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1 John: Introduction, Argument, and Outline

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I. Introduction

A. Author

The issue of authorship (as well as date) of this epistle cannot be settled in isolation. It is quite bound up with the issue of authorship for the Fourth Gospel and for 2-3 John. If the same author wrote all four books, there is a strong presumption that they were written at about the same time since the style of writing, themes, and outlook are so similar. Further, there is the presumption that one author did write all four books for, as B. H. Streeter remarks, “The three epistles and the Gospel of John are so closely allied in diction, style, and general outlook that the burden of proof lies with the person who would deny their common authorship.”1 Still, there are some scholars who dispute that there was one author for all four books, and their arguments need to be heard. We shall deal with them only in passing, however, since there is still something of a general consensus on the matter, even if not all are agreed that John the apostle was the author.

1. External Evidence

There are possible allusions to 1 John in Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and pseudo-Clement (in his 2 Corinthians), but these are all doubtful.2 More probable are allusions in the Didache, Barnabas, Hermas, Justin Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, Polycarp, and Papias. Undeniable are allusions/references to 1 John by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius, and the Muratorian canon. Guthrie well summarizes the data:

This evidence is sufficient to show that from very early times the epistle was not only treated as Scripture but was assumed to be Johannine, in spite of the fact that no specific claim to this effect is made by the writer himself. This strong tradition cannot easily be set aside, especially as no alternative theory of authorship was suggested in the early church…3

2. Internal Evidence

There are three pieces of evidences which suggest that John the apostle wrote this epistle: (1) the writer claims to be an eyewitness of the earthly life of Christ (1.1-3); (2) he speaks with an air of authority—“he clearly expects not only to be heard, but to be obeyed”;4 and (3) the similarities of thought and verbal expression to the Fourth Gospel are so striking as to suggest that the same author penned both. As Robert Law quipped, “On internal grounds, it would appear much more feasible to assign any two of Shakespeare’s plays to different authors, than the Gospel and the First Epistle of ‘St. John.’”5

Nevertheless, even if presumption is on the side of common authorship, there are two types of arguments against this: (1) some dispute that the same author wrote both the Gospel and 1 John; and (2) some dispute that the same author wrote 1 John and 2-3 John.6 Rather than rehashing material found elsewhere in this essay, we wish to center our discussion on two items: (1) Did the same author write both the Gospel of John and 1 John? and (2) Did the same author write 2 John and 3 John? On the assumption that John the apostle wrote the Gospel bearing his name,7 if we can answer in the affirmative to these two questions, then apostolic authorship can thereby be assumed for these three epistles as well.

a. Did the Same Author Write the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle?

Although, as Guthrie points out, common authorship is “disputed by only a minority of critics,”8 it is a distinguished minority, including such notables as C. H. Dodd, Raymond Brown, R. Bultmann, M. Dibelius, and C. K. Barrett. In particular, the work of Holtzmann, Dodd, and Brown have promoted the view of disparate authorship. Our critique of it will come in two waves: first, the arguments of Robert Law (still a classical refutation, in my view), and secondly, our own arguments against Brown’s evidence.

(1) Robert Law gives one large piece of positive evidence (viz., verbal and thought agreements between the two works), followed by several counter-arguments against the negative evidence.

First, positively, there are coincidences of verbal expression as well as coincidences of thought—both those which are peculiar to the Fourth Gospel and 1 John and those which are characteristic of these two documents.9 Law’s conclusion about the remarkable coincidental agreements is a sober assessment:

From the facts so far adduced, either of two conclusions is inevitable—that the Gospel and the Epistle are from the same pen, or that the one or the other of them is the work of his predecessor that he unconsciously reproduces its thoughts and its phraseology, even to the minutest mannerisms. The former is the natural hypothesis. Strong evidence will be required to set it aside in favour of the latter.10

Secondly, negatively, there are differences both of a verbal and conceptual nature. Some of these differences are quite striking. For example, οὖν occurs nearly 200 times in the Gospel, but not once in the epistle. Yet, “in the case of οὖν, the discrepancy is only apparent, is rather, indeed, a point of real similarity; for, in the Gospel, it is used only in narrative, no occurrence of it being found, e.g., in chapters 14-16.”11 Many examples of a similar nature could be compared. Even Brown concedes that the verbal differences are not weighty: “the variation of minute stylistic features between GJohn [Gospel of John] and I John is not much different from the variation that one can find if one compares one part of GJohn to another part.”12

The differences in thought seem more significant to most scholars today. Law catalogs seven such differences,13 three of which seem to be quite significant: (a) the Gospel is christocentric while the epistle is theocentric; (b) the atoning character of the death of Christ is much clearer in the epistle than in the Gospel; and (c) the eschatology between the two seems to be different: the Gospel tends toward a realized eschatology (in which believers have passed out of judgment into life), while the epistle imbibes in a more futuristic eschatology. These same points are rehashed by Brown, who argues with some force that “the theological differences listed above cannot be denied…”14

Law’s response to these is, generally speaking, masterfully done. He argues, for example, regarding the first objection that “in the Gospel we find passages as strongly Theocentric as any in the Epistle… On the other hand, the epistle contains passages which are as strongly Christocentric as any in the Gospel.”15 Still, the emphasis in each is generally different, and Law rightly (in part) notes that such difference is due to the fact that “the one is a biography of the Incarnate Word, the other, we may say, a biological study of the Divine Life itself.”16 Still, there are some weaknesses in his approach, for although one might not be able to detect any contradictions between the two works, there still does seem to be a difference in outlook. Could this be the work of one author? We will address the question of atonement and eschatology in the next section.

(2) In addition to these arguments, Brown argues that the life situation presupposed in the two works is different. In particular, he notes that (a) the audience has changed (the Gospel is designed to strengthen/establish faith in Christ; the epistle, to give assurance to those who are presupposed to be believers); and (b) the adversaries have changed (“the Jews” in the Gospel to “those who went out from us” in the epistle). Brown argues from this evidence that “the least that it implies is that GJohn and I John were not written at the same time to the same group by the same man.”17 Brown himself believes that the two were written at different times by different men, though he readily admits that the differences he notes cannot prove this.

It is our contention that not only can these differences be explained on the hypothesis of the same author, but that they can most easily be explained if one takes into account the following factors: (a) a change in domicile for the author, rather than a (major) change in audience; (b) the epistle was written at a later time, when a futuristic eschatology would seem more appropriate; (c) the adversaries had indeed changed, but this is due primarily to the author’s better acquaintance with the audience, rather than to a change in author; and (d) the emphasis on the atoning work of Christ was due to the impact of the apostle Paul. Although much of this has been argued (or at least hinted at) in our discussion of the Fourth Gospel, an overarching reconstruction is still needed. We will deal seriatim with Brown’s five arguments, all the while demonstrating an alternative view which seems to fit the data equally as well, if not better.

First, not much imagination is needed to come up with a reason for the shift from christocentricity to theocentricity. Law takes one approach, viz., diminishing the differences. Although it is true that the Gospel has its theocentric moments and the epistles its christocentric ones, the general impression is that there is indeed a difference in emphasis between the two.18 If, however, the author is now combating a new opponent in the epistle—one he did not encounter in the Gospel—then the shift is understandable. In his Gospel his opponent was “the Jews” and his objective was to prove that Jesus was the Christ, God in the flesh. In his epistle the opponent already embraces a high Christology. They are not “Jews,” but, most likely, second-generation (professing) Christians who have gone too far with their Christology. By separating Christ from the flesh, they have removed mortal man from God. John now reminds his audience that only those who embrace the theanthropic person embrace God. In a sense, we might say that in the Gospel John needed to show the divine face of the Son; in the epistle, he needed to demonstrate the ‘human’ face of the Father.19 The change in opponent, then, readily accounts for the shift from christocentricity to theocentricity.

Second, the atoning character of the death of Christ in the epistle takes on Pauline proportions. “‘He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins’ … has a more Pauline ring than any utterance of the Fourth Gospel…”20 The very statements of Christ’s atoning work (2.2) sounds very Pauline: “He is our propitiation” (ἱλασμός).21 Further, God/Christ are “righteous” (δίκαιος) throughout this epistle (1.9; 2.1; 3.7), and usually in relation to the forgiveness of the Christian. This, again, is quite Pauline. Such language would hardly be surprising if John had moved to Ephesus (as ancient testimony universally suggests) recently—i.e., between the writing of his Gospel and the epistle. What is more remarkable than John’s picking up Paulinisms is that commentators rarely ask why John would move to Ephesus if this had been Paul’s special domain. Further, what catalyst would prompt him to do so? We shall pursue this question under “Occasion,” but suffice it to say that John’s more Pauline-like expressions in the epistle are understandable if the author moved from Palestine to Ephesus between the writing of the Gospel and the epistle.22

Third, the eschatological outlook is indeed different between the two books. Certainly the staple of Dodd’s evidence for realized eschatology comes from the Fourth Gospel.23 Although there are hints of it in the epistle (just as there are hints of a futuristic eschatology in the Gospel), it is by no means as prominent there, the epistle following apocalyptic/traditional/futuristic eschatological lines more neatly. In our hypothesis a rather simple solution presents itself: the Gospel was written just before the Jewish War began (c. 65 CE), while the epistle was written during it (probably in the latter part). If John wrote his Gospel to Paul’s churches of Asia Minor, as we have maintained, and if he wrote before 66 CE, his preoccupation on grounding his new audience’s faith on the historical Jesus (without much attention to his return) is understandable. But once war broke out, there was the possibility that the events of the Olivet Discourse were now being fulfilled in toto.24 In the midst of this war, John writes to an audience far removed from the battle zone (but not from the eschatological implications which the war might bring worldwide—viz., the Lord’s return) that the antichrist is coming, that many antichrists are already in the world, that it is the last hour, that the Lord’s return is imminent. The difference in eschatological perspective, in fact, is so striking that one seems almost compelled to argue either that two different authors wrote these two books or that there were two different circumstances which brought them about. That the evidence for a date of the epistle in the late 60s is not a Procrustean bed of our own making is obvious from our prior argument that the Fourth Gospel almost certainly was written after Peter’s death (or just before it), but before the Jewish War broke out.25 Further, the epistle shows other evidence of coming after the Gospel.26

Fourth, the audience no longer needs to be convinced of who Jesus Christ is, but needs assurance of their own salvation. Again, this change in the audience is due to time and maturity, not necessarily a completely different audience. In this respect, the Fourth Gospel is quite similar to Romans in that Paul wished to “preach the gospel to you also who are at Rome” because he had not yet visited them. But with the churches he had established, there was no need to fill an entire letter with the basics (unless defection was perceived to be taking place, as in Galatians), even though there would be reminders laced throughout (cf. 1 Thessalonians). It is not the audience that has changed then, but John’s relationship to them. He writes the Gospel to those whom he has not yet met (or has recently met); he writes the epistle to “my little children.” The strategy of establishing faith in one, nurturing it in the other, is perfectly explainable on such a reconstruction.

Fifth, Brown argues that the adversaries have changed—from “Jews” to “those who went out from among us.” It could be argued, and with some force, that he has read too much of the community’s Sitz im Leben into the Fourth Gospel.27 After all, a Gospel purportedly has something to do with history. Although certainly the needs of the community would be expected, to some degree, to shape and limit the contents of a given Gospel, it is too much to say that they created the contents. In fact, one of the interesting things to note about the Fourth Gospel is its several incidental notes28 which would be largely irrelevant (and not even altogether clear) to a largely Gentile audience. There is the greatest probability, as we have argued earlier, that John kept something of a diary of the life of Jesus as a disciple, shaped the material into a rough Gospel as the years went by, and then targeted a Gentile audience outside of Palestine in the last stage of revision.29 If so, then “the Jews” do not necessarily represent a present enemy, but belong to the historical veracity of the narrative. Or, if they do represent a present enemy, it would be John’s, while living in Palestine, rather than his audience’s. On this reading, it is easy to see why the opponents shift in the epistle: John has recently moved to Asia Minor and has encountered them firsthand.

In sum, since it is true that “the Epistles of John stand closer to the Gospel in style and content than do any other writings to one another in the New Testament…”30, the great probability is that they are penned by the same author.

b. Did the Same Author Write All Three Epistles?

Again, the vast bulk of scholars holds to this view. Against this are principally two arguments: (a) the author identifies himself as “the elder” in 2-3 John,31 but no such identification is made in 1 John; and (b) the similarities among all three are so striking that if they are not by a common author, one or more of the documents is by a forger.32

Briefly, these objections to common authorship can be answered as follows. (a) An author has the right to alter his style of writing, even his own identification, as the occasion warrants. In this instance, it is not insignificant that in 1 John the author addresses his audience as “my little children,” indicating that he was well-known to them, while in 2-3 John such familiarity is absent, necessitating some kind of self-identification. (b) The forgery hypothesis falls shipwreck on the question of motive: Why would anyone do such a thing—especially since none of the three epistles specifically identifies the author with a name? Against forgery we can add a further point: between 1 John and 2 John “there are no verbatim quotations and always minor variants, a fact more consonant with the same author rephrasing himself than a forger… Most of the differences are really instances of the vagaries of Johannine style that one may find even within the same work…”33

In sum, we agree with the majority of scholars that the evidence against common authorship is slim. As R. H. Charles (certainly no arch-conservative!) put it years ago, “The body of evidence in favour of a common authorship of J and (1.) 2. 3. J carries with it absolute conviction.”34

B. Date

On the assumption of common authorship for the three epistles and the Gospel of John, if any one of these can be dated with relative certainty, the others would naturally fit in closely, since the style, themes, and outlook are so similar.35 “Most scholars agree that no great interval could have separated the Gospel from the epistles.”36

Although a good case could be made that all four were written in the last decade of the first century CE (a view held by the majority), a growing number of scholars are voicing the opinion that the Gospel was published before 70 CE.37 As that is our conviction, and since we have gone over that ground in reference to the Gospel of John, we will simply assume it here.

The question for us is: Which came first, the Gospel or the epistle? It is our view that if the Gospel was penned c. 65 CE, then the epistle was written in the late 60s (c. 68-69). The reasons for this view are as follows.

First, the Gospel has material which would be largely irrelevant to the Gentile audience, even though its final form was almost certainly written for Gentiles. As we suggested earlier, this argues that John had amassed material for his Gospel, without having a specific audience in mind until the last stage of composition. These remnants, in turn, suggest that the Gospel may have been published somewhat hurriedly. Our quite tentative contention is that either the whole Gospel was produced at Peter’s request (with the appendix [chapter 21] added after Peter died) or at least the appendix was added at Peter’s request, for the sake of Paul’s churches which otherwise did not have an apostolic voice. John brought the Gospel with him to Ephesus in 65 CE and added the appendix (with the approbation of the Ephesian elders in 21.24). Hence, he really was not fully aware of his new audience, even though he knew that he wanted to minister to them.38

Second, the epistle shows signs of having come later. (1) Its eschatology is much more futuristic than the eschatology of the Gospel. Rather than arguing for a more primitive eschatology (a view held by Dodd) in the epistle, if the same man wrote both books and if the first was written before war broke out, this suggests that the epistle was written after 66 CE. Not only does the language reflect concepts and even verbiage found in the Olivet Discourse,39 but there is a tone of urgency found in this letter which is lacking in the Gospel. The best external cause for this shift in eschatological perspective would have been the Jewish War.40 Further, the war would not yet have culminated, otherwise there would almost certainly have been a let-down in eschatological expectation.41 (2) There is an obvious familiarity with the audience which seems to be lacking in the Gospel. Indeed, if tradition is correct that John 21.24 is a commendation by the Ephesian elders of the veracity of the Gospel (or at least of the truth of chapter 21), this implies that John was largely unknown to his audience. Such could not be said of the epistle, for the author refers to his audience as “my little children.” (3) 1 John 2.19 also seems to imply that some time had elapsed from the time John had come to know his audience, for the opponents had left the church. This statement (“they went out from us”) suggests that John had been acquainted with the audience long enough to have not only established a relationship with them, but even to have established a relationship with those who defected. This text, in fact, suggests that 1 John was written after 2 John, for the heretics in 2 John were itinerant preachers who were still considered part of the Church.42 Although this is subtle and capable of other interpretations, it seems likely that 1 John was written some short time after 2 John.

In sum, we would date 1 John after the Jewish War broke out, but before it was concluded. John must be given some amount of time to know his audience and for the heretics to have left the congregation. Hence, the epistle should probably be dated after 2 John. A date of c. 68-69 CE seems to be the best guess.

C. Addressees/Place of Writing

The issue of audience, place of writing, and form of the epistle are bound up together. Since this letter sounds very much like a homily, lacking the typical features of a letter, there is the distinct possibility that it was intended to function in this manner to some degree. It may well have been a circular letter to a fairly restricted circle. Guthrie has a succinct discussion which is worth quoting:

The most satisfactory explanation is that I John was written to a group of people, possibly in more than one Asiatic community, with whom the author was personally acquainted and who were threatened with the same infiltration of false teaching. The following reasons have led to the widely-held view that Asia was the destination of this epistle and of 2 and 3 John: the external tradition associates the Gospel with John at Ephesus; the association of the Johannine literature with the Apocalypse would also suggest Asia Minor; the gnosticizing teaching reflected in these epistles is strongly connected with this area. Moreover, the earlier known use of I John comes from the same area (i.e., in Polycarp’s epistle).43

Two points need to be added to this summary: (1) If John was in Ephesus at the time of composition, it is probable that Ephesus was not the destination of this letter. Rather, it was sent to several of the churches in the surrounding areas.44 Almost surely one such church would have been at Colossae, for the same kind of heretics were condemned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians just a few years earlier. (2) The audience was almost certainly made up mainly of Gentiles. Not only is this seen in the kind of heresy which is fought (antinomian, docetic—neither of which was found among Jewish Christian sects), but the epistle ends with the warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5.21), an admonition which has great relevance for Gentile Christians, almost none for Jewish Christians.45

D. Occasion

The immediate occasion for this epistle is that the false teachers had left the church (2.19), but were harassing the church and enticing it from a position outside.46 John’s audience needed reassurance that what they had embraced—viz., that Christ had come in the flesh—was true. John assures his audience of this truth—as well as the truth of the Gospel in general—on two grounds: (1) he was an eyewitness to Christ (1.1-3), and (2) the Spirit bore witness to their spirit that these things were true (2.20, 27).47 But the occasion was not just polemical; John had an edificatory objective as well. Thus the almost monotonous refrain “I have written to you in order that/because…” The purpose statement in 5.13, on the analogy of John’s Gospel, would seem to be the most encompassing one: “I have written these things to you in order that you—that is, to those who believe in the name of the Son of God—might know that you have eternal life.”48

E. Theme

First John is, in many ways, a smorgasbord of theological concepts. It is virtually impossible to construct a convincing and decisive outline, and its themes/purposes are everywhere mentioned (cf., e.g., 1.3, 4; 2.1, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26; 5.13), yet no unifying theme or purpose can be easily construed from them. Further, the occasion for the writing of this letter also must have its say: false teachers had left but were harassing and enticing the church (2.19). In our approach, a combination of the occasion (2.19) and last purpose statement (5.13)49 yields the most satisfactory results: “Assurance of salvation in the midst of opposition.”

II. Argument

Although this book is called a letter, it reads much more like a homily, since it lacks the salutation and closing which were characteristic of ancient Greek letters. John begins this book by offering evidence of the reality of the incarnation—namely, he was an eyewitness to it (1.1-2). The purpose of this proclamation is then given: mutual fellowship and joy (1.3-4).

Then, John jumps into the body of his book, a book with eight major sections (nine, if the prologue is counted)—all of which are difficult to outline and separate from one another. In almost every section, themes that are key to other sections are found. Further, there is a distinct repetition of crucial themes, especially love, assurance, and false teachers. The construction of this book is analogous to someone throwing four or five stones into a pond within close proximity of each other: after a short time the ripples from one stone overlap with the ripples from another so that all lines become blurred. As such, it is next to impossible to outline that style of argument in a linear fashion. What is needed is a geometrical design!

In the first section John demonstrates how fellowship is motivated by what God has done for us (1.5–2.17). This is roughly similar to Paul’s typical first half of letters in which he articulates the indicatives of the faith. John looks at fellowship from five angles. (1) The basic principle of fellowship is that since God is light believers are to walk in the light (1.5-10), though whether this means moral light or simply transparency is difficult to tell (though most commentators insist on moral light, I find Law’s defense of transparency the most satisfying view; in essence, God expects honesty [=transparency] of his children as the basis for holiness). (2) Fellowship with God is possible even when we sin (cf. 1.7) because of the atoning work of Christ (2.1-2). (3) Fellowship is demanded because of this provision, and is motivated by this principle—and anyone who claims to know God but does not obey his commands is a liar (2.3-11). (4) Fellowship with God is possible only for genuine believers, for they have been forgiven (justification) and have overcome the evil one (sanctification) (2.12-14). (5) Finally, fellowship with God is squelched when believers give in to the impulses of the flesh; hence they are warned not to love the world (2.15-17).

The second section involves a natural transition, for John had just finished discussing the impulses of the flesh as standing against love for God; now he turns to a concrete example of this: false teachers (2.18-27). He will deal with false teachers in two major sections and it is quite frankly difficult to see how the second section adds substantially to the content of the first. But it must be remembered that this book is a Jewish homily (even if clothed in Greek garb), in which the author is fond of repeating the same ideas and motifs over and over again.50 John begins this section with an eschatological note: “It is the last hour” (2.18). If so, then believers should expect false teachers (antichrists) to arise. John has located them. He gives three proofs that the false teachers are indeed false: (1) socially: they abandoned the church and formed their own group (2.19), (2) doctrinally: they deny that Jesus is the Christ (2.20-23); and (3) spiritually: believers have the anointing of the Spirit to guide them in recognizing these false teachers (2.24-27). The rise of these “antichrists” is an obvious indicator that believers are in the last hour. This is the dark side of the eschaton.

The third section reveals the bright side of the eschaton: since we are in the last days, our hope of Christ’s imminent return should produce godly living (2.28–3.10). John first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2.28–3.3). Then, without marking that his discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification (3.4-10)—that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs. unbelievers, implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving in that direction (3.6, 9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers are moving away from truth (3.10; cf. 2.19). Thus, John states in an absolute manner truths which are not yet true, because he is speaking within the context of eschatological hope (2.28–3.3) and eschatological judgment (2.18-19).

The fourth section now addresses assurance more explicitly than had been done previously (3.11-24), though this is hardly a new topic. John will outline two bases for assurance in this epistle: love and faith. He will also address love as a major motif twice, though on the second occasion he will relate it more to sanctification than to justification. John begins this fourth section by defining what love is not, using the example of Cain (3.11-15), followed by a definition of what love is, using the example of Christ (3.16-17). But this is not mere academia, for with the definition comes obligation: because Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay our lives down for each other (3.16-17). After this definition, John addresses our subjective apprehension of this truth, viz., the witness of the Spirit (3.18-24). Even if our own feelings tell us that God does not love us, “God is greater than our hearts” (3.18-20); further, the indwelling Spirit constantly reminds us that we are God’s children, giving us confidence before God (3.21-24).

In the fifth section John once again returns to the false teachers (4.1-6). He makes a natural transition between the two sections, for not only does the Spirit who dwells within us testify to our status before God, the same Spirit also testifies to the deception of the heretics. Believers are exhorted to test the spirits (of prophets) with two tests: external (doctrine) and internal (witness of the Spirit). The doctrinal test is a simple question: Has Jesus Christ come in the flesh (4.1-3)? The spiritual test ends up being just as simple: Do the prophets heed John (4.4-6)? This question can be asked because John is God’s spokesman (4.6).

The sixth section once again picks up the motif of love (cf. 3.11-14), only this time the emphasis is on sanctification more than assurance of salvation (4.7-21). This love is shown in Christ’s death (4.7-12; cf. 3.16-17), which in turn is witnessed by the Spirit as a display of God’s love (4.13-16a; cf. John 3.16). Once God’s love is truly grasped—both by the evidence of history and the witness of the Spirit—it necessarily removes all fear, for “perfect love casts out fear” (4.16b-18). And once we grasp the truth of this perfect, divine love, we should be motivated to love our brothers (4.19-21).

In the seventh section John returns to assurance, though he now bases it on faith more than on love, though the two are intermingled throughout this section (5.1-12). Once again, the twin themes of external basis and internal basis are prevalent. The external basis of assurance is faith (creed) and love (conduct) (5.1-2). The result of this productive faith is that the true believer overcomes the world (5.3-5). The internal basis is the witness of the Spirit (5.6-12)—a witness within our hearts (5.9-10), borne by the Spirit who is true (5.6). To what does he bear witness? The truth of the creed (5.11-12; cf. 5.1).

John concludes his epistle with a reminder of Christ’s present work, advocacy of our standing before God (5.13-21). This advocacy gives believers certainty of salvation (5.13), confidence in their prayers (5.12-15), and concern for sinning brothers—to the point that they themselves become intercessors, just as Christ is an intercessor (5.16-17). Finally, John restates many of his themes—e.g., the conduct of the believer (5.18), assurance of salvation (5.19), truth about Christ (5.20), and implicit denial of the heretics’ doctrines (5.21).

III. Outline51

I. Prologue: The Reality of the Incarnation (1.1-4)

II. Fellowship: Motivated by God’s Dealings in the Past (1.5–2.17)

A. The Principles of Fellowship: Walking in the Light (1.5-10)

B. The Provision of Fellowship: The Death of Christ (2.1-2)

C. The Imperatives of Fellowship: Obeying God’s Commands (2.3-11)

D. The Prerequisites of Fellowship: The Status of the Believers (2.12-14)

E. The Impulses against Fellowship: Loving the World (2.15-17)

III. False Teachers: Recognition of Deception (2.18-27)

A. First Proof: Their Abandonment (2.18-19)

B. Second Proof: Their Denial that Jesus is the Christ (2.20-23)

C. Third Proof: Our Anointing of the Spirit (2.24-27)

IV. Eschatological Hope: Motivation for Holy Living in the Present (2.28–3.10)

A. Hope Produces Holiness (2.28–3.3)

B. A Proleptic View of Sanctification (3.4-10)

V. Love as Basis for Assurance: Definition and Discernment (3.11-24)

A. Definition (3.11-17)

1. Negatively Stated: The Example of Cain (3.11-15)

2. Positively Stated: The Example of Christ (3.16-17)

B. Discernment: The Witness of the Spirit (3.18-24)

1. The Condemnation by our Hearts (3.18-20)

2. The Confidence we can have before God (3.21-24)

VI. False Teachers: Discernment of False Spirits (4.1-6)

A. Objective Test: Doctrine (4.1-3)

B. Subjective Test: The Witness of the Spirit (4.4-6)

VII. Love: Essential to Sanctification (4.7-21)

A. Love Displayed in the Death of Christ (4.7-12)

B. The Death of Christ Witnessed by the Spirit (4.13-16a)

C. Love Removes Fear (4.16b-18)

D. Divine Love Prompts Brotherly Love (4.19-21)

VIII. Faith: Assurance in our Hearts (5.1-12)

A. Faith and External Evidence: Overcoming (5.1-5)

B. Faith and Internal Assurance: Witness of the Spirit (5.6-12)

IX. The Advocacy of Christ: Basis for Present Confidence before God (5.13-21)

A. The Advocacy of Christ (5.13-17)

B. Summary: Assurances Restated (5.18-21)


1B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (rev. ed.; London: Macmillan, 1930), 460. It is significant that even Brown, who argues against common authorship, agrees with this dictum.

2See Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (Anchor Bible), 6-9, for a discussion. Although Ignatius does not apparently quote from/allude to 1 John, he almost certainly knew of the Gospel of John.

3Donald Guthrie, Introduction to the New Testament (rev. ed.), 859.

4Ibid., 861.

5Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John (3d ed., reprinted; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 340. Of course, in Law’s day unity of authorship for Shakespeare’s plays was assumed!

6In this case, common authorship for 2-3 John is almost always assumed true, since the length, style, opening and closing, and identification of the author as “the elder” all point rather decisively in this direction. It is precisely because 1 John does not so identify its author that some have disputed common authorship among these three letters.

7See our discussion of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel.

8Guthrie, 861.

9Cf. Law, 341-45.

10Ibid., 345.

11Ibid., 345-46. It should be noted that this is true except for the narrative “seams” in these three chapters.

12Brown, The Epistles of John, 24.

13Law, 349-55.

14Brown, 28. Cf. 25-28 for his arguments.

15Law, 356-57.

16Ibid., 356 (italics added).

17Brown, 30.

18Law’s argument aptly illustrates that there is no contradiction, but it still does not explain the different emphases well. Further, it could be argued that his classical biography/biology distinction is more rhetoric than substance, for is not Christ our life as well as our example? If one were to compare this with Paul’s writings, he would note, for example, a curious lack of reference to “in God,” while his main epistles are replete with references to “in Christ.” Thus, although Law is moving in the right direction, I do not feel that he has completely answered the problem.

19Cf. 1 John 2.9-11; 3.14-18; 4.7-12; and 4.20 (“the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”). All these references connect love for each other with spirituality. From this it seems that the opponents in this letter, in the least, did not allow their theology to affect their lives. Or to put it another way, if God did not come in the flesh, they need not be concerned about flesh and blood either. John’s point, on the other hand, is that one cannot be so spiritual that he neglects/denies the physical aspects of reality—either for Christ or for one’s fellow Christian.

20Law, 350.

21The cognate, ἱλαστήριον, is used only twice in the NT, once by Paul (Rom 3.25) and once by the author of Hebrews (9.5), whom we have argued is an associate of Paul’s.

22This is not to deny a strong strain of Paulinisms in the gospel, for that too was shaped/occasioned by the need to communicate to Paul’s churches in Asia Minor.

23It is not insignificant that this is the main argument Dodd used to demonstrate disparate authorship for the Gospel and epistle, for the epistle largely lacks this same perspective.

24What confirms that John’s Gospel was written before the war started, rather than during it (assuming that a date up to 70 CE is correct) is that it lacks the Olivet Discourse, and a generally futuristic eschatology. For other arguments, see our discussion of the Fourth Gospel.

25See discussion in John.

26This will be discussed under date.

27Not only Brown, but the vast bulk of scholars do the same. One could read just about any commentary on John 9.22 to see this.

28See discussion in John.

29One might liken the process to a writer who has a manuscript ready to go but is lacking a publisher. When one is found, certain changes are made to suit his needs, with the result that not a few extraneous remnants are left intact.

30I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John (NICNT), 33.

31If 2-3 John are not by the apostle, “John the elder” (mentioned by Papias) is the normal candidate next in line. Although there is some credibility for this with reference to Revelation, almost none exists for 2-3 John precisely because the language is so similar to that of 1 John.

32There is a third objection to common authorship which Moffatt raises: 2-3 John involve “several resemblances to Pauline language” which are absent from 1 John (J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, 479-81). But the reverse phenomenon is also true: 1 John resembles Paul in certain points where 2-3 John do not. Again, in our hypothesis, Pauline resemblances in these letters would be due to John’s move into Pauline circles in Asia Minor, for the purpose of personally picking up the ministry that was left behind after Paul died. (Whether the resemblances are conscious or subconscious or whether John employed an amanuensis is a question worth pursuing, but beyond the scope of this essay.)

33Brown, 17, 19. Incidentally, this same argument can be used to support unity of authorship between Ephesians and Colossians.

34R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of John (2 vols.; ICC) l:xxxvii.

35This contrasts with the Revelation, which almost certainly has to have been written by a different author or, if by the same author, written at a different time.

36Guthrie, 879.

37See our discussion of John.

38See discussion in John for details.

39Although John uses terms such as “antichrist” instead of “false Christs,” the concept is quite similar. Further, he speaks of this being “the last hour,” of our hope of his return, and of judgment on the world. All of these are themes which, though not missing in the Gospel entirely, are greatly suppressed in favor of a more realized eschatology.

40This parallels, to some degree, the raison d’être of the writing of 2 Peter and Jude.

41Once the war with Rome was over, there would in all probability arise speculation as to whether Christ would indeed return. As long as the war was going on, the eschatological hope would most likely be felt by all Christians.

42In this I am not suggesting that both epistles were sent to exactly the same audience, but that there was a general consensus in 1 John that they were known in the region to have defected, while in 2 John John warns his readers of heretics who were still itinerating among the Asia Minor congregations. Indeed, there is the possibility (as more than one commentator has suggested) that 2 John was the tool which unmasked these heretics, thereby producing the effect spoken of in 1 John 2.19!

43Guthrie, 869.

44If our hypothesis about Jude’s destination is correct (viz., Ephesus),then there is subtle confirmation here: if both letters were written at about the same time, since the heretics Jude is attacking were apparently different than the ones John is attacking (licentious vs. docetic), it is probable that they lived in different areas.

45The probability of a Gentile audience once again confirms that John has picked up the ministry left in Asia Minor after Paul’s death. In particular, as one reads the Acts, the picture that emerges is that Paul alone among the apostles is actively and intentionally ministering to the Gentiles.

46See Guthrie, 864-66, for a development of this.

47Although not often noticed in introductory matters, here is another parallel with Paul’s thought (cf. Rom 8.16). Another point of interest, though along different lines: the difference between 2 Peter’s appeal and 1 John’s is that 2 Peter appeals on the basis of an established authority (Paul’s letters—3.15, 16), while John appeals to the inner testimony of the Spirit. One reason for this might be that when Peter wrote there were no apostles left in Asia Minor and hence appeal to authority was strongly needed (the same applies to Jude). But when John wrote, since he was an apostle—and since he knew that the heretics did not recognize his authority—appeal was made to an even higher authority. (This also seems to conform to their personalities: Peter lifts Paul up to his level by calling him “brother,” while John takes a more ostensibly humble approach, by submitting his literary/historical efforts to the scrutiny of the Ephesian elders [John 21.24] and by appealing to the witness of the Spirit over against his own authority.)

48This again suggests the posteriority of 1 John to John, for the Gospel seems to be more of an invitation to faith, or an establishment of what is the gospel (20.31), while the epistle is more reassuring of those who are perceived to be believers.

49The last one seems to be most crucial, on the analogy of John’s style in his gospel (20.31). Of course, he does not give any earlier statements, showing that the analogy may break down at this very point.

50One of the problems with outlining a book such as this is that we too often approach the biblical text from a logical/academic view, rather than from a homiletical/cardial view. This book—as so much of the NT—appeals to the heart more than to the mind. How does one outline the language of worship? Or a hymn? Even the title “Argument” which we have euphemistically given to this section of the essay hardly does justice to this document, nor to so much of the Bible.

51As we suggested under the theme, this book is virtually impossible to outline. John’s thought is simply not nearly as neat and tidy as is Paul’s. In some respects, John is building his argument via expanding concentric circles of thought, though each new development is not merely an expansion; rather, it is often taking the thought in a new direction, or merely developing one sub-theme. Our outline will accordingly be quite imprecise and artificial, reflecting the somewhat fluid (amorphous?) structure.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines