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Introduction to 1 John

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Introduction to 1 John

This is a pastoral letter to churches in conflict––written to address the conflict and to prevent its spread. A number of scholars think of this as a sermon in written form.

The author doesn’t identify himself in this letter––and in 2 & 3 John identifies himself only as “the elder” (2 John 1; 3 John 1). We believe, however, that he was the apostle John. I will hereafter refer to the author as John, with the understanding that his identity is less than certain.

The problems in the churches were caused by false teachers who had separated themselves from those churches (2:19)––but were still influencing the believers who remained in the church (2:19).

The false teachers may have been precursors of the Gnostic heretics who plagued the second century church. Gnosticism was dualistic, teaching that the material world was bad and the spiritual world was good. They thus denied the Incarnation and the deity of Jesus. Therefore John says:

“Who is the liar but he who DENIES that Jesus is the Christ?
This is the Antichrist, he who DENIES the Father and the Son.
Whoever DENIES the Son, the same doesn’t have the Father.
He who CONFESSES the Son has the Father also” (2:22-23).

He also says:

“By this you know the Spirit of God:
every spirit who CONFESSES
that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
and every spirit who DOESN’T CONFESS
that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God,
and this is the spirit of the ANTICHRIST,
of whom you have heard that it comes.
Now it is in the world already” (4:2-3).


“Whoever CONFESSES that Jesus is the Son of God,
God remains in him, and he in God” (4:15).


“Whoever BELIEVES that Jesus is the Christ
is born of God….

Who is he who overcomes the world,
but he who BELIEVES that Jesus is the Son of God?” (5:1, 5)

In the above verses:

  • The word translated DENIES is arneomai, which means deny or reject or refuse to recognize.
  • The word translated CONFESSES is homolegeo, which is a combination of homou (together with) and lego (to say). It can mean either a confession of faith or a confession of sin. In this verse, it means a confession of faith.
  • The word translated BELIEVES is pisteuo, which means believe or trust. It is a variant of pistis, which means faith.
  • The word translated ANTICHRIST is antichristos, which combines anti (against) and Christos (Christ). An antichrist is a person who stands in opposition to Christ or claims to be the Christ or intends to organize a large-scale defection from the Christian faith. This word is found only in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7.

The Greek word gnosis means knowledge, and Gnostics claimed to have access to higher knowledge available only to the initiated and not to ordinary believers––an elitist stance. The Gnostic emphasis on knowledge also displaced an emphasis on faith. There are several reasons to believe that the false teachers about whom John is writing are influenced by Gnosticism:

  • As noted above, they denied the Incarnation and deity of Jesus.
  • With their elitist attitudes, the false teachers despised ordinary believers––the uninitiated––those not privy to the special Gnostic knowledge (2:20, 27; 3:10, 15; 4:20; 2 John 9).
  • John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8; see also 1:10), leading us to suspect that the false teachers were claiming to be sinless.
  • They didn’t accept Jesus’ commandments (2:4) and didn’t regard sin as lawlessness (3:4, 7-10).

It might have been in response to an incipient Gnosticism that Paul wrote,

“If I have the gift of prophecy,
and KNOW all mysteries and all knowledge;
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but don’t have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warned against “the empty chatter and oppositions of the knowledge which is falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20).

Based on the contents of this letter, we can make some educated guesses about other problems caused by the false teachers. John says:

“If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen,
how can he love God whom he has not seen?

This commandment we have from him,
that he who loves God should also love his brother” (4:20-21).

He also says, “Don’t love the world, neither the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love isn’t in him” (2:15), so it is possible that some of the false teachers were materialistic. That, however, would be inconsistent with Gnosticism, whose adherents thought that the material world was bad and only the spiritual was good.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Black, C. Clifton, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)

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Smalley, Stephen S., Word Biblical Commentary: 1,2,3 John, Vol. 51 (Dallas: Word Books, 1984)

Smith, D. Moody, Interpretation: First, Second, and Third John (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991)

Stott, John R.W., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Letters of John, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1964, 1988)

Strawn, Brent A., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)

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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan