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New Testament: 1 John

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Summary

John, Hans Memling  (1468)

This anonymous sermon or letter, typically attributed to John the Elder, is about the nature of Jesus Christ and what it means to follow after Christ in this world. Major themes include the coming of the Son of God fully into the flesh ("incarnation") and the importance of linking faith with life, especially a life filled with the love of God expressed in concrete deeds. John calls all the church to unity in the Spirit that we may be a community of life, light, and love, working against the worldly forces of death, darkness, and hate.

So What?

There is a strong connection between belief and life. It is important to get our views of Christ correct, yet equally these doctrines are not purely abstract but powerfully connected to our way of life. This book also focuses strongly on love and fellowship as keys to Christian discipleship.

Where Do I Find It?

The First Letter of John is the twenty-third book in the New Testament. It is the first of the three "Johannine Letters," a collection of writings that share much in common with each other and with the Gospel of John.

Who Wrote It?

Similarities among this book, 2 John, and 3 John indicate that the same author (identified as an "elder" in the other two letters) is responsible for all three. The elder and his colleagues were likely also the authors of the Gospel of John. This person may or may not have been the Apostle John, son of Zebedee.

When Was It Written?

The First Letter of John comes from around 90 C.E., during or soon after the time when the Gospel of John was put together.

What's It About?

Believers are to have faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, and are to live a life of love and discipleship in the unity of the Spirit.

How Do I Read It?

Read this letter like you would a sermon, written to encourage faith and life in Christian community. Remember that it was written to a specific time and community, but it speaks to us also. Recognize that the book's simple language conveys profound theological and ethical points.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

I. Introduction (1 John 1:1-4)
The author and others give witness to the word of life that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

II. God Is Light (1 John 1:5--3:10)
Because God is light, we are to walk in the light, rejecting the love of this world and the deeds of sin and darkness.

III. God Is Love (1 John 3:11--5:12)
Because God is love, we are to live together as children of God in faith and love, not with hatred or worldly lusts.

IV. Conclusion (1 John 5:13-21)
Concluding verses tell believers to walk boldly in the light and not to sin.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

The background of this sermon or letter is unclear. The author, whom tradition identifies as John, expresses concern about false teachers who are leading astray the Christian fellowship. Exactly who these people were or where they lived is unknown. John calls the false leaders "antichrists" (2:18). They seem to have left the churches of John and his community to set up their own (2:19), but their teachings and informal contacts were still causing trouble. What they taught is also difficult to know, but they seem to have denied that the Christ came in the flesh (4:2) and that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God (2:22; 5:1-5). They may also have taught that the Christ did not suffer or die (5:6). They appear to have believed that they knew God better than other, lesser believers (2:4). They may have denied any clear connection between faith and holiness or discipleship (2:4-6), perhaps because they saw life in the flesh as of no importance. These teachings led to faction, division, and hatred within the church, which John strongly opposes.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

  • Antichrists. John calls those Christian leaders who oppose his teachings "antichrists" (2:18, 22; 4:3). This expression should not be confused with the beast described in Revelation 13, whom some interpreters refer to as the Antichrist. John's point is that certain teachings are the enemy of the truth of Christ and the Spirit of truth. The label antichrist speaks of the serious danger that John believes these false teachings pose for communities of believers.
  • Faith and good works. John claims a very strong relationship between knowing God, loving God, and doing good works such as keeping the commandments and walking in the light. Many Christians nevertheless have trouble with simply stating, "The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments" (5:3), without further qualification.
  • Nature and content of the false teachings. The exact nature and content of the false teachings that this letter opposes continue to attract scholarly debate. A popular option is that the heresy was a very early form of gnostic Christianity. The gnostics were important and influential heretics during the second and third centuries C.E. Among other things, many gnostic teachings denied that Jesus had a body like ours. They also dismissed the realities of life in the world, claiming salvation as a purely spiritual existence.
  • Relationship with John's Gospel. This book contains language and themes that are very similar to what is in the Fourth Gospel. It may have been written by the same person or group of people. Many Bible scholars think this is the case, especially because of the language, theology, and themes shared by both books. At the same time, there are new and different points or problems developed in 1 John, distinguishing it from the Gospel of John. One of these is deep concern about the presence of false teachers in the church.
  • Sin in believers. John states that if we deny that we have sin, then we are liars (1:10), yet he also claims that those who are born of God do not sin (3:9; 5:18). Which is it? The ambiguity regarding this is real.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

  • Incarnation. This book insists on the full coming of the Son of God into human flesh--a fully human Savior. Many philosophies and religions of the first and second centuries saw the body or flesh as inherently evil, and this led some people to resist the idea of Jesus as God incarnate.
  • Light and darkness. The book assumes a strong and unambiguous division between good and evil, light and dark, faith and unbelief, Christians and "the world." These divisions are no doubt a simplification of real life now.
  • Love. Love is at the core of who God is. Likewise, love must guide the life of Christian believers who work and live ("walk") in the light of God. John famously claims that God is love.
  • "Walking" as ethics. John the Elder uses the metaphorical expression walk to speak of the life of faith and discipleship. The importance of Christian ethics in the life and love of God receives strong emphasis. Faith that is true will lead to a walk that is strong in Christ.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology