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The First Epistle of John

This letter was written in about 100 C.E. [1 p.203] to counter the teaching of the Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for knowledge) who offered "higher things", leading John to emphasise "you have no need to be taught". John states over and over again that his readers know the Gospel, and having accepted Jesus they have come to know the Father, and no other knowledge is necessary.

Throughout this book, the twin themes of salvation by works and salvation by faith (often thought of as being in conflict) are inextricably interwoven. 1 John 5:1 is the key: the tense of the words keeps sinning[2] implies that though we continue to commit sins, a process is going on that is saving us from our sinfulness. Non-Christians appear to think that they could stop sinning if they wanted to (and that they are not bad people really, and will probably scrape a pass into heaven). Those of us who have tried know that avoiding sin is not that easy. Thus our repentance consists of acknowledging that we are sinners; that we would rather not be; and that we rely on God to save us. All of us should occasionally give ourselves a spiritual check-up. We should look for evidence that we are being saved through faith, and that evidence will be found in what we do, or rather what we wish we did. St Paul said that he found himself not doing the good that he wanted to do, but did insteade evil that he would rather not do, so he looked to God for salvation through Jesus. If we can say the same then we are on the same road as St Paul.

The interest in the place of works in salvation fits in with the peculiarities of John's Gospel, which omits the institution of Holy Communion but records the foot-washing instead. John sees Jesus as the prototype for all loving service, and a Christian as someone trying to follow his example. Therefore foot-washing (as an example of humble service to others) is to John more meaningful than receiving bread and wine. Indeed the whole letter is a development of the themes in Jesus's "farewell discourse" in John 13–17[5 p.55f].

The author was able to instruct the churches because he embodied Christian tradition, and was well known, so no name need be mentioned.[4 p.29] One would not expect a short private letter to be written in the same style as a Gospel that is seventy times as long.[4 p.32], but the letters of John address children and friends, as Jesus does John's Gospel.[4 p.35]

The first part of the book (up to 1 John 2:27) urges its readers to test their teachers against three yardsticks:

  1. holy living;
  2. love for the saints;
  3. biblical doctrine

and these three themes are raised in a rather chaotic order. Then the book concludes with commands to ignore false teachers, love the true ones, and encouragements to Christian love and faith.

John's style is to paint everything in black and white; for example 1 John 4:20 might seem at first glance to say that anyone who is not perfect is lost. However 1 John 4:11 shows that he realises that we do not yet love perfectly; his aim in writing is to encourage us toward the perfection he describes.



Notice the similarity between this opening and that to St John's Gospel. John is emphasising not only the importance of the message but also his qualifications for teaching it.


After his introduction, John makes a particularly clear statement of the Christian message, because this book is basically about orthodoxy and heresy.


cf. the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14f).


Jesus taught (Matthew 5:21, Matthew 6:9, Mark 12:29–31) that the key commandments were firstly to love God and secondly to love your neighbour, so John uses obedience to these as the basis of his three tests for true faith.


Having introduced the Christian message and his qualifications, John states his purpose—​to avoid sin, though he adds a caveat lest some readers become discouraged rather than encouraged by the message.

Advocate: see Appendix 2 Paraclete.


This verse does not say that everybody will go to heaven, but that Jesus has made a sacrifice which is sufficent for that to happen, so who actually gets there is for him to decide. That is why the "Lamb's Book of Life" in Revelation 20:15 is so important.


The first test: the seal of belonging to Christ is the Holy Spirit; he makes us more like Jesus; therefore Christians are steadily becoming more Christ-like. We are not to test ourselves against a standard of Christian perfection, because then none of us would pass; this test is about our allegiance and the direction in which we are progressing.


This verse introduces the second test, love for the saints, by referring to John 13:34.


Perhaps this enigmatic section means that the command of Jesus to love his people strikes each of us afresh when we are converted, because we were impervious to it beforehand.


We suddenly return to the first test. This section reads almost as if it were Gnostic teaching, but John uses it to show the error of their ways. They regarded the physical world as irrelevant to spiritual salvation, and some used this as an excuse for immoral behaviour, arguing that bodily actions could not make any difference to one's spiritual life. John says that though they claim to be free spirits they are really still slaves to earthly passions, led by Satan (John 12:31, John 14:30, John 16:11), and therefore not slaves to Christ (see James 4:4 and either Matthew 6:24 or Luke 16:13.


cf. 1 Corinthians 7:31, 2 Corinthians 4:18.


We now move to the third test: look for orthodox teaching that is consistent with the message you heard and accepted. The word "antichrist" is used only by John; see 1 John 4:1–6 for a definition of it. John continually refers to "teaching" and "truth" because the false teachers were drawing people away from the truth by offering things like "higher teaching" and "new truth". Notice in verse 18 that those who go astray were never part of the body of Christ; this makes it impossible for a true Christian to commit any "unforgiveable sin" (1 John 5:16, Deuteronomy 29:19–20).


Perseverance is a Christian quality (Mark 13:13, Hebrews 3:14), as opposed to impulsiveness.


cf. John 3:33–36. Here is the yardstick against which to identify all heresies, which, it is said (with some support from chapter 4 verses 2 and 15), either deny that Jesus was human or deny that he is God (Matthew 16:16, John 20:31, 1 John 4:2–3, 2 John:7). The word "antichrist" is used only by John; see 1 John 4:1–6 for a definition of it.

Wohlberg[3 p.108–9] identifies the Antichrist (and the Beast in Revelation 13:1) with both lewd displays and those parts of the church that teach the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, on the basis that this denies the true humanity of Jesus.


John shows what love is like by contrasting it with murder (:12). Sons: see comment on Romans 8:14. The hyperbole of this chapter, making it sound as if Christians never sin, can be understood by comparing it which St Paul's description of "it is not I that sin, but sin within me" (Romans 7:19–23).


This verse must be read in the context of 1:8 which says that we all sin. John must mean something like, we do not prefer sin to righteousness.

John seems to be saying that when Philip said "show us the Father" in John 14:8 he was not yet "abiding in Him".


Peter explains how false teachers can be identified and thus avoided in chapter 4.


See comment on Genesis 4:5–7.


To ease a troubled conscience, do something good!


This verse seems to be based on Mark 12:28–31.


John is reminding his flock that false teachers (the problem raised in chapter 3 v 7 and 1 Corinthians 12:3) can be identified by their fruit, as Jesus indicated in Matthew 7:16f.

The word "antichrist" is used only by John; these verses define it, but the concept appears to be based on the teaching of Jesus about "false Christs and false prophets" as recorded in both Matthew 24:24 and Mark 13:22.


Though enemies are about (v 1–3) we should not give way to fear, because God rules. We should simply not listen to those whose fruits are bad, indicating that their teaching is wrong. Perhaps the reference to fear also covers the possibility that some of those we are to ignore are in authority in the church.


The question of whether people listen to us is an odd one; perhaps we are to look or a certain quality of relationship.


In contrast to our disdain for those whose fruit is bad, should show particular warmth to those whose fruit is good and are thus true believers without ulterior motives.


= John 1:18. The idea agrees with John 6:46 but not John 14:9.


cf. Ephesians 1:13–14.


John emphasises that he was an eye-witness of the events of the Gospels.


See comments on Faith in the appendix; belief is not sufficient for salvation, but must lead to acting in trust.


Satan would love to see Christians bound up by fear so that they are too afraid to do God's will.


We do not fear punishment because Jesus is our advocate. This concept seems inconsistent with the doctrine of Purgatory.


Following God's example, we should not love only those who are lovely, but everyone to whom we are called to minister. The scope is illustrated by Luke 10:27f and 1 Corinthians 13:1f.


We shouldn't interpret this verse too strictly—​it's not as if we are called to say "I love God". James agrees that faith is shown in action in James 2:17–18. The argument links together the commandments that Jesus identifies as the two greatest ones in Matthew 22:37–39.


Presumably John is referring to Matthew 22:37–40.


The discussion of water, blood and Spirit as if they acted together recalls John 19:34: the water and blood flowed and Jesus relinquished his spirit. The early church called these the "three witnesses". Each is associated with a sign to the Christian: the giving of the Holy Spirit, baptism with water, and holy communion.


The statement that the Spirit is Truth seems odd until it is viewed in the light of John 16:13: the Spirit leads us into truth.


This verse is called the "Johannine Comma" and not all authoritative texts include it. It is regarded by some commentators as a marginal note that has been incorporated into the text[6], [7 p.69].


Pray in the name of Jesus, in other words, as he would do it. The Lord's Prayer is our model.


The unforgivable sin might be a reference to Matthew 12:31, Psalm 19:13, or Deuteronomy 29:19–20, but Hebrews implies that it was Apostasy. The idea was that since being saved was related to Jesus's crucifixion, recanting one's faith and then trying to re-establish it implied crucifying him all over again, which is impossible, so one who recants is lost. This idea prevailed until the end of the 4th Century, and led people to postpone baptism until just before death in order to avoid any risk of recanting afterwards. However, this cannot be the correct interpretation; see the comment on 1 John 2:18. Also the Old Testament should teach us that we get more than one chance; the Jews were exiled first to Egypt, and brought back again, and then to Babylon, and brought back again, before the covenants were superseded by the coming of Jesus Christ.


  1. Swete, Dr H B The Parables of the Kingdom Glasgow University Press, 1920
  2. Holy Bible Good News Bible London: Collins 1976
  3. Wohlberg, Steve End Time Delusions Shippensburg PA: Destiny, 2004
  4. Hengel, Martin The Johannine Question (London: SCM, 1989)
  5. Pryor, John: Evangelist of the Covenant People (London: DLT 1992)
  6. Fee, G D The First Epistle to the Corinthians Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987 p.705
  7. Campbell, Gordon Bible—​The Story of the King James Version Oxford: OUP 2010

© David Billin 2002–2021