An Introduction to 1 John and commentary on 1 John 1:1-10 (Part 1)
- I posted last month saying that I’m getting more regular pulpit time. I’ll be preaching again next week and posting my passage notes then. In the meantime, today we started working our way through 1 John in Sunday School. I decided to post my notes here, too. So when this is done in a couple of months, you’ll basically have a verse-by-verse commentary of the book.
So let’s get right into it. Not only is this going to be an analysis of the book, it’s also going to serve as something of a case study of how to read your Bible–that’s a field that Bible scholars call “hermeneutics.” So you’ll see me giving you several hermeneutical tools that you can apply as you study other books. And the first such tool is, naturally, reading in context. But “context” doesn’t only mean the verses right before and right after whatever verse you are in. It doesn’t even just mean the paragraphs before and after (although that’s a lot better than just the verses before and after). One of the major contexts is the purpose of the book. Why was the author writing? What was he trying to get his readers to understand? What’s the big idea he was addressing?
That’s really important, because if you get it right, much of the book will explain itself. But if you get it wrong, you’ll likely end up with hopeless contradictions within the book and with other books of the Bible. If you’ve ever found yourself reading and suddenly you come across a verse or passage that feels like it came out of nowhere and just doesn’t belong, that’s probably because you have missed the author’s overall point. We’ll see in just a bit how that works in 1 John as our example.
- v5. Now John tells his readers just what it is that they heard, “the message” that they are passing on, that will fulfill the church’s joy: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” I encourage you to spend some time meditating on two aspects of that message. The first is the message itself. Just think about God as pure light with not a hint of shadow (which reminds me of Jas. 1:17). A philosopher named Etienne Gilson, thinking about God as light, wrote this:
- We do not know what God is, but only what He is not, so that we know Him the better as we more clearly see that He is infinitely different from everything else. This principle, however, can be used in two different ways. We can, with St. Thomas, posit it at the beginning and at the end of our theology; it will then act as both a general qualification applying to all theological statements, and as an invitation to transcend theology, once we are through with it, by entering the depth of the mystical life. Yet between his initial statement that God is, strictly speaking, unknowable, and his ultimate endeavor to experience by love that which surpasses human understanding, St. Thomas Aquinas never forgets, that if we do not know God, the reason is not that God is obscure, but rather that He is blinding light. The whole theology of St. Thomas points to the supreme intelligibility of what lies hidden in the mystery of God. Now, if God is intelligible in Himself, what little we know about Him may be almost nothing, but it is not nothing, and it is infinitely more important than all the rest. In short, even when St. Thomas Aquinas uses reason as a means to a mystical end, he does not use it in a mystical way. Reason is made to throw light everywhere it shines; where darkness becomes invincible, reason gives way to love, and there is the beginning of the mystical life. (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1964), 86)
- As we begin looking at the second chapter of this book, I want to start by noting that this is one of those places where the chapter division is probably much more confusing than helpful. Look at the last two verses of chapter one and the first two verses of chapter two taken together:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (NIV)
Perhap you can immediately see that there is no break in thought here. So try to make it a point to understand these verses in light of the end of chapter one as you study them.
v1. John refers to this church affectionately as his “little children,” reminding them both of their need for his guidance as well as his love for them. He then reminds them that he writes “this . . . so that you will not sin.” The “this” refers to the previous few verses. In telling the church that Jesus had paid the price for their sins, far from giving them a license to do whatever they want, he tells them that this should encourage them not to sin! But how could that be? If we follow the logic of the apostle so far, the answer is fairly straightforward. If we walk in sin, then we are liars. We are deceived. We are living in darkness. Therefore, we have no fellowship with God or with one another. In other words, sin has serious consequences!
- In this second portion of 1 John 2, John begins to turn his attention to the way Christ lived and what that means for us. The command to love one another (and the consequences for failing to do so) dominate this section. Through it all, the focus remains, however, on fellowship: fellowship first with God through Christ, and second by expressing (and indeed living out) that fellowship by keeping Christ’s command to “love one another.”
v7. Next, John points out that what he is saying is “not an new command, but an old one.” That is, this is something that the church had always known. In fact, they “have had it since the beginning.” So what is this “old command.” John says it “is the message you have heard.” That message, of course, is in general the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in particular Jesus’ command that we “love one another.” That is how He lived, what He commanded us to do, and how we are likewise to live.
- The next three verses are an obvious unit. Here, we have two panels of three statements: “I write/wrote to you children/fathers/young men.” In the Bible, repetition often marks emphasis, but I think John is doing more than that here. As we look at the subtle changes he makes when he restates his reasons for writing, we learn something about how John views the Christian life.
v12. First, John addresses “dear children,” whose “sins have been forgiven on account of His name.” The word for “children” here certainly implies a young child (so “little children” is a good translation), but the primary emphasis probably is not so much on age as it is on relationship. A child is the offspring of someone. The term speaks either to the actual relationship the child enjoys with her parents or at least to the possibility (and expectation of) that relationship. We are, then, God’s “children” in virtue of the fact that our “sins have been forgiven on account of His name.” This is what all Christians have in common. It is the beginning and basis of the Christian life: our forgiveness in and for Him.
- In the last section, John addressed the spiritual state of the church he was writing to and encouraged them on in continued growth. He had already talked about the importance of loving one another. Now he turns his attention on what they were not to love and the dangers of this world.
v15. While Christians are required to “love their brother and sister,” on the other hand they are forbidden to “love the world or anything in the world.” This is a blanket statement that will be clarified shortly, but its force should not be diminished. Taken seriously, this command is as hard to keep as the positive command to love each other (and maybe for the same reason!). It’s easier, though, when we realize how important it is. John tells his readers that if they do love the world, “then the love of the Father is not in him.” How can we be in fellowship with God if “the love of the Father” is not in us? To put it in simple, stark terms, we either love each other and so are in fellowship with God and one another, or we love the world and are not in fellowship with God (and so not with one another, either).
- Now John shifts his focus to the confidence that Christians can have in Christ. Having seen the dangers of false teaching, it remains now to see how we are to live.
v28. John begins by urging his children to “continue in [Jesus].” These types of exhortations have appeared and will continue to appear all throughout this book (cf. 1:12-14; 2:20, 24, 27, etc.). Since a person cannot “continue in” something they are not already in, this is yet another reason to remember that John is writing to believers–to people who are already in Christ.
The reason they are to continue in Christ is so that “when He appears we may be confident and unashamed before Him.” It is unclear if the “we” here refers to the apostolic community or to the general church. If the community (as in chapter 1), then John is saying that if his children in the faith falter, he himself will suffer loss, much as any father is embarrassed when his children get into serious trouble. This is actually my preferred view, because I tend to think this ties back into the overall purpose of the book, which is how to have fellowship both with Christ and with one another. After all, if these believers do continue in Christ, then John can be confident, which would only enhance their fellowship with him.
If, on the other hand, the “we” refers to Christians generally, the message is simply that if we do not remain or abide in Christ, then we will be embarrassed when He returns. In fact, whichever view of “we” we take, this ends up being the bottom line. If we want to be confident and hear “Well done my good and fail servant,” we must “continue in Him.” Such praise from Jesus is simply not guaranteed to all believers, even if their eternal salvation from Hell is.