The first chapter explains how we can have fellowship with God and each other, in spite of the fact that we are sinners. The second chapter introduces the basic theme of the letter, LOVE—both the love God has for us and the love we have for Him and for each other. The third chapter affirms that we are indeed children of God, and then proceeds to develop what that means, both as to our natures and to our conduct. The fourth chapter expounds on the basic theme of the letter: God’s love toward us, and our love toward Him. The fifth and last chapter not only summarizes the whole book, but it introduces some theological concepts that have puzzled commentators throughout church history.
The first letter of John was written about 100 AD, to his congegations in the general area of Ephesus. It includes his lifelong meditation on the meaning of the Christian life, particularly our relationships with God and with one another. Among many other topics, he discloses God’s solution to the problem of His relationship with sinful men and women. God is wholly pure and righteous—there is not the slightest flaw in His purity. He refuses to fellowship with sinful persons, even those He has redeemed, for they are still sinful, being still possessed of their carnal natures. Paul, in Romans, has shown clearly that that nature not only does not love God, but does not and cannot obey Him. True, redeemed people have the guilt of their sins atoned for by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, but that disposes only of the GUILT of those sins, not their continued residence in each individual. Johm makes it quite clear that even the redeemed are still sinful, and thus present God with the problem of fellowship with us in spite of our sinful natures. The answer is given in this first chapter of John’s first letter to his congregation(s).
John opens his letter to his congragation(s) similarly to his Gospel and Genesis 1:1 (“That which was from the beginning”) and then describes his own personal relationship with the incarnated Jesus. He proclaims this which he has seen and heard, so that his congragation(s) may have fellowship with him, one another, and with God. After introducing John’s own intimate relationship with Jesus, John makes the positive statement that God is light (v.5) and that in Him is no darkness whatsoever. Hence if we walk in darkness, we cannot have fellowship with Him. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (v.7). How can we walk in the light? If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (v.8). We cannot attain a sinless state on our own. Then how? If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (which we have confessed) and (also) purify us from all unrighteousness (v.9), including those sins in our minds at the time which we had not confessed. Thus we are temporarily “without sin” and we may have fellowship with God and with each other, as long as we can stay on this mountaintop of sinless purity. To show us the absolute necessity of this confession, John adds: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar (His word states unequivocally that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom.6:23).) and His word has no place in our lives" (v.10). To emphasize the temporary nature of this “sinless” condition, John goes on in following chapters to discuss many other aspects of our relationships with each other, and with God Himself.
This chapter introduces the basic theme of the letter, LOVE—both the love God has for us and the love we have for Him and for each other. John first emphasizes the role of Jesus in Heaven as our advocate with the Father, and then proceeds to instruct his readers in this love. It is manifested on our part first and foremost by our obedience to His commands, which he calls “knowing” Him (vv. 1-6). He then points out that the command to love God and our neighbor is very old, but it is also new because Jesus gave it new meaning by adding “as I have loved you” (vv. 7-8). The second metaphor is the contrast between darkness and light, referring back to the first chapter. He identifies hate with darkness and by inference love with light (vv. 8-11).
The twice repeated charges to “dear children”, “fathers” and “young men” has been variously interpreted by commentators as (1) he may be referring to all of his readers with each term; (2) he may have been referring to the spiritual maturity of different groups of his readers; or (3) he may have used the term “children” to refer to the whole readership, while “fathers” and “young men” refer to age distinctions within the larger group. One commentator suggests that the first triplet may refer to his present congregation, while the second may refer to those who will come into the fellowship in the future (vv. 12-14).
The next subtopic is a warning not to love the world or anything in the world: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (v. 15b). Obviously, the term “world” is referring to those in the culture who reject Christ, reminding his readers that while God’s love is forever, the “world” is passing away (vv. 15-17).
Next, John introduces his term “antichrist.” He is the only New Testament writer who uses this term, and he includes both “THE antichrist” that Paul calls the “man of lawlessness” (2Thes.2:3) and “many antichrists” who must mean all those who reject Christ, and particularly those who leave the fellowship of believers or persecute the church. His statement in verse 23 that “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever ackowledges the Son has the Father also” seems to me to place the unbelieving Jew as one who worships a false God (vv. 18-23).
He finishes the chapter by urging his readers to persevere in their faith, and particularly to beware of those who try to lead them astray with false teaching (vv. 24-27). Verses 28 and 29 seem more properly to belong to the third chapter, which emphasizes being “children of God.”
The third chapter starts off by affirming that we are indeed children of God, and then proceeds to develop what that means, both as to our natures and as to our conduct. Although we don’t yet know what we will like when Christ calls us Home, we know that we will be like Him, so we strive to emulate Christ in His earthly work, and to put to death our sinful natures so that we may be pure as He is pure (vv.2,3). John then stresses the difference between the child of God and the child of the devil. The child of God does not live a sinful life, as does the child of the devil (vv.7-10). He assures us that “no one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (v.9). Since John has already emphasized the fact that although born of God we are still sinners, John must here be speaking of our spiritual nature only.
The second theme in the chapter has to do with loving one another. Using Cain’s murder of Abel as an example, he tells us that the world hates us because our deeds are righteous, and those of the world are evil (vv.11-15). “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no (unrepentant and unforgiven) murderer has eternal life in him” (v.15). Brotherly love is shown in compassion for the needy brothers. “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (v.18).
Even though we may think that “our hearts condemn us, we must remember that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (v.20). Because we sometimes do not forgive ourselves even though God has forgiven us, we must recognize that God is supreme, and then forgive ourselves. “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey His commands and do what pleases Him. And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us (as He loves us). Those who obey His commands live in Him and He in them. And this is how we know that He lives in us: we know it by the Spirit He gave us” (vv.21-24).
The fourth chapter expounds on the basic theme of the letter: God’s love toward us, and our love toward Him. Since we are commanded to listen to God’s Spirit within us, John first warns us that Satan’s spirit can also indwell us. Hence we must test the Spirits before we rely on either. “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every Spirit that acknowedges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (vv.2-3a). “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” (v.6).
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God IS love (vv. 7,8; repeated in v.16). We know that God loves us, “because He sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v.10b). “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another (stressed by repeating four times in this chapter), God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (v.12). “If anyone acknowedges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God” (v.15).
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (v.18). “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And He has given us this commandment: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (vv.20,21).
The Reformation Study Bible, p.2039, has this (in part) to say about this chapter: “God’s love has always played a central role in Reformed theology, but this attribute of His must be properly understood. The statement ‘God is love’ is often explained in rather complex theological terms as a combination of two main ideas. First, the endless life of the triune God is one of mutual affection and honor. Second, God made angels and people to glorify their Maker by sharing the joyful give-and-take of this divine life according to their own creaturely mode. But when John asserted that ‘God is love’ (1Jn 4:8), he was thinking primarily of God’s love for human beings and specifically of the fact that God through Christ has actually saved us who were formerly lost sinners but who now believe.”
Most commentators believe John is presenting this theology to counter the teachings of the heretical sect Docetists. In Greek thought of the time, matter was considered evil and only spiritual entities could be called good. Since both Greek and Hebrew tradition considered anyone “hung on a tree” as cursed, Docetisits taught that the man Jesus was inhabited by the Son of God only from the time of His baptism by John and left Him before His trial and crucifixion. John refutes this several times in this letter by insisting that Jesus came “in the flesh.” Obviously, this false concept entirely negates the Gospel, since a human-only Jesus could not pay the penalty of the sins of all believers.
The chapter begins with the reminder that only those who believe that the human Jesus is the Son of God are born of God, and this is evidenced by our obedience to His commands. John then states that Jesus is “the One who came by water and blood” (v.6). And since the Holy Spirit testifies to this, He makes a third witness to the testimony of the Divine Jesus’ death on the cross. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (vv.11,12). Although other explanations for the “water and blood” have been proposed, the most likely meaning is that referred to in John 19:34: the piercing of Jesus’ side, from which flowed water and blood, thus proving that Jesus actually died. The presence of the wound showed to Thomas (John 20:27) affirmed the resurrection of Jesus. Both of these facts opposed the teaching of the Docetists.
John concludes his letter with repetitions of what he had previously said. “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. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (vv.13-15).
John urges his followers to pray for any believer who commits a sin that “does not lead to death” so that God will give him life. He does not define the sin that leads to death, but it is usually thought to be blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God (Jesus) keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. . . . 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—even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (vv.18,20-21).Return to Commentaries.