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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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1 John

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before Beginning…

Exhortation to a Divided Church

The New Testament contains three letters attributed to John. How these letters connect to the Gospel according to John and the book of Revelation is not easy to determine. Scholars agree that all came from a community of “Johannine Christianity” in the late first century, but neither their precise authorship nor sequence has been established. We are not even sure of the location of this “Johannine Christianity,” although Asia Minor seems most likely. In such a state of ignorance, hypotheses abound. The introductions to each of these letters in the NAB give some sense of the options (cf. New Testament pp. 1656–57 , 1662 , 1663–64 ).

What we can learn of “Johannine Christianity” derives from the writings themselves. Apart from the connection to John, what common characteristics marked this version of messianism? First, the figure of Jesus played a central role in the identity of the community. Second, these churches had experienced tragic division. In the Gospel and Revelation, there is conflict between these messianists and the Jews. In the letters and Revelation, there is also evidence of divisions within the churches. Third, this experience of division sharpened the community's symbols into a stark dualism: light and darkness, life and death, truth and falsehood, flesh and spirit.

The Three Letters

In the three letters, we see conflict happening within the churches. Disputes involve the proper understanding of Jesus. The letters provide a window on this early Christian conflict, revealing at once its multiple dimensions and its seriousness. It is impossible to say at this distance exactly how the letters relate to each other or to the situation. Second and 3 John are real letters and claim to come from “the Elder.” First John is anonymous and not really a letter so much as a sermonic exhortation.

Some think that the three letters show three stages of the community's conflict. This hypothesis is possible, but a better one is that the three documents were written at the same time by the same author and sent to a single church aligned with “The Elder.” Each letter fulfills a specific function: 3 John recommends the mailman, Demetrius, to the church leader, Gaius. Second John is a cover letter to be read publicly to the church. First John is the centerpiece, an exhortation to a community divided by conflict. The Study Guides for 2 and 3 John will describe how they fulfill their functions. Let us concentrate first on 1 John.

The Character of 1 John

Because it is not so closely tied to the particulars of a specific community's life, 1 John lends itself more readily to every time and place. For a document generated by bitter conflict, it is amazingly positive and loving in tone. Christians through the ages have rightly considered it one of the great spiritual witnesses of the New Testament.

The structure of this writing is not obvious. Certainly it is not a genuine letter. Even as a sermon, it tends to wander a bit, repeating the same points. First John at times has the appearance of an argument but none of the substance. Readers are sometimes shocked at the lack of consistency. What is stated positively is sometimes denied only a short time later. The reason for this alternation of ideal and real lies in the circumstances being addressed.

The Johannine Christians saw their lives defined by a choice. Their first and basic choice was to follow Jesus. They considered that truth, life, and light characterized them; while falsehood, darkness, and death characterized those who did not follow Jesus. The Christians were the community of true prophecy. But now, the community finds itself divided into two hostile camps, and the cause of division is precisely what should have been the centerpiece of this unity: the proper understanding of the nature and role of Jesus.

First John's apparent indecisiveness reflects the chastened perspective caused by the trauma of division. The symbols of unity and perfection need reshaping. The author urges his readers away from a smug sense of their own perfection, to an awareness of their need to repent. Not only “those who went out from us” have sinned; all have sinned and need the expiation offered by Jesus.

Opening Exhortation ( 1, 1–2, 17 )

First John opens with a poetic prologue ( 1, 1–4 ) that resembles the prologue to the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1, 1–8 ) in its deliberate allusion to Genesis 1, 1 (“in the beginning”), and its emphasis on the “word of life.” In the epistle's prologue, however, the stress is placed on the community's experience of the Word in Jesus. The writer testifies to what he has “seen and heard and touched” (compare Jn 19, 35 ). The experience, furthermore, is one shared by the readers. The language of fellowship dominates 1, 3f . The believers have fellowship with God the Father through Jesus. They are also, by that same agency, to have fellowship among themselves. The textual variant in 1, 4 illustrates the dense interweaving. Manuscripts differ on reading “your” joy, or “our” joy. For this writer, both meanings coincide.

The section closes with another deliberately rhetorical statement of purpose: “I am writing to you because” ( 2, 12–14 ). Different groups in the community are addressed, but the message is basically one message and is more clearly spelled out by 2, 15–17 : the church is to live by the “will of God” and not by the standards of the “world.” John's talk about “love of the world” here is very close to that in the letter of James about the “lover of the world” (Jas 4, 4 ) and means much the same thing. The writer does not forbid love for humanity; he denounces the “worldliness” that denies God's claim on his creation and bases existence on “sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life” ( 2, 16 ).

Within the framework provided by the prologue and the statement of purpose, the rest of the opening section of this sermon serves to remind the readers of the need to live by the “message we have heard from him and proclaim to you” ( 1, 5 ).

The community has, to be sure, already heard that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” ( 1, 5 ). But now, because of the division in this community, a new sense of reality is required. Behavior must match their ideals. They can no longer simply assume that “we are the light” without hesitation. In fact, sin does occur among them, and they need to repent of it. They cannot claim to be “in the light” while their behavior shows that they “walk in darkness” ( 1, 6 ). That is a lie. Likewise, they cannot claim to “know God” while not keeping God's commandments ( 2, 4 ).

With a different vocabulary than James, but with a quite similar concern, John seeks to make his readers' actions conform to their convictions. And the great commandment of God that is to govern the life of the community is also—as in James—the law of love for neighbor, the test whether one is “in the light” or “in the darkness.” For 1 John, it is not simply doctrinal correctness that spells true fellowship in the community, but ethical consistency.

First John places special emphasis on the role of Jesus as expiation for sin ( 1, 7; 2, 2 ) and advocate for believers ( 2, 1 ). The community's failure, demonstrated in its division into hostile parties, makes the need for intercession clear. They cannot do it alone. It also makes clear that “love” is not simply a state of mind, but something to be performed. In an atmosphere of hurt and separation, such performance is difficult.

The Divided Community ( 2, 18–3, 24 )

The severity of the community's crisis is indicated by the fact that the writer thinks the end of all things is at hand. The author calls those who have left the community “antichrists.” In apocalyptic literature, the presence of antichrist is a sign of the final tribulation (see Mt 24, 24 ). The theme of Jesus' return occurs again in 2, 28 and 3, 2 . Typical of apocalyptic also is the exhortation to stand fast (“remain in him,” 2, 24.27.28; 3, 6 ) and to avoid being deceived ( 2, 26 ).

The threat to the community is the greater because former members make it: “they went out from us.” It is impossible for this writer to acknowledge fully that they had ever been of one spirit with the community: “they were not really of our number.” What proof does he have? “If they had been, they would have remained” ( 2, 19 ). This is desperate logic. It indicates the shock given to a church devoted to unity and opposition to a world “out there” when it experiences conflict and division from within. The very identity of the community is called into question.

We cannot be sure exactly what the bone of contention was between those who left and those who stayed, only that it involved the proper understanding of Jesus. The author uses the language of “denial” and “confession” ( 2, 22f ), and it seems clear that a formal doctrinal issue is at stake (see also 2 Jn 7 ). The briefest description of the deviance is that they deny “Jesus is the Christ.” This obviously qualifies them to be “anti‐Christs” in the narrow sense, but it is hard to imagine how such people could ever have been part of the messianic community. Such a denial is more appropriate to nonbelieving Jews. To complicate matters, the author adds other features in 3, 23; 4, 2f; 5, 1.10 . These make it appear that outsiders deny either the full divine origin of Jesus (that he is “God's son”) or his full humanity (that he “came in the flesh”). In short, John is convinced his party has the full understanding of Jesus and his opponents do not; beyond that general statement we cannot advance.

Characteristic of this writing, however, is its ability to combine a claim to possession of “the truth” ( 2, 21 ), with a demand at the same time for transformation. The community is not yet perfect. They are indeed, to use one of their favorite expressions, “children of God” (see Jn 1, 12 ), but they still need to mature. Only when he appears will they become “like him, for we shall see him as he is” ( 3, 2 ). Having the truth means living the truth, which demands strict ethical norms. In 3, 4–18 , John develops the strongest possible contrast between the way of the world governed by the devil ( 4, 8; 5, 19 ) and the way revealed by God through the Messiah Jesus. The way of the world is driven by the envy that leads to murder (the example of Cain, 3, 12; compare Jas 4, 1–5 ). The way Jesus reveals is exactly the opposite. It does not take away life but gives it, and in the giving of life reveals love: “the way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us.” The moral correlative follows at once: “so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” ( 3, 16 ). The New Testament contains no more direct connection between the work of the Messiah and the pattern of Christian existence. And lest anyone think the giving of life can be accomplished in attitude only or once for all, John spells it out in terms of the sharing of material possessions with the needy, and concludes in a manner familiar to us from Paul and James, “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

Finally, the claim to be in possession of the truth must be qualified by the deeper statement of humility in 3, 19–21 . It is because they are in the hands of the one who is “greater than our hearts and knows everything” that they know they belong to the truth. It is not their accomplishment but his gift; their adequate response is to act as he did, in love ( 3, 23f ).

The Remnant Community ( 4, 1–5, 21 )

Because the community is divided, shared symbols are now being interpreted by opposing parties to the dispute. More careful judgment is therefore required. John reminds his readers of the need to “test the spirits to see whether they belong to God” ( 4, 1 ). As earlier he had spoken of the opponents as “antichrists,” now he applies to them the epithet “false prophets,” another favorite designation in apocalyptic (see Mt 24, 11 ). In this case, the proper confession of Jesus is the criterion for true and false prophecy, certifying whether the speaker belongs to God or to “the world” ( 4, 2–4; 13–16 ).

Within the remnant community itself, discernment is also required. How can the church be sure that it lives by the Spirit of God? That it has the right confession of Jesus is taken for granted. But John adds the ethical dimension; keeping the commandment of God shows their love for God ( 5, 2f ). What is that commandment? It is that they are to love each other. John indissolubly joins love of God and neighbor; doing one is doing the other: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” ( 4, 20 ). As earlier in 3, 15f , John grounds such love in the way God has revealed himself to be for humans in the sending of his son and Jesus' expiatory death: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” ( 4, 10 ). Since humans do not have direct access to God ( 4, 12; see Jn 1, 18 ), their relationship to God is mediated by their relationships with each other ( 4, 12.20f ).

The last section of this sermon is filled with a mixture of confidence and caution. The community living by God's love and faith is sure of victory “over the world” ( 5, 4f ), even though “the whole world is under the power of the evil one” ( 5, 19 ). This is because the community's testimony is not isolated. It is supported by the testimony of Father, Son, and Spirit, each working in and through the church ( 5, 6–9 ). The community is confident of its gift of “eternal life” ( 2, 25; 5, 11.13 ). But the victory over sin and death (see 3, 7–14 ) is not yet complete. Idolatry is a temptation that needs to be avoided ( 5, 21 ); perfect love has not yet driven out fear ( 4, 18 ); mutual correction is required ( 5, 16f ). For this divided community, nothing can any longer be taken for granted; division has given new urgency to discernment ( 5, 20 ).

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