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Introduction to the 1st Epistle of John

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General Info

John’s Gospel introduced us to Jesus as the Word or Logos, the promised Messiah, the Son of Man, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, and equal to the Father as the great “I Am”.  It was written that we, by believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, we have eternal life in his Name (Jn 20:31).  Now, in his first epistle, John explains how we can have further assurance of this eternal life, and how to have fellowship and a closer relationship with the Father through Jesus the Son.

The epistle has been referred to as “1 John” or “1st John” since the early days of the church.  It is the first and longest of three epistles written by the apostle near the end of the first century.  John’s first epistle is very rich in doctrinal content and devotional zeal.  Indeed, few other Biblical writings can match the epistle for its density of imposing ethical challenges and moral demands.  Yet, great blessing await those who study and put these principles in practice.

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Brief Survey

John opens his first epistle by highlighting the eyewitness testimony of the apostles and other disciples of Christ, so that his readers might know the same fellowship with Jesus and God the Father.  He then contrasts human sin (darkness) with God’s nature (light).  He continues this theme into chapter 2, noting that God sheds this light on us through Jesus as our advocate before the Father, and demonstrating how we are motivated to fellowship by what God has done for us.

Next, John continues our basis for fellowship by focusing on the new (old) commandment to “Love one Another” (2:7-14).  This is followed by warnings against conforming to the world’s systems (2:15-17) which would stifle our fellowship, and to be alert to the coming of antichrists who will attempt to deceive believers (2:18-3:10).  On the other hand, he encourages his readers with the assurance of Christ’s imminent return which should produce godly living.  He also includes remarks on the inherent friction between children of God and the world before returning to the subject of loving one another as a condition for overcoming evil and having fellowship with God.

In chapter 4, John revisits the subject of the antichrist’s deception, warning all believers to “test the spirits” to determine whether or not they originate from God (4:1-6).  He then returns the subject of love, focusing on the assurance of God’s love for us (4:7-21), which should produce in us a love for our brothers and sisters.

Finally, coming back to the subject of assurance in chapter 5, the emphasis shifts to faith in Christ (5:1-12) as a way of overcoming the world.  He also notes the corresponding nature of loving God and being obedient to His commands.  John then concludes with a reminder of many of his main themes, a final call to faith and understandings, and his purpose statement that all Christians can have assurance of salvation (5:13-21).

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Key Verses

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (1:1)

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.  My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1:5-2:2)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!  The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (3:1)

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him...  This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother...  And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (3:6,10,23)

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world...  You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (4:1,4)

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. (4:13-14)

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (4:19-21)

Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart.  Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.  And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.  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. (5:10-13)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Although the author is not explicitly named in the epistles, solid internal and external evidence points to the Apostle John, the Son of Zebedee.  We have the written testimony of many early church fathers, including Papias, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen that John is the author of the fourth Gospel, the three epistles, and the book of the Revelation.  There are no known objections to John’s authorship or other suggested authors (except the usual modern critics, of course).

Internal evidence is plentiful, beginning with the similarity of phrases, expressions, vocabulary, literary techniques such as frequent contrast of opposites, and Greek style between the epistle and the fourth Gospel.  We also have the mention of eyewitness testimony (1:1-4) and many indications of a close relationship with Jesus, including the authoritative tone that permeates the letter.

John was a fisherman by trade, and was one of the Apostles in Jesus inner circle (along with his brother James and Peter).  He was also known as the “Sons of Thunder” (long with his brother James – Mk 3:17), “the disciple that Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), and the one to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother Mary from the cross (Jn 19:26-27).  It is possible that Mary’s sister, standing beside her at the cross (Jn 19:25) , might have been Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of John (Mt 27:56,Mk 15:40).

The epistle was likely written from Ephesus, probably for circulation among the churches of Asia Minor.  The letter’s internal contents verify that it was written to believers, and early Christian writers confirmed the first use of the epistle in the area of Ephesus.  These writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, also placed John in Ephesus after the Church fled Jerusalem prior to her destruction in 70 AD, noting his subsequent ministry to the various area churches.

There is no mention in 1 John of the Domitian persecutions, which began late in his reign over the Roman Empire, which ended in 96 AD, and post apostolic church figures were already citing 1 John in their writing by 100 AD, allowing us to establish a “prior to” date.  Several factors, such as John appearing to build on several themes from his Gospels, referring to his readers as “little children”, and the warnings against early forms of Gnosticism, suggest an elderly John writing toward the end of the first century.  This is also consistent with the early Christian writers mentioned above.  Thus we can reasonably propose a writing date of 85-95 AD.

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Historical Background

Due to mounting persecution and the coming Roman siege, John and the other apostles were forced to flee Jerusalem about 67-68 AD.  Shortly thereafter, John migrated to the Roman province of Asia (modern day western Turkey), where Paul had planted several churches including the one in Ephesus.  While ministering in the area for about three decades, he wrote his gospel, followed by his three epistles, then finally the Revelation.

Several factions were at work in the area near the end of the first century.  There was growing tension between the growing local churches and the Jewish synagogues, particularly because many new members of the church were converted Jews.  After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, a group of Pharisaic rabbis established a center of learning in Jamnia (Yavneh), a small town along Israel’s southern coastal plain.  This center eventually became the new teaching and learning hub in Israel and is thought by many to be the origin of Rabbinic Judaism.  It is believed by many that Jewish Canon was set at Jamnia about this time, but this is still under debate.  It is generally accepted among theologians however, that events at Jamnia resulted in the preservation of the Hebrew language and culture even among the exiles, and the distinct religious detachment between the established Jewish and the more recent Christian communities.

The Apostle John (a Jewish Christian) skillfully and courageously stood with the church and guided them through such related debates as “was Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God”, “which group was the legitimate children of Abraham”, “must Christians keep the Jewish rituals”, and many other issues facing new believers.

The Epistles of John were written much later than the other general letters (James, Peter and Jude), toward the end of the first century.  Communities were springing up throughout the Roman Empire, and the structure and organizations of the churches were somewhat loosely structured.  In addition, some former members of the Christian community had formed rival groups and were teaching a false gospel (an early form of Gnosticism which denied that Jesus was God in the flesh).  Gnosticism was still in its early stage, but further developed than during the writings of Paul and the others.  New heresies which questioned the deity of Christ were also slipping into the churches.  See the “Interpretation Challenges” chapter below for additional details information on the nature of these false teachings.

It was against this backdrop that the aged apostle John wrote his first epistle to refute and correct these errors, and to clarify and re-affirm the basics and foundations of the true Christian faith.  As the last surviving apostle and an eyewitness to Jesus’ teachings, ministry, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection and ascension, John was the voice of authority among the churches.  It was up to John, as the church elder, to instruct, encourage, and strengthen the next generation of believers.

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John's 1st Epistle was written in the latter part of the first century AD.

27 or 30 (1) John called to be a Disciple of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem)
~ 67 The Jerusalem Church flees to Pella
~ 70 John settles in Asia Minor (modern day western Turkey)
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
~ 80 - 90 Gospel of John Written
81 - 96 The Reign of Roman Emperor Domitian
~ 85 - 90 John writes his 3 Epistles (probably from Ephesus)
~ 95 John writes Revelation while in exile on Patmos
~ 100 John dies peacefully in Ephesus

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

John wrote his first epistle to encourage and exhort the Christian community by stressing the assurance of the love of God and of their salvation (5:13).  Another important purpose was to warn against and expose false teachers (2:26).  The Christian community was confronted by libertines (removing all moral restraints), legalists (requiring conformance to Jewish rituals), and early forms of Gnosticism (salvation by special knowledge, see “Interpretation Challenges” for additional details).

In response to the false teachings, we could say that the overarching theme might be a return to the basics or fundamentals of the faith.  John consistently stresses love, sound doctrine, and obedience, all of which lead to fellowship with God.  In a circular manner, he also returns to the important themes of faith, devotion, joy, assurance, and false teachers.

Within these themes, John teaches that Jesus is the eternal God who became flesh and offers us eternal life through repentance and faith.  He is our redeemer and advocate before the Father (2:1), thus we can have forgiveness by confessing our sins (1:9).  God sent his Son because of his great love for us, so we should exhibit love for him by loving others (3:11-24).  Therefore we should abide in Him (2:28) and continue to walk “in the light” (1:7) just as He walked (2:6).  This also entails not loving the worldly system that is in opposition to God (3:15-17).

We must test the spirits and use discernment when it comes to false teachers, anyone denying the full deity of Jesus Christ.  The church has been under attack by false teachers and their heresies from the beginning, and we can continue to repel these attacks by the power of the Holy Spirit (4:4) by using the Holy Scriptures as the litmus test for all teachings.

Finally, regarding the theme of assurance, John emphasizes two crucial components by which we can be confident of our salvation. First, we have the testimony of the Holy Spirit (4:13), and second, by our obedience to God, characterized by our faith in Jesus and our love for other believers (3:23-24, see also Jn 13:34-35).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

A major challenge in studying 1 John is the book’s structure itself.  John rarely sustains a linear argument for more than a few verses, so tracing consecutive arguments throughout the book is very difficult.  That said, studying John’s first epistle is a very rewarding endeavor.  Few other books can match the combination of rich doctrine and moral and ethical challenges contained within.  John pulls no punches in describing the requirements for fellowship with God, presenting the basics of the Christian life in absolute terms.

So, what is the best method for approaching 1 John?  There are several methods that can produce positive results, but I’ve found that a thematic approach to be very effective.  We can begin by identifying the major themes (see the “Themes” chapter above), and then trace John’s thoughts as he expounds on a certain topic, switches subjects, and eventually circles back for more treatment of the topic, often from a different perspective or emphasis.  In our Bible Interpretation Guide, we mentioned the principle of “thinking paragraphs” rather than chapters and verses.  This principle is particularly valuable here, since John often switches subjects with each new paragraph.  We should also note how he interrelates various themes, and interpret each in the context of the entire letter, and finally within all of Scripture.

Another major interpretive challenge is determining the exact nature of the false teaching.  This teaching probably took various forms from different sources.  First, the Judaists still held that Christians must continue to observe the traditional Jewish rituals.  On the other hand, there were the Libertines, who taught that Christians were totally free in Christ.  In other words, they believed Christians could basically throw off all moral restraints and live anyway they chose with no repercussions.

In addition to these two groups, John probably had to contend with even more dangerous heresies with the early forms of Gnosticism infiltrating the churches.  The Gnostic’s central belief was that salvation was achieved not by faith in Christ, but by special knowledge (Gnosticism comes from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”).  Thus, the Gnostics relied primarily on personal experience rather than revelation from God, their teaching could actually vary depending on the particular instructor.

Most of what we know about Gnosticism comes from the writings of the early church father Irenaeus (~ 125 – 200 AD), particularly in his work Against Heresies, a critique of the Gnostic documents and a defense of the orthodox Christian faith.  Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons (modern day France) about 178 AD, studied under the bishop Polycarp who was a student / disciple of the Apostle John.  We also have the Nag Hammadi Library, a set of 13 codices containing over fifty documents.  These Gnostic documents, discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945, contained such works as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Apocalypse of Paul, The Apocalypse of Peter, etc.

As we stated, Gnosticism takes on many forms, but we’ll mention a few of its most common errors.  I use the present tense because we see many of these heresies making a comeback in our modern times.  The popular book and movie, The DaVinci Code, is based on and promotes many Gnostic ides in an attempt to undermine orthodox Christianity.  In addition, many of the so-called new teachings on our modern culture are merely warmed-over versions of old Gnostic teachings.

Gnostics believe that all matter is evil and the spirit world is good.  This leads to the belief that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body, but it was really just an allusion.  This heresy is known as Docetism, from the Greek word dokeo (to seem).  An alternate view was advanced by the Gnostic Cerinthus about 100 AD which claimed that the spirit of the divine Christ came onto the human Jesus at His baptism, then departed before the crucifixion.  It’s also possible that many of the Libertines were Gnostics, since their dualistic view of spirit and matter often led to licentiousness.  Since matter, rather than breaking the law, was considered evil, lawlessness was considered morally inconsequential (see John’s rebuttal in 3:4).

For the final interpretation challenge, we borrow John’s circular technique and return to the first paragraph, where we noted that John presented the basics of the Christian life in absolute terms.  Unlike Paul, who often presented additional explanations and even exceptions to his proclamations, John presents everything in black and white, such as light vs darkness, truth vs falsehood etc.  This is especially troubling to many in our relativistic society today.  I have a couple of thoughts on this matter.  First, much of Paul’s writing centered on situational particulars regarding maintaining fellowship with God.  John is writing about the basic universals of Christianity, of which there can be no relativity.  John expounds the basics repeatedly without using particular circumstances.  When Paul wrote of the basic absolutes of the faith, he was just as precise as John.

When read in the English translations however, John’s writing on the believer and sin can appear to be contradictive.  For example, in 1 John 1:8-10, he states that the truth is not in us and we even make God a liar if we say we don’t sin, but depending on the translation, 1 John 3:6 appears to contradict the former verses.  The NSRV translates 3:6 as “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him”, with similar translations in the KJV, NKJV, NASB and HCSB.  The answer lies in the verb tense of the original NT language.  The Greek verb “sins” (hamartánon) is in the present tense, which indicates a continuing action.  The NIV translation correctly reads “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (also ESV and NLT).  The Amplified Bible expands the verb to read “habitually commits (practices) sin”.  Thus, John warns that, if a believer is practicing a continuing pattern of sin, he or she should closely examine his or her relationship to God.

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John’s First Epistle is somewhat difficult to outline due to the aforementioned circular nature of his thought.  If we ask 20 people to diagram the book, we'd probably get 20 different results.  So, we'll take one of his primary purposes, bringing believers into fellowship with the Triune God, and roughly divide the book into an introduction and three sections: the basis, the characteristics, and the results of fellowship with God.

1:1 – 1:4 Introduction; Eyewitness Testimony
1:5 – 2:27 The Basis for Fellowship with God; Christ our Advocate; Obedience; Love for Others; Warning against Anti-Christ
2:28 – 4:21 Characteristics of Fellowship with God; Love One Another; Test the Spirits; Ethical Integrity; Overcoming Evil; Assurance of God’s Love
5:1 – 5:31 Results of Fellowship with God; Faith; Assurance of Salvation

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