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Bible Commentaries
1 John

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- 1 John

by John Dummelow


1. Authorship. The question is bound up with that of the authorship of the other Johannine books, both as regards internal and external evidence: see especially Introductions to the Gospel and to the Second and Third Epistles.

(a) Internal Evidence. The witness of the book itself to its authorship is sufficiently strong. The writer speaks with authority, as an Apostle would. He claims to have firsthand knowledge of the facts which underlie the gospel message (1 John 1:1-3). The tone and teaching of the letter suit the circumstances to which Christian tradition assigns it; they are such as we should expect from the aged St. John, writing to his disciples a last message regarding the truths enshrined in his Gospel.

When the Epistle is compared with the Gospel of St. John, the conclusion that the two books are the work of one hand is well-nigh irresistible. The style, the language, the thought of the Epistle reflect the features of the corresponding elements of the Gospel. The resemblance and agreement between the two are so great and so consistent as to establish, to the satisfaction of most minds, an identity of authorship.

Of these resemblances, the most obvious are certain verbal correspondences of language, of which the following examples will repay comparison. (1) Characteristic words used in a peculiar sense: ’life’ (1 John 1:1-2; 1 John 3:14 cp. John 1:4; John 6:33, John 6:51); ’light’ (1 John 1:5, 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:8 cp. John 1:4-5, John 1:7, John 1:9); ’darkness’ (1 John 1:6; 1 John 2:11 cp. John 8:12; John 12:35); ’world’ (1 John 2:15-17; 1 John 4:4-5 cp. John 1:10; John 12:31; John 14:17). (2) Characteristic expressions: ’eternal life’ (1 John 1:2; 1 John 3:15 cp. John 3:15-16; John 6:40; John 17:3); ’a new commandment’ (1 John 2:8 cp. John 13:34); ’only begotten Son’ (1 John 4:9 cp. John 1:18; John 3:16); ’know God’ (1 John 2:3-4; 1 John 4:6 cp. John 17:3, John 17:25); ’abide in Christ’ (1 John 2:6; 1 John 3:24 cp. John 6:56; John 15:4, John 15:5.) (3) Identical phrases; ’that your joy may befull’ (1 John 1:4 cp. John 16:24); ’walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth’ (1 John 2:11 cp. John 12:35); (are) ’passed from death unto life’ (1 John 3:14 cp. John 5:24); ’know him that is true’ (1 John 5:20; (RV); cp. John 17:3). Besides these and other like examples, a general similarity of style and thought gives evidence almost the strongest of its kind to show that if St. John wrote the Gospel which bears his name, he wrote the Epistle also.

(b) External Evidence. The witness afforded by the book itself to its authorship is amply supported by the testimony of ancient writers. The Epistle is evidently quoted (though without mention of the fact) by Polycarp (116 a.d.), who was, according to Irenæus, a (disciple of St. John. It was used, Eusebius tells us, by Papias (120 a.d.), an associate of Polycarp, also said to have been a hearer of St. John. It is quoted and referred to as St. John’s Epistle by Irenæus (180 a.d.), Polycarp’s disciple, by Clement of Alexandria (190 a.d.), Tertullian (200 a.d.), Origen (230 a.d.), and others.

2. Date and Destination. These questions are involved in more uncertainty, though fairly satisfactory inferences regarding them may be drawn both from tradition and from the book itself.

(a) When was it written? St. John is said to have written his Gospel at Ephesus (Iren. ’AdvHær.’ iii. 1, 1), probably between 80 and 90 a.d. As to the date of the Epistle we have no direct evidence. It is commonly believed, however, that the two writings are closely connected in time, the prevailing opinion perhaps being that the Epistle was written subsequently to the Gospel, whether as a supplement or as an independent composition.

The idea of an original connection with the Gospel has been supposed to find support from the place which the Epistle occupies in the Muratorian Fragment on the Canon (cir1John 170), a witness for the authenticity of the Epistle not included in the authorities mentioned above. In this document, which contains (incomplete in its extant form, as the name implies) an annotated list of the books of the New Testament, the First Epistle of St.. John is placed directly after the Gospel, and not with the two minor Epistles. This, it has been conjectured, was the position which it originally occupied as a supplement or postscript to the Gospel, and from which it was subsequently removed when the books of the New Testament were grouped in their present order. However this may be, as the Epistle contains no reference to persecutions, such as took place during the reigns of Domitian and Trajan, it can hardly have been issued much later than 90 a.d.

(b) For what Readers was it intended? In this there is involved a prior question as to the character of the composition itself. Is it an Epistle at all? Of all the New Testament Epistles, this and the Epistle to the Hebrews alone begin without any epistolary form of address. Moreover, this contains no salutations or messages to individuals, such as are found in Hebrews and in nearly all the other Epistles. Some, therefore, have regarded it as a treatise rather than a letter.

While, however, this book is not written in epistolary form, it contains the substance of all Epistle. Its epistolary character is also seen in the constant use of the second person (1 John 1:3 and onwards), the terms ’little children,’ ’fathers,’ ’young men,’ ’beloved,’ by which the readers are addressed, and the frequent use of the expression, ’I write unto you’ (1 John 2:12-14; 1 John 3:2, etc.). The opinion, therefore, is probably not far wrong which regards the work as a pastoral or circular letter, addressed to the Churches in the province of Asia with which St. John is definitely connected in 1 John 1 of the Apocalypse, and having reference primarily to the peculiar circumstances of those Churches and the particular spiritual dangers to which they were exposed.

At the same time, the absence of local colour makes it possible that a wider circle is addressed. It is most natural, however, to infer a distinctly Gentile community, as well from the warning against idolatry with which the book concludes as from the absence of the Hebrew element so manifest throughout the Gospel, and of any quotations from or allusions to the Old Testament.

3. Contents. The theme of the Epistle is fellowship with God; its object, to bring its readers into that fellowship and to secure them against losing it.

This purpose finds expression at the opening of the Epistle, and again near its close. ’That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full’ (1 John 1:3-4), ’These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God’ (1 John 5:13). There is thus a distinct difference between the object of the Epistle and that of the Gospel (see John 20:31), the object of the one being to promote faith in Christ, that of the other to confirm the faith and develop the religious life of those who already believe.

The writer’s thought revolves about certain fundamental watchwords regarding the nature of God. The three great watchwords which occupy the pivotal places in the plan of the Epistle (see analysis below) are, ’God is light,’ ’God is righteous,’ ’God is love.’ Corresponding to these are the Christian graces of faith, obedience, love, and the Christian duties of confessing Christ, keeping the commandments, and loving the brethren. Together with the positive inculcation of these truths and duties is combined a recognition of their opposites. Underlying all the thought of the Epistle is the conception of the irreconcilable antagonism which exists between Christ and the world; hence the statement of truth or duty is strengthened or expanded by a denial of or warning against its opposite. The active presence of error and evil among those addressed accounts for the polemical element in the Epistle, and the warnings against evil influences and wrong ways of thinking and living with which it abounds.

The particular heresy which the writer combats appears to have been an incipient form of one of the various systems which, as developed in the 2nd cent., are included under the general name of Gnosticism, in all of which there was involved a denial of the reality of the Incarnation: cp. 1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7. This subject is more fully treated in Intro. to Second and Third Epistles. The polemical element is, however, subordinate to the main object of the Epistle, which is to promote the spiritual life of believers by bringing them into a living union with Christ and confirming them therein.

The plan of the Epistle is difificult to follow, and has been differently understood, some failing to recognise any regular plan at all. In the following Synopsis, the minor sections are grouped about the three fundamental statements mentioned above.

1 John 1:1-4. Introduction. The fundamental scheme of the Epistle: God manifested in Jesus Christ, that man may have fellowship with the Father through the Son.

1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:28. I. God is Light, hence fellowship with Him means walking in the light and realising a sense of brotherhood and the forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:7).

(i) This involves, (a) confession of sin (1 John 1:8-10), (b) keeping His commandments (1 John 2:3-6), (c) in particular, loving the brethren (1 John 2:7-11).

(ii) (a) Reasons for writing, as regards the spiritual condition of the readers (1 John 2:12-16). (b) Things and persons to avoid. (1) The love of the world (1 John 2:15-17). (2) Fellowship with false teachers (1 John 2:18-26). (c) The believer’s security and hope (1 John 2:27-28).

1 John 2:29 to 1 John 4:6. II. God is Righteous, hence fellowship with Him involves doing righteousness, and this is an evidence of divine sonship (1 John 2:29).

(i) Sonship a motive to righteousness (1 John 3:1-9).

(ii) Sonship the root of brotherly love (1 John 3:10-18).

(iii) Sonship resulting in glorious privileges: (a) assurance (1 John 3:19-21), (b) answer to prayer (1 John 3:22), (c) fellowship, realised through the gift of the Spirit (1 John 3:24), (d) discernment of truth and error (1 John 4:1-6).

1 John 4:7 to 1 John 5:12. III. God is Love, hence fellowship with Him involves walking in love (1 John 4:7-8).

(i) How God’s love to us was manifested (1 John 4:9-10).

(ii) Our rightful response to it, brotherly love (1 John 4:11-12).

(iii) The proofs of fellowship, (a) the indwelling Spirit (1 John 4:13), (b) confessing Jesus (1 John 4:14-15), (c) abiding in love (1 John 4:16).

(iv) Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:17-18).

(v) Brotherly love the test of love to God (1 John 4:19-21).

(vi) Love finds expression in obedience (1 John 5:1-4).

(vii) Obedience rests on faith in and fellowship with Christ (1 John 5:5-12).

1 John 5:13-21. Conclusion.

(i) Reason for writing restated in different form (1 John 5:13).

(ii) The assurance which believers may have: (a) of the efficacy of prayer (1 John 5:14-17), (b) of the guardianship of God (1 John 5:18), (c) of divine sonship (1 John 5:19), (d) of the reality of the divine manifestation and the fellowship resulting from it (1 John 5:20).

(iii) Final warning (1 John 5:21).

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