Some expositors consider the epistles of John to be the final books written in the Bible. Certainly John’s epistles are the last which he wrote.
The three epistles are called letters; yet the first epistle is not in the form or style of a letter. It has no salutation at its beginning nor greeting at its conclusion. Its style is more that of a sermon. It bears all the marks of a message from a devoted pastor who had a love and concern for a definite group of believers.
John served as pastor of the church in Ephesus, which was founded by Paul. It has been the belief of the church down through the years that John wrote his Gospel first, his epistles second, and finally the Revelation just before his death. However, in recent years some of us have come to the position that John wrote his epistles last. Therefore, he wrote his first epistle after his imprisonment on the Island of Patmos. This places the date about A.D. 100. John died in Ephesus and was buried there. The Basilica of St. John was built over the grave of John by Justinian in the fifth century.
To understand the First Epistle of John we must know something about the city of Ephesus at the beginning of the second century. It was very much like your city or hometown today. There were four important factors which prevailed in Ephesus and throughout the Roman world:
1. There was an easy familiarity with Christianity. Many of the believers were children and grandchildren of the first Christians. The new and bright sheen of the Christian faith had become tarnished. The newness had worn off. The thrill and glory of the first days had faded. My, how exciting it had been to be a believer on that day when Paul had come to town and challenged Diana of the Ephesians! The whole town had been in an uproar. In Acts 19 we read of the effect Paul’s teaching had upon the synagogue at Ephesus and also the impact of his daily sessions in the school of Tyrannus for two years. How fervent their love and zeal for Christ had been in those days. But many years later, when the Lord Jesus sent a letter to the Ephesian believers through John while he was in exile on the Island of Patmos, He said, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4). It was as Jesus had long before warned, “… because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12). The Ephesians’ devotion and dedication to Christ was at a low ebb.
2. The high standards of Christianity made the Christians different, and the children and grandchildren of the first Christians did not want to be different. The believers were called saints—from the Greek word hagios. The primary intent of the word is “set aside for the sole use of God—that which belongs to God.” The pots and pans in the temple were said to be holy because they were for the use of God. The temple was hagios; the Sabbath was hagios. Now the Christians were to be hagios—different, set aside for the use of God.
But the Ephesians had become assembly–line Christians, programmed by the computer of compromise. They had become plastic Christians. They were cast in a different mold from the disciples to whom Jesus had said, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of theworld, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19). And also in His high priestly prayer to His Father are these words: “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). There was a breakdown of the Judeo–Christian ethic and a disregard of Bible standards.
3. Persecution was not the enemy of Christianity. The danger to the Ephesian church was not persecution from the outside but seduction from the inside. The Lord Jesus Himself had warned of this: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24:24). And the apostle Paul had said to the Ephesian elders: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).
Christianity was not in danger of being destroyed; it was in danger of being changed. The attempt was being made to improve it, give it intellectual respectability, and let it speak in the terms of the popular philosophy.
4. Gnosticism was the real enemy of Christianity, and, my friend, it still is. Gnosticism was the basic philosophy of the Roman Empire.
Gnosticism took many forms. However, one primary principle ran through this philosophy: matter of material was essentially evil; only the spirit was good. All the material world was considered evil. Therefore Gnosticism despised the body. They held that in the body was a spirit, like a seed in the dirty soil. The same principle is in modern liberalism which maintains that there is a spark of good in everyone and that each person is to develop that spark of good. The Gnostics sought to cause the “seed,” the spirit within them, to grow and tried to get rid of the evil in the body.
There were two extreme methods of accomplishing this goal as practiced by the Stoics and the Epicureans. The apostle Paul’s encounter with these two sects is recorded in Acts 17:18: “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.”
The Stoics were disciples of Zeno, and their name came from the Painted Portico at Athens where Zeno lectured. They were pantheists who held that the wise men should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law. They observed rigid rules and self–discipline.
The Epicureans took their name from Epicurus who taught in Athens. They accepted the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. They considered pleasure rather than truth the pursuit of life. Originally they sought to satisfy intellectual, not sensual, gratification; but later they taught their followers to satisfy the body’s desires so it wouldn’t bother them any more.
There were all shades and differences between the two extremes of Stoicism and Epicureanism, but all of them denied the messiahship of Jesus. I believe John had them in mind when he wrote: “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). They denied the Incarnation, reasoning that God could not have taken a human body because all flesh is evil. Therefore John distinctly declared, “And the Word was made [born] flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And in his epistle he wrote: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:2–3).
Docetic Gnosticism, considering the Incarnation impossible since God could not unite Himself with anything evil such as a body, taught that Jesus only seemed to have a body, but actually He did not. For example, when He walked He left no footprints.
Cerinthus was more subtle in his teaching. He declared that there was both a human Jesus and a divine Christ, that divinity came upon Him at His baptism and left Him at the Cross. In fact, the Gospel of Peter, which is a spurious book, translates the words of Jesus on the Cross like this: “My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The early church fathers fought this heresy and maintained that “He became what we are to make us what He is.” It is my firm opinion that John wrote his first epistle to answer the errors of Gnosticism. Actually there is a fivefold purpose expressed in 1 John: (1) 1:3, “That ye also may have fellowship with us [other believers]: and … with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ;” (2) 1:4, “That your joy may be full;” (3) 2:1, “That ye sin not;” (4) 5:13, “That ye may know that ye have eternal life;” and (5) 5:13, “That ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”
First John has been called the sanctum sanctorum of the New Testament. It takes the child of God across the threshold into the fellowship of the Father’s home. It is the family epistle. Paul’s epistles and all the other epistles are church epistles, but this is a family epistle and should be treated that way. The church is a body of believers in the position where we are blessed “… with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3, translation mine). We are given that position when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Believing on the Lord Jesus brings us into the family of God. In the family we have a relationship which can be broken but is restored when “we confess our sins.” Then “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
First John is the book which I used when I began my ministry in a new church. (I didn’t at the first church I served because I was a seminary student and didn’t know enough to begin in the right place.) But in the four churches I served during my forty years of pastoring, I began the midweek service with a study in 1 John. I am convinced that this epistle is more important for believers in the church than the church epistles. When we moved into this wonderful book, I saw the midweek service attendance increase. We saw a phenomenal increase in attendance in the last two churches I served. During the time we studied this little epistle the attendance doubled, doubled again, and then doubled again, so that we had as many people in attendance at the midweek service as we had in the Sunday evening service. Sometimes the midweek service would surpass the Sunday night service. My friend, it is very important to understand this little book.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 56: 1 John. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)