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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

The First Letter of John - Introduction

The opening and closing greetings of a letter are lacking in 1 John, which reads more like a tract or homily. It is a self-consciously literary work, making many references to writing: “We are writing” ( 1.4 ); “I am writing” ( 2.1, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26; 5.13 ). Its theme is the meaning of the gospel (the Christian message) in the specific situation in which the author perceived the readers to be. There is a positive exposition of gospel truth ( 1.1–4 ), addressed in a warmly pastoral tone to the readers as “little children” ( 2.1, 18, 28; 3.18; 5.21 ) or “beloved” ( 2.7; 3.2, 21; 4.1, 7, 11 ). Fellow believers are brothers and sisters whom the readers are exhorted to love as members of the family of God, made children of God by the love of God ( 3.1–2 ). Love of one another is the key trait of the children of God ( 4.7–12, 20–21; 5.1–5 ). Yet there is a strident condemnation of those who oppose this position, so that 1 John is both warmly pastoral and sharply polemical * in tone (see 1.6, 8, 10; 2.4, 6, 9; 4.1–6, 20 ). This suggests that the purpose of the letter was to strengthen believers (supporters) by dealing sharply with the opponents (it was not written to them) so that believers might not be tempted to stray.

Language, style, and ideas suggest a connection with the Gospel of John. Tradition attributes these books to the same author. From the time of Irenaeus the author has been identified as John, the disciple Jesus loved. Although Irenaeus appeals to the antecedents of this tradition, we have no knowledge of it independently of him. For this reason, no confidence can be placed in Irenaeus' remarks. Similarities between the Gospel and 1 John suggest that they come from the same author, or at least from the same school. Scholars disagree about whether the Gospel was written first, at the same time as 1 John, or subsequently. The sequence affects the way each of the works is read. It is likely that the author of 1 John knew the tradition of the Gospel of John and made use of it, and that 2, 3 John were written at the same time as 1 John, to accompany it. The author of 2, 3 John describes himself as “the elder” probably not referring to his age but to his position of leadership in a Christian community or group of churches.

The Gospel was shaped over a long period of time, during which believers struggled with opponents in the synagogue * (see 9.22, 34; 12.42; 16.2 ), and the completed Gospel may have been published around the same time 1, 2, and 3 John were written, although it was decisively shaped somewhat earlier so that its tradition was available to the author of the letters. The tradition locating the Johannine literature in and around Ephesus is at least as plausible as any other suggestion.

First John has the character of a tract that nurtures supporters and opposes those who have withdrawn ( 2.18–19 ). The context of the letter is a serious crisis of schism in which a significant section of the community has withdrawn. While the schism reflects a leadership struggle, serious differences also divide the two groups. An understanding of the two groups can be built up by a cautious reading of the positions the author affirms and opposes. So serious is the schism in the eyes of the author that he presents it as evidence that “it is the last hour” ( 2.18 ). The situation differs greatly from the conflict with the synagogue, which is the dominant context of the Gospel. In the face of Jewish opposition the Gospel stresses the presence of God in Jesus, but 1 John stresses the reality and significance of the humanity of Jesus for believers against the refusal of the opponents to recognize this ( 4.1–6 ). Consistent with this is the pervasive and significant use of Jewish scripture in the Gospel and the absence of any quotation in 1 John, where the only reference related to scripture is to Cain, who slew his brother, ( 3.12 ). Our author asserts that this is evidence of being of “the evil one.” By implication he asserts that the schismatics are children of the devil because they do not love the brethren (compare Jn 8.44 ).

The task of 1 John is to deal with the confusion caused by the schism. It was written to confirm that those who remained in the community were on the side of the truth and that the opponents had shown their error by their departure. A three-fold reworking of two tests to reveal those who are of the truth provides the substance of 1 John. The two tests concern the true confession of faith and the ethical evidence of the lives of the children of God.

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