John's First Letter
Copyright ©1999, Charles Hess, Ridgefield, Washington


John forcefully warns against all sinning. He points out that "there is a deadly sin" (1Jo 5:16).[ 1 ] He stresses love, truth, righteous living, walking in the light and obeying commandments. One cannot be a faithful Christian without these. He discusses at length the nature and mission of Christ. A sharp distinction is made between true and false believers.


  1. Prologue--the Word of life (1Jo 1:1-4).
  2. Walking in the light (1Jo 1:5-2:2).
  3. Keeping His commands (1Jo 2:3-11).
  4. New status of believers and their relation to the world (1Jo 2:12-17).
  5. Warning against antichrists (1Jo 2:18-27).
  6. The hope of God's children (1Jo 2:28-3:3).
  7. Sinlessness of God's children (1Jo 3:4-10).
  8. Brotherly love the mark of a Christian (1Jo 3:11-18).
  9. Assurance and obedience (1Jo 3:19-24).
  10. The spirits of truth and falsehood (4:1-6).
  11. God's love and the love of Christians (1Jo 4:7-12).
  12. Assurance and love (1Jo 4:13-5:4).
  13. The true faith confirmed (1Jo 5:5-12).
  14. Christian certainties (1Jo 5:13-21).
    (from I. Marshall 26)


Before proceeding,[ 2 ] a word about translations from the Greek is in order.[ 3 ] In notes on some other epistles I have relentlessly pointed out apparent errors in several versions. The NIV has been mercilessly singled out again and again because of paraphrases that are, in my judgment, inexcusable. However, to give credit where credit is due, the NIV translator of the epistles of John did a pretty good job. Nevertheless, I still intend to call attention to error if I find it.


Although his name does not appear in the letter, the apostle John is undoubtedly the writer.[ 4 ] His mother Salome followed and ministered to or waited on Jesus when He was in Galilee (Mt 27:55, 56; Mk 15:40, 41; Lu 8:2, 3; 23:55, 56; Joh 19:25). His fisherman father Zebedee had hired servants, an indication of prosperity (Mk 1:19, 20). John may have been in his late teens when Jesus called him. His brother James[ 5 ] was probably a little older.[ 6 ] The two brothers were partners in the fishing business with Simon[ 7 ] (Lu 5:9, 10). Bethsaida in Galilee, the city of Andrew and Peter, was probably John's second home (Joh 1:44). Young John was known to the high priest (Joh 18:15). After the crucifixion, he took Mary "into his own home" (Joh 19:27 ASV; compare Lu 18:28; Joh 16:32).


  1. With mother Salome and brother James, asked for high kingdom positions (Mt 20:21; Mk 10:35).
  2. Was prosperous (implied by Mk 1:20; Joh 18:15).
  3. A "Son of Thunder" (Mk 3:17).
  4. Tried to hinder a follower of Jesus (Mk 9:38; Lu 9:49).
  5. Said, "Lord, will You that we bid fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Lu 9:54).

Soon after Pentecost, John was put in prison with his good friend and fellow-apostle Peter (Ac 4:3, 8, 13). The two also went to Samaria together in order to impart miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit and to preach (Ac 8:14-25). Along with James and Cephas, John earned the reputation of being a "pillar" in the early Jerusalem church of Christ (Ga 2:9).


Clues as to the time of writing of the letter of 1 John are so scarce that any attempt to set a date be would only a guess.[ 8 ] It was written after the church was established and before John's death. I cannot say exactly when. I am not even certain that 1 John was written before 2 and 3 John. Some take the references to Gnosticism to indicate a late date but recent documents have discounted that contention.[ 9 ] I am not even certain when John was banished to the island of Patmos (see chart JOHN'S BANISHMENT AND DEATH). The times usually fall between AD 85 and 100.[ 10 ] Others assign a date prior to AD 70. At the early date suggested, was the message of the epistle really needed? Yes it was (see note below on TO WHOM WRITTEN). John is believed to have lived in Ephesus in his later years.[ 11 ] He may have been there when he wrote the book.


    (Re 1:9)
  1. Banished by Claudius before AD 70? (Grotius). [Claudius died AD 54].
  2. Banished by Nero before AD 70? (Sir Isaac Newton). [Nero died AD 68]?
  3. Banished by Domitian about AD 95? [Domitian died 9/18/96].
  4. According to some ancients, John died at Ephesus about AD 100? [third year of emperor Trajan].


Nowhere in 1 John does the writer designate his readers. It is assumed he wrote for a general audience. The warning against idols brings to mind Gentiles (see 1Jo 5:21). The content of the letter answers the false doctrines of Docetism[ 12 ] and Gnosticism.[ 13 ] It also answers heretics Marcion[ 14 ] and Valentinus.[ 15 ] Since the second century, the epistles of John, Jude, James and Peter have frequently been called "catholic"[ 16 ] meaning general or universal. However, other letters to specific churches (for example, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians and Romans) are somewhat general in application. Also the "general" letters of 2 and 3 John are not so very general. They are specifically addressed to "the elect lady" and "the beloved Gaius" (2Jo 1; 3Jo 1).


John's style reminds one of the Psalms or Proverbs with their characteristic Hebrew "poetic" style (see charts SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISMS and ANTITHETIC PARALLELISMS). Some of his sentences have three parts,[ 17 ] others four.[ 18 ]


  1. He who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing causing offence in him (1Jo 2:10).
  2. We know love because He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1Jo 3:16).
  3. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God, and whoever loves Him who gives birth, loves him also who is born of Him (1Jo 5:1).

The letter of 1 John has been unjustly criticized as being disjointed and without any logical sequence of ideas. For example, one writer said, "John's thoughts are not arranged logically and systematically."[ 19 ] If the reader would carefully peruse Robert Law's study on the first epistle of John, The Tests of Life, he could easily see its beautiful organization and symmetry. He wrote, "It is perhaps venture-some, therefore, to express the opinion that the more closely one studies the Epistle the more one discovers it to be, in its own unique way, one of the most closely articulated pieces of writing in the New Testament; and that the style, simple and unpremeditated as it is, is singularly artistic."[ 20 ] I trust that Mr. Law will forgive me for borrowing several of his rich ideas, especially for the charts on testing.[ 21 ]


  1. And the world is passing away, its lust also. But he who does the will of God continues forever (1Jo 2:17).
  2. Everyone who remains in Him does not keep on sinning. Everyone who keeps on sinning, has neither seen Him nor known Him (1Jo 3:6).
  3. We know that we have passed from death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love, remains in death (1Jo 3:14).


Much of what John writes in this letter answers false teachers who were upsetting the young churches (see 1Jo 2:18, 22-24; 4:3; 2Jo 7). These false teachers are usually called "Gnostics." Gnosticism is difficult to define in a brief paragraph because it includes several branches of philosophical thought that existed in cults even before Christ. As early as the first century, it was introduced into various churches of Christ. One of its false ideas was that the world was created by a lesser deity called Jehovah who was different than the primary or true God. A further teaching was that matter is evil and that emancipation or salvation came only by "gnosis" or the esoteric[ 22 ] knowledge of spiritual truth. Not unlike modern "faith only" teachers, some of the Gnostics misapplied John 17:3 and taught that "knowledge only" was all that was necessary for salvation!

Since Gnostics taught that matter is evil, according to them, the human body had to be evil.[ 23 ] With this faulty reasoning, they argued that God could not have dwelt in the "evil" body of Jesus. Some said His body was only a body in appearance. As a result, they denied that Christ came in the flesh (1Jo 4:2, 3; 5:1). They said He did not perform the deeds attributed to Him in the Gospels but they were only imaginary.[ 24 ] They denied that His death was for the sins of the world (compare 1Jo 2:2). They denounced the bodily resurrection and claimed that baptism was their only resurrection. Some of them opposed wine and even thought marriage was wrong. Others engaged in sins of the flesh without any compunction. Because it was important that the teaching of Christ be kept pure and true, John urged that the false "spirits" be tried (1Jo 4:1).


The Cerinthians and Ebionites[ 25 ] were, in some respects, different from those mentioned above but they were just as bad. They admitted the deeds of Christ but denied He was the Son of God (see 1Jo 2:22). They had a preconceived notion of what God should be like and found it impossible to reconcile the revealed truth with that, so they rejected the revealed truth. A notorious Gnostic was named Cerinthus. He was a Jew who was educated at Alexandria, Egypt, but he lived in or near Ephesus during John's stay there.[ 26 ] He said the world was not created by "the primary God" but by an offshoot power. He denied the miraculous conception and virgin birth. He taught the doctrine of "adoptionism" that after Jesus' baptism, "the Christ" descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove and that He then announced the "unknown Father" (the primary God) and performed miracles. He further taught that near the end of His ministry "the Christ" withdrew from Jesus who then suffered, died and rose from the dead.[ 27 ] All the while, the separate "Christ" remained apart and incapable of suffering because He was a spiritual being.[ 28 ]


[ 1 ] The basic text in these notes on the letters of John is the Old Paths Version (OPV). Quotations from 1, 2 and 3 John and from Colossians are from the OPV unless otherwise noted.

[ 2 ] Greek transliteration follows the BibleSoft method. Many quotations in charts and paragraphs not from the OPV are from an updated but unpublished ASV.

[ 3 ] The total vocabulary of the Greek NT is 5437 different words, of which, in his three epistles, John employs only 303 (I. Marshall 2). In this respect, these letters are considered to be the easier NT letters to translate.

[ 4 ] In all the books attributed to John, his name only occurs five times, all in the book of Revelation.

[ 5 ] James the brother of John was martyred under Herod Agrippa (Ac 12:2).

[ 6 ] Suggested by the mention of James before John (Mk 1:19).

[ 7 ] The remains of Simon Peter's "lake-front" property in Capernaum indicate that he was well-to-do. However, in the early days of the Jerusalem church, neither he or John had silver or gold (Ac 3:6).

[ 8 ] The Anti-Marcionite Prologues (AD 150/180) state: "Later John the apostle, one of the Twelve, wrote the Apocalypse on the Island of Patmos, and after that the Gospel" (Roberts 11).
[ 9 ] See footnote on Valentinus on a following page.

[ 10 ] Some ideas about the date of the writing of 1 John are: probably AD 68 or 69 (Adam Clarke); before the destruction of Jerusalem [AD 70] (Macknight); AD 90 or about AD 90 (Ellicott Harrison, Woods); 85-90 (Introduction in NASB; Almanac); no date given or entirely conjecture (Albert Barnes, Matthew Henry; B. W. Johnson); late first century, cannot be sure (Zondervan).
[ 11 ] Eusebius, Church History 3.23.4 (compare Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.22.5; Clement, Who is the Rich Man? 42.1). Irenaeus died about 202 AD, Clement of Alexandria about 211 AD and Eusebius 340 AD.

[ 12 ] Docetism was a heresy that afflicted early churches. The Greek word for "seem" is DOKEOO and the Greek for Docetists is DOKEETAI. This probably accounts for the name of this false doctrine that included the ideas that Christ only seemed to have a human body and only seemed to die on the cross.

[ 13 ] The term "Gnosticism" is derived from the Greek word GNOOSIS knowledge.
[ 14 ] Marcion was a wealthy shipowner of Sinope (northern Turkey) and the son of a bishop. About 138-140 he came to Rome with a large monetary contribution to the church which he later recovered. He presented a collection of so-called contradictions and other statements to the presbyters but was not satisfied with their reply. He died about AD 160 but the sect he started survived long afterward. His "unanswered" contradictions led him to the hypothesis that there were two gods. He considered the Jewish Creator God to be inferior to the Supreme Christian God revealed through Christ (Davies 74, 75).

[ 15 ] Valentinus' late second century teachings had infected some of the churches of Christ long before his time as suggested by the discovery of Gnostic documents from Nag Hammadi in Egypt (Roberts 1).

[ 16 ] Greek KATHOLIKOS, catholic or general. Clement of Alexandria also called the letter recorded in Acts 15 "the catholic letter of all the apostles given to the faithful" (from Vincent 2.303).

[ 17 ] See 1Jo 1:3; 2:7.

[ 18 ] See 1Jo 2:18; 5:4, 5;

[ 19 ] Roberts 28.

[ 20 ] Law 2.

[ 21 ] In addition to Robert Law's "spiral" outline of 1 John, other interesting and acceptable patterns have been observed by A. E. Brooke, C. H. Dodd, A. Feuillet, P. R. Jones (similar to R. Law's), E. Malatesta (also similar), I. Howard Marshall and R. Schnackenburg.

[ 22 ] Esoteric knowledge is that which supposedly can only be understood by a select group.

[ 23 ] Traces of Gnosticism are seen in the NIV and other versions of the Bible, especially in the book of Romans, where "flesh" is rendered "sinful nature."
[ 24 ] Basilides and others, including the Docetists and Phantasiatists, taught the deeds of Christ were imaginary. These sects were termed "antichrists" by John in 1 John 4:3. An argument for a late date for the writing of 1 John is that Basilides, Cerinthus and others did not arise until after AD 70. I tend to discount this argument because their false teachings were extant before that. (Macknight 647, 649).

[ 25 ] The Jews called a poor person "ebion." The poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were sometimes called Ebionites but not all of them held to "Ebionism" which is a poor doctrine about Christ, especially, the teaching that Jesus was only human. Irenaeus, who wrote in AD 176 or 177, listed the Ebionites between the Cerinthian and the Nicolatian heretics (Macknight 648).
[ 26 ] Irenaeus, a pupil of Polycarp, who was himself a student of John, relates that Polycarp told him that the apostle, "The disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bathhouse without bathing, exclaiming, `Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within'" Against Heresies 3.3, 4 from Woods 206).
[ 27 ] B. Horsley (Letter 14 to Dr. Priestly) said, "The Cerinthians held, that Christ being restored to Jesus after His resurrection, it rendered the man Jesus an object of divine honors" (Macknight 647).
[ 28 ] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.1, 2; Vincent 2.339.

Charles Hess

Copyright ©1998, Charles Hess, Ridgefield, Washington, U.S.A.
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The basic Scripture text in this commentary is
The Old Paths Archive® Version of the Holy Scriptures (OPV),
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