The First Letter of St. John
Early Christian tradition identified this work as a letter of John the apostle. Because of its resemblance to the fourth gospel in style, vocabulary, and ideas, it is generally agreed that both works are the product of the same school of Johannine Christianity. The terminology and the presence or absence of certain theological ideas in 1 John suggest that it was written after the gospel; it may have been composed as a short treatise on ideas that were developed more fully in the fourth gospel. To others, the evidence suggests that 1 John was written after the fourth gospel as part of a debate on the proper interpretation of that gospel. Whatever its relation to the gospel, 1 John may be dated toward the end of the first century. Unlike 2 and 3 John, it lacks in form the salutation and epistolary conclusion of a letter. These features, its prologue, and its emphasis on doctrinal teaching make it more akin to a theological treatise than to most other New Testament letters.
Excerpts from First John:
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The First Letter of St. John:
The Word of Life
God is Light.
[1:1–4] There is a striking parallel to the prologue of the gospel of John (Jn 1:1–18), but the emphasis here is not on the preexistent Word but rather on the apostles’ witness to the incarnation of life by their experience of the historical Jesus. He is the Word of life (1 Jn 1:1; cf. Jn 1:4), the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible (1 Jn 1:2; cf. Jn 1:14), and was heard, seen, looked upon, and touched by the apostles. The purpose of their teaching is to share that life, called fellowship…with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ, with those who receive their witness (1 Jn 1:3; Jn 1:14, 16).
[1:5–7] Light is to be understood here as truth and goodness; darkness here is error and depravity (cf. Jn 3:19–21; 17:17; Eph 5:8). To walk in light or darkness is to live according to truth or error, not merely intellectual but moral as well. Fellowship with God and with one another consists in a life according to the truth as found in God and in Christ.
[1:8–10] Denial of the condition of sin is self-deception and even contradictory of divine revelation; there is also the continual possibility of sin’s recurrence. Forgiveness and deliverance from sin through Christ are assured through acknowledgment of them and repentance.
Christ and His Commandments.
The New Commandment.
Members of the Community.
Life from God’s Anointing.
Children of God.
- [2:3–6] The way we may be sure: to those who claim, “I have known Christ and therefore I know him,” our author insists on not mere intellectual knowledge but obedience to God’s commandments in a life conformed to the example of Christ; this confirms our knowledge of him and is the love of God…perfected. Disparity between moral life and the commandments proves improper belief.
- [2:18] It is the last hour: literally, “a last hour,” the period between the death and resurrection of Christ and his second coming. The antichrist: opponent or adversary of Christ; the term appears only in 1 John–2 John, but “pseudochrists” (translated “false messiahs”) in Mt 24:24 and Mk 13:22, and Paul’s “lawless one” in 2 Thes 2:3, are similar figures. Many antichrists: Matthew, Mark, and Revelation seem to indicate a collectivity of persons, here related to the false teachers.
[2:22–23] Certain gnostics denied that the earthly Jesus was the Christ; to deny knowledge of the Son is to deny the Father, since only through the Son has God been fully revealed (Jn 1:18; 14:8–9).
[2:24] Continuity with the apostolic witness as proclaimed in the prologue is the safeguard of right belief.
Confidence before God.
* [3:4] Lawlessness: a reference to the activity of the antichrist, so it is expressed as hostility toward God and a rejection of Christ. The author goes on to contrast the states of sin and righteousness. Christians do not escape sin but realize that when they sin they cease to have fellowship with God. Virtue and sin distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil.
[3:9] A habitual sinner is a child of the devil, while a child of God, who by definition is in fellowship with God, cannot sin. Seed: Christ or the Spirit who shares the nature of God with the Christian.
[3:11–18] Love, even to the point of self-sacrifice, is the point of the commandment. The story of Cain and Abel (1 Jn 3:12–15; Gn 4:1–16) presents the rivalry of two brothers, in a contrast of evil and righteousness, where envy led to murder. For Christians, proof of deliverance is love toward others, after the example of Christ. This includes concrete acts of charity, out of our material abundance.
Testing the Spirits.
God’s Love and Christian Life.
[4:1–6] Deception is possible in spiritual phenomena and may be tested by its relation to Christian doctrine (cf. 1 Cor 12:3): those who fail to acknowledge Jesus Christ in the flesh are false prophets and belong to the antichrist. Even though these false prophets are well received in the world, the Christian who belongs to God has a greater power in the truth.
[4:3] Does not acknowledge Jesus: some ancient manuscripts add “Christ” and/or “to have come in the flesh” (cf. 1 Jn 4:2), and others read “every spirit that annuls (or severs) Jesus.”
Faith is Victory over the World.
Prayer for Sinners.
- [5:6–12] Water and blood (1 Jn 5:6) refers to Christ’s baptism (Mt 3:16–17) and to the shedding of his blood on the cross (Jn 19:34). The Spirit was present at the baptism (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32, 34). The testimony to Christ as the Son of God is confirmed by divine witness (1 Jn 5:7–9), greater by far than the two legally required human witnesses (Dt 17:6).
- [5:13–21] As children of God we have confidence in prayer because of our intimate relationship with him (1 Jn 5:14–15). In love, we pray (1 Jn 5:16–17) for those who are in sin, but not in deadly sin (literally, “sin unto death”).