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Bible Commentaries
1 John

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- 1 John

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. The book of 1 John is not a personal letter nor a letter written to one church as much as it is an "Impassioned Office Memo from Headquarters" (corporate letter).

1. It has no traditional introduction (from whom, to whom).

2. It has no personal greetings or closing message.

B. There is no mention of personal names. This is highly unusual except in books written to many churches, such as Ephesians and James. The only NT letter which does not include the name of the author is Hebrews. However, it is obvious that 1 John was written to believers presently facing an internal church problem of false teachers (Gnostics).

C. This letter is a powerful theological treatise

1. The centrality of Jesus

a. fully God and fully man

b. salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ, not a mystical experience or secret knowledge (false teachers)

2. The demand for a Christian lifestyle (three tests of genuine Christianity)

a. brotherly love

b. obedience

c. rejection of the fallen world system

3. The assurance of eternal salvation through faith in Jesus of Nazareth ("know" used 27 times)

4. How to recognize false teachers

D. John's writings (especially 1 John) are the least complicated Koine Greek of any NT writer, yet his books, as no other, plumb the depths of the profound and eternal truths of God in Jesus Christ (i.e., God is Light, 1 John 1:5; God is Love, 1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16; God is spirit, John 4:24).

E. It is possible that 1 John was meant to be a cover letter for the Gospel of John. The Gnostic heresy of the first century forms the background for both books. The Gospel has an evangelistic thrust, while 1 John is written for believers (i.e., discipleship).

The renowned commentator Westcott asserted that the Gospel affirms the Deity of Jesus, while 1 John affirms His humanity. These books go together!

F. John writes in black and white (dualistic) terms. This is characteristic of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic false teachers. 1 John's structured literary dualism is both verbal (light versus dark) and stylistic (a negative statement followed by a positive one). This is different from the Gospel of John, which employs a vertical dualism (Jesus from above versus all humans from below).

G. It is very difficult to outline 1 John because of John's recurrent use of themes. The book is like a tapestry of truths woven together in repeated patterns (cf. Bill Hendricks, Tapestries of Truth, The Letters of John).


A. The authorship of 1 John is part of the debate over the authorship of the Johannine Corpus - the Gospel, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation.

B. There are two basic positions

1. Traditional

a. Tradition was unanimous among the early Church fathers that John, the beloved Apostle, was the author of 1 John

b. Summary of early church evidence

(1) Clement of Rome (A.D. 90) makes allusions to 1 John

(2) Polycarp of Smyrna, Philippians 7 (A.D. 110-140) quotes 1 John

(3) Justin Martyr's, Dialogue 123:9 (A.D. 150-160) quotes 1 John

(4) Allusions to 1 John are made in the writings of

(a) Ignatius of Antioch (date of his writings are uncertain but in early A.D. 100's)

(b) Papias of Hierapolis (born between A.D. 50-60 and martyred about A.D. 155)

(5) Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 130-202) attributes 1 John to the Apostle John. Tertullian, an early apologist who wrote 50 books against heretics, often quoted 1 John

(6) Other early writings which attribute authorship to John the Apostle are Clement, Origen, and Dionysius, all three of Alexandria, the Muratorian Fragment (A.D. 180-200), and Eusebius (third century).

(7) Jerome (second half of fourth century) affirmed John's authorship but admitted that it was denied by some in his day.

(8) Theodore of Mopsuestia, Bishop of Antioch from A.D. 392-428, denied John's authorship.

c. If John, what we do know about John the Apostle?

(1) He was the son of Zebedee and Salome

(2) He was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee with his brother, James (possibly owned several boats)

(3) Some believe his mother was a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus (cf. John 19:25; Mark 15:20)

(4) Apparently he was wealthy because he had

(a) hired servants (cf. Mark 1:20)

(b) several boats

(c) a home in Jerusalem

(5) John had access to the High Priest's home in Jerusalem, which shows he was a person of some renown (cf. John 18:15-16)

(6) It was John in whose care Mary, the mother of Jesus, was committed

d. Early Church tradition unanimously testified that John outlived all of the other Apostles, and after the death of Mary in Jerusalem he moved to Asia Minor and settled in Ephesus, the largest city in that area. From this city he was exiled to the Island of Patmos (just off the coast) and was later released and returned to Ephesus (Eusebius quotes Polycarp, Papias and Irenaeus).

2. Modern Scholarship

a. The vast majority of modern scholars recognize the similarity among all of the Johannine writings, especially in phrasing, vocabulary, and grammatical forms. A good example of this is the stark contrast which characterized these writings: life versus death, truth versus falsehood. This same stark dichotomy can be seen in other writings of the day, the Dead Sea Scrolls and incipient Gnostic writings.

b. There have been several theories about the inter-relationship between the five books traditionally ascribed to John. Some groups assert authorship to one person, two people, three people, and so on. It seems the most plausible position is that all of the Johannine writings are the result of the thoughts of one man, even if possibly penned by several of his disciples.

c. My personal belief is that John, the aged Apostle, wrote all five books toward the end of his ministry in Ephesus.

3. The issue of authorship is an issue of hermeneutics, not inspiration. Ultimately the author of Scripture is God!

DATE - Obviously this is linked to authorship

A. If John the Apostle wrote these letters, and especially 1 John, we are talking about some time during the close of the first century. This would give time for the development of the Gnostic false theological/philosophical systems and also would fit into the terminology of 1 John ("little children"), which seems to imply an older man talking to a younger group of believers. Jerome says John lived 68 years after Jesus' crucifixion. This seems to fit with this tradition.

B. A.T. Robertson thinks 1 John was written between A.D. 85-95, while the Gospel was written by A.D. 95.

C. The New International Commentary Series on 1 John by I. Howard Marshall asserts that a date between 60-100 A.D. is as close as modern scholarship would like to come to estimating the date of the Johannine writings.


A. Tradition asserts that this book was written to the Roman Province of Asia Minor (western Turkey), with Ephesus being its major metropolitan area.

B. The letter seems to have been sent to a specific group of churches in Asia Minor which were experiencing a problem with false teachers (like Colossians and Ephesians), specifically

1. docetic Gnostics who denied the humanity of Christ, but affirmed His deity

2. antinomian Gnostics who separated theology from ethics/morality

C. Augustine (fourth century A.D.) says it was written to the Parthians (Babylon). He is followed by Cassiodrus (early sixth century A.D.). This probably came from the confusion of the phrase "the elect lady," 2 John 1:0, and the phrase, "she who is in Babylon," 1 Peter 5:13.

D. The Muratorian Fragment, an early canonical list of NT books written between A.D. 180-200 in Rome, asserts that this letter was written "after the exhortation of his fellow disciples and bishops" (in Asia Minor).


A. The letter itself is obviously a reaction against a type of false teaching (i.e., "If we say. . ." 1 John 1:6ff and "he who says . .." 1 John 2:9; 1 John 4:20 [diatribe]).

B. We can learn some of the basic tenets of the heresy by internal evidence from 1 John.

1. a denial of the incarnation of Jesus Christ

2. a denial of the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation

3. a lack of an appropriate Christian lifestyle

4. an emphasis on knowledge (often secret)

5. a tendency toward exclusivism

C. The setting of the first century

The Roman world of the first century was a time of eclecticism between the Eastern and Western religions. The gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons were in ill repute. The Mystery religions were very popular because of their emphasis on personal relationship with the deity and secret knowledge. Secular Greek philosophy was popular and was merging with other worldviews. Into this world of eclectic religion came the exclusiveness of the Christian faith (Jesus is the only way to God, cf. John 14:6). Whatever the exact background of the heresy, it was an attempt to make the seeming narrowness of Christianity plausible and intellectually acceptable to a wider Greek-Roman audience.

D. Possible options as to which group of Gnostics John is addressing

1. Incipient Gnosticism

a. The basic teachings of incipient Gnosticism of the first century seem to have been an emphasis on the ontological (eternal) dualism between spirit and matter. Spirit (High God) was considered good, while matter was inherently evil. This dichotomy resembles Platonism's ideal versus physical, heavenly versus earthly, invisible versus visible. There was also an overemphasis on the importance of secret knowledge (passwords or secret codes which allow a soul to pass through the angelic spheres [aeons] up to the high god) necessary for salvation.

b. There are two forms of incipient Gnosticism which apparently could be in the background of 1 John

(1) Docetic Gnosticism, which denies the true humanity of Jesus because matter is evil

(2) Cerinthian Gnosticism, which identifies the Christ with one of many aeons or angelic levels between the good high god and evil matter. This "Christ Spirit" indwelt the man Jesus at his baptism and left him before his crucifixion.

(3) of these two groups some practiced asceticism (if the body wants it, it is evil), the other antinomianism (if the body wants it, give it). There is no written evidence of a developed system of Gnosticism in the first century. It is not until the middle of the second century that documented evidence existed. For further information about "Gnosticism" see

(a) The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas, published by Beacon Press

(b) The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, published by Random House

(c) The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible by Andrew Helmbold

2. Ignatius suggests another possible source of the heresy in his writings to the Smyrnaeans iv-v. They denied the incarnation of Jesus and lived antinomian lifestyles.

3. Yet another less likely possibility of the source of the heresy is Meander of Antioch, who is known from the writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies XXIII. He was a follower of Simon the Samaritan and an advocate of secret knowledge.

E. The Heresy Today

1. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people try to combine Christian truth with other systems of thought.

2. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people emphasize "correct" doctrine to the exclusion of personal relationship and lifestyle faith.

3. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people turn Christianity into an exclusive intellectual eliteness.

4. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when religious people turn to asceticism or antinomianism.


A. It has a practical focus for believers

1. to give them joy (cf. 1 John 1:4)

2. to encourage them to live godly lives (cf. 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:1)

3. to command them (and remind them) to love one another (cf. 1 John 4:7-21) and not the world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17).

4. to give them assurance of their salvation in Christ (cf. 1 John 5:13)

B. It has a doctrinal focus for believers

1. refute the error of separating Jesus' deity and humanity

2. refute the error of separating spirituality into an intellectualism devoid of godly living

3. refute the error that one can be saved in isolation from others


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. State the central theme of the entire book in your own words.

1. Theme of entire book.

2. Type of literature (genre)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. Outline the main subjects and express the subject in a single sentence.

1. Subject of first literary unit

2. Subject of second literary unit

3. Subject of third literary unit

4. Subject of fourth literary unit

5. Etc.

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