Studies in 1 John: Introduction

1johndesignDoubt is a common reality for believers. It is, of course, not to be desired, but it is common. We all go through seasons of doubt, of uncertainty. Some of us may even experience very intense seasons of doubt about our salvation. We know that the believer is supposed to evidence certain kinds of “fruit” and as we evaluate our own lives we recognize a noticeable absence of consistency. Others of us experience disappointment with God. We feel a sense of abandonment, or we simply wonder if this is all real. Christians struggle to believe sometimes. Many of us know this reality by experience.

How we respond in the moment of doubt is more significant than the doubt itself. Will we continue to trust and submit to God even when we don’t understand, even when it’s hard? Will we attempt to subject the truth of God to our own rationality? Will we demand that God make sense to us before we will believe fully in Him? How we respond will evidence the heart of faith, or the heart of rebellion. Our response to doubt can bring us into a deeper communion with God, or father away from Him.

The apostle John understood the realities of doubt and confusion that can accompany the Christian walk. He had himself experienced it at some level after the death of Christ. He had hung all his hopes on Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified, killed, and buried. Now what? What did the death of Jesus mean for the people of Israel, for Jesus’ grand vision of a new Kingdom, what did it mean for him personally? Surely these kinds of questions swam through his brain during those three long days. John understands doubt and confusion. So he writes in his first epistle about how we may know the truth. How can we know Jesus, how can we know our own relationship to this Jesus? John seeks to answer those questions and quell our fears in 1 John. As we study it, my prayer is that it will do the same for each of us.

Setting and Context

John’s Gospel has been one of the more hotly debated gospels since its dissemination in the early to mid 80s AD. It has long been contested that John’s is a “spiritual gospel,” not primarily interested in history. Very early on it was adopted by the Gnostics and anti-Trinitarian sects as support for their beliefs. The history of its interpretation is well beyond the scope of this series (see Kostenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters), but we may say that its misrepresentation throughout history is a reminder that heresy and false teaching were as much a part of the early church as they are of our current situation. In fact, it is out of this context that some believe 1 John was written.

Some scholars plausibly argue that 1 John is written in response to the misrepresentations of John’s Gospel. Though there is considerable debate about the intent of John’s letter, most scholars recognize a polemical nature to its content. John is writing to correct the false teachings of a heretical group, and to reassure the believers that they are truly Christ’s followers. Andreas Kostenberger writes:

The churches to which 1 John is written are under doctrinal and emotional duress. There has been a recent departure of false teachers from the church (2:19) that was apparently both painful and unpleasant and that is still palpable in 2 John (v. 7). This is evident especially in the repeated charge against the secessionists that they do not love other believers (see, e.g. 1 John 2:9-10; 3:10; 4:7). The Christians to whom John writes in 1 John are in need of instruction, but more importantly need to be reassured and comforted in light of the recent upheaval ending in the departure of the false teachers (5:13; cf. 2:19). (95)

If Curtis Vaughan overstates the confidence of this view, he nonetheless agrees and points to others who share similar convictions: the letter is written to correct significant doctrinal error that flies in the face of the teachings in John’s Gospel (A Study Guide Commentary 1,2,3 John; it should be noted that Vaughan believes both 1 John and the gospel were written at the same time). John MacArthur believes the particular heresy the author writes to confront is a form of proto-Gnosticism (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John). Though he does not connect it directly with a misinterpretation of John’s Gospel, he does identify much that corresponds with the predated gospel (upwards of 80% of its verses are concepts borrowed from the gospel, he suggests). Again, if some scholars overstate the case, it is certainly a plausible conviction that the epistle draws from the gospel to correct the direct abuse of its teachings.

The doctrinal error being taught in these churches not only clouded the truth of Jesus, but it also confused the believers about their own state before God. Though specifics about the nature of the false teachers cannot be determined based on the details of the text, we may yet draw some conclusions about what was being taught. First, we may say that the false teachers did not obey the teachings of Jesus (1 John 2:4), this is especially true in regards to the commandments to love one another (1 John 2:9). They are engaged in other kinds of sin, not specified, and which evidences that they are “children of the devil” (3:10). Secondly, they seemed to believe that sin was not a big deal. Not only did they deny their own sinfulness (1:6-10), but they didn’t seem to believe that sin had any impact on final salvation. Thirdly, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2-3; 15, 5:1, 5). Essentially, as Kostenberger writes, “They had a defective Christology that denied that Jesus was the Messiah” (96). Fourthly, it is possible they denied the atonement. John strongly emphasizes that Christ came by both “water and blood” and “not by water only” (5:6). It is suggestive of a downplaying of the atonement by these false teachers. MacAthur’s suggestion of a proto-Gnosticism is probably too strong, but clearly there are some parallels.

Whatever the nature of the false teachers, their errors were threatening not only the doctrinal foundations of the church, but the assurance and security of the believers themselves. John writes, then, to reassure them of their salvation. He states it plainly at the end of his 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). This is, then, a letter we all need to hear.

The Structure of 1 John

It is no small feat to discern the structure of 1 John. This is in part owing the subtlety of John’s writing. The transition between various themes happens so seamlessly. Scholars debate with seeming endless possibilities the structure of the letter. Some propose highly complex organizations, and others propose no organization whatsoever. I won’t here, in my limited knowledge, attempt an explanation of the structure of the letter. Rather, I will simply point to three themes that recur throughout the letter and are designed to serve as tests for our status as believers. John MacArthur’s breakdown of the text, if not definitive, proves to be helpful. MacAthur notes four spirals of repeating the same two major tests. His breakdown looks as follows:

  1. The Fundamental Tests of Genuine Fellowship – Spiral 1 (1:1-2:17)
    1. Doctrinal Test (1:1-2:2)
    2. The Moral Test (2:3-17)
  2. The Fundamental Tests of Genuine Fellowship – Spiral 2 (2:18-3:24)
    1. Doctrinal Test (2:18-27)
    2. Moral Test (2:28-3:24)
  3. The Fundamental Tests of Genuine Fellowship – Spiral 3 (4:1-21)
    1. Doctrinal Test (4:1-6)
    2. Moral Test (4:7-21)
  4. The Fundamental Tests of Genuine Fellowship – Spiral 4 (5:1-21)

Spiral four moves from the simple outline of the two tests (doctrinal and moral). We’ll unpack it further when we reach it in our study. For the time being, this is the outline we will attempt to follow as it gives us a clear picture of the tests we can use to evaluate our own fellowship with God.

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