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Introduction to the First Letter of John

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Introduction to 1 John Introduction to 2 and 3 John
Introduction to John's Gospel Gnosticism


The traditional view of the church is that five books of the New Testament were written by John the Apostle, the disciple who Jesus loved. These are the Fourth Gospel, three letters, and Revelation. However, many scholars doubt this tradition, and deny that John was the author.

The first letter is anonymous, and no positive identification of the author is made anywhere within it. The letter does not follow the standard structure of a New Testament letter, as the opening greeting which identifies the author and his audience is omitted. However it is clear that he is writing to his readers, and frequently refers to them very personally (eg. 2:1).

There are clear similarities of style, grammar and theology between the fourth gospel and the first letter. Because of this, the same questions about the authorship of the gospel are raised about the first letter.

Similarity with the fourth gospel

There are many notable similarities between the first letter and the fourth gospel, particularly in grammar, style and content. These give strong evidence of that both have been written by the same author. Both show a strong dualism between good and evil, showing the stark and polarised contrasts between: light and darkness, love and hate, truth and error, belief and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, life and death, as well as children of God and children of the devil. The important descriptions of the Holy Spirit as the paraclete (helper), and Jesus as the one and only (only begotten) Son are unique to 1 John and John’s Gospel. Jesus being described as the Word (logos) is only found in 1 John, John’s Gospel and Revelation.

The beginning of the letter alludes strongly to the prologue of the Gospel, sharing the same key words such as: beginning, word, life and with the Father. The letter and the gospel also share many other common themes and key words. These include: witness or testify, eternal life, abiding, God the Father, from the beginning, being born of God, the world, God sending his Son, and believing. In their literary style, both books use a simple grammar, and omit conjunctions between sentences.

Other suggestions about authorship

1. John the elder

The two other letters (2 & 3 John) follow the standard letter structure, and identify the author as 'the elder'. There appears to be a question from the earliest times over whether this elder John is the same person as the apostle John. Papias (bishop of Hieropolis) wrote 'Expositions of the Lord's Oracles' in early second century. In this, he names two different Johns. One, a member of the twelve, and another he calls the 'elder (or presbyter) John'. These may be two different people, or may refer to the same person.
"If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.” (Papias Fragments I, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3:39).
Other than a few quotations from the writings of the church fathers, nothing is known about this 'John the elder'.

2. An unknown disciple of John

In the same way that Peter was the apostolic authority behind Mark’s Gospel, some have suggested that John was the authority behind an unknown disciple who wrote the letters. This argued by those who see differences in the style of an content between the letter and the gospel. To be consistent, if this was true, Mark’s Gospel should really be entitled 'Peter’s Gospel'.

3. 'Johannine community'

Many scholars claim that all the writings associated with John were the product of a so-called 'Johannine community'. This community was taught and discipled by John the Apostle, the beloved disciple. The writings were the a later production by this community, rather than the apostle himself.

Internal evidence

From the letter itself, the author claims to be an eye-witness of Jesus. He had seen Jesus, heard him, looked at him, and touched him with his hands (1:1). He had seen Jesus and testifies to him (1:2), indicating that he was one of the original apostles.

External evidence

There is consistent evidence from the writings of the church fathers that John was the author of the first letter. However, some, like Jerome, said that the other two letters were by John the elder.
“He (John) wrote also one Epistle which begins as follows "That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands handled concerning the word of life" which is esteemed of by all men who are interested in the church or in learning. The other two of which the first is "The elder to the elect lady and her children" and the other "The elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth," are said to be the work of John the presbyter to the memory of whom another sepulchre is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the evangelist.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).

The Muratorian Canon says that, "two (letters) bearing the name of John are counted among the catholic epistles". It is not certain which two letters out of the three this is referring to.


John’s literary style is quite different from Paul. He is an eye-witness testifying to what he knows to be true, rather than presenting a logical argument like Paul. His letter is very personal and pastoral. His theology is applied directly into the situation of the readers. John repeats his themes many times. He makes only a few main points, but continually repeats them. One way he does this is by using a form of Hebrew parallelism, when the same idea is restated in different words. One example is: “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8), and “forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9)


John the Apostle died in Ephesus in the last years of the first century as a very old man. According to Irenaeus, John lived until the times of Trajan, who became emperor in AD 98. "Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles”. (Against Heresies 3:3:3). Most scholars suggest a date for 1 John towards the end of the first century, probably sometime during the 80's or 90's.

Place of writing

Evidence from church fathers indicates that John the Apostle moved from Israel to Ephesus during the Jewish War (AD 66 - 70). Once in Ephesus, he continued to plant churches and became the main leader of all the churches in the province of Asia. Tradition from the earliest times link all of John’s writings with Ephesus.

Original readers

No specific church, group or individual is identified in the letter. However, the letter is clearly written by someone with pastoral responsibility for his readers, a church community united by their confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of God who has come in the flesh. The confession of concrete truth about Jesus Christ establishes this community of believers. Failure to confess these truths excludes a person from the Christian community. The word 'confess' is used more in 1 John than in any other book of the New Testament (1:9, 2:23, 4:2,3,15).

The letter was probably addressed to Christian groups in Ephesus and around the province of Asia at the end of the first century, who were under threat from false teaching, involving incorrect doctrine and ungodly lifestyle.

The author frequently addresses his readers very tenderly, using family terms such as, “children” (2:18), “little children (2:28, 3:7,18, 4:4, 5:21), “my little children” (2:1), and “beloved” (2:7, 3:2,21, 4:1,7,11). He continually uses the first person pronoun 'I' and 'we', showing his close relationship with his readers, and his deep pastoral concern for them.

He also writes with bold apostolic authority. He calls his opponents 'liars' (2:4,22, 4:20), stating that they were sons of the devil (3:10), antichrists (2:18,22, 4:3) and false prophets (4:1). He knows he has the authority of an apostle, and makes no attempt to defend his position as apostle. He writes to oppose the heretics, but primarily to protect his beloved congregation. He shows deep affection for the believers, but severe intolerance towards those who would pervert the message of Christ.

The dominant religious atmosphere in Asia was syncretism - the mixing, blending and fusion of different religious beliefs and practices. Features of older ethnic religions, ancestral beliefs were blended with more recent mystery cults and philosophical thinking. Christianity was often mixed in with all this. When in Miletus, Paul warned the Ephesian elders about false teachers: “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (Acts 20:29-30). Later, Paul lamented that many in Asia had turned away from him, “You are aware that all who are in Asia have turned away from me" (2 Tim 1:15). By the time John wrote, Paul’s words had come true.

Who were John’s opponents?

Rather than being a polemic, a direct attack on false teachers, John wrote his letter addressed to believers, his dear children, as a pastoral protection to warn them about the false teachers. His aim was to teach them the truth, and to point out errors to be avoided. True fellowship (koinonia) can only exist when there is genuine Christian confession. Where there is false teaching about Christ, there cannot be any true fellowship, either with God, or with the believers. John refuses to compromise with any false doctrine concerning the person or work of Christ.

John’s opponents are alluded to several times in the letter. They had been part of the Christian fellowship, but had withdrawn, probably to join another group. “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (2:19). John calls these people antichrists (2:18), those who teach false doctrines about Christ, particularly the denial that Jesus is the Christ (2:22), and that Christ, the Son of God had come in the flesh (4:2). These people also considered that sin was not a serious matter. Even though they had withdrawn from fellowship, they were still attempting to influence the churches, claiming that they had a superior form of Christianity. This would cause insecurity among the believers.

It is difficult to identify this group who had withdrawn from fellowship with any certainty. It would appear that they would have had characteristics of some of the early forms of Gnosticism. Against these opponents, John emphasises the truth that Christ had come in the flesh and that a genuine belief in this Jesus should be expressed in obedience to God’s commands, and a real love for fellow believers. It was the Docetists who denied that Jesus had a physical body, while Cerinthus, who was known by John personally, tended to separate the heavenly Christ from the earthly human Jesus.

Teaching from the early gnostics had become influential within the community of believers in Asia. The false teachers had previously been part of the fellowship, but had left, leaving behind a people who were confused and insecure in their salvation. They needed reassurance from their pastor and spiritual father. John’s opposition to the false teachers came from his pastoral concern for his 'sheep'. John wrote to bring them back to the message they had heard from the beginning, the original Gospel message brought by the apostles.

John loves his message (the sound doctrine) and loves his people. He is an apostle of Christ, called to love his flock, care for them, exhort them, and assure them of their salvation, while at the same time speaking out against any false teaching and condemning those who teach it.

John’s Three Tests

The main theological emphasis in the letter is Christology - right belief about Christ - who he is and what he has done. Right doctrine has a close and direct connection with right behaviour. Right belief should be expressed in the way a person lives, “the one who says, I know him, by does not keep his commandments is a liar” (2:3). So belief and obedience become the two major themes of the letter.

John gives three tests to determine whether a person is a genuine believer. There is no grey-area, the answer is either 'yes' or 'no'. They are worded to bring assurance to John’s confused congregations that their confession of Christ is genuine, and that their lifestyle demonstrates that this faith is real, through their obedience and love. Believing, obedience, and the love of fellow believers are all closely inter-linked. The false teachers who had left the fellowship fail all three tests.

1. The test of right doctrine - belief about Christ

The unique claims of Christ were a challenge to the syncretistic religious scene of first century Asia. The church faced a continual temptation to blend in with the surrounding culture, as it does today, by diluting the exclusive claims of Jesus. John emphasises the central place of the person and work of Christ, forbidding people from adding other teachings to make Christianity more socially acceptable. The core beliefs John included are: Jesus is the Son of God (1:3), who came to earth in the flesh (1:1-4, 4:2), Jesus is the Christ (2:22), who suffered and died to cleanse us from sin (1:7).

Right belief must be distinguished from error. The believers are told to test every spirit (4:1), to discern whether it is bringing truth or error (4:6). Behind each teacher or prophet is a spirit, and that spirit may come from God or from the devil. Faith needs discernment to determine the origin of the teaching. The test is about the person of Christ. Failing the test means that the teaching is not from God but from the devil, and the prophet or teacher is false. John sees no room for compromise. If the right belief about Christ is denied, the person is an antichrist, is a liar and does not have the Father.

Faith that save us is in Christ. Faith needs content. Right belief means a person is born of God (5:1), which leads to obedience and love (tests 2 & 3). Righteous living should be sign of that new birth (2:29). The Gospel should transform people. The rebirth should lead to living a righteous life. Obedience and love should be the fruit of that rebirth.

2. The test of obedience

The word 'commandment' is repeated fourteen times. Doctrine is not enough in itself. Right belief needs to be confirmed by obedience. Anyone who claims to know God but does not obey his commandments is a liar (2:4).

The passage (3:6-10) declares that believers should not sin, but in other places he does indicate that believers can sin (2:1, 1:8-10). This may appear to be a contradiction, but the words to sin (3:6,8,9) are in the present continuous tense, describing a habitual lifestyle of sin. The life of the believer should no longer be marked by habitual sin, a lifestyle of sin. This should make a great contrast with the unbeliever. He is not saying the Christians will never sin, but they should not be in the habit of sinning. Our lives should be marked by the habit of obedience. John is not teaching perfectionism. Sin is the mark of the children of the devil, obedience is the mark of the children of God.

3. The test of love

The tests of obedience and love are closely woven together. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (5:2). Love for fellow believers is not sentimental. Love is rooted in the love of God, who sent his son to give life to those who believe (4:8-10)

Purpose of the Book

There are two major views concerning the purpose of this book. These two approaches lead to different meanings being given to key passages and terms, and John’s three tests being used in different ways.

1. Test of life view - concerning salvation

In this view, the primary purpose of the book is to assure his readers of their salvation through these three tests of spiritual life. The subject of the tests is eternal life, and the dominant theme of the book is Christian certainty.

This view considers the main purpose to be stated towards the end of the book: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (5:13). This verse is seen as being parallel with the purpose statement at the end of John’s Gospel (20:31), with both statements referring to the whole book.

The three tests are to determine that the members of the church have that eternal life. If they pass the tests of doctrine, obedience and love, then they will have assurance of their salvation. The tests are not to cause doubt, but to help believers fine certainty and assurance, as well as excluding the false teachers. The key terms, 'eternal life', 'fellowship', 'knowing God', and 'abiding' are all used to describe salvation.

2. Test of fellowship view - concerning the practice of life

In this view, the primary purpose of the book is to encourage believers to maintain their fellowship with God. The tests are for spiritual communion, rather than salvation. The aim of the book is to promote fellowship between believers, as well as their fellowship with God.

This view considers the main purpose to be stated at the beginning of the book: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1:3). This verse is seen as being in parallel with the prologue of John’s Gospel. The assurance of salvation statement in (5:13) becomes a secondary purpose, referring only to the immediately preceding context in the book.

The three tests are then used to determine whether believers are in communion with God. This is not salvation, but how well they are 'functioning' within the fellowship of God’s family, whether they are growing in their relationship with God. Failing the tests marks an absence of fellowship, which needs to be restored through repentance, rather than an absence of salvation. The aim of the tests is therefore to distinguish between mature and immature believers, even though they have all received salvation. The mature believers are those who walk in the light, obey his commands, hold sound doctrine, and love each other. For example, a failure to walk in the light shows broken fellowship with the Father, not a loss of salvation.

In this view, the key terms, 'fellowship', 'abiding', 'eternal life', and 'knowing God' are all aspects of a relationship with the Father, part of sanctification, rather than salvation.

3. A combination of both views

In many ways there is no need to be rigid in determining a single purpose of the book. The tests can be used both ways, as well as to identify the false teachers, who claimed to be believers. The tests give assurance of salvation, as well as demonstrating fellowship, together with giving standards to determine whether any teaching is from a servant of God, or a servant of Satan. John’s purpose is to call his beloved children back to the core beliefs of the apostolic gospel, as well as challenging the heretical views of false teachers, who either deny the divinity of humanity of Jesus.


1 John is one of the most difficult books to work out the structure for. John did not present his themes one by one, develop them and draw a conclusion, nor does he argue a point like Paul. Most people divide it into either two or three major sections, plus a prologue (1:1-4) and epilogue (5:13-21). If divided into two, it can be seen as being modelled on the structure of John’s Gospel. The two main sections would be:
1. God is light (1:5 - 3:10), stated (1:5)
2. God is love (3:11 - 5:12), stated (4:8)
Each section begins: “This is the message ..." "God is light” (1:5), and "God is love” (3:11). Some have made the division at the end of chapter two.

If divided into three, there is more of an emphasis on John’s opponents, the false teachers. The three sections would be
1. Fellowship with God means walking in the light (1:5 - 2:17)
2. Warnings about false teachers (2:18 - 3:24)
3. Separation from those in the world (4:1 - 5:12).

Related articles

Introduction to 1 John Introduction to 2 and 3 John
Introduction to John's Gospel Gnosticism

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