The First Epistle of John

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Read or listen the First Epistle of John online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

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.