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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

1 John

- 1 John

by Daniel Whedon




A BRIEF biography of John we have prefixed to our notes on the Gospel of John, but as we approach his three Epistles and his Apocalypse some fuller view of the latter part of his career seems to be suitable. After the crucifixion he seems to have remained in Jerusalem for several years, doubtless making the city his residence, yet performing constant missionary tours in different parts of Syria, like that of Peter in Acts 9:32. The last mention we find of his stay in Palestine is, in Paul’s account of his own visit to the Council of Jerusalem, (Galatians 2:1-10,) in which he found James, Peter, and John, apparent “pillars” of the Church. The order of names indicates the priority of James as official resident apostle at Jerusalem, and the inferiority of John as youngest, and as yet to attain his proper position. This was about the middle of the first century some seventeen years after the crucifixion at which point John had nearly fifty years, more or less, to live.

John may have gone to Ephesus immediately after the death of St. Paul, (A.D. 68,) to supply that metropolitan city with an apostolic superintendent; or he may have remained at Jerusalem until the approaching destruction of that city. There was a brief cessation of war, produced by the delay of Cestius Gallus’s attack on Jerusalem, in which the Christian population, warned by our Saviour’s memorable prediction, departed to Pella. Later than that John could scarce have remained. All Christian antiquity agrees in finding him at Ephesus through his later years; thence his writings are promulgated; and there he founded a school of apostolic Christian theology, marked by its peculiar traits, and distinguished by its eminent scholars and doctors. Of some of these we will give a brief account.

ST. IGNATIUS was St. John’s younger contemporary and hearer; was ordained by him, it is said by Eusebius, Bishop of Antioch, as early as A.D. 69; and was renowned for his ardent devotion to, and heroic defence of, the cause of Christ. Ignatius held the episcopate to be the strong bulwark of the Church against heresies and persecutions. The Emperor Trajan came to Antioch full of persecuting purpose, and Ignatius intrepidly sustained his responsible position by presenting himself as ready to be the chief martyr. The emperor ordered him to be conveyed by soldiers to Rome, there to be thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre. The probable date of his martyrdom was A.D. 115.

ST. POLYCARP, Bishop of Smyrna, will be noticed in our notes on the Apocalypse. But it is quite proper here to speak of a celebrated pupil of Polycarp’s, and so, as we may call him, grand-pupil to St. John.

ST. IRENAEUS was born about the same year that Ignatius was ordained bishop, and so previous to St. John’s death. In his boyhood he attended the ministry of Polycarp at Smyrna. Of Polycarp, and of his descriptions of St. John, the youthful Irenaeus was a profoundly interested hearer. We are able to give his own account of this period in a letter of his still extant, written to his friend Florinus, warning him against the doctrines of Valentinus, the heretic, to which he was inclined:

These opinions, Florinus, that I may speak in mild terms, are not part of sound doctrine; these opinions are not consonant with the Church, and involve their votaries in the utmost impiety; these opinions even the heretics beyond the Church’s pale have never ventured to broach; these opinions those presbyters who preceded us, and who were conversant with the apostles, did not hand down to thee. For while I was yet a boy I saw thee in Lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing thyself in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation. For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events, (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it,) so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse, his going out and his coming in, his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of familiar intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would call their words to remembrance.… What I heard from him that wrote I, not on paper, but in my heart, and, by the grace of God, I constantly bring it fresh to my mind.

Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons, in Gaul, about A.D. 177. He is supposed to have been martyred A.D. 202. He was an eminent defender of apostolic doctrine, especially against the Gnostics. His extensive writings still remain, and are very valuable, both as exhibiting a view of the thought of his age, and as furnishing early evidence in regard to the authenticity of the books of the New Testament.

PAPIAS, Bishop of Hierapolis, was in earlier life, as Irenaeus informs us, a hearer of St. John. From his own account we should infer that, while he had opportunities of listening to the apostle’s public discourses, he had, perhaps by reason of extreme youth, little personal intimacy with him. He was deeply interested in obtaining from those who had heard the primitive “elders,” or fathers of the Church, what they were personally heard to say.

And St. John was one of “the elders” about whose sayings he made diligent inquiry of other hearers than himself. He recorded these reminiscences, holding them to be more authentic than most written reports. These he published under the title of “Exegeses of our Lord’s Oracular Sayings,” a collection which Eusebius, who read them, pronounces to be eccentric in its character, and which the Church has not carefully preserved. Papias furnishes some of our earliest testimonies as to our canonical Gospels. He held a visionary expectation of Christ’s immediate return to establish a millennial kingdom. He is supposed to have suffered martyrdom about fifty years after the death of St. John.

Nothing in Christian antiquity is more beautiful than the closing years of St. John in the metropolis of Asia Minor. He maintained the vigour of youth and manhood almost to the end of his life. That vigour was expended in apostolic visitation through the villages and cities of that sunny clime founding Churches, ordaining ministries, rebuking errors and heresies, propagating the true apostolic tradition with a sure authority as an original disciple of the living Jesus. At home he would gladly indoctrinate the young who might be future teachers and preachers after his ascension. And, above all, it was his mission to write and publish his GOSPEL as the basis of historic Christian verity; his EPISTLES to affirm the genuine doctrine against surrounding errors; and his APOCALYPSE as the doctrinal and historic chart of the future Church. And as we have no express historic record as to their precise dates or chronological order of publication, we may assume that the order of time accorded with this natural order of thought. We suppose that he published his Gospel before his banishment to Patmos, which took place in the fifteenth year of Domitian’s reign; that his exile lasted less than two years; and that he was restored to his Asian Churches at the death of Domitian and accession of Trajan. The learned commentator Lampe counts nineteen different opinions among scholars as to the years of John’s life, varying from eighty-nine to one hundred and twenty years. His death probably took place in the third year of Trajan’s reign, A.D. 101. It was thus his lot to complete the first Christian century, to be the last of the apostles, and to affix the last book to the New Testament canon.


WE have elsewhere spoken of the pre-eminent position of Ephesus as a great centre in Christian history. (Note on Acts 19:1.) First founded as a Church by Paul in the meridian of his life, favoured with one of his most beautiful epistles, then ruled, at least for awhile, by the apostle’s vicar, Timothy, it was afterward honoured with the presence and presiding authority of St. John, and thence handed over to a line of Christian bishops.

To an understanding of this epistle Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus is an important starting-point. Acts 20:18-35. We must specially note his prophetic warning, that, after his departure, from the bosom of the Church itself grievous heretical wolves would arise, not sparing the flock. Next, written to this same Ephesus, his second letter to Timothy predicts more fully the same apostasies in the Church “in the last days.” 2 Timothy 3:1. This was penned just before Paul’s death, and was his dying prophecy of the peculiar heresies marking the close of the apostolic century. If now we open the epistles of John, we shall find that he is in at least the early scenes of that apostasy itself. The antinomians, (we shall style them indifferently Nicolaitans or Gnostics,) as foretold by Paul, are infesting the Church, impugning the original doctrines of Christ, and introducing demoralizations threatening to overthrow Christianity in its commencing life. The primal dogma, which centred all evil in matter, imported from Eastern Asia, was working its poisonous effects. (See notes on Acts 7:5; Acts 8:9.) Either men, through moral abhorrence of matter, became ascetics, and thence arose a superstitious vegetarianism, celibacy, and monkish asceticism, or, professing that purified in soul by a mental knowledge of God they could abandon the body to any work, a gross licentiousness resulted, consecrated by a false profession.* The moral atmosphere of Ephesus, as well as of Asia and Syria generally, at this period, was tainted by these demoralizing dogmas, and called imperatively for a public manifesto from an original apostle, stating the true Christian faith and ethic against this system of error and wickedness. As early as Simon Magus the germ of this antinomianism appears, (see our note Acts 8:9,) and our John, indeed, there personally encountered it in Simon himself, and so was prepared for his present work. The work was mainly done in this First Epistle. How the apostle prosecuted the war, both in his private letters and his apostolic circuits, we ascertain by his two lesser epistles. His last words are found in his seven apocalyptic letters to the seven Asiatic Churches; and, indeed, the whole Apocalypse is a sequel to the Epistles, being a grand unfolding of the antichrist of St. John’s day, (the elemental “many antichrists” of 1 John 2:18,) in its stupendous developments in future history down to the final consummation.

[* Wordsworth translates the following passage of “some of the Gnostics of the sub-apostolic age” from Irenaeus, 2:6, 2-4: “Animal men ( ψυχιχοι ) are conversant only with animal things, ( ψυχιχα ,) and have not perfect gnosis; and they describe us who are of the Church as such; and they say that as we are only such, we must do good works in order to be saved; but they assert that they themselves will be saved, not by practice, but because they are spiritual ( πνευματικα ) by nature, and that as gold, though mingled with mire, does not lose its beauty, so they themselves, though wallowing in the mire of carnal works, do not lose their own spiritual essence. And, therefore, though they eat things offered to idols, and are the first to resort to the banquets which the heathen celebrate in honour of their false gods, and abstain from nothing that is foul in the eyes of God or man, they say that they cannot contract any defilement from these impure abominations; and they scoff at us who fear God as silly dotards, and hugely exalt themselves, calling themselves perfect, and the elect seed.” ] In the midst of this atmosphere of doctrinal and ethical heresy, the purpose of our apostle in this epistle is to state the true doctrine and morale of Christ, both positively, in itself, and negatively, in its antagonism to surrounding error. And unless the antagonistic as well as positive phase be recognised, the reader will not take the full force, and sometimes not the true meaning, of the apostle’s words. It is now quite customary, we think absurdly so, for commentators to say that John had “no polemic purpose” in this epistle. But certainly in stating the positive truth he seldom forgets to defy the counter untruth, and even to fasten a trenchant epithet upon its utterer. The word lie or liar occurs, as verb or noun, eight times in five chapters. The bad sayings of opponents, as we enumerate them, are quoted and condemned nine times. Then he expressly tells us, “These things have I written concerning them that seduce you;” and he soon after adds, in regard to an important statement, “Let no man deceive you.” The opening paragraph is a bold assertion of his own original authority, and from beginning to end, we may say, there is a constant series of antithetic ideas, issues between the true view and the opposite error, very intensely stated, and, at first sight, apparently overstated. All this intensity arises not merely from his earnestness in behalf of doctrinal and narrative truth, but from the fact that he saw that the foundations of all true Christian purity were in the issue, and Christianity itself was at stake.

This great moral battle between Christianity and the heretical corruptions that not only threatened to ruin the Church, but showed themselves as the deepest degradations of our human nature, is presented in the later documents of the New Testament in two stages, namely: first, as foreseen and predicted, and, second, as fulfilment of these predictions. And this fact serves to fix the relative chronology of the two sets of documents. Earliest of the predictions (unless we include 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9) was Paul’s address to the Milesian elders, (Acts 20:29;) next, his Epistles to Timothy, (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:1-5;) third, the second chapter of Peter’s Second Epistle. The fulfilments are found in these three Epistles of John, in Jude, and in Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:14-16. A due reading of these passages in proper order will reveal a very powerful “polemic purpose” in the writers, the characters of the moral monsters against which young Christianity had to wage a war of extermination, and the chronological order of the documents which the war called out from the Church. In regard to these errorists, whether Gnostics or Nicolaitans, consult our notes on Acts 6:5; Acts 8:9; Act 11:19 ; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 2Th 2:7 ; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Timothy 6:20.

The appalling quality of these heresies was their threatening the foundations of Christian morals, and of all morals, by maintaining that there could be a perfect purity of soul in the midst of the most abominable practices. The heretics had formed a system that reconciled the antithesis between sanctity and depravity of life and conduct. They taught that a man might be an outrageous violator of law, and yet a pure and holy saint. The epistle is, therefore, a defence of Christian purity from sin against Gnostic purity in sin. The epistle, then, is one great antithesis. The apostle grounds our real purification from natural sin by the Spirit of God, through Christ’s most real blood, producing a holiness the absolutely opposite of all sinful practice, the center of which holiness is LOVE a divine love producing a unity between a perfectly pure God, a purified Church, and our purified soul; from which union with God results an eternal life here, to be perpetuated in eternity.



Authority of the writer as an original witness of the living Word

1 John 1:1-4

Opening summary of the epistle Purity through Christ 1 John 1:5-10


1. For the Christian’s sin of infirmity Christ is a universal propitiation 1 John 2:1-2

2. Yet for the claimant of divine fellowship the test is abstinence from all sin 1 John 2:3-14

3. So that we are not to love the godless and evanescent world 1 John 2:15-17

4. Nor accept the antichrists, whose coming marks a closing age 1 John 2:18-19

5. From which antichristic revolt you may be preserved by the purifying unction 1 John 2:20-29

(Two interludes verses 7, 8 and 12-14 interposing statements of the writer’s purpose and feeling. )


1. Present and future prospective glory of our sonship 1 John 3:1-2

2. Purification from actual sin the test of our sonship 1 John 3:3-10

3. A purification manifested in love to our brother and actual benefaction 1 John 3:11-18

4. And evidenced to ourselves by assurance through faith in Christ and witness of the Spirit given unto us 1 John 3:19-24


1. The three condemnatory tests non-confession of a human Jesus, worldliness, and the not hearing apostolic testimony 1 John 4:1-6

2. The one confirmatory test love the threefold love between God, the believer, and the brethren1 John 4:7-21; 1 John 4:7-21


1. Its effects love, spontaneous obedience, victory 1 John 5:1-5

2. And Christ, divinely attested by the threefold witnesses, is supremely worthy of faith 1 John 5:6-10

3. The results of which faith are eternal life and answered prayer 1 John 5:11-17

4. Summarizing conclusion, with final admonition 1 John 5:18-21