The short epistle we know as 1st John is thought to have been among the last books to be written in the New Testament.  The church had now been established for a number of years and had spread throughout the Roman Empire.  Persecutions had waxed and waned, and yet the church still stood firm.  There were more serious attacks from within.  Many had taken up the banner of Christianity.  Some of these had “tried Christianity” for a while, only to turn away.  It is in this setting that John, the last of the apostles, sits down to write this epistle.


As we now read this book after nearly 2000 years, we ask whether we shall find it to be merely a study in ancient philosophy or whether it will indeed be relevant for today’s Postmodern generation.  I believe it speaks as clearly and as meaningfully to the church today as it did upon the day in which it was penned.


Before we begin an in-depth study of this epistle, it is good to stand back and see it as a while within its historic setting.  Only after such a perusal can we fully appreciate the parts that shall come together to form John’s first epistle.





Nearly all of the early church writings agree that this epistle was written by the Apostle John.  This conclusion is further evidenced as we examine the language contained within the epistle.


           The author is a Jew.  Although he writs in Greek, he follows more of a Hebraic style, while his gospel account shows a great familiarity with Hebrew customs.


           The author claims to be an eye witness of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).  John is not merely giving a doctrinal summary of something he learned in his seminary years.  He is telling of personal experiences.  This will not be a “once upon a time” narration of a fairy tale.  It is a living, breathing history as told from one who has been there.


There are some who have wished to maintain that the author of the book of Revelation is a different John than the apostle mentioned in the gospels—that he is only an elder in the church rather than an apostle.  But the writer of the Gospel of John takes a special treatment of the apostle John that would seem inappropriate were he not himself the author.  As we shall see, the gospel account, the epistles, and the book of Revelation bear all the marks of having been penned by the same author.  What do we know about John?


1.         The name John was a common one in the days of the early church.  It was a Hebrew name, pronounced “Yohanan” and means “Yahweh is gracious” or “gift of Yahweh.”


2.         His home was in Galilee and he had lived here with his brother James before meeting Jesus.  He and his brother, along with their father, Zebedee, had been partners in a fishing business with Peter and Andrew.  Evidently they enjoyed a certain level of prosperity since they employed servants (Mark 1:20) and their mother, Salome, helped to support the ministry of Jesus and his disciples (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56; Mark 16:1).


It is interesting to note that John seems to have been a personal acquaintance of the high priest in Jerusalem (John 18:15).  He had political connections of the highest order.


3.         The personality of James and John is suggested in the nickname Jesus gave to them when He called them “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).  Does this mean they could stir up a storm when they came into a room?  Or perhaps this name was a reminder of a time when these two brothers had suggested to Jesus that they be permitted to call fire down from heaven to consume a city of Samaria (Luke 9:54).  At the same time, John seems to demonstrate a certain amount of reserve, especially when he is with Peter.


4.         John first met Jesus when he was a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:35-40).  He began following Jesus at the very outset of His ministry and became one of the inner circle of apostles along with Peter and James.


These three saw the raising of the daughter of Jarius.  These three were present at the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Only these three went with Jesus into Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal.  Paul would later recognize Peter and John, along with James the brother of Jesus, as the pillars of the church at Jerusalem.


5.         John is mentioned three times in the book of Acts (Acts 3:1-11; 4:13-20; 8:14-15).  It seems as though he remained in Jerusalem until shortly before its destruction in A.D. 70.  Tradition tells us that he subsequently moved to Ephesus where he continued to teach.  Among his disciples were Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius.


If Irenaeus is correct, then John may have been close to a hundred years old at his death.  He was one of the first to be called by Jesus to be a disciple.  He was the last of the apostles to die.  His life spans the first century of Christianity.





Irenaeus states that John wrote all of his books except Revelation from Ephesus and that this took place late in his life.  We can therefore date the writing of 1st John to sometime between A.D. 70 and 95.  The city of Jerusalem had already been destroyed and the church had become established in the Gentile world.  Persecutions had come and had gone.





John does not address his epistle to any single church within the ancient world.  It seems as though this work was meant to be distributed to all the churches.


The primary emphasis of this epistle will be to Gentile believers.  This is seen in the fact that there are no Old Testament quotations as well as in the closing injunction to “guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).


There is no reference in this epistle to any great persecution of the church.  Instead, the issue they faced was that of false teaching that was threatening to draw people away from the Christian faith.


John is not writing to unbelievers, but to those who have already committed themselves to following Christ.


            My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).


            I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake.  13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.  14 I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:12‑14).


            I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. (1 John 2:21).


            These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. (1 John 2:26).


            These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13).


John writes this epistle to encourage believers everywhere to remain in the faith that has been proclaimed by the apostles.  He writes so that his readers might reject the false teachings that are assailing the faith.  However, his message is not negative in nature.  It is positive.  He does not merely present his readers with a long list of “thou shalt nots.”  He holds forth the truth of the gospel and warns that anything contrary to that truth is in error.





John’s simple style of writing manages to relate some of the most profound truths man has ever considered.  Greek professors commonly turn their beginning students to John’s writings, for this is the easiest grammar in the New Testament.  But under that calm sea of simplicity lie boundless depths.


John manages to utilize a Hebraic style with its parallelism, repetition, and short vivid sentences without a single quote from the Old Testament.  He does not argue.  He does not attempt to prove the merits of Christianity to the unbeliever.  He simple states the truth with a definite finality.


Like the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, John includes no formal salutation.  He makes no personal references of any sort.  Instead, he begins in the same way that he began his gospel account and his book of Revelation.  He begins with a reference to Jesus.





We are able to see an interesting contrast when we compare the style shown in 1st John with that of the writings of Paul.


Pauline Writings

The First Epistle of John

Presents truth in a systematic argument, moving from point to point toward his final conclusion.

Presents truth as an established fact and then draws his conclusions from that truth.

Emphasizes justification by faith and the righteousness of God.

Emphasizes regeneration and the holiness of God.

Focuses on the grace of God that is bestowed on the undeserving sinner.

Focuses on the love of God that is produced by God in the heart of the believer.

Logically moving from one plateau of thought to the next in clearly defined steps.

Like a composer, creating a symphony of thought and utilizing several harmonious threads into a panorama.





John’s Gospel account, his epistles, and the book of Revelation form a collected unit that need to be considered as a whole.  It is only within the framework of its neighbors that each can be fully appreciated.  John Lawrence is helpful in pointing out the following contrasts (1977:13-16).


Gospel of John

1st John





The deity of Christ is seen in the life, death, and resurrection.

The deity of Christ is seen in doctrine and experience.

The deity of Christ is seen in the context of eternal glory.

The word in bodily form.

The word in resurrected form.

The word in conquering form.

Christ the Savior.

Christ the Shepherd.

Christ the Sovereign.

Christ as Prophet.

Christ at High Priest.

Christ is King.

Psalm 22.

Psalm 23.

Psalm 24.

Written that we might have life.

Written that we might know that we have life.

Written that we might know that we will have this life eternally.

Foundation of our faith.

Assurance of our faith.

Culmination of our faith.

False shepherds over Israel.

False teachers in the world.

A false king over the earth.

The world judged and condemned Christ.

The world bids for the believer’s affection.

The world is judged and destroyed by Christ.





Especially important in our study of 1 John will be an understanding of the Gospel of John, for this will be the foundation upon which the epistle will stand.





There are several key words and corresponding concepts that are used throughout this epistle.  Most of them are rooted and find their foundations in the Gospel of John.


1.         Light and Darkness.


There are no grey areas presented either in this epistle or in John’s Gospel.  The areas are clearly defined.  To what do they refer?  The answer is seen in the Gospel of John.


            This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.  20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.  21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:19‑21).


            Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9‑10).


            So Jesus said to them, “For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.  36 While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.” (John 12:35‑36a).


It is very evident that the Light in these passages is a reference to Jesus and the truth of His message.  He is the One who came and who walked among us.  It is by coming to Him that we can see.  Darkness is simply the absence of His light.


2.         Truth.


This is also a concept that is initially presented in the Gospel of John.  When Jesus wanted to present the truth, He pointed to Himself.


            So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;  32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31‑32).


            “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:43‑44).


Notice that the unbeliever is not able to understand the truth because there is no corresponding principle of truth within him.  Even if he sees the truth, he does not accept it because he does not want it.  To the contrary, he hates the truth and wants no part of it.


3.         Love.


The love of God that is presented in the writings of John is an unplumbed wellspring.  It is a love that was galvanized into action.


            For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16).


God’s love was of such a nature that it gave the most precious and treasured possession of heaven.  God gave His only begotten Son.  The greatness of the gift is a measure of the greatness of the love.





This epistle is admittedly difficult to fit into a simple outline.  This is because John’s circular style does not easily lend itself to a point by point outline.  It is as if we are ascending a winding staircase, never moving too far from the central core of truth, yet each step bringing forth a new thought that leads to the next and the next and the next.  We are able to use the chapter divisions we have to form the basis of a working outline:


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Your walk in the light will be evidenced…

In how you walk and in what you say

In how you obey

In how you live

In how you love

In how you believe


John did not write this epistle to present the person of Jesus Christ.  He has already done that in his gospel account.  Now he writes of the fellowship that the believer will enjoy with Jesus as he walks in fellowship with the Savior.  If you are connected to Christ through faith, then that will bear fruit in your life and will be seen in what you do, in what you say, in how you live, and in how you love.


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