First Epistle of John

Writer: 
Erkki Koskenniemi
Translator: 
Reija Becks

Introduction to the First Epistle of John

The three epistles (letters) of John, which you find towards the end of the New Testament, remain rather unfamiliar to many people. But to those, who have learnt to know them, they become increasingly dear. These epistles certainly deserve to be studied.

The epistles belong to the same “Johannine” literature that we know best from the Gospel of John.

Even a cursory study of the Epistle of John shows us many things. Firstly, in the strict sense of the word, it is not a letter. The beginning of the epistle has no note of either its sender or its recipient. Thus, the message was not addressed to just one local church. This and other similar epistles are therefore called catholic, in other words, they are letters directed to the whole church of Christ.

Secondly, even at first glance the reader notices the same topics and words that are familiar from the Gospel of John, perhaps most prominently in the talk about light and darkness. The reader recognizes the world into which the Gospel of John leads us: it is loving, bright, and caring.

Thirdly, we can notice that the epistle does not seem to have a very rigid structure; it contains teachings of the Christian faith from several perspectives without the matters being very closely tied to each other. Warning about heresies is a frequently recurring topic.

Who is the author of the epistle?

The writer of the epistle does not tell us his name. However, his theological “handwriting” and style lead us to understand quite a lot. The affinity with the Gospel of John is so clear that the two Bible books may well be written by the same author. But we should be careful: the church tradition suggests that John was a very influential teacher. It is safer to just say that these books come from the same direction in the early church.

It is difficult to accurately date when the epistle was written. The epistle was familiar to Papias around the year 140, but certainly it was written even earlier. Most likely we are not much mistaken to assume that it was written around 90-100.

Loving warnings

Studying the First Epistle of John, the reader often comes across warnings that the writer gives to his own on account of heresies. This is where the distinctive quality of the epistle becomes apparent. The epistle positively radiates same love as the Gospel of John. It is good to read it; it is as if we are given, in depth, an experience of God’s loving care. At the same time, however, there are explicit and stern words of caution. Very often it is difficult for us to combine love and limits. John’s first epistle joins them together and thus shows that the meaning of love is not just something sensitive and emotional, but also care. If wolves attack the flock, the shepherd will not just take it easy and hum a song to some little lambs by the glow of the campfire. The word will stand! 1:1-4

John does not start his text with a greeting but with a declaration that bears close resemblance to the beginning of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Word of Life, Christ, exists from the beginning of eternity. He was born into this world, and in him life was made manifest. The witnesses of Christ, who themselves heard the Lord speak and could touch him, now proclaim the mystery of eternal life to all the world. Anyone experiencing this mystery will share in the joy that their fellowship with Father God and Jesus Christ brings about.

What John means is clear: the Christian faith is no illusion, or something based on myths devised by people. The foundation of the faith is Jesus Christ. His testimony is given to the Bible readers by those who themselves became convinced of the reality of the Lord’s presence.

Right from the first verses, we can learn important lessons. Many people say that we cannot know about God, but that we can only imagine about his greatness. This is, of course, partly true, because in this world that fell into sin, God is a hidden God. But it is often wrongly emphasized by saying that it is better not to make too much noise about the matters of faith and just to “live and let live”. John’s teaching is something totally different. The apostolic word is sure and steadfast, and it creates joy in the hearers, and gives them assurance. The question is not about something strange and ethereal, but about God’s great work of salvation. When we have the witness of God’s word on what Christ has done, we have found a strong foundation. It will certainly not crumble from under us – unlike everything made or invented by man.

The reader of the epistle will quickly learn that the writer wants to oppose false teachers. Defining such false teachers is always difficult when all we have available is the criticism focusing on them. However, considering that the witnesses could touch Christ with their own hands, the target of the criticism appears to be clear. Some people claimed that Jesus was only a spirit being, some kind of light body, not born as a real human being and Son of God who died on the cross. John’s epistle gives us what the Nicene Creed phrases like this:

…“born of the Father before all ages.
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man”…

The early church lived in amazing times. The death and resurrection of Christ marked a huge explosion after which everything had to be seen in a new light. God is merciful and loving, but how does it go with the demands of right life? Jesus is the Son of God, but how could he suffer and die? There were many questions that were being posed among the vibrant, fast growing group of believers during the first decades, and the task was not easy. John’s epistles signpost a safe and bright way.