There are many interesting and important elements to chapter 1. Here are few more —
There’s considerable scholarly debate about why 1 John was written. And there’s debate about what kind of literature it is. It doesn’t bear the usual marks of a First Century epistle — either to a single church or a general epistle to several churches. Some consider it a sermon. Others a tract. (Did they have tract racks in the First Century? I guess so — or we’d be doing something without First Century precedent — which we’d never do.)
While 2 John and 3 John come across as very personal, 1 John is not as personal in style. There are no personal names, no reference to the local situation other than the doctrinal concerns of the book.
Nonetheless, this is no abstract thesis. It’s written in first and second person (“I” and “you”). John refers to his readers as “little children,” a term of deep affection.
John refers to various deceivers or false teachers in the text. There’s some uncertainty as to just what was being taught, but we can figure that chapter 1 likely focuses on these errors. Thus, the false teachers likely claimed to be without sin (in some sense) and to have fellowship with God — perhaps because of their sinlessness.
Later in the book, we see that they denied that Jesus is the Messiah and that he came in the flesh. On the other hand, while 1 John clearly assumes the resurrection to be true, the topic is not addressed specifically. The false teachers seem to have denied any obligation to honor the commands of Jesus.
Efforts to identify the false teachers with any specific sect or cult have largely been rejected. There are certainly commonalities with Gnosticism, but major elements of Gnosticism aren’t mentioned and Gnosticism didn’t appear in history until after this book was written. Maybe we should think of John opponents as proto-Gnostics or another sect that grew out of the same Greek thought that led to Gnosticism.
One brand of Gnosticism is doceticism (or doketicism), which denied that Jesus had a physical body, because Greek thought denied that God could be flesh, as flesh is inherently evil and God is inherently good. Therefore, they pictured Jesus as a phantom, leaving no footprints. This would fit well with John’s insistence that we must accept that Jesus came in the flesh and his testimony to having seen and touched him.
Another element of Gnosticism is the elevation of secret knowledge about God (gnosis means knowledge). John says quite a lot about “knowledge,” which may be intended to contradict the false teachers’ false understanding of how we have fellowship with God. It’s not through knowledge of secret information.
Therefore, we see 1 John likely was written to oppose the kind of thinking that was later built into the very elaborate system of thought called Gnosticism. And Gnosticism arises from the Platonic notion that spirit is good and holy and that flesh and the material are corrupt — and the two may not be combined. Therefore, the Greeks had great trouble imagining Jesus as both God and man — as this was to them utterly impossible. It required that they give up some of the core elements of Greek philosophy. Indeed, the struggle was so great that Platonic thought ultimately came to be a part of “orthodox” Christianity. We suffer from that error in the Churches of Christ — as do nearly all denomiations.
See these earlier posts for more details —
Fellowship — Do you feel me?
John talks quite a bit about having “fellowship” with each other and with God. “Fellowship” translates koinonia, meaning having in common, partnership, sharing, and fellowship (English has far more words than First Century Greek). But if 1 John were a modern evangelical preacher, I think he’d say “relationship.”
(1Jo 1:3 ESV) that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may [be in relationship] with us; and indeed our [relationship] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
(1Jo 1:6-7 ESV) 6 If we say we [are in relationship] with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we [are in relationship] with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
That’s very 21st Century, you know, and may help communicate his point. But “relationship” is so vague a word (but very fashionable), it’s hard to know for sure just what is being said. But it sounds meaningful.
Maybe a better approach is to say “have a connection with” — as in “I love my father. We really have a connection.” In contemporary speech, “connection” means the ability to understand one another at a deeper level than is ordinary. If I say “my wife and I really have a connection,” I mean we understand each other — our conversations communicate more than what we say — if that makes any sense.
Another popular word is “tight” — as in “My teammates and I are really tight” — meaning very close friends, with great sympathy for one another, willing to stand up for each other.
If that’s even a little right, then John is saying that he wants us to be in a relationship with God in which we understand each other, our prayers are about more than what is said — we “feel” each other (understand at a deep emotional level) — and we are greatly concerned for each other’s well-being — and he wants us to have the same relationship with our fellow Christians.
This is about much more than merely agreeing on doctrine or attending the same church or have the same denominational tag. We are to be tight, connected, and to feel each other.
(Don’t you HATE it when old people try to use young-people slang? Trust me: I don’t talk like this. My kids would do grave bodily harm to me should I ever try such a thing. Kids use slang to avoid sounding like adults. Adults using their words takes that away from them — and always sounds ridiculous, like a grandmother wearing a mini-skirt. It’s not age-appropriate.)
God is light
(1Jo 1:5 ESV) God is light
We should pause over John’s metaphors and try to grasp them. I think he expects us to.
Why say “God is light”? What is it that God and light have in common? Which is these possible meanings are the one(s) he intended? There may be several, but not all possibilities are intended. Context matters.
Biblical language is so much a part of modern American English that we have trouble reading these words as John’s readers would have. It helps to step back and make a list. Let’s see — how about —
* Helps us see
* Keeps us safe (thieves come out at night)
* Let’s us see where we’re going
* Provides greater clarity — there are no colors in the dark
* Keeps us warm
* Let’s us see obstacles in our path
(1Jo 2:10 ESV) 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.
The opposite of light is “darkness.”
* Makes it hard to see
* Hides everything that is distant
* Obscures even what is close
* Is cold
* Conceals obstacles
Remember, in the First Century there were no street lights. Nighttime was very, very dark unless a fire was burning. “Darkness” makes me think of going into my bedroom when my wife went to bed early. My number 1 fear is stubbing my toe. I walk carefully, desperate for any light at all to help me navigate.
“God is light” means, I think, he shows the way, he guides our path, he gives direction, and all of the above.
To be in darkness, therefore, is to be easily deceived, to not know what direction to go, to be at risk of stubbing your toe or — worse yet — falling into a pit or down a cliff. The dark is filled with hidden dangers.