The First Epistle of John

INTRODUCTION

The main body of material on the authorship, relation to the fourth Gospel, place, date, destination, and purpose of this epistle is taken from Chapter II, (The Situation that Called Forth I John) of The Use of Tenses in I John by Owen L. Crouch.

1. Authorship and Relation to Fourth Gospel

The problem of authorship of I John is inextricably bound to the problem of its relationship to the Gospel. He who wrote one wrote the other. "The proofs which are given elsewhere to establish the fact that the Fourth Gospel was written by the Apostle St. John extend to the Epistles also." (B.F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, Introduction, p. xxx.) A.E. Brooke admits "There are no adequate reasons for setting aside the traditional view which attributes the Epistle and Gospel to the same authorship." (The Johannine EpIstles, in International Critical Commentary, Introduction, p. xviii.) Both external and internal evidences are the convincing factors leading to this generally, though not universally, accepted opinion. Papias, Polycarp, Irenaeus, the Muratorian fragment; the oldest Versions, the earliest African and Alexandrian Fathers, all allude to or quote directly from the epistle as being from the John, the same author as the gospel. (A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 134.) The style, vocabulary, thought and method of the Epistle adds its convincing weight to the unity of authorship. The same repetition of basic ideas, the same general grammatical characteristics found in both, the constant use of impressive parallelism or antagonism and the iterations and variations coloring both, all impress the thoughtful reader as having sprung from the same hand and heart. Lenski does not make an overstatement in saying, "The fact that the first Epistle of John was written by the apostle John, and by no one else, is beyond serious question." (Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude, p. 371)

2. Place, Date, and Destination

 

The tradition that John the apostle resided in Ephesus in his later years and that the Fourth Gospel and Epistles are associated with him and that region in Asia Minor near the close of the first century is clear-cut, (A.T. Robertson, Epochs in the Life of the Apostle John.p. 102F.) and, despite some attempts to break it, still stands as the most probable way in which John closed his long and useful life. We feel safe in accepting the traditional Asia Minor as the general area that gave rise to this Johnannine literature of which our first epistle is an important part. The very problems faced are those errors that spread like vermin throughout that Ephesian region. But as to the specific place or definite date of writing there is no certainty. A similar conclusion as to place and date is adequately summed up by Westcott when he says, "There is no direct evidence to show when and where it was written. The circumstances of the Christian Society point clearly to a late date, and this may be fixed with reasonable likelihood in the last decade of the first century. The later years of st. John were spent in Ephesus; and, in the absence of any other indication, it is is natural to suppose that it was written there."


 

 

 

As to destination we are at equal loss to be specific, yet with confidence we may say it was directed to a group or groups of Christians within the same general area of Asia Minor. While our author fails to cast his letter in a local mold, he nevertheless conveys the idea that he is dealing with people with whom and to whom he is perfectly and intimately familiar. If John writes from Ephesus and tradition is correct in placing him as teacher and spiritual father to the Churches of Asia Minor for the closing years of his life, it is natural to conclude that these churches of Asia Minor are the very recipients to whom the letter was originally written. This, in some form or other, is the view held by Westcott, Brooke, Robertson, Haupt, and others.

 

3. Purpose

 

The First Epistle of John, like all the books of the New Testament, finds its origin in actual need and was written to meet an actual emergency. (Robertson Davis, A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament, p. 16.) When we see the error that drew this powerful letter from the heart of John, this little work becomes vibrant with life. There is little reason to question that the dominant error the apostle had in mind was the Gnostic doctrine that made of Jesus an illusion and destroyed the moral foundations of the Christian life. Robert Law asserts as "beyond question that the peril against which the epistle was intended to arm the Church was the spreading influence of Gnosticism that was Docetic in doctrine and Antinomian in practice." (Tests of Life, p. 26.) The Jewish opposition does not appear prominent, if at all, in the author's line of sight. It is rather Gnosticism, that subtle synthesis of Oriental mysticism and Greek philosophy that purported to give a superior knowledge to its adherents, that John meets in this letter.

While it is true that the "letter is plainly polemical" (i.e., controversial) and "dangerous heresy called it forth" (Lenski, p. 304) it may with equal propriety be said, "Anything like polemics proper is altogether absent from the document." (Erich Haupt, The First Epistle of St. John~ translated by W.B. Pope, p. 372) The harmony that lies between such statements of such apparent divergence is seen in the apostle's method of dealing with the error. John did not set out to fight Gnosticism with the brutal offensive of stormy attack. The Gnostic heresy threatened the historical reality on which the Christian faith rested as well as the purity of the redeemed life of the early disciples. There definitely is a "polemical aim" in the book. John's polemical method, however, does not consist of a frontal attack involving heavy losses, but rather of a steady pressure all along the line that allows the enemy no rest. The surest defense is a good offense. To dispel darkness he turns on the light. John's best answer to error is a steady, full unfolding of the truth. The author holds up the genuine standard of Christian faith and ethics and thereby exposes the anti-Christian character of contemporary Gnosticism. "It is probable true that the writer never loses sight altogether of the views of his opponents in any part of the Epistle. But it is important to emphasize the fact that, in spite of this, the real aim of the Epistle is not exclusively, or even primarily polemical. The edifica≠tion of his 'children' in the true faith and life of Christians is the writer's chief purpose." (Brooke, xxvii f.) Westcott's similar view is admirable stated when he says John's method is "to confute the error by the exposition of the truth realized in life. His object is polemical only so far as the clear unfolding of the essence of right teaching necessarily shows all error in its real character. In other words, St. John writes to call out a welcome for what he knows to be the gospel and not to overthrow this or that false opinion." (p.xxxix.) John has stated well his own purpose in the Epistle. "that which we have seen and have heard we are declaring to you also, in order that you also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete." And again in 5:13, "These things I wrote to you that you may know that you have eternal life." The purpose is the


 


 

maintenance of the fellowship with God and with redeemed men of God. Besides this, his purpose includes standards of judgment by which Christians may have absolute knowledge of the ever present possession of the new life which comes as a constant believing in and commitment to the name of the Son of God who was a genuine man. Gnostic doctrine and practice would nullify the fellowship. He wrote to strengthen and maintain the fellowship and thereby eliminate the effectiveness of the Gnostic enemies of the cross. John's aim and method is basically not negative, but positive.

 

4. Gnosticism

 

Since the First Epistle of John was written to people whose faith was being under≠mined by Gnostic influence it is necessary that we understand a few basic elements of Gnostic doctrine if we are to have the best understanding of this Epistle of John.

Gnosticism was a fusion of Oriental mysticism and Greek philosophy which sought a synthesis with the Christian faith. The Gnostics held that spirit by its nature was good, while flesh and things physical were completely evil by basic nature. With this concept, they held that the necessary thing for salvation was merely a knowledge of the truth and an intellectual acceptance of Christ, and that they were in no way responsible for the acts of the flesh. Since the flesh and things physical were necessarily evil there was no moral responsibility for the sin committed by the body; sin was a physical reaction and not a moral responsibility. Since this was a viewpoint of Gnosticism, it could not be, according to their reasoning, that Jesus was both God and man. Since God was spirit and completely good, and physical man was completely evil, the two could not dwell in one. In order to explain even how God could have any relationship with the world they devised a system of links called aeons, and the last of these aeons between God and the world was Jesus. These aeons were digressions from spirit to physical.

John wrote to combat the error of Gnosticism as it was perverting (1) the person of Christ and (2) the concept of sin, and as it was beginning to break the fellowship referred to in 1 John 1:3.

There were two primary divisions of Gnosticism - (1) Cerinthic and (2) Docetic. These differed in reference to the person of Christ.

Cerinthic Gnosticism, so named after its leading teacher, Cerinthus, taught that Jesus was human and not divine - that Jesus was a real man, an aeon. The Christ came into the body of the man Jesus at his baptism, and departed from his body at the cross. Therefore, although the body of Jesus was used by the Christ for a period of time, the Christ did not suffer and die, only the man. Therefore, if the Christ did not suffer, why should they have to suffer for their faith.

Docetic Gnosticism, its name derived from doke»w - to seem, taught that Jesus was the Christ, but He really just seemed to be a man. He was illusion - like a real man, but really divine and not human. Therefore, it was an illusion and not a real man that hung upon the cross. Christ really didn't suffer, and so why should they suffer for their faith.

Today, our main issue is: Is Jesus a man or God ? Is He the Son of God or just a pattern ? Who is Jesus? He answered this question Himself when Pilate asked Him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" and He answered. "You said it." (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33-37.) Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the King of God's people according to the promise.