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Introduction to the First Epistle of John                            


I. Writer


The First and Second and Third Epistles of John have not clearly mentioned the writers or recipients. Since the three epistles and the Gospel of John are similar in the content and wording and viewpoints (please refer to “VIII. Its Relations with Other Books in the Scriptures”), many Bible scholars agree that the three epistles and the Gospel of John were written by the same writer ---- the apostle John.

The apostle John was the son of Zebedee (Matthew10:2), the brother of James. His mother Salome (Matthew 27:56; cf: Mark15:40; 16:1), one of the sisters who followed and served Jesus from Galilee (Matthew 27:55), was probably the sister of the Lord’s mother. John and his brother James were therefore possibly the Lord’s cousins (Matthew 27:56; cf: John19:25). No wonder that the two brothers asked their mother to seek favor in the face of the Lord, so that they could sit in His kingdom, one on His right hand and one on His left (Matthew 20:20-21).

         Probably, John was born in a wealthy family: his father was a great fisherman, possessing many the ship and many hired servants (Mark1:20). And John also knew the high priest (18:15). Apart from his house in Galilee, it seemed that he had another house in Jerusalem (19:27).

         John was firstly the disciple of John the Baptist. When John the Baptist testified to his disciples: “Behold, the Lamb of God”, two of the disciples followed Jesus and abode with him. One of them is Andrew, and the other unnamed is the apostle John (1:35-40), for he had never mentioned his own name in the gospel written by himself.

         It seemed that he had been called by the Lord more than once. In the first time, the Lord said to them: “Come and see.”(1:39) But then, he returned to his fishing business. Afterwards, the Lord called him again by the Sea of Galilee and he left his father, partners and the boat, thus becoming a fisher of man (Matthew4:18-22). Still later on, the Lord called him out of the disciples to be one of the twelve apostles (Luke 6:13-14).

         Of the twelve disciples, there were three who mostly drew near to the Lord ---- Peter, James and John (Luke 8:51; 9:28; Mark 14:33). Of these three, John was the nearest to the Lord. John had leaned on the breast of Jesus (13:25); he was the one whom Jesus loved (13:23); he was the only disciple witnessing the Lord’s suffering below the cross (19:26); and he was the one entrusted by the Lord with the responsibility of taking the Lord’s mother to his own home (19:27).

         John and his brother were called “Boanerges, which meant the son of the thunder” (Mark3:17). It was therefore imaginable that John was an irritable man. When he saw someone casting out demons in the Lord’s name without following together with them, John was provoked to jealousy for the Lord and forbade that man’s work (Luke 9:49). When the people in Samaria refused to receive the Lord, John and James asked the Lord to permit them to replay the story of Elijah ---- to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them (Luke 9:54); However, his disposition as a son of thunder was melted by Lord’s love and gradually became an apostle of love (or “an apostle who specialized in preaching love”).

         After the Lord’s ascension, he left and dwelt in Jerusalem. Knowing that the Lord had given Peter the key of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19), John held his proper position and assisted Peter to build the churches under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He cooperated with Peter closely: they prayed with one accord in that upper room; they stood up on the Day of Pentecost to announce the gospel, they healed the born lame at the gate of the temple called Beautiful and testified the Lord’s resurrection to the people. They were both put in custody by the rulers afterwards, and both preached Jesus of Nazareth before them, and they had been fellow-workers in Samaria (Acts1:13-14; 2:14; 3:1-4:22; 8:14).

         Before the fall of Jerusalem, the apostle John had moved westward to serve the Lord in the churches in Asia Minor (Paul was martyred in that days.). He abode in Ephesus, from which he was exiled, in the reign of the Roman despot Domitian, to the island of Patmos ---- a desolate island in the Aegean Sea ---- where he saw the vision of the Lord of the glory and wrote the Book of Revelation.

John lived a long life of almost 100 years on the earth. It was then spread among the disciples that John would not die, but John himself clarified the rumor (21:23). We knew from his disciple Polycrates that the apostle John was martyred for his Lord in his old age.



II. The Time and Location the Epistle was Written


The heresy that is criticized and refuted in this epistle attacked the church at the end of the first century. And John’s condescending tone of an elder to the juniors indicated that he wrote it in his later age. It was traditionally believed in the early church that the apostle John had lived in Ephesus for a long time. Possibly, this epistle was written there in about 90s of the first century (namely 90-99 AD).


III. The Recipients


This epistle was not written to a special group of men, but an official letter to believers in all the churches, i.e. to the “beloved” or “brethren” (see 1John 2:7; 3:13, 21; 4:1, 7) ---- “children, young men, fathers” (see 1John 2:12-14). Sometime, the writer called all brethren “children” (see 1John 2:1, 18, 28; 3:7; 5:21), for he was nearly one hundred years old. “Children” is an intimate name of an elder to juniors. 


IV. The Motivation for Writing this Epistle

Since the churches in Asia Minor at that time was influenced by the budding heresy of “Gnostic”, the apostle John wrote this epistle to refute the falsehood of the heretical doctrines to enable all believers to distinguish between good and evil and know the truth. Here, the important points are listed as below:

1.    The heresy denies Jesus was the one who was in the beginning. However, this epistle clear declares that He was the Word of life that which was from the beginning (see 1John 1:1).

2.    “Docetism” ---- which emphasizes the spirit is good and the body is evil so that there is no “incarnation” of the Word. However, this epistle indicates that Jesus Christ is a real person whom we have heard and we have seen with our eyes and our hands have handled (see 1John 1:1).

3.    Heresy states that physical body is evil and its works have nothing to do with the Spirit. Therefore, men are sinless by nature, for the works of the body are not counted as sins. However, this epistle points that man’s confession of his sins are the precondition of remission by God (see 1John 1:8-10).

4.    Since the heresy declares that men are sinless, they need no redemption. However it is mentioned in this epistle that Jesus Christ came to the world to be the propitiation for our sins (see 1John2:1-2).

5.    The heresy thinks that the works of the flesh have nothing to do with the divine will, so there is no difference between “keeping the commandments” and “being associated with the world”. However, this epistle repeats that believers have to keep the commandments (see 1John 2:4) instead of loving the world or things in the world (see 1John 2:15).

6.    The heresy announces that Christ is Christ and Jesus is Jesus, denying Jesus is Christ. However, it is announced in this epistle that Jesus is Christ and he who denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar or antichrist (see 1John 2:21-22).

7.    The heresy denies that Jesus is the Son of God and that He incarnated as a man. However, this epistle points that whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him and he is in God (see 1John 4:15) and will have the divine life (see 1John 5:12).

8.    The heresy denies that Jesus Christ and God are equal and are one. However, it is indicated in this epistle that if we are in “Him who is true” (God), in His Son Jesus Christ (see 1John 5:20). Therefore, God and Jesus Christ are one.

9.    The heretical “Cerinthianism” thinks that Jesus Christ was a man. When he was baptized, the “Word” entered into Him. When He was crucified, the “Word” left Him (see Matt. 3:16; 27:46). However, this epistle points that Jesus Christ is the Son of God through the three witnesses of “the Spirit and the water and the blood” (see 1John 5:6-9). His baptism and crucifixion are the fulfillment of the types and prophecies in the Old Testament.


V. The Importance of this Book


This epistle is an indispensible treasure for the churches throughout the past generations to resist the heresies so that the good and sound faith of Christianity is thus kept and inherited. The value and achievements of this epistle are even comparable to the epistles of Paul. Moreover, many positive instructions and right teachings are given for believers of Christ in this epistle so as to provide the readers deeper knowledge of life and fellowship and love and truth etc.


VI. Main Structure and General Description


    This epistle revolves around the theme of “fellowship of life”, starting from the origin of fellowship and pointing out the purpose and condition and hindrance and remedy and crisis and principle and maintenance and development of fellowship to show that the nature of life is holiness and righteousness and goodness and truth and love. Since believers have already received this life required in fellowship because of right faith, they need to only let the characteristics of this life manifested and developed so that they must be filled with joy.


VII. Special Points

This epistle has the following characteristics:

1.    It is a “loving family letter” written by the “beloved apostle” to the children in the house of God. It is more than ten times of mentioning “sons or children” and “love” respectively.

2.    Concerning both emotion and authority, the tone of this epistle is like the tone of an elder father to his children, gentle and powerful.

3.    This epistle directly points out what is right or wrong without any ambiguousness or unnecessary defense.

4.    Though it is written in Greek, it is similar to Hebrew in grammar and tone and way of expression.

5.    This epistle especially emphasizes the knowledge of the truth and characteristics of life. As long as believers have grasped the two aspects, they are enabled to enter into the Holy of Holies and have close fellowship with God.


VIII. Its Relations with Other Books in the Scriptures


The Gospel of John bears witness to Jesus and declares that He is the Son of God ---- those who have believed in Jesus have obtained life (John 20:31) and entered into the great house of God and become the sons of God. And the First Epistle of John is a family letter to the children of God in the house of God, telling the way of “fellowship with God” (1John 1:3) in the house of God, and how to love one another and share with one another the full life in Christ that believers may know that they have eternal life (1John 5:13). Besides, this epistle encourages all believers to keep the true faith without being enticed by the heretics (1John 2:24-27). Therefore, the Gospel of John is like a prelude to this epistle, and this epistle is the application of the Gospel of John. 

The First Epistle of John and the Gospel of John are similar in the theme and grammar and use clear contrasts ---- light and darkness, life and death, love and hate, and truth and falsehood. Both the two books divide men into two sorts ---- either the children of God or the children of the devil; either that is of the world or that is not of the world; either that has life or that has no life; either know God or know not God. Concerning the writing style, the two books adopt simple structure and Hebrew parallel expressions, and use rarely function words or sentenced brought by pronouns. Besides, in both the two books, it often starts a sentence with an emphatic tone, e.g. “this is …”, “through …”, “because …”, “all that …” etc.

Moreover, the vocabulary speaking of the will of God and the counsel of salvation in the two books are almost identical. E.g. before we were redeemed, we were by nature “of the devil”, who has sinned “from the beginning” and was a murderer and a liar (1John 3:8; John 8:44), and we were “of the world” (1John 2:16; 4:5; John 8:23; 15:19). Therefore, we “had sinned” (1John 3:4; John 8:34) and “had sin” (1John 1:8; John 9:41) and “walked in darkness” (1John 1:6; 2:11; John 8:12; 12:35) and was “blind” in spirit (1John 2:11; John 12:40) and was “dead” (1John 3:14; John 5:25). However, God so loved us that He sent His Son to be “the Savior of the world” (1John 4:14; John 4:42) so that we “will be enabled to have life” (1John 4:9; John 3:16). This is His “only begotten Son” (1John 4:9; John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18). Though He was the Word “in the beginning” (1John 1:1; John 1:1), He became the “flesh” (1John 4:2; John 1:14) to the world and “gave us His life” (1John 3:16; John 10:11-18) to “take away” our sins (1John 3:5; John 1:29). Those who “have seen” Him “bear witness” to Him (1John 1:2-3; 4:14; John 1:34; 19:35); but more importantly, it is God Himself (1John 5:9; John 3:33; 5:32, 34, 36-37) and the Spirit (1John 5:6; John 15:26) that bear witness to the Son. We shall “receive” the witness of God (1John 5:9; John 3:11, 32-33; 5:34) and “believe” the One who have full witnesses (1John 5:10; John 5:37-40) and “confess” Him (1John 4:2-3; John 9:22). He who believes the Son of God or His “name” (1John 5:13; John 1:12 etc.) has have passed from death to life (1John 3:14; John 5:24). We “have life” (1John 5:11-12; John 3:15, 36; 20:31), for life is in the Son of God (1John 5:11-12; John 1:4; 14:6). That is “born of God” (1John 2:29; 3:9; 5:4, 18; John 1:13).

 All that are born of God are “children” of God (1John 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; John 1:12; 11:52). Both the two books mention that relations of God’s children with God, Christ, the truth, the world, etc. They are “of God” (1John 3:10; John 8:47) and “know” God and know the true God through Jesus Christ (1John 5:20; John 17:3). And they have even “seen God” (1John 3:6; see 3John 11; John 14:9), but literally no one can see God (1John 4:12, 20; John 1:18; 6:46). Christians are of God as well as of the truth (1John 2:21; 3:19; John 18:37). The truth is “in them” (1John 1:18; 2:4; John 8:44), and they “walk” or “live” in the truth (1John 1:6; John 3:21), for the spirit given to them is “the spirit of the truth” (1John 4:6; 5:6; John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The relations of Christians with God and with the truth are established through Jesus Christ. They “abide” in Him and in His love (1John 2:6, 27-28; 3:6, 24; 4:13, 15-16; John 15:4-10) and God also abides in them (1John 2:24; 3:24; 4:12-16; John 6:56; 15:4-5). His words are also in them (1John 1:10; 2:14, 24; John 5:38; 15:7), and they also abide in His words (1John 2:27; John 8:31). Therefore, they “obey His words” (1John 2:5; John 8:51-55; 14:23; 15:20; 17:6) or “His commandments” (1John 2:3-4; 2:22, 24; 5:2-3; John 14:15, 21; 15:10); and His “new commandment” is that they have to love one another (1John 2:8-10; 3:11, 23; see 2John 5-6; John 13:34). However, “the world” “hates” them (1John 3:13; John 15:18). They need not to feel it strange, because they are no longer of the world (1John 4:5-6; John 15:19; 17:16). Though they still live in it, they shall not love the things in the world (1John 2:15-16; John 17:15). Since Christ “has overcome the world”, believers have also overcome by faith in Him (1John 5:4-5; John 16:33). The effect of Christ’s fulfillments has given to His people, that is, let them have full joy (1John 1:4; John 15:11; 16:24; 17:13).

Though the content of the First Epistle of John is different from the Second and Third Epistles of John, the wording and writing style are identical and relevant, all of which encourage the recipients to love one another in truth (please refer to the introductions of the Second and Third Epistle of John).

The Bible scholars generally believe that the five books of the Gospel of John and the First and Second and Third Epistles of John and the Revelation are all written by the apostle John, all of which can be exactly divided in three sorts:

1.    The theme of the Gospel of John is “faith” ---- obtain life because of having faith in Jesus Christ.

2.    The theme of the First and Second and Third Epistles of John is “love” ---- obtain full and abundant life because of loving God and brothers properly.

3.    The theme of the Revelation is “hope” ---- obtain the triumphant life because of watching and hoping for the coming of Christ.


IX. Key Verses


“That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1:3);

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (3:1);

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.” (5:1);

He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12);


X. Key Words


“Life”, “eternal life” (1:1, 2, 2; 2:25, 29; 3:9, 9, 14, 15; 4:7, 9, 9; 5:1, 1, 1, 4, 11, 11, 12, 12, 13, 16, 18, 18, 20);

“Light” (1:5, 7, 7; 2:8, 9, 10);

“Truth” (1:6, 8; 2:4, 21; 3:19; 5:7);

“Commandment” (2:3, 4, 7, 7, 7, 8; 3:11, 22, 23, 23, 24; 4:21; 5:2, 3, 3);

“Know” (2:5, 11, 18, 20, 21, 21, 21, 29, 29; 3:2, 5, 16, 19, 20, 24; 4:13, 16; 5:2, 13, 15, 15, 18, 19, 20);

“Love” (2:5, 7, 10, 15, 15, 15; 3:1, 2, 10, 11, 14, 14, 16, 17, 18, 21, 23; 4:1, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, 9, 10, 10, 10, 11, 11, 11, 12, 12, 16, 16, 16, 17, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21; 5:1, 1, 2, 2, 3);


XI. Outlines of the Book


Theme: Fellowship in Life

A.   Origins of establishing the fellowship ---- the word of life (1:1-4):

1. The origin and revelation and preachment of the word of life (1:1-2);

    2. The purpose of preaching the word of life (1:3-4);

B.   Conditions of maintaining the fellowship ---- fellowship in the light of life (1:5-2:11):

1. Walk in light (1:5-7);

2. Confess one’s sins and believe the propitiation, Jesus Christ (1:8-2:2);

3. Keep the commandments of the Lord (2:3-11);

C.   Elements of keeping the fellowship ---- fellowship in the knowledge of life (2:3-4:6):

1. Know the difference between God and idols (the world)(2:3-17);

2. Know the difference between Christ and antichrist (2:18-23);

3. Know the difference between the teaching of the anointing and that of men (2:24-27);

4. Know the difference between the children of God and that of the devil (2:28-3:24);

5. Know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (4:1-6);

D.   Principles of fostering the fellowship ---- fellowship in the love of life (4:7-5:3):

1.    Abide in love (4:7-16);

2.    Proof of abiding in love ---- no fear (4:17-18);

3.    Love is the natural revelation of the divine life (4:19-5:3);

E.   Ways of the fellowship in life (5:4-21):

1.    General outline ---- from faith to overcoming the world (5:4-5);

2.    Believe Jesus is the Son of God because of the witness of God (5:6-11);

3.    Have life because of believing in the name of the Son of God (5:12-13);

4.    Know that God will hear our prayers by the divine life (5:14-15);

5.    Be kept from sins because of prayers (5:16-19);

6.    Be kept from idols because of abiding in the true God (5:20-21);


── Caleb HuangChristian Digest Bible Commentary Series

Translated by Mary Zhou