together, the Epistles of John stand poised as a demonstration of the critical importance of testing all attempts to rearticulate the gospel by the immutables of the gospel revelation. Doubtless John’s opponents saw themselves as being on the leading edge of Christian reflection (2 John 9). By contrast, John reverts to what was “from the beginning,” to the testimony of the first eyewitnesses, to incontrovertible christological givens, to the perennial newness of the “old” command to love one another, to the irrefragable connection between genuine faith and obedience.’ (Carson & Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament)
Stott finely says:-
‘The middle and end of the twentieth century are an epoch of fundamental insecurity. Everything is changing; nothing is stable. New nations have constantly been coming to birth. New social and political patterns are continually evolving. The very survival of civilization is in doubt before the threat of a nuclear war. These external insecurities are reflected in the world of the mind and of the spirit. Even the Christian church, which has received ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ and is charged to proclaim him who is ‘the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Heb. 12:28; 13:8), now often V 19, p 55 p 55 speaks its message softly, shyly and without conviction. There is a widespread distrust of dogmatism and a preference for agnosticism or free thought. Many church members are filled with uncertainty and confusion.
‘Against this background, to read the letters of John is to enter another world altogether, for its marks are assurance, knowledge, confidence and boldness. The predominant theme of these letters is Christian certainty. Their characteristic verbs are ginōskein, ‘to perceive’ (twenty-five times) and eidenai, ‘to know’ (fifteen times), while a characteristic noun is parrēsia, ‘confidence of attitude’ or ‘boldness of speech’. The certainty of Christian people is twofold—objective (that the Christian religion is true) and subjective (that they themselves have been born of God and possess eternal life). Both are expounded by John, who takes it for granted that this double assurance is right and healthy. His teaching about these certainties, their nature and the grounds on which they are built, urgently needs to be heard and heeded today.’
The letter might be structured around the three ‘God is…’ statements: ‘“God is light” (1 Jn 1:5), “He is righteous” (1 Jn 2:29), and “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)