Introduction to 1 John

27 September 2015

Who, why, and when?

1 John was almost certainly written by Jesus’ close friend and follower, John (the apostle John). In fact, if you read the gospel of John alongside this series in 1 John you will notice plentiful links, similarities, and connections between the two books. It’s likely that John was writing to several churches across Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) sometime in the late 1st century. He states his purpose for writing clearly in the letter:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (5.13)

It appears from the letter that false teachers and false teaching about the gospel were causing Christians to have doubts about their salvation. For this reason, John opens the letter with a heavy emphasis on the truth of the Incarnation (where the ‘Word became flesh’, John 1.14), and his authority as an eyewitness of Jesus. Nearly all heresies through history have some roots in a denial of the true incarnation – either reducing the full humanity of Jesus, or the full deity of Jesus. John speaks as an authoritative witness to the physical incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh; Jesus of Nazareth. It is the person and work of Jesus that is this ‘word of life’, the non-negotiable core of orthodox Christianity.

What’s the letter about?

From this core of the true, historic Jesus and His work (in other words, the ‘gospel’), flow three essential tests of true Christianity. These weave throughout the letter. These are 1) the doctrinal test of true, orthodox belief centred on the person of Jesus; 2) the moral test shown in obedience to God’s commands and a desire for righteous living; and 3) the test of love shown primarily in love for our Christian brothers and sisters. We must realise that it is possible for someone to come to church, call themselves a Christian and yet not display these marks of true Christianity.

Thus, John’s purpose is to give Christians certainty (also known as ‘assurance’) of the life they have in Jesus (in contrast to their doubts raised by false teachers/teachings). Implicitly the letter also gives a challenging wake-up call to complacent ‘Christians’ to examine their life and doctrine, and to make sure that they really are in possession of what they claim: the word of life. For the Christian, when we are walking in sound doctrine, obedience to God, and love for one another we can not only be assured of our salvation, but know true joy from true fellowship with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Note that 1 John fits in perfect harmony with the rest of the New Testament. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone; it is the person of Jesus Christ, and what He achieved in His life, death, and resurrection that saves us. We add nothing to it, and can only access all this by faith (this is a key argument in the books of Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians for instance). Yet, through trusting in Jesus, our faith ‘gives birth’ to a new way of life. True faith is demonstrated by its works. This is a key argument made in the book of James, as well as here in 1 John. Whilst James seems primarily written to wake Christians up from a false, lazy, double-minded Christianity, 1 John seems written to give assurance to Christians who were struggling with doubt and uncertainty. We look to faith in Jesus alone for our salvation; we look to the effects of our faith in our life for assurance of that salvation. 1 John is particularly about the latter.

You can follow along with our series in 1 John by going to the series page here.

This blog post was written by Dan Martin.