1 John Background
The book of First John was a mystery to me for many years for two reasons. I want to tell you what they are in this podcast and show you what I’ve been learning recently about this mysterious epistle near the end of the New Testament.
The writer, John, was prolific. He wrote the Gospel of John, the three letters ascribed to him, and the book of Revelation. In last week’s podcast, I delved into his background and personality, and in today’s podcast I want to do the same for this little epistle.
As I said, the book of First John was a mystery to me for many years for two reasons.
First, I believed then and still do that the New Testament is a progressive curriculum in Christ’s School of Discipleship. It begins with the simplicity of the evangelistic book of Matthew and ends with the more difficult book of Revelation. As in any school, the material builds on what comes before and grows progressively deeper. Since 1 John is near the end of the Bible, it represents some of the deepest teachings of the New Testament. And yet the Greek text of 1 John is so simple that it’s often the first part of the Bible that Greek students are assigned to translate as they begin their studies. The words and language are very simple, and yet the content of the book is very challenging. That confused me.
Second, for years I was unable to find any plan or pattern to this book. It seemed to go around in circles, and it was very hard for me to figure out what the book was really about. Any one single sentence made sense to me, but trying to put the sentences in any kind of arrangement gave me headaches. It didn’t help that my favorite professor in Bible college, who was the greatest analyst of the Scripture that I knew, said there was no observable plan to 1 John, a view I ran into over and over.
To me, First John was the hardest book in the New Testament to get my head around.
But I kept reading it and studying it, year after year, and then two things happened. First, I began to actually detect divisions in the content, and I started to see an actual kind of plan and organization to the book.
Second, I found a commentary by Colin Kruse. It’s part of the Pillar New Testament Commentary series. Dr. Kruse presented something I had never before considered, and it totally changed the way I thought about 1 John. Finding a plan for the book and reading the insights of Dr. Kruse has opened this book to me in a fresh and exciting way.
The Key to Understanding This Book
The key is found in 1 John 2:19: They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none to them belonged to us.
Dr. Colin Kruse wrote a sentence in his commentary that opened my eyes to 1 John more than anything else I’ve ever read. He said, “Anyone seeking to make sense of the Letters of John [that is, 1, 2, and 3 John] needs to have a working hypothesis concerning the events that lie behind them.”
In other words, what set of circumstances caused John to write these letters? By this time he was an old man, the bishop of Ephesus, who oversaw the community of churches in what we would call today Eastern Turkey. He was the last surviving apostle. His brother James was dead; Peter and Paul were dead; all the original apostles had been killed. John alone was left, and he was laboring as hard as ever in his old age among these churches. But something happened that caused him to stop what he was doing and write this letter.
Based on the verse I read a moment ago, it was precipitated by the desertion of large numbers of people from John’s churches. Let’s read this passage again, starting at 1 John 2:18:
18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. 20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
This is really the key to understanding the book. John said in effect, “A lot of people have left us. They have left our churches. Some of you feel hurt and troubled and unsure of yourself and your beliefs.”
Not only were these people leaving the church, but they were also trying to take as many as they could with them. They were sowing doubt among those who remained. Look at 1 John 2:26: I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.
And 1 John 3:7 says: Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.
John was writing to those who had stayed in the churches and saying, in essence: “I want to tell you something. These people who have streamed out of our churches never really belonged to us to begin with. They have an anti-Christ spirit. They are wrong and you are right.”
So that brings up the great question behind this epistle. What had happened that caused so many people to defect from John’s churches? A church that had 100 on an average Sunday now had 75. A church that had 75 now had 50 people.
For a pastor, that’s a very challenging thing. When I was a pastor I looked at the attendance figures every week to see if we were growing or declining or stagnant. If we were growing, I felt excited. If not, I was anxious. I wanted to be winning more and more people and serving more and more people. When large numbers of people leave in a wave of defections, it’s very troubling. And it wasn’t just happening at one church; it was happening in churches all across John’s zone of ministry.
Here he was, the last surviving apostle. And his churches were not growing; they were declining. People were leaving in droves. And the ones who stayed now wondered if they should go too. Were the secessionists right and were they foolish to continue to listen to an old man who was well past his prime and, according to some, too weak and senile to lead the church?
The Defections Had to Do with the Identity of Jesus Christ
So that was the situation, but of course it raises a further question. Why exactly were these people leaving? What had precipitated this crisis? As we read through 1 John over and over, we realize it had to do with the identity of Jesus Christ. The one thing John stresses throughout his epistle is the two-fold nature of Jesus Christ as both God and man, both divine and human.
In Chapter 1
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…
In Chapter 2
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son.
In Chapter 3
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ…
In Chapter 4
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
In Chapter 5
20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
What Had Precipitated This Crisis?
So something had happened that had precipitated a crisis in the churches of Asia Minor, and droves of people were reacting to this crisis by leaving the church. The point of controversy had to do with the identity of Christ. So what exactly had happened to spark this issue? Why had it come up?
That’s where Dr. Colin Kruse filled in some huge blanks for me with his hypothesis.
Anyone seeking to make sense of the Letters of John [1, 2, and 3 John] needs to have a working hypothesis concerning the events that lie behind them…. The following scenario proceeds on the assumption that there is a very close relationship between the Fourth Gospel and the three letters of John.
In other words, the three letters of John were written after and because of the publication of the Gospel of John. Let me say that again: the three letters of John were written after and because of the publication of the gospel of John, which was the last of the four gospels to be published.
As I said, John was the last survivor among the apostles. He had read the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. He said to himself, in essence, “They are similar to one another and all very good and very true, but I have some stories they left out. And there is one big truth I want to emphasize even more than they did. I want to make clear to everyone and for all the ages that Jesus Christ was both truly God and truly human. He was and is both God and man.”
And so he wrote his Gospel or perhaps, as Dr. Kruse believes, he wrote an early draft or version of his Gospel, and he published it. And it was the publishing and circulation of John’s Gospel that caused the reaction.
Dr. Kruse wrote:
Sometime after the writing of this early form of the Gospel, difficulties arose within this community. Some of the members had taken on board certain beliefs about the person and work of Christ that were unacceptable to the author of the letters and those associated with him. These beliefs involved a denial that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh, and that His death was necessary for the forgiveness of sins. A sharp disagreement arose which resulted in the secession [or departure] of those who embraced the new views.
The secessionists or false teachers were not content to keep their new beliefs to themselves. Instead they organized a group of itinerant preachers who circulated among the churches and propagated their beliefs with a view toward winning people over to their understanding of things. This created confusion among those who remained loyal to the Gospel as it had been proclaimed from the beginning, the Gospel that had come down from the eyewitnesses. As a result of the confusion, these believers began to question whether they really knew God, whether they really were experiencing eternal life, and whether they were really in the truth. The primary concern of the author was to bolster the assurance of such people by providing them with a clear description of the Gospel message they had received from the beginning.
He also provided them with criteria they could use to evaluate the false claims being made by the secessionists and with which they could also reassure themselves that they were in the truth….
Now, I think you’ll see this hypothesis reflected throughout the book. For example, look again at 1 John 4:1-6:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Dr. Kruse goes on to say that about the same time this circular letter was written, John wrote two other shorter letters to the churches. Second John is a brief letter to one of the churches warning it not to entertain the false teachers; and 3 John is to a man in another church, commending him for entertaining the true teachers that were sent by John.
How Did the Remaining Christians Feel?
One other thing. These secessionists were loud and defiant, and they bullied the remaining Christians and made them feel insecure in their faith. The remaining Christians were shell-shocked.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of a major disagreement in a church, but it is very painful. For the Christian, having a good church is like having a close family. We are fellow pilgrims on earth, surrounded by a hostile world. When we’re at church, we’re meeting with Jesus Christ and His children, and it should be one of the most glorious things we ever do. When someone throws a grenade into this fellowship, it does a lot of damage.
So the remaining Christians were damaged, and some of them were wondering: Are we right? Do we really understand things correctly? Do the successionists have a point? They seem so sure of themselves. How do we really know?
And that’s why John wrote the letter of 1 John, to reassure those who remained faithful that they were, in fact, correct, true, saved, and bound for Heaven. Here is the message of 1 John in my words: “They are wrong. We are right. Don’t be deceived and don’t be intimidated. We know Jesus Christ, and we know that we know Him, and we know that in knowing Him we have eternal life.”
And the last verse of the epistle sums it all up: 1 John 5:20 – We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true by being in His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.