The Epistles of First John Professor Burton Scott Easton.
Theme of the Letter. If any man asks, “What is God like?” The answer is, “look at Jesus Christ and see!”
This, John’s universal theme, is the soul topic of our Epistle, stated and restated in every conceivable form and with all manner of applications. John would not have denied in principle that a knowledge of God might be gained by other means—in John 3:12 he speaks of Abel as righteous—but his own experience had been so overwhelmed by the person of Jesus that he could not think other methods worth discussion. “No man hath beheld God at any time.”
1 John 3:12 Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous.
1 John 4:12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
1 John 1:1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
The Divine in its essence is beyond our reach unless revealed, and the only perfect revelation is in Jesus Christ: the character of Jesus Christ is the character of God. two conclusions follow, which to John were simply contrasted sides of the same TRUTH.
1. The historic fact of Jesus Christ’s life is the basis of all religion.
2. A religion is self-condemned which teaches a righteousness other than that taught by Jesus Christ; or, in modern terms: At the supreme moment—from the birth of Jesus Christ until His return to the Father—history and the philosophy of religion were not two, but one.
The Gnostic Denial of the Theme.
Toward the end of the first century, however, both these basic facts were denied by men who professed and called themselves Christians. The fashion of the day was to combine Hellenistic philosophy with Oriental religious traditions, and such a combination we term Gnosticism. The term, consequently, is vague, as it describes a method rather than a result, an covers all sorts of systems. Gnostics might be ascetic (self-denial) and puritanical (Rigorous in religious observance); to the last degree, or they may be debased libertines who quite literally glorified in their shame. They might be men of high mental attainments—some of the second century Gnostics were also speculative thinkers—or they might be intellectually beneath contempt. And when Gnosticism was combined with Christianity the result might be so nearly orthodox as to cause no trouble, or it might be utterly subversive of the church’s faith and life.
Subversion = (Subversion refers to an attempt to transform the established social order and its structures of power, authority, and hierarchy). With the milder forms N.T. writers were not greatly concerned; such were only “profane, and old wives fables”. A foolish waste of time, no doubt, but not seriously dangerous. But the more vicious types of Gnosticism could receive no quarter, and it was with those John had to deal.
1 Timothy 4:7 But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.
Purpose of the Epistle Professor C. H. Dodd.
The primary purpose of the Epistle is clearly indicated by the polemical (controversial) passages, particularly (Colossians 2:8—23). The Colossian church had been troubled by teaching of a type which Paul considered dangerous to the faith. It claimed to represent a “Higher Thought” (2:8, 18.)
Colossians 2: 8, 18.
08 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
and offered initiations (2:18) enjoined the observance of holy days such as the Jewish Sabbath and New Moon, and of ascetic practices.
Colossians 2: 16, 21
16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days:
21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not).
and set forth as objects of worship beings variously described as “Elements of the Universe,” and Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Powers,” in such a way that Christ ceased to be the Supreme Head of the religious society. It is not difficult to recognise (The works of Satan) by these signs, a type of religious thought widespread in the world into which Christianity came. It is a type of thought to which the term “Gnosticism” is in a general sense applied. Gnosticism has been regarded as a Christian “heresy, or group of heresies” comprised under that name were only aspects of a much wider movement of thought.
It arose from it arose from a mixture, or syncretism (is the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs, while melding practices of various schools of thought.) of Greek and Oriental religions, supported by a kind of philosophy or pseudo-philosophy borrowing largely from Platonism and stoicism. Like modern Theosophy, this sometimes claims, not without justice, to be the lineal successor of Gnosticism. It often sought to interpret the meaning of all religions within a highly speculative theory of the universe.
Beings corresponding to the gods of polytheism (many) were ranged in a hierarchy of spiritual essences—or “discarnate intelligences” (having no physical bodies) (to borrow an apt phrase of Thomas Hardy)—meditating between the Absolute and the world of men. Under the auspices of this imposing “philosophy” the practice of religion was built up from material derived from all manner of sources—Oriental, Jewish, Anatolian, Egyptian, Greek, and even further afield. There were mysteries and initiations, and a great variety of ceremonial and ascetic practices.
In a world where the older paganism had largely lost its hold on thinking men, (and there are not too many of them in 2014), Gnosticism seemed something like a universal religion resting on a philosophical basis, and capable of endless adaptation.
Paul’s Reply to the Challenge of Gnosticism.
His method of dealing with the problem thus presented is to develop a new and more adequate statement of the position and dignity which Christian experience necessarily assigns to Christ. The outcome of it is to set forth the person and work of Christ as having a cosmic significance. If Christ, known as Saviour, were but one among a host of unknowable Powers, the Christian would still be a stranger in a universe which might at last prove to be hostile. If, however, what we find in Christ is the ultimate Meaning of the universe, then the Salvation He brings is absolute and final.
This is the faith that Paul seeks to safeguard by identifying Christ with that Divine Wisdom by which the world and all powers controlling it were brought into being, and through which at last God will fulfil His purpose in it all.
It is thus that Paul takes up the challenge of the “new thought,” by placing his teaching about salvation in Christ upon a more philosophical basis. But in doing so he re-asserts with remarkable force and clarity what had always been the core and centre of his gospel: Christ died to reconcile men—to reconcile all beings—to the will and purpose of God. Through faith in Him we become reconciled by sharing mystically in His death and resurrection. Nowhere else in the Pauline writings is the whole of Christian life more clearly exhibited as the working out of what it means to die And rise again with Christ. In particular, it is made plain past all possibility of misunderstanding that this dying and rising again is an actual moral experience, manifesting itself in character and conduct. Gnostic speculation was morally barren. Paul saw, its asceticism was but a mere playing at morality. The Christian way is above all radically ethical, and the “emancipation” it brings is the one sure beginning of a free, progressive, and positive morality for men individually and in society. Thus the careful outline of Christian ethics is no less relevant to the main purpose of the Epistle than the Christology.
Tradition gives as his chief antagonist a certain Cerinthus, (Cerinthus — (c. 100 CE) was a gnostic and to some, an early Christian, who was prominent as a heresiarch in the view of the early Church Fathers.) who taught in Ephesus around 95 A.D., and what early Christian writers tell us about this man agrees with what we can deduce from the Epistle itself. The name Gnostic (“one who knows”) is derived from the boast, “we know God”.
1 John 2:4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
such knowledge, derived in part from ecstatic experiences (4:1) was quite different from that taught in Christian tradition, so that anti-Gnostic writers urge the novelty of the doctrine as one reason for rejecting it.
1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
1 John 2:24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.
Almost universal amongst the Gnostics was a philosophical dualism, which identified spirit with good, and matter with evil. This made the incarnation unthinkable, since the Divine could not come into contact with matter, and thereby presented Christian Gnostics with a puzzling problem. They generally agreed that the incarnation was in appearance only. (a heresy technically described as “Docetism,” derived from the Greek word meaning, “to seem”, but Cerinthus added a peculiar theory of his own, teaching (2:22) that Jesus and Christ were different beings.
1 John 2:22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.
On the former, a mere man, at the time of His baptism the celestial Christ descended—“he came by water” 5:6—and used Him as a medium for His revelations; although the words were Christ’s the voice was that of Jesus, so no one could really hear Christ speak, while He certainly could not be seen or touched. (1:1—3). When Christ concluded His message, He left Jesus and the latter was crucified, and event that had no religious significance, as Christ was not involved; “He did not come by blood according to Cerinthus” (See 5:6)
John 5:6 When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, He saith unto him, “Wilt thou be made whole?”
1 John 1:1--3
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
2 (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)
3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus
Acceptance of such tenets (tenets of a religion;) made a man a Gnostic, a spiritual being who could boast “I am in the light” (2:9) and “I have a fellowship with God” (1:6). Being himself “beyond good and evil,” he had no longer to concern himself with sin (1:8,10), and his soul concern was to keep the rules in the Gnostic Law. (3:4)
1 John 2:9 He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.
1 John 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
1 John 1:8, 10
08 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 3:4 Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
A superman, he had no feeling of responsibility toward ordinary “psychic” men (i.e. men who had not attained to the “spiritual” or “pneumatic” stage); they were as far below him as the lower animals and he was no more bound to love them than he was to love beasts or reptiles..
1 John 3:10, 15
10 In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.
15 Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.
1 John 4:8, 20
08 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
20 If a man say, “I love God”, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
Yet it is only fair that John does not accuse his particular adversaries of a licentiousness which appears in other Gnostic groups.
2 Peter 2:14 Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children:
In John’s day the more thorough-going Christian Gnostics had left the church (2:19) and had founded communities of their own, into which they were endeavouring to entice others by all sorts of arguments and promises. And even amongst those who remained there were those who found Gnostic tenets attractive, a class that must have included many who were only lax and thoughtless. This was the situation that John wrote to meet.
1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.John’s
Reply to the Gnostics.
1 John 4:2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
Is the formula which lays the axe to the root of the tree. All that Jesus said and did is the revelation of God, not merely certain parts of his teaching and life, which alone the Gnostics attributed to “Christ.” And what Jesus said and did is no secret, to be learned from these new teachers, but has been preached without reserve ever since Christianity began. It can all be summed up in a single word “love”: this is God, this is Jesus, and this is Christianity.
And so John, in replying to a teaching that bewilders modern readers with its fantastic absurdity, raises his answer to the utmost religious heights.
Against the Gnostic dualism of spirit and matter he sets the Christian dualism of good and evil; however evil may have originated—and John does not waste time in puzzling over the problem—the important thing is it exists and must be fought. And in this war there is no compromise. Whoever hopes for God’s approval thinks of sin as exceeding sinful, “purifieth himself even as he is pure” and displays his purity in moral activity.
1 John 3:3 And everyman that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.
“This is His commandment, that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another”; such belief and such love are inseparable.
1 John 3:23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.
The Christian and the Church.
Since Christianity manifests itself in love, it demands social relationships, and, therefore, it demands a special, consecrated society in which these relationships may be practised to the full; this was as axiomatic (self-evident)
to John as it was to the O.T. writers who think of “God” and “Israel” as well-nigh correlative terms (related). We have fellowship with God because “ we have fellowship one with another.”
1 John 1: 3, 6, 7,
3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
7 But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.
And so John’s doctrine of the church is the most pronounced (pronouncing. 1. to enunciate or articulate (sounds, words, sentences, etc.) of the whole N.T. even though he does not use the word (in 3 John it describes only the local congregation). In large part this doctrine is simply the result of his observation of facts as they were. Writing near the end of the first century, he witnessed the degradation of the Hellenistic world with the eyes of a pastor who had laboured in it for years. And the church which took as its charter God’s demand for utter righteousness was the sole visible alternative. So John extended his dualism to cover the practical facts of his experience; the church is on God’s side while the rest of the world—or the world directly—is on the devils.
This may be called “ecclesiasticism,” but it is the ecclesiasticism of a passionately earnest man who is face to face with overwhelming problems and unconcerned with anything other than the immediate practical issue.
Hence, to all intents and purposes, church membership was to John the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation. “We are of God and the whole world lieth in the evil one” To be sure, “not all are of us,”
1 John 5:19 And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
However; the nature of these will be made clear by their departure, either of their own accord, or by excommunication.
1 John 4:4 Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.
For those who remain faithful John has only the highest and most unconditional praise. *Your sins are forgiven you,”
1 John 2:12 I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.
“ye have overcome the evil one,”
1 John 2:13 I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.
“ye are strong,”
1 John 2:14 I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.
“ye know all things.”
1 John 2:20 But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.
“ye need not that anyone teach you,”
1 John 2:27 But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
“we have passed out of death into life,”
1 John 3:14 We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.
“ye have eternal life,”
1 John 5:13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
There is no Gnostic who could use more realistic language to describe the certainty of his converts salvation.
Security Still Requires Watchfulness
And without doubt the extreme assurance of the Gnostics supplied John with one motive in his use of such phrases; he wished to make his readers feel they were already in possession of all the Gnostics might promise. Another factor was pastoral tact; John knew that more men suffer from diffidence (timidity or shyness) and despondency, (dejection, hopelessness) than from presumption (an attitude or belief dictated by probability). that encouragement and judicious praise are more helpful than denunciation (public condemnation).
However; besides this, he was once more speaking from experience: The band of men and women who, on the one hand, had made the very real sacrifices involved in embracing Christianity, and who, on the hand, had resisted the Gnostic seductions, had a right to be taken seriously as moral persons.
The basic reason, however, for John’s confidence was His faith in God, and Jesus Christ. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us.”
1 John 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
"Propitiation means the turning away of wrath by an offering. In relation to soteriology, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ."
— Charles C. Ryrie (1999-01-11). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Kindle Locations 5503-5504). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
The way to God is not a human quest with endless opportunities for error. The power comes from on high, and man, once in the right way, has only to yield himself to that power. Not that the process is merely automatic, for throughout the Epistle there is an under-current of warning, various significant “if’s,” and a frank recognition that (grave) sin is an ever-present possibility.
1 John 1:8—2:12
1:08 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
09 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:
02 And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
03 And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.
04 He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
05 But whoso keepeth His word, in Him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him.
06 He that saith He abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.
07 Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.
08 Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in Him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.
09 He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.
10 He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
11 But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.
12 I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake.
1 John 5:16 If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
But John does not let himself dwell on these things; instead he sets before his readers an ideal sinlessness so extreme as to seem out of the reach of flesh and blood.
1 John 3:5--9
5 And ye know that He was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin.
6 Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.
7 Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.
8 He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
Many commentators consequently explain his words as expressing only an ideal to remind us that the more we progress the less we shall sin. But John means precisely what he says and thinks of sinlessness as something not only attainable but frequently attained; God’s demands on us are so simple and His commandments so much the reverse of grievous as to be well within our power.
1 John 5:3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous.
So, if we are making a real effort in the important matters, we can safely dismiss worries about minor imperfections, for these things, inevitable as long as we are in the body; do not cloud our relation to God. Even though a scrupulous conscious condemns us, God takes our whole nature into consideration; when we remember this we may reassure our heart.
1 John 3:19—24
19 And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.
20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.
21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.
23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment.
24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him. And hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.
This is what Paul means, in part, by justification by faith. Such counsel comes from a very wise and experienced pastor, who knows the harm that anxious scrupulosity and dread may work.
Scrupulosity = a psychological disorder characterised by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning. It is typically conceptualised as a moral or religious form of obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), although this categorisation is empirically disputable.
1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
As to form, 1 John is rather a tractate (essay) than an Epistle in the strict sense of the term, for the conventional opening and closing formulæ are lacking. However; the traditional designation is accurate enough, for the work was evidently written for a concrete audience, who are addressed throughout in the second person.
1 John 5:3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous.
More important is the question of the style. This, which is unique but the perfect expression of John’s thought, is determined by his intense feeling for the unity of the Christian message; as he sees it, there is only a single revealed TRUTH, whose various aspects are so interdependent that they blend at every point into one another. So all Christian terms are practically Synonymous and any one of them may be replaced at will by almost any other. This conception produces a perfectly smooth stylistic flow, in which practically every sentence is linked with the preceding and the following
John sums up in the magnificent section (4:7—21), after which the futilities of Gnosticism (5:1—13) appear grotesque by contrast; 5:13 concludes the Epistle proper; 5:14—17 deals with a painful but necessary question, while the epilogue (5:18—21) provides a worthy conclusion to the whole, with its superb triple declaration and its two clear final sentences.