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1 John

Authorship

The authorship of 1, 2, and 3 John are tied to the authorship of John, since the themes and style of all four books are so close. The author of John identifies himself as one of the twelve disciples in John 21:20-24.

External evidence points us to John the son of Zebedee (one of the 3) as the disciple that authored the three epistles and gospel by the same name. Irenaeus of Lyons mentions in his book, Adversus haeresies, "John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast [and] did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia." (Book III, chapter i).

Date

Many believe that John wrote his gospel after the synoptic gospels, since his gospel seems to supplement the synoptic gospels with other material that they do not cover.

Audience

The audience of 1 John seems to be Greek. Note the exhortation in 1 John 5:21 to "keep yourselves from idols." This would have great relevance for a Gentile audience. If we assume John was in Ephesus at the time he wrote these letters, they were probably intended to be distributed to churches in the surrounding areas.

Purpose

1 John 5:13 provides a purpose statement for the letter of 1 John. In it he states the following:
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.

From this passage it is apparent that John wanted to
  1. assure the readers of their salvation
  2. encourage them to remain in the faith

What would have caused them to doubt their salvation? 1 John 2:18 warns that many "antichrists have come". These false teachers may have claimed an "anointing" or special knowledge that was required to be saved. To counter act this heresy, John encourages them with the fact that "you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." (see 1 John 2:20) and later in verse 26 and 27
These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.
A common characteristic of false teachers and "antichrists" is that they often try to deceive their followers into thinking that they have special knowledge or anointing that is required in order to be saved. This is often a way for false teachers to gain power over his followers. Here, John is telling them that "you do not need that anyone teach you" because "the same anointing teaches you concerning all things". The Holy Spirit guides God's elect into all truth through the "witness" of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This knowledge is supernaturally revealed to God's elect by way of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

John's 2nd purpose from 1 John 5:13 is that they "may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God." This reveals the nature of the heresy taught by the false teachers who had left them. 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 1:7 show that these teachers denied that God the Son came in the flesh. John may have been dealing with incipient (or early) gnosticism.

Irenaeus records (Against Heresies 3.3.4) a story from Polycarp (65-155 A.D.), a disciple of the apostle John.
There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within."

Cerinthus was regarded by the early church fathers as being a heresiarch (arch-heretic). According to the early church fathers, Cerinthus claimed angelic inspiration. He taught that the visible world and heavens were not made by God but by a lesser power (demiurge). Cerinthus also made a distinction between the man Jesus and Christ, claiming that Christ had descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism and leaving him at his crucifixion. Cerinthus, also denied the supernatural birth of Jesus.

Cerinthus is therefore a perfect first century example of what what 1 John teaches against, namely:
  1. secret anointing (angelic inspiration)
  2. denying that God the Son came in the flesh.

Discussion Questions

  • How are "secret anointings" alive and well in today's church?
  • Read John 1:1-4;14. What heresies do these passages address?
  • Some use 1 John 4:1 to show how we should test the "spirit of prophecy". What does John mean when he says "test the spirits" in 1 John 4:1?
  • Read 1 John 3:10-15. How does this passage explain how we can identify false teachers.
  • Read 1 John 5:2-3 and 2 John 1:6. What is love? Is love an emotion? Has God ever commanded us to have or exercise an emotion?
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