An Overview of 1 John

Have you ever created a manifesto? According to Merriam-Webster, a manifesto is “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” Dating back to the 14th century, manifesto is derived from the Latin word manifest. Merriam-Webster further explains, “Something that is manifest is easy to perceive or recognize, and a manifesto is a statement in which someone makes his or her intentions or views easy for people to ascertain.”

While most people think of the 1848 Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the most well-known manifesto, there are other great examples throughout history of this sort of document. From the Declaration of Independence to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there are a variety of great examples. I would also posit that the letter of 1 John is a powerful example of a manifesto in several regards.

Written both as a lifestyle apologetic and as a means of refuting false doctrines and dangerous movements (Gnosticism and Docetism) that were infiltrating the Church, this letter serves as a powerful and clear manifesto for what it means to be a Christ-follower. In this article, we’ll explore the history, themes, and structure of the apostle John’s love letter to believers and public declaration of the Christian life.

BACKGROUND

Author
While John does not name himself directly, the evidence for his authorship of this letter is overwhelming. 1 John bears a significant amount of structural, thematic, and literary similarities to the Gospel of John.

Date
Regarding date, while there is no specific indication as to when this was written, there are multiple factors that help us formulate a very informed estimation. First, the similarities in the structure and themes to the Gospel of John indicate that both were written around the same time. Second, based on some of the language and comments made throughout, it appears very likely that John was elderly at the time of writing. And third, the letter’s defense against Gnostic/Docetic principles, which began circulating in the late first century, supports a date around the mid–late 80s to early–mid 90s AD, most likely while John was exiled on Patmos.

Audience
The letter of 1 John does not specify any particular group or geographical location. Seemingly, this letter was intended to be a circular letter. What this means is there were no specific intended recipients—unlike, for instance, the letters of Paul to the churches in Corinth or Ephesus or Colossi. It was meant to be distributed to churches throughout the ancient world. The earliest confirmed use of the letter, though, was in Asia Minor, where Ephesus was located. This tracks with it being written from Patmos, which was located not too far off the coast of Asia Minor.

Cultural Facts and Interesting Tidbits

In part, this letter was written to combat a lie that was making its way through the churches of Asia Minor. You see, John was defending the deity and humanity of Christ, affirming his own credibility and authority in this matter as an eyewitness. He claims to have heard, seen, and touched Him. This was important in his argument because the crux of Docetism was a denial of the incarnation of Jesus. The claim was that Christ didn’t have a physical body; instead, His body was an illusion, and so was His crucifixion.

That’s why we see John addressing a set of lies being peddled by the antichrists of Asia Minor in 1:5–2:2, replacing them with the truth of God’s Word. This practice is something we should make a habit out of. Replacing the lies of others, of the world, and of the enemy with the truth—with what God says about Himself, us, and the unchanging truths of the Bible.

In the first two chapters of John, the apostle is essentially giving us a lifestyle apologetic. He recognized that the credibility of the message can’t be separated from the lives of those who proclaim the message. This lifestyle includes walking in the light (1:7), confession of sin (1:9), growing in holiness (2:1), keeping God’s commandments (2:3–6), loving one another (2:7–11), and hating the things of the world and of the flesh/the sinful nature (2:15–17).

Everything John says in these first two chapters hinges on the thesis statement found in 1 John 2:3 (HCSB): “This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands.” His words here are precise for a purpose. He stresses obedience but also challenges those who boast in knowledge.

Gnosis means knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge above and beyond what the apostles preached. They claimed that a form of enlightenment and mystical inspiration was at the heart of faith. Their dangerous, poisonous claim stated that salvation didn’t depend on a freedom from sin, but a freedom from ignorance. If esoteric and exclusive enlightenment led to God, then things like obedience and morality could be easily swept aside. Paul combatted a similar issue regarding the understanding of grace in Romans 3–8.

The greatest test of authenticity and genuine spiritual life is living as Jesus lived (1 John 2:6–8). If we claim to live in Him, we must also walk as He did. If we claim Christ is in us, and we know He is light, then we must also be light; we must also act accordingly. But to live goes beyond mere imitation, for that can be done superficially, to gain the praise of men or to uphold one’s image. It must be the byproduct of abiding in Christ. It must be the outgrowth and outpouring of the inner workings of Christ conforming us to His image.

OUTLINE

  1. Prologue: The witnessed Word of life among us (1 John 1:1–4)
  2. Section 1: God is light . . . and we should act accordingly (1:5–3:10)
  3. Section 2: God is love . . . and we should love likewise (3:11–5:12)
  4. Conclusion: Empowerment for those who walk in God’s light and love (5:13–21)

There is a great deal of symmetry—albeit abbreviated—between the Gospel of John and the Epistle of 1 John. Look at the parallels in structure:

JOHN 1 JOHN
Prologue (1:1–18) Prologue (1:1–4)
Book of Miracles (1:19–12:50)

Light shined in the darkness and was rejected.

Section 1: God Is Light (1:5–3:10)

God is light, and we should act accordingly.

Book of Glory (13:1–20:29)

Jesus loves and cares for His sheep/disciples.

Section 2: God Is Love (3:11–5:12)

God is love, and we should love likewise.

Epilogue (chapter 21) Conclusion (5:13–21)

Key Themes

The Incarnation: John wrote this letter in the midst of intense controversy. A new movement of heresy was sweeping the early Church, particular the churches in Asia Minor. The apostle wrote this epistle partly to warn Christians about false teachers—“antichrists”—from within the Church who denied the literal, physical incarnation of Christ (2:18–22; 4:2–3). This heresy is known as Docetism. John insisted that Christ is not a supernatural apparition taking the appearance of a human, but an actual historical person with a physical body. The test of true, biblical Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, was fully human and fully divine.

Love: The key command given not only in this beautiful letter, but also in the Gospel of John (by Jesus Himself) is the call to love (3:11, 23; 4:11, 21). Christians are to follow Christ’s example by loving one another (3:10–11) and caring for those in need (3:17), even to the point of laying down their own lives for one another (3:16). Since “love comes from God” (4:7), genuine love can only be expressed as Christ lives in us (4:12) and we in Him (4:16).

Pillars of the Christian Faith: The apostle John affirms certain things about the Christian faith that we can have total confidence in:

  1. Jesus is the Son of God (5:5).
  2. Christ-followers have eternal life in Him (5:11).
  3. God hears and answers our prayers (5:14).
  4. We’re no longer slaves to sin; we’re kept safe by God from the evil one (5:18).
  5. We’re children of God (5:19).
  6. We can know God through His Son (5:20).
  7. Jesus is “the true God” (5:20).

THINGS TO CONSIDER

In this letter, John provides us with a standard for our own spiritual lives that we must examine ourselves by:

  1. Obedience is the natural, external byproduct of an intimate, internal life and abiding relationship with God.
  2. Love that bears the quality of love demonstrated by Christ is the result of being enveloped, anchored in, and motivated by the love of Christ.

As we get ready to take a deep dive into 1 John in service and through our Daily Devo, we invite you to evaluate your spiritual condition right now and how it correlates to your spiritual habits.

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.