- Introduction (1:1-4)
- Certainty through living in the light (1:5 - 2:29)
- Certainty and abiding in love (3:1 - 4:21)
- Certainty through true faith (5:1-12)
- Conclusion: the certainties of faith (5:13-21)
Authorship, date, and background
Most scholars agree that the same person wrote the three letters. Tradition has associated John, the son of Zebedee, with them. This is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and later The Revelation on the Isle of Patmos. Conservative scholars have always agreed that these books were written by the apostle John. The dates for 1, 2, and 3 John have been set around A.D. 90, prior to the persecution by Domitian which resulted in John's banishment from Ephesus to Patmos in A.D. 95, followed by his return to Ephesus around A.D. 97. John died around the turn of the century.
The letters do not tell us much about whom they were written for. Undoubtedly they were intended for Ephesus and the surrounding area and were sent and read elsewhere at a later date whenever Christian communities were threatened by Gnosticism (meaning knowledge) had come in like a flood and was seriously challenging Christian faith. Three errors lay at the heart of this heresy. The most important one had to do with the incarnation (God becoming a man in Jesus Christ). Gnosticism could not reconcile Christ's deity with Jesus' humanity. So the real humanity of Jesus was submerged, making him, in effect, an incorporated being. Cerinthus later said Jesus was an ordinary human being on whom the Logos (Word) came at his baptism and departed from him before his death on Calvary. Thus only the human Jesus died on the cross.
Characteristics and content
1 John has no introduction, no author is named, no prayer of thanksgiving appears, and there is no concluding salutation. Largely because of these omissions the letter has been thought of as an encyclical or circular letter intended for wide circulation, perhaps to be read in all of the churches in the region. John writes in a homiletical tone and uses repetition and parallelisms for effect. It is quite apparent that he is a leader who has apostolic authority and does not hesitate to use it.
The letter is not organized as tightly as a book like Romans, yet three dominant ideas are set forth powerfully and dogmatically. The first is that God is light (1:5) in whom there is no darkness. The children of God are to walk in the light. To do less than this is to deny the light. The second idea is that God is life; that is, believers have eternal life through Jesus Christ which commences at conversion and continues forever. Believers are to live the life of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit who indwells each believer and teaches each one what is right (2:24-29). Third, God is love (4:8). John argues that whoever knows God must love because God is love. Whoever does not love does not have God. All believers are to dwell in love. All of these things are true because Jesus came in the flesh. Whoever does not believe what God has said about His Son calls God a liar (5:10, 11). The closing admonition is always appropriate: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen" (5:21).