New Testament Overview: 1 John

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    @ by J. Hampton Keathley, III {original source}  


While the author’s name is not found in the letter, it has traditionally been ascribed to John the apostle. Various references by early Christian writers including Irenaeusdb01, Clement of Alexandriadb02, and Tertulliandb03 spoke of John as the author of this epistle.

From the standpoint of internal evidence, there are some stylistic differences from the gospel of John, but these can be attributed to the differences between an epistle and a gospel.

Further, many similarities exist by way of

  • key words (abide or remain) or
  • contrasting figures like righteousness and sin, light and darkness, life and death, love and hateand truth and error.

In addition, the writer was one of the original witnesses of the Savior who knew Him intimately (1:1-5).

Then there are many similar expressions and phrases: compare 1 John 1:1 with John 1:1, 14; 1:4 with John 16:24; 1:6-7 with John 3:19-21; and 4:9 with John 1:14, 18. There are no good reasons why this book should not be attributed to the apostle John.

Though it is generally agreed that the same person wrote the gospel of John and these three epistles, some feel that they were not written (as traditionally held) by John the apostle, the son of Zebedeedb04, but by another John (the elder or presbyterdb052 John 1; 3 John 1).

It is argued that

  • (1) an uneducated man (Acts 4:13) could not have written something so profound as this gospel;
  • (2) a fisherman’s son would not have known the high priest as did John the apostle; and
  • (3) an apostle would not have called himself an elder.

But “uneducated” did not mean illiterate, only without formal training in the rabbinic schools; some fishermen were well-to-do (cf. Mark 1:20); and Peter, though an apostle, called himself an elder (1 Peter 5:1).

Further, if John the elder is the “beloved disciple” and the author of the gospel, why did he not mention John the son of Zebedee, an important figure in the life of Christ, in that gospel? Every evidence points to John the elder being the same as John the apostle and the author of this letter.fn93


All the way through the epistle there are verses that indicate John was writing to believers (2:1, 12-14, 19; 3:1; 5:13), but John nowhere indicates who they were or where they lived. This fact may suggest it was a circular letter to be circulated among several churches, perhaps around the city of Ephesus since early Christian writers placed John at Ephesus in his later years.

The earliest confirmed use of 1 John was in the province of Asia (in modern Turkey), where Ephesus was located. Clement of Alexandriadb02 indicates that John ministered in the various churches scattered throughout that province. It may be assumed, therefore, that 1 John was sent to the churches of the province of Asia.fn94

DATE: A.D. 85-90

It is difficult to precisely date this and the other epistles of John, but since many of the themes and words are so similar to the gospel of John, it is reasonable to assume it was written after the gospel. It was undoubtedly written after the gospel but before the persecutions of Domitian in A.D. 95. Therefore, a reasonable date is somewhere between A.D. 85-90.


The theme of the book is fellowship with God through the Lord Jesus (1:3-7).

In view of the heresy facing these believers, perhaps an early form of gnosticismdb06, John wrote to define the nature of fellowship with God whom he describes as light, love, and life.

To walk in fellowship with God, then, means to walk in the light which leads to experiencing His life, His love for others, and His righteousness. The book, then, gives a number of tests or proofs of fellowship, though some see these as tests of salvation. But in keeping with the theme, the teaching of the false teachers, and the nature of his audience as believers, it is best to view these as tests or proofs of fellowship, tests of abiding and knowing the Savior in an intimate relationship that experiences the transforming life of the Savior in believers.

The exact form of the heresy facing these Christians is difficult to determine, but from the content of 1 John it involved denial of the reality of the incarnation and a claim that sinful behavior did not hinder fellowship with God. Thus, John wrote to his “little children(2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 5:21) for at least five reasons:

  • (1) to promote true fellowship (1:3f.),
  • (2) to experience full joy (1:4),
  • (3) to promote holiness through true fellowship (1:6-2:2),
  • (4) to prevent and guard against heresy (2:18-27), and
  • (5) to give assurance (5:11-13).


The key concept is 

Other key words are

  • righteous
  • righteousness
  • light
  • darkness
  • sin
  • lawlessness


1:5-2:25 Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.  6 If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth.  7 But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  8 If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.  9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.  10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. 2:1 (My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.) But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One; 2:2 and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.

5:11-1311 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life; and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son does not have this eternal life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.


Surely, one of the key passages in 1 John, and even in the New Testament, is chapter 1 because of its truth regarding sin, even in the life of the Christian. To walk in the light means an honest acknowledgment of the problem of sin. Rather than the denial of sin, this chapter shows us the need for the

  • a. confession of the principle of sin (1:8),
  • b. confession of particular or personal sins (1:9), and
  • c. confession of the practice of sin (1:10).


This book focuses on the present ministry of the Savior in the life of believers and anticipates His coming again. His blood continually cleanses the believer from all sin (1:7) and from personal sins and all unrighteousness upon confession of sin (1:9). Indeed, it declares that Christ is our righteous Advocate before the Father (2:1) and the propitiation or atoning sacrifice not only for believers, but for all the world (2:2), that Jesus is the Christ who has come in the flesh (2:22; 4:2-3), that He came by water and by blood, a reference to His baptism and the cross (5:6), and that He is coming again when we shall see Him and be like Him (2:28-3:3).


  • I. Introduction and Purpose of the Letter (1:1-4)

  • II. Conditions Vital for Fellowship (1:5-2:2)
    • A. Walking in the Light (1:5-7)
    • B. Confession of Sin (1:8-2:2)

  • III. Conduct Consistent With Fellowship (2:3-27)
    • A. The Character of Fellowship—Being Like Christ (2:3-11)
    • B. The Commandment of Fellowship—Loving Not the World (2:12-17)
    • C. The Cautions for Fellowship—Guarding Against Antichrist (2:18-27)

  • IV. Characteristics of Fellowship (2:28-5:3)
    • A. Purity in View of Our Prospect (2:28-3:3)
    • B. Practice of Righteousness in View of Christ’s Death (3:4-24)
    • C. Proving (Testing) the Spirits (4:1-6)
    • D. Pattern of Fellowship, Loving as Christ Loved (4:7-5:3)

  • V. Consequences of Fellowship (5:4-21)
    • A. Victory Over the World (5:4-5)
    • B. Verification of Christ’s Credentials (5:6-12)
    • C. Verification (Assurance) of the Believer’s Salvation (5:13)
    • D. Verification of Answered Prayer (5:14-17)
    • E. Victory from Habitual Sin (5:18-21)
fn93 Ryrie, p. 1990.
fn94 NIV Study Bible, electronic Library.
db* = Content added by to assist the reader
db01 Irenaeus was an early Church Father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology wikipedia
db02 Clement of Alexandria was a Christian theologian who taught at the Catechetical School of Alexandria wikipedia
db03 Tertullian was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa wikipedia
db04 John the apostle, the son of Zebedee wikipedia
db05 John (the elder or presbyter) wikipedia
db06 Gnosticism wikipedia
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