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Structure and Purpose of 1 John

Approaches to the Structure of 1 John

Anyone attempting to work on the structure of 1 John would do well to stop for a moment and reflect on just how different this “letter” is, especially in comparison with contemporary examples of letters and with 2 and 3 John (both of which exhibit almost all the characteristics of first century a.d. letters). There is no greeting or other introduction, no health wish or thanksgiving, and no final greetings. No author’s name is included anywhere (not just at the beginning). Most of the sentences in Greek have a very simple syntactical structure and the lack of connective conjunctions is often striking.40 Added to all this is an extremely convoluted internal structure which has plagued interpreters for centuries. Regarding the problem of the structure and argument of 1 John, F. F. Bruce stated (1970),

    Attempts to trace a consecutive argument throughout 1 John have never succeeded. For the convenience of a commentator and his readers, it is possible to present such an analysis of the epistle as is given on pp. 31 f., but this does not imply that the author himself worked to an organized plan. At best we can distinguish three main courses of thought: the first (1.5-2.27), which has two main themes, ethical (walking in light) and Christological (confessing Jesus as the Christ); the second (2.28-4.6), which repeats the ethical and Christological themes with variations; the third (4.7-5.12) where the same two essential themes are presented as love and faith and shown to be inseparable and indispensable products of life in Christ.41

Although Bruce has analyzed the epistle in terms of three major sections, it is important to note that the two main themes of walking in light and confessing Jesus as the Christ are repeated throughout all the sections.

This difficulty in understanding the structure and organization of 1 John is not limited to modern biblical scholarship. Brown has pointed out that interpreters as diverse as Augustine, Calvin, and Operinus all acknowledged the lack of a discernable sequence of thought, though some basic patterns were evident – it was fairly clear to these earlier scholars that the letter contained an extended treatment of love.42 By the time of the Reformation, the lack of a clear scheme of organization was seen as either the product of the Spirit’s inspiration or the advanced age of the apostolic author.43

In the latter part of the nineteenth century scholars began to grapple with the structural difficulties of 1 John in earnest. Discussions of the problem, at least in the introductions of commentaries on 1 John, became much more common. B. F. Westcott (1886) offered a summary of the problem that is still helpful:

    It is extremely difficult to determine with certainty the structure of the Epistle. No single arrangement is able to take account of the complex development of thought which it offers, and of the many connexions which exist between its different parts.44

At about the same time, A. Plummer (1886) rejected the view that 1 John had no systematic arrangement of material at all, amounting instead to a collection of aphorisms that did not have any logical or organized structure. He went on to state:

    It is quite true to say with Calvin that the Epistle is a compound of doctrine and exhortation: what Epistle in N.T. [sic] is not? But it is a mistake to suppose with him that the composition is confused. Again, it is quite true to say that the Apostle’s method is not dialectical. But it cannot follow from this that he has no method at all. …he does not allow his thoughts to come out hap-hazard. Each one as it comes before us may be complete in itself; but it is linked on to what precedes and what follows. The links are often subtle, and sometimes we cannot be sure that we have detected them; but they are seldom entirely absent. …The spiral movement, which is so conspicuous in the Prologue to the Gospel and in Christ’s Farewell Discourses, is apparent in the Epistle also.45

Only a few years later T. Häring (1892), in a lengthy essay dedicated to Carl von Weizsäcker, proposed that the two basic themes around which 1 John was organized were ethical and christological. In between the prologue (1 John 1:1-4) and the conclusion (5:13-21) these two major themes appeared repeatedly in three major sections: A. 1 John 1:5-2:27; B. 2:28-4:6; C. 4:7-5:12.46 Häring’s recognition of a cyclical and organized structure and the two basic themes, alternating between an ethical and a christological emphasis through three major sections, would have a significant influence on later interpreters.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Law (1909), commenting on the view of some interpreters that 1 John has no logical structure, observed, “there is no portion of Scripture regarding the plan of which there has been greater diversity of opinion.”47 Law himself was not so quick to dismiss an organized structure in the letter, however. Echoing Plummer’s use of the term “spiral” to describe the argumentation of 1 John, he went on to state:

    The word that…might best describe St. John’s mode of thinking and writing in this Epistle is “spiral.” The course of thought does not move from point to point in a straight line. It is like a winding staircase – always revolving around the same centre, always recurring to the same topics, but at a higher level. Or, to borrow a term from music, one might describe the method as contrapuntal. The Epistle works with a comparatively small number of themes, which are introduced many times, and are brought into every possible relation to one another. …And the clue to the structure of the Epistle will be found by tracing the introduction and reappearances of these leading themes.48

Not long after this, and completely to the contrary, A. E. Brooke (1912) was ready to give up completely in the attempt to seek a pattern or structure to 1 John. Brooke remarks with some degree of resignation, “The aphoristic character of the writer’s meditations is the real cause of this diversity of arrangement, and perhaps the attempt to analyse the Epistle should be abandoned as useless.”49

By the mid-twentieth century C. H. Dodd (1946) was using the term “spiral” to described the structure of 1 John, echoing Plummer and Law back at the turn of the century. Dodd was also aware of the presence of aphorisms, like Brooke, and seemed less optimistic than Plummer and Law about discerning an organized structure. Like others, Dodd noted the difficulties of following the argument and dividing up the material:

    The argument is not closely articulated. There is little direct progression. The writer ‘thinks around’ a succession of related topics. The movement of thought has not inaptly been described as ‘spiral,’ for the development of a theme often brings us back almost to the starting-point; almost, but not quite, for there is a slight shift which provides a transition to a fresh theme; or it may be to a theme which had apparently been dismissed at an earlier point, and now comes up for consideration from a slightly different angle. The striking aphorisms which are the most memorable things in the epistle do not usually emerge as the conclusion of a line of argument. …Any attempt to divide the work into orderly paragraphs and sections must be largely arbitrary….50

Concerning the difficult structure of 1 John, A. N. Wilder (1957) noted, “An earlier commentator compared its course to that of the river Meander, which flowed through the province of Asia, while the adjective ‘cyclical’ has been applied to it by modern students.”51 M. Bogaert (1968) called it “the Canticle of Canticles of the New Testament,” in the sense that love was the main subject, but it was not always certain whose views were being expressed and there seemed to be little progress in the action. Bogaert, who apparently thought the writer of 1 John was influenced in his style by the repetitive nature of Hebrew poetry, attributed this to “Semitic thought patterns.”52

R. Bultmann (1967) acknowledged the apparent randomness of 1 John in yet another way, arguing that the original composition ended at 2:27, and (since the themes of the initial section are all repeated in the following material several times) the remainder of 1 John as we now have it consisted of various Johannine fragments and loose pieces added on after 2:27.53 It should be noted that there is no external textual evidence for such a “shorter version” of 1 John, so that Bultmann’s theory remains mere conjecture based on the content of the epistle, and as Brown observes, others have argued against it “for the paradoxical reason that they cannot explain why anyone would have added pieces that say little or nothing which was not already said in 1:5-2:27!”54 Brown himself is hardly less complimentary regarding the organization of the material in 1 John, however: “The author’s logic is so obscure that one could move around units almost at will and still I John would read just as well as it does now.”55

Other similar proposals have included “free association of ideas” on the part of the author of 1 John (de Ambroggi, 1949).56 Houlden (1973), like Law and others, used the term “spiral” and referred to “a number of cycles of argument”:

    Each cycle includes a consideration of the central themes with some subordinate question in mind; or, alternatively, using the great, constant words and ideas for material, it radiates from some new notion or question, introduced or brought into prominence for the first time.57

Even a rough comparison of 1 John with the other Johannine literature in the New Testament – the Gospel of John and Revelation – is helpful, because both these latter works, as Brown notes, “have a definite structure, even though it is difficult to discern the exact lines dividing one pericope from another and sometimes the thought is repetitive.” 58 This suggests that there may be a discernable structural pattern to 1 John as well, even though it may not be easy to see at first.

Major Divisions of Material in 1 John

      The number of major divisions

Proposed divisions of 1 John into distinct sections have had as few as two and as many as twelve parts. Of these, division into two parts, three parts, and seven parts have been most frequent, with three being the most common among commentators.59 The preference for three parts is due in part to the widespread influence of the work of R. Law at the beginning of the twentieth century (discussed below).60

A helpful summary chart of the various divisions proposed by scholars is given by R. Brown (1982), showing the most frequent divisions of the material into two, three, and seven parts.61 Anyone interested in pursuing further the various attempts to divide up the material in 1 John is referred to this chart in Brown’s commentary for detailed information on how various scholars have done so.

      The problem of how to determine major divisions

One of the problems that faces everyone who attempts to analyze the structure of 1 John is how to recognize the units of material in the first place.

(1) Some units within the epistle are clearly separate units of thought which can be distinguished on the basis of their contents (i.e., subject matter). The most important of these are 2:12-14, 2:15-17, and 4:1-6. Reference to the chart in Brown will show that no proposed division breaks these apart.62 Unfortunately these units do not have clear connections to what precedes or to what follows, so their precise role in the overall structure of the epistle is not entirely clear. This lack of connection to preceding or following material through the use of conjunctions or other overt structural markers is one of the chief stylistic factors distinguishing the Johannine Epistles from the Epistles of Paul. In some respects 1 John is more like narrative than epistolary literature in the types of difficulties it presents to the would-be interpreter.

(2) Somewhat less clear are a number of sections where a particular stylistic pattern is repeated, which might seem to argue for understanding these as separate units. Among these are (1) 1:6-2:2, where three times the conditional construction ejavn ei[pwmen is repeated, each time followed by a contrasting conditional clause beginning with ejavn, (2) 2:4-11, where there are three statements introduced by oJ levgwn and followed by further amplification, (3) 2:29-3:10, where there are seven clauses beginning with pa' oJ followed by a participle, and (4) 5:18-20, which includes three statements beginning with oi[damen. These sections with repeated structural patterns have been used in various ways by different commentators in making their divisions of the material, as a comparison with the chart in Brown will show.

(3) Also contributing to the problems associated with determination of the structure of 1 John is the presence of transitional verses (called “hinge verses” by Brown and, as he noted, occuring in the Gospel of John as well).63 These are verses that mark a transition ending one section and beginning another by including themes from both sections. Naturally this makes it difficult for interpreters to decide whether to assign such verses to what precedes or to what follows. Among the more important of these hinge verses are (1) 2:27, 28, 29; (2) 3:22, 23, 24; (3) 5:12, 13.

(4) Finally, regardless of the relationship of the structure of 1 John to other Johannine literature in the New Testament (a subject we will discuss more fully a bit later) many interpreters (though by no means all) would see 1:1-4 as a prologue to the epistle and 5:13-21 as an epilogue. Again, Brown’s chart should be consulted for an indication of which commentators would include a prologue and/or an epilogue to the epistle.

    The use of themes or topics to determine the structure

Starting from the assumption that 1 John is a letter (the traditional description of its literary genre is “epistle”), it has been suggested that, like many of the other letters of the New Testament, it contains a ‘doctrinal’ section of theology or teaching followed by a ‘practical’ section of application or exhortation. (An excellent example of this format is the letter to the Ephesians, which may be readily divided into chs. 1-3 and 4-6.) It should be evident at first glance that 1 John does not lend itself to such a simple division, so that one half is doctrinal and the other half practical, but a number of commentators have tried to make a case for a repeated pattern of doctrinal statements followed by hortatory statements. There is some basis for this, because as we have seen in our discussion of the opponents and their views, they are being accused of both christological and ethical errors, and this obviously leads to a sort of general pattern of doctrinal statements followed by hortatory statements. But as a guiding principle for dividing up the entire epistle, there does not seem to be a consistent pattern that emerges.

It has sometimes been suggested that the two major assertions about God found in 1:5 (“God is light”) and 4:8 (“God is love”) are keys to the overall structure of the epistle. But there are objections to this which have also been raised. From a purely structural standpoint there is the difficulty of making 4:8 stand at the beginning of a major section, like 1:5 does. In addition, the primary emphasis in both sections is on the Christian walking in light and loving one another; the characteristics of God described in 1:5 and 4:8 are exemplary for Christians, but are not the ends in themselves. Finally, since a christological controversy appears to be at the bottom of the dispute the author has with his opponents, it seems more likely that the epistle would be divided based on what it affirms about Jesus as the “Christ come in the flesh” (4:2-3) than on what it says about the character and nature of God.

Robert Law (1909) proposed one of the most influential theories regarding major divisions of the material in 1 John.64 He suggested that there were three parts to the epistle, and each of the three parts offered three tests by which the claims of the opponents could be measured: the test of righteousness, the test of love, and the test of belief. Upon close examination the three tests could certainly be found in the first two major divisions of 1 John (1:5-2:28 and 2:29-4:6), but Law’s theory seems to run into problems in the third major division (4:7-5:21), where it is extremely difficult to find the test of righteousness. Some interpreters, in an attempt to address this weakness in Law’s scheme, even suggest dislocations of sections of material to try to restore the missing test of righteousness.

    Comparison with other literature as an aid to determining the structure

Because of the difficulty in dividing the material in 1 John on a thematic basis, some interpreters have suggested turning to other literature to look for analogies by which the epistle might be divided. Most of these attempts have not been particularly convincing.

C. H. Dodd (1946) drew attention to parallels between statements in 1 John and sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, but converted to the Johannine idiom even more thoroughly than similar sayings found in the Gospel of John.65 This led to the suggestion that 1 John grew out of some type of “sayings source” similar to what might be behind the synoptic gospels – though Dodd did not attempt a specific reconstruction of such a source.

P. J. Thompson (1964) proposed that Psalm 119 provided the author of 1 John with the subject matter of the four parts into which the Epistle may be divided: the Way (1:1-2:21), Dangers (2:22-3:17), Safeguards (3:18-4:21), and the End (5:1-21).66 Because Thompson’s theory rests on a complicated acrostic pattern of 22 lines of Hebrew poetry which he believes lies behind both the prologue to the Gospel of John and 1 John, it has not found any degree of scholarly acceptance.

J. C. O’Neill (1966) proposed a source theory which divided 1 John into twelve parts, which he believed to have been influenced by twelve poetic admonitions borrowed from a (hypothetical) Jewish sectarian document.67 Because the document from which the structure was borrowed is purely hypothetical, O’Neill’s theory has also failed to win significant acceptance among scholars, though it is frequently mentioned.

A number of scholars have suggested analogies in the structure of 1 John and the Book of Revelation. The pattern of sevens so obvious in Revelation (seven letters to seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpet and bown judgments) has been seen by some interpreters in 1 John as well, and has led a number of them to make seven major divisions of the Epistle (once again, consult R. Brown’s chart for those who follow this scheme).68 But while the pattern of sevens is obvious in Revelation, it is far from clear in either 1 John or the Gospel of John, works which have more in common with one another in terms of style, vocabulary, etc., than either has with Revelation. In fact, if there is a numerical pattern discernable in 1 John, it is more likely three than seven. There are many patterns of three throughout the letter and this too argues against an appeal to Revelation to provide a key to the structure of 1 John.

Some of the patterns of three occurring in 1 John are: (1) three times the phrase “if we say…” (ejaVn ei[pwmen) is repeated in 1:6-10; (2) three times the phrase “the one who says…” (oJ levgwn) is used in 2:4-9; (3) three times the phrase “I am writing to you…” (gravfw uJmi'n) occurs in 2:12-13; (4) three times “I have written to you…” (e[graya uJmi'n) occurs in 2:14; (5) three things summarize all that is in the world (“the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions”) in 2:16; (6) there are “three that bear witness…” in 5:7-8, (7) three times the sin “not to death” (mhV proV qavnaton) is mentioned in 5:16-17; and (8) three times “we know…” (oi[damen) is repeated in 5:18-20. The impact that such patterns should have on our understanding of the structure of 1 John is difficult to determine, however. Patterns of three are a well-established device as an aid to memory, and thus are of questionable worth in helping to determine the major structural divisions of 1 John.

      The Gospel of John as a structural parallel to 1 John

(1) So far we have mentioned briefly the many parallels in vocabulary, style, and general outlook between 1 John and the Gospel of John. These are so numerous, as B. H. Streeter pointed out, that the burden of proof lies with the person who would deny common authorship.69

(2) We have also noted in our preliminary examination of the structure of 1 John that one of the features many interpreters see in the structure of the Epistle is a prologue (1:1-4) which introduces many of the themes to be picked up later on in the letter and developed further.

(3) Similarity between the prologue of 1 John and the prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) was recognized even in ancient times. As early as mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria (according to Eusebius) observed, “The Gospel and the Epistle agree with each other and begin in the same manner.”70

(4) In the latter part of the nineteenth century A. Plummer (1886) recognized this about the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John:

    The Epistle appears to have been intended as a companion to the Gospel. No more definite word than ‘companion’ seems to be applicable, without going beyond the truth….It is nearer the truth to speak of the Epistle as a comment on the Gospel….71

Almost a century later, J. L. Houlden (1973) made a similar observation about the structural similarities between 1 John and the Gospel of John:

    IJ is…not a letter, it is a theological tract, modelled roughly on this congregation’s existing production, GJ, especially in structure and terminology, and in the use and contents of the prologue. This is not to say that IJ does not have one or two features which give it something of the appearance of a letter which has lost top and tail… 72

(5) In both the Gospel of John and 1 John the author clearly states his purpose for writing: in John 20:31 he writes, “…But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The author of 1 John writes equally clearly in 5:13, “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”73

(6) Although both John 20:31 and 1 John 5:13 form a conclusion to their respective works, in both cases there is additional material which follows, forming a sort of epilogue. Some interpreters have suggested parallels between John 21 and 1 John 5:14-21.

(7) Additionally, we have concluded from our previous discussion of authorship that the same person, the Apostle John, was the author of both the Gospel of John and 1 John. In light of the obvious similarities between the Gospel of John and 1 John mentioned above, if both came from the same mind, we might reasonably expect to find further similarities in structure beyond the prologue, purpose statement, and epilogue.

(8) What follows is an abbreviated outline, showing the major divisions only, for the Gospel of John:

I. The Prologue (1:1-18): The author introduces themes which will be repeated and expanded throughout the Gospel.

II. The Book of Signs (1:19-12:50): The Evangelist has selectively chosen seven representative sign-miracles which demonstrate that Jesus is both Lord and God. These are accompanied by dialogues and debates which explain and amplify the significance of the sign-miracles. The coming of Light into the world provokes judgment as people respond to the Light either by coming to Him or shrinking back into the darkness (3:16-21).

In this section of the Gospel of John light is a major theme. It is referred to in the prologue (1:4, 5, 7, 8 [2x], 9) and then mentioned repeatedly in this section (3:19 [2x], 20 [2x], 21; 5:35; 8:12 [2x]; 9:5; 11:9, 10; 12:35 [2x], 36 [2x], 46). The word “light” does not appear again in the Gospel of John after 12:46.

III. The Book of Glory (13:1-20:29): The Evangelist chronicles Jesus’ return to the Father as the “hour” of His glorification comes, which consists in His suffering, trials, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and return to the Father. As preparation for His departure Jesus prepares His disciples for their role in continuing His ministry to the world once He has returned to the Father. He commands them to love one another (13:34-35) and sets them an example of sacrificial love to the point of death, which pictures His own upcoming death on their behalf (13:1-20).

In this section of the Gospel love is a major theme. In the previous section the noun “love” appeared once (5:42) and the verb seven times (3:16, 19, 35; 8:42; 10:17; 11:5; 12:43). In this section the noun occurs six times (13:35; 15:9, 10 [2x], 13; 17:26) and the verb twenty-six times (13:1 [2x], 23, 34 [3x]; 14:15, 21 [4x], 23 [2x], 24, 28, 31; 15:9 [2x], 12 [2x], 17; 17:23 [2x], 24, 26; 19:26). The verb occurs four more times in the next section (21:7, 15, 16, 20).

IV. Conclusion (20:30-31): The Evangelist states his purpose for writing the Gospel.

V. The Epilogue (21:1-25): The Evangelist concludes his account with a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, in which Peter is fully restored to his position of leadership following his denials of Jesus.

(8) A structural similarity between 1 John and the Gospel of John has been proposed by both J. L. Houlden (1973) and A. Feuillet (1973).74 Such a structural similarity between the Gospel of John and 1 John has been endorsed by R. Brown (1982), even though he does not agree with Feuillet that the same individual wrote the Gospel of John and 1 John:

    If the epistolary author is drawing upon the theology and wording of the Johannine tradition embodied in Gjohn and assumes the mantle of the evangelist as an interpreter of that tradition (the “we” of the Johannine School), a priori it is not inconceivable that he used Gjohn as a model in structuring his comments in I John.75

Against Brown, I agree with Feuillet that the same individual wrote both the Gospel of John and 1 John, but I see nothing impossible or inconsistent in an author using the pattern of his own earlier work for a later one, especially if the author deliberately intends to make a comment on how the previous work is to be properly understood by his structural modeling of it in the later work. The following (simplified) structure is therefore suggested for 1 John based on its similarities to the Gospel of John:

I. The Prologue (1:1-4): The author introduces themes which will be repeated and expanded throughout the Epistle.

II. Part 1 (1:5-3:10): Because God is light, we must walk in the light as Jesus walked.76

III. Part 2 (3:11-5:12): Because God has loved us in Jesus Christ, we must love one another sacrificially as He loved us.

IV. Conclusion (5:13): The author states his purpose for writing the Epistle.

V. The Epilogue (5:14-21): The author discusses further implications of our assurance that we have eternal life.

This is the basic structural division which R. Brown proposed for 1 John, based on its similarities with the Gospel of John.77 (A much more detailed outline is presented throughout the exegesis of the text of 1 John.)

The Purpose of 1 John

The purpose statement for 1 John is found in 5:13, as the outline above makes clear. It is expanded and some of its implications are discussed in 5:14-21, but the basic purpose is given in 5:13.

In the words of the author of 1 John, “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

This strongly suggests that (a) the author is writing to believers (“you who believe”), and (b) his purpose is to assure them that they do indeed possess eternal life. Thus although we believe 1 John was written in response to a specific situation (a christological controversy in which the secessionist false teachers had withdrawn from fellowship with the community to which the author is writing and yet were still seeking to proselytize from among it, cf. 1 John 2:18-19), the letter still has a message for the church at large in every age, assisting believers to have assurance of their salvation.

In this sense the letters of John are truly ‘catholic’ epistles, not in the sense that they were written for all Christians within the first-century church (the usual meaning of the description ‘catholic’), but in the sense that they addressed to believers in the Johannine community a message containing theological, ethical, and ecclesiological truths which can be applied to believers in every age, and which later proved indispensable for the universal church.

Beginning with the statement in 1 John 5:13 that the purpose of the letter is to tell believers how they may have assurance that they have eternal life (i.e., know God) we can expand this as follows:

Tau'ta (tauta, “these things”) in 5:13 must refer to what has preceded.

There are two basic components to assurance, both of which are repeatedly emphasized throughout 1 John: (1) obedience to God (that is, believe in Jesus Christ and show love for fellow believers, e.g., 3:23-24) and (2) the fact that God has given His Spirit to believers (e.g., 4:13). These in turn can be expanded as follows:

      (1) Obedience to God:

(a) One must keep God’s commandments (= “do the things that are pleasing to Him”): 1 John 3:22.

(b) God’s commandment is this: that we should (a) believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ (that is, remain in the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus) and (b) love one another just as He commanded us: 1 John 3:23.

(c) All who keep God’s commandments reside in God, and He in them: 1 John 3:24.

Note: John states these things from the perspective of covenant relationship – obedience, for example, is not the means by which one enters the covenant; rather it is expected of those who are already in covenant relationship.

      (2) The fact that God has given his Spirit to believers:

“By this we know that we reside in Him and He in us: in that He has given us of His Spirit”: 1 John 4:13. It is possession of God’s Spirit that assures believers that they are believers. It is significant that for the author of 1 John it is the presence of God’s Spirit within the believer that provides this assurance, rather than any communication or revelation from the Spirit. 1 John does not discuss revelatory content as a means of assurance, perhaps because (although we can only speculate here) that would be too close to what the secessionist opponents were claiming for themselves as possessors of “new revelation” about who Jesus was, at variance with the apostolic eyewitness testimony, and perhaps communicated to them (as they claimed) directly by God’s Spirit.

Note: With respect to personal assurance of salvation, obedience to God’s commandment to believe in Jesus Christ is internal (within the believer) and the fact of God’s Spirit being given is also internal (also within the believer). For John, the only external (i.e., outwardly visible) assurance comes from obeying God’s commandment to show love to fellow believers (cf. John 13:34-35).

Additional Bibliography: Structure and Purpose of 1, 2, 3 John

Bogaert, M. “Structure et message de la Première Épître de Saint Jean.” Bible et vie chrétienne 83 (1968): 33-45.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Pivot of John’s Prologue.” New Testament Studies 27 (1980/81): 1-31.

Dodd, C. H. “The First Epistle of John and the Fourth Gospel.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 21 (1937): 129-156.

Filson, Floyd V. “First John: Purpose and Message.” Interpretation 23 (1969): 259-76.

Francis, F. O. “The Form and Function of the Opening and Closing Paragraphs of James and I John.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 61 (1970): 110-26.

Funk, Robert W. “The Form and Structure of II and III John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 424-30.

Giurisato, Giorgio. “Struttura della prima lettera di Giovanni.” Rivista Biblica 21 (1973): 361-81.

________ . Struttura e teologia della prima lettera di Giovanni: Analisi letteraria e retorica, contenuto teologico. Analecta biblica 138. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1998.

Häring, Theodor. “Gedankengang und Grundgedanke des ersten Johannesbreifs.” In Adolf von Harnack, et al., eds. Theologische Abhandlungen: Carl von Weizsäcker zu seinem siebzigsten Geburtstage 11. Dezember 1892 gewidmet. Freiburg: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1892, 171-200.

Jones, P. R. “A Structural Analysis of I John.” Review and Expositor 67 (1970): 433-44.

Nauck, W. Die Tradition und der Charakter des ersten Johannesbriefes: Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Taufe im Urchristentum und in der alten Kirche. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 3. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1957.

Oke, C. C. “The Plan of the First Epistle of John.” Expository Times 51 (1939/40): 347-50.

O’Neill, J. C. The Puzzle of 1 John: A New Examination of Origins. London: SPCK, 1966.

Robinson, John A. T. “The Destination and Purpose of the Johannine Epistles.” New Testament Studies 7 (1960/61): 56-65.

Thompson, P. J. “Psalm 119: a Possible Clue to the Structure of the First Epistle of John.” In Studia Evangelica 2 [= Texte und Untersuchungen 87], pp. 487-92. Berlin: Akademie, 1964.

Tomoi, K. “The Plan of the First Epistle of John.” Expository Times 52 (1940/41): 117-19.

Westcott, A. “The Divisions of the First Epistle of St. John: A Correspondence between Drs. Westcott and Hort.” The Expositor, series 7, 3 (1907): 481-93.

Commentary on 1 John


40 Yet in the few instances when the author of 1 John did attempt a more complicated sentence, the result often left much to be desired in terms of clarity. Robert Law noted, “The writer’s efforts in more complex constructions are not felicitous,” citing as examples 1 John 2:27 and 5:9 (The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909] 2).

41 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1970; rpt Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 29.

42 Brown, The Epistles of John, 116.

43 H.-J. Klauck, Der erste Johannesbrief (Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 23/1; Zürich and Braunschweig: Benziger Verlag; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991) 24.

44 B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays, 2nd ed. (Cambridge and London: Eerdmans, Macmillan, 1886), xlvi. In this section on “Structure and Purpose of 1 John” I have resorted to direct quotations rather more than I would like, but it is necessary to do so in order to observe the exact wording regarding the structure of 1 John, as the understanding of the cyclical nature of the argument of the letter progressively develops from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century.

45 A. Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: University Press, 1886) liii-liv [italics his].

46 T. Häring, “Gedankengang und Grundgedanke des ersten Johannesbreifs,” in Adolf von Harnack, et al., eds., Theologische Abhandlungen: Carl von Weizsäcker zu seinem siebzigsten Geburtstage 11. Dezember 1892 gewidmet (Freiburg: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1892) 184-87.

47 R. Law, The Tests of Life, 5.

48 Ibid., 5.

49 A. E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), xxxii. However, immediately after this Brooke (no doubt due to the practical necessity of dividing the material into sections or paragraphs in order to produce a coherent commentary), reproduces the divisions of 1 John given by von Soden, Theodor Häring, and Robert Law, and expressing his preference for the second (xxxiv).

50 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (Moffatt New Testament Commentary; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946) xxi-xxii.

51 A. N. Wilder, “Introduction and Exegesis of the First, Second, and Third Epistles of John,” in The Interpreters Bible 12:207-313, ed. G. A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1957), 210. The English verb “to meander” is derived from the name of this river in Phrygia, known for its convoluted course which frequently loops back upon itself.

52 M. Bogaert, “Structure et message de la Première Épître de Saint Jean,” Bible et vie chrétienne 83 (1968): 33-45; esp. pp. 33-34.

53 R. Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles (trans. R. P. O’Hara, L. C. McGaughy, and R. W. Funk; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), 43-44. This earlier volume in the Hermeneia series has now been replaced by Georg Strecker’s The Johannine Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996).

54 Brown, The Epistles of John, 117.

55 So Brown, The Epistles of John, 117. This can actually be done to an extent; and if the enterprising reader wishes to undertake an interesting exercise he or she may experiment by interchanging major sections from almost any outline of 1 John and reading through the resulting sequence of material quickly in an English Bible to see if it makes any better (or worse!) sense than the existing (canonical) arrangement.

56 P. de Ambroggi, Le Epistole Cattoliche, 2nd ed. (Sacra Biblia 14; Torino: Marietti, 1949), 203-89.

57 J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries; New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 22-23; see also Edward Malatesta, The Epistles of St. John: Greek Test and English Translation Schematically Arranged (Rome: Gregorian University, 1973).

58 Brown, The Epistles of John, 117. This repetitive structure is especially evident in the book of Revelation (e.g., the letters to the seven churches, as well as the seven seals, trumpets and bowls), and less so in the Gospel of John.

59 As Strecker notes, “In the schemata that are by far the most widely preferred, 1 John is divided into two or three units, excluding the prologue and conclusion. Beyond this, there has been no shortage of original attempts at division” (The Johannine Letters, xlii-xliii).

60 Law summarized, “We seem, then, to have found a natural division of the Epistle into three main sections, or, as the might be most descriptively called, ‘cycles,’ in each of which the same fundamental thoughts appear, in each of which the reader is summoned to bring his Christian life to the test of Righteousness, of Love, and of Belief”; R. Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909) 7.

61 Brown, The Epistles of John, 764. Brown’s chart, which is labeled “Chart Five” in his commentary, is reproduced almost verbatim (with credit and omitting only Brown’s notations for partial or complete prologue and epilogue) in D. L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) 37-38.

62 Brown, The Epistles of John, 764.

63 Brown, The Epistles of John, 119; idem, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) cxliii.

64 R. Law, The Tests of Life, 7.

65 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, xxxviii-xxxix.

66 P. J. Thompson, “Psalm 119: a Possible Clue to the Structure of the First Epistle of John,” in Studia Evangelica 2 [= Texte und Untersuchungen 87] (Berlin: Akademie, 1964), 487-92.

67 J. C. O’Neill, The Puzzle of 1 John: A New Examination of Origins (London: SPCK, 1966).

68 Brown, The Epistles of John, 764.

69 In Streeter’s words, “We are forced to conclude that all four documents [the three epistles plus the Fourth Gospel] are by the same hand. And few people, I would add, with any feeling for literary style or for the finer nuance of character and feeling, would hesitate to affirm this, but for the implications which seem to be involved.” (The Four Gospels, rev. ed. [London: Macmillan, 1930], 460 [italics his; bracketed clarification mine). Expressing a contrary view, however, is R. Schnackenburg, who stated, “The comparison of the two writings [i.e., the Fourth Gospel and 1 John] yields one positive result. It is impossible to regard the epistle merely as a companion piece to Gjohn. It is a completely independent literary product. It neither presupposes the existence of the written Gospel, nor does it leave the reader to expect such a work dealing with the earthly life of the Son of God to follow” (The Johannine Epistles, 39 [bracketed clarification mine]).

70 Hist. eccl. 7.25.18.

71 Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, xlv.

72 J. L. Houlden, Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 31-32.

73 The purpose statements in both the Gospel of John and 1 John are clearly expressed as such. This is not to say, however, that they have been understood the same way by all interpreters. Much ink has been spilled over John 20:31, for example, with interpreters disagreeing over whether the Gospel was written primarily to unbelievers, believers, or both. This has been complicated further by textual uncertainty surrounding the tense of the verb in 20:31.

74 J. L. Houlden, Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 31-32 (mentioned above); A. Feuillet, “The Structure of First John: Comparison with the 4th Gospel,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 3 (1973): 194-216.

75 Brown, The Epistles of John, 124 [italics his].

76 Note that the emphasis in this section and the following one is not simply “God is light” and “God is love,” but focuses on the implications of God’s character (light) and actions (love) for the lives of believers.

77 Brown, The Epistles of John, 124.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines