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1 John: Background

Dear Church Family,

In the first installment and introduction to our study of 1 John, we learned that the purpose of this letter was to help believers gain assurance of salvation: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). And, we also discovered that the Apostle John intends to build believers up in assurance by emphasizing the full-orbed nature of the Christian life: right theology (faith), right morality (obedience), and right relationships (love). We’ll see more of these three pillars of assurance as we go along.

For now, however, we’re going to delve into a little background and original context of the writing of 1 John. This is a good idea in trying to understand and apply any document, but it’s especially important as we seek to understand and apply God’s Word to our lives. In seeking to understand the background of this letter, we’re going to look at four things: author, date, catholicity, and Gnosticism.

(1) The Author of 1 John

First of all, we must consider the author of this letter. The title that is given to this book of the Bible is 1 John – the first letter of the Apostle John; however, unlike some of the other letters of the New Testament in which the author identifies himself, this letter is silent. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know who the author is. Since very early on in church history, this letter has been attributed to John, the Apostle and author of the fourth Gospel.

There are several reasons for which John is believed to be the author, but here are just two. First, the author claims to have been an eyewitness to Jesus. He is an Apostle who followed Jesus during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Second, the language and grammar of the letter has much in common with the Gospel According to John.

Greek scholars have pointed out these affinities, but you don’t need to know Greek in order to see the similarities. Consider the opening words of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)

Compare that with the opening words of this letter, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1). As we go along, we’ll notice other themes in this letter that correspond with those that are raised in the Gospel of John.

So, the author is the Apostle John. And, there are five books in the New Testament that were written by his pen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: the Gospel of John, these three letters (1, 2, & 3 John), and the book of Revelation.

(2) The Date of 1 John

John seems to be the Disciple of Jesus who lived the longest, and that his letters were most likely written near the end of the first century in the early 90s AD. What that means, of course, is that these letters were written to Christian churches about 60 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension – about 60 years since the day of Pentecost. The Christian faith could have easily been passed on to two or three generations by this point. In our day, John would have been akin to a Korean War veteran, or maybe even a veteran of the Second World War – except, rather than having fought in a war, John actually lived with Jesus, the Christ, when He walked on this earth.

That’s important for us to recognize because it helps us to understand how John and his words would have carried such weight and authority in these letters. Here was one who lived with, and was actually discipled by, Jesus, Himself, for three years.

So, understanding the author and the date of the writing of this letter, helps us to understand the weightiness of it – the authority with which it would have been received. We, today, receive it as authoritative for these reasons, and also because we understand – as did the first readers – that the Apostle John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to set down these words of Holy Scripture.

(3) The Catholicity of 1 John

The letters at the end of the New Testament – Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, and Jude – these are often called “general” or “catholic” epistles. When I was a child, I remember hearing these books referenced this way and wondering why we were reading books that were intended for the Roman Catholic Church! But, that’s not what this means. We use the word “catholic” in the same way that we use it in the Apostle’s Creed. In contrast to say, the letters of Paul which were written to specific churches (like Galatians, Corinthians, Romans) or to specific people (like Timothy or Titus), these letters were circular letters that were passed around among not just one church, but to the “church catholic” – the universal church.

That’s helpful and instructive for us to understand, as well, as it will aid us in making application to our day. What John writes is applicable to all Christians and all churches, everywhere, in every time.

(4) Refuting Gnosticism in 1 John

This letter is specifically applicable for us because John refutes a heresy in this letter that was just starting out in his day, but this heresy has made major in-roads into much of our thinking in the West today: Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a full-blown system of thought by the second and third centuries, but toward the end of the first century, the seeds of Gnosticism had just begun to sprout. So, much of what John seems to be doing in this letter is giving a balanced diet of right theology, morality, and relationships – because these things are being outright rejected by some false teachers that have entered into the mix.

Now, you might be wondering about this way of thinking – this world view, known as Gnosticism and what it’s all about. Well, technically, there are different strands of Gnosticism, but at the same time, there are some common beliefs. Very briefly, here are four basic teachings of Gnosticism. First, the term Gnosticism comes from the Greek “gnosis” which means “knowledge.” True Christianity emphasizes knowledge – that is, the necessity of “knowing Christ.” But, the Gnostic idea of saving knowledge carried a very mystical connotation to it. For the Gnostic, salvation required a special hidden knowledge that was only revealed to a select few.

So, that actually explains the first two general marks of Gnosticism: first, special knowledge – a belief in a special knowledge that saves; second, elitism – a belief that this special knowledge is not for all people but only for the elite.

Third, Gnostics typically hold to the notion of dualism. That is, physical and spiritual things are completely separate and distinct. Not only that, but one is good and the other is evil. According to Gnosticism, the physical world of creation is bad, but the spiritual world is good. When you apply this understanding to Jesus, then, the so-called Gnostic Christian would say that Jesus didn’t have a real body, it was just an illusion – a parlor trick, if you will. Jesus had to be only spirit, they said – his body was just a figment of everyone’s imagination.

Now, if your body is bad and your spirit is good, then think of how that affects your understanding of salvation. Because of this Gnostic understanding of dualism, salvation then is defined as escape from the physical world, escape from your body. So, you see, just as the idea of a special knowledge is connected to understanding of an elite community of those who will be saved – so, too, the idea of dualism is connected to the Gnostic understanding of salvation as a form of escape, rather than a pilgrimage.

So, there are just four ideas that are commonly attributed to Gnosticism: (1) Special knowledge; (2) Elitism; (3) Dualism; and (4) Escapism – that is, salvation comes through escaping this world and the physical creation.

This is just a simple summary of some of the beliefs inherent in Gnosticism. It’s helpful to understand these basic tenets of Gnosticism because these are some of the doctrines that John seems to be refuting in his epistle. But, even more importantly, we need to understand these basic tenets of Gnosticism because much of the way we think today has been influenced by these teachings in one form or another, and we don’t even know it.

In fact, I’ve got a little test. You’ve heard of the “You might be a redneck, if…” jokes. Well, I’ve got some “You might be a Gnostic, if…” tests for you. Some of these I’ve garnered from various sources, some of these I’ve come up with myself. Here they are:

You might be a Gnostic if…

  • You do not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead
  • You think the Old Testament is irrelevant to Christianity
  • You think that the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus is of no consequence
  • You think that Christianity is an exclusive club
  • You think that what you do with your physical body is of little consequence
  • You think that joining the visible Church is optional for the Christian
  • You think the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are unimportant or even irrelevant
  • Last, but not least…you hope for Jesus’ return not because He will fix this place, but rather so that He can get you out of this place.

Conclusion

The Apostle John wrote this letter against this background of itinerate preachers and Gnostic teaching. And, what he wanted to do was communicate to the Christian church the truth. In opposition to those who were saying, “Salvation is only for a select few. And, it’s about learning how to escape this physical world.” Against these, John said, “No. Here is what we know about Jesus (theology). Here is how we are to live holy and upright lives for Him (morality). And, here is how we are to love one another, just as He first loved us (relationship).”

Thus far, we have introduced the major themes of John’s first epistle and given a little background. In our next installment, we will begin study of the text of this letter in the prologue: 1 John 1:1-4.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch