FIRST JOHN: PURPOSE, STRUCTURE, AND SUMMARY
A version of this article was published in Voice: An Independent Church Journal (97:5, September/October 2018), pp. 28-28.
John wrote this letter of concern in the 80’s AD to be circulated amongst the churches around Ephesus where he was ministering. A movement of false teachers had taken hold there and had gained a notable amount of defectors from the faith (2:18-21). This explanatory text deep in the body of the letter is vital for understanding the background and purpose for its writing. John writes to assure the faithful remnant that they needn’t worry that they were missing out on God’s truth. John’s repetitive correctives in the letter suggest that the false teachers denied the reality of sin, distorted the knowledge of Christ, and advanced an esoteric spirituality reserved for those who followed their “enlightened” teachings.
The repetitive, almost cyclical nature of 1 John makes it difficult to outline. The reader often thinks that John has moved onto another topic but then finds the argument circling back to ground already covered. John’s style is perhaps better described as spiral rather than cyclical. While he repeats himself somewhat, he still pushes forward his line of thinking.
In the introduction (1:1-4) John explains his apostolic authority stemmed from his being an eye witness to the life and ministry of God’s (1:1-3a), a claim the false teachers couldn’t make. John wanted to promote true fellowship in the Lord (1:3b) and increase the mutual joy between him and his disciples (1:4).
The body of the letter (1:5-5:12) contains three somewhat overlapping movements. They provide assurances to the believers that they really did know the God of light, love, and righteousness. In the first movement (1:5-2:27), John countered the false teachers’ claim that they alone understood the divine. The faithful were comforted that they truly knew the Lord. Those who walk in the light of the gospel have a consciousness of sin, and they value the sin-cleansing blood of the Savior (1:5-10). Those who truly know the Lord know they must live a life of obedience to God’s commands (2:1-17). They can’t freely live lives of unbroken sin for which Christ has died (2:1-2). Obedience is an indicator that one truly knows God (2:3-6), and a great demonstration of obedience is love for others (2:7-11). The false teachers claimed that only those who ascended the upper echelons of their teachings could know God, but John encouraged believers of every stage of spiritual growth that they truly knew Him and had victory over the world (2:12-17). John urged those who walk in the light to avoid the errors of the false teachers (2:18-17), explaining that the recent schism was the work of anti-Christs (2:18-21) who had a false spirituality which actually denied Christ (2:22-24). True believers, however, have real spiritual insight (2:25-27).
The second movement (2:28-4:6) assures the believers they were in fellowship with the God of righteousness. True children of God learn to live ready for the Lord’s coming (2:28-3:3) and to forsake sin and the Devil’s work (3:4-10). The world is a hateful place to believers, so it’s essential that they love one another (3:11-24). The story of Cain’s hatred provides ample lessons on love and hate (3:11-15), and points to the need for mutually sacrificial love (3:16-18). Love and obedience are confirming evidence of one’s claim to fellowship with God (3:19-24). Knowing the God of righteousness will also lead His people to reject the religious errors of the world (4:1-6). There is a real need for discernment in a world full of the doctrines of demons (4:1-3), and true believers are receptive to the apostolic teaching (4:4-6).
The final movement (4:7-5:12) stresses most strongly the loving nature of God and his fellowship. Love is an essential to God’s character and those who are in His fellowship (4:7-5:5). God’s inherent love has been manifested in the Gospel and is to be emulated by believers (4:7-12). As believers are perfected more and more in God’s love, their confidence before the God of love grows (4:13-18). God is the initiator of love, and Christians learn to grow in reflecting that love (4:19-21). This is how victorious faith is demonstrated (5:1-5). This Christian embrace of God’s love is evident in the gospel’s witness of Christ, a witness manifest in history by the Spirit and in the hearts of those who know him (5:6-12).
The conclusion to the letter (5:13-21) further clarifies John’s purpose for writing a letter of assurance (5:13), counsels believers to a life of confident, intercessory prayer (5:14-17), and stresses the need for gospel certainty in the midst of the great struggle between truth and error (5:18-20). The final salvo of the letter calls the believers to avoid idols (5:21), implying that the false teachers’ ideas about Christ and spirituality were a fully false faith, not merely a deficient version of Christianity.
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