The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).
This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.
Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).
The concluding words of the book, asserting that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20), suggest high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this letter, and some indeterminate “opponents”.
The work is attributed to the apostle John, and that invites comparisons with the Gospel which also, by tradition, carries the name of John as its author. The sectarian tendencies, already seen in John’s Gospel, appear to have intensified in the situation addressed in this letter. Yet, in the end, “the world” is only temporary (2:17); victory over the world is assured, for it has already come (4:4; 5:3–5). Indeed, God’s intention is to save the whole world (2:1–2; 4:9, 14).
Who are the opponents? A dispute regarding the nature of Jesus is hinted at; this may point towards a doctrinal basis for the conflict. A central assertion, for the author of this sermon-letter, is that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2).
This claim appears to have been made in opposition to another view (that Jesus only appeared to be “in the flesh”, it is often assumed). Likewise, it is twice asserted that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2; 4:10; this is the NRSV translation of the complex Greek word used, hilasmos). We encounter this technical word in the affirmation of 4:10, in the Epistle passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.
These credal claims have led some interpreters to claim that the “opponents” reflected in this sermon-letter were Docetists, who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be of human flesh. (The term “Docetist” comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning to appear or to seem.)
Various claims made concerning Jesus reflect the developing Christology that we can see in other New Testament documents: Jesus is “Son of God” (4:15; 5:5, 10), “Messiah” (2:22; 3:23; 5:1), the one who is “righteous” (2:2, 29). The author of this sermon-letter thus takes his place alongside other “apostolic” authors who together will provide the data for the developing “apostolic faith” of the second century onwards.
There is a particular emphasis in this sermon-letter on the claim that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). This appears to argue against a view that Jesus came “by water” only—that is to say, a view that minimises or rejects the saving significance of the death of Jesus. For the author, a central assertion is that “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).
The conflict between the author and his opponents had become tense and even malicious, as we might deduce from the references to “deceivers” (2:26; 5:7), “false prophets” (4:1), “liars” and their “lies” (2:4, 22, 27; 4:20; 5:10), and the “spirit of error” (4:6). These condemnatory terms climax in the reference to, not one, but many “antichrists” (2:18–25; 4:2– 6).
The connection of such derogatory labels with the credal assertions of the author (especially at 2:22 and 5:10) suggests that sectarianism has fuelled this conflict. A further piece of evidence in support of this is the use of the term “anointing” (2:20, 27) to describe the status of the recipients. This word, in Greek, is related to “Christ”, the title reserved for Jesus. Those anointed by God claim a special status as Christ’s people—a claim that fits well within the polemical context of increasing sectarianism.
A striking feature of the letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).
Table A: Purpose Statements in John and 1 John
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
1 John 5:13
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.
One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter. Other points of differentiation are noted below.
There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).
Another important motif in the prologue to the letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense lof testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).
Beyond the letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).
The letter writer asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).
Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).
We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the letter’s prologue (1 Jn 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in the letter (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).
Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized by the letter writer; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26). However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 Jn 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 Jn 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).
Knowledge is a key concern of this letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).
The emphasis on knowledge in this letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We have seen a similar debate in 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:4. The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 Jn 2:20, 27).
The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 Jn 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this letter (1 Jn 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).
The Spirit is given by the Father (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) and is described as “the spirit of truth” (1 Jn 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 Jn 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).
The negative attitude towards the world in this letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).
The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the letter; the world hates believers (1 Jn 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:20). The role of “the devil” in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 Jn 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).
The letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.
Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled “realised eschatology”; it is a clear point of difference between letter and Gospel.
However, the connections between letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.
There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross- referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.
Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. (The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.)
Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.
This letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtful, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.
This blog is based on draws on material in IN THE NAME OF: an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).