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Bible Commentaries
1 John

Alford's Greek Testament Critical Exegetical CommentaryAlford's Greek Testament Commentary

- 1 John

by Henry Alford





1. THE internal testimony furnished by this Epistle to its Author being the same with the Author of the fourth Gospel is, it may well be thought, incontrovertible. To maintain a diversity of Authorship would betray the very perverseness and exaggeration of that school of criticism which refuses to believe, be evidence never so strong.

2. It will be well however not to assume this identity, but to proceed in the same way as we have done with the other books of the New Testament, establishing the Authorship by external ecclesiastical testimony.

Polycarp, ad Philipp. c. 7, p. 1012, writes: πᾶς γὰρ ὃς ἂν μὴ ὁμολογῇ Ἰησοῦν χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθέναι , ἀντίχριστός ἐστιν . Seeing that this contains a plain allusion to 1 John 4:3 , and that Polycarp was the disciple of St. John, it has ever been regarded as an indirect testimony to the genuineness, and so to the Authorship of our Epistle. Lücke, in his Einleitung, p. 3 f., has dealt with and defended this testimony of Polycarp.

3. It is said of Papias by Eusebius, H. E. iii. 39, κέχρηται δ ʼ ὁ αὐτὸς μαρτυρίαις ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰωάννου προτέρας ἐπιστολῆς , καὶ τῆς Πέτρου ὁμοίως . And be it remembered that Irenæus says of Papias that he was Ἰωάννου μὲν ἀκουστής , Πολυκάρπου δ ʼ ἑταῖρος .

4. Irenæus frequently quotes this Epistle, as Eusebius asserts of him, H. E. 1 John 4:8 . In his work against heresies, iii. 16. 5, p. 206, after citing John 20:31 , with “quemadmodum Joannes Domini discipulus confirmat dicens,” he proceeds “propter quod et in Epistola sua sic testificatus est nobis: Filioli, novissima hora est,” &c. 1 John 2:18 ff. In iii. 16. 8, p. 207, he says, “quos et Dominus nobis cavere prædixit, et discipulus ejus Johannes in prædicta epistola fugere nos præcepit dicens Multi seductores exierunt, &c. (2 John 1:7-8 ; so that “in prædicta epistola” seems to be a lapse of memory): et rursus in epistola ait Multi pseudoprophetæ exierunt,” &c. (1 John 4:1-3 .)

In this last quotation it is that Irenæus supports the remarkable reading, ὃ λύει τὸν Ἰησοῦν , “qui solvit Jesum.”

And just after, he proceeds, διὸ πάλιν ἐν τῇ ἐπιστολῇ φησί Πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ὅτι Ἰησοῦς χριστός ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγένηται , 1 John 5:1 .

5. Clement of Alexandria repeatedly refers to our Epistle as written by St. John. Thus in his Strom. ii. 15 (66), p. 464 P., φαίνεται δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης ἐν τῇ μείζονι ἐπιστολῇ τὰς διαφορὰς τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἐκδιδάσκων ἐν τούτοις · ἐάν τις ἰδῇ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα , κ . τ . λ ., 1 John 5:16 .

In Strom. iii. 4 (32), p. 525 P., he quotes 1 John 1:6 f. with φησὶν ὁ Ἰωάννης ἐν τῇ ἐπιστολῇ . In iii. 5 (42), p. 530, 1 John 3:3 , with φησίν only. In iv. 16 (102), p. 608, 1 John 3:18-19 ; 1 John 4:16 ; 1Jn 4:18 ; 1 John 5:3 , with Ἰωάννης , τελείους εἶναι διδάσκων .…

6. Tertullian, adv. Marcion. 1 John 5:16 , vol. ii. p. 511: “ut Johannes apostolus, qui jam antichristos dicit processisse in mundum, præcursores antichristi spiritus, negantes Christum in carne venisse et solventes Jesum …” (1 John 4:1 ff.)

Adv. Praxean. c. 15, p. 173: “Quod vidimus, inquit Johannes, quod audivimus,” &c. (1 John 1:1 .)

Ib. c. 28, p. 192 f.: “Johannes autem etiam mendacem notat eum qui negaverit Jesum esse Christum, contra de Deo natum omnem qui crediderit Jesum esse Christum (1 John 2:22 ; 1 John 4:2 f., 1Jn 5:1 ): propter quod et hortatur ut credamus nomini filii ejus Jesu Christi, ut scilicet communio sit nobis cum Patre et filio ejus Jesu Christo” ( 1Jn 1:7 ).

See also adv. Gnosticos, 12, p. 147: and other places, in the indices.

7. Cyprian in Ep. 25 (24 or 28), p. 289, writes: “Et Joannes apostolus mandati memor in epistola sua postmodum ponit: In hoc inquit, intelligimus quia cognovimus eum, si præcepta ejus custodiamus,” &c. (1 John 2:3-4 .)

And de orat. dom. ad Demetr. 14, p. 529, “in epistola sua Joannes quoque ad faciendam Dei voluntatem hortatur et instruit dicens: Nolite diligere mundum,” &c. (1 John 2:15-17 .)

Also de opere et eleemos. 3, p. 604: “iterum in epistola sua Joannes ponat et dicat: Si dixerimus quia peccatum non habemus,” &c. (1 John 1:8 .)

De bono patientiæ, 9, p. 628: “per Christi exempla gradiamur, sicut Joannes apostolus instruit dicens: Qui dicit se in Christo manere, debet quomodo ille ambulavit et ipse ambulare” ( 1Jn 2:6 ).

8. Muratori’s fragment on the canon states, “Joannis duæ in catholica habentur.”

And the same fragment cites 1 John 1:1 ; 1 John 1:4 ; “quid ergo mirum, si Joannes tam constanter singula etiam in epistolis suis proferat, dicens in semetipso Quæ vidimus oculis nostris et auribus audivimus et manus nostræ palpaverunt in hæc scripsimus.” Cf. Routh, reliq. sacr. i. p. 395.

9. The Epistle is found in the Peschito, whose canon in the catholic Epistles is so short.

10. Origen (in Euseb. vi. 25), beginning the sentence τί δεῖ περὶ τοῦ ἀναπεσόντος λέγειν ἐπὶ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ , Ἰωάννου .…, and proceeding as cited in the Prolegg. to the Apocalypse, § i. par. 12, says, καταλέλοιπε δὲ καὶ ἐπιστολὴν πάνυ ὀλίγων στίχων · ἔστω δὲ καὶ δευτέραν καὶ τρίτην , ἐπεὶ οὐ πάντες φασὶ γνησίους εἶναι ταύτας · πλὴν οὐκ εἰσὶ στίχων ἀμφότεραι ἑκατόν . And he continually cites the Epistle as St. John’s: e. g., in Ev. Jo. tom. xiii. 21, vol. iv., p. 230, ὁ θεὸς ἡμὼν πῦρ καταναλίσκον , παρὰ δὲ τῷ Ἰωάννῃ φῶς · ὁ θεὸς γὰρ , φησί , φῶς ἐστι καὶ σκοτία ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεμία . Numerous other places may be found in the indices.

11. Dionysius of Alexandria, the scholar of Origen, recognizes the genuineness of the Gospel and Epistle as being written by the Apostle John, by the very form of his argument against the genuineness of the Apocalypse. For (see his reasoning at length in the Prolegomena to the Revelation, § i. par. 48) he tries to prove that it was not written by St. John, on account of its diversity in language and style from the Gospel and Epistle; and distinctly cites the words of our Epistle as those of the Evangelist: ὁ δέ γε εὐαγγελιστὴς οὐδὲ τῆς καθολικῆς ἐπιστολῆς προέγραψεν αὐτοῦ τὸ ὄνομα , ἀλλὰ ἀπερίττως ἀπ ʼ αὐτοῦ τοῦ μυστηρίου τῆς θείας ἀποκαλύψεως ἤρξατο · ὃ ἦν ἀπ ʼ ἀρχῆς , ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν , ὃ ἑοράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν .

12. Eusebius, H. E. iii. 24, says, τῶν δὲ Ἰωάννου συγγραμμάτων πρὸς τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ καὶ ἡ προτέρα τῶν ἐπιστολῶν παρά τε τοῖς νῦν καὶ τοῖς ἔτ ʼ ἀρχαίοις ἀναμφίλεκτος ὡμολόγηται . And in iii. 25, having enumerated the four Gospels and Acts and the Epistles of Paul, he says, αἷς ἑξῆς τὴν φερομένην Ἰωάννου προτέραν .… κυρωτέον .

13. After the time of Eusebius, general consent pronounced the same verdict. We may terminate the series of testimonies with that of Jerome, who in his catalogue of ecclesiastical writers (c. 9, vol. ii. p. 845) says of St. John, “Scripsit autem et unam epistolam, cujus exordium est, Quod fuit ab initio, &c., quæ ab universis ecclesiasticis et eruditis viris probatur.”

14. The first remarkable contradiction to this combination of testimony is found in the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes, in the sixth century. He ventures to assert (lib. vii. p. 292, in Migne, Patr., vol. lxxxviii. [180] ), that none of the earlier Christian writers who have treated of the canon, makes any mention of the Catholic Epistles as canonical; οὐ γὰρ τῶν ἀποστόλων φασὶν αὐτοὺς οἱ πλείους , ἀλλ ʼ ἑτέρων τινῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀφελεστέρων . He then proceeds in a somewhat confused way to state that Irenæus does mention 1 Peter and 1 John, as apostolic, ἕτεροι δὲ οὐδὲ αὐτὰς λέγουσιν εἶναι ἀποστόλων , ἀλλὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων · πρώτη γὰρ καὶ δευτέρα καὶ τρίτη Ἰωάννου γέγραπται , ὡς δῆλον ἑνὸς προσώπου εἶναι τὰς τρεῖς . But it is evident from the chain of testimonies given above, that Cosmas can have been but ill informed on the subject.

[180] See the passage at length, with Lücke’s remarks, in his Einleitung, pp. 5, 6, note.

15. It is probable that the Alogi mentioned by Epiphanius as rejecting the Gospel and Apocalypse, included the Epistles in this rejection. Still Epiphanius does not assert it; he only says, τάχα δὲ καὶ τὰς ἐπιστολάς , δυνᾴδουσι γὰρ καὶ αὗται τῳ εὐαγγελίῳ καὶ τῇ ἀποκαλύψει . Hær. li. c. 34, vol. i. p. 456. But their repudiation of the Epistle would be of no account.

16. Its rejection by Marcion is of equally little consequence. He excluded from the canon all the writings of St. John, as not suiting his views.

17. Lücke closes his review of ancient authorities, which I have followed and expanded, by saying, “Incontestably then our Epistle must be numbered among those canonical books which are most strongly upheld by ecclesiastical tradition.”

18. But the genuineness of the Epistle rests not, as already observed, on external testimony alone. It must remain an acknowledged fact, until either the Gospel is proved not to be St. John’s, or the similarity between the two is shewn to be only apparent. Lücke has well observed, that neither Gospel nor Epistle can be said to be an imitation: both are original, but both the product of the same mind: so that considered only in this point of view, we might well doubt which was written first.

19. However, its genuineness has been controverted in modern times. First we have a rash and characteristic saying of Jos. Scaliger’s: “tres epistolæ Joannis non sunt apostoli Joannis.” The first who deliberately and on assigned grounds took the same side, was S. Gottlieb Lange; who, strange to say, receiving the Gospel and the Apocalypse, yet rejected the Epistle.

20. His argument, as reported by Lücke, is as follows: The entire failure in the Epistle of any individual, personal, and local notices, betrays an author unacquainted with the personal circumstances of the Apostle, and those of the churches where he taught. The close correspondence of the Epistle with the Gospel in thought and expression begets a suspicion that some careful imitator of John wrote the Epistle. Lastly, the Epistle, as compared with the Gospel, shews such evident signs of enfeeblement of spirit by old age, that if it is to be ascribed to John, it must have been written at the extreme end of his life, after the destruction of Jerusalem; whereas, from no allusion being made to that event even in such a passage as ch. 1 John 2:18 , the Epistle makes a shew of having been written before it. The only solution in Lange’s estimation is that some imitator wrote it, as St. John’s, it may be a century after his time.

21. To this Lücke replies that Lange is in fourfold error. For 1, it is not true that the Epistle contains no individual and personal notices. These it is true are rather hinted at and implied than brought to the surface: a characteristic, not only of a catholic epistle as distinguished from one locally addressed, but also of the style of St. John as distinguished from that of St. Paul. As to the fact, the Writer designates himself by implication as an apostle, and seems to allude to his Gospel in ch. 1 John 1:1-4 ; in ch. 1 John 2:1 ; 1 John 2:18 , he implies an intimate relation between himself and his readers: in ch. 1 John 2:12-14 , he distinguishes his readers according to their ages: in ch. 1 John 2:18-19 , 1 John 4:1-3 , the false teachers are pointed at in a way which shews that both Writer and readers knew more about them: and the warning, ch. 1 John 5:21 , has a local character, and reminds the readers of something well known to them.

22. Secondly, it is entirely denied, as above remarked, that there is the slightest trace of slavish imitation. The Epistle is in no respect the work of an imitator of the Gospel. Such a person would have elaborated every point of similarity, and omitted no notice of the personal and local circumstances of the Apostle: would have probably misunderstood and exaggerated St. John’s peculiarities of style and thought. All such attempts to put off one man’s writing for that of another carry in them the elements of failure as against a searching criticism. But how different is all we find in this Epistle. By how wide a gap is it separated from the writings of Ignatius, Clement, Barnabas, Polycarp. Apparently close as it is upon them in point of time, what a totally different spirit breathes in it. This Epistle written after them, written among them, would be indeed the rarest of exceptional cases an unimaginable anachronism, a veritable ὕστερον πρότερον .

23. Thirdly: it is certainly the strangest criticism, to speak of the weakness of old age in the Epistle. If this could be identified as really being so, it would be the strongest proof of authenticity. For it is altogether inconceivable, that an imitator could have had the power or the purpose to write as John might have written in his old age. But where are the traces of this second childishness? We are told, in the repetitions, in the want of order, in the uniformity. Certainly there is an appearance of tautology in the style: more perhaps than in the Gospel. Erasmus, in the dedication of his paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel, characterizes the style of the Gospel as a “dicendi genus ita velut ansulis ex sese cohærentibus contexens, nonnumquam ex contrariis, nonnumquam ex similibus, nonnumquam ex iisdem subinde repetitis, ut orationis quodque membrum semper excipiat prius, sic, ut prioris finis initium sit sequentis.” The same style prevails in the Epistle. It is not however an infirmity of age, but a peculiarity, which might belong to extreme youth just as well.

24. The greater amount of repetition in the Epistle arises from its being more hortatory and tender in character. And it may also be attributed to its more Hebraistic form, in which it differs from the Grecian and dialectic style of St. Paul: abounding in parallels and apparent arguings in a circle. The epistolary form would account for the want of strict arrangement in order, which would hardly be observed by the youngest any more than by the oldest writer.

25. And the appearance of uniformity, partly accounted for by the oneness of subject and simplicity of spirit, is often produced by want of deep enough exegesis to discover the real differences in passages which seem to express the same. Besides, even granting these marks of old age, what argument would they furnish against the genuineness? St. John was quite old enough at and after the siege of Jerusalem for such to have shewn themselves: so that this objection must be dealt with on other grounds, and does not affect our present question.

26. Fourthly, it is quite a mistake to suppose that if the Epistle was written after the destruction of Jerusalem, that event must necessarily have been intimated in ch. 1 John 2:18 . It cannot be proved, nor does it seem likely from the notices of the παρουσία in the Gospel, that, St. John connected the ἐσχάτη ὥρα with the destruction of Jerusalem. It does not seem likely that, writing to Christians of Asia Minor who probably from the first had a wider view of our Lord’s prophecy of the end, he should have felt bound to make a corrective allusion to the event, even supposing he himself had once identified it with the time of the end. They would not require to be told, why the universal triumph of Christianity had not followed it, seeing they probably never expected it to do so.

27. So that Lange’s objections, which I have reported freely from Lücke, as being highly illustrative of the character of the Epistle, certainly do not succeed in impugning the verdict of antiquity, or the evidence furnished by the Epistle itself.

28. The objections brought by Bretschneider, formed on the doctrine of the logos and the antidocetic tendency manifest both in the Epistle and the Gospel, and betraying both as works of the second century, have also been shewn by Lücke, Einl. pp. 16 20, to be untenable. The doctrine of the logos, though formally enounced by St. John only, is in fact that of St. Paul in Colossians 1:15 ff., and that of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews 1 ff., and was unquestionably prepared for Christian use long before, in the Alexandrine Jewish theology. And though Docetism itself may have been the growth of the second century, yet the germs of it, which are opposed in this Epistle, were apparent long before. A groundless assumption of Bretschneider is, that seeing the three Epistles are by the same hand, and the writer of the second and third, where there was no ground for concealing himself, calls himself ὁ πρεσβύτερος , the first Epistle, where, wishing to be taken for the Apostle, he does not name himself, is also by John the Presbyter. The answer to which is, that we can by no means consent to the assumption that the so-called Presbyter John was the author of the second and third Epistles: see the Prolegomena to 2 John, § i. 2, 12 ff.

29. The objections brought against our Epistle by the modern Tübingen school are dealt with at considerable length by Düsterdieck, in his Einleitung, pp. xxxix lxxv. It is not my purpose to enter on them here. For mere English readers, it would require an introduction far longer than that which Düsterdieck has devoted to it, at all to enable them to appreciate the nature of those objections and the postulates from which they spring. And when I inform such English readers that the first of those postulates is the denial of a personal God, they will probably not feel that they have lost much by not having the refutation of the objections laid before them. Should any regret it, they may find some of them briefly noticed in Dr. Davidson’s Introduction, vol. iii. pp. 454 ff.: and they will there see how feeble and futile they are.

30. Whether then we approach the question of the authorship of this Epistle (and its consequent canonicity) from the side of external testimony, or of internal evidence, we are alike convinced that its claim to have been written by the Evangelist St. John, and to its place in the canon of Scripture, is fully substantiated.



1. This question, in the case of our Epistle, might be very easily and briefly dealt with, were it not for one apparent mistake, which complicates it.

In Augustine’s Quæst Evang. ii. 39, vol. iii. p. 1353, we read, “secundum sententiam hanc etiam illud est quod dictum est a Joanne in epistola ad Parthos;” and then follows 1 John 3:2 . This appears to be the only place in Augustine’s writings where he thus characterizes it. The “ad Parthos” has found its way into some of the Benedictine editions in the title of the Tractates on the Epistle: but it seems not to have been originally there. It has been repeated by some of the Latin fathers, e. g. by Vigilius Tapsensis (or Idacius Clarus?) in the 5th century in his treatise against Varimadus the Arian [181] : by Cassiodorus [182] : by Bed [183] , who in a prologue to the seven catholic Epistles [184] , says, “multi scriptorum ecclesiasticorum, in quibus est sanctus Athanasius, Alexandrinæ præsul ecclesiæ, primam ejus (Joannis) epistolam scriptam ad Parthos esse testantur.” These two latter notices involve the matter in more obscurity still. For Cassiodorus thus designates not only the first, but also the second and third Epistles; and, seeing that no Greek writer ever seems to give this title, it is hardly conceivable that the statement of Bede [185] regarding Athanasius can be correct. Düsterdieck suspects, and apparently with reason, that the prologue cannot be from Bede’s [186] own hand, seeing that he so uniformly keeps to Augustine.

[181] Lib. i. c. 5, p. 367; in Migne, Patr. Lat. vol. lxii.

[182] De institut. divin. Script. c. 14, vol. ii. p. 546.

[183] Bede, the Venerable , 731; Bedegr, a Greek MS. cited by Bede, nearly identical with Cod. “E,” mentioned in this edn only when it differs from E.

[184] Vol. iv. p. 1, Migne, from Cave, Script. eccles. histor. liter. pp. 179, 296.

[185] Bede, the Venerable , 731; Bedegr, a Greek MS. cited by Bede, nearly identical with Cod. “E,” mentioned in this edn only when it differs from E.

[186] Bede, the Venerable , 731; Bedegr, a Greek MS. cited by Bede, nearly identical with Cod. “E,” mentioned in this edn only when it differs from E.

2. Some, but very few writers, have assumed as a fact that the Epistle was really written to the Parthians. Paulus and Baur made use of the assumption to impugn the apostolicity of the Epistle. Grotius, who was followed by Hammond, and partially by Michaelis and Baumgarten-Crusius, gives a curious reason, in connexion with this idea, for the omission of all address and personal notices: “vocata olim fuit epistola ad Parthos, i. e. ad Judæos Christum professos, qui non sub Romanorum, sed sub Parthorum vivebant imperio in locis trans Euphratem, ubi ingens erat Judæorum multitudo, ut Neardæ, Nisibi et aliis in locis. Et hanc causam puto cur hæc epistola neque in fronte nomen titulumque Apostoli, neque in fine salutationes apostolici moris contineat, quia nimirum in terras hostiles Romanis hæc epistola per mercatores Ephesios mittebatur, multumque nocere Christianis poterat, si deprehensum fuisset hoc, quanquam innocens, litterarum commercium.” This is absurd enough, especially as the Epistle is evidently not addressed to Jews at all as such, but mainly to Gentile readers: see below, par 5. And ecclesiastical tradition knows of no mission of St. John to the Parthians, St. Thomas being supposed to have carried the Gospel to them.

3. This being so, it would appear, as hinted before, that the supposed address “ad Parthos” rests upon some mistake. But if so, on what mistake? A conjecture is quoted from Serrarius that in the original text of Augustine it stood “ad Pathmios:” another from Semler, that “adapertius” is the reading, Augustine wishing to contrast St. John’s writings with those of St. Paul, as the plainer and more explicit of the two [187] . A more probable conjecture has been, that the word παρθένος has some concern in the mistake: not however in the manner supposed by Whiston [188] , that the original address was πρὸς παρθένους , i. e. to “young Christians yet uncorrupted both as to fleshly and spiritual fornication.” Hug supposes that the πρὸς πάρθους came from a superscription of the second Epistle, found in the cursive mss. 89 (Cent. xi.) and 30 (Cent. xiii.) of Griesbach, and alluded to by Clem. Alex., in a fragment of his Adumbrations on 2 John, ed. Potter, p. 1011, “secunda Joannis epistola, quæ ad virgines scripta, simplicissima est.” And this is very possible. Another supposition is that of Gieseler, Kirchenge schichte, i. p. 139, that it has arisen out of the circumstance of the name παρθένος being given to the Apostle himself. This name certainly occurs in a superscription of the Apocalypse cited by Lücke from ms. 30 of Griesbach (Cent. xii.) τοῦ ἁγίου ἐνδοξοτάτου ἀποστόλου καὶ εὐαγγελιστοῦ παρθένου ἠγαπημένου ἐπιστηθίου Ἰωάννου θεολόγου . Lücke gives various other notices, from which it appears that this character was attributed to St. John [189] .

[187] Other conjectures have derived it from ‘ ad sparsos ,’ ‘ ad pantas .’ “ Ad Spartos ” is asserted by Scholz (biblische-kritische Reise, p. 67) to be found in many Latin mss., but Lücke doubts this.

[188] Comm. on the 3 catholic Epistles of St. John, Lond. 1719, p. 6: cited by Lücke and Düsterdieck.

[189] See the (Ps.?) Ignatius, ad Philad. c. 4, p. 824; Tertullian de monogam. c. 17, vol. ii. p. 952; Cyr. Alex. Orat. de Maria virgine, p. 380

4. At all events we may fairly assume, that the Epistle was not written to the Parthians. Nor is there more probability in the notion of Benson that it was addressed to the Jewish Christians in Judæa and Galilee, who had seen the Lord in the flesh: nor in that of Lightfoot, who sends it to the Church at Corinth, supposing the Gaius to whom the third Epistle is addressed, identical with him of Acts 19:29 ; 1 Corinthians 1:14 , and the ἔγραψα of 3Jn 1:9 to refer to this first Epistle.

5. Setting aside these, and falling back on the general opinion, we believe the Epistle to have been written not to any one church, but to a cycle of churches, mainly consisting of Gentile converts. This last seems shewn by the warning of ch. 1 John 5:21 , combined with the circumstance that so little reference is made to O. T. sayings or history.

6. It evidently also appears, that the Apostle is the spiritual teacher of those to whom he is writing. He knows their circumstances and various advances in the faith: the whole tone is that of their father in the faith. Such a relation, following as we surely must the traces furnished by ancient tradition, can only be found in the case of St. John, by believing the readers to have been members of the churches at and round Ephesus, where he lived and taught.

7. The character of the Epistle is too general to admit a comparison between it and the Ephesian Epistle in the Apocalypse, which some have endeavoured to institute. Our Epistle contains absolutely no materials on which such a comparison can proceed.



1. As introductory to this enquiry, it will be well to give an account of opinions respecting the epistolary form of this canonical book.

2. This was always taken for granted, seeing that definite readers and their circumstances are continually present, and that the first and second persons plural are constantly used [190] , until Michaelis [191] maintained that it is rather a treatise, or a book, than a letter; and only so far a letter, as any treatise may be addressed to certain readers, e. g. the Acts to Theophilus. Accordingly, he holds this to be a second part of the Gospel.

[190] Cf. ch. 1Jn 2:1 ; 1 John 2:7 ; 1Jn 2:13-14 ; 1Jn 2:18 ; 1Jn 2:28 ; 1Jn 3:18 ; 1Jn 3:21 ; 1 John 4:1 ; 1 John 4:7 ; 1 John 4:11 , &c.

[191] Introd. to N. T., Marsh’s transl., vol. iv. p. 400.

3. As Lücke remarks, it is of great importance whether we consider the writing as an Epistle or not. Our decision on this point affects both our estimate of it, and our exposition. Surely, however, the question is not difficult to decide. We may fairly reply to the hypothesis which supposes the Epistle to be a second part of the Gospel, that the Gospel is complete in itself and requires no such supplement; see John 20:30-31 , where the practical object also of the Gospel is too plainly asserted, for us to suppose this to be its practical sequel.

4. To view it again as a preface and introduction to the Gospel, as Hug, seems not to be borne out by the spirit of either writing. The Gospel requires no such introduction: the Epistle furnishes none such. They do not in a word stand in any external relation to one another, such as is imagined by every one of these hypotheses.

5. Hug fancied he found a trace of the Epistle having once been attached to the Gospel, in the Latin version attached to the Codex Bezæ. There, on the back of the leaf on which the Acts of the Apostles begin, the copyist has written the last column of 3 John, with this subscription: “Epistulæ Johanis iii. explicit incipit Actus Apostolorum.” But first, this proves too much, seeing that the second and third Epistles of St. John (and the rest of the catholic epistles?) are included, and surely Hug does not suppose these Epistles to have been also sequels to the Gospel: and secondly, this very circumstance, the inclusion of all three Epistles, shews a possible reason of the arrangement, viz. to place together the writings of the same Apostle.

6. The writing then is to be regarded as an Epistle, as it usually has been: and no closer external relation to the Gospel must be sought for.

But, this being premised, a very interesting question follows. The two writings are internally related, in a remarkable manner. Do the phænomena of this relation point out the Gospel, or the Epistle, as having been first written?

7. And to this question there can I think be but one answer. The Epistle again and again assumes, on the part of its readers, an acquaintance with the facts of the Gospel narrative. Lücke well remarks, that “as a rule, the shorter, more concentrated expression of one and the same writer, especially when ideas peculiar to him are concerned, is the later , while the more explicit one, which first unfolds and puts in shape the idea, is the earlier one.” And he finds examples of this in the abbreviated formulæ of ch. 1 John 1:1-2 , as compared with John 1:1 ff; John 4:2 , compared with John 1:14 .

8. Other considerations connected with this part of our subject will be found treated in the next section.



1. On both of these, opinions have been much divided; no sure indications being furnished by the Epistle itself. If however we have been right in assigning to it a date subsequent to that of the Gospel, we shall bring that date, by what has been said in the Prolegomena to Vol. 1 Chronicles 5:0 . § iv. (where fifteen years, A.D. 70 85, are shewn to have marked the probable limits of the time of the writing of the Gospel), within a time not earlier than perhaps about the middle of the eighth decade of the first century: and extending as late as the traditional age of the Apostle himself.

2. Some have imagined that the Epistle betrays marks of the extreme old age of the writer. But such inferences are very fallacious. Certainly the repeated use of τεκνία , more frequently than any other term of endearing address, seems to point to an aged writer: but even this is insecure.

3. Again it has been fancied that the ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν of ch. 1 John 2:18 , furnishes a note of time; and must be understood of the approaching destruction of Jerusalem. But as Lücke replies, this expression is used simply in reference to the appearance of antichristian teachers, and the apprehension thence arising that the coming of the Lord was at hand. So that we have no more right to infer a note of time from it, than from similar expressions in St. Paul, e. g. 1Ti 4:1 ; 2Ti 3:1

4. As to the place of writing, we are just as much in uncertainty. The Gospel (Vol. I. Prolegg. ch. v. § iv.) is said by Irenæus to have been written at Ephesus. And ancient tradition, if at least represented by the subscriptions to the Epistle, seems to have placed the writing of the Epistle there also. Further, it is impossible to say.



1. This Epistle, from its aphoristic and apparently tautological character, is exceedingly difficult to arrange as a continuous contextual whole. Some indeed from this have been induced to believe that there is no such contextual connexion in the Epistle. So Calvin [192] , Episcopius [193] , and others. And this seems, up to the beginning of the last century, to have been the prevailing view. About that time, Sebastian Schmid, in his commentary on the Epistle, maintained, but only tentatively and timidly, that there is a logical and contextual arrangement. The same side was taken up with more decision by Oporinus of Göttingen, in a treatise entitled “De constanter tenenda communione cum Patre et Filio ejus Jesu Christo, i. e. Joannis Ephesians 1:0 . nodis interpretum liberata et luci vere innectæ suæ restituta, Goett. 1741.”

[192] “ Doctrinam exhortationibus mistam continet. Disserit enim de æterna Christi deitate, simul de incomparabili quam mundo patefactus secum attulit gratia, tum de omnibus in genere beneficiis ac præsertim inæstimabilem divinæ adoptionis gratiam commendat atque extollit. Inde sumit exhortandi materiem, et nunc quidem in genere pie et sancte vivendum admonet, nunc de caritate nominatim præcipit. Verum nihil horum continua serie facit. Nam sparsim docendo et exhortando varius est, præsertim vero multus est in urgenda caritate. Alia quoque breviter attingit, ut de cavendis impostoribus, et similia.” Argum. Epist. 1 Joh. vol. vii. p. 107.

[193] “ Modus tractandi arbitrarius est, neque ad artis regulas adstrictus … sine rhetorico artificio aut logica accurata methodo institutus.” Lectiones sacræ in Ep. Joh. Amst. 1665, ii. p. 173.

2. But the principal advocate of this view in the last century was Bengel. In his note in the Gnomon [194] on the famous passage, ch. 1 John 5:7 , he gives his contextual system of the Epistle, as cited below [195] . It will be observed that this arrangement is made in the interest of the disputed verse, and tends to give it an important place in the context of the Epistle. It is moreover highly artificial, and the Trinitarian character, which is made to predominate, is certainly far from the obvious key to the real arrangement, as given us by the Epistle itself [196] .

[194] Vol. ii. p. 568, ed. Steudel. Tübingen and London, 1850.

[195] “ Partes sunt tres:

[196] Bengel’s arrangement has been adopted in the main by Sander, in his Commentary on the Epistle.

EXORDIUM, c. 1 John 1:1-4 .

TRACTATIO, c. 1Jn 1:5 to 1 John 5:12 .

CONCLUSIO, c. 1 John 5:13-21 .

“In EXORDIO apostolus ab apparitione verbi vitæ constituit auctoritatem prædicationi et scriptioni suæ, et scopum ( ἵνα , ut , 1Jn 5:3 ) exserte indicat: exordio respondet CONCLUSIO, eundem scopum amplius explanans, instituta gnorismatum illorum recapitulans per triplex novimus , c. 1 John 5:18-20 .

“TRACTATIO habet duas partes, agens

“I. speciatim

α ) de communione cum DEO in luce, c. 1 John 1:5-10 .

β ) de communione cum FILIO in luce, c. 1 John 2:1 f. 1 John 2:7 f., subjuncta applicatione propria ad patres, juvenes, puerulos, 1 John 2:13-27 . Innectitur hic adhortation ad manendum in eo, c. 1Jn 2:28 to 1 John 3:24 , ut fructus ex manifestatione ejus in carne se porrigat ad manifestationem gloriosam.

γ ) de corroboratione et fructu mansionis illius per SPIRITUM, capite iv. toto, ad quod aditum parat c. 3 1Jn 3:24 conferendus ad c. 1 John 4:12 .

“II. Per Symperasma sive Congeriem, de Testimonio Patris et Filii et Spiritus, cui fides in Jesum Christum, generatio ex Deo, amor erga Deum et filios ejus, observatio præceptorum, et victoria mundi innititur, c. 1 John 5:1-12 .”

3. Nearer to our own time, differing arrangements of the Epistle have been proposed, by Lücke, De Wette, and Düsterdieck. I shall take these three in order.

4. Lücke professes to have gained much, in drawing up his arrangement, from the previous labours of Knapp [197] and Rickli [198] . He holds the proper theme of the Epistle, the object, ground, and binding together of all its doctrinal and practical sayings, to be this proposition: “As the ground and root of all Christian fellowship is, the fellowship which each individual has with the Father and the Son in faith and in love, so this latter necessarily unfolds and exhibits itself in that former, viz. in the fellowship with the brethren.” Having laid this down, he divides the Epistle into many sections, all unfolding in various ways this central truth. Thus, e. g., ch. 1Jn 1:5 to 1 John 2:2 , speaks of fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. God is light: fellowship with Him is walking in light: all pretence to it without such walking, is falsehood. And striving after such purity is the condition under which only Christian fellowship subsists, and under which the blood of Christ cleanses from sin. For even the Christian state is a striving, and not free from sin, but proceeding ever in more detection and confession of it: which leads not to a compromise with sin, but to its entire annihilation.

[197] Script. var. argum. p. 177 f.

[198] Johannis erster Brief erklärt und angewendet in Predigten, Luzern 1828.

5. This may serve for a specimen of Lücke’s setting forth of the connexion of the Epistle: in which, as Düsterdieck observes, he does not attempt to grasp the master thoughts which account for the development, but merely follows it step by step. For this, however, Lücke does not deserve the blame which Düsterdieck imputes to him. His is obviously the right way to proceed, though it may not have been carried far enough in his hands: far better than the à priori assumption of a Trinitarian arrangement by Bengel. He has well given the sequence of thought, as it stands : but he has not accounted for it . The complete statement of the disposition of the matter of the Epistle must tell us not only how the train of thought proceeds, but why it thus proceeds.

6. A nearer approximation to this has been made by De Wette [199] . His plan may be thus described. The great design of the Epistle is to comfirm the readers in the Christian life as consisting in purity (love) and faith, and to this end to waken and sharpen the moral conscience by reminding them of the great moral axioms of the Gospel, by reminding them also of the inseparableness of morality and faith, to keep them from the influence of those false teachers who denied the reality of the manifestation of Jesus Christ in the flesh, and to convince them of the reality of that manifestation. The Epistle he arranges under 1. An introduction, ch. 1Jn 1:1 to 1 John 4:2 . Three exhortations; α ) 1Jn 1:5 to 1 John 2:28 , begins with reminding them of the nature of Christian fellowship, as consisting in walking in light, in purity from sin and keeping of God’s commandments ( 1Jn 1:5 to 1Jn 2:11 ): then proceeds by an earnest address to the readers ( 1Jn 2:12-14 ), a warning against the love of the world ( 1Jn 2:15-17 ), against false teachers, and an exhortation to keep fast hold of Christ ( 1Jn 2:18-27 ), and concludes with a promise of confidence in the day of judgment.

[199] Handbuch, vol. i. ed. Bruckner, Leipz. 1846. The Gospel and Epistles of St. John are treated together.

β ) He again reminds them of the fundamental moral axioms of the Gospel. The state of a child of God rests on the conditions of righteousness and purity from sin: he who commits sin belongs to the devil. Especially is the distinction made between those who belong to God and those who belong to the devil, by Love and Hate: and therefore must we ever love in deed and in truth ( 1Jn 2:29 to 1Jn 3:18 ). The Apostle adds a promise of confidence towards God and answer to prayer, and exhorts them to add to love, faith in the Son of God ( 1Jn 3:19-24 ): which leads him to a second express warning against the false teachers ( 1Jn 4:1-6 ).

γ ) In this third exhortation, the Apostle sets out with the simple principle of Love, which, constituting the essence of God Himself, and being revealed in the mission of Christ, is the condition of all adoption into God’s family and all confidence towards God ( 1Jn 4:7-21 ). But a co-ordinate condition is faith in the Son of God, as including in itself Love, and the keeping of God’s commandments, and the strength requisite thereto. And the voucher for this faith is found in the historical facts and testimonies of baptism, of the death of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, and in eternal life which He gives ( 1Jn 5:1-13 ). At the conclusion of the exhortation, we have the repeated promise of confidence towards God and the hearing of prayer, in this case intercessory prayer for a sinning brother, yet with a limitation, and a reminding that strictly speaking, Christians may not sin: ending with a warning against idolatry ( 1Jn 5:14-21 ).

7. To this division Düsterdieck objects that the terms exhortation, reminding , &c., are of too superficial a kind to suffice for designating the various portions of the Epistle, and that De Wette is in error in supposing a new train of thought to be begun in ch. 1 John 4:7-21 ; rather does the leading axiom of ch. 1Jn 2:29 proceed through that portion, and in fact even farther than that.

8. His own division, which has been in the main followed in my Commentary, is as follows. Regarding, as the others, ch. 1Jn 1:1-4 as the Introduction, in which the writer lays down the great object of apostolic preaching, asserts of himself full apostolicity, and announces the purpose of his writing, he makes two great divisions of the Epistles: the first, 1Jn 1:5 to 1 John 2:28 , the second, 1Jn 2:29 to 1 John 5:5 ; on which follows the conclusion, 1 John 5:6-21 .

9. Each of these great divisions is ruled and pervaded by one master thought, announced clearly in its outset; which we may call its theme . These themes are impressed on the readers both by positive and negative unfolding, and by polemical defence against erroneous teachers: and, this being done, each principal portion is concluded with a corresponding promise. And both principal portions tend throughout to throw light on the great subject of the whole, viz. FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD THE FATHER AND THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.

10. The theme of the first portion is given ch. 1 John 1:5 , “ God is Light , and in Him is no darkness.” Consequently, fellowship with Him, on which depends our joy in Christ ( 1Jn 1:3-4 ), belongs only to him who walks in light ( 1Jn 1:6 ). To walk thus in light as God is light (1 John 1:6 ff., 1 John 2:8 ff.), and to flee from darkness, in which there can be no fellowship with God (1 John 2:11 ff.), forms the first subject of the Apostle’s Exhortation. To this end, after shewing the relation which this proposition, “God is light,” has to us in regard of our fellowship with God and with one another through Jesus Christ ( 1Jn 1:6-7 ), he unfolds first positively ( 1Jn 1:8 to 1Jn 2:11 ) wherein our walking in light consists : viz. in free recognition and humble confession of our own sinfulness: the knowledge and confession of our own darkness being in fact the first breaking in on us of the light, in which we must walk: viz. fellowship with God through Christ, whose blood is to cleanse us from all our sin.

11. This our walking in light, whose first steps are the recognition, confession, and cleansing of sin, further consists in keeping the commandments of God, which are all summed up in one great commandment of Love ( 1Jn 2:3-11 ). Hence only we know that we know God ( 1Jn 2:3 ), that we love Him ( 1Jn 2:5 ), that we are and abide in Him ( 1Jn 2:6 ), in a word that we have fellowship with Him (cf. 1Jn 1:3 ; 1 John 1:5 ff.), when we keep His commandments, when we walk (1 John 2:6 , cf. 1Jn 1:6 ) as “He,” i. e. Christ, walked.

12. This summing up of all God’s commands in love by the example of Christ as perfect love ( Joh 13:34 ) brings in the negative side of the illustration of the proposition “God is light.” Hate is darkness: is separation from God: is fellowship with the world. So begins then a polemical designation of and warning against the love of and fellowship with the world ( 1Jn 2:15-17 ), and against those false teachers ( 1Jn 2:18-26 ), who would bring them into this condition: and an exhortation to abide in Christ ( 1Jn 2:24-28 ). All this is grounded on the present state and progress of the various classes among them in fellowship with God in Christ (1 John 2:12-14 ; 1Jn 2:27 ). See each of these subdivisions more fully specified in the Commentary.

13. The second great portion of the Epistle ( 1Jn 2:29 to 1Jn 5:5 ) opens, as the other, with the announcement of its theme: “ God is righteous ” ( 1Jn 2:29 ), and “he who doeth righteousness, is born of Him.” And as before, “God is Light” made the condition of fellowship with God to be, walking in light as “He” walked in light, so now “God is righteous” makes the condition of “sonship” on our part to be that we be righteous, as “He,” Christ, was holy. And as before also, so now: it must be shewn wherein this righteousness of God’s children consists, in contrast to the unrighteousness of the children of the world and of the devil. And so we have in this second part also a twofold exhortation, a positive and a negative : the middle point of which is the fundamental axiom “God is righteousness, and therefore we His children must be righteous:” and thus it also serves the purpose of the Epistle announced in 1 John 1:3 f. to confirm the readers in fellowship with the Father and the Son, and so to complete their joy: for this fellowship is the state of God’s children.

14. This however, as on the one side it brings in all blessed hope and our glorious inheritance ( 1Jn 3:2-3 ), so on the other it induces the moral necessity of that righteousness on which our fellowship with the Father and the Son, our abiding in Him, rests, grounded on His Love (1 John 3:8-10 ff.: 1 John 4:7 ff. &c.). Both sides of the birth from God, that which looks forward and that which looks backward, are treated together by the Apostle. Because we are born of God, not of the world, because we are God’s children, not the devil’s (because we know Him, because we are of the truth, because His Spirit is in us, which are merely parallel enunciations of the same moral fact), therefore we sin not, therefore we practise righteousness, as God our Father is just and holy: and thus sanctifying ourselves, thus doing righteousness, thus abiding in Him and in His love, as His children, even thus we may comfort ourselves in the blessed hope of God’s children to which we are called, even thus we overcome the world.

15. It will be well to examine more in detail the order in which the exhortation proceeds in this second portion of the Epistle.

16. First after the enunciation of the theme in 1 John 2:29 , the Apostle takes up the forward side of the state of God’s children, that hope which is full of promise ( 1Jn 3:1-2 ); then proceeds to the condition of this hope, purifying ourselves even as “He” is pure ( 1Jn 3:3 ). This purifying consists in fleeing from sin, which is against God’s command ( 1Jn 3:4 ), and presupposes abiding in Him who has taken away our sins ( 1Jn 3:5-6 ): the Apostle thus grounding sanctification in its condition, justification.

17. Having laid down ( 1Jn 3:7 ) the positive axiom, “ He that doeth righteousness is righteous even as ‘He’ is righteous ,” he turns to the other and negative side (1 John 3:8 ff.), contrasting the children of God and the children of the devil. And this leads us to an explanation how the abiding in the love of God necessarily puts itself forth in the love of the brethren ( 1Jn 3:11-18 ). Hate is the sure sign of not being from God ( 1Jn 3:10 ); love to the brethren a token of being from Him ( 1Jn 3:18-19 ): and being of the truth (ib.): and is a ground of confidence towards God ( 1Jn 3:20-21 ), and of the certainty of an answer to our prayers ( 1Jn 3:22 ).

18. This confidence towards Him is summed up in one central and decisive pledge the Spirit which He has given us ( 1Jn 3:24 ): and thus the Apostle is led on to warn us against false spirits which are not of God (1 John 4:1 ff.), and to give us a certain test whereby we may know the true from the false. He sets the two in direct opposition ( 1Jn 4:1-6 ), and designates the false spirit as that of antichrist: making its main characteristic the denial of Christ having come in the flesh. This he concludes with a formula parallel to that in the first part, 1 John 3:10 ; “ Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error .”

19. After this (1 John 4:7 ff.) follows a fuller positive description of that which is born of God. Its very essence is love: for God is Love: Love to God grounded on His previous love to us ( 1Jn 4:7-21 ) in sending His Son: love to one another, resting on the same motive, and moreover ( 1Jn 5:1-5 ) because our brethren, like ourselves, are born of Him. And seeing that our love to God and to one another is grounded on God having given us His Son, we come to this, that faith in the Son of God is the deepest ground and spring of our love in both its aspects: and is the true test of being born of God as distinguished from being of the world ( 1Jn 4:1-6 ), the true condition of life (1 John 4:9 ; cf. 1 John 5:13 , 1Jn 1:3-4 ), of blessed confidence (1 John 4:14 ff.), of victory over the world ( 1Jn 4:4 , 1 John 5:4 f.). And thus the Apostle’s exhortation converges gradually to the one point against which the lie of antichrist is directed, viz, true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ manifested in the flesh ( 1Jn 5:5 ). On this faith rests the righteousness of those who are born of God, as on the other hand the antichristian character of the children of the world consists in the denial of Christ having come in the flesh. For this faith works by righteousness and sanctification, as God the Father, and as the Lord Jesus Christ, is righteous and holy: seeing that we, who are born of and abide in the love with which God in Christ hath first loved us, keep His commandments, viz. to practise love towards God and towards the brethren.

20. So that we see on the one side the simple parallelism of both parts, suggested by the nature of the subject: and on the other, how both parts serve the general purpose of the whole work. The righteousness of those that are born of God, who is righteous, is simply the walking in light as God is light: the keeping God’s commandments which all converge into one, the commandment of love . And this love has its ground and its source in a right faith in the Son of God manifested in the flesh. On our fellowship therefore with this our Lord, depends our fellowship with the Father and with one another (1 John 1:3 ; 1Jn 1:7 , 1 John 2:23 , 1 John 3:23 , 1 John 4:7 ff.), and consequently our joy ( 1Jn 1:4 ), our confidence ( 1Jn 2:28 ), our hope ( 1Jn 3:3 ), our life ( 1Jn 3:15 , 1 John 5:13 ; cf. 1Jn 1:2 ), our victory over the world (1 John 2:15 ff., 1 John 3:7 ff., 1Jn 5:5 ).

21. The CONCLUSION of the Epistle begins with 1 John 5:6 . It is in two portions, 1Jn 5:6-12 and 1 John 5:13-21 . Both of these serve to bring the subject of the whole to its full completion, and, so to speak, to set it at rest. “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is the sum and substance of the apostolic testimony and exhortation. In the opening of the Epistle it was rested on the testimony of eye and ear witnesses: now, it is rested on witness no less secure, viz. on the religious life and experience of the readers themselves. Between these two testimonies comes in the Epistle itself with all its teaching, exhortation, and warning. This last testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is threefold: the water of baptism, the blood of reconciliation, the Spirit of sanctification ( 1Jn 5:6-8 ). These, in threefold unity, form God’s own witness for His Son ( 1Jn 5:9 ). Only in faith on the Son of God ( 1Jn 5:10 ) do we receive and possess this witness of God, the true substance of which is eternal life, bestowed on us in Christ through water, blood, and the Spirit. So that he that hath the Son hath life.

22. And thus we have reached the true goal of all the Apostle’s exhortation: the ταῦτα ἔγραψα ( 1Jn 5:13 ) answering to the ταῦτα γράφομεν of 1 John 1:4 . And it is this that our fellowship with the Father, and with one another, rests on our fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God; on which also depends our confidence, our hope, our joy, seeing that we have eternal life in faith in the Son of God. As in ch. 1 John 3:22 , so here again, he illustrates this confidence by its exercise with regard to the answer of our prayers. And of this he takes occasion to adduce one particular example, viz. intercession for a sinning brother; and to place it in its true moral light, viz. as then availing when the sin in question has not excluded him totally from the family of life and from holy fellowship with God. Then follow a few solemn sentences, gathering up the whole instruction of the Epistle: the living contrast between the sinner and the child of God: between the family of God and the world: the consciousness on the part of God’s children of their standing and dignity in Christ, the true God and life eternal. And he ends by summing up in one word all his warnings against falsehood in doctrine and practice, “ Little children, keep yourselves from idols .”

23. Such is a free rendering of the account given by Düsterdieck of his division of the Epistle: which, for the reason stated above, I have inserted here almost at length. The points wherein I have differed from it will be easily recognized in the Commentary.

24. It has this decided advantage over the others, that it not only arranges, but accounts for the arrangement given: and without any straining of the material of the Epistle to suit a preconceived view, brings to light its inner structure and parallelisms in a way which leaves on the mind a view of it as an intelligently constructed and interdependent whole.



1. The questions of language and style, which in other sections of the Prolegomena have required independent treatment, have in this case been already discussed by implication under other heads. Still it will be well to devote a few paragraphs to the separate consideration of these.

2. The style of the Epistle has been often truly described as aphoristic and repetitive. And in this is shewn the characteristic peculiarity of St. John’s mode of thought. The connexion of sentence with sentence is slightly, if at all, pointed out. It depends, so to speak, on roots struck in at the bottom of the stream, hidden from the casual observer, to whom the aphorisms appear unconnected, and idly floating on the surface. Lücke well describes this style as indicating a contemplative spirit, which is ever given to pass from the particular to the general, from differences to the unity which underlies them, from the outer to the inner side of Christian life. Thus the Writer is ever working upon certain fundamental themes and axioms, to which he willingly returns again and again, sometimes unfolding and applying them, sometimes repeating and concentrating them: so that we have side by side the simplest and clearest, and the most condensed and difficult sayings: the reader who seeks merely for edification is attracted by the one, and the “scribe learned in the Scriptures” is satisfied. and his understanding surpassed and deepened by the other.

3. The logical connexion is not as in the Epistles of St. Paul, indicated by the whole superficial aspect of the writing, nor does it bear onward the thoughts till the conclusion is reached. The logic of St. John moves, as Düsterdieck has expressed it, rather in circles than straight onward. The same thought is repeated as seen from different sides: is transformed into cognate thoughts and thus put into new lights, is unfolded into assertion and negation, and the negation again closed up by the repeated assertion (ch. 1 John 1:6 f., 1 John 1:8 f., 1 John 2:9 f., &c.). Thus there arise numerous smaller groups of ideas, all, so to speak, revolving round some central point, all regarding some principal theme; all serving it, and circumscribed by the same bounding line. Thus the Writer is ever closed to his main subject, and is able to be ever reiterating it without any unnatural forcing of his context: the train of thought is ever reverting back to its central point.

4. Now if we regard the actual process of the Epistle with reference to these characteristics, we find that there is one great main idea or theme, which binds together the whole and gives character to its contents and aim; viz. that fellowship with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, in which our joy is complete; in other words, that right faith in the Son of God manifest in the flesh, in which we overcome the world, in which we have confidence in God, and eternal life.

5. This idea, which pervades the whole Epistle, is set forth in two great circles of thought, which have been already described as the two portions of the Epistle. These two, both revolving round the one great theme, are also, in their inner construction, closely related to each other. God is light: then our fellowship with Him depends on our walking in the light: God is righteous: then we are only manifested as children of God, abiding in His love and in Himself, if we do righteousness. But for both our walking in light, and our doing righteousness, there is one common term, Love: even as God is Love, as Christ walked in Love, out of Love became manifest in the flesh, out of Love gave Himself for us. On the other side, as the darkness of the world, which can have no fellowship with God, who is Light, denies the Son of God and repudiates Love, so the unrighteousness of the children of the world manifests itself in that hatred which slays brethren, because love to brethren cannot be where the love of God in Christ is unknown and eternal Life untasted.

6. Such a style and character of the Epistle, not bound by strict dialectic rules, not hurrying onward to a logical conclusion, but loving to tarry, and to repeat, and to limit itself in smaller circles of thought, shews us the simple heart of a child, or rather the deep spirit of a man who, in the richest significance of the expression, has entered the kingdom of heaven as a little child, and, being blessed in it himself, yearns to introduce his brethren further and further into it, that they may rejoice with him. In his Epistle Christian truth, which is not dialectic only but essentially moral and living, is made to live and move and feel and act. When he speaks of knowledge and faith, it is of a moral existence and possession: it is of love, peace, joy, confidence, eternal life. Fellowship with God and Christ, and fellowship of Christians with one another in faith and love, each of these is personal, real; so to speak, incarnate and embodied.

7. And this is the reason why our Epistle appears on the one hand easy intelligible to the simplest reader, if only his heart has any experience of the truth of Christ’s salvation, and on the other hand unfathomable even to the deepest Christian thinker: but at the same time equally precious and edifying to both classes of readers. It is the most notable example of the foolishness of God putting to shame all the wisdom of the world.

8. But as the matter of our Epistle is rich and sublime, so is it fitted, by its mildness and consolatory character, to attract our hearts. Such is the power of that holy love, so humble and so gentle, which John had learned from Him in whom the Father’s love was manifested. He addresses all his readers, young and old, as his little children: he calls them to him, and with him to the Lord: he exhorts them ever as his brothers, as his beloved, to that love which is from God. The Epistle itself is in fact nothing else than an act of this holy love. Hence the loving, attracting tone of the language; hence the friendly character and winning sound of the whole. For the Love which wrote the Epistle is but the echo, out of the heart of a man, and that man an Apostle, of that Love of God which is manifested to us in Christ, that it may lead us to the everlasting Fount of Love, of joy and of life.

9. I may conclude this description, so admirably worked out by Düsterdieck, with the very beautiful words of Ewald, which he also cites: speaking of the “unruffled and heavenly repose” which is the spirit of the Epistle, he says, “it appears to be the tone, not so much of a father talking with his beloved children, as of a glorified saint, speaking to mankind from a higher world. Never in any writing has the doctrine of heavenly Love, of a love working in stillness, a love ever unwearied, never exhausted, so thoroughly proved and approved itself, as in this Epistle.”



1. The Apostle himself has given us an account of the object of his Epistle: ταῦτα γράφομεν ὑμῖν , ἵνα ἡ χαρὰ ὑμῶν ᾖ πεπληρωμένη , ch. 1 John 1:4 ; and again at the close, 1 John 5:13 ; ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν , ἵνα εἴδητε ὅτι ζωὴν ἔχετε αἰώνιον , τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ . In almost the same words does he sum up the main purpose of his Gospel, John 20:31 . He assumes readers who believe on the Son of God: he writes to them to certify them of the truth and reality of the things in which they believe, and to advance them in the carrying out of their practical consequences, in order that they may gain from them confidence, peace, joy, life eternal.

2. This, and no polemical aim, is to be assigned as the main object of the Epistle. As subservient to this main object, comes in the warning against those persons who, by denying that Jesus Christ was come in the flesh, imperilled all these blessed consequences, by seducing men from the faith on which they rested.

3. The fact of these false teachers having come forward in the church was most probably the occasion which suggested the writing of the Epistle. Such seems to be the reference, hinted at in the background by the repeated ὅτι in ch. 1 John 2:12-14 . The previous instruction, settlement, and achievements in the faith of the various classes of his readers, furnished him with a reason for writing to each of them: it being understood, that some circumstances had arisen, which made such writing desirable. And what those circumstances were, is not obscurely pointed at in the verses following, 1 John 2:18-25 ; cf. especially 1 John 2:21 .

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