A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the Greek New TestamentIntroduction
This little letter very much reflects the language and ideas of John's gospel, although with far less intensity. It is actually hard to describe it as a letter since there are no greetings or personal names. Still, it is likely that it was written as a letter, although more in the terms of a circular letter to a number of small Christian churches, congregations that the author has known and been responsible for over many years. The author writes to encourage his readers to adhere "to traditional truths of the Christian community in the face of the threat posed by the secessionists' doctrine and ethics", Kruse, and to strive to live godly lives, building fellowship in the Christian community through mutual love.
The structure of 1 John
Thesis - God is light, 1:1-5
God is life-giving light, let us walk in the light of his love
i] Sin is a constant in the Christian life, 1:6-10
ii] Christ our advocate, 2:1-6
iii] Love the brethren, 2:7-14
iv] Love not the world, 2:15-17
v] Warnings against being deceived, 2:18-29
vi] The family of God, 3:1-6
vii] Sin is of the Evil One, 3:7-10
viii] Living the good news, 3:11-24
ix] The test of the incarnation, 4:1-6
x] The true nature of love, 4:7-12
xi] Assurance, 4:13-21
xii] Begotten of God, 5:1-4a
xiii] True faith confirmed, 5:4b-12
Christian certainties, 5:13-21
John's letter, by its very nature, defies structural analysis, although commentators find it difficult to accept such a conclusion. None-the-less, we are probably best to follow Bultman who argues that the discourse has no structure. For this reason, the thematic division of the discourse by Wahlde has much to commend it. His bite-size thematic units fit well with what presents as a rambling discourse.
Structural arrangements worth considering:
There is support for the suggestion that John uses a spiral argument. In three blocks he develops his thesis that "God is light", examining how this reality impacts on Christian living - 1:6-2:29, 3:1-4:6, 4:7-5:12. In each of the three spiral arguments John focuses on the topics of purity, love and faith.
There is some indication that the frame is rhetorical in form such that we have an opening exordium, amounting to an introduction / preface, 1:1-4, a partitio, thesis / central proposition / summary proof, v5, a probatio, where the author argues his case in a series of proofs, and a peroratio, or conclusion, 5:13-21.
In JSNT, 35, 51, Duane Watson argues that the letter possesses some of the elements of deliberative rhetoric, sometimes encouraging, sometimes persuading, either toward a positive or negative outcome. Yet, he thinks that the letter tends more toward epideictic rhetoric. Epideictic rhetoric seeks to reaffirm values which are already accepted.
Although not the structure adopted in these notes, it is worth considering the rhetorical "proofs" structure proposed by Colin Kruse:
1:5/6-2:2. Claims to know God tested by attitudes to sin;
2:3-11. Claims to know God tested by obedience;
2:12-14. Encouragement for believers of different levels of maturity;
2:15-17. Warnings against loving the world;
2:18-27. Warnings against being deceived by the secessionists;
2:28-3:10. Distinguishing the children of God from the children of the devil;
3:11-24. The gospel demand to love one another and confidence in prayer;
4:1-6. Testing the spirits;
4:7-5:4a. Claims to love God tested by love for fellow believers;
5:4b-12. Accepting God's testimony and eternal life.
Of the many suggested structures, Brown's is one of the more interesting. He proposes that the letter is designed to follow the structure of John's gospel. In fact, Brown suggests that the letter serves as a commentary on the gospel. So, he has a prologue, 1:1-4, two major parts, 1:5-3:10 and 3:11-5:12, and an epilogue, 5:13-21.
The language used in this letter is very similar to the gospel of John and so it is not unreasonable to argue that whoever was the source of the material in John's gospel is the author of this letter. He may be, as Schnackenburg argues, not actually the apostle John, but a member of a Johannine School, possibly even the very editor of John's gospel, the person who assembled John's teachings into a single book. Yet, the writer of this letter is adamant that he was an eyewitness of Jesus - he heard, he saw and he touched the incarnate Word of God. Early Christian tradition ascribes the letter to the apostle John, so Irenaeus AD 202.
The letter is addressed to no specific church since it is most likely intended for a number of different congregations. These congregations seem to have been in fellowship with the author's congregation, such that either fellowship ties, or the status of the author himself, made it appropriate for him to minister to congregations beyond his own. The status of the author is indicated by the way he addresses his readers as teknia or paidia, "children", 2:1, 12, 18, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21.
Situation - The problem addressed by John
Most commentators agree that 1 John is a general epistle addressed to a loose association of congregations under John's pastoral oversight who are facing a test of faith. It is likely that these congregations are being seduced by a sectarian group that claims to possess a higher knowledge that strikes at the heart of the divine nature of Christ and his redemptive work. Clearly doctrinal / ethical problems had developed in the churches addressed by this letter resulting in some members breaking fellowship, but continuing to influence those who remain. The particular issue prompting this secession is unclear, but it seems to be related to law-obedience in the Christian life, 2:4, how that is related to the person and work of Christ, 4:1-3, and realized in faith and love, 3:23. Defining this higher knowledge is fraught given that John is focused on shoring up the faith of his readers, assuring them of their standing in Christ, rather than exposing the heresy they face.
Wahlde argues that the heresy is perfectionism. The opponents have focused on the gift of the Spirit, of the present-day eschatological manifestation of the Spirit upon all who believe, a gift paralleled with Jesus' reception of the Spirit - ie., like him they are Sons of God. This gifting supersedes the need to address the received tradition since knowledge is inherent in the gifting; it supersedes the need to wrestle with the problem of sin and the need for applied ethics / love, since the gifting washes them clean of sin; it supersedes the need for church authority, or organization / ritual since the gifting makes church polity unnecessary.
Yet, a more likely scenario was proposed by Terry Griffith in his article A Non-Polemical Reading of 1 John , Tyndale Bulletin 49, 1998. He argued that the issue is simply a drift of some Jewish Christians back to Judaism, which situation the author seeks to address pastorally. This view seems to be on the right track, although not necessarily limited to Jewish Christians. What we have here is the old problem faced square on by the apostle Paul, the heresy of nomism, where full-standing in Christ, and thus the appropriation of God's promised blessings, is attained by a faithful attention to the law. For John, as with Paul, a person who believes in Christ already possesses the fullness of God's promised blessings. Nothing can be added to what a believer already possesses in Christ through faith. And as for the law, it is wholly encapsulated in the fruit of love, of brotherly love. What then is God's command? Is it to obey the law? No! "This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us", 1Jn.3:23.
Of course, nomism by it's very nature tends to promote perfectionism; "they devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers", Mk.12:40. Anyway, the issue is that the secessionists are drawing members from John's congregations to their new way of thinking, and John, an aged pastor, is trying to warn those under his charge of the heresy, assuring the members of his churches that they are indeed already fully Christian, 1Jn.5:13. See "Issues [iii] - The nature of the secessionists' denial of Christ
In 5:13 John tells his readers, in the clearest of terms, why he has written this letter to them. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." John writes that his readers may have assurance of their salvation. A believer's status is confirmed by the presence of love, truth, belief and right behavior in their life. John works around these themes, links them together and examines them, often in a cyclical fashion.
John's purpose is not to confront the secessionists but rather "to secure the boundaries of the community against further losses", Terry Griffith. Our author seeks to assure his readers that "they are the ones who know God, who have fellowship with him, and who have eternal life", Kruse. Having confirmed their standing as believers, John proceeds to encourage them to live out their Christian life in love, so building fellowship in their community.
John the apostle was probably not the author of John's gospel, but it is very likely that he was the source of the material that was woven together to form the gospel. The final editorial product is usually dated to around AD85-90 and so most commentators place this letter in the early 90's, either at the hand of the gospel's editor, or someone influenced by the gospel itself, so Smalley, Kruse, Bruce, Schnackenburg (turn of the century). Yet, there is much to commend the view that it comes from the hand of John himself and therefore likely to have been written well before the appearance of his gospel, possibly 60's + cf. Marshall (Dodd contends that the author of this letter is not the author of the gospel).
Bibliography: Commentaries - John's letters
Akin, NAC, 2001 Alexander, Torch. Barker, Lutterworth Press. Brooke, ICC, 1912. Brown, Anchor. Bruce, Fleming Revell, New Jersey, 1970. Clark, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. Cruse, Pillar. Culy, (Gk. text), HGT. Dodd, MNTC. Grayston, NCB. Houlden, Blacks. Jackman, BST. Lieu, NTL, 2008. Loader, Epworth, 1992. Love, Layman's, 1961. Marshall, NICNT. Schnackenburg, Crossroad Publishing Co. Smalley, Word. Smith, John Knox, 1991. Stott, Tyndale, 2nd. ed. 1988. Strecker, Hermeneia, 1996. Strelan, ChiRho. von Wahlde, ECC, 2010. Westcott, Macmillan, 1883. Williams, CBC. Yarbrough, BECNT, 2008.