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Bible Commentaries

Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament
1 John

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Book Overview - 1 John

by A.T. Robertson

THE FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

ABOUT a.d. 85 TO 90

By Way of Introduction

Relation to the Fourth Gospel

There are few scholars who deny that the Epistles of John and the Fourth Gospel are by the same writer. As a matter of fact “in the whole of the First Epistle there is hardly a single thought that is not found in the Gospel” (Schulze). H. J. Holtzmann (Jahrbuch fur Protestantische Theologie, 1882, P. 128) in a series of articles on the “Problem of the First Epistle of St. John in its Relation to the Gospel” thinks that the similarities are closer than those between Luke‘s Gospel and the Acts. Baur argued that this fact was explained by conscious imitation on the part of one or the other, probably by the author of the Epistle. The solution lies either in identity of authorship or in imitation. If there is identity of authorship, Holtzmann argues that the Epistle is earlier, as seems to me to be true, while Brooke holds that the Gospel is the earlier and that the First Epistle represents the more complete ideas of the author. Both Holtzmann and Brooke give a detailed comparison of likenesses between the First Epistle and the Fourth Gospel in vocabulary, syntax, style, ideas. The arguments are not conclusive as to the priority of Epistle or Gospel, but they are as to identity of authorship. One who accepts, as I do, the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel for the reasons given in Volume V of this series, does not feel called upon to prove the Johannine authorship of the three Epistles that pass under the Apostle‘s name. Westcott suggests that one compare John 1:1-18 with 1 John 1:1-4 to see how the same mind deals with the same ideas in different connections. “No theory of conscious imitation can reasonably explain the subtle coincidences and differences in these two short crucial passages.”

Gnosticism

The Epistle is not a polemic primarily, but a letter for the edification of the readers in the truth and the life in Christ. And yet the errors of the Gnostics are constantly before John‘s mind. The leaders had gone out from among the true Christians, but there was an atmosphere of sympathy that constituted a subtle danger. There are only two passages (1 John 2:18.; 1 John 4:1-6) in which the false teachers are specifically denounced, but “this unethical intellectualism” (Robert Law) with its dash of Greek culture and Oriental mysticism and licentiousness gave a curious attraction for many who did not know how to think clearly. John, like Paul in Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, foresaw this dire peril to Christianity. In the second century it gave pure Christianity a gigantic struggle. “The great Gnostics were the first Christian philosophers” (Robert Law, The Tests of Life, p. 27) and threatened to undermine the Gospel message by “deifying the devil” (ib., p. 31) along with dethroning Christ. There were two kinds of Gnostics, both agreeing in the essential evil of matter. Both had trouble with the Person of Christ. The Docetic Gnostics denied the actual humanity of Christ, the Cerinthian Gnostics distinguished between the man Jesus and the aeon Christ that came on him at his baptism and left him on the Cross. Some practised asceticism, some licentiousness. John opposes both classes in his Epistles. They claimed superior knowledge (gnōsis) and so were called Gnostics (Gnōstikoi). Nine times John gives tests for knowing the truth and uses the verb ginōskō (know) each time (1 John 2:3, 1 John 2:5; 1 John 3:16, 1 John 3:19, 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:2, 1 John 4:6, 1 John 4:13; 1 John 5:2). Some of the leaders he calls antichrists. There are stories about John‘s dread of Cerinthus and his unwillingness to be seen in the same public bath with him. The Apostle of love, as he is, is a real son of thunder when Gnosticism shows its head. Westcott thinks that the Fourth Gospel was written to prove the deity of Christ, assuming his humanity, while 1 John was written to prove the humanity of Christ, assuming his deity. Certainly both ideas appear in both books.

Destination

It is not clear to whom the Epistle is addressed. Like the Gospel, the Epistle of John came out of the Asiatic circle with Ephesus as the centre. Augustine has the strange statement that the Epistle was addressed to the Parthians. There are other ingenious conjectures which come to nothing. The Epistle was clearly sent to those familiar with John‘s message, possibly to the churches of the Province of Asia (cf. the Seven Churches in Revelation).

The Date

The time seems to be considerably removed from the atmosphere of the Pauline and Petrine Epistles. Jerusalem has been destroyed. If John wrote the Fourth Gospel by a.d. 95, then the First Epistle would come anywhere from a.d. 85 to 95. The tone of the author is that of an old man. His urgent message that the disciples, his “little children,” love one another is like another story about the aged John, who, when too feeble to stand, would sit in his chair and preach “Little children, love one another.” The Muratorian Fragment accepts the First Epistle and Origen makes full use of it, as does Clement of Alexandria. Irenaeus quotes it by name. Polycarp shows knowledge of it also.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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