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- 1 John
by Robert Jamieson; A. R. Fausset; David Brown
The First General Epistle of John
Commentary by A. R. Faussett
Authorship. — Polycarp, the disciple of John [Epistle to the Philippians, 7], quotes 1 John 4:3. Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 3.39] says of Papias, a hearer of John, and a friend of Polycarp, “He used testimonies from the First Epistle of John.” Irenaeus, according to Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 5.8], often quoted this Epistle. So in his work Against Heresies [3.15; 5, 8] he quotes from John by name, 1 John 2:18, etc.; and in [3.16, 7], he quotes 1 John 4:1-3; 1 John 5:1, and 2 John 1:7, 2 John 1:8. Clement of Alexandria [Miscellanies, 2.66, p. 464] refers to 1 John 5:16, as in John‘s larger Epistle. See other quotations [Miscellanies, 3.32, 42; 4.102]. Tertullian [Against Marcion, 5.16] refers to 1 John 4:1, etc.; [Against Praxeas, 15], to 1 John 1:1. See his other quotations [Against Praxeas, 28; Against the Gnostics, 12]. Cyprian [Epistles, 28 (24)], quotes as John‘s, 1 John 2:3, 1 John 2:4; and [On the Lord‘s Prayer, 5] quotes 1 John 2:15-17; and [On Works and Alms, 3], 1 John 1:8; and [On the Advantage of Patience, 2] quotes 1 John 2:6. Muratori‘s Fragment on the Canon of Scripture states, “There are two of John (the Gospel and Epistle?) esteemed Catholic,” and quotes 1 John 1:3. The Peschito Syriac contains it. Origen (in Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 6.25]) speaks of the First Epistle as genuine, and “probably the second and third, though all do not recognize the latter two”; on the Gospel of John, [Commentary on John, 13.2], he quotes 1 John 1:5. Dionysius of Alexandria, Origen‘s scholar, cites the words of this Epistle as those of the Evangelist John. Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 3.24], says, John‘s first Epistle and Gospel are acknowledged without question by those of the present day, as well as by the ancients. So also Jerome [On Illustrious Men]. The opposition of Cosmas Indicopleustes, in the sixth century, and that of Marcion because our Epistle was inconsistent with his views, are of no weight against such irrefragable testimony.
The internal evidence is equally strong. Neither the Gospel, nor this Epistle, can be pronounced an imitation; yet both, in style and modes of thought, are evidently of the same mind. The individual notices are not so numerous or obvious as in Paul‘s writings, as was to be expected in a Catholic Epistle; but such as there are accord with John‘s position. He implies his apostleship, and perhaps alludes to his Gospel, and the affectionate tie which bound him as an aged pastor to his spiritual “children”; and in 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:19; 1 John 4:1-3, he alludes to the false teachers as known to his readers; and in 1 John 5:21 he warns them against the idols of the surrounding world. It is no objection against its authenticity that the doctrine of the Word, or divine second Person, existing from everlasting, and in due time made flesh, appears in it, as also in the Gospel, as opposed to the heresy of the Docetae in the second century, who denied that our Lord is come in the flesh, and maintained He came only in outward semblance; for the same doctrine appears in Colossians 1:15-18; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-3; and the germs of Docetism, though not fully developed till the second century, were in existence in the first. The Spirit, presciently through John, puts the Church beforehand on its guard against the coming heresy.
To Whom Addressed. — Augustine [The Question of the Gospels, 2.39], says this Epistle was written to the Parthians. Bede, in a prologue to the seven Catholic Epistles, says that Athanasius attests the same. By the Parthians may be meant the Christians living beyond the Euphrates in the Parthian territory, outside the Roman empire, “the Church at Babylon elected together with (you),” the churches in the Ephesian region, the quarter to which Peter addressed his Epistles (1 Peter 5:12). As Peter addressed the flock which John subsequently tended (and in which Paul had formerly ministered), so John, Peter‘s close companion after the ascension, addresses the flock among whom Peter had been when he wrote. Thus “the elect lady” (2 John 1:1) answers “to the Church elected together” (1 Peter 5:13). See further confirmation of this view in see on Introduction to Second John. It is not necessarily an objection to this view that John never is known to have personally ministered in the Parthian territory. For neither did Peter personally minister to the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia, though he wrote his Epistles to them. Moreover, in John‘s prolonged life, we cannot dogmatically assert that he did not visit the Parthian Christians, after Peter had ceased to minister to them, on the mere ground of absence of extant testimony to that effect. This is as probable a view as Alford‘s, that in the passage of Augustine, “to the Parthians,” is to be altered by conjectural emendation; and that the Epistle is addressed to the churches at and around Ephesus, on the ground of the fatherly tone of affectionate address in it, implying his personal ministry among his readers. But his position, as probably the only surviving apostle, accords very well with his addressing, in a Catholic Epistle, a cycle of churches which he may not have specially ministered to in person, with affectionate fatherly counsel, by virtue of his general apostolic superintendence of all the churches.
Time and Place of Writing. — This Epistle seems to have been written subsequently to his Gospel as it assumes the reader‘s acquaintance with the Gospel facts and Christ‘s speeches, and also with the special aspect of the incarnate Word, as God manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16), set forth more fully in his Gospel. The tone of address, as a father addressing his “little children” (the continually recurring term, 1 John 2:1, 1 John 2:12, 1 John 2:13, 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:28; 1 John 3:7, 1 John 3:18; 1 John 4:4; 1 John 5:21), accords with the view that this Epistle was written in John‘s old age, perhaps about a.d. 90. In 1 John 2:18, “it is the last time,” probably does not refer to any particular event (as the destruction of Jerusalem, which was now many years past) but refers to the nearness of the Lord‘s coming as proved by the rise of Antichristian teachers, the mark of the last time. It was the Spirit‘s purpose to keep the Church always expecting Christ as ready to come at any moment. The whole Christian age is the last time in the sense that no other dispensation is to arise till Christ comes. Compare “these last days,” Hebrews 1:2. Ephesus may be conjectured to be the place whence it was written. The controversial allusion to the germs of Gnostic heresy accord with Asia Minor being the place, and the last part of the apostolic age the time, of writing this Epistle.
Contents. — The leading subject of the whole is, fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). Two principal divisions may be noted: (1) 1 John 1:5-2:28: the theme of this portion is stated at the outset, “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all”; consequently, in order to have fellowship with Him, we must walk in light (1 John 1:7); connected with which in the confession and subsequent forgiveness of our sins through Christ‘s propitiation and advocacy, without which forgiveness there could be no light or fellowship with God: a farther step in thus walking in the light is, positively keeping God‘s commandments, the sum of which is love, as opposed to hatred, the acme of disobedience to God‘s word: negatively, he exhorts them according to their several stages of spiritual growth, children, fathers, young men, in consonance with their privileges as forgiven, knowing the Father, and having overcome the wicked one, not to love the world, which is incompatible with the indwelling of the love of the Father, and to be on their guard against the Antichristian teachers already in the world, who were not of the Church, but of the world, against whom the true defense is, that his believing readers who have the anointing of God, should continue to abide in the Son and in the Father. (2) The second division (1 John 2:29-5:5) discusses the theme with which it opens, He is righteous; consequently (as in the first division), “every one that doeth righteousness is born of Him.” Sonship in us involves our purifying ourselves as He is pure, even as we hope to see, and therefore to be made like our Lord when He shall appear; in this second, as in the first division, both a positive and a negative side are presented of “doing righteousness as He is righteous,” involving a contrast between the children of God and the children of the devil. Hatred marks the latter; love, the former: this love gives assurance of acceptance with God for ourselves and our prayers, accompanied as they are (1 John 3:23) with obedience to His great commandment, to “believe on Jesus, and love one another”; the seal (1 John 3:24) of His dwelling in us and assuring our hearts, is the Spirit which He hath given us. In contrast to this (as in the first division), he warns against false spirits, the notes of which are, denial of Christ, and adherence to the world. Sonship, or birth of God, is then more fully described: its essential feature is unslavish, free love to God, because God first loved us, and gave His Son to die for us, and consequent love to the brethren, grounded on their being sons of God also like ourselves, and so victory over the world; this victory being gained only by the man who believes in Jesus as the Son of God. (3) The conclusion establishes this last central truth, on which rests our fellowship with God, Christ‘s having come by the water of baptism, the blood of atonement, and the witnessing Spirit, which is truth. As in the opening he rested this cardinal truth on the apostles‘ witness of the eye, the ear, and the touch, so now at the close he rests it on God‘s witness, which is accepted by the believer, in contrast with the unbeliever, who makes God a liar. Then follows his closing statement of his reason for writing (1 John 5:13; compare the corresponding 1 John 1:4, at the beginning), namely, that believers in Christ the Son of God may know that they have (now already) eternal life (the source of “joy,” 1 John 1:4; compare similarly his object in writing the Gospel, John 20:31), and so have confidence as to their prayers being answered (corresponding to 1 John 3:22 in the second part); for instance, their intercessions for a sinning brother (unless his sin be a sin unto death). He closes with a brief summing up of the instruction of the Epistle, the high dignity, sanctity, and safety from evil of the children of God in contrast to the sinful world, and a warning against idolatry, literal and spiritual: “Keep yourselves from idols.”
Though the Epistle is not directly polemical, the occasion which suggested his writing was probably the rise of Antichristian teachers; and, because he knew the spiritual character of the several classes whom he addresses, children, youths, fathers, he feels it necessary to write to confirm them in the faith and joyful fellowship of the Father and Son, and to assure them of the reality of the things they believe, that so they may have the full privileges of believing.
Style. — His peculiarity is fondness for aphorism and repetition. His tendency to repeat his own phrase, arises partly from the affectionate, hortatory character of the Epistle; partly, also, from its Hebraistic forms abounding in parallel clauses, as distinguished from the Grecian and more logical style of Paul; also, from his childlike simplicity of spirit, which, full of his one grand theme, repeats, and dwells on it with fond delight and enthusiasm. Moreover as Alford well says, the appearance of uniformity is often produced by want of deep enough exegesis to discover the real differences in passages which seem to express the same. Contemplative, rather than argumentative, he dwells more on the general, than on the particular, on the inner, than on the outer, Christian life. Certain fundamental truths he recurs to again and again, at one time enlarging on, and applying them, at another time repeating them in their condensed simplicity. The thoughts do not march onward by successive steps, as in the logical style of Paul, but rather in circle drawn round one central thought which he reiterates, ever reverting to it, and viewing it, now under its positive, now under its negative, aspect. Many terms which in the Gospel are given as Christ‘s, in the Epistle appear as the favorite expressions of John, naturally adopted from the Lord. Thus the contrasted terms, “flesh” and “spirit,” “light” and “darkness,” “life” and “death,” “abide in Him”: fellowship with the Father and Son, and with one another,” is a favorite phrase also, not found in the Gospel, but in Acts and Paul‘s Epistles. In him appears the harmonious union of opposites, adapting him for his high functions in the kingdom of God, contemplative repose of character, and at the same time ardent zeal, combined with burning, all-absorbing love: less adapted for active outward work, such as Paul‘s, than for spiritual service. He handles Christian verities not as abstract dogmas, but as living realities, personally enjoyed in fellowship with God in Christ, and with the brethren. Simple, and at the same time profound, his writing is in consonance with his spirit, unrhetorical and undialectic, gentle, consolatory, and loving: the reflection of the Spirit of Him on whose breast he lay at the last supper, and whose beloved disciple he was. Ewald in Alford, speaking of the “unruffled and heavenly repose” which characterizes this Epistle, says, “It appears to be the tone, not so much of a father talking with his beloved children, as of a glorified saint addressing mankind from a higher world. Never in any writing has the doctrine of heavenly love - a love working in stillness, ever unwearied, never exhausted - so thoroughly approved itself as in this Epistle.”
John‘s Place in the Building Up of the Church. — As Peter founded and Paul propagated, so John completed the spiritual building. As the Old Testament puts prominently forward the fear of God, so John, the last writer of the New Testament, gives prominence to the love of God. Yet, as the Old Testament is not all limited to presenting the fear of God, but sets forth also His love, so John, as a representative of the New Testament, while breathing so continually the spirit of love, gives also the plainest and most awful warnings against sin, in accordance with his original character as Boanerges, “son of thunder.” His mother was Salome, mother of the sons of Zebedee, probably sister to Jesus‘ mother (compare John 19:25, “His mother‘s sister,” with Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40), so that he was cousin to our Lord; to his mother, under God, he may have owed his first serious impressions. Expecting as she did the Messianic kingdom in glory, as appears from her petition (Matthew 20:20-23), she doubtless tried to fill his young and ardent mind with the same hope. Neander distinguishes three leading tendencies in the development of the Christian doctrine, the Pauline, the Jacobean (between which the Petrine forms an intermediate link), and the Johannean. John, in common with James, was less disposed to the intellectual and dialectic cast of thought which distinguishes Paul. He had not, like the apostle of the Gentiles, been brought to faith and peace through severe conflict; but, like James, had reached his Christian individuality through a quiet development: James, however, had passed through a molding in Judaism previously, which, under the Spirit, caused him to present Christian truth in connection with the law, in so far as the latter in its spirit, though not letter, is permanent, and not abolished, but established under the Gospel. But John, from the first, had drawn his whole spiritual development from the personal view of Christ, the model man, and from intercourse with Him. Hence, in his writings, everything turns on one simple contrast: divine life in communion with Christ; death in separation from Him, as appears from his characteristic phrases, “life, light, truth; death, darkness, lie.” “As James and Peter mark the gradual transition from spiritualized Judaism to the independent development of Christianity, and as Paul represents the independent development of Christianity in opposition to the Jewish standpoint, so the contemplative element of John reconciles the two, and forms the closing point in the training of the apostolic Church” [Neander].
the Sixth Week after Easter