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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

1 John

- 1 John

by Joseph Exell



St. John the apostle and his writings

As compared with St. Peter, St. John exhibits to us a calm and reflective nature, with a preeminent receptivity: every word of his beloved Master, which tends to solve to his heart the mystery which he pondered, he apprehends in his deepest soul, and holds it fast, and meditates upon it, blessedly losing himself in the contemplation of the glory of the Son of Man. He was lost in the pondering, affectionate contemplation of Jesus, as a bride in the contemplation of the bridegroom; in the most profound and purest love, he sank into the person of his Master (hence he was chosen as an individual friend rather than the others, John 13:23, etc.). St. John had the nature of a living mirror, which not merely received the full brightness of the Lord’s glory, but could also reflect it back. Plainly, and altogether without artificial attractions--often, it might seem, wearisomely--he faithfully gives back “that which he had seen and heard” (1 John 1:1). We are conducted to another side of St. John’s nature by the comparison with the Apostle Paul. In inwardness St. Paul is much more like St. John than St. Peter is; but it is another kind of inwardness: in St. Paul it is dialectic, in St. John purely contemplative. St. Paul’s is a much gentler character than that of the υἱο͂ς βροντῆς (Mark 3:17). St. John, indeed, has often been called “the apostle of love,” because the word ἀγάπη often occurs in his writings as an important term in his doctrine. But this ἀγάπη occurs at least as often in St. Paul’s writings: in St. Paul, in its relation to faith as its outward expression; in St. John, in its opposition to hatred and wickedness. St. John has even been regarded by many as a sentimental man of feeling, and he has been painted as a youth with soft and effeminate features; but thus his personal character has been most egregiously misconceived. On the other hand, the passage (Luke 9:51 seq.) by no means justifies those who describe him as a man of violent temperament. Rather he was that which the French describe. In their expression, “il est entier”; he had no mind or sense for relativities and mediating modes; and hence was not a man of middle courses. He had never moved in contradictories. He had been from earliest youth piously trained; for his mother, Salome (Mark 16:1; Matthew 20:20), belonged to the circle of those few souls who found their consolation as true Israelites in the promises of the Old Covenant, and who longed for the coming of the Messiah. The family was not without substance; for Zebedee had hired servants for his fishing trade (Mark 1:20), Salome ministered to Jesus, St. John possessed τά ἴδια, a dwelling (John 19:17), and was personally known in the house of the high priest (John 18:15). As soon as the Baptist came into trouble, St. John adhered to him with all the energy of his receptive inwardness. His relation the Baptist was analogous to that which he afterwards bore to Christ; he apprehended those profounder views of the preaching of John which were comparatively concealed item others. The Synoptists dwelt largely on the Baptist’s preaching of repentance; and added only a brief notice, that he pointed also to the coming Messiah. But this last point is taken up by St. John as the centre of the Baptist’s work; and he has preserved and recorded his prophetic discourses concerning the nature and the passion of Christ which no other has preserved. From the Baptist he had further received the fundamental categories of his own subsequent doctrine--the antithesis of heaven and earth (John 3:31), the love and wrath of God (verse 36); and even the word in verse 29 may have sounded afterwards in his soul as a prophetic note of his own relation to Christ. But with the same decision of will and absoluteness of purpose with which he had joined himself to the Baptist, and at his command fully renounced all fellowship with the σκητία, he now joined himself to Jesus, when to Him he was directed by the Baptist (John 1:35 seq.). This fixed decision, this absolutism in the best sense, manifested itself in his whole nature--so far as that nature was not yet entirely purified and shone through, or was still under the influence of erroneous views. When the inhabitants of a Samaritan village would not receive Jesus, his Jesus, he does not break cut into reproach--that would have been the reaction or vehemence of a hot temperament--but he goes with his brother to Jesus, and asks--again purely receptive and self-resigning; but what he asks testifies to the internal absoluteness with which he apprehends the two perfect opposites--he asks whether he should not call fire down from heaven. In his nature and temperament he is everywhere and always receptive: not prominent, active, interfering, challenging; but expectant, observant, listening, and self-devoting. But in his internal distinctive character he is always most fixed and decided. His is a self-devoting nature; but it is devoted only to one object, and to that altogether and absolutely devoted. And, because his nature was so self-denying, therefore it needed such strong decision. (J. H. A. Ebrard.)

The Gospel and epistle of St. John

This Epistle is quoted by two of the Fathers who had been disciples of the Apostle John, viz. Polycarp and Papias. It is also recognised, and quoted, as John’s by Irenaeus, who had been a disciple of Polycarp. It is freely quoted by Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian; it is referred to in the Muratorian Fragment, and it is one of the books contained in the old Syriac Version. Its internal character is such as to confirm us in the belief that it was written by the author of the Fourth Gospel. Not only has it many verbal similarities, e.g., cf. 1:1, John 1:1; John 1:14; John 20:27; John 1:2, John 3:11; John 1:3, John 17:21; John 1:4, John 16:24; John 1:5-6, John 1:5; John 3:21; John 8:12; John 2:11, John 12:35; John 3:14, John 5:24; John 4:9, John 1:14; John 3:16; John 4:14, John 4:42; John 5:6, John 19:34; but it is dominated by the same Christian idealism which refers all things in human life to the ultimate principles of light and darkness, truth and error, good and evil, love and hatred, life and death, God and the devil. So intimate is the connection between the two books that the Epistle was regarded by the late Bishop Lightfoot as forming a postscript to the Gospel. (J. A. McClymont, D. D.)

Character and contents

In this Epistle--probably the last inspired utterance of the New Testament excepting the two brief missives that follow it--we have the translation into the Christian life of those great truths, regarding the fellowship of God with man, that are found in the Fourth Gospel in connection with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. That Gospel is doctrinal as well as historical, but its doctrines are here applied to the lives of Christ’s followers. The Epistle is thus in advance of the Gospel, being designed to lead Christians to a conscious realisation of the new life to which they are called in fellowship with Christ (cf. 1 John 5:13-14 with John 20:31)
. Its thought springs mainly out of a twofold conception of the Divine Nature as “light” (
1 John 1:1-10; 1 John 2:1-29), and as “love” (1 John 4:2-5), united by a bond of righteousness (1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:1-24; 1 John 4:1-6). There is no laboured argument such as we find in some of Paul’s Epistles, but simply an appeal to first principles that are to be seen with the spiritual eye, not to be proved by means of logic. Although lofty and spiritual, the teaching in the Epistle is at the same time intensely practical. It was evidently intended to counteract the growing tendency to magnify knowledge at the expense of practice (1 John 1:6-7; 1 John 2:3-6;cf 1 John 2:18-19). One form of this incipient gnosticism was associated with the name of Cerinthus, who lived at Ephesus in the time of the apostle. Cerinthus, like many others, denied the reality of Christ’s humanity, maintaining, in particular, that the Divine Being only entered into the man Jesus at His baptism and left him on the eve of His passion. Hence the emphatic statement of the apostle (1 John 5:6), “This is He that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood”--that is to say, the Saviour fulfilled His Divine mission in His death upon the Cross as well as in His baptism. Again and again, in other passages, the apostle insists on the reality of the union between Jesus and the Christ, as an essential element of the Christian faith (1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:2-3; 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:5; cf. 1 John 1:1-4). While it gives no quarter to evil and falsehood, the Epistle overflows with exhortations to the love of God and man (1 John 2:9-11; 1 John 3:11-18; 1 John 4:7-13; 1 John 4:16-21; 1 John 5:1-2). As we read the apostle’s language here, we find it easy to believe the story told of him by Jerome, that when he was too old to preach he used to be carried to church, simply to repeat in the hearing of the congregation, “Little children, love one another.” And when some one asked him, “Master, why dost thou always speak thus?” he answered, “Because it is the Lord’s command; and if only this be done, it is enough.” (J. A. McClymont, D. D.)

Teaching of the epistle

Out of this Epistle we may gather an abstract of the things to be known, and that concerning God, ourselves, and Christ.

1. Concern God. We may hence be instructed in His nature, attributes, and person: as to His nature, that “He is light, and in Him no darkness”; His attributes, that He is faithful, just, holy, righteous, pure, invisible, knowing all things, and love itself; the persons, that “there are three which bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, the Holy Ghost; and these three are one.”

2. Concerning ourselves. We may here learn what we are by nature, namely, “lying in wickedness”; what we are by grace, to wit, “born of God”; and what we shall be in glory, “like to Him, seeing Him as He is.”

3. Concerning Christ. We have Him here characterised in His natures, offices, acts, and benefits.

In respect of its natures, He is as to His Deity called “true God,” and yet more distinctly, with reference to His Personality, “the only begotten Son of God”; as to His humanity, He is said to be “sent into the world,” and so truly man, that He was “seen, heard, and handled” by the apostles.

2. Nor are only doctrines of faith, but rules of practice, deducible from this Epistle.