Book Overview - 1 John
by Peter Pett
John’s First Letter.
This first letter would appear to be a general pastoral homily from the Apostle John to the churches with whom he was in contact, but with urgent content. There were those about who were causing a disturbance of faith in the churches through their false teaching and John was concerned to put the situation right. This would explain its lack of an introduction as it was borne by known messengers to the various churches, thus not requiring any such introduction. It was to be read out in the churches.
Its basic message is clear. Its aim is to present Christ to the believing heart so that believers might open themselves to the light of God; enjoy ‘eternal life’, the life from God which they at present enjoyed and experienced continually; be a shining testimony in the world; and have great love for one another. It secondarily also refutes those who suggest that Jesus did not really become man, but only took on the appearance of a man, or alternately that the man Jesus was not really God, and that sin was not important, if it was real at all.
We may possibly summarise the letter as follows. It begins by presenting the glorious coming into the world of the Word of Life, the Eternal life Who was with the Father and was manifested to His own, even His Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-4).
It then goes on to look at God from two points of view, firstly that God is light, and secondly that God is love. Both put heretics to flight. The fact that God is light reveals sin and ensures that Christians, seen in His light, are aware of their own sinfulness (1 John 1:5-10). But thankfully God has made a way in Jesus Christ through His death on the cross by which their sinfulness can be dealt with so that it is not a final problem (1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:1-2). Thus aware of their sinfulness they are to keep His commandments within their hearts and in their lives. This includes the ‘old commandment’ which sums up in itself all God’s past commandments both as revealed in the Old Testament and in the teaching of Jesus, commandments which in their character reveal the pure life, eternal life, and the ‘new commandment’ to love one another. (1 John 2:3-11). For they walk in His light. If they live by these they will not sin. And sin is not something that Christians continue in without regard. Indeed they are concerned not to sin.
Having come to know the Father and the One Who was from the beginning, and having learned to stand against the Evil One, they are to love God and not the world with all its aims, desires, trends, covetousness and vainglory (1 John 2:12-17). Furthermore false christs have come, and seek to deceive even God’s chosen ones, but He has given them an anointing, His Holy Spirit, by which they can see through all deceit and know the truth about the Father and His true and only Son, Jesus Christ, God made man (1 John 2:18-27).
Thus are they to abide in Him as they await His coming, and in hope of it and what it will do in them, they are to seek to make themselves pure (1 John 2:28 to 1 John 3:3). For Christians are not such that they continue in sin without regard. In heart they aim to be non-sinning ones, although as chapter 1 showed they sadly do sin. But they see sin as a contradiction to what they are, for they walk in God’s light.
Thus they must continue to treat sin seriously and abjure it, and they are especially to love one another and reveal it in their lives. And especially are they to obey His commandment that they believe in God’s Son, Jesus the Christ and love one another as He commanded them (1 John 3:4-24).
False prophets will, however, come, seeking to turn them from the truth as it is in Jesus, and they are therefore to recognise that they must test the prophetic spirits of all who are called prophets by seeing whether they declare that the man Jesus and the Christ are one and the same, and that He is the true Son of God (1 John 4:1-6).
As they walk in God’s light they are to recognise that they have been begotten by God, and that God is not only light but holy love. Thus by knowing His love as revealed in the cross, and in the Son Himself, and in their begetting by God, and in many ways, they are to reciprocate by loving Him and by loving one another. Indeed a major test of true Christians is that they love one another. And their knowing that they are begotten of God will ensure that they do this and will enable them to do it (1 John 4:7 to 1 John 5:3).
As a result in the end, because they are begotten of God, they will have victory, will believe that the man Jesus Who was crucified is truly the Son of God and will overcome the world through God’s special witness to Him. For in Him they have received eternal life and it is now theirs (1 John 5:4-13).
Thus they can have boldness in prayer as they seek to spread His word and reveal the will of God, they should pray for one another in their joint battle against sin, they must recognise that they are in the sphere of God’s light and love, so that they are kept by God Who has begotten them, while the world lies in the Evil One. Thus do they know that they are of God, that God’s Son has come, giving them an understanding so that they know Him Who is true and His Son Jesus Christ, for this is the true God and the source of eternal life. And finally they are to keep themselves from all influences of idolatry of any kind, from the earthly manifestation of the Evil One (1 John 5:14-21).
The first part of the letter (from 1 John 1:5 to 1 John 3:10) concentrates on the fact that God is light (1 John 1:8) and that therefore Christians must treat sin and God’s commandments seriously (as certain adversaries were wont not to do) and walk in His light, the second part commences at 1 John 3:11 and stresses the centrality of love in connection with those who walk in the light. In fact love for one another is only mentioned once in 1 John 1:1 to 1 John 3:10 a, and that is in 1 John 2:10. From 1 John 3:11 onwards it abounds closely connected with the idea that God is holy love. Central to both sections is belief in and response to the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ, Who came to the world in human flesh, becoming a man among men, and the fact that God offers eternal life to those who respond to Him. On this basis let us look at the letter in depth.
the Second Week after Epiphany