How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 1 John
1 John 1:3 “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”
Anyone who has ever been through a church split knows the deep pain and sorrow that comes along with it. Families who have been worshiping together for many years are suddenly divided from one another. Where love and trust once reigned, suspicion and anger now reside. People take sides. People say mean things. Motivations are questioned. Other than a divorce between a husband and a wife, I cannot think of any other separation that causes such pain.
For many of us who were alive and in the church in the 80’s and 90’s, church splits were a common phenomenon. Almost every community of any size had at least two churches, not because they had planted a new church, but because one had divided and gone a different way. I am currently reading a novel about the life of Alexander Campbell. The movement that eventually became associated with Churches of Christ grew out of the frustration that Alexander and his father Thomas had among the divisions that were taking place in the Presbyterian church. Everyone was disfellowshipping everyone else; each was denying admittance to the Lord’s Supper, and out of that frustration grew up a movement who wanted to be Christian only, rather than divided along lines of creed and opinion. Unfortunately, the best angels of our own movement have not been able to fulfill this lofty call. But that should not come as a surprise to us. As much as Jesus prayed for unity among believers, there has been division since the earliest days of the church. The letter of 1st John is one such example of this early division.
This small letter, tucked away near the end of our New Testaments, speaks to the agony that has come because of a church split. If tradition is correct, John was writing to the church in Ephesus, a church he was an elder in during his later years. John is obviously away at this time. Perhaps he is still banished to the Island of Patmos where he later writes the book of Revelation. Whatever the case may be, he has heard what has happened in this church where he served and it breaks his heart. Apparently, a group of people who claimed to be anointed by the Spirit, were teaching false doctrines. They appear to be claiming such outrageous things as Christ was never a real human being in the flesh, or that those who have the anointing are without sin, or even sowing tension between brothers and sisters, advocating hate toward those who do not follow them. We don’t know what gave rise to these false teachings. Many believe it is early indications of a doctrine known as Gnosticism, which will be the first great challenge to the orthodox teaching of the apostles. But whatever the case may be, John finds a church that is wounded and embattled. By the time the letter is written, it seems as if these false prophets and their followers have moved on by splitting from the church. John is quick to remind them that “they never really belonged to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” (2:19). As John states in the introduction, true fellowship is with “us”—the “us” being the apostles themselves. It is their teaching that sets the standard for the church. To separate from the apostles and their teaching is to separate from Christ
With that background in mind, the letter itself is one of the hardest to outline. Whereas the letters of Peter and Paul, and even the unique letter to Hebrews, easily fall into distinguishable outlines, the letter of First John does not. It is even harder to outline than the book of James, which we noted several articles back. John has three main subjects in mind, and he seems to circle back to those subjects again and again. 1). He speaks of the incarnation of Christ, and how Christ was God in human flesh. 2). He speaks of sin and how sin relates to a believer in Christ. 3). And then finally, he speaks of the need for brothers and sisters to love one another in the Lord. Christ gave the ultimate example of laying down his life for us, and therefore we should love our brothers and sisters with the same kind of sacrificial love.
Since it is hard to discern an outline to John’s writings, perhaps it is just best to give a brief synopsis of each chapter. This will give you a taste for the whole and allow you to go back and read the book looking for the three themes already mentioned.
After a brief introduction where John claims that he and his fellow apostles directly experienced Jesus and are authentic witnesses of him, he lays down the claim that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Therefore, if a person claims to have fellowship with God but walk in darkness, they do not live in the truth. The darkness here might represent a departer from the apostles’ teaching, as well as from the ethical teachings of the Christian faith. On top of that, if a person claims to be without sin, they are a liar and truth is not in them. It is true that Christians must strive to no longer sin, but they will fail along the way, and so when they do, they should acknowledge it and confess it to God.
In chapter two, John continues to counter the claims of these false teachers. If a person claims to know God, but does not do what he commands, the truth is not in him. Whoever makes such claims should walk in the manner that Christ did. If anyone claims to be in the light, but hates his brother or sister in Christ, that person is actually in darkness. The call of Christ is not to love the world or anything in the world. The world can be summed up as lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. Those who are in Christ overcome the world rather than succumbing to it. Chapter two finishes with a strong teaching that if anyone denies that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, such people are little anti-Christs. They may not be the actual end time anti-Christ himself, but they are forerunners of what is to come. Christians have the true anointing, not the false anointed claimed by these teachers. Because that is true, they can be confident in what they believe and do not need others to teach them.
Chapter three then continues with the two themes of sin in the life of a believer, and also our love for one another. John emphasizes the point that the reason Christ came was to take away sin. As time progresses and the sanctification of each believer deepens, they should see a continual growth in holiness and a turning away from sin. Stumbling will still happen, of course, but genuine progress should be made. In general, “the one who does what is right is righteous while one who does what is bad is of the devil.” This is clearly a shot taken at the sinful lives of the false teachers. The rest of chapter three continues this theme of love for one another in the Christian community.
Chapter four sets up a way to test whether or not a person has the true Spirit of God. People are not to believe everyone who makes such claims but are to test the spirits to see if they are genuine. In this case, they can be assured that anyone who claims that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh is a false teacher. Those who are false teachers speak as those who are from the world and the world listens to them. When they see this kind of obvious fruit, they know that a false spirit is at work. Chapter four ends with a reflection on God’s love and how we must live in that love as genuine believers.
Finally, chapter five concludes the letter with one last emphasis on the incarnation of Christ. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the true Christ come in human flesh and who shows signs of genuine repentance and a transformation of heart and behavior, they are real believers. John wants the real believers to have confidence in their faith and to know that they have eternal life (5:13).
There is more that could be said about this great letter. It is one of the harder books of the Bible to break down, but its themes are clear and relevant. It matters what we believe, it matters what we do, and it matters how we love. True Christians live from a transformed heart, which forms what they believe and what they do. This is God’s gift to us, and John wants us to know it.