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Bible Commentaries
1 John 1

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verse 1

THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST JOHN IntroductionAuthor —This Epistle, like the Fourth Gospel is anonymous; but an early and constant tradition assigns both works to the Apostle St John. The testimony, according to Eusebius, HE 3, 39, 17, begins with Papias, a disciple of St John. Explicit reference to 1 Jn is found in the writings of St Irenaeus, PG 7:925; 927; Clement of Alexandria, PG 8, 661; 1004; Tertullian, PL 2, 147; 173; Origen, cf. Euse bius , HE 6, 25, 8; and St Cyprian, PL, 3, 1138; 4, 289; 628; who name St John the Apostle as the author. The evidence of quotation may be drawn from the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Polycarp, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Diognetus.

The internal evidence, that this Epistle has the same author as the Fourth Gospel, is equally abundant and convincing. Style, structure of sentences, repetition of certain words and phrases, lack of particles, vocabulary — all are very similar to what we find in the Fourth Gospel. Compare 1:1, 5 f. with the Prologue, particularly John 1:1, John 1:4 f.; or 2:3-5 with John 14:21, John 14:23 f.; 2:7 f. with John 13:34 f.; 15:12 f.; etc. Chaine lists thirty passages that are common to both, 106 f.; Westcott has a similar list, xli ff. The proof that the Fourth Gospel was written by St John the Apostle is given in §§ 776d-778f.

Canonicity —This Epistle is listed in the Muratorian Fragment and in all subsequent canonical lists of NT books. Eusebius, HE 3, 25, classes it among the sacred writings which were universally accepted as inspired. St Jerome, De Vir Illust.9, 18, explicitly mentions that it was universally accepted in the church; St Augustine, Tract, 7:5 in 1 in, mentions it by name as canonical.

Destination and Purpose —The prevailing opinion of scholars is that the First Epistle is closely associated with the Fourth Gospel both in time and purpose. Some call it a ’preface’, the majority prefer to consider it a ’postscript’ to the Gospel. Both writings have, the same double purpose: to prove that Christ is God and eternal life, and that in Christ we have eternal life and are united with God.

Since 1 Jn lacks the customary form of a letter, e.g. salutation and conclusion, special greetings and message to a definite church, it is commonly considered to be an encyclical letter, addressed to a number of churches. The writer is aware of the condition of his readers, whom he affectionately calls: ’children, little children, and beloved’, and repeatedly addresses in the second person. Three times he says: ’I write to you’, and thrice ’I wrote to you Since the Epistle presupposes the facts of Christ’s life and teaching, and draws practical lessons from them, it is preferable to consider 1 Jn to have been written shortly after the Gospel, probably in one of the last years of the 1st cent. A very reliable tradition states that the beloved disciple spent his last years at Ephesus, where he is said to have composed the Gospel, St Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3, 1, 1. It is very probable, therefore, that this Epistle was likewise sent from Ephesus to the churches of Asia Minor, to which St John sent the seven letters included in ’the Revelation 1:4-; Revelation 3:22.

Theme and Analysis —St John is disturbed by the appearance of false teachers, who made a’distinction between the human Jesus and Christ the Son of God, and also by the worldly spirit, which was undermining the moral character of the Asiatic Christians. To assure eternal life to his readers, the Apostle stresses the need of union with the Father and the Son, which is realized practically by obedience to the commandments, particularly to the precept of brotherly love.

The Apostle begins by claiming to be an eye-witness of the activity of the Word. He says that he has a message from Christ for his readers, which will assure them life everlasting and fellowship with the Father and his Son, 1:1-4. God is light and perfection; union with him is impossible for those who walk in darkness, 5-7. To walk in the light means to keep free from sin and observe the commandments, 1:8-2:6; particularly the precept of brother love, 7-11. After commending them for their sincerity, 12-14, he urges them not to be misled by an inordinate love of the world, 15-17, and carefully to avoid false teachers, who separate Jesus from the Christ and, therefore, deny both Father and Son, 18-26.

Let them hold fast to what they were taught from the beginning, 27-29, and prove that they are children of God by avoiding sin, 3:1-10. What distinguishes the children of God from those of the devil is the practice of fraternal charity after the manner of Christ, 11-18, whom they must firmly acknowledge as God’s Son, 19-24.

There follows another warning about distinguishing between truth and error, 4:1-6. A proof of the connexion between the precept of fraternal charity and faith in Jesus as the Son of God is indicated by God’s love for mankind. He so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world, 7-11. This should prompt Christians to practise true charity towards one another, because charity is the bond between man and the invisible God, 12-21. Love of the neighbour is rooted in faith in the divinity of Christ. In that belief is victory over the world and fellowship with Christ, 5:1-5. We have a threefold witness to this important truth, 6-12. Faith in Christ’s divinity begets the greatest confidence, which manifests itself in prayer, 13-17. Then the Apostle concludes with a summary: children of God do not sin, Christians are children of God, and they know God through his Son, 18-21.

Doctrinal Content —The First Epistle may be called a summary of St John’s theology. This must not be understood in the sense that it is a development of one or more theses, nor is it an exposition of various doctrinal truths. The Apostle contents himself with the simple statement of a number of fundamental truths, which serve him as a basis for moral instruction. God is light, 1:5; we must walk in the light if we would have fellowship with him, 1:6. God is holiness, 2:29; to be children of God we must avoid sin and be holy,

:2 f. God is love, 4:7 to share God’s love we must love the brethren, 4:7.

Of Christ we learn: that he is the Word, 1:1; hence, we must learn to know him, who manifested himself to us, 1:2 f. He is the Son of God, 2:22 f.; the only-begotten Son, 4:9. To deny this is to have the spirit of Antichrist, not that of God, 4:9. He was sent into the world by the Father, that he might show his love for mankind, 4:9. This should teach us to love one another, 4:7. Christ laid down his life for us, 3:16; cleansed us from sin with his blood, 1:7, and became our propitiation for sin, 2:2, to bring us into closer fellowship with one another. Christ is also our advocate with the Father, so that if we sin we may obtain forgiveness, 2:1. In him is eternal life, and if we have the Son, i.e. are united to him by grace, we too shall have eternal life, 5:11.

A few words must be said here about the heresy against which St John warns his readers. It is probably the false teaching of Cerinthus and his followers which is here condemned. According to St Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1, 26, 1, Cerinthus claimed that Jesus was nothing more than a man, born of Mary and Joseph. At the time of his baptism by St John, the acon, Christ, descended upon him in the form of a dove, and remained united with him till the passion, when he again left him. Hence, Cerinthus ’denieth that Jesus is the Christ’, 2:22; he ’dissolveth Jesus’, 4:3, by separating the man Jesus from the aeon Christ; he ’believeth not that Jesus is the Son of God’, 5:5. Since by these false statements he deceived men, and set himself against Christ, he is called ’the liar’, 2:22, and ’the Antichrist’, 4:3. The same authority, who was a pupil of St Polycarp, who in turn sat at the feet of the beloved disciple, mentions that the Fourth Gospel was written to offset the errors of Cerinthus, Adv. Haer. 3, 2, 1; but M. Bardy, Cerinthe, RB ( 1921) 349, questions the correctness of this assertion.

In 1 Jn another series of instructions centres around the new life of a Christian. He is born of God, 2:29; 4:7; 5: 1, and this creates a new relationship with God. Caristians are children of God, 3:1 f., who at present enjoy a close union with God, so that he is said to be in them and to abide in them, 2:5 f.; and after this life they ’shall be like to him, because they shall see him as he is’, 3:2. There are, however, very definite obligations incurred by Christians, who must not commit sin, 3:6, but keep the commandments, 2:29, particularly the precept of fraternal charity, 3:23. This precept is called a new commandment, 2:7, without which we walk in darkness, 2:9 ff., and are not children of God, 3:10. It must fill the soul and not be restricted to words, but should manifest itself in deeds, 3:17 f. We cannot truly claim to love God unless we also love our brethren, 4:20. We forfeit union with God if we love the world, 2:15; or deny that Christ is the Son of God, 2:23.

Style and Text —In one way the style is extremely simple, in another it is very complicated. The sentence structure is simplicity itself, and individually each sentence is easy to understand; but the connexion of one sentence with the next is often difficult to grasp. There is usually no logical sequence of thought; yet there is development. A certain solemnity and unction are apparent, which make the Apostle’s admonitions very impressive.

The Greek text offers few textual problems, but the Latin text, from which the DV is made, has a passage, 5:7b, c-8a, which is lacking in all Greek MSS, except very late ones; in all ancient versions, except the Latin; in about fifty Vg MSS, including the best; likewise in the majority of Greek and Latin Fathers. According to some authorities, the passage was first quoted by Priscillian, who died in 380, and was first introduced into the Spanish Vg MSS, cf. A. S. J. Merk, Compendium Introductionis in SS, 1929, 779. Others hold that Tertullian, St Cyprian, and the whole African Church showed an acquaintance with this text, cf. CSAB 4, 326-31. It is now generally held that this passage, called the Comma Johanneum, is a gloss "that crept into the text of the Old Latin and Vg at an early date, but found its way into the Greek text only in the 15th and 16th cent.

Verses 2-10

I:1-4 Introduction —Beginning without address or salutation, and even omitting his name and title, the author asserts his character as witness to the actual manifestation of the Word of life, Jesus Christ. The Word, who was with the Father from all eternity, Jn 1:1, assumed human nature in order to procure eternal life for the human race. He became man that he might be the life of men. This great mystery the Apostle now reveals to his readers. But he reports nothing on insufficient proof; he records what he himself has seen, pondered, and touched.

3-4. The revelation is made for two reasons: first, that the readers may share ’fellowship’ with the Apostles, i.e. may partake of the union that joins all in Christ, and through Christ with God. Secondly, by realizing more fully this fellowship with the Father and the Son they will continually increase in joy. On John’s use of the first person singular and plural, cf.Jn 21:24, 25.

5-7 God is Light —5. The Apostle has a message from Christ which relates to the nature of God. He is the absolutely pure, spiritual, perfect being, who can best be represented to men by light. In him there is neither defect nor imperfection, nothing inconsistent with absolute excellence. Our Lord said repeatedly during his public ministry: ’I am the light of the world’, Jn 8:12; 9:5; 12:35 f.; i.e. the source of all truth and moral goodness. Since Father and Son are one, and have the same nature, what is true of the Son is true of the Fattier. ’Darkness’, in St John’s terminology, means the absence of truth and moral goodness, the prevalence of error and sin, cf. 2:8, 9, 11; Jn 1:5; 8:12. 6. Since God is so perfect a being, no one who leads a sinful life can claim fellowship with him, because union with God and a life of sin are incompatible states.

7. We ’walk in the light’ if we lead good and holy lives. Holiness binds all Christians with God and with one another, and makes one a partaker of the graces merited by the blood of Jesus Christ.

I:8-II:2 Sin and Its Remedy —Certain members of the Church, misled by pride and self-deception, maintained that they committed no sins. To this group the Apostle declares that whosoever dares to make such a claim is not guided by the truth, but is a victim of selfdeception. 9. Moreover, it is not sufficient to acknowledge ourselves to be sinners interiorly, we must ’confess our sins’, i.e. make an exterior acknowledgement of them. It is not stated here to whom they must be confessed in order that they may be forgiven. Christ commissioned the Apostles to absolve contrite sinners upon their confession of sins, Jn 20:23, and God who ’is faithful and just’ will ’forgive us our sins’ as he promised, e.g.Ps 102:3; Mic 7:18 f. 10. St John points out that even sincere Christians fall into sin. Should anyone dare to say the contrary, he makes God a liar, because he said explicitly that all men are sinners, Ps 13:3; Prov 20:9; Eccl. 7:21.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on 1 John 1". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/1-john-1.html. 1951.
 
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